The Psychology Of Everyday Things
Even the smartest among us can feel inept as we fail to figure our which light switch or oven burner to turn on, or whether to push, pull, or slide a door. The fault, argues this fascinating, ingenious—even liberating—book, lies not in ourselves, but in product design that ignores the needs of users and the
Even the smartest among us can feel inept as we fail to figure our which light switch or oven burner to turn on, or whether to push, pull, or slide a door. The fault, argues this fascinating, ingenious—even liberating—book, lies not in ourselves, but in product design that ignores the needs of users and the principles of cognitive psychology.The problems range from ambiguous and hidden controls to arbitrary relationships between controls and functions, coupled with a lack of feedback or other assistance and unreasonable demands on memorization. The book presents examples aplenty—among them, the VCR, computer, and office telephone, all models of how not to design for people.But good, usable design is possible. The rules are simple: make things visible, exploit natural relationships that couple function and control, and make intelligent use of constraints. The goal: guide the user effortlessly to the right action on the right control at the right time. But the designer must care.The author is a world-famous psychologist and pioneer in the application of cognitive science. His aim is to raise the consciousness of both consumers and designers to the delights of products that are easy to use and understand.With the many recent advances in technology, it seems, there has followed a diminution of quality. Electronic books have several advantages over their print counterparts, for instance. But for the time being, they’re hard to use and unattractive to boot. Computers, which are supposed to make our lives easier, are commonly sources of frustration and wasted time. Movies are wondrously chock-a-block with special effects–but someone forgot the story. And so on.
Donald Norman, a retired professor of cognitive science, is bothered to no end by the fact that grappling with unfriendly objects now takes up so many of our hours. Over the course of several books, of which The Psychology of Everyday Things was the first, he has railed against bad design. He scrutinizes a range of artifacts that are supposed to make our daily living a little easier, and he finds most of them wanting. Why, he asks, does a door need instructions that say “push” or “pull”? A well-designed object, he argues, is self-explanatory. But well-designed objects are increasingly rare, for the present culture places a higher value on aesthetics than utility, even with such items as cordless screwdrivers, dresser drawers, and kitchen cabinets. In their concern for creating “art,” many designers don’t seem to consider what people actually do with things. Such disregard, Norman suggests, leads to few objects being standardized: think of all the different kinds of unsynchronized clocks that lurk in microwave ovens, VCRs, coffee makers, and the like–and of all the different kinds of batteries needed to drive them. Why, he wonders, must we reset all those clocks whenever the power goes off? Some designer somewhere, he ventures, ought to develop a master clock that communicates with all other electric clocks in a home–one that, when reset, synchronizes its slave units.
You don’t need to be especially interested in technological matters to enjoy Norman’s arguments. The book’s underlying question is aimed at a global audience: will the design of everyday things improve? If this entertaining and, yes, well-designed book changes even a few minds, perhaps it will. –Gregory McNamee
- Psychology of Everyday Things