The Design of Everyday Things
Notes and Insights while reading 'The Design of Everyday Things' by Don Norman.
73 entries
First: Jun 14, 2020
1 contributor
It represents the point at which I am in...
Procesing levels / Action cycles

Human action cycles are triggered by events, opportunities and goals. I will need to synthesize this tomorrow morning.

Blaming ourselves instead of blaming design and my relationship with my coffee machine.

Don Norman is a really smart dude. I think I understand his thoughts on 'The Psychopathology of Everyday Things' pretty well now, which is just the first chapter lol. I have a deep appreciation for the work it must take to write books like this. Explaining each fundamental unit of knowledge and gradually guiding the reader to a higher level of understanding that the author reached through his own experiences.

The 'System Image'. I find it easier to understand when I call it, 'Total Knowledge'.

Perhaps kind of obvious but interaction is like a conversation between a person and an object.


Avoid the trap of an undefined 'good experience' and The Six Fundamental Principles of Interaction

I really agree with this. I like when it is easy to discover how to interact with an Interface and what each component of an Interface does but I always like when the software is kind of communicating with you in subtle ways as you are using it. It's captured well here:

Good design requires good communication, especially from machine to person, indicating what actions are possible, what is happening and what is about to happen.

All areas that we can think about more deeply on Futureland for sure.

I am starting to summarize sections of this book as a way of internalizing my understanding.

I enjoyed this summary of the differences between Industrial Design, Interaction Design and Experience Design.

None of the fields is well defined, but the focus of the efforts does vary, with industrial designers emphasizing form and material, interactive designers emphasizing understandability and usability, and experience designers emphasizing the emotional impact.

It is interesting to think about Interaction design as having a focus on understandability and usability. I think it's the primary focus of Futureland right now. Forming an understanding of the activities that users want and need to perform. And making our logic and conceptual thinking easy to understand through the design of the Interface. It's been a super cool experience so far.

These quoted sentences distill the premise of this book and what Don Norman defines as 'good design'. In his view, a well designed thing is optimized for what a human wants to do, is easy to use and if it is really well designed it is also fun to use!

This book covers everyday things, focusing on the interplay between technology and people to ensure that the products actually fulfill human needs while being understandable and useable. In the best of cases, the products should also be delightful and enjoyable, which means that not only must the requirements of engineering, manufacturing, and ergonomics be satisfied, but attention must be paid to the entire experience, which means the aesthetics of form and the quality of interaction.

I'm going back through Chapters 1 and 2 of this book to make sure I understand them. I think I'll extrapolate a bunch of the insights into my own ideas to try and figure out to what degree I understand the concepts here. I think one of the things that I can work on as I am designing interfaces for Futureland is Discoverability. Don describes this as, "Is it possible to even figure out what actions are possible and where and how to perform them?". I also think in terms of practicing the skill of design it would be helpful to regularly pick up or observe objects and go through my own thorough analysis of their design. How discoverable is this tool? How easy is it to understand?

Knowledge how - what psychologists call procedural knowledge - is the knowledge that enables a person to be a skilled musician, to return a serve in tennis, or to move the tongue properly when saying the phrase "frightening witches." Procedural knowledge is difficult or impossible to write down and difficult to teach. It is best taught by demonstration and best learned through practice. Even the best teachers cannot usually describe what they are doing. Procedural knowledge is largely subconscious, residing in the behavioural level of processing.

Knowledge is both in the head and in the world. Technically, knowledge can only be in the head, because knowledge requires interpretation and understanding, but once the world's structure has been interpreted and understood, it counts as knowledge. Much of the knowledge a person needs to do a task can be derived from the information in the world. Behaviour is determined by combining the knowledge in the head with that in the world.

Perhaps more specifically, Chapter 1 explores the relationship between us and all of the objects around us. Chapter 2 explores our relationship with our mind and body and how that affects the way we live and now Chapter 3 seems like it might explore our relationship with information and how that ultimately affects how we navigate objects and our lives. Chapter 1 and 2 have a lot of depth. I'm not sure if I want to move on yet until I have a complete understanding of these two. It might be worth taking some time to go back and deconstruct them further.

The first two chapters of this book are titled, 'The Psychopathology of Everyday Things' and 'The Psychology of Everyday Actions' respectively. The functional purpose of these chapters (a large chunk) is to help the reader understand how design plays a role in our everyday lives.

Design serves as a transmission between the objects that surround us and the things that we want to do as humans. Sometimes that transmission is clear and thrilling and other times it is cloudy and frustrating. We navigate through life as humans through the objects that surround us. If design can make the things we want to do easier or more difficult, then that means the design of everyday things has a huge influence on the quality of a human's life.

It seems Design requires both imaginative exploration (especially failure) and critical thinking (an understanding of how humans work)…

Feedforward / Feedback. This kind of reminds me of making documentary films in terms of being an exploration through a structured series of questions.

