Becoming Professional: A Blog

The Design of Everyday Things is Still Important

Posted on: May 30, 2011


A door with humorous instructions on how to open it

by BruceTurner on Flickr

A while ago I picked up the book The Design of Everyday Things by Donald A. Norman. The book was originally published in 1987. In other words, this book is as old as I am. That’s a bit scary. Scarier is that they didn’t really have computers back then. I know. Take deep breaths.

Of course, if they didn’t use computers back then and this is a digital marketing blog, what is the connection? Your answer: Good design doesn’t depend on the medium.

That was the reason this book was assigned to my Digital Marketing Masters class as must-do reading in our usability course. It was an enlightening view on how people approach problems, such as “Open the door.”

man opening a British train door by reaching through a window

Immensively counter intuitive

Opening doors is one of the first examples that Norman uses to illustrate his point that design is integral to how we use the tools around us. Basically, the idea is that if you are presented with a door with a flat metal plate, you know you have to push. If it has a bar where the plate would be, you know to pull. If the bar or plate is on the left, you know the hinge is on the right, and vice versa. But those rules don’t always apply. I know way too many doors with two bars, for instance. And no, writing “Push” or “Pull” doesn’t count. People don’t read. We take cues based on design. Though this seems like common sense, take my favorite door: those to the British trains. They have the handle on the outside and you have to reach through a window to open them. Norman used this example in his book, published in 1987, and they are still confusing people today.

The book is absolutely littered with examples like this, though that might be the most famous. I also enjoyed his description of absolutely useless telephone systems. Do you remember those telephones with multiple lines? They still use them, but they seem to be a dang sight better than what they were like. Unlabeled buttons and odd combinations to reach certain outcomes and if you mess up, you’ll never know what you did wrong.

Now pause, tell me, how this isn’t like so many websites you’ve been on? How about the ones that don’t seem to have a “Login” button even though you have to login to post something? Or those that don’t offer you a “Forgot my password” option unless you go to the “Help” section, which is nowhere near the big red letters saying you’re an idiot for not remembering your password. Or those menus that seemed to have been organized by the most eccentric person on the planet who thinks t-shirts are going-out wear?

People still rely on cues to figure out what they are going to do.

login field on Facebook

The "forgot password" link is faded!

And when we design something to be used, like a “Login” button, it had better have all the bells and whistles to let people know how to use it. This could be as simple as making it a button so it looks like we should click on it, instead of just Times New Roman 12-point font in black, no underline.

Norman’s basic point is that when people make mistakes in using tools, it’s the designer’s fault. We’ve all used those lovely intranet systems that take forever to look up a simple piece of data. We’ve all gotten lost and had to ask a more experienced coworker for help. We’ve all watched in dismay when the task actually required what seems like 10 more steps than it should, using five different menus. Norman sets us free from feeling stupid. It’s not our fault. It’s the designer’s.

Designers often make things so that way the back end is nice and tidy, but if you have ever seen the back side of a cross-stitch piece, if the one side is neat, the other side is a mess (at least in my cross stitch). And that’s what we’re faced with. The worst part is that designers don’t realize it. They think it’s easy, because, well, they designed it! And honestly, what do you expect? It is difficult to go out of one’s way to make life easy for someone in an entirely different position than you.

In the end, I couldn’t recommend this book more to digital marketers. This is an enlightening book and quite a fun read. Norman has a very conversation tone, like chatting with a very witty friend. The old examples even make it more interesting because, well, old as they are, they were new to me.

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Who Am I?

I am a Digital Native who is trying to puzzle out what exactly that means. I share my thoughts on social media, digital business models, and PR here on this blog.

I am currently getting my Masters in Digital Marketing from Hult International Business School, having gotten my B.S. in Marketing from Arizona State University. Everything is on track and I am making headway towards my dream: World Domination... or being a productive, helpful citizen and marketer. Whichever comes first.

Don't hesitate to get in touch. I Tweet daily at @KateDavids and also have a science fiction and fantasy blog (maskedgeek.wordpress.com) and Twitter (@Masked_Geek).

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