The Design of Everyday Things

Today I re-read Don Norman’s 1988 book The Design of Everyday Things. I continue to highly recommend it to anyone who does engineering (especially software engineering). In particular, it’s the book that introduced me to the term affordances, as in “glass affords seeing-through, and breaking; a flat panel affords pushing but not pulling.” I felt like the term started to break out into the mainstream C++ community at CppCon 2019, what with its forming the core of my “Back to Basics: Type Erasure” and also being name-dropped by Titus Winters in the B2B track’s closing keynote “What is C++?”

(For links to all of CppCon 2019’s B2B talks, see here.)

Previously on this blog:

The Design of Everyday Things contains my preferred formulation of Murphy’s Law (often phrased as “Anything that can go wrong, will”). Murphy’s Law is often seen as a negative, cynical thing; I prefer to see it as a useful guarantee that helps us reason about systems design. Norman writes:

If an error is possible, someone will make it.

The designer must assume that all possible errors will occur and design so as to minimize the chance of the error in the first place, or its effects once it gets made. Errors should be easy to detect, they should have minimal consequences, and, if possible, their effects should be reversible.

A few pages earlier he gives an example of design that takes this guarantee into account:

A simple example of good design is the 3.5-inch magnetic diskette […] The diskette has a square shape: there are apparently eight possible ways to insert it into the machine, only one of which is correct. What happens if I do it wrong? I try inserting the disk sideways. Ah, the designer thought of that. A little study shows that the case really isn’t square: it’s rectangular, so you can’t insert a longer side. I try backward. The diskette goes in only part of the way. Small protrusions, indentations, and cutouts prevent the diskette from being inserted backward or upside down: of the eight ways one might try to insert the diskette, only one is correct, and only that one will fit. An excellent design.

Norman quotes this story from Mike King, “a designer who works for a telephone company.” I think it is perfectly applicable to a lot of software design, including the design of C++:

It is very hard to remove features of a newly designed product that had existed in an earlier version. It’s kind of like physical evolution. If a feature is in the genome, and if that feature is not associated with any negativity (i.e., no customers gripe about it), then the feature hangs on for generations.

It is interesting that things like the ‘R’ button [on a desk telephone] are largely determined through examples. Somebody asks, “What is the ‘R’ button used for?” and the answer is to give an example: “You can push ‘R’ to access loudspeaker paging.” If nobody can think of an example, the feature is dropped. Designers are pretty bright people, however. They can come up with a plausible-sounding example for almost anything. Hence, you get features, many many features, and these features hang on for a long time. The end result is complex interfaces for essentially simple things.

Previously on this blog:

The main thing that distinguishes Don Norman’s material from superficially similar collections of “tech horror stories” (like this disappointing Scott Meyers talk from 2014) is that Norman’s horror stories are curated each to provide a unique and profound moral (as in the Murphy’s Law example above).

I particularly like Chapter Three’s description of a car where, to close the sunroof, you had to either turn on the ignition or turn the headlights on high beam:

Mental models let people derive appropriate behavior for situations that are not remembered (or never before encountered). […] That is why designers should provide users with appropriate models: when they are not supplied, people are likely to make up inappropriate ones.

And Chapter Three’s discussion of stovetop burner arrangements:

If a design depends upon labels, it may be faulty. Labels are important and often necessary, but the appropriate use of natural mappings can minimize the need for them. Whenever labels seem necessary, consider another design.

And Chapter Five’s discussion of “the non-working key,” an allegory familiar to all C++ programmers:

Someone goes to his or her car and the key won’t work. The first response is to try again, perhaps holding the key more level or straight. Then the key is reversed, tried upside down. When that fails, the key is examined and perhaps another tried in its stead. Then the door is wiggled, shaken, hit. Finally, the person […] walks around the car to try the other door; at which point it is suddenly clear that this is the wrong car.

In all the situations I have examined, the error correction mechanism seems to start at the lowest possible level and slowly work its way higher.

Previously on this blog:

Point is, The Design of Everyday Things is a great book and you should read it!

Posted 2020-03-07