“The Design of Everyday Things” by Donald A. Norman

This is the inaugural post in the “Best Books” forum. I selected “The Design of Everyday Things” by Don Norman for three reasons: 1) It’s excellent; 2) The principles expressed within it are relatively simple but profoundly impactful; 3) I read it recently, so it’s been on my mind lately.


This book was originally published in 1988, and has since sold more than 100,000 copies (as the cover proudly asserts). Somehow I managed to miss reading it for 18 years, but finally stumbled onto my own copy just last year. I found it moving, motivating, and life changing. Even more than that I found it affirming as a user of the world around me.

“Most accidents are attributed to human error, but in almost all cases the human error was the direct result of poor design.”

“When you have trouble with things — whether it’s figuring out whether to push or pull a door or the arbitrary vagaries of the modern computer and electronics industry — it’s not your fault. Don’t blame yourself: blame the designer. It’s the fault of the technology, or, more precisely, of the design.”

As someone with a Ph.D. in Computer Science I’ve had the repeatedly uncomfortable experience of helping someone with some random, poorly designed program or device, and they look at me like my background and education will allow me to divine the purpose and processes that underly a pitifully designed piece of whatever. Alas, my doctoral research was not in bad design or horrible user interface. But alack, much of my experience as a user is!

Even more demoralizing is witnessing a user being systematically dehumanized by software, or by some device. I watched a desk clerk stumble through a pitifully designed program, running on Windows, and then watched her look up at me, completely defeated, and apologetically murmur, “I’m just not good with computers.” I looked back at her and said, “Maybe it’s the program that’s stupid. Maybe it was poorly designed, and that’s why you’re struggling to do something so simple.” Her look was priceless, like this idea had never before dawned on her in her entire life.

Some tidbits that I found particularly meaningful:

“… good design is also an act of communication between the designer and the user, except that all the comunication has to come about by the appearance of the device itself.”

“Rule of thumb: when instructions have to be pasted on something (push here, insert this way, turn off before doing this), it is badly designed.”

Norman talks about door knobs, light switches, keyboards, and lots of other everyday devices that routinely drive us nuts.

“Designers go astray for several reasons. First, the reward structure of the design community tends to put aesthetics first. Design collections feature prize-winning clocks that are unreadable, alarms that cannot easily be set, can openers that mystify. Second, designers are not typical users. They become so expert in using the object they have designed that they canot believe that anyone else might have problems; only interaction and testing with actual users throughout the design process can forestall that. Third designers must please their clients, and the clients may not be the users.”

You get the idea. I don’t care what you do for a living. Read this book!