Book Review: The Design of Everyday Things (2nd Edition) – Don Norman

Few months ago, I’ve decided to buy a book as part of my monthly mantra and as my personal rule of the thumb on buying books, I’ve ought of getting a book that’s not related with my course of work. For some reason , I thought of learning design and aesthetics as they go hand-in-hand with building applications so I searched for good books with good reviews and this book caught my attention. 




I have to say that this is one of the greatest books I’ve ever read. You don’t need to be a multimedia major nor a designer to understand its content as scenarios in this book mentions is about the things we literally see and do everyday. Yup you’ve guessed it! Going to washrooms, houses, etc. This book spreads awareness on how badly things are designed and how it should be done. It focuses on both aesthetics and psychology and this can forever change the way you look on things.

On my personal experience after reading this book, I now had a mentality for high expectations and I always question most of the objects I see even the simplest ones like a kettle and a cup (No kidding!) with the scenarios of “Why is it designed like this when its better to be designed like that?“, “With just a single look, I should automatically understand how this works or else its a bad design.” and “This seriously needs a complete makeover or else the object itself defeats its own purpose“.


Digging down to further detail, I’ll enlist the things I’ve learned in a nutshell


1.) The Everyday Psychopathology Problems

Anti-jargon: Psychopathology – mental illness.

Let’s give a really simple scenario starting off first with a door scenario. How would you know if you would push or pull a door? Can you distinguish it between the two?

(Before scrolling down after the second image, make sure to make a guess first.)




laminated door

*Edited* Source:


and lastly for an addition…



*Headbang* *Headbang* *Headbang* *Headbang* *Headbang* *Headbang* *Headbang* *Headbang* *Headbang* *Headbang*


Yes I know… I know! Its just a simple object but how come a lot of people still get confused about it? I’m quite sure you struggled the same thing. Not to mention it only does two things, you either open it or close it. Even though there’s a signage mark, there’s no denying that not all people read texts.  Yes, it may be easy but this simple thing can actually cause a disaster and may even cause a life! (No kidding). Let me share to you my case and another.

There was this restaurant we ate on a birthday celebration. I went to the restroom and the door was built like a western door (a.k.a cowboy door). Obviously to get inside, I had to push the door so I got in. When I was about to get out, I pushed the door and it doesn’t work! Its locked up like something is clogging it then I figured that the doors’ hinge was built only to move inwards. So for me to get out, I either had to duck and move below OR I have to pull it inwards with a very limited space. If I were to duck, this would not look pleasant to the people outside as the setting was more of a formal type so I’d look stupid on their point of view. If I were to pull, I need to struggle the limited space given on the distance between the inward position of the door and the wall.



The Western Door A.K.A Cowboy door. Source:


Secondly, off course let’s not forget about the 1996 Ozone Disco Fire Incident which killed 162 people and named as the worst fire incident in the Philippines and the 7th in the world.  The story was when the fire broke down, the only exit was the front door which can only be opened inwards (similar to my story earlier) and the club was at full house. Unfortunately, everyone squeezed right in the doors’ direction as a result, its clogged and it wouldn’t open till the fire burned everyone else. Reason? All because of the door! More importantly, the design of the door!  So you see now how can a simple object make a difference? It marked a permanent scar on history. The design of the door was bad, so bad that no one can exit flawlessly to the door. In addition, that’s the reason why the Philippines established a law wherein swinging doors should also swing outwards for hazardous reasons.

Those pretty much explains this case. Do I need to elaborate the design of the door again?

Its not us that should adjust to design but rather design should adjust to us.

2.) The action and reaction: Affordances and Signifiers

“For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction” -Newton’s third law of motion

Affordance refers to the relationship between a physical object and a person on what can the object do to the person while Signifiers are signs on how to deal with objects. Sounds confusing eh? Well, let’s give a real life scenario. Let say you have a bike. What can a bike do to you? It can travel you anywhere you want to go. The affordance on that case is travelling since the bike can travel you anywhere. To easily understand, just think of affordance as an object literally buying something for a certain amount of degree. Its like saying the bike can afford to travel you. For the signifier, the signs that a bike is for travelling are its pedals and brakes. Affordance and signifiers work as a pair through psychology on how a person behaves. Probably after reading this, you’d consider these terms whenever you evaluate an object.




3.)Human Error vs Bad Design

This is my most favorite part. This is where a lot debates happen and yet no one seems to resolve. According to the book, industrial accidents are caused by human error which ranges approximately 75% – 95% (Industrial accident… as in accidents that happen on work. Just to clarify your thoughts, accidents can mean a lot and doesn’t exactly mean death. I know the first thing that comes into your mind when you he is an explosion or anything disastrous but then again, not all disasters kill people but still its bad!). How come a lot of people look clumsy whenever using an object? The thing is they aren’t. Its the design problem. If a building collapses, the first action done is to investigate its design. Once you started off a poor foundation, it will eventually become a domino effect progressing with a fragile base.





For instance when you buy a new phone that you’ve never used before, it might take a lot of time before you get used to it. If it was a good design, you’d automatically understand what to do with just a glance. That’s why modern phones such as the iPhone have only one button because it would normally have one function, which in our cognitive perspective is the only option to press when we want to return. If we compare a game controller versus a TV remote, a game controller seems intuitive compared to a TV remote as controllers. A TV remote may look intimidating because a press of a wrong button may configure settings in an instant that you can’t undo so easy or probably mess up something on your channel.




Can you see the big gap of intuition? I doubt people will read a very long manual just to understand how the device works. Straightforwardly speaking, we want to get the job done real quick.

Here’s another one. Lets take into account the refrigerator scene. Modern fridges today have digital controls for easier understanding but I’ll be using the ordinary one for this case. Take a look at this picture:


Source: Partially edited the pic.


Before, I didn’t know how this thing works. I’m quite sure you got confused operating this thing before too. Common fridges composes 2 compartments which are the freezer (normally on top) and the refrigerator (for fresh foods). I had an assumption that when you increase the freezer value, it will increase the freezer temperature and same goes with the fridge. Suddenly, ITS A TRAP! 



You thought those 2 work independently eh? THEY DON’T! One control is to set the thermostat (the one used to control temperature) and the other is to set the amount of cold air going into the 2 compartments. I’m guessing your reaction would be somewhat like this:


If you still can’t get it, this diagram (taken from the book) visualizes the process:


Quoting off:
The conceptual model A is provided by the system image of the refrigerator as gleaned from the controls. Each control determines the temperature of the named part of the refrigerator. This means that each compartment has its own temperature sensor and cooling unit. This is wrong. The correct conceptual model is shown in B. There is no way of knowing where the temperature sensor is located so it is shown outside the refrigerator. The freezer control determines the freezer temperature (so is this where the sensor is located?). The refrigerator control determines how much of the cold air goes to the freezer and how much to the refrigerator.

For me with that kind of design, adjusting the temperature can be hair-plucking and some refrigerator manuals mentioned to give around 24 hours after the adjustment for it to take effect. Things like these would need a manual and probably a support from the manufacturer in which for me is too much for a simple task. Its common that people don’t read the manual for products should be as easy as 1-2-3. What if I need to adjust the temperature now? There’s this trial-and-error scheme to test out after 24 hours whether you had the right temperature. Going back to my third point, this is not human error, this is definitely bad design. In today’s modern fridge, controls are now separate and easy to use wherein they’re built with a single cooling unit.

Now for the ultimate question, is it now a human error or a bad design? On this point, you pretty much you get the gist.


4.) Thinking Design the Correct Way

Now comes to creating the product. In the book, it is defined that human-centered design consists of 4 processes.

  1. Observation
  2. Ideation
  3. Prototyping
  4. Testing

Sounds simple isn’t it? Yes, its easy to make a product but the question is, is it really easy to use? Some people focus too much on aesthetics that they forgot about the function itself. As in can a simple glance make it understandable to use? That’s the part where a lot of people fail. Whenever building a product, it should take less than a second for you to figure out what to do. I’ll give an example from the book. Imagine you’re washing your hands and the sink drain is clogged. Assuming you have this kind of drainage (refer to the picture below)



After washing, an amount of water is collected and you’ll have to drain it. Probably you’d think of getting a hard-thin object, insert it in the middle-edge corner of the drainage then push ’till something happens. But that won’t work. The real solution is to push the stopper.






There were 2 problems. One, design is not intuitive and two, you already got your hands clean so your hands get dirty again when you soak your hands into the water just to unlock the clog. Its a big design failure. If you were to revamp that, how would you do it wherein you solve those 2 problems? Initially, the purpose of the clog is to reuse the water whenever your cleaning dishes. How would you consider that in your solution too?


There is the concept of subconsciousness. This means that things you do naturally don’t need to get “think-ed about”. For instance booting a computer. You press a button then boom, its on. You don’t need to know what going below the table for you know that the output is for the PC to turn on. That task never required “thinking” as this is something that you do everyday. Subconsciousness can either be a good or a bad thing. Bad thing? Just imagine you got used to a normal booting process. What if you encountered a relatively new hardware wherein your boot button is actually to open the OS settings? I’m sure you’ll get surprised. Whenever designing something, make sure subconsciousness is something you’d consider as this its a personal procedure. What if a person that doesn’t know anything about computers tries to boot-up the PC? On a single glimpse, do you think the person would automatically know what to do?


In society, people are afraid to make mistakes because they might get humiliated. In testing out items on the malls (such as a free play of Nintendo Wii, playing unusual arcade machines), if you don’t know something but seems something simple, you might be afraid to ask “stupid” questions because there’s the risk of: One, get judged on being stupid, two the person you asked might get mad and three, feel stupid in the end.





Asking something stupid doesn’t mean its entirely your fault but can probably be the designers fault. Whenever building a product, always question everything even the stupidest ones. Stupid questions can sound very obvious but if you look into a different angle, it would sound intense wherein the obviousness is not so obvious at all. Sometimes those questions are the solution to make your design easy to use and understandable.


These things are playing with our minds and this is where psychology comes in into the picture. Human cognition can be defined as a double-edged sword. I can personally conclude that functional design is 10% aesthetics and 90% common sense.


P.S – For the book, I got it around $17. Thanks to the author for the awesome write and clarifying a lot of thoughts!

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