This week we read two works by Donald A. Norman: the first chapter of his book, Design of Everyday Things, and his essay, Emotional Design: Attractive Things Work Better. The first rails against everyday objects that are poorly designed, by which he mostly means difficult to understand and confusing to use. He cites numerous examples, like doors that don’t make it clear whether you should pull or push, the thermostat in his refrigerator, and now-almost-obsolete landline telephones.
Scissors, Norman says, are an example of a well-designed everyday object because their affordances, constraints and mappings allow you to easily form a conceptual model in your mind of how they should be used, even if you’ve never done so before.
His essay is a response to some criticism in his book that makes it seem as though he values usability over all else in design—beauty, in particular. His response clarifies that it’s not what he was trying to say, and that designing with people’s emotions in mind is equally important.
These readings make me wonder about the cultural influences in what makes something considered easy to use, or beautiful. I was recently in Japan, a land well-known for its design and usability of everyday objects. As a non-Japanese speaker, some things were easy for me to understand: a basket under your restaurant chair for putting your purse, for example.
Others were not. Many ramen restaurants have you order via machine rather than telling it to the waitstaff (pictured above). The idea is great, but I unfortunately lacked the cultural knowledge or reading ability to figure parts of it out—like how you have to put your money in first before pushing the buttons for your order, and that you have to hit the change button to get change at all at the end.
You only have to give any modern 3 year-old an iPad to see how much culture determines whether or not something is easy to use, so I wonder what kind of cultural assumptions are in the background for a person to understand how to use something as seemingly straightforward as Norman’s scissors.
The final reading this week was Tom’s blog post, Physical Computing’s Greatest Hits (and misses). It’s intimidating and inspiring at the same time to see all the types of projects that can be made with physical computing. What I like in particular is a sense of playfulness about most of them. We don’t necessarily have to create world peace with our designs—making someone smile can be a good enough reason to make something.