The Design of Everyday Things by Don Norman

The Design of Everyday Things by Don Norman

The Book in A Few Sentences

Many products don’t work well due to faulty design, not operator error. Poor design usually results from not understanding how people interact with products. Good designers understand the interplay between technology and psychology, or human-centered design (HCD).

The Design of Everyday Things summary

This is my book summary of The Design of Everyday Things by Don Norman. My summaries are casual and include what I believe are the most important concepts, ideas and insights from the book, along with direct quotes from the author.

  • Good design is less noticeable than bad design.
  • Design based on human psychology, cognition, emotion, action, and interaction will remain relevant for the foreseeable future because humans don’t change.
    Incremental innovation is common, but radical innovation is uncommon.
  • Good design starts with discoverability and understanding.
    Industrial design emphasizes form and material; interactive design emphasizes understandability and usability; experience design emphasizes emotional impact.
  • Design is about how things work and are controlled, and the interaction between people and products.
  • Machines should meet people where they are rather than forcing people to adapt to machines.
  • Great design should be pleasurable for the end user.
  • Affordances determine what actions are possible.
  • Signifiers let the user know how to use the design and are therefore more important than affordances.
  • For example, with scissors the holes are both affordances that allow the fingers to be inserted and signifiers that communicate where the fingers should go.
  • A conceptual model, or mental model, is a simplified version of how something works.
  • Technology is paradoxical: more functionality helps simplify life while making it harder to learn and use.
  • Every action has two parts: doing and interpreting.
  • Seven stages of action: goal, plan, specify, perform, perceive, interpret, compare.
  • Without a deep understanding of people and human behavior, good design is nearly impossible.
  • The reason we don’t understand ourselves is because most thought is subconscious, and therefore hidden from awareness, or reflective, conscious thought.
  • Declarative memory is recalling factual information; procedural memory is, as it sounds, recalling the activities to perform a specific action.
  • Thought and emotion are inseparable. Thoughts drive emotions, and emotions drive thoughts.
  • Thinking attempts to make sense of the world while emotion assigns value.
  • Without access to emotions, decision-making is difficult.
  • Often we don’t know what we are about to do until we have done it. That’s why “good people” do “bad things.”
  • Research suggests (and I can verify from observations of myself and others) that we make decisions emotionally and then find logical evidence to support our decision.
  • Subconscious processing is good at recognizing relationships and seeing patterns from little information.
  • A positive emotional state aids creative ideas, but it hinders getting things done.
  • A negative emotional state helps us focus and get things done.
  • There are three levels to thinking.
  • One is visceral, otherwise known as “lizard brain,” where thoughts are fast and automatic.
  • Another is behavioral where learned skills are applied subconsciously to situations.
  • The third is reflective where conscious decision-making and deep understanding take place.
  • Good designers appeal to all three levels.
  • Flow is where we are challenged enough, but not too much, coupled with continual progress.
  • What matters is an individual’s perception, not whether or not causal relationships exist
  • Learned helplessness is when someone does something that repeatedly does’t yield a desired result, so they give up and strop trying altogether. At the extreme, it can lead to depression and difficulty coping with daily life.
  • There is no failure, only learning experiences.
  • Society teaches us that when something goes wrong, someone is to blame, whether ourselves or someone else.
  • Humans are not mechanical but imaginative, adaptive, and creative at coming up with novel solutions.
  • We make our way in the world by combining knowledge in our head with knowledge in the world.
  • Declarative knowledge includes facts and rules and is easy to write and teach.
  • Procedural knowledge is both difficult to write down and teach.
  • Psychologists offer us two kinds of memory: short-term or working memory, and long-term memory.
  • Short-term memory retains the most recently used information, but our capacity for working memory is limited to about five to seven items.
  • Mnemonics helps us remember large amounts of information.
  • Long-term memory is memory about past information and is believed to be aided by sleep.
  • Memory is not exact, but rather remembers pieces of information that can later be reconstructed into a whole.
  • Rote learning is difficult because the information is arbitrary and requires more effort.
  • When new information “make sense,” it matches up with prior knowledge for faster absorption and integration with the existing knowledge.
  • Machines are great at precision; humans are not.
  • New information automatically combines with existing knowledge in the mind.
  • Schemas are structures in the mind containing general rules for interpreting situations and aiding behavior.
  • Semantics is studying meaning. The meaning of the situation determines the set of possible actions.
  • Invention is slow, in part because humans don’t like change. (This was highlighted in an episode of Downton Abbey when “Mrs. Patmore” was befuddled by the need for an electric whisk).
  • It isn’t until a new way of doing something is superior to the old way that the benefit outweighs the effort of change.
  • Standards simplify our lives, but they also stifle innovation.
  • Skeuomorphic aids adoption of new products by incorporating old, familiar ideas into new technologies.
  • Root cause analysis is studying failure to find the primary cause, not the proximate cause. But first the existence of a problem needs to be acknowledged.
  • There are two kinds of errors: slips and mistakes.
  • Slips are when someone intends one action but does another.
  • Action-based slips are, for example, when you put milk in your coffee and put the mug in the refrigerator.
  • Memory-based slips are when, for example, you forget to turn off the gas burner after cooking dinner.
  • Mistakes are when the action is right but the plan is wrong.
  • A knowledge-based mistake is when, for example, the weight of fuel is measured in pounds instead of kilograms.
  • A memory-laps mistake is when, for example, a mechanic failed to complete the troubleshooting due to distraction.
  • Slips are the study of the psychology of everyday life, or what Freud referred to as “the psychopathology of everyday life.”
  • Many issues are caused by social pressure. For example, when a less-experienced co-pilot’s concerns are ignored by a more senior pilot.
  • Checklists are tools that reduce errors, especially slips and memory lapses.
  • Multitasking severely degrades performance and increases the likelihood of errors.
  • For example, talking on a hands-free phone while driving diminishes driving skills considerably.
  • Machines are good for dull, dreary tasks but tend to fail with complex tasks.
  • Whereas people are flexible and versatile, machines are rigid and relatively fixed.
  • Almost without exception, the “problem” being asked to solve is a symptom, not the root problem.
  • The most important step in design is finding what the root problem is.
  • There are two types of design thinking.
  • Human—centered design (HCD) is about solving the right problem in a way that meeds the needs and capabilities of humans.
  • HCD has four steps: observation, generation, prototyping, and testing.
  • The Double-Diamond Model of Design looks broadly at possible problems and then converges on a single problem. Next, the process looks broadly at possible solution and then converges on a single solution.
  • The four steps of the HCD model fit within the Double-Diamond Model.
  • Design focuses on the question, “What do people need?”
  • Marketing focuses on the question, What will people buy?”
  • By questioning the obvious, “stupid” questions can reveal profound insights.
  • Difficulties result in learning.
  • No matter how much time is given to design, the final results tend to appear in the last twenty-four hours before the deadline (same with writing assignments).
  • An activity is a higher-level structure like “fixing a bicycle.”
  • A task is a lower-level part of an activity like “getting the parts needed to fix the bicycle.”
  • Some psychologists believe our actions are driven by three fundamental goals: be-goals, do-goals, and motor-goals.
  • Be-goals are the highest-level and fundamental to our being. They are long-lasting and determine our behavior and self-view.
  • Do-goals are the next level and refer to the plans and actions related to an activity.
  • Motor-goals are the lowest level and govern our actions around tasks and operations.
  • Scrum and agile are examples of the waterfall method of design.
  • “Featureitis” and increasing complexity is usually the result of engineering-driven companies trying to match competitors, feature for feature.
  • Don Norman’s Law of Product Development: The day a product development process starts, it is behind schedule and above budget.
  • Good design is difficult.
  • Often the person who purchases a product is different from the end-user.
  • Younger people tend to be more agile and willing to take risks, while older people end to be more knowledgeable and wiser. The world benefits from both.
  • Complex and complicated are not the same.
  • The best way to combat complexity is starting with a good conceptual model.
  • Instead of adding more features, companies should focus on a product’s strengths and be “good enough” in the other areas.
  • Legacy products, institutions, and ways of doing things tends to inhibit change.
  • Incremental improvements may be minor, but compounded over time they can add up to significant change.

