Reflections from Design of Everyday Things

December 10, 2015 by UX-RADIO


Don Norman wrote Design of Everyday Things in 1988. Now, 25 years later, he revised it. This podcast is a reflection on the many changes that have taken place in the industry in these 25 years — what has stayed the same and what has changed. And what does Don foresee for the next 25 years: what will the industry be like in 2038?


Welcome to UX Radio, the podcast that generates collaborative discussion about information architecture, user experience, and design.

Perry Norton: Guest Don Norman is director of the design lab at the University of California San Diego, co-founder of the Nielsen Norman Group, a member of the National Academy of Engineering, IDEO Fellow, and former vice president of Apple. He helps companies make products more enjoyable, understandable, and profitable. His books include Emotional Design, Living With Complexity, and an expanded revised edition of The Design of Everyday Things. He can be found at In this podcast, Don talks about what’s changed and what’s stayed the same over time in relation to how we think about and implement design. And now your host, Lara Fedoroff.

Lara Fedoroff:            Thank you so much for joining me today.

Don Norman:             You’re welcome.

Lara Fedoroff:            I’m excited to talk to you. So you first wrote Design of Everyday Things in 1988, and a lot has changed and a lot has stayed the same with design. So I wanted to start the conversation with the things that have stayed the same, and maybe even something that has surprised you that has stayed the same.

Don Norman:             The book was published in 1988, 25 years ago. What’s stayed the same is people; basically the psychological principles of how people interact with one another, with the world – it’s been true for thousands and thousands of years. It maybe will be true for a few more years, and we can talk about that.

All the fundamental parts of the book are unchanged. The thing that changed in a minor way is my ability to explain things, and there is at least one major concept in the book that I know people have a lot of trouble with. It’s called affordances. And so I try to simplify it by adding a new distinction, which I call signifiers. Affordances tell you kind of the actions you can do in the world on – with the physical objects that exist. It’s a relationship. Relationships are hard to understand, so I added signifiers, which are signals that say, “Hey, this doorknob is a signal of this is what you should grasp.”

It doesn’t tell you what you should do once you’ve grasped it, whether you should turn it, or push it, or pull it, or lift it, or slide it, but it still says, “Grasp here.” So that’s the signifier component, so that’s what’s stayed the same. Everything’s about principles. Now the technology has changed dramatically, and therefore the way we apply these principles have somewhat changed. The principles are the same, but because we interact no longer with just a keyboard, or with buttons, or – we interact by gestures, for example, or just by being someplace. We don’t even realize we’re interacting. That had to be changed. The examples had to be changed.

The original edition of the book didn’t speak about emotion. We didn’t really understand emotion – we, being the scientific community in 1988. And today we have tremendous advances in our understanding, so much so that it actually – along the way I wrote a whole book about it to call it Emotional Design. So I was able to incorporate my learnings of emotion into the earlier book, which is all about understanding, ’cause those two really go together. It’s – emotion drives us. Emotion is very important in human behavior. Actually emotion is what mostly causes us to act. It’s not logic. Logic is our official – it was invented. It’s not the way people normally think.

And finally I learned a lot. I’ve changed a lot in 25 years, and one thing is that I was a professor when I wrote the book, and in that time I’ve become, well, much more involved in industry. I was a business executive at Apple, and then at HP, then a few start-ups, and I’ve been an advisor in start-ups and other companies, so there’s been a big change and I was able to incorporate those changes in the book.

Lara Fedoroff:            With Emotional Design, can you give us an example of how that plays out with one of the designs that you either consulted or worked on?

Don Norman:             Oh, it plays out all the time. Don’t you ever get angry at your equipment when it doesn’t work or doesn’t do what you want it to do, or you have no idea how to do it, or, “Gee, I did this yesterday. Now I can’t remember how to do it today.” It makes you angry. Or it makes you feel good when things work well or it looks neat. I know people who take their phones out all the time and caress it with their fingers. They’re not using it. They’re just holding it, and rubbing it, and turning it around. Design requires emotional commitment.

