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September 4, 2020

Things for Everyday UX Design

How to start designing understandable products based on basic design principles
DesignOfEverydayThingsDon NormanUsabilityVisibility

Written by:

Hernâni Alves

Recently, I picked up a book that I had read some years ago. At the time I read most of it but hadn’t quite got to the last chapter. Being a seminal book in the UX industry, I decided to give another go at The Design of Everyday Things by Don Norman1. This time it was different. I started taking notes as I went along. This article is part of a series focusing on the book and refers only to the first two chapters.

I imagine you have objects that you struggle with. These are our everyday enemies always trying to sabotage our daily routines. It might be your dishwasher, the TV, your fridge, or your vacuum cleaner. They might also be digital, like tax returns or social security websites. Of course, we often make up completely logical excuses for these frustrations. Sometimes we blame ourselves. “I can get the ‘thing’ to work” or “there must be something wrong with me.” People inevitably think that they have a natural ineptitude for performing relatively simple tasks, which leads to plenty of frustration and self-doubt. Poorly designed objects provide their users with no clues as to their desired function or, worse, false signifiers that lead to misuse. They not only obscure the purpose of the object but also make it difficult to understand the object itself.

There’s a simple example of a frustrating object that we all have encountered in our daily lives. That object is a door, but not just any door. It’s a door that we don’t seem to understand. We either push it instead of pulling or we pull instead of pushing it. Most of the time we have to give it a try to see how it works first and there’s a 50% chance we bump our face into it. That example was made famous by Don Norman in his book. Those adversarial objects have even gained the nickname of Norman Doors in the design community. Badly designed doors are everywhere2.

We have all pushed doors that are supposed to be pulled. If they were simply designed well, there wouldn’t be any need for signs telling you how to open them. And we know that even with a sign people still manage to get it wrong. We don’t always care enough to read. Don Norman proposes a solution—a flat horizontal bar “affords” to be pushed and a vertical bar that you can grab “affords” to be pulled. Sadly, there seems to be no easy way of overcoming this difficulty because aesthetics can be an issue working against the user. The designer might have an idea or motif in their head that they value more than utility. For beauty or design, they will hide the hinges or knobs. “Pretty doors. Elegant. Probably won a design prize,” writes Norman in the book. We are still going to encounter doors that we will bump into, making us frustrated when we least expect it. Other times they will just work, letting us easily use the door and not think twice about it.

The answer to how an object works is informed by its design using “psychological principles” rooted in our nature and in the nature of materials. This allows us to better understand and use everyday objects. A curious thing you might have noticed is that you aren’t frustrated every time with every object. When was the last time you were upset when using a lamp or hairdryer?
This takes us to one of the most important principles of design: visibility.

1. Design Principle: Visibility

The world is filled with objects designed with the best intentions that inevitably became puzzles. They provide no clue as to how we should use them. In this regard, visibility is always a designer’s friend. When the structure of an object is visible, the user intuitively knows what to do with it. Well designed objects hold no secrets. Visibility is also important in UX when the object changes state. That is because it “signals” to the user that the action was completed.
In the book, Norman divides visibility into two principles—mapping and feedback.

Mapping

Well designed objects have a way of demonstrating their function in a self-explanatory way, making them easy to understand. That is because of the relationship between two things: controls and the things they control. Usually, when there are more actions than controls, users will have problems mapping out what they can do. One control and one action is a good rule to go by. Another is to take advantage of physical analogies and cultural standards. If a control needs to lift something up, then it only makes sense to represent the control in a way that the user will perform a similar gesture. There’s a similar modernist mantra of “form follows function” by Sullivan3. Of course, while some of us would say this means busier interfaces, it, in fact, is a challenge to minimalism and simplicity.

However, the opposite is also true. When complexity is in the user’s face all of the time we know for sure that it will get in the way of what they need to do. Context is important. Chances are, your users won’t need everything all of the time. That is why in our houses we have drawers, cupboards, shelves. The trick here is to know how to organize the house. In The Design of Everyday Things, Norman introduces a design concept you might have heard before called affordances.

The human mind is creative and imaginative. Provide it with a small clue and it will start working on finding meaning and understanding. The clues provided by objects, if not explicit enough, will lead to frustration. They are impediments to the normal process of understanding that is natural to humans. Affordances are properties of the material or shapes of things that allow for a specific use. These are often places of interaction. In a physical object, affordances usually give us the necessary hints we need to use them. This should be enough. The moment you have to explain the thing, it has failed. Simple objects should be able to survive in the world without explanation or instruction. Of course, more complex interactions will need some help to stand on their own. Good design almost feels like magic. It works out of the box with no need to read the manual.

Those clues present in affordances are called signifiers. Sometimes even experienced designers get them mixed up. All buttons are signifiers—they signal where you can perform an action. Affordances also work because of constraints or limitations. As Norman puts it “the world restricts allowed behavior.” If the signifier is a clue given by the object to get you to know what to do, it’s just as helpful to know what you can’t do with the object. Constraints also help by limiting the number of choices present to us and reduce the need to remember things all the time. Constraints and signifiers usually have a visual relationship and when they are perfectly connected you have an affordance. When not, you have a false affordance. It appears to allow you to do something but, as it turns out, it doesn’t.

