The Design of Everyday Things

A brief synopsis of one of the most praised books in game designer circles.

Often cited amongst game developers as one of the key texts to understanding how games can be better built, Donald Norman’s The Design of Everyday Things is a layman’s guide to a simple idea. If you cannot figure out how to work something, it is the design’s fault, not the users. Technological gadgets, household appliances, doors, cars, anything and everything should be clearly understandable to a casual user if the design’s purpose is to encourage use and efficiency. The book begins this premise with an example of why bad design is so dangerous: Norman worked with the technicians at Three Mile Island who misread the controls just before the nuclear accident. Starting with that premise, he expands to how bad design causes everything from wasted resources in offices (you have to factor in time and money to train staff, the worse the design the more it costs) to the trivial such as confusing doors and the dreaded VCR clock. The book then expands this concept to explaining the basics of user psychology and how we interact with objects relying on previous experience, visual cues, and feedback.

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.


Norman points this out because the more you make the user develop their own understanding of an individual piece of technology, the more they are moving outside their past frame of reference and thus are going to be teaching themselves how to use your device. This is where visual cues and good design become very important: if your device is complex and features unfamiliar concepts, you have to make it so that it is self-explanatory. This is the bulk of the book’s tiny details and concepts: self-explaining designs. For instance, take a common door. Numerous things are being communicated at a user by the design of a door. The location of a door knob, for examples, tells me whether the left or right side of the door is the side it opens on. A push bar indicates that the user needs to push, a door handle indicates the user needs to pull. A push bar that does not indicate which side the door swings open on is flawed because users can potentially use it incorrectly. The only way to teach someone using a misleading push bar is force of habit, which takes time and familiarity. Although easily resolved in everyday life, Norman is quick to point out that during a fire a confusing door suddenly becomes a huge risk.

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.


Complimenting this range of design techniques are a list of common errors in devices and their origins. The basic argument he makes is, “Human thought – and its close relatives, problem solving and planning – seem more rooted in past experience than in logical education. Mental life is not neat and orderly.” (115) People often develop what Norman calls “selective attention” or how our brains zone out peripheral issues to accomplish a goal. Sticking a knife into a toaster, for example, is really dumb. People do it to get the bread out because they’re not thinking about the other potential hazards. You have to design with the reality that people organize their thoughts by what they want, not how to get it done properly. (164) As a consequence, in addition to providing visual clues and functions about how an object works the design also has to avoid conventions that lead to errors. A capture error is when the initial stages of an action begin the same way but then break off so that you cross into the wrong behavior. Dialing the wrong number on accident would be the common example. A ‘mode error’ is when the controls don’t make it apparent what is happening or worse, confusing because it only gives off a strange chime. Norman stresses that visual cues and feedback must reinforce to the user what they are doing and what is not working.

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.

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