Humane design: how to make things work well with people

The Psychology of Everyday Things, by Donald A. Norman. New York: Basic Books. 257 pp. $19.95. Grace Paley once wrote a wonderful little book called ``The Little Disturbances of Man.'' Now Donald Norman has written one about the same subject. Well, almost the same. Paley's disturbances are the natural disasters that occur in the course of day-to-day interactions among human beings; Norman's are man-made, those between people and things, the things considered indispensable for modern living - like telephones, automobiles, computers, and other now-commonplace items.

Norman, a world-renowned professor of cognitive science at the University of California in San Diego, begins his wise and witty commentary with a story about Kenneth Olsen, the founder of Digital Equipment Corporation, who, despite two degrees in engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, couldn't figure out how to heat a cup of coffee in the company's microwave oven.

The anecdote (one of hundreds in the book) illustrates one of Norman's main points: No one is immune to the problems created by ill-conceived ``labor saving'' appliances.

There is a serious paradox in technological advancement. While one product after another is put on the market and promoted with the promise that it will make everyday life easier and more satisfying, too many prove to be dysfunctional. They increase frustration rather than reduce it. The fault, Norman claims, is not difficult to pinpoint. It is largely attributable to a design process that rarely takes into account the principles of cognitive psychology and the real need of users. It needn't be so.

Good product design requires adequate ``visibility'' and clear ``mapping'' to provide meaningful ``feedback.'' This means that by looking at the object, the user should be able to figure out what it is for and how to work it (even when he or she doesn't have the foggiest idea of how it works), and then be rewarded for doing what seems most logical. (Move the switch up and the car seat rises, push it forward and it moves ahead.) It sounds simple. In a way it is. We know it from our experience with user-friendly items.

Among my favorites are my Swiss Army knife; my semiautomatic 35 mm Pentax; my old Volvo with its simple and efficient dashboard of highly functional and clearly designated dials and switches; and my Casio watch, which wakes me, times my morning jogs, and tells me the time of day in several parts of the world, simply at the press of the proper button. Each of these objects is attractive and utilitarian. I had little difficulty learning how to use any of them. I found they were well mapped (though I didn't know the term) and was delighted that they did what they were supposed to do. By contrast, I am still trying to figure out the phone system installed in the office two years ago. I am continually frustrated by its seemingly illogical construction and yet, like many others cited by Norman, I tend to blame myself for being so unmechanical when I can't get it to work.

In a fascinating section on the psychology of attribution, Norman assures those of us who have difficulty with certain newfangled phones, space-age microwaves, VCRs, and word-processing programs that we may not be inept but are legitimately puzzled bystanders in what ought to be a truly interactive process. He gives numerous examples to make the point. Indeed, the entire book is enhanced by such ``case material,'' much of it provided in byte-size summaries of personal experiences and research findings that bring to life Norman's often commonsense theories about the nature of good and bad design, and about two kinds of knowledge: factual and procedural.

In addition to being a commentator on and analyst of the foibles of human engineering, Norman is eager to recruit his readers in his campaign against bad design and manufacture of things that drive people, already coping with all the less malleable exigencies of modern living, around the bend.

``If you are a designer,'' he writes, ``help fight the battle for usability. If you are a user, then join your voice with those who cry for usable products. Write to manufacturers. Boycott unusable designs.... Give mental prizes to those who practice good design: send flowers. Jeer those who don't: Send weeds.''

Peter I. Rose teaches sociology at Smith College.

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