This postdiscusses how accepting human behaviour the way it is, not the way we wish to be, is critical to good design. This deceptively simple point underpins Don Norman’s whole design philosophy, which he outlines quite brilliantly in “The Design of Everyday Things”.
The behavioural insights movement is similar in that it too looks for opportunities to design choice environments in ways that flow with, rather than against, the psychology of individual decision-making. An excellent how-to guide for implementing this approach in practice is the UK Behavioural Insight Team’s “EAST” publication, which discusses a framework for how decision designers can make (and should make) products and services more Easy, Attractive, Salient and Timely to consumers or citizens.
When we first use a product or service, we often face two gaps in our thinking:
The first gap is one of execution, in that we need to figure out how the product or service in question works. If we don’t, we won’t be able to fully engage with it. For example, if the service in question is a government support scheme for those who are in long-term unemployment, the opportunity cost of a poorly designed process is significant (long-term unemployment levels remain unchanged or even worse are driven higher). A more trivial example is a poorly designed emergency exit door in an office building that states push but has a large handle on the right hand side of the door that tends to invoke a natural pull reflex (which could make all the difference in an emergency situation).
The second gap is one of evaluation, which is about figuring out what happens once we execute the action. How do we know that we interacted with the product or service correctly and how do we rate the output of this interaction? Are we satisfied or are we left wondering if it worked at all? A simple example might be an online contact form on a company’s website. Once you submit your message, the message box clears, the page refreshes, but you are unsure as to whether your message was submitted to the company successfully. If however, a simple message stated “Thank you for your message. We will reply to you as soon as we can.” appeared, this would immediately ease your concern and offer you the certainty that your intended action (sending a message to the company) was successful.
If we are the designer of the product or service (or of the choice architecture), we need to think about how the first thing a consumer or citizen will need to do when they are introduced to the new product or service is to determine they’re relationship with it. Norman refers to this as the affordance, and uses the example of a chair, which affords (“is for”) support and, therefore, affords sitting. Next is the signifier, which communicates where the action should take place. Good communication of the purpose, structure, and operation of the product or service to the people who use it, is a necessary (but not sufficient) condition of good design. Whereas affordances may be perceivable, signifiers must be, else they fail to function altogether.
The next concept designers need to think about is mapping, which covers the layout of the control and design. Following this, Norman discusses the importance for a designer to appreciate our conceptual models (for the product or service), and how different people may hold different mental modelsfor the same product or service. As the consumer or citizen cannot talk to the designer, they rely upon whatever information is available to them at the time of interaction. The combined information available to consumer or citizen at this point is referred to as the system image.
For user feedback to be effective it must be immediate and relevant; poor feedback can actually be worse than no feedback at times. It needs to be planned and prioritised, so that unimportant information is presented in an unobtrusive fashion, while important information is presented in a way that does capture attention. This is evident in the manner in which well designed websites highlight their call-to-action buttons while also displaying other (but less relevant) information on their webpage.
Conceptual models help people to form stories for themselves which satisfies their predisposition to need to find and have explanations; to be able to assign cause and effect to things that they do, and more importantly don’t do. Stories have the wonderful ability to resonate with people’s experiences, and to provide examples of new instances (which are very useful when first introduced to a product or service).
An industry in which people have very poor conceptual models is the healthcare industry (from the patient’s perspective). Often, a patient does not have the appropriate conceptual model to help them easily communicate information to their physician, or to interpret and incorporate their physician’s medical diagnosis into their own decision about their personal health. This is why we see so many doctors still acting paternalistically towards their patients (making decisions on their behalf). If we are to improve patient decision making, we need to develop better ways for patients to tell themselves (and others) stories about their health; empowering patients to own their health condition and treatment.
Practically speaking, choice architects should take into account Norman’s seven fundamental principles of design which he has developed, refined and tested over many decades of practice and implementation:
Discoverability: is it possible for the consumer or citizen to discover what actions are possible as well as what the current state of the product/service is?
Feedback: is there full and continuous information about the results of the consumer or citizen’s actions available to them at the point of interaction?
Conceptual Model: does the design project all of the information needed to create a good conceptual model of the system for the consumer or citizen (leading to understanding and a feeling of control)?
Affordances: do the proper affordances exist for the consumer or citizen to make the desired action possible?
Signifiers: is there an effective use of signifiers to ensure discoverability by the consumer and citizen) Is feedback well communicated and timely?
Mappings: does the relationship between the controls and their actions follow the principles of good mapping, enhanced as much as possible through spatial layout and temporal contiguity?
Constraints: are appropriate constraints (physical, logical, semantic, and cultural constraints) provided in order to guide actions and eases interpretation?