You know, I left that out of the first book basically because I didn’t know how to treat it, but we take so much pleasure in physical objects, and their appearance, and their feel, their sound sometimes, and their smell. I look at the computer that you’re using in front of you. It’s exquisitely designed with tremendous attention to the little details all around it that make it just so beautiful, and that makes a difference.

Lara Fedoroff:            It’s really important.

Don Norman:             First of all, it’s really important, but I also point out to people how – how many times are you editing something and you start realizing that, “Oh, it hasn’t been saved for a long time. Oh,” and you start getting nervous, but you wanna finish this paragraph, right? And what does the body do? Your body feels tense. That’s emotion.

Lara Fedoroff:            So in the design process, where is the best place to incorporate thinking about emotional design?

Don Norman:             There is no place where you should not be thinking about emotions, because the – we have to have empathy with the people who are using the equipment. We have to understand what drives them. We have to understand what they’re trying to accomplish. And among other things, yeah, they have a task to learn to accomplish, but they need – people like to feel good, like to feel – we like to feel we are in control and we understand what is happening.

And so it’s really important in the design to always give people this kind of control, to give them the feedback so they know what is happening, to let them discover – I call it discoverability – discover what actions they can do and make it easy to do it; not, “Oh, I know I wanna do something, but I can’t remember how to do it.” You get anxious. So designers always have to be thinking about the impact of their choices upon the way people behave.

Lara Fedoroff:            I agree. I think it’s so true, and I think we get so deep into the deliverables. We’re thinking about the context and we’re thinking about the technology, but we’re not necessarily incorporating the thinking about the emotions. Even though we have the personas, we’re thinking about the users, we’re empathizing with the tasks, I still think that there is a need for an emphasis on the emotions during the whole process, like you’re saying.

Don Norman:             I think about the person. When I think about the whole person, I think about how they’re going to react. I think about will they understand this. What might they do next? What happens if they change their mind or wanna go back? I think about the behavior of the persons, which automatically incorporates both their cognition or understanding and also their emotions.

Lara Fedoroff:            And I think also getting back to all the things that have stayed the same, you get into the psychology of everyday things, and certainly like you said, human behavior has stayed the same.

Don Norman:             That’s actually the psychology of everyday things – thank you – is why I named the book The Psychology of Everyday Things. The fundamental principles of how we interact with the world are unchanged for thousands of years, and they will remain unchanged until people change. Now maybe people will change. We’re starting to implant all sorts of weird things inside the brain and body, and maybe that will change the way we think. But until we change the neural circuits of the brain, those principles remain the same – and maybe even afterwards, because a lot of the principles about understanding what’s to be done, understanding what’s happening, getting feedback – if I were a computer interacting with the world, the same principles would apply.

Lara Fedoroff:            Well with mental models, because technology is changing so rapidly, I think our mental models are shifting, and I’m curious to know if you agree if that’s true or not. You spoke at LAUX about the different ways you can swipe the phone, whether you pinch, or tap once, or tap twice. And so it’s not necessarily all intuitive and we’re continually trying to learn new things, so the mental model is somewhat shifting.

Don Norman:             The principle that people form mental models and use them to govern their behavior, that’s unchanged. But what the mental model is about, what our conceptual model of the things we’re interacting with is about obviously changes when the thing re-interacts with changes. With automobiles, we have mental models of what the steering wheel does, and the brake pedal does, and the controls do, and those models change, because today there could be automobiles getting more and more automated. My car doesn’t wanna let me out of my lane if there’s another car adjacent to me. That’s kinda neat.

And so we’re changing our mental model and we’re becoming now much more accustomed to do I – is there a car in my right lane if I wanna shift to the right? Well I just look at the mirror, and if there’s a car there, there’s a bright light flashing at me. If there’s no car there, there’s no bright light. Well, so no light, I go into the other lane. But is that really safe? I mean can I really trust the sensors in the automobile to be accurate all the time? Not really.

