Book Review: The Design of Everyday Things

The Design of Everyday Things


Donald Norman

My Rating

star star star star
"Best secret santa gift ever"

After my experiences of working in the UK government alongside the incredible superheroes at GDS who eat, sleep, and breathe user needs, I know that even as a technical leader my focus on user needs has to be much stronger.

Reading The Design of Everyday Things, by Donald Norman, formerly of Apple, has been a good step towards this goal.

Amusingly, I didn't actually buy this book. I didn't steal it either. It was a Secret Santa gift. So whoever bought me this book, I want you to know, this was by far the best, and most useful Secret Santa gift I have ever had.

I love how this book blends psychology, product design, engineering, user experience, organisational design, history... and even pondering into the future of technology, innovation, and the relationship between man and machine.

Market Research vs Design Research

During the chapter on design thinking, I had probably the most profound revelation from this book. My neurons instantly rewired themselves. I gained immediate clarity on a topic I understand but couldn't articulate precisely.

The topic is researching and developing new products. Some companies I've worked with focus on financial trends, whereas others appear to focus heavily on lots of user research to develop their new products. I realised reading this book, they are purposely different but complementary approaches. And now I have vocabulary to articulate, and even reason, about them precisely.

Looking at market trends, large demographics and how they spend money, is market research. This is assessing the feasibility of a business model that underpins new products. Whereas design research is actually putting ideas in front of actual customers and understanding if or how it will change their life. And then iterating on that.

Continuing with this theme, Donald Normald also shares his thoughts on building cohesive products guided by market pressures and user needs, but not dictated by them. He refers to this as "featurism" - blindly adding features to match competitors.

Psychology & Humour

Perhaps the most notable quality of Donald Norman is that he's also a psychologist. In fact, he casually recalls events in which he hangs out with the likes of psychology legend James Gibson, whose work I have studied much of a number of years ago.

For reference, it's like having the opportunity to do a casual bit of pair programming with Kent Beck.

Throughout the book, Norman communicates how his beliefs about user experience are deeply modeled around fundamental assumptions of human behaviour.

The psychology alone is quite fascinating. One of themes he talks about is the mapping between the control and the operation of an object so that it is easy for us to understand how it works.

A stupendous example is where Norman talks about the time he redesigned the light switches in his new house to be like a futuristic control panel on the wall. Highly amusing and intriguing.

This book also has a strange kind of humour. Norman is like a grumpy old man. A grumpy old man who is incredibly attuned to design flaws in literally everything. 

He recalls hilarious stories about hotel sinks where he had to put his hand in dirty water to remove the plug, or a man he saw get trapped between two glass doors trying to get into a bank.

A Few Yawns

There were a couple of times reading this book where it felt like a chore. It felt like I was stuck in Groundhog Dog, reading the same pages over and over again.

The section on errors and slips; Really useful knowledge, but got very boring very quickly when it seemed to be too many words describing the same ideas in different ways.

However, it's really funny, after that mildly-boring section, you then reach the final stretch of the last 80 pages - this book comes alive with a huge second phase of energy, discussing design thinking and the future of technology. Incredibly fascinating, setting off all kinds of different ideas and "what ifs" in my head.

I'm so glad I didn't close the book when I started to yawn. Make sure you don't either.


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