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Button-Pushers of the World, Unite! : THE PSYCHOLOGY OF EVERYDAY THINGS by Donald A. Norman (Basic Books: $19.95; 271 pp., illustrated)

May 22, 1988|Witold Rybczynski | Rybczynski is the author of "Home: A Short History of an Idea" (Penguin) and teaches at McGill University, Montreal. and

There is, of course, no such thing as the psychology of inanimate objects, but who of us, thwarted by a recalcitrant VCR machine, or scalded by a misidentified hot-water faucet, has not at times felt that these lifeless devices had personalities--mischievous, devilish, even malicious? We have all had small, losing contests with technology. How many times do we choose the wrong light switch, or press the wrong button on a telephone, or turn on the wrong burner on a stove? Even something as simple as a door can frustrate us. How often do we push and discover that we should have been pulling? Or, even when PUSH is clearly marked on the wide bar, we shove and nothing happens. We turn away, assuming that it must be locked; in fact we have been pressing on the wrong side of the door. My own office recently had new locks installed. One-quarter turn to the right locks the door, one-quarter turn to the left opens it. Or is it the other way around? After six months, I still can't remember.

What is wrong with us that we are so often baffled by apparently straightforward devices? Absolutely nothing, maintains Donald Norman, a psychologist who teaches cognitive science at UC San Diego. In this straightforward and very readable book, he spells out exactly why so many everyday controls malfunction and why the problem lies with them and not with us.

The frustrations induced by unmanageable faucets and cryptic microwave oven controls are small--hardly on the order of acid rain or the AIDS epidemic--and Norman's treatment of them is appropriately lighthearted, but he makes a strong case for the needlessness of badly conceived, and badly designed, everyday objects. And beneath the humor, there is a serious message, for if engineers cannot devise an easily understood VCR machine, can we be confident that they do much better with the control of jumbo jets or nuclear reactors? How many "disasters" have been the result of a misplaced button, a confusing instrument, or cryptic operating instructions? Human error is often cited as the culprit; it is the author's thesis that the human to blame is frequently the designer, not the user.

Norman describes two principles which are frequently ignored in the design of everyday objects: natural mapping and feedback. A control that takes advantage of natural mapping is a vertical panel of buttons in an elevator--the buttons are located to mimic the vertical arrangement of the floors; without natural mapping we are obliged to scan the several rows to find the right button. A well-designed stove will have its controls arranged in such a manner as to mirror the layout of the burners: top-left control, top-left burner. Feedback requires that each action produces an immediate and obvious effect--a light, or a sound. The "click" that IBM engineers have built into the PC keyboard is an example of positive feedback. Telephones traditionally incorporate a reassuring auditory feedback in the earpiece during the dialing process; many modern phones do not, leaving us in a disconcerting silence, until the connection is made.

Many of the most successful examples of everyday things that do work well have evolved over a period of time, and one might imagine that trial-and-error would reduce the shortcomings of many modern devices. However, there are several reasons, in Norman's view, why this is not happening. Contemporary industrial designers put aesthetics first, hence the tasteful but incomprehensible rows of identical buttons, or the camouflaged controls that do not disrupt the purity of the form. Much of the blame here rests with the museums, whose design departments have actively promoted a wide range of pretty but often useless objects: blank-faced watches, unsittable chairs, and unholdable knives and forks. What the author humorously refers to as "creeping featurism"--the tendency to indiscriminately extend what a device can do beyond reason--is another problem. Somebody somewhere is undoubtedly working on a portable compact disc player with alarm clock, beer cooler, and programmable sun-block dispenser; it will certainly come with a 150-page operating manual and rows and rows of tiny, identical buttons.

As a remedy to our current malaise, Norman suggests something called User-Centered Design, an approach based on putting the needs and interests of the user first, and making products that are usable and understandable. His cheerful optimism is infectious but, to this reader at least, unconvincing. In a society driven by meretricious and superficial marketing, where fashion, not common sense, drives demand for consumer goods, the perceptive advice that he offers is unlikely to prevail. On the other hand, this book may herald the beginning of a change in user habits and expectations, a change that manufacturers would be obliged to respond to. Button-pushers of the world, unite.

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