So my mental model is the car is very intelligent. It always tells me whether there’s something in my path. That’s a dangerous thing to rely on, but I never would’ve had that model even a few years ago, ’cause cars couldn’t do that. So yeah, our mental model’s change dramatically, and the way we interact with things change, and the kinds of things we interact with change. But the notion of a mental model, that’s been around a long time.

Lara Fedoroff:            And what are some of the things that you foresee will change in the next 25 years?

Don Norman:             Well let me start with some things that will never change. We still have trouble figuring out how to work a door. That is, should we push or pull? And do I – if I push or pull, is it on the left side or the right side? And sometimes doors slide. And so distinguishing among those alternatives is remarkably hard and frustrating sometimes, and that will be unchanged. We know how to do things better. It’s just that I guarantee that we won’t. The same with light switches – a big row of eight light switches: which does what? That’s a mapping problem. That will be remained unchanged even though light switches will change.

We’ll have more and more lights that just automatically turn on when you enter a room, and we’ll have lights that sense what you want to do, and we’ll have lights that say, “Oh, you wanna watch television. I’ll turn down the lights,” and we’ll then get even more annoyed, because, “No, no, I don’t wanna watch television. I just wanted to do something else, or I’m trying to sneak in the room and not wake up my wife, and you turn off all – you turn on all the lights, and she gets mad at me.” So those things won’t change. So even when the automation comes in, in some sense the principles don’t change.

What will change? Well the room, as I said, will try to read your mind and say, “Oh, I know what you’re trying to do, so let me turn down these lights, and turn up the heat, and do this, and do that.” And when that works well, it kinda feels good. But every so often it will get it wrong and we’ll feel bad. Cars will drive themselves. We’ll have more and more intelligent devices with us. The kitchen will become highly automated. The two major places that will become automated – or three major are the kitchen, the automobile, and the entertainment center. Our bathroom scale will talk to our kitchen, and there’ll be some sort of health monitor that will tell us, “Oh, you need to be careful about what you’re eating. No, don’t make that,” while we’re trying to cook.

The notions of privacy aren’t gonna change dramatically. Now I don’t need to remind people that the notion of privacy itself is a very new notion. So this notion of complete loss of privacy is also new, but it’s not as revolutionary as some people think, because the notion of privacy is new. The technology though provides information about us in ways never before imagined. So yeah, lots of things weren’t private before, but we didn’t expect the whole world to know. And one of the problems I have is that lots of people know about things that Don Norman does, but there are many Don Normans in the world. And so people get upset about things that Don Norman has done, and it turns out that’s not me.

This worldwide communication and instant information, and the inability to ever retract anything, because it doesn’t matter if you say, “That’s wrong,” and the company that has the information says, “Okay, we’ll take it out of our database,” well they do, and a day or two later it’s back in, because information is spread all around the world and everybody’s updating it. That’s new. Every day I learn about some development that’s, “Oh, gee,” but clearly it’s about worldwide continuous communication. It’s about wearing glasses that tell us what’s going on around the world. It’s therefore about continual distractions that prevent us from doing our work.

At the same time, there are continual enhancements that make us focus and do our work better. The same technology does both at the same time. And automation taking over more and more, eating us at our jobs, sometimes eliminating our jobs by taking over the job from us; genetic modifications are going to happen; new kinds of materials so we can for the first time grow electronic circuits; we can grow homes and houses; 3-D printing, which is really revolutionizing manufacturing; and I’ve even seen 3-D printed homes. There are these great big machines that go back and forth across the entire plot of land, dripping concrete as it does, and building a wonderful home structure, which can take all sorts of forms now.

We used to do everything in a rectangular shape, because that’s how we knew how to build structures. But with 3-D printing, it could be any shape and even cheaper and stronger than the ones we’re used to. I could go on and on and on. Changes are happening at a really rapid and fascinating pace.

Lara Fedoroff:            With regards to privacy, what moral obligation do you think companies have while it pertains to users’ private data?

Don Norman:             Well I don’t trust companies, and it’s not because there are evil people in companies; they’re not. We have several major companies in the United States that have more and more private information. And let me name some of them: there’s Amazon, and Google, and Twitter, and Facebook. Probably those are the major ones that are changing the world. All of these companies are well intended. They are not trying to violate personal rights, but they are trying to do their business more effectively. And all of them believe firmly that by having more information, we can serve you better.

