10 Things I Learned from “The Design of Everyday Things” by Donald A. Norman

During my last trip to New York City, we visited the World Trade Center Transportation Hub, also known as the Oculus.

"Oculus" by Jeffrey G Thomas, 2017 CC-By-4.0
“Oculus” by Jeffrey G Thomas, 2017 CC-By-4.0

The stunning architecture of this sweeping building cannot fail to impress. The inside feels huge and open like a European cathedral. The outside looks like a pair of wings, flapping in multiple photographic exposures across the Manhattan skyline.

One thing that will forever stand out about the Oculus, however, was the doors.

I learned in Donald A. Norman’s “The Design of Everyday Things” that doors provide clues to how they operate.

Yes, doors can be confusing.

If you see a handle, you should pull. If you see a strike plate, you should push. Glass doors make this more difficult because you might not know what side has which clue.

The doors in the Oculus are confusing. They are made of glass, and both sides have a pull handle. They need a sign above each handle, telling you what you need to do.

The doors within the Oculus have pull handles on both sides. They don't pull in both directions, and require a small sign above each handle to help clarify their operation.
The doors within the Oculus have pull handles on both sides. They don’t pull in both directions, and require a small sign above each handle to clarify their operation.

These doors have been designed for aesthetic beauty. They don’t provide what Norman calls “Affordances,” physical properties that suggest how to use them.

Norman’s book is filled with interesting examples of industrial design and how they succeed or fail to help the users operate these items.

"The Design of Everyday Things" by Donald A. Norman
“The Design of Everyday Things” by Donald A. Norman

10 Things I Learned from “The Design of Everyday Things” by Donald A. Norman

  1. A designer must assume that all possible errors will be made. Once a product is released into the real world, end users will use the new product in ways unimaginable to the original creators.
    A long time ago products were designed and released… and then they’d succeed or fail in the marketplace. We now have iterative design and user testing. Feedback is immediate and the results are incorporated into the product’s design. This is most evident today in software testing, where updates happen quickly.
  2. Humans generally blame one’s environment for one’s own failures, except in cases where a task appears to be easy. With tasks that appear easy, users will often blame themselves for failures.When looking at others, however, we generally blame failures on their personalities.When things go well for ourselves, we see it as skill and take credit. When things go well for others, we often see it as luck.
  3. Products should provide clues via Affordances, or what looks to be possible; Constrains, or what we should recognize is not possible with this product; and Mappings, where we understand one product based on our experience navigating previous products.
    Think of your favorite email app. Do you have an understanding of what is and isn’t possible with that app? Look at the icon to start the app — does email use an envelope or a stamp?
  4. Learned Helplessness is a form of confirmation bias. After someone has a negative experience operating a product multiple times, they foresee repeated failures in their future and decide that the task is difficult or impossible.
    Taught helplessness is the result of poor design, which frustrates users and systematically leads to learned helplessness.
    Computers are excellent at teaching helplessness. Their error codes are difficult to understand, their controls are often hidden in menus or (gasp!) the command line, and their feedback about success and failure and progress is often non-existent. People quickly start to tell themselves, “I’m not a computer person.”
  5. Our memory isn’t designed to hold everything we give it, with the precision we might need. Imprecise knowledge about the world is often enough to get by on a daily basis, and at the same time we’re expected to remember passwords, phone numbers, dates, license plates, credit cards, and more. As a result, most of this gets written down and hidden or perhaps secured on our unlocked phones.
    This reminds me of an old maxim, “security through obscurity isn’t security at all.” Hidden things can be found.
  6. Short-term memory and long-term memory work differently (we knew that). We can recall five to seven items held in short-term memory, but when we become distracted, we can lose those memories easily. (You might have noticed this happen to you, when you walk into a new room and forget why you’re there!)
    Long-term memory requires some sort of meaningful relationship to another item, or can be recreated by working through an explanation of how something operates. (Check out Memory Palaces for increasing your memory skills).
  7. Selective attention forces our brains to think of the problem at hand, to the exclusion of other relevant information. When we have to resolve an emergency, even a small one, we often disregard the danger that lurks.
    This “selective attention” happened in my household within the last six months. My wife was pulling the car our of the driveway when she noticed the back door was still open! Quickly she jumped out of the car to close that back door — and left the car in reverse. The car kept moving and the now-open front door slammed into the house, bending it forward on the frame. We had owned the car less than a month!
  8. “Slips” happen when our focus is on one task at hand and we end up working against our own goals. A common example is when the credit card reader tells us, “Do Not Remove Your Card.” It says, right there on the screen, “Remove Your Card” — so we do, and interrupt the process.The human brain works hard to understand negatives. We must first think of a positive before we can negate it. Knowing this, what effect does the following campaign create?
    The human brain needs to first understand a positive before it can negate it
    The human brain needs to first understand a positive before it can negate it. Did someone say Drugs?

    Norman identifies six types of slips: Capture errors, Description errors, Data-driven errors, Associative action errors, Loss-of-activation errors, and Mode errors.

  9. The Seven Stages of an Action define how we perform actions. Oftentimes these are automatic unless a task is unusual or difficult. These stages are:
    1. Forming a Goal
    2. Forming the Intention to complete that Goal
    3. Specifying an Action to complete that Intention
    4. Executing the Action
    5. Perceiving the State of the World as a result of our Action
    6. Interpreting the State of the World based on the Perceived Feedback
    7. Evaluating the Outcome of our Action vs our Intention
  10. We can learn from our errors and design our products to overcome those common mistakes. We must work to get the mapping correct, we should simplify our designs, and we should standardize on common concepts.
    On the other hand, by intentionally working against these ideas, we can make things more difficult to use, leading to restricted access to that technology.

    "The Design of Everyday Things" by Donald A. Norman
    “The Design of Everyday Things” by Donald A. Norman


Donald A Norman’s “The Design of Everyday Things” is an excellent read. After I finished my library copy, I picked up my own to keep on my shelf. If you’re interested in design or in the ways humans work — and I know you are because that’s why you’re here — I suggest you pick up a copy of your own. It’s a great read to open anywhere in the book and become fascinated by the everyday objects around us.

Have you read “The Design of Everyday Things?” If so, what stood out to you? What did I miss? (plenty!)

Please leave a comment on this page and we can keep this conversation going!