The founding father of UX and content design

By: December 3, 2020
Donald Norman Design of Everyday Things

‘The Design of Everyday Things’ by Donald Norman is a must-read for students and practitioners of UX, and for those working in the newer field of Content Design.

Do you ever feel frustrated when using something? Perhaps even the simplest tasks seem difficult to you? For example, trying to reset your heating system. What about new software? Have you ever started a new job and spent days trying to get to know how to book holidays, raise a ticket or submit expenses on the company’s systems?

You are not alone.

Bad design and bad user experiences dominate modern software and our everyday interfaces.

‘Let’s fly back to the 80s’
Way back in 1988, a chap called Donald Norman, a professor in Cognitive Science and Psychology at UCSD, was so frustrated with using ‘everyday things’ that he began to question his ability and intelligence.
Initially, he thought his inability to operate everyday things reflected badly on him. However, he soon realised that it wasn’t his fault, it was poorly designed products and interfaces.

‘The father of UX’
If there is to be a ‘founding father’ of user experience (UX) or content design, then Donald Norman is front in line to claim that title.
Here we take a look at the key questions he raised is his groundbreaking book ‘The Design of Everyday Things’ and the answers he suggested. We also examine why this book is a must-read for every product designer, UX professional and content designer working today.

‘What makes a great user experience?’
For Donald Norman, great designs shouldn’t need an engineering degree to figure out what a device does.
For him, good design isn’t easy to achieve, even though it may look very simple once completed. Also, technology is a paradox – it is meant to make life easier but more often than not it makes it more difficult. Sound familiar?
In the first chapter of the book Norman suggest that there are two principles of designing for people:
1: There needs to be a good conceptual model
2: The design needs to make things visible
In other words, it needs to work and it needs to be easily understood.

‘Simplicity is very difficult’
For the next few chapters, Norman applies his knowledge as a professor of psychology to delve into the ‘whys and hows’ of humans as they design things and those who interact with the designs. In chapter four he points out that people will mess things up when there is more than one possibility and when there are too many options.
Great design often looks very simple, but effective simplicity is very difficult to achieve.
For example, an array of identical-looking switches is bad design. A glass door with no handle is poor design. Crucial parts must be visible (doors must have door handles) and switches should look like they have individual purposes.

‘Feedback is essential in software’
In technology and software, says Norman, good design will give feedback to the user. ‘We need feedback to verify we completed the task successfully (a good display, showing what just happened),’ he says.
For example, what if, when using a computer, a user attempts to destroy a file? Good design will ask the user for confirmation to ‘verify the user wants to do an irrevocable action’.
In other words, well-designed software will allow us to detect and prevent human error by giving us feedback.
It’s the simple things that matter. To err is human.

‘The battle that rages in good design’
In chapter six, Norman examines the ‘Design Challenge’. Design is always a battle between usability and aesthetics. Bad things happen when one of these elements dominates.
Messing with convention, for example. A flamboyant looking tap is not good design if the usability suffers.
There are two deadly temptations for the designer suggests Norman:
1: Creeping featurism – when a designer adds useless features until it’s too hard to use
2: The ‘Worshipping of False Images’ – making it complex because it looks cool.

‘The needs and interests of the user’
In chapter seven, Norman looks at the user and argues (with an eery premonition) that great design is user-centred. We now say ‘user-centric’ but Norman was the first to discuss what was then the nascent field of user experience.
All things, argues Norman, should be designed with the needs and interests of the user in mind. Products should be easy to use and understand. Design plays an essential role in this. The user needs to be able to easily understand what to do and tell what is going on.

‘Should design ever make things difficult?’
The answer to this is yes, says Norman. Sometimes difficult design is good – it forces us to deliberately focus on what we are doing and is good in situations where people are interacting with dangerous equipment, weapons, secret files etc.
However, by and large, good design is simple, intuitive and easy to use. Norman fully believed that great design can change a task, change society and change the world.
He says that we must fight for and reward great design and do the opposite for bad design. If we do this, we can look forward to a world that is easy to understand and easy to use.

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