Don Norman’s “The Design of Everyday Things”: Book Review, Notes + Analysis

Poor Ash’s Almanack > Book Reviews > Effective Thinking

Overall Rating: ★★★★★★★ (7/7) (life-changing)

Per-Hour Learning Potential / Utility: ★★★★★★★ (7/7)

Readability: ★★★★★★★ (7/7)

Challenge Level: 2/5 (Low) | ~298 pages ex-notes (368 official)

Blurb/Description: Renaissance man Don Norman, an expert in design, cognitive science, and engineering, lays out design principles to make systems work effortlessly for real-life humans (not fictional econs).

Summary: Absolutely brilliant from start to finish, eminently readable, and probably my second favorite book in the world (behind Misbehaving).  Norman makes a convincing case for better design, noting that “human error” is an overused, catch-all term that often implies suboptimal design – if average humans under average circumstances can’t figure out how to use a product properly, then it isn’t being designed with users’ needs in mind.

We have to accept human behavior the way it is, not the way we wish it to be... we must design our machines on the assumption that people will make errors. - Don Norman Click To Tweet

When we acknowledge that we’re dealing with Homo sapiens rather than Homo economicus (see: Thaler) and act accordingly, the world tends to work much better.  This is the kind of book where you’ll have to stop every three paragraphs to write down a block quote.

Click the picture for a cool Easter Egg!

Highlights:  If this were written merely as a treatise on how to design a toaster, it would be incredibly dull.  

Luckily, Norman is a natural multidisciplinary thinker, drawing in concepts from cognitive science and (in a rare feat) spanning the gap between design and engineering.  Whether or not you’re ever going to design products, Norman’s way of thinking/looking at the world is incredibly useful.

Why?  Well, we’re all designing, all the time; everything in our lives is, in some sense, an active product of a system that we’ve designed, and designing that system so that the user (us!) can use it properly will result in far better outcomes than requiring the user to display unusual willpower, omniscience, or creativity.

Lowlights: for readers who are not actually planning to design consumer products, some of Norman’s discussion of how consumers actually physically and cognitively interact with products can get a bit bulky; I skimmed these pages/ sections and found myself no worse for the wear.  That said, these don’t detract at all from the overall brilliance of the book.

Mental Model / ART Thinking Points:  saliencestructural problem solvinghumans vs. econsman with a hammer overoptimismschemabottlenecksdisaggregationinversionintuitionstorytelling,correlation vs. causationmulticausalityrationalitycontrast biasmargin of safetyloss aversion,agencyoverconfidencehabit, emergence, memoryn-order impactsprecision vs. accuracyutility,product vs. packagingsample sizeschemaprobabilistic thinkingstatus quo biasfeedback,activation energy

You should buy a copy of The Design of Everyday Things if: you want a magnificent book that offers a phenomenal worldview with far broader applications than design.

Reading Tips: As mentioned in “lowlights,” since this book is written for designers, there are certain parts that lay readers will likely find uninteresting.  Don’t be afraid to skim when Norman seems to be talking about things that aren’t relevant to you.

I personally find his “seven stages of action” and “slips vs. errors” parts to be not very interesting or useful; the discussion of how the design process actually works within companies can also be skimmed.

Pairs Well With:

“ Nudge” by Cass Sunstein + Richard Thaler (Ndge review + notes).  As discussed in the notes below, Thaler called Norman’s The Design of Everyday Things the “breakthrough guiding principle” for Nudge.   Nudge takes the design principles espoused by Norman and applies them to various corporate and government policies in a fascinating, useful way.

Misbehaving” by Richard Thaler (M review + notes).  Similar to the above – Thaler’s  humans vs. econs model is very similar to Norman’s take.  This is my favorite book for a lot of reasons.

The Seven Sins of Memory” by Daniel Schacter (7SOM review + notes).  Norman does a great job of discussing  memory and its follies; much of his discussion appears to be built on this book by Schacter (which is excellent).

The Checklist Manifesto” by Dr. Atul Gawande (TCM review + notes).  While Gawande’s work is widely misunderstood, it’s a great example of  structural problem solving at work – Norman mentions checklists briefly; Gawande goes much deeper.

Reread Value: 5/5 (Extreme)

More Detailed Notes + Analysis (SPOILERS BELOW):

IMPORTANT: the below commentary DOES NOT SUBSTITUTE for READING THE BOOK.  Full stop. This commentary is NOT a comprehensive summary of the lessons of the book, or intended to be comprehensive.  It was primarily created for my own personal reference.

Much of the below will be utterly incomprehensible if you have not read the book, or if you do not have the book on hand to reference.  Even if it was comprehensive, you would be depriving yourself of the vast majority of the learning opportunity by only reading the “Cliff Notes.”  Do so at your own peril.

I provide these notes and analysis for five use cases.  First, they may help you decide which books you should put on your shelf, based on a quick review of some of the ideas discussed.  

