• Innovative
  • Applicable


Dome-headed engineering professors call it “human factors engineering,” “interaction design” or “usability engineering,” but the purpose of this strangely-named discipline is far simpler than these appellations suggest: to make everyday items do what users expect them to do. Donald Norman has been thinking about usability issues longer than almost anyone and has insights commensurate with his experience. Norman knows how both people and machines work (he has degrees in psychology and engineering). More importantly, he knows how to bridge the gulf between the human mind and the devices the mind wants to use, from toasters to telephones to teapots. In this classic, he provides a few simple precepts and many wonderful examples showing how to design the most important component of any technology – the user’s experience. While some of Norman’s examples are a little long in the tooth (he discusses VCRs, not DVDs), getAbstract finds that the principles he describes in this friendly book are still sprightly almost 20 years after their initial publication.


The Way Things Don’t Work

Some days, it seems, the amazing conveniences that are supposed to ease life’s burdens conspire to befuddle you instead. When your digital alarm clock buzzes, you reach over and tap what you think is the snooze button. In fact, it’s the on-off switch. Two hours later, you wake up (again), get into the shower and turn on the water. But you never figured out that fancy all-in-one tap and end up scalded. In the kitchen, you try to boil water for tea but spend an extra minute guessing which of the six knobs above the oven will ignite the right-front burner. In the car you almost go into a ditch fiddling with the barely visible, tiny buttons on the radio. Even the entrance to your office building seems to bear a grudge. You pull the door handle without effect, continuing to yank on it until you notice that little inscription on the doorframe: “PUSH.”

If you’ve experienced these sorts of frustrations, take comfort: Such adversities are common. Even MIT-trained engineers have trouble programming digital watches, figuring out which light switch controls which lamp and adjusting the temperature in a refrigerator. It’s not so much that people can’t ...

About the Author

Donald A. Norman is co-founder of a consulting firm and professor of computer science at Northwestern University. He served as vice president of advanced technology for a major computer manufacturer.

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