Design of Everyday Things

While computer design has its own idiosyncrasies, we can learn a tremendous amount by looking at the design of everyday things. We start with bad design, which make us realize that the problems and errors people face when dealing with even simple technology are usually a result of design failure. We then move to understanding visual design principles that help us analyze bad design and create good designs.

Overheads (Powerpoint)


Topics Covered

  • Pathological designs
    • Examples of poor design: chariots, microwaves, digital watches, slide projectors, telephones...
    • World war two: machinery that taxed people's capabilities
    • Computer Failure? The accident caused by the British Motorway Communications system
    • Other computer psychopathologies
  • Design of everyday things
    • Visible affordances
    • Visible constraints
    • Mapping
    • Causality
    • Transfer effects
    • Idioms and population stereotypes
    • Conceptual models
    • Individual differences and percentiles
    • Why design is hard

Required Readings

  1. Norman, D. A. (1988) The Design of Everyday Things, Basic Books.
    • Psychopathology of everyday things. pp. 5-22
    • This is an excellent, entertaining and informed discussion of what comprises bad and good design in everyday objects. (Reprinted in Baecker Grudin Buxton and Greenberg). Buy this book! Its fabulous.

In-Class Activities

I often bring in a bag to class full of everyday things. The bag includes staplers, scissors, tape-dispensers, alarm clocks, digital watches, floppy disks, CD-cases, and anything else I find lying around my office. When the discussion turns to design components of everyday things (e.g., visual affordances, constraints, etc.), I consider how well the items in my bag work.

I also try to find a real odd-ball device that is not familiar to most students. Examples in the past included an apple peeler and corer (which looks like an implement a torturer would use!) and a co-ax wire stripper. I pass it around for students to try and figure out what it is. We then discuss what visual clues helped them understand its function.

I give students the exercise. They analyze a GUI design, articulate its problems, and suggest redesigns.

Additional Readings

  1. Norman, D. A. The Design of Everyday Things (1988) Basic Books.
    • The entire book is well worth reading, as it is devoted to this topic. A classic.
  2. Johnson, Jeff. GUI Bloopers (2002) Morgan Kaufmann.
    • Lots of examples of bad designs and how to fix them
  3. Interface Halls of Shames are collected on my HCI resources page.
    • Seeing many bad designs helps us understand how to critique designs.


  1. The Strauss Mouse, Mantei (1990, SVGR 56).
    • This video is a re-enactment of situations where people used a mouse in inappropriate ways. It is humorous, and reminds us that even very "familiar" computer objects may be a mystery to new users.
  2. All the Widgets, by Myers (1990, SVGR 57).
    • This video shows the evolution of many widget designs, and I use snippets from it to illustrate how early (and poor) widget designs often failed to satisfy many of the design principles suggested by Norman, and how later ones do. The evolution of scrollbars is a good choice, as early versions are quite arcane. It is a good way to show how graphical widget design should follow the principles similar to the good design of everyday things.

Major sources used to prepare lecture material

  • The additional readings and web sites mentioned above
  • The material of Professor David Hill, a previous teacher of this course, supplied several of the examples used in lectures.