Second, as I discuss in the memory mental model, time-delayed re-encoding strengthens memory, and notes can also serve as a “cue” to enhance recall.  However, taking notes is a time consuming process that many busy students and professionals opt out of, so hopefully these notes can serve as a starting point to which you can append your own thoughts, marginalia, insights, etc.

Third, perhaps most importantly of all, I contextualize authors’ points with points from other books that either serve to strengthen, or weaken, the arguments made.  I also point out how specific examples tie in to specific mental models, which you are encouraged to read, thereby enriching your understanding and accelerating your learning.  Combining two and three, I recommend that you read these notes while the book’s still fresh in your mind – after a few days, perhaps.

Fourth, they will hopefully serve as a “discovery mechanism” for further related reading.

Fifth and finally, they will hopefully serve as an index for you to return to at a future point in time, to identify sections of the book worth rereading to help you better address current challenges and opportunities in your life – or to reinterpret and reimagine elements of the book in a light you didn’t see previously because you weren’t familiar with all the other models or books discussed in the third use case.

Page xi: an interesting example of salience: good design often goes unnoticed, because bad design is usually in your face (WHY WON’T THIS THING WORK?!?!?!), whereas good design doesn’t call attention to itself: it’s just natural.

Page xii: the reason this book is so important is that, as Norman puts it:

We are all designers in the sense that all of us deliberately design our lives... and the way we do things. - Don Norman Click To Tweet

hat’s a great quote on structural problem solving.  Indeed, Richard Thaler, in Misbehaving ( M review + notes), calls DOET the “breakthrough guiding principle” of his magnificent book Nudge ( Ndge review + notes) with coauthor Cass Sunstein.  We’ll come back to Nudge later.

Page 1: NORMAN DOORS.  They suck. Here is a surprisingly therapeutic tumblrhere is Don Norman discussing Norman Doors with Vox, and for fun, here is some Charlie Brown courtesy of that tumblr:

Page 3: Norman cites “discoverability” and “understanding” as two critical factors of good design.  If an object’s functions aren’t discoverable, or using it isn’t easily understandable, well, you have a problem.

Norman notes that it is a necessary evil that some complex devices will need instruction manuals, but he believes everyday items should be easy to use and shouldn’t:

“look like Hollywood’s idea of a spaceship control room.”  

Pages 4 – 7: Norman notes that:

All artificial things are designed. - Don Norman Click To Tweet

whether or not they have a physical component – systems, presentations, and so on are all designed as well.  

Norman also presents a dichotomy between “humans” and “machines” that is along the lines of Thaler/Sunstein’s “ humans vs econs” discussion.  Norman notes that if machines require unrealistic omniscience or perfect willpower on the part of the humans using them, then it’s not reasonable to blame mistakes on the humans using them rather than the designers.

Norman also touches on man with a hammerdesire bias, and schema bottlenecks here: as a former engineer, he notes that one of the pitfalls with engineers is that since engineers are “trained to think logically,” they expect everyone will think like they do, and they blame their “human” users for not being “econs”::

“If only people would read the instructions[!]”

Richard Thaler, in “ Misbehaving ( M review + notes), explores how this sort of thinking gets businesspeople into trouble, too: those with MBAs and lots of management experience often tend to think like “ econs” and forget about things that “humans” like and dislike.

Thaler specifically cites the example of  fairness and price gouging: a perfectly “rational” economic thing to do, but something that engenders so much bad will and backlash that it’s usually not worth it.

(See Brad Stone’s The Upstarts – TUS review + notes – for more on Uber and surge pricing, which Thaler discusses.)

Anyway.  Norman, like Thaler, believes on  humans vs. econs that:

“we have to accept human behavior the way it is, not the way we would wish it to be […] we must design our machines on the assumption that people will make errors.”  

In other words: if we want to design good products or systems, we need to acknowledge the humanity of our users rather than pretending they’re Econs for our convenience.

Pages 11 – 14, 18: Norman thinks about physical objects with a unique and interesting framework.  He brings up the concept of “affordance,” which is a relationship between an object’s properties and that of its users.  

For example, glass windows afford the passage of light, but not air.  If they’re too clean, though, they might not be discoverable, as birds and people occasionally find out.

Norman brings up the idea of a “signifier,” which doesn’t do anything in and of itself, but makes some “affordance” more salient.  So putting the words “push” on a door would be a signifier that the door affords pushing.

Pages 21B – 22: Norman brings up the concept of “mapping,” which Sunstein/Thaler used in Nudgeas well.  Unclear mapping is frustrating.

Pages 23 – 25: Norman discusses feedback here: in the context of design, clear and immediatefeedback is critically important, but vague feedback (or excess feedback) can also be bad, and even dangerous if it is distracting.

If you want a 14-second illustrative example, you can’t do better than “PC LOAD LETTER” from Office Space.  Mild language warning.

Another example might be the “check engine light” in a car – it can range from something minor to “your engine is about to explode” – and it would be nice to know which!

