The Design of Everyday Things – Donald A. Norman – Peter Berkrot

The main question in my mind after listening to this audiobook is easily enough answered: How old IS this book, anyhow? In the introduction the author talks about how the book isn’t dated. Well, it was originally published in 1988. One of the most talked-about pieces of technology discussed is the videocassette recorder. The VCR. The computers being discussed are about a step beyond the ones that could add three numbers together using a bank of systems that would fill a room. Some of the book is relevant no matter what, as the prologue or forward or introduction or whatever it was points out. But not all of it is.

Much of the point of this book is: “When people have trouble with something, it’s not their fault. It’s the fault of the design.” And I don’t buy it. Maybe it’s because I have less faith in humanity than the author does, but – well, I’ve seen it (including, to be honest, in myself). I did not like the book Wizard’s First Rule, but something I love and always use is the explication of Wizard’s First Rule: “People Are Idiots”. Yes, it should be obvious whether a door needs to be pushed or pulled to get the thing open – but in most if not all of the cases I’ve seen it’s not actively hidden. In my experience, people just don’t read.

Example: I can’t tell you how many emails I’ve sent, only to have to reiterate some or all of it almost immediately. I used to run an international online-based Secret Santa, and every year after the emails went out I braced myself for the slew of responses asking questions that were answered in the initial email. Because people don’t read.

I’ve learned that when I ask two questions or provide two pieces of information in an email, the second one is going to go completely unnoticed. More than two? Forget it. Now, I’ve long ago learned that my tendency to wordiness won’t fly in business emails – I’ve learned to pare it down. Still, people don’t read.

Recent example: in reply to a question from one of my bosses, I wrote “I’ve attached [three pieces of documentation for a delivery]; it looks like there was no delivery ticket created.” That was the first line of my email. One of them replied with “Do we have delivery ticket?” I sat and stared at it for a couple of minutes, and then just wrote back “There was no delivery ticket, as far as I can see”. I just don’t understand.

Example: I can’t tell you how many people go up to the fax machine in the office and ask whether paperwork has to be face-up or face-down. (The owner of the company asks every time.) (Every. Time.) How do you work in offices as long as these people have without learning that there is a little graphic on the machine to answer just that important question. (I also can’t tell you how many blank faxes I’ve received over the years, because people a) didn’t read and b) didn’t ask, and just faxed away. Upside down.) The design is just fine: the question is answered. I’m not sure how else it could be addressed; bright colors or flashing lights? Or big letters? Nah. It’s fine. People are idiots.

So your car radio is difficult to use while driving? Here’s a thought: Don’t use it while driving. You might want to watch the road instead.

The author talks about an expensive hoity toity Italian washing machine – it was so badly designed that the owners were afraid to touch it. “Why did they buy it?” the author asks. Well, because it’s an expensive hoity toity Italian machine – and they’re stupid. They wanted conspicuous consumption, or got snowed by a salesman who saw their weakness. Plus they probably hire someone to do their laundry anyway, or at any rate seem to be able to afford to.

And the author complains about the problems inherent in lowering a projection screen in a lecture hall – but it sounds like the hall long predates slide projectors. The projector had to be installed in the place long after the fact, and in such a way (I would assume) so as not to do any mischief to the structure or artistry of the room. So – yeah, it’s not perfect. It doesn’t exist in perfect conditions. Work with it. Or hold your lectures somewhere else.

And the author complains about senseless instructions for those VCR’s, and all I could think was, well, they’re often translated badly from Japanese.

The author talks about a design feature – or not – in an Audi which allowed the sunroof to be closed without the ignition key in place, but only if an odd sequence of steps were taken. Why, he asks, was it such a peculiar combination of steps? Well, a) because it was accidental, and/or b) because a non-peculiar combination might result in an accidental opening of the sunroof when you really didn’t want it open. (I say “you” because I’ll never so much as sit in an Audi.)

Now, I do agree with the basic premise of the book. Of course an object should be designed so that it’s not difficult to use. But … well, see, over the sink in my apartment there are three switches. When I had a tour of the place I was told that the one on the left controlled the light, the one in the middle controlled the garbage disposal, and the last one was for the dishwasher. When I moved in a little while later it took about five minutes’ trial and error. Now I don’t have to think about it. Figure it out yourself: you’ll probably remember it longer. “Control/alt/delete” isn’t an intuitive command for the computer – but the reason for that is pretty sensible: it’s not something that can be done using one or two close-set keys … because it’s not something you want to do accidentally. And once it’s learned, it’s easy enough to remember.

Okay, go back to the whole door thing. The author admits that he has problems with doors. And I get it – if there’s no label on a door it can be hard to know whether you’re supposed to push or pull or whatever. But – at least nowadays – I think every door I see in a public venue has a little sign. And … I’m sorry, I can’t muster up a whole lot of sympathy for the person who pulls on a door that says “push”, or vice versa – including me. Honestly, I have little patience with anyone who doesn’t read the damn directions.

I also don’t have a lot of patience for someone who goes out and buys a massively expensive Italian washing machine without making sure they understand how to use it. Yes, that can be blamed on the design; it can also be blamed on the salesman seeing dollar signs, and on the fact that any instruction manual is probably translated from the Italian – and on a level of carelessness and lack of preparedness by the buyer. I’m sorry – if you don’t put in a certain level of research into a big purchase, you deserve what you end up with.

If I need, for example, to make a spreadsheet do something I don’t know how to do, I don’t write a letter to MicroSoft complaining about the poor design of Excel. I figure it out, or I look it up. I work with people who don’t bother to try to solve any problem for themselves. If they don’t know how to do something, they sit in their seats and yell like children for help – literally. It sounds like the author is in favor of this attitude – everything should be obvious, and if it’s not you’re entitled to squawk. It’s learned helplessness.

My feeling on this is basically that if I can figure it out, or look it up, anyone can do it – and damn well should.

And read my damned email, jackass.

So, no – technology of any sort should not be intentionally or incidentally obscure. But also, and equally, people should be able to learn and follow the instructions that are present and hone their deductive instincts. It’s an ability that will only ever make life easier.

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One Response to The Design of Everyday Things – Donald A. Norman – Peter Berkrot

  1. Pingback: Obligatory post-election post | Stewartry

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