What to do
Identify a physical or computer layout problem – for example, have you ever noticed the mute button on some video conferencing services – they suck?  What about the doors to the coolers are Sheetz (this is a regional convenience store) 
READ the assigned chapters from Norman and Shneiderman for the week, propose a solution to the problem you have identified.
Use programming frameworks, mock-up tools, hand drawings, and/or other methods to construct a solution to the identified problem.
There are several other great tools out therefor prototyping
What to turn in
Create a presentation (with voice), or a paper, or a video (via VidGrid) detailing the following:

A short reflection/discussion about what inspired you from the book. Be specific and list page numbers from the book, and a short summary of the points from the readings.  Talk about how you have reflected on this portion of the readings and any other readings or experiences which may have influenced your decision.  Use specific pages, tables, figures, and graphs.
A summary of the identified problem with appropriate video or screen captures (required). What is the issue, what from the book or other readings clearly makes this a usability issue?  Again, talk about how the readings, eternal readings, and experiences may have influenced you to solve this specific problem.  Is there something in the physical world that inspired your example?
Discuss, show, and/or demonstrate your solution. I encourage you to do a side-by-side of the problem and the solution to show the change.  Give details and use usability terminology from the book and other readings to demonstrate your understanding of the importance of usability.
Talk about the tools you used to solve the problem.
Reflect this exercise, and then discuss how you have grown through this exercise.

NOTE: You must use citations whenever appropriate.  I encourage you to seek external examples and do additional reading on the topic.


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R E V I S E D & E X P A N D E D E D I T I O N

Cover design by Nicole Caputo

Cover image: Jacques Carelman “Co� ee Pot for Masochists”

© 2013 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris


A Member of the Perseus Books Group

ISBN 978-0-465-05065-9

9 7 8 0 4 6 5 0 5 0 6 5 9

5 1 7 9 9

$17.99 US / $21.00 CAN

ven the smartest among us can feel inept as we try to fi gure out the shower control in a hotel or

attempt to navigate an unfamiliar television set or stove. When The Design of Everyday Things

was published in 1988, cognitive scientist Don Norman provocatively proposed that the fault

lies not in ourselves but in design that ignores the needs and psychology of people. Alas, bad design

is everywhere, but fortunately, it isn’t di� cult to design things that are understandable, usable, and

enjoyable. Thoughtfully revised to keep the timeless principles of psychology up to date with ever-

changing new technologies, The Design of Everyday Things is a powerful appeal for good design, and

a reminder of how—and why—some products satisfy while others only disappoint.

“Part operating manual for designers and part manifesto on the power of designing for people,

The Design of Everyday Things is even more relevant today than it was when fi rst published.”
—TIM BROWN, CEO, IDEO, and author of Change by Design

DON N ORMAN is a co-founder of the Nielsen Norman Group, and holds graduate degrees
in both engineering and psychology. His many books include Emotional Design, The Design of Future

Things, and Living with Complexity. He lives in Silicon Valley, California.


“Design may be our top competitive edge. This book is a joy—fun and of the utmost importance.”

—T O M P E T E R S , author of In Search of Excellence

“This book changed the fi eld of design. As the pace of technological change accelerates, the

principles in this book are increasingly important. The new examples and ideas

about design and product development make it essential reading.”

—PAT R I C K W H I T N E Y, Dean, Institute of Design, and Steelcase/Robert C. Pew

Professor of Design, Illinois Institute of Technology

“Norman enlightened me when I was a student of psychology decades ago and he

continues to inspire me as a professor of design. The cumulated insights and wisdom of the cross-

disciplinary genius Donald Norman are a must for designers and a joy for

those who are interested in artifacts and people.”

—C E E S D E B O N T, Dean, School of Design, and Chair Professor of

Industrial Design, The Hong Kong Polytechnic University



e D


of E



















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Memory and Attention: An Introduction to
Human Information Processing.

First edition, 1969; second edition 1976

Human Information Processing.
(with Peter Lindsay: first edition, 1972; second edition 1977)


Models of Human Memory
(edited, 1970)

Explorations in Cognition
(with David E. Rumelhart and the LNR Research Group, 1975)

Perspectives on Cognitive Science
(edited, 1981)

User Centered System Design: New Perspectives on
Human-Computer Interaction

(edited with Steve Draper, 1986)


Learning and Memory, 1982

The Psychology of Everyday Things, 1988

The Design of Everyday Things
1990 and 2002 (paperbacks of The Psychology of Everyday Things
with new prefaces)

The Design of Everyday Things
Revised and Expanded Edition, 2013

Turn Signals Are the Facial Expressions of Automobiles, 1992

Things That Make Us Smart, 1993

The Invisible Computer: Why Good Products Can Fail, the Personal
Computer Is So Complex, and Information Appliances Are the
Answer, 1998

Emotional Design: Why We Love (or Hate) Everyday Things, 2004

The Design of Future Things, 2007

A Comprehensive Strategy for Better Reading: Cognition and
Emotion, 2010

(with Masanori Okimoto; my essays, with commentary in Japanese, used

for teaching English as a second language to Japanese speakers)

Living with Complexity, 2011

C D – R O M

First person: Donald A. Norman. Defending Human Attributes
in the Age of the Machine, 1994

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Don Norman

A Member of the Perseus Books Group

New York

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Copyright © 201 3 by Don Norman

Published by Basic Books,

A Member of the Perseus Books Group

All rights reserved. Printed in the United States of America. No part

of this book may be reproduced in any manner whatsoever without

written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in

critical articles and reviews. For information, address Basic Books,

250 West 57th Street, 15th Floor, New York, New York 10107.

Books published by Basic Books are available at special discounts for

bulk purchases in the United States by corporations, institutions, and

other organizations. For more information, please contact the Special

Markets Department at the Perseus Books Group, 2300 Chestnut

Street, Suite 200, Philadelphia, PA 19103, or call (800) 810-4145,

ext. 5000, or e-mail [email protected]

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Norman, Donald A.

[Psychology of everyday things]

The design of everyday things / Don Norman.—Revised

and expanded edition.

pages cm

ISBN 978-0-465-05065-9 (pbk.)—ISBN 978-0-465-00394-5

(ebook) 1. Industrial design—Psychological aspects. 2. Human

engineering. I. Title.

TS171.4.N67 2013



10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1

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For Julie

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Preface to the Revised Edition xi

1 The Psychopathology of Everyday Things 1
The Complexity of Modern Devices, 4

Human-Centered Design, 8

Fundamental Principles of Interaction, 10

The System Image, 31

The Paradox of Technology, 32

The Design Challenge, 34

2 The Psychology of Everyday Actions 37
How People Do Things: The Gulfs of Execution

and Evaluation, 38

The Seven Stages of Action, 40

Human Thought: Mostly Subconscious, 44

Human Cognition and Emotion, 49

The Seven Stages of Action and the

Three Levels of Processing, 55

People as Storytellers, 56

Blaming the Wrong Things, 59

Falsely Blaming Yourself, 65

The Seven Stages of Action:

Seven Fundamental Design Principles, 71

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viii Contents

3 Knowledge in the Head and in the World 74
Precise Behavior from Imprecise Knowledge, 75

Memory Is Knowledge in the Head, 86

The Structure of Memory, 91

Approximate Models: Memory in the

Real World, 100

Knowledge in the Head, 105

The Tradeoff Between Knowledge in the World

and in the Head, 109

Memory in Multiple Heads, Multiple Devices, 111

Natural Mapping, 113

Culture and Design: Natural Mappings Can

Vary with Culture, 118

4 Knowing What to Do: Constraints, 123
Discoverability, and Feedback

Four Kinds of Constraints: Physical, Cultural,

Semantic, and Logical, 125

Applying Affordances, Signifiers, and

Constraints to Everyday Objects, 132

Constraints That Force the Desired Behavior, 141

Conventions, Constraints, and Affordances, 145

The Faucet: A Case History of Design, 150

Using Sound as Signifiers, 155

5 Human Error? No, Bad Design 162

Understanding Why There Is Error, 163

Deliberate Violations, 169

Two Types of Errors: Slips and Mistakes, 170

The Classification of Slips, 173

The Classification of Mistakes, 179

Social and Institutional Pressures, 186

Reporting Error, 191

Detecting Error, 194

Designing for Error, 198

When Good Design Isn’t Enough, 210

Resilience Engineering, 211

The Paradox of Automation, 213

Design Principles for Dealing with Error, 215

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Contents ix

6 Design Thinking 217

Solving the Correct Problem, 218

The Double-Diamond Model of Design, 220

The Human-Centered Design Process, 221

What I Just Told You? It Doesn’t Really Work

That Way, 236

The Design Challenge, 239

Complexity Is Good; It Is Confusion

That Is Bad, 247

Standardization and Technology, 248

Deliberately Making Things Difficult, 255

Design: Developing Technology for People, 257

7 Design in the World of Business 258

Competitive Forces, 259

New Technologies Force Change, 264

How Long Does It Take to Introduce a

New Product?, 268

Two Forms of Innovation: Incremental

and Radical, 279

The Design of Everyday Things: 1988–2038, 282

The Future of Books, 288

The Moral Obligations of Design, 291

Design Thinking and Thinking About Design, 293

Acknowledgments 299
General Readings and Notes 305
References 321
Index 331

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In the first edition of this book, then called POET, The Psychology
of Everyday Things, I started with these lines: “This is the book I
always wanted to write, except I didn’t know it.” Today I do know

it, so I simply say, “This is the book I always wanted to write.”

This is a starter kit for good design. It is intended to be enjoy-

able and informative for everyone: everyday people, technical peo-

ple, designers, and nondesigners. One goal is to turn readers into

great observers of the absurd, of the poor design that gives rise

to so many of the problems of modern life, especially of modern

technology. It will also turn them into observers of the good, of

the ways in which thoughtful designers have worked to make our

lives easier and smoother. Good design is actually a lot harder to

notice than poor design, in part because good designs fit our needs

so well that the design is invisible, serving us without drawing

attention to itself. Bad design, on the other hand, screams out its

inadequacies, making itself very noticeable.

Along the way I lay out the fundamental principles required

to eliminate problems, to turn our everyday stuff into enjoyable

products that provide pleasure and satisfaction. The combination

of good observation skills and good design principles is a powerful

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xii Preface to the Revised Edition

tool, one that everyone can use, even people who are not profes-

sional designers. Why? Because we are all designers in the sense

that all of us deliberately design our lives, our rooms, and the way

we do things. We can also design workarounds, ways of overcom-

ing the flaws of existing devices. So, one purpose of this book is to

give back your control over the products in your life: to know how

to select usable and understandable ones, to know how to fix those

that aren’t so usable or understandable.

The first edition of the book has lived a long and healthy life. Its

name was quickly changed to Design of Everyday Things (DOET)
to make the title less cute and more descriptive. DOET has been

read by the general public and by designers. It has been assigned

in courses and handed out as required readings in many compa-

nies. Now, more than twenty years after its release, the book is

still popular. I am delighted by the response and by the number

of people who correspond with me about it, who send me further

examples of thoughtless, inane design, plus occasional examples

of superb design. Many readers have told me that it has changed

their lives, making them more sensitive to the problems of life and

to the needs of people. Some changed their careers and became

designers because of the book. The response has been amazing.

Why a Revised Edition?
In the twenty-five years that have passed since the first edition

of the book, technology has undergone massive change. Neither

cell phones nor the Internet were in widespread usage when I

wrote the book. Home networks were unheard of. Moore’s law

proclaims that the power of computer processors doubles roughly

every two years. This means that today’s computers are five thou-

sand times more powerful than the ones available when the book

was first written.

Although the fundamental design principles of The Design of
Everyday Things are still as true and as important as when the first
edition was written, the examples were badly out of date. “What

is a slide projector?” students ask. Even if nothing else was to be

changed, the examples had to be updated.

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Preface to the Revised Edition xiii

The principles of effective design also had to be brought up to

date. Human-centered design (HCD) has emerged since the first

edition, partially inspired by that book. This current edition has

an entire chapter devoted to the HCD process of product devel-

opment. The first edition of the book focused upon making prod-

ucts understandable and usable. The total experience of a product

covers much more than its usability: aesthetics, pleasure, and fun

play critically important roles. There was no discussion of plea-

sure, enjoyment, or emotion. Emotion is so important that I wrote

an entire book, Emotional Design, about the role it plays in design.
These issues are also now included in this edition.

My experiences in industry have taught me about the com-

plexities of the real world, how cost and schedules are critical,

the need to pay attention to competition, and the importance of

multi disciplinary teams. I learned that the successful product has

to appeal to customers, and the criteria they use to determine what

to purchase may have surprisingly little overlap with the aspects

that are important during usage. The best products do not always

succeed. Brilliant new technologies might take decades to become

accepted. To understand products, it is not enough to understand

design or technology: it is critical to understand business.

What Has Changed?
For readers familiar with the earlier edition of this book, here is a

brief review of the changes.

What has changed? Not much. Everything.

When I started, I assumed that the basic principles were still

true, so all I needed to do was update the examples. But in the

end, I rewrote everything. Why? Because although all the princi-

ples still applied, in the twenty-five years since the first edition,

much has been learned. I also now know which parts were diffi-

cult and therefore need better explanations. In the interim, I also

wrote many articles and six books on related topics, some of which

I thought important to include in the revision. For example, the

original book says nothing of what has come to be called user
experience (a term that I was among the first to use, when in the

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xiv Preface to the Revised Edition

early 1990s, the group I headed at Apple called itself “the User

Experience Architect’s Office”). This needed to be here.

Finally, my exposure to industry taught me much about the way

products actually get deployed, so I added considerable infor-

mation about the impact of budgets, schedules, and competitive

pressures. When I wrote the original book, I was an academic re-

searcher. Today, I have been an industry executive (Apple, HP, and

some startups), a consultant to numerous companies, and a board

member of companies. I had to include my learnings from these


Finally, one important component of the original edition was

its brevity. The book could be read quickly as a basic, general

introduction. I kept that feature unchanged. I tried to delete as

much as I added to keep the total size about the same (I failed).

The book is meant to be an introduction: advanced discussions of

the topics, as well as a large number of important but more ad-

vanced topics, have been left out to maintain the compactness. The

previous edition lasted from 1988 to 2013. If the new edition is to

last as long, 2013 to 2038, I had to be careful to choose examples

that would not be dated twenty-five years from now. As a result,

I have tried not to give specific company examples. After all, who

remembers the companies of twenty-five years ago? Who can

predict what new companies will arise, what existing companies

will disappear, and what new technologies will arise in the next

twenty-five years? The one thing I can predict with certainty is that

the principles of human psychology will remain the same, which

means that the design principles here, based on psychology, on the

nature of human cognition, emotion, action, and interaction with

the world, will remain unchanged.

Here is a brief summary of the changes, chapter by chapter.

Chapter 1: The Psychopathology of Everyday Things
Signifiers are the most important addition to the chapter, a con-

cept first introduced in my book Living with Complexity. The first
edition had a focus upon affordances, but although affordances

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Preface to the Revised Edition xv

make sense for interaction with physical objects, they are con-

fusing when dealing with virtual ones. As a result, affordances

have created much confusion in the world of design. Affor-

dances define what actions are possible. Signifiers specify how

people discover those possibilities: signifiers are signs, percep-

tible signals of what can be done. Signifiers are of far more im-

portance to designers than are affordances. Hence, the extended


I added a very brief section on HCD, a term that didn’t yet exist

when the first edition was published, although looking back, we

see that the entire book was about HCD.

Other than that, the chapter is the same, and although all the

photographs and drawings are new, the examples are pretty much

the same.

Chapter 2: The Psychology of Everyday Actions
The chapter has one major addition to the coverage in the first edi-

tion: the addition of emotion. The seven-stage model of action has

proven to be influential, as has the three-level model of processing

(introduced in my book Emotional Design). In this chapter I show
the interplay between these two, show that different emotions

arise at the different stages, and show which stages are primarily

located at each of the three levels of processing (visceral, for the

elementary levels of motor action performance and perception; be-

havioral, for the levels of action specification and initial interpre-

tation of the outcome; and reflective, for the development of goals,

plans, and the final stage of evaluation of the outcome).

Chapter 3: Knowledge in the Head and in the World
Aside from improved and updated examples, the most important

addition to this chapter is a section on culture, which is of special

importance to my discussion of “natural mappings.” What seems

natural in one culture may not be in another. The section examines

the way different cultures view time—the discussion might sur-

prise you.

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xvi Preface to the Revised Edition

Chapter. 4: Knowing What to Do:
Constraints, Discoverability, and Feedback

Few substantive changes. Better examples. The elaboration of forc-

ing functions into two kinds: lock-in and lockout. And a section

on destination control elevators, illustrating how change can be

extremely disconcerting, even to professionals, even if the change

is for the better.

Chapter 5: Human Error? No, Bad Design
The basics are unchanged, but the chapter itself has been heavily

revised. I update the classification of errors to fit advances since

the publication of the first edition. In particular, I now divide slips

into two main categories—action-based and memory lapses; and

mistakes into three categories—rule-based, knowledge-based,

and memory lapses. (These distinctions are now common, but I

introduce a slightly different way to treat memory lapses.)

Although the multiple classifications of slips provided in the

first edition are still valid, many have little or no implications for

design, so they have been eliminated from the revision. I provide

more design-relevant examples. I show the relationship of the clas-

sification of errors, slips, and mistakes to the seven-stage model of

action, something new in this revision.

The chapter concludes with a quick discussion of the difficulties

posed by automation (from my book The Design of Future Things)
and what I consider the best new approach to deal with design

so as to either eliminate or minimize human error: resilience


Chapter 6: Design Thinking
This chapter is completely new. I discuss two views of human-

centered design: the British Design Council’s double-diamond

model and the traditional HCD iteration of observation, ide-

ation, prototyping, and testing. The first diamond is the diver-

gence, followed by convergence, of possibilities to determine

the appropriate problem. The second diamond is a divergence-

convergence to determine an appropriate solution. I introduce

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Preface to the Revised Edition xvii

activity-centered design as a more appropriate variant of human-

centered design in many circumstances. These sections cover

the theory.

The chapter then takes a radical shift in position, starting with a

section entitled “What I Just Told You? It Doesn’t Really Work That

Way.” Here is where I introduce Norman’s Law: The day the prod-

uct team is announced, it is behind schedule and over its budget.

I discuss challenges of design within a company, where sched-

ules, budgets, and the competing requirements of the different

divisions all provide severe constraints upon what can be accom-

plished. Readers from industry have told me that they welcome

these sections, which capture the real pressures upon them.

The chapter concludes with a discussion of the role of standards

(modified from a similar discussion in the earlier edition), plus

some more general design guidelines.

Chapter 7: Design in the World of Business
This chapter is also completely new, continuing the theme started

in Chapter 6 of design in the real world. Here I discuss “featuritis,”

the changes being forced upon us through the invention of new

technologies, and the distinction between incremental and radical

innovation. Everyone wants radical innovation, but the truth is,

most radical innovations fail, and even when they do succeed, it

can take multiple decades before they are accepted. Radical innova-

tion, therefore, is relatively rare: incremental innovation is common.

The techniques of human-centered design are appropriate to in-

cremental innovation: they cannot lead to radical innovations.

The chapter concludes with discussions of the trends to come,

the future of books, the moral obligations of design, and the rise of

small, do-it-yourself makers that are starting to revolutionize the

way ideas are conceived and introduced into the marketplace:

“the rise of the small,” I call it.

With the passage of time, the psychology of people stays the same,

but the tools and objects in the world change. Cultures change.

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xviii Preface to the Revised Edition

Technologies change. The principles of design still hold, but the

way they get applied needs to be modified to account for new ac-

tivities, new technologies, new methods of communication and

interaction. The Psychology of Everyday Things was appropriate for
the twentieth century: The Design of Everyday Things is for the

Don Norman
Silicon Valley, California


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If I were placed in the cockpit of a modern jet airliner,

my inability to perform well would neither surprise nor

bother me. But why should I have trouble with doors

and light switches, water faucets and stoves? “Doors?” I

can hear the reader saying. “You have trouble opening doors?” Yes.

I push doors that are meant to be pulled, pull doors that should be

pushed, and walk into doors that neither pull nor push, but slide.

Moreover, I see others having the same troubles—unnecessary

troubles. My problems with doors have become so well known

that confusing doors are often called “Norman doors.” Imagine

becoming famous for doors that don’t work right. I’m pretty sure

that’s not what my parents planned for me. (Put “Norman doors”

into your favorite search engine—be sure to include the quote

marks: it makes for fascinating reading.)

How can such a simple thing as a door be so confusing? A door

would seem to be about as simple a device as possible. There is not

much you can do to a door: you can open it or shut it. Suppose you

are in an office building, walking down a corridor. You come to a

door. How does it open? Should you push or pull, on the left or the

right? Maybe the door slides. If so, in which direction? I have seen

doors that slide to the left, to the right, and even up into the ceiling.


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2 The Design of Everyday Things

The design of the door should indicate how to work it without any

need for signs, certainly without any need for trial and error.

A friend told me of the time he got trapped in the doorway of a

post office in a European city. The entrance was an imposing row

of six glass swinging doors, followed immediately by a second,

identical row. That’s a standard design: it helps reduce the airflow

and thus maintain the indoor temperature of the building. There

was no visible hardware: obviously the doors could swing in ei-

ther direction: all a person had to do was push the side of the door

and enter.

My friend pushed on one of the outer doors. It swung inward,

and he entered the building. Then, before he could get to the next

row of doors, he was distracted and turned around for an instant.

He didn’t realize it at the time, but he had moved slightly to the

right. So when he came to the next door and pushed it, nothing

happened. “Hmm,” he thought, “must be locked.” So he pushed

the side of the adjacent door. Nothing. Puzzled, my friend decided

to go outside again. He turned around and pushed against the

side of a door. Nothing. He pushed the adjacent door. Nothing.

The door he had just entered no longer worked. He turned around

once more and tried the inside doors again. Nothing. Concern,

then mild panic. He was trapped! Just then, a group of people on

the other side of the entranceway (to my friend’s right) passed eas-

ily through both sets of doors. My friend hurried over to follow

their path.

F I G U R E 1 . 1 . Coffeepot for Masochists. The
French artist Jacques Carelman in his series of
books Catalogue d’objets introuvables (Catalog of
unfindable objects) provides delightful examples
of everyday things that are deliberately unwork-
able, outrageous, or otherwise ill-formed. One
of my favorite items is what he calls “coffeepot for
masochists.” The photograph shows a copy given
to me by collegues at the University of California,
San Diego. It is one of my treasured art objects.
(Photograph by Aymin Shamma for the author.)

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one: The Psychopathology of Everyday Things 3

How could such a thing happen? A swinging door has two sides.

One contains the supporting pillar and the hinge, the other is un-

supported. To open the door, you must push or pull on the unsup-

ported edge. If you push on the hinge side, nothing happens. In

my friend’s case, he was in a building where the designer aimed

for beauty, not utility. No distracting lines, no visible pillars, no vis-

ible hinges. So how can the ordinary user know which side to push

on? While distracted, my friend had moved toward the (invisible)

supporting pillar, so he was pushing the doors on the hinged side.

No wonder nothing happened. Attractive doors. Stylish. Probably

won a design prize.

Two of the most important characteristics of good design are dis-
coverability and understanding. Discoverability: Is it possible to even
figure out what actions are possible and where and how to per-

form them? Understanding: What does it all mean? How is the

product supposed to be used? What do all the different controls

and settings mean?

The doors in the story illustrate what happens when discoverabil-

ity fails. Whether the device is a door or a stove, a mobile phone

or a nuclear power plant, the relevant components must be visible,

and they must communicate the correct message: What actions

are possible? Where and how should they be done? With doors

that push, the designer must provide signals that naturally indi-

cate where to push. These need not destroy the aesthetics. Put a

vertical plate on the side to be pushed. Or make the supporting

pillars visible. The vertical plate and supporting pillars are natural

signals, naturally interpreted, making it easy to know just what to

do: no labels needed.

With complex devices, discoverability and understanding re-

quire the aid of manuals or personal instruction. We accept this

if the device is indeed complex, but it should be unnecessary for

simple things. Many products defy understanding simply because

they have too many functions and controls. I don’t think that sim-

ple home appliances—stoves, washing machines, audio and tele-

vision sets—should look like Hollywood’s idea of a spaceship

control room. They already do, much to our consternation. Faced

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4 The Design of Everyday Things

with a bewildering array of controls and displays, we simply mem-

orize one or two fixed settings to approximate what is desired.

In England I visited a home with a fancy new Italian washer-

dryer combination, with super-duper multisymbol controls, all to

do everything anyone could imagine doing with the washing and

drying of clothes. The husband (an engineering psychologist) said

he refused to go near it. The wife (a physician) said she had simply

memorized one setting and tried to ignore the rest. I asked to see

the manual: it was just as confusing as the device. The whole pur-

pose of the design is lost.

The Complexity of Modern Devices
All artificial things are designed. Whether it is the layout of fur-

niture in a room, the paths through a garden or forest, or the in-

tricacies of an electronic device, some person or group of people

had to decide upon the layout, operation, and mechanisms. Not

all designed things involve physical structures. Services, lectures,

rules and procedures, and the organizational structures of busi-

nesses and governments do not have physical mechanisms, but

their rules of operation have to be designed, sometimes informally,

sometimes precisely recorded and specified.

But even though people have designed things since prehistoric

times, the field of design is relatively new, divided into many areas

of specialty. Because everything is designed, the number of areas is

enormous, ranging from clothes and furniture to complex control

rooms and bridges. This book covers everyday things, focusing on

the interplay between technology and people to ensure that the

products actually fulfill human needs while being understand-

able and usable. In the best of cases, the products should also be

delightful and enjoyable, which means that not only must the re-

quirements of engineering, manufacturing, and ergonomics be sat-

isfied, but attention must be paid to the entire experience, which

means the aesthetics of form and the quality of interaction. The

major areas of design relevant to this book are industrial design,

interaction design, and experience design. None of the fields is

well defined, but the focus of the efforts does vary, with industrial

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one: The Psychopathology of Everyday Things 5

designers emphasizing form and material, interactive designers

emphasizing understandability and usability, and experience de-

signers emphasizing the emotional impact. Thus:

Industrial design: The professional service of creating and developing
concepts and specifications that optimize the function, value, and

appearance of products and systems for the mutual benefit of both

user and manufacturer (from the Industrial Design Society of America’s

Interaction design: The focus is upon how people interact with tech-
nology. The goal is to enhance people’s understanding of what can be

done, what is happening, and what has just occurred. Interaction de-

sign draws upon principles of psychology, design, art, and emotion

to ensure a positive, enjoyable experience.

Experience design: The practice of designing products, processes, ser-
vices, events, and environments with a focus placed on the quality

and enjoyment of the total experience.

Design is concerned with how things work, how they are con-

trolled, and the nature of the interaction between people and

technology. When done well, the results are brilliant, pleasurable

products. When done badly, the products are unusable, leading to

great frustration and irritation. Or they might be usable, but force

us to behave the way the product wishes rather than as we wish.

Machines, after all, are conceived, designed, and constructed by

people. By human standards, machines are pretty limited. They

do not maintain the same kind of rich history of experiences that

people have in common with one another, experiences that enable

us to interact with others because of this shared understanding.

Instead, machines usually follow rather simple, rigid rules of be-

havior. If we get the rules wrong even slightly, the machine does

what it is told, no matter how insensible and illogical. People are

imaginative and creative, filled with common sense; that is, a lot of

valuable knowledge built up over years of experience. But instead

of capitalizing on these strengths, machines require us to be precise

and accurate, things we are not very good at. Machines have no

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6 The Design of Everyday Things

leeway or common sense. Moreover, many of the rules followed

by a machine are known only by the machine and its designers.

When people fail to follow these bizarre, secret rules, and the

machine does the wrong thing, its operators are blamed for not

understanding the machine, for not following its rigid specifica-

tions. With everyday objects, the result is frustration. With complex

devices and commercial and industrial processes, the resulting

difficulties can lead to accidents, injuries, and even deaths. It is

time to reverse the situation: to cast the blame upon the machines

and their design. It is the machine and its design that are at fault. It

is the duty of machines and those who design them to understand

people. It is not our duty to understand the arbitrary, meaningless

dictates of machines.

The reasons for the deficiencies in human-machine interaction

are numerous. Some come from the limitations of today’s technol-

ogy. Some come from self-imposed restrictions by the designers,

often to hold down cost. But most of the problems come from a

complete lack of understanding of the design principles necessary

for effective human-machine interaction. Why this deficiency? Be-

cause much of the design is done by engineers who are experts

in technology but limited in their understanding of people. “We

are people ourselves,” they think, “so we understand people.” But

in fact, we humans are amazingly complex. Those who have not

studied human behavior often think it is pretty simple. Engineers,

moreover, make the mistake of thinking that logical explanation is

sufficient: “If only people would read the instructions,” they say,

“everything would be all right.”

Engineers are trained to think logically. As a result, they come to

believe that all people must think this way, and they design their

machines accordingly. When people have trouble, the engineers

are upset, but often for the wrong reason. “What are these people

doing?” they will wonder. “Why are they doing that?” The prob-

lem with the designs of most engineers is that they are too logical.

We have to accept human behavior the way it is, not the way we

would wish it to be.

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one: The Psychopathology of Everyday Things 7

I used to be an engineer, focused upon technical requirements,

quite ignorant of people. Even after I switched into psychology

and cognitive science, I still maintained my engineering emphasis

upon logic and mechanism. It took a long time for me to realize

that my understanding of human behavior was relevant to my in-

terest in the design of technology. As I watched people struggle

with technology, it became clear that the difficulties were caused

by the technology, not the people.

I was called upon to help analyze the American nuclear power

plant accident at Three Mile Island (the island name comes from

the fact that it is located on a river, three miles south of Middle-

town in the state of Pennsylvania). In this incident, a rather simple

mechanical failure was misdiagnosed. This led to several days of

difficulties and confusion, total destruction of the reactor, and a

very close call to a severe radiation release, all of which brought

the American nuclear power industry to a complete halt. The op-

erators were blamed for these failures: “human error” was the im-

mediate analysis. But the committee I was on discovered that the

plant’s control rooms were so poorly designed that error was inevi-

table: design was at fault, not the operators. The moral was simple:

we were designing things for people, so we needed to understand

both technology and people. But that’s a difficult step for many

engineers: machines are so logical, so orderly. If we didn’t have

people, everything would work so much better. Yup, that’s how I

used to think.

My work with that committee changed my view of design. To-

day, I realize that design presents a fascinating interplay of tech-

nology and psychology, that the designers must understand both.

Engineers still tend to believe in logic. They often explain to me

in great, logical detail, why their designs are good, powerful, and

wonderful. “Why are people having problems?” they wonder.

“You are being too logical,” I say. “You are designing for people the

way you would like them to be, not for the way they really are.”

When the engineers object, I ask whether they have ever made

an error, perhaps turning on or off the wrong light, or the wrong

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8 The Design of Everyday Things

stove burner. “Oh yes,” they say, “but those were errors.” That’s

the point: even experts make errors. So we must design our ma-

chines on the assumption that people will make errors. (Chapter 5

provides a detailed analysis of human error.)

Human-Centered Design
People are frustrated with everyday things. From the ever-increasing

complexity of the automobile dashboard, to the increasing auto-

mation in the home with its internal networks, complex music,

video, and game systems for entertainment and communication,

and the increasing automation in the kitchen, everyday life some-

times seems like a never-ending fight against confusion, continued

errors, frustration, and a continual cycle of updating and maintain-

ing our belongings.

In the multiple decades that have elapsed since the first edition

of this book was published, design has gotten better. There are now

many books and courses on the topic. But even though much has

improved, the rapid rate of technology change outpaces the ad-

vances in design. New technologies, new applications, and new

methods of interaction are continually arising and evolving. New

industries spring up. Each new development seems to repeat the

mistakes of the earlier ones; each new field requires time before

it, too, adopts the principles of good design. And each new inven-

tion of technology or interaction technique requires experimenta-

tion and study before the principles of good design can be fully

integrated into practice. So, yes, things are getting better, but as a

result, the challenges are ever present.

The solution is human-centered design (HCD), an approach

that puts human needs, capabilities, and behavior first, then de-

signs to accommodate those needs, capabilities, and ways of be-

having. Good design starts with an understanding of psychology

and technology. Good design requires good communication, espe-

cially from machine to person, indicating what actions are possible,

what is happening, and what is about to happen. Communica-

tion is especially important when things go wrong. It is relatively

easy to design things that work smoothly and harmoniously as

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one: The Psychopathology of Everyday Things 9

long as things go right. But as soon as there is a problem or a mis-

understanding, the problems arise. This is where good design

is essential. Designers need to focus their attention on the cases

where things go wrong, not just on when things work as planned.

Actually, this is where the most satisfaction can arise: when some-

thing goes wrong but the machine highlights the problems, then

the person understands the issue, takes the proper actions, and the

problem is solved. When this happens smoothly, the collaboration

of person and device feels wonderful.

Human-centered design is a design philosophy. It means start-

ing with a good understanding of people and the needs that the

design is intended to meet. This understanding comes about pri-

marily through observation, for people themselves are often un-

aware of their true needs, even unaware of the difficulties they are

encountering. Getting the specification of the thing to be defined

is one of the most difficult parts of the design, so much so that the

HCD principle is to avoid specifying the problem as long as pos-

sible but instead to iterate upon repeated approximations. This is

done through rapid tests of ideas, and after each test modifying the

approach and the problem definition. The results can be products

that truly meet the needs of people. Doing HCD within the rigid

time, budget, and other constraints of industry can be a challenge:

Chapter 6 examines these issues.

Where does HCD fit into the earlier discussion of the several dif-

ferent forms of design, especially the areas called industrial, inter-

action, and experience design? These are all compatible. HCD is a

philosophy and a set of procedures, whereas the others are areas of

focus (see Table 1.1). The philosophy and procedures of HCD add

Experience design

Industrial design These are areas of focus

Interaction design

Human-centered design The process that ensures that the
designs match the needs and capa-
bilities of the people for whom they
are intended

TABLE 1.1. The Role of HCD and Design Specializations

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10 The Design of Everyday Things

deep consideration and study of human needs to the design pro-

cess, whatever the product or service, whatever the major focus.

Fundamental Principles of Interaction
Great designers produce pleasurable experiences. Experience: note
the word. Engineers tend not to like it; it is too subjective. But when

I ask them about their favorite automobile or test equipment, they

will smile delightedly as they discuss the fit and finish, the sensa-

tion of power during acceleration, their ease of control while shift-

ing or steering, or the wonderful feel of the knobs and switches on

the instrument. Those are experiences.

Experience is critical, for it determines how fondly people re-

member their interactions. Was the overall experience positive, or

was it frustrating and confusing? When our home technology be-

haves in an uninterpretable fashion we can become confused, frus-

trated, and even angry—all strong negative emotions. When there

is understanding it can lead to a feeling of control, of mastery, and

of satisfaction or even pride—all strong positive emotions. Cog-

nition and emotion are tightly intertwined, which means that the

designers must design with both in mind.

When we interact with a product, we need to figure out how to

work it. This means discovering what it does, how it works, and

what operations are possible: discoverability. Discoverability re-

sults from appropriate application of five fundamental psycholog-

ical concepts covered in the next few chapters: affordances, signifiers,
constraints, mappings, and feedback. But there is a sixth principle,
perhaps most important of all: the conceptual model of the system.
It is the conceptual model that provides true understanding. So

I now turn to these fundamental principles, starting with affor-

dances, signifiers, mappings, and feedback, then moving to con-

ceptual models. Constraints are covered in Chapters 3 and 4.


We live in a world filled with objects, many natural, the rest artifi-

cial. Every day we encounter thousands of objects, many of them

new to us. Many of the new objects are similar to ones we already

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one: The Psychopathology of Everyday Things 11

know, but many are unique, yet we manage quite well. How do we

do this? Why is it that when we encounter many unusual natural

objects, we know how to interact with them? Why is this true with

many of the artificial, human-made objects we encounter? The an-

swer lies with a few basic principles. Some of the most important

of these principles come from a consideration of affordances.

The term affordance refers to the relationship between a physi-
cal object and a person (or for that matter, any interacting agent,

whether animal or human, or even machines and robots). An affor-

dance is a relationship between the properties of an object and the

capabilities of the agent that determine just how the object could

possibly be used. A chair affords (“is for”) support and, therefore,

affords sitting. Most chairs can also be carried by a single per-

son (they afford lifting), but some can only be lifted by a strong

person or by a team of people. If young or relatively weak people

cannot lift a chair, then for these people, the chair does not have

that affordance, it does not afford lifting.

The presence of an affordance is jointly determined by the qual-

ities of the object and the abilities of the agent that is interacting.

This relational definition of affordance gives considerable difficulty

to many people. We are used to thinking that properties are asso-

ciated with objects. But affordance is not a property. An affordance

is a relationship. Whether an affordance exists depends upon the

properties of both the object and the agent.

Glass affords transparency. At the same time, its physical struc-

ture blocks the passage of most physical objects. As a result, glass

affords seeing through and support, but not the passage of air or

most physical objects (atomic particles can pass through glass).

The blockage of passage can be considered an anti-affordance—the

prevention of interaction. To be effective, affordances and anti-

affordances have to be discoverable—perceivable. This poses a

difficulty with glass. The reason we like glass is its relative invis-

ibility, but this aspect, so useful in the normal window, also hides

its anti-affordance property of blocking passage. As a result, birds

often try to fly through windows. And every year, numerous peo-

ple injure themselves when they walk (or run) through closed glass

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12 The Design of Everyday Things

doors or large picture windows. If an affordance or anti-affordance

cannot be perceived, some means of signaling its presence is re-

quired: I call this property a signifier (discussed in the next section).
The notion of affordance and the insights it provides originated

with J. J. Gibson, an eminent psychologist who provided many

advances to our understanding of human perception. I had in-

teracted with him over many years, sometimes in formal confer-

ences and seminars, but most fruitfully over many bottles of beer,

late at night, just talking. We disagreed about almost everything.

I was an engineer who became a cognitive psychologist, trying to

understand how the mind works. He started off as a Gestalt psy-

chologist, but then developed an approach that is today named

after him: Gibsonian psychology, an ecological approach to percep-

tion. He argued that the world contained the clues and that people

simply picked them up through “direct perception.” I argued that

nothing could be direct: the brain had to process the information

arriving at the sense organs to put together a coherent interpreta-

tion. “Nonsense,” he loudly proclaimed; “it requires no interpreta-

tion: it is directly perceived.” And then he would put his hand to

his ears, and with a triumphant flourish, turn off his hearing aids:

my counterarguments would fall upon deaf ears—literally.

When I pondered my question—how do people know how to act

when confronted with a novel situation—I realized that a large

part of the answer lay in Gibson’s work. He pointed out that all the

senses work together, that we pick up information about the world

by the combined result of all of them. “Information pickup” was one

of his favorite phrases, and Gibson believed that the combined in-

formation picked up by all of our sensory apparatus—sight, sound,

smell, touch, balance, kinesthetic, acceleration, body position—

determines our perceptions without the need for internal pro-

cessing or cognition. Although he and I disagreed about the role

played by the brain’s internal processing, his brilliance was in fo-

cusing attention on the rich amount of information present in the

world. Moreover, the physical objects conveyed important infor-

mation about how people could interact with them, a property he

named “affordance.”

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one: The Psychopathology of Everyday Things 13

Affordances exist even if they are not visible. For designers, their

visibility is critical: visible affordances provide strong clues to the

operations of things. A flat plate mounted on a door affords push-

ing. Knobs afford turning, pushing, and pulling. Slots are for in-

serting things into. Balls are for throwing or bouncing. Perceived

affordances help people figure out what actions are possible with-

out the need for labels or instructions. I call the signaling compo-

nent of affordances signifiers.


Are affordances important to designers? The first edition of this

book introduced the term affordances to the world of design. The
design community loved the concept and affordances soon prop-

agated into the instruction and writing about design. I soon found

mention of the term everywhere. Alas, the term became used in

ways that had nothing to do with the original.

Many people find affordances difficult to understand because

they are relationships, not properties. Designers deal with fixed

properties, so there is a temptation to say that the property is an

affordance. But that is not the only problem with the concept of


Designers have practical problems. They need to know how to

design things to make them understandable. They soon discov-

ered that when working with the graphical designs for electronic

displays, they needed a way to designate which parts could be

touched, slid upward, downward, or sideways, or tapped upon.

The actions could be done with a mouse, stylus, or fingers. Some

systems responded to body motions, gestures, and spoken words,

with no touching of any physical device. How could designers de-

scribe what they were doing? There was no word that fit, so they

took the closest existing word—affordance. Soon designers were
saying such things as, “I put an affordance there,” to describe why

they displayed a circle on a screen to indicate where the person

should touch, whether by mouse or by finger. “No,” I said, “that is not

an affordance. That is a way of communicating where the touch

should be. You are communicating where to do the touching: the

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14 The Design of Everyday Things

affordance of touching exists on the entire screen: you are trying to

signify where the touch should take place. That’s not the same thing
as saying what action is possible.”

Not only did my explanation fail to satisfy the design commu-

nity, but I myself was unhappy. Eventually I gave up: designers

needed a word to describe what they were doing, so they chose

affordance. What alternative did they have? I decided to provide a
better answer: signifiers. Affordances determine what actions are
possible. Signifiers communicate where the action should take place.

We need both.

People need some way of understanding the product or service

they wish to use, some sign of what it is for, what is happening,

and what the alternative actions are. People search for clues, for

any sign that might help them cope and understand. It is the sign

that is important, anything that might signify meaningful informa-

tion. Designers need to provide these clues. What people need, and

what designers must provide, are signifiers. Good design requires,

among other things, good communication of the purpose, struc-

ture, and operation of the device to the people who use it. That is

the role of the signifier.

The term signifier has had a long and illustrious career in the ex-
otic field of semiotics, the study of signs and symbols. But just as

I appropriated affordance to use in design in a manner somewhat
different than its inventor had intended, I use signifier in a some-
what different way than it is used in semiotics. For me, the term

signifier refers to any mark or sound, any perceivable indicator that
communicates appropriate behavior to a person.

Signifiers can be deliberate and intentional, such as the sign

push on a door, but they may also be accidental and unintentional,

such as our use of the visible trail made by previous people walk-

ing through a field or over a snow-covered terrain to determine

the best path. Or how we might use the presence or absence of

people waiting at a train station to determine whether we have

missed the train. (I explain these ideas in more detail in my book

Living with Complexity.)

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one: The Psychopathology of Everyday Things 15

F IGU R E 1 . 2 . Problem Doors: Signifiers Are Needed. Door hardware
can signal whether to push or pull without signs, but the hardware of the
two doors in the upper photo, A, are identical even though one should be
pushed, the other pulled. The flat, ribbed horizontal bar has the obvious
perceived affordance of pushing, but as the signs indicate, the door on the
left is to be pulled, the one on the right is to be pushed. In the bottom pair of
photos, B and C, there are no visible signifiers or affordances. How does one
know which side to push? Trial and error. When external signifiers—signs—
have to be added to something as simple as a door, it indicates bad design.
(Photographs by the author.)

The signifier is an important communication device to the recipi-

ent, whether or not communication was intended. It doesn’t matter

whether the useful signal was deliberately placed or whether it is

incidental: there is no necessary distinction. Why should it matter

whether a flag was placed as a deliberate clue to wind direction (as

is done at airports or on the masts of sailboats) or was there as an

A .

B. C .

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16 The Design of Everyday Things

advertisement or symbol of pride in one’s country (as is done on

public buildings). Once I interpret a flag’s motion to indicate wind

direction, it does not matter why it was placed there.

Consider a bookmark, a deliberately placed signifier of one’s place

in reading a book. But the physical nature of books also makes a

bookmark an accidental signifier, for its placement also indicates

how much of the book remains. Most readers have learned to use

this accidental signifier to aid in their enjoyment of the reading.

With few pages left, we know the end is near. And if the reading is

torturous, as in a school assignment, one can always console one-

self by knowing there are “only a few more pages to get through.”

Electronic book readers do not have the physical structure of paper

books, so unless the software designer deliberately provides a clue,

they do not convey any signal about the amount of text remaining.

F IGU RE 1. 3. Sliding Doors: Seldom Done Well. Sliding doors are seldom signified
properly. The top two photographs show the sliding door to the toilet on an Amtrak
train in the United States. The handle clearly signifies “pull,” but in fact, it needs to be
rotated and the door slid to the right. The owner of the store in Shanghai, China, Photo
C, solved the problem with a sign. “don’t push!” it says, in both English and Chinese.
Amtrak’s toilet door could have used a similar kind of sign. (Photographs by the author.)

A . B.

C .

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one: The Psychopathology of Everyday Things 17

Whatever their nature, planned or accidental, signifiers provide

valuable clues as to the nature of the world and of social activities.

For us to function in this social, technological world, we need to

develop internal models of what things mean, of how they operate.

We seek all the clues we can find to help in this enterprise, and

in this way, we are detectives, searching for whatever guidance

we might find. If we are fortunate, thoughtful designers provide

the clues for us. Otherwise, we must use our own creativity and


F IGU R E 1.4 . The Sink That Would Not Drain: Where Signifiers Fail. I washed my
hands in my hotel sink in London, but then, as shown in Photo A, was left with the
question of how to empty the sink of the dirty water. I searched all over for a control:
none. I tried prying open the sink stopper with a spoon (Photo B): failure. I finally left
my hotel room and went to the front desk to ask for instructions. (Yes, I actually did.)
“Push down on the stopper,” I was told. Yes, it worked (Photos C and D). But how was
anyone to ever discover this? And why should I have to put my clean hands back into
the dirty water to empty the sink? The problem here is not just the lack of signifier, it is
the faulty decision to produce a stopper that requires people to dirty their clean hands
to use it. (Photographs by the author.)

A . B.

C . D.

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18 The Design of Everyday Things

Affordances, perceived affordances, and signifiers have much in

common, so let me pause to ensure that the distinctions are clear.

Affordances represent the possibilities in the world for how an

agent (a person, animal, or machine) can interact with something.

Some affordances are perceivable, others are invisible. Signifiers

are signals. Some signifiers are signs, labels, and drawings placed

in the world, such as the signs labeled “push,” “pull,” or “exit”

on doors, or arrows and diagrams indicating what is to be acted

upon or in which direction to gesture, or other instructions. Some

signifiers are simply the perceived affordances, such as the han-

dle of a door or the physical structure of a switch. Note that some

perceived affordances may not be real: they may look like doors

or places to push, or an impediment to entry, when in fact they

are not. These are misleading signifiers, oftentimes accidental but

sometimes purposeful, as when trying to keep people from doing

actions for which they are not qualified, or in games, where one of

the challenges is to figure out what is real and what is not.

F IGU R E 1 . 5 . Accidental Affordances
Can Become Strong Signifiers. This
wall, at the Industrial Design department
of KAIST, in Korea, provides an anti-
affordance, preventing people from falling
down the stair shaft. Its top is flat, an ac-
cidental by-product of the design. But flat
surfaces afford support, and as soon as one
person discovers it can be used to dispose
of empty drink containers, the discarded
container becomes a signifier, telling others
that it is permissible to discard their items
there. (Photographs by the author.)

A .

C .B.

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one: The Psychopathology of Everyday Things 19

My favorite example of a misleading signifier is a row of ver-

tical pipes across a service road that I once saw in a public park.

The pipes obviously blocked cars and trucks from driving on that

road: they were good examples of anti-affordances. But to my great

surprise, I saw a park vehicle simply go through the pipes. Huh? I

walked over and examined them: the pipes were made of rubber,

so vehicles could simply drive right over them. A very clever sig-

nifier, signaling a blocked road (via an apparent anti-affordance)

to the average person, but permitting passage for those who knew.

To summarize:

• Affordances are the possible interactions between people and the en-

vironment. 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.

In design, signifiers are more important than affordances, for

they communicate how to use the design. A signifier can be words,

a graphical illustration, or just a device whose perceived affor-

dances are unambiguous. Creative designers incorporate the sig-

nifying part of the design into a cohesive experience. For the most

part, designers can focus upon signifiers.

Because affordances and signifiers are fundamentally important

principles of good design, they show up frequently in the pages of

this book. Whenever you see hand-lettered signs pasted on doors,

switches, or products, trying to explain how to work them, what to

do and what not to do, you are also looking at poor design.

A F F O R D A N C E S A N D S I G N I F I E R S : A C O N V E R S A T I O N

A designer approaches his mentor. He is working on a system that

recommends restaurants to people, based upon their preferences

and those of their friends. But in his tests, he discovered that peo-

ple never used all of the features. “Why not?” he asks his mentor.

(With apologies to Socrates.)

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20 The Design of Everyday Things


I’m frustrated; people aren’t using
our application properly.

The screen shows the restaurant
that we recommend. It matches their
preferences, and their friends like
it as well. If they want to see other
recommendations, all they have to
do is swipe left or right. To learn
more about a place, just swipe up for
a menu or down to see if any friends
are there now. People seem to find
the other recommendations, but not
the menus or their friends? I don’t

I don’t know. Should I add some
affordances? Suppose I put an arrow
on each edge and add a label saying
what they do.

Yes, you have a point. But the affor-
dances weren’t visible. I made them

Yes, isn’t that what I said?

Oh, I see. But then why do designers
care about affordances? Perhaps
we should focus our attention on

Oh. Now I understand my confusion.
Yes, a signifier is what signifies. It
is a sign. Now it seems perfectly


Can you tell me about it?

Why do you think this might be?

That is very nice. But why do you
call these affordances? They could
already do the actions. Weren’t the
affordances already there?

Very true. You added a signal of
what to do.

Not quite—you called them affor-
dances even though they afford
nothing new: they signify what to do
and where to do it. So call them by
their right name: “signifiers.”

You speak wisely. Communication is
a key to good design. And a key to
communication is the signifier.

Profound ideas are always obvious
once they are understood.


Mapping is a technical term, borrowed from mathematics, mean-

ing the relationship between the elements of two sets of things.

Suppose there are many lights in the ceiling of a classroom or au-

ditorium and a row of light switches on the wall at the front of the

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one: The Psychopathology of Everyday Things 21

room. The mapping of switches to lights specifies which switch

controls which light.

Mapping is an important concept in the design and layout of

controls and displays. When the mapping uses spatial correspon-

dence between the layout of the controls and the devices being

controlled, it is easy to determine how to use them. In steering a

car, we rotate the steering wheel clockwise to cause the car to turn

right: the top of the wheel moves in the same direction as the car.

Note that other choices could have been made. In early cars, steer-

ing was controlled by a variety of devices, including tillers, han-

dlebars, and reins. Today, some vehicles use joysticks, much as in a

computer game. In cars that used tillers, steering was done much

as one steers a boat: move the tiller to the left to turn to the right.

Tractors, construction equipment such as bulldozers and cranes,

and military tanks that have tracks instead of wheels use separate

controls for the speed and direction of each track: to turn right, the

left track is increased in speed, while the right track is slowed or

even reversed. This is also how a wheelchair is steered.

All of these mappings for the control of vehicles work because

each has a compelling conceptual model of how the operation of

the control affects the vehicle. Thus, if we speed up the left wheel

of a wheelchair while stopping the right wheel, it is easy to imag-

ine the chair’s pivoting on the right wheel, circling to the right. In

F IGU R E 1 . 6 . Signifiers on a Touch Screen.
The arrows and icons are signifiers: they pro-
vide signals about the permissible operations
for this restaurant guide. Swiping left or right
brings up new restaurant recommendations.
Swiping up reveals the menu for the restau-
rant being displayed; swiping down, friends
who recommend the restaurant.

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22 The Design of Everyday Things

a small boat, we can understand the tiller by realizing that pushing

the tiller to the left causes the ship’s rudder to move to the right

and the resulting force of the water on the rudder slows down the

right side of the boat, so that the boat rotates to the right. It doesn’t

matter whether these conceptual models are accurate: what mat-

ters is that they provide a clear way of remembering and under-

standing the mappings. The relationship between a control and

its results is easiest to learn wherever there is an understandable

mapping between the controls, the actions, and the intended result.

Natural mapping, by which I mean taking advantage of spatial

analogies, leads to immediate understanding. For example, to move

an object up, move the control up. To make it easy to determine

which control works which light in a large room or auditorium,

arrange the controls in the same pattern as the lights. Some natural

mappings are cultural or biological, as in the universal standard

that moving the hand up signifies more, moving it down signifies

less, which is why it is appropriate to use vertical position to rep-

resent intensity or amount. Other natural mappings follow from

the principles of perception and allow for the natural grouping or

patterning of controls and feedback. Groupings and proximity

are important principles from Gestalt psychology that can be used

to map controls to function: related controls should be grouped to-

gether. Controls should be close to the item being controlled.

Note that there are many mappings that feel “natural” but in fact

are specific to a particular culture: what is natural for one culture

is not necessarily natural for another. In Chapter 3, I discuss how

F IG U R E 1 . 7. Good Mapping: Automobile Seat
Adjustment Control. This is an excellent example of
natural mapping. The control is in the shape of the
seat itself: the mapping is straightforward. To move
the front edge of the seat higher, lift up on the front
part of the button. To make the seat back recline,
move the button back. The same principle could be
applied to much more common objects. This partic-
ular control is from Mercedes-Benz, but this form of
mapping is now used by many automobile compa-
nies. (Photograph by the author.)

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one: The Psychopathology of Everyday Things 23

different cultures view time, which has important implications for

some kinds of mappings.

A device is easy to use when the set of possible actions is visi-

ble, when the controls and displays exploit natural mappings. The

principles are simple but rarely incorporated into design. Good de-

sign takes care, planning, thought, and an understanding of how

people behave.


Ever watch people at an elevator repeatedly push the Up button,

or repeatedly push the pedestrian button at a street crossing? Ever

drive to a traffic intersection and wait an inordinate amount of

time for the signals to change, wondering all the time whether the

detection circuits noticed your vehicle (a common problem with

bicycles)? What is missing in all these cases is feedback: some way

of letting you know that the system is working on your request.

Feedback—communicating the results of an action—is a well-

known concept from the science of control and information theory.

Imagine trying to hit a target with a ball when you cannot see the

target. Even as simple a task as picking up a glass with the hand re-

quires feedback to aim the hand properly, to grasp the glass, and to

lift it. A misplaced hand will spill the contents, too hard a grip will

break the glass, and too weak a grip will allow it to fall. The human

nervous system is equipped with numerous feedback mechanisms,

including visual, auditory, and touch sensors, as well as vestibular

and proprioceptive systems that monitor body position and mus-

cle and limb movements. Given the importance of feedback, it is

amazing how many products ignore it.

Feedback must be immediate: even a delay of a tenth of a second

can be disconcerting. If the delay is too long, people often give up,

going off to do other activities. This is annoying to the people, but

it can also be wasteful of resources when the system spends con-
siderable time and effort to satisfy the request, only to find that the

intended recipient is no longer there. Feedback must also be infor-

mative. Many companies try to save money by using inexpensive

lights or sound generators for feedback. These simple light flashes

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24 The Design of Everyday Things

or beeps are usually more annoying than useful. They tell us that

something has happened, but convey very little information about

what has happened, and then nothing about what we should do

about it. When the signal is auditory, in many cases we cannot

even be certain which device has created the sound. If the signal

is a light, we may miss it unless our eyes are on the correct spot

at the correct time. Poor feedback can be worse than no feedback

at all, because it is distracting, uninformative, and in many cases

irritating and anxiety-provoking.

Too much feedback can be even more annoying than too little.

My dishwasher likes to beep at three a.m. to tell me that the wash

is done, defeating my goal of having it work in the middle of the

night so as not to disturb anyone (and to use less expensive elec-

tricity). But worst of all is inappropriate, uninterpretable feedback.

The irritation caused by a “backseat driver” is well enough known

that it is the staple of numerous jokes. Backseat drivers are often

correct, but their remarks and comments can be so numerous and

continuous that instead of helping, they become an irritating dis-

traction. Machines that give too much feedback are like backseat

drivers. Not only is it distracting to be subjected to continual flash-

ing lights, text announcements, spoken voices, or beeps and boops,

but it can be dangerous. Too many announcements cause people to

ignore all of them, or wherever possible, disable all of them, which

means that critical and important ones are apt to be missed. Feed-

back is essential, but not when it gets in the way of other things,

including a calm and relaxing environment.

Poor design of feedback can be the result of decisions aimed at

reducing costs, even if they make life more difficult for people.

Rather than use multiple signal lights, informative displays, or

rich, musical sounds with varying patterns, the focus upon cost

reduction forces the design to use a single light or sound to convey

multiple types of information. If the choice is to use a light, then

one flash might mean one thing; two rapid flashes, something else.

A long flash might signal yet another state; and a long flash fol-

lowed by a brief one, yet another. If the choice is to use a sound,

quite often the least expensive sound device is selected, one that

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one: The Psychopathology of Everyday Things 25

can only produce a high-frequency beep. Just as with the lights,

the only way to signal different states of the machine is by beeping

different patterns. What do all these different patterns mean? How

can we possibly learn and remember them? It doesn’t help that

every different machine uses a different pattern of lights or beeps,

sometimes with the same patterns meaning contradictory things

for different machines. All the beeps sound alike, so it often isn’t

even possible to know which machine is talking to us.

Feedback has to be planned. All actions need to be confirmed,

but in a manner that is unobtrusive. Feedback must also be prior-

itized, so that unimportant information is presented in an unob-

trusive fashion, but important signals are presented in a way that

does capture attention. When there are major emergencies, then

even important signals have to be prioritized. When every device

is signaling a major emergency, nothing is gained by the result-

ing cacophony. The continual beeps and alarms of equipment can

be dangerous. In many emergencies, workers have to spend valu-

able time turning off all the alarms because the sounds interfere

with the concentration required to solve the problem. Hospital op-

erating rooms, emergency wards. Nuclear power control plants.

Airplane cockpits. All can become confusing, irritating, and life-

endangering places because of excessive feedback, excessive alarms,

and incompatible message coding. Feedback is essential, but it has

to be done correctly. Appropriately.


A conceptual model is an explanation, usually highly simplified,

of how something works. It doesn’t have to be complete or even

accurate as long as it is useful. The files, folders, and icons you see

displayed on a computer screen help people create the conceptual

model of documents and folders inside the computer, or of apps

or applications residing on the screen, waiting to be summoned. In

fact, there are no folders inside the computer—those are effective

conceptualizations designed to make them easier to use. Some-

times these depictions can add to the confusion, however. When

reading e-mail or visiting a website, the material appears to be on

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26 The Design of Everyday Things

the device, for that is where it is displayed and manipulated. But

in fact, in many cases the actual material is “in the cloud,” located

on some distant machine. The conceptual model is of one, coherent

image, whereas it may actually consist of parts, each located on

different machines that could be almost anywhere in the world.

This simplified model is helpful for normal usage, but if the net-

work connection to the cloud services is interrupted, the result can

be confusing. Information is still on their screen, but users can no

longer save it or retrieve new things: their conceptual model offers

no explanation. Simplified models are valuable only as long as the

assumptions that support them hold true.

There are often multiple conceptual models of a product or de-

vice. People’s conceptual models for the way that regenerative

braking in a hybrid or electrically powered automobile works are

quite different for average drivers than for technically sophisti-

cated drivers, different again for whoever must service the system,

and yet different again for those who designed the system.

Conceptual models found in technical manuals and books for

technical use can be detailed and complex. The ones we are con-

cerned with here are simpler: they reside in the minds of the peo-

ple who are using the product, so they are also “mental models.”

Mental models, as the name implies, are the conceptual models in

people’s minds that represent their understanding of how things

work. Different people may hold different mental models of the

same item. Indeed, a single person might have multiple models of

the same item, each dealing with a different aspect of its opera-

tion: the models can even be in conflict.

Conceptual models are often inferred from the device itself. Some

models are passed on from person to person. Some come from

manuals. Usually the device itself offers very little assistance, so

the model is constructed by experience. Quite often these models

are erroneous, and therefore lead to difficulties in using the device.

The major clues to how things work come from their perceived

structure—in particular from signifiers, affordances, constraints,

and mappings. Hand tools for the shop, gardening, and the house

tend to make their critical parts sufficiently visible that concep-

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one: The Psychopathology of Everyday Things 27

tual models of their operation and function are readily derived.

Consider a pair of scissors: you can see that the number of possi-

ble actions is limited. The holes are clearly there to put something

into, and the only logical things that will fit are fingers. The holes

are both affordances—they allow the fingers to be inserted—and

signifiers—they indicate where the fingers are to go. The sizes of

the holes provide constraints to limit the possible fingers: a big

hole suggests several fingers; a small hole, only one. The mapping

between holes and fingers—the set of possible operations—is sig-

nified and constrained by the holes. Moreover, the operation is not

sensitive to finger placement: if you use the wrong fingers (or the

wrong hand), the scissors still work, although not as comfortably.

You can figure out the scissors because their operating parts are

visible and the implications clear. The conceptual model is obvious,

and there is effective use of signifiers, affordances, and constraints.

What happens when the device does not suggest a good concep-

tual model? Consider my digital watch with five buttons: two along

the top, two along the bottom, and one on the left side (Figure 1.8).

What is each button for? How would you set the time? There is no

way to tell—no evident relationship between the operating controls

and the functions, no constraints, no apparent mappings. Moreover,

the buttons have multiple ways of being used. Two of the buttons

do different things when pushed quickly or when kept depressed

for several seconds. Some operations require simultaneous depres-

sion of several of the buttons. The only way to tell how to work the

watch is to read the manual, over and over again. With the scissors,

moving the handle makes the blades move. The watch provides no

F I G U R E 1 . 8 . Junghans Mega 1000 Digital Radio
Controlled Watch. There is no good conceptual model
for understanding the operation of my watch. It has five
buttons with no hints as to what each one does. And yes,
the buttons do different things in their different modes.
But it is a very nice-looking watch, and always has the
exact time because it checks official radio time stations.
(The top row of the display is the date: Wednesday, Feb-
ruary 20, the eighth week of the year.) (Photograph by the

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28 The Design of Everyday Things

visible relationship between the buttons and the possible actions,

no discernible relationship between the actions and the end results.

I really like the watch: too bad I can’t remember all the functions.

Conceptual models are valuable in providing understanding, in

predicting how things will behave, and in figuring out what to do

when things do not go as planned. A good conceptual model allows

us to predict the effects of our actions. Without a good model, we op-

erate by rote, blindly; we do operations as we were told to do them;

we can’t fully appreciate why, what effects to expect, or what to do

if things go wrong. As long as things work properly, we can manage.

When things go wrong, however, or when we come upon a novel

situation, then we need a deeper understanding, a good model.

For everyday things, conceptual models need not be very com-

plex. After all, scissors, pens, and light switches are pretty simple

devices. There is no need to understand the underlying physics or

chemistry of each device we own, just the relationship between

the controls and the outcomes. When the model presented to us is

inadequate or wrong (or, worse, nonexistent), we can have difficul-

ties. Let me tell you about my refrigerator.

I used to own an ordinary, two-compartment refrigerator—nothing

very fancy about it. The problem was that I couldn’t set the tem-

perature properly. There were only two things to do: adjust the

temperature of the freezer compartment and adjust the tempera-

F IG U R E 1 . 9. Refrigerator Controls. Two compartments—
fresh food and freezer—and two controls (in the fresh food
unit). Your task: Suppose the freezer is too cold, the fresh food
section just right. How would you adjust the controls so as to
make the freezer warmer and keep the fresh food the same?
(Photograph by the author.)

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one: The Psychopathology of Everyday Things 29

ture of the fresh food compartment. And there were two controls,

one labeled “freezer,” the other “refrigerator.” What’s the problem?

Oh, perhaps I’d better warn you. The two controls are not inde-

pendent. The freezer control also affects the fresh food tempera-

ture, and the fresh food control also affects the freezer. Moreover,

the manual warns that one should “always allow twenty-four (24)
hours for the temperature to stabilize whether setting the controls

for the first time or making an adjustment.”

It was extremely difficult to regulate the temperature of my old

refrigerator. Why? Because the controls suggest a false conceptual

model. Two compartments, two controls, which implies that each

control is responsible for the temperature of the compartment that

carries its name: this conceptual model is shown in Figure 1.10A. It

is wrong. In fact, there is only one thermostat and only one cooling

mechanism. One control adjusts the thermostat setting, the other

the relative proportion of cold air sent to each of the two compart-

ments of the refrigerator. This is why the two controls interact: this

conceptual model is shown in Figure 1.10B. In addition, there must

be a temperature sensor, but there is no way of knowing where it

is located. With the conceptual model suggested by the controls,

F IGU R E 1 .10 . Two Conceptual Models for a Refrigerator. 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.

A . B.

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30 The Design of Everyday Things

adjusting the temperatures is almost impossible and always frus-

trating. Given the correct model, life would be much easier.

Why did the manufacturer suggest the wrong conceptual model?

We will never know. In the twenty-five years since the publication

of the first edition of this book, I have had many letters from people

thanking me for explaining their confusing refrigerator, but never

any communication from the manufacturer (General Electric). Per-

haps the designers thought the correct model was too complex,

that the model they were giving was easier to understand. But with

the wrong conceptual model, it was impossible to set the controls.

And even though I am convinced I knew the correct model, I still

couldn’t accurately adjust the temperatures because the refrigera-

tor design made it impossible to discover which control was for the

temperature sensor, which for the relative proportion of cold air,

and in which compartment the sensor was located. The lack of im-

mediate feedback for the actions did not help: it took twenty-four

hours to see whether the new setting was appropriate. I shouldn’t

have to keep a laboratory notebook and do controlled experiments

just to set the temperature of my refrigerator.

I am happy to say that I no longer own that refrigerator. In-

stead I have one that has two separate controls, one in the fresh

food compartment, one in the freezer compartment. Each control

is nicely calibrated in degrees and labeled with the name of the

compartment it controls. The two compartments are independent:

setting the temperature in one has no effect on the temperature in

the other. This solution, although ideal, does cost more. But far less

expensive solutions are possible. With today’s inexpensive sensors

and motors, it should be possible to have a single cooling unit with

a motor-controlled valve controlling the relative proportion of cold

air diverted to each compartment. A simple, inexpensive computer

chip could regulate the cooling unit and valve position so that the

temperatures in the two compartments match their targets. A bit

more work for the engineering design team? Yes, but the results

would be worth it. Alas, General Electric is still selling refrigerators

with the very same controls and mechanisms that cause so much

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one: The Psychopathology of Everyday Things 31

confusion. The photograph in Figure 1.9 is from a contemporary

refrigerator, photographed in a store while preparing this book.

The System Image
People create mental models of themselves, others, the environ-

ment, and the things with which they interact. These are concep-

tual models formed through experience, training, and instruction.

These models serve as guides to help achieve our goals and in un-

derstanding the world.

How do we form an appropriate conceptual model for the de-

vices we interact with? We cannot talk to the designer, so we rely

upon whatever information is available to us: what the device

looks like, what we know from using similar things in the past,

what was told to us in the sales literature, by salespeople and ad-

vertisements, by articles we may have read, by the product website

and instruction manuals. I call the combined information available

to us the system image. When the system image is incoherent or in-
appropriate, as in the case of the refrigerator, then the user cannot

easily use the device. If it is incomplete or contradictory, there will

be trouble.

As illustrated in Figure 1.11, the designer of the product and the

person using the product form somewhat disconnected vertices of

a triangle. The designer’s conceptual model is the designer’s con-

ception of the product, occupying one vertex of the triangle. The

product itself is no longer with the designer, so it is isolated as a

second vertex, perhaps sitting on the user ’s kitchen counter. The

system image is what can be perceived from the physical struc-

ture that has been built (including documentation, instructions,

signifiers, and any information available from websites and help

lines). The user’s conceptual model comes from the system image,

through interaction with the product, reading, searching for online

information, and from whatever manuals are provided. The de-

signer expects the user’s model to be identical to the design model,

but because designers cannot communicate directly with users, the

entire burden of communication is on the system image.

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32 The Design of Everyday Things

Figure 1.11 indicates why communication is such an important

aspect of good design. No matter how brilliant the product, if peo-

ple cannot use it, it will receive poor reviews. It is up to the de-

signer to provide the appropriate information to make the product

understandable and usable. Most important is the provision of a

good conceptual model that guides the user when thing go wrong.

With a good conceptual model, people can figure out what has

happened and correct the things that went wrong. Without a good

model, they struggle, often making matters worse.

Good conceptual models are the key to understandable, enjoy-

able products: good communication is the key to good conceptual


The Paradox of Technology
Technology offers the potential to make life easier and more en-

joyable; each new technology provides increased benefits. At the

same time, added complexities increase our difficulty and frustra-

tion with technology. The design problem posed by technological

advances is enormous. Consider the wristwatch. A few decades

ago, watches were simple. All you had to do was set the time and

keep the watch wound. The standard control was the stem: a knob

at the side of the watch. Turning the knob would wind the spring

that provided power to the watch movement. Pulling out the knob

and turning it rotated the hands. The operations were easy to learn

and easy to do. There was a reasonable relationship between the

F IGU R E 1 . 1 1 . The Designer’s Model,
the User’s Model, and the System Im-
age. The designer’s conceptual model is
the designer’s conception of the look, feel,
and operation of a product. The system
image is what can be derived from the
physical structure that has been built
(including documentation). The user’s
mental model is developed through in-
teraction with the product and the system
image. Designers expect the user’s model
to be identical to their own, but because
they cannot communicate directly with
the user, the burden of communication is
with the system image.

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one: The Psychopathology of Everyday Things 33

turning of the knob and the resulting turning of the hands. The

design even took into account human error. In its normal position,

turning the stem wound the mainspring of the clock. The stem had

to be pulled before it would engage the gears for setting the time.

Accidental turns of the stem did no harm.

Watches in olden times were expensive instruments, manu-

factured by hand. They were sold in jewelry stores. Over time,

with the introduction of digital technology, the cost of watches

decreased rapidly, while their accuracy and reliability increased.

Watches became tools, available in a wide variety of styles and

shapes and with an ever-increasing number of functions. Watches

were sold everywhere, from local shops to sporting goods stores

to electronic stores. Moreover, accurate clocks were incorporated in

many appliances, from phones to musical keyboards: many people

no longer felt the need to wear a watch. Watches became inexpen-

sive enough that the average person could own multiple watches.

They became fashion accessories, where one changed the watch

with each change in activity and each change of clothes.

In the modern digital watch, instead of winding the spring, we

change the battery, or in the case of a solar-powered watch, ensure

that it gets its weekly dose of light. The technology has allowed

more functions: the watch can give the day of the week, the month,

and the year; it can act as a stopwatch (which itself has several

functions), a countdown timer, and an alarm clock (or two); it has

the ability to show the time for different time zones; it can act as

a counter and even as a calculator. My watch, shown in Figure

1.8, has many functions. It even has a radio receiver to allow it to

set its time with official time stations around the world. Even so,

it is far less complex than many that are available. Some watches

have built-in compasses and barometers, accelerometers, and tem-

perature gauges. Some have GPS and Internet receivers so they

can display the weather and news, e-mail messages, and the lat-

est from social networks. Some have built-in cameras. Some work

with buttons, knobs, motion, or speech. Some detect gestures. The

watch is no longer just an instrument for telling time: it has become

a platform for enhancing multiple activities and lifestyles.

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34 The Design of Everyday Things

The added functions cause problems: How can all these func-

tions fit into a small, wearable size? There are no easy answers.

Many people have solved the problem by not using a watch. They

use their phone instead. A cell phone performs all the functions

much better than the tiny watch, while also displaying the time.