Pages 25 – 26: Norman brings up “conceptual models” and even uses the term “ mental models,” though he perhaps doesn’t use it the same way we do.  It’s close enough, though: Norman defines amental model as people’s understandings of how things work.

Page 29: The world’s worst refrigerator… why?  The conceptual model that it leads you to believe exists is, in fact, nonexistent and undiscoverable.

Page 35: Norman astutely discusses local vs. global optimization challenges here: designers must learn how to manage and work through the requirements of various departments of the company: marketing wants something they can pitch, manufacturing wants something that’s easy to make, etc…

Page 41: Norman here presents a “seven stages of action” model to interpret how we interact with the world.  I’ve always found this to be a little semantic and clunky and prefer the cleaner approach taken by Dr. Judith Beck in Cognitive Behavior Therapy ( CBT review + notes).

Page 44T: An important point here that’s easy to miss; Norman returns to the idea of second-level thinking later in the book, but the idea is that when people are buying a quarter-inch drillbit, it’s because they want a quarter-inch hole.  But why do they want that hole? And is there another way to solve that problem? And so on.   Disaggregation.

Page 46: Norman makes a wonderful point here about inversion and intuition: if you ask a computer for Beethoven’s phone number, it will start mindlessly searching a database… but if you ask a human, they’ll tell you that phones weren’t invented when Beethoven was alive.

Page 47: I would disagree with Norman’s presentation of cognition vs. emotion here; again see Beck’s Cognitive Behavior Therapy ( CBT review + notes) for what I believe is a more accurate and usable model of human thought and behavior.

Page 48: Norman here presents a two-track view of the human mind – subconscious and conscious – that is more or less the System 1 / System 2 approach.  He notes, as we all know, that we’re inherent pattern-finders and that can lead us to find wrong or nonexistent patterns.

Page 55: Csikszentmihalyi sighting!

Page 57: Norman discusses storytelling here, correlation vs. causation and post hoc, and gets into (later) the “ Swiss cheese model of causality,” i.e. multicausality.  He, unintentionally, provides a great defense of the mental models approach ( rationality), noting that:

“Conceptual models […] are essential in helping us understand our experiences, predict the outcome of our actions, and handle unexpected occurrences.  

[… they] are often constructed from fragmentary evidence, with only a poor understanding of what is happening, and with a kind of naive psychology that postulates causes, mechanisms, and relationships even where there are none.”

He is talking, I think, about airplanes and thermostats, but it works equally well (like most of the book) if you forget about products entirely.

Pages 60 – 61: Norman touches on contrast bias combined with margin of safety: people are likely to be happier if you underpromise and overdeliver than vice versa.  (See also  loss aversion.)

Page 62: Norman hits both fundamental attribution error and learned helplessness here.

Page 64: … and now the growth mindset and positive psychology.  You see why I love this book?

Page 65B: The “return vs. enter key” anecdote is perfect.  One more recently: some construction has been going on on a major thoroughfare near my house; on two separate occasions, coming home from the gym, I found myself driving on the wrong side of the road after crossing that major thoroughfare.  The road was empty, so it didn’t matter, but it was frustrating and “alarming.”  I wondered what the heck I was doing wrong.

Well, turns out it wasn’t me: early on in construction, somebody had installed some white “bumps” that set the lanes and steered you to the opposite side of the road (which they had narrowed to one lane in either direction, or something similar).  Then they opened up the other lanes, but they kept the bumps, so the combination of the “nudge” from the bumps Norman later talks about roads) and the habit of having gone that way combined to create mass confusion.

Imagine that you are envisioning a tight curve to fit a new toll road through existing development.  Which of the following seems to represent a more reasonable design assumption?

Scenario 1: design the road to be safe under perfect visibility (sunny skies), combined with an assumption that every driver is fully awake/alert, is driving at or below the speed limit, and is not distracted by their baby/radio/phone/etc.

Scenario 2: design the road to be safe under environmental conditions such as sunset glare or rain, when drivers are driving 5-10 miles above the speed limit, and perhaps distracted by something else going on.

Note that neither Norman’s argument nor mine in any way resolves people from personal responsibility – but if we want to design an effective system, we need to design it for “Humans”

rather than “ Econs” – so Scenario 2 is the only way to go.  If you’re designing a toaster, bad design is annoying – but if you’re designing a piece of infrastructure, it can be catastrophic, and if you’re designing a business process, it can consume lots of resources.

Pages 66! – 68!: Norman’s thesis on human error, more directly expressed later, is one of my two favorite parts of this book (the other being his takedown of memorization).  Norman asks, on structural problem solving and  humans vs. econs:

“why shouldn’t the machine be more friendly?  The machine should accept normal human behavior […] machines require precision and accuracy; people don’t.  

And we are particularly bad at providing precise and accurate inputs. So why are we required to do so?”

