The Design of Everyday Things

“The Macintosh is the first computer interface worth criticizing.” Alan Kay*

Today, Apple has made usability all but a household world, and you probably don’t need to fight major battles in software development projects to have some kind of iterative usability testing budgeted into a project. This hasn’t been the case for very long.

Shortly before the dot com bubble burst, I remember an article about the design of e-commerce sites in which a number of test subjects were sent to a large number of major e-commerce sites with instructions to buy a specific item sold on each one. I don’t have the article or exact figures to hand, but as I recall, in 70% of cases the users could not figure out how to complete the transaction.

It’s relatively easy to fix usability problems in software. As a software guy, it’s pretty horrifying to bump into the world of atoms (versus bits, to use Nicholas Negroponte’s excellent dichotomy) and discover that the whole usability idea hasn’t sunk in too deep.

I’ve worked in usability on and off (mostly off) for nearly twenty years. I remember trying to get managers and partners at Andersen Consulting to read the Apple Human Interface guidelines, just to see that this kind of thing could actually be codified in a useful way. In 1995, more than ten years after the Mac was released, arguing for usability testing and design standards was still pretty radical in the world of IT.

Not many books can actually change one’s life in a real way, but I think The Design of Everyday Things by Don Norman** is one such book. Read this book and it will quite likely change the way you think about everything. Even though I thought I was pretty savvy about UI design, it changed the way I saw the world.

The reason I bring up this whole topic is that I’ve been brought head-on into the world of bad design by my twin girls. Baby stuff, stuck in the world of atoms, is oh, so 1983. You may have read my rant about breast pumps, so I won’t revisit that topic right now, but here are a few examples of staggeringly bad design I’ve been living with for the last five weeks:

  • Baby Sleepers (pyjamas for those who haven’t had babies) often have single zippers running from the baby’s neck down to the tip of her left foot, meaning you need to completely unzip the whole thing just to check or change a diaper.
  • Disposable diapers are designed in such a way that it’s almost impossible to tell which way up or around they are in a dimly lit room (like the one you’ll be changing them in at two in the morning). They’re also folded with the tabs where the baby’s behind will be, so that you need to stick your finger between the diaper and the baby’s bottom to tease them out (in the dark at 3am). Why not fold them the other way?
  • Our baby bath (the highest rated we could find) is designed with a little hammock suspended over a small tub. Using the provided scoop to get water from the reservoir to the baby involves threading a narrow gap each time. Simply altering the shape of the tub (which would cost nothing had they thought of it) would eliminate this constant annoyance.
  • Our tandem stroller (also well-rated) is designed to accommodate our car seats (good idea) but switching it into accept car seat mode requires remembering which bits need to be pushed back or released, and they snap back out of position at the slightest provocation (so you can’t just leave the stroller in its more useful mode). And, here’s the kicker, the stroller has a basket for carrying stuff beneath the babies, but putting it into car seat mode makes it completely impossible to get anything in or out of the basket. Did even ONE person test this device before starting production?
  • A mixed case is our baby swing. Its safety harness is admirably well-designed for quick release (a good feature since the last thing you want is to have to fiddle around a baby you’ve just lulled to sleep) but fastening the harness is a little like learning a magic trick.
  • There’s a remarkable lack of color coding options for things like baby bottles. This is very annoying if you have twins and need to prep a bunch of stuff in advance specifically for each twin such that you can figure out which bottle is for which baby at 3am.
  • Whoever designed the labels for marking up breast milk sachets didn’t think to simply mark days of the week etc. on the sachets so all you’d have to do would be to tick a box. I know writing out a date on a plastic bag is something I love to do ten times a day while dead tired. And boy, reading that writing is going to be easy, I bet.
  • And finally, our bottle warmer (again highly rated) is designed so badly that Don Norman might have lavished his most sarcastic accolade on it: “it probably won an award”. Or to borrow a phrase from Roy and H.G., “it’s a sad joke”. The principle is this: it has an element and some measuring cylinders. You place the baby’s bottle above the element (in a socket) and pour in a measured amount of water, then press a button. The element boils the water and then shuts off when the water is gone (I assume the element gets too hot and that triggers the off switch).
  • So to warm a bottle (remember, you’re doing this while dead tired, in the dark, and it’s three in the morning) you need to measure out a certain amount of water into this stupid tube, pour it in, and then warm the bottle. Here’s the kicker though: a good deal of heat comes off the element after it switches off, so the bottle temperature is highly variable based on how long you wait after this piece of junk switches itself off. If you’re heating two bottles for some reason, the second will always get more heat than the first. And that’s assuming you measured the water into the damn cylinders correctly.
  • This design is only slightly better than the infamous coffee pot (with the spout pointing over the handle) that graces the cover of The Design of Everyday Things … but of course the coffee pot is an intentional joke. This thing is a product that people not only buy and use, but recommend. Go figure.

It’s not just that this stuff is thoughtlessly designed (I won’t say it’s designed by morons or incompetents, it’s more likely it’s not designed at all, or without any kind of user testing), it’s that customers aren’t complaining blue murder about it. It’s like the people who argued that DOS was easier to use than a Macintosh and then went back to editing AUTOEXEC.BAT to try and squeeze out another 2K of RAM so that their program would run — the user-base is too accepting of garbage for vendors to feel pressure to improve their lousy products. Just like in 1983 with software.

* I’ve seen this quotation in various forms in a lot of places, but don’t have a definitive source, so it’s certainly paraphrased and may well be apocryphal.

** This book rates only four stars on while quite mediocre novels often score better. One legitimate criticism of the book is that it really doesn’t offer any recipes for good design, merely ways of criticizing failed design and (less often) appreciating good design. It’s quite clear based on twenty odd years of no-one else managing to provide such recipes (beyond a few useful lists of heuristics) that this is really hard, if not impossible. In any event, I think this book is utterly brilliant, but it won’t tell you how to be a great designer.