Book List of the Week

Donald Norman’s Book List: The Design of More Everyday Things

By Steve Kroeter October 15, 2013
Donald Norman, Product Design Commentator: Nielsen Norman Group (Fremont, CA)
View Donald Norman’s Book List

Design thinker and writer Donald Norman—known for his work that attempts to bridge the gap between the products users want and the products designers create—talks to Designers & Books on the occasion of the newly revised and expanded edition of his book The Design of Everyday Things (November 2013, Basic Books). The book was first published in 1988 under the title of The Psychology of Everyday Things.

Designers & Books: How would you characterize the most meaningful changes you’ve made to the book between the 1988 edition and the new one?
Donald Norman: The book, which I call DOET, focuses on how people interact with technology. In the 25 years since DOET was first published, technology has changed radically, but people have remained the same: the same design principles apply. So, I kept the principles unchanged, but completely modified the examples. In addition, in the ensuing 25 years, I have learned how to explain the concepts better. Moreover, I have studied and written about the role of emotion. And, finally, I have worked in industry, learning what it takes to ship a product.

So, I clarified concepts. I showed how emotion plays an important role in the use of products—emotion and cognition work together. Both are critically important. And then, in the last two chapters, I show how the extreme time and budget constraints of industry force multiple compromises upon product design. I’m fond of two things: the section entitled “What I just told you? It doesn’t really work that way.” and “Norman’s law: The day a product development process starts, it is behind schedule and above budget.”

Cover of  the revised and expanded edition of The Design of Everyday Things by Donald Norman, 2013 (Basic Books; distributed in the UK by The MIT Press)

D&B:  One of your most famous anecdotes about the ubiquity of bad design from the first edition of your book is the “Norman door”—where it’s hard to tell if a door is meant to be pushed, pulled, or slid. How would you describe the general state of design today? Better? Or do designers still “insist on frustrating users with ‘Norman Doors’?”
DN: Design today is simultaneously better and worse. The design principles in DOET are widely known and applied, but new people and new engineers have to learn them all over again. And new industries arise, clueless. The home audio-video equipment center is still a major pain point. The automobile dashboard is yet another. And these new gesture phones are fun and delightful, but they have forgotten fundamental design principles such as discoverability and feedback. Should you swipe right or left, up or down? One finger or two, maybe three or four. Or perhaps a double or triple tap, or maybe a long one. We get worse even as we get better.

D&B: Your solution to getting better design results is called “Human-Centered Design” (HCD). For those who might not be familiar with it, could you summarize its key concepts? And are there any major changes you’ve made to this approach of yours over the years?
DN: HCD is simple in concept, but really difficult to do in practice (see chapter 6 of the new edition of DOET). Observe real people. Understand how they really behave. Determine product opportunities (that also fit within the competence and interest of the client company). Do a quick prototype, perhaps a drawing, or a foam model, or even a PowerPoint simulation. I’ve even done simulations in Excel. Go back and test it on the target population. Invariably, you got it wrong, which gives an opportunity to refine and reconsider the design. Repeat until time runs out.

But it’s not as easy to do as it is to describe. And the process drives engineering managers crazy. But if allowed, in the end it saves time and produces superior results.

Three vegetable peelers: (left) traditional metal peeler, inexpensive but uncomfortable; (right) OXO peeler that revolutionized the industry; (center) Kuhn Rikon peeler, colorful and comfortable. (From chapter 6 of The Design of Everyday Things: Revised and Expanded Edition, courtesy of Basic Books)

D&B: Other than your own books, what would you say is the most accessible, most important book about design for members of the general public to read?
DN: What? You want me to make enemies of all my friends when I fail to mention their book? OK, if I had to choose two books right now, I would say Jan Chipchase’s Hidden in Plain Sight, about the role of observation and design research; and Tim Brown’s Change by Design. Let me emphasize that there are numerous excellent books, but today, these are my two recommendations for the general public.

