Friday, September 22, 2006

the design of everyday things

i recently purchased the design of everyday things by don norman. norman is a cognitive scientist who has thought a lot about design of everyday things. before i tell my own frustrating story of a poorly designed everyday thing, here are some quotes:

The book begins with one of don's amusing experiences:
"You would need an engineering degree from MIT to work this," someone once told me, shaking his head in puzzlement over his brand new digital watch. Well, I have an engineering degree from MIT... Give me a few hours and I can figure out the watch. But why should it take hours?
norman then nicely generalizes to exactly what i'm feeling:
Why do we put up with the frustrations of everyday objects, with objects that we can't figure out how to use, with those neat plastic wrapped packages that seem impossible to open, with doors that trap people, with washing machines and dryers that have become too confusing to use...
and he gives this simple rule which i like:
1. It's not your fault: If there is anything that has caught the popular fancy, it is this simple idea: when people have trouble with something, it isn't their fault -- it's the fault of the design. Every week brings yet another letter or e-mail from someone thanking me for delivering them from their feeling of incompetence.
now my story. my roommate has this great can opener: it cuts the can just below the top, and you just pull off the top. no jagged metal, no problems. well, almost, when you know how to use it.

anyway, i had been shown how to work it 1 or 2 times, and i needed to open some soup. no one was around, i couldn't ask questions. well, i tried every which way to get this can opener on with no success. i'm not sure how i opened that can, but i remember there being jagged edges and me just having a very frustrating experience with the whole thing. i remember wanting to throw the can and shout very loudly after that experience. opening a can should not be this hard.

i concluded that this can opener was very poorly designed because if you were a new user, you wouldn't be able to just pick it up and use it. you'd be lucky if you could. finally, on the 3rd or 4th time of seeing it function, i saw the key ingredient that showed me how to line everything up. now using the can opener is great, but what a ridiculous learning experience.

on the flip side, i came across another can opener months later, and i opened a can with it almost immediately. no one had to show me anything, and yet this wasn't your standard can opener: it also cut in a different way, and left no sharp edges. it was effortless. this second can opener was well-designed. no everyday thing should be very difficult to use for the typical consumer.

follow this link to find out more about norman and his design philosophy.


Vera Yin said...

aha! my dad read and loved this book a few years ago and shared it with me. wonderful, isn't it?

James said...

Yay... u used Zorbot...

twm said...

ah! this book reminds me of first year human factors class with the masochistic teapot on the cover! i like the book bc its one of those books that often comes up during intellectual dinner conversations 8)

twm said...

oh and i also like the design principles of giving feedback, visibility, and mental models (are those the three?) so simple!

omar said...

actually this book does have the crazy teapot as well! and it is good for conversation, though now when i talk about how something is so poorly designed neha just rolls her eyes and wonders whether that's all i'll talk about now.

and you're right, it is the book that emphasizes visibility, good conceptual models, and feedback.

s said...

Interesting. I have this very vivid recollection of a lecture on design my grade 10 tech teacher gave us. He actually stated that the Can-Opener is an example of a tool that does not need to be redesigned, because it is the perfect solution to the problem it solves. Sure, you can enhance it by maybe making it electronic or something, but when it comes down to it, the mechanism itself does not need any changes. I guess he didn't consider a user's perspective, making the assumption that the user understands basic operation.