8 May 2020

DadenU Day: The Design of Everyday Things

For Krish's DadenU day the other week Krish looked at Don Norman's influential book, The Design of Everyday Things.



If you have ever pulled a door instead of pushing it, if you have ever been unable to figure out how your microwave works beyond its basic functions and you struggle with those too, and if you get frustrated with software because you cannot get it to do what you want it to do then you are certainly not alone. These experiences can often leave you feeling a little stupid and give the impression that it is your fault for not using things correctly.

Don Norman, in his book, The Design of Everyday Things, would argue that it is not your fault and you should not be the one feeling stupid. He goes on to say that it is the fault of the designer for failing to design for humans. Originally the book was named The Psychology of Everyday Things because it was challenging designers to think about human psychology or the way humans think and behave in their everyday interactions with everyday things. If designers could understand this, they would make better designed products to account for this human behaviour.

Don Norman thinks that design should go beyond finding the solution to a problem although this is a good starting point. Designers, engineers and software developers need to take into account that our thought is very much guided by our emotions rather than being rational. Emotions allow us to make value judgements, help us prioritise what is important and give us the ability to think intuitively as well. These emotional thoughts may be visceral which means they provoke strong feelings within us; they may be behavioural which means that we react positively, more often than not, to the familiar and less positively to the unfamiliar, and finally our emotional thoughts can be reflective which means we look back on past experiences, good and bad, which inform our choice, but we also have the insight to look at future possibilities.

So a successful product not only has to function correctly to solve a problem, but we must consider how we can make a product or design software that evokes positive emotions so that users enjoy the product, so that there is enough familiarity built in to make them feel safe and know how to use it intuitively, and finally it should evoke reflective emotions that are positive.

Don Norman would be the first  to admit that this challenge is not easy to respond to otherwise we would all be making amazing products. However Don Norman does suggest that we should spend more time observing people doing the things that they do with the tools that they use. We may find that often the problems that people have are not the root problem but a symptomatic problem due to poorly designed systems and tools. Spending time in observation may help us as designers to get a better insight into the root problem. It will also give us more insight into the way people behave providing us with the information we need to design better products. Designing for user experience is therefore a research based discipline at its heart.

Although Don Norman’s book is now more than thirty years old, the principles it outlines are far from out of date. Some of the best products in the world follow the principles outlined in his book.

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