Not Evangelism

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Book review: The Design of Everyday Things by Don Norman

Serendipity is a funny old creature. Every now and again something crops up when it's least expected, and it turns out to be just what's needed.

This week, I was planning to write a review of Don Norman's The Design of Everyday Things, something I've been meaning to do for some time now; the book is, after all, widely (and quite rightly) regarded as a classic.

And then I found a review of the book over at Usability Post. It's a good review, I urge you to go read it. I'll wait.

So what can I add? Only my own perspective: this book - quite honestly - changed my outlook. Since reading it, I've thought about it, related to it, pretty much every day. Seriously, I think about it every time I open a door.

One of the central messages of the book is that when technology (whether it's websites, televisions, doors or whatever) doesn't work - when it breaks down and users can't get to grips with it - these situations are rarely, if ever, the fault of the users - but the users generally think it is.

If your website makes users feel that way, they're less likely to visit your site again. No one wants to keep going back to something or somewhere that makes them feel stupid. Part of the purpose of design - and in our case, UX design - is to ensure that our websites and software don't make users feel stupid.

It's not quite that simple, of course, and the book goes into significant detail about the ways that designers can address these issues: introducing constraints to prevent errors from happening; giving users feedback on the actions they take, supporting their cognitive maps and conceptual models. The book is not directly related to web design, but there are enough overlaps to provide substantial food for thought, and readily-applicable tools.

Although in some respects the book feels a little dated, in other respects is still absolutely fresh, still absolutely relevant, perhaps even more relevant, as Dmitry observes.

There are unintended delights in the book, including the gloriously old school black-and-white photographs. And the satisfaction of noticing that the sub-headings of the book are printed so close to the spine that some of those on the left hand pages are unreadable unless one opens the book back on itself (and breaking its spine). A design issue that Don would surely have something to say about.

But these are joys, not nitpicks. Without wishing to sound cheesy, The Design of Everyday Things really did change my perspective on the physical world around me, as well as the computer applications and software that I'm engaged in designing and building. Already a textbook for designers, it's an essential for anyone in the usability arena (UXers, usability professionals, web designers); it should be a requirement for anyone designing and building computer software.

And it wouldn't be out of place on just about any bookshelf. A fascinating, revealing, relevant read.

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