Tuesday, August 17, 2004

I read Donald Norman’s The Design of Everday Things last week.

I expected a set of case studies in product design. Perhaps each chapter would be devoted to a particular modern appliance or tool — the teapot, the toaster, the microwave oven — and illuminate its faults and successes.

The book does study various everyday things, but it’s much more of a manifesto than a set of case studies. It’s a call for reasonable design. It pleads with designers to ask themselves, How will our users use this? What do your users need? Make it easy for users to do what they need to do.

Norman uses the phrase “it probably won a design award” disparagingly, as he points out that the profession of design often rewards aesthetic balance more than practical usability. For example, glass doors with no handles or plates, so you have no idea where to push or pull them. As you approach them, you wonder, Are they automatic? Do I push the door on the left side or the right?

Fortunately, he recognizes the inherent difficulty in achieving good design. He illustrates this with airplane cockpit design. A physical dial that shows altitude is more difficult for the brain to interpret than a digital readout, but a digital readout can fail while a dial will continue operating. Which is better? The decision isn’t easy or obvious.

But many design decisions aren’t that difficult, and Norman provides an excellent overview of the problems involved and the need for simply usable design.

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