Norman, elsewhere:

if we get the rules wrong even slightly, the machine does what it is told, no matter how insensible and illogical… machines require us to be precise and accurate, things we are not very good at

[…] it is the duty of machines and those who design them to understand people.  It is not our duty to understand the arbitrary, meaningless dictates of machines.”

Remember that in Normanworld, we’re all designers, so you can substitute “system” or “website” for machine and get equally sensible parsing of his point.  Also remember that, as Norman put it, we’re designing the way WE do things, not just the way other people do things, so relying on “ grit” (willpower) is immature and stupid relative to relying on smart design, i.e.  structural problem solving.

On the topic of machines requiring precise input, cross-reference here, for example, Sunstein/Thaler discussing the Medicare Part D website on Pages 171 – 172 of Nudge ( Ndge review + notes) – it didn’t include a spell-checker, among other things, and drugs are notoriously hard to spell.

What’s an example of better design?  Norman goes on to cite Microsoft’s calendar allowing users to enter dates in any format.  Sadly, not all time inputs work this way – for example, one data visualization tool I know of requires me to enter dates in some specific format that I always forget…

In converse, a couple good examples of  human-centered design that accounts for imprecision can be found in Sentieo (the research tool that I use for my fund). 

First, Sentieo utilizes “synonyms” when searching for terms in company filings/transcripts – for example, executives might sometimes use “capex,” sometimes “capital expenditures,” and Sentieo captures both; a search for “increase” would also pick up terms like “strengthen,” “grow,” and “expand.”  

Second, the software tool recently introduced a neat little reminder that operators have to be capitalized – if I include a lower-case “and” or “or,” it asks me if I’m sure I want to do that instead of AND or OR (which is usually what I want!)  Picture below:

Pages 72 – 73: Norman here provides a nice “mapping” of his “seven stages of action” to his seven principles of design, all of which (except constraints) we’ve hit on already.  (Getting there!)

Norman also appears to be in the bucket of “bring me solutions, not problems,” noting one of his self-imposed rules is:

Don’t criticize unless you can do better. - Don Norman Click To Tweet

Pages 74 – 76: The discussion of memory in this chapter is phenomenal; much of the discussion felt familiar to me and indeed, Norman cites Daniel Schacter’s Seven Sins of Memory ( 7SOM review + notes) in the endnotes.  Seven Sins is one of the best books on the fundamentals of humanmemory that I’ve ever read, although DOET and Tavris/Aronson’s “ Mistakes were Made (but not by me) ( MwM review + notes) tackle some of the more practical concerns.

Norman starts out by describing the quasi emergent behaviors that can occur when we interact with the world.  He notes, memorably, that per research by Nickerson and Adams, lots of people don’t actually know what a penny looks like (I certainly couldn’t pick it out of the lineup!), but that doesn’t mean we don’t know how to use a penny.

He notes that in the real world, natural constraints exist, as do cultural constraints, and precision is typically not required.

Pages 77 – 79: Here is a profound statement that is intuitively obvious and yet for some reason not commonly understood:

Whenever knowledge needed to do a task is readily available in the world, the need for us to learn it diminishes... we only need to remember sufficient knowledge to let us get our tasks done. - Don Norman Click To Tweet

Great view on  memory.

Norman goes on to differentiate between the psychology concepts of “declarative” knowledge and “procedural” knowledge.  Declarative knowledge is the type you can test on a multiple-choice quiz – knowledge of facts – whereas procedural knowledge is what actually enables us to do stuff.

Both, it should be noted, can be conditioned into  habit – see Charles Duhigg’s “ The Power of HabitPoH review + notes), or one of my favorite all time quotes, from Philip Tetlock’s “ SuperforecastingSF review + notes), where Tetlock overviews how even styles of thinking can become habits:

“My sense is that some superforecasters are so well practiced in System 2 corrections – such as stepping back to take the outside view – that these techniques have become habitual.  In effect, they are now part of their System 1. 

[…] No matter how physically or cognitively demanding a task may be – cooking, sailing, surgery, operatic singing, flying fighter jets – deliberative practice can make it second nature.

Ever watch a child struggling to sound out words and grasp the meaning of a sentence?  That was you once.  Fortunately, reading this sentence isn’t nearly so demanding for you now.” 


he aforementioned Beck (“ Cognitive Behavior Therapy – CBT review + notes) would certainly agree.  Anyway, elsewhere, Norman points out the example of asking people which side of the front door their doorknob is on in a house they used to live in.  Do you need to know that to be able to open the door? No – because that knowledge is stored in the world.

Norman comes back to this later with the idea of checklists.

Pages 79 – 80/81B: Norman touches on  trait adaptivity and  memory here, relaying an excerpt of a news article describing the confusion when France released a new 10-franc coin that resembled the half-franc coin.  On the ensuing page, he notes that in Europe, different denominations of bills often come in different colors, so Europeans are often confused by American bills.  One of my favorite stories of all time.

