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Book Review - The Design Of Everyday Things

March 26, 2017

This weekend I finished reading Don Norman’s classic book, The Design of Everyday Things, aka DOET. It truly is a delight to read, though it took me a solid month to complete because I re-read many of the passages to make sure they sunk in.

I particularly enjoyed Norman’s explanation of conceptual models. It had never occurred to me that humans base their approaches to new technology on experiences with previous technologies and that poor design is when those conceptual models don’t line up with the actual technology. Now I have started noticing mismatched conceptual models everywhere, and have stopped blaming myself when I can’t operate the burners on the stove.

Take thermostats for example; many people confuse thermostats with the faucet conceptual model. Turning the thermostat up to 90 degrees doesn’t make the room heat faster than turning it to 72 degrees, but many have tried this. Norman says this is not the human user’s fault. It’s poor design because the turning knob on the wall doesn’t provide a more realistic conceptual model. Perhaps the digital panel thermostats do?

This also applies to the designs of 1999 – 2012 era Web 2.0. Paper-textured backgrounds, comic-ey illustrations and video demonstrations, link hover states, buttons and icons with shadows behind them, word tagging, blogging, commenting, wiki-ing and all their small serif fonts and contrasting garish over-stylized header fonts…It’s the knowledge that users brought with them to interact with the new technology, and what was needed for them to make sense of it all.

With the ubiquity of non-technical users coming to these new platforms and generating their own content, it makes so much sense that these mediums had a “bookish” feel to them. I always thought Web 2.0 looked a little corny, but perhaps that was because I didn’t need 3D or “diary” signifiers to be competent with the technology because I was already in-the-know (then a teenage Internet aficionado). This has prompted me to think about all the tools I already know how to use and how much I assume others know too but am mistaken. And if they don’t know, how can I present to them in ways that they immediately will know?

For example, Facebook was based on the concept of yearbooks. YouTube was based on the concept of home televisions. Amazon was based on the concept of a bookstore. Many a successful web app is not a new idea, rather another incarnation of the same idea.

Now I wonder about modern web design. The web is looking much sleeker: much more minimalistic, much more interactive, with content served more subtly and intelligently. And browsers are capable of displaying incredibly dense media: some of the cutting edge promotional websites I see now make me feel like I’m inside a video game, even. What does the design assume you already know? What is its conceptual model then? How does this effect a user if they haven’t engaged with Web 2.0 yet? I love books that provoke big questions like this.