Book Review: “The Design of Everyday Things” by Donald A. Norman

Posted on November 17, 2010

I’ll start with a tale of two sinks. In my current house, in the kitchen there are two knobs, one for hot one for cold. Then there is a faucet that swivels from side to side.  I burn my hands when I rinse dishes. I can’t wash gunk into the drain. If the sink has dishes in it, I can’t fill my water filter up. It’s maddening. The only thing that could make this sink worse is if there were separate faucets for hot and cold.

Compare this to the sink at my old place. Instead of two knobs, there is one lever. With one hand I can select a specific temperature and volume of water. On top of that, the faucet is extendible, so I can spray down the sink when I’m done, fill up stockpots when brewing and take care of ornery squirrels if need be. In fact, if my hands were covered in paint, I can turn on the faucet without spreading it everywhere.

These are the kinds of everyday problems that are discussed and analysed in the ‘Psychology of Everyday Things‘ (POET, the acronym he uses throughout the book). He will describe poorly designed systems and will tell you not only what factors directly contribute to it being useless, but he’ll tell you what larger forces are at play. Often times it is a case of feature over-saturation or a design process that is hampered by the production process ($$$$).

But more than just complaining about bad design, or even applauding great design, Norman walks you through specific mental channels that will allow you create everyday objects that make a whole lot of sense.

If every industrial company read this book we wouldn’t be confused about light switches or knobs on the stove. Perhaps if more nerds had read it in the late ’70s there wouldn’t have been as many jokes about programming VCRs.

This book is valuable for people in many walks of life. If you are ever going to be designing anything, whether it be a computer program, alarm clock or house, this is a book you should spend a weekend paging through.

Fact is, design matters. Take Apple for example. How else could a company sell the same equipment as its compeditors for more money that runs an operating system that doesn’t play nice be so successful? Because it looks nice and it is easy to use. The earlier we realize this, the better off we’ll be.

This book was written in 1988, which means the chapters on computers are almost comically archaic. However, he does make some prescient comments about the future of handheld computing.

This book didn’t ‘blow my mind’ like many people led me to believe it would. However, you can certainly take a lot from it. For the other freelancers out there, definitely pick this up. At the very least, it is a great insight into how people’s decision making works, and how they interact with the world and everyday things.


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2 Responses to “Book Review: “The Design of Everyday Things” by Donald A. Norman”

  1. Jacob on November 18th, 2010 2:58 am

    So, you don’t mention the relationship between POET and DOET. “Design of Everyday Things” is the updated version from like a decade later, right? It’s a pretty sweet book. It’s my current bathroom reading, although I read through the first half in a more methodical way last year.

  2. Heath on November 19th, 2010 11:28 am

    Yeah I messed that up. I meant to say the Design of Everyday things there. Whoops.

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