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Book Review

The Design of Everyday Things
by Donald A. Norman

ISBN: 0465067107
Publisher: Basic Books
Pages: 272

It's been more than a month since I finished the book and I still cannot enter a door without carefully investigating its design. Perhaps not the healthiest behavior, I'll admit that. Yet I cannot blame Donald A. Norman; the warning was there, already in the preface. And it is certainly true that once you've read this book, you'll look at the world through a different view. Judging by my own behavior, the author was successful in his mission; "The design of everyday things" makes you aware of the importance of design and lets you look at common constructions through the eyes of the user. I believe it's to common an error not to realize that users have different needs than the designer has. Where many designs are driven by aesthetic concerns, users are typically primarily interested in, well, usability.

I bought this book after the recommendation in Joel Spolsky's User Interface Design for Programmers. Even if most examples in "The design of everyday things" use
physical constructions, much of it relate to software as well. The book has influenced many of the tips in Joel's book and there is a certain overlap.

Norman builds his book around several principles that guides good design. Making things visible may seem like an obvious thing, yet you don't have to examine many entrances before finding doors with absolutely nothing indicating whether to push or pull. The software world is even worse; to draw a parallel, in many software applications you wouldn't even recognize the door in the first place... Following Norman's advice would certainly reduce the pain felt by many users.

If I should highlight one, single chapter it must be the one about error handling. Under the heading “To Err is Human” Norman describes why and how errors arise and continues by discussing different approaches for error handling. The chapter is really good and applies immediately to software design, with or without GUI.

Despite its serious message, the book is funny to read and it may even make you feel a bit better about yourself; one of its key messages is that it's not my, as a users, fault when I try to open a door in the false direction or when I push the wrong button; it is the designer that erred.

Reviewed April 2006

©2005 Adam Petersen