The Design of Everyday Things

by Don Norman

Cover image

Publisher: Basic Books
Copyright: 2013
ISBN: 0-465-05065-4
Format: Trade paperback
Pages: 298

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There are several editions of this book (the first under a different title, The Psychology of Everyday Things). This review is for the Revised and Expanded Edition, first published in 2013 and quite significantly revised compared to the original. I probably read at least some of the original for a class in human-computer interaction around 1994, but that was long enough ago that I didn't remember any of the details.

I'm not sure how much impact this book has had outside of the computer field, but The Design of Everyday Things is a foundational text of HCI (human-computer interaction) despite the fact that many of its examples and much of its analysis is not specific to computers. Norman's goal is clearly to write a book that's fundamental to the entire field of design; not having studied the field, I don't know if he succeeded, but the impact on computing was certainly immense. This is the sort of book that everyone ends up hearing about, if not necessarily reading, in college. I was looking forward to filling a gap in my general knowledge.

Having now read it cover-to-cover, would I recommend others invest the time? Maybe. But probably not.

There are several things this book does well. One of the most significant is that it builds a lexicon and a set of general principles that provide a way of talking about design issues. Lexicons are not the most compelling reading material (see also Design Patterns), but having a common language is useful. I still remember affordances from college (probably from this book or something else based on it). Norman also adds, and defines, signifiers, constraints, mappings, and feedback, and talks about the human process of building a conceptual model of the objects with which one is interacting.

Even more useful, at least in my opinion, is the discussion of human task-oriented behavior. The seven stages of action is a great systematic way of analyzing how humans perform tasks, where those actions can fail, and how designers can help minimize failure. One thing I particularly like about Norman's presentation here is the emphasis on the feedback cycle after performing a task, or a step in a task. That feedback, and what makes good or poor feedback, is (I think) an underappreciated part of design and something that too often goes missing. I thought Norman was a bit too dismissive of simple beeps as feedback (he thinks they don't carry enough information; while that's not wrong, I think they're far superior to no feedback at all), but the emphasis on this point was much appreciated.

Beyond these dry but useful intellectual frameworks, though, Norman seems to have a larger purpose in The Design of Everyday Things: making a passionate argument for the importance of design and for not tolerating poor design. This is where I think his book goes a bit off the rails.

I can appreciate the boosterism of someone who feels an aspect of creating products is underappreciated and underfunded. But Norman hammers on the unacceptability of bad design to the point of tedium, and seems remarkably intolerant of, and unwilling to confront, the reasons why products may be released with poor designs for their eventual users. Norman clearly wishes that we would all boycott products with poor designs and prize usability above most (all?) other factors in our decisions. Equally clearly, this is not happening, and Norman knows it. He even describes some of the reasons why not, most notably (and most difficultly) the fact that the purchasers of many products are not the eventual users. Stoves are largely sold to builders, not kitchen cooks. Light switches are laid out for the convenience of the electrician; here too, the motive for the builder to spend additional money on better lighting controls is unclear. So much business software is purchased by people who will never use it directly, and may have little or no contact with the people who do. These layers of economic separation result in deep disconnects of incentive structure between product manufacturers and eventual consumers.

Norman acknowledges this, writes about it at some length, and then seems to ignore the point entirely, returning to ranting about the deficiencies of obviously poor design and encouraging people to care more about design. This seems weirdly superficial in this foundational of a book. I came away half-convinced that these disconnects of incentive (and some related problems, such as the unwillingness to invest in proper field research or the elaborate, expensive, and lengthy design process Norman lays out as ideal) are the primary obstacle in the way of better-designed consumer goods. If that's the case, then this is one of the largest, if not the largest, obstacle in the way of doing good design, and I would have expected this foundational of a book to tackle it head-on and provide some guidance for how to fight back against this problem. But Norman largely doesn't.

There is some mention of this in the introduction. Apparently much of the discussion of the practical constraints on product design in the business world was added in this revised edition, and perhaps what I'm seeing is the limitations of attempting to revise an existing text. But that also implies that the original took an even harder line against poor design. Throughout, Norman is remarkably high-handed in his dismissal of bad design, focusing more on condemnation than on an investigation of why bad design might happen and what we, as readers, can learn from that process to avoid repeating it. Norman does provide extensive analysis of the design process and the psychology of human interaction, but still left me with the impression that he believes most design failures stem from laziness and stupidity. The negativity and frustration got a bit tedious by the middle of the book.

There's quite a lot here that someone working in design, particularly interface design, should be at least somewhat familiar with: affordances, signifiers, the importance of feedback, the psychological model of tasks and actions, and the classification of errors, just to name a few. However, I'm not sure this book is the best medium for learning those things. I found it a bit tedious, a bit too arrogant, and weirdly unconcerned with feasible solutions to the challenge of mismatched incentives. I also didn't learn that much from it; while the concepts here are quite important, most of them I'd picked up by osmosis from working in the computing field for twenty years.

In that way, The Design of Everyday Things reminded me a great deal of the Gang of Four's Design Patterns, even though it's a more readable book and less of an exercise in academic classification. The concepts presented are useful and important, but I'm not sure I can recommend the book as a book. It may be better to pick up the same concepts as you go, with the help of Internet searches and shorter essays.

Rating: 6 out of 10

Reviewed: 2016-10-23

Last modified and spun 2016-10-24