So if Google mainly survives through advertisements, they say, “People really are annoyed by advertisements,” and that’s because this ad comes in about something I have no interest in, or it comes in – maybe I’m interested in the product, but not now. I’m busy. I’m doing something else. Please don’t bother me. But suppose I could figure out what you really cared about and when so I would only give you the advertisement when you really cared about it? First of all, you’d be much happier; and second, the companies will be happier too, because they don’t want to annoy you. They want you to buy their product. They want you to like the company.

So if the advertisement came up just when I needed it – so I’m in the airport and I’m hungry, and my plane isn’t going to be for a little while. And just then my phone rings and I look at it, and it says there’s a restaurant right down the way, and maybe even here’s a few cents off if I buy there, and here’s what – not only that, but they serve the kind of organic healthy food that you really like. Oh, that’s really nice. But that very same advertisement when I’m rushing to get into the plane, that I would hate. So these companies feel they’re helping you and – by spreading the news, by learning about what all your friends are doing around the world. It is kind of nice.

At the same time, the side effect is a complete loss of privacy. Now they don’t intend that, but it happens. And that’s why I don’t trust companies, because the company who thinks it’s trying to help you, and one of its goals of course is to stay alive, ’cause the company needs to make money. So they will do things we don’t want them to do, and I think the only solution is for society to get together and say, “We will not allow certain things to happen.” You cannot trust the companies, and it’s not because they’re evil or deceitful. It’s because they have a different mindset.

Lara Fedoroff:            What should they be doing differently?

Don Norman:             We should have opt-in as opposed to opt-out. Right now everything you do is completely public unless you make a big effort to run around and try to figure out where it is and say, “No, this is not allowed.” Look. Opt-out versus opt-in in theory says, “Oh, it doesn’t make any difference, because in both cases you have full permission. You authorize what can be done.” But in practice it makes a huge difference, because few people are gonna take the time and effort to go through and do the opt-in or opt-out, let alone – in many cases, Facebook and example, it’s really hard to figure out where the permissions are.

Lara Fedoroff:            Right. So making it easier to find the permissions, opting out.

Don Norman:             Well, how about making it unnecessary to find the permissions. How about maybe for the first time that he’s gonna post something or use something, it says, “I can’t do this until you tell me it’s permissible.” And that box will also allow me to say, “Permissible or not this one time, or never, or always.” I’ve always thought that the computer systems ought to have a special place for notifications, and I tried to do that when I was at Apple, but I couldn’t get any – nobody would listen to me, but I – instead of notifications popping up on your screen, there ought to be a special place. Now actually in the new operating system, Apple has done that, but nobody seems to use it. One place we can go look just where everything is.

Lara Fedoroff:            That would be wonderful. Find one place instead of going into each system.

Don Norman:             And it annoys you, doesn’t it?

Lara Fedoroff:            It does.

Don Norman:             See, emotions come into play all the time.

Lara Fedoroff:            You talk about the system, and I think that’s so critical to look at the entire system instead of the just the parts. And I’d like for you to talk a little bit about that, because I think it’s something that’s really critical and it’s a mindset that we need to change not only for the designer, the developer, or the business manager, but for all of us to be working more as a complete system.

Don Norman:             I looked around the room we’re sitting in, because I always like to do that when I’m asked a question about systems. For example, yeah, we don’t exist in a world of isolated events and isolated actions. We live in a world where everything is connected. It’s a system. And so proper design has to understand that, hey, it’s a system. We should interconnect everything. We should think about the way that one component interacts with another component and it’s remarkably difficult, first of all because usually the designers are charged with bringing out the new product, or getting it out on time, or doing this little piece. You’re not told, “Think about all the interactions that might happen and all the other things that are a part of the system are doing, and make sure it’s harmonious and smooth.” That’s not how we’re ever given instructions, or for that matter we don’t have the ability to do that.

