The Design of Everyday Things by Don Norman

878 words, 5 minutes.

“Indifference towards people and the reality in which they live is actually the one and only cardinal sin in design”. Dieter Rams.

After nearly 30 years of working in tech, I do sometimes despair of the industry tendency to ignore people. Sometimes it feels like we’re making software for the fun of making it, not recognising that we’re actually solving problems for people. Although I believe most of the indifference is not deliberate, I think it is pervasive.

A few years back I was going to write a blog titled “Your products result from your company culture”. When I came across this quote in the book, it made me smile:

“Producing a good product requires a lot more than good technical skills: it requires a harmonious, smoothly functioning, cooperative and respectful organisation”.

I marked a lot of Don Norman’s book whilst perusing it.


It was interesting to read his opening stories about failings in door design (admit it, how many times have you gone to push on a glass door in a modern building, only to realise you need to pull to open it?) Chapter five is, encouragingly, titled “Human error? No, bad design”.

“Design is concerned with how things work, how they are controlled, and the nature of the interaction between people and technology. When done well, the results are brilliant, pleasurable products. When done badly, the products are unusable”

The early part of the book covers human psychology, and it was pleasing to see the overlap of design and almost every other facet of life. As you’d expect, given we’re all still just people. When designing any form of product, it pays to be cognisant of human behaviour and not just use logical thought to derive the solution. Here’s a neat example of design thinking:

It’s amazing how simple the ideas are in that video. The continuous colour of the pavements, that their levels create the boundary focus, i.e. on people walking and cycling.

Getting back to DOET…

“Because we are only aware of the reflective level of conscious processing, we tend to believe that all human thought is conscious. But it isn’t. We also tend to believe that thought can be separated from emotion. This is also false.”

Norman covers memory models, knowledge and even how culture can affect the way we map knowledge and experience. It’s important to recognise that cultural differences in your audience can seriously affect the usability of a product.

“A subtle issue that seems to figure in many accidents is social pressure. Although at first it may not seem relevant to design, it has strong pressures on everyday behaviour”

The book then moves on to suggest a system for design, and how to think about important aspects of your product like constraints, affordances and signifiers.

In the chapter on design principles for dealing with error, Norman makes an interesting point that I think is often at the centre of problems with computer systems:

“Difficulties arise when we do not think of people and machines as collaborative systems, but assign whatever tasks can be automated to the machines and leave the rest to people”

This statement reminded me of a paper I'd read a couple of years back, written in the 1980s, about automation: “The designer’s view of the human operator may be that the operator is unreliable and inefficient, so should be eliminated from the system. There are two ironies of this attitude. One is that designer errors can be a major source of operating problems”. As creators of computer software designed to automate tasks for us mere humans, we’d do well to remember that statement, and Norman’s view that, accurately, we are invariably collaborating with a computer program.

In a reflection of what is often at fault with software design, is the section titled “Solving the correct problem”.

“Good designers never start by trying to solve the problem given to them: they start by trying to understand what the real issues are.”

A fundamental part of that is asking the right questions. In many cases, I’ve seen user case study questionnaires built around questions that simply prompt answers the developer/company wants to hear. The company designed the questions about their own thinking. It’s hard to come up with questions that are rooted in trying to understand things you may not know about! But, there are skilled UX researchers out there who can.

One last thing that may not come as a surprise, especially if you’ve read Kahneman or Sutherland. The opening to the acknowledgements section:

“The original edition of this book was entitled The Psychology of Everyday Things (POET). This title is a good example of the difference between academics and industry. POET was a clever, cute title, much loved by my academic friends. … the editors also said, “But of course, the title will have to be changed.” Title changed? I was horrified. But I decided to follow my own advice and do some research on readers. I discovered that while the academic community liked the title and its cleverness, the business community did not. In fact, business often ignored the book because the title sent the wrong message.”

After reading DOET, I would add it to my essential reads list for building better products, teams and companies.