Now imagine a future where instead of the phone replacing

the watch, the two will merge, perhaps worn on the wrist, per-

haps on the head like glasses, complete with display screen. The

phone, watch, and components of a computer will all form one

unit. We will have flexible displays that show only a tiny amount

of information in their normal state, but that can unroll to consid-

erable size. Projectors will be so small and light that they can be

built into watches or phones (or perhaps rings and other jewelry),

projecting their images onto any convenient surface. Or perhaps

our devices won’t have displays, but will quietly whisper the re-

sults into our ears, or simply use whatever display happens to be

available: the display in the seatback of cars or airplanes, hotel

room televisions, whatever is nearby. The devices will be able to

do many useful things, but I fear they will also frustrate: so many

things to control, so little space for controls or signifiers. The ob-

vious solution is to use exotic gestures or spoken commands, but

how will we learn, and then remember, them? As I discuss later,

the best solution is for there to be agreed upon standards, so we

need learn the controls only once. But as I also discuss, agreeing

upon these is a complex process, with many competing forces hin-

dering rapid resolution. We will see.

The same technology that simplifies life by providing more

functions in each device also complicates life by making the device

harder to learn, harder to use. This is the paradox of technology

and the challenge for the designer.

The Design Challenge
Design requires the cooperative efforts of multiple disciplines. The

number of different disciplines required to produce a successful

product is staggering. Great design requires great designers, but

that isn’t enough: it also requires great management, because the

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one: The Psychopathology of Everyday Things 35

hardest part of producing a product is coordinating all the many,

separate disciplines, each with different goals and priorities. Each

discipline has a different perspective of the relative importance of

the many factors that make up a product. One discipline argues

that it must be usable and understandable, another that it must be

attractive, yet another that it has to be affordable. Moreover, the de-

vice has to be reliable, be able to be manufactured and serviced. It

must be distinguishable from competing products and superior in

critical dimensions such as price, reliability, appearance, and the

functions it provides. Finally, people have to actually purchase

it. It doesn’t matter how good a product is if, in the end, nobody

uses it.

Quite often each discipline believes its distinct contribution to

be most important: “Price,” argues the marketing representative,

“price plus these features.” “Reliable,” insist the engineers. “We

have to be able to manufacture it in our existing plants,” say the

manufacturing representatives. “We keep getting service calls,”

say the support people; “we need to solve those problems in the

design.” “You can’t put all that together and still have a reasonable

product,” says the design team. Who is right? Everyone is right.

The successful product has to satisfy all these requirements.

The hard part is to convince people to understand the view-

points of the others, to abandon their disciplinary viewpoint and

to think of the design from the viewpoints of the person who buys

the product and those who use it, often different people. The view-

point of the business is also important, because it does not matter

how wonderful the product is if not enough people buy it. If a

product does not sell, the company must often stop producing it,

even if it is a great product. Few companies can sustain the huge

cost of keeping an unprofitable product alive long enough for its

sales to reach profitability—with new products, this period is usu-

ally measured in years, and sometimes, as with the adoption of

high-definition television, decades.

Designing well is not easy. The manufacturer wants something

that can be produced economically. The store wants something

that will be attractive to its customers. The purchaser has several

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36 The Design of Everyday Things

demands. In the store, the purchaser focuses on price and appear-

ance, and perhaps on prestige value. At home, the same person

will pay more attention to functionality and usability. The repair

service cares about maintainability: how easy is the device to take

apart, diagnose, and service? The needs of those concerned are

different and often conflict. Nonetheless, if the design team has

representatives from all the constituencies present at the same

time, it is often possible to reach satisfactory solutions for all

the needs. It is when the disciplines operate independently of one

another that major clashes and deficiencies occur. The challenge

is to use the principles of human-centered design to produce pos-

itive results, products that enhance lives and add to our pleasure

and enjoyment. The goal is to produce a great product, one that is

successful, and that customers love. It can be done.

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During my family’s stay in England, we rented a furnished house while
the owners were away. One day, our landlady returned to the house
to get some personal papers. She walked over to the old, metal filing
cabinet and attempted to open the top drawer. It wouldn’t open. She
pushed it forward and backward, right and left, up and down, without
success. I offered to help. I wiggled the drawer. Then I twisted the front
panel, pushed down hard, and banged the front with the palm of one
hand. The cabinet drawer slid open. “Oh,” she said, “I’m sorry. I am so
bad at mechanical things.” No, she had it backward. It is the mechanical
thing that should be apologizing, perhaps saying, “I’m sorry. I am so
bad with people.”

My landlady had two problems. First, although she had

a clear goal (retrieve some personal papers) and even

a plan for achieving that goal (open the top drawer of

the filing cabinet, where those papers are kept), once

that plan failed, she had no idea of what to do. But she also had a

second problem: she thought the problem lay in her own lack of

ability: she blamed herself, falsely.

How was I able to help? First, I refused to accept the false accu-

sation that it was the fault of the landlady: to me, it was clearly a

fault in the mechanics of the old filing cabinet that prevented the

drawer from opening. Second, I had a conceptual model of how

the cabinet worked, with an internal mechanism that held the door

shut in normal usage, and the belief that the drawer mechanism

was probably out of alignment. This conceptual model gave me

a plan: wiggle the drawer. That failed. That caused me to modify

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38 The Design of Everyday Things

my plan: wiggling may have been appropriate but not forceful

enough, so I resorted to brute force to try to twist the cabinet back

into its proper alignment. This felt good to me—the cabinet drawer

moved slightly—but it still didn’t open. So I resorted to the most

powerful tool employed by experts the world around—I banged

on the cabinet. And yes, it opened. In my mind, I decided (without

any evidence) that my hit had jarred the mechanism sufficiently to

allow the drawer to open.

This example highlights the themes of this chapter. First, how do

people do things? It is easy to learn a few basic steps to perform

operations with our technologies (and yes, even filing cabinets are

technology). But what happens when things go wrong? How do

we detect that they aren’t working, and then how do we know

what to do? To help understand this, I first delve into human psy-

chology and a simple conceptual model of how people select and

then evaluate their actions. This leads the discussion to the role of

understanding (via a conceptual model) and of emotions: pleasure

when things work smoothly and frustration when our plans are

thwarted. Finally, I conclude with a summary of how the lessons

of this chapter translate into principles of design.

How People Do Things:
The Gulfs of Execution and Evaluation

When people use something, they face two gulfs: the Gulf of Exe-

cution, where they try to figure out how it operates, and the Gulf

of Evaluation, where they try to figure out what happened (Fig-

ure 2.1). The role of the designer is to help people bridge the

two gulfs.

In the case of the filing cabinet, there were visible elements that

helped bridge the Gulf of Execution when everything was work-

ing perfectly. The drawer handle clearly signified that it should be

pulled and the slider on the handle indicated how to release the

catch that normally held the drawer in place. But when these oper-

ations failed, there then loomed a big gulf: what other operations

could be done to open the drawer?

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two: The Psychology of Everyday Actions 39

The Gulf of Evaluation

was easily bridged, at first.

That is, the catch was re-

leased, the drawer handle

pulled, yet nothing hap-

pened. The lack of action

signified a failure to reach

the goal. But when other

operations were tried, such

as my twisting and pull-

ing, the filing cabinet pro-

vided no more information

about whether I was get-

ting closer to the goal.

The Gulf of Evaluation

reflects the amount of ef-

fort that the person must

make to interpret the phys-

ical state of the device and to determine how well the expectations

and intentions have been met. The gulf is small when the device

provides information about its state in a form that is easy to get,

is easy to interpret, and matches the way the person thinks about

the system. What are the major design elements that help bridge the

Gulf of Evaluation? Feedback and a good conceptual model.

The gulfs are present for many devices. Interestingly, many peo-

ple do experience difficulties, but explain them away by blaming

themselves. In the case of things they believe they should be capa-

ble of using—water faucets, refrigerator temperature controls, stove

tops—they simply think, “I’m being stupid.” Alternatively, for com-

plicated-looking devices—sewing machines, washing machines,

digital watches, or almost any digital controls—they simply give up,

deciding that they are incapable of understanding them. Both expla-

nations are wrong. These are the things of everyday household use.

None of them has a complex underlying structure. The difficulties

reside in their design, not in the people attempting to use them.

F IGU RE 2 .1. The Gulfs of Execution and Eval-
uation. When people encounter a device, they
face two gulfs: the Gulf of Execution, where they
try to figure out how to use it, and the Gulf of
Evaluation, where they try to figure out what
state it is in and whether their actions got them
to their goal.

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40 The Design of Everyday Things

How can the designer help bridge the two gulfs? To answer that

question, we need to delve more deeply into the psychology of

human action. But the basic tools have already been discussed:

We bridge the Gulf of Execution through the use of signifiers, con-

straints, mappings, and a conceptual model. We bridge the Gulf of

Evaluation through the use of feedback and a conceptual model.

The Seven Stages of Action
There are two parts 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.

Suppose I am sitting in my armchair, reading a book. It is dusk,

and the light is getting dimmer and dimmer. My current activity

is reading, but that goal is starting to fail because of the decreasing

illumination. This realization triggers a new goal: get more light.

How do I do that? I have many choices. I could open the curtains,

move so that I sit where there is more light, or perhaps turn on a

nearby light. This is the planning stage, determining which of the

many possible plans of action to follow. But even when I decide

to turn on the nearby light, I still have to determine how to get it

done. I could ask someone to do it for me, I could use my left hand

or my right. Even after I have decided upon a plan, I still have to

specify how I will do it. Finally, I must execute—do—the action.

When I am doing a frequent act, one for which I am quite experi-

enced and skilled, most of these stages are subconscious. When I

am still learning how to do it, determining the plan, specifying the

sequence, and interpreting the result are conscious.

Suppose I am driving in my car and my action plan requires me

to make a left turn at a street intersection. If I am a skilled driver,

I don’t have to give much conscious attention to specify or per-

form the action sequence. I think “left” and smoothly execute the

required action sequence. But if I am just learning to drive, I have

to think about each separate component of the action. I must ap-

ply the brakes and check for cars behind and around me, cars and

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two: The Psychology of Everyday Actions 41

pedestrians in front of me,

and whether there are traf-

fic signs or signals that I

have to obey. I must move

my feet back and forth be-

tween pedals and my hands

to the turn signals and back

to the steering wheel (while

I try to remember just how

my instructor told me I

should position my hands

while making a turn), and

my visual attention is di-

vided among all the activ-

ity around me, sometimes

looking directly, some-

times rotating my head,

and sometimes using the rear- and side-view mirrors. To the skilled

driver, it is all easy and straightforward. To the beginning driver,

the task seems impossible.

The specific actions bridge the gap between what we would

like to have done (our goals) and all possible physical actions to

achieve those goals. After we specify what actions to make, we

must actually do them—the stages of execution. There are three

stages of execution that follow from the goal: plan, specify, and

perform (the left side of Figure 2.2). Evaluating what happened has

three stages: first, perceiving what happened in the world; second,

trying to make sense of it (interpreting it); and, finally, comparing

what happened with what was wanted (the right side of Figure 2.2).

There we have it. Seven stages of action: one for goals, three for

execution, and three for evaluation (Figure 2.2).

1. Goal (form the goal) 5. Perceive (the state of the world)
2. Plan (the action) 6. Interpret (the perception)
3. Specify (an action sequence) 7. Compare (the outcome with the goal)
4. Perform (the action sequence)

F IGU R E 2 . 2 . The Seven Stages of the Action
Cycle. Putting all the stages together yields the
three stages of execution (plan, specify, and per-
form), three stages of evaluation (perceive, in-
terpret, and compare), and, of course, the goal:
seven stages in all.

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42 The Design of Everyday Things

The seven-stage action cycle is simplified, but it provides a use-

ful framework for understanding human action and for guiding

design. It has proven to be helpful in designing interaction. Not all

of the activity in the stages is conscious. Goals tend to be, but even

they may be subconscious. We can do many actions, repeatedly

cycling through the stages while being blissfully unaware that we

are doing so. It is only when we come across something new or

reach some impasse, some problem that disrupts the normal flow

of activity, that conscious attention is required.

Most behavior does not require going through all stages in se-

quence; however, most activities will not be satisfied by single ac-

tions. There must be numerous sequences, and the whole activity

may last hours or even days. There are multiple feedback loops

in which the results of one activity are used to direct further ones, in

which goals lead to subgoals, and plans lead to subplans. There are

activities in which goals are forgotten, discarded, or reformulated.

Let’s go back to my act of turning on the light. This is a case of

event-driven behavior: the sequence starts with the world, caus-

ing evaluation of the state and the formulation of a goal. The trig-

ger was an environmental event: the lack of light, which made

reading difficult. This led to a violation of the goal of reading, so

it led to a subgoal—get more light. But reading was not the high-

level goal. For each goal, one has to ask, “Why is that the goal?”

Why was I reading? I was trying to prepare a meal using a new

recipe, so I needed to reread it before I started. Reading was thus

a subgoal. But cooking was itself a subgoal. I was cooking in or-

der to eat, which had the goal of satisfying my hunger. So the

hierarchy of goals is roughly: satisfy hunger; eat; cook; read cook-

book; get more light. This is called a root cause analysis: asking

“Why?” until the ultimate, fundamental cause of the activity is


The action cycle can start from the top, by establishing a new

goal, in which case we call it goal-driven behavior. In this situ-

ation, the cycle starts with the goal and then goes through the

three stages of execution. But the action cycle can also start from

the bottom, triggered by some event in the world, in which case we

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two: The Psychology of Everyday Actions 43

call it either data-driven or event-driven behavior. In this situation,

the cycle starts with the environment, the world, and then goes

through the three stages of evaluation.

For many everyday tasks, goals and intentions are not well spec-

ified: they are opportunistic rather than planned. Opportunistic

actions are those in which the behavior takes advantage of circum-

stances. Rather than engage in extensive planning and analysis, we

go about the day’s activities and do things as opportunities arise.

Thus, we may not have planned to try a new café or to ask a question

of a friend. Rather, we go through the day’s activities, and if we find

ourselves near the café or encountering the friend, then we allow the

opportunity to trigger the appropriate activity. Otherwise, we might

never get to that café or ask our friend the question. For crucial

tasks we make special efforts to ensure that they get done. Oppor-

tunistic actions are less precise and certain than specified goals and

intentions, but they result in less mental effort, less inconvenience,

and perhaps more interest. Some of us adjust our lives around the

expectation of opportunities. And sometimes, even for goal-driven

behavior, we try to create world events that will ensure that the

sequence gets completed. For example, sometimes when I must do

an important task, I ask someone to set a deadline for me. I use the

approach of that deadline to trigger the work. It may only be a few

hours before the deadline that I actually get to work and do the job,

but the important point is that it does get done. This self-triggering

of external drivers is fully compatible with the seven-stage analysis.

The seven stages provide a guideline for developing new prod-

ucts or services. The gulfs are obvious places to start, for either gulf,

whether of execution or evaluation, is an opportunity for product

enhancement. The trick is to develop observational skills to detect

them. Most innovation is done as an incremental enhancement of

existing products. What about radical ideas, ones that introduce

new product categories to the marketplace? These come about by

reconsidering the goals, and always asking what the real goal is:

what is called the root cause analysis.
Harvard Business School marketing professor Theodore Levitt

once pointed out, “People don’t want to buy a quarter-inch drill.

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44 The Design of Everyday Things

They want a quarter-inch hole!” Levitt’s example of the drill im-

plying that the goal is really a hole is only partially correct, how-

ever. When people go to a store to buy a drill, that is not their real

goal. But why would anyone want a quarter-inch hole? Clearly

that is an intermediate goal. Perhaps they wanted to hang shelves

on the wall. Levitt stopped too soon.

Once you realize that they don’t really want the drill, you realize

that perhaps they don’t really want the hole, either: they want to

install their bookshelves. Why not develop methods that don’t re-

quire holes? Or perhaps books that don’t require bookshelves. (Yes,

I know: electronic books, e-books.)

Human Thought: Mostly Subconscious
Why do we need to know about the human mind? Because things

are designed to be used by people, and without a deep under-

standing 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 us start by believing we already understand

both human behavior and the human mind. After all, we are all hu-

man: we have all lived with ourselves all of our lives, and we like

to think we understand ourselves. But the truth is, we don’t. Most

of human behavior is a result of subconscious processes. We are

unaware of them. As a result, many of our beliefs about how peo-

ple behave—including beliefs about ourselves—are wrong. That is

why we have the multiple social and behavioral sciences, with a

good dash of mathematics, economics, computer science, informa-

tion science, and neuroscience.

Consider the following simple experiment. Do all three steps:

1. Wiggle the second finger of your hand.

2. Wiggle the third finger of the same hand.

3. Describe what you did differently those two times.

On the surface, the answer seems simple: I thought about mov-

ing my fingers and they moved. The difference is that I thought

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two: The Psychology of Everyday Actions 45

about a different finger each time. Yes, that’s true. But how did that

thought get transmitted into action, into the commands that caused

different muscles in the arm to control the tendons that wiggled

the fingers? This is completely hidden from consciousness.

The human mind is immensely complex, having evolved over

a long period with many specialized structures. The study of the

mind is the subject of multiple disciplines, including the behav-

ioral and social sciences, cognitive science, neuroscience, philos-

ophy, and the information and computer sciences. Despite many

advances in our understanding, much still remains mysterious, yet

to be learned. One of the mysteries concerns the nature of and dis-

tinction between those activities that are conscious and those that

are not. Most of the brain’s operations are subconscious, hidden

beneath our awareness. It is only the highest level, what I call re-
flective, that is conscious.

Conscious attention is necessary to learn most things, but after

the initial learning, continued practice and study, sometimes for

thousands of hours over a period of years, produces what psychol-

ogists call “overlearning,” Once skills have been overlearned, per-

formance appears to be effortless, done automatically, with little or

no awareness. For example, answer these questions:

What is the phone number of a friend?

What is Beethoven’s phone number?

What is the capital of:

• Brazil?

• Wales?

• The United States?

• Estonia?

Think about how you answered these questions. The answers

you knew come immediately to mind, but with no awareness of

how that happened. You simply “know” the answer. Even the ones

you got wrong came to mind without any awareness. You might

have been aware of some doubt, but not of how the name entered

your consciousness. As for the countries for which you didn’t

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46 The Design of Everyday Things

know the answer, you probably knew you didn’t know those im-

mediately, without effort. Even if you knew you knew, but couldn’t

quite recall it, you didn’t know how you knew that, or what was

happening as you tried to remember.

You might have had trouble with the phone number of a friend

because most of us have turned over to our technology the job

of remembering phone numbers. I don’t know anybody’s phone

number—I barely remember my own. When I wish to call some-

one, I just do a quick search in my contact list and have the tele-

phone place the call. Or I just push the “2” button on the phone

for a few seconds, which autodials my home. Or in my auto, I can

simply speak: “Call home.” What’s the number? I don’t know: my

technology knows. Do we count our technology as an extension

of our memory systems? Of our thought processes? Of our mind?

What about Beethoven’s phone number? If I asked my computer,

it would take a long time, because it would have to search all the

people I know to see whether any one of them was Beethoven.

But you immediately discarded the question as nonsensical. You

don’t personally know Beethoven. And anyway, he is dead. Be-

sides, he died in the early 1800s and the phone wasn’t invented

until the late 1800s. How do we know what we do not know so

rapidly? Yet some things that we do know can take a long time to

retrieve. For example, answer this:

In the house you lived in three houses ago, as you entered the front door,
was the doorknob on the left or right?

Now you have to engage in conscious, reflective problem solv-

ing, first to retrieve just which house is being talked about, and

then what the correct answer is. Most people can determine the

house, but have difficulty answering the question because they can

readily imagine the doorknob on both sides of the door. The way to

solve this problem is to imagine doing some activity, such as walk-

ing up to the front door while carrying heavy packages with both

hands: how do you open the door? Alternatively, visualize yourself

inside the house, rushing to the front door to open it for a visitor.

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two: The Psychology of Everyday Actions 47

Usually one of these imagined scenarios provides the answer. But

note how different the memory retrieval for this question was from

the retrieval for the others. All these questions involved long-term

memory, but in very different ways. The earlier questions were

memory for factual information, what is called declarative memory.
The last question could have been answered factually, but is usu-

ally most easily answered by recalling the activities performed to

open the door. This is called procedural memory. I return to a discus-
sion of human memory in Chapter 3.

Walking, talking, reading. Riding a bicycle or driving a car. Sing-

ing. All of these skills take considerable time and practice to mas-

ter, but once mastered, they are often done quite automatically. For

experts, only especially difficult or unexpected situations require

conscious attention.

Because we are only aware of the reflective level of conscious

processing, we tend to believe that all human thought is con-

scious. But it isn’t. We also tend to believe that thought can be

separated from emotion. This is also false. Cognition and emo-

tion 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. That is why much of language

is based on physical metaphors, why the body and its interaction

with the environment are essential components of human thought.

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 judgments. A human with-

out a working emotional system has difficulty making choices. A

human without a cognitive system is dysfunctional.

Because much human behavior is subconscious—that is, it oc-

curs without conscious awareness—we often don’t know what we

are about to do, say, or think until after we have done it. It’s as

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48 The Design of Everyday Things

if we had two minds: the subconscious and the conscious, which

don’t always talk to each other. Not what you have been taught?

True, nonetheless. More and more evidence is accumulating that

we use logic and reason after the fact, to justify our decisions to

ourselves (to our conscious minds) and to others. Bizarre? Yes, but

don’t protest: enjoy it.

Subconscious thought matches patterns, finding the best possible

match of one’s past experience to the current one. It proceeds rap-

idly and automatically, without effort. Subconscious processing is

one of our strengths. It is good at detecting general trends, at recog-

nizing 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 few examples. But

subconscious thought can find matches that are inappropriate or

wrong, and it may not distinguish the common from the rare. Sub-

conscious thought is biased toward regularity and structure, and it

is limited in formal power. It may not be capable of symbolic ma-

nipulation, of careful reasoning through a sequence of steps.

Conscious thought is quite different. It is slow and labored.

Here is where we slowly ponder decisions, think through alter-

natives, compare different choices. Conscious thought considers

first this approach, then that—comparing, rationalizing, finding

explanations. Formal logic, mathematics, decision theory: these are

the tools of conscious thought. Both conscious and subconscious

modes of thought are powerful and essential aspects of human life.

Both can provide insightful leaps and creative moments. And both

are subject to errors, misconceptions, and failures.

Emotion interacts with cognition biochemically, bathing the brain

with hormones, transmitted either through the bloodstream or

through ducts in the brain, modifying the behavior 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 toward explo-

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two: The Psychology of Everyday Actions 49

ration and creativity. Now the brain is more apt to notice changes in

the environment, to be distracted by events, and to piece together

events and knowledge that might have seemed unrelated earlier.

A positive emotional state is ideal for creative thought, but it is

not very well suited for getting things done. Too much, and we call

the person scatterbrained, flitting from one topic to another, unable

to finish one thought before another comes to mind. A brain in a

negative emotional state provides focus: precisely what is needed

to maintain attention on a task and finish it. Too much, however,

and we get tunnel vision, where people are unable to look beyond

their narrow point of view. Both the positive, relaxed state and the

anxious, negative, and tense state are valuable and powerful tools

for human creativity and action. The extremes of both states, how-

ever, can be dangerous.

Human Cognition and Emotion
The mind and brain are complex entities, still the topic of con-

siderable scientific research. One valuable explanation of the lev-

els of processing within the brain, applicable to both cognitive

and emotional processing, is to think of three different levels of

processing, each quite different from the other, but all working

together in concert. Although this is a gross oversimplification

of the actual processing, it is a good enough approximation to

provide guidance in understanding human behavior. The approach

I use here comes from my book Emotional Design. There, I suggested

Subconscious Conscious

Fast Slow

Automatic Controlled

Multiple resources Limited resources

Controls skilled behavior Invoked for novel situations: when
learning, when in danger, when
things go wrong

TABLE 2 .1. Subconscious and Conscious Systems of Cognition

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50 The Design of Everyday Things

that a useful approximate model of human cognition and emotion

is to consider three levels of processing: visceral, behavioral, and



The most basic level of processing is called visceral. This is some-
times referred to as “the lizard brain.” All people have the same ba-

sic visceral responses. These are part of the basic protective mech-

anisms of the human affective system, making quick judgments

about the environment: good or bad, safe or dangerous. The visceral

system allows us to respond quickly and subconsciously, without

conscious awareness or control.

The basic biology of the visceral

system minimizes its ability to

learn. Visceral learning takes

place primarily by sensitization

or desensitization through such

mechanisms as adaptation and

classical conditioning. Visceral

responses are fast and automatic.

They give rise to the startle reflex

for novel, unexpected events; for

such genetically programmed

behavior as fear of heights, dis-

like of the dark or very noisy

environments, dislike of bitter

tastes and the liking of sweet tastes, and so on. Note that the visceral

level responds to the immediate present and produces an affective

state, relatively unaffected by context or history. It simply assesses

the situation: no cause is assigned, no blame, and no credit.

The visceral level is tightly coupled to the body’s musculature—

the motor system. This is what causes animals to fight or flee, or to

relax. An animal’s (or person’s) visceral state can often be read by

analyzing the tension of the body: tense means a negative state; re-

laxed, a positive state. Note, too, that we often determine our own

body state by noting our own musculature. A common self-report

F IGU R E 2 . 3 . Three Levels of Process-
ing: Visceral, Behavioral, and Reflective.
Visceral and behavioral levels are subcon-
scious and the home of basic emotions.
The reflective level is where conscious
thought and decision-making reside, as
well as the highest level of emotions.

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two: The Psychology of Everyday Actions 51

might be something like, “I was tense, my fists clenched, and I

was sweating.”

Visceral responses are fast and completely subconscious. They

are sensitive only to the current state of things. Most scientists do

not call these emotions: they are precursors to emotion. Stand at

the edge of a cliff and you will experience a visceral response. Or

bask in the warm, comforting glow after a pleasant experience,

perhaps a nice meal.

For designers, the visceral response is about immediate per-

ception: the pleasantness of a mellow, harmonious sound or the

jarring, irritating scratch of fingernails on a rough surface. Here

is where the style matters: appearances, whether sound or sight,

touch or smell, drive the visceral response. This has nothing to do

with how usable, effective, or understandable the product is. It is

all about attraction or repulsion. Great designers use their aesthetic

sensibilities to drive these visceral responses.

Engineers and other logical people tend to dismiss the visceral

response as irrelevant. Engineers are proud of the inherent qual-

ity of their work and dismayed when inferior products sell better

“just because they look better.” But all of us make these kinds of

judgments, even those very logical engineers. That’s why they love

some of their tools and dislike others. Visceral responses matter.


The behavioral level is the home of learned skills, triggered by sit-
uations that match the appropriate patterns. Actions and analyses

at this level are largely subconscious. Even though we are usually

aware of our actions, we are often unaware of the details. When we

speak, we often do not know what we are about to say until our

conscious mind (the reflective part of the mind) hears ourselves

uttering the words. When we play a sport, we are prepared for ac-

tion, but our responses occur far too quickly for conscious control:

it is the behavioral level that takes control.

When we perform a well-learned action, all we have to do is

think of the goal and the behavioral level handles all the details:

the conscious mind has little or no awareness beyond creating the

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52 The Design of Everyday Things

desire to act. It’s actually interesting to keep trying it. Move the left

hand, then the right. Stick out your tongue, or open your mouth.

What did you do? You don’t know. All you know is that you

“willed” the action and the correct thing happened. You can even

make the actions more complex. Pick up a cup, and then with the

same hand, pick up several more items. You automatically adjust

the fingers and the hand’s orientation to make the task possible.

You only need to pay conscious attention if the cup holds some liq-

uid that you wish to avoid spilling. But even in that case, the actual

control of the muscles is beneath conscious perception: concentrate

on not spilling and the hands automatically adjust.

For designers, the most critical aspect of the behavioral level is

that every action is associated with an expectation. Expect a positive

outcome and the result is a positive affective response (a “posi-

tive valence,” in the scientific literature). Expect a negative outcome

and the result is a negative affective response (a negative valence):

dread and hope, anxiety and anticipation. The information in the

feedback loop of evaluation confirms or disconfirms the expecta-

tions, resulting in satisfaction or relief, disappointment or frustration.

Behavioral states are learned. They give rise to a feeling of con-

trol when there is good understanding and knowledge of results,

and frustration and anger when things do not go as planned, and

especially when neither the reason nor the possible remedies are

known. Feedback provides reassurance, even when it indicates a

negative result. A lack of feedback creates a feeling of lack of con-

trol, which can be unsettling. Feedback is critical to managing ex-

pectations, and good design provides this. Feedback—knowledge

of results—is how expectations are resolved and is critical to learn-

ing and the development of skilled behavior.

Expectations play an important role in our emotional lives. This

is why drivers tense when trying to get through an intersection be-

fore the light turns red, or students become highly anxious before

an exam. The release of the tension of expectation creates a sense of

relief. The emotional system is especially responsive to changes in

states—so an upward change is interpreted positively even if it is

only from a very bad state to a not-so-bad state, just as a change is

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two: The Psychology of Everyday Actions 53

interpreted negatively even if it is from an extremely positive state

to one only somewhat less positive.


The reflective level is the home of conscious cognition. As a conse-
quence, this is where deep understanding develops, where reason-

ing and conscious decision-making take place. The visceral and

behavioral levels are subconscious and, as a result, they respond

rapidly, but without much analysis. Reflection is cognitive, deep,

and slow. It often occurs after the events have happened. It is a re-

flection or looking back over them, evaluating the circumstances,

actions, and outcomes, often assessing blame or responsibility. The

highest levels of emotions come from the reflective level, for it is

here that causes are assigned and where predictions of the future

take place. Adding causal elements to experienced events leads to

such emotional states as guilt and pride (when we assume our-

selves to be the cause) and blame and praise (when others are

thought to be the cause). Most of us have probably experienced the

extreme highs and lows of anticipated future events, all imagined

by a runaway reflective cognitive system but intense enough to

create the physiological responses associated with extreme anger

or pleasure. Emotion and cognition are tightly intertwined.



To the designer, reflection is perhaps the most important of the

levels of processing. Reflection is conscious, and the emotions

produced at this level are the most protracted: those that assign

agency and cause, such as guilt and blame or praise and pride. Re-

flective responses are part of our memory of events. Memories last

far longer than the immediate experience or the period of usage,

which are the domains of the visceral and behavioral levels. It is

reflection that drives us to recommend a product, to recommend

that others use it—or perhaps to avoid it.

Reflective memories are often more important than reality. If

we have a strongly positive visceral response but disappointing

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54 The Design of Everyday Things

usability problems at the behavioral level, when we reflect back

upon the product, the reflective level might very well weigh the

positive response strongly enough to overlook the severe behav-

ioral difficulties (hence the phrase, “Attractive things work bet-

ter”). Similarly, too much frustration, especially toward the ending

stage of use, and our reflections about the experience might over-

look the positive visceral qualities. Advertisers hope that the strong

reflective value associated with a well-known, highly prestigious

brand might overwhelm our judgment, despite a frustrating expe-

rience in using the product. Vacations are often remembered with

fondness, despite the evidence from diaries of repeated discomfort

and anguish.

All three levels of processing work together. All play essential

roles in determining a person’s like or dislike of a product or ser-

vice. One nasty experience with a service provider can spoil all

future experiences. One superb experience can make up for past

deficiencies. The behavioral level, which is the home of interaction,

is also the home of all expectation-based emotions, of hope and joy,

frustration and anger. Understanding arises at a combination of

the behavioral and reflective levels. Enjoyment requires all three.

Designing at all three levels is so important that I devote an entire

book to the topic, Emotional Design.
In psychology, there has been a long debate about which hap-

pens first: emotion or cognition. Do we run and flee because some

event happened that made us afraid? Or are we afraid because

our conscious, reflective mind notices that we are running? The

three-level analysis shows that both of these ideas can be correct.

Sometimes the emotion comes first. An unexpected loud noise can

cause automatic visceral and behavioral responses that make us

flee. Then, the reflective system observes itself fleeing and deduces

that it is afraid. The actions of running and fleeing occur first and

set off the interpretation of fear.

But sometimes cognition occurs first. Suppose the street where

we are walking leads to a dark and narrow section. Our reflective

system might conjure numerous imagined threats that await us.

At some point, the imagined depiction of potential harm is large

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two: The Psychology of Everyday Actions 55

enough to trigger the behavioral system, causing us to turn, run, and

flee. Here is where the cognition sets off the fear and the action.

Most products do not cause fear, running, or fleeing, but badly

designed devices can induce frustration and anger, a feeling of

helplessness and despair, and possibly even hate. Well-designed

devices can induce pride and enjoyment, a feeling of being in con-

trol and pleasure—possibly even love and attachment. Amuse-

ment parks are experts at balancing the conflicting responses of

the emotional stages, providing rides and fun houses that trigger

fear responses from the visceral and behavioral levels, while all

the time providing reassurance at the reflective level that the park

would never subject anyone to real danger.

All three levels of processing work together to determine a per-

son’s cognitive and emotional state. High-level reflective cognition

can trigger lower-level emotions. Lower-level emotions can trigger

higher-level reflective cognition.

The Seven Stages of Action
and the Three Levels of Processing

The stages of action can readily be associated with the three differ-

ent levels of processing, as shown in Figure 2.4. At the lowest level

are the visceral levels of calmness or anxiety when approaching a

task or evaluating the state of the world. Then, in the middle level,

are the behavioral ones driven by expectations on the execution

side—for example, hope and fear—and emotions driven by the

confirmation of those expectations on the evaluation side—for ex-

ample, relief or despair. At the highest level are the reflective emo-

tions, ones that assess the results in terms of the presumed causal

agents and the consequences, both immediate and long-term. Here

is where satisfaction and pride occur, or perhaps blame and anger.

One important emotional state is the one that accompanies com-

plete immersion into an activity, a state that the social scientist

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has labeled “flow.” Csikszentmihalyi

has long studied how people interact with their work and play,

and how their lives reflect this intermix of activities. When in the

flow state, people lose track of time and the outside environment.

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56 The Design of Everyday Things

They are at one with the task

they are performing. The task,

moreover, is at just the proper

level of difficulty: difficult

enough to provide a challenge

and require continued atten-

tion, but not so difficult that it

invokes frustration and anxiety.

Csikszentmihalyi’s work

shows how the behavioral

level creates a powerful set of

emotional responses. Here, the

subconscious expectations es-

tablished by the execution side

of the action cycle set up emo-

tional states dependent upon

those expectations. When the

results of our actions are eval-

uated against expectations, the

resulting emotions affect our

feelings as we continue through

the many cycles of action. An easy task, far below our skill level, makes

it so easy to meet expectations that there is no challenge. Very little or

no processing effort is required, which leads to apathy or boredom. A

difficult task, far above our skill, leads to so many failed expectations

that it causes frustration, anxiety, and helplessness. The flow state oc-

curs when the challenge of the activity just slightly exceeds our skill

level, so full attention is continually required. Flow requires that the

activity be neither too easy nor too difficult relative to our level of skill.

The constant tension coupled with continual progress and success can

be an engaging, immersive experience sometimes lasting for hours.

People as Storytellers
Now that we have explored the way that actions get done and the

three different levels of processing that integrate cognition and

emotion, we are ready to look at some of the implications.

F I G U R E 2 . 4 . Levels of Processing and the
Stages of the Action Cycle. Visceral response is
at the lowest level: the control of simple muscles
and sensing the state of the world and body. The
behavioral level is about expectations, so it is sen-
sitive to the expectations of the action sequence
and then the interpretations of the feedback. The
reflective level is a part of the goal- and plan-set-
ting activity as well as affected by the comparison
of expectations with what has actually happened.

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two: The Psychology of Everyday Actions 57

People are innately disposed to look for causes of events, to form

explanations and stories. That is one reason storytelling is such

a persuasive medium. Stories resonate with our experiences and

provide examples of new instances. From our experiences and the

stories of others we tend to form generalizations about the way

people behave and things work. We attribute causes to events, and

as long as these cause-and-effect pairings make sense, we accept

them and use them for understanding future events. Yet these

causal attributions are often erroneous. Sometimes they implicate

the wrong causes, and for some things that happen, there is no

single cause; rather, a complex chain of events that all contribute

to the result: if any one of the events would not have occurred, the

result would be different. But even when there is no single causal

act, that doesn’t stop people from assigning one.

Conceptual models are a form of story, resulting from our predis-

position to find explanations. These models are essential in helping

us understand our experiences, predict the outcome of our actions,

and handle unexpected occurrences. We base our models on what-

ever knowledge we have, real or imaginary, naive or sophisticated.

Conceptual models are often constructed from fragmentary evi-

dence, with only a poor understanding of what is happening, and

with a kind of naive psychology that postulates causes, mecha-

nisms, and relationships even where there are none. Some faulty

models lead to the frustrations of everyday life, as in the case of my

unsettable refrigerator, where my conceptual model of its opera-

tion (see again Figure 1.10A) did not correspond to reality (Figure

1.10B). Far more serious are faulty models of such complex sys-

tems as an industrial plant or passenger airplane. Misunderstand-

ing there can lead to devastating accidents.

Consider the thermostat that controls room heating and cooling

systems. How does it work? The average thermostat offers almost

no evidence of its operation except in a highly roundabout man-

ner. All we know is that if the room is too cold, we set a higher

temperature into the thermostat. Eventually we feel warmer. Note

that the same thing applies to the temperature control for almost

any device whose temperature is to be regulated. Want to bake a

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58 The Design of Everyday Things

cake? Set the oven thermostat and the oven goes to the desired


If you are in a cold room, in a hurry to get warm, will the room

heat more quickly if you turn the thermostat to its maximum set-

ting? Or if you want the oven to reach its working temperature

faster, should you turn the temperature dial all the way to maxi-

mum, then turn it down once the desired temperature is reached?

Or to cool a room most quickly, should you set the air conditioner

thermostat to its lowest temperature setting?

If you think that the room or oven will cool or heat faster if the

thermostat is turned all the way to the maximum setting, you are

wrong—you hold an erroneous folk theory of the heating and cool-

ing system. One commonly held folk theory of the working of a

thermostat is that it is like a valve: the thermostat controls how

much heat (or cold) comes out of the device. Hence, to heat or cool

something most quickly, set the thermostat so that the device is on

maximum. The theory is reasonable, and there exist devices that

operate like this, but neither the heating or cooling equipment for a

home nor the heating element of a traditional oven is one of them.

In most homes, the thermostat is just an on-off switch. Moreover,

most heating and cooling devices are either fully on or fully off:

all or nothing, with no in-between states. As a result, the thermo-

stat turns the heater, oven, or air conditioner completely on, at full

power, until the temperature setting on the thermostat is reached.

Then it turns the unit completely off. Setting the thermostat at

one extreme cannot affect how long it takes to reach the desired

temperature. Worse, because this bypasses the automatic shutoff

when the desired temperature is reached, setting it at the extremes

invariably means that the temperature overshoots the target. If

people were uncomfortably cold or hot before, they will become

uncomfortable in the other direction, wasting considerable energy

in the process.

But how are you to know? What information helps you under-

stand how the thermostat works? The design problem with the

refrigerator is that there are no aids to understanding, no way of

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two: The Psychology of Everyday Actions 59

forming the correct conceptual model. In fact, the information

provided misleads people into forming the wrong, quite inap-

propriate model.

The real point of these examples is not that some people have er-

roneous beliefs; it is that everyone forms stories (conceptual mod-

els) to explain what they have observed. In the absence of external

information, people can let their imagination run free as long as

the conceptual models they develop account for the facts as they

perceive them. As a result, people use their thermostats inappro-

priately, causing themselves unnecessary effort, and often resulting

in large temperature swings, thus wasting energy, which is both a

needless expense and bad for the environment. (Later in this chap-

ter, page 69, I provide an example of a thermostat that does pro-

vide a useful conceptual model.)

Blaming the Wrong Things
People try to find causes for events. They tend to assign a causal re-

lation whenever two things occur in succession. If some unexpected

event happens in my home just after I have taken some action, I am

apt to conclude that it was caused by that action, even if there really

was no relationship between the two. Similarly, if I do something ex-

pecting a result and nothing happens, I am apt to interpret this lack

of informative feedback as an indication that I didn’t do the action

correctly: the most likely thing to do, therefore, is to repeat the action,

only with more force. Push a door and it fails to open? Push again,

harder. With electronic devices, if the feedback is delayed sufficiently,

people often are led to conclude that the press wasn’t recorded, so

they do the same action again, sometimes repeatedly, unaware that

all of their presses were recorded. This can lead to unintended results.

Repeated presses might intensify the response much more than was

intended. Alternatively, a second request might cancel the previous

one, so that an odd number of pushes produces the desired result,

whereas an even number leads to no result.

The tendency to repeat an action when the first attempt fails

can be disastrous. This has led to numerous deaths when people

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60 The Design of Everyday Things

tried to escape a burning building by attempting to push open exit

doors that opened inward, doors that should have been pulled. As

a result, in many countries, the law requires doors in public places

to open outward, and moreover to be operated by so-called panic

bars, so that they automatically open when people, in a panic to

escape a fire, push their bodies against them. This is a great appli-

cation of appropriate affordances: see the door in Figure 2.5.

Modern systems try hard to provide feedback within 0.1 second

of any operation, to reassure the user that the request was received.

This is especially important if the operation will take considerable

time. The presence of a filling hourglass or rotating clock hands is

a reassuring sign that work is in progress. When the delay can be

predicted, some systems provide time estimates as well as progress

bars to indicate how far along the task has gone. More systems

should adopt these sensible displays to provide timely and mean-

ingful feedback of results.

Some studies show it is wise to underpredict—that is, to say an

operation will take longer than it actually will. When the system

computes the amount of time, it can compute the range of possible

F IGU R E 2 . 5 . Panic Bars on Doors. People fleeing a fire would die if they en-
countered exit doors that opened inward, because they would keep trying to push
them outward, and when that failed, they would push harder. The proper design,
now required by law in many places, is to change the design of doors so that they
open when pushed. Here is one example: an excellent design strategy for dealing
with real behavior by the use of the proper affordances coupled with a graceful
signifier, the black bar, which indicates where to push. (Photograph by author at the
Ford Design Center, Northwestern University.)

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two: The Psychology of Everyday Actions 61

times. In that case it ought to display the range, or if only a single

value is desirable, show the slowest, longest value. That way, the

expectations are liable to be exceeded, leading to a happy result.

When it is difficult to determine the cause of a difficulty, where

do people put the blame? Often people will use their own concep-

tual models of the world to determine the perceived causal rela-

tionship between the thing being blamed and the result. The word

perceived is critical: the causal relationship does not have to exist;
the person simply has to think it is there. Sometimes the result is

to attribute cause to things that had nothing to do with the action.

Suppose I try to use an everyday thing, but I can’t. Who is at

fault: me or the thing? We are apt to blame ourselves, especially if

others are able to use it. Suppose the fault really lies in the device,

so that lots of people have the same problems. Because everyone

perceives the fault to be his or her own, nobody wants to admit

to having trouble. This creates a conspiracy of silence, where the

feelings of guilt and helplessness among people are kept hidden.

Interestingly enough, the common tendency to blame ourselves

for failures with everyday objects goes against the normal attribu-

tions we make about ourselves and others. Everyone sometimes

acts in a way that seems strange, bizarre, or simply wrong and

inappropriate. When we do this, we tend to attribute our behavior

to the environment. When we see others do it, we tend to attribute

it to their personalities.

Here is a made-up example. Consider Tom, the office terror. To-

day, Tom got to work late, yelled at his colleagues because the of-

fice coffee machine was empty, then ran to his office and slammed

the door shut. “Ah,” his colleagues and staff say to one another,

“there he goes again.”

Now consider Tom’s point of view. “I really had a hard day,” Tom

explains. “I woke up late because my alarm clock failed to go off: I

didn’t even have time for my morning coffee. Then I couldn’t find

a parking spot because I was late. And there wasn’t any coffee in

the office machine; it was all out. None of this was my fault—I had

a run of really bad events. Yes, I was a bit curt, but who wouldn’t

be under the same circumstances?”

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62 The Design of Everyday Things

Tom’s colleagues don’t have access to his inner thoughts or to his

morning’s activities. All they see is that Tom yelled at them simply

because the office coffee machine was empty. This reminds them of

another similar event. “He does that all the time,” they conclude,

“always blowing up over the most minor things.” Who is correct?

Tom or his colleagues? The events can be seen from two differ-

ent points of view with two different interpretations: common re-

sponses to the trials of life or the result of an explosive, irascible


It seems natural for people to blame their own misfortunes on

the environment. It seems equally natural to blame other people’s

misfortunes on their personalities. Just the opposite attribution, by

the way, is made when things go well. When things go right, peo-

ple credit their own abilities and intelligence. The onlookers do

the reverse. When they see things go well for someone else, they

sometimes credit the environment, or luck.

In all such cases, whether a person is inappropriately accepting

blame for the inability to work simple objects or attributing be-

havior to environment or personality, a faulty conceptual model is

at work.


The phenomenon called learned helplessness might help explain the
self-blame. It refers to the situation in which people experience re-

peated 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 diffi-

culties coping with life. In the extreme case, such learned helpless-

ness leads to depression and to a belief that the individuals cannot

cope with everyday life at all. Sometimes all it takes to get such a

feeling of helplessness are a few experiences that accidentally turn

out bad. 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.

Do common technology and mathematics phobias result from

a kind of learned helplessness? Could a few instances of failure

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two: The Psychology of Everyday Actions 63

in what appear to be straightforward situations generalize to ev-

ery technological object, every mathematics problem? Perhaps. In

fact, the design of everyday things (and the design of mathematics

courses) seems almost guaranteed to cause this. We could call this

phenomenon taught helplessness.

When people have trouble using technology, especially when

they perceive (usually incorrectly) that nobody else is having the

same problems, they tend to blame themselves. Worse, the more

they have trouble, the more helpless they may feel, believing that

they must be technically or mechanically inept. This is just the op-

posite of the more normal situation where people blame their own

difficulties on the environment. This false blame is especially ironic

because the culprit here is usually the poor design of the technol-

ogy, so blaming the environment (the technology) would be com-

pletely appropriate.

Consider the normal mathematics curriculum, which continues

relentlessly on its way, each new lesson assuming full knowledge

and understanding of all that has passed before. Even though each

point may be simple, once you fall behind it is hard to catch up.

The result: mathematics phobia—not because the material is diffi-

cult, but because it is taught so that difficulty in one stage hinders

further progress. The problem is that once failure starts, it is soon

generalized by self-blame to all of mathematics. Similar processes

are at work with technology. The vicious cycle starts: if you fail

at something, you think it is your fault. Therefore you think you

can’t do that task. As a result, next time you have to do the task,

you believe you can’t, so you don’t even try. The result is that you

can’t, just as you thought.

You’re trapped in a self-fulfilling prophecy.


Just as we learn to give up after repeated failure, we can learn op-

timistic, positive responses to life. For years, psychologists focused

upon the gloomy story of how people failed, on the limits of hu-

man abilities, and on psychopathologies—depression, mania, para-

noia, and so on. But the twenty-first century sees a new approach:

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64 The Design of Everyday Things

to focus upon a positive psychology, a culture of positive thinking,

of feeling good about oneself. In fact, the normal emotional state

of most people is positive. When something doesn’t work, it can

be considered an interesting challenge, or perhaps just a positive

learning experience.

We need to remove the word failure from our vocabulary, replac-
ing it instead with learning experience. To fail is to learn: we learn
more from our failures than from our successes. With success, sure,

we are pleased, but we often have no idea why we succeeded. With

failure, it is often possible to figure out why, to ensure that it will

never happen again.

Scientists know this. Scientists do experiments to learn how the

world works. Sometimes their experiments work as expected, but

often they don’t. Are these failures? No, they are learning expe-

riences. Many of the most important scientific discoveries have

come from these so-called failures.

Failure can be such a powerful learning tool that many designers

take pride in their failures that happen while a product is still in

development. One design firm, IDEO, has it as a creed: “Fail often,

fail fast,” they say, for they know that each failure teaches them a

lot about what to do right. Designers need to fail, as do research-

ers. I have long held the belief—and encouraged it in my students

and employees—that failures are an essential part of exploration

and creativity. If designers and researchers do not sometimes fail, it

is a sign that they are not trying hard enough—they are not think-

ing the great creative thoughts that will provide breakthroughs in

how we do things. It is possible to avoid failure, to always be safe.

But that is also the route to a dull, uninteresting life.

The designs of our products and services must also follow this

philosophy. So, to the designers who are reading this, let me give

some advice:

• Do not blame people when they fail to use your products properly.

• Take people’s difficulties as signifiers of where the product can be


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two: The Psychology of Everyday Actions 65

• Eliminate all error messages from electronic or computer systems.

Instead, provide help and guidance.

• Make it possible to correct problems directly from help and guidance

messages. Allow people to continue with their task: Don’t impede

progress—help make it smooth and continuous. Never make people

start over.

• Assume that what people have done is partially correct, so if it is

inappropriate, provide the guidance that allows them to correct the

problem and be on their way.

• Think positively, for yourself and for the people you interact with.

Falsely Blaming Yourself
I have studied people making errors—sometimes serious ones—

with mechanical devices, light switches and fuses, computer op-

erating systems and word processors, even airplanes and nuclear

power plants. Invariably people feel guilty and either try to hide

the error or blame themselves for “stupidity” or “clumsiness.” I

often have difficulty getting permission to watch: nobody likes to

be observed performing badly. I point out that the design is faulty

and that others make the same errors, yet if the task appears sim-

ple or trivial, people still blame themselves. It is almost as if they

take perverse pride in thinking of themselves as mechanically


I once was asked by a large computer company to evaluate a

brand-new product. I spent a day learning to use it and trying

it out on various problems. In using the keyboard to enter data, it

was necessary to differentiate between the Return key and the En-

ter key. If the wrong key was pressed, the last few minutes’ work

was irrevocably lost.

I pointed out this problem to the designer, explaining that I,

myself, had made the error frequently and that my analyses indi-

cated that this was very likely to be a frequent error among users.

The designer’s first response was: “Why did you make that error?

Didn’t you read the manual?” He proceeded to explain the differ-

ent functions of the two keys.

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66 The Design of Everyday Things

“Yes, yes,” I explained, “I understand the two keys, I simply confuse

them. They have similar functions, are located in similar locations on

the keyboard, and as a skilled typist, I often hit Return automatically,

without thought. Certainly others have had similar problems.”

“Nope,” said the designer. He claimed that I was the only per-

son who had ever complained, and the company’s employees had

been using the system for many months. I was skeptical, so we

went together to some of the employees and asked them whether

they had ever hit the Return key when they should have hit Enter.

And did they ever lose their work as a result?

“Oh, yes,” they said, “we do that a lot.”

Well, how come nobody ever said anything about it? After all,

they were encouraged to report all problems with the system. The

reason was simple: when the system stopped working or did some-

thing strange, they dutifully reported it as a problem. But when

they made the Return versus Enter error, they blamed themselves.

After all, they had been told what to do. They had simply erred.

The idea that a person is at fault when something goes wrong is

deeply entrenched in society. That’s why we blame others and even

ourselves. Unfortunately, the idea that a person is at fault is imbed-

ded in the legal system. When major accidents occur, official courts

of inquiry are set up to assess the blame. More and more often the

blame is attributed to “human error.” The person involved can

be fined, punished, or fired. Maybe training procedures are revised.

The law rests comfortably. But in my experience, human error usually

is a result of poor design: it should be called system error. Humans

err continually; it is an intrinsic part of our nature. System design

should take this into account. Pinning the blame on the person may

be a comfortable way to proceed, but why was the system ever de-

signed so that a single act by a single person could cause calamity?

Worse, blaming the person without fixing the root, underlying cause

does not fix the problem: the same error is likely to be repeated by

someone else. I return to the topic of human error in Chapter 5.

Of course, people do make errors. Complex devices will always

require some instruction, and someone using them without in-

struction should expect to make errors and to be confused. But

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two: The Psychology of Everyday Actions 67

designers should take special pains to make errors as cost-free as

possible. Here is my credo about errors:

Eliminate the term human error. Instead, talk about communica-
tion and interaction: what we call an error is usually bad commu-

nication or interaction. When people collaborate with one anoth-

er, the word error is never used to characterize another person’s

utterance. That’s because each person is trying to understand

and respond to the other, and when something is not understood

or seems inappropriate, it is questioned, clarified, and the collab-

oration continues. Why can’t the interaction between a person

and a machine be thought of as collaboration?

Machines are not people. They can’t communicate and under-

stand the same way we do. This means that their designers have

a special obligation to ensure that the behavior of machines is un-

derstandable to the people who interact with them. True collabo-

ration requires each party to make some effort to accommodate

and understand the other. When we collaborate with machines, it

is people who must do all the accommodation. Why shouldn’t the

machine be more friendly? The machine should accept normal hu-

man behavior, but just as people often subconsciously assess the

accuracy of things being said, machines should judge the quality of

information given it, in this case to help its operators avoid griev-

ous errors because of simple slips (discussed in Chapter 5). Today,

we insist that people perform abnormally, to adapt themselves to

the peculiar demands of machines, which includes always giving

precise, accurate information. Humans are particularly bad at this,

yet when they fail to meet the arbitrary, inhuman requirements of

machines, we call it human error. No, it is design error.

Designers should strive to minimize the chance of inappro-

priate actions in the first place by using affordances, signifiers,

good mapping, and constraints to guide the actions. If a person

performs an inappropriate action, the design should maximize

the chance that this can be discovered and then rectified. This

requires good, intelligible feedback coupled with a simple, clear

conceptual model. When people understand what has happened,

what state the system is in, and what the most appropriate set of

actions is, they can perform their activities more effectively.

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68 The Design of Everyday Things

People are not machines. Machines don’t have to deal with

continual interruptions. People are subjected to continual inter-

ruptions. As a result, we are often bouncing back and forth be-

tween tasks, having to recover our place, what we were doing,

and what we were thinking when we return to a previous task.

No wonder we sometimes forget our place when we return to the

original task, either skipping or repeating a step, or imprecisely

retaining the information we were about to enter.

Our strengths are in our flexibility and creativity, in coming up

with solutions to novel problems. We are creative and imaginative,

not mechanical and precise. Machines require precision and accu-

racy; people don’t. And we are particularly bad at providing precise

and accurate inputs. So why are we always required to do so? Why

do we put the requirements of machines above those of people?

When people interact with machines, things will not always

go smoothly. This is to be expected. So designers should antici-

pate this. It is easy to design devices that work well when every-

thing goes as planned. The hard and necessary part of design is to

make things work well even when things do not go as planned.


In the past, cost prevented many manufacturers from providing

useful feedback that would assist people in forming accurate

conceptual models. The cost of color displays large and flexible

enough to provide the required information was prohibitive for

small, inexpensive devices. But as the cost of sensors and displays

has dropped, it is now possible to do a lot more.

Thanks to display screens, telephones are much easier to use than

ever before, so my extensive criticisms of phones found in the earlier

edition of this book have been removed. I look forward to great im-

provements in all our devices now that the importance of these de-

sign principles are becoming recognized and the enhanced quality

and lower costs of displays make it possible to implement the ideas.


My thermostat, for example (designed by Nest Labs), has a colorful

display that is normally off, turning on only when it senses that I

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two: The Psychology of Everyday Actions 69

am nearby. Then it provides me with the current temperature of

the room, the temperature to which it is set, and whether it is heat-

ing or cooling the room (the background color changes from black

when it is neither heating nor cooling, to orange while heating, or

to blue while cooling). It learns my daily patterns, so it changes

temperature automatically, lowering it at bedtime, raising it again

in the morning, and going into “away” mode when it detects that

nobody is in the house. All the time, it explains what it is doing.

Thus, when it has to change the room temperature substantially

(either because someone has entered a manual change or because

it has decided that it is now time to switch), it gives a prediction:

“Now 75°, will be 72° in 20 minutes.” In addition, Nest can be con-

nected wirelessly to smart devices that allow for remote operation

of the thermostat and also for larger screens to provide a detailed

analysis of its performance, aiding the home occupant’s develop-

ment of a conceptual model both of Nest and also of the home’s en-

ergy consumption. Is Nest perfect? No, but it marks improvement

in the collaborative interaction of people and everyday things.

F IGU R E 2 . 6 . A Thermostat with an Explicit Concep-
tual Model. This thermostat, manufactured by Nest Labs,
helps people form a good conceptual model of its opera-
tion. Photo A shows the thermostat. The background, blue,
indicates that it is now cooling the home. The current tem-
perature is 75°F (24°C) and the target temperature is 72°F
(22°C), which it expects to reach in 20 minutes. Photo B
shows its use of a smart phone to deliver a summary of its
settings and the home’s energy use. Both A and B combine
to help the home dweller develop conceptual models of
the thermostat and the home’s energy consumption. (Pho-
tographs courtesy of Nest Labs, Inc.)

A .


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70 The Design of Everyday Things

E N T E R I N G D A T E S , T I M E S , A N D T E L E P H O N E N U M B E R S

Many machines are programmed to be very fussy about the form

of input they require, where the fussiness is not a requirement of

the machine but due to the lack of consideration for people in the

design of the software. In other words: inappropriate program-

ming. Consider these examples.

Many of us spend hours filling out forms on computers—forms

that require names, dates, addresses, telephone numbers, mone-

tary sums, and other information in a fixed, rigid format. Worse,

often we are not even told the correct format until we get it wrong.

Why not figure out the variety of ways a person might fill out a

form and accommodate all of them? Some companies have done

excellent jobs at this, so let us celebrate their actions.

Consider Microsoft’s calendar program. Here, it is possible to

specify dates any way you like: “November 23, 2015,” “23 Nov.

15,” or “11.23.15.” It even accepts phrases such as “a week from

Thursday,” “tomorrow,” “a week from tomorrow,” or “yesterday.”

Same with time. You can enter the time any way you want: “3:45

PM,” “15.35,” “an hour,” “two and one-half hours.” Same with

telephone numbers: Want to start with a + sign (to indicate the code

for international dialing)? No problem. Like to separate the num-

ber fields with spaces, dashes, parentheses, slashes, periods? No

problem. As long as the program can decipher the date, time, or

telephone number into a legal format, it is accepted. I hope the

team that worked on this got bonuses and promotions.

Although I single out Microsoft for being the pioneer in accept-

ing a wide variety of formats, it is now becoming standard prac-

tice. By the time you read this, I would hope that every program

would permit any intelligible format for names, dates, phone num-

bers, street addresses, and so on, transforming whatever is entered

into whatever form the internal programming needs. But I predict

that even in the twenty-second century, there will still be forms

that require precise accurate (but arbitrary) formats for no reason

except the laziness of the programming team. Perhaps in the years

that pass between this book’s publication and when you are read-

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two: The Psychology of Everyday Actions 71

ing this, great improvements will have been made. If we are all

lucky, this section will be badly out of date. I hope so.

The Seven Stages of Action:
Seven Fundamental Design Principles

The seven-stage model of the action cycle can be a valuable de-

sign tool, for it provides a basic checklist of questions to ask. In

general, each stage of action requires its own special design strate-

gies and, in turn, provides its own opportunity for disaster. Figure

2.7 summarizes the questions:

1. What do I want to accomplish?

2. What are the alternative action sequences?

3. What action can I do now?

4. How do I do it?

5. What happened?

6. What does it mean?

7. Is this okay? Have I accomplished my goal?

Anyone using a product should always be able to determine the

answers to all seven questions. This puts the burden on the designer

F I G U R E 2 . 7 . T h e S e v e n
Stages of Action as Design
Aids. Each of the seven stages
indicates a place where the
person using the system has a
question. The seven questions
pose seven desig n themes.
How should the design con-
vey the information required
to answer the user’s question?
T h roug h appropr iate con-
straint and mappings, signi-
fiers and conceptual models,
feedback and visibility. The
information that helps answer
questions of execution (doing)
is feedforward. The information
that aids in understanding
what has happened is feedback.

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72 The Design of Everyday Things

to ensure that at each stage, the product provides the information

required to answer the question.

The information that helps answer questions of execution (do-

ing) is feedforward. The information that aids in understanding
what has happened is feedback. Everyone knows what feedback is.
It helps you know what happened. But how do you know what

you can do? That’s the role of feedforward, a term borrowed from

control theory.

Feedforward is accomplished through appropriate use of signi-

fiers, constraints, and mappings. The conceptual model plays an

important role. Feedback is accomplished through explicit infor-

mation about the impact of the action. Once again, the conceptual

model plays an important role.

Both feedback and feedforward need to be presented in a form that

is readily interpreted by the people using the system. The presenta-

tion has to match how people view the goal they are trying to achieve

and their expectations. Information must match human needs.

The insights from the seven stages of action lead us to seven fun-

damental principles of design:

1. Discoverability. It is possible to determine what actions are possible
and the current state of the device.

2. Feedback. There is full and continuous information about the results
of actions and the current state of the product or service. After an

action has been executed, it is easy to determine the new state.

3. Conceptual model. The design projects all the information needed
to create a good conceptual model of the system, leading to under-

standing and a feeling of control. The conceptual model enhances

both discoverability and evaluation of results.

4. Affordances. The proper affordances exist to make the desired ac-
tions possible.

5. Signifiers. Effective use of signifiers ensures discoverability and that
the feedback is well communicated and intelligible.

6. Mappings. The relationship between controls and their actions fol-
lows the principles of good mapping, enhanced as much as possible

through spatial layout and temporal contiguity.

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two: The Psychology of Everyday Actions 73

7. Constraints. Providing physical, logical, semantic, and cultural con-
straints guides actions and eases interpretation.

The next time you can’t immediately figure out the shower con-

trol in a hotel room or have trouble using an unfamiliar television

set or kitchen appliance, remember that the problem is in the de-

sign. Ask yourself where the problem lies. At which of the seven

stages of action does it fail? Which design principles are deficient?

But it is easy to find fault: the key is to be able to do things

better. Ask yourself how the difficulty came about. Realize that

many different groups of people might have been involved, each

of which might have had intelligent, sensible reasons for their ac-

tions. For example, a troublesome bathroom shower was designed

by people who were unable to know how it would be installed,

then the shower controls might have been selected by a building

contractor to fit the home plans provided by yet another person.

Finally, a plumber, who may not have had contact with any of the

other people, did the installation. Where did the problems arise? It

could have been at any one (or several) of these stages. The result

may appear to be poor design, but it may actually arise from poor


One of my self-imposed rules is, “Don’t criticize unless you can

do better.” Try to understand how the faulty design might have

occurred: try to determine how it could have been done otherwise.

Thinking about the causes and possible fixes to bad design should

make you better appreciate good design. So, the next time you

come across a well-designed object, one that you can use smoothly

and effortlessly on the first try, stop and examine it. Consider how

well it masters the seven stages of action and the principles of de-

sign. Recognize that most of our interactions with products are ac-

tually interactions with a complex system: good design requires

consideration of the entire system to ensure that the requirements,

intentions, and desires at each stage are faithfully understood and

respected at all the other stages.

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C h a p t e r T h r e e





A friend kindly let me borrow his car, an older, classic Saab. Just before
I was about to leave, I found a note waiting for me: “I should have
mentioned that to get the key out of the ignition, the car needs to be in
reverse.” The car needs to be in reverse! If I hadn’t seen the note, I never
could have figured that out. There was no visible cue in the car: the
knowledge needed for this trick had to reside in the head. If the driver
lacks that knowledge, the key stays in the ignition forever.

Every day we are confronted by numerous objects,

devices, and services, each of which requires us to

behave or act in some particular manner. Overall, we

manage quite well. Our knowledge is often quite in-

complete, ambiguous, or even wrong, but that doesn’t matter: we

still get through the day just fine. How do we manage? We com-

bine knowledge in the head with knowledge in the world. Why

combine? Because neither alone will suffice.

It is easy to demonstrate the faulty nature of human knowledge

and memory. The psychologists Ray Nickerson and Marilyn Adams

showed that people do not remember what common coins look

like (Figure 3.1). Even though the example is for the American one-

cent piece, the penny, the finding holds true for currencies across

the world. But despite our ignorance of the coins’ appearance, we

use our money properly.

Why the apparent discrepancy between the precision of behavior

and the imprecision of knowledge? Because not all of the knowl-

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three: Knowledge in the Head and in the World 75

edge required for precise behavior has to be in the head. It can be

distributed—partly in the head, partly in the world, and partly in

the constraints of the world.

Precise Behavior from Imprecise Knowledge
Precise behavior can emerge from imprecise knowledge for four


1. Knowledge is both in the head and in the world. Technically,
knowledge can only be in the head, because knowledge requires in-

terpretation 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. Behavior is determined by combining the

knowledge in the head with that in the world. For this chapter, I will

use the term “knowledge” for both what is in the head and what is

in the world. Although technically imprecise, it simplifies the discus-

sion and understanding.

F IGU R E 3 .1 . Which Is the US One-Cent Coin, the Penny? Fewer than half of the
American college students who were given this set of drawings and asked to select the
correct image could do so. Pretty bad performance, except that the students, of course,
have no difficulty using the money. In normal life, we have to distinguish between the
penny and other coins, not among several versions of one denomination. Although
this is an old study using American coins, the results still hold true today using coins
of any currency. (From Nickerson & Adams, 1979, Cognitive Psychology, 11 (3). Reproduced with
permission of Academic Press via Copyright Clearance Center.)

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76 The Design of Everyday Things

2. Great precision is not required. Precision, accuracy, and complete-
ness of knowledge are seldom required. Perfect behavior results if

the combined knowledge in the head and in the world is sufficient to

distinguish an appropriate choice from all others.

3. Natural constraints exist in the world. The world has many nat-
ural, physical constraints that restrict the possible behavior: such

things as the order in which parts can go together and the ways

by which an object can be moved, picked up, or otherwise manip-

ulated. This is knowledge in the world. Each object has physical

features—projections, depressions, screw threads, appendages—

that limit its relationships with other objects, the operations that

can be performed on it, what can be attached to it, and so on.

4. Knowledge of cultural constraints and conventions exists in the
head. Cultural constraints and conventions are learned artificial re-
strictions on behavior that reduce the set of likely actions, in many

cases leaving only one or two possibilities. This is knowledge in the

head. Once learned, these constraints apply to a wide variety of cir-


Because behavior can be guided by the combination of internal

and external knowledge and constraints, people can minimize the

amount of material they must learn, as well as the completeness,

precision, accuracy, or depth of the learning. They also can delib-

erately organize the environment to support behavior. This is how

nonreaders can hide their inability, even in situations where their

job requires reading skills. People with hearing deficits (or with

normal hearing but in noisy environments) learn to use other cues.

Many of us manage quite well when in novel, confusing situations

where we do not know what is expected of us. How do we do this?

We arrange things so that we do not need to have complete knowl-

edge or we rely upon the knowledge of the people around us,

copying their behavior or getting them to do the required actions.

It is actually quite amazing how often it is possible to hide one’s

ignorance, to get by without understanding or even much interest.

Although it is best when people have considerable knowledge and

experience using a particular product—knowledge in the head—

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three: Knowledge in the Head and in the World 77

the designer can put sufficient cues into the design—knowledge

in the world—that good performance results even in the absence

of previous knowledge. Combine the two, knowledge in the head

and in the world, and performance is even better. How can the

designer put knowledge into the device itself?

Chapters 1 and 2 introduced a wide range of fundamental design

principles derived from research on human cognition and emotion.

This chapter shows how knowledge in the world combines with

knowledge in the head. Knowledge in the head is knowledge in

the human memory system, so this chapter contains a brief review

of the critical aspects of memory necessary for the design of usable

products. I emphasize that for practical purposes, we do not need

to know the details of scientific theories but simpler, more general,

useful approximations. Simplified models are the key to successful

application. The chapter concludes with a discussion of how natu-

ral mappings present information in the world in a manner readily

interpreted and usable.


Whenever knowledge needed to do a task is readily available in

the world, the need for us to learn it diminishes. For example, we

lack knowledge about common coins, even though we recognize

them just fine (Figure 3.1). In knowing what our currency looks

like, we don’t need to know all the details, simply sufficient knowl-

edge to distinguish one value of currency from another. Only a

small minority of people must know enough to distinguish coun-

terfeit from legitimate money.

Or consider typing. Many typists have not memorized the key-

board. Usually each key is labeled, so nontypists can hunt and peck

letter by letter, relying on knowledge in the world and minimizing

the time required for learning. The problem is that such typing is

slow and difficult. With experience, of course, hunt-and-peckers

learn the positions of many of the letters on the keyboard, even

without instruction, and typing speed increases notably, quickly

surpassing handwriting speeds and, for some, reaching quite re-

spectable rates. Peripheral vision and the feel of the keyboard

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78 The Design of Everyday Things

provide some knowledge about key locations. Frequently used

keys become completely learned, infrequently used keys are not

learned well, and the other keys are partially learned. But as long

as a typist needs to watch the keyboard, the speed is limited. The

knowledge is still mostly in the world, not in the head.

If a person needs to type large amounts of material regularly, fur-

ther investment is worthwhile: a course, a book, or an interactive

program. The important thing is to learn the proper placement of

fingers on the keyboard, to learn to type without looking, to get

knowledge about the keyboard from the world into the head. It

takes a few weeks to learn the system and several months of prac-

tice to become expert. But the payoff for all this effort is increased

typing speed, increased accuracy, and decreased mental load and

effort at the time of typing.

We only need to remember sufficient knowledge to let us get our

tasks done. Because so much knowledge is available in the envi-

ronment, it is surprising how little we need to learn. This is one

reason people can function well in their environment and still be

unable to describe what they do.

People function through their use of two kinds of knowledge:

knowledge of and knowledge how. Knowledge of—what psychol-
ogists call declarative knowledge—includes the knowledge of facts
and rules. “Stop at red traffic lights.” “New York City is north of

Rome.” “China has twice as many people as India.” “To get the

key out of the ignition of a Saab car, the gearshift must be in re-

verse.” Declarative knowledge is easy to write and to teach. Note

that knowledge of the rules does not mean they are followed. The

drivers in many cities are often quite knowledgeable about the of-

ficial driving regulations, but they do not necessarily obey them.

Moreover, the knowledge does not have to be true. New York City

is actually south of Rome. China has only slightly more people

than India (roughly 10 percent). People may know many things:

that doesn’t mean they are true.

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

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three: Knowledge in the Head and in the World 79

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 do-

ing. Procedural knowledge is largely subconscious, residing at the

behavioral level of processing.

Knowledge in the world is usually easy to come by. Signifiers,

physical constraints, and natural mappings are all perceivable cues

that act as knowledge in the world. This type of knowledge occurs

so commonly that we take it for granted. It is everywhere: the lo-

cations of letters on a keyboard; the lights and labels on controls

that remind us of their purpose and give information about the

current state of the device. Industrial equipment is replete with

signal lights, indicators, and other reminders. We make extensive

use of written notes. We place items in specific locations as remind-

ers. In general, people structure their environment to provide a

considerable amount of the knowledge required for something to

be remembered.

Many organize their lives spatially in the world, creating a pile

here, a pile there, each indicating some activity to be done, some

event in progress. Probably everybody uses such a strategy to

some extent. Look around you at the variety of ways people ar-

range their rooms and desks. Many styles of organization are pos-

sible, but invariably the physical layout and visibility of the items

convey information about relative importance.


