A brief synopsis of one of the most praised books in game designer circles.
Like a lot of engineering books, Norman often has to define complex concepts into a single term to keep the text legible. The difficulty of this necessity is picking a word that still means roughly what you’re talking about and is recognized by a casual audience. If you’ve ever read an article where the author is using some bizarre foreign word that you don’t recognize, forcing you to constantly recheck what the word means as it crops up, you know what I’m talking about. Here, Norman keeps things moving by using words that apply to their commonly understood meaning.
For example, he defines ‘affordances’ as “the perceived and actual properties of the thing, primarily those fundamental properties that determine just how the thing could possibly be used.” (9) People have an instinctual relationship with materials and objects based purely on how they look, in other words. When we see a chair, we recognize that it is a place we could potentially sit. This is developed by a person’s mental models which come from experience, training, and instruction. The more aesthetically connected to an item’s purpose your design is, the more likely someone is going to do the correct action with it. That’s the gist of Norman’s book, but it’s a surprisingly complicated concept to put into action. Take the term ‘natural mapping’, which Norman defines as, “taking advantage of physical analogies and cultural standards to [create] immediate understanding.” (23) An example would be your car’s steering wheel. To turn right in a car, you turn the wheel to the right. A person has a psychological predisposition to think something is going to work a certain way based off their past experiences, so the car steering wheel simply builds on that. Designing an object which ignores natural habit forces the user to create a new ‘map’ in their minds for how something works. He uses the example of a turn signal to demonstrate. You don’t adjust the turn signal to which direction you’re going because it only moves up and down. You instead form a new ‘map’ in your mind to think of left as down and right as up.
The book lists a variety of methods for inducing behavior through design. A physical constraint that makes it impossible to do something, like opening your washing machine while it is still on. A semantic constraint is a word on the door telling you to ‘Pull’ instead of ‘Push’. A cultural constraint is a limitation that society itself has imposed. Take the standard English keyboard. It was designed for typewriters so that letters which caused jamming when pressed together rarely crossed. It still persists in their electronic counterparts simply because we are used to it. Forcing functions are when a person must do X before Y can occur. You have to remove the keys from the ignition before the doors will lock on your car. This is to prevent users from locking their keys in the car.
Among the common faults Norman outlines with design, giving in to aesthetics over function is his biggest complaint. Designing a kitchen sink so that it looks cool instead of making sense is a complaint he goes on about for a while. If you put the hot and cold handles for a sink vertically, so that like the turn signal you forget which does what, it is a huge waste of time. Put them left to right so that the user instead relies on the standard of hot being left, cold being right, is the better design. Norman expands this to a lengthy complaint about light switches and common controls for them. They often make no sense. How many times have you had to flip switches at random trying to figure out the right one for your goal? Although he only offers a solution of putting all switches in one standard location (by the door), he considers this better because the user will learn the controls through habit anyways. Standardizing their location is the least you can do.
How to apply these concepts to video games? You can already see a lot of these elements at work in the older genres. People playing an FPS expect it to behave like the last FPS they played. If I’m using an Xbox 360 controller, the right trigger is probably going to shoot and the left is probably going to aim from the shoulder. Crouching is usually pressing one of the joysticks. Start opens the menu. Everything else should be one of the four buttons. Games that violate these conventions often suffer, such as Mass Effect making the grenade be the Select button or Kane & Lynch using an auto cover system instead of mimicking Gears of War. Games that attempt to innovate in their design have both the problem of explaining new controls to a user while also teaching how the game itself works.
What is perhaps most troubling about this is that a new video game is by definition not going to do this well the first time. Norman explains, “It usually takes five or six attempts to get a product right. This may be acceptable in an established product, but consider what it means in a new one. Suppose a company wants to make a product that will perhaps make a real difference. The problem is that if the product is truly revolutionary, it is unlikely that anyone will quite know how to design it right the first time; it will takes several tries.” (29) An innovative game like Mirror’s Edge not achieving blockbuster sales is not necessarily a sign that it’s a bad concept. Almost every popular franchise on the market began with humble origins: Halo 3 is miles better than Halo in terms of design. At the core of Norman’s book The Design of Everyday Things is the message that much like the user figuring out a strange device, designing things properly is an exercise in trial and error.