Originally published in 1988, “The Design of Every Day Things” may be perceived as outdated. The objects, technologies, and devices we use everyday have advanced since 1988. However, the way we interact with them both physically and psychologically has hardly changed. Donald A. Norman, an academic in the field of cognitive science, design, and usability engineering tells the reader stories of user’s interactions with many objects that are used, or were once used, everyday. From thermostats and stoves, to cars and computers, Norman focuses on objects that are often used incorrectly. The misuse of these objects frequently results in problematic consequences. He combines principals of design, function, and psychology to provide insight. Norman provides insights regarding where the problems occur and more importantly, what designers can do to curb the problems users face.

In the preface of the 2002 edition, Norman provides a lesson that states, “When you have trouble with things-whether it’s figuring out whether to push or pull a door or the arbitrary vagaries of the modern computer and electronics industry-it’s not your fault. Don’t blame yourself: blame the designer. It’s the fault of the technology, or, more precisely, of the design.” He goes on to say, “The appearance of a design must provide the critical clues required for its proper operation-knowledge has to be both in the head and in the world.”

Although it seemed a little dry at first, the book provides an inkling of humor along with an abundance of food for thought, especially when read by a designer. The observations and questions the book provides have successfully reminded me of my responsibility.

Norman puts it simply, “Here is what designers should do:

  1. Understand the causes of error and design to minimize those causes.
  2. Make it possible to reverse actions- to “undo” them- or make it harder to do what cannot be reversed.
  3. Make it easier to discover the errors that do occur, and make them easier to correct.
  4. Change the attitude towards errors. Think of an object’s user as attempting to do a task, getting there by imperfect approximations. Don’t think of the user as making errors; think of the actions as approximations of what is desired.”

This is one of many sets of rules that can, and should, be applied to the design of anything that is meant to be interacted with. I am reminded of the Gmail feature involving email attachments. If the user clicks ‘send’ without an attachment, but the word attach appears anywhere in the email, they will be reminded to add the attachment before the email sends. It is such a simple feature and makes for a satisfied user. No chance for error on technology’s side.

In a time when User Experience and Interaction Design have begun to govern the way we design, we must be reminded of their meaning and constantly question our work. How can I prevent the user from making a mistake? In what ways can I give the user relevant information or visual cues? What flaws have I noticed and learned from elsewhere? It goes without saying; the objects we use and especially those that are high-tech have come a long way since the first release of this book. However, the designers who are relatively new to the design community, like myself, can gain a lot from understanding design flaws and how to prevent them.

Donald Norman co-founded the Norman Neilson Group (www.nngroup.com) in 1998. The group conducts user research and offers critical evaluations of all types of user interfaces. Check out some of these insightful articles on usability and UX on the web:

Top 10 Mistakes in Web Design:


The Definition of User Experience:


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