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The Design of Everyday Things by Don Norman

The Design of Everyday Things is a lovely book that changes the reader’s perspective about the everyday things we use. It is widely considered the Bible of Design, and the author Don Norman is regarded as the father of design. The book is easy to read and looks at the most common tools from the perspective of usability. Are the tools user-friendly and intuitive? The book takes some common predicaments and explains how poor design causes them. The most famous example of this is doors. It should be clear by looking at a door, whether it opens outwards or inwards or if it slides. We perform the wrong action because the door does not clearly signify the action required to open it. Many everyday tasks where we are prone to make mistakes are actually design issues and not the user’s fault.

This is what makes the book interesting. It is a simple book looking at practical problems and discussing possible solutions. Don Norman does a great job at getting the reader to think like a designer, to look at their surroundings and ask if the tools he uses are designed well. How can they be improved if they are not designed well? The book transforms the reader’s perspective into what can be called design thinking. He also introduces a variety of simple terminology that is intuitive and helps organise one’s thoughts. Affordances are the ways an item can be used (a flat surface can be used to place objects), and signifiers are cues from the tool of how to use them. Constraints are the limitations within which a design must be created.

He delves into a variety of interesting problems which are extremely common. Once the reader starts thinking about it, they will be surprised at how many poor designs exist around him. We usually struggle to use the faucets whenever we go to a hotel, we struggle to press the right light switch in a large room, there are the perennial door problems, and the question as to which way a battery goes within an electronic device. He also looks into instances when design kills products, or people make big mistakes due to poor design. A new coin (with a different currency denomination) was released in France, but it was quite similar to the coins already in use, and the public found it very difficult to use. Eventually, the coin had to be discontinued.

Such practical stories make it a fascinating read. He also writes about some of the design ideas that exist. There are often ideas for better design, but the technology doesn’t exist to implement them. The concept of the videophone has existed since the 19th century, but we have only been able to create a reasonable implementation now. Similarly, touchscreens existed long before the revolutionary iPhone, but they were not economically viable. New designs may also fail because the public isn’t ready for the product yet. Sometimes a good design can take multiple decades to become popular. Don Norman discusses many more concepts in the book, and it is a fascinating, fun read.

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