But – because it’s difficult. It’s difficult to get all the people in synchrony. Light switches are often a mess to try to understand and know which controls what, because the architect designs this; the interior designers design that. The electricians are called in at the last moment to finish wiring the place, and they don’t understand how it’s going to be used. So they do the best job they can, but it makes the system aspects horrible. So I think the next big challenge in design is they’re trying to figure out how to make the systems work, because that’s what makes our life pleasant and smooth, and that’s a hard job. And actually it’s a hard job that I love, because I like challenges. And so that’s my challenge: how do we make the systems smooth? That’s an interesting new book, isn’t it? Let’s simplify our lives. That’s a good title.

Lara Fedoroff:            What does the roadmap look like to helping companies adapt to that different mindset of looking at the system as a whole?

Don Norman:             Companies and artificial entity – companies don’t look. Companies don’t have ideas. Companies don’t have policies. It’s people in those companies – large companies are complex entities. You and I are having this wonderful conversation. There are two of us. If we added a third or fourth person, it might actually make it better or it might make it worse. You don’t know. It has to do with the unique characteristics of all the extra people. We work well as people in small social groups. If you get 10 or 20 people in a room, it’s very hard to do anything productive. If you have an hour meeting, that means everybody gets to talk for three minutes apiece and it’s hard to organize. And companies have thousands of people, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands; there are companies with one million people.

So how do you organize and how do you structure? And who speaks for the company? When you say a company ought to have a certain way of behaving, well no, there is no such thing as a company. There are all these different groups, and the very senior executives could establish a policy, and there’s a big division off on the side that completely violates the policy. When I was an executive – a vice president of a large company, there were problems in my division and I could never figure out what was really going on, ’cause there were too many people. I had 250 people in my division, and how can I really tell in this little seven-person group where there are really disagreements and difficulty who was right and who was wrong, or what the real issue was? I think it’s kinda false to say the company ought to behave better. I mean it’s true, but it’s not as easy as a simple sentence sounds.

Lara Fedoroff:            Well you have the executive stakeholders, marketing and sales, you have designers, developers, manufacturers.

Don Norman:             Yes, but we also have – now we have all these different groups, but first of all everybody has a boss. You go all the way up to the CEO and you say, “Well, that’s the person in charge.” No, the CEO has a boss. It’s the board of directors, and – but the board of directors have bosses, and they are actually being directed by the people they work for or report to. And on top of that, there’s what’s – there’s a reward structure in the company. So what does a company reward me for? Well the company might say, “I want better products,” but in the end the company really needs to be making money.

And so quite often we reward the executives on their ability to make more money for the company. Therefore the executives know they’re being rewarded on their profits. They would do all they can to improve their profits, but the reward structure where you’re getting rewarded for the biggest sales and profits, that makes people do irrational things. How do you reward people for doing good for society, for the community, for their workers, and for the company? Well no one has figured out the formula yet.

Lara Fedoroff:            You coined the term user experience. Can you talk a little bit about your original definition and whether or not you think people are interpreting it the same today?

Don Norman:             There’s a really interesting fashion cycle with words. And so words come in and out of fashion, and as they come back into fashion, everybody starts adopting it. They often just use the word with no understanding of what its original meaning was. I introduce the phrase user experience, and I’ll come back to that, and it has been widely accepted and misused. Interaction design is widely accepted and misused. Innovation, creativity, design, thinking: all of these terms suddenly get popularized and really badly misused. So then people therefore throw them away and say, “Oh, no. We don’t wanna talk about that.”

The story I tell is when I was at Apple, quite often I was seeing that the user experience of the computer was deteriorating with time, and that was because the priority judgments made by the product team. We’re reaching the deadline. We haven’t finished everything. Let’s sit down and prioritize all the things left to do, and we’ll just do the high-priority ones. We’ll keep going until we run out of time. And the user – the interaction for people was suffering, ’cause it was always low priority. And so when you divide things up into small little pars, the small parts often are of low priority. But if you were to realize that no, no, no, the entire experience is deteriorating and that’s a major problem, then it would’ve reached a higher priority. System thinking is required.