Normally, people do not need precision in their judgments. All that

is needed is the combination of knowledge in the world and in the

head that makes decisions unambiguous. Everything works just

fine unless the environment changes so that the combined knowl-

edge is no longer sufficient: this can lead to havoc. At least three

countries discovered this fact the hard way: the United States,

when it introduced the Susan B. Anthony one-dollar coin; Great

Britain, a one-pound coin (before the switch to decimal currency);

and France, a ten-franc coin (before the conversion to the common

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80 The Design of Everyday Things

European currency, the euro). The US dollar coin was confused

with the existing twenty-five-cent piece (the quarter), and the Brit-

ish pound coin with the then five-pence piece that had the same

diameter. Here is what happened in France:

PARIS With a good deal of fanfare, the French government released the
new 10-franc coin (worth a little more than $1.50) on Oct. 22 [1986].
The public looked at it, weighed it, and began confusing it so quickly
with the half-franc coin (worth only 8 cents) that a crescendo of fury
and ridicule fell on both the government and the coin.

Five weeks later, Minister of Finance Edouard Balladur suspended
circulation of the coin. Within another four weeks, he canceled it

In retrospect, the French decision seems so foolish that it is hard to
fathom how it could have been made. After much study, designers came
up with a silver-colored coin made of nickel and featuring a modernistic
drawing by artist Joaquim Jimenez of a Gallic rooster on one side and
of Marianne, the female symbol of the French republic, on the other.
The coin was light, sported special ridges on its rim for easy reading by
electronic vending machines and seemed tough to counterfeit.

But the designers and bureaucrats were obviously so excited by their
creation that they ignored or refused to accept the new coin’s similar-
ity to the hundreds of millions of silver-colored, nickel-based half-franc
coins in circulation [whose] size and weight were perilously simi-
lar. (Stanley Meisler. Copyright © 1986, Los Angeles Times. Reprinted with

The confusions probably occurred because the users of coins had

already formed representations in their memories that were only

sufficiently precise to distinguish among the coins that they were

accustomed to using. Psychological research suggests that people

maintain only partial descriptions of the things to be remembered.

In the three examples of new coins introduced in the United States,

Great Britain, and France, the descriptions formed to distinguish

among national currency were not precise enough to distinguish be-

tween a new coin and at least one of the old coins.

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three: Knowledge in the Head and in the World 81

Suppose I keep all my notes in a small red notebook. If this is

my only notebook, I can describe it simply as “my notebook.” If I

buy several more notebooks, the earlier description will no longer

work. Now I must identify the first one as small or red, or maybe both

small and red, whichever allows me to distinguish it from the oth-

ers. But what if I acquire several small red notebooks? Now I must

find some other means of describing the first book, adding to the

richness of the description and to its ability to discriminate among

the several similar items. Descriptions need discriminate only

among the choices in front of me, but what works for one purpose

may not for another.

Not all similar-looking items cause confusion. In updating this

edition of the book, I searched to see whether there might be more

recent examples of coin confusions. I found this interesting item on

the website Wikicoins.com:

Someday, a leading psychologist may weigh in on one of the perplexing
questions of our time: if the American public was constantly confusing
the Susan B. Anthony dollar with the roughly similar-sized quarter, how
come they weren’t also constantly confusing the $20 bill with the identi-
cal-sized $1 bill? (James A. Capp, “Susan B. Anthony Dollar,” at www.wiki
coins.com. Retrieved May 29, 2012)

Here is the answer. Why not any confusion? We learn to dis-

criminate among things by looking for distinguishing features. In

the United States, size is one major way of distinguishing among

coins, but not among paper money. With paper money, all the bills

are the same size, so Americans ignore size and look at the printed

numbers and images. Hence, we often confuse similar-size Amer-

ican coins but only seldom confuse similar-size American bills.

But people who come from a country that uses size and color of

their paper money to distinguish among the amounts (for exam-

ple, Great Britain or any country that uses the euro) have learned

to use size and color to distinguish among paper money and

therefore are invariably confused when dealing with bills from

the United States.

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82 The Design of Everyday Things

More confirmatory evidence comes from the fact that although

long-term residents of Britain complained that they confused the

one-pound coin with the five-pence coin, newcomers (and chil-

dren) did not have the same confusion. This is because the long-

term residents were working with their original set of descriptions,

which did not easily accommodate the distinctions between these

two coins. Newcomers, however, started off with no preconcep-

tions and therefore formed a set of descriptions to distinguish

among all the coins; in this situation, the one-pound coin offered

no particular problem. In the United States, the Susan B. Anthony

dollar coin never became popular and is no longer being made, so

the equivalent observations cannot be made.

What gets confused depends heavily upon history: the aspects

that have allowed us to distinguish among the objects in the past.

When the rules for discrimination change, people can become con-

fused and make errors. With time, they will adjust and learn to

discriminate just fine and may even forget the initial period of con-

fusion. The problem is that in many circumstances, especially one

as politically charged as the size, shape, and color of currency, the

public’s outrage prevents calm discussion and does not allow for

any adjustment time.

Consider this as an example of design principles interacting with

the messy practicality of the real world. What appears good in prin-

ciple can sometimes fail when introduced to the world. Sometimes,

bad products succeed and good products fail. The world is complex.


Before widespread literacy, and especially before the advent of

sound recording devices, performers traveled from village to vil-

lage, reciting epic poems thousands of lines long. This tradition

still exists in some societies. How do people memorize such volu-

minous amounts of material? Do some people have huge amounts

of knowledge in their heads? Not really. It turns out that external

constraints exert control over the permissible choice of words, thus

dramatically reducing the memory load. One of the secrets comes

from the powerful constraints of poetry.

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three: Knowledge in the Head and in the World 83

Consider the constraints of rhyming. If you wish to rhyme one

word with another, there are usually a lot of alternatives. But if

you must have a word with a particular meaning to rhyme with

another, the joint constraints of meaning and rhyme can cause a

dramatic reduction in the number of possible candidates, some-

times reducing a large set to a single choice. Sometimes there are

no candidates at all. This is why it is much easier to memorize

poetry than to create poems. Poems come in many different forms,

but all have formal restrictions on their construction. The ballads

and tales told by the traveling storytellers used multiple poetic

constraints, including rhyme, rhythm, meter, assonance, allitera-

tion, and onomatopoeia, while also remaining consistent with the

story being told.

Consider these two examples:

One. I am thinking of three words: one means “a mythical being,”
the second is “the name of a building material,” and the third is “a unit
of time.” What words do I have in mind?

Two. This time look for rhyming words. I am thinking of three
words: one rhymes with “post,” the second with “eel,” and the third
with “ear.” What words am I thinking of? (From Rubin & Wallace, 1989.)

In both examples, even though you might have found answers, they

were not likely to be the same three that I had in mind. There sim-

ply are not enough constraints. But suppose I now tell you that the

words I seek are the same in both tasks: What is a word that means

a mythical being and rhymes with “post”? What word is the name

of a building material and rhymes with “eel”? And what word is a

unit of time and rhymes with “ear”? Now the task is easy: the joint

specification of the words completely constrains the selection. When

the psychologists David Rubin and Wanda Wallace studied these

examples in their laboratory, people almost never got the correct

meanings or rhymes for the first two tasks, but most people correctly

answered, “ghost,” “steel,” and “year” in the combined task.

The classic study of memory for epic poetry was done by Albert

Bates Lord. In the mid-1900s he traveled throughout the former

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84 The Design of Everyday Things

Yugoslavia (now a number of separate, independent countries)

and found people who still followed the oral tradition. He demon-

strated that the “singer of tales,” the person who learns epic poems

and goes from village to village reciting them, is really re-creating

them, composing poetry on the fly in such a way that it obeys the

rhythm, theme, story line, structure, and other characteristics of

the poem. This is a prodigious feat, but it is not an example of rote


The power of multiple constraints allows one singer to listen to

another singer tell a lengthy tale once, and then after a delay of

a few hours or a day, to recite “the same song, word for word,

and line for line.” In fact, as Lord points out, the original and new

recitations are not the same word for word, but both teller and

listener perceive them as the same, even when the second version

was twice as long as the first. They are the same in the ways that

matter to the listener: they tell the same story, express the same

ideas, and follow the same rhyme and meter. They are the same in

all senses that matter to the culture. Lord shows just how the com-

bination of memory for poetics, theme, and style combines with

cultural structures into what he calls a “formula” for producing a

poem perceived as identical to earlier recitations.

The notion that someone should be able to recite word for word

is relatively modern. Such a notion can be held only after printed

texts become available; otherwise who could judge the accuracy of

a recitation? Perhaps more important, who would care?

All this is not to detract from the feat. Learning and reciting an

epic poem, such as Homer ’s Odyssey and Iliad, is clearly difficult
even if the singer is re-creating it: there are twenty-seven thousand

lines of verse in the combined written version. Lord points out that

this length is excessive, probably produced only during the spe-

cial circumstances in which Homer (or some other singer) dictated

the story slowly and repetitively to the person who first wrote it

down. Normally the length would be varied to accommodate the

whims of the audience, and no normal audience could sit through

twenty-seven thousand lines. But even at one-third the size, nine

thousand lines, being able to recite the poem is impressive: at one

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three: Knowledge in the Head and in the World 85

second per line, the verses would take two and one-half hours to

recite. It is impressive even allowing for the fact that the poem is

re-created as opposed to memorized, because neither the singer

nor the audience expect word-for-word accuracy (nor would either

have any way of verifying that).

Most of us do not learn epic poems. But we do make use of strong

constraints that serve to simplify what must be retained in memory.

Consider an example from a completely different domain: taking

apart and reassembling a mechanical device. Typical items in the

home that an adventuresome person might attempt to repair in-

clude a door lock, toaster, and washing machine. The device is apt

to have tens of parts. What has to be remembered to be able to put

the parts together again in a proper order? Not as much as might

appear from an initial analysis. In the extreme case, if there are ten

parts, there are 10! (ten factorial) different ways in which to reas-

semble them—a little over 3.5 million alternatives.

But few of these possibilities are possible: there are numerous

physical constraints on the ordering. Some pieces must be assem-

bled before it is even possible to assemble the others. Some pieces

are physically constrained from fitting into the spots reserved for

others: bolts must fit into holes of an appropriate diameter and

depth; nuts and washers must be paired with bolts and screws

of appropriate sizes; and washers must always be put on before

nuts. There are even cultural constraints: we turn screws clock-

wise to tighten, counterclockwise to loosen; the heads of screws

tend to go on the visible part (front or top) of a piece, bolts on the

less visible part (bottom, side, or interior); wood screws and ma-

chine screws look different and are inserted into different kinds

of materials. In the end, the apparently large number of decisions

is reduced to only a few choices that should have been learned

or otherwise noted during the disassembly. The constraints by

themselves are often not sufficient to determine the proper reas-

sembly of the device—mistakes do get made—but the constraints

reduce the amount that must be learned to a reasonable quantity.

Constraints are powerful tools for the designer: they are exam-

ined in detail in Chapter 4.

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86 The Design of Everyday Things

Memory Is Knowledge in the Head
An old Arabic folk tale, “‘Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves,” tells

how the poor woodcutter ‘Ali Baba discovered the secret cave of a

band of thieves. ‘Ali Baba overheard the thieves entering the cave

and learned the secret phrase that opened the cave: “Open Sim-

sim.” (Simsim means “sesame” in Persian, so many versions of the
story translate the phrase as “Open Sesame.”) ‘Ali Baba’s brother-

in-law, Kasim, forced him to reveal the secret. Kasim then went to

the cave.

When he reached the entrance of the cavern, he pronounced the words,
Open Simsim!

The door immediately opened, and when he was in, closed on him. In
examining the cave he was greatly astonished to find much more riches
than he had expected from ‘Ali Baba’s relation.

He quickly laid at the door of the cavern as many bags of gold as his
ten mules could carry, but his thoughts were now so full of the great
riches he should possess, that he could not think of the necessary words
to make the door open. Instead of Open Simsim! he said Open Barley!
and was much amazed to find that the door remained shut. He named
several sorts of grain, but still the door would not open.

Kasim never expected such an incident, and was so alarmed at the
danger he was in that the more he endeavoured to remember the word
Simsim the more his memory was confounded, and he had as much
forgotten it as if he had never heard it mentioned.

Kasim never got out. The thieves returned, cut off Kasim’s head, and
quartered his body. (From Colum’s 1953 edition of The Arabian Nights.)

Most of us will not get our head cut off if we fail to remember a

secret code, but it can still be very hard to recall the code. It is one

thing to have to memorize one or two secrets: a combination, or

a password, or the secret to opening a door. But when the num-

ber of secret codes gets too large, memory fails. There seems to

be a conspiracy, one calculated to destroy our sanity by overload-

ing our memory. Many codes, such as postal codes and telephone

numbers, exist primarily to make life easier for machines and their

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three: Knowledge in the Head and in the World 87

designers without any consideration of the burden placed upon

people. Fortunately, technology has now permitted most of us

to avoid having to remember this arbitrary knowledge but to let

our technology do it for us: phone numbers, addresses and postal

codes, Internet and e-mail addresses are all retrievable automati-

cally, so we no longer have to learn them. Security codes, however,

are a different matter, and in the never-ending, escalating battle

between the white hats and the black, the good guys and the bad,

the number of different arbitrary codes we must remember or spe-

cial security devices we must carry with us continues to escalate in

both number and complexity.

Many of these codes must be kept secret. There is no way that

we can learn all those numbers or phrases. Quick: what magical

command was Kasim trying to remember to open the cavern door?

How do most people cope? They use simple passwords. Studies

show that five of the most common passwords are: “password,”

“123456,” “12345678,” “qwerty,” and “abc123.” All of these are

clearly selected for easy remembering and typing. All are therefore

easy for a thief or mischief-maker to try. Most people (including

me) have a small number of passwords that they use on as many

different sites as possible. Even security professionals admit to this,

thereby hypocritically violating their own rules.

Many of the security requirements are unnecessary, and need-

lessly complex. So why are they required? There are many rea-

sons. One is that there are real problems: criminals impersonate

identities to steal people’s money and possessions. People invade

others’ privacy, for nefarious or even harmless purposes. Profes-

sors and teachers need to safeguard examination questions and

grades. For companies and nations, it is important to maintain se-

crets. There are lots of reasons to keep things behind locked doors

or password-protected walls. The problem, however, is the lack of

proper understanding of human abilities.

We do need protection, but most of the people who enforce

the security requirements at schools, businesses, and govern-

ment are technologists or possibly law-enforcement officials.

They understand crime, but not human behavior. They believe

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88 The Design of Everyday Things

that “strong” passwords, ones difficult to guess, are required,

and that they must be changed frequently. They do not seem

to recognize that we now need so many passwords—even easy

ones—that it is difficult to remember which goes with which re-

quirement. This creates a new layer of vulnerability.

The more complex the password requirements, the less secure

the system. Why? Because people, unable to remember all these

combinations, write them down. And then where do they store this

private, valuable knowledge? In their wallet, or taped under the

computer keyboard, or wherever it is easy to find, because it is so

frequently needed. So a thief only has to steal the wallet or find the

list and then all secrets are known. Most people are honest, con-

cerned workers. And it is these individuals that complex security

systems impede the most, preventing them from getting their work

done. As a result, it is often the most dedicated employee who vio-

lates the security rules and weakens the overall system.

When I was doing the research for this chapter, I found numer-

ous examples of secure passwords that force people to use insecure

memory devices for them. One post on the “Mail Online” forum of

the British Daily Mail newspaper described the technique:

When I used to work for the local government organisation we HAD
TO change our Passwords every three months. To ensure I could
remember it, I used to write it on a Post-It note and stick it above
my desk.

How can we remember all these secret things? Most of us can’t,

even with the use of mnemonics to make some sense of nonsensi-

cal material. Books and courses on improving memory can work,

but the methods are laborious to learn and need continual practice

to maintain. So we put the memory in the world, writing things

down in books, on scraps of paper, even on the backs of our hands.

But we disguise them to thwart would-be thieves. That creates an-

other problem: How do we disguise the items, how do we hide

them, and how do we remember what the disguise was or where

we put it? Ah, the foibles of memory.

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three: Knowledge in the Head and in the World 89

Where should you hide something so that nobody else will find

it? In unlikely places, right? Money is hidden in the freezer; jew-

elry in the medicine cabinet or in shoes in the closet. The key to

the front door is hidden under the mat or just below the window

ledge. The car key is under the bumper. The love letters are in a

flower vase. The problem is, there aren’t that many unlikely places

in the home. You may not remember where the love letters or keys

are hidden, but your burglar will. Two psychologists who exam-

ined the issue described the problem this way:

There is often a logic involved in the choice of unlikely places. For exam-
ple, a friend of ours was required by her insurance company to acquire
a safe if she wished to insure her valuable gems. Recognizing that she
might forget the combination to the safe, she thought carefully about
where to keep the combination. Her solution was to write it in her per-
sonal phone directory under the letter S next to “Mr. and Mrs. Safe,” as
if it were a telephone number. There is a clear logic here: Store numer-
ical information with other numerical information. She was appalled,
however, when she heard a reformed burglar on a daytime television
talk show say that upon encountering a safe, he always headed for the
phone directory because many people keep the combination there. (From
Winograd & Soloway, 1986, “On Forgetting the Locations of Things Stored in

Special Places.” Reprinted with permission.)

All the arbitrary things we need to remember add up to unwit-

ting tyranny. It is time for a revolt. But before we revolt, it is impor-

tant to know the solution. As noted earlier, one of my self-imposed

rules is, “Never criticize unless you have a better alternative.” In

this case, it is not clear what the better system might be.

Some things can only be solved by massive cultural changes,

which probably means they will never be solved. For example,

take the problem of identifying people by their names. People’s

names evolved over many thousands of years, originally simply

to distinguish people within families and groups who lived to-

gether. The use of multiple names (given names and surnames)

is relatively recent, and even those do not distinguish one person

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90 The Design of Everyday Things

from all the seven billion in the world. Do we write the given name

first, or the surname? It depends upon what country you are in.

How many names does a person have? How many characters in

a name? What characters are legitimate? For example, can a name

include a digit? (I know people who have tried to use such names

as “h3nry.” I know of a company named “Autonom3.”)

How does a name translate from one alphabet to another? Some

of my Korean friends have given names that are identical when

written in the Korean alphabet, Hangul, but that are different

when transliterated into English.

Many people change their names when they get married or

divorced, and in some cultures, when they pass significant life

events. A quick search on the Internet reveals multiple questions

from people in Asia who are confused about how to fill out Amer-

ican or European passport forms because their names don’t corre-

spond to the requirements.

And what happens when a thief steals a person’s identity, mas-

querading as the other individual, using his or her money and

credit? In the United States, these identity thieves can also apply

for income tax rebates and get them, and when the legitimate tax-

payers try to get their legitimate refund, they are told they already

received it.

I once attended a meeting of security experts that was held at

the corporate campus of Google. Google, like most corporations,

is very protective of its processes and advanced research projects,

so most of the buildings were locked and guarded. Attendees of

the security meeting were not allowed access (except those who

worked at Google, of course). Our meetings were held in a con-

ference room in the public space of an otherwise secure building.

But the toilets were all located inside a secure area. How did we

manage? These world-famous, leading authorities on security fig-

ured out a solution: They found a brick and used it to prop open

the door leading into the secure area. So much for security: Make

something too secure, and it becomes less secure.

How do we solve these problems? How do we guarantee peo-

ple’s access to their own records, bank accounts, and computer

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three: Knowledge in the Head and in the World 91

systems? Almost any scheme you can imagine has already been

proposed, studied, and found to have defects. Biometric markers

(iris or retina patterns, fingerprints, voice recognition, body type,

DNA)? All can be forged or the systems’ databases manipulated.

Once someone manages to fool the system, what recourse is there?

It isn’t possible to change biometric markers, so once they point to

the wrong person, changes are extremely difficult to make.

The strength of a password is actually pretty irrelevant because

most passwords are obtained through “key loggers” or are stolen.

A key logger is software hidden within your computer system that

records what you type and sends it to the bad guys. When computer

systems are broken into, millions of passwords might get stolen, and

even if they are encrypted, the bad guys can often decrypt them. In

both these cases, however secure the password, the bad guys know

what it is.

The safest methods require multiple identifiers, the most com-

mon schemes requiring at least two different kinds: “something

you have” plus “something you know.” The “something you have”

is often a physical identifier, such as a card or key, perhaps even

something implanted under the skin or a biometric identifier, such

as fingerprints or patterns of the eye’s iris. The “something you

know” would be knowledge in the head, most likely something

memorized. The memorized item doesn’t have to be as secure as to-

day’s passwords because it wouldn’t work without the “something

you have.” Some systems allow for a second, alerting password, so

that if the bad guys try to force someone to enter a password into

a system, the individual would use the alerting one, which would

warn the authorities of an illegal entry.

Security poses major design issues, ones that involve complex

technology as well as human behavior. There are deep, fundamental

difficulties. Is there a solution? No, not yet. We will probably be stuck

with these complexities for a long time.

The Structure of Memory
Say aloud the numbers 1, 7, 4, 2, 8. Next, without looking back, repeat
them. Try again if you must, perhaps closing your eyes, the better

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92 The Design of Everyday Things

to “hear” the sound still echoing in mental activity. Have someone
read a random sentence to you. What were the words? The memory of
the just present is available immediately, clear and complete, without
mental effort.

What did you eat for dinner three days ago? Now the feeling is dif-
ferent. It takes time to recover the answer, which is neither as clear nor
as complete a remembrance as that of the just present, and the recovery
is likely to require considerable mental effort. Retrieval of the past dif-
fers from retrieval of the just present. More effort is required, less clarity
results. Indeed, the “past” need not be so long ago. Without looking
back, what were those digits? For some people, this retrieval now takes
time and effort. (From Learning and Memory, Norman, 1982.)

Psychologists distinguish between two major classes of memory:

short-term or working memory, and long-term memory. The two

are quite different, with different implications for design.


Short-term or working memory (STM) retains the most recent ex-

periences or material that is currently being thought about. It is the

memory of the just present. Information is retained automatically

and retrieved without effort; but the amount of information that

can be retained this way is severely limited. Something like five to

seven items is the limit of STM, with the number going to ten or

twelve if the material is continually repeated, what psychologists

call “rehearsing.”

Multiply 27 times 293 in your head. If you try to do it the same

way you would with paper and pencil, you will almost definitely

be unable to hold all the digits and intervening answers within

STM. You will fail. The traditional method of multiplying is opti-

mized for paper and pencil. There is no need to minimize the bur-

den on working memory because the numbers written on the paper

serve this function (knowledge in the world), so the burden on

STM, on knowledge in the head, is quite limited. There are ways

of doing mental multiplication, but the methods are quite different

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three: Knowledge in the Head and in the World 93

from those using paper and pencil and require considerable train-

ing and practice.

Short-term memory is invaluable in the performance of everyday

tasks, in letting us remember words, names, phrases, and parts

of tasks: hence its alternative name, working memory. But the ma-

terial being maintained in STM is quite fragile. Get distracted by

some other activity and, poof, the stuff in STM disappears. It is ca-

pable of holding a postal code or telephone number from the time

you look it up until the time it is used—as long as no distractions

occur. Nine- or ten-digit numbers give trouble, and when the num-

ber starts to exceed that—don’t bother. Write it down. Or divide

the number into several shorter segments, transforming the long

number into meaningful chunks.

Memory experts use special techniques, called mnemonics, to
remember amazingly large amounts of material, often after only

a single exposure. One method is to transform the digits into

meaningful segments (one famous study showed how an athlete

thought of digit sequences as running times, and after refining

the method over a long period, could learn incredibly long se-

quences at one glance). One traditional method used to encode

long sequences of digits is to first transform each digit into a

consonant, then transform the consonant sequence into a memo-

rable phrase. A standard table of conversions of digits to conso-

nants has been around for hundreds of years, cleverly designed

to be easy to learn because the consonants can be derived from

the shape of the digits. Thus, “1” is translated into “t” (or the

similar-sounding “d”), “2” becomes “n,” “3” becomes “m,” “4” is

“r,” and “5” becomes “L” (as in the Roman numeral for 50). The

full table and the mnemonics for learning the pairings are read-

ily found on the Internet by searching for “number-consonant


Using the number-consonant transformation, the string

4194780135092770 translates into the letters rtbrkfstmlspncks,
which in turn may become, “A hearty breakfast meal has pan-

cakes.” Most people are not experts at retaining long arbitrary

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94 The Design of Everyday Things

strings of anything, so although it is interesting to observe memory

wizards, it would be wrong to design systems that assumed this

level of proficiency.

The capacity of STM is surprisingly difficult to measure, because

how much can be retained depends upon the familiarity of the

material. Retention, moreover, seems to be of meaningful items,

rather than of some simpler measure such as seconds or individual

sounds or letters. Retention is affected by both time and the num-

ber of items. The number of items is more important than time,

with each new item decreasing the likelihood of remembering all

of the preceding items. The capacity is items because people can

remember roughly the same number of digits and words, and al-

most the same number of simple three- to five-word phrases. How

can this be? I suspect that STM holds something akin to a pointer

to an already encoded item in long-term memory, which means

the memory capacity is the number of pointers it can keep. This

would account for the fact that the length or complexity of the item

has little impact—simply the number of items. It doesn’t neatly

account for the fact that we make acoustical errors in STM, unless

the pointers are held in a kind of acoustical memory. This remains

an open topic for scientific exploration.

The traditional measures of STM capacity range from five to

seven, but from a practical point of view, it is best to think of it as

holding only three to five items. Does that seem too small a num-

ber? Well, when you meet a new person, do you always remember

his or her name? When you have to dial a phone number, do you

have to look at it several times while entering the digits? Even mi-

nor distractions can wipe out the stuff we are trying to hold on to

in STM.

What are the design implications? Don’t count on much being

retained in STM. Computer systems often enhance people’s frus-

tration when things go wrong by presenting critical information

in a message that then disappears from the display just when the

person wishes to make use of the information. So how can people

remember the critical information? I am not surprised when peo-

ple hit, kick, or otherwise attack their computers.

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three: Knowledge in the Head and in the World 95

I have seen nurses write down critical medical information

about their patients on their hands because the critical informa-

tion would disappear if the nurse was distracted for a moment by

someone asking a question. The electronic medical records systems

automatically log out users when the system does not appear to

be in use. Why the automatic logouts? To protect patient privacy.

The cause may be well motivated, but the action poses severe chal-

lenges to nurses who are continually being interrupted in their

work by physicians, co-workers, or patient requests. While they

are attending to the interruption, the system logs them out, so

they have to start over again. No wonder these nurses wrote down

the knowledge, although this then negated much of the value of

the computer system in minimizing handwriting errors. But what

else were they to do? How else to get at the critical information?

They couldn’t remember it all: that’s why they had computers.

The limits on our short-term memory systems caused by inter-

fering tasks can be mitigated by several techniques. One is through

the use of multiple sensory modalities. Visual information does

not much interfere with auditory, actions do not interfere much

with either auditory or written material. Haptics (touch) is also

minimally interfering. To maximize efficiency of working memory

it is best to present different information over different modali-

ties: sight, sound, touch (haptics), hearing, spatial location, and

gestures. Automobiles should use auditory presentation of driv-

ing instructions and haptic vibration of the appropriate side of the

driver ’s seat or steering wheel to warn when drivers leave their

lanes, or when there are other vehicles to the left or right, so as

not to interfere with the visual processing of driving information.

Driving is primarily visual, so the use of auditory and haptic mo-

dalities minimizes interference with the visual task.


Long-term memory (LTM) is memory for the past. As a rule, it

takes time for information to get into LTM and time and effort to

get it out again. Sleep seems to play an important role in strength-

ening the memories of each day’s experiences. Note that we do

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96 The Design of Everyday Things

not remember our experiences as an exact recording; rather, as

bits and pieces that are reconstructed and interpreted each time

we recover the memories, which means they are subject to all the

distortions and changes that the human explanatory mechanism

imposes upon life. How well we can ever recover experiences and

knowledge from LTM is highly dependent upon how the material

was interpreted in the first place. What is stored in LTM under one

interpretation probably cannot be found later on when sought un-

der some other interpretation. As for how large the memory is, no-

body really knows: giga- or tera-items. We don’t even know what

kinds of units should be used. Whatever the size, it is so large as

not to impose any practical limit.

The role of sleep in the strengthening of LTM is still not well un-

derstood, but there are numerous papers investigating the topic.

One possible mechanism is that of rehearsal. It has long been

known that rehearsal of material—mentally reviewing it while still

active in working memory (STM)—is an important component of

the formation of long-term memory traces. “Whatever makes you

rehearse during sleep is going to determine what you remember

later, and conversely, what you’re going to forget,” said Professor

Ken Paller of Northwestern University, one of the authors of a re-

cent study on the topic (Oudiette, Antony, Creery, and Paller, 2013).

But although rehearsal in sleep strengthens memories, it might

also falsify them: “Memories in our brain are changing all of the

time. Sometimes you improve memory storage by rehearsing all

the details, so maybe later you remember better—or maybe worse

if you’ve embellished too much.”

Remember how you answered this question from Chapter 2?

In the house you lived in three houses ago, as you entered the front door,
was the doorknob on the left or right?

For most people, the question requires considerable effort just to

recall which house is involved, plus one of the special techniques

described in Chapter 2 for putting yourself back at the scene and

reconstructing the answer. This is an example of procedural mem-

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three: Knowledge in the Head and in the World 97

ory, a memory for how we do things, as opposed to declarative

memory, the memory for factual information. In both cases, it can

take considerable time and effort to get to the answer. Moreover,

the answer is not directly retrieved in a manner analogous to the

way we read answers from books or websites. The answer is a re-

construction of the knowledge, so it is subject to biases and dis-

tortions. Knowledge in memory is meaningful, and at the time of

retrieval, a person might subject it to a different meaningful inter-

pretation than is wholly accurate.

A major difficulty with LTM is in organization. How do we find

the things we are trying to remember? Most people have had the

“tip of the tongue” experience when trying to remember a name

or word: there is a feeling of knowing, but the knowledge is not

consciously available. Sometime later, when engaged in some

other, different activity, the name may suddenly pop into the

conscious mind. The way by which people retrieve the needed

knowledge is still unknown, but probably involves some form

of pattern-matching mechanism coupled with a confirmatory pro-

cess that checks for consistency with the required knowledge. This

is why when you search for a name but continually retrieve the

wrong name, you know it is wrong. Because this false retrieval im-

pedes the correct retrieval, you have to turn to some other activity

to allow the subconscious memory retrieval process to reset itself.

Because retrieval is a reconstructive process, it can be erroneous.

We may reconstruct events the way we would prefer to remember

them, rather than the way we experienced them. It is relatively

easy to bias people so that they form false memories, “remember-

ing” events in their lives with great clarity, even though they never

occurred. This is one reason that eyewitness testimony in courts of

law is so problematic: eyewitnesses are notoriously unreliable. A

huge number of psychological experiments show how easy it is to

implant false memories into people’s minds so convincingly that

people refuse to admit that the memory is of an event that never


Knowledge in the head is actually knowledge in memory: inter-

nal knowledge. If we examine how people use their memories and

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98 The Design of Everyday Things

how they retrieve knowledge, we discover a number of categories.

Two are important for us now:

1. Memory for arbitrary things. The items to be retained seem arbi-
trary, with no meaning and no particular relationship to one another

or to things already known.

2. Memory for meaningful things. The items to be retained form
meaningful relationships with themselves or with other things al-

ready known.


Arbitrary knowledge can be classified as the simple remembering

of things that have no underlying meaning or structure. A good

example is the memory of the letters of the alphabet and their or-

dering, the names of people, and foreign vocabulary, where there

appears to be no obvious structure to the material. This also ap-

plies to the learning of the arbitrary key sequences, commands,

gestures, and procedures of much of our modern technology: This

is rote learning, the bane of modern existence.

Some things do require rote learning: the letters of the alphabet, for

example, but even here we add structure to the otherwise mean-

ingless list of words, turning the alphabet into a song, using the

natural constraints of rhyme and rhythm to create some structure.

Rote learning creates problems. First, because what is being

learned is arbitrary, the learning is difficult: it can take con-

siderable time and effort. Second, when a problem arises, the

memorized sequence of actions gives no hint of what has gone

wrong, no suggestion of what might be done to fix the problem.

Although some things are appropriate to learn by rote, most are

not. Alas, it is still the dominant method of instruction in many

school systems, and even for much adult training. This is how

some people are taught to use computers, or to cook. It is how we

have to learn to use some of the new (poorly designed) gadgets

of our technology.

We learn arbitrary associations or sequences by artificially pro-

viding structure. Most books and courses on methods for improv-

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three: Knowledge in the Head and in the World 99

ing memory (mnemonics) use a variety of standard methods for

providing structure, even for things that might appear completely

arbitrary, such as grocery lists, or matching the names of people to

their appearance. As we saw in the discussion of these methods for

STM, even strings of digits can be remembered if they can be asso-

ciated with meaningful structures. People who have not received

this training or who have not invented some methods themselves

often try to manufacture some artificial structure, but these are of-

ten rather unsatisfactory, which is why the learning is so bad.

Most things in the world have a sensible structure, which tre-

mendously simplifies the memory task. When things make sense,

they correspond to knowledge that we already have, so the new

material can be understood, interpreted, and integrated with pre-

viously acquired material. Now we can use rules and constraints

to help understand what things go together. Meaningful structure

can organize apparent chaos and arbitrariness.

Remember the discussion of conceptual models in Chapter 1?

Part of the power of a good conceptual model lies in its ability to

provide meaning to things. Let’s look at an example to show how

a meaningful interpretation transforms an apparently arbitrary

task into a natural one. Note that the appropriate interpretation

may not at first be obvious; it, too, is knowledge and has to be


A Japanese colleague, Professor Yutaka Sayeki of the University

of Tokyo, had difficulty remembering how to use the turn signal

switch on his motorcycle’s left handlebar. Moving the switch for-

ward signaled a right turn; backward, a left turn. The meaning of

the switch was clear and unambiguous, but the direction in which

it should be moved was not. Sayeki kept thinking that because

the switch was on the left handlebar, pushing it forward should

signal a left turn. That is, he was trying to map the action “push

the left switch forward” to the intention “turn left,” which was

wrong. As a result, he had trouble remembering which switch di-

rection should be used for which turning direction. Most motor-

cycles have the turn-signal switch mounted differently, rotated

90 degrees, so that moving it left signals a left turn; moving it

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100 The Design of Everyday Things

right, a right turn. This mapping is easy to learn (it is an example

of a natural mapping, discussed at the end of this chapter). But the

turn switch on Sayeki’s motorcycle moved forward and back, not

left and right. How could he learn it?

Sayeki solved the problem by reinterpreting the action. Consider

the way the handlebars of the motorcycle turn. For a left turn, the

left handlebar moves backward. For a right turn, the left handlebar

moves forward. The required switch movements exactly paralleled

the handlebar movements. If the task is conceptualized as signal-

ing the direction of motion of the handlebars rather than the direc-

tion of the motorcycle, the switch motion can be seen to mimic the

desired motion; finally we have a natural mapping.

When the motion of the switch seemed arbitrary, it was difficult to

remember. Once Professor Sayeki had invented a meaningful relation-

ship, he found it easy to remember the proper switch operation. (Ex-

perienced riders will point out that this conceptual model is wrong: to

turn a bike, one first steers in the opposite direction of the turn. This is

discussed as Example 3 in the next section, “Approximate Models.”)
The design implications are clear: provide meaningful struc-

tures. Perhaps a better way is to make memory unnecessary: put

the required information in the world. This is the power of the

traditional graphical user interface with its old-fashioned menu

structure. When in doubt, one could always examine all the menu

items until the desired one was found. Even systems that do not

use menus need to provide some structure: appropriate constraints

and forcing functions, natural good mapping, and all the tools of

feedforward and feedback. The most effective way of helping peo-

ple remember is to make it unnecessary.

Approximate Models: Memory in the Real World
Conscious thinking takes time and mental resources. Well-learned

skills bypass the need for conscious oversight and control: con-

scious control is only required for initial learning and for dealing

with unexpected situations. Continual practice automates the

action cycle, minimizing the amount of conscious thinking and

problem-solving required to act. Most expert, skilled behavior

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three: Knowledge in the Head and in the World 101

works this way, whether it is playing tennis or a musical instru-

ment, or doing mathematics and science. Experts minimize the

need for conscious reasoning. Philosopher and mathematician Al-

fred North Whitehead stated this principle over a century ago:

It is a profoundly erroneous truism, repeated by all copy-books and by
eminent people when they are making speeches, that we should culti-
vate the habit of thinking of what we are doing. The precise opposite is
the case. Civilization advances by extending the number of important
operations which we can perform without thinking about them. (Alfred
North Whitehead, 1911.)

One way to simplify thought is to use simplified models, ap-

proximations to the true underlying state of affairs. Science deals

in truth, practice deals with approximations. Practitioners don’t

need truth: they need results relatively quickly that, although in-

accurate, are “good enough” for the purpose to which they will be

applied. Consider these examples:



It is now 55°F outside my home in California. What temperature is

it in Celsius? Quick, do it in your head without using any technol-

ogy: What is the answer?

I am sure all of you remember the conversion equation:

°C = (°F–32) × 5 / 9

Plug in 55 for °F, and ºC = (55–32) × 5 / 9 = 12.8°. But most people
can’t do this without pencil and paper because there are too many

intermediate numbers to maintain in STM.

Want a simpler way? Try this approximation—you can do it in

your head, there is no need for paper or pencil:

°C = (°F–30) / 2

Plug in 55 for °F, and ºC = (55–30) / 2 = 12.5º. Is the equation an

exact conversion? No, but the approximate answer of 12.5 is close

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102 The Design of Everyday Things

enough to the correct value of 12.8. After all, I simply wanted to

know whether I should wear a sweater. Anything within 5ºF of the

real value would work for this purpose.

Approximate answers are often good enough, even if technically

wrong. This simple approximation method for temperature con-

version is “good enough” for temperatures in the normal range

of interior and outside temperatures: it is within 3ºF (or 1.7ºC) in

the range of –5° to 25ºC (20° to 80ºF). It gets further off at lower or

higher temperatures, but for everyday use, it is wonderful. Ap-

proximations are good enough for practical use.


Here is an approximate model for STM:

There are five memory slots in short-term memory. Each time a new
item is added, it occupies a slot, knocking out whatever was there

Is this model true? No, not a single memory researcher in the

entire world believes this to be an accurate model of STM. But it is

good enough for applications. Make use of this model, and your

designs will be more usable.


In the preceding section, we learned how Professor Sayeki mapped

the turning directions of his motorcycle to his turn signals, enabling

him to remember their correct usage. But there, I also pointed out

that the conceptual model was wrong.

Why is the conceptual model for steering a motorcycle useful

even though it is wrong? Steering a motorcycle is counterintuitive:

to turn to the left, the handlebars must first be turned to the right.

This is called countersteering, and it violates most people’s concep-

tual models. Why is this true? Shouldn’t we rotate the handlebars

left to turn the bike left? The most important component of turning

a two-wheeled vehicle is lean: when the bike is turning left, the

rider is leaning to the left. Countersteering causes the rider to lean

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three: Knowledge in the Head and in the World 103

properly: when the handlebars are turned to the right, the resulting

forces upon the rider cause the body to lean left. This weight shift

then causes the bike to turn left.

Experienced riders often do the correct operations subcon-

sciously, unaware that they start a turn by rotating the handlebars

opposite from the intended direction, thus violating their own

conceptual models. Motorcycle training courses have to conduct

special exercises to convince riders that this is what they are doing.

You can test this counterintuitive concept on a bicycle or motor-

cycle by getting up to a comfortable speed, placing the palm of the

hand on the end of the left handlebar, and gently pushing it forward.

The handlebars and front wheel will turn to the right and the body

will lean to the left, resulting in the bike—and the handlebars—

turning to the left.

Professor Sayeki was fully aware of this contradiction between

his mental scheme and reality, but he wanted his memory aid to

match his conceptual model. Conceptual models are powerful ex-

planatory devices, useful in a variety of circumstances. They do

not have to be accurate as long as they lead to the correct behavior

in the desired situation.


Most of us can’t multiply two large numbers in our head: we forget

where we are along the way. Memory experts can multiply two

large numbers quickly and effortlessly in their heads, amazing au-

diences with their skills. Moreover, the numbers come out left to

right, the way we use them, not right to left, as we write them while

laboriously using pencil and paper to compute the answers. These

experts use special techniques that minimize the load on working

memory, but they do so at the cost of having to learn numerous

special methods for different ranges and forms of problems.

Isn’t this something we should all learn? Why aren’t school

systems teaching this? My answer is simple: Why bother? I can

estimate the answer in my head with reasonable accuracy, often

good enough for the purpose. When I need precision and accuracy,

well, that’s what calculators are for.

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104 The Design of Everyday Things

Remember my earlier example, to multiply 27 times 293 in your

head? Why would anyone need to know the precise answer?

an approximate answer is good enough, and pretty easy to get.

Change 27 to 30, and 293 to 300: 30 × 300 = 9,000 (3 × 3 = 9, and

add back the three zeros). The accurate answer is 7,911, so the es-

timate of 9,000 is only 14 percent too large. In many instances, this

is good enough. Want a bit more accuracy? We changed 27 to 30

to make the multiplication easier. That’s 3 too large. So subtract

3 × 300 from the answer (9,000 – 900). Now we get 8,100, which is

accurate within 2 percent.

It is rare that we need to know the answers to complex arithmetic

problems with great precision: almost always, a rough estimate is

good enough. When precision is required, use a calculator. That’s

what machines are good for: providing great precision. For most

purposes, estimates are good enough. Machines should focus on

solving arithmetic problems. People should focus on higher-level

issues, such as the reason the answer was needed.

Unless it is your ambition to become a nightclub performer and

amaze people with great skills of memory, here is a simpler way

to dramatically enhance both memory and accuracy: write things

down. Writing is a powerful technology: why not use it? Use a pad

of paper, or the back of your hand. Write it or type it. Use a phone

or a computer. Dictate it. This is what technology is for.

The unaided mind is surprisingly limited. It is things that make

us smart. Take advantage of them.


Science strives for truth. As a result, scientists are always debating,

arguing, and disagreeing with one another. The scientific method

is one of debate and conflict. Only ideas that have passed through

the critical examination of multiple other scientists survive. This

continual disagreement often seems strange to the nonscientist, for

it appears that scientists don’t know anything. Select almost any

topic, and you will discover that scientists who work in that area

are continually disagreeing.

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three: Knowledge in the Head and in the World 105

But the disagreements are illusory. That is, most scientists usu-

ally agree about the broad details: their disagreements are often

about tiny details that are important for distinguishing between

two competing theories, but that might have very little impact in

the real world of practice and applications.

In the real, practical world, we don’t need absolute truth: ap-

proximate models work just fine. Professor Sayeki’s simplified

conceptual model of steering his motorcycle enabled him to re-

member which way to move the switches for his turn signals;

the simplified equation for temperature conversion and the sim-

plified model of approximate arithmetic enabled “good enough”

answers in the head. The simplified model of STM provides

useful design guidance, even if it is scientifically wrong. Each of

these approximations is wrong, yet all are valuable in minimizing

thought, resulting in quick, easy results whose accuracy is “good


Knowledge in the Head
Knowledge in the world, external knowledge, is a valuable tool

for remembering, but only if it is available at the right place, at the

right time, in the appropriate situation. Otherwise, we must use

knowledge in the head, in the mind. A folk saying captures this

situation well: “Out of sight, out of mind.” Effective memory uses

all the clues available: knowledge in the world and in the head,

combining world and mind. We have already seen how the com-

bination allows us to function quite well in the world even though

either source of knowledge, by itself, is insufficient.



Airplane pilots have to listen to commands from air-traffic control

delivered at a rapid pace, and then respond accurately. Their lives

depend upon being able to follow the instructions accurately. One

website, discussing the problem, gave this example of instructions

to a pilot about to take off for a flight:

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106 The Design of Everyday Things

Frasca 141, cleared to Mesquite airport, via turn left heading 090, radar
vectors to Mesquite airport. Climb and maintain 2,000. Expect 3,000
10 minutes after departure. Departure frequency 124.3, squawk 5270.
(Typical Air traffic control sequence, usually spoken extremely rapidly.

Text from “ATC Phraseology,” on numerous websites, with no credit for


“How can we remember all that,” asked one novice pilot, “when

we are trying to focus on taking off?” Good question. Taking off

is a busy, dangerous procedure with a lot going on, both inside

and outside the airplane. How do pilots remember? Do they have

superior memories?

Pilots use three major techniques:

1. They write down the critical information.

2. They enter it into their equipment as it is told to them, so minimal

memory is required.

3. They remember some of it as meaningful phrases.

Although to the outside observer, all the instructions and num-

bers seem random and confusing, to the pilots they are familiar

names, familiar numbers. As one respondent pointed out, those

are common numbers and a familiar pattern for a takeoff. “Frasca

141” is the name of the airplane, announcing the intended recipient

of these instructions. The first critical item to remember is to turn

left to a compass direction of 090, then climb to an altitude of 2,000

feet. Write those two numbers down. Enter the radio frequency

124.3 into the radio as you hear it—but most of the time this fre-

quency is known in advance, so the radio is probably already set

to it. All you have to do is look at it and see that it is set properly.

Similarly, setting the “squawk box to 5270” is the special code the

airplane sends whenever it is hit by a radar signal, identifying the

airplane to the air-traffic controllers. Write it down, or set it into

the equipment as it is being said. As for the one remaining item,

“Expect 3,000 10 minutes after departure,” nothing need be done.

This is just reassurance that in ten minutes, Frasca 141 will proba-

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three: Knowledge in the Head and in the World 107

bly be advised to climb to 3,000 feet, but if so, there will be a new

command to do so.

How do pilots remember? They transform the new knowledge

they have just received into memory in the world, sometimes by

writing, sometimes by using the airplane’s equipment.

The design implication? The easier it is to enter the information

into the relevant equipment as it is heard, the less chance of mem-

ory error. The air-traffic control system is evolving to help. The

instructions from the air-traffic controllers will be sent digitally,

so that they can remain displayed on a screen as long as the pilot

wishes. The digital transmission also makes it easy for automated

equipment to set itself to the correct parameters. Digital transmis-

sion of the controller’s commands has some disadvantages, however.

Other aircraft will not hear the commands, which reduces pilot

awareness of what all the airplanes in the vicinity are going to do.

Researchers in air-traffic control and aviation safety are looking

into these issues. Yes, it’s a design issue.


The phrases prospective memory or memory for the future might sound
counterintuitive, or perhaps like the title of a science-fiction novel,

but to memory researchers, the first phrase simply denotes the task

of remembering to do some activity at a future time. The second

phrase denotes planning abilities, the ability to imagine future sce-

narios. Both are closely related.

Consider reminding. Suppose you have promised to meet some

friends at a local café on Wednesday at three thirty in the after-

noon. The knowledge is in your head, but how are you going to

remember it at the proper time? You need to be reminded. This is

a clear instance of prospective memory, but your ability to provide

the required cues involves some aspect of memory for the future as

well. Where will you be Wednesday just before the planned meet-

ing? What can you think of now that will help you remember then?

There are many strategies for reminding. One is simply to keep

the knowledge in your head, trusting yourself to recall it at the

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108 The Design of Everyday Things

critical time. If the event is important enough, you will have no

problem remembering it. It would be quite strange to have to set a

calendar alert to remind yourself, “Getting married at 3 PM.”

Relying upon memory in the head is not a good technique for

commonplace events. Ever forget a meeting with friends? It hap-

pens a lot. Not only that, but even if you might remember the

appointment, will you remember all the details, such as that you

intended to loan a book to one of them? Going shopping, you may

remember to stop at the store on the way home, but will you re-

member all the items you were supposed to buy?

If the event is not personally important and several days away, it

is wise to transfer some of the burden to the world: notes, calendar

reminders, special cell phone or computer reminding services. You

can ask friends to remind you. Those of us with assistants put the

burden on them. They, in turn, write notes, enter events on calen-

dars, or set alarms on their computer systems.

Why burden other people when we can put the burden on

the thing itself? Do I want to remember to take a book to a col-

league? I put the book someplace where I cannot fail to see it when

I leave the house. A good spot is against the front door so that I

can’t leave without tripping over it. Or I can put my car keys on it,

so when I leave, I am reminded. Even if I forget, I can’t drive away

without the keys. (Better yet, put the keys under the book, else I

might still forget the book.)

There are two different aspects to a reminder: the signal and the

message. Just as in doing an action we can distinguish between

knowing what can be done and knowing how to do it, in reminding
we must distinguish between the signal—knowing that something
is to be remembered, and the message—remembering the infor-
mation itself. Most popular reminding methods typically provide

only one or the other of these two critical aspects. The famous “tie

a string around your finger” reminder provides only the signal. It

gives no hint of what is to be remembered. Writing a note to yourself

provides only the message; it doesn’t remind you ever to look at it.

The ideal reminder has to have both components: the signal that

something is to be remembered, and then the message of what it is.

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three: Knowledge in the Head and in the World 109

The signal that something is to be remembered can be a suffi-

cient memory cue if it occurs at the correct time and place. Being

reminded too early or too late is just as useless as having no re-

minder. But if the reminder comes at the correct time or location,

the environmental cue can suffice to provide enough knowledge to

aid retrieval of the to-be-remembered item. Time-based reminders

can be effective: the bing of my cell phone reminds me of the next
appointment. Location-based reminders can be effective in giving

the cue at the precise place where it will be needed. All the knowl-

edge needed can reside in the world, in our technology.

The need for timely reminders has created loads of products that

make it easier to put the knowledge in the world—timers, diaries,

calendars. The need for electronic reminders is well known, as the

proliferation of apps for smart phones, tablets, and other portable

devices attests. Yet surprisingly in this era of screen-based devices,

paper tools are still enormously popular and effective, as the num-

ber of paper-based diaries and reminders indicates.

The sheer number of different reminder methods also indicates

that there is indeed a great need for assistance in remembering, but

that none of the many schemes and devices is completely satisfac-

tory. After all, if any one of them was, then we wouldn’t need so

many. The less effective ones would disappear and new schemes

would not continually be invented.

The Tradeoff Between Knowledge
in the World and in the Head

Knowledge in the world and knowledge in the head are both es-

sential in our daily functioning. But to some extent we can choose

to lean more heavily on one or the other. That choice requires a

tradeoff—gaining the advantages of knowledge in the world

means losing the advantages of knowledge in the head (Table 3.1).

Knowledge in the world acts as its own reminder. It can help

us recover structures that we otherwise would forget. Knowledge

in the head is efficient: no search and interpretation of the envi-

ronment is required. The tradeoff is that to use our knowledge in

the head, we have to be able to store and retrieve it, which might

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110 The Design of Everyday Things

require considerable amounts of learning. Knowledge in the world

requires no learning, but can be more difficult to use. And it relies

heavily upon the continued physical presence of the knowledge;

change the environment and the knowledge might be lost. Perfor-

mance relies upon the physical stability of the task environment.

As we just discussed, reminders provide a good example of the

relative tradeoffs between knowledge in the world versus in

the head. Knowledge in the world is accessible. It is self-reminding.

It is always there, waiting to be seen, waiting to be used. That is

why we structure our offices and our places of work so carefully.

We put piles of papers where they can be seen, or if we like a clean

desk, we put them in standardized locations and teach ourselves

(knowledge in the head) to look in these standard places routinely.

We use clocks and calendars and notes. Knowledge in the mind

Knowledge in the World Knowledge in the Head

Information is readily and easily Material in working memory is read-
available whenever perceivable. ily available. Otherwise considerable
search and effort may be required.

Interpretation substitutes for Requires learning, which can be
learning. How easy it is to interpret considerable. Learning is made
knowledge in the world depends easier if there is meaning or
upon the skill of the designer. structure to the material or if there
is a good conceptual model.

Slowed by the need to find and Can be efficient, especially if so
interpret the knowledge. well-learned that it is automated.

Ease of use at first encounter is high. Ease of use at first encounter is low.

Can be ugly and inelegant, Nothing needs to be visible, which
especially if there is a need to gives more freedom to the designer.
maintain a lot of knowledge. This This leads to cleaner, more pleas-
can lead to clutter. Here is where the ing appearance—at the cost of ease
skills of the graphics and industrial of use at first encounter, learning,
designer play major roles. and remembering.

TABLE 3.1. Tradeoffs Between Knowledge in the World and in the Head

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three: Knowledge in the Head and in the World 111

is ephemeral: here now, gone later. We can’t count on something

being present in mind at any particular time, unless it is triggered

by some external event or unless we deliberately keep it in mind

through constant repetition (which then prevents us from having

other conscious thoughts). Out of sight, out of mind.

As we move away from many physical aids, such as printed

books and magazines, paper notes, and calendars, much of what

we use today as knowledge in the world will become invisible. Yes,

it will all be available on display screens, but unless the screens

always show this material, we will have added to the burden of

memory in the head. We may not have to remember all the details

of the information stored away for us, but we will have to remem-

ber that it is there, that it needs to be redisplayed at the appropriate

time for use or for reminding.

Memory in Multiple Heads, Multiple Devices
If knowledge and structure in the world can combine with knowl-

edge in the head to enhance memory performance, why not use

the knowledge in multiple heads, or in multiple devices?

Most of us have experienced the power of multiple minds in

remembering things. You are with a group of friends trying to re-

member the name of a movie, or perhaps a restaurant, and failing.

But others try to help. The conversation goes something like this:

“That new place where they grill meat”

“Oh, the Korean barbecue on Fifth Street?”

“No, not Korean, South American, um,“

“Oh, yeah, Brazilian, it’s what’s its name?”

“Yes, that’s the one!”

“Pampas something.”

“Yes, Pampas Chewy. Um, Churry, um,”

“Churrascaria. Pampas Churrascaria.”

How many people are involved? It could be any number, but the

point is that each adds their bit of knowledge, slowly constraining

the choices, recalling something that no single one of them could

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112 The Design of Everyday Things

have done alone. Daniel Wegner, a Harvard professor of psychol-

ogy, has called this “transactive memory.”

Of course, we often turn to technological aids to answer our

questions, reaching for our smart devices to search our electronic

resources and the Internet. When we expand from seeking aids

from other people to seeking aids from our technologies, which

Wegner labels as “cybermind,” the principle is basically the same.
The cybermind doesn’t always produce the answer, but it can

produce sufficient clues so that we can generate the answer. Even

where the technology produces the answer, it is often buried in a

list of potential answers, so we have to use our own knowledge—

or the knowledge of our friends—to determine which of the poten-

tial items is the correct one.

What happens when we rely too much upon external knowledge,

be it knowledge in the world, knowledge of friends, or knowledge

provided by our technology? On the one hand, there no such thing

as “too much.” The more we learn to use these resources, the bet-

ter our performance. External knowledge is a powerful tool for

enhanced intelligence. On the other hand, external knowledge is

often erroneous: witness the difficulties of trusting online sources

and the controversies that arise over Wikipedia entries. It doesn’t

matter where our knowledge comes from. What matters is the

quality of the end result.

In an earlier book, Things That Make Us Smart, I argued that it
is this combination of technology and people that creates super-

powerful beings. Technology does not make us smarter. People

do not make technology smart. It is the combination of the two,

the person plus the artifact, that is smart. Together, with our tools,

we are a powerful combination. On the other hand, if we are sud-

denly without these external devices, then we don’t do very well.

In many ways, we do become less smart.

Take away their calculator, and many people cannot do arith-

metic. Take away a navigation system, and people can no longer

get around, even in their own cities. Take away a phone’s or com-

puter’s address book, and people can no longer reach their friends

(in my case, I can no longer remember my own phone number).

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three: Knowledge in the Head and in the World 113

Without a keyboard, I can’t write. Without a spelling corrector, I

can’t spell.

What does all of this mean? Is this bad or good? It is not a new

phenomenon. Take away our gas supply and electrical service and

we might starve. Take away our housing and clothes and we might

freeze. We rely on commercial stores, transportation, and gov-

ernment services to provide us with the essentials for living. Is

this bad?

The partnership of technology and people makes us smarter,

stronger, and better able to live in the modern world. We have

become reliant on the technology and we can no longer function

without it. The dependence is even stronger today than ever before,

including mechanical, physical things such as housing, clothing,

heating, food preparation and storage, and transportation. Now

this range of dependencies is extended to information services as

well: communication, news, entertainment, education, and social

interaction. When things work, we are informed, comfortable, and

effective. When things break, we may no longer be able to function.

This dependence upon technology is very old, but every decade,

the impact covers more and more activities.

Natural Mapping
Mapping, a topic from Chapter 1, provides a good example of

the power of combining knowledge in the world with that in the

head. Did you ever turn the wrong burner of a stove on or off?

You would think that doing it correctly would be an easy task.

A simple control turns the burner on, controls the temperature,

and allows the burner to be turned off. In fact, the task appears to

be so simple that when people do it wrong, which happens more

frequently than you might have thought, they blame themselves:

“How could I be so stupid as to do this simple task wrong?” they

think to themselves. Well, it isn’t so simple, and it is not their fault:

even as simple a device as the everyday kitchen stove is frequently

badly designed, in a way that guarantees the errors.

Most stoves have only four burners and four controls in one-

to-one correspondence. Why is it so hard to remember four things?

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114 The Design of Everyday Things

In principle, it should be easy to remember the relationship be-

tween the controls and the burners. In practice, however, it is al-

most impossible. Why? Because of the poor mappings between the

controls and the burners. Look at Figure 3.2, which depicts four

possible mappings between the four burners and controls. Figures

3.2A and B show how not to map one dimension onto two. Figures

3.2C and D show two ways of doing it properly: arrange the con-

trols in two dimensions (C) or stagger the burners (D) so they can

be ordered left to right.


F IGU RE 3. 2 . Mappings of Stove Controls with Burners. With the tradi-
tional arrangement of stove burners shown in Figures A and B, the burners
are arranged in a rectangle and the controls in a linear line. Usually there
is a partial natural mapping, with the left two controls operating the left
burners and the right two controls operating the right burners. Even so,
there are four possible mappings of controls to burners, all four of which
are used on commercial stoves. The only way to know which control
works which burner is to read the labels. But if the controls were also in a
rectangle (Figure C) or the burners staggered (Figure D), no labels would
be needed. Learning would be easy; errors would be reduced.

A .

C .



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three: Knowledge in the Head and in the World 115

To make matters worse, stove manufacturers cannot agree upon

what the mapping should be. If all stoves used the same arrange-

ment of controls, even if it is unnatural, everyone could learn it

once and forever after get things right. As the legend of Figure

3.2 points out, even if the stove manufacturer is nice enough to

ensure that each pair of controls operates the pair of burners on its

side, there are still four possible mappings. All four are in common

use. Some stoves arrange the controls in a vertical line, giving even

more possible mappings. Every stove seems to be different. Even

different stoves from the same manufacturer differ. No wonder

people have trouble, leading their food to go uncooked, and in the

worst cases, leading to fire.

Natural mappings are those where the relationship between the

controls and the object to be controlled (the burners, in this case)

is obvious. Depending upon circumstances, natural mappings will

employ spatial cues. Here are three levels of mapping, arranged in

decreasing effectiveness as memory aids:

• Best mapping: Controls are mounted directly on the item to be con-

• Second-best mapping: Controls are as close as possible to the object
to be controlled.

• Third-best mapping: Controls are arranged in the same spatial con-
figuration as the objects to be controlled.

In the ideal and second-best cases, the mappings are indeed clear

and unambiguous.

Want excellent examples of natural mapping? Consider gesture-

controlled faucets, soap dispensers, and hand dryers. Put your

hands under the faucet or soap dispenser and the water or soap

appears. Wave your hand in front of the paper towel dispenser

and out pops a new towel, or in the case of blower-controlled

hand dryers, simply put your hands beneath or into the dryer

and the drying air turns on. Mind you, although the mappings of

these devices are appropriate, they do have problems. First, they

often lack signifiers, hence they lack discoverability. The controls

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116 The Design of Everyday Things

are often invisible, so we sometimes put our hands under faucets

expecting to receive water, but wait in vain: these are mechan-

ical faucets that require handle turning. Or the water turns on

and then stops, so we wave our hands up and down, hoping to

find the precise location where the water turns on. When I wave

my hand in front of the towel dispenser but get no towel, I do

not know whether this means the dispenser is broken or out of

towels; or that I did the waving wrong, or in the wrong place; or

that maybe this doesn’t work by gesture, but I must push, pull,

or turn something. The lack of signifiers is a real drawback. These

devices aren’t perfect, but at least they got the mapping right.

In the case of stove controls, it is obviously not possible to put

the controls directly on the burners. In most cases, it is also dan-

gerous to put the controls adjacent to the burners, not only for fear

of burning the person using the stove, but also because it would

interfere with the placement of cooking utensils. Stove controls are

usually situated on the side, back, or front panel of the stove, in

which case they ought to be arranged in spatial harmony with the

burners, as in Figures 3.2 C and D.

With a good natural mapping, the relationship of the controls to

the burner is completely contained in the world; the load on hu-

man memory is much reduced. With a bad mapping, however, a

burden is placed upon memory, leading to more mental effort and

a higher chance of error. Without a good mapping, people new to

the stove cannot readily determine which burner goes with which

control and even frequent users will still occasionally err.

Why do stove designers insist on arranging the burners in a

two-dimensional rectangular pattern, and the controls in a one-

dimensional row? We have known for roughly a century just

how bad such an arrangement is. Sometimes the stove comes

with clever little diagrams to indicate which control works which

burner. Sometimes there are labels. But the proper natural map-

ping requires no diagrams, no labels, and no instructions.

The irony about stove design is that it isn’t hard to do right. Text-

books of ergonomics, human factors, psychology, and industrial

engineering have been demonstrating both the problems and the

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three: Knowledge in the Head and in the World 117

solutions for over fifty years. Some stove manufacturers do use

good designs. Oddly, sometimes the best and the worst designs are

manufactured by the same companies and are illustrated side by

side in their catalogs. Why do users still purchase stoves that cause

so much trouble? Why not revolt and refuse to buy them unless the

controls have an intelligent relationship to the burners?

The problem of the stovetop may seem trivial, but similar map-

ping problems exist in many situations, including commercial and

industrial settings, where selecting the wrong button, dial, or lever

can lead to major economic impact or even fatalities.

In industrial settings good mapping is of special importance,

whether it is a remotely piloted airplane, a large building crane

where the operator is at a distance from the objects being manip-

ulated, or even in an automobile where the driver might wish to

control temperature or windows while driving at high speeds or in

crowded streets. In these cases, the best controls usually are spatial

mappings of the controls to the items being controlled. We see this

done properly in most automobiles where the driver can operate

the windows through switches that are arranged in spatial corre-

spondence to the windows.

Usability is not often thought about during the purchasing pro-

cess. Unless you actually test a number of units in a realistic envi-

ronment, doing typical tasks, you are not likely to notice the ease or

difficulty of use. If you just look at something, it appears straight-

forward enough, and the array of wonderful features seems to be

a virtue. You may not realize that you won’t be able to figure out

how to use those features. I urge you to test products before you buy

them. Before purchasing a new stovetop, pretend you are cooking

a meal. Do it right there in the store. Do not be afraid to make mis-

takes or ask stupid questions. Remember, any problems you have

are probably the design’s fault, not yours.

A major obstacle is that often the purchaser is not the user. Ap-

pliances may be in a home when people move in. In the office, the

purchasing department orders equipment based upon such factors

as price, relationships with the supplier, and perhaps reliability:

usability is seldom considered. Finally, even when the purchaser

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118 The Design of Everyday Things

is the end user, it is sometimes necessary to trade off one desirable

feature for an undesirable one. In the case of my family’s stove,

we did not like the arrangement of controls, but we bought the

stove anyway: we traded off the layout of the burner controls for

another design feature that was more important to us and available

only from one manufacturer. But why should we have to make a

tradeoff? It wouldn’t be hard for all stove manufacturers to use

natural mappings, or at the least, to standardize their mappings.

Culture and Design:
Natural Mappings Can Vary with Culture

I was in Asia, giving a talk. My computer was connected to a pro-

jector and I was given a remote controller for advancing through

the illustrations for my talk. This one had two buttons, one above

the other. The title was already displayed on the screen, so when I

started, all I had to do was to advance to the first photograph in my

presentation, but when I pushed the upper button, to my amaze-

ment I went backward through my illustrations, not forward.

“How could this happen?” I wondered. To me, top means forward;

bottom, backward. The mapping is clear and obvious. If the buttons

had been side by side, then the control would have been ambigu-

ous: which comes first, right or left? This controller appeared to use

an appropriate mapping of top and bottom. Why was it working

backward? Was this yet another example of poor design?

I decided to ask the audience. I showed them the controller and

asked: “To get to my next picture, which button should I push, the

top or the bottom?” To my great surprise, the audience was split in

their responses. Many thought that it should be the top button, just

as I had thought. But a large number thought it should be the bottom.

What’s the correct answer? I decided to ask this question to my

audiences around the world. I discovered that they, too, were split

in their opinions: some people firmly believe that it is the top but-

ton and some, just as firmly, believe it is the bottom button. Every-

one is surprised to learn that someone else might think differently.

I was puzzled until I realized that this was a point-of-view prob-

lem, very similar to the way different cultures view time. In some

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three: Knowledge in the Head and in the World 119

cultures, time is represented mentally as if it were a road stretching

out ahead of the person. As a person moves through time, the per-

son moves forward along the time line. Other cultures use the same

representation, except now it is the person who is fixed and it is

time that moves: an event in the future moves toward the person.

This is precisely what was happening with the controller. Yes,

the top button does cause something to move forward, but the

question is, what is moving? Some people thought that the person

would move through the images, other people thought the images

would move. People who thought that they moved through the

images wanted the top button to indicate the next one. People who

thought it was the illustrations that moved would get to the next

image by pushing the bottom button, causing the images to move

toward them.

Some cultures represent the time line vertically: up for the future,

down for the past. Other cultures have rather different views. For

example, does the future lie ahead or behind? To most of us, the

question makes no sense: of course, the future lies ahead—the past

is behind us. We speak this way, discussing the “arrival” of the fu-

ture; we are pleased that many unfortunate events of the past have

been “left behind.”

But why couldn’t the past be in front of us and the future be-

hind? Does that sound strange? Why? We can see what is in front

of us, but not what is behind, just as we can remember what hap-

pened in the past, but we can’t remember the future. Not only that,

but we can remember recent events much more clearly than long-

past events, captured neatly by the visual metaphor in which the

past lines up before us, the most recent events being the closest

so that they are clearly perceived (remembered), with long-past

events far in the distance, remembered and perceived with diffi-

culty. Still sound weird? This is how the South American Indian

group, the Aymara, represent time. When they speak of the future,

they use the phrase back days and often gesture behind them. Think
about it: it is a perfectly logical way to view the world.

If time is displayed along a horizontal line, does it go from left to

right or right to left? Either answer is correct because the choice is

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120 The Design of Everyday Things

arbitrary, just as the choice of whether text should be strung along

the page from left to right or right to left is arbitrary. The choice of

text direction also corresponds to people’s preference for time di-

rection. People whose native language is Arabic or Hebrew prefer

time to flow from right to left (the future being toward the left),

whereas those who use a left-to-right writing system have time

flowing in the same direction, so the future is to the right.

But wait: I’m not finished. Is the time line relative to the person

or relative to the environment? In some Australian Aborigine socie-

ties, time moves relative to the environment based on the direction

in which the sun rises and sets. Give people from this community

a set of photographs structured in time (for example, photographs

of a person at different ages or a child eating some food) and ask

them to order the photographs in time. People from technological

cultures would order the pictures from left to right, most recent

photo to the right or left, depending upon how their printed lan-

guage was written. But people from these Australian communities

would order them east to west, most recent to the west. If the per-

son were facing south, the photo would be ordered left to right. If

the person were facing north, the photos would be ordered right to

left. If the person were facing west, the photos would be ordered

along a vertical line extending from the body outward, outwards

being the most recent. And, of course, were the person facing east,

the photos would also be on a line extending out from the body,

but with the most recent photo closest to the body.

The choice of metaphor dictates the proper design for interac-

tion. Similar issues show up in other domains. Consider the stan-

dard problem of scrolling the text in a computer display. Should

the scrolling control move the text or the window? This was a

fierce debate in the early years of display terminals, long before the

development of modern computer systems. Eventually, there was

mutual agreement that the cursor arrow keys—and then, later on,

the mouse—would follow the moving window metaphor. Move

the window down to see more text at the bottom of the screen.

What this meant in practice is that to see more text at the bottom

of the screen, move the mouse down, which moves the window

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three: Knowledge in the Head and in the World 121

down, so that the text moves up: the mouse and the text move

in opposite directions. With the moving text metaphor, the mouse

and the text move in the same directions: move the mouse up and

the text moves up. For over two decades, everyone moved the

scrollbars and mouse down in order to make the text move up.

But then smart displays with touch-operated screens arrived.

Now it was only natural to touch the text with the fingers and

move it up, down, right, or left directly: the text moved in the same

direction as the fingers. The moving text metaphor became prev-

alent. In fact, it was no longer thought of as a metaphor: it was

real. But as people switched back and forth between traditional

computer systems that used the moving window metaphor and

touch-screen systems that used the moving text model, confusion

reigned. As a result, one major manufacturer of both computers

and smart screens, Apple, switched everything to the moving text

model, but no other company followed Apple’s lead. As I write

this, the confusion still exists. How will it end? I predict the de-

mise of the moving window metaphor: touch-screens and control

pads will dominate, which will cause the moving text model to

take over. All systems will move the hands or controls in the same

direction as they wish the screen images to move. Predicting tech-

nology is relatively easy compared to predictions of human behav-

ior, or in this case, the adoption of societal conventions. Will this

prediction be true? You will be able to judge for yourself.

Similar issues occurred in aviation with the pilot’s attitude indi-

cator, the display that indicates the airplane’s orientation (roll or

bank and pitch). The instrument shows a horizontal line to indicate

the horizon with a silhouette of an airplane seen from behind. If

the wings are level and on a line with the horizon, the airplane

is flying in level flight. Suppose the airplane turns to the left,

so it banks (tilts) left. What should the display look like? Should

it show a left-tilting airplane against a fixed horizon, or a fixed

airplane against a right-tilting horizon? The first is correct from the

viewpoint of someone watching the airplane from behind, where

the horizon is always horizontal: this type of display is called

outside-in. The second is correct from the viewpoint of the pilot,

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122 The Design of Everyday Things

where the airplane is always stable and fixed in position, so that

when the airplane banks, the horizon tilts: this type of display is

called inside-out.
In all these cases, every point of view is correct. It all depends

upon what you consider to be moving. What does all this mean for

design? What is natural depends upon point of view, the choice

of metaphor, and therefore, the culture. The design difficulties

occur when there is a switch in metaphors. Airplane pilots have

to undergo training and testing before they are allowed to switch

from one set of instruments (those with an outside-in metaphor, for

example) to the other (those with the inside-out metaphor). When

countries decided to switch which side of the road cars would

drive on, the temporary confusion that resulted was dangerous.

(Most places that switched moved from left-side driving to right-

side, but a few, notably Okinawa, Samoa, and East Timor, switched

from right to left.) In all these cases of convention switches, people

eventually adjusted. It is possible to break convention and switch

metaphors, but expect a period of confusion until people adapt to

the new system.

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How do we determine how to operate something that

we have never seen before? We have no choice but to

combine knowledge in the world with that in the head.

Knowledge in the world includes perceived affordances

and signifiers, the mappings between the parts that appear to

be controls or places to manipulate and the resulting actions,

and the physical constraints that limit what can be done.

Knowledge in the head includes conceptual models; cultural,

semantic, and logical constraints on behavior; and analogies

between the current situation and previous experiences with

other situations. Chapter 3 was devoted to a discussion of how

we acquire knowledge and use it. There, the major emphasis

was upon the knowledge in the head. This chapter focuses

upon the knowledge in the world: how designers can provide

the critical information that allows people to know what to do,

even when experiencing an unfamiliar device or situation.