Page 84: Norman posits that the notion of verbatim memorization is relatively modern, and points out that natural constraints make the memorization of epic poetry somewhat less impressive than it otherwise would be.

Pages 88 – 90: Norman goes a little deeper here into, in the context of security, the problem of n-order impacts: by trying to make a system more secure with well-intentioned constraints (i.e. by increasing the password-strength requirement), you can inadvertently make it less secure (because users will just resort to workarounds like writing their passwords down on a post-it).

He cites a hilarious example of engineers at Google propping a door open with a brick.

Page 91: Norman reminds us all two use two-factor authentication.

Pages 92! – 95!: Norman provides a really useful/practical overview of short-term memory here: he doesn’t really get into “chunking,” but he does point out that typically, 5 – 7 items is about the limit of our working memory, potentially 10 – 12 if we rehearse things a lot, although he applies a margin of safety and suggests designers assume 3 – 5.

Of course, we’re humans, not econs, so interruptions can mess with our short-term memory.  This is merely an annoyance when it comes to, like, burnt toast, but as Laurence Gonzales overviews in “ Deep Survival ( DpSv review + notes), a climber distracted by a conversation forgot to tie one of her knots and almost fell to her death on the equivalent of a bunny slope.

Elsewhere, pilots’ checklists often include “FLY THE PLANE” – because, as crazy as it sounds, sometimes you can forget to do that when you’re dealing with error messages or other challenges.

The solution? Don Norman, and nurses, recommend writing things down.  He later states:

|on remembering things|: Writing is a powerful technology: why not use it? - Don Norman Click To Tweet

Pages 96! – 97!: Norman also discusses long-term memory, mentioning (but not analyzing) the role of sleep in consolidating it.  This is a very brief summary of the sorts of concepts discussed (in different ways) in Schacter’s Seven Sins of Memory ( 7SOM review + notes) and Tavris/Aronson’s Mistakes Were Made (but not by me) ( MwM review + notes).

The tl;dr: long term memory is not fixed, and thus should not be relied upon; memories can be biased or even completely false (suggested).  Additionally, it isn’t necessarily organized in a ctrl+f’able way; cues help.

Of course, also see Dr. Matthew Walker’s “ Why We Sleep” for a phenomenal look at the role  sleep plays in  memory.

Pages 98 – 100: Norman actually does a better job (in my view) than either Schacter or Tavris/Aronson in pointing out another really important fact about memory: because it’s associative,memory for meaningful things is much better and easier than memory for arbitrary things.  He’s not in the (absurd) Ian Leslie camp of glorifying memorization-based education.

“most things in the world have a sensible structure, which tremendously simplifies the memory task.  When things make sense, they correspond to knowledge that we already have, so the new material can be understood, interpreted, and integrated with previously acquired material.”

That’s one of the powers of the latticework of mental models: you don’t have to memorize everything.  The world is a cue for certain structures to just pop out at you, and it’s relatively easy to hang additional models onto old ones.

What is the Don Norman recommended design solution for memory?

Perhaps a better way is to make memory unnecessary: put the required information in the world. - Don Norman Click To Tweet

Structural problem solving x memory.

Norman later references checklists, which are an excellent example thereof.

Page 101:   precision vs accuracyFahrenheit to Celsius per Norman: C = (F/2) – 15 or F = 2C + 30 is a useful approximation that we can do in our heads!

How well does it work?  Really well: here is a table (and a graph) that I made:

Remember, useful weather forecasts for consumers are not necessarily the most accurate or precise ones.  On page 128 of The Signal and the Noise (review + notes), Nate Silver quotes Dr. Bruce Rose, the principal scientist at The Weather Channel:

“the models typically aren’t measured on how well they predict practical weather elements.  

It’s really important if […] you get an inch of rain rather than ten inches of snow.

That’s a huge [distinction] for the average consumer, but scientists just aren’t interested in that.”

Similarly, Norman’s mental-math conversion pretty much tells you what you need to know: bring a jacket for anything between 10 – 20 C, bring a HEAVY jacket for anything below 10 C, and don’t wear more than a t-shirt for anything north of 20 C!  (Consider bringing water if it gets to 25 – 30 C.)

It is worth noting, on  habit and  cognition vs. intuition, by the way: on page 20 ofNudge, Sunstein/Thaler note that Americans use what looks like System 1 to deal with Fahrenheit, but System 2 to deal with Celsius; Europeans, obviously, do the opposite.  This is something we all know, but the important takeaway is that our  schema is modifiable…

Pages 103 – 104: Breaking the conventional stereotype of engineers walking around with slide-rules, Norman notes on the topic of  precision vs. accuracy that:

“it is rare that we need to know the answers to complex arithmetic problems with great precision: almost always, a rough estimate is good enough.  

When precision is required, use a calculator.”  

