The Psychology of Everyday Things, Donald A. Norman

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The Psychology of Everday Things, Donald A. Norman

In a way, this is a self-help book. But to call it that is to damn it, so instead we must term it something else. The appellation, however distasteful, fits for POET (as Norman abbreviates it, later retitled¬†The Design of Everyday Things) goes a long way in explaining just exactly why and how we make everyday mistakes, and how we can help ourselves and others escape these problems. I believe it was Pat Cadigan who I first heard sum up this book in the memorable phrase, “I didn’t fail the technology; the technology failed me.” Every time I find myself pushing on the hinge side of a door to open it, or push the door when I should have pulled, I quote that phrase. It wasn’t me who failed to understand how the door work–the door failed to provide me with the necessary clues to work it. User error, as Norman notes in POET, is a misnomer; many, many times it is a design error.

This book should be read by everyone, I think, for it deals with everybody. I know of no one who has not cursed at a computer program, or some door, or similar. But only by demanding “user centered design” can we escape the tyranny of form over function. To illustrate, take the example of file names in DOS. Yes, we have achieved the standardization of 8 character names and 3 character extensions. But this is an outdated and frustration convention. It is a holdover from CP/M days (I believe) when computers lacked the memory and storage capacity of today’s computers. But until enough people demand a change, this inefficient and confusing convention will be with us. Macintosh owners, although free of this particular evil, can no doubt recall various designs that they wish to change as well. The difference is in philosophy: the Macintosh was designed first for the user, and it is only the “creeping featurism” of established programs today that threaten its user friendliness.

[Finished 8 June 1993]

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