Sunday, March 23, 2008

The Psychology of Everyday Things


POET - the familiar name that Donald A. Norman gave his 1988 classic "The Psychology of Everyday Things" which I recently picked up in the library. It has since been updated a little and reissued as The Design of Everyday Things. But I like POET.

There is, after all, great poetry to be found in the workings of even the simplest device. And when things are not so artfully conceived: great tragedy and boon for cranky geeks everywhere.

How can one not enjoy, for example, subjecting alarm clocks that have identical "snooze" and "reset" buttons to exemplary castigation? Or lambasting the purveyor of inappropriate door handles: those that are designed to "pull", but require a label that says "push" because that is the way the door swings?

Norman's approach is refreshing.
Humans do not always behave clumsily. Humans do not always err. But they do when the things they use are badly conceived and designed. Nonetheless, we still see human error blamed for all that befalls society.


Despite being published in 1988 and primarily drawing its examples from the world of simple electro-mechanical devices, the book's philosophy and advice is remarkably enduring.

It is all about user-centered design, and as relevant today as it was in Internet Prehistory. Norman posits Seven Principles of Design:
  1. Use both knowledge in the world and knowledge in the head
  2. simplify the structure of tasks
  3. Make things visible: bridge the gulfs of Execution and Evaluation
  4. Get the mappings right
  5. Exploit the power of contraints, both natural and artificial
  6. Design for error
  7. When all else fails, standardize

The Lego Heresy

I do take issue with one example however. Norman presents the case of a Lego police motorcycle model as an example of excellent design.

Why? The design cleverly exploits physical, semantic and cultural constraints so that there is basically only one construction solution.

Which is great if the objective is to make construction quick, easy and repeatable with a high degree of quality.

Great! Its teaching kids how to be highly productive assembly line workers.

And that is where I think Lego started to go badly wrong. New Lego, personified by custom molded pieces and kits that could only make one design, may win design awards.

But it does not serve it's purpose and it's users. The beauty and enjoyment in Classic Lego came from the very fact of its flexibility and lack of constraints. With a little squinting, it was possible to believe you could build anything. As Norman himself argues, there are situations where it is useful to pervert the design principles (such as with safety features).

Classic Lego is a perfect study in the appropriate application of Norman's principles in reverse, whereas New Lego is just a great way to waste money.

To mangle a famous quote..
Give a child a Lego Police Motorcycle Kit, and you have bought a few hours of peace.
Give a child a Lego Basic Bulk Set, and they are set for a lifetime.

Which would you prefer?

Originally posted on It's a Prata Life

2 comments:

Carl Backstrom said...

Design of Everyday things is a great book, it's amazing the amount of thinking that goes into some of the simplest objects. And if the design is good you never notice it.

Paul said...

Agree Carl. Norman quotes the number of everyday objects we typically encounter as "about 20,000". And then each object has its constituent parts.

Makes you pause to appreciate just how far the human race has come when you consider the thinking and creativity that has gone into each little piece.

But as you say ... when the job is done well, you don't even notice!