The phenomenon called learned helplessness might help explain the self-blame. It refers to the situation in which people experienced repeated failure at a task. As a result, they decide that the task cannot be done, at least not by them: they are helpless. They stop trying. If this feeling covers a group of tasks, the result can be severe difficulties coping with life. In the extreme case, such learned helplessness leads to depression and to a belief that the individuals cannot cope with everyday life at all…

The phenomenon has been most frequently studied as a precursor to the clinical problem of depression, but I have seen it happen after a few bad experiences with everyday objects.

Conceptual models are a form of story, resulting from our predisposition to find explanations. These models are essential in helping us understand our experiences, predict the outcomes of our actions, and handle unexpected occurrences. We base our models on whatever knowledge we have, real or imaginary, naive or sophisticated.

It's super neat how much of Don's book is dedicated to the human mind. It's something you always hear designers say - that it's important to understand humans. It's nice to see someone going into this level of detail and it's sparked more conviction in me to keep running my own experiments and to more intensely study divergent fields.

Emotion interacts with cognition biochemically, bathing the brain with hormones, transmitted either through the bloodstream or through ducts in the brain, modifying the behaviour of brain cells. Hormones exert powerful biases on brain operation. Thus, in tense, threatening situations, the emotional system triggers the release of hormones that bias the brain to focus upon relevant parts of the environment. The muscles tense in preparation for action. In calm, nonthreatening situations, the emotional system triggers the release of hormones that relax the muscles and bias the brain towards exploration and creativity, to be distracted by events, and to piece together events and knowledge that might have seemed unrelated earlier.

Whoa. It's super interesting to think about emotions as almost a chemical based programming language that runs through your body and brain.

It's also really interesting that this book on industrial design is diving into this stuff. I always thought I was weird for wanting to studying things like anthropology, neuroscience and chemistry. But reading this is really encouraging. If you are designing things for humans, you need to understand them. And understanding them is a difficult life-long multi-disciplinary process.

Subconscious thought matches patterns, finding the best possible match of one's past experience to the current one. It proceeds rapidly and automatically, without effort. Subconscious processing is one of our strengths. It is good at detecting general trends, at recognizing the relationship between what we now experience and what has happened in the past. And it is good at generalizing, at making predictions about the general trend, based on a few examples. But subconscious thought is biased toward regularity and structure, and it is limited in formal power. It may not be capable of symbolic manipulation, of careful reasoning through a sequence of steps.

It's interesting to think of conscious thought and subconscious thought as a though processed through a system. The conscious system has strengths and weaknesses and so does the subconscious. Therefore they produce errors and miscalculations just as they produce success.

Emotion is highly underrated. In fact, the emotional system is a powerful information processing system that works in tandem with cognition. Cognition attempts to make sense of the world: emotion assigns value. It is the emotional system that determines whether a situation is safe or threatening, whether something that is happening is good or bad, desirable or not. Cognition provides understanding: emotion provides value judgements. A human without a working emotional system has difficulty making choices. A human without a cognitive system is dysfunctional.

Because we are only aware of the reflect level of conscious processing, we tend to believe that all human thought is conscious. But it isn't. We also tend to believe that thought can be separated from emotion. This is also false. Cognition and emotion cannot be separated. Cognitive thoughts lead to emotions: emotions drive cognitive thoughts. The brain is structured to act upon the world, and every action carries with it expectations, and these expectations drive emotions.

As I am deep reading like this, there's a lot of divergent ideas that come up. It's a really important part of my creative process. I get ideas for new projects, realizations about my life and my work. I think sometimes when you can be in a state of 'looking things up' while reading and it happens on various time scales. You can do a quick search on the Internet or you can open a book to quickly read through it or through a specific chapter. Mortimer J. Adler calls this type of reading, "Inspectional Reading". Mortimer wrote a book in the early 1960's titled, 'How to Read a Book'. It's a technical guide on how to use a (difficult) book as a tool for deep contemplation on ideas and ultimately to rise to a higher level of understanding.

As I'm making notes in this Journal about Don Norman's book on design. I'm having a lot of divergent thoughts. Thoughts on human perception. Thoughts on the various tools I use frequently. Questions like, what are all of the objects I own? What do I think of the quality of them and why? I have thoughts on meditation and human consciousness and its role within the process of design. Zen and its role in the process of design. As I continue to contemplate the subjects in this book more deeply, it is obvious that things I do in the future will be informed by these contemplations. I want to be able to link back to and link out of this Journal in some way. Some way to reference back to this entry in the future or to drop it into another Journal.

Why do we need to know about the human mind? Because things are designed to be used by people, and without a deep understanding of people, the designs are apt to be faulty, difficult to use, difficult to understand. That is why it is useful to consider the seven stages of action. The mind is more difficult to comprehend than actions. Most of start by believing we already understand both human behavior and the human mind. After all, we are all human: we have all lived with ourselves all of our lives, and we think we understand ourselves. As a result, many of our beliefs about how people behave – including beliefs about ourselves – are wrong. That is why we have multiple social and behavioral sciences, with a good dash of mathematics, economics, computer science, information science, and neuroscience.

"I learned root cause analysis at a young age and thought everyone asked "why?" - turns out, nobody really does!"

There are two paths to an action: executing the action and then evaluating the results: doing and interpreting. Both execution and evaluation require understanding: how the item works and what results it produces. Both execution and evaluation can affect our emotional state.

I spent the last 10 years working in filmmaking (but I was always close to computers and computer science concepts) and then more recently taught myself how to code which has been a great way in understanding how to talk to computers. As I learned to talk to computers, I learned a lot about how computers are different than people. One of the most interesting things about people is how emotional we are. It seems we care about logic and right or wrong like a computer, but inputs and outputs in human communication can be very emotional. You could be saying the same thing as someone else, but how you say it can determine understanding and effectiveness. I think in that sense, design considers the logical activity someone is trying to perform and also their various emotional responses at each stage of performing that activity.

You bridge the Gulf of Execution, through the use of signifiers, constraints, mappings, and a conceptual model. We bridge the Gulf of Evaluation through the use of feedback and a conceptual model.

It's cool how Don built up all of these concepts first and then connected them through the concept of these two Gulfs. I'll need to define each one of these things (signifiers, mappings, etc.) in my own words and in a way that is contextual to the work I'm doing right now.

A designer's challenge is:

1. Taking someone from being able to not to do something to doing it by helping the user answer the questions, "How do I do this?" and "What can I do?" (manipulation).

2. Responding correctly to the questions, "What happened?" and "Is this what I wanted?" after the object has been manipulated by the user (feedback).

Don Norman defines these two challenges as, "the Gulf of Execution" and "the Gulf of Evaluation".

Design is difficult because you're trying to find a balance within forces and disciplines that are essential but that also can pull in opposing directions. Something that is well designed finds a harmony within this chaos ultimately leading to the creation of something people love.

New technology has an inherent paradox. It can improve our lives and give us brand new abilities. And at the same time it can add unnecessary complexities, addictions and frustrations into our lives.


Feedback is essentially when something communicates the result of an action. It needs to be planned and tasteful. If the right type and amount of feedback can be gratifying, too much or the wrong type can be confusing and anxiety inducing.


Mapping is a design concept in which you try to organize signifiers in a way that corresponds to a spatial analogy. Since spatial analogies are already understood by the user they can lead to an immediate understanding of the new interface they are controlling.

The difference between Affordance and Signifiers and why as a designer it is important to understand Affordance but then focus primarily on Signifiers.

In a lot of ways you can interpret this as saying design is the combination of selecting affordance and then manipulating them through signifiers.

Interesting example here of a flat surface being used as a means to collect trash. This was not intentional but is happening because of its location relative to the stairs and because it is flat so it can support items.

Affordances and Signifiers

- Affordances are the possible interactions between people and the environment. Some affordances are perceivable, others are not.
- Perceived affordances often act as signifiers, but they can be ambiguous.
- Signifiers signal things, in particular what actions are possible and how they should be done. Signifiers must be perceivable, else they fail to function.

Thinking in terms of activity-centric design; it seems what you do on Futureland is journaling. Futureland allows you to create a journal for anything. It can be a journal for gardening or designing interfaces or writing code or anything really. There's a lot benefits to doing this and often we naturally find ourselves documenting things when we really care about them. Journals have benefits in learning in reflection and a lot of other things.

This is the activity that we need to focus on and everything we do should be designed for that activity.

Apple's success was due to its combination of two factors: brilliant design plus support for the entire activity of music enjoyment.

The American Psychologists Charles Carver and Michael Scheier suggest that goals have three fundamental levels of control activities:


I'll write more on this later

Activity-centered design

This concept from the book was eye-opening and it's something I want to understand more and run my own experiments on. The general insight is that although humans can be very different as individuals, in large they are very similar in the activities they perform. Through a hyper focus on activities and not the individual person, you can create things that are useful to many more people.

This is why things like automobiles, cameras, computers, telephones, tablets, television sets, and refrigerators are the same in every country. Their designs are hyper focused on the 'activities' you do with them. And these activities transcend most cultural or individual differences.

This seems very similar to my current process of iterating on my understanding through experimentation, making things and writing.

Meditation and Design

It can be difficult to remember that everything around you is designed by someone. The phone in your hand, the layout of a particular space, the way someone is speaking, a song. Meditation can be useful in that it creates a heightened awareness of all the human selections and decisions around you.

internetvin The Design of Everyday Things