Friday, June 17, 2005

The Design of Everyday Things, by Donald Norman

I recently read Donald Norman's book, The Design of Everyday Things (the first edition was titled Psychology of Everyday Things). Norman is an expert in product design, and is currently Professor of Computer Science, Psychology and Cognitive Science at Northwestern University.

Why I mention this book now and in this blog is because, in the ATLA conference hotel, I became flustered with my room's clock radio. It has an "Auto / Off / On" switch and a wheel labeled "Off Buzz/Volume" with a small right triangle nearby. I spent 10 minutes trying to figure out whether "Auto" or "On" turned the alarm on. Similarly, I couldn't tell immediately what "Off Buzz" really meant and which way to turn the wheel for a loud alarm. I finally gave up and used by cell phone alarm.

Was I stupid or was this a case of bad design? In cases like this the product is almost always at fault, Norman would argue. The clock radio labels weren't intuitive (what do "Auto" and "Off Buzz" really mean?) and the clock didn't provide me with clear feedback as to whether the alarm was actually set or not.

His book illustrates a number of very basic design principles that can apply to almost any product. Consequently, I'll never look at light switches, doors, car radios, telephones, stove tops, and public restroom faucets in the same way ever again. (Yes, doors.) In fact, I'm starting to see design flaws in almost everything around me! While his book focuses on physical objects, many of his design principles can apply to computer interfaces, including library catalogs, electronic journals, e-books, and databases. Some of his principles include: provide the user with feedback, use natural mappings/mental models, use constraints, bridge the gulf of execution and the gulf of evaluation, use forcing functions, and in cases where good design cannot be implemented, use cultural standards. All of these principles are clearly defined and illustrated in the book. Recommended. It is also a title on Josh Kaufman's Personal MBA program book list.

The study and application of good, user-centered design principles to computer interfaces and products and other technology is the focus of human-computer interaction (HCI) research. Some library schools, like the School of Information at the University of Michigan, offer HCI specializations.

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