Norman’s fundamental point is that we should go with division of labor: use machines for what they’re good at, and humans for what they’re good at.  A related viewpoint regarding calculation precision (and its potential dangers) can be found in Henry Petroski’s To Engineer is Human ( TEiH review + notes) on page 190.  Richard Feynman, similarly, expresses thoughts in “ The Pleasure of Finding Things Out ( PFTO review + notes) about trying to get a general feel for the problem before getting a price quantitative answer.

Anyway, Norman’s advice when it comes to things you need to remember?

 “Writing is a powerful technology: why not use it?”  

Similarly (and amusingly), Schacter notes on page 41 of Seven Sins of Memory (7SOM review + notes) that one of the (repeat) World Memory Champions is super forgetful; I followed up and found this gem via the NY Times:

“Despite her memorizing accomplishments, Ms. Cooley described herself as notoriously absent-minded — someone who lives by Post-it notes.

”I make grocery lists,” she said, ”and always come back forgetting to buy the one thing I really needed.”  

Pages 106 – 108: The discussion of pilots here is really interesting.  Also, a practical bit of advice that I’ve come to use myself: Norman applies the idea of a “forcing function” to preventing ourselves from forgetting things: putting a book in front of the door so you don’t forget it, or putting your keys under the book so you don’t forget it when you leave the house.  (This has helped me immeasurably.  See picture to right.)

Also an interesting dichotomy between signal and message: if a message isn’t visible ( salient), it’s worthless, but a signal ( product vs. packaging)that doesn’t remind you what the message was?  Well, that’s not helpful.  See the  salience x  n-order impacts interaction in the salience mental model for a number of examples of this, ranging from rust to vaccines.

Pages 110 – 111!: Norman calls knowledge in the mind “ephemeral” and unreliable.  He presents a nice chart with the tradeoffs of using knowledge in the head and knowledge in the world.

Pages 115 – 116: Norman returns to mappings here; Sunstein/Thaler present the stove burner example in Nudge, too.

Page 117: This is interesting from a consumer standpoint rather than a business standpoint: Norman notes that we often focus on features and neglect usability when making purchase decisions.

This is amplified to some degree by online shopping.  For example, I bought a manual coffee grinder that I really like, but one of the cool “features” is that it has a plastic window through which you can see the coffee.  This was more or less irrelevant to my purchase decision, but it turned out, later, to be a major annoyance, because coffee particles can get trapped behind the window…

Page 124: Norman uses a Lego motorcycle kit to illustrate the relation of constraints to design: the four kinds of constraints are physical (square peg in round hole), cultural (what you can and can’t do), semantic (meaning-oriented – the windshield goes forward), and logical (what else is left).

Page 126: Batteries and USB plugs are examples of bad design.  For good measure, Sunstein/Thaler provide a hilarious and relatable anecdote about parking-garage credit-card-readers in Nudge ( Ndge review + notes) on page 89…

Page 140: One alternative to natural/spatial mapping of controls is “activity-centered” controls.  This can be thought of as approaching the problem from a different perspective and focusing on utility.

Pages 141 – 144: Norman brings up various examples of “forcing functions.”  The specific names aren’t important, but the idea is that you can design products that force users to not make mistakes: removing ATM cards before dispensing cash, for example, or microwaves turning off before you open the door.  

Page 147: Norman relays an anecdote about the “newfangled” elevators where you have to select your floor before you get on (I was always confused by this in one of the swankier buildings in Dallas… I’m used to buttons!)  He brings up the metric system. We don’t like things that are easy becoming hard.

Pages 162 – 167: these are money.  I loved these pages so much that I use a very brief excerpt (that doesn’t do Norman’s brilliance full justice) as an introduction to mental models thinking.   Structural problem solving.

“How is it that so many people are so incompetent? Answer: they aren’t.  It’s a design problem […]

physical limitations are well understood by designers; mental limitations are greatly misunderstood.  

We should treat all failures in the same way: find the fundamental causes and redesign the system so that these can no longer lead to problems.”

Norman notes that while physical limitations are understood by designers, mental ones often aren’t.  He goes on to discuss the various ways in which many systems are designed for econs rather than humans, requiring full attention, perfect recall, immunity to distraction, etc.

He goes on to note the “ swiss cheese model of accidents” – i.e. multicausality – with a hilarious anecdote about fighter pilots; then concludes:

It's not possible to eliminate human error if it is thought of as a personal failure: if the system lets you make the error, it's badly designed. If the system induces you to make the error, it's really badly designed. - Don Norman Click To Tweet

And yet how many systems are really badly designed?  Setting aside product design, let’s look at system design: on pages 188 – 190 of “ Misbehaving” M review + notes), Thaler reframes some classic “principal-agent” problems as what he calls “dumb principal” problems based on a real-world anecdote about a CEO and 23 of his executives: the corporate culture and incentive system was designed in such a way that the executives were basically induced to not make investments that the company should’ve been making.

Thaler’s point is: don’t blame the decisions, blame the system.  It’s a little bit of a different point than what Norman is getting at here, but the broader idea holds.

Similar thoughts are echoed in Stephen Covey’s landmark  The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People ( 7H review + notes):

“So often the problem is in the system, not in the people.  If you put good people in bad systems, you get bad results.”   

The parallels between good management and good design are obvious.

Page 168: In addition to the previously-mentioned precision challenge, Norman brings up time pressure stressas a factor that impairscognition and decisionmaking.  Laurence Gonzales explores similar situations in “ Deep Survival ( DpSv review + notes): often in our pursuit to meet a deadline, we cut corners that prove deadly.

Page 173: Norman here notes our tendency to overgeneralize from small sample sizes; see also Ellenberg, Mauboussin, Tetlock, etc.

Page 179: Norman notes (in other words) the availability heuristic interacting with memory.

Page 190: Norman here brings up checklists; The Checklist Manifesto ( TCM review + notes) is definitely worth reading regarding this topic.  Norman notes, of course – and this is often forgotten by readers of TCM – that checklists need to be usable, else they face the “google-brick” circumvention problem described earlier.

Page 192: n-order impacts here: if the system disincentivizes error reporting, errors won’t be reported.

Page 193: the idea of “poka-yoke,” or error proofing via simple constraints / signifiers, is interesting.  If perhaps unaesthetic.

Pages 196 – 197: confirmation bias discussed here in non-explicit terms, as well as hindsight bias.

Page 198: Norman notes that it’s not hard to design for things going right… it’s usually things that go wrong that get you.   Inversion.

He goes back to the idea of precision and the need for design to focus on meaning rather than precision.  (Again, see the Sunstein/Thaler discussion of the Medicare Part D website.)

Pages 199 – 200: Don Norman and Cal Newport appear to have similar thoughts about multitasking: just don’t do it.  Norman cites various research here.  See also Cal Newport’s “ Deep Work ( DpWk review + notes), which is basically a manifesto against multitasking, and the aforementioned “ Deep Survival ( DpSv review + notes).

In Deep Survival, Gonzales notes:

“The fact that new information […] forces things out of working memory means that we can’t pay active attention to too many things at once […] in most people, the executive function can do one task at a time, and attempting to perform simultaneous tasks that involve a conflict begins to break it down.”

In addition, there’s this famous Richard Feynman quote (page 19 of “ The Pleasure of Finding Things Out”  – PFTO review + notes) that goes a little something like this:

“To do real good physics work, you do need absolutely solid lengths of time, so that when you are putting ideas together which are vague and hard to remember; it’s very much like building a house of cards and each of the cards is shaky, and if you forget one of them the whole thing collapses again.

But if you have got a job in administration, then you don’t have this solid time. So, I have invented another myth for myself- that I’m irresponsible.  I tell everybody, I don’t do anything. If anybody asks me to be on a committee to take care of admissions, no, I’m irresponsible, I don’t give a damn about the students- of course I give a damn about the students but I know that somebody else’ll do it- and I take the view ” Let George do it”, a view which you’re not supposed to take, okay, because that’s not right to do, but I do that because I like to do physics and I want to see if I can still do it, and so I’m selfish, okay. I want to do my physics.

Pages 208 – 209: Explicit discussion of multicausality is rare because, you know,multicausality doesn’t make a compelling story (see Rosenzweig’s The Halo Effect – Halo review + notes.)

Norman notes explicitly that singularly-focused “if only” thinking is not helpful if there are many causes for an error.  The implication of the model is to add margin of safety via more precautions, or to make the likelihood of an error more salient.

Page 211: A nice example here of the probabilistic tautology that given a large enough sample size, improbable things are probable.  See also Tetlock, Ellenberg, Mauboussin.

Page 212: Norman brings up resilience engineering; see To Engineer is Human for discussion on alternate load paths, etc.

Page 217: Norman on  disaggregation and  product vs. packaging:

|I| never solve the problem I’m asked to solve |because it’s| not the real, fundamental root problem. It’s usually a symptom… it’s amazing how often people solve the problem without bothering to question it. - Don Norman Click To Tweet

Among other things, this is one of the challenges with the “deliberate practice” groupthink love affair; the real world often isn’t as constrained by relatively neat and simple rules as a game of chess or tennis, or the four strings of a violin.  Learning to ask the right questions (often via inversion) is usually more profitable than simply producing results…

Cross-reference Stephen Covey’s famous “wrong jungle” analogy in “ The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People:

“envision a group cutting their way through the jungle with machetes […] the leader is the one who climbs the tallest tree, surveys the entire situation, and yells, “wrong jungle!” 

[…] as individuals, groups, and businesses, we’re often so busy cutting through the undergrowth we don’t even realize we’re in the wrong jungle.”

This is, of course, one of the chief issues of transitioning from school to the real world – in school, problems are always neatly dimensionalized; cut and dried – XYZ mol of [compound] are titrated with [acid]… all you have to do is apply the (memorized) formula and spit out the correct response.  In the real world, of course, much more time is spent not on the solution (which is usually trivial) but rather on figuring out the problem.  

An analogy is investing: in the literal sense, making forecasts and modeling a company’s future is relatively straightforward (you can just work off a template).  Yet so much more time is spent on training people how to do this rather than how to think about what inputs are reasonable and will lead to successful results. 

Cross-reference the discussion of “creaming” in the Win/Win chapter of7 Habits.

Page 226: Norman on brainstorming: set aside constraints, generate lots of ideas, and question everything.  Norman notes on status quo bias / culture that:

“what we assume to be obvious is simply the way things have always been done, but now that it is questioned, we don’t actually know the reasons.”  

Here’s another parallel with Nudge; check out pages 58 – 59 where Sunstein/Thaler analyze some of the research around how arbitrary traditions can persist through generations thanks to status quo bias / culture and social proof.

Dr. Jerome Groopman provides a similar discussion in “ How Doctors Think ( HDT review + notes).

For the better part of a century, common medical practice was to insert a certain needle to drain fluid from around the heart in a specific spot – a spot which was picked because it was easy to penetrate (reminds me of the anecdote of the guy looking for his keys under the lamppost because “that’s where the light is,” notwithstanding that he dropped his keys in the bushes!)

This was passed down from doctor to doctor because that was the way it has always been done… and nobody ever bothered to question it or put any empirics behind it or whatever.  As Groopman explores. cardiologist Dr. James Lock eventually figured this out and his trainees (and hopefully the whole field) instead stick the needle where the fluid actually is, as determined by ultrasound.

Page 229: Norman supports iteration and “failing fast” as a way to get better.  See  feedback.

Page 234: I’ve been meaning to learn about Scrum and Agile for a while… I have a few books.  Need to get to them.

Page 239: some obvious, but uncommonly discussed, local vs. global optimization problems; Norman advocates for multidisciplinary thinking (remember, he used to be an engineer!)

Page 243: Norman on the peril of averages (see  sample size):

There is no such thing as the average person... average a left-hander with a right-hander and what do you get? - Don Norman Click To Tweet

See also Jordan Ellenberg on public opinion (which doesn’t exist!) and the problem of election results in “ How Not To Be Wrong (HNW review + notes).

It’s a fascinating discussion.

Page 256!: Norman, again, uses inversion here: normally the idea of good design is to make things easy to use.

Conversely, as with Sunstein/Thaler in Nudge, you can also utilize bad design to make things harder to use: raise the activation energy, i.e. remove the bowl of cashews, and suddenly it’s easier to get people to not do the wrong thing…

See also Shawn Achor’s “ The Happiness Advantage ( THA review + notes), where Achor advocates increasing or decreasing activation energy by 20 seconds to disincentivize or incentivize desired behavior.

Pages 261 – 263: Norman hits the planning fallacy again.

Also, he dislikes “featuritis” because of the low marginal utility; he cites Youngme Moon’s Different, which is a good book that I enjoyed.

Pages 264 – 267: He cites Amazon’s customer focus (see The Everything Store – TES review + notes), and also, in passing, trait adaptivity: designs that made sense under one set of circumstances ( constraints) don’t make sense anymore… there’s a quasi Howard-Roark-like attitude here.

Page 269: He touches on the “innovator’s dilemma.”   local vs. global optimization, and of course see Clayton Christensen’s “ The Innovator’s Dilemma ( InD review + notes).

Page 281: More on local vs. global optimization: Norman uses the same “hill” analogy that my operations management professor used (and that I now use, too):

“Hill climbing: analogous to climbing a hill blindfolded.  Move your foot in one direction. If it is downhill, try another direction.  If the direction is uphill, take one step. Keep doing this until you have reached a point where all steps would be downhill; then you are at the top of the hill, or at least a local peak.  

[…] Although it guarantees that the design will reach the top of the hill, what if the design is not on the best possible hill?  Hill climbing cannot find higher hills: it can only find the peak of the hill it started from.”

Pages 285 – 288: anddd the linchpin on memory: this excerpt doesn’t really do the full screed justice.

“In Ancient Greece […] Socrates complained about the impact of books, arguing that reliance on written material would diminish not only memory but the very need to think, to debate, to learn through discussion […] but over the years […] human intelligence has certainly not diminished […]

Does the fact that I can no longer remember my own phone number indicate my growing feebleness?  No, on the contrary, it unleashes the mind from the petty tyranny of tending to the trivial and allows it to concentrate on the important and the critical.

[…] the power of the unaided mind is highly overrated. […] Human intelligence is highly flexible and adaptive, superb at inventing procedures and objects that overcome its own limits. The real powers come from designing external aids that enhance cognitive abilities.”

I always laugh whenever I read anything advocating memorization: clearly they haven’t read Norman!

First Read: 2017

Last Read: 2018

Number of Times Read: 3

Planning to Read Again?: hell yeah


Review Date: spring 2018

Notes Date: spring 2018