Let me illustrate with an example: building a motorcycle

from a Lego set (a children’s construction toy). The Lego mo-

torcycle shown in Figure 4.1 has fifteen pieces, some rather spe-

cialized. Of those fifteen pieces, only two pairs are alike—two

rectangles with the word police on them, and the two hands of

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124 The Design of Everyday Things

the policeman. Other pieces match one another in size and shape

but are different colors. So, a number of the pieces are physically

interchangeable—that is, the physical constraints are not sufficient

to identify where they go—but the appropriate role for every single

piece of the motorcycle is still unambiguously determined. How?

By combining cultural, semantic, and logical constraints with the

physical ones. As a result, it is possible to construct the motorcycle

without any instructions or assistance.

In fact, I did the experiment. I asked people to put together the

parts; they had never seen the finished structure and were not even

told that it was a motorcycle (although it didn’t take them long to

figure this out). Nobody had any difficulty.

The visible affordances of the pieces were important in determin-

ing just how they fit together. The cylinders and holes character-

istic of Lego suggested the major construction rule. The sizes and

shapes of the parts suggested their operation. Physical constraints

limited what parts would fit together. Cultural and semantic con-

straints provided strong restrictions on what would make sense

for all but one of the remaining pieces, and with just one piece left

and only one place it could possibly go, simple logic dictated the

F IGU RE 4 .1. Lego Motorcycle. The toy Lego motorcycle is shown assembled (A) and
in pieces (B). It has fifteen pieces so cleverly constructed that even an adult can put
them together. The design exploits constraints to specify just which pieces fit where.
Physical constraints limit alternative placements. Cultural and semantic constraints pro-
vide the necessary clues for further decisions. For example, cultural constraints dictate
the placement of the three lights (red, blue, and yellow) and semantic constraints stop
the user from putting the head backward on the body or the pieces labeled “police”
upside down.

A . B.

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four: Knowing What to Do: Constraints, Discoverability, and Feedback 125

placement. These four classes of constraints—physical, cultural,

semantic, and logical—seem to be universal, appearing in a wide

variety of situations.

Constraints are powerful clues, limiting the set of possible ac-

tions. The thoughtful use of constraints in design lets people read-

ily determine the proper course of action, even in a novel situation.

Four Kinds of Constraints:
Physical, Cultural, Semantic, and Logical


Physical limitations constrain possible operations. Thus, a large

peg cannot fit into a small hole. With the Lego motorcycle, the

windshield would fit in only one place. The value of physical con-

straints is that they rely upon properties of the physical world for

their operation; no special training is necessary. With the proper

use of physical constraints, there should be only a limited number

of possible actions—or, at least, desired actions can be made obvi-

ous, usually by being especially salient.

Physical constraints are made more effective and useful if they are

easy to see and interpret, for then the set of actions is restricted be-

fore anything has been done. Otherwise, a physical constraint pre-

vents a wrong action from succeeding only after it has been tried.

The traditional cylindrical battery, Figure 4.2A, lacks sufficient

physical constraints. It can be put into battery compartments in

two orientations: one that is correct, the other of which can damage

the equipment. The instructions in Figure 4.2B show that polarity

is important, yet the inferior signifiers inside the battery compart-

ment makes it very difficult to determine the proper orientation

for the batteries.

Why not design a battery with which it would be impossible to

make an error: use physical constraints so that the battery will fit

only if properly oriented. Alternatively, design the battery or the

electrical contacts so that orientation doesn’t matter.

Figure 4.3 shows a battery that has been designed so that orien-

tation is irrelevant. Both ends of the battery are identical, with the

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126 The Design of Everyday Things

positive and negative terminals for the battery being its center and

middle rings, respectively. The contact for the positive polarity is

designed so it contacts only the center ring. Similarly, the contact

for negative polarity touches only the middle ring. Although this

seems to solve the problem, I have only seen this one example of

such a battery: they are not widely available or used.

Another alternative is to invent battery contacts that allow our

existing cylindrical batteries to be inserted in either orientation yet

still work properly: Microsoft has invented this kind of contact,

which it calls InstaLoad, and is attempting to convince equipment

manufacturers to use it.

A third alternative is to design the shape of the battery so that

it can fit in only one way. Most plug-in components do this well,

using shapes, notches, and protrusions to constrain insertion

F IGU R E 4 . 2 . Cylindrical Battery: Where Constraints Are Needed. Figure A shows
the traditional cylindrical battery that requires correct orientation in the slot to work
properly (and to avoid damaging the equipment). But look at Figure B, which shows
where two batteries are to be installed. The instructions from the manual are shown as
an overlay to the photograph. They seem simple, but can you see into the dark recess to
figure out which end of each battery goes where? Nope. The lettering is black against
black: slightly raised shapes in the dark plastic.

F IGU RE 4 . 3. Making Battery Orientation
Irrelevant. This photograph shows a battery
whose orientation doesn’t matter; it can be
inserted into the equipment in either possi-
ble direction. How? Each end of the battery
has the same three concentric rings, with the
center one on both ends being the “plus” ter-
minal and the middle one being the “minus”

A . B.

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four: Knowing What to Do: Constraints, Discoverability, and Feedback 127

to a single orientation. So why can’t our everyday batteries be

the same?

Why does inelegant design persist for so long? This is called the

legacy problem, and it will come up several times in this book. Too
many devices use the existing standard—that is the legacy. If the

symmetrical cylindrical battery were changed, there would also

have to be a major change in a huge number of products. The new

batteries would not work in older equipment, nor the old batteries

in new equipment. Microsoft’s design of contacts would allow us

to continue to use the same batteries we are used to, but the prod-

ucts would have to switch to the new contacts. Two years after Mi-

crosoft’s introduction of InstaLoad, despite positive press, I could

find no products that use them—not even Microsoft products.

Locks and keys suffer from a similar problem. Although it is usu-

ally easy to distinguish the smooth top part of a key from its jagged

underside, it is difficult to tell from the lock just which orienta-

tion of the key is required, especially in dark environments. Many

electrical and electronic plugs and sockets have the same problem.

Although they do have physical constraints to prevent improper

insertion, it is often extremely difficult to perceive their correct ori-

entation, especially when keyholes and electronic sockets are in

difficult-to-reach, dimly lit locations. Some devices, such as USB

plugs, are constrained, but the constraint is so subtle that it takes

much fussing and fumbling to find the correct orientation. Why

aren’t all these devices orientation insensitive?

It is not difficult to design keys and plugs that work regardless of

how they are inserted. Automobile keys that are insensitive to the

orientation have long existed, but not all manufacturers use them.

Similarly, many electrical connectors are insensitive to orientation,

but again, only a few manufacturers use them. Why the resistance?

Some of it results from the legacy concerns about the expense of

massive change. But much seems to be a classic example of cor-

porate thinking: “This is the way we have always done things. We

don’t care about the customer.” It is, of course, true that difficulty

in inserting keys, batteries, or plugs is not a big enough issue to

affect the decision of whether to purchase something, but still, the

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128 The Design of Everyday Things

lack of attention to customer needs on even simple things is often

symptomatic of larger issues that have greater impact.

Note that a superior solution would be to solve the fundamental

need—solving the root need. After all, we don’t really care about

keys and locks: what we need is some way of ensuring that only

authorized people can get access to whatever is being locked.

Instead of redoing the shapes of physical keys, make them irrel-

evant. Once this is recognized, a whole set of solutions present

themselves: combination locks that do not require keys, or key-

less locks that can be operated only by authorized people. One

method is through possession of an electronic wireless device,

such as the identification badges that unlock doors when they

are moved close to a sensor, or automobile keys that can stay in

the pocket or carrying case. Biometric devices could identify the

person through face or voice recognition, fingerprints, or other

biometric measures, such as iris patterns. This approach is dis-

cussed in Chapter 3, page 91.


Each culture has a set of allowable actions for social situations.

Thus, in our own culture we know how to behave in a restaurant—

even one we have never been to before. This is how we manage

to cope when our host leaves us alone in a strange room, at a

strange party, with strange people. And this is why we sometimes

feel frustrated, so incapable of action, when we are confronted

with a restaurant or group of people from an unfamiliar culture,

where our normally accepted behavior is clearly inappropriate and

frowned upon. Cultural issues are at the root of many of the prob-

lems we have with new machines: there are as yet no universally

accepted conventions or customs for dealing with them.

Those of us who study these things believe that guidelines for

cultural behavior are represented in the mind by schemas, knowl-

edge structures that contain the general rules and information nec-

essary for interpreting situations and for guiding behavior. In some

stereotypical situations (for example, in a restaurant), the schemas

may be very specialized. Cognitive scientists Roger Schank and

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four: Knowing What to Do: Constraints, Discoverability, and Feedback 129

Bob Abelson proposed that in these cases we follow “scripts” that

can guide the sequence of behavior. The sociologist Erving Goff-

man calls the social constraints on acceptable behavior “frames,”

and he shows how they govern behavior even when a person is in

a novel situation or novel culture. Danger awaits those who delib-

erately violate the frames of a culture.

The next time you are in an elevator, try violating cultural norms

and see how uncomfortable that makes you and the other people

in the elevator. It doesn’t take much: Stand facing the rear. Or look

directly at some of the passengers. In a bus or streetcar, give your

seat to the next athletic-looking person you see (the act is especially

effective if you are elderly, pregnant, or disabled).

In the case of the Lego motorcycle of Figure 4.1, cultural con-

straints determine the locations of the three lights of the motor-

cycle, which are otherwise physically interchangeable. Red is the

culturally defined standard for a brake light, which is placed in

the rear. And a police vehicle often has a blue flashing light on top.

As for the yellow piece, this is an interesting example of cultural

change: few people today remember that yellow used to be a stan-

dard headlight color in Europe and a few other locations (Lego

comes from Denmark). Today, European and North American stan-

dards require white headlights. As a result, figuring out that the

yellow piece represents a headlight on the front of the motorcycle

is no longer as easy as it used to be. Cultural constraints are likely

to change with time.


Semantics is the study of meaning. Semantic constraints are those

that rely upon the meaning of the situation to control the set of

possible actions. In the case of the motorcycle, there is only one

meaningful location for the rider, who must sit facing forward. The

purpose of the windshield is to protect the rider ’s face, so it must

be in front of the rider. Semantic constraints rely upon our knowl-

edge of the situation and of the world. Such knowledge can be a

powerful and important clue. But just as cultural constraints can

change with time, so, too, can semantic ones. Extreme sports push

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130 The Design of Everyday Things

the boundaries of what we think of as meaningful and sensible.

New technologies change the meanings of things. And creative

people continually change how we interact with our technologies

and one another. When cars become fully automated, communi-

cating among themselves with wireless networks, what will be the

meaning of the red lights on the rear of the auto? That the car is

braking? But for whom would the signal be intended? The other

cars would already know. The red light would become meaning-

less, so it could either be removed or it could be redefined to indi-

cate some other condition. The meanings of today may not be the

meanings of the future.


The blue light of the Lego motorcycle presents a special problem.

Many people had no knowledge that would help, but after all the

other pieces had been placed on the motorcycle, there was only

one piece left, only one possible place to go. The blue light was

logically constrained.

Logical constraints are often used by home dwellers who under-

take repair jobs. Suppose you take apart a leaking faucet to replace

a washer, but when you put the faucet together again, you discover

a part left over. Oops, obviously there was an error: the part should

have been installed. This is an example of a logical constraint.

The natural mappings discussed in Chapter 3 work by provid-

ing logical constraints. There are no physical or cultural principles

here; rather, there is a logical relationship between the spatial or

functional layout of components and the things that they affect or

are affected by. If two switches control two lights, the left switch

should work the left light; the right switch, the right light. If the

orientation of the lights and the switches differ, the natural map-

ping is destroyed.


Every culture has its own conventions. Do you kiss or shake hands

when meeting someone? If kissing, on which cheek, and how many

times? Is it an air kiss or an actual one? Or perhaps you bow, junior

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four: Knowing What to Do: Constraints, Discoverability, and Feedback 131

person first, and lowest. Or raise hands, or perhaps press them to-

gether. Sniff? It is possible to spend a fascinating hour on the In-

ternet exploring the different forms of greetings used by different

cultures. It is also amusing to watch the consternation when people

from more cool, formal countries first encounter people from warm-

hearted, earthy countries, as one tries to bow and shake hands and

the other tries to hug and kiss even total strangers. It is not so amus-

ing to be one of those people: being hugged or kissed while trying

to shake hands or bow. Or the other way around. Try kissing some-

one’s cheek three times (left, right, left) when the person expects

only one. Or worse, where he or she expects a handshake. Violation

of cultural conventions can completely disrupt an interaction.

Conventions are actually a form of cultural constraint, usually

associated with how people behave. Some conventions determine

what activities should be done; others prohibit or discourage ac-

tions. But in all cases, they provide those knowledgeable of the

culture with powerful constraints on behavior.

Sometimes these conventions are codified into international stan-

dards, sometimes into laws, and sometimes both. In the early days

of heavily traveled streets, whether by horses and buggies or by

automobiles, congestion and accidents arose. Over time, conven-

tions developed about which side of the road to drive on, with dif-

ferent conventions in different countries. Who had precedence at

crossings? The first person to get there? The vehicle or person on

the right, or the person with the highest social status? All of these

conventions have applied at one time or another. Today, worldwide

standards govern many traffic situations: Drive on only one side of

the street. The first car into an intersection has precedence. If both

arrive at the same time, the car on the right (or left) has precedence.

When merging traffic lanes, alternate cars—one from that lane,

then one from this. The last rule is more of an informal convention:

it is not part of any rule book that I am aware of, and although it

is very nicely obeyed in the California streets on which I drive, the

very concept would seem strange in some parts of the world.

Sometimes conventions clash. In Mexico, when two cars ap-

proach a narrow, one-lane bridge from opposite directions, if a car

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132 The Design of Everyday Things

blinks its headlights, it means, “I got here first and I’m going over

the bridge.” In England, if a car blinks its lights, it means, “I see

you: please go first.” Either signal is equally appropriate and use-

ful, but not if the two drivers follow different conventions. Imagine

a Mexican driver meeting an English driver in some third country.

(Note that driving experts warn against using headlight blinks as

signals because even within any single country, either interpreta-

tion is held by many drivers, none of whom imagines someone else

might have the opposite interpretation.)

Ever get embarrassed at a formal dinner party where there ap-

pear to be dozens of utensils at each place setting? What do you

do? Do you drink that nice bowl of water or is it for dipping your

fingers to clean them? Do you eat a chicken drumstick or slice of

pizza with your fingers or with a knife and fork?

Do these issues matter? Yes, they do. Violate conventions and

you are marked as an outsider. A rude outsider, at that.

Applying Affordances, Signifiers, and
Constraints to Everyday Objects

Affordances, signifiers, mappings, and constraints can simplify our

encounters with everyday objects. Failure to properly deploy these

cues leads to problems.


In Chapter 1 we encountered the sad story of my friend who was

trapped between sets of glass doors at a post office, trapped be-

cause there were no clues to the doors’ operation. To operate a

door, we have to find the side that opens and the part to be manip-

ulated; in other words, we need to figure out what to do and where

to do it. We expect to find some visible signal, a signifier, for the

correct operation: a plate, an extension, a hollow, an indentation—

something that allows the hand to touch, grasp, turn, or fit into.

This tells us where to act. The next step is to figure out how: we

must determine what operations are permitted, in part by using

the signifiers, in part guided by constraints.

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four: Knowing What to Do: Constraints, Discoverability, and Feedback 133

Doors come in amazing variety. Some open only if a button is

pushed, and some don’t indicate how to open at all, having nei-

ther buttons, nor hardware, nor any other sign of their opera-

tion. The door might be operated with a foot pedal. Or maybe it

is voice operated, and we must speak the magic phrase (“Open

Simsim!”). In addition, some doors have signs on them, to pull,

push, slide, lift, ring a bell, insert a card, type a password, smile,

rotate, bow, dance, or, perhaps, just ask. Somehow, when a device

as simple as a door has to have a sign telling you whether to pull,

push, or slide, then it is a failure, poorly designed.

Consider the hardware for an unlocked door. It need not have

any moving parts: it can be a fixed knob, plate, handle, or groove.

Not only will the proper hardware operate the door smoothly, but

it will also indicate just how the door is to be operated: it will in-

corporate clear and unambiguous clues—signifiers. Suppose the

door opens by being pushed. The easiest way to indicate this is to

have a plate at the spot where the pushing should be done.

Flat plates or bars can clearly and unambiguously signify both

the proper action and its location, for their affordances constrain

the possible actions to that of pushing. Remember the discussion

of the fire door and its panic bar in Chapter 2 (Figure 2.5, page 60)?

The panic bar, with its large horizontal surface, often with a sec-

ondary color on the part intended to be pushed, provides a good

example of an unambiguous signifier. It very nicely constrains

improper behavior when panicked people press against the door

as they attempt to flee a fire. The best push bars offer both visible

affordances that act as physical constraints on the action, and also

a visible signifier, thereby unobtrusively specifying what to do and
where to do it.

Some doors have appropriate hardware, well placed. The outside

door handles of most modern automobiles are excellent examples

of design. The handles are often recessed receptacles that simul-

taneously indicate the place and mode of action. Horizontal slits

guide the hand into a pulling position; vertical slits signal a sliding

motion. Strangely enough, the inside door handles for automobiles

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134 The Design of Everyday Things

tell a different story. Here, the designer has faced a different kind

of problem, and the appropriate solution has not yet been found.

As a result, although the outside door handles of cars are often

excellent, the inside ones are often difficult to find, hard to figure

out how to operate, and awkward to use.

From my experience, the worst offenders are cabinet doors. It

is sometimes not even possible to determine where the doors are,

let alone whether and how they are slid, lifted, pushed, or pulled.

The focus on aesthetics may blind the designer (and the purchaser)

to the lack of usability. A particularly frustrating design is that of

the cabinet door that opens outward by being pushed inward. The

push releases the catch and energizes a spring, so that when the hand

is taken away, the door springs open. It’s a very clever design, but

most puzzling to the first-time user. A plate would be the appropri-

ate signal, but designers do not wish to mar the smooth surface of

the door. One of the cabinets in my home has one of these latches

in its glass door. Because the glass affords visibility of the shelves

inside, it is obvious that there is no room for the door to open inward;

therefore, to push the door seems contradictory. New and infre-

quent users of this door usually reject pushing and open it by pull-

ing, which often requires them to use fingernails, knife blades, or

more ingenious methods to pry it open. A similar, counterintuitive

type of design was the source of my difficulties in emptying the

dirty water from my sink in a London hotel (Figure 1.4, page 17).

Appearances deceive. I have seen people trip and fall when

they attempted to push open a door that worked automatically,

the door opening inward just as they attempted to push against

it. On most subway trains, the doors open automatically at each

station. Not so in Paris. I watched someone on the Paris Métro

try to get off the train and fail. When the train came to his station,

he got up and stood patiently in front of the door, waiting for it

to open. It never opened. The train simply started up again and

went on to the next station. In the Métro, you have to open the

doors yourself by pushing a button, or depressing a lever, or slid-

ing them (depending upon which kind of car you happen to be

on). In some transit systems, the passenger is supposed to operate

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four: Knowing What to Do: Constraints, Discoverability, and Feedback 135

the door, but in others this is forbidden. The frequent traveler is

continually confronted with this kind of situation: the behavior

that is appropriate in one place is inappropriate in another, even

in situations that appear to be identical. Known cultural norms

can create comfort and harmony. Unknown norms can lead to dis-

comfort and confusion.


When I give talks, quite often my first demonstration needs no

preparation. I can count on the light switches of the room or au-

ditorium to be unmanageable. “Lights, please,” someone will say.

Then fumble, fumble, fumble. Who knows where the switches are

and which lights they control? The lights seem to work smoothly

only when a technician is hired to sit in a control room somewhere,

turning them on and off.

The switch problems in an auditorium are annoying, but similar

problems in industry could be dangerous. In many control rooms,

row upon row of identical-looking switches confront the operators.

How do they avoid the occasional error, confusion, or accidental

bumping against the wrong control? Or mis-aim? They don’t. For-

tunately, industrial settings are usually pretty robust. A few errors

every now and then are not important—usually.

One type of popular small airplane has identical-looking switches

for flaps and for landing gear, right next to one another. You might

be surprised to learn how many pilots, while on the ground, have

decided to raise the flaps and instead raised the wheels. This very

expensive error happened frequently enough that the National

Transportation Safety Board wrote a report about it. The analysts

politely pointed out that the proper design principles to avoid these

errors had been known for fifty years. Why were these design

errors still being made?

Basic switches and controls should be relatively simple to de-

sign well. But there are two fundamental difficulties. The first is

to determine what type of device they control; for example, flaps

or landing gear. The second is the mapping problem, discussed

extensively in Chapters 1 and 3; for example, when there are many

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136 The Design of Everyday Things

lights and an array of switches, which switch controls which light?

The switch problem becomes serious only where there are many

of them. It isn’t a problem in situations with one switch, and it is

only a minor problem where there are two switches. But the dif-

ficulties mount rapidly with more than two switches at the same

location. Multiple switches are more likely to appear in offices, au-

ditoriums, and industrial locations than in homes.

With complex installations, where there are numerous lights and

switches, the light controls seldom fit the needs of the situation.

When I give talks, I need a way to dim the light hitting the pro-

jection screen so that images are visible, but keep enough light on

the audience so that they can take notes (and I can monitor their

reaction to the talk). This kind of control is seldom provided. Elec-

tricians are not trained to do task analyses.

Whose fault is this? Probably nobody’s. Blaming a person is sel-

dom appropriate or useful, a point I return to in Chapter 5. The

problem is probably due to the difficulties of coordinating the dif-

ferent professions involved in installing light controls.

F IGU R E 4 .4 . Incomprehensible Light Switches. Banks of switches like this are not
uncommon in homes. There is no obvious mapping between the switches and the
lights being controlled. I once had a similar panel in my home, although with only
six switches. Even after years of living in the house, I could never remember which to
use, so I simply put all the switches either up (on) or down (off). How did I solve the
problem? See Figure 4.5.

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four: Knowing What to Do: Constraints, Discoverability, and Feedback 137

I once lived in a wonderful house on the cliffs of Del Mar, Cal-

ifornia, designed for us by two young, award-winning architects.

The house was wonderful, and the architects proved their worth

by the spectacular placement of the house and the broad windows

that overlooked the ocean. But they liked spare, neat, modern design

to a fault. Inside the house were, among other things, neat rows of

light switches: A horizontal row of four identical switches in the

front hall, a vertical column of six identical switches in the living

room. “You will get used to it,” the architects assured us when

we complained. We never did. Figure 4.4 shows an eight-switch

bank that I found in a home I was visiting. Who could remember

what each does? My home only had six switches, and that was bad

enough. (Photographs of the switch plate from my Del Mar home

are no longer available.)

The lack of clear communication among the people and organi-

zations constructing parts of a system is perhaps the most common

cause of complicated, confusing designs. A usable design starts

with careful observations of how the tasks being supported are

actually performed, followed by a design process that results in a

good fit to the actual ways the tasks get performed. The technical

name for this method is task analysis. The name for the entire pro-
cess is human-centered design (HCD), discussed in Chapter 6.

The solutions to the problem posed by my Del Mar home require

the natural mappings described in Chapter 3. With six light switches

mounted in a one-dimensional array, vertically on the wall, there is

no way they can map naturally to the two-dimensional, horizontal

placement of the lights in the ceiling. Why place the switches flat

against the wall? Why not redo things? Why not place the switches

horizontally, in exact analogy to the things being controlled, with

a two-dimensional layout so that the switches can be placed on a

floor plan of the building in exact correspondence to the areas that

they control? Match the layout of the lights with the layout of the

switches: the principle of natural mapping. You can see the result

in Figure 4.5. We mounted a floor plan of the living room on a plate

and oriented it to match the room. Switches were placed on the

floor plan so that each switch was located in the area controlled

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138 The Design of Everyday Things

by that switch. The plate was mounted with a slight tilt from the

horizontal to make it easy to see and to make the mapping clear:

had the plate been vertical, the mapping would still be ambiguous.

The plate was tilted rather than horizontal to discourage people

(us or visitors) from placing objects, such as cups, on the plate: an

example of an anti-affordance. (We further simplified operations

by moving the sixth switch to a different location where its mean-

ing was clear and it did not confuse, because it stood alone.)

It is unnecessarily difficult to implement this spatial mapping

of switches to lights: the required parts are not available. I had to

hire a skilled technician to construct the wall-mounted box and

install the special switches and control equipment. Builders and

electricians need standardized components. Today, the switch

boxes that are available to electricians are organized as rectangu-

lar boxes meant to hold a long, linear string of switches and to

be mounted horizontally or vertically on the wall. To produce the

appropriate spatial array, we would need a two-dimensional struc-

ture that could be mounted parallel to the floor, where the switches

would be mounted on the top of the box, on the horizontal surface.

The switch box should have a matrix of supports so that there can

be free, relatively unrestricted placement of the switches in what-

ever pattern best suits the room. Ideally the box would use small

switches, perhaps low-voltage switches that would control a sepa-

rately mounted control structure that takes care of the lights (which

is what I did in my home). Switches and lights could communicate

F IGU RE 4 . 5. A Natural Mapping of Light
Switches to Lights. This is how I mapped
five switches to the lights in my living
room. I placed small toggle switches that
fit onto a plan of the home’s living room,
balcony, and hall, with each switch placed
where the light was located. The X by the
center switch indicates where this panel
was located. The surface was tilted to make
it easier to relate it to the horizontal ar-
rangement of the lights, and the slope pro-
vided a natural anti-affordance, preventing
people from putting coffee cups and drink
containers on the controls.

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four: Knowing What to Do: Constraints, Discoverability, and Feedback 139

wirelessly instead of through the traditional home wiring cables.

Instead of the standardized light plates for today’s large, bulky

switches, the plates should be designed for small holes appropri-

ate to the small switches, combined with a way of inserting a floor

plan on to the switch cover.

My suggestion requires that the switch box stick out from the

wall, whereas today’s boxes are mounted so that the switches are

flush with the wall. But these new switch boxes wouldn’t have to

stick out. They could be placed in indented openings in the walls:

just as there is room inside the wall for the existing switch boxes,

there is also room for an indented horizontal surface. Or the

switches could be mounted on a little pedestal.

As a side note, in the decades that have passed since the first edi-

tion of this book was published, the section on natural mappings

and the difficulties with light switches has received a very popular

reception. Nonetheless, there are no commercial tools available

to make it easy to implement these ideas in the home. I once tried

to convince the CEO of the company whose smart home devices I

had used to implement the controls of Figure 4.5, to use the idea.

“Why not manufacture the components to make it easy for people

to do this,” I suggested. I failed.

Someday, we will get rid of the hard-wired switches, which re-

quire excessive runs of electrical cable, add to the cost and diffi-

culties of home construction, and make remodeling of electrical

circuits extremely difficult and time consuming. Instead, we will

use Internet or wireless signals to connect switches to the devices

to be controlled. In this way, controls could be located anywhere.

They could be reconfigured or moved. We could have multiple con-

trols for the same item, some in our phones or other portable de-

vices. I can control my home thermostat from anywhere in the

world: why can’t I do the same with my lights? Some of the nec-

essary technology does exist today in specialty shops and custom

builders, but they will not come into widespread usage until ma-

jor manufacturers make the necessary components and traditional

electricians become comfortable with installing them. The tools for

creating switch configurations that use good mapping principles

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140 The Design of Everyday Things

could become standard and easy to apply. It will happen, but it

may take considerable time.

Alas, like many things that change, new technologies will

bring virtues and deficits. The controls are apt to be through

touch-sensitive screens, allowing excellent natural mapping to the

spatial layouts involved, but lacking the physical affordances of

physical switches. They can’t be operated with the side of the arm

or the elbow while trying to enter a room, hands loaded with pack-

ages or cups of coffee. Touch screens are fine if the hands are free.

Perhaps cameras that recognize gestures will do the job.


Spatial mapping of switches is not always appropriate. In many

cases it is better to have switches that control activities: activity-

centered control. Many auditoriums in schools and companies

have computer-based controls, with switches labeled with such

phrases as “video,” “computer,” “full lights,” and “lecture.” When

carefully designed, with a good, detailed analysis of the activi-

ties to be supported, the mapping of controls to activities works

extremely well: video requires a dark auditorium plus control of

sound level and controls to start, pause, and stop the presentation.

Projected images require a dark screen area with enough light in

the auditorium so people can take notes. Lectures require some

stage lights so the speaker can be seen. Activity-based controls are

excellent in theory, but the practice is difficult to get right. When it

is done badly, it creates difficulties.

A related but wrong approach is to be device-centered rather

than activity-centered. When they are device-centered, different

control screens cover lights, sound, computer, and video projec-

tion. This requires the lecturer to go to one screen to adjust the

light, a different screen to adjust sound levels, and yet a different

screen to advance or control the images. It is a horrible cognitive

interruption to the flow of the talk to go back and forth among the

screens, perhaps to pause the video in order to make a comment

or answer a question. Activity-centered controls anticipate this need

and put light, sound level, and projection controls all in one location.

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four: Knowing What to Do: Constraints, Discoverability, and Feedback 141

I once used an activity-centered control, setting it to present my

photographs to the audience. All worked well until I was asked a

question. I paused to answer it, but wanted to raise the room lights

so I could see the audience. No, the activity of giving a talk with

visually presented images meant that room lights were fixed at a

dim setting. When I tried to increase the light intensity, this took

me out of “giving a talk” activity, so I did get the light to where I

wanted it, but the projection screen also went up into the ceiling

and the projector was turned off. The difficulty with activity-based

controllers is handling the exceptional cases, the ones not thought

about during design.

Activity-centered controls are the proper way to go, if the ac-

tivities are carefully selected to match actual requirements. But

even in these cases, manual controls will still be required because

there will always be some new, unexpected demand that requires

idiosyncratic settings. As my example demonstrates, invoking

the manual settings should not cause the current activity to be


Constraints That Force the Desired Behavior


Forcing functions are a form of physical constraint: situations in

which the actions are constrained so that failure at one stage pre-

vents the next step from happening. Starting a car has a forcing

function associated with it—the driver must have some physical

object that signifies permission to use the car. In the past, it was a

physical key to unlock the car doors and also to be placed into the

ignition switch, which allowed the key to turn on the electrical sys-

tem and, if rotated to its extreme position, to activate the engine.

Today’s cars have many means of verifying permission. Some still

require a key, but it can stay in one’s pocket or carrying case. More

and more, the key is not required and is replaced by a card, phone,

or some physical token that can communicate with the car. As long

as only authorized people have the card (which is, of course, the

same for keys), everything works fine. Electric or hybrid vehicles

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142 The Design of Everyday Things

do not need to start the engines prior to moving the car, but the

procedures are still similar: drivers must authenticate themselves

by having a physical item in their possession. Because the vehicle

won’t start without the authentication proved by possession of the

key, it is a forcing function.

Forcing functions are the extreme case of strong constraints that

can prevent inappropriate behavior. Not every situation allows

such strong constraints to operate, but the general principle can be

extended to a wide variety of situations. In the field of safety engi-

neering, forcing functions show up under other names, in partic-

ular as specialized methods for the prevention of accidents. Three

such methods are interlocks, lock-ins, and lockouts.


An interlock forces operations to take place in proper sequence.

Microwave ovens and devices with interior exposure to high volt-

age use interlocks as forcing functions to prevent people from

opening the door of the oven or disassembling the devices without

first turning off the electric power: the interlock disconnects the

power the instant the door is opened or the back is removed. In

automobiles with automatic transmissions, an interlock prevents

the transmission from leaving the Park position unless the car ’s

brake pedal is depressed.

Another form of interlock is the “dead man’s switch” in nu-

merous safety settings, especially for the operators of trains, lawn

mowers, chainsaws, and many recreational vehicles. In Britain,

these are called the “driver’s safety device.” Many require that the

operator hold down a spring-loaded switch to enable operation of

the equipment, so that if the operator dies (or loses control), the

switch will be released, stopping the equipment. Because some op-

erators bypassed the feature by tying down the control (or placing

a heavy weight on foot-operated ones), various schemes have been

developed to determine that the person is really alive and alert.

Some require a midlevel of pressure; some, repeated depressions

and releases. Some require responses to queries. But in all cases,

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four: Knowing What to Do: Constraints, Discoverability, and Feedback 143

they are examples of safety-related interlocks to prevent operation

when the operator is incapacitated.


A lock-in keeps an operation active, preventing someone from pre-

maturely stopping it. Standard lock-ins exist on many computer

applications, where any attempt to exit the application without

saving work is prevented by a message prompt asking whether

that is what is really wanted (Figure 4. 6). These are so effective that

I use them deliberately as my standard way of exiting. Rather than

saving a file and then exiting the program, I simply exit, knowing

that I will be given a simple way to save my work. What was once

created as an error message has become an efficient shortcut.

Lock-ins can be quite literal, as in jail cells or playpens for babies,

preventing a person from leaving the area.

Some companies try to lock in customers by making all their

products work harmoniously with one another but be incompati-

ble with the products of their competition. Thus music, videos, or

electronic books purchased from one company may be played or

read on music and video players and e-book readers made by that

company, but will fail with similar devices from other manufactur-

ers. The goal is to use design as a business strategy: the consistency

within a given manufacturer means once people learn the system,

they will stay with it and hesitate to change. The confusion when

using a different company’s system further prevents customers from

F IGU RE 4 .6 A Lock-In Forcing Function. This lock-in makes it difficult
to exit a program without either saving the work or consciously saying
not to. Notice that it is politely configured so that the desired operation
can be taken right from the message.

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144 The Design of Everyday Things

changing systems. In the end, the people who must use multiple

systems lose. Actually, everyone loses, except for the one manufac-

turer whose products dominate.


Whereas a lock-in keeps someone in a space or prevents an action

until the desired operations have been done, a lockout prevents

someone from entering a space that is dangerous, or prevents an

event from occurring. A good example of a lockout is found in

stairways of public buildings, at least in the United States (Figure

4.7). In cases of fire, people have a tendency to flee in panic, down

the stairs, down, down, down, past the ground floor and into the

basement, where they might be trapped. The solution (required by

the fire laws) is not to allow simple passage from the ground floor

to the basement.

Lockouts are usually used for safety reasons. Thus, small chil-

dren are protected by baby locks on cabinet doors, covers for elec-

tric outlets, and specialized caps on containers for drugs and toxic

substances. The pin that prevents a fire extinguisher from being

activated until it is removed is a lockout forcing function to pre-

vent accidental discharge.

F IGU R E 4 .7. A Lockout Forcing Function for Fire Exit.
The gate, placed at the ground floor of stairways, prevents
people who might be rushing down the stairs to escape a
fire from continuing into the basement areas, where they
might get trapped.

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four: Knowing What to Do: Constraints, Discoverability, and Feedback 145

Forcing functions can be a nuisance in normal usage. The result

is that many people will deliberately disable the forcing func-

tion, thereby negating its safety feature. The clever designer has

to minimize the nuisance value while retaining the safety feature

of the forcing function that guards against the occasional tragedy.

The gate in Figure 4.7 is a clever compromise: sufficient restraint

to make people realize they are leaving the ground floor, but not
enough of an impediment to normal behavior that people will

prop open the gate.

Other useful devices make use of a forcing function. In some

public restrooms, a pull-down shelf is placed inconveniently on

the wall just behind the cubicle door, held in a vertical position by

a spring. You lower the shelf to the horizontal position, and the

weight of a package or handbag keeps it there. The shelf’s position

is a forcing function. When the shelf is lowered, it blocks the door

fully. So to get out of the cubicle, you have to remove whatever is

on the shelf and raise it out of the way. Clever design.

Conventions, Constraints, and Affordances
In Chapter 1 we learned of the distinctions between affordances,

perceived affordances, and signifiers. Affordances refer to the po-

tential actions that are possible, but these are easily discoverable

only if they are perceivable: perceived affordances. It is the sig-

nifier component of the perceived affordance that allows people

to determine the possible actions. But how does one go from the

perception of an affordance to understanding the potential action?

In many cases, through conventions.

A doorknob has the perceived affordance of graspability. But

knowing that it is the doorknob that is used to open and close

doors is learned: it is a cultural aspect of the design that knobs,

handles, and bars, when placed on doors, are intended to enable

the opening and shutting of those doors. The same devices on

fixed walls would have a different interpretation: they might offer

support, for example, but certainly not the possibility of opening

the wall. The interpretation of a perceived affordance is a cultural


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146 The Design of Everyday Things


Conventions are a special kind of cultural constraint. For exam-

ple, the means by which people eat is subject to strong cultural

constraints and conventions. Different cultures use different eat-

ing utensils. Some eat primarily with the fingers and bread. Some

use elaborate serving devices. The same is true of almost every

aspect of behavior imaginable, from the clothes that are worn;

to the way one addresses elders, equals, and inferiors; and even

to the order in which people enter or exit a room. What is consid-

ered correct and proper in one culture may be considered impo-

lite in another.

Although conventions provide valuable guidance for novel sit-

uations, their existence can make it difficult to enact change: con-

sider the story of destination-control elevators.



Operating the common elevator seems like a no-brainer. Press the but-
ton, get in the box, go up or down, get out. But we’ve been encountering
and documenting an array of curious design variations on this simple
interaction, raising the question: Why? (From Portigal & Norvaisas, 2011.)

This quotation comes from two design professionals who were

so offended by a change in the controls for an elevator system that

they wrote an entire article of complaint.

What could possibly cause such an offense? Was it really bad de-

sign or, as the authors suggest, a completely unnecessary change to

an otherwise satisfactory system? Here is what happened: the au-

thors had encountered a new convention for elevators called “Ele-

vator Destination Control.” Many people (including me) consider

it superior to the one we are all used to. Its major disadvantage is

that it is different. It violates customary convention. Violations of

convention can be very disturbing. Here is the history.

When “modern” elevators were first installed in buildings in

the late 1800s, they always had a human operator who controlled

the speed and direction of the elevator, stopped at the appropri-

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four: Knowing What to Do: Constraints, Discoverability, and Feedback 147

ate floors, and opened and shut the doors. People would enter the

elevator, greet the operator, and state which floor they wished to

travel to. When the elevators became automated, a similar con-

vention was followed. People entered the elevator and told the

elevator what floor they were traveling to by pushing the appro-

priately marked button inside the elevator.

This is a pretty inefficient way of doing things. Most of you have

probably experienced a crowded elevator where every person

seems to want to go to a different floor, which means a slow trip for

the people going to the higher floors. A destination-control eleva-

tor system groups passengers, so that those going to the same floor

are asked to use the same elevator and the passenger load is dis-

tributed to maximize efficiency. Although this kind of grouping

is only sensible for buildings that have a large number of elevators,

that would cover any large hotel, office, or apartment building.

In the traditional elevator, passengers stand in the elevator hall-

way and indicate whether they wish to travel up or down. When an

elevator arrives going in the appropriate direction, they get in and

use the keypad inside the elevator to indicate their destination

floor. As a result, five people might get into the same elevator each

wanting a different floor. With destination control, the destination

keypads are located in the hallway outside the elevators and there

are no keypads inside the elevators (Figure 4.8A and D). People

are directed to whichever elevator will most efficiently reach their

floor. Thus, if there were five people desiring elevators, they might

be assigned to five different elevators. The result is faster trips for

everyone, with a minimum of stops. Even if people are assigned to

elevators that are not the next to arrive, they will get to their desti-

nations faster than if they took earlier elevators.

Destination control was invented in 1985, but the first commer-

cial installation didn’t appear until 1990 (in Schindler elevators).

Now, decades later, it is starting to appear more frequently as de-

velopers of tall buildings discover that destination control yields

better service to passengers, or equal service with fewer elevators.

Horrors! As Figure 4.8D confirms, there are no controls inside the

elevator to specify a floor. What if passengers change their minds

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148 The Design of Everyday Things

F I G U R E 4 . 8 . Destination- Control Elevator s. In a dest i nat ion-
control system, the desired destination floor is entered into the control
panel outside the elevators (A and B). After entering the destination
floor into B, the display directs the traveler to the appropriate elevator,
as shown in C, where “32” has been entered as the desired floor destina-
tion, and the person is directed to elevator “L” (the first elevator on the
left, in A). There is no way to specify the floor from inside the elevator:
Inside, the controls are only to open and shut the doors and an alarm (D).
This is a much more efficient design, but confusing to people used to the
more conventional system. (Photographs by the author.)

A . B.


C .

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four: Knowing What to Do: Constraints, Discoverability, and Feedback 149

and wish to get off at a different floor? (Even my editor at Basic

Books complained about this in a marginal note.) What then? What

do you do in a regular elevator when you decide you really want

to get off at the sixth floor just as the elevator passes the seventh

floor? It’s simple: just get off at the next stop and go to the destina-

tion control box in the elevator hall, and specify the intended floor.


People invariably object and complain whenever a new approach

is introduced into an existing array of products and systems. Con-

ventions are violated: new learning is required. The merits of the

new system are irrelevant: it is the change that is upsetting. The

destination control elevator is only one of many such examples.

The metric system provides a powerful example of the difficulties

in changing people’s conventions.

The metric scale of measurement is superior to the English scale

of units in almost every dimension: it is logical, easy to learn,

and easy to use in computations. Today, over two centuries have

passed since the metric system was developed by the French in

the 1790s, yet three countries still resist its use: the United States,

Liberia, and Myanmar. Even Great Britain has mostly switched, so

the only major country left that uses the older English system of

units is the United States. Why haven’t we switched? The change

is too upsetting for the people who have to learn the new system,

and the initial cost of purchasing new tools and measuring devices

seems excessive. The learning difficulties are nowhere as complex

as purported, and the cost would be relatively small because the

metric system is already in wide use, even in the United States.

Consistency in design is virtuous. It means that lessons learned

with one system transfer readily to others. On the whole, consis-

tency is to be followed. If a new way of doing things is only slightly

better than the old, it is better to be consistent. But if there is to be

a change, everybody has to change. Mixed systems are confusing

to everyone. When a new way of doing things is vastly superior

to another, then the merits of change outweigh the difficulty of

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150 The Design of Everyday Things

change. Just because something is different does not mean it is bad.

If we only kept to the old, we could never improve.

The Faucet:
A Case History of Design

It may be hard to believe that an everyday water faucet could need

an instruction manual. I saw one, this time at the meeting of the

British Psychological Society in Sheffield, England. The partici-

pants were lodged in dormitories. Upon checking into Ranmoor

House, each guest was given a pamphlet that provided useful infor-

mation: where the churches were, the times of meals, the location of

the post office, and how to work the taps (faucets). “The taps on the

washhand basin are operated by pushing down gently.”

When it was my turn to speak at the conference, I asked the audi-

ence about those taps. How many had trouble using them? Polite,

restrained tittering from the audience. How many tried to turn the

handle? A large show of hands. How many had to seek help? A few

honest folks raised their hands. Afterward, one woman came up to

me and said that she had given up and walked the halls until she

found someone who could explain the taps to her. A simple sink, a

simple-looking faucet. But it looks as if it should be turned, not

pushed. If you want the faucet to be pushed, make it look as if it

should be pushed. (This, of course, is similar to the problem I had

emptying the water from the sink in my hotel, described in Chapter 1.)

Why is such a simple, standard item as a water faucet so diffi-

cult to get right? The person using a faucet cares about two things:

water temperature and rate of flow. But water enters the faucet

through two pipes, hot and cold. There is a conflict between the

human need for temperature and flow and the physical structure

of hot and cold.

There are several ways to deal with this:

• Control both hot and cold water: Two controls, one for hot water,
the other cold.

• Control only temperature: One control, where rate of flow is fixed.
Rotating the control from its fixed position turns on the water at

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four: Knowing What to Do: Constraints, Discoverability, and Feedback 151

some predetermined rate of flow, with the temperature controlled by

the knob position.

• Control only amount: One control, where temperature is fixed, with
rate of flow controlled by the knob position.

• On-off. One control turns the water on and off. This is how gesture-
controlled faucets work: moving the hand under or away from

the spout turns the water on or off, at a fixed temperature and rate

of flow.

• Control temperature and rate of flow. Use two separate controls, one
for water temperature, the other for flow rate. (I have never encoun-

tered this solution.)

• One control for temperature and rate: Have one integrated con-
trol, where movement in one direction controls the temperature and

movement in a different direction controls the amount.

Where there are two controls, one for hot water and one for cold,

there are four mapping problems;

• Which knob controls the hot, which the cold?

• How do you change the temperature without affecting the rate of


• How do you change the flow without affecting the temperature?

• Which direction increases water flow?

The mapping problems are solved through cultural conventions,

or constraints. It is a worldwide convention that the left faucet

should be hot; the right, cold. It is also a universal convention that

screw threads are made to tighten with clockwise turning, loosen

with counterclockwise. You turn off a faucet by tightening a screw

thread (tightening a washer against its seat), thereby shutting off

the flow of water. So clockwise turning shuts off the water, counter-

clockwise turns it on.

Unfortunately, the constraints do not always hold. Most of

the English people I asked were not aware that left/hot, right/

cold was a convention; it is violated too often to be considered a

convention in England. But the convention isn’t universal in the

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152 The Design of Everyday Things

United States, either. I once experienced shower controls that were

placed vertically: Which one controlled the hot water, the top fau-

cet or the bottom?

If the two faucet handles are round knobs, clockwise rotation

of either should decrease volume. However, if each faucet has a

single “blade” as its handle, then people don’t think they are ro-

tating the handles: they think that they are pushing or pulling. To

maintain consistency, pulling either faucet should increase volume,

even though this means rotating the left faucet counterclockwise

and the right one clockwise. Although rotation direction is incon-

sistent, pulling and pushing is consistent, which is how people

conceptualize their actions.

Alas, sometimes clever people are too clever for our good. Some

well-meaning plumbing designers have decided that consistency

should be ignored in favor of their own, private brand of psy-

chology. The human body has mirror-image symmetry, say these

pseudo-psychologists. So if the left hand moves clockwise, why,

the right hand should move counterclockwise. Watch out, your

plumber or architect may install a bathroom fixture whose clock-

wise rotation has a different result with the hot water than with

the cold.

As you try to control the water temperature, soap running down

over your eyes, groping to change the water control with one hand,

soap or shampoo clutched in the other, you are guaranteed to get it

wrong. If the water is too cold, the groping hand is just as likely to

make the water colder as to make it scalding hot.

Whoever invented that mirror-image nonsense should be forced

to take a shower. Yes, there is some logic to it. To be a bit fair to

the inventor of the scheme, it works as long as you always use

two hands to adjust both faucets simultaneously. It fails misera-

bly, however, when one hand is used to alternate between the two

controls. Then you cannot remember which direction does what.

Once again, notice that this can be corrected without replacing the

individual faucets: just replace the handles with blades. It is psy-

chological perceptions that matter—the conceptual model—not

physical consistency.

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four: Knowing What to Do: Constraints, Discoverability, and Feedback 153

The operation of faucets needs to be standardized so that the

psychological conceptual model of operation is the same for all

types of faucets. With the traditional dual faucet controls for hot

and cold water, the standards should state:

• When the handles are round, both should rotate in the same direction

to change water volume.

• When the handles are single blades, both should be pulled to change

water volume (which means rotating in opposite directions in the

faucet itself).

Other configurations of handles are possible. Suppose the han-

dles are mounted on a horizontal axis so that they rotate vertically.

Then what? Would the answer differ for single blade handles and

round ones? I leave this as an exercise for the reader.

What about the evaluation problem? Feedback in the use of most

faucets is rapid and direct, so turning them the wrong way is easy

to discover and correct. The evaluate-action cycle is easy to traverse.

As a result, the discrepancy from normal rules is often not noticed—

unless you are in the shower and the feedback occurs when you

scald or freeze yourself. When the faucets are far removed from the

spout, as is the case where the faucets are located in the center of

the bathtub but the spouts high on an end wall, the delay between

turning the faucets and the change in temperature can be quite long:

I once timed a shower control to take 5 seconds. This makes setting

the temperature rather difficult. Turn the faucet the wrong way and

then dance around inside the shower while the water is scalding

hot or freezing cold, madly turning the faucet in what you hope is

the correct direction, hoping the temperature will stabilize quickly.

Here the problem comes from the properties of fluid flow—it takes

time for water to travel the 2 meters or so of pipe that might con-

nect the faucets with the spout—so it is not easily remedied. But

the problem is exacerbated by poor design of the controls.

Now let’s turn to the modern single-spout, single-control fau-

cet. Technology to the rescue. Move the control one way, it ad-

justs temperature. Move it another, it adjusts volume. Hurrah!

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154 The Design of Everyday Things

We control exactly the variables of interest, and the mixing spout

solves the evaluation problem.

Yes, these new faucets are beautiful. Sleek, elegant, prize win-

ning. Unusable. They solved one set of problems only to create yet

another. The mapping problems now predominate. The difficulty

lies in a lack of standardization of the dimensions of control, and

then, which direction of movement means what? Sometimes there

is a knob that can be pushed or pulled, rotated clockwise or coun-

terclockwise. But does the push or pull control volume or tempera-

ture? Is a pull more volume or less, hotter temperature or cooler?

Sometimes there is a lever that moves side to side or forward and

backward. Once again, which movement is volume, which tem-

perature? And even then, which way is more (or hotter), which is

less (or cooler)? The perceptually simple one-control faucet still has

four mapping problems:

• What dimension of control affects the temperature?

• Which direction along that dimension means hotter?

• What dimension of control affects the rate of flow?

• Which direction along that dimension means more?

In the name of elegance, the moving parts sometimes meld in-

visibly into the faucet structure, making it nearly impossible even

to find the controls, let alone figure out which way they move or

what they control. And then, different faucet designs use different

solutions. One-control faucets ought to be superior because they

control the psychological variables of interest. But because of the

lack of standardization and awkward design (to call it “awkward”

is being kind), they frustrate many people so much that they tend

to be disliked more than they are admired.

Bath and kitchen faucet design ought to be simple, but can vio-

late many design principles, including:

• Visible affordances and signifiers

• Discoverability

• Immediacy of feedback

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four: Knowing What to Do: Constraints, Discoverability, and Feedback 155

Finally, many violate the principle of desperation:

• If all else fails, standardize.

Standardization is indeed the fundamental principle of desper-

ation: when no other solution appears possible, simply design ev-

erything the same way, so people only have to learn once. If all

makers of faucets could agree on a standard set of motions to con-

trol amount and temperature (how about up and down to control

amount—up meaning increase—and left and right to control tem-

perature, left meaning hot?), then we could all learn the standards

once, and forever afterward use the knowledge for every new fau-

cet we encountered.

If you can’t put the knowledge on the device (that is, knowledge

in the world), then develop a cultural constraint: standardize what

has to be kept in the head. And remember the lesson from faucet

rotation on page 153: The standards should reflect the psychologi-

cal conceptual models, not the physical mechanics.

Standards simplify life for everyone. At the same time, they

tend to hinder future development. And, as discussed in Chapter

6, there are often difficult political struggles in finding common

agreement. Nonetheless, when all else fails, standards are the way

to proceed.

Using Sound as Signifiers
Sometimes everything that is needed cannot be made visible. Enter

sound: sound can provide information available in no other way.

Sound can tell us that things are working properly or that they

need maintenance or repair. It can even save us from accidents.

Consider the information provided by:

• The click when the bolt on a door slides home

• The tinny sound when a door doesn’t shut right

• The roaring sound when a car muffler gets a hole

• The rattle when things aren’t secured

• The whistle of a teakettle when the water boils

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156 The Design of Everyday Things

• The click when the toast pops up

• The increase in pitch when a vacuum cleaner gets clogged

• The indescribable change in sound when a complex piece of machin-

ery starts to have problems

Many devices simply beep and burp. These are not natural-

istic sounds; they do not convey hidden information. When

used properly, a beep can assure you that you’ve pressed a

button, but the sound is as annoying as informative. Sounds

should be generated so as to give knowledge about the source.

They should convey something about the actions that are tak-

ing place, actions that matter to the user but that would other-

wise not be visible. The buzzes, clicks, and hums that you hear

while a telephone call is being completed are one good example:

take out those noises and you are less certain that the connec-

tion is being made.

Real, natural sound is as essential as visual information because

sound tells us about things we can’t see, and it does so while our

eyes are occupied elsewhere. Natural sounds reflect the complex

interaction of natural objects: the way one part moves against an-

other; the material of which the parts are made—hollow or solid,

metal or wood, soft or hard, rough or smooth. Sounds are gener-

ated when materials interact, and the sound tells us whether they

are hitting, sliding, breaking, tearing, crumbling, or bouncing. Ex-

perienced mechanics can diagnosis the condition of machinery just

by listening. When sounds are generated artificially, if intelligently

created using a rich auditory spectrum, with care to provide the

subtle cues that are informative without being annoying, they can

be as useful as sounds in the real world.

Sound is tricky. It can annoy and distract as easily as it can aid.

Sounds that at one’s first encounter are pleasant or cute easily be-

come annoying rather than useful. One of the virtues of sounds

is that they can be detected even when attention is applied else-

where. But this virtue is also a deficit, for sounds are often intru-

sive. Sounds are difficult to keep private unless the intensity is low

or earphones are used. This means both that neighbors may be

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four: Knowing What to Do: Constraints, Discoverability, and Feedback 157

annoyed and that others can monitor your activities. The use of

sound to convey knowledge is a powerful and important idea, but

still in its infancy.

Just as the presence of sound can serve a useful role in providing

feedback about events, the absence of sound can lead to the same

kinds of difficulties we have already encountered from a lack of

feedback. The absence of sound can mean an absence of knowl-

edge, and if feedback from an action is expected to come from

sound, silence can lead to problems.


It was a pleasant June day in Munich, Germany. I was picked up at

my hotel and driven to the country with farmland on either side of

the narrow, two-lane road. Occasional walkers strode by, and every

so often a bicyclist passed. We parked the car on the shoulder of

the road and joined a group of people looking up and down the

road. “Okay, get ready,” I was told. “Close your eyes and listen.”

I did so and about a minute later I heard a high-pitched whine,

accompanied by a low humming sound: an automobile was ap-

proaching. As it came closer, I could hear tire noise. After the car

had passed, I was asked my judgment of the sound. We repeated

the exercise numerous times, and each time the sound was differ-

ent. What was going on? We were evaluating sound designs for

BMW’s new electric vehicles.

Electric cars are extremely quiet. The only sounds they make

come from the tires, the air, and occasionally, from the high-pitched

whine of the electronics. Car lovers really like the silence. Pedestri-

ans have mixed feelings, but the blind are greatly concerned. After

all, the blind cross streets in traffic by relying upon the sounds of

vehicles. That’s how they know when it is safe to cross. And what

is true for the blind might also be true for anyone stepping onto

the street while distracted. If the vehicles don’t make any sounds,

they can kill. The United States National Highway Traffic Safety

Administration determined that pedestrians are considerably

more likely to be hit by hybrid or electric vehicles than by those

that have an internal combustion engine. The greatest danger is

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158 The Design of Everyday Things

when the hybrid or electric vehicles are moving slowly, when they

are almost completely silent. The sounds of an automobile are im-

portant signifiers of its presence.

Adding sound to a vehicle to warn pedestrians is not a new idea.

For many years, commercial trucks and construction equipment

have had to make beeping sounds when backing up. Horns are

required by law, presumably so that drivers can use them to alert

pedestrians and other drivers when the need arises, although they

are often used as a way of venting anger and rage instead. But

adding a continuous sound to a normal vehicle because it would

otherwise be too quiet, is a challenge.

What sound would you want? One group of blind people sug-

gested putting some rocks into the hubcaps. I thought this was

brilliant. The rocks would provide a natural set of cues, rich in

meaning yet easy to interpret. The car would be quiet until the

wheels started to turn. Then, the rocks would make natural, contin-

uous scraping sounds at low speeds, change to the pitter-patter of

falling stones at higher speeds, the frequency of the drops increas-

ing with the speed of the car until the car was moving fast enough

that the rocks would be frozen against the circumference of the rim,

silent. Which is fine: the sounds are not needed for fast-moving

vehicles because then the tire noise is audible. The lack of sound

when the vehicle was not moving would be a problem, however.

The marketing divisions of automobile manufacturers thought

that the addition of artificial sounds would be a wonderful brand-

ing opportunity, so each car brand or model should have its own

unique sound that captured just the car personality the brand

wished to convey. Porsche added loudspeakers to its electric car pro-

totype to give it the same “throaty growl” as its gasoline-powered

cars. Nissan wondered whether a hybrid automobile should sound

like tweeting birds. Some manufacturers thought all cars should

sound the same, with standardized sounds and sound levels,

making it easier for everyone to learn how to interpret them. Some

blind people thought they should sound like cars—you know, gas-

oline engines, following the old tradition that new technologies

must always copy the old.

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four: Knowing What to Do: Constraints, Discoverability, and Feedback 159

Skeuomorphic is the technical term for incorporating old, fa-
miliar ideas into new technologies, even though they no longer

play a functional role. Skeuomorphic designs are often comfort-

able for traditionalists, and indeed the history of technology

shows that new technologies and materials often slavishly im-

itate the old for no apparent reason except that is what people

know how to do. Early automobiles looked like horse-driven

carriages without the horses (which is also why they were called

horseless carriages); early plastics were designed to look like

wood; folders in computer file systems often look the same as

paper folders, complete with tabs. One way of overcoming the

fear of the new is to make it look like the old. This practice is

decried by design purists, but in fact, it has its benefits in eas-

ing the transition from the old to the new. It gives comfort and

makes learning easier. Existing conceptual models need only be

modified rather than replaced. Eventually, new forms emerge

that have no relationship to the old, but the skeuomorphic de-

signs probably helped the transition.

When it came to deciding what sounds the new silent automo-

biles should generate, those who wanted differentiation ruled the

day, yet everyone also agreed that there had to be some standards.

It should be possible to determine that the sound is coming from

an automobile, to identify its location, direction, and speed. No

sound would be necessary once the car was going fast enough, in

part because tire noise would be sufficient. Some standardization

would be required, although with a lot of leeway. International

standards committees started their procedures. Various countries,

unhappy with the normally glacial speed of standards agreements

and under pressure from their communities, started drafting legis-

lation. Companies scurried to develop appropriate sounds, hiring

experts in psychoacoustics, psychologists, and Hollywood sound


The United States National Highway Traffic Safety Administra-

tion issued a set of principles along with a detailed list of require-

ments, including sound levels, spectra, and other criteria. The full

document is 248 pages. The document states:

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160 The Design of Everyday Things

This standard will ensure that blind, visually-impaired, and other pe-
destrians are able to detect and recognize nearby hybrid and electric
vehicles by requiring that hybrid and electric vehicles emit sound that
pedestrians will be able to hear in a range of ambient environments and
contain acoustic signal content that pedestrians will recognize as be-
ing emitted from a vehicle. The proposed standard establishes minimum
sound requirements for hybrid and electric vehicles when operating un-
der 30 kilometers per hour (km/h) (18 mph), when the vehicle’s starting
system is activated but the vehicle is stationary, and when the vehicle
is operating in reverse. The agency chose a crossover speed of 30 km/h
because this was the speed at which the sound levels of the hybrid and
electric vehicles measured by the agency approximated the sound levels
produced by similar internal combustion engine vehicles. (Department
of Transportation, 2013.)

As I write this, sound designers are still experimenting. The au-

tomobile companies, lawmakers, and standards committees are

still at work. Standards are not expected until 2014 or later, and

then it will take considerable time to be deployed to the millions of

vehicles across the world.

What principles should be used for the design sounds of elec-

tric vehicles (including hybrids)? The sounds have to meet sev-

eral criteria:

• Alerting. The sound will indicate the presence of an electric vehicle.
• Orientation. The sound will make it possible to determine where the

vehicle is located, a rough idea of its speed, and whether it is moving

toward or away from the listener.

• Lack of annoyance. Because these sounds will be heard frequently
even in light traffic and continually in heavy traffic, they must not be

annoying. Note the contrast with sirens, horns, and backup signals,

all of which are intended to be aggressive warnings. Such sounds

are deliberately unpleasant, but because they are infrequent and for

relatively short duration, they are acceptable. The challenge faced by

electric vehicle sounds is to alert and orient, not annoy.

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four: Knowing What to Do: Constraints, Discoverability, and Feedback 161

• Standardization versus individualization. Standardization is nec-
essary to ensure that all electric vehicle sounds can readily be in-

terpreted. If they vary too much, novel sounds might confuse the

listener. Individualization has two functions: safety and marketing.

From a safety point of view, if there were many vehicles present on

the street, individualization would allow vehicles to be tracked. This

is especially important at crowded intersections. From a marketing

point of view, individualization can ensure that each brand of electric

vehicle has its own unique characteristic, perhaps matching the qual-

ity of the sound to the brand image.

Stand still on a street corner and listen carefully to the vehicles

around you. Listen to the silent bicycles and to the artificial sounds

of electric cars. Do the cars meet the criteria? After years of trying

to make cars run more quietly, who would have thought that one

day we would spend years of effort and tens of millions of dollars

to add sound?

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Most industrial accidents are caused by human error:

estimates range between 75 and 95 percent. How is it

that so many people are so incompetent? Answer: They

aren’t. It’s a design problem.

If the number of accidents blamed upon human error were 1 to

5 percent, I might believe that people were at fault. But when the

percentage is so high, then clearly other factors must be involved.

When something happens this frequently, there must be another

underlying factor.

When a bridge collapses, we analyze the incident to find the

causes of the collapse and reformulate the design rules to ensure

that form of accident will never happen again. When we discover

that electronic equipment is malfunctioning because it is responding

to unavoidable electrical noise, we redesign the circuits to be more

tolerant of the noise. But when an accident is thought to be caused

by people, we blame them and then continue to do things just as

we have always done.

Physical limitations are well understood by designers; mental

limitations are greatly misunderstood. We should treat all failures

in the same way: find the fundamental causes and redesign the

system so that these can no longer lead to problems. We design

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five: Human Error? No, Bad Design 163

equipment that requires people to be fully alert and attentive for

hours, or to remember archaic, confusing procedures even if they

are only used infrequently, sometimes only once in a lifetime. We

put people in boring environments with nothing to do for hours on

end, until suddenly they must respond quickly and accurately. Or

we subject them to complex, high-workload environments, where

they are continually interrupted while having to do multiple tasks

simultaneously. Then we wonder why there is failure.

Even worse is that when I talk to the designers and administra-

tors of these systems, they admit that they too have nodded off

while supposedly working. Some even admit to falling asleep for

an instant while driving. They admit to turning the wrong stove

burners on or off in their homes, and to other small but signifi-

cant errors. Yet when their workers do this, they blame them for

“human error.” And when employees or customers have similar

issues, they are blamed for not following the directions properly,

or for not being fully alert and attentive.

Understanding Why There Is Error
Error occurs for many reasons. The most common is in the nature

of the tasks and procedures that require people to behave in un-

natural ways—staying alert for hours at a time, providing precise,

accurate control specifications, all the while multitasking, doing

several things at once, and subjected to multiple interfering activ-

ities. Interruptions are a common reason for error, not helped by

designs and procedures that assume full, dedicated attention yet

that do not make it easy to resume operations after an interruption.

And finally, perhaps the worst culprit of all, is the attitude of peo-

ple toward errors.

When an error causes a financial loss or, worse, leads to an injury

or death, a special committee is convened to investigate the cause

and, almost without fail, guilty people are found. The next step

is to blame and punish them with a monetary fine, or by firing or

jailing them. Sometimes a lesser punishment is proclaimed: make

the guilty parties go through more training. Blame and punish;

blame and train. The investigations and resulting punishments feel

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164 The Design of Everyday Things

good: “We caught the culprit.” But it doesn’t cure the problem: the

same error will occur over and over again. Instead, when an error

happens, we should determine why, then redesign the product

or the procedures being followed so that it will never occur again

or, if it does, so that it will have minimal impact.


Root cause analysis is the name of the game: investigate the acci-
dent until the single, underlying cause is found. What this ought to

mean is that when people have indeed made erroneous decisions

or actions, we should determine what caused them to err. This is

what root cause analysis ought to be about. Alas, all too often it

stops once a person is found to have acted inappropriately.

Trying to find the cause of an accident sounds good but it is

flawed for two reasons. First, most accidents do not have a single

cause: there are usually multiple things that went wrong, multiple

events that, had any one of them not occurred, would have pre-

vented the accident. This is what James Reason, the noted British

authority on human error, has called the “Swiss cheese model of

accidents” (shown in Figure 5.3 of this chapter on page 208, and

discussed in more detail there).

Second, why does the root cause analysis stop as soon as a hu-

man error is found? If a machine stops working, we don’t stop the

analysis when we discover a broken part. Instead, we ask: “Why

did the part break? Was it an inferior part? Were the required spec-

ifications too low? Did something apply too high a load on the

part?” We keep asking questions until we are satisfied that we

understand the reasons for the failure: then we set out to remedy

them. We should do the same thing when we find human error:

We should discover what led to the error. When root cause analysis

discovers a human error in the chain, its work has just begun: now

we apply the analysis to understand why the error occurred, and

what can be done to prevent it.

One of the most sophisticated airplanes in the world is the US

Air Force’s F-22. However, it has been involved in a number of

accidents, and pilots have complained that they suffered oxygen

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five: Human Error? No, Bad Design 165

deprivation (hypoxia). In 2010, a crash destroyed an F-22 and

killed the pilot. The Air Force investigation board studied the inci-

dent and two years later, in 2012, released a report that blamed the

accident on pilot error: “failure to recognize and initiate a timely

dive recovery due to channelized attention, breakdown of visual

scan and unrecognized spatial distortion.”

In 2013, the Inspector General’s office of the US Department of

Defense reviewed the Air Force’s findings, disagreeing with the as-

sessment. In my opinion, this time a proper root cause analysis was

done. The Inspector General asked “why sudden incapacitation or

unconsciousness was not considered a contributory factor.” The Air

Force, to nobody’s surprise, disagreed with the criticism. They ar-

gued that they had done a thorough review and that their conclu-

sion “was supported by clear and convincing evidence.” Their only

fault was that the report “could have been more clearly written.”

It is only slightly unfair to parody the two reports this way:

Air Force: It was pilot error—the pilot failed to take corrective action.

Inspector General: That’s because the pilot was probably unconscious.

Air Force: So you agree, the pilot failed to correct the problem.


Root cause analysis is intended to determine the underlying cause

of an incident, not the proximate cause. The Japanese have long

followed a procedure for getting at root causes that they call the

“Five Whys,” originally developed by Sakichi Toyoda and used by

the Toyota Motor Company as part of the Toyota Production Sys-

tem for improving quality. Today it is widely deployed. Basically,

it means that when searching for the reason, even after you have

found one, do not stop: ask why that was the case. And then ask

why again. Keep asking until you have uncovered the true under-

lying causes. Does it take exactly five? No, but calling the proce-

dure “Five Whys” emphasizes the need to keep going even after a

reason has been found. Consider how this might be applied to the

analysis of the F-22 crash:

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166 The Design of Everyday Things

Five Whys

Question Answer

Q1: Why did the plane crash? Because it was in an uncontrolled

Q2: Why didn’t the pilot recover from the dive? Because the pilot failed to initiate a
timely recovery.

Q3: Why was that? Because he might have been
unconscious (or oxygen deprived).

Q4: Why was that? We don’t know. We need to find out.


The Five Whys of this example are only a partial analysis. For

example, we need to know why the plane was in a dive (the report

explains this, but it is too technical to go into here; suffice it to say

that it, too, suggests that the dive was related to a possible oxygen


The Five Whys do not guarantee success. The question why is
ambiguous and can lead to different answers by different investi-

gators. There is still a tendency to stop too soon, perhaps when the

limit of the investigator’s understanding has been reached. It also

tends to emphasize the need to find a single cause for an incident,

whereas most complex events have multiple, complex causal fac-

tors. Nonetheless, it is a powerful technique.

The tendency to stop seeking reasons as soon as a human error

has been found is widespread. I once reviewed a number of acci-

dents in which highly trained workers at an electric utility com-

pany had been electrocuted when they contacted or came too close

to the high-voltage lines they were servicing. All the investigat-

ing committees found the workers to be at fault, something even

the workers (those who had survived) did not dispute. But when

the committees were investigating the complex causes of the in-

cidents, why did they stop once they found a human error? Why

didn’t they keep going to find out why the error had occurred,

what circumstances had led to it, and then, why those circum-

stances had happened? The committees never went far enough to

find the deeper, root causes of the accidents. Nor did they consider

redesigning the systems and procedures to make the incidents

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five: Human Error? No, Bad Design 167

either impossible or far less likely. When people err, change the

system so that type of error will be reduced or eliminated. When

complete elimination is not possible, redesign to reduce the impact.

It wasn’t difficult for me to suggest simple changes to procedures

that would have prevented most of the incidents at the utility com-

pany. It had never occurred to the committee to think of this. The

problem is that to have followed my recommendations would

have meant changing the culture from an attitude among the field

workers that “We are supermen: we can solve any problem, repair

the most complex outage. We do not make errors.” It is not possi-

ble to eliminate human error if it is thought of as a personal failure

rather than as a sign of poor design of procedures or equipment.

My report to the company executives was received politely. I was

even thanked. Several years later I contacted a friend at the com-

pany and asked what changes they had made. “No changes,” he

said. “And we are still injuring people.”

One big problem is that the natural tendency to blame someone

for an error is even shared by those who made the error, who

often agree that it was their fault. People do tend to blame them-

selves when they do something that, after the fact, seems inex-

cusable. “I knew better,” is a common comment by those who

have erred. But when someone says, “It was my fault, I knew

better,” this is not a valid analysis of the problem. That doesn’t

help prevent its recurrence. When many people all have the same

problem, shouldn’t another cause be found? If the system lets you

make the error, it is badly designed. And if the system induces

you to make the error, then it is really badly designed. When I

turn on the wrong stove burner, it is not due to my lack of knowl-

edge: it is due to poor mapping between controls and burners.

Teaching me the relationship will not stop the error from recur-

ring: redesigning the stove will.

We can’t fix problems unless people admit they exist. When

we blame people, it is then difficult to convince organizations to

restructure the design to eliminate these problems. After all, if a

person is at fault, replace the person. But seldom is this the case:

usually the system, the procedures, and social pressures have led

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168 The Design of Everyday Things

to the problems, and the problems won’t be fixed without address-

ing all of these factors.

Why do people err? Because the designs focus upon the require-

ments of the system and the machines, and not upon the re-

quirements of people. Most machines require precise commands

and guidance, forcing people to enter numerical information per-

fectly. But people aren’t very good at great precision. We frequently

make errors when asked to type or write sequences of numbers

or letters. This is well known: so why are machines still being de-

signed that require such great precision, where pressing the wrong

key can lead to horrendous results?

People are creative, constructive, exploratory beings. We are par-

ticularly good at novelty, at creating new ways of doing things,

and at seeing new opportunities. Dull, repetitive, precise require-

ments fight against these traits. We are alert to changes in the en-

vironment, noticing new things, and then thinking about them

and their implications. These are virtues, but they get turned into

negative features when we are forced to serve machines. Then we

are punished for lapses in attention, for deviating from the tightly

prescribed routines.

