Words in Boxes

Nouns, verbs, and occasionally adjectives.

Sunday, April 08, 2007

Book Review: Donald Norman, The Design of Everyday Things

Sometime last winter as Jenny and I browsed in a bookstore, I mentioned that I wanted to look at books about “design.” She asked what I meant, and I mumbled something vague and unsatisfying and went off to search the art section, and of course didn't find anything at all.

But being the thoughtful person she is, she went online, poured through recommenced reading lists for college courses about product and web design, and bought me two books for my birthday – all after I'd pretty much forgotten the whole incident.

I've since gotten a better idea where my interest in design and information architecture lies, and it turns out that one of those books, The Design of Everyday Things, is one of the field's canonical books. Anybody who works in design – from products to the web – cites it and puts it on their reading list.

In it Norman explains his principles of design using example of real objects, like doors and telephones. He's a total curmudgeon, so most of his examples read like an old man venting about how frustrating these new-fangled computers are to use.

But he knows what he's talking about. His explanations on how controls should be logically and even spatially mapped to function (for example, the arrangement of knobs controlling the burner on a stove should mirror the burners themselves) are clear, easy to understand, and fully applicable to software and web design. In fact, I used some of what I learned about feedback and making “bad” user actions impossible when customizing our internal software at work.

Everything comes down to this: if a user has trouble using something, it's not their fault, it's the designer's fault. This will sound familiar to anyone who's worked in writing or editing – when a reader doesn't understand what's being said, it's the writer's fault for not writing clearly enough.

Even if you aren't as interested in this stuff as I am, you can probably get some entertainment out of skimming the book, although you should skip the more theoretical sections. At the very least, his now-quaint pre-internet computing examples are an unintentionally fun read.

I'm James Sulak, a software developer in Houston, Texas.

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