The Design of Everyday Things quotes

  • “People are creative, constructive, exploratory beings. We are particularly good at novelty, at creating new ways of doing things, and at seeing new opportunities. Dull, repetitive, precise requirements fight against these traits.”
  • “The hardest part of design is getting the requirements right, which means ensuring that the right problem is being solved, as well as that the solution is appropriate.”
  • “Requirements are developed by watching people in their natural environment.”
  • “Technology changed rapidly, but people and culture changes slowly.”
  • “Radical innovation changes lives and industries. Incremental innovation makes things better. We need both.”
  • “Human plus machine is more powerful than either human or machine alone.”
  • “The key to winning the race is not to complete against machines but to compete with machines. Fortunately, humans are strongest exactly where computers are weak, creating a potentially beautiful partnership.
  • “…design must be thought of as a total experience.”
  • “Humans have always been social beings. Social interaction and the ability to keep in touch with people across the world, across time, will stay with us.”
  • “Our technologies may change, but the fundamental principles of interaction are permanent.”

Related Resources

This is a list of resources, including authors, books, websites, podcasts and concepts mentioned in The Compound Effect, which might be useful for future learning.


J. J. Gibson
David Rubin and Wanda Wallace, psychologists
Albert Bates Lord
Yutaka Sayeki, University of Tokyo professor
Daniel Wegner, psychologist
Roger Schank, cognitive scientist
Erving Goffman, sociologist
James Reason, psychologist
Jens Rasmussen, engineer
Shigeo Shingo, engineer
Baruch Fischoff
Erik Hollnagel, David Woods, and Nancy Leveson, authors
David Kelley, Stanford professor, founder of IDEO
Charles Carver and Michael Scheier, psychologists
Marc Hassenzahl
August Dvorak, psychologist
Erik Brynjolfsson, MIT professor
Edwin Hutchins, cognitive scientist


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