The Design of Everyday Things

» 27 January 2007 » In Books, Reviews »

Mental DNA

I have just finished reading the first book from the pile that I bought at Powell’s. Despite the title, the book’s main focus is not about the industrial design of the things around us. Rather, Norman takes a close look at badly conceived and designed everyday objects (like doors that give no overt clue as to how they should be opened) and strikes back at those who are responsible for such dysfunctional artifacts. My favorite example is a refrigerator control panel that provides two controls for fresh-food and freezer compartments, yet works in such a way that changing either control affects the temperature in both compartments.
Norman spends a fair amount of time on the psychology of actions; namely, what people go through in order to bring about changes in the world according to their intentions. His main premise is that good design “reduces the gulfs of Execution and Evaluation”: in other words, the user should easily be able to figure out what to do and the user can tell what is going on as a result of their actions. Unfortunately, at times the book veers off into areas with only a tenuous connection to the main theme. Chapter 5 could be cut out completely and the book as a whole could be trimmed down to about half its size without sacrificing the major points. The discussion of computer interface design in chapter 7 is dated and I hope Norman concentrates on higher-level human-computer interaction rather than lauding the Macintosh as the pinnacle of good interface design.
Nevertheless, it is a good read and I recommend it for everyone who has often wondered why shower controls seem to be designed by sadists, but especially for those who are involved in designing things that are intended to be used by normal humans.

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