David Bjelland's Reviews > The Design of Everyday Things

The Design of Everyday Things by Donald A. Norman
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really liked it
bookshelves: soc-psych-anthro, built-environment

BLUF: A good-to-great primer on human-centered design, albeit one that's lighter on examples and political introspection than I'd hoped for.

Longer take:
I'll admit: since first hearing about "Norman doors" in college and then seeing the hilarious "second degree burn kettle" on the cover, I'd built up the idea in my head of this book being some sort of righteous crusade against poorly-designed objects. I looked forward to hours of chuckling along as he gave instances of abominably unusable products, starting from the accidental and working his way towards the truly negligent or coercive, skewering each for our edification; by explaining the shortcomings of each example and walking through the process of improving it (if possible), the reader would come to a bottom-up understanding of the principles of HCD.

Fortunately, there are plenty of click-baity listicles to get my design schadenfreude fix, because this is definitely not that book.

First of all, Norman is only incidentally concerned with "objects" per se - the first chapter or two uses a fair number of them to ground the ideas of mappings and physical constraints, but the book as a whole is mostly concerned with the more intangible disciplines of user interface and process design. This actual makes for a more mind-expanding book, as the reader discovers the underlying analogy between the building blocks of physical and non-physical forms of design.

Secondly, contrary to the polemic I was expecting, Norman's voice is actually pretty neutral and empathetic throughout. Rather than casting blame, he investigates failures of design as a whole the same way he's investigated actual accidents: by seeking root causes in broken feedback loops and failures to account for human nature.

Despite a writing style that I'd call bland and curt (I think in the interest of sound neutral and accessible?), I blew through the first five chapters - solid material with exciting implications! However, DOET started to drag for me in the last two chapters ("Design Thinking" and "Design in the World of Business"), which felt less like popular non-fiction and more like a corporate self-help manual. Maybe it's just a problem of audience? The practical workplace material is probably interesting for current-or-aspiring designers themselves, but IMHO, it has far less to offer the casual reader. Worse, it brought to the foreground some ethical issues that the book had until then steered clear of, but without providing any satisfactory answers for.

As far as I can tell, DOET would like its readers to think that its central principles are apolitical: the reader is encouraged to pursue designs that are usable for a wide variety of users based on their size, ability level, and culture, but this is still viewed through the functional lens of creating the most effective products. What does "effective" mean though? I don't want to assume the worst in the author, but the text itself does little to contradict the idea that "effectiveness" is no more and no less than a means towards profitability. Case in point: it wasn't until Norman briefly touched on (and conspicuously failed to condemn) the strategy of planned obsolescence that it occurred to me just how limited in scope his idea of "human"-centered design really is.

Wouldn't a design philosophy that holistically factored in human needs and psychology favor durable, recyclable products with replaceable components rather than products we're forced to discard every year or two, polluting our environment for generations? Wouldn't a human-centered design philosophy content itself with products that served actual human needs, rather than preying on our insecurities to create new ones?

It's interesting to me that Norman used to be an executive at Apple, a company infamous for perfecting the art of planned obsolescence - does he fail to condemn the practice here because he doesn't want to burn any bridges, or because he and Apple are actually in alignment and he sees nothing wrong with it? I'd guess it's not too hard to find out where he stands if you really wanted to know, but within the scope of this book, his failure to take a stance on any political question related to design presents the reader with an unsavory question:

Are "humans" supposed to be the ultimate beneficiaries of Norman's "human-centered design", or are we just a demographic to be focus-grouped as a means of maximizing market penetration?

The Design of Everyday Things leaves it to other books to answer that question, apparently.
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Reading Progress

July 6, 2016 – Shelved
July 6, 2016 – Shelved as: to-read
January 15, 2019 – Started Reading
January 21, 2019 – Shelved as: soc-psych-anthro
January 21, 2019 – Shelved as: built-environment
January 21, 2019 – Finished Reading

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