D&B: What is your opinion about the role that firms like IDEO, Smart Design, and Frog Design have played in the evolution of the design of everyday things?
DN: Many design firms are still stuck in the golden age of style and form where the designer’s intuition is the major driving force. The modern design firm pushes the boundaries of design, developing systematic, human-centered methods of observation and design, always attempting to solve the correct problem, which is seldom the problem it was asked to solve. It is not a coincidence that when I recommended two books, one came from Frog, the other from IDEO. The three firms you mention are among the leaders—but they are not alone.

D&B: What’s your view of design schools and their approach to educating designers? An important solution or part of the primary source of the problem?
DN: I’m not happy with most of design education. This is an exciting profession that is the interface between people and technology, or for that matter, society and technology. But most design schools still have their roots in art and architecture. They teach craftsmanship. Students learn nothing of technology, nothing of literature or philosophy, history or the social and behavioral sciences. Then they go out to design healthcare systems? No, no, that is wrong. 

I am happy to say this is changing, but very slowly. There are excellent design schools in Europe, the U.S., and Asia. But the majority are still art-based, still limited in the topics they cover.

Nonstandard clock. “This clock is just as logical as the standard one, except the hands move in the opposite direction and ‘12’ is not in its usual place. Same logic, though. So why is it so difficult to read? What time is being displayed? 7:11, of course.” (From chapter 6 of The Design of Everyday Things: Revised and Expanded Edition, courtesy of Basic Books)

D&B: The revised edition of DOET includes a new chapter on “design thinking.” Looking back at your two essays on that topic that were posted on Core 77, it makes perfect sense that the design profession would want to appropriate this approach with a name that lays claims to it. But isn’t what we are talking about really just sound, intelligent strategic thinking?
DN: Of course. Great thinkers have always broken out of the standard conceptual frameworks. These thinkers have been artists and poets, authors and engineers, scientists and businesspeople. And yes—designers. But design is the only discipline that has attempted to systematize this, to make it a core part of the way the modern designers approach their work. That’s what makes design different.

I’ve taught in engineering schools and business schools. Engineers and MBA students are wonderful problem solvers. I love to give them problems and watch them come up with solutions. But then I ask, “How do you know you solved the right problem?” This always throws them for a loop. Not design students. Give them a problem and they will spend half the time allotted them trying to understand why that is the problem, determining what the real underlying issue is and then, how to solve it. And finally, designers make sure that people can understand and use their solutions. Engineers and MBAs just assume that their solution is so perfect that everyone will love it. “You are being too logical, “ I have to remind them, “you have to design for the way people really are, not the way you would like them to be.”

That’s what makes design different: solve the right problem. Make sure it works for the people you want to use it.

D&B: Why do you have so much confidence that “with open source software, inexpensive open-source 3D printers, and even open-source education, we can transform the world”?
DN: I believe we are at the start of a great, wonderful revolution, moving from big institutions and companies that believe in mass production, whether it be one professor lecturing to multiple students or one company making large quantities of identical products. Teachers lecture, which is a horrible way to learn (but easy for the teacher). Companies mass-produce, which is efficient for large quantities, but wasteful and ill-suited for the wide variability of people (and horrible for the workers).

Suddenly we have available technologies that empower us, and the rise of the small. We have the Khan Academy, which provides simple, short videos that anyone can watch. We have 3D printing, which allows craftspeople to resurface, to design or refine products for individual preferences. Open source gets us away from the domination of super-powerful patent holders. And with education, we need to make it problem based, with peer-assistance. Make it relevant. Provide it when it is needed or desired, not just in those early years of life. Why do we think that we can cram everything needed for a lifetime in those early years of education? That is what makes it so boring, tedious, and irrelevant. We need lifetime learning and on-demand learning, and we need lifetime design and on-demand design.

Will all this transform the world? I hope so. Moreover, I hope that even better schemes will emerge.

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