A major cause of error is time stress. Time is often critical, es-

pecially in such places as manufacturing or chemical processing

plants and hospitals. But even everyday tasks can have time pres-

sures. Add environmental factors, such as poor weather or heavy

traffic, and the time stresses increase. In commercial establish-

ments, there is strong pressure not to slow the processes, because

doing so would inconvenience many, lead to significant loss of

money, and, in a hospital, possibly decrease the quality of patient

care. There is a lot of pressure to push ahead with the work even

when an outside observer would say it was dangerous to do so.

In many industries, if the operators actually obeyed all the proce-

dures, the work would never get done. So we push the boundaries:

we stay up far longer than is natural. We try to do too many tasks

at the same time. We drive faster than is safe. Most of the time we

manage okay. We might even be rewarded and praised for our he-

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five: Human Error? No, Bad Design 169

roic efforts. But when things go wrong and we fail, then this same

behavior is blamed and punished.

Deliberate Violations
Errors are not the only type of human failures. Sometimes peo-

ple knowingly take risks. When the outcome is positive, they are

often rewarded. When the result is negative, they might be pun-

ished. But how do we classify these deliberate violations of known,

proper behavior? In the error literature, they tend to be ignored. In

the accident literature, they are an important component.

Deliberate deviations play an important role in many accidents.

They are defined as cases where people intentionally violate pro-

cedures and regulations. Why do they happen? Well, almost every

one of us has probably deliberately violated laws, rules, or even

our own best judgment at times. Ever go faster than the speed

limit? Drive too fast in the snow or rain? Agree to do some hazard-

ous act, even while privately thinking it foolhardy to do so?

In many industries, the rules are written more with a goal toward

legal compliance than with an understanding of the work require-

ments. As a result, if workers followed the rules, they couldn’t get

their jobs done. Do you sometimes prop open locked doors? Drive

with too little sleep? Work with co-workers even though you are ill

(and might therefore be infectious)?

Routine violations occur when noncompliance is so frequent that

it is ignored. Situational violations occur when there are special cir-

cumstances (example: going through a red light “because no other

cars were visible and I was late”). In some cases, the only way to

complete a job might be to violate a rule or procedure.

A major cause of violations is inappropriate rules or procedures

that not only invite violation but encourage it. Without the viola-

tions, the work could not be done. Worse, when employees feel it

necessary to violate the rules in order to get the job done and, as a

result, succeed, they will probably be congratulated and rewarded.

This, of course, unwittingly rewards noncompliance. Cultures that

encourage and commend violations set poor role models.

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170 The Design of Everyday Things

Although violations are a form of error, these are organizational

and societal errors, important but outside the scope of the design of

everyday things. The human error examined here is unintentional:

deliberate violations, by definition, are intentional deviations that

are known to be risky, with the potential of doing harm.

Two Types of Errors: Slips and Mistakes
Many years ago, the British psychologist James Reason and I de-

veloped a general classification of human error. We divided human

error into two major categories: slips and mistakes (Figure 5.1). This

classification has proved to be of value for both theory and practice.

It is widely used in the study of error in such diverse areas as indus-

trial and aviation accidents, and medical errors. The discussion gets

a little technical, so I have kept technicalities to a minimum. This

topic is of extreme importance to design, so stick with it.


Human error is defined as any deviance from “appropriate” be-

havior. The word appropriate is in quotes because in many circum-
stances, the appropriate behavior is not known or is only deter-

F I G U R E 5 . 1 . Classification of
Er ror s. Errors have t wo major
forms. Slips occur when the goal
is correct, but the required actions
are not done properly: the exe-
cution is flawed. Mistakes occur
when the goal or plan is wrong.
Slips and mistakes can be further
divided based upon their under-
lying causes. Memory lapses can
lead to either slips or mistakes,
de pe nd i ng upon whe t her t he
memory failure was at the highest
level of cognition (mistakes) or at
lower (subconscious) levels (slips).
Although deliberate violations of
procedures are clearly inappropri-
ate behaviors that often lead to ac-
cidents, these are not considered as
errors (see discussion in text).

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five: Human Error? No, Bad Design 171

mined after the fact. But still, error is defined as deviance from the

generally accepted correct or appropriate behavior.

Error is the general term for all wrong actions. There are two ma-
jor classes of error: slips and mistakes, as shown in Figure 5.1; slips
are further divided into two major classes and mistakes into three.

These categories of errors all have different implications for design.

I now turn to a more detailed look at these classes of errors and

their design implications.


A slip occurs when a person intends to do one action and ends up

doing something else. With a slip, the action performed is not the

same as the action that was intended.

There are two major classes of slips: action-based and memory-lapse.
In action-based slips, the wrong action is performed. In lapses,

memory fails, so the intended action is not done or its results not

evaluated. Action-based slips and memory lapses can be further

classified according to their causes.

Example of an action-based slip. I poured some milk into my coffee
and then put the coffee cup into the refrigerator. This is the correct

action applied to the wrong object.

Example of a memory-lapse slip. I forget to turn off the gas burner on
my stove after cooking dinner.


A mistake occurs when the wrong goal is established or the wrong

plan is formed. From that point on, even if the actions are executed

properly they are part of the error, because the actions themselves are

inappropriate—they are part of the wrong plan. With a mistake, the

action that is performed matches the plan: it is the plan that is wrong.

Mistakes have three major classes: rule-based, knowledge-based,
and memory-lapse. In a rule-based mistake, the person has appro-
priately diagnosed the situation, but then decided upon an er-

roneous course of action: the wrong rule is being followed. In a

knowledge-based mistake, the problem is misdiagnosed because

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172 The Design of Everyday Things

of erroneous or incomplete knowledge. Memory-lapse mistakes

take place when there is forgetting at the stages of goals, plans,

or evaluation. Two of the mistakes leading to the “Gimli Glider”

Boeing 767 emergency landing were:

Example of knowledge-based mistake. Weight of fuel was computed
in pounds instead of kilograms.

Example of memory-lapse mistake. A mechanic failed to complete
troubleshooting because of distraction.


Errors can be understood through reference to the seven stages

of the action cycle of Chapter 2 (Figure 5.2). Mistakes are er-

rors in setting the goal or plan, and in comparing results with

expectations—the higher levels of cognition. Slips happen in

the execution of a plan, or in the perception or interpretation of

the outcome—the lower stages. Memory lapses can happen at any

of the eight transitions between stages, shown by the X’s in Figure

5.2B. A memory lapse at one of these transitions stops the action

cycle from proceeding, and so the desired action is not completed.

F IGU R E 5 . 2 . Where Slips and Mistakes Originate in the Action Cycle. Figure A
shows that action slips come from the bottom four stages of the action cycle and mis-
takes from the top three stages. Memory lapses impact the transitions between stages
(shown by the X’s in Figure B). Memory lapses at the higher levels lead to mistakes, and
lapses at the lower levels lead to slips.

A . B.

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five: Human Error? No, Bad Design 173

Slips are the result of subconscious actions getting waylaid en

route. Mistakes result from conscious deliberations. The same pro-

cesses that make us creative and insightful by allowing us to see

relationships between apparently unrelated things, that let us leap

to correct conclusions on the basis of partial or even faulty evi-

dence, also lead to mistakes. Our ability to generalize from small

amounts of information helps tremendously in new situations; but

sometimes we generalize too rapidly, classifying a new situation

as similar to an old one when, in fact, there are significant discrep-

ancies. This leads to mistakes that can be difficult to discover, let

alone eliminate.

The Classification of Slips

A colleague reported that he went to his car to drive to work. As he
drove away, he realized that he had forgotten his briefcase, so he turned
around and went back. He stopped the car, turned off the engine, and
unbuckled his wristwatch. Yes, his wristwatch, instead of his seatbelt.

The story illustrates both a memory-lapse slip and an action slip.

The forgetting of the briefcase is a memory-lapse slip. The unbuck-

ling of the wristwatch is an action slip, in this case a combination

of description-similarity and capture error (described later in this


Most everyday errors are slips. Intending to do one action, you

find yourself doing another. When a person says something clearly

and distinctly to you, you “hear” something quite different. The

study of slips is the study of the psychology of everyday errors—

what Freud called “the psychopathology of everyday life.” Freud

believed that slips have hidden, dark meanings, but most are ac-

counted for by rather simple mental mechanisms.

An interesting property of slips is that, paradoxically, they tend

to occur more frequently to skilled people than to novices. Why?

Because slips often result from a lack of attention to the task.

Skilled people—experts—tend to perform tasks automatically, un-

der subconscious control. Novices have to pay considerable con-

scious attention, resulting in a relatively low occurrence of slips.

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174 The Design of Everyday Things

Some slips result from the similarities of actions. Or an event

in the world may automatically trigger an action. Sometimes our

thoughts and actions may remind us of unintended actions,

which we then perform. There are numerous different kinds of

action slips, categorized by the underlying mechanisms that give

rise to them. The three most relevant to design are:

• capture slips

• description-similarity slips

• mode errors


I was using a copying machine, and I was counting the pages. I found
myself counting, “1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, Jack, Queen, King.” I had
been playing cards recently.

The capture slip is defined as the situation where, instead of the

desired activity, a more frequently or recently performed one gets

done instead: it captures the activity. Capture errors require that

part of the action sequences involved in the two activities be iden-

tical, with one sequence being far more familiar than the other.

After doing the identical part, the more frequent or more recent

activity continues, and the intended one does not get done. Sel-

dom, if ever, does the unfamiliar sequence capture the familiar one.

All that is needed is a lapse of attention to the desired action at

the critical junction when the identical portions of the sequences

diverge into the two different activities. Capture errors are, there-

fore, partial memory-lapse errors. Interestingly, capture errors are

more prevalent in experienced skilled people than in beginners, in

part because the experienced person has automated the required

actions and may not be paying conscious attention when the in-

tended action deviates from the more frequent one.

Designers need to avoid procedures that have identical open-

ing steps but then diverge. The more experienced the workers, the

more likely they are to fall prey to capture. Whenever possible,

sequences should be designed to differ from the very start.

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five: Human Error? No, Bad Design 175


A former student reported that one day he came home from jogging, took
off his sweaty shirt, and rolled it up in a ball, intending to throw it in
the laundry basket. Instead he threw it in the toilet. (It wasn’t poor aim:
the laundry basket and toilet were in different rooms.)

In the slip known as a description-similarity slip, the error is to

act upon an item similar to the target. This happens when the de-

scription of the target is sufficiently vague. Much as we saw in

Chapter 3, Figure 3.1, where people had difficulty distinguishing

among different images of money because their internal descrip-

tions did not have sufficient discriminating information, the same

thing can happen to us, especially when we are tired, stressed, or

overloaded. In the example that opened this section, both the laun-

dry basket and the toilet bowl are containers, and if the description

of the target was sufficiently ambiguous, such as “a large enough

container,” the slip could be triggered.

Remember the discussion in Chapter 3 that most objects don’t

need precise descriptions, simply enough precision to distinguish

the desired target from alternatives. This means that a description

that usually suffices may fail when the situation changes so that

multiple similar items now match the description. Description-

similarity errors result in performing the correct action on the

wrong object. Obviously, the more the wrong and right objects

have in common, the more likely the errors are to occur. Simi-

larly, the more objects present at the same time, the more likely

the error.

Designers need to ensure that controls and displays for differ-

ent purposes are significantly different from one another. A lineup

of identical-looking switches or displays is very apt to lead to

description-similarity error. In the design of airplane cockpits,

many controls are shape coded so that they both look and feel dif-

ferent from one another: the throttle levers are different from the

flap levers (which might look and feel like a wing flap), which are

different from the landing gear control (which might look and feel

like a wheel).

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176 The Design of Everyday Things


Errors caused by memory failures are common. Consider these


• Making copies of a document, walking off with the copy, but leaving

the original inside the machine.

• Forgetting a child. This error has numerous examples, such as leaving

a child behind at a rest stop during a car trip, or in the dressing room

of a department store, or a new mother forgetting her one-month-old

and having to go to the police for help in finding the baby.

• Losing a pen because it was taken out to write something, then put

down while doing some other task. The pen is forgotten in the ac-

tivities of putting away a checkbook, picking up goods, talking to a

salesperson or friends, and so on. Or the reverse: borrowing a pen,

using it, and then putting it away in your pocket or purse, even

though it is someone else’s (this is also a capture error).

• Using a bank or credit card to withdraw money from an automatic

teller machine, then walking off without the card, is such a frequent

error that many machines now have a forcing function: the card must

be removed before the money will be delivered. Of course, it is then

possible to walk off without the money, but this is less likely than

forgetting the card because money is the goal of using the machine.

Memory lapses are common causes of error. They can lead to

several kinds of errors: failing to do all of the steps of a procedure;

repeating steps; forgetting the outcome of an action; or forgetting

the goal or plan, thereby causing the action to be stopped.

The immediate cause of most memory-lapse failures is interrup-

tions, events that intervene between the time an action is decided

upon and the time it is completed. Quite often the interference

comes from the machines we are using: the many steps required

between the start and finish of the operations can overload the ca-

pacity of short-term or working memory.

There are several ways to combat memory-lapse errors. One is to

minimize the number of steps; another, to provide vivid reminders

of steps that need to be completed. A superior method is to use the

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five: Human Error? No, Bad Design 177

forcing function of Chapter 4. For example, automated teller ma-

chines often require removal of the bank card before delivering the

requested money: this prevents forgetting the bank card, capital-

izing on the fact that people seldom forget the goal of the activity,

in this case the money. With pens, the solution is simply to prevent

their removal, perhaps by chaining public pens to the counter. Not

all memory-lapse errors lend themselves to simple solutions. In

many cases the interruptions come from outside the system, where

the designer has no control.


A mode error occurs when a device has different states in which

the same controls have different meanings: we call these states

modes. Mode errors are inevitable in anything that has more pos-
sible actions than it has controls or displays; that is, the controls

mean different things in the different modes. This is unavoidable

as we add more and more functions to our devices.

Ever turn off the wrong device in your home entertainment sys-

tem? This happens when one control is used for multiple purposes.

In the home, this is simply frustrating. In industry, the confusion

that results when operators believe the system to be in one mode,

when in reality it is in another, has resulted in serious accidents

and loss of life.

It is tempting to save money and space by having a single control

serve multiple purposes. Suppose there are ten different functions

on a device. Instead of using ten separate knobs or switches—

which would take considerable space, add extra cost, and appear

intimidatingly complex, why not use just two controls, one to select

the function, the other to set the function to the desired condition?

Although the resulting design appears quite simple and easy to

use, this apparent simplicity masks the underlying complexity of

use. The operator must always be completely aware of the mode, of

what function is active. Alas, the prevalence of mode errors shows

this assumption to be false. Yes, if I select a mode and then imme-

diately adjust the parameters, I am not apt to be confused about

the state. But what if I select the mode and then get interrupted

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178 The Design of Everyday Things

by other events? Or if the mode is maintained for considerable

periods? Or, as in the case of the Airbus accident discussed be-

low, the two modes being selected are very similar in control

and function, but have different operating characteristics, which

means that the resulting mode error is difficult to discover?

Sometimes the use of modes is justifiable, such as the need to

put many controls and displays in a small, restricted space, but

whatever the reason, modes are a common cause of confusion

and error.

Alarm clocks often use the same controls and display for setting

the time of day and the time the alarm should go off, and many

of us have thereby set one when we meant the other. Similarly,

when time is displayed on a twelve-hour scale, it is easy to set the

alarm to go off at seven a.m. only later to discover that the alarm

had been set for seven p.m. The use of “a.m.” and “p.m.” to distin-

guish times before and after noon is a common source of confu-

sion and error, hence the common use of 24-hour time specification

throughout most of the world (the major exceptions being North

America, Australia, India, and the Philippines). Watches with mul-

tiple functions have similar problems, in this case required because

of the small amount of space available for controls and displays.

Modes exist in most computer programs, in our cell phones, and

in the automatic controls of commercial aircraft. A number of se-

rious accidents in commercial aviation can be attributed to mode

errors, especially in aircraft that use automatic systems (which

have a large number of complex modes). As automobiles become

more complex, with the dashboard controls for driving, heating

and air-conditioning, entertainment, and navigation, modes are

increasingly common.

An accident with an Airbus airplane illustrates the problem. The

flight control equipment (often referred to as the automatic pilot)

had two modes, one for controlling vertical speed, the other for

controlling the flight path’s angle of descent. In one case, when the

pilots were attempting to land, the pilots thought that they were

controlling the angle of descent, whereas they had accidentally

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five: Human Error? No, Bad Design 179

selected the mode that controlled speed of descent. The number

(–3.3) that was entered into the system to represent an appropriate

angle (–3.3º) was too steep a rate of descent when interpreted as

vertical speed (–3,300 feet/minute: –3.3º would only be –800 feet/

minute). This mode confusion contributed to the resulting fatal ac-

cident. After a detailed study of the accident, Airbus changed the

display on the instrument so that vertical speed would always be

displayed with a four-digit number and angle with two digits, thus

reducing the chance of confusion.

Mode error is really design error. Mode errors are especially

likely where the equipment does not make the mode visible, so

the user is expected to remember what mode has been established,

sometimes hours earlier, during which time many intervening

events might have occurred. Designers must try to avoid modes,

but if they are necessary, the equipment must make it obvious

which mode is invoked. Once again, designers must always com-

pensate for interfering activities.

The Classification of Mistakes
Mistakes result from the choice of inappropriate goals and plans or

from faulty comparison of the outcome with the goals during eval-

uation. In mistakes, a person makes a poor decision, misclassifies a

situation, or fails to take all the relevant factors into account. Many

mistakes arise from the vagaries of human thought, often because

people tend to rely upon remembered experiences rather than on

more systematic analysis. We make decisions based upon what is

in our memory. But as discussed in Chapter 3, retrieval from long-

term memory is actually a reconstruction rather than an accurate

record. As a result, it is subject to numerous biases. Among other

things, our memories tend to be biased toward overgeneralization

of the commonplace and overemphasis of the discrepant.

The Danish engineer Jens Rasmussen distinguished among three

modes of behavior: skill-based, rule-based, and knowledge-based.

This three-level classification scheme provides a practical tool that

has found wide acceptance in applied areas, such as the design of

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180 The Design of Everyday Things

many industrial systems. Skill-based behavior occurs when work-

ers are extremely expert at their jobs, so they can do the everyday,

routine tasks with little or no thought or conscious attention. The

most common form of errors in skill-based behavior is slips.

Rule-based behavior occurs when the normal routine is no lon-

ger applicable but the new situation is one that is known, so there

is already a well-prescribed course of action: a rule. Rules simply

might be learned behaviors from previous experiences, but in-

cludes formal procedures prescribed in courses and manuals, usu-

ally in the form of “if-then” statements, such as, “If the engine will
not start, then do [the appropriate action].” Errors with rule-based
behavior can be either a mistake or a slip. If the wrong rule is se-

lected, this would be a mistake. If the error occurs during the exe-

cution of the rule, it is most likely a slip.

Knowledge-based procedures occur when unfamiliar events oc-

cur, where neither existing skills nor rules apply. In this case, there

must be considerable reasoning and problem-solving. Plans might

be developed, tested, and then used or modified. Here, conceptual

models are essential in guiding development of the plan and inter-

pretation of the situation.

In both rule-based and knowledge-based situations, the most seri-

ous mistakes occur when the situation is misdiagnosed. As a result,

an inappropriate rule is executed, or in the case of knowledge-based

problems, the effort is addressed to solving the wrong problem. In

addition, with misdiagnosis of the problem comes misinterpreta-

tion of the environment, as well as faulty comparisons of the cur-

rent state with expectations. These kinds of mistakes can be very

difficult to detect and correct.


When new procedures have to be invoked or when simple prob-

lems arise, we can characterize the actions of skilled people as rule-

based. Some rules come from experience; others are formal proce-

dures in manuals or rulebooks, or even less formal guides, such

as cookbooks for food preparation. In either case, all we must do

is identify the situation, select the proper rule, and then follow it.

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five: Human Error? No, Bad Design 181

When driving, behavior follows well-learned rules. Is the light

red? If so, stop the car. Wish to turn left? Signal the intention to

turn and move as far left as legally permitted: slow the vehicle and

wait for a safe break in traffic, all the while following the traffic

rules and relevant signs and lights.

Rule-based mistakes occur in multiple ways:

• The situation is mistakenly interpreted, thereby invoking the wrong

goal or plan, leading to following an inappropriate rule.

• The correct rule is invoked, but the rule itself is faulty, either because

it was formulated improperly or because conditions are different

than assumed by the rule or through incomplete knowledge used to

determine the rule. All of these lead to knowledge-based mistakes.

• The correct rule is invoked, but the outcome is incorrectly evaluated.

This error in evaluation, usually rule- or knowledge-based itself, can

lead to further problems as the action cycle continues.

Example 1: In 2013, at the Kiss nightclub in Santa Maria, Brazil, pyro-
technics used by the band ignited a fire that killed over 230 people.

The tragedy illustrates several mistakes. The band made a knowl-

edge-based mistake when they used outdoor flares, which ignited the

ceiling’s acoustic tiles. The band thought the flares were safe. Many

people rushed into the rest rooms, mistakenly thinking they were ex-

its: they died. Early reports suggested that the guards, unaware of

the fire, at first mistakenly blocked people from leaving the building.

Why? Because nightclub attendees would sometimes leave without

paying for their drinks.

The mistake was in devising a rule that did not take account of

emergencies. A root cause analysis would reveal that the goal was

to prevent inappropriate exit but still allow the doors to be used in

an emergency. One solution is doors that trigger alarms when used,

deterring people trying to sneak out, but allowing exit when needed.

Example 2: Turning the thermostat of an oven to its maximum tempera-
ture to get it to the proper cooking temperature faster is a mistake

based upon a false conceptual model of the way the oven works. If

the person wanders off and forgets to come back and check the oven

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182 The Design of Everyday Things

temperature after a reasonable period (a memory-lapse slip), the im-

proper high setting of the oven temperature can lead to an accident,

possibly a fire.

Example 3: A driver, unaccustomed to anti-lock brakes, encounters
an unexpected object in the road on a wet, rainy day. The driver ap-

plies full force to the brakes but the car skids, triggering the anti-lock

brakes to rapidly turn the brakes on and off, as they are designed to

do. The driver, feeling the vibrations, believes that it indicates mal-

function and therefore lifts his foot off the brake pedal. In fact, the

vibration is a signal that anti-lock brakes are working properly. The

driver’s misevaluation leads to the wrong behavior.

Rule-based mistakes are difficult to avoid and then difficult to

detect. Once the situation has been classified, the selection of the

appropriate rule is often straightforward. But what if the classifica-

tion of the situation is wrong? This is difficult to discover because

there is usually considerable evidence to support the erroneous

classification of the situation and the choice of rule. In complex

situations, the problem is too much information: information that

both supports the decision and also contradicts it. In the face of

time pressures to make a decision, it is difficult to know which

evidence to consider, which to reject. People usually decide by tak-

ing the current situation and matching it with something that hap-

pened earlier. Although human memory is quite good at matching

examples from the past with the present situation, this doesn’t

mean that the matching is accurate or appropriate. The matching

is biased by recency, regularity, and uniqueness. Recent events are

remembered far better than less recent ones. Frequent events

are remembered through their regularities, and unique events are

remembered because of their uniqueness. But suppose the current

event is different from all that has been experienced before: people

are still apt to find some match in memory to use as a guide. The

same powers that make us so good at dealing with the common

and the unique lead to severe error with novel events.

What is a designer to do? Provide as much guidance as possible

to ensure that the current state of things is displayed in a coherent

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five: Human Error? No, Bad Design 183

and easily interpreted format—ideally graphical. This is a difficult

problem. All major decision makers worry about the complexity

of real-world events, where the problem is often too much infor-

mation, much of it contradictory. Often, decisions must be made

quickly. Sometimes it isn’t even clear that there is an incident or

that a decision is actually being made.

Think of it like this. In your home, there are probably a number

of broken or misbehaving items. There might be some burnt-out

lights, or (in my home) a reading light that works fine for a little

while, then goes out: we have to walk over and wiggle the fluo-

rescent bulb. There might be a leaky faucet or other minor faults

that you know about but are postponing action to remedy. Now

consider a major process-control manufacturing plant (an oil refin-

ery, a chemical plant, or a nuclear power plant). These have thou-

sands, perhaps tens of thousands, of valves and gauges, displays

and controls, and so on. Even the best of plants always has some

faulty parts. The maintenance crews always have a list of items to

take care of. With all the alarms that trigger when a problem arises,

even though it might be minor, and all the everyday failures, how

does one know which might be a significant indicator of a major

problem? Every single one usually has a simple, rational explana-

tion, so not making it an urgent item is a sensible decision. In fact,

the maintenance crew simply adds it to a list. Most of the time, this is

the correct decision. The one time in a thousand (or even, one time

in a million) that the decision is wrong makes it the one they will

be blamed for: how could they have missed such obvious signals?

Hindsight is always superior to foresight. When the accident in-

vestigation committee reviews the event that contributed to the

problem, they know what actually happened, so it is easy for them

to pick out which information was relevant, which was not. This is

retrospective decision making. But when the incident was taking

place, the people were probably overwhelmed with far too much

irrelevant information and probably not a lot of relevant infor-

mation. How were they to know which to attend to and which to

ignore? Most of the time, experienced operators get things right.

The one time they fail, the retrospective analysis is apt to condemn

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184 The Design of Everyday Things

them for missing the obvious. Well, during the event, nothing may

be obvious. I return to this topic later in the chapter.

You will face this while driving, while handling your finances,

and while just going through your daily life. Most of the unusual

incidents you read about are not relevant to you, so you can safely

ignore them. Which things should be paid attention to, which

should be ignored? Industry faces this problem all the time, as do

governments. The intelligence communities are swamped with

data. How do they decide which cases are serious? The public

hears about their mistakes, but not about the far more frequent

cases that they got right or about the times they ignored data as not

being meaningful—and were correct to do so.

If every decision had to be questioned, nothing would ever get

done. But if decisions are not questioned, there will be major

mistakes—rarely, but often of substantial penalty.

The design challenge is to present the information about the state

of the system (a device, vehicle, plant, or activities being moni-

tored) in a way that is easy to assimilate and interpret, as well as to

provide alternative explanations and interpretations. It is useful

to question decisions, but impossible to do so if every action—or

failure to act—requires close attention.

This is a difficult problem with no obvious solution.


Knowledge-based behavior takes place when the situation is novel

enough that there are no skills or rules to cover it. In this case, a

new procedure must be devised. Whereas skills and rules are con-

trolled at the behavioral level of human processing and are there-

fore subconscious and automatic, knowledge-based behavior is

controlled at the reflective level and is slow and conscious.

With knowledge-based behavior, people are consciously prob-

lem solving. They are in an unknown situation and do not have

any available skills or rules that apply directly. Knowledge-based

behavior is required either when a person encounters an unknown

situation, perhaps being asked to use some novel equipment, or

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five: Human Error? No, Bad Design 185

even when doing a familiar task and things go wrong, leading to a

novel, uninterpretable state.

The best solution to knowledge-based situations is to be found

in a good understanding of the situation, which in most cases also

translates into an appropriate conceptual model. In complex cases,

help is needed, and here is where good cooperative problem-solving

skills and tools are required. Sometimes, good procedural manuals

(paper or electronic) will do the job, especially if critical observa-

tions can be used to arrive at the relevant procedures to follow. A

more powerful approach is to develop intelligent computer sys-

tems, using good search and appropriate reasoning techniques

(artificial-intelligence decision-making and problem-solving). The

difficulties here are in establishing the interaction of the people with

the automation: human teams and automated systems have to be

thought of as collaborative, cooperative systems. Instead, they are

often built by assigning the tasks that machines can do to the ma-

chines and leaving the humans to do the rest. This usually means

that machines do the parts that are easy for people, but when the

problems become complex, which is precisely when people could

use assistance, that is when the machines usually fail. (I discuss

this problem extensively in The Design of Future Things.)


Memory lapses can lead to mistakes if the memory failure leads to

forgetting the goal or plan of action. A common cause of the lapse

is an interruption that leads to forgetting the evaluation of the cur-

rent state of the environment. These lead to mistakes, not slips, be-

cause the goals and plans become wrong. Forgetting earlier evalu-

ations often means remaking the decision, sometimes erroneously.

The design cures for memory-lapse mistakes are the same as for

memory-lapse slips: ensure that all the relevant information is con-

tinuously available. The goals, plans, and current evaluation of

the system are of particular importance and should be continually

available. Far too many designs eliminate all signs of these items

once they have been made or acted upon. Once again, the designer

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186 The Design of Everyday Things

should assume that people will be interrupted during their activities

and that they may need assistance in resuming their operations.

Social and Institutional Pressures
A subtle issue that seems to figure in many accidents is social pres-

sure. Although at first it may not seem relevant to design, it has

strong influence on everyday behavior. In industrial settings, social

pressures can lead to misinterpretation, mistakes, and accidents. To

understand human error, it is essential to understand social pressure.

Complex problem-solving is required when one is faced with

knowledge-based problems. In some cases, it can take teams of peo-

ple days to understand what is wrong and the best ways to respond.

This is especially true of situations where mistakes have been made

in the diagnosis of the problem. Once the mistaken diagnosis is

made, all information from then on is interpreted from the wrong

point of view. Appropriate reconsiderations might only take place

during team turnover, when new people come into the situation

with a fresh viewpoint, allowing them to form different interpreta-

tions of the events. Sometimes just asking one or more of the team

members to take a few hours’ break can lead to the same fresh anal-

ysis (although it is understandably difficult to convince someone

who is battling an emergency situation to stop for a few hours).

In commercial installations, the pressure to keep systems run-

ning is immense. Considerable money might be lost if an expen-

sive system is shut down. Operators are often under pressure not

to do this. The result has at times been tragic. Nuclear power plants

are kept running longer than is safe. Airplanes have taken off be-

fore everything was ready and before the pilots had received per-

mission. One such incident led to the largest accident in aviation

history. Although the incident happened in 1977, a long time ago,

the lessons learned are still very relevant today.

In Tenerife, in the Canary Islands, a KLM Boeing 747 crashed

during takeoff into a Pan American 747 that was taxiing on the

same runway, killing 583 people. The KLM plane had not received

clearance to take off, but the weather was starting to get bad and

the crew had already been delayed for too long (even being on the

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five: Human Error? No, Bad Design 187

Canary Islands was a diversion from the scheduled flight—bad

weather had prevented their landing at their scheduled destina-

tion). And the Pan American flight should not have been on the

runway, but there was considerable misunderstanding between

the pilots and the air traffic controllers. Furthermore, the fog was

coming in so thickly that neither plane’s crew could see the other.

In the Tenerife disaster, time and economic pressures were acting

together with cultural and weather conditions. The Pan American

pilots questioned their orders to taxi on the runway, but they con-

tinued anyway. The first officer of the KLM flight voiced minor

objections to the captain, trying to explain that they were not yet

cleared for takeoff (but the first officer was very junior to the cap-

tain, who was one of KLM’s most respected pilots). All in all, a ma-

jor tragedy occurred due to a complex mixture of social pressures

and logical explaining away of discrepant observations.

You may have experienced similar pressure, putting off refuel-

ing or recharging your car until it was too late and you ran out,

sometimes in a truly inconvenient place (this has happened to me).

What are the social pressures to cheat on school examinations, or

to help others cheat? Or to not report cheating by others? Never

underestimate the power of social pressures on behavior, causing

otherwise sensible people to do things they know are wrong and

possibly dangerous.

When I was in training to do underwater (scuba) diving, our in-

structor was so concerned about this that he said he would reward

anyone who stopped a dive early in favor of safety. People are nor-

mally buoyant, so they need weights to get them beneath the surface.

When the water is cold, the problem is intensified because divers

must then wear either wet or dry suits to keep warm, and these

suits add buoyancy. Adjusting buoyancy is an important part of

the dive, so along with the weights, divers also wear air vests

into which they continually add or remove air so that the body is

close to neutral buoyancy. (As divers go deeper, increased water

pressure compresses the air in their protective suits and lungs, so

they become heavier: the divers need to add air to their vests to


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188 The Design of Everyday Things

When divers have gotten into difficulties and needed to get

to the surface quickly, or when they were at the surface close to

shore but being tossed around by waves, some drowned because

they were still being encumbered by their heavy weights. Because the

weights are expensive, the divers didn’t want to release them. In

addition, if the divers released the weights and then made it back

safely, they could never prove that the release of the weights was

necessary, so they would feel embarrassed, creating self-induced

social pressure. Our instructor was very aware of the resulting re-

luctance of people to take the critical step of releasing their weights

when they weren’t entirely positive it was necessary. To counteract

this tendency, he announced that if anyone dropped the weights

for safety reasons, he would publicly praise the diver and replace

the weights at no cost to the person. This was a very persuasive

attempt to overcome social pressures.

Social pressures show up continually. They are usually difficult

to document because most people and organizations are reluctant

to admit these factors, so even if they are discovered in the process

of the accident investigation, the results are often kept hidden from

public scrutiny. A major exception is in the study of transportation

accidents, where the review boards across the world tend to hold

open investigations. The US National Transportation Safety Board

(NTSB) is an excellent example of this, and its reports are widely

used by many accident investigators and researchers of human er-

ror (including me).

Another good example of social pressures comes from yet an-

other airplane incident. In 1982 an Air Florida flight from National

Airport, Washington, DC, crashed during takeoff into the Four-

teenth Street Bridge over the Potomac River, killing seventy-eight

people, including four who were on the bridge. The plane should

not have taken off because there was ice on the wings, but it had al-

ready been delayed for over an hour and a half; this and other fac-

tors, the NTSB reported, “may have predisposed the crew to hurry.”

The accident occurred despite the first officer ’s attempt to warn

the captain, who was flying the airplane (the captain and first

officer—sometimes called the copilot—usually alternate flying

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five: Human Error? No, Bad Design 189

roles on different legs of a trip). The NTSB report quotes the flight

deck recorder ’s documenting that “although the first officer ex-

pressed concern that something ‘was not right’ to the captain four

times during the takeoff, the captain took no action to reject the

takeoff.” NTSB summarized the causes this way:

The National Transportation Safety Board determines that the probable
cause of this accident was the flight crew’s failure to use engine anti-
ice during ground operation and takeoff, their decision to take off with
snow/ice on the airfoil surfaces of the aircraft, and the captain’s failure
to reject the takeoff during the early stage when his attention was called
to anomalous engine instrument readings. (NTSB, 1982.)

Again we see social pressures coupled with time and economic


Social pressures can be overcome, but they are powerful and per-

vasive. We drive when drowsy or after drinking, knowing full well

the dangers, but talking ourselves into believing that we are ex-

empt. How can we overcome these kinds of social problems? Good

design alone is not sufficient. We need different training; we need

to reward safety and put it above economic pressures. It helps if

the equipment can make the potential dangers visible and explicit,

but this is not always possible. To adequately address social, eco-

nomic, and cultural pressures and to improve upon company pol-

icies are the hardest parts of ensuring safe operation and behavior.


Checklists are powerful tools, proven to increase the accuracy of

behavior and to reduce error, particularly slips and memory lapses.

They are especially important in situations with multiple, complex

requirements, and even more so where there are interruptions.

With multiple people involved in a task, it is essential that the lines

of responsibility be clearly spelled out. It is always better to have

two people do checklists together as a team: one to read the instruc-

tion, the other to execute it. If, instead, a single person executes

the checklist and then, later, a second person checks the items, the

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190 The Design of Everyday Things

results are not as robust. The person following the checklist, feel-

ing confident that any errors would be caught, might do the steps

too quickly. But the same bias affects the checker. Confident in the

ability of the first person, the checker often does a quick, less than

thorough job.

One paradox of groups is that quite often, adding more people

to check a task makes it less likely that it will be done right. Why?

Well, if you were responsible for checking the correct readings on

a row of fifty gauges and displays, but you know that two peo-

ple before you had checked them and that one or two people who

come after you will check your work, you might relax, thinking

that you don’t have to be extra careful. After all, with so many

people looking, it would be impossible for a problem to exist with-

out detection. But if everyone thinks the same way, adding more

checks can actually increase the chance of error. A collaboratively

followed checklist is an effective way to counteract these natural

human tendencies.

In commercial aviation, collaboratively followed checklists are

widely accepted as essential tools for safety. The checklist is done

by two people, usually the two pilots of the airplane (the captain

and first officer). In aviation, checklists have proven their worth

and are now required in all US commercial flights. But despite the

strong evidence confirming their usefulness, many industries still

fiercely resist them. It makes people feel that their competence is

being questioned. Moreover, when two people are involved, a ju-

nior person (in aviation, the first officer) is being asked to watch

over the action of the senior person. This is a strong violation of the

lines of authority in many cultures.

Physicians and other medical professionals have strongly resisted

the use of checklists. It is seen as an insult to their professional

competence. “Other people might need checklists,” they complain,

“but not me.” Too bad. Too err is human: we all are subject to slips

and mistakes when under stress, or under time or social pressure,

or after being subjected to multiple interruptions, each essential

in its own right. It is not a threat to professional competence to be

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five: Human Error? No, Bad Design 191

human. Legitimate criticisms of particular checklists are used as an

indictment against the concept of checklists. Fortunately, checklists

are slowly starting to gain acceptance in medical situations. When

senior personnel insist on the use of checklists, it actually enhances

their authority and professional status. It took decades for check-

lists to be accepted in commercial aviation: let us hope that medi-

cine and other professions will change more rapidly.

Designing an effective checklist is difficult. The design needs to be

iterative, always being refined, ideally using the human-centered

design principles of Chapter 6, continually adjusting the list until it

covers the essential items yet is not burdensome to perform. Many

people who object to checklists are actually objecting to badly de-

signed lists: designing a checklist for a complex task is best done by

professional designers in conjunction with subject matter experts.

Printed checklists have one major flaw: they force the steps to

follow a sequential ordering, even where this is not necessary or

even possible. With complex tasks, the order in which many oper-

ations are performed may not matter, as long as they are all com-

pleted. Sometimes items early in the list cannot be done at the time

they are encountered in the checklist. For example, in aviation one

of the steps is to check the amount of fuel in the plane. But what if

the fueling operation has not yet been completed when this check-

list item is encountered? Pilots will skip over it, intending to come

back to it after the plane has been refueled. This is a clear opportu-

nity for a memory-lapse error.

In general, it is bad design to impose a sequential structure to task

execution unless the task itself requires it. This is one of the ma-

jor benefits of electronic checklists: they can keep track of skipped

items and can ensure that the list will not be marked as complete

until all items have been done.

Reporting Error
If errors can be caught, then many of the problems they might lead

to can often be avoided. But not all errors are easy to detect. More-

over, social pressures often make it difficult for people to admit to

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192 The Design of Everyday Things

their own errors (or to report the errors of others). If people report

their own errors, they might be fined or punished. Moreover, their

friends may make fun of them. If a person reports that someone

else made an error, this may lead to severe personal repercussions.

Finally, most institutions do not wish to reveal errors made by their

staff. Hospitals, courts, police systems, utility companies—all are

reluctant to admit to the public that their workers are capable of

error. These are all unfortunate attitudes.

The only way to reduce the incidence of errors is to admit their

existence, to gather together information about them, and thereby

to be able to make the appropriate changes to reduce their occur-

rence. In the absence of data, it is difficult or impossible to make

improvements. Rather than stigmatize those who admit to error,

we should thank those who do so and encourage the reporting.

We need to make it easier to report errors, for the goal is not to

punish, but to determine how it occurred and change things so

that it will not happen again.


The Toyota automobile company has developed an extremely effi-

cient error-reduction process for manufacturing, widely known as

the Toyota Production System. Among its many key principles is a

philosophy called Jidoka, which Toyota says is “roughly translated
as ‘automation with a human touch.’” If a worker notices some-

thing wrong, the worker is supposed to report it, sometimes even

stopping the entire assembly line if a faulty part is about to pro-

ceed to the next station. (A special cord, called an andon, stops the
assembly line and alerts the expert crew.) Experts converge upon

the problem area to determine the cause. “Why did it happen?”

“Why was that?” “Why is that the reason?” The philosophy is to

ask “Why?” as many times as may be necessary to get to the root

cause of the problem and then fix it so it can never occur again.

As you might imagine, this can be rather discomforting for the

person who found the error. But the report is expected, and when

it is discovered that people have failed to report errors, they are

punished, all in an attempt to get the workers to be honest.

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five: Human Error? No, Bad Design 193


Poka-yoke is another Japanese method, this one invented by Shi-

geo Shingo, one of the Japanese engineers who played a major role

in the development of the Toyota Production System. Poka-yoke
translates as “error proofing” or “avoiding error.” One of the tech-

niques of poka-yoke is to add simple fixtures, jigs, or devices to

constrain the operations so that they are correct. I practice this my-

self in my home. One trivial example is a device to help me remem-

ber which way to turn the key on the many doors in the apartment

complex where I live. I went around with a pile of small, circular,

green stick-on dots and put them on each door beside its keyhole,

with the green dot indicating the direction in which the key needed

to be turned: I added signifiers to the doors. Is this a major error?

No. But eliminating it has proven to be convenient. (Neighbors

have commented on their utility, wondering who put them there.)

In manufacturing facilities, poka-yoke might be a piece of wood

to help align a part properly, or perhaps plates designed with

asymmetrical screw holes so that the plate could fit in only one po-

sition. Covering emergency or critical switches with a cover to pre-

vent accidental triggering is another poka-yoke technique: this is

obviously a forcing function. All the poka-yoke techniques involve

a combination of the principles discussed in this book: affordances,

signifiers, mapping, and constraints, and perhaps most important

of all, forcing functions.


US commercial aviation has long had an extremely effective sys-

tem for encouraging pilots to submit reports of errors. The pro-

gram has resulted in numerous improvements to aviation safety.

It wasn’t easy to establish: pilots had severe self-induced social

pressures against admitting to errors. Moreover, to whom would

they report them? Certainly not to their employers. Not even to the

Federal Aviation Authority (FAA), for then they would probably

be punished. The solution was to let the National Aeronautics and

Space Administration (NASA) set up a voluntary accident report-

ing system whereby pilots could submit semi-anonymous reports

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194 The Design of Everyday Things

of errors they had made or observed in others (semi-anonymous

because pilots put their name and contact information on the re-

ports so that NASA could call to request more information). Once

NASA personnel had acquired the necessary information, they

would detach the contact information from the report and mail it

back to the pilot. This meant that NASA no longer knew who had

reported the error, which made it impossible for the airline com-

panies or the FAA (which enforced penalties against errors) to find

out who had submitted the report. If the FAA had independently

noticed the error and tried to invoke a civil penalty or certificate

suspension, the receipt of self-report automatically exempted the

pilot from punishment (for minor infractions).

When a sufficient number of similar errors had been collected,

NASA would analyze them and issue reports and recommenda-

tions to the airlines and to the FAA. These reports also helped

the pilots realize that their error reports were valuable tools for

increasing safety. As with checklists, we need similar systems in

the field of medicine, but it has not been easy to set up. NASA is a

neutral body, charged with enhancing aviation safety, but has no

oversight authority, which helped gain the trust of pilots. There is

no comparable institution in medicine: physicians are afraid that

self-reported errors might lead them to lose their license or be sub-

jected to lawsuits. But we can’t eliminate errors unless we know

what they are. The medical field is starting to make progress, but it

is a difficult technical, political, legal, and social problem.

Detecting Error
Errors do not necessarily lead to harm if they are discovered

quickly. The different categories of errors have differing ease of

discovery. In general, action slips are relatively easy to discover;

mistakes, much more difficult. Action slips are relatively easy to

detect because it is usually easy to notice a discrepancy between

the intended act and the one that got performed. But this detection

can only take place if there is feedback. If the result of the action is

not visible, how can the error be detected?

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five: Human Error? No, Bad Design 195

Memory-lapse slips are difficult to detect precisely because there

is nothing to see. With a memory slip, the required action is not

performed. When no action is done, there is nothing to detect. It is

only when the lack of action allows some unwanted event to occur

that there is hope of detecting a memory-lapse slip.

Mistakes are difficult to detect because there is seldom anything

that can signal an inappropriate goal. And once the wrong goal or

plan is decided upon, the resulting actions are consistent with that

wrong goal, so careful monitoring of the actions not only fails to de-

tect the erroneous goal, but, because the actions are done correctly,

can inappropriately provide added confidence to the decision.

Faulty diagnoses of a situation can be surprisingly difficult to

detect. You might expect that if the diagnosis was wrong, the ac-

tions would turn out to be ineffective, so the fault would be discov-

ered quickly. But misdiagnoses are not random. Usually they are

based on considerable knowledge and logic. The misdiagnosis is

usually both reasonable and relevant to eliminating the symptoms

being observed. As a result, the initial actions are apt to appear ap-

propriate and helpful. This makes the problem of discovery even
more difficult. The actual error might not be discovered for hours

or days.

Memory-lapse mistakes are especially difficult to detect. Just as

with a memory-lapse slip the absence of something that should

have been done is always more difficult to detect than the presence

of something that should not have been done. The difference be-

tween memory-lapse slips and mistakes is that, in the first case, a

single component of a plan is skipped, whereas in the second, the

entire plan is forgotten. Which is easier to discover? At this point

I must retreat to the standard answer science likes to give to ques-

tions of this sort: “It all depends.”


Mistakes can take a long time to be discovered. Hear a noise that

sounds like a pistol shot and think: “Must be a car’s exhaust back-

firing.” Hear someone yell outside and think: “Why can’t my

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196 The Design of Everyday Things

neighbors be quiet?” Are we correct in dismissing these incidents?

Most of the time we are, but when we’re not, our explanations can

be difficult to justify.

Explaining away errors is a common problem in commercial

accidents. Most major accidents are preceded by warning signs:

equipment malfunctions or unusual events. Often, there is a series

of apparently unrelated breakdowns and errors that culminate in

major disaster. Why didn’t anyone notice? Because no single in-

cident appeared to be serious. Often, the people involved noted

each problem but discounted it, finding a logical explanation for

the otherwise deviant observation.


I’ve misinterpreted highway signs, as I’m sure most drivers have.

My family was traveling from San Diego to Mammoth Lakes, Cal-

ifornia, a ski area about 400 miles north. As we drove, we noticed

more and more signs advertising the hotels and gambling casinos

of Las Vegas, Nevada. “Strange,” we said, “Las Vegas always did

advertise a long way off—there is even a billboard in San Diego—

but this seems excessive, advertising on the road to Mammoth.”

We stopped for gasoline and continued on our journey. Only later,

when we tried to find a place to eat supper, did we discover that we

had missed a turn nearly two hours earlier, before we had stopped

for gasoline, and that we were actually on the road to Las Vegas,

not the road to Mammoth. We had to backtrack the entire two-

hour segment, wasting four hours of driving. It’s humorous now;

it wasn’t then.

Once people find an explanation for an apparent anomaly, they

tend to believe they can now discount it. But explanations are

based on analogy with past experiences, experiences that may not

apply to the current situation. In the driving story, the prevalence

of billboards for Las Vegas was a signal we should have heeded,

but it seemed easily explained. Our experience is typical: some

major industrial incidents have resulted from false explanations of

anomalous events. But do note: usually these apparent anomalies

should be ignored. Most of the time, the explanation for their pres-

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five: Human Error? No, Bad Design 197

ence is correct. Distinguishing a true anomaly from an apparent

one is difficult.


The contrast in our understanding before and after an event can be

dramatic. The psychologist Baruch Fischhoff has studied explana-

tions given in hindsight, where events seem completely obvious and

predictable after the fact but completely unpredictable beforehand.

Fischhoff presented people with a number of situations and

asked them to predict what would happen: they were correct only

at the chance level. When the actual outcome was not known by the

people being studied, few predicted the actual outcome. He then

presented the same situations along with the actual outcomes to

another group of people, asking them to state how likely each out-

come was: when the actual outcome was known, it appeared to be

plausible and likely and other outcomes appeared unlikely.

Hindsight makes events seem obvious and predictable. Foresight

is difficult. During an incident, there are never clear clues. Many

things are happening at once: workload is high, emotions and

stress levels are high. Many things that are happening will turn

out to be irrelevant. Things that appear irrelevant will turn out

to be critical. The accident investigators, working with hindsight,

knowing what really happened, will focus on the relevant infor-

mation and ignore the irrelevant. But at the time the events were

happening, the operators did not have information that allowed

them to distinguish one from the other.

This is why the best accident analyses can take a long time to

do. The investigators have to imagine themselves in the shoes of

the people who were involved and consider all the information,

all the training, and what the history of similar past events would

have taught the operators. So, the next time a major accident oc-

curs, ignore the initial reports from journalists, politicians, and

executives who don’t have any substantive information but feel

compelled to provide statements anyway. Wait until the official

reports come from trusted sources. Unfortunately, this could be

months or years after the accident, and the public usually wants

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198 The Design of Everyday Things

answers immediately, even if those answers are wrong. Moreover,

when the full story finally appears, newspapers will no longer con-

sider it news, so they won’t report it. You will have to search for

the official report. In the United States, the National Transportation

Safety Board (NTSB) can be trusted. NTSB conducts careful inves-

tigations of all major aviation, automobile and truck, train, ship,

and pipeline incidents. (Pipelines? Sure: pipelines transport coal,

gas, and oil.)

Designing for Error
It is relatively easy to design for the situation where everything

goes well, where people use the device in the way that was in-

tended, and no unforeseen events occur. The tricky part is to de-

sign for when things go wrong.

Consider a conversation between two people. Are errors made?

Yes, but they are not treated as such. If a person says something

that is not understandable, we ask for clarification. If a person says

something that we believe to be false, we question and debate. We

don’t issue a warning signal. We don’t beep. We don’t give error

messages. We ask for more information and engage in mutual dia-

logue to reach an understanding. In normal conversations between

two friends, misstatements are taken as normal, as approximations

to what was really meant. Grammatical errors, self-corrections, and

restarted phrases are ignored. In fact, they are usually not even

detected because we concentrate upon the intended meaning, not

the surface features.

Machines are not intelligent enough to determine the meaning

of our actions, but even so, they are far less intelligent than they

could be. With our products, if we do something inappropriate,

if the action fits the proper format for a command, the product

does it, even if it is outrageously dangerous. This has led to tragic

accidents, especially in health care, where inappropriate design of

infusion pumps and X-ray machines allowed extreme overdoses

of medication or radiation to be administered to patients, leading

to their deaths. In financial institutions, simple keyboard errors

have led to huge financial transactions, far beyond normal limits.

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five: Human Error? No, Bad Design 199

Even simple checks for reasonableness would have stopped all of

these errors. (This is discussed at the end of the chapter under the

heading “Sensibility Checks.”)

Many systems compound the problem by making it easy to err

but difficult or impossible to discover error or to recover from it.

It should not be possible for one simple error to cause widespread

damage. Here is what should be done:

• Understand the causes of error and design to minimize those causes.

• Do sensibility checks. Does the action pass the “common sense” test?

• Make it possible to reverse actions—to “undo” them—or make it

harder to do what cannot be reversed.

• Make it easier for people to discover the errors that do occur, and

make them easier to correct.

• Don’t treat the action as an error; rather, try to help the person com-

plete the action properly. Think of the action as an approximation to

what is desired.

As this chapter demonstrates, we know a lot about errors. Thus,

novices are more likely to make mistakes than slips, whereas experts

are more likely to make slips. Mistakes often arise from ambiguous

or unclear information about the current state of a system, the lack

of a good conceptual model, and inappropriate procedures. Recall

that most mistakes result from erroneous choice of goal or plan or

erroneous evaluation and interpretation. All of these come about

through poor information provided by the system about the choice

of goals and the means to accomplish them (plans), and poor-quality

feedback about what has actually happened.

A major source of error, especially memory-lapse errors, is in-

terruption. When an activity is interrupted by some other event,

the cost of the interruption is far greater than the loss of the time

required to deal with the interruption: it is also the cost of resuming

the interrupted activity. To resume, it is necessary to remember pre-

cisely the previous state of the activity: what the goal was, where

one was in the action cycle, and the relevant state of the system.

Most systems make it difficult to resume after an interruption.

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200 The Design of Everyday Things

Most discard critical information that is needed by the user to re-

member the numerous small decisions that had been made, the

things that were in the person’s short-term memory, to say noth-

ing of the current state of the system. What still needs to be done?

Maybe I was finished? It is no wonder that many slips and mis-

takes are the result of interruptions.

Multitasking, whereby we deliberately do several tasks simul-

taneously, erroneously appears to be an efficient way of getting a

lot done. It is much beloved by teenagers and busy workers, but in

fact, all the evidence points to severe degradation of performance,

increased errors, and a general lack of both quality and efficiency.

Doing two tasks at once takes longer than the sum of the times it

would take to do each alone. Even as simple and common a task

as talking on a hands-free cell phone while driving leads to seri-

ous degradation of driving skills. One study even showed that cell

phone usage during walking led to serious deficits: “Cell phone

users walked more slowly, changed directions more frequently,

and were less likely to acknowledge other people than individuals

in the other conditions. In the second study, we found that cell

phone users were less likely to notice an unusual activity along

their walking route (a unicycling clown)” (Hyman, Boss, Wise,

McKenzie, & Caggiano, 2010).

A large percentage of medical errors are due to interruptions.

In aviation, where interruptions were also determined to be a

major problem during the critical phases of flying—landing and

takeoff—the US Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) requires what

it calls a “Sterile Cockpit Configuration,” whereby pilots are not

allowed to discuss any topic not directly related to the control of

the airplane during these critical periods. In addition, the flight at-

tendants are not permitted to talk to the pilots during these phases

(which has at times led to the opposite error—failure to inform the

pilots of emergency situations).

Establishing similar sterile periods would be of great benefit to

many professions, including medicine and other safety-critical

operations. My wife and I follow this convention in driving: when

the driver is entering or leaving a high-speed highway, conversa-

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five: Human Error? No, Bad Design 201

tion ceases until the transition has been completed. Interruptions

and distractions lead to errors, both mistakes and slips.

Warning signals are usually not the answer. Consider the control

room of a nuclear power plant, the cockpit of a commercial aircraft,

or the operating room of a hospital. Each has a large number of

different instruments, gauges, and controls, all with signals that

tend to sound similar because they all use simple tone generators

to beep their warnings. There is no coordination among the instru-

ments, which means that in major emergencies, they all sound at

once. Most can be ignored anyway because they tell the operator

about something that is already known. Each competes with the

others to be heard, interfering with efforts to address the problem.

Unnecessary, annoying alarms occur in numerous situations.

How do people cope? By disconnecting warning signals, taping

over warning lights (or removing the bulbs), silencing bells, and

basically getting rid of all the safety warnings. The problem comes

after such alarms are disabled, either when people forget to restore

the warning systems (there are those memory-lapse slips again), or

if a different incident happens while the alarms are disconnected.

At that point, nobody notices. Warnings and safety methods must

be used with care and intelligence, taking into account the tradeoffs

for the people who are affected.

The design of warning signals is surprisingly complex. They

have to be loud or bright enough to be noticed, but not so loud or

bright that they become annoying distractions. The signal has to

both attract attention (act as a signifier of critical information) and

also deliver information about the nature of the event that is being

signified. The various instruments need to have a coordinated re-

sponse, which means that there must be international standards

and collaboration among the many design teams from different,

often competing, companies. Although considerable research has

been directed toward this problem, including the development of

national standards for alarm management systems, the problem

still remains in many situations.

More and more of our machines present information through

speech. But like all approaches, this has both strengths and

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202 The Design of Everyday Things

weaknesses. It allows for precise information to be conveyed, es-

pecially when the person’s visual attention is directed elsewhere.

But if several speech warnings operate at the same time, or if the

environment is noisy, speech warnings may not be understood. Or

if conversations among the users or operators are necessary, speech

warnings will interfere. Speech warning signals can be effective,

but only if used intelligently.


Several design lessons can be drawn from the study of errors, one

for preventing errors before they occur and one for detecting and

correcting them when they do occur. In general, the solutions fol-

low directly from the preceding analyses.


Prevention often involves adding specific constraints to actions. In

the physical world, this can be done through clever use of shape

and size. For example, in automobiles, a variety of fluids are re-

quired for safe operation and maintenance: engine oil, transmis-

sion oil, brake fluid, windshield washer solution, radiator coolant,

battery water, and gasoline. Putting the wrong fluid into a reser-

voir could lead to serious damage or even an accident. Automobile

manufacturers try to minimize these errors by segregating the fill-

ing points, thereby reducing description-similarity errors. When

the filling points for fluids that should be added only occasion-

ally or by qualified mechanics are located separately from those

for fluids used more frequently, the average motorist is unlikely

to use the incorrect filling points. Errors in adding fluids to the

wrong container can be minimized by making the openings have

different sizes and shapes, providing physical constraints against

inappropriate filling. Different fluids often have different colors so

that they can be distinguished. All these are excellent ways to min-

imize errors. Similar techniques are in widespread use in hospitals

and industry. All of these are intelligent applications of constraints,

forcing functions, and poka-yoke.

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five: Human Error? No, Bad Design 203

Electronic systems have a wide range of methods that could be

used to reduce error. One is to segregate controls, so that easily

confused controls are located far from one another. Another is

to use separate modules, so that any control not directly relevant

to the current operation is not visible on the screen, but requires

extra effort to get to.


Perhaps the most powerful tool to minimize the impact of errors

is the Undo command in modern electronic systems, reversing the

operations performed by the previous command, wherever pos-

sible. The best systems have multiple levels of undoing, so it is

possible to undo an entire sequence of actions.

Obviously, undoing is not always possible. Sometimes, it is only

effective if done immediately after the action. Still, it is a power-

ful tool to minimize the impact of error. It is still amazing to me

that many electronic and computer-based systems fail to provide

a means to undo even where it is clearly possible and desirable.


Many systems try to prevent errors by requiring confirmation be-

fore a command will be executed, especially when the action will

destroy something of importance. But these requests are usually

ill-timed because after requesting an operation, people are usu-

ally certain they want it done. Hence the standard joke about such


Person: Delete “my most important file.”
System: Do you want to delete “my most important file”?
Person: Yes.
System: Are you certain?
Person: Yes!
System “My most favorite file” has been deleted.
Person: Oh. Damn.

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204 The Design of Everyday Things

The request for confirmation seems like an irritant rather than

an essential safety check because the person tends to focus upon

the action rather than the object that is being acted upon. A bet-

ter check would be a prominent display of both the action to be

taken and the object, perhaps with the choice of “cancel” or “do

it.” The important point is making salient what the implications of

the action are. Of course, it is because of errors of this sort that the

Undo command is so important. With traditional graphical user

interfaces on computers, not only is Undo a standard command,

but when files are “deleted,” they are actually simply moved from

sight and stored in the file folder named “Trash,” so that in the

above example, the person could open the Trash and retrieve the

erroneously deleted file.

Confirmations have different implications for slips and mistakes.

When I am writing, I use two very large displays and a powerful

computer. I might have seven to ten applications running simul-

taneously. I have sometimes had as many as forty open windows.

Suppose I activate the command that closes one of the windows,

which triggers a confirmatory message: did I wish to close the win-

dow? How I deal with this depends upon why I requested that the

window be closed. If it was a slip, the confirmation required will

be useful. If it was by mistake, I am apt to ignore it. Consider these

two examples:

A slip leads me to close the wrong window.

Suppose I intended to type the word We, but instead of typing
Shift + W for the first character, I typed Command + W (or Con-

trol + W), the keyboard command for closing a window. Because

I expected the screen to display an uppercase W, when a dialog

box appeared, asking whether I really wanted to delete the file, I

would be surprised, which would immediately alert me to the slip.

I would cancel the action (an alternative thoughtfully provided by

the dialog box) and retype the Shift + W, carefully this time.

A mistake leads me to close the wrong window.

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five: Human Error? No, Bad Design 205

Now suppose I really intended to close a window. I often use a

temporary file in a window to keep notes about the chapter I am

working on. When I am finished with it, I close it without saving its

contents—after all, I am finished. But because I usually have multi-

ple windows open, it is very easy to close the wrong one. The com-

puter assumes that all commands apply to the active window—the

one where the last actions had been performed (and which contains

the text cursor). But if I reviewed the temporary window prior to

closing it, my visual attention is focused upon that window, and

when I decide to close it, I forget that it is not the active window

from the computer’s point of view. So I issue the command to shut

the window, the computer presents me with a dialog box, asking

for confirmation, and I accept it, choosing the option not to save

my work. Because the dialog box was expected, I didn’t bother to

read it. As a result, I closed the wrong window and worse, did not

save any of the typing, possibly losing considerable work. Warning

messages are surprisingly ineffective against mistakes (even nice

requests, such as the one shown in Chapter 4, Figure 4.6, page 143).

Was this a mistake or a slip? Both. Issuing the “close” command

while the wrong window was active is a memory-lapse slip. But

deciding not to read the dialog box and accepting it without saving

the contents is a mistake (two mistakes, actually).

What can a designer do? Several things:

• Make the item being acted upon more prominent. That is, change
the appearance of the actual object being acted upon to be more visi-

ble: enlarge it, or perhaps change its color.

• Make the operation reversible. If the person saves the content, no
harm is done except the annoyance of having to reopen the file. If the

person elects Don’t Save, the system could secretly save the contents,

and the next time the person opened the file, it could ask whether it

should restore it to the latest condition.


Electronic systems have another advantage over mechanical ones:

they can check to make sure that the requested operation is sensible.

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206 The Design of Everyday Things

It is amazing that in today’s world, medical personnel can ac-

cidentally request a radiation dose a thousand times larger than

normal and have the equipment meekly comply. In some cases, it

isn’t even possible for the operator to notice the error.

Similarly, errors in stating monetary sums can lead to disastrous

results, even though a quick glance at the amount would indicate

that something was badly off. For example, there are roughly 1,000

Korean won to the US dollar. Suppose I wanted to transfer $1,000

into a Korean bank account in won ($1,000 is roughly ₩1,000,000).
But suppose I enter the Korean number into the dollar field.

Oops—I’m trying to transfer a million dollars. Intelligent systems

would take note of the normal size of my transactions, query-

ing if the amount was considerably larger than normal. For me, it

would query the million-dollar request. Less intelligent systems

would blindly follow instructions, even though I did not have a

million dollars in my account (in fact, I would probably be charged

a fee for overdrawing my account).

Sensibility checks, of course, are also the answer to the serious

errors caused when inappropriate values are entered into hospital

medication and X-ray systems or in financial transactions, as dis-

cussed earlier in this chapter.


Slips most frequently occur when the conscious mind is distracted,

either by some other event or simply because the action being per-

formed is so well learned that it can be done automatically, without

conscious attention. As a result, the person does not pay sufficient

attention to the action or its consequences. It might therefore seem

that one way to minimize slips is to ensure that people always pay

close, conscious attention to the acts being done.

Bad idea. Skilled behavior is subconscious, which means it is

fast, effortless, and usually accurate. Because it is so automatic, we

can type at high speeds even while the conscious mind is occupied

composing the words. This is why we can walk and talk while nav-

igating traffic and obstacles. If we had to pay conscious attention

to every little thing we did, we would accomplish far less in our

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five: Human Error? No, Bad Design 207

lives. The information processing structures of the brain automat-

ically regulate how much conscious attention is being paid to a

task: conversations automatically pause when crossing the street

amid busy traffic. Don’t count on it, though: if too much attention

is focused on something else, the fact that the traffic is getting dan-

gerous might not be noted.

Many slips can be minimized by ensuring that the actions and

their controls are as dissimilar as possible, or at least, as physically

far apart as possible. Mode errors can be eliminated by the simple

expedient of eliminating most modes and, if this is not possible,

by making the modes very visible and distinct from one another.

The best way of mitigating slips is to provide perceptible feed-

back about the nature of the action being performed, then very

perceptible feedback describing the new resulting state, coupled

with a mechanism that allows the error to be undone. For example,

the use of machine-readable codes has led to a dramatic reduction

in the delivery of wrong medications to patients. Prescriptions sent

to the pharmacy are given electronic codes, so the pharmacist can

scan both the prescription and the resulting medication to ensure

they are the same. Then, the nursing staff at the hospital scans both

the label of the medication and the tag worn around the patient’s

wrist to ensure that the medication is being given to the correct

individual. Moreover, the computer system can flag repeated ad-

ministration of the same medication. These scans do increase the

workload, but only slightly. Other kinds of errors are still possible,

but these simple steps have already been proven worthwhile.

Common engineering and design practices seem as if they are

deliberately intended to cause slips. Rows of identical controls or

meters is a sure recipe for description-similarity errors. Internal

modes that are not very conspicuously marked are a clear driver

of mode errors. Situations with numerous interruptions, yet where

the design assumes undivided attention, are a clear enabler of

memory lapses—and almost no equipment today is designed to

support the numerous interruptions that so many situations en-

tail. And failure to provide assistance and visible reminders for

performing infrequent procedures that are similar to much more

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208 The Design of Everyday Things

frequent ones leads to capture errors, where the more frequent ac-

tions are performed rather than the correct ones for the situation.

Procedures should be designed so that the initial steps are as dis-

similar as possible.

The important message is that good design can prevent slips and

mistakes. Design can save lives.



Fortunately, most errors do not lead to accidents. Accidents often

have numerous contributing causes, no single one of which is the

root cause of the incident.

James Reason likes to explain this by invoking the metaphor of

multiple slices of Swiss cheese, the cheese famous for being riddled

with holes (Figure 5.3). If each slice of cheese represents a condi-

tion in the task being done, an accident can happen only if holes

in all four slices of cheese are lined up just right. In well-designed

systems, there can be many equipment failures, many errors, but

they will not lead to an accident unless they all line up precisely.

Any leakage—passageway through a hole—is most likely blocked

at the next level. Well-designed systems are resilient against failure.

This is why the attempt to find

“the” cause of an accident is usually

doomed to fail. Accident investiga-

tors, the press, government officials,

and the everyday citizen like to find

simple explanations for the cause of

an accident. “See, if the hole in slice A

F IGU R E 5 . 3 . Reason’s Swiss Cheese Model of Accidents. Accidents usually have
multiple causes, whereby had any single one of those causes not happened, the acci-
dent would not have occurred. The British accident researcher James Reason describes
this through the metaphor of slices of Swiss cheese: unless the holes all line up per-
fectly, there will be no accident. This metaphor provides two lessons: First, do not try
to find “the” cause of an accident; Second, we can decrease accidents and make sys-
tems more resilient by designing them to have extra precautions against error (more
slices of cheese), less opportunities for slips, mistakes, or equipment failure (less holes),
and very different mechanisms in the different subparts of the system (trying to en-
sure that the holes do not line up). (Drawing based upon one by Reason, 1990.)

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five: Human Error? No, Bad Design 209

had been slightly higher, we would not have had the accident. So

throw away slice A and replace it.” Of course, the same can be said

for slices B, C, and D (and in real accidents, the number of cheese

slices would sometimes measure in the tens or hundreds). It is rel-

atively easy to find some action or decision that, had it been dif-

ferent, would have prevented the accident. But that does not mean

that this was the cause of the accident. It is only one of the many

causes: all the items have to line up.

You can see this in most accidents by the “if only” statements.

“If only I hadn’t decided to take a shortcut, I wouldn’t have had

the accident.” “If only it hadn’t been raining, my brakes would

have worked.” “If only I had looked to the left, I would have seen

the car sooner.” Yes, all those statements are true, but none of them

is “the” cause of the accident. Usually, there is no single cause.

Yes, journalists and lawyers, as well as the public, like to know

the cause so someone can be blamed and punished. But reputable

investigating agencies know that there is not a single cause, which

is why their investigations take so long. Their responsibility is to

understand the system and make changes that would reduce the

chance of the same sequence of events leading to a future accident.

The Swiss cheese metaphor suggests several ways to reduce


• Add more slices of cheese.

• Reduce the number of holes (or make the existing holes smaller).

• Alert the human operators when several holes have lined up.

Each of these has operational implications. More slices of cheese

means mores lines of defense, such as the requirement in aviation and

other industries for checklists, where one person reads the items,

another does the operation, and the first person checks the opera-

tion to confirm it was done appropriately.

Reducing the number of critical safety points where error can

occur is like reducing the number or size of the holes in the Swiss

cheese. Properly designed equipment will reduce the opportunity

for slips and mistakes, which is like reducing the number of holes

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210 The Design of Everyday Things

and making the ones that remain smaller. This is precisely how the

safety level of commercial aviation has been dramatically improved.

Deborah Hersman, chair of the National Transportation Safety

Board, described the design philosophy as:

U.S. airlines carry about two million people through the skies safely
every day, which has been achieved in large part through design redun-
dancy and layers of defense.

Design redundancy and layers of defense: that’s Swiss cheese.

The metaphor illustrates the futility of trying to find the one un-

derlying cause of an accident (usually some person) and punishing

the culprit. Instead, we need to think about systems, about all the

interacting factors that lead to human error and then to accidents,

and devise ways to make the systems, as a whole, more reliable.

When Good Design Isn’t Enough


I am sometimes asked whether it is really right to say that people

are never at fault, that it is always bad design. That’s a sensible

question. And yes, of course, sometimes it is the person who is

at fault.

Even competent people can lose competency if sleep deprived, fa-

tigued, or under the influence of drugs. This is why we have laws

banning pilots from flying if they have been drinking within some

specified period and why we limit the number of hours they can

fly without rest. Most professions that involve the risk of death or

injury have similar regulations about drinking, sleep, and drugs.

But everyday jobs do not have these restrictions. Hospitals often re-

quire their staff to go without sleep for durations that far exceed the

safety requirements of airlines. Why? Would you be happy having a

sleep-deprived physician operating on you? Why is sleep depriva-

tion considered dangerous in one situation and ignored in another?

Some activities have height, age, or strength requirements.

Others require considerable skills or technical knowledge: people

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five: Human Error? No, Bad Design 211

not trained or not competent should not be doing them. That is

why many activities require government-approved training and li-

censing. Some examples are automobile driving, airplane piloting,

and medical practice. All require instructional courses and tests.

In aviation, it isn’t sufficient to be trained: pilots must also keep

in practice by flying some minimum number of hours per month.

Drunk driving is still a major cause of automobile accidents: this

is clearly the fault of the drinker. Lack of sleep is another major

culprit in vehicle accidents. But because people occasionally are

at fault does not justify the attitude that assumes they are always

at fault. The far greater percentage of accidents is the result of poor

design, either of equipment or, as is often the case in industrial

accidents, of the procedures to be followed.

As noted in the discussion of deliberate violations earlier in this

chapter (page 169), people will sometimes deliberately violate

procedures and rules, perhaps because they cannot get their jobs

done otherwise, perhaps because they believe there are extenu-

ating circumstances, and sometimes because they are taking the

gamble that the relatively low probability of failure does not apply

to them. Unfortunately, if someone does a dangerous activity that

only results in injury or death one time in a million, that can lead

to hundreds of deaths annually across the world, with its 7 billion

people. One of my favorite examples in aviation is of a pilot who,

after experiencing low oil-pressure readings in all three of his en-

gines, stated that it must be an instrument failure because it was a

one-in-a-million chance that the readings were true. He was right

in his assessment, but unfortunately, he was the one. In the United

States alone there were roughly 9 million flights in 2012. So, a one-

in-a-million chance could translate into nine incidents.
Sometimes, people really are at fault.

Resilience Engineering
In industrial applications, accidents in large, complex systems

such as oil wells, oil refineries, chemical processing plants, electri-

cal power systems, transportation, and medical services can have

major impacts on the company and the surrounding community.

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212 The Design of Everyday Things

Sometimes the problems do not arise in the organization but out-

side it, such as when fierce storms, earthquakes, or tidal waves

demolish large parts of the existing infrastructure. In either case,

the question is how to design and manage these systems so that

they can restore services with a minimum of disruption and dam-

age. An important approach is resilience engineering, with the goal
of designing systems, procedures, management, and the training

of people so they are able to respond to problems as they arise. It

strives to ensure that the design of all these things—the equipment,

procedures, and communication both among workers and also ex-

ternally to management and the public—are continually being as-

sessed, tested, and improved.

