Review: The Design of Everyday Things by Don Norman

Book: The Design of Everyday Things
Author: Don Norman
Year: 1988. There’s a revised and expanded edition for 2013 that I recommend over the original if you have access to it, but this review is for the original text.

Design of Everyday Things Cover

Summary: A must read for anyone who designs things – whether they are objects or games – for people to use. Very readable and no prior experience necessary.

It almost feels silly to review The Design of Everyday Things considering its reputation. I think most game developers that are somewhat serious about reading about their craft already have a copy. It’s certainly the one book that I find game designers recommend the most when asking about a book to read – despite not being about game design.

The Design of Everyday Things is a foundational text on usability and user centered design. It looks at everyday objects – telephones, doors, watches, radios, cars, teapots, remotes – and presents examples of good and poor design. The author delivers important lessons on how to design with users in mind to make their experience of using that object smooth by contrasting them with pages and pages of anecdotes of objects that frustrate and confuse its users. If you get nothing else from the book, you will at least gain a sense of horror about how poorly the world around us is designed.

If you’ve ever fumbled with a door, pushing when you should have pulled or vice versa, or pushing on the hinge instead of where the door swings, or pushing when you were supposed to slide it… then you will find the anecdotes in the book cathartic to read. And while the anecdotes are the easiest thing to recall, each are paired with concepts from usability: affordance, constraints, memory, feedback (a concept all gamedevs should be familiar with!), and so on.

There’s two sections of the book I want to call out as being particularly informative for me. The first is the stress on human error as an inevitable thing, as all humans will eventually error no matter how well a system is designed or how much experience they have with it. A designer’s role, then, should be to design controls to eliminate error as much as possible (for example, a water tap that you could never turn hot enough to scald yourself). When that’s not possible, you should design it so the error is reversible or limits damage as much as possible (for example, the recycling bin application on your computer, or autosave features). Of course, applying this to games, think about elements where it’s easy for players to make mistakes, like at an RPG vendor, and methods games have implemented to limit user error, such as the ability to buyback items you recently sold in WoW. Norman points out that in these situations just a confirmation prompt alone is not enough to prevent human error: if the error is still possible, you should design safeguards for that event.

The other section I found particularly enlightening focused on human memory. The author splits up memory between memory in the head (our minds), memory in the world (cues, post-its, event calendars, reminders, instructions), and memory associated with cultural standards (how to drive a car doesn’t change much between cars, so you only need to learn it once). There are flaws with relying on any given type of memory for users of your design, so the author advocates whenever possible to design so that those users do not need to use their memory – the design is intuitive as is. Recall switching between different games and trying to remember what controls go with what move. Luckily, there are standards that most games follow – left analog stick controls camera, right stick controls movement. But I’m sure most people remember playing a game where the controls seemed to break the rules and you had a lot of trouble not throwing a grenade at your feet (*cough* Call of Duty *cough*).

A lot of the content in this book crosses over into other books I’ve read regarding design. A whole section on how the brain works, with a focus on patterns, may remind you of Koster’s similar emphasis on patterns in A Theory of Fun for Game Design. I’d say a good portion of the principles in Universal Principles of Design are cribbed from this book – constraints, accessibility, chunking, affordance, and so on. Since this is such an important book, you’re likely familiar with some of its concepts already.

There’s two editions of the book out. I read the copy from 1988 and found it was fine, but if you were born in the 90s or later (and don’t remember what it was like to reprogram a VCR or use call-waiting system or a mechanical projector) I recommend picking up the newer one. It replaces a lot of the examples with more contemporary ones and I hear it’s still worth rereading if you’re only experience is with the original.

In case it’s not clear yet, I highly recommend the book for everyone. Its lessons are timeless, even if it’s examples aren’t. It’s written in an easy, approachable manner that makes it suitable for anyone interested in the topic, whether they are experts or hobbyists or students.

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