The whole reason they have the computer is to get a task done, and that task – the ability to get the task done was dramatically suffering, because of all these little problems that were in the way. And each little problem was not very important, but the totality was huge. So that’s what I wanted for user experience, and somehow today people think user experience had to do with websites or something, and interaction design is all about websites. And each little field that does something thinks it’s all about their little part of the field, and no, it’s about the whole thing. When I buy a computer, how do I learn about it and how do I purchase it at the store? What kind of a box does it come in? Can I actually fit the box into my car? When I open it, is it easy to figure out what I should do to get it going? That’s what user experience is about and that’s been lost.

Lara Fedoroff:            If you were to give some advice to young designers today, what would you tell them?

Don Norman:             First of all, I would always try to see the big picture. Don’t get stuck in your own specialized discipline. But if you’re asked to do a job, try to understand where it fits in the large picture, and that makes you better at doing the job. Second, you should always push yourself. There’s a friend of mine, a management consultant, called Tom Peters, and he actually had a philosophy that I really loved, which is if you’re really comfortable at your job, you’re in the wrong job. You should always be pushing yourself, and you should always be unsure of yourself, and not sure that you can really handle it. Yeah, you should only be looking for challenges.

Always be learning new things. Always be trying new things. When you’re trying to select a job or a profession, choose something you really love. Don’t choose the one that pays the most or don’t choose the one that you think you ought to do. The same with taking courses at school and the same with doing anything: don’t do what you think people think you ought to do. Do what you love to do. I always try to look at the big picture and think about new things that need to be done, and I go into areas that nobody is doing. And it’s – that’s dangerous, and risky, and unsettling, but that’s where the breakthroughs come.

So if you look at all of the great innovations that have ever happened, or even the minor innovations that’s happened, it’s because somebody has had a new way of viewing things, and persisted, and continued. And then slowly the world started to understand, and then suddenly this person was the great person with great foresight and great insight, and has changed the world, and – but wow, it took 10 years maybe. If you believe in something, then you should continue it.

Lara Fedoroff:            What would you like to be your biggest contribution to society?

Don Norman:             It’s the students that I’ve taught and the wonderful work they are now doing in a wide variety of fields; and second, the people I’ve influenced through my books. And nothing gives me more pleasure than to have people come up to me and say, “I read your book 20 years ago, and it made me change the field I’m in, and thank you very much.” That actually happened to me last night at the talk I gave. A number of people came up. One person brought a book they had read of mine in the 1960s. Several people brought some of the old books and said, “I took your course at UC San Diego 30 years ago,” and they still had the book. That was amazing, and that’s my biggest contribution. It’s the people I leave behind me.

Lara Fedoroff:            Well thank you so much for your time today. It was wonderful talking to you.

Don Norman:             You’re quite welcome. Thank you.

UX Radio is produced by Lara Fedoroff. If you want more UX Radio, you can subscribe to our free podcast on iTunes or go to, where you’ll find podcasts, resources, and more. [End of transcript.]


More About Don Norman

Don Norman is Director of the recently established Design Lab at the University of California, San Diego where he is also professor emeritus of psychology, cognitive science, and electrical and computer engineering. He has been a VP of Apple, executive at HP, and Design Prof. at Northwestern and KAIST (Korea). He is co-founder of the Nielsen Norman group, an IDEO Fellow, fellow of the Design Research Society, member of the National Academy of Engineering, trustee of IIT’s Institute of Design, and an honorary professor of design and innovation at Tongji University, Shanghai. He has two honorary degrees (Delft and Padua) and the lifetime achievement award in HCI from CHI. His books include Emotional Design, Living with Complexity, and most recently an expanded and revised edition of Design of Everyday Things.


Examples of talks

Design of Everyday Things, Revised and Expanded Edition (DOET2), paperback and eBook.
Fundamentals (Chapters 1 and 2)  — now available
This course has design exercises by Kristian Simsarian, IDEO Fellow and head of interaction design at CCA. Reflective thinking exercises implemented by Chelsey Glasson.