Thus, major computer providers can deliberately cause errors in

their systems to test how well the company can respond. This is done

by deliberately shutting down critical facilities to ensure that the

backup systems and redundancies actually work. Although it might

seem dangerous to do this while the systems are online, serving real

customers, the only way to test these large, complex systems is by do-

ing so. Small tests and simulations do not carry the complexity, stress

levels, and unexpected events that characterize real system failures.

As Erik Hollnagel, David Woods, and Nancy Leveson, the au-

thors of an early influential series of books on the topic, have skill-

fully summarized:

Resilience engineering is a paradigm for safety management that fo-
cuses on how to help people cope with complexity under pressure to
achieve success. It strongly contrasts with what is typical today—a
paradigm of tabulating error as if it were a thing, followed by interven-
tions to reduce this count. A resilient organisation treats safety as a core
value, not a commodity that can be counted. Indeed, safety shows itself
only by the events that do not happen! Rather than view past success
as a reason to ramp down investments, such organisations continue to
invest in anticipating the changing potential for failure because they
appreciate that their knowledge of the gaps is imperfect and that their
environment constantly changes. One measure of resilience is therefore
the ability to create foresight—to anticipate the changing shape of risk,

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five: Human Error? No, Bad Design 213

before failure and harm occurs. (Reprinted by permission of the publishers.
Hollnagel, Woods, & Leveson, 2006, p. 6.)

The Paradox of Automation
Machines are getting smarter. More and more tasks are becoming

fully automated. As this happens, there is a tendency to believe

that many of the difficulties involved with human control will go

away. Across the world, automobile accidents kill and injure tens

of millions of people every year. When we finally have widespread

adoption of self-driving cars, the accident and casualty rate will

probably be dramatically reduced, just as automation in factories

and aviation have increased efficiency while lowering both error

and the rate of injury.

When automation works, it is wonderful, but when it fails, the

resulting impact is usually unexpected and, as a result, danger-

ous. Today, automation and networked electrical generation sys-

tems have dramatically reduced the amount of time that electrical

power is not available to homes and businesses. But when the elec-

trical power grid goes down, it can affect huge sections of a coun-

try and take many days to recover. With self-driving cars, I predict

that we will have fewer accidents and injuries, but that when there

is an accident, it will be huge.

Automation keeps getting more and more capable. Automatic

systems can take over tasks that used to be done by people,

whether it is maintaining the proper temperature, automatically

keeping an automobile within its assigned lane at the correct

distance from the car in front, enabling airplanes to fly by them-

selves from takeoff to landing, or allowing ships to navigate by

themselves. When the automation works, the tasks are usually

done as well as or better than by people. Moreover, it saves peo-

ple from the dull, dreary routine tasks, allowing more useful,

productive use of time, reducing fatigue and error. But when

the task gets too complex, automation tends to give up. This, of

course, is precisely when it is needed the most. The paradox is

that automation can take over the dull, dreary tasks, but fail with

the complex ones.

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214 The Design of Everyday Things

When automation fails, it often does so without warning. This is

a situation I have documented very thoroughly in my other books

and many of my papers, as have many other people in the field of

safety and automation. When the failure occurs, the human is “out

of the loop.” This means that the person has not been paying much

attention to the operation, and it takes time for the failure to be

noticed and evaluated, and then to decide how to respond.

In an airplane, when the automation fails, there is usually con-

siderable time for the pilots to understand the situation and re-

spond. Airplanes fly quite high: over 10 km (6 miles) above the

earth, so even if the plane were to start falling, the pilots might

have several minutes to respond. Moreover, pilots are extremely

well trained. When automation fails in an automobile, the person

might have only a fraction of a second to avoid an accident. This

would be extremely difficult even for the most expert driver, and

most drivers are not well trained.

In other circumstances, such as ships, there may be more time

to respond, but only if the failure of the automation is noticed. In

one dramatic case, the grounding of the cruise ship Royal Majesty in
1997, the failure lasted for several days and was only detected in the

postaccident investigation, after the ship had run aground, causing

several million dollars in damage. What happened? The ship’s lo-

cation was normally determined by the Global Positioning System

(GPS), but the cable that connected the satellite antenna to the nav-

igation system somehow had become disconnected (nobody ever

discovered how). As a result, the navigation system had switched

from using GPS signals to “dead reckoning,” approximating the

ship’s location by estimating speed and direction of travel, but the

design of the navigation system didn’t make this apparent. As a re-

sult, as the ship traveled from Bermuda to its destination of Boston,

it went too far south and went aground on Cape Cod, a peninsula

jutting out of the water south of Boston. The automation had per-

formed flawlessly for years, which increased people’s trust and re-

liance upon it, so the normal manual checking of location or careful

perusal of the display (to see the tiny letters “dr” indicating “dead

reckoning” mode) were not done. This was a huge mode error failure.

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five: Human Error? No, Bad Design 215

Design Principles for Dealing with Error
People are flexible, versatile, and creative. Machines are rigid, pre-

cise, and relatively fixed in their operations. There is a mismatch

between the two, one that can lead to enhanced capability if used

properly. Think of an electronic calculator. It doesn’t do mathemat-

ics like a person, but can solve problems people can’t. Moreover,

calculators do not make errors. So the human plus calculator is a

perfect collaboration: we humans figure out what the important

problems are and how to state them. Then we use calculators to

compute the solutions.

Difficulties arise when we do not think of people and machines

as collaborative systems, but assign whatever tasks can be auto-

mated to the machines and leave the rest to people. This ends up

requiring people to behave in machine like fashion, in ways that

differ from human capabilities. We expect people to monitor ma-

chines, which means keeping alert for long periods, something we

are bad at. We require people to do repeated operations with the

extreme precision and accuracy required by machines, again some-

thing we are not good at. When we divide up the machine and

human components of a task in this way, we fail to take advantage

of human strengths and capabilities but instead rely upon areas

where we are genetically, biologically unsuited. Yet, when people

fail, they are blamed.

What we call “human error” is often simply a human action that

is inappropriate for the needs of technology. As a result, it flags a

deficit in our technology. It should not be thought of as error. We

should eliminate the concept of error: instead, we should realize

that people can use assistance in translating their goals and plans

into the appropriate form for technology.

Given the mismatch between human competencies and tech-

nological requirements, errors are inevitable. Therefore, the best

designs take that fact as given and seek to minimize the opportu-

nities for errors while also mitigating the consequences. Assume

that every possible mishap will happen, so protect against them.

Make actions reversible; make errors less costly. Here are key de-

sign principles:

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216 The Design of Everyday Things

• Put the knowledge required to operate the technology in the world.

Don’t require that all the knowledge must be in the head. Allow for

efficient operation when people have learned all the requirements,

when they are experts who can perform without the knowledge in

the world, but make it possible for non-experts to use the knowledge

in the world. This will also help experts who need to perform a rare,

infrequently performed operation or return to the technology after a

prolonged absence.

• Use the power of natural and artificial constraints: physical, logical,

semantic, and cultural. Exploit the power of forcing functions and

natural mappings.

• Bridge the two gulfs, the Gulf of Execution and the Gulf of Evalua-

tion. Make things visible, both for execution and evaluation. On the

execution side, provide feedforward information: make the options

readily available. On the evaluation side, provide feedback: make the

results of each action apparent. Make it possible to determine the sys-

tem’s status readily, easily, accurately, and in a form consistent with

the person’s goals, plans, and expectations.

We should deal with error by embracing it, by seeking to under-

stand the causes and ensuring they do not happen again. We need

to assist rather than punish or scold.

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One of my rules in consulting is simple: never solve the

problem I am asked to solve. Why such a counterintu-

itive rule? Because, invariably, the problem I am asked

to solve is not the real, fundamental, root problem. It

is usually a symptom. Just as in Chapter 5, where the solution to

accidents and errors was to determine the real, underlying cause

of the events, in design, the secret to success is to understand what

the real problem is.

It is amazing how often people solve the problem before them

without bothering to question it. In my classes of graduate students

in both engineering and business, I like to give them a problem to

solve on the first day of class and then listen the next week to their

wonderful solutions. They have masterful analyses, drawings, and

illustrations. The MBA students show spreadsheets in which they

have analyzed the demographics of the potential customer base.

They show lots of numbers: costs, sales, margins, and profits. The

engineers show detailed drawings and specifications. It is all well

done, brilliantly presented.

When all the presentations are over, I congratulate them, but

ask: “How do you know you solved the correct problem?” They

are puzzled. Engineers and business people are trained to solve

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218 The Design of Everyday Things

problems. Why would anyone ever give them the wrong problem?

“Where do you think the problems come from?” I ask. The real

world is not like the university. In the university, professors make

up artificial problems. In the real world, the problems do not come

in nice, neat packages. They have to be discovered. It is all too easy

to see only the surface problems and never dig deeper to address

the real issues.

Solving the Correct Problem
Engineers and businesspeople are trained to solve problems. De-

signers are trained to discover the real problems. A brilliant solu-

tion to the wrong problem can be worse than no solution at all:

solve the correct problem.

Good designers never start by trying to solve the problem given

to them: they start by trying to understand what the real issues are.

As a result, rather than converge upon a solution, they diverge,

studying people and what they are trying to accomplish, generat-

ing idea after idea after idea. It drives managers crazy. Managers

want to see progress: designers seem to be going backward when

they are given a precise problem and instead of getting to work, they

ignore it and generate new issues to consider, new directions to

explore. And not just one, but many. What is going on?

The key emphasis of this book is the importance of developing

products that fit the needs and capabilities of people. Design can

be driven by many different concerns. Sometimes it is driven by

technology, sometimes by competitive pressures or by aesthetics.

Some designs explore the limits of technological possibilities; some

explore the range of imagination, of society, of art or fashion. Engi-

neering design tends to emphasize reliability, cost, and efficiency.

The focus of this book, and of the discipline called human-centered

design, is to ensure that the result fits human desires, needs, and

capabilities. After all, why do we make products? We make them

for people to use.

Designers have developed a number of techniques to avoid being

captured by too facile a solution. They take the original problem

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six: Design Thinking 219

as a suggestion, not as a final statement, then think broadly about

what the issues underlying this problem statement might really be

(as was done through the “Five Whys” approach to getting at the

root cause, described in Chapter 5). Most important of all is that

the process be iterative and expansive. Designers resist the temp-

tation to jump immediately to a solution for the stated problem.

Instead, they first spend time determining what basic, fundamen-

tal (root) issue needs to be addressed. They don’t try to search for

a solution until they have determined the real problem, and even

then, instead of solving that problem, they stop to consider a wide

range of potential solutions. Only then will they finally converge

upon their proposal. This process is called design thinking.
Design thinking is not an exclusive property of designers—all

great innovators have practiced this, even if unknowingly, re-

gardless of whether they were artists or poets, writers or scien-

tists, engineers or businesspeople. But because designers pride

themselves on their ability to innovate, to find creative solutions to

fundamental problems, design thinking has become the hallmark

of the modern design firm. Two of the powerful tools of design

thinking are human-centered design and the double-diamond

diverge-converge model of design.

Human-centered design (HCD) is the process of ensuring that

people’s needs are met, that the resulting product is understand-

able and usable, that it accomplishes the desired tasks, and that the

experience of use is positive and enjoyable. Effective design needs

to satisfy a large number of constraints and concerns, including

shape and form, cost and efficiency, reliability and effectiveness,

understandability and usability, the pleasure of the appearance,

the pride of ownership, and the joy of actual use. HCD is a proce-

dure for addressing these requirements, but with an emphasis on

two things: solving the right problem, and doing so in a way that

meets human needs and capabilities.

Over time, the many different people and industries that have

been involved in design have settled upon a common set of meth-

ods for doing HCD. Everyone has his or her own favorite method,

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220 The Design of Everyday Things

but all are variants on the common theme: iterate through the four

stages of observation, generation, prototyping, and testing. But

even before this, there is one overriding principle: solve the right


These two components of design—finding the right problem and

meeting human needs and capabilities—give rise to two phases of

the design process. The first phase is to find the right problem, the

second is to find the right solution. Both phases use the HCD pro-

cess. This double-phase approach to design led the British Design

Council to describe it as a “double diamond.” So that is where we

start the story.

The Double-Diamond Model of Design
Designers often start by questioning the problem given to them:

they expand the scope of the problem, diverging to examine all

the fundamental issues that underlie it. Then they converge upon

a single problem statement. During the solution phase of their

studies, they first expand the space of possible solutions, the di-

vergence phase. Finally, they converge upon a proposed solution

(Figure 6.1). This double diverge-converge pattern was first intro-

duced in 2005 by the British Design Council, which called it the double-
diamond design process model. The Design Council divided the
design process into four stages: “discover” and “define”—for

the divergence and convergence phases of finding the right problem,











F I G U R E 6 . 1 . T he D o uble –
Dia mond Model of Desig n.
Start with an idea, and through
the initial design research, ex-
pand the thinking to explore the
fundamental issues. Only then is
it time to converge upon the real,
underlying problem. Similarly,
use design research tools to ex-
plore a wide variety of solutions
before convergi ng upon one.
(Slightly modified from the work of

the British Design Council, 2005.)

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six: Design Thinking 221

and “develop” and “deliver”—for the divergence and convergence

phases of finding the right solution.

The double diverge-converge process is quite effective at free-

ing designers from unnecessary restrictions to the problem and

solution spaces. But you can sympathize with a product manager

who, having given the designers a problem to solve, finds them

questioning the assignment and insisting on traveling all over

the world to seek deeper understanding. Even when the design-

ers start focusing upon the problem, they do not seem to make

progress, but instead develop a wide variety of ideas and thoughts,

many only half-formed, many clearly impractical. All this can be

rather unsettling to the product manager who, concerned about

meeting the schedule, wants to see immediate convergence. To add

to the frustration of the product manager, as the designers start to

converge upon a solution, they may realize that they have inap-

propriately formulated the problem, so the entire process must be

repeated (although it can go more quickly this time).

This repeated divergence and convergence is important in prop-

erly determining the right problem to be solved and then the best

way to solve it. It looks chaotic and ill-structured, but it actually

follows well-established principles and procedures. How does

the product manager keep the entire team on schedule despite the

apparent random and divergent methods of designers? Encourage

their free exploration, but hold them to the schedule (and budget)

constraints. There is nothing like a firm deadline to get creative

minds to reach convergence.

The Human-Centered Design Process
The double-diamond describes the two phases of design: finding

the right problem and fulfilling human needs. But how are these

actually done? This is where the human-centered design pro-

cess comes into play: it takes place within the double-diamond

diverge-converge process.

There are four different activities in the human-centered design

process (Figure 6.2):

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222 The Design of Everyday Things

1. Observation

2. Idea generation (ideation)

3. Prototyping

4. Testing

These four activities are iterated;

that is, they are repeated over and

over, with each cycle yielding more

insights and getting closer to the de-

sired solution. Now let us examine

each activity separately.


The initial research to understand

the nature of the problem itself is

part of the discipline of design re-

search. Note that this is research

about the customer and the people

who will use the products under consideration. It is not the kind

of research that scientists do in their laboratories, trying to find

new laws of nature. The design researcher will go to the potential

customers, observing their activities, attempting to understand

their interests, motives, and true needs. The problem definition

for the product design will come from this deep understanding of

the goals the people are trying to accomplish and the impediments

they experience. One of its most critical techniques is to observe the

would-be customers in their natural environment, in their normal

lives, wherever the product or service being designed will actually

be used. Watch them in their homes, schools, and offices. Watch

them commute, at parties, at mealtime, and with friends at the local

bar. Follow them into the shower if necessary, because it is essential

to understand the real situations that they encounter, not some pure

isolated experience. This technique is called applied ethnography, a
method adapted from the field of anthropology. Applied ethnog-

raphy differs from the slower, more methodical, research-oriented

practice of academic anthropologists because the goals are different.

F IG U R E 6 . 2 . The Iterative Cycle
of Human-Centered Design. Make
observations on the intended tar-
ge t popu lat ion, ge nerate idea s,
produce prototypes and test them.
Repeat until satisfied. This is often
called the spiral method (rather than
the circle depicted here), to empha-
size that each iteration through the
stages makes progress.

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six: Design Thinking 223

For one, design researchers have the goal of determining human

needs that can be addressed through new products. For another,

product cycles are driven by schedule and budget, both of which

require more rapid assessment than is typical in academic studies

that might go on for years.

It’s important that the people being observed match those of the

intended audience. Note that traditional measures of people, such

as age, education, and income, are not always important: what

matters most are the activities to be performed. Even when we

look at widely different cultures, the activities are often surpris-

ingly similar. As a result, the studies can focus upon the activi-

ties and how they get done, while being sensitive to how the local

environment and culture might modify those activities. In some

cases, such as the products widely used in business, the activity

dominates. Thus, automobiles, computers, and phones are pretty

standardized across the world because their designs reflect the ac-

tivities being supported.

In some cases, detailed analyses of the intended group are nec-

essary. Japanese teenage girls are quite different from Japanese

women, and in turn, very different from German teenage girls. If

a product is intended for subcultures like these, the exact popu-

lation must be studied. Another way of putting it is that different

products serve different needs. Some products are also symbols of

status or group membership. Here, although they perform useful

functions, they are also fashion statements. This is where teenagers

in one culture differ from those of another, and even from younger

children and older adults of the same culture. Design researchers

must carefully adjust the focus of their observations to the intended

market and people for whom the product is intended.

Will the product be used in some country other than where it is

being designed? There is only one way to find out: go there (and

always include natives in the team). Don’t take a shortcut and

stay home, talking to students or visitors from that country while

remaining in your own: what you will learn is seldom an accu-

rate reflection of the target population or of the ways in which the

proposed product will actually be used. There is no substitute for

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224 The Design of Everyday Things

direct observation of and interaction with the people who will be

using the product.

Design research supports both diamonds of the design process.

The first diamond, finding the right problem, requires a deep un-

derstanding of the true needs of people. Once the problem has

been defined, finding an appropriate solution again requires deep

understanding of the intended population, how those people per-

form their activities, their capabilities and prior experience, and

what cultural issues might be impacted.


Design and marketing are two important parts of the product

development group. The two fields are complementary, but

each has a different focus. Design wants to know what people re-

ally need and how they actually will use the product or service

under consideration. Marketing wants to know what people will

buy, which includes learning how they make their purchasing de-

cisions. These different aims lead the two groups to develop dif-

ferent methods of inquiry. Designers tend to use qualitative ob-

servational methods by which they can study people in depth,

understanding how they do their activities and the environmental

factors that come into play. These methods are very time consum-

ing, so designers typically only examine small numbers of people,

often numbering in the tens.

Marketing is concerned with customers. Who might possibly

purchase the item? What factors might entice them to consider

and purchase a product? Marketing traditionally uses large-scale,

quantitative studies, with heavy reliance on focus groups, surveys,

and questionnaires. In marketing, it is not uncommon to converse

with hundreds of people in focus groups, and to question tens of

thousands of people by means of questionnaires and surveys.

The advent of the Internet and the ability to assess huge

amounts of data have given rise to new methods of formal, quan-

titative market analysis. “Big data,” it is called, or sometimes

“market analytics.” For popular websites, A/B testing is possible

in which two potential variants of an offering are tested by giving

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six: Design Thinking 225

some randomly selected fraction of visitors (perhaps 10 percent)

one set of web pages (the A set); and another randomly selected

set of visitors, the other alternative (the B set). In a few hours, hun-

dreds of thousands of visitors may have been exposed to each test

set, making it easy to see which yields better results. Moreover,

the website can capture a wealth of information about people and

their behavior: age, income, home and work addresses, previous

purchases, and other websites visited. The virtues of the use of big

data for market research are frequently touted. The deficiencies

are seldom noted, except for concerns about invasions of personal

privacy. In addition to privacy issues, the real problem is that nu-

merical correlations say nothing of people’s real needs, of their

desires, and of the reasons for their activities. As a result, these

numerical data can give a false impression of people. But the use of

big data and market analytics is seductive: no travel, little expense,

and huge numbers, sexy charts, and impressive statistics, all very

persuasive to the executive team trying to decide which new prod-

ucts to develop. After all, what would you trust—neatly presented,

colorful charts, statistics, and significance levels based on millions

of observations, or the subjective impressions of a motley crew of

design researchers who worked, slept, and ate in remote villages,

with minimal sanitary facilities and poor infrastructure?

The different methods have different goals and produce very

different results. Designers complain that the methods used by

marketing don’t get at real behavior: what people say they do and

want does not correspond with their actual behavior or desires.

People in marketing complain that although design research meth-

ods yield deep insights, the small number of people observed is a

concern. Designers counter with the observation that traditional

marketing methods provide shallow insight into a large number

of people.

The debate is not useful. All groups are necessary. Customer

research is a tradeoff: deep insights on real needs from a tiny set

of people, versus broad, reliable purchasing data from a wide

range and large number of people. We need both. Designers un-

derstand what people really need. Marketing understands what

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226 The Design of Everyday Things

people actually buy. These are not the same things, which is why

both approaches are required: marketing and design researchers

should work together in complementary teams.

What are the requirements for a successful product? First, if no-

body buys the product, then all else is irrelevant. The product de-

sign has to provide support for all the factors people use in making

purchase decisions. Second, once the product has been purchased

and is put into use, it must support real needs so that people can

use, understand, and take pleasure from it. The design specifications

must include both factors: marketing and design, buying and using.


Once the design requirements are determined, the next step for

a design team is to generate potential solutions. This process is

called idea generation, or ideation. This exercise might be done for
both of the double diamonds: during the phase of finding the cor-

rect problem, then during the problem solution phase.

This is the fun part of design: it is where creativity is critical.

There are many ways of generating ideas: many of these methods

fall under the heading of “brainstorming.” Whatever the method

used, two major rules are usually followed:

• Generate numerous ideas. It is dangerous to become fixated upon
one or two ideas too early in the process.

• Be creative without regard for constraints. Avoid criticizing ideas,
whether your own or those of others. Even crazy ideas, often obvi-

ously wrong, can contain creative insights that can later be extracted

and put to good use in the final idea selection. Avoid premature dis-

missal of ideas.

I like to add a third rule:

• Question everything. I am particularly fond of “stupid” questions.
A stupid question asks about things so fundamental that everyone

assumes the answer is obvious. But when the question is taken seri-

ously, it often turns out to be profound: the obvious often is not ob-

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six: Design Thinking 227

vious at all. What we assume to be obvious is simply the way things

have always been done, but now that it is questioned, we don’t actu-

ally know the reasons. Quite often the solution to problems is discov-

ered through stupid questions, through questioning the obvious.


The only way to really know whether an idea is reasonable is to

test it. Build a quick prototype or mock-up of each potential solu-

tion. In the early stages of this process, the mock-ups can be pen-

cil sketches, foam and cardboard models, or simple images made

with simple drawing tools. I have made mock-ups with spread-

sheets, PowerPoint slides, and with sketches on index cards or

sticky notes. Sometimes ideas are best conveyed by skits, espe-

cially if you’re developing services or automated systems that are

difficult to prototype.

One popular prototype technique is called “Wizard of Oz,” after

the wizard in L. Frank Baum’s classic book (and the classic movie)

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. The wizard was actually just an ordi-
nary person but, through the use of smoke and mirrors, he man-

aged to appear mysterious and omnipotent. In other words, it was

all a fake: the wizard had no special powers.

The Wizard of Oz method can be used to mimic a huge, powerful

system long before it can be built. It can be remarkably effective in

the early stages of product development. I once used this method

to test a system for making airline reservations that had been de-

signed by a research group at the Xerox Corporation’s Palo Alto

Research Center (today it is simply the Palo Alto Research Center,

or PARC). We brought people into my laboratory in San Diego one at

a time, seated them in a small, isolated room, and had them type

their travel requirements into a computer. They thought they were

interacting with an automated travel assistance program, but in

fact, one of my graduate students was sitting in an adjacent room,

reading the typed queries and typing back responses (looking up

real travel schedules where appropriate). This simulation taught

us a lot about the requirements for such a system. We learned, for

example, that people’s sentences were very different from the ones

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228 The Design of Everyday Things

we had designed the system to handle. Example: One of the people

we tested requested a round-trip ticket between San Diego and

San Francisco. After the system had determined the desired flight

to San Francisco, it asked, “When would you like to return?” The

person responded, “I would like to leave on the following Tues-

day, but I have to be back before my first class at 9 am.” We soon

learned that it wasn’t sufficient to understand the sentences: we

also had to do problem-solving, using considerable knowledge

about such things as airport and meeting locations, traffic patterns,

delays for getting baggage and rental cars, and of course, parking—

more than our system was capable of doing. Our initial goal was to

understand language. The studies demonstrated that the goal was

too limited: we needed to understand human activities.

Prototyping during the problem specification phase is done mainly

to ensure that the problem is well understood. If the target popu-

lation is already using something related to the new product, that

can be considered a prototype. During the problem solution phase

of design, then real prototypes of the proposed solution are invoked.


Gather a small group of people who correspond as closely as pos-

sible to the target population—those for whom the product is in-

tended. Have them use the prototypes as nearly as possible to the

way they would actually use them. If the device is normally used

by one person, test one person at a time. If it is normally used by a

group, test a group. The only exception is that even if the normal

usage is by a single person, it is useful to ask a pair of people to use

it together, one person operating the prototype, the other guiding

the actions and interpreting the results (aloud). Using pairs in this

way causes them to discuss their ideas, hypotheses, and frustra-

tions openly and naturally. The research team should be observing,

either by sitting behind those being tested (so as not to distract

them) or by watching through video in another room (but having

the video camera visible and after describing the procedure). Video

recordings of the tests are often quite valuable, both for later show-

ings to team members who could not be present and for review.

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six: Design Thinking 229

When the study is over, get more detailed information about

the people’s thought processes by retracing their steps, reminding

them of their actions, and questioning them. Sometimes it helps to

show them video recordings of their activities as reminders.

How many people should be studied? Opinions vary, but my as-

sociate, Jakob Nielsen, has long championed the number five: five

people studied individually. Then, study the results, refine them,

and do another iteration, testing five different people. Five is usu-

ally enough to give major findings. And if you really want to test

many more people, it is far more effective to do one test of five,

use the results to improve the system, and then keep iterating the

test-design cycle until you have tested the desired number of

people. This gives multiple iterations of improvement, rather

than just one.

Like prototyping, testing is done in the problem specification

phase to ensure that the problem is well understood, then done

again in the problem solution phase to ensure that the new design

meets the needs and abilities of those who will use it.


The role of iteration in human-centered design is to enable contin-

ual refinement and enhancement. The goal is rapid prototyping

and testing, or in the words of David Kelly, Stanford professor and

cofounder of the design firm IDEO, “Fail frequently, fail fast.”

Many rational executives (and government officials) never quite

understand this aspect of the design process. Why would you want

to fail? They seem to think that all that is necessary is to determine

the requirements, then build to those requirements. Tests, they be-

lieve, are only necessary to ensure that the requirements are met. It

is this philosophy that leads to so many unusable systems. Delib-

erate tests and modifications make things better. Failures are to be

encouraged—actually, they shouldn’t be called failures: they should

be thought of as learning experiences. If everything works perfectly,

little is learned. Learning occurs when there are difficulties.

The hardest part of design is getting the requirements right,

which means ensuring that the right problem is being solved, as

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230 The Design of Everyday Things

well as that the solution is appropriate. Requirements made in the

abstract are invariably wrong. Requirements produced by asking

people what they need are invariably wrong. Requirements are de-

veloped by watching people in their natural environment.

When people are asked what they need, they primarily think of

the everyday problems they face, seldom noticing larger failures,

larger needs. They don’t question the major methods they use.

Moreover, even if they carefully explain how they do their tasks

and then agree that you got it right when you present it back to

them, when you watch them, they will often deviate from their

own description. “Why?” you ask. “Oh, I had to do this one dif-

ferently,” they might reply; “this was a special case.” It turns out

that most cases are “special.” Any system that does not allow for

special cases will fail.

Getting the requirements right involves repeated study and test-

ing: iteration. Observe and study: decide what the problem might

be, and use the results of tests to determine which parts of the de-

sign work, which don’t. Then iterate through all four processes

once again. Collect more design research if necessary, create more

ideas, develop the prototypes, and test them.

With each cycle, the tests and observations can be more targeted

and more efficient. With each cycle of the iteration, the ideas be-

come clearer, the specifications better defined, and the prototypes

closer approximations to the target, the actual product. After the

first few iterations, it is time to start converging upon a solution.

The several different prototype ideas can be collapsed into one.

When does the process end? That is up to the product manager,

who needs to deliver the highest-possible quality while meeting

the schedule. In product development, schedule and cost provide

very strong constraints, so it is up to the design team to meet these

requirements while getting to an acceptable, high-quality design.

No matter how much time the design team has been allocated, the

final results only seem to appear in the last twenty-four hours be-

fore the deadline. (It’s like writing: no matter how much time you

are given, it’s finished only hours before the deadline.)

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six: Design Thinking 231


The intense focus on individuals is one of the hallmarks of human-

centered design, ensuring that products do fit real needs, that they

are usable and understandable. But what if the product is intended

for people all across the world? Many manufacturers make essen-

tially the same product for everyone. Although automobiles are

slightly modified for the requirements of a country, they are all

basically the same the world round. The same is true for cameras,

computers, telephones, tablets, television sets, and refrigerators.

Yes, there are some regional differences, but remarkably little. Even

products specifically designed for one culture—rice cookers, for

example—get adopted by other cultures elsewhere.

How can we pretend to accommodate all of these very different,

very disparate people? The answer is to focus on activities, not the

individual person. I call this activity-centered design. Let the activity
define the product and its structure. Let the conceptual model of

the product be built around the conceptual model of the activity.

Why does this work? Because people’s activities across the

world tend to be similar. Moreover, although people are unwilling

to learn systems that appear to have arbitrary, incomprehensible

requirements, they are quite willing to learn things that appear

to be essential to the activity. Does this violate the principles of

human-centered design? Not at all: consider it an enhancement of

HCD. After all, the activities are done by and for people. Activity-

centered approaches are human-centered approaches, far better

suited for large, nonhomogeneous populations.

Take another look at the automobile, basically identical all across

the world. It requires numerous actions, many of which make lit-

tle sense outside of the activity and that add to the complexity of

driving and to the rather long period it takes to become an accom-

plished, skilled driver. There is the need to master foot pedals, to

steer, use turn signals, control the lights, and watch the road, all

while being aware of events on either side of and behind the vehi-

cle, and perhaps while maintaining conversations with the other

people in the auto. In addition, instruments on the panel need to

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232 The Design of Everyday Things

be watched, especially the speed indicator, as well as the water

temperature, oil pressure, and fuel level. The locations of the rear-

and side-view mirrors require the eyes to be off the road ahead for

considerable time.

People learn to drive cars quite successfully despite the need

to master so many subcomponent tasks. Given the design of the

car and the activity of driving, each task seems appropriate. Yes,

we can make things better. Automatic transmissions eliminate the

need for the third pedal, the clutch. Heads-up displays mean that

critical instrument panel and navigation information can be dis-

played in the space in front of the driver, so no eye movements are

required to monitor them (although it requires an attentional shift,

which does take attention off the road). Someday we will replace

the three different mirrors with one video display that shows ob-

jects on all sides of the car in one image, simplifying yet another

action. How do we make things better? By careful study of the

activities that go on during driving.

Support the activities while being sensitive to human capabilities,

and people will accept the design and learn whatever is necessary.


One comment: there is a difference between task and activity. I

emphasize the need to design for activities: designing for tasks is

usually too restrictive. An activity is a high-level structure, perhaps

“go shopping.” A task is a lower-level component of an activity,

such as “drive to the market,” “find a shopping basket,” “use a

shopping list to guide the purchases,” and so forth.

An activity is a collected set of tasks, but all performed together

toward a common high-level goal. A task is an organized, cohesive

set of operations directed toward a single, low-level goal. Products

have to provide support for both activities and the various tasks

that are involved. Well-designed devices will package together the

various tasks that are required to support an activity, making them

work seamlessly with one another, making sure the work done for

one does not interfere with the requirements for another.

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six: Design Thinking 233

Activities are hierarchical, so a high-level activity (going to work)

will have under it numerous lower-level ones. In turn, low-level

activities spawn “tasks,” and tasks are eventually executed by ba-

sic “operations.” The American psychologists Charles Carver and

Michael Scheier suggest that goals have three fundamental levels

that control activities. Be-goals are at the highest, most abstract

level and govern a person’s being: they determine why people act,

are fundamental and long lasting, and determine one’s self-image.

Of far more practical concern for everyday activity is the next level

down, the do-goal, which is more akin to the goal I discuss in the

seven stages of activity. Do-goals determine the plans and actions

to be performed for an activity. The lowest level of this hierar-

chy is the motor-goal, which specifies just how the actions are per-

formed: this is more at the level of tasks and operations rather than

activities. The German psychologist Marc Hassenzahl has shown

how this three-level analysis can be used to guide in the develop-

ment and analysis of a person’s experience (the user experience,

usually abbreviated UX) in interacting with products.

Focusing upon tasks is too limiting. Apple’s success with its

music player, the iPod, was because Apple supported the entire

activity involved in listening to music: discovering it, purchasing

it, getting it into the music player, developing playlists (that could

be shared), and listening to the music. Apple also allowed other

companies to add to the capabilities of the system with external

speakers, microphones, all sorts of accessories. Apple made it pos-

sible to send the music throughout the home, to be listened to on

those other companies’ sound systems. Apple’s success was due to

its combination of two factors: brilliant design plus support for the

entire activity of music enjoyment.

Design for individuals and the results may be wonderful for the

particular people they were designed for, but a mismatch for oth-

ers. Design for activities and the result will be usable by everyone.

A major benefit is that if the design requirements are consistent

with their activities, people will tolerate complexity and the re-

quirements to learn something new: as long as the complexity and

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234 The Design of Everyday Things

the new things to be learned feel appropriate to the task, they will

feel natural and be viewed as reasonable.


The traditional design process is linear, sometimes called the water-
fall method because progress goes in a single direction, and once de-
cisions have been made, it is difficult or impossible to go back. This

is in contrast to the iterative method of human-centered design,

where the process is circular, with continual refinement, contin-

ual change, and encouragement of backtracking, rethinking early

decisions. Many software developers experiment with variations

on the theme, variously called by such names as Scrum and Agile.

Linear, waterfall methods make logical sense. It makes sense that

design research should precede design, design precede engineer-

ing development, engineering precede manufacturing, and so on.

Iteration makes sense in helping to clarify the problem statement

and requirements; but when projects are large, involving consid-

erable people, time, and budget, it would be horribly expensive to

allow iteration to last too long. On the other hand, proponents of

iterative development have seen far too many project teams rush

to develop requirements that later prove to be faulty, sometimes

wasting huge amounts of money as a result. Numerous large

projects have failed at a cost of multiple billions of dollars.

The most traditional waterfall methods are called gated meth-
ods because they have a linear set of phases or stages, with a gate

blocking transition from one stage to the next. The gate is a man-

agement review during which progress is evaluated and the deci-

sion to proceed to the next stage is made.

Which method is superior? As is invariably the case where fierce

debate is involved, both have virtues and both have deficits. In de-

sign, one of the most difficult activities is to get the specifications

right: in other words, to determine that the correct problem is be-

ing solved. Iterative methods are designed to defer the formation of

rigid specifications, to start off by diverging across a large set of pos-

sible requirements or problem statements before convergence, then

again diverging across a large number of potential solutions before

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six: Design Thinking 235

converging. Early prototypes have to be tested through real interac-

tion with the target population in order to refine the requirements.

The iterative method, however, is best suited for the early design

phases of a product, not for the later stages. It also has difficulty

scaling its procedures to handle large projects. It is extremely dif-

ficult to deploy successfully on projects that involve hundreds or

even thousands of developers, take years to complete, and cost

in the millions or billions of dollars. These large projects include

complex consumer goods and large programming jobs, such as au-

tomobiles; operating systems for computers, tablets, and phones;

and word processors and spreadsheets.

Decision gates give management much better control over the

process than they have in the iterative methods. However, they are

cumbersome. The management reviews at each of the gates can

take considerable time, both in preparation for them and then in

the decision time after the presentations. Weeks can be wasted be-

cause of the difficulty of scheduling all the senior executives from

the different divisions of the company who wish to have a say.

Many groups are experimenting with different ways of manag-

ing the product development process. The best methods combine

the benefits of both iteration and stage reviews. Iteration occurs

inside the stages, between the gates. The goal is to have the best of

both worlds: iterative experimentation to refine the problem and

the solution, coupled with management reviews at the gates.

The trick is to delay precise specification of the product require-

ments until some iterative testing with rapidly deployed prototypes

has been done, while still keeping tight control over schedule, bud-

get, and quality. It may appear impossible to prototype some large

projects (for example, large transportation systems), but even there a

lot can be done. The prototypes might be scaled objects, constructed

by model makers or 3-D printing methods. Even well-rendered

drawings and videos of cartoons or simple animation sketches can

be useful. Virtual reality computer aids allow people to envision

themselves using the final product, and in the case of a building, to

envision living or working within it. All of these methods can pro-

vide rapid feedback before much time or money has been expended.

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236 The Design of Everyday Things

The hardest part of the development of complex products is

management: organizing and communicating and synchronizing

the many different people, groups, and departmental divisions

that are required to make it happen. Large projects are especially

difficult, not only because of the problem of managing so many

different people and groups, but also because the projects’ long

time horizon introduces new difficulties. In the many years it takes

to go from project formulation to completion, the requirements and

technologies will probably change, making some of the proposed

work irrelevant and obsolete; the people who will make use of the

results might very well change; and the people involved in execut-

ing the project definitely will change.

Some people will leave the project, perhaps because of illness or

injury, retirement or promotion. Some will change companies and

others will move on to other jobs in the same company. Whatever

the reason, considerable time is lost finding replacements and then

bringing them up to the full knowledge and skill level required.

Sometimes this is not even possible because critical knowledge

about project decisions and methods are in the form we call implicit
knowledge; that is, within the heads of the workers. When workers
leave, their implicit knowledge goes with them. The management

of large projects is a difficult challenge.

What I Just Told You?
It Doesn’t Really Work That Way

The preceding sections describe the human-centered design pro-

cess for product development. But there is an old joke about the

difference between theory and practice:

In theory, there is no difference between theory and practice.
In practice, there is.

The HCD process describes the ideal. But the reality of life within

a business often forces people to behave quite differently from that

ideal. One disenchanted member of the design team for a con-

sumer products company told me that although his company pro-

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six: Design Thinking 237

fesses to believe in user experience and to follow human-centered

design, in practice there are only two drivers of new products:

1. Adding features to match the competition

2. Adding some feature driven by a new technology

“Do we look for human needs?” he asked, rhetorically. “No,” he

answered himself.

This is typical: market-driven pressures plus an engineering-

driven company yield ever-increasing features, complexity, and

confusion. But even companies that do intend to search for human

needs are thwarted by the severe challenges of the product devel-

opment process, in particular, the challenges of insufficient time and

insufficient money. In fact, having watched many products succumb

to these challenges, I propose a “Law of Product Development”:


The day a product development process starts, it is behind schedule and
above budget.

Product launches are always accompanied by schedules and bud-

gets. Usually the schedule is driven by outside considerations, in-

cluding holidays, special product announcement opportunities,

and even factory schedules. One product I worked on was given

the unrealistic timeline of four weeks because the factory in Spain

would then go on vacation, and when the workers returned, it

would be too late to get the product out in time for the Christmas

buying season.

Moreover, product development takes time even to get started.

People are never sitting around with nothing to do, waiting to be

called for the product. No, they must be recruited, vetted, and then

transitioned off their current jobs. This all takes time, time that is

seldom scheduled.

So imagine a design team being told that it is about to work on

a new product. “Wonderful,” cries the team; “we’ll immediately

send out our design researchers to study target customers.” “How

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238 The Design of Everyday Things

long will that take?” asks the product manager. “Oh, we can do it

quickly: a week or two to make the arrangements, and then two

weeks in the field. Perhaps a week to distill the findings. Four or

five weeks.” “Sorry,” says the product manager, “we don’t have

time. For that matter, we don’t have the budget to send a team into

the field for two weeks.” “But it’s essential if we really want to

understand the customer,” argues the design team. “You’re abso-

lutely right,” says the product manager, “but we’re behind sched-

ule: we can’t afford either the time or the money. Next time. Next

time we will do it right.” Except there is never a next time, because

when the next time comes around, the same arguments get re-

peated: that product also starts behind schedule and over budget.

Product development involves an incredible mix of disciplines,

from designers to engineers and programmers, manufacturing,

packaging, sales, marketing, and service. And more. The product

has to appeal to the current customer base as well as to expand

beyond to new customers. Patents create a minefield for designers

and engineers, for today it is almost impossible to design or build

anything that doesn’t conflict with patents, which means redesign

to work one’s way through the mines.

Each of the separate disciplines has a different view of the prod-

uct, each has different but specific requirements to be met. Often

the requirements posed by each discipline are contradictory or

incompatible with those of the other disciplines. But all of them

are correct when viewed from their respective perspective. In most

companies, however, the disciplines work separately, design pass-

ing its results to engineering and programming, which modify

the requirements to fit their needs. They then pass their results to

manufacturing, which does further modification, then marketing

requests changes. It’s a mess.

What is the solution?

The way to handle the time crunch that eliminates the ability to

do good up-front design research is to separate that process from

the product team: have design researchers always out in the field,

always studying potential products and customers. Then, when

the product team is launched, the designers can say, “We already

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six: Design Thinking 239

examined this case, so here are our recommendations.” The same

argument applies to market researchers.

The clash of disciplines can be resolved by multidisciplinary

teams whose participants learn to understand and respect the

requirements of one another. Good product development teams

work as harmonious groups, with representatives from all the

relevant disciplines present at all times. If all the viewpoints and

requirements can be understood by all participants, it is often pos-

sible to think of creative solutions that satisfy most of the issues.

Note that working with these teams is also a challenge. Everyone

speaks a different technical language. Each discipline thinks it is

the most important part of the process. Quite often, each discipline

thinks the others are stupid, that they are making inane requests.

It takes a skilled product manager to create mutual understanding

and respect. But it can be done.

The design practices described by the double-diamond and the

human-centered design process are the ideal. Even though the ideal

can seldom be met in practice, it is always good to aim for the ideal,

but to be realistic about the time and budgetary challenges. These

can be overcome, but only if they are recognized and designed into

the process. Multidisciplinary teams allow for enhanced communi-

cation and collaboration, often saving both time and money.

The Design Challenge
It is difficult to do good design. That is why it is such a rich, en-

gaging profession with results that can be powerful and effective.

Designers are asked to figure out how to manage complex things,

to manage the interaction of technology and people. Good design-

ers are quick learners, for today they might be asked to design a

camera; tomorrow, to design a transportation system or a compa-

ny’s organizational structure. How can one person work across so

many different domains? Because the fundamental principles of

designing for people are the same across all domains. People are

the same, and so the design principles are the same.

Designers are only one part of the complex chain of processes

and different professions involved in producing a product. Although

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240 The Design of Everyday Things

the theme of this book is the importance of satisfying the needs

of the people who will ultimately use the product, other aspects of

the product are important; for example, its engineering effective-

ness, which includes its capabilities, reliability, and serviceability;

its cost; and its financial viability, which usually means profitabil-

ity. Will people buy it? Each of these aspects poses its own set of

requirements, sometimes ones that appear to be in opposition to

those of the other aspects. Schedule and budget are often the two

most severe constraints.

Designers try hard to determine people’s real needs and to ful-

fill them, whereas marketing is concerned with determining what

people will actually buy. What people need and what they buy are

two different things, but both are important. It doesn’t matter how

great the product is if nobody buys it. Similarly, if a company’s

products are not profitable, the company might very well go out

of business. In dysfunctional companies, each division of the com-

pany is skeptical of the value added to the product by the other


In a properly run organization, team members coming from all

the various aspects of the product cycle get together to share their

requirements and to work harmoniously to design and produce

a product that satisfies them, or at least that does so with accept-

able compromises. In dysfunctional companies, each team works

in isolation, often arguing with the other teams, often watching its

designs or specifications get changed by others in what each team

considers an unreasonable way. Producing a good product requires

a lot more than good technical skills: it requires a harmonious,

smoothly functioning, cooperative and respectful organization.

The design process must address numerous constraints. In the

sections that follow, I examine these other factors.


Designers must please their clients, who are not always the end

users. Consider major household appliances, such as stoves, refrig-

erators, dishwashers, and clothes washers and dryers; and even

faucets and thermostats for heating and air-conditioning systems.

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six: Design Thinking 241

They are often purchased by housing developers or landlords.

In businesses, purchasing departments make decisions for large

companies; and owners or managers, for small companies. In all

these cases, the purchaser is probably interested primarily in price,

perhaps in size or appearance, almost certainly not in usability.

And once devices are purchased and installed, the purchaser has

no further interest in them. The manufacturer has to attend to the

requirements of these decision makers, because these are the peo-

ple who actually buy the product. Yes, the needs of the eventual

users are important, but to the business, they seem of secondary


In some situations, cost dominates. Suppose, for example, you

are part of a design team for office copiers. In large companies,

copying machines are purchased by the Printing and Duplicating

Center, then dispersed to the various departments. The copiers are

purchased after a formal “request for proposals” has gone out to

manufacturers and dealers of machines. The selection is almost

always based on price plus a list of required features. Usability?

Not considered. Training costs? Not considered. Maintenance? Not

considered. There are no requirements regarding understandabil-

ity or usability of the product, even though in the end those aspects

of the product can end up costing the company a lot of money

in wasted time, increased need for service calls and training, and

even lowered staff morale and lower productivity.

The focus on sales price is one reason we get unusable copying

machines and telephone systems in our places of employment. If

people complained strongly enough, usability could become a re-

quirement in the purchasing specifications, and that requirement

could trickle back to the designers. But without this feedback, de-

signers must often design the cheapest possible products because

those are what sell. Designers need to understand their customers,

and in many cases, the customer is the person who purchases the

product, not the person who actually uses it. It is just as important to

study those who do the purchasing as it is to study those who use it.

To make matters even more difficult, yet another set of people

needs to be considered: the engineers, developers, manufacturing,

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242 The Design of Everyday Things

services, sales, and marketing people who have to translate the

ideas from the design team into reality, and then sell and support

the product after it is shipped. These groups are users, too, not of

the product itself, but of the output of the design team. Designers

are used to accommodating the needs of the product users, but

they seldom consider the needs of the other groups involved in

the product process. But if their needs are not considered, then

as the product development moves through the process from de-

sign to engineering, to marketing, to manufacturing, and so on,

each new group will discover that it doesn’t meet their needs, so

they will change it. But piecemeal, after-the-fact changes invariably

weaken the cohesion of the product. If all these requirements were

known at the start of the design process, a much more satisfactory

resolution could have been devised.

Usually the different company divisions have intelligent peo-

ple trying to do what is best for the company. When they make

changes to a design, it is because their requirements were not suit-

ably served. Their concerns and needs are legitimate, but changes

introduced in this way are almost always detrimental. The best

way to counteract this is to ensure that representatives from all

the divisions are present during the entire design process, starting

with the decision to launch the product, continuing all the way

through shipment to customers, service requirements, and repairs

and returns. This way, all the concerns can be heard as soon as

they are discovered. There must be a multidisciplinary team over-

seeing the entire design, engineering, and manufacturing process

that shares all departmental issues and concerns from day one, so

that everyone can design to satisfy them, and when conflicts arise,

the group together can determine the most satisfactory solution.

Sadly, it is the rare company that is organized this way.

Design is a complex activity. But the only way this complex pro-

cess comes together is if all the relevant parties work together as

a team. It isn’t design against engineering, against marketing,

against manufacturing: it is design together with all these other

players. Design must take into account sales and marketing, ser-

vicing and help desks, engineering and manufacturing, costs and

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six: Design Thinking 243

schedules. That’s why it’s so challenging. That’s why it’s so much

fun and rewarding when it all comes together to create a success-

ful product.


There is no such thing as the average person. This poses a particular

problem for the designer, who usually must come up with a single

design for everyone. The designer can consult handbooks with ta-

bles that show average arm reach and seated height, how far the

average person can stretch backward while seated, and how much

room is needed for average hips, knees, and elbows. Physical anthro-
pometry is what the field is called. With data, the designer can try
to meet the size requirements for almost everyone, say for the 90th,

95th, or even the 99th percentile. Suppose the product is designed

to accommodate the 95th percentile, that is, for everyone except the

5 percent of people who are smaller or larger. That leaves out a lot

of people. The United States has approximately 300 million people,

so 5 percent is 15 million. Even if the design aims at the 99th per-

centile it would still leave out 3 million people. And this is just for

the United States: the world has 7 billion people. Design for the 99th

percentile of the world and 70 million people are left out.

Some problems are not solved by adjustments or averages: Average

a left-hander with a right-hander and what do you get? Sometimes it

is simply impossible to build one product that accommodates ev-

eryone, so the answer is to build different versions of the product.

After all, we would not be happy with a store that sells only one

size and type of clothing: we expect clothing that fits our bodies,

and people come in a very wide range of sizes. We don’t expect

the large variety of goods found in a clothing store to apply to

all people or activities; we expect a wide variety of cooking appli-

ances, automobiles, and tools so we can select the ones that pre-

cisely match our requirements. One device simply cannot work for

everyone. Even such simple tools as pencils need to be designed

differently for different activities and types of people.

Consider the special problems of the aged and infirm, the hand-

icapped, the blind or near blind, the deaf or hard of hearing, the

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244 The Design of Everyday Things

very short or very tall, or people who speak other languages.

Design for interests and skill levels. Don’t be trapped by overly

general, inaccurate stereotypes. I return to these groups in the

next section.


“I don’t want to go into a care facility. I’d have to be around all those old
people.” (Comment by a 95-year-old man.)

Many devices designed to aid people with particular difficul-

ties fail. They may be well designed, they may solve the problem,

but they are rejected by their intended users. Why? Most peo-

ple do not wish to advertise their infirmities. Actually, many people

do not wish to admit having infirmities, even to themselves.

When Sam Farber wanted to develop a set of household tools

that his arthritic wife could use, he worked hard to find a solution

that was good for everyone. The result was a series of tools that

revolutionized this field. For example, vegetable peelers used to be

an inexpensive, simple metal tool, often of the form shown on the

left in Figure 6.3. These were awkward to use, painful to hold, and

not even that effective at

peeling, but everyone as-

sumed that this was how

they had to be.

After considerable re-

search, Farber settled

upon the peeler shown on

the right in Figure 6.3 and

built a company, OXO, to

manufacture and distrib-

ute it. Even though the

peeler was designed for

someone with arthritis, it

was advertised as a bet-

ter peeler for everyone. It

was. Even though the de-

F IG U R E 6 . 3 . Three Vegetable Peelers. The
traditional metal vegetable peeler is shown on
the left: inexpensive, but uncomfortable. The
OXO peeler that revolutionized the industry
is shown on the right. The result of this rev-
olution is shown in the middle, a peeler from
the Swiss company Kuhn Rikon: colorful and

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six: Design Thinking 245

sign was more expensive than the regular peeler, it was so success-

ful that today, many companies make variations on this theme. You

may have trouble seeing the OXO peeler as revolutionary because

today, many have followed in these footsteps. Design has become

a major theme for even simple tools such as peelers, as demon-

strated by the center peeler of Figure 6.3.

Consider the two things special about the OXO peeler: cost and

design for someone with an infirmity. Cost? The original peeler

was very inexpensive, so a peeler that is many times the cost of

the inexpensive one is still inexpensive. What about the special

design for people with arthritis? The virtues for them were never

mentioned, so how did they find it? OXO did the right thing and

let the world know that this was a better product. And the world

took note and made it successful. As for people who needed the

better handle? It didn’t take long for the word to spread. Today,

many companies have followed the OXO route, producing peelers

that work extremely well, are comfortable, and are colorful. See

Figure 6.3.

Would you use a walker, wheelchair, crutches, or a cane? Many

people avoid these, even though they need them, because of the

negative image they cast: the stigma. Why? Years ago, a cane was

fashionable: people who didn’t need them would use them any-

way, twirling them, pointing with them, hiding brandy or whisky,

knives or guns inside their handles. Just look at any movie depict-

ing nineteenth-century London. Why can’t devices for those who

need them be as sophisticated and fashionable today?

Of all the devices intended to aid the elderly, perhaps the most

shunned is the walker. Most of these devices are ugly. They cry out,

“Disability here.” Why not transform them into products to be proud

of? Fashion statements, perhaps. This thinking has already begun

with some medical appliances. Some companies are making hearing

aids and glasses for children and adolescents with special colors and

styles that appeal to these age groups. Fashion accessories. Why not?

Those of you who are young, do not smirk. Physical disabilities

may begin early, starting in the midtwenties. By their midforties,

most people’s eyes can no longer adjust sufficiently to focus over

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246 The Design of Everyday Things

the entire range of distances, so something is necessary to compen-

sate, whether reading glasses, bifocals, special contact lenses, or

even surgical correction.

Many people in their eighties and nineties are still in good men-

tal and physical shape, and the accumulated wisdom of their years

leads to superior performance in many tasks. But physical strength

and agility do decrease, reaction time slows, and vision and hear-

ing show impairments, along with decreased ability to divide at-

tention or switch rapidly among competing tasks.

For anyone who is considering growing old, I remind you that

although physical abilities diminish with age, many mental ca-

pacities continue to improve, especially those dependent upon an

expert accumulation of experience, deep reflection, and enhanced

knowledge. Younger people are more agile, more willing to ex-

periment and take risks. Older people have more knowledge and

wisdom. The world benefits from having a mix and so do design


Designing for people with special needs is often called inclusive
or universal design. Those names are fitting, for it is often the case that
everyone benefits. Make the lettering larger, with high-contrast type,

and everyone can read it better. In dim light, even the people with

the world’s best eyesight will benefit from such lettering. Make

things adjustable, and you will find that more people can use it,

and even people who liked it before may now like it better. Just

as I invoke the so-called error message of Figure 4.6 as my normal

way of exiting a program because it is easier than the so-called cor-

rect way, special features made for people with special needs often

turn out to be useful for a wide variety of people.

The best solution to the problem of designing for everyone is

flexibility: flexibility in the size of the images on computer screens,

in the sizes, heights, and angles of tables and chairs. Allow people

to adjust their own seats, tables, and working devices. Allow them

to adjust lighting, font size, and contrast. Flexibility on our high-

ways might mean ensuring that there are alternative routes with

different speed limits. Fixed solutions will invariably fail with some

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six: Design Thinking 247

people; flexible solutions at least offer a chance for those with dif-

ferent needs.

Complexity Is Good;
It Is Confusion That Is Bad

The everyday kitchen is complex. We have multiple instruments

just for serving and eating food. The typical kitchen contains all

sorts of cutting utensils, heating units, and cooking apparatus. The

easiest way to understand the complexity is to try to cook in an

unfamiliar kitchen. Even excellent cooks have trouble working in

a new environment.

Someone else’s kitchen looks complicated and confusing, but

your own kitchen does not. The same can probably be said for ev-

ery room in the home. Notice that this feeling of confusion is really

one of knowledge. My kitchen looks confusing to you, but not to

me. In turn, your kitchen looks confusing to me, but not to you.

So the confusion is not in the kitchen: it is in the mind. “Why can’t

things be made simple?” goes the cry. Well, one reason is that life

is complex, as are the tasks we encounter. Our tools must match

the tasks.

I feel so strongly about this that I wrote an entire book on the

topic, Living with Complexity, in which I argued that complexity
is essential: it is confusion that is undesirable. I distinguished be-

tween “complexity,” which we need to match the activities we take

part in, and “complicated,” which I defined to mean “confusing.”

How do we avoid confusion? Ah, here is where the designer ’s

skills come into play.

The most important principle for taming complexity is to pro-

vide a good conceptual model, which has already been well cov-

ered in this book. Remember the kitchen’s apparent complexity?

The people who use it understand why each item is stored where

it is: there is usually structure to the apparent randomness. Even

exceptions fit: even if the reason is something like, “It was too big

to fit in the proper drawer and I didn’t know where else to put it,”

that is reason enough to give structure and understanding to the

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248 The Design of Everyday Things

person who stored the item there. Complex things are no longer

complicated once they are understood.

Standardization and Technology
If we examine the history of advances in all technological fields,

we see that some improvements come naturally through the tech-

nology itself, others come through standardization. The early his-

tory of the automobile is a good example. The first cars were very

difficult to operate. They required strength and skill beyond the

abilities of many. Some problems were solved through automation:

the choke, the spark advance, and the starter engine. Other aspects

of cars and driving were standardized through the long process of

international standards committees:

• On which side of the road to drive (constant within a country, but

variable across countries)

• On which side of the car the driver sits (depends upon which side of

the road the car is driven)

• The location of essential components: steering wheel, brake, clutch,

and accelerator (the same, whether on the left- or right-hand side of

the car)

Standardization is one type of cultural constraint. With standard-

ization, once you have learned to drive one car, you feel justifiably

confident that you can drive any car, anyplace in the world. Stan-

dardization provides a major breakthrough in usability.


I have enough friends on national and international standards

committees to realize that the process of determining an inter-

nationally accepted standard is laborious. Even when all parties

agree on the merits of standardization, the task of selecting stan-

dards becomes a lengthy, politicized issue. A small company can

standardize its products without too much difficulty, but it is much

more difficult for an industrial, national, or international body to

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six: Design Thinking 249

agree to standards. There even

exists a standardized procedure

for establishing national and

international standards. A set

of national and international

organizations works on stan-

dards; when a new standard is

proposed, it must work its way

through the organizational hi-

erarchy. Each step is complex,

for if there are three ways of do-

ing something, then there are

sure to be strong proponents

of each of the three ways, plus

people who will argue that it is

too early to standardize.

Each proposal is debated at the

standards committee meeting where it is presented, then taken back

to the sponsoring organization—which is sometimes a company,

sometimes a professional society—where objections and counter-

objections are collected. Then the standards committee meets again

to discuss the objections. And again and again and again. Any com-

pany that is already marketing a product that meets the proposed

standard will have a huge economic advantage, and the debates are

therefore often affected as much by the economics and politics of

the issues as by real technological substance. The process is almost

guaranteed to take five years, and quite often longer.

The resulting standard is usually a compromise among the var-

ious competing positions, oftentimes an inferior compromise.

Sometimes the answer is to agree on several incompatible stan-

dards. Witness the existence of both metric and English units; of

left-hand- and right-hand-drive automobiles. There are several in-

ternational standards for the voltages and frequencies of electricity,

and several different kinds of electrical plugs and sockets—which

cannot be interchanged.



12 6








F IGU R E 6 . 4 . The Nonstandard Clock.
What time is it? This clock is just as log-
ical as the standard one, except the hands
move in the opposite direction and “12” is
not in its usual place. Same logic, though.
So why is it so difficult to read? What time
is being displayed? 7:11, of course.

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250 The Design of Everyday Things



With all these difficulties and with the continual advances in tech-

nology, are standards really necessary? Yes, they are. Take the ev-

eryday clock. It’s standardized. Consider how much trouble you

would have telling time with a backward clock, where the hands

revolved “counterclockwise.” A few such clocks exist, primarily as

humorous conversation pieces. When a clock truly violates stan-

dards, such as the one in Figure 6.4 on the previous page, it is dif-

ficult to determine what time is being displayed. Why? The logic

behind the time display is identical to that of conventional clocks:

there are only two differences—the hands rotate in the opposite

direction (counterclockwise) and the location of “12,” usually at

the top, has been moved. This clock is just as logical as the stan-

dard one. It bothers us because we have standardized on a differ-

ent scheme, on the very definition of the term clockwise. Without
such standardization, clock reading would be more difficult: you’d

always have to figure out the mapping.



I myself participated at the very end of the incredibly long,

complex political process of establishing the US standards for

high-definition television. In the 1970s, the Japanese developed a

national television system that had much higher resolution than the

standards then in use: they called it “high-definition television.”

In 1995, two decades later, the television industry in the United

States proposed its own high-definition TV standard (HDTV) to the

Federal Communications Commission (FCC). But the computer in-

dustry pointed out that the proposals were not compatible with the

way that computers displayed images, so the FCC objected to the

proposed standards. Apple mobilized other members of the indus-

try and, as vice president of advanced technology, I was selected

to be the spokesperson for Apple. (In the following description,

ignore the jargon—it doesn’t matter.) The TV industry proposed a

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six: Design Thinking 251

wide variety of permissible formats, including ones with rectangu-

lar pixels and interlaced scan. Because of the technical limitations

in the 1990s, it was suggested that the highest-quality picture have

1,080 interlaced lines (1080i). We wanted only progressive scan, so

we insisted upon 720 lines, progressively displayed (720p), argu-

ing that the progressive nature of the scan made up for the lesser

number of lines.

The battle was heated. The FCC told all the competing parties

to lock themselves into a room and not to come out until they had

reached agreement. As a result, I spent many hours in lawyers’

offices. We ended up with a crazy agreement that recognized mul-

tiple variations of the standard, with resolutions of 480i and 480p

(called standard definition), 720p and 1080i (called high-definition),
and two different aspect ratios for the screens (the ratio of width to

height), 4:3 (= 1.3)—the old standard—and 16:9 (= 1.8)—the new

standard. In addition, a large number of frame rates were sup-

ported (basically, how many times per second the image was trans-

mitted). Yes, it was a standard, or more accurately a large number

of standards. In fact, one of the allowed methods of transmission

was to use any method (as long as it carried its own specifications

along with the signal). It was a mess, but we did reach agreement.

After the standard was made official in 1996, it took roughly ten

more years for HDTV to become accepted, helped, finally, by a

new generation of television displays that were large, thin, and in-

expensive. The whole process took roughly thirty-five years from

the first broadcasts by the Japanese.

Was it worth the fight? Yes and no. In the thirty-five years that it

took to reach the standard, the technology continued to evolve, so

the resulting standard was far superior to the first one proposed

so many years before. Moreover, the HDTV of today is a huge im-

provement over what we had before (now called “standard defini-

tion”). But the minutiae of details that were the focus of the fight

between the computer and TV companies was silly. My technical

experts continually tried to demonstrate to me the superiority of

720p images over 1080i, but it took me hours of viewing special

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252 The Design of Everyday Things

scenes under expert guidance to see the deficiencies of the inter-

laced images (the differences only show up with complex moving

images). So why did we care?

Television displays and compression techniques have improved

so much that interlacing is no longer needed. Images at 1080p,

once thought to be impossible, are now commonplace. Sophisti-

cated algorithms and high-speed processors make it possible to

transform one standard into another; even rectangular pixels are

no longer a problem.

As I write these words, the main problem is the discrepancy in

aspect ratios. Movies come in many different aspect ratios (none

of them the new standard) so when TV screens show movies, they

either have to cut off part of the image or leave parts of the screen

black. Why was the HDTV aspect ratio set at 16:9 (or 1.8) if no

movies used that ratio? Because engineers liked it: square the old

aspect ratio of 4:3 and you get the new one, 16:9.

Today we are about to embark on yet another standards fight

over TV. First, there is three-dimensional TV: 3-D. Then there are

proposals for ultra-high definition: 2,160 lines (and a doubling of

the horizontal resolution as well): four times the resolution of our

best TV today (1080p). One company wants eight times the resolu-

tion, and one is proposing an aspect ratio of 21:9 (= 2.3). I have seen

these images and they are marvelous, although they only matter

with large screens (at least 60 inches, or 1.5 meters, in diagonal

length), and when the viewer is close to the display.

Standards can take so long to be established that by the time they

do come into wide practice, they can be irrelevant. Nonetheless,

standards are necessary. They simplify our lives and make it possi-

ble for different brands of equipment to work together in harmony.



Standardize and you simplify lives: everyone learns the system

only once. But don’t standardize too soon; you may be locked into

a primitive technology, or you may have introduced rules that turn

out to be grossly inefficient, even error-inducing. Standardize too

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six: Design Thinking 253

late, and there may already be so many ways of doing things that

no international standard can be agreed on. If there is agreement

on an old-fashioned technology, it may be too expensive for every-

one to change to the new standard. The metric system is a good ex-

ample: it is a far simpler and more usable scheme for representing

distance, weight, volume, and temperature than the older English

system of feet, pounds, seconds, and degrees on the Fahrenheit

scale. But industrial nations with a heavy commitment to the old

measurement standard claim they cannot afford the massive costs

and confusion of conversion. So we are stuck with two standards,

at least for a few more decades.

Would you consider changing how we specify time? The cur-

rent system is arbitrary. The day is divided into twenty-four rather

arbitrary but standard units—hours. But we tell time in units of

twelve, not twenty-four, so there have to be two cycles of twelve

hours each, plus the special convention of a.m. and p.m. so we

know which cycle we are talking about. Then we divide each hour

into sixty minutes and each minute into sixty seconds.

What if we switched to metric divisions: seconds divided into

tenths, milliseconds, and microseconds? We would have days, mil-

lidays, and microdays. There would have to be a new hour, min-

ute, and second: call them the digital hour, the digital minute, and

the digital second. It would be easy: ten digital hours to the day,

one hundred digital minutes to the digital hour, one hundred dig-

ital seconds to the digital minute.

Each digital hour would last exactly 2.4 times an old hour: 144

old minutes. So the old one-hour period of the schoolroom or

television program would be replaced with a half-digital hour

period, or 50 digital minutes—only 20 percent longer than the

current hour. We could adapt to the differences in durations with

relative ease.

What do I think of it? I much prefer it. After all, the decimal sys-

tem, the basis of most of the world’s use of numbers and arithme-

tic, uses base 10 arithmetic and, as a result, arithmetic operations

are much simpler in the metric system. Many societies have used

other systems, 12 and 60 being common. Hence twelve for the

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254 The Design of Everyday Things

number of items in a dozen, inches in a foot, hours in a day, and

months in a year; sixty for the number of seconds in a minute, sec-

onds in a degree, and minutes in an hour.

The French proposed that time be made into a decimal system

in 1792, during the French Revolution, when the major shift to the

metric system took place. The metric system for weights and lengths

took hold, but not for time. Decimal time was used long enough for

decimal clocks to be manufactured, but it eventually was discarded.

Too bad. It is very difficult to change well-established habits. We

still use the QWERTY keyboard, and the United States still measures

things in inches and feet, yards and miles, Fahrenheit, ounces, and

pounds. The world still measures time in units of 12 and 60, and

divides the circle into 360 degrees.

In 1998, Swatch, the Swiss watch company, made its own attempt

to introduce decimal time through what it called “Swatch Inter-

national Time.” Swatch divided the day into 1,000 “.beats,” each

.beat being slightly less than 90 seconds (each .beat corresponds to

one digital minute). This system did not use time zones, so people

the world over would be in synchrony with their watches. This

does not simplify the problem of synchronizing scheduled con-

versations, however, because it would be difficult to get the sun

to behave properly. People would still wish to wake up around

sunrise, and this would occur at different Swatch times around the

world. As a result, even though people would have their watches

synchronized, it would still be necessary to know when they woke

up, ate, went to and from work, and went to sleep, and these times

would vary around the world. It isn’t clear whether Swatch was

serious with its proposal or whether it was one huge advertising

stunt. After a few years of publicity, during which the company

manufactured digital watches that told the time in .beats, it all fiz-

zled away.

Speaking of standardization, Swatch called its basic time unit a

“.beat” with the first character being a period. This nonstandard

spelling wreaks havoc on spelling correction systems that aren’t set

up to handle words that begin with punctuation marks.

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six: Design Thinking 255

Deliberately Making Things Difficult
How can good design (design that is usable and understandable) be
balanced with the need for “secrecy” or privacy, or protection? That
is, some applications of design involve areas that are sensitive and ne-
cessitate strict control over who uses and understands them. Perhaps
we don’t want any user-in-the-street to understand enough of a sys-
tem to compromise its security. Couldn’t it be argued that some things
shouldn’t be designed well? Can’t things be left cryptic, so that only
those who have clearance, extended education, or whatever, can make
use of the system? Sure, we have passwords, keys, and other types of
security checks, but this can become wearisome for the privileged user. It
appears that if good design is not ignored in some contexts, the purpose
for the existence of the system will be nullified. (A computer mail question
sent to me by a student, Dina Kurktchi. It is just the right question.)

In Stapleford, England, I came across a school door that was very

difficult to open, requiring simultaneous operation of two latches,

one at the very top of the door, the other down low. The latches

were difficult to find, to reach, and to use. But the difficulties were

deliberate. This was good design. The door was at a school for

handicapped children, and the school didn’t want the children to

be able to get out to the street without an adult. Only adults were

large enough to operate the two latches. Violating the rules of

ease of use is just what was needed.

Most things are intended to be easy to use, but aren’t. But some

things are deliberately difficult to use—and ought to be. The

number of things that should be difficult to use is surprisingly


• Any door designed to keep people in or out.

• Security systems, designed so that only authorized people will be

able to use them.

• Dangerous equipment, which should be restricted.

• Dangerous operations that might lead to death or injury if done ac-

cidentally or in error.

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256 The Design of Everyday Things

• Secret doors, cabinets, and safes: you don’t want the average person

even to know that they are there, let alone to be able to work them.

• Cases deliberately intended to disrupt the normal routine action (as

discussed in Chapter 5). Examples include the acknowledgment re-

quired before permanently deleting a file from a computer, safeties

on pistols and rifles, and pins in fire extinguishers.

• Controls that require two simultaneous actions before the system will

operate, with the controls separated so that it takes two people to

work them, preventing a single person from doing an unauthorized

action (used in security systems or safety-critical operations).

• Cabinets and bottles for medications and dangerous substances de-

liberately made difficult to open to keep them secure from children.

• Games, a category in which designers deliberately flout the laws of

understandability and usability. Games are meant to be difficult; in

some games, part of the challenge is to figure out what is to be done,

and how.

Even where a lack of usability or understandability is deliberate,

it is still important to know the rules of understandable and usable

design, for two reasons. First, even deliberately difficult designs

aren’t entirely difficult. Usually there is one difficult part, designed

to keep unauthorized people from using the device; the rest of it

should follow the normal principles of good design. Second, even

if your job is to make something difficult to do, you need to know

how to go about doing it. In this case, the rules are useful, for they

state in reverse just how to go about the task. You could systemat-

ically violate the rules like this:

• Hide critical components: make things invisible.

• Use unnatural mappings for the execution side of the action cycle, so

that the relationship of the controls to the things being controlled is

inappropriate or haphazard.

• Make the actions physically difficult to do.

• Require precise timing and physical manipulation.

• Do not give any feedback.

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six: Design Thinking 257

• Use unnatural mappings for the evaluation side of the action cycle,

so that system state is difficult to interpret.

Safety systems pose a special problem in design. Oftentimes, the

design feature added to ensure safety eliminates one danger, only

to create a secondary one. When workers dig a hole in a street,

they must put up barriers to prevent cars and people from falling

into the hole. The barriers solve one problem, but they themselves

pose another danger, often mitigated by adding signs and flashing

lights to warn of the barriers. Emergency doors, lights, and alarms

must often be accompanied by warning signs or barriers that con-

trol when and how they can be used.

Design: Developing Technology for People
Design is a marvelous discipline, bringing together technology and

people, business and politics, culture and commerce. The different

pressures on design are severe, presenting huge challenges to the

designer. At the same time, the designers must always keep fore-

most in mind that the products are to be used by people. This is

what makes design such a rewarding discipline: On the one hand,

woefully complex constraints to overcome; on the other hand, the

opportunity to develop things that assist and enrich the lives of

people, that bring benefits and enjoyment.

