Whenever the topics of design or usability come up, someone always recommends Donald A. Norman's The Design of Everyday Things . And it's got a really cool cover, so I figured I'd give it a look.

From the illustration on the cover (a teapot with the handle on the same side as the spout, if you're too lazy to follow a link), I was expecting this book to be about... well, about the design of everyday things. I thought it might illustrate the subtle design choices that have honed the items we use everyday into such fine pieces of efficiency that we scarcely even notice the interface -- why forks have the number of tines they do, why spoons have flat handles and pens have round ones, why a teapot spout has the curves and recurves, that sort of thing. This sounded really interesting, and I was crushingly disappointed when the book turned out to be about something else altogether.

In actuality, the book is about the design problems that purportedly plague everything. If I could sum up the theme of the book in one grumpy sentence it'd be, "Those dang-blasted kids these days don't know how to design anything, they're always making stuff pretty but unusable, and they just don't know what they're doing."

Which is one of the problems with the book: It's a big long bitch-fest about bad design, but (up until a short section at the end) it doesn't offer any constructive advice at better design. Which is probably just as well, because when it does offer constructive advice, it's stupid. For instance, consider the problem of lights. You've probably walked into a big room where multiple light switches control various lights, and not known which were which, right? Well, as Norman points out, that's because it's a mapping problem: You're trying to map the two-dimensional layout of the lights to a one-dimensional array of switches. Bad design! (Never mind that by about the third time you use a room, you've got the lights down as a matter of reflex.)

So, what does he offer in place of the conventional row of light switches? Well, he wants something that mirrors the layout of the room, so he makes a schematic drawing of the room, attaches switches to it in the place where the lights are, then mounts it horizontally on a pillar sticking out from the wall. (There are photos of this from his lab.) He gloats about how well this works, and offers in support a note from a colleague, which begins "You know, I actually kind of like those new switches now." One hypothesizes that this note came about after six months of endless bitching about those stupid, stupid switches -- because everyone's used to hitting the wall right next to the door to flip on the lights, and I bet you big money that people kept doing that, then cursing when the switches weren't there. Norman ignores this issue.

Of course, even if the switches were useful, they're still stupidly impractical: They require a custom design for each and every room in which they're placed, they subtract from the usable floor space of the room, they're expensive to manufacture and install, and they're ugly. Only someone hopelessly aesthetically-challenged would ever dream of installing them into a room.

Norman appears to be just such an individual. Throughout the book, one of his themes is that too many things are designed to look good, and not enough are designed to work well. ("It probably won an award," is such a frequent phrase of scorn that one imagines the design community issuing awards every five minutes or so, in order that they might fully reward all the beautiful objects Norman hates.) Now, in itself, this point isn't impossibly wrong: I can think of some things that are designed more for beauty than usability. In general, though, it's a much weaker hypothesis than an alternate one: that too many things are designed for cheapness and ease of manufacture, rather than aesthetics or usability.

More to the point, the specific examples that Norman gives are just so pathetic as to be laughable. He gives an example of "a friend" who got stuck in the lobby of a building because he couldn't figure out how to open the doors. They weren't complicated doors; you just pushed. The only thing even vaguely complex is that they were plain sheets of glass without an indication as to which side you should push them on. And note that the guy got stuck between two sets of doors -- after he'd already pushed one open! Norman later talks about another "friend" who couldn't make his CD player's remote control work because he was holding it the wrong way -- not just when he first picked it up, but for weeks.

The obvious conclusion we draw isn't that remote controls and doors are impossible to use, but that Norman has stupid friends. And, as you might guess from those scare quotes in the previous paragraph, it's my own personal hypothesis that Norman's "friend" is Norman himself, too embarrassed to admit to his inability to function in society. Lord knows I would be, in his shoes.

This book isn't completely worthless; there are a few points in here that are interesting. The problem is, they're only enough to fill out a short Web page, and they're dumped in amid the most boring lump of smug, narrow-minded tedium I hope to ever read. On the whole, The Design of Everyday Things is both uninformative and uninteresting. Avoid.


{{comment.name}} said {{timeAgo(comment.datetime)}}