An excellent point Norman spends time discussing in this book is our tendency to blame ourselves when we cannot use an everyday product or service (especially if we see that others are able to use it). He asks us to suppose the fault really lies in the device/process/system, 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 feelings of guilt and helplessness among people are kept hidden. This “learned helplessness”phenomenon refers to the situation in which we experience repeated failure at a task, and as a result of this repeated failure we decide that the task cannot be done (at least not by us) and we stop trying. As such, Norman advises designers to remember not to blame the consumer or citizen when they fail to use their products or services properly. The smarter approach is to take peoples difficulties as signifiers of where the product or service can be improved (and to focus on improving these issues/features of the product or service).
Good design also requires that we treat each of theses failures in the same way; that we systematically and rigorously conduct root cause analysis (asking why until the ultimate fundamental cause of the activity is reached) to find the fundamental causes of the failure; enabling us to redesign the system so that these can no longer lead to problems.
Errors cannot be eliminated until we know what they are, but the mechanism for reporting errors in many organisations (public or private, both big and small) is often made extremely difficult by social pressures present in the workplace. For example, if we take the healthcare industry again, physicians often do not want to admit that they, or others, have made a mistake for fear of being punished or being litigated against. This culture makes it very difficult for past mistakes to be avoided as learning cannot occur. Reporting errors in this situation as well as more broadly, needs to be made easier, for the true goal is not to punish but to determine how the error occurred and change things so that it does not occur again. We can all start by reframing errors as an opportunity for us and our teams and organisations to learn and develop; to improve things for others going forward (and not simply as past mistakes).
nudging people to engage and focus:
In the closing pages of this delightful read, Norman discusses something that is of great relevance to our ever more technologically integrated and enabled world; that very few products or services today are designed to support the numerous interruptions that so many of our working and personal life situations entail (receiving a call or a text message while in a meeting, someone “desk-dropping” by your work station, getting a snapchat notification when you’re entertaining friends, etc.). In this age of distraction and social media bombardment (in which the lure of instant reward and gratification tempts us at every turn), nudging users to fully engage and focus on the activity at hand will become ever more important if we are to ensure that people live a productive and fulfilling life – as is evidenced by the many new phone and desktop apps that block particular websites for a certain period of time or limit the amount of time you can spend on the site / app.
“The Design of Everyday Things” is much more than a guide to good design. It is a treatise of how we should, and need to, think about how we solve our societal problems. Good solutions begin, end, and are based on the individual, and how they engage with the world. Designing with the end user in mind, quickly and effectively eliciting user feedback, as well as conducting rigorous root-cause analysis, are but three simple ways in which we can truly understand the problem at hand and how we can solve any issue that we face.
How can insights from this book help you in your day-to-day activities?
When a consumer or citizen first uses a product or service, they often face two gaps in our thinking. The first gap is one of execution in that they need to figure out how the product or service in question works. The second gap is one of evaluation, which is about figuring out what happens once they execute the action. How do they know that we interacted with the product or service correctly and how do they rate the output of this interaction? Are they satisfied or are they left wondering if it worked at all?
If you are to help your customers or citizens bridge these two gaps then it is important to think about the different stages of action from “the user’s” point of view. Though most behaviours will not require going through all of these stages, most activities will require a number of them:
Forming the goal of action
Planning the action
Specifying an action sequence
Performing the action sequence
Perceiving the state of the world
Interpreting the perception
Comparing the outcome with the goal
The Double Diamond Model of Design
Good solutions begin, end and are based on the individual, and how they engage with the world. One particular human centred design approach that you could employ in the office or at home, is the “double diamond model of design”.
This approach involves starting by questioning the basic problem, and expanding the scope of it, diverging to examine all the fundamental issues that underlie it. You should then hope to converge upon a single problem statement, which succinctly outlines the issue at hand.
During the second “solution” phase, you should take the problem statement as given (from the previous step) and expand your space of possible solutions, enabling a divergent phase, before you converge upon a proposed solution.
About the author of “The Design of Everyday Things”, Don Norman:
Don Norman is Director of the recently established Design Lab at of California, San Diego where he is also professor emeritus of both psychology and cognitive science.
He is cofounder of the Nielsen Norman Group, an IDEO fellow, Trustee of IIT’s Institute of Design (Chicago), and former Vice President of Apple. He is a member of the National Academy of Engineering and a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He is professor emeritus of computer science and design at Northwestern University.
He has been Distinguished Visiting Professor of Industrial Design at Korea’s Advanced Institute of Science & Technology (KAIST). He was awarded the Benjamin Franklin medal in Computer and Cognitive Science, has honorary degrees from the University of Padua (Italy) and the Delft University of Technology (Netherlands) and is an honorary professor of Design and Innovation at Tongji University in Shanghai.
Some other interesting reads by Norman that you may enjoy include:
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