So I read about three nonfiction books a week, mostly biggification and self-work (what regular people call business and self-help). Rated on a scale of ducks: 1 duck = Stephen Covey (yawn) and 5 ducks = Malcolm Gladwell (do a little dance). Books worth reading are image-linked to independent bookstores.
The book: The Design of Everyday Things
The author: Donald A. Norman
The rating: 4.5 ducks
Years ago when I was still tending bar in Tel Aviv, this one bar I worked at was set up in kind of a weird way that meant you had to pull open two different doors in order to reach the part where the bathroom was. And everyone would get this part wrong.
Despite the fact that each of these doors was clearly marked with a “pull” sign in both Hebrew and English, everyone (read: not just drunk people) would push instead. And even after years of working there on and off, and hanging out there to the point that I spent more time at the bar than in my apartment, I still — often as not — made that mistake too.
Guess what? The most common reaction– “Wow, could I be any more of an incompetent idiot?” — is wrong, and The Design of Everyday Things is here to help you make the mental move away from it. I’m pleased to report that once your brain has been introduced to the concepts in this book, you’re much more likely to realize, “Ooooh, it’s not me, it’s just bad design.”
This is great news. When things are designed properly, they work without you having to work. It’s easy to default into an automatic state of self-blame — this book serves as a useful reminder that this is not a healthy pattern.
It’s also a terrific intellectual companion to Steve Krug’s Don’t Make Me Think. You can apply the ideas in here to so many things. Especially useful (for me) is the way you could apply these principles to thinking about how people use your website. How they interact with the visual and design-based clues you think you’re giving them as opposed to what they’re actually experiencing.
Ironically, the book was originally called “The Psychology of Everyday Things”, which misled most of his ideal readers to think it was actually about something that didn’t interest them. (But wait — it interests me! Write that book too!)
More ironically still, many of the diagrams in the book are actually not very easy to understand. (Which makes me think I — and Donald Norman — should also read Edward Tufte’s book Envisioning Information, which I know of mostly by way of Calyx Design).
Still, the primary ideas are completely genius, and absolutely as useful and relevant as ever:
- A “push” sign on a door is, for all intents and purposes a manual. When something is designed correctly you know intuitively what to do and how to use it without having to think about it or worse, guess, or worst of all, ask someone to explain it to you.
What looks or feels like user error is actually a design error. In other words, you’re not an idiot or mechanically inept because you can’t figure out how to program the VCR.
It’s the job of the design to make everything obvious. (Thank you!)
- We tend to explain things away when in fact we ought to pay more attention to them. If the dog is barking, go see if someone is lurking outside your window instead of telling poor Muffintumbler (okay, clearly I don’t have a dog) to be still and shut up.
How this stuff relates to the whole “changing your habits” thing
I’m going to guess that our Mr. Norman didn’t intend this to be a guide to “working on your stuff” (though, on second thought, his interest and background in psychology say otherwise). But who cares because a. you can still use it that way, and b. I’m physcologically incapable of not relating things to the work-on-your-patterns process.
If anything, this book is a reminder that it’s not you, it’s your patterns. Case in point: when you pull a door instead of pushing it, you’re not the moron. It’s your patterns showing up.
The pushing is a pattern and the name-calling is a pattern. And what you’ve got now is a couple of opportunities, namely:
- The opportunity to notice when you automatically heap abuse on yourself or repeat the things you learned about yourself from others. (Personal example: My own pattern is thinking: “Oh, I’m clumsy.” When this is actually me just repeating what my mother says about me.)
- The opportunity to separate what is hard for you because of traits or qualities in yourself, and what is hard for you because it wasn’t designed with you (or anyone, for that matter) in mind.
- The opportunity to shift your thought from “what am I doing wrong?” to “where do I assign blame to myself, and is it possible that there are other things going on here that don’t actually have anything to do with me?”
All this is the stuff that it’s not necessarily fun to notice or learn (okay, it sucks) but gives you some useful clues that you get to use in untangling your issues. Which you want to do because it gives you the freedom to stop tripping yourself up and start doing stuff differently.
There’s a reason this book is a classic. I took it out from the library twice (I can be slow that way) before realizing that it belongs on my shelf because I’ll be referring to these concepts forever. Get it here if you like or at your local independent bookstore.
(Thanks to JP Collins for recommending this to me twice, which, by the way, is the best way to get me to read something.)