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  • The Design of Everyday Things by Donald Norman
  • Edward Tenner (bio)
The Design of Everyday Things.
By Donald Norman. Rev. and expanded ed. New York: Basic Books, 2013. Pp. xviii+347. $17.99.

Don Norman’s Design of Everyday Things is a thorough revision of one of the standard general-interest works on human factors, originally published as The Psychology of Everyday Things twenty-five years ago. Norman rightly notes a fundamental paradox that informs his work: “The same technology that simplifies life by providing more functions in each device also complicates life by making the device harder to learn, harder to use.”

The author and other cognitive psychologists have developed a toolkit for analyzing our relations with things. Once learned, their jargon makes familiar problems more understandable: affordances, signifiers, mapping, feedback, level of processing, stages of action, types of memory, mapping, constraints, interlocks, lock-ins, lockouts, activity-centered controls, the difference between slips (doing something other than intended) and mistakes (erroneous planning), mode errors, the Swiss cheese model of accidents, and procedural models like Human-Centered Design and Activity-Centered [End Page 785] Design, among others. By understanding the human mind’s limits and tendencies, Norman believes, designers can develop products that are safer, more efficient, and more enjoyable in use.

At times Norman glides over the history of design decisions, which can be more logical than they seem. His first-person account of debates on HDTV standards suggests that the ratio of 16:9 was chosen, instead of the 35mm film format, mainly because engineers liked the idea of squaring the old 4:3 dimensions. In fact, the Wikipedia article “Aspect Ratio” notes that there were two competing 35mm standards: 1.66:1 (part of Europe, and equivalent to 15:9) and 1.85:1 (United States and United Kingdom). The seemingly neo-Pythagorean enthusiasm of engineers may actually have been a well-considered global compromise.

Norman also writes without reference to the broader history of product design. His section on telephones, for example, does not mention Henry Dreyfuss’s work on the human factors of handsets for Bell Labs. (Anybody severely critical of “featurism,” as Norman is, should draw inspiration from classic models like the 500 and Trimline.) He also doesn’t pay much attention to sheer fashion in design, for example the rise and fall of Apple’s curvy, candy-colored iMacs of the 1990s, or Apple’s present metallic look.

Some of the best historical illustrations of Norman’s principles go unexplored. For example, he cites panic bars of doors in public places without noting the part played by the 1903 Iroquois Theatre fire tragedy in Chicago, when hundreds died in a stampede, in changing safety codes. Likewise, possibly the most notorious example of a mode error—the ease of confusing AM and PM, or Time and Alarm, on many clocks—is the ambiguity of the dual-scale radar on the Stockholm, which rammed the Andrea Doria in 1956, killing dozens and sinking the Italian ocean liner.

History also suggests that manufacturing technology can be as important for the design of everyday things as usability. Thus as Robert Friedel has shown, the Swedish-born electrical engineer Gideon Sundback devised not just the present form of the zipper but the machines that produced it economically. The common “safety” pin also appears to owe its present form to the suitability of a single design for high-volume production. Economical to make, it remains a global hazard to children.

Recent headlines raise other questions for design. Norman’s praise of Toyota’s system for halting its assembly line to correct defects seems moot in the light of allegations that a supplier negligently delivered potentially explosive air bags. One of General Motors’ vendors shipped ignition switches that under some circumstances could spontaneously cut electric power and stop the engine. These failures have cost scores of lives; claims potentially of billions of dollars are pending. Can multinational manufacturers, with billions at stake, police all their outside manufacturers’ designs?

Norman recognizes the growth of smartphones and tablets as quasi-universal controllers that have taken the place of dedicated keys, remote [End Page 786] keypads, thermostat dials, light switches, and...


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