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Book Review: The Design of Everyday Things by Donald Norman

by Jinesh Parekh,
Masters in Human Computer Interaction (Student)

The design of everyday things - Donald Norman

Overview: About the book and the Author

After reading ‘The Design of Everyday Things’ I have come to believe that it wouldn’t be an exaggeration when people address Donald Norman man as the father of usability and design. Published in 1988, ‘The Design of Everyday Things’ has revolutionized the functioning of several industries, businesses and scientific disciplines like industrial design, user interface design, user experience, interaction design and of course human computer interaction.

A bible for designers, developers, innovators and project managers? I have been thoroughly impressed by this Donald Norman’s work and his ideologies on design. It’s been pointed out over and over again in this book that good design can be the solution. The book illustrates several different examples of how good design can be a game changer for many organizations and how bad design can completely murder the effectiveness (and usability) of a product no matter how sound the science is behind the workings of the product. What makes Norman’s work extraordinary is his easy-go styled narration and sharp observations on the psychology of usage. He provides a deep insight on how people use everyday objects. The ‘end user’ and his/her experience is made the center of focus in his study. He talks about the different emotions felt and the experiences gained by the user while operating everyday devices.

There are many designers around the world that have read this book. After all, it’s been in circulation for over 24 years and is still far ahead of its time. The book was written in 1988 and I strongly believe that the designers who implemented the learnings from this book have created better products, services and experiences for users around the world. Donald Norman is a visionary and any person who loves creative thinking will enjoy reading this book.

Ideologies and Learning: Lessons learned from this book

As mentioned before, the central focus of this book is the user and how everyday objects should be designed in way that it is easy to learn, easy to use and is functionally fast. Norman does this by emphasizing on the psychology of tasks and actions. He fruitfully manages to make designers change their ‘task oriented philosophy’ to a ‘goal oriented philosophy’. Objects are used to achieve goals, not tasks – he points out. This marks a substantial shift in philosophy of design – no matter how experienced or new the designer may be, it makes him/her reconsider the style, method and process of design.

“Design is really an act of communication, which means having a deep understanding of the person with whom the designer is communicating.”

– Donald Norman
He explains that a designer should aim to the correct mental model of how a user would behave to achieve his goals through a series of actions and how it can be done if the design has the right amount visibility, affordances and constraints. To put it simply, affordances are what functionalities or actions the design should/can offer to the user and constraints are what functionalities or actions the design should not / can’t offer the user.

The book contains a series of scientific-psychological study references presented in a short, precise and easy to understand manner. Two such exquisitely explained phenomenon, that I thoroughly enjoyed reading the most, are the structures and workings of (short term and long term) memory within the brain and the function of knowledge that could be embedded within the brain, a design or in the environment. Prior to this book, designers never accounted for this – which is why most them did not know how human beings use knowledge and memory in accomplishing simple tasks. This is reason why we have bulky manuals. To Norman, manuals and instructions kill usability.

“Any time you see signs or labels added to a device, it is an indication of bad design: a simple lock should not require instructions.”

― Donald A. Norman
The design itself should signal the appropriate actions. He repetitively signifies the importance of how intuitive designs, that do NOT require special efforts to perform tasks, lead to the success of the artifact and how it distresses the user. This is imperative in understanding how a good piece of equipment needs to be designed. Personally, I would love to see a world without manuals.

He fundamentally inspects how often and why users feel confusion, anger, frustration, guilt or shame simply by their inability to use or learn how to use a particular device. He eases the reader, through systematic explanations and examples, by telling them that it’s only human to make mistakes and their inability of usage arises from poor design decisions made by the designer/manufacturer and not due to a fault of their learning capacity. According to Norman, devices can be made easy to use or learn if the designer follows a few simple design strategies at the stage of development. The most important strategy of this sort such is: Good Design = Natural Mapping (i.e. account for all possible user actions/goals and errors) + Natural Design/Interface. He mentions that users crave for visibility of crucial elements, simplicity in use and appropriate feedback after every action they take in the design of their product or service.

“Principles of design:
1. Use both knowledge in the world and knowledge in the head.
2. Simplify the structure of tasks.
3. Make things visible: bridge gulfs between Execution and Evaluation.
4. Get the mappings right.
5. Exploit the power of constraints.
6. Design for error.
7. When all else fails, standardize.”

― Donald A. Norman, The Design of Everyday Things

He urges people (his readers) to test products before buying them and keep usability an important criteria for purchase. This makes sense. Most of the times, when we buy things, we look at the price, features or the quality of the product in our mind while making our purchase decision. Keeping ease of everyday use in mind while buying a product would not only change the way we buy products it would also force manufacturers to rethink their designs. The cumulative effect of this approach could do wonders to the world.


I cannot think of any complaints or criticisms from this book. I enjoyed reading it thoroughly. The book has had several revisions and it seems that Norman has really gone through a lot of trouble to make sure readers from any background can understand this book. However, for experts within the field of design, usability engineering or psychology – the examples and illustrations in the book may seem a bit repetitive. A colleague of mine, who has also read this book, mentioned –

“I like this book but after a while I just quickly browse through some of the paragraphs like it’s a magazine article without paying much attention to the illustrations or examples. I understand what he is saying and I don’t need so many examples to get his message. The entire book could be made more concise!”

Conclusion: How can this book help you?

It doesn’t matter if you are an experimental scientist or an electrical engineer, a computer programmer or telephone operator, an entrepreneur or a software designer, this book is highly recommended for individuals who appreciate forward thinking, creativity and logic. The applications of the knowledge/lessons derived from this book are endless. The ideas presented in this book 24 years back are now being used (or under development process).

With numerous well explained examples he really makes the reader re-think the world. It certainly made me rethink the way I interact with everyday objects like tea-makers, ovens, maps, laptops, elevators, phones etc. From opening locks to your door to using a calculator for making some calculations, from switching the radio on your car to listen to music to handling a projector to make presentations, this book will create a storm of thoughts and will make you change the way you have interacted with objects and the emotions you must have felt while doing so.