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The realities of the world impose severe constraints

upon the design of products. Up to now I have de-

scribed the ideal case, assuming that human-centered

design principles could be followed in a vacuum; that

is, without attention to the real world of competition, costs, and

schedules. Conflicting requirements will come from different

sources, all of which are legitimate, all of which need to be resolved.

Compromises must be made by all involved.

Now it is time to examine the concerns outside of human-

centered design that affect the development of products. I start

with the impact of competitive forces that drive the introduction

of extra features, often to excess: the cause of the disease dubbed

“featuritis,” whose major symptom is “creeping featurism.” From

there, I examine the drivers of change, starting with technological

drivers. When new technologies emerge, there is a temptation to

develop new products immediately. But the time for radically new

products to become successful is measured in years, decades, or

in some instances centuries. This causes me to examine the two

forms of product innovation relevant to design: incremental (less

glamorous, but most common) and radical (most glamorous, but

rarely successful).


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seven: Design in the World of Business 259

I conclude with reflections about the history and future prospects

of this book. The first edition of this book has had a long and fruit-

ful life. Twenty-five years is an amazingly long time for a book cen-

tered around technology to have remained relevant. If this revised

and expanded edition lasts an equally long time, that means fifty

years of The Design of Everyday Things. In these next twenty-five
years, what new developments will take place? What will be the

role of technology in our lives, for the future of books, and what

are the moral obligations of the design profession? And finally, for

how long will the principles in this book remain relevant? It should

be no surprise that I believe they will always be just as relevant as

they were twenty-five years ago, just as relevant as they are today.

Why? The reason is simple. The design of technology to fit human

needs and capabilities is determined by the psychology of people.

Yes, technologies may change, but people stay the same.

Competitive Forces
Today, manufacturers around the world compete with one another.

The competitive pressures are severe. After all, there are only a

few basic ways by which a manufacturer can compete: three of the

most important being price, features, and quality—unfortunately

often in that order of importance. Speed is important, lest some

other company get ahead in the rush for market presence. These

pressures make it difficult to follow the full, iterative process of

continual product improvement. Even relatively stable home prod-

ucts, such as automobiles, kitchen appliances, television sets, and

computers, face the multiple forces of a competitive market that

encourage the introduction of changes without sufficient testing

and refinement.

Here is a simple, real example. I am working with a new startup

company, developing an innovative line of cooking equipment.

The founders had some unique ideas, pushing the technology of

cooking far ahead of anything available for homes. We did numer-

ous field tests, built numerous prototypes, and engaged a world-

class industrial designer. We modified the original product concept

several times, based on early feedback from potential users and

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260 The Design of Everyday Things

advice from industry experts. But just as we were about to com-

mission the first production of a few hand-tooled working proto-

types that could be shown to potential investors and customers (an

expensive proposition for the small self-funded company), other

companies started displaying similar concepts in the trade shows.

What? Did they steal the ideas? No, it’s what is called the Zeit-
geist, a German word meaning “spirit of the time.” In other words,
the time was ripe, the ideas were “in the air.” The competition

emerged even before we had delivered our first product. What is

a small, startup company to do? It doesn’t have money to compete

with the large companies. It has to modify its ideas to keep ahead

of the competition and come up with a demonstration that excites

potential customers and wows potential investors and, more im-

portantly, potential distributors of the product. It is the distributors

who are the real customers, not the people who eventually buy the

product in stores and use it in their homes. The example illustrates

the real business pressures on companies: the need for speed, the

concern about costs, the competition that may force the company

to change its offerings, and the need to satisfy several classes of

customers—investors, distributors, and, of course, the people who

will actually use the product. Where should the company focus its

limited resources? More user studies? Faster development? New,

unique features?

The same pressures that the startup faced also impact established

companies. But they have other pressures as well. Most products

have a development cycle of one to two years. In order to bring out

a new model every year, the design process for the new model has

to have started even before the previous model has been released

to customers. Moreover, mechanisms for collecting and feeding

back the experiences of customers seldom exist. In an earlier era,

there was close coupling between designers and users. Today, they

are separated by barriers. Some companies prohibit designers from

working with customers, a bizarre and senseless restriction. Why

would they do this? In part to prevent leaks of the new develop-

ments to the competition, but also in part because customers may

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seven: Design in the World of Business 261

stop purchasing the current offerings if they are led to believe that

a new, more advanced item is soon to come. But even where there

are no such restrictions, the complexity of large organizations cou-

pled with the relentless pressure to finish the product makes this

interaction difficult. Remember Norman’s Law of Chapter 6: The

day a product development process starts, it is behind schedule

and above budget.


In every successful product there lurks the carrier of an insidious

disease called “featuritis,” with its main symptom being “creep-

ing featurism.” The disease seems to have been first identified and

named in 1976, but its origins probably go back to the earliest tech-

nologies, buried far back in the eons prior to the dawn of history.

It seems unavoidable, with no known prevention. Let me explain.

Suppose we follow all the principles in this book for a wonder-

ful, human-centered product. It obeys all design principles. It over-

comes people’s problems and fulfills some important needs. It is

attractive and easy to use and understand. As a result, suppose the

product is successful: many people buy it and tell their friends to

buy it. What could be wrong with this?

The problem is that after the product has been available for a

while, a number of factors inevitably appear, pushing the company

toward the addition of new features—toward creeping featurism.

These factors include:

• Existing customers like the product, but express a wish for more fea-
tures, more functions, more capability.

• A competing company adds new features to its products, producing
competitive pressures to match that offering, but to do even more in

order to get ahead of the competition.

• Customers are satisfied, but sales are declining because the market
is saturated: everyone who wants the product already has it. Time to

add wonderful enhancements that will cause people to want the new

model, to upgrade.

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262 The Design of Everyday Things

Featuritis is highly infectious. New products are invariably more

complex, more powerful, and different in size than the first release

of a product. You can see that tension playing out in music players,

mobile phones, and computers, especially on smart phones, tab-

lets, and pads. Portable devices get smaller and smaller with each

release, despite the addition of more and more features (making

them ever more difficult to operate). Some products, such as au-

tomobiles, home refrigerators, television sets, and kitchen stoves,

also increase in complexity with each release, getting larger and

more powerful.

But whether the products get larger or smaller, each new edition

invariably has more features than the previous one. Featuritis is

an insidious disease, difficult to eradicate, impossible to vaccinate

against. It is easy for marketing pressures to insist upon the addition

of new features, but there is no call—or for that matter, budget—to

get rid of old, unneeded ones.

How do you know when you have encountered featuritis? By

its major symptom: creeping featurism. Want an example? Look

at Figure 7.1, which illustrates the changes that have overcome the

simple Lego motorcycle since my first encounter with it for the first

edition of this book. The original motorcycle (Figure 4.1 and Figure

7.1A) had only fifteen components and could be put together with-

out any instructions: it had sufficient constraints that every piece

had a unique location and orientation. But now, as Figure 7.1B

shows, the same motorcycle has become bloated, with twenty-nine

pieces. I needed instructions.

Creeping featurism is the tendency to add to the number of fea-

tures of a product, often extending the number beyond all reason.

There is no way that a product can remain usable and understand-

able by the time it has all of those special-purpose features that

have been added in over time.

In her book Different, Harvard professor Youngme Moon ar-
gues that it is this attempt to match the competition that causes all

products to be the same. When companies try to increase sales by

matching every feature of their competitors, they end up hurting

themselves. After all, when products from two companies match

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seven: Design in the World of Business 263

feature by feature, there is no longer any reason for a customer to

prefer one over another. This is competition-driven design. Unfor-

tunately, the mind-set of matching the competitor’s list of features

pervades many organizations. Even if the first versions of a prod-

uct are well done, human-centered, and focused upon real needs,

it is the rare organization that is content to let a good product stay


Most companies compare features with their competition to de-

termine where they are weak, so they can strengthen those areas.

Wrong, argues Moon. A better strategy is to concentrate on areas

where they are stronger and to strengthen them even more. Then

focus all marketing and advertisements to point out the strong

points. This causes the product to stand out from the mindless

herd. As for the weaknesses, ignore the irrelevant ones, says Moon.

The lesson is simple: don’t follow blindly; focus on strengths, not

weaknesses. If the product has real strengths, it can afford to just

be “good enough” in the other areas.

Good design requires stepping back from competitive pressures

and ensuring that the entire product be consistent, coherent, and

F IGU R E 7.1. Featuritis Strikes Lego. Figure A shows the original Lego Motorcycle
available in 1988 when I used it in the first edition of this book (on the left), next to the
2013 version (on the right). The old version had only fifteen pieces. No manual was
needed to put it together. For the new version, the box proudly proclaims “29 pieces.”
I could put the original version together without instructions. Figure B shows how far
I got with the new version before I gave up and had to consult the instruction sheet.
Why did Lego believe it had to change the motorcycle? Perhaps because featuritis
struck real police motorcycles, causing them to increase in size and complexity and
Lego felt that its toy needed to match the world. (Photographs by the author.)

A . B.

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264 The Design of Everyday Things

understandable. This stance requires the leadership of the com-

pany to withstand the marketing forces that keep begging to add

this feature or that, each thought to be essential for some market

segment. The best products come from ignoring these competing

voices and instead focusing on the true needs of the people who

use the product.

Jeff Bezos, the founder and CEO of Amazon.com, calls his ap-

proach “customer obsessed.” Everything is focused upon the re-

quirements of Amazon’s customers. The competition is ignored,

the traditional marketing requirements are ignored. The focus is on

simple, customer-driven questions: what do the customers want;

how can their needs best be satisfied; what can be done better to

enhance customer service and customer value? Focus on the cus-

tomer, Bezos argues, and the rest takes care of itself. Many compa-

nies claim to aspire to this philosophy, but few are able to follow

it. Usually it is only possible where the head of the company, the

CEO, is also the founder. Once the company passes control to oth-

ers, especially those who follow the traditional MBA dictum of

putting profit above customer concerns, the story goes downhill.

Profits may indeed increase in the short term, but eventually the

product quality deteriorates to the point where customers desert.

Quality only comes about by continual focus on, and attention to,

the people who matter: customers.

New Technologies Force Change
Today, we have new requirements. We now need to type on small,

portable devices that don’t have room for a full keyboard. Touch-

and gesture-sensitive screens allow a new form of typing. We can

bypass typing altogether through handwriting recognition and

speech understanding.

Consider the four products shown in Figure 7.2. Their appear-

ance and methods of operations changed radically in their century

of existence. Early telephones, such as the one in Figure 7.2A, did

not have keyboards: a human operator intervened to make the con-

nections. Even when operators were first replaced by automatic

switching systems, the “keyboard” was a rotary dial with ten holes,

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seven: Design in the World of Business 265

one for each digit. When the dial was replaced with pushbutton

keys, it suffered a slight case of featuritis: the ten positions of the

dial were replaced with twelve keys: the ten digits plus * and #.

But much more interesting is the merger of devices. The human

computer gave rise to laptops, small portable computers. The tele-

phone moved to small, portable cellular phones (called mobiles

in much of the world). Smart phones had large, touch-sensitive

screens, operated by gesture. Soon computers merged into tab-

lets, as did cell phones. Cameras merged with cell phones. Today,

talking, video conferences, writing, photography (both still and

video), and collaborative interaction of all sorts are increasingly

F IGU R E 7. 2 . 100 Years of Telephones and Keyboards. Figures A and B show the
change in the telephone from the Western Electric crank telephone of the 1910s, where
rotating the crank on the right generated a signal alerting the operator, to the phone of
the 2010s. They seem to have nothing in common. Figures C and D contrast a keyboard
of the 1910s with one from the 2010s. The keyboards are still laid out in the same way,
but the first requires physical depression of each key; the second, a quick tracing of a
finger over the relevant letters (the image shows the word many being entered). Cred-
its: A, B, and C: photographs by the author; objects in A and C courtesy of the Museum
of American Heritage, Palo Alto, California. D shows the “Swype” keyboard from
Nuance. Image being used courtesy of Nuance Communications, Inc.

A . B.

D.C .

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266 The Design of Everyday Things

being done by one single device, available with a large variety of

screen sizes, computational power, and portability. It doesn’t make

sense to call them computers, phones, or cameras: we need a new

name. Let’s call them “smart screens.” In the twenty-second cen-

tury, will we still have phones? I predict that although we will still

talk with one another over a distance, we will not have any device

called a telephone.

As the pressures for larger screens forced the demise of physi-

cal keyboards (despite the attempt to make tiny keyboards, oper-

ated with single fingers or thumbs), the keyboards were displayed

on the screen whenever needed, each letter tapped one at a time.

This is slow, even when the system tries to predict the word being

typed so that keying can stop as soon as the correct word shows

up. Several systems were soon developed that allowed the finger or

stylus to trace a path among the letters of the word: word-gesture

systems. The gestures were sufficiently different from one another

that it wasn’t even necessary to touch all the letters—it only mat-

tered that the pattern generated by the approximation to the cor-

rect path was close enough to the desired one. This turns out to be

a fast and easy way to type (Figure 7.2D).

With gesture-based systems, a major rethinking is possible. Why

keep the letters in the same QWERTY arrangement? The pattern

generation would be even faster if letters were rearranged to max-

imize speed when using a single finger or stylus to trace out the

letters. Good idea, but when one of the pioneers in developing this

technique, Shumin Zhai, then at IBM, tried it, he ran into the legacy

problem. People knew QWERTY and balked at having to learn a

different organization. Today, the word-gesture method of typing

is widely used, but with QWERTY keyboards (as in Figure 7.2D).

Technology changes the way we do things, but fundamental

needs remain unchanged. The need for getting thoughts written

down, for telling stories, doing critical reviews, or writing fiction

and nonfiction will remain. Some will be written using traditional

keyboards, even on new technological devices, because the key-

board still remains the fastest way to enter words into a system,

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seven: Design in the World of Business 267

whether it be paper or electronic, physical or virtual. Some people

will prefer to speak their ideas, dictating them. But spoken words

are still likely to be turned into printed words (even if the print

is simply on a display device), because reading is far faster and

superior to listening. Reading can be done quickly: it is possible to

read around three hundred words per minute and to skim, jump-

ing ahead and back, effectively acquiring information at rates in

the thousands of words per minute. Listening is slow and serial,

usually at around sixty words per minute, and although this rate

can be doubled or tripled with speech compression technologies

and training, it is still slower than reading and not easy to skim.

But the new media and new technologies will supplement the old,

so that writing will no longer dominate as much as it did in the

past, when it was the only medium widely available. Now that

anyone can type and dictate, take photographs and videos, draw

animated scenes, and creatively produce experiences that in the

twentieth century required huge amounts of technology and large

crews of specialized workers, the types of devices that allow us to

do these tasks and the ways they are controlled will proliferate.

The role of writing in civilization has changed over its five thou-

sand years of existence. Today, writing has become increasingly

common, although increasingly as short, informal messages. We

now communicate using a wide variety of media: voice, video,

handwriting, and typing, sometimes with all ten fingers, some-

times just with the thumbs, and sometimes by gestures. Over time,

the ways by which we interact and communicate change with tech-

nology. But because the fundamental psychology of human beings

will remain unchanged, the design rules in this book will still apply.

Of course, it isn’t just communication and writing that has

changed. Technological change has impacted every sphere of our

lives, from the way education is conducted, to medicine, foods,

clothing, and transportation. We now can manufacture things at

home, using 3-D printers. We can play games with partners around

the world. Cars are capable of driving themselves, and their en-

gines have changed from internal combustion to an assortment of

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268 The Design of Everyday Things

pure electric and hybrids. Name an industry or an activity and if

it hasn’t already been transformed by new technologies, it will be.

Technology is a powerful driver for change. Sometimes for the

better, sometimes for the worse. Sometimes to fulfill important

needs, and sometimes simply because the technology makes the

change possible.

How Long Does It Take
to Introduce a New Product?

How long does it take for an idea to become a product? And after

that, how long before the product becomes a long-lasting success?

Inventors and founders of startup companies like to think the in-

terval from idea to success is a single process, with the total mea-

sured in months. In fact, it is multiple processes, where the total

time is measured in decades, sometimes centuries.

Technology changes rapidly, but people and culture change

slowly. Change is, therefore, simultaneously rapid and slow. It can

take months to go from invention to product, but then decades—

sometimes many decades—for the product to get accepted. Older

products linger on long after they should have become obsolete,

long after they should have disappeared. Much of daily life is dic-

tated by conventions that are centuries old, that no longer make

any sense, and whose origins have been forgotten by all except the


Even our most modern technologies follow this time cycle: fast

to be invented, slow to be accepted, even slower to fade away and

die. In the early 2000s, the commercial introduction of gestural con-

trol for cell phones, tablets, and computers radically transformed

the way we interacted with our devices. Whereas all previous elec-

tronic devices had numerous knobs and buttons on the outside,

physical keyboards, and ways of calling up numerous menus of

commands, scrolling through them, and selecting the desired

command, the new devices eliminated almost all physical controls

and menus.

Was the development of tablets controlled by gestures rev-

olutionary? To most people, yes, but not to technologists.

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seven: Design in the World of Business 269

Touch-sensitive displays that could detect the positions of si-

multaneous finger presses (even if by multiple people) had been

in the research laboratories for almost thirty years (these are called

multi touch displays). The first devices were developed by the

University of Toronto in the early 1980s. Mitsubishi developed a

product that it sold to design schools and research laboratories,

in which many of today’s gestures and techniques were being ex-

plored. Why did it take so long for these multitouch devices to be-

come successful products? Because it took decades to transform

the research technology into components that were inexpensive

and reliable enough for everyday products. Numerous small

companies tried to manufacture screens, but the first devices

that could handle multiple touches were either very expensive

or unreliable.

There is another problem: the general conservatism of large com-

panies. Most radical ideas fail: large companies are not tolerant

of failure. Small companies can jump in with new, exciting ideas

because if they fail, well, the cost is relatively low. In the world of

high technology, many people get new ideas, gather together a few

friends and early risk-seeking employees, and start a new com-

pany to exploit their visions. Most of these companies fail. Only a

few will be successful, either by growing into a larger company or

by being purchased by a large company.

You may be surprised by the large percentage of failures, but

that is only because they are not publicized: we only hear about

the tiny few that become successful. Most startup companies fail,

but failure in the high-tech world of California is not considered

bad. In fact, it is considered a badge of honor, for it means that

the company saw a future potential, took the risk, and tried. Even

though the company failed, the employees learned lessons that

make their next attempt more likely to succeed. Failure can occur

for many reasons: perhaps the marketplace is not ready; perhaps

the technology is not ready for commercialization; perhaps the

company runs out of money before it can gain traction.

When one early startup company, Fingerworks, was struggling

to develop an affordable, reliable touch surface that distinguished

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270 The Design of Everyday Things

among multiple fingers, it almost quit because it was about to run

out of money. Apple however, anxious to get into this market,

bought Fingerworks. When it became part of Apple, its financial

needs were met and Fingerworks technology became the driving

force behind Apple’s new products. Today, devices controlled by

gestures are everywhere, so this type of interaction seems natural

and obvious, but at the time, it was neither natural nor obvious.

It took almost three decades from the invention of multitouch

before companies were able to manufacture the technology with

the required robustness, versatility, and very low cost necessary

for the idea to be deployed in the home consumer market. Ideas

take a long time to traverse the distance from conception to suc-

cessful product.



The Wikipedia article on videophones, from which Figure 7.3

was taken, said: “George du Maurier’s cartoon of ‘an electric cam-

era-obscura’ is often cited as an early prediction of television and

also anticipated the videophone, in wide screen formats and flat

screens.” Although the title of the drawing gives credit to Thomas

Edison, he had nothing to do with this. This is sometimes called

Stigler ’s law: the names of famous people often get attached to

ideas even though they had nothing to do with them.

The world of product design offers many examples of Stigler ’s

law. Products are thought to be the invention of the company that

most successfully capitalized upon the idea, not the company that

originated it. In the world of products, original ideas are the easy

part. Actually producing the idea as a successful product is what

is hard. Consider the idea of a video conversation. Thinking of the

idea was so easy that, as we see in Figure 7.3, Punch magazine illus-
trator du Maurier could draw a picture of what it might look like

only two years after the telephone was invented. The fact that he

could do this probably meant that the idea was already circulating.
By the late 1890s, Alexander Graham Bell had thought through a

number of the design issues. But the wonderful scenario illustrated

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seven: Design in the World of Business 271

by du Maurier has still not become reality, one and one-half centu-

ries later. Today, the videophone is barely getting established as a

means of everyday communication.

It is extremely difficult to develop all the details required to en-

sure that a new idea works, to say nothing of finding components

that can be manufactured in sufficient quantity, reliability, and af-

fordability. With a brand-new concept, it can take decades before

the public will endorse it. Inventors often believe their new ideas

will revolutionize the world in months, but reality is harsher. Most

new inventions fail, and even the few that succeed take decades

to do so. Yes, even the ones we consider “fast.” Most of the time,

the technology is unnoticed by the public as it circulates around

the research laboratories of the world or is tried by a few unsuc-

cessful startup companies or adventurous early adopters.

F IGU R E 7. 3 Predicting the Future: The Videophone in 1879. The caption reads:
“Edison’s Telephonoscope (transmits light as well as sound). (Every evening, before go-
ing to bed, Pater- and Materfamilias set up an electric camera-obscura over their bedroom
mantel-piece, and gladden their eyes with the sight of their children at the Antipodes, and
converse gaily with them through the wire.”) (Published in the December 9, 1878, issue of Punch
magazine. From “Telephonoscope,” Wikipedia.)

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272 The Design of Everyday Things

Ideas that are too early often fail, even if eventually others in-

troduce them successfully. I’ve seen this happen several times.

When I first joined Apple, I watched as it released one of the very

first commercial digital cameras: the Apple QuickTake. It failed.

Probably you are unaware that Apple ever made cameras. It failed

because the technology was limited, the price high, and the world

simply wasn’t ready to dismiss film and chemical processing of

photographs. I was an adviser to a startup company that produced

the world’s first digital picture frame. It failed. Once again, the

technology didn’t quite support it and the product was relatively

expensive. Obviously today, digital cameras and digital photo

frames are extremely successful products, but neither Apple nor

the startup I worked with are part of the story.

Even as digital cameras started to gain a foothold in photog-

raphy, it took several decades before they displaced film for still

photographs. It is taking even longer to replace film-based mov-

ies with those produced on digital cameras. As I write this, only a

small number of films are made digitally, and only a small number

of theaters project digitally. How long has the effort been going on?

It is difficult to determine when the effort stated, but it has been

a very long time. It took decades for high-definition television to

replace the standard, very poor resolution of the previous genera-

tion (NTSC in the United States and PAL and SECAM elsewhere).

Why so long to get to a far better picture, along with far better

sound? People are very conservative. Broadcasting stations would

have to replace all their equipment. Homeowners would need new

sets. Overall, the only people who push for changes of this sort are

the technology enthusiasts and the equipment manufacturers. A

bitter fight between the television broadcasters and the computer

industry, each of which wanted different standards, also delayed

adoption (described in Chapter 6).

In the case of the videophone shown in Figure 7.3, the illus-

tration is wonderful but the details are strangely lacking. Where

would the video camera have to be located to display that won-

derful panorama of the children playing? Notice that “Pater- and

Materfamilias” are sitting in the dark (because the video image is

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seven: Design in the World of Business 273

projected by a “camera obscura,” which has a very weak output).

Where is the video camera that films the parents, and if they sit

in the dark, how can they be visible? It is also interesting that al-

though the video quality looks even better than we could achieve

today, sound is still being picked up by trumpet-shaped telephones

whose users need to hold the speaking tube to their face and talk

(probably loudly). Thinking of the concept of a video connection

was relatively easy. Thinking through the details has been very dif-

ficult, and then being able to build it and put it into practice—well,

it is now considerably over a century since that picture was drawn

and we are just barely able to fulfill that dream. Barely.

It took forty years for the first working videophones to be cre-

ated (in the 1920s), then another ten years before the first product

(in the mid-1930s, in Germany), which failed. The United States

didn’t try commercial videophone service until the 1960s, thirty

years after Germany; that service also failed. All sorts of ideas have

been tried including dedicated videophone instruments, devices

using the home television set, video conferencing with home per-

sonal computers, special video-conferencing rooms in universities

and companies, and small video telephones, some of which might

be worn on the wrist. It took until the start of the twenty-first cen-

tury for usage to pick up.

Video conferencing finally started to become common in the

early 2010s. Extremely expensive videoconferencing suites have

been set up in businesses and universities. The best commercial

systems make it seem as if you are in the same room with the

distant participants, using high-quality transmission of images

and multiple, large monitors to display life-size images of people

sitting across the table (one company, Cisco, even sells the table).

This is 140 years from the first published conception, 90 years

since the first practical demonstration, and 80 years since the first

commercial release. Moreover, the cost, both for the equipment

at each location and for the data-transmission charges, are much

higher than the average person or business can afford: right now

they are mostly used in corporate offices. Many people today do
engage in videoconferencing from their smart display devices,

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274 The Design of Everyday Things

but the experience is not nearly as good as provided by the best

commercial facilities. Nobody would confuse these experiences

with being in the same room as the participants, something that

the highest-quality commercial facilities aspire to (with remark-

able success).

Every modern innovation, especially the ones that significantly

change lives, takes multiple decades to move from concept to com-

pany success A rule of thumb is twenty years from first demon-

strations in research laboratories to commercial product, and

then a decade or two from first commercial release to widespread

adoption. Except that actually, most innovations fail completely

and never reach the public. Even ideas that are excellent and will

eventually succeed frequently fail when first introduced. I’ve been

associated with a number of products that failed upon introduc-

tion, only to be very successful later when reintroduced (by other

companies), the real difference being the timing. Products that

failed at first commercial introduction include the first American

automobile (Duryea), the first typewriters, the first digital cameras,

and the first home computers (for example, the Altair 8800 com-

puter of 1975).



The typewriter is an ancient mechanical device, now found mostly

in museums, although still in use in newly developing nations.

In addition to having a fascinating history, it illustrates the diffi-

culties of introducing new products into society, the influence of

marketing upon design, and the long, difficult path leading to new

product acceptance. The history affects all of us because the type-

writer provided the world with the arrangement of keys on today’s

keyboards, despite the evidence that it is not the most efficient ar-

rangement. Tradition and custom coupled with the large number

of people already used to an existing scheme makes change diffi-

cult or even impossible. This is the legacy problem once again: the

heavy momentum of legacy inhibits change.

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seven: Design in the World of Business 275

Developing the first successful typewriter was a lot more than

simply figuring out a reliable mechanism for imprinting the let-

ters upon the paper, although that was a difficult task by itself.

One question was the user interface: how should the letters be pre-

sented to the typist? In other words, the design of the keyboard.

Consider the typewriter keyboard, with its arbitrary, diagonally

sloping arrangement of keys and its even more arbitrary arrange-

ment of their letters. Christopher Latham Sholes designed the cur-

rent standard keyboard in the 1870s. His typewriter design, with

its weirdly organized keyboard, eventually became the Remington

typewriter, the first successful typewriter: its keyboard layout was

soon adopted by everyone.

The design of the keyboard has a long and peculiar history. Early

typewriters experimented with a wide variety of layouts, using

three basic themes. One was circular, with the letters laid out al-

phabetically; the operator would find the proper spot and depress

a lever, lift a rod, or do whatever other mechanical operation the

device required. Another popular layout was similar to a piano

keyboard, with the letters laid out in a long row; some of the early

keyboards, including an early version by Sholes, even had black

and white keys. Both the circular layout and the piano keyboard

proved awkward. In the end, the typewriter keyboards all ended

up using multiple rows of keys in a rectangular configuration, with

different companies using different arrangements of the letters.

The levers manipulated by the keys were large and ungainly, and the

size, spacing, and arrangement of the keys were dictated by these

mechanical considerations, not by the characteristics of the human

hand. Hence the keyboard sloped and the keys were laid out in

a diagonal pattern to provide room for the mechanical linkages.

Even though we no longer use mechanical linkages, the keyboard

design is unchanged, even for the most modern electronic devices.

Alphabetical ordering of keys seems logical and sensible: Why

did it change? The reason is rooted in the early technology of key-

boards. Early typewriters had long levers attached to the keys.

The levers moved individual typebars to contact the typing paper,

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276 The Design of Everyday Things

usually from behind (the letters being typed could not be seen

from the front of the typewriter). These long type arms would of-

ten collide and lock together, requiring the typist to separate them

manually. To avoid the jamming, Sholes arranged the keys and the

typebars so that letters that were frequently typed in sequence did

not come from adjacent typebars. After a few iterations and ex-

periments, a standard emerged, one that today governs keyboards

used throughout the world, although with regional variations. The

top row of the American keyboard has the keys Q W E R T Y U I O P,

which gives rise to the name of this layout: QWERTY. The world

has adopted the basic layout, although in Europe, for example, one

can find QZERTY, AZERTY, and QWERTZ. Different languages

use different alphabets, so obviously a number of keyboards had

to move keys around to make room for additional characters.

Note that popular legend has it that the keys were placed so as

to slow down the typing. This is wrong: the goal was to have the

mechanical typebars approach one another at large angles, thus

minimizing the chance of collision. In fact, we now know that the

F IGU R E 7.4 . The 1872 Sholes Typewriter. Remington, the manufacturer of the
first successful typewriter, also made sewing machines. Figure A shows the in-
fluence of the sewing machine upon the design with the use of a foot pedal for
what eventually became the “return” key. A heavy weight hung from the frame
advanced the carriage after each letter was struck, or when the large, rectangular
plate under the typist’s left hand was depressed (this is the “space bar”). Pressing
the foot pedal raised the weight. Figure B shows a blowup of the keyboard. Note
that the second row shows a period (.) instead of R. From Scientific American’s “The
Type Writer” (Anonymous, 1872).

A . B.

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seven: Design in the World of Business 277

QWERTY arrangement guarantees a fast typing speed. By plac-

ing letters that form frequent pairs relatively far apart, typing is

speeded because it tends to make letter pairs be typed with differ-

ent hands .

There is an unconfirmed story that a salesperson rearranged

the keyboard to make it possible to type the word typewriter on
the second row, a change that violated the design principle of sep-

arating letters that were typed sequentially. Figure 7.4B shows that

the early Sholes keyboard was not QWERTY: the second row of

keys had a period (.) where today we have R, and the P and R keys

were on the bottom row (as well as other differences). Moving the

R and P from the fourth row to the second makes it possible to type

the word typewriter using only keys on the second row.
There is no way to confirm the validity of the story. Moreover,

I have only heard it describe the interchange of the period and R

keys, with no discussion of the P key. For the moment, suppose

the story were true: I can imagine the engineering minds being

outraged. This sounds like the traditional clash between the hard-

headed, logical engineers and the noncomprehending sales and

marketing force. Was the salesperson wrong? (Note that today we

would call this a marketing decision, but the profession of mar-

keting didn’t exist yet.) Well, before taking sides, realize that until

then, every typewriter company had failed. Remington was going

to come out with a typewriter with a weird arrangement of the

keys. The sales staff were right to be worried. They were right to

try anything that might enhance the sales efforts. And indeed, they

succeeded: Remington became the leader in typewriters. Actually,

its first model did not succeed. It took quite a while for the public

to accept the typewriter.

Was the keyboard really changed to allow the word typewriter
to be typed on one row? I cannot find any solid evidence. But it is

clear that the positions of R and P were moved to the second row:

compare Figure 7.4B with today’s keyboard.

The keyboard was designed through an evolutionary process,

but the main driving forces were mechanical and marketing. Even

though jamming isn’t a possibility with electronic keyboards and

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278 The Design of Everyday Things

computers and the style of typing has changed, we are committed

to this keyboard, stuck with it forever. But don’t despair: it really

is a good arrangement. One legitimate area of concern is the high

incidence of a kind of injury that befalls typists: carpal tunnel syn-

drome. This ailment is a result of frequent and prolonged repetitive

motions of the hand and wrist, so it is common among typists,

musicians, and people who do a lot of handwriting, sewing, some

sports, and assembly line work. Gestural keyboards, such as the

one shown in Figure 7.2D, might reduce the incidence. The US Na-

tional Institute of Health advises, “Ergonomic aids, such as split

keyboards, keyboard trays, typing pads, and wrist braces, may be

used to improve wrist posture during typing. Take frequent breaks

when typing and always stop if there is tingling or pain.”

August Dvorak, an educational psychologist, painstakingly

developed a better keyboard in the 1930s. The Dvorak keyboard

layout is indeed superior to that of QWERTY, but not to the extent

claimed. Studies in my laboratory showed that the typing speed on

a QWERTY was only slightly slower than on a Dvorak, not differ-

ent enough to make upsetting the legacy worthwhile. Millions of

people would have to learn a new style of typing. Millions of type-

writers would have to be changed. Once a standard is in place, the

vested interests of existing practices impede change, even where

the change would be an improvement. Moreover, in the case of

QWERTY versus Dvorak, the gain is simply not worth the pain.

“Good enough” triumphs again.

What about keyboards in alphabetical order? Now that we

no longer have mechanical constraints on keyboard ordering,

wouldn’t they at least be easier to learn? Nope. Because the letters

have to be laid out in several rows, just knowing the alphabet isn’t

enough. You also have to know where the rows break, and today,

every alphabetic keyboard breaks the rows at different points. One

great advantage of QWERTY—that frequent letter pairs are typed

with opposite hands—would no longer be true. In other words,

forget it. In my studies, QWERTY and Dvorak typing speeds were

considerably faster than those on alphabetic keyboards. And an

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seven: Design in the World of Business 279

alphabetical arrangement of the keys was no faster than a random


Could we do better if we could depress more than one finger at

a time? Yes, court stenographers can out-type anyone else. They

use chord keyboards, typing syllables, not individual letters, di-

rectly onto the page—each syllable represented by the simultane-

ous pressing of keys, each combination being called a “chord.” The

most common keyboard for American law court recorders requires

between two and six keys to be pressed simultaneously to code the

digits, punctuation, and phonetic sounds of English.

Although chord keyboards can be very fast—more than three

hundred words per minute is common—the chords are difficult

to learn and to retain; all the knowledge has to be in the head.

Walk up to any regular keyboard and you can use it right away.

Just search for the letter you want and push that key. With a chord

keyboard, you have to press several keys simultaneously. There is

no way to label the keys properly and no way to know what to do

just by looking. The casual typist is out of luck.

Two Forms of Innovation:
Incremental and Radical

There are two major forms of product innovation: one follows a

natural, slow evolutionary process; the other is achieved through

radical new development. In general, people tend to think of inno-

vation as being radical, major changes, whereas the most common

and powerful form of it is actually small and incremental.

Although each step of incremental evolution is modest, con-

tinual slow, steady improvements can result in rather significant

changes over time. Consider the automobile. Steam-driven vehicles

(the first automobiles) were developed in the late 1700s. The first

commercial automobile was built in 1888 by the German Karl Benz

(his company, Benz & Cie, later merged with Daimler and today is

known as Mercedes-Benz).

Benz’s automobile was a radical innovation. And although his firm

survived, most of its rivals did not. The first American automobile

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280 The Design of Everyday Things

company was Duryea, which only lasted a few years: being first

does not guarantee success. Although the automobile itself was a

radical innovation, since its introduction it has advanced through

continual slow, steady improvement, year after year: over a century

of incremental innovation (with a few radical changes in compo-

nents). Because of the century of incremental enhancement, today’s

automobiles are much quieter, faster, more efficient, more comfort-

able, safer, and less expensive (adjusted for inflation) than those

early vehicles.

Radical innovation changes paradigms. The typewriter was

a radical innovation that had dramatic impact upon office and

home writing. It helped provide a role for women in offices as

typists and secretaries, which led to the redefinition of the job of

secretary to be a dead end rather than the first step toward an

executive position. Similarly, the automobile transformed home

life, allowing people to live at a distance from their work and rad-

ically impacting the world of business. It also turned out to be a

massive source of air pollution (although it did eliminate horse

manure from city streets). It is a major cause of accidental death,

with a worldwide fatality rate of over one million each year. The

introduction of electric lighting, the airplane, radio, television,

home computer, and social networks all had massive social im-

pacts. Mobile phones changed the phone industry, and the use of

the technical communication system called packet switching led

to the Internet. These are radical innovations. Radical innovation

changes lives and industries. Incremental innovation makes things

better. We need both.


Most design evolves through incremental innovation by means of

continual testing and refinement. In the ideal case, the design is

tested, problem areas are discovered and modified, and then the

product is continually retested and remodified. If a change makes

matters worse, well, it just gets changed again on the next go-

round. Eventually the bad features are modified into good ones,

while the good ones are kept. The technical term for this process is

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seven: Design in the World of Business 281

hill climbing, analogous to climbing a hill blindfolded. Move your
foot in one direction. If it is downhill, try another direction. If the

direction is uphill, take one step. Keep doing this until you have

reached a point where all steps would be downhill; then you are at

the top of the hill, or at least at a local peak.

Hill climbing. This method is the secret to incremental innova-

tion. This is at the heart of the human-centered design process dis-

cussed in Chapter 6. Does hill climbing always work? Although it

guarantees that the design will reach the top of the hill, what if the

design is not on the best possible hill? Hill climbing cannot find

higher hills: it can only find the peak of the hill it started from.

Want to try a different hill? Try radical innovation, although that is

as likely to find a worse hill as a better one.


Incremental innovation starts with existing products and makes

them better. Radical innovation starts fresh, often driven by new

technologies that make possible new capabilities. Thus, the inven-

tion of vacuum tubes was a radical innovation, paving the way

for rapid advances in radio and television. Similarly, the inven-

tion of the transistor allowed dramatic advances in electronic de-

vices, computational power, increased reliability, and lower costs.

The development of GPS satellites unleashed a torrent of location-

based services.

A second factor is the reconsideration of the meaning of tech-

nology. Modern data networks serve as an example. Newspapers,

magazines, and books were once thought of as part of the pub-

lishing industry, very different from radio and television broad-

casting. All of these were different from movies and music. But

once the Internet took hold, along with enhanced and inexpensive

computer power and displays, it became clear that all of these dis-

parate industries were really just different forms of information

providers, so that all could be conveyed to customers by a single

medium. This redefinition collapses together the publishing, tele-

phone, television and cable broadcasting, and music industries. We

still have books, newspapers, and magazines, television shows and

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282 The Design of Everyday Things

movies, musicians and music, but the way by which they are dis-

tributed has changed, thereby requiring massive restructuring of

their corresponding industries. Electronic games, another radical

innovation, are combining with film and video on the one hand,

and books on the other, to form new types of interactive engage-

ment. The collapsing of industries is still taking place, and what

will replace them is not yet clear.

Radical innovation is what many people seek, for it is the big,

spectacular form of change. But most radical ideas fail, and even

those that succeed can take decades and, as this chapter has al-

ready illustrated, they may take centuries to succeed. Incremental

product innovation is difficult, but these difficulties pale to insig-

nificance compared to the challenges faced by radical innovation.

Incremental innovations occur by the millions each year; radical

innovation is far less frequent.

What industries are ready for radical innovation? Try education,

transportation, medicine, and housing, all of which are overdue for

major transformation.

The Design of Everyday Things:

Technology changes rapidly, people and culture change slowly.

Or as the French put it:

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.
The more things change, the more they are the same.

Evolutionary change to people is always taking place, but the

pace of human evolutionary change is measured in thousands of

years. Human cultures change somewhat more rapidly over peri-

ods measured in decades or centuries. Microcultures, such as the

way by which teenagers differ from adults, can change in a gener-

ation. What this means is that although technology is continually

introducing new means of doing things, people are resistant to

changes in the way they do things.

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seven: Design in the World of Business 283

Consider three simple examples: social interaction, communica-

tion, and music. These represent three different human activities,

but each is so fundamental to human life that all three have per-

sisted throughout recorded history and will persist, despite major

changes in the technologies that support these activities. They are

akin to eating: new technologies will change the types of food we

eat and the way it is prepared, but will never eliminate the need

to eat. People often ask me to predict “the next great change.” My

answer is to tell them to examine some fundamentals, such as so-

cial interaction, communication, sports and play, music and enter-

tainment. The changes will take place within spheres of activity

such as these. Are these the only fundamentals? Of course not: add

education (and learning), business (and commerce), transporta-

tion, self-expression, the arts, and of course, sex. And don’t forget

important sustaining activities, such as the need for good health,

food and drink, clothing, and housing. Fundamental needs will also

stay the same, even if they get satisfied in radically different ways.

The Design of Everyday Things was first published in 1988 (when it
was called The Psychology of Everyday Things). Since the original pub-
lication, technology has changed so much that even though the prin-

ciples remained constant, many of the examples from 1988 are no

longer relevant. The technology of interaction has changed. Oh yes,

doors and switches, faucets and taps still provide the same difficul-

ties they did back then, but now we have new sources of difficulties

and confusion. The same principles that worked before still apply,

but this time they must also be applied to intelligent machines, to the

continuous interaction with large data sources, to social networks

and to communication systems and products that enable lifelong

interaction with friends and acquaintances across the world.

We gesture and dance to interact with our devices, and in turn

they interact with us via sound and touch, and through multiple

displays of all sizes—some that we wear; some on the floor, walls,

or ceilings; and some projected directly into our eyes. We speak to

our devices and they speak back. And as they get more and more

intelligent, they take over many of the activities we thought that

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284 The Design of Everyday Things

only people could do. Artificial intelligence pervades our lives and

devices, from our thermostats to our automobiles. Technologies are

always undergoing change.



As we develop new forms of interaction and communication,

what new principles are required? What happens when we wear

augmented reality glasses or embed more and more technology

within our bodies? Gestures and body movements are fun, but

not very precise.

For many millennia, even though technology has undergone

radical change, people have remained the same. Will this hold true

in the future? What happens as we add more and more enhance-

ments inside the human body? People with prosthetic limbs will

be faster, stronger, and better runners or sports players than nor-

mal players. Implanted hearing devices and artificial lenses and

corneas are already in use. Implanted memory and communica-

tion devices will mean that some people will have permanently

enhanced reality, never lacking for information. Implanted com-

putational devices could enhance thinking, problem-solving, and

decision-making. People might become cyborgs: part biology,

part artificial technology. In turn, machines will become more like

people, with neural-like computational abilities and humanlike

behavior. Moreover, new developments in biology might add to

the list of artificial supplements, with genetic modification of peo-

ple and biological processors and devices for machines.

All of these changes raise considerable ethical issues. The long-

held view that even as technology changes, people remain the same

may no longer hold. Moreover, a new species is arising, artificial

devices that have many of the capabilities of animals and people,

sometimes superior abilities. (That machines might be better than

people at some things has long been true: they are clearly stron-

ger and faster. Even the simple desk calculator can do arithmetic

better than we can, which is why we use them. Many computer

programs can do advanced mathematics better than we can, which

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seven: Design in the World of Business 285

makes them valuable assistants.) People are changing; machines

are changing. This also means that cultures are changing.

There is no question that human culture has been vastly impacted

by the advent of technology. Our lives, our family size and living

arrangements, and the role played by business and education in

our lives are all governed by the technologies of the era. Modern

communication technology changes the nature of joint work. As

some people get advanced cognitive skills due to implants, while

some machines gain enhanced human-qualities through advanced

technologies, artificial intelligence, and perhaps bionic technolo-

gies, we can expect even more changes. Technology, people, and

cultures: all will change.


Couple the use of full-body motion and gestures with high-quality

auditory and visual displays that can be superimposed over the

sounds and sights of the world to amplify them, to explain and

annotate them, and we give to people power that exceeds anything

ever known before. What do the limits of human memory mean

when a machine can remind us of all that has happened before, at

precisely the exact time the information is needed? One argument

is that technology makes us smart: we remember far more than

ever before and our cognitive abilities are much enhanced.

Another argument is that technology makes us stupid. Sure, we

look smart with the technology, but take it away and we are worse

off than before it existed. We have become dependent upon our

technologies to navigate the world, to hold intelligent conversa-

tion, to write intelligently, and to remember.

Once technology can do our arithmetic, can remember for us,

and can tell us how to behave, then we have no need to learn

these things. But the instant the technology goes away, we are

left helpless, unable to do any basic functions. We are now so

dependent upon technology that when we are deprived, we suf-

fer. We are unable to make our own clothes from plants and an-

imal skins, unable to grow and harvest crops or catch animals.

Without technology, we would starve or freeze to death. Without

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286 The Design of Everyday Things

cognitive technologies, will we fall into an equivalent state of


These fears have long been with us. In ancient Greece, Plato tells

us that Socrates complained about the impact of books, arguing

that reliance on written material would diminish not only memory

but the very need to think, to debate, to learn through discussion.

After all, said Socrates, when a person tells you something, you

can question the statement, discuss and debate it, thereby enhanc-

ing the material and the understanding. With a book, well, what

can you do? You can’t argue back.

But over the years, the human brain has remained much the

same. Human intelligence has certainly not diminished. True,

we no longer learn how to memorize vast amounts of material.

We no longer need to be completely proficient at arithmetic, for

calculators—present as dedicated devices or on almost every

computer or phone—take care of that task for us. But does that

make us stupid? Does the fact that I can no longer remember my

own phone number indicate my growing feebleness? No, on the

contrary, it unleashes the mind from the petty tyranny of tending

to the trivial and allows it to concentrate on the important and

the critical.

Reliance on technology is a benefit to humanity. With technol-

ogy, the brain gets neither better nor worse. Instead, it is the task

that changes. Human plus machine is more powerful than either

human or machine alone.

The best chess-playing machine can beat the best human chess

player. But guess what, the combination of human plus machine

can beat the best human and the best machine. Moreover, this win-

ning combination need not have the best human or machine. As

MIT professor Erik Brynjolfsson explained at a meeting of the Na-

tional Academy of Engineering:

The best chess player in the world today is not a computer or a human
but a team of humans and computers working together. In freestyle
chess competitions, where teams of humans and computers compete,

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seven: Design in the World of Business 287

the winners tend not to be the teams with the most powerful computers
or the best chess players. The winning teams are able to leverage the
unique skills of humans and computers to work together. That is a met-
aphor for what we can do going forward: have people and technology
work together in new ways to create value. (Brynjolfsson, 2012.)

Why is this? Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee quote the

world-champion human chess player Gary Kasparov, explaining

why “the overall winner in a recent freestyle tournament had nei-

ther the best human players nor the most powerful computers.”

Kasparov described a team consisting of:

a pair of amateur American chess players using three computers at the
same time. Their skill at manipulating and “coaching” their computers
to look very deeply into positions effectively counteracted the superior
chess understanding of their grandmaster opponents and the greater
computational power of other participants.Weak human + machine +
better process was superior to a strong computer alone and, more re-
markably, superior to a strong human + machine + inferior process.
(Brynjolfsson & McAfee, 2011.)

Moreover, Brynjolfsson and McAfee argue that the same pattern is

found in many activities, including both business and science: “The

key to winning the race is not to compete against machines but to com-

pete with machines. Fortunately, humans are strongest exactly where

computers are weak, creating a potentially beautiful partnership.”

The cognitive scientist (and anthropologist) Edwin Hutchins of

the University of California, San Diego, has championed the power

of distributed cognition, whereby some components are done by

people (who may be distributed across time and space); other com-

ponents, by our technologies. It was he who taught me how pow-

erful this combination makes us. This provides the answer to the

question: Does the new technology make us stupid? No, on the

contrary, it changes the tasks we do. Just as the best chess player

is a combination of human and technology, we, in combination

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288 The Design of Everyday Things

with technology, are smarter than ever before. As I put it in my

book Things That Make Us Smart, the power of the unaided mind is
highly overrated. It is things that make us smart.

The power of the unaided mind is highly overrated. Without external
aids, deep, sustained reasoning is difficult. Unaided memory, thought,
and reasoning are all limited in power. Human intelligence is highly
flexible and adaptive, superb at inventing procedures and objects that
overcome its own limits. The real powers come from devising external
aids that enhance cognitive abilities. How have we increased memory,
thought and reasoning? By the invention of external aids: it is things
that make us smart. Some assistance comes through cooperative, social
behavior: some arises through exploitation of the information pres-
ent in the environment; and some comes through the development of
tools of thought—cognitive artifacts—that complement abilities and
strengthen mental powers. (The opening paragraph of Chapter 3, Things
That Make Us Smart, 1993.)

The Future of Books
It is one thing to have tools that aid in writing conventional books,

but quite another when we have tools that dramatically transform

the book.

Why should a book comprise words and some illustrations

meant to be read linearly from front to back? Why shouldn’t it be

composed of small sections, readable in whatever order is desired?

Why shouldn’t it be dynamic, with video and audio segments,

perhaps changing according to who is reading it, including notes

made by other readers or viewers, or incorporating the author ’s

latest thoughts, perhaps changing even as it is being read, where

the word text could mean anything: voice, video, images, dia-
grams, and words?

Some authors, especially of fiction, might still prefer the linear

telling of tales, for authors are storytellers, and in stories, the or-

der in which characters and events are introduced is important to

build the suspense, keep the reader enthralled, and manage the

emotional highs and lows that characterize great storytelling. But

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seven: Design in the World of Business 289

for nonfiction, for books like this one, order is not as important.

This book does not attempt to manipulate your emotions, to keep

you in suspense, or to have dramatic peaks. You should be able to

experience it in the order you prefer, reading items out of sequence

and skipping whatever is not relevant to your needs.

Suppose this book were interactive? If you have trouble under-

standing something, suppose you could click on the page and I

would pop up and explain something. I tried that many years ago

with three of my books, all combined into one interactive electronic

book. But the attempt fell prey to the demons of product design:

good ideas that appear too early will fail.

It took a lot of effort to produce that book. I worked with a large

team of people from Voyager Books, flying to Santa Monica, Cal-

ifornia, for roughly a year of visits to film the excerpts and record

my part. Robert Stein, the head of Voyager, assembled a talented

team of editors, producers, videographers, interactive designers,

and illustrators. Alas, the result was produced in a computer sys-

tem called HyperCard, a clever tool developed by Apple but never

really given full support. Eventually, Apple stopped supporting it

and today, even though I still have copies of the original disks, they

will not run on any existing machine. (And even if they could, the

video resolution is very poor by today’s standards.)

F IGU RE 7. 5. The Voyager Interactive Electronic Book. Figure A, on the left, is
me stepping on to a page of The Design of Everyday Things. Figure B, on the right,
shows me explaining a point about graph design in my book Things That Make
Us Smart.

B.A .

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290 The Design of Everyday Things

Notice the phrase “it took a lot of effort to produce that book.”

I don’t even remember how many people were involved, but the

credits include the following: editor-producer, art director–graphic

designer, programmer, interface designers (four people, including

me), the production team (twenty-seven people), and then special

thanks to seventeen people.

Yes, today anybody can record a voice or video essay. Anyone

can shoot a video and do simple editing. But to produce a pro-

fessional-level multimedia book of roughly three hundred pages

or two hours of video (or some combination) that will be read

and enjoyed by people across the world requires an immense

amount of talent and a variety of skills. Amateurs can do a five-

or ten-minute video, but anything beyond that requires superb

editing skills. Moreover, there has to be a writer, a cameraperson,

a recording person, and a lighting person. There has to be a direc-

tor to coordinate these activities and to select the best approach to

each scene (chapter). A skilled editor is required to piece the seg-

ments together. An electronic book on the environment, Al Gore’s

interactive media book Our Choice (2011), lists a large number of
job titles for the people responsible for this one book: publishers

(two people), editor, production director, production editor, and

production supervisor, software architect, user interface engineer,

engineer, interactive graphics, animations, graphics design, photo

editor, video editors (two), videographer, music, and cover de-

signer. What is the future of the book? Very expensive.

The advent of new technologies is making books, interactive

media, and all sorts of educational and recreational material more

effective and pleasurable. Each of the many tools makes creation

easier. As a result, we will see a proliferation of materials. Most will

be amateurish, incomplete, and somewhat incoherent. But even

amateur productions can serve valuable functions in our lives, as

the immense proliferation of homemade videos available on the

Internet demonstrate, teaching us everything from how to cook

Korean pajeon, repair a faucet, or understand Maxwell’s equations
of electromagnetic waves. But for high-quality professional mate-

rial that tells a coherent story in a way that is reliable, where the

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seven: Design in the World of Business 291

facts have been checked and the message authoritative, where the

material will flow, experts are needed. The mix of technologies

and tools makes quick and rough creation easier, but polished and

professional level material much more difficult. The society of the

future: something to look forward to with pleasure, contemplation,

and dread.

The Moral Obligations of Design
That design affects society is hardly news to designers. Many take

the implications of their work seriously. But the conscious manip-

ulation of society has severe drawbacks, not the least of which is

the fact that not everyone agrees on the appropriate goals. Design,

therefore, takes on political significance; indeed, design philoso-

phies vary in important ways across political systems. In Western

cultures, design has reflected the capitalistic importance of the mar-

ketplace, with an emphasis on exterior features deemed to be at-

tractive to the purchaser. In the consumer economy, taste is not the

criterion in the marketing of expensive foods or drinks, usability is

not the primary criterion in the marketing of home and office appli-

ances. We are surrounded with objects of desire, not objects of use.



In the world of consumable products, such as food and news, there

is always a need for more food and news. When the product is con-

sumed, then the customers are consumers. A never-ending cycle. In

the world of services, the same applies. Someone has to cook and

serve the food in a restaurant, take care of us when we are sick, do

the daily transactions we all need. Services can be self-sustaining

because the need is always there.

But a business that makes and sells durable goods faces a prob-

lem: As soon as everyone who wants the product has it, then there

is no need for more. Sales will cease. The company will go out of


In the 1920s, manufacturers deliberately planned ways of making

their products become obsolete (although the practice had existed

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292 The Design of Everyday Things

long before then). Products were built with a limited life span. Au-

tomobiles were designed to fall apart. A story tells of Henry Ford’s

buying scrapped Ford cars and having his engineers disassemble

them to see which parts failed and which were still in good shape.

Engineers assumed this was done to find the weak parts and make

them stronger. Nope. Ford explained that he wanted to find the

parts that were still in good shape. The company could save money

if they redesigned these parts to fail at the same time as the others.

Making things fail is not the only way to sustain sales. The wom-

en’s clothing industry is an example: what is fashionable this year is

not next year, so women are encouraged to replace their wardrobe

every season, every year. The same philosophy was soon extended

to the automobile industry, where dramatic style changes on a reg-

ular basis made it obvious which people were up to date; which

people were laggards, driving old-fashioned vehicles. The same is

true for our smart screens, cameras, and TV sets. Even the kitchen

and laundry, where appliances used to last for decades, have seen

the impact of fashion. Now, out-of-date features, out-of-date styling,

and even out-of-date colors entice homeowners to change. There

are some gender differences. Men are not as sensitive as women to

fashion in clothes, but they more than make up for the difference

by their interest in the latest fashions in automobiles and other


But why purchase a new computer when the old one is func-

tioning perfectly well? Why buy a new cooktop or refrigerator, a

new phone or camera? Do we really need the ice cube dispenser

in the door of the refrigerator, the display screen on the oven door,

the navigation system that uses three-dimensional images? What

is the cost to the environment for all the materials and energy used

to manufacture the new products, to say nothing of the problems

of disposing safely of the old?

Another model for sustainability is the subscription model. Do

you have an electronic reading device, or music or video player?

Subscribe to the service that provides articles and news, music and

entertainment, video and movies. These are all consumables, so

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seven: Design in the World of Business 293

even though the smart screen is a fixed, durable good, the sub-

scription guarantees a steady stream of money in return for ser-

vices. Of course this only works if the manufacturer of the durable

good is also the provider of services. If not, what alternatives are


Ah, the model year: each year a new model can be introduced,

just as good as the previous year’s model, only claiming to be bet-

ter. It always increases in power and features. Look at all the new

features. How did you ever exist without them? Meanwhile, sci-

entists, engineers, and inventors are busy developing yet newer

technologies. Do you like your television? What if it were in three

dimensions? With multiple channels of surround sound? With vir-

tual goggles so you are surrounded by the images, 360 degrees’

worth? Turn your head or body and see what is happening behind

you. When you watch sports, you can be inside the team, experi-

encing the game the way the team does. Cars not only will drive

themselves to make you safer, but provide lots of entertainment

along the way. Video games will keep adding layers and chapters,

new story lines and characters, and of course, 3-D virtual envi-

ronments. Household appliances will talk to one another, telling

remote households the secrets of our usage patterns.

The design of everyday things is in great danger of becoming the

design of superfluous, overloaded, unnecessary things.

Design Thinking and
Thinking About Design

Design is successful only if the final product is successful—if peo-

ple buy it, use it, and enjoy it, thus spreading the word. A design

that people do not purchase is a failed design, no matter how great

the design team might consider it.

Designers need to make things that satisfy people’s needs, in

terms of function, in terms of being understandable and usable,

and in terms of their ability to deliver emotional satisfaction, pride,

and delight. In other words, the design must be thought of as a

total experience.

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294 The Design of Everyday Things

But successful products need more than a great design. They

have to be able to be produced reliably, efficiently, and on sched-

ule. If the design complicates the engineering requirements so

much that they cannot be realized within the cost and scheduling

constraints, then the design is flawed. Similarly, if manufacturing

cannot produce the product, then the design is flawed.

Marketing considerations are important. Designers want to sat-

isfy people’s needs. Marketing wants to ensure that people ac-

tually buy and use the product. These are two different sets of

requirements: design must satisfy both. It doesn’t matter how

great the design is if people don’t buy it. And it doesn’t matter

how many people buy something if they are going to dislike it

when they start using it. Designers will be more effective as they

learn more about sales and marketing, and the financial parts of

the business.

Finally, products have a complex life cycle. Many people will

need assistance in using a device, either because the design or the

manual is not clear, or because they are doing something novel that

was not considered in the product development, or for numerous

other reasons. If the service provided to these people is inadequate,

the product will suffer. Similarly if the device must be maintained,

repaired, or upgraded, how this is managed affects people’s appre-

ciation of the product.

In today’s environmentally sensitive world, the full life cycle of

the product must be taken into consideration. What are the envi-

ronmental costs of the materials, of the manufacturing process, of

distribution, servicing, and repairs? When it is time to replace the

unit, what is the environmental impact of recycling or otherwise

reusing the old?

The product development process is complex and difficult. But

to me, that is why it can be so rewarding. Great products pass

through a gauntlet of challenges. To satisfy the myriad needs re-

quires skill as well as patience. It requires a combination of high

technical skills, great business skills, and a large amount of per-

sonal social skills for interacting with the many other groups that

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seven: Design in the World of Business 295

are involved, all of whom have their own agendas, all of which

believe their requirements to be critical.

Design consists of a series of wonderful, exciting challenges,

with each challenge being an opportunity. Like all great drama,

it has its emotional highs and lows, peaks and valleys. The great

products overcome the lows and end up high.

Now you are on your own. If you are a designer, help fight the

battle for usability. If you are a user, then join your voice with those

who cry for usable products. Write to manufacturers. Boycott un-

usable designs. Support good designs by purchasing them, even

if it means going out of your way, even if it means spending a bit

more. And voice your concerns to the stores that carry the prod-

ucts; manufacturers listen to their customers.

When you visit museums of science and technology, ask ques-

tions if you have trouble understanding. Provide feedback about

the exhibits and whether they work well or poorly. Encourage mu-

seums to move toward better usability and understandability.

And enjoy yourself. Walk around the world examining the de-

tails of design. Learn how to observe. Take pride in the little things

that help: think kindly of the person who so thoughtfully put them

in. Realize that even details matter, that the designer may have

had to fight to include something helpful. If you have difficulties,

remember, it’s not your fault: it’s bad design. Give prizes to those

who practice good design: send flowers. Jeer those who don’t:

send weeds.

Technology continually changes. Much is for the good. Much

is not. All technology can be used in ways never intended by the

inventors. One exciting development is what I call “the rise of

the small.”


I dream of the power of individuals, whether alone or in small

groups, to unleash their creative spirits, their imagination, and

their talents to develop a wide range of innovation. New tech-

nologies promise to make this possible. Now, for the first time

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296 The Design of Everyday Things

in history, individuals can share their ideas, their thoughts and

dreams. They can produce their own products, their own ser-

vices, and make these available to anyone in the world. All can

be their own master, exercising whatever special talents and in-

terests they may have.

What drives this dream? The rise of small, efficient tools that

empower individuals. The list is large and growing continuously.

Consider the rise of musical explorations through conventional, elec-

tronic, and virtual instruments. Consider the rise of self-publishing,

bypassing conventional publishers, printers and distributors, and

replacing these with inexpensive electronic editions available to

anyone in the world to download to e-book readers.

Witness the rise of billions of small videos, available to all. Some

are simply self-serving, some are incredibly educational, and some

are humorous, some serious. They cover everything from how to

make spätzle to how to understand mathematics, or simply how

to dance or play a musical instrument. Some films are purely for

entertainment. Universities are getting into the act, sharing whole

curricula, including videos of lectures. College students post their

class assignments as videos and text, allowing the whole world to

benefit from their efforts. Consider the same phenomenon in writ-

ing, reporting events, and the creation of music and art.

Add to these capabilities the ready availability of inexpensive

motors, sensors, computation, and communication. Now consider

the potential when 3-D printers increase in performance while

decreasing in price, allowing individuals to manufacture custom

items whenever they are required. Designers all over the world

will publish their ideas and plans, enabling entire new industries

of custom mass production. Small quantities can be made as inex-

pensively as large, and individuals might design their own items

or rely on an ever-increasing number of freelance designers who

will publish plans that can then be customized and printed at local

3-D print shops or within their own homes.

Consider the rise of specialists to help plan meals and cook them,

to modify designs to fit needs and circumstances, to tutor on a

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seven: Design in the World of Business 297

wide variety of topics. Experts share their knowledge on blogs and

on Wikipedia, all out of altruism, being rewarded by the thanks of

their readers.

I dream of a renaissance of talent, where people are empowered

to create, to use their skills and talents. Some may wish for the

safety and security of working for organizations. Some may wish

to start new enterprises. Some may do this as hobbies. Some may

band together into small groups and cooperatives, the better to as-

semble the variety of skills required by modern technology, to help

share their knowledge, to teach one another, and to assemble the

critical mass that will always be needed, even for small projects.

Some may hire themselves out to provide the necessary skills re-

quired of large projects, while still keeping their own freedom and


In the past, innovation happened in the industrialized nations

and with time, each innovation became more powerful, more com-

plex, often bloated with features. Older technology was given to

the developing nations. The cost to the environment was seldom

considered. But with the rise of the small, with new, flexible, inex-

pensive technologies, the power is shifting. Today, anyone in the

world can create, design, and manufacture. The newly developed

nations are taking advantage, designing and building by them-

selves, for themselves. Moreover, out of necessity they develop

advanced devices that require less power, that are simpler to make,

maintain, and use. They develop medical procedures that don’t re-

quire refrigeration or continual access to electric power. Instead of

using handed-down technology, their results add value for all of

us—call it handed-up technology.

With the rise of global interconnection, global communication,

powerful design, and manufacturing methods that can be used

by all, the world is rapidly changing. Design is a powerful equal-

izing tool: all that is needed is observation, creativity, and hard

work—anyone can do it. With open-source software, inexpensive

open-source 3-D printers, and even open-source education, we can

transform the world.

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298 The Design of Everyday Things



With massive change, a number of fundamental principles stay

the same. Human beings 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. The design principles of this

book will not change, for the principles of discoverability, of feed-

back, and of the power of affordances and signifiers, mapping, and

conceptual models will always hold. Even fully autonomous, auto-

matic machines will follow these principles for their interactions.

Our technologies may change, but the fundamental principles of

interaction are permanent.

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The original edition of this book was entitled The Psychology of Ev-
eryday Things (POET). This title is a good example of the difference
between academics and industry. POET was a clever, cute title,

much loved by my academic friends. When Doubleday/Currency

approached me about publishing the paperback version of this

book, the editors also said, “But of course, the title will have to be

changed.” Title changed? I was horrified. But I decided to follow

my own advice and do some research on readers. I discovered that

while the academic community liked the title and its cleverness,

the business community did not. In fact, business often ignored the

book because the title sent the wrong message. Bookstores placed

the book in their psychology section (along with books on sex,

love, and self-help). The final nail in the title’s coffin came when I

was asked to talk to a group of senior executives of a leading man-

ufacturing company. The person who introduced me to the audi-

ence praised the book, damned the title, and asked his colleagues

to read the book despite the title.



The book was conceived and the first few drafts written in the late

1980s while I was at the Applied Psychology Unit (the APU) in

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300 Acknowledgments

Cambridge, England, a laboratory of the British Medical Research

Council (the laboratory no longer exists). At the APU, I met an-

other visiting American professor, David Rubin of Duke Univer-

sity, who was analyzing the recall of epic poetry. Rubin showed

me that it wasn’t all in memory: much of the information was in

the world, or at least in the structure of the tale, the poetics, and the

lifestyles of the people.

After spending the fall and winter in Cambridge, England, at

the APU, I went to Austin, Texas, for the spring and summer (yes,

the opposite order from what would be predicted by thinking

of the weather at these two places). In Austin, I was at the Micro-

electronics and Computer Consortium (MCC), where I completed

the manuscript. Finally, when I returned to my home base at the

University of California, San Diego (UCSD), I revised the book sev-

eral more times. I used it in classes and sent copies to a variety of

colleagues for suggestions. I benefited greatly from my interactions

at all these places: APU, MCC, and, of course, UCSD. The com-

ments of my students and readers were invaluable, causing radical

revision from the original structure.

My hosts at the APU in Britain were most gracious, especially

Alan Baddeley, Phil Barnard, Thomas Green, Phil Johnson-Laird,

Tony Marcel, Karalyn and Roy Patterson, Tim Shallice, and Richard

Young. Peter Cook, Jonathan Grudin, and Dave Wroblewski were

extremely helpful during my stay at the MCC in Texas (another in-

stitution that no longer exists). At UCSD, I especially wish to thank

the students in Psychology 135 and 205: my undergraduate and

graduate courses at UCSD entitled “Cognitive Engineering.”

My understanding of how we interact with the world was de-

veloped and strengthened by years of debate and interaction with

a very powerful team of people at UCSD from the departments of

cognitive science, psychology, anthropology, and sociology, orga-

nized by Mike Cole, who met informally once a week for several

years. The primary members were Roy d’Andrade, Aaron Cicourel,

Mike Cole, Bud Mehan, George Mandler, Jean Mandler, Dave Ru-

melhart, and me. In later years, I benefited immensely from my

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Acknowledgments 301

interactions with Jim Hollan, Edwin Hutchins, and David Kirsh, all

faculty members in the department of cognitive science at UCSD.

The early manuscript for POET was dramatically enhanced by

critical readings by my colleagues: In particular, I am indebted to

my editor at Basic Books, Judy Greissman, who provided patient

critique through several revisions of POET.

My colleagues in the design community were most helpful with

their comments: Mike King, Mihai Nadin, Dan Rosenberg, and Bill

Verplank. Special thanks must be given to Phil Agre, Sherman De-

Forest, and Jef Raskin, all of whom read the manuscript with care

and provided numerous and valuable suggestions. Collecting the

illustrations became part of the fun as I traveled the world with

camera in hand. Eileen Conway and Michael Norman helped col-

lect and organize the figures and illustrations. Julie Norman helped

as she does on all my books, proofing, editing, commenting, and

encouraging. Eric Norman provided valuable advice, support, and

photogenic feet and hands.

Finally, my colleagues at the Institute for Cognitive Science at

UCSD helped throughout—in part through the wizardry of inter-

national computer mail, in part through their personal assistance

to the details of the process. I single out Bill Gaver, Mike Mozer,

and Dave Owen for their detailed comments, but many helped out

at one time or another during the research that preceded the book

and the several years of writing.



Because this new edition follows the organization and principles

of the first, all the help given to me for that earlier edition applies

to this one as well.

I have learned a lot in the years that have passed since the first

edition of this book. For one thing, then I was an academic scholar.

In the interim I have worked in several different companies. The

most important experience was at Apple, where I began to appre-

ciate how issues—budget, schedule, competitive forces, and the

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302 Acknowledgments

established base of products—that seldom concern scientists can

dominate decisions in the world of business. While I was at Apple

it had lost its way, but nothing is a better learning experience than

a company in trouble: you have to be a fast learner.

I learned about schedules and budgets, about the competing

demand of the different divisions, about the role of marketing,

industrial design, and graphical, usability, and interactive design

(today lumped together under the rubric of experience design). I

visited numerous companies across the United States, Europe, and

Asia and talked with numerous partners and customers. It was a

great learning experience. I am indebted to Dave Nagel, who hired

and then promoted me to vice president of advanced technology,

and to John Scully, the first CEO I worked with at Apple: John had

the correct vision of the future. I learned from many people, far

too many to name (a quick review of the Apple people I worked

closely with and who are still in my contact list reveals 240 names).

I learned about industrial design first from Bob Brunner, then

from Jonathan (Joni) Ive. (Joni and I had to fight together to con-

vince Apple management to produce his ideas. My, how Apple

has changed!) Joy Mountford ran the design team in advanced

technology and Paulien Strijland ran the usability testing group

in the product division. Tom Erickson, Harry Saddler, and Aus-

tin Henderson worked for me in the User Experience Architect’s

office. Of particular significance to my increased understanding

were Larry Tesler, Ike Nassi, Doug Solomon, Michael Mace, Rick

LaFaivre, Guerrino De Luca, and Hugh Dubberly. Of special im-

portance were the Apple Fellows Alan Kay, Guy Kawasaki, and

Gary Starkweather. (I was originally hired as an Apple Fellow.

All Fellows reported to the VP of advanced technology.) Steve

Wozniak, by a peculiar quirk, was an Apple employee with me as

his boss, which allowed me to spend a delightful afternoon with

him. I apologize to those of you who were so helpful, but who I

have not included here.

I thank my wife and critical reader, Julie Norman, for her pa-

tience in repeated careful readings of the manuscripts, telling me

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Acknowledgments 303

when I was stupid, redundant, and overly wordy. Eric Norman

showed up as a young child in two of the photos of the first edi-

tion, and now, twenty-five years later, read the entire manuscript

and provided cogent, valuable critiques. My assistant, Mimi Gard-

ner, held off the e-mail onslaught, allowing me to concentrate upon

writing, and of course my friends at the Nielsen Norman group

provided inspiration. Thank you, Jakob.

Danny Bobrow of the Palo Alto Research Center, a frequent col-

laborator and coauthor of science papers for four decades, has

provided continual advice and cogent critiques of my ideas. Lera

Boroditsky shared her research on space and time with me, and

further delighted me by leaving Stanford to take a job at the de-

partment I had founded, Cognitive Science, at UCSD.

I am of course indebted to Professor Yutaka Sayeki of the Univer-

sity of Tokyo for permission to use his story of how he managed

the turn signals on his motorcycle. I used the story in the first edi-

tion, but disguised the name. A diligent Japanese reader figured

out who it must have been, so for this edition, I asked Sayeki for

permission to name him.

Professor Kun-Pyo Lee invited me to spend two months a year

for three years at the Korea Advanced Institute for Science and

Technology (KAIST) in its Industrial Design department, which

gave me a much deeper insight into the teaching of design, Korean

technology, and the culture of Northeast Asia, plus many new

friends and a permanent love for kimchi.

Alex Kotlov, watching over the entrance to the building on Mar-

ket Street in San Francisco where I photographed the destination

control elevators, not only allowed me to photograph them, but

then turned out to have read DOET!

