Saturday, November 21, 2015

Book Review—The Design of Everyday Things by Don Norman

The Design of Everyday Things by Don Norman was my first foray into studying industrial design, rather than the mechanical design techniques I am accustomed to. The number of complimentary concepts and issues definitely makes this book useful for engineers. It was updated with modern examples in 2013 after 25 years of success, and incorporates topics from many of the author's separate books and articles.

Book cover of The Design of Everyday Things

What I thought were the core concepts:
  1. Human-centered design: the principle of putting human needs, abilities, and psychology first, letting the design and technology follow to accommodate those realities. "It is the duty of machines and those who design them to understand people. It is not our duty to understand the arbitrary, meaningless dictates of the machines."
  2. Discoverability: a critical aspect of design, which is the ability for the user to figure out how to use a device and what the possible actions are. It consists of five main components:
    • Affordances—The relationship between an object and the specific user's ability to use that object. For example, the flat surface of a bench affords sitting (this happens to be a visible affordance) but the weight (invisible) of the bench affords carrying only to those strong enough to do so. An affordance is not a specific property of an object indicating usage; that would be a signifier.
    • Signifiers—The characteristics of an object that signal to the user where or how actions should occur. "Affordances determine what actions are possible. Signifiers communicate where the action should take place. We need both."
    • Constraints—Interactions can be guided by taking advantage of physical, logical, semantic, and cultural limitations on what is possible or what makes sense.
    • Mappings—The relationship between controls and their outcomes. The easiest mappings are when the control is directly on the item to be controlled, the worst case is in situations like a row of light switches in an auditorium, where there is usually no way to figure out what switch controls what light before trial and error.
    • Feedback—A response to know the system is working on a command. For example, elevator buttons without lights get pushed repeatedly by people who had no idea if it has already been pushed or if their push was registered.
  3. The double-diamond design process model: starting with an idea of a need or problem, research expands the scope of possible needs until the needs are understood and the problem definition is converged upon. Then solutions are brainstormed and explored until again convergence comes in the form of a solution. This is an iterative process.
The double-diamond design process model
Principles of the double-diamond model of design. (Source, though it's not clear who made this originally. This concept was first introduced in 2005 by the British Design Council.)

Some more concepts I found interesting:
  1. Who is to blame? Usually bad design. People often blame themselves for not being able to use a device properly when really the root cause is a poorly-designed device. The problem can be so pervasive that even the designers blame themselves for mistakes when testing the products! "Humans err continually; it is an intrinsic part of our nature. System design should take this into account."
    • A story of investigating a failure at a nuclear power plant: "The operators were blamed for these failures: 'human error' was the immediate analysis. But the committee I was on discovered that the plant's control rooms were so poorly designed that error was inevitable: design was at fault, not the operators."
  2. Designers need to be sure to cover the usage cases where things go wrong rather than just when they go right. Seek to minimize errors and also their consequences.
  3. As more and more information goes digital rather than in notes and books in plain view on our desks, it can become invisible. This information is saved and available but it becomes a mental burden to remember that it is there and how to retrieve it. Getting back out the right information at the right time is a design challenge.
  4. Paradoxically, as more human checks are added to a system, it can introduce more error since people begin to assume that if an error hasn't been caught yet, there must not be any. A solution used by aircraft pilots is a team checklist—one person reads off the actions while the second performs them and the first person confirms.
From what I hear this is an essential book for those in the world of industrial design, and so those people should probably read it if they did not already in school. But for others like myself who were looking for an overview, the book is a little long. While I found all the topics interesting, for engineers like me the book could be trimmed by skipping chapters 2 (aspects of psychology which I found pretty tangential to the rest of the topics) and 7 (business topics that are all-too-familiar to engineers). Chapter 1, which introduces most of the concepts, and Chapter 6, "Design Thinking," are the most important chapters where the overall industrial design process is covered.


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