Feedback

Have you ever played Party&Co? There’s this red pencil that you have to draw a given word with and show it to your team to see if they can guess what it is. But there’s a catch—you have to draw while wearing glasses with red lenses. This means that you can’t see what you are doing. It might seem logical that there should be some kind of message when the action is performed but it’s something that I’ve seen absent from most interfaces. I’m sure you’ve tried to click a form button twice without knowing if it was submitted. Feedback lets us know if our intended result has been achieved. It makes us feel that our actions make sense, feel relevant, and are meaningful.

Let me tell you about my heater. It has two identical buttons. Clicking just one will activate the minimum heat. Clicking the other will activate the medium heat. Both buttons pressed will activate the maximum heat. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve turned the thing to the max when I wanted to switch it off. Feedback helps to create a cause-effect relation. When you flip the switch, the lights go on. But feedback also has a problem—sometimes a false sense of causality will occur. When we push a button and if we don’t understand how a machine works, we might witness some other actions that happen at the same time and think both actions came from the same cause. Coincidences do happen. Making things visible is important because it can enable the user to imagine how something works and minimizes possible misinterpretation. The user will, as Don Norman puts it, form a “conceptual model” of the device.

2. Design principle: Provide a good conceptual model

Do you remember that time “La La Land” almost won the Oscar for best film? It might be simple for us to imagine how we would organize that ceremony: There’s a nominees list. The winner’s name is written inside an envelope. People walk onto the stage with an envelope. They open and read the envelope. The winners walk on stage to receive the award and leave. Another person walks in to present the next winner with the next envelope. It seems pretty simple, right? What if I told you there were two envelopes for each winner? What if I told you that PwC, one of the major accounting firms in the world, was certifying the whole process? That is an example of why the mental models4 that we form when observing objects might be disconnected from their designed conceptual model. In this case, one envelope set was on the left side of the stage, the other, a complete copy was on the right side. When one envelope was given the other should have been discarded. Only that in that case, it wasn’t. The lead actress even thought there had been foul play involved. She had the wrong mental model. Sometimes we over-engineer things and provide a different image to our users, which makes it harder for people to create a correct mental model. Other times, we completely misinterpret things.

For centuries humanity had the wrong mental model of the universe. People looked to the sky, saw the sun moving, and could never imagine that it was the earth moving around the sun. People also used to think the earth was flat. Our senses trick us. And most of the time they lead us into mental constructions that may or not be accurate. This is happening everywhere. Most objects that we use in our daily lives are mysteries to us. Do you know what the inside of your phone looks like? How about your car? Mental models are usually created combining visible structure and perceived actions (affordances). They are reinforced through experience, training, and instruction. If we don’t see it, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist—it just means that it might trick us.

When complex systems go wrong, people feel bad for failing. Sometimes, if they can, they may try to conceal their errors. People are usually blamed when they perform badly. At the Oscars ceremony, some people blamed the presenters, Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway5. But the system in place at the ceremony was what fostered the mistake. In some ways, they got off easy. Some centuries ago, the Inquisition tortured people because of a faulty mental model.

Another example that Norman refers to in The Design of Everyday Things is the thermostat. People usually set the thermostat to a higher value with the belief that the room will get warmer or cooler faster. Norman calls this “the folk theory of thermostats.” The conceptual model of most thermostats is that of an on/off switch. You are turning it on for the time it takes for the room to get to a preset temperature. After that, it will be turned off.

Nothing can be more difficult than having an incorrect mental model, because it reflects our knowledge and our understanding of the things around us. They might be innocent or outdated and sharing them can lead to embarrassment or feeling inferior.

Final Thoughts

As a UX designer, I’ve seen and worked on many projects. For some of those projects we got it right and other times we learned from our experiences. There were some projects where I was wary of how good the user feedback was. It seemed almost too easy, but everyone said it was great. For other projects, we really worked hard and thought that we got it right, only to discover that the users didn’t need it.

These design principles have a huge impact on your project. Good design should make a product understandable and usable. Well designed products help us become happier and do our jobs better. They also make it easy to comprehend more complex concepts. To design objects that minimize dissatisfaction, you should try to follow these principles by Don Norman in The Design of Everyday Things. First, try to find out how you can improve visibility over your system. This will help your users create a correct mental model. Remember, they will have one whether you help them or not.

To help you memorize these principles, we designed two amazing posters with the help of fellow designer Daniel Maia da Silva. You can check his work here.
Next time something goes wrong and your users don’t get it, don’t think it’s their fault. Check first to see if you haven’t designed a beautiful puzzle.

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About the Author

Hernâni Alves

This is an overly flattering description of myself. In it, I say some pretentious things to make me look interesting, like the fact that I love to watch Dogme 95 films, that I rode from Lisbon to Sagres on a bicycle, and that I secretly dream of traveling to the north pole. Truth be told, I’m just as interesting as you. I’m trying to learn as much as I can about anything that will make me achieve something good in life or, simply just not to make me look bad to people I care about. Usually, this involves design in one way or another.

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