The Design of Everyday Things by Donald Norman is one of those books every engineer should keep close to their desk for frequent reference. It’s certainly one of the books I quote most often, because we are mandated to understand the needs of different users and ensure that public spaces, transport and everyday objects are as accessible and user friendly as possible.
Design serves as the communication between object and user, so it is important to optimize the design in order to make the experience of using the object intuitive and hence pleasurable. We often blame the user when objects appear to malfunction, when it’s actually the engineer’s fault, having missed out the crucial intuitive guidance that should be present in the design. We give people visual clues as to how to use everyday things, then fail to standardise them and wonder why people get confused.

Norman calls these clues “affordances”, such as the flat plates on doors meant to be pushed and long and rounded bars we intuitively use as handles. Everyone knows that a door with a handle on it should be pulled and a door with a push plate on it should be pushed – except all those push doors with a pull handle, making you feel stupid when you get it wrong several times a day, often on the same door! Similarly, why are some taps set up with the hot tap on the left and others on the right so that you have to peer at the taps to work out which one is which?

There are too many rooms wit banks of light switches which bear no resemblance to the layout of the lights they control, or indeed to where the light is most likely to come from. I once worked in an office where all the windows were on the west side of the building, but the lights were wired up in rows perpendicular to the wall with all the windows on it. Anyone with half a brain would done it the other way round, so that it would be possible to turn off the lights on the west side when the sun was shining in, while not leaving the people working on the east side of the large room in half-darkness.
Just consider how many microwaves you have attempted to use, only to discover that you have to try five combinations before you can work out how to turn it on. How many people actually use the twenty different programmes on their washing machine or dishwasher,rather than setting it to one programme you use all the time, and possibly one other for really delicate or heavily soiled items? If you have to consult the manual before using something you use every day, someone has designed it wrong.
If the user needs to consult the manual, you’ve designed it wrong…

As someone who regularly uses hire cars for work, I’ve often wondered whi on earth thought it was a good idea to have some cars where the indicators are on the left and other cars where they are on the right? You’re just asking for me to put the wipers on when I’m trying to turn left… And don’t get me started on electronic handbrakes in manual cars, some of which don’t have an easy to use auto-hold option (making hill starts in Sheffield unnecessarily interesting).
And how about all the ladies’ toilet cubicles where the toilet is slap bang in the middle of the cubicle? While this presumably satisfies the builder’s sense of symmetry, it doesn’t satisfy the most basic functional requirement of being able to, you know, sit down. The reason is that the hygiene bin needs to go one side or the other, and often juts out at the same level as the toilet seat in a very uncomfortable manner.
So why not include the width of the hygiene bin when installing the toilet and the cubicle dividers? Probably the answer is: because the builders are mostly men, and it doesn’t occur to them that a bin will be required when they have finished the installation of the plumbing, since they don’t need one in the gents. Even better, why not update the building standards to include this as a requirement along all the other detailed requirements which already exist for non-domestic toilets for visual screening, air flow, washing facilities and so on?
The book recommends four main design principles to ensure that ordinary people can use everyday things successfully:

  • Visibility – By looking, the user can tell the state of the device and the alternatives for action.
  • A Good Conceptual Model – The designer provides a good conceptual model for the user, with consistency in the presentation of operations and results and a coherent, consistent system image.
  • Good mappings – It is possible to determine the relationships between actions and results, between the controls and their effects, and between the system state and what is visible.
  • Feedback – The user receives full and continuous feedback about the results of the actions.

Want to learn more?
I recently hosted a webinar for the Institution of Civil Engineers with my colleague Jonathan Wright explaining the principles of Inclusive Design in the rail industry. If you’re an ICE member, you can listen to the recording here.

See also:

Have you tried Edward Cooke’s collection of quirky short stories, “Arcana”? ¬†You might start seeing things in a different way…