The Design of Everyday Things

by Matt Cholick

I just wrapped up reading Don Norman's The Design of Everyday Things. This book is well worth reading.

Years ago, I said to some less technical members of my family (somewhat infamously) that computer user interfaces are intuitive. It was part of a larger discussion around the difficulties of accomplishing even everyday activities such as shopping online. I knew 'intuitive' wasn't quite the right adjective, but I genuinely couldn't understand the difficultly participants in the discussion had doing common things like sending email.

While reading the book, I came to a new understanding of their frustrations. There's a language of computer UI. It is a language of standard metaphors, expectations, patterns, and interactions. It's a language I understand fluently after years heavy computer use. So much of it is arbitrary and requires pure memorization, though, that people who spend little time on computers only manage to learn a fraction of it.

I've visited new sites with less technical acquaintances, having the intention of accomplishing some task. Over and over I find that I know exactly what action to perform almost immediately while, at the same time, the person with less experience searches for a painfully long time to discover the correct user interface element to manipulate. I need less affordances to discover functionality.

Of course, there are also situations where I'm the annoyed user. As someone continually frustrated by faucets, it's refreshing to hear both other people's frustrations with everyday objects and Don's mantra "It's not your fault." He goes into many examples and my own bathroom faucets fit right in. The faucets are not labeled in any way to differentiate hot from cold. Though there is a convention for which is hot and which is cold, I still don't know it after three decades of using faucets. The hot water tap also takes a moment to warm up. This makes for a slow feedback cycle such that I'm forced to ask "Did I use the wrong tap or do I simply need to wait a moment?"

Reading through the book gave me a new perspective. The faucets in my bathroom are not well designed. An engineer or designer somewhere, years ago, didn't put sufficient thought or experimentation into the design of these faucets. It would take only some small clue - a bit of red and blue or the letters C and H - to eliminate a tiny, but daily, frustration. It's not my fault; my faucets are poorly designed.

I know it would be so easy to forget or dismiss this frustration when the time next comes to buy faucets. I love the line "We are surrounded with objects of desire, not objects of use." It's an important realization to take into decision making about buying some product. How will I use this object every day? Can I operate it without thought? Do the controls map naturally or do I need to memorize something arbitrary? I hope my new perspective lasts, and I remember to think harder about interaction in both my roles of engineer and consumer.