'The Design of Everyday Things' underlines the importance of human-centered design

Don Norman in his book The Design of Everyday Things blames the lack of user-friendly design of everyday things for the human inabilities to perform the everyday task with an ease.

by Dilpreet BhullarPublished on : Sep 29, 2021

The direction of motion — east-west, left-right, pull-push, top-bottom — at some point of life has caught us having a slip between the cognitive process and bodily reflex actions. The embarrassment arising out of this clumsy behaviour caught the attention of the cognitive psychologist and usability engineer, Donald Norman, to put the blame on the lack of user-friendly design of the objects in his book, The Design of Everyday Things. His self-deprecating humour greets us at the very start of the book when he declares, “But why should I have trouble with doors and light switches, water faucets and stoves? ‘Doors?’ I can hear the reader saying. “You have trouble opening doors?” Yes. I push doors that are meant to be pulled, pull doors that should be pushed, and walk into doors that neither pull nor push, but slide.” For Norman, this “trouble” is a corollary of the obvious absence of intuitive guidance from the art of designing everyday things.

Don Norman’s The Design of Everyday Things | STIRworld
Don Norman’s The Design of Everyday Things Image: Courtesy of Creative Commons

Besides the triumvirate of — experience design, industrial design and interaction design — Norman adds human-centered design to “ensure that the designs match the needs and capabilities of the people for whom they are intended”. The discussion punctuated with the images including coffeepot for masochists, the sink that would not drain, sliding doors, refrigerator controls, among many other things brings together the cognitive psychology models of conceptual understanding, affordances, constraints, and mappings to talk about the art of designing the things we encounter on the everyday basis. For the conceptual model, Norman discusses the design of the refrigerator with the two dials to indicate two separate units for the fresh food and freezer. The temperature is monitored by the single system but oozes out the cold waves of air to the two separate units. The conceptual model of the art of design makes it feasible for the two separate units to maintain their unique temperatures.

Pull or Push | Don Norman’s The Design of Everyday Things | STIRworld
Pull or Push Image: Courtesy of Creative Commons

The second crucial factor of affordance for Norman eases the functionality of the objects. For instance, if the “Knobs afford turning, pushing, and pulling. Slots are for inserting things into. Balls are for throwing or bouncing,” then the pair of scissors allows its user to put the fingers into the holes, which are designed to draw its purpose of cutting. Norman explains affordance with a common example of the scissors, but for the ‘constraining’ model, he treads the path of cultural limitation and physical constraints to achieve maximum benefits of the things put to use. To highlight the quotient of constrain, he uses the example of a sink. Every restroom with a sink has its unique way of working, which is never identical or even similar to the one you are familiar with.

East or West | Don Norman’s The Design of Everyday Things | STIRworld
East or West Image: Courtesy of Creative Commons

With which Norman introduces us to the problem of the door, in the latter section of the book he traces this hiccup to the stimulus-response mappings. This arbitrary mapping between stimulus and response exponentially increases the difficulty of the task: directly proportionate to the availability of higher alternative options. Nonetheless, Norman is keen to mention, “Walking, talking, reading. Riding a bicycle or driving a car,” need practice, but once learnt, the body automatically responds to the mechanism.

Top or Bottom | Don Norman’s The Design of Everyday Things | STIRworld
Top or Bottom Image: Courtesy of Creative Commons

The cognitive psychology models open the room for a discussion on the key principles that could turn the function of the everyday things into a user-friendly practice. When the “knowledge in the head and in the world” is aimed to achieve artistically created user-friendly designs, the everyday things prompt its usability with minimal recourse to the memory. The human-centered design (HCD) allows natural mapping to heighten the user-friendly experience. The frequent use of interactive infographics and pictures could communicate the message without losing any extra time. For Norman, along with the in-build designs to handle the error, the uniformity of standardisation ought to be the goal for the designers.

Norman admits “Design is a powerful equalising tool: all that is needed is observation, creativity, and hard work—anyone can do it”. Similarly, with the rise of artists, designers and entrepreneurs across the globe, the task is to make our interaction with everyday things not just easy but also creatively innovative to approach its operations.

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