Posted by: soniahs | August 29, 2010

Exam reading: “Design of everyday things”

This book could be an interesting read for a wide audience, while introducing useful concepts for designers of all stripes. Donald Norman’s “Design of everyday things” discusses the places where technology and people just don’t get along: goofy door handles, impossible-to-program electronics, hanging chads, etc. (Hey, it’s election season in Florida, so I can dredge that example up!)

Summary: According to Norman, object design frequently is non-intuitive and causes users headaches; users perceive faults of use to be their own. These faults include slips, where the user has a good plan, but poor execution (e.g., substituting numbers, doing a habitual activity by mistake), and errors, where the goal itself is not well-thought out (e.g., social pressure, subconscious vs. conscious decisions). He outlines several ways to make design better, to help users avoid such errors. First, correct uses should be visible: conceptual models of the proper use should be apparent in the placement of parts (“natural mapping”), and feedback should let users know whether something is working. Next, users should be guided by constraints on possible uses as well as affordances (design features that lead users toward the appropriate actions). Designers should also be aware that knowledge about how to use an object can be “in the world” (i.e., apparent from structure) as well as “in the head.” Other key things to do are simplify task structures, design for error, and standardize when all else fails (standard configurations become social conventions, hence “knowledge in the world”).

Comments: Norman offers some specific advice for computer design (e.g., find a balance between text- and icon-based displays, make them explorable), but his general advice could easily be adapted to digital media. Probably most useful in a design context (could include information design), rather than for exploring expressive possibilities of new media.

Links to: Gee (network model for memory, learn by doing), Tomlinson (tech design), Liu (user-friendly design), Johnson (user-friendly design principles)


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