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Tech Book Face Off: The Design of Everyday Things Vs. Designing Interfaces

Everyone should at least learn the basics of design. Knowing a little about design will open your eyes to how we interact with the consumer products and other man-made objects all around us. When something proves difficult or frustrating to use, you will have a better idea of what makes it such a poor design. When something is a pleasure to use, either because it is enjoyable in and of itself, or because it enables you to accomplish a task with ease, you will better appreciate why it is such a great design.

Here are two books that take very different approaches in describing the same fundamental principles of good design. The first, The Design of Everyday Things by Donald A. Norman, presents examples of common objects that we interact with everyday of our lives - doors, appliances, phones, etc. - and explains what makes these things easy or difficult to use. The second, Designing Interfaces by Jenifer Tidwell, uses a catalog of software interface design patterns to showcase the same design principles and how they can be used to make well-designed software.

The Design of Everyday Things front cover VS. Designing Interfaces front cover

The Design of Everyday Things

This book comes highly recommended by both Joel Spolsky and Jeff Atwood, and even though it does a great job of laying out the fundamental design principles behind the great products that we use in our daily lives, I couldn't help but be constantly annoyed by the delivery and tone of the book. Before getting into the annoyances, let's take a look at the benefits.

Donald systematically presents and describes four principles of good design: visibility, constraints, feedback, and affordances.
  • Visibility includes everything from visual to auditory to tactile stimulus, and not only involves making the user aware of certain aspects of the system, but also doing so in a way that the user will correctly interpret the operation or state of the system with little effort. 
  • Constraints should be used to limit the scope of the design and make the use of the object simple and obvious. 
  • Feedback gives the user a clear idea of what the system is doing and how it is reacting to the user's inputs or manipulations.
  • Affordances make it clear what the purpose of the features of the object are, and how the object can be manipulated in a natural way to produce the desired result.
These principles will connect the physical model of the object with the mental model of the person using it. The better this mapping is between the physical and mental models, the better the user will be able to understand the system and use it productively.

The concept of affordances is an especially valuable contribution to the theory and practice of design. Common examples of this idea include handles that afford pulling, buttons that afford pushing, and knobs that afford