Book Review: The Psychology of Everyday Things

Even though I’ve dabbled in educational technology and pedagogy in the past, I decided that if I’m going to focus on this seriously I’d better up my game. I’m currently looking into formal instructional design certificates, but in the meantime I thought I’d read independently, take a free online course or two, and do some informational interviews.

I’m starting out with independent reading. I recently googled books about instructional design, elearning and project management that instructional designers and technologists have recommended.  From these, I then compiled my own list in Goodreads. I plan to add to it as I go along and to report on some of my thoughts and impressions in this blog.

Book Summary

design-of-everyday-thingsThe only book on my list currently available from my local public library is The Design of Everyday Things, by Don Norman (rev. ed. New York: Basic Books, 2013). While the book doesn’t speak to instructional design per se, its insights into how we use objects certainly has had carryover when designing computer-based objects. In creating its user interface, Apple seems to have applied many of the suggestions on usability and functionality discussed in the original 1988 edition (the version that I read). So I was not at all surprised to learn that the author, Don Norman, served as a Vice President of the Advanced Technology Group at Apple from 1995-1997.

Norman’s main thrust in the book is to apply what he has learned from cognitive science and psychology to come up with a better understanding of design and of what makes an object function well. He presents a list of several main principles of good design: visibility, having a good conceptual model, mapping and feedback. In Norman’s view, well-designed objects provide visible clues to how they should be used (he later includes aural clues in his definition of “visible”). A door with a visible indicator, such as a flat, rectangular plate, is an example of good design because you can intuit both that it should be pushed (not pulled) and where it should be pushed. Badly designed doors leave you wondering what it is you are supposed to do when you see a door (push? Pull? Left side? Right side?).

Providing an accurate conceptual model of the object is also a principle of good design. When the conceptual model is in alignment with the way in which the object actually works, the user can easily predict what effect his action on the object will have or identify where an interaction with the object went wrong. If something doesn’t work as expected and you have the wrong conceptual model, you might not correctly deduce where the problem lies and then become frustrated, thinking it’s you that’s the problem and not the design.

Correctly mapping an object’s controls to the object’s movements is also important. For instance, knobs on a stove should correspond accurately to the stove elements they control. If the knobs on a stove are not clearly mapped to the elements (as illustrated in the image below), then the user has no clear idea which knob corresponds to which element.

Example of bad design: User is unclear which knob goes with which stove element

Norman’s point is that in good design there is not confusion about how the controls and movements are related—users intuitively know because the spatial arrangement of the knobs reflects that of the stove elements (“natural mappings”).

Example of good design: Spatial arrangement of knobs corresponds to the arrangement of the elements

Feedback is also essential. The user should have immediate access to information that lets her know the results of her actions. Without accurate feedback the user is likely to attribute the results of the action to something other than the real cause.

Another major thesis of the book is that there is “knowledge in the head” (memory) and “knowledge in the world” (text, symbols and other mnemonic clues) and that understanding when and how we use each knowledge set can help us better design for functionality. Norman asserts that good design lessens the mental effort a person must expend to use an object correctly by simplifying what “knowledge in the head” a person should remember. By using constraints that reduce alternatives and by incorporating explanation into the design (thereby taking some “knowledge in the head” and making it part of the environment), the designer can help a person use an object quickly, effectively and with the least amount of mental taxation.

My take

I appreciated Norman’s understanding of how the use of memory is central to how we interact with the physical world. Even while we can use this knowledge to optimize design, it started me thinking about the role of the designer in constructing a user’s experience.   One thing that is out of the scope of Norman’s book that designers need to consider is how they use their design knowledge and to what end.   The assumption in Norman’s book is that designing for usability and functionality is the desired end for everyday objects. Even if we accept this premise for many objects (e.g. teapots, television sets, telephones), it quickly becomes problematic without a clearer understanding of what “everyday objects” means and what kinds of objects it includes. In the case of instructional design and computer-based learning objects, there may be different design goals in operation simultaneously. In an online course, education is the primary goal so we may want the LMS navigational tools to be as clear and straightforward as possible. This helps the student focus attention on achieving learning objectives. But there may be learning objects within the online course for which an “easy experience” is not the goal—quite the opposite. For example, maybe one learning objective asks students to design a computer game and the student is asked to use software like MIT’s Scratch. In these cases, we actually don’t want to fully limit the user’s options or provide full explanation, we want the user to assume the role of the designer in creating his own knowledge. Mental effort is desired.

I also see a problem here when these design principles are applied to objects that may be seen as “everyday,” but whose use has much broader social implications. In Norman’s analog world of 20th century telephones, we weren’t able to see the person with whom we were communicating and thus we couldn’t see behaviors that could facilitate communication, such as gestures. In this case, the constraint is absolute and it also only impacted individual, person-to-person communications.  With digital technologies, however, much more is possible in design in terms of what individual and social behaviors a technology can constrain or afford. For instance, the incorporation of emoticons to facilitate emotional expression in Facebook was a choice.  If the goal is to facilitate communication, this decision can be a good one in many instances. Emoticons can help the user represent his own emotional state or interpret that of a friend more accurately than relying on text alone.  However, decisions have consequences. You can “like” or use an emoticon to respond to a post in a second. In order to respond in a more thoughtful, deliberate manner, however, you must expend additional energy to actually compose a written response. In this case, the platform is made to favor automatic emotional reaction (easy) over reasoned thought (more difficult).  On top of that, your “like” of your friend’s post can be seen by all of his friends too, and someone who may not have sufficient context for understanding your reaction may choose to respond.  While such affordances can facilitate individual communication, they may actually create miscommunication at the social level.

It is important to note, however, that users do have agency in their use of the technology. It is possible that someone external to the technology could “hack” it and impose an additional constraint that would afford a different kind of behavior, such as a teacher who monitors a student’s posts and requires thoughtful, written reflections for a grade in a class.  Individuals also have certain controls within technologies like Facebook over how their posts appear and to whom. However, it is important to understand the default state of the technology because, for better or worse, that is what will be most usable to the greatest number of people.

There are certainly advantages to promoting ease of use for both the user and technology companies.  Greater usability ensures that the platform is widely accessible, which in turn can make it more financially successful. However, these choices can also have downsides. These downsides may often go unrecognized in an era where technology on its own is seen as playing a salvific role in society. The main concern, as I see it, is making sure technology and instructional designers are aware of the assumptions about optimal use on which a particular technology is based.  So, while I value the design principles Norman puts forth in this book, before technology creators take usability as their main design goal they need to reflect on the larger forces driving that goal, the many implications their design choices might have and start asking if there aren’t other possible design goals with greater social value.




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