In the years since publication of POET/DOET, I have learned a

considerable amount about the practice of design. At IDEO I am

indebted to David Kelly and Tim Brown, as well as fellow IDEO

Fellows Barry Katz and Kristian Simsarian. I’ve had many fruitful

discussions with Ken Friedman, former dean of the faculty of de-

sign at Swinburne University of Technology, Melbourne, as well as

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304 Acknowledgments

with my colleagues at many of the major schools of design around

the world, in the United States, London, Delft, Eindhoven, Ivrea,

Milan, Copenhagen, and Hong Kong.

And thanks to Sandra Dijkstra, my literary agent for almost

thirty years, with POET being one of her first books, but who now

has a large team of people and successful authors. Thanks, Sandy.

Andrew Haskin and Kelly Fadem, at the time students at CCA,

the California College of the Arts in San Francisco, did all of the

drawings in the book—a vast improvement over the ones in the

first edition that I did myself.

Janaki (Mythily) Kumar, a User Experience designer at SAP, pro-

vided valuable comments on real world practices.

Thomas Kelleher (TJ), my editor at Basic Books for this revised

edition, provided rapid, efficient advice and editing suggestions

(which led me to yet another massive revision of the manuscript

that vastly improved the book). Doug Sery served as my editor at

MIT Press for the UK edition of this book (as well as for Living with
Complexity). For this book, TJ did all the work and Doug provided

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In the notes below, I first provide general readings. Then, chapter

by chapter, I give the specific sources used or cited in the book.

In this world of rapid access to information, you can find infor-

mation about the topics discussed here by yourself. Here is an ex-

ample: In Chapter 5, I discuss root cause analysis as well as the

Japanese method called the Five Whys. Although my descriptions

of these concepts in Chapter 5 are self-sufficient for most purposes,

readers who wish to learn more can use their favorite search en-

gine with the critical phrases in quotes.

Most of the relevant information can be found online. The prob-

lem is that the addresses (URLs) are ephemeral. Today’s locations

of valuable information may no longer be at the same place to-

morrow. The creaky, untrustworthy Internet, which is all we have

today, may finally, thank goodness, be replaced by a superior

scheme. Whatever the reason, the Internet addresses I provide may

no longer work. The good news is that over the years that will

pass after the publication of this book, new and improved search

methods will certainly arise. It should be even easier to find more

information about any of the concepts discussed in this book.

These notes provide excellent starting points. I provide critical

references for the concepts discussed in the book, organized by

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306 General Readings

the chapters where they were discussed. The citations serve two

purposes. First, they provide credit to the originators of the ideas.

Second, they serve as starting points to get a deeper understanding

of the concepts. For more advanced information (as well as newer,

further developments), go out and search. Enhanced search skills

are important tools for success in the twenty-first century.


When the first edition of this book was published, the discipline

of interaction design did not exist, the field of human-computer

interaction was in its infancy, and most studies were done under

the guise of “usability” or “user interface.” Several very different

disciplines were struggling to bring clarity to this enterprise, but

often with little or no interaction among the disciplines. The ac-

ademic disciplines of computer science, psychology, human fac-

tors, and ergonomics all knew of one another’s existence and often

worked together, but design was not included. Why not design?

Note that all the disciplines just listed are in the areas of science

and engineering—in other words, technology. Design was then

mostly taught in schools of art or architecture as a profession

rather than as a research-based academic discipline. Designers had

remarkably little contact with science and engineering. This meant

that although many excellent practitioners were trained, there was

essentially no theory: design was learned through apprenticeship,

mentorship, and experience.

Few people in the academic disciplines were aware of the ex-

istence of design as a serious enterprise, and as a result, design,

and in particular, graphical, communication, and industrial de-

sign worked completely independently of the newly emerging

discipline of human-computer interaction and the existing disci-

plines of human factors and ergonomics. Some product design was

taught in departments of mechanical engineering, but again, with

little interaction with design. Design was simply not an academic

discipline, so there was little or no mutual awareness or collabo-

ration. Traces of this distinction remain today, although design is

more and more becoming a research-based discipline, where pro-

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General Readings 307

fessors have experience in practice as well as PhDs. The boundar-

ies are disappearing.

This peculiar history of many independent, disparate groups all

working on similar issues makes it difficult to provide references

that cover both the academic side of interaction and experience

design, and the applied side of design. The proliferation of books,

texts, and journals in human-computer interaction, experience de-

sign, and usability is huge: too large to cite. In the materials that

follow, I provide a very restricted number of examples. When I

originally put together a list of works I considered important, it

was far too long. It fell prey to the problem described by Barry

Schwartz in his book The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less (2005).
So I decided to simplify by providing less. It is easy to find other

works, including important ones that will be published after this

book. Meanwhile, my apologies to my many friends whose im-

portant and useful works had to be trimmed from my list.

Industrial designer Bill Moggridge was extremely influential in

establishing interaction within the design community. He played a

major role in the design of the first portable computer. He was one

of the three founders of IDEO, one of the world’s most influential

design firms. He wrote two books of interviews with key people

in the early development of the discipline: Designing Interactions
(2007) and Designing Media (2010). As is typical of discussions from
the discipline of design, his works focus almost entirely upon the

practice of design, with little attention to the science. Barry Katz, a

design professor at San Francisco’s California College of the Arts,

Stanford’s d.school, and an IDEO Fellow, provides an excellent

history of design practice within the community of companies

in Silicon Valley, California: Ecosystem of Innovation: The History of
Silicon Valley Design (2014). An excellent, extremely comprehen-
sive history of the field of product design is provided by Bern-

hard Bürdek’s Design: History, Theory, and Practice of Product Design
(2005). Bürdek’s book, originally published in German but with an

excellent English translation, is the most comprehensive history of

product design I have been able to find. I highly recommend it to

those who want to understand the historical foundations.

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308 General Readings

Modern designers like to characterize their work as providing

deep insight into the fundamentals of problems, going far beyond

the popular conception of design as making things pretty. Design-

ers emphasize this aspect of their profession by discussing the spe-

cial way in which they approach problems, a method they have

characterized as “design thinking.” A good introduction to this

comes from the book Change by Design (2009), by Tim Brown and
Barry Katz. Brown is CEO of IDEO and Katz an IDEO Fellow (see

the previous paragraph).

An excellent introduction to design research is provided in Jan

Chipchase and Simon Steinhardt’s Hidden in Plain Sight (2013).
The book chronicles the life of a design researcher who studies

people by observing them in their homes, barber shops, and liv-

ing quarters around the world. Chipchase is executive creative

director of global insights at Frog Design, working out of the

Shanghai office. The work of Hugh Beyer and Karen Holtzblatt

in Contextual Design: Defining Customer-Centered Systems (1998)
presents a powerful method of analyzing behavior; they have

also produced a useful workbook (Holtzblatt, Wendell, & Wood,


There are many excellent books. Here are a few more:

Buxton, W. (2007). Sketching user experience: Getting the design right and the right
design. San Francisco, CA: Morgan Kaufmann. (And see the companion
workbook [Greenberg, Carpendale, Marquardt, & Buxton, 2012].)

Coates, D. (2003). Watches tell more than time: Product design, information, and the
quest for elegance. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Cooper, A., Reimann, R., & Cronin, D. (2007). About face 3: The essentials of
interaction design. Indianapolis, IN: Wiley Pub.

Hassenzahl, M. (2010). Experience design: Technology for all the right reasons. San
Rafael, California: Morgan & Claypool.

Moggridge, B. (2007). Designing interactions. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. http://
www.designinginteractions.com. Chapter 10 describes the methods of

interaction design: http://www.designinginteractions.com/chapters/10

Two handbooks provide comprehensive, detailed treatments of the

topics in this book:

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Notes to Chapter 2 309

Jacko, J. A. (2012). The human-computer interaction handbook: Fundamentals,
evolving technologies, and emerging applications (3rd edition). Boca Raton,
FL: CRC Press.

Lee, J. D., & Kirlik, A. (2013). The Oxford handbook of cognitive engineering. New
York: Oxford University Press.

Which book should you look at? Both are excellent, and although

expensive, well worth the price for anyone who intends to work

in these fields. The Human-Computer Interaction Handbook, as the ti-
tle suggests, focuses primarily on computer-enhanced interactions

with technology, whereas the Handbook of Cognitive Engineering has
a much broader coverage. Which book is better? That depends upon

what problem you are working on. For my work, both are essential.

Finally, let me recommend two websites:

Interaction Design Foundation: Take special note of its Encyclopedia articles.


SIGCHI: The Computer-Human Interaction Special Interest Group for ACM.



2 Coffeepot for Masochists: This was created by the French artist Jacques
Carelman (1984). The photograph shows a coffeepot inspired by

Carelman, but owned by me. Photograph by Aymin Shamma for the


10 Affordances: The perceptual psychologist J. J. Gibson invented the word
affordance to explain how people navigated the world (Gibson, 1979).
I introduced the term into the world of interaction design in the first

edition of this book (Norman, 1988). Since then, the number of writings

on affordance has been enormous. Confusion over the appropriate way

to use the term prompted me to introduce the concept of “signifier” in

my book Living with Complexity (Norman, 2010), discussed throughout
this book, but especially in Chapters 1 and 4.


38 Gulfs of execution and evaluation: The story of the gulfs and bridges of
execution and evaluation came from research performed with Ed

Hutchins and Jim Hollan, then part of a joint research team between the

Naval Personnel Research and Development Center and the University

of California, San Diego (Hollan and Hutchins are now professors of

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310 Notes to Chapter 2

cognitive science at the University of California, San Diego). The work

examined the development of computer systems that were easier to

learn and easier to use, and in particular, of what has been called

direct manipulation computer systems. The initial work is described

in the chapter “Direct Manipulation Interfaces” in the book from our

laboratories, User Centered System Design: New Perspectives on Human-
Computer Interaction (Hutchins, Hollan, & Norman, 1986). Also see the
paper by Hollan, Hutchins, and David Kirsh, “Distributed Cognition: A

New Foundation for Human-Computer Interaction Research” (Hollan,

Hutchins, & Kirsh, 2000).

43 Levitt: “People don’t want to buy a quarter-inch drill. They want a quarter-
inch hole!” See Christensen, Cook, & Hal, 2006. The fact that Harvard

Business School marketing professor Theodore Levitt is credited with

the quote about the drill and the hole is a good example of Stigler’s law:

“No scientific discovery is named after its original discoverer.” Thus,

Levitt himself attributed the statement about drills and holes to Leo

McGinneva (Levitt, 1983). Stigler’s law is, itself, an example of the law:

Stigler, a professor of statistics, wrote that he learned the law from the

sociologist Robert Merton. See more at Wikipedia, “Stigler’s Law of

Eponymy” (Wikipedia contributors, 2013c).

46 Doorknob: The question “In the house you lived in three houses ago, as
you entered the front door, was the doorknob on the left or right?” comes

from my paper “Memory, Knowledge, and the Answering of Questions”

(Norman, 1973).

53 Visceral, behavioral, and reflective: Daniel Kahneman’s book, Thinking Fast
and Slow (Kahneman, 2011), gives an excellent introduction to modern
conceptions of the role of conscious and subconscious processing. The

distinctions between visceral, behavioral, and reflective processing

form the basis of my book Emotional Design (Norman, 2002, 2004). This
model of the human cognitive and emotional system is described in

more technical detail in the scientific paper I wrote with Andrew Ortony

and William Revelle: “The Role of Affect and Proto-affect in Effective

Functioning” (Ortony, Norman, & Revelle, 2005). Also see “Designers

and Users: Two Perspectives on Emotion and Design” (Norman &

Ortony, 2006). Emotional Design contains numerous examples of the role
of design at all three levels.

58 Thermostat: The valve theory of the thermostat is taken from Kempton,
a study published in the journal Cognitive Science (1986). Intelligent
thermostats try to predict when they will be required, turning on or

off earlier than the simple control illustrated in Chapter 2 can specify,

to ensure that the desired temperature is reached at the desired time,

without over- or undershooting the target.

63 Positive psychology: Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s work on flow can be found
in his several books on the topic (1990, 1997). Martin (Marty) Seligman

developed the concept of learned helplessness, and then applied it to

depression (Seligman, 1992). However, he decided that it was wrong for

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Notes to Chapter 3 311

psychology to continually focus upon difficulties and abnormalities,

so he teamed up with Csikszentmihalyi to create a movement for

positive psychology. An excellent introduction is provided in the article

by the two of them in the journal American Psychologist (Seligman &
Csikszentmihalyi, 2000). Since then, positive psychology has expanded

to include books, journals, and conferences.

66 Human error: People blame themselves: Unfortunately, blaming the user
is imbedded in the legal system. When major accidents occur, official

courts of inquiry are set up to assess the blame. More and more often, the

blame is attributed to “human error.” But in my experience, human error

usually is a result of poor design: why was the system ever designed so

that a single act by a single person could cause calamity? An important

book on this topic is Charles Perrow’s Normal Accidents (1999). Chapter 5
of this book provides a detailed examination of human error.

72 Feedforward: Feedforward is an old concept from control theory, but I
first encountered it applied to the seven stages of action in the paper

by Jo Vermeulen, Kris Luyten, Elise van den Hoven, and Karin Coninx



74 American coins: Ray Nickerson and Marilyn Adams, as well as David
Rubin and Theda Kontis, showed that people could neither recall

nor recognize accurately the pictures and words on American coins

(Nickerson & Adams, 1979; Rubin & Kontis, 1983).

80 French coins: The quotation about the French government release of the
10-franc coin comes from an article by Stanley Meisler (1986), reprinted

with permission of the Los Angeles Times.
80 Descriptions in memory: The suggestion that memory storage and retrieval

is mediated through partial descriptions was put forth in a paper with

Danny Bobrow (Norman & Bobrow, 1979). We argued that, in general,

the required specificity of a description depends on the set of items

among which a person is trying to distinguish. Memory retrieval can

therefore involve a prolonged series of attempts during which the initial

retrieval descriptions yield incomplete or erroneous results, so that the

person must keep trying, each retrieval attempt coming closer to the

answer and helping to make the description more precise.

83 Constraints of rhyming: Given just the cues for meaning (the first task),
the people David C. Rubin and Wanda T. Wallace tested could guess the

three target words used in these examples only 0 percent, 4 percent, and

0 percent of the time, respectively. Similarly, when the same target words

were cued only by rhymes, they still did quite poorly, guessing the targets

correctly only 0 percent, 0 percent, and 4 percent of the time, respectively.

Thus, each cue alone offered little assistance. Combining the meaning

cue with the rhyming cue led to perfect performance: the people got the

target words 100 percent of the time (Rubin & Wallace, 1989).

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312 Notes to Chapter 3

86 ‘Ali Baba: Alfred Bates Lord’s work is summarized in his book The Singer
of Tales (1960). The quotation from “‘Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves”
comes from The Arabian Nights: Tales of Wonder and Magnificence, selected
and edited by Padraic Colum, translated by Edward William Lane

(Colum & Ward, 1953). The names here are in an unfamiliar form: most

of us know the magic phrase as “Open Sesame,” but according to Colum,

“Simsim” is the authentic transliteration.

87 Passwords: How do people cope with passwords? There are lots of studies:
(Anderson, 2008; Florêncio, Herley, & Coskun, 2007; National Research

Council Steering Committee on the Usability, Security, and Privacy of

Computer Systems, 2010; Norman, 2009; Schneier, 2000).

To find the most common passwords, just search using some phrase

such as “most common passwords.” My article on security, which led

to numerous newspaper column references to it, is available on my

website and was also published in the magazine for human-computer

interaction, Interactions (Norman, 2009).
89 Hiding places: The quotation about professional thieves’ knowledge of

how people hide things comes from Winograd and Soloway’s study “On

Forgetting the Locations of Things Stored in Special Places” (1986).

93 Mnemonics: Mnemonic methods were covered in my book Memory and
Attention, and although that book is old, the mnemonic techniques are
even older, and are still unchanged (Norman, 1969, 1976). I discuss the

effort of retrieval in Learning and Memory (Norman, 1982). Mnemonic
techniques are easy to find: just search the web for “mnemonics.”

Similarly, the properties of short- and long-term memory are readily

found by an Internet search or in any text on experimental psychology,

cognitive psychology, or neuropsychology (as opposed to clinical

psychology) or a text on cognitive science. Alternatively, search online

for “human memory,” “working memory,” “short-term memory” or

“long-term memory.” Also see the book by Harvard psychologist Daniel

Schacter, The Seven Sins of Memory (2001). What are Schacter’s seven sins?
Transience, absent-mindedness, blocking, misattribution, suggestibility,

persistence, and bias.

101 Whitehead: Alfred North Whitehead’s quotation about the power of
automated behavior is from Chapter 5 of his book An Introduction to
Mathematics (1911).

107 Prospective memory: Considerable research on prospective memory and
memory for the future is summarized in the articles by Dismukes on

prospective memory and the review by Cristina Atance and Daniela

O’Neill on memory for the future, or what they call “episodic future

thinking” (Atance & O’Neill, 2001; Dismukes, 2012).

112 Transactive memory: The term transactive memory was coined by Harvard
professor of psychology Daniel Wegner (Lewis & Herndon, 2011; Wegner,

D. M., 1987; Wegner, T. G., & Wegner, D. M., 1995).

113 Stove controls: The difficulty in mapping stove controls to burners has
been understood by human factors experts for over fifty years: Why are

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Notes to Chapter 4 313

stoves still designed so badly? This issue was addressed in 1959, the very

first year of the Human Factors Journal (Chapanis & Lindenbaum, 1959).
118 Culture and design: My discussion of the impact of culture on mappings

was heavily informed by my discussions with Lera Boroditsky, then

at Stanford University, but now in the cognitive science department

at the University of California, San Diego. See her book chapter “How

Languages Construct Time” (2011). Studies of the Australian Aborigine

were reported by Núñez & Sweetser (2006).



126 InstaLoad: A description of Microsoft’s InstaLoad technology for battery
contacts is available on its website: www.microsoft.com/hardware


129 Cultural frames: See Roger Schank and Robert B. Abelson’s Scripts,
Plans, Goals, and Understanding (1977) or Erving Goffman’s classic and
extremely influential books The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (1959)
and Frame Analysis (1974). I recommend Presentation as the most relevant
(and easiest to read) of his works.

129 Violating social conventions: “Try violating cultural norms and see how
uncomfortable that makes you and the other people.” Jan Chipchase and

Simon Steinhardt’s Hidden in Plain Sight provides many examples of how
design researchers can deliberately violate social conventions so as to

understand how a culture works. Chipchase reports an experiment in

which able-bodied young people request that seated subway passengers

give up their seat to them. The experimenters were surprised by two

things. First, a large proportion of people obeyed. Second, the people

most affected were the experimenters themselves: they had to force

themselves to make the requests and then felt bad about it for a long

time afterward. A deliberate violation of social constraints can be

uncomfortable for both the violator and the violated (Chipchase &

Steinhardt, 2013).

137 Light switch panel: For the construction of my home light switch panel,
I relied heavily on the electrical and mechanical ingenuity of Dave

Wargo, who actually did the design, construction, and installation of the


156 Natural sounds: Bill Gaver, now a prominent design researcher at
Goldsmiths College, University of London (UK), first alerted me to

the importance of natural sounds in his PhD dissertation and later

publications (Gaver, W., 1997; Gaver, W. W., 1989). There has been

considerable research on sound since the early days: see, for example,

Gygi & Shafiro (2010).

160 Electric vehicles: The quotation from the US government rule on sounds
for electric vehicles can be found on the Department of Transportation’s

website (2013).

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314 Notes to Chapter 5


There has been a lot of work on the study of error, human reliabil-

ity, and resilience. A good source, besides the items cited below, is

the Wiki of Science article on human error (Wiki of Science, 2013).

Also see the book Behind Human Error (Woods, Decker, Cook, Jo-
hannesen, & Sarter, 2010).

Two of the most important workers in human error are British

psychologist James Reason and Danish engineer Jens Rasmussen.

Also see the books by the Swedish investigator Sidney Dekker, and

MIT professor Nancy Leveson (Dekker, 2011, 2012, 2013; Leveson,

N., 2012; Leveson, N. G., 1995; Rasmussen, Duncan, & Leplat, 1987;

Rasmussen, Pejtersen, & Goodstein, 1994; Reason, J. T., 1990, 2008).

Unless otherwise noted, all the examples of slips in this chapter

were collected by me, primarily from the errors of myself, my re-

search associates, my colleagues, and my students. Everyone dili-

gently recorded his or her slips, with the requirement that only the

ones that had been immediately recorded would be added to the

collection. Many were first published in Norman (1981).

165 F-22 crash: The analysis of the Air Force F-22 crash comes from a government
report (Inspector General United States Department of Defense, 2013).

(This report also contains the original Air Force report as Appendix C.)

170 Slips and mistakes: The descriptions of skill-based, rule-based, and
knowledge-based behavior is taken from Jens Rasmussen’s paper on

the topic (1983), which still stands as one of the best introductions. The

classification of errors into slips and mistakes was done jointly by me and

Reason. The classification of mistakes into rule-based and knowledge-

based follows the work of Rasmussen (Rasmussen, Goodstein, Andersen,

& Olsen, 1988; Rasmussen, Pejtersen, & Goodstein, 1994; Reason, J. T.,

1990, 1997, 2008). Memory lapse errors (both slips and mistakes) were not

originally distinguished from other errors: they were put into separate

categories later, but not quite the same way I have done here.

172 “Gimli Glider”: The so-called Gimli Glider accident was an Air Canada Boe-
ing 767 that ran out of fuel and had to glide to a landing at Gimli, a de-

commissioned Canadian Air Force base. There were numerous mistakes:

search for “Gimli Glider accident.” (I recommend the Wikipedia treatment.)

174 Capture error: The category “capture error” was invented by James
Reason (1979).

178 Airbus: The difficulties with the Airbus and its modes are described
in (Aviation Safety Network, 1992; Wikipedia contributors, 2013a). For

a disturbing description of another design problem with the Airbus—

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Notes to Chapter 5 315

that the two pilots (the captain and the first officer) can both control the

joysticks, but there is no feedback, so one pilot does not know what the other

pilot is doing—see the article in the British newspaper The Telegraph
(Ross & Tweedie, 2012).

181 The Kiss nightclub fire in Santa Maria, Brazil: It is described in numerous
Brazilian and American newspapers (search the web for “Kiss nightclub

fire”). I first learned about it from the New York Times (Romero, 2013).
186 Tenerife crash: My source for information about the Tenerife crash is from

a report by Roitsch, Babcock, and Edmunds issued by the American

Airline Pilots Association (Roitsch, Babcock, & Edmunds, undated).

It is perhaps not too surprising that it differs in interpretation from

the Spanish government’s report (Spanish Ministry of Transport and

Communications, 1978), which in turn differs from the report by the

Dutch Aircraft Accident Inquiry Board. A nice review of the 1977 Tenerife

accident—written in 2007—that shows its long-lasting importance has

been written by Patrick Smith for the website Salon.com (Smith, 2007,

Friday, April 6, 04:00 AM PDT).

188 Air Florida crash: The information and quotations about the Air Florida
crash are from the report of the National Transportation Safety Board

(1982). See also the two books entitled Pilot Error (Hurst, 1976; Hurst, R. &
Hurst, L. R., 1982). The two books are quite different. The second is better

than the first, in part because at the time the first book was written, not

much scientific evidence was available.

190 Checklists in medicine: Duke University’s examples of knowledge-based
mistakes can be found at Duke University Medical Center (2013). An

excellent summary of the use of checklists in medicine—and the many

social pressures that have slowed up its adoption—is provided by Atul

Gawande (2009).

192 Jidoka: The quotation from Toyota about Jidoka, and the Toyota
Production System comes from the auto maker’s website (Toyota Motor

Europe Corporate Site, 2013). Poka-yoke is described in many books and

websites. I found the two books written by or with the assistance of the

originator, Shigeo Shingo, to provide a valuable perspective (Nikkan

Kogyo Shimbun, 1988; Shingo, 1986).

193 Aviation safety: The website for NASA’s Aviation Safety Reporting System
provides details of the system, along with a history of its reports (NASA,


197 Hindsight: Baruch Fischhoff’s study is called “Hindsight ≠ Foresight:
The Effect of Outcome Knowledge on Judgment Under Uncertainty”

(1975). And while you are at it, see his more recent work (Fischhoff, 2012;

Fischhoff & Kadvany, 2011).

198 Designing for error: I discuss the idea of designing for error in a paper
in Communications of the ACM, in which I analyze a number of the slips
people make in using computer systems and suggest system design

principles that might minimize those errors (Norman, 1983). This

philosophy also pervades the book that our research team put together:

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316 Notes to Chapter 5

User Centered System Design (Norman & Draper, 1986); two chapters are
especially relevant to the discussions here: my “Cognitive Engineering”

and the one I wrote with Clayton Lewis, “Designing for Error.”

200 Multitasking: There are many studies of the dangers and inefficiencies of
multitasking. A partial review is given by Spink, Cole, & Waller (2008).

David L. Strayer and his colleagues at the University of Utah have done

numerous studies demonstrating rather severe impairment in driving

behavior while using cell phones (Strayer & Drews, 2007; Strayer, Drews,

& Crouch, 2006). Even pedestrians are distracted by cell phone usage,

as demonstrated by a team of researchers from West Washington

University (Hyman, Boss, Wise, McKenzie, & Caggiano, 2010).

200 Unicycling clown: The clever study of the invisible clown, riding a
unicycle, “Did you see the unicycling clown? Inattentional blindness

while walking and talking on a cell phone” was done by Hyman, Boss,

Wise, McKenzie, & Caggiano (2010).

208 Swiss cheese model: James Reason introduced his extremely influential
Swiss cheese model in 1990 (Reason, J., 1990; Reason, J. T., 1997).

210 Hersman: Deborah Hersman’s description of the design philosophy for
aircraft comes from her talk on February 7, 2013, discussing the NTSB’s

attempts to understand the cause of the fires in the battery compartments

of Boeing 787 aircraft. Although the fires caused airplanes to make

emergency landings, no passengers or crew were injured: the multiple

layers of redundant protection maintained safety. Nonetheless, the

fires and resulting damage were unexpected and serious enough that

all Boeing 787 airlines were grounded until all parties involved had

completed a thorough investigation of the causes of the incident and

then gone through a new certification process with the Federal Aviation

Agency (for the United States, and through the corresponding agencies in

other countries). Although this was expensive and greatly inconvenient, it

is an example of good proactive practice: take measures before accidents

lead to injury and death (National Transportation Safety Board, 2013).

212 Resilience engineering: The excerpt from “Prologue: Resilience Engineering
Concepts,” in the book Resilience Engineering, is reprinted by permission
of the publishers (Hollnagel, Woods, & Leveson, 2006).

213 Automation: Much of my research and writings have addressed issues of
automation. An early paper, “Coffee Cups in the Cockpit,” addresses this

problem as well as the fact that when talking about incidents in a large

country—or that occur worldwide—a “one-in-a-million chance” is not

good enough odds (Norman, 1992). My book The Design of Future Things
deals extensively with this issue (Norman, 2007).

214 Royal Majesty accident: An excellent analysis of the mode error accident
with the cruise ship Royal Majesty is contained in Asaf Degani’s book on
automation, Taming HAL: Designing Interfaces Beyond 2001 (Degani, 2004), as
well as in the analyses by Lützhöft and Dekker and the official NTSB report

(Lützhöft & Dekker, 2002; National Transportation Safety Board, 1997).

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Notes to Chapter 6 317


As pointed out in the “General Readings” section, a good intro-

duction to design thinking is Change by Design by Tim Brown and
Barry Katz (2009). Brown is CEO of IDEO and Katz a professor at

the California College of the Arts, visiting professor at Stanford’s

d.school, and an IDEO Fellow. There are multiple Internet sources;

I like designthinkingforeducators.com.

220 Double diverge-converge pattern: The double diverge-converge pattern was
first introduced by the British Design Council in 2005, which called it the
“Double-Diamond Design Process Model” (Design Council, 2005).

221 HCD process: The human-centered design process has many variants,
each similar in spirit but different in the details. A nice summary of the

method I describe is provided by the HCD book and toolkit from the

design firm IDEO (IDEO, 2013).

227 Prototyping: For prototyping, see Buxton’s book and handbook on
sketching (Buxton, 2007; Greenberg, Carpendale, Marquardt, & Buxton,

2012). There are multiple methods used by designers to understand the

nature of the problem and come to a potential solution. Vijay Kumar’s

101 Design Methods (2013) doesn’t even cover them all. Kumar’s book is
an excellent treatment of design research methods, but its focus is on

innovation, not the production of products, so it does not cover the actual

development cycle. Physical prototyping, their tests, and iterations are

outside the domain, as are the practical concerns of the marketplace, the

topic of the last part of this chapter and all of chapter 7.

227 Wizard of Oz technique: The Wizard of Oz technique is named after
L. Frank Baum’s book The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (Baum & Denslow,
1900). My use of the technique is described in the resulting paper from

the group headed by artificial intelligence researcher Danny Bobrow at

what was then called the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (Bobrow

et al., 1977). The “graduate student” sitting in the other room was Allen

Munro, who then went on to a distinguished research career.

229 Nielsen: Jakob Nielsen’s argument that five users is the ideal number for
most tests can be found on the Nielsen Norman group’s website (Nielsen,


233 Three goals: Marc Hassenzahl’s use of the three levels of goals (be-goals,
do-goals, and motor-goals) is described in many places, but I strongly

recommend his book Experience Design (Hassenzahl, 2010). The three
goals come from the work of Charles Carver and Michael Scheier in their

landmark book on the use of feedback models, chaos, and dynamical

theory to explain much of human behavior (Carver & Scheier, 1998).

246 Age and performance: A good review of the impact of age on human factors
is provided by Frank Schieber (2003). The report by Igo Grossman and

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318 Notes to Chapter 7

colleagues is a typical example of research showing that careful studies

reveal superior performance with age (Grossmann et al., 2010).

254 Swatch International Time: Swatch’s development of .beat time and the
French decimal time are discussed in the Wikipedia article on decimal

time (Wikipedia contributors, 2013b).


261 Creeping featurism: A note for the technology historians. I’ve managed to
trace the origin of this term to a talk by John Mashey in 1976 (Mashey,

1976). At that time Mashey was a computer scientist at Bell Laboratories,

where he was one of the early developers of UNIX, a well-known

computer operating system (which is still active as Unix, Linux, and the

kernel underlying Apple’s Mac OS).

262 Youngme Moon: Youngme Moon’s book Different: Escaping the Competitive
Herd (Moon, 2010) argues that “If there is one strain of conventional
wisdom pervading every company in every industry, it is the importance

of competing hard to differentiate yourself from the competition. And

yet going head-to-head with the competition—with respect to features,

product augmentations, and so on—has the perverse effect of making

you just like everyone else.” (From the jacket of her book: see http://


266 Word-gesture system: The word-gesture system that works by tracing the
letters on the screen keyboard to type rapidly and efficiently (although

not as fast as with a traditional ten-finger keyboard) is described in

considerable detail by Shumin Zhai and Per Ola Kristensson, two of the

developers of this method of typing (Zhai & Kristensson, 2012).

269 Multitouch screens: In the more than thirty years multitouch screens have
been in the laboratories, numerous companies have launched products

and failed. Nimish Mehta is credited with the invention of multitouch,

discussed in his master’s thesis (1982) from the University of Toronto.

Bill Buxton (2012), one of the pioneers in this field, provides a valuable

review (he was working with multitouch displays in the early 1980s at

the University of Toronto). Another excellent review of multitouch and

gestural systems in general (as well as design principles) is provided

by Dan Saffer in his book Designing Gestural Interfaces (2009). The story
of Fingerworks and Apple is readily found by searching the web for


270 Stigler’s law: See the comment about this in the notes for Chapter 2.
271 Telephonoscope: The illustration of the “Telephonoscope” was originally

published in the December 9, 1878, issue of the British magazine Punch
(for its 1879 Almanack). The picture comes from Wikipedia (Wikipedia

contributors, 2013d), where it is in the public domain because of its age.

276 QWERTY keyboard: The history of the QWERTY keyboard is discussed
in numerous articles. I thank Professor Neil Kay of University of

Strathclyde for our e-mail correspondence and his article “Rerun the

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Notes to Chapter 7 319

Tape of History and QWERTY Always Wins” (2013). This article led me

to the “QWERTY People Archive” website by the Japanese researchers

Koichi and Motoko Yasuoka, an incredibly detailed, valuable resource

for those interested in the history of the keyboard, and in particular,

of the QWERTY configuration (Yasuoka & Yasuoka, 2013). The article

on the typewriter in the 1872 Scientific American is fun to read: the style
of Scientific American has changed drastically since then (Anonymous,

278 Dvorak keyboard: Is Dvorak faster than QWERTY? Yes, but not by much:
Diane Fisher and I studied a variety of keyboard layouts. We thought that

alphabetically organized keys would be superior for beginners. No, they

weren’t: we discovered that knowledge of the alphabet was not useful

in finding the keys. Our studies of alphabetical and Dvorak keyboards

were published in the journal Human Factors (Norman & Fisher, 1984).
Admirers of the Dvorak keyboard claim much more than a 10 percent

improvement, as well as faster learning rates and less fatigue. But I

will stick by my studies and my statements. If you want to read more,

including a worthwhile treatment of the history of the typewriter, see

the book Cognitive Aspects of Skilled Typewriting, edited by William E.
Cooper, which includes several chapters of research from my laboratory

(Cooper, W. E., 1963; Norman & Fisher, 1984; Norman & Rumelhart, 1963;

Rumelhart & Norman, 1982).

278 Keyboard ergonomics: Health aspects of keyboards are reported in
National Institute of Health (2013).

279 Incremental and radical innovation: The Italian business professor Roberto
Verganti and I discuss the principles of incremental and radical

innovation (Norman & Verganti, 2014; Verganti, 2009, 2010).

281 Hill climbing: There are very good descriptions of the hill-climbing
process for design in Christopher Alexander’s book Notes on the Synthesis
of Form (1964) and Chris Jones’s book Design Methods (1992; also see Jones,

286 Humans versus machines: The remarks by MIT professor Erik Brynjolfsson
were made in his talk at the June 2012 National Academy of Engineering

symposium on manufacturing, design, and innovation (Brynjolfsson,

2012). His book, coauthored with Andrew McAfee—Race Against the
Machine: How the Digital Revolution Is Accelerating Innovation, Driving
Productivity, and Irreversibly Transforming Employment and the Economy—
contains an excellent treatment of design and innovation (Brynjolfsson

& McAfee, 2011).

290 Interactive media: Al Gore’s interactive media book is Our Choice (2011).
Some of the videos from my early interactive book are still available: see

Norman (1994 and 2011b).

295 Rise of the small: The section “The Rise of the Small” is taken from my
essay written for the hundredth anniversary of the Steelcase company,

reprinted here with Steelcase’s permission (Norman, 2011a).

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Abelson, Bob, 129

A/B testing, 224–225


“Five Whys,” 165–169

investigation of, 163–169, 197–198

root cause analysis of, 164

social and institutional pressures

and, 186–191

when human error really is to

blame, 210–211

See also Error; Mistakes; Slips
Acoustical memory, 94


Gulfs of Execution and

Evaluation and, 38–40

opportunistic, 43

reversing, 199, 203, 205

stages of, 40–44, 55–56, 71–73,


subconscious nature of many, 42

See also Psychology of everyday

Action slips, 171, 173, 174, 194


complete immersion into, 55–56

task vs., 232–234

Activity-centered controls,


Activity-centered design, 231–234

Adams, Marilyn, 74

Affordances, xiv–xv, 10–13, 19–20,

60, 72, 145, 298

applying to everyday objects,


minimizing chance of

inappropriate actions using,


misuse of term, 13–14

perceived, 13, 18, 19, 145

signifiers vs., xiv–xv, 14, 18, 19
Agile process of product

development, 234

Airbus accident, 178–179

Air Florida crash, 188–189


attitude indicator design,


failure of automation in, 214

landing gear switch design, 135

mode-error slips and control

design, 178–179

See also Aviation

9780465050659-text.indd 3319780465050659-text.indd 331 8/19/13 5:22 PM8/19/13 5:22 PM

332 Index

Baby locks, 144

Battery design, 125–127

Baum, L. Frank, 227

Beeps, 156

Be-goals, 233


constraints forcing desired,


data-driven, 43

event-driven, 42, 43

goal-driven, 42–43, 44

knowledge-based, 179, 180

knowledge in the head and in

the world and, 75–85

rule-based, 179, 180

skill-based, 179, 180, 206–207

technology accommodating,


Behavioral level of processing,


design and, 54, 55

emotional responses and, 56

relation to visceral and reflective

stages, 54–55

stages of action and, 55–56

Bell, Alexander Graham, 270

Benz, Karl, 279

Benz & Cie, 279

Bezos, Jeff, 264

Big data, 224–225

Biometric devices, 128

Blame, for error, 162, 163

falsely blaming self, 61, 65–71,


misplaced, 61–62

Boats, control of, 21–22

Bookmarks, 16

Books, see e-books
Brainstorming, 226

British Design Council, 220

British Psychological Society, 150

Brynjolfsson, Erik, 286–287

Budgets, product development,

237, 240

Business strategy, lock-ins as,


Airplane accidents, 164–166, 172,

178–179, 186–187, 188–189,


Air-traffic control instructions,

pilots remembering, 105–107

Alarm clocks, mode-error slips

and, 178

Alert, sound signifier as, 160

“’Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves,”


Altair 8800 computer, 274

Amazon.com, 264

Andon, 192
Annoyance of sounds, 156, 160

Anti-lock brakes, rule-based

mistake in using, 182

Apple, 121, 233, 250, 270, 272, 289

Apple QuickTake camera, 272

Arithmetic, mental, 103–104

Automation, 185, 213–214, 248–316


activity-centered design of,


application of constraints to, 202

auditory and haptic modalities

for warning systems, 95

door handles, 133–134

failure of first American, 274,


incremental innovation in,


interlocks and, 142

limited life span of, 292

seat adjustment control, 22

standardization and, 248

starting, 141–142

technology and changes in,


See also Driving

deliberate violation example, 211

interruptions and errors in, 200

NASA’s safety reporting system,


use of checklists in, 189–190, 191

See also Airplane

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Index 333

subconscious, 44–49, 51–52, 173,


technology and enhanced

human, 285–288

visceral level, 50–51, 53–55


confusion created by new design

of, 79–82

types of knowledge and use of,

74–75, 77, 79–80


conceptual models and, 31–32

design and, 8–9, 73

technological change and, 283

Companies, conservatism of large,


Competition-driven design,


Complexity, 4–8

complicated vs., 247
using conceptual model to tame,


Conceptual models, 10, 25–37, 40,

72, 94, 96, 98, 121, 204, 298

communication and, 31–32

as story, 57–59

and Gulfs of Evaluation and

Execution, 39, 40

mental models, 26, 31

providing meaning via, 99–100

to tame complexity, 247–248

for thermostat, 57–59, 68–69

Confirmation messages, 203–205

Conscious cognition, 48, 49, 51–52,

53, 100–101

knowledge-based behavior and,


mistakes and, 173

subconscious vs., 40, 42, 44–56,
67, 310

Constraints, 10, 73

applied to everyday objects,


to bridge Gulf of Execution, 40

cultural (see Cultural constraints)
on design process, 240–247

Cabinet doors, lack of signifiers

on, 134

Calendar program, using variety of

formats, 70–71


digital, 272, 274

merger with cell phones, 265

Cane, design of, 245

Capture slips, 174, 208

Carelman, Jacques, 2

Carpal tunnel syndrome, 278

Carver, Charles, 233

Catalogue d’objets introuvables
(Carelman), 2

Causal elements, reflective level of

processing and, 53

Causes of events

causal relations, 59–65

need to form explanations and,


Cell phones, 34, 200, 265, 280. See
also Telephone

Celsius scale, conversion between

Fahrenheit scale and,


Change, technology as cause of,

264–268, 282, 284–285

Checklists, 189–191

Chess-playing machine, 286–287

Child safety caps, 144

Chord keyboards, 279

Cisco, 273

Clocks, 249, 250

Clothing industry, yearly changes

in fashion, 292

“Coffeepot for Masochists,” 2

Cognition and emotion, 49–55

conscious, 48, 49, 51–52, 53,


distributed, 287–288

integration of, 47, 48–55

behavioral level, 50, 51–55

design and levels of, 53–55

reflective level, 50, 53–55

stages of action and levels of

processing, 55–56

9780465050659-text.indd 3339780465050659-text.indd 333 8/19/13 5:22 PM8/19/13 5:22 PM

334 Index

destination-control elevators

and change in, 146–149

faucet design and, 151–152

mapping and, 151–152

people’s responses to changes

in, 149–150

perceived affordance and, 145

Cultural norms

confusion and lack of

knowledge of, 134–135

conventions and standards,



impact of technology on, 285

mappings and, 22–23, 118–122

pace of change of, 282


observing would-be, 222–223,


quality and focus on, 264

See also Purchasers; Users
Cybermind, 112

Cyborgs, 284

Daily Mail (newspaper), 88
Daimler, 279

Data-driven behavior, 43

Data networks, 281–282

Dead man’s switch, 142–143

Decision gates, 234, 235

Declarative knowledge, 78

Declarative memory, 47, 97

Deliberate violations, 211

accidents and, 169–170

Dependence on technology,


Description, discrimination among

choices and, 80–82

Description-similarity slips, 174,



activity-centered, 231–234

areas of specialty in, 4–5, 9,110,

302, 308

behavioral level and, 54, 55

challenge of, 34–36, 239–247

desired behavior and, 76,


knowledge in the world and,

123, 124–125

logical, 124–125, 130

memory and, 82–85

minimizing chance of

inappropriate actions using,

67, 202–203

physical (see Physical

semantic, 124–125, 129–130

signifiers and, 132–135

Consumer economy, 291–293


activity-centered, 140–141

device-centered, 140

incorporating safety or security

in, 256

mapping and design of, 21

segregating, 203

See also Switches
Conventions, cultural. See Cultural


Cooperative problem-solving, 185


as design constraint, 6, 219, 230,

240, 241, 242, 245, 260, 294

feedback design and, 23–25, 68

Countersteering, 102–103

Creativity, 49, 64

Creeping featurism, 258, 261–264

Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly, 55–56

Cultural constraints, 124–125,


on assembly of mechanical

device, 85

behavior and, 76

cultural conventions and,

130–132, 146

standardization as, 248

Cultural conventions

behavior and, 76

as cultural constraints, 130–132,


Constraints (Continued)

9780465050659-text.indd 3349780465050659-text.indd 334 8/19/13 5:22 PM8/19/13 5:22 PM

Index 335

universal (inclusive), 243–247

visceral responses and, 51

in the years 1988–2038, 282–288

See also Human-centered design

Design error, operator error vs., 6–8

advice for, 64–65

bridging Gulfs of Evaluation

and Execution, 40

clients/customers, 240–241

conceptual model and, 31–32

engineers as, 6–8, 10

The Design of Future Things
(Norman), 185

Design redundancy, 210

Design research

market research vs., 224–226
observation, 222–224

separating from product team,


Design team, 35

multidisciplinary, 34–36,

238–239, 242–243

needs of other groups in product

process, 241–242

Design thinking, 219, 293–298

double-diamond diverge-

converge model of design,

219, 220–221

See also Human-centered design

Destination-control elevators,


Detection of error, 194–198

Development cycle, 260, 268–279

Device-centered controls, 140

Different (Moon), 262–263
Digital cameras, 272, 274

Digital picture frame, 272

Digital time, 252–254

Digital watch, 27–28, 33

Discoverability, 72, 298

affordances, 10–13, 19–20

conceptual models, 25–31

constraints, 10

checklist, 191

choice of metaphor and, 120–122

coins, of, 79–82

communication and, 8–9, 73

competition-driven, 259–264

constraints as tools for, 85

correct requirements/

specifications and, 229–230,


double-diamond diverge-

converge model, 219, 220–221

as equalizing tool, 297

error and (see Error)
experience, 4–5, 9, 302, 307

faucet, 115–116, 150–155

flexibility in, 246–247

fundamental principles of,

71–73, 298. See also individual

implications of short-term

memory for, 94–95

inclusive design, 243–247

industrial, 4–5, 9, 302, 306

interaction, 4–5, 9, 306, 309

interplay of technology and

psychology in, 6–8

knowledge in the world and the

head and, 76–77

legacy problem, 127, 266, 274

management of process, 34–35

memory-lapse mistakes and,


moral obligations of, 291–293

multidisciplinary approach to,

34–36, 238–239, 242–243

problem identification and,


providing meaningful structure

in, 100

reflection and, 53–54

rule-based mistakes and,

182–183, 184

security and, 90–91, 255–257

success of, 293–294

superfluous features in, 291–293

theory vs. practice in, 236–239

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336 Index

Early adopters, 271

Edison, Thomas, 270

Electrical standards, 249

e-Books (Electronic books), 16, 143,

286, 288–290, 319

Electronic games, 282

Electronic reminders, 109

Elevators, destination-control,


Emotion, xiii, xv, 5, 47–56, 293–295,


behavioral level, 50–56

cognition and, 47–50, 53–55

positive and negative, 10, 38, 49,


reflective level, 50, 53–56

visceral level, 50–51, 53–56

Emotional Design (Norman), 49, 54

as designers, 6–8, 10

as users of design team output,


Environment, attributing failure/

error to, 61–62, 63, 168

Environmental cue, as reminder, 109

Epic poems, memory for, 82–85

Error, 66–68, 162–216

automation and, 213–214

checklist to reduce, 189–191

classification as slips or

mistakes, 170

defined, 170–171

deliberate violations and,


design and, 162–163, 198–211,


design to prevent or lessen cost

of, 67–68, 198–210, 202–205

detecting, 194–198

reasons for, 163–169

reporting, 191–194

resilience engineering and,


social and institutional pressures

and, 186–191

See also Mistakes; Slips

design and, 3–4

feedback, 23–25

gesture-controlled devices and,


mappings, 20–23

signifiers, 13–20

Discrimination, rules for, 80–82

Displays, 68

description-similarity slips and,


mapping and design, 21

metaphor and interaction with,


smart, 121, 265–266

touch-sensitive, 21, 140, 268–269

Distributed cognition, 287–288

Do-goals, 233


affordances and, 3,13–16, 18, 69,

132–135, 145

designing for security, 255

handles/hardware, 18, 133–134,


panic bars, 60, 133

poor design of, 1–3

signifiers and, 14–16, 18, 132–135

sliding, 16

Double-diamond diverge-converge

model of design, 219, 220–221

Drill, goal of buying, 43–44

Driver’s safety device, 142–143


cell phone use while, 200

conventions of, 131–132

left-side vs. right-side, 122
as rule-based behavior, 181

stages of action in, 40–41

sterile periods during, 200–201

while drunk, 211

See also Automobiles
du Maurier, George, 270–271

Durable goods, 291

Duryea, 274, 280

Dvorak, August, 278

Dvorak keyboard, 278

Discoverability (Continued)

9780465050659-text.indd 3369780465050659-text.indd 336 8/19/13 5:22 PM8/19/13 5:22 PM

Index 337

characteristics of effective, 23–24

communicating progress, 60

faucet design and, 153

prioritizing, 25

reducing error and, 216

Feedforward, 71–72, 216

Filing cabinet, Gulfs of Evaluation

and Execution and, 37–39

Financial institutions, mistake

outcomes, 198

Financial transactions, sensibility

checks and, 206

Fingerworks, 269–270

Fire exit lockout, 144

Fire extinguisher pins, 144

Fischhoff, Baruch, 197

“Five Whys” analysis, 165–169, 219

Flexibility, designing to

accommodate, 246–247

Flow state, 55–56

Forcing functions, 141–142, 143

deliberate disabling of, 145

interlocks, 142–143

lock-ins, 143–144

lockouts, 144–145

memory-lapse slips and,


reducing error and, 216

Ford, Henry, 292

Foresight ≠ hindsight, 197, 315

Frames, 129

Freud, Sigmund, 173

F-22 airplane accidents, 164–166

Games, 256

Gated product development

methods, 234, 235

General Electric, 30

Generalizations, forming, 57

Gestalt psychology, 12, 22

Gestural keyboards, 278

Gesture-controlled faucets, soap

dispensers and hand dryers,


Gibson, J. J., 12

Gibsonian psychology, 12

Error messages, 203–205

Ethnography, 222–224

Evaluation, 38–40, 216

action cycle and stages of, 40–44

Event-driven behavior, 42, 43

Everyday practice, scientific theory

vs., 104–105
Execution, 38–40, 216

action cycle and stages of, 40–44

feedforward information and,



behavioral cognition and, 52

emotions and, 52–53

Experience design, 4–5, 9, 302, 307


design and, 6

Jidoka and, 192
slips and, 7, 173, 199

unconscious action and, 47,

100–101, 173, 180, 216

Eyewitness testimony, 97

Fahrenheit scale, conversion

between Celsius scale and,



attributing reason for, 61–62

“fail frequently, fail fast,” 229

learned helplessness and, 62–63

learning from, 64, 229

positive psychology and, 63–65

self-blame and, 65–71, 113,


Farber, Sam, 244–245

Faucet design, 115–116, 150–155

Featuritis, xvii, 258, 261–265

Federal Aviation Authority (FAA),

193–194, 200

Federal Communications

Commission (FCC), 250, 251

Feedback, 10, 23–25, 298

as aid in design, 71–72

behavioral states and, 52

to bridge Gulf of Evaluation,

39, 40

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338 Index

activity-centered design vs.,

design thinking and, 219

idea generation (ideation) in,

222, 226–227

incremental innovation and, 281

iteration, 229–230, 234–236

iterative design vs. linear stages,

observation/design research

and, 222–226

in practice, 236–239

prototyping in, 222, 227–228

role of, 9–10

spiral method, 222. See also

testing in, 222, 228–229

Human error, See Error
Human-machine interaction, 6,

185, 215

Hutchins, Edwin, 287

HyperCard, 289

Idea generation (ideation), 222,


Identity theft, 90

IDEO, 64, 229, 303, 307

“fail frequently, fail fast,” 229

“if only” statements, accidents and,


Iliad (Homer), 84
Implanted devices, 284

Implicit knowledge, 236

Inclusive design, 243–247

Incremental innovation, 279–281


as focus of design, 231, 233

technology and empowerment

of, 295–297

Industrial design, 4–5, 9

Industrial Design Society of

America (IDSA), 5

Industrial settings, natural

mapping and, 117

Information pickup, 12

Gimli Glider Air Canada 767

accident, 172, 314

Global Positioning System (GPS),

214, 281


be-goal, do-goal, and motor-

goal, 233

comparing outcome with, 41

conscious vs. unconscious, 42
stages of execution, 41, 42–43

Goal-driven behavior, 42–43, 44

Goffman, Erving, 129

Google, 90

Gore, Al, 290

GPS. See Global Positioning System

Graphical user interface, 100

Greetings, cultural conventions

regarding, 130–131

Gulf of Evaluation, 38–40, 216

Gulf of Execution, 38–40, 216

Hand dryers, gesture-controlled,


Handed-up technology, 297

Haptics, 95

Hassenzahl, Marc, 233

HCD. See Human-centered design

Hersman, Deborah, 210

High-definition television (HDTV),

250–252, 272

Highway signs, misinterpreting,


Hill climbing, 281


explanations given in, 183,

197–198, 315

foresight ≠ to, 197, 315

Hollnagel, Erik, 212

Homer’s Odyssey and Iliad, 84
Household appliances, 240–241,


Human-centered design (HCD),

8–10, 137, 219–220, 221–236

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Index 339

Knowledge-based behavior, 179,


Knowledge-based mistakes,

171–172, 184–185

Knowledge in the head, 74–75,

105–109, 123

behavior and, 75–77, 79–85

memory as, 86–91

in multiple heads, multiple

devices, 111–113

prospective memory and,


remembering air-traffic control

instructions and, 105–107

tradeoff with knowledge in the

world, 109–111

Knowledge in the world, 74–75,

77–79, 123

behavior and, 75–79

Lego motorcycle construction

and, 123–125

operating technology and, 216

tradeoff with knowledge in the

head, 109–111

See also Constraints
Kuhn Rikon, 244

Law, cultural convention codified

into, 131

“Law of Product Development,”

xvii, 237–239, 261

Learned helplessness, 62–63

Learned skills, 51–53


changes in convention and new,


conscious thinking and, 45–46,


failure and, 64

knowledge in the environment

and, 78

rote, 98

Legacy problem, 127, 266, 274

Lego motorcycle, 123–125, 129, 130,

262, 263

Innovation, xvii, 43, 374, 279–282,

397, 317

radical and incremental,

279–282, 319

Inside-out display, 121–122

InstaLoad battery contacts

(Microsoft), 126, 127, 313

Institutional pressure, accidents

and, 186–191

Instruction manuals, see manuals
Interaction, principles of, xii–319

Interlocks, 142–143

Interpret, in action cycle, 41

Interruptions, as source of error,

163, 176, 199–200

iPod, 233

Iteration in design, 222, 229–230,

234–236. See also Repetitive

Jidoka, 192
Joysticks, 21

Junghans Mega 1000 digital watch,


KAIST, wall at, 18

Kasparov, Gary, 287

Kelly, David, 229


automobile, 141–142

physical constraints and design

of, 127–128

Keyboard, evolution of, 264–267,

274–279, 318–319. See also

Key logger, 91

Kiss nightclub fire, 181

Kitchen organization, 247

KLM Boeing 747 crash, 186–187

Knobs, 13, 177


arbitrary, 98–100

declarative, 78

procedural, 78–79

retrieval of, 97–98

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340 Index

Market research, design research

vs., 224–226
McAfee, Andrew, 287

Meaning, semantic constraints and,


Meaningful things, memory for,



checklists in, 190–191

electronic records, 95

errors in, 198, 200, 206

interruptions in, 200

safety reporting system, 194


acoustical, 94

approximate methods and,


for arbitrary things, 98–100

constraints and, 82–85

declarative, 47, 97

distortions/falsification in, 96

knowledge in the head and,

86–91, 105–109

long-term, 47, 95–98

for meaningful things, 98–100

in multiple heads, multiple

devices, 111–113

procedural, 47, 96–97

prospective, 107–109

reflective, 53–54

retrieval, 45–47

short-term (working), 92–95

structure of, 91–105

transactive, 111–112

use of mnemonics, 88, 93–94, 99

See also Knowledge in the head
Memory-lapse mistakes, 171, 172,

185–186, 195, 199–200

Memory-lapse slips, 171, 173,

176–177, 195, 199–200

Mental arithmetic, 103–104

Mental models, 26, 31. Conceptual

Mercedes-Benz, 22, 279

Metaphor, design and choice of,


Leveson, Nancy, 212

Levitt, Theodore, 43–44

Life cycle, product, 294

Light, stages of turning on, 40, 42

Light controls, activity-centered,


Light, as feedback, 23–24

Light switches, mapping and,

20–21, 135–140

Linear stages of design, 234–236

Living with Complexity (Norman),
14, 247

Lizard brain, 50–51

Location-based reminders, 109

Lock-ins, 143–144

Lockouts, 144–145

Locks, physical constraints and

design of, 127–128

Logical constraints, 124–125, 130

Long-term memory (LTM), 47, 95–98

Lord, Albert Bates, 83–84

Machine-people interaction, 68,

185, 215

Machine-readable codes, 207

Machines, characteristics of, 5–6

Management, role in design, 34–35

Management review, 234, 235

Manuals, 3–4, 26, 27, 29, 180, 185,


system image and, 31

Manufacturing, product success

and, 294

Mapping, 10, 20–23, 72, 298

bridging Gulf of Execution and,


culture and, 118–122

faucet design and, 151, 154

levels of, 115

minimizing chance of

inappropriate actions using, 67

natural (see Natural mapping)
Market analytics, 224–225


effect on design, 277–278

product success and, 294

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Index 341

Multitouch displays, 269, 270

Music, technological change and, 283


identifying people by, 89–90

memory for, 98

Narrative, conceptual models as

form of, 57–59

National Academy of Engineering,


National Aeronautics and Space

Administration (NASA),


National Highway and Traffic

Safety Administration

(NHTSA), 157, 159–160

National Institute of Health (NIH),


National Transportation Safety

Board (NTSB), 135, 188–189,

198, 210

Natural mapping, 22, 113–118. See
also Mapping

culture and, 118–122

gesture-controlled devices and,


in industrial settings, 117

as knowledge in the world, 79

light switches and, 137–140

reducing error and, 216

spatial cues and, 115

stove controls and, 113–115,

116–117, 118

tradeoffs, 117–118

Negative emotional state, 49

Nest thermostat, 68–69

Nickerson, Ray, 74

Nielsen, Jakob, 229

Nielsen Norman group, 303, 317

Nissan, 158

Nonstandard clock, 249, 250

Norman, Don 92

“Norman doors,” 1–3

Norman’s law of product

development, xvii, 237–239,

261, 309 310

Metric measurement, 149, 253,


accidents resulting from

conversion, 172, 314


flexible date and time formats,


InstaLoad battery contacts, 126,

127, 313

Microwave ovens, interlocks and,


Mistakes, 170–173

classification of, 179–186

confirmation messages and,


detecting, 194, 195

explaining away, 195–196

knowledge-based, 171–172,


memory-lapse, 171, 172,

185–186, 195

rule-based, 171, 180–184

See also Error; Slips
Mitsubishi, 269

Mnemonics, 88, 93–94, 99

Mode error slips, 174, 177–179,



approximate, 100–105

See also Conceptual models
Modes, 177–178

Moon, Youngme, 262–263

Moral obligations of design,



Lego, 123–125, 129, 130, 262,


steering system, 102–103

turn signal switch, 99–100

Motor-goal, 233

Motor system, visceral response

and, 50–51

Multidisciplinary approach to

design, 34–36, 238–239,


Multitasking, error and, 200

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342 Index

Planned obsolescence, 291–292

Plato, 286

Poetry, constraints of, 82–85

Poka-yoke, 193

Porsche, 158

Positive psychology, 63–65

Precision, knowledge and, 76,


Predictive typing, 266

Price, design and competition/

focus on, 241, 259, 260, 264

Problem identification in design,


double-diamond diverge-

converge model of design

and, 220–221

See also Human-centered design

Problem solving, reflective, 46–47

Procedural knowledge, 78–79

Procedural memory, 47, 96–97

Product development

competitive forces in, 259–264

cycle of, 268–279

Don Norman’s law of, 237–239

managing, 235–236

multidisciplinary needs, 34–36,

238–239, 241–243

process of, 221–230, 234–236

prototyping, 227–228

technology and, 258, 264–268

timing of innovation, 271–272

Product manager, 230


development cycle, 260, 268–279

failure of new products, 272, 274

life cycle of, 294

stage gate methods, 234, 235

success of, 293–294

Prospective memory, 107–109

Prototyping, 222, 227–228, 235

Psychology, 27–73. See also

causal relations (blame), 59–65

cognition and emotion, 49–55.

See also Cognition; Emotion

Norms, cultural, 130–132

Novices, mistakes and, 173, 199

NTSB. See National Transportation
Safety Board (NTSB)

Nuclear power plant accident, 7,


Observation, in human-centered

design, 222–226

Odyssey (Homer), 84
Office copiers, design constraint

for, 241

Our Choice (Gore), 290
Outside-in display, 121, 122

Overlearning, 45–46

OXO, 244–245

Paller, Ken, 96

Palo Alto Research Center (PARC),

227, 317

Panic bars, 60, 133

Paris Métro doors, 134–135

Passwords, remembering, 86–89,

91, 312

Patents, 238

Pedestrians, and electric cars,


Penny, knowledge in the head and

in the world and, 74–75, 77

People with special needs,

designing for, 243–247

Perceive, as stage of evaluation, 41

Perceived affordances, 13, 18, 19,

145. See also Signifiers
Perform, as stage of execution, 41

Personality, attributing failure to,


Physical anthropometry, 243

Physical constraints, 124–128

battery design and, 125–127

forcing functions, 141–142, 143

as knowledge in the world, 79

locks and keys and, 127–128

Pilots, remembering air-traffic

control instructions, 105–107

Plan, as stage of execution, 41

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Index 343

Rehearsal of material, 96, 100–101

Reminders, 108–109

Reminding, strategies for, 106,

107–109, 110

Remington typewriter, 275, 276, 277

Remote controller, cultural effect

on design of, 118, 119

Repetitive cycles of design, see
spiral design

Resilience engineering, 211–213

Retention, memory and, 94

Retrieval, memory and, 97–98

Retrospective decision making, 183

Reversing action, see Undo
Rhyming, constraints of, 83

Root cause analysis, 42, 43–44,


Rote learning, 98

Royal Majesty cruise ship, 214
Rubin, David, 83

Rule-based behavior, 179, 180

Rule-based mistakes, 171, 180–184

Rules, deliberate violation of,


Safety. See also Accidents; Error
checklists, 189–191

electric vehicles, and 157–161

forcing functions, 142–145

interlocks, 142–143

lock-ins, 143–144

lockouts and, 144–145

management, 209–210, 212–213

NASA’s safety reporting system,


resilience engineering, 211–213

social and institutional pressures

and, 186–189

sterile periods and, 200

Swiss cheese metaphor, 208–210

warning signals, 201

Sayeki, Yutaka, 99–100, 102–103,


Schank, Roger, 128–129

Schedules, product development,

237, 240

falsely blaming self, 65–71

fundamental design principles

and, 71–73

Gibsonian, 12

Gulfs of Evaluation and

Execution, 38–40

human thought, 44–49

interplay with technology, 6–8

people as storytellers, 56–59

positive, 63–65

stages of action, 40–44, 55–56,

71–73, 172–173

The Psychology of Everyday Things
(POET), xi, 283, 299–304

Punch (magazine), 270

designing for, 241

users vs., 117–118
See also Customers

Purchasing process, usability and,


Quality, focus on customer and,


Questioning, 46, 117, 226–227, 229,

230, 264, 286, 295, 310

QWERTY keyboard, 254, 266,

275–278, 318, 319. See also

Radiation doses, sensibility checks

and, 206

Radical innovation, 279–280,


Rasmussen, Jens, 179

Reading vs. listening, 267
Reason, James, 164, 170, 208

Recycling, 294

Reflection, 45

design and, 53–54

relation to visceral and

behavioral response, 54–55

stages of action and, 55–56

Reflective problem solving, 46–47

Refrigerator temperature controls,

conceptual model and, 28–31

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344 Index

Sleep deprivation, error and, 210,


Sliding doors, 16

Slips, 170–171, 172–173

action, 171, 173, 174, 194

capture, 174, 208

classification of, 173–179

confirmation messages and,


description-similarity, 174, 175

memory-lapse, 171, 173,

176–177, 195

minimizing, 206–208

mode error, 174, 177–179

See also Error; Mistakes
Smart displays/screens, 121,

265–266. See also Touch–
sensitive displays/screens

Smart phones, 265

Soap dispensers, gesture-

controlled, 115–116

Social interaction, 283–284, 298

Social pressure, accidents and,


Socrates, 286

Sound, as signifier, 155–161

for electric cars, 157–161

Sound generators, for feedback,


Spatial cues, natural mapping and,


Specifications, design and correct,


Specify, as stage of execution, 41

Speech, presenting information

via, 201–202

Spiral design, 222. See also Iteration
in design

Stage gate method of product

development, 234–235

Stages of action, 40–44

Stairways of public buildings,

lockouts and, 144


of faucet design, 153, 154, 155

individualization vs., 161

Scheier, Michael, 233

Schindler elevators, 147

Scripts, 129

Scrum method of product

development, 234


design and, 90–91, 255–257

identity theft and, 90

passwords as means of ensuring,

86–89, 91

Semantic constraints, 124–125,


Sensibility checks, 199, 205–206

Shingo, Shigeo, 193

Sholes, Christopher Latham

typewriter, 275–276. See also

Short-term memory (STM), 92–95,


Shower controls, design of, 73

Signifiers, xv, 10, 12, 13–20, 72, 298

affordances vs., xiv–xv, 14, 18, 19
applied to everyday objects,


to bridge Gulf of Execution, 40

doors and, 15, 16, 132–135

external, 15

gesture-controlled devices and

lack of, 115–116

as knowledge in the world, 79

misleading, 18–19

perceived affordances and, 145

poka-yoke technique and, 193

as reminders, 108–109

sound as, 155–161

on touch screen, 21

Signs, 15, 18, 19

Silence, problems with, 157–161

Simplified models, 100–105

Single-spout, single-control faucet,


Sink drain, signifiers for, 17

Skeuomorphic, 159

Skill-based behavior, 179, 180,


Sleep, memory and, 95–96

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Index 345

Task analysis, 137


activities vs., 232–234
technology and changes in, 286,


Taught helplessness, 63

Technical manuals. See Manuals
Technological aids, for knowledge

in the head, 112–113


accommodating human

behavior, 68–71

adoption of, 268–269, 271, 272,


dependence on, 112–113,


design and, 257

as driver of change, 267–268,

282, 283–285

empowerment of individuals

and, 295–297

enhancing human cognition,

112–113, 285–288

handed-up, 297

interaction design and, 5

interplay with psychology, 6–8

meaning of, 281–282

paradox of, 32–34

precision and use of, 104

product innovation and, 258,


radical innovation and, 281

reminders and, 109

self-blame and trouble using, 63

skeuomorphic designs and, 159

standardization and, 248–254

substituting for memory, 87

Telephone numbers, remembering,

45, 46

Telephones, 68, 70, 156, 264–266.

See also Cell phones
Telephonoscope, 270–273

Temperature controls, refrigerator,


Temperature conversions, 101–102

Tenerife disaster, 186–187


cultural, 130–132

digital time, 252–254

for electric automobile sounds,

159–160, 161

establishing, 248–249

HDTV, 250–252

international, 131, 248–249

necessity of, 250

Startup companies, failure of,


Stein, Robert, 289

“Sterile Cockpit Configuration,”


Stigler’s law, 270

Stigma problem, 244–247

Story, conceptual models as form

of, 57–59

Stove controls, natural mapping

and, 113–115, 116–117, 118

Subconscious, 48, 49. See also
Cognition; Conscious


behavioral level of processing

and, 51–52

human thought as, 44–49

skilled behavior as, 206–207

slips and, 173

Subway train doors, lack of

signifiers on, 134–135

Susan B. Anthony coin, 79–80,


Sustainability, model for, 292–293

Swatch International Time, 254

“Swiss cheese model of how

errors lead to accidents,” 164,


Switches. See also Controls
airplane landing gear, 135

dead man’s, 142–143

description-similarity slips and,


light, 20–21, 135–140

wireless, 139

System error, 66

System image, 31–32

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346 Index

touch and gesture-sensitive

screens and, 264, 266

Ultra-high definition television,


Understanding, design and, 3–4

Understanding action, feedback

and, 71–72

Underwater (scuba) diving

accidents, 187–188

Undo, 199, 203–205

Universal design, 243–247

University of Toronto, 269

Usability, 117–118, 241, 295

Use, determining how to use

object, 38–40

User experience, 10, 233


conceptual model and, 31–32

designing for, 240–241

difficulties using products and,


purchaser vs., 117–118
See also Customers

Vacuum tubes, 281

Valance, emotional, 52

Vegetable peelers, design of,


Vehicular control, mapping and,


Video conferencing, 273–274

Videophone, 270–274

Video recording, of test groups,


Visceral level of processing, 50–51,


Voyager Books, 289

Walkers, design of, 245

Walking, cell phone usage while,


Wallace, Wanda, 83

Warning signals, design of, 201–202

Washer-dryer combination

controls, 4

Ten-franc coin, 79–80

Testing, 222, 228–229

Text direction/scrolling, culture

and choice of, 120–121


conceptual model of, 57–59,

68–69, 181–182

control of refrigerator, 28–31

Things That Make Us Smart
(Norman), 112, 288

Three-dimensional television, 252

3-D printers, 267, 296, 297

Three Mile Island nuclear power

plant accident, 7

Tillers, 21–22


Australian Aborigines,

conception of, 120

cultural differences in view of,


digital, 252–254

product development and, 236,


Swatch International Time, 254

Time-based reminders, 109

Time stress, as cause of error, 168

Touch-sensitive displays/screens,

21, 140, 268–269. See also
Smart displays/screens

Toyoda, Sakichi, 165

Toyota Motor Company, 165

Toyota Production System, 192, 193

Traffic conventions, 131–132

Training and licensing, 211

Transactive memory, 111–112

Transistor, 281

Transportation accidents,

investigation of, 186–187,


Turn signal switches, 99–100

Typewriters, 280

development of keyboard,



knowledge in the world and,


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Index 347

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (Baum),

Woods, David, 212

Word-gesture typing systems,


Working memory, 92–95, 102

Wristwatch, 32–34

Writing, 104, 106, 107, 267

Xerox Corporation, 227

Zeitgeist, 260
Zhai, Shumin, 266


digital, 27–28, 33–34

mode-error slips and, 178

technology and changes in

design of wristwatch, 32–34

Waterfall method, 234–236

Wegner, Daniel, 112

Wheelchair, control of, 21

Whitehead, Alfred North, 101

Wikipedia, 112, 270, 297

Wireless switches, 139

“Wizard of Oz” prototype

technique, 227–228

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Preface to the Revised Edition
1. The Psychopathology of Everyday Things
The Complexity of Modern Devices
Human-Centered Design
Fundamental Principles of Interaction
The System Image
The Paradox of Technology
The Design Challenge

2. The Psychology of Everyday Actions
How People Do Things: The Gulfs of Execution and Evaluation
The Seven Stages of Action
Human Thought: Mostly Subconscious
Human Cognition and Emotion
The Seven Stages of Action and the Three Levels of Processing
People as Storytellers
Blaming the Wrong Things
Falsely Blaming Yourself
The Seven Stages of Action: Seven Fundamental Design Principles

3. Knowledge In the Head and In the World
Precise Behavior from Imprecise Knowledge
Memory Is Knowledge in the Head
The Structure of Memory
Approximate Models: Memory in the Real World
Knowledge in the Head
The Tradeoff Between Knowledge in the World and in the Head
Memory in Multiple Heads, Multiple Devices
Natural Mapping
Culture and Design: Natural Mappings Can Vary with Culture

4. Knowing What to Do: Constraints, Discoverability, and Feedback
Four Kinds of Constraints: Physical, Cultural, Semantic, and Logical
Applying Affordances, Signifiers, and Constraints to Everyday Objects
Constraints That Force the Desired Behavior
Conventions, Constraints, and Affordances
The Faucet: A Case History of Design
Using Sound as Signifiers

5. Human Error? No, Bad Design
Understanding Why There Is Error
Deliberate Violations
Two Types of Errors: Slips and Mistakes
The Classification of Slips
The Classification of Mistakes
Social and Institutional Pressures
Reporting Error
Detecting Error
Designing for Error
When Good Design Isn’t Enough
The Paradox of Automation
Design Principles for Dealing with Error

6. Design Thinking
Solving the Correct Problem
The Double-Diamond Model of Design
The Human-Centered Design Process
What I Just Told You? It Doesn’t Really Work That Way
The Design Challenge
Complexity Is Good: It Is Confusion That Is Bad
Standardization and Technology
Deliberately Making Things Difficult
Design: Developing Technology for People

7. Design In the World of Business
Competitive Forces
New Technologies Force Change
How Long Does It Take to Introduce a New Product?
Two Forms of Innovation: Incremental and Radical
The Design of Everyday Things: 1988-2038
The Future of Books
The Moral Obligations of Design
Design Thinking and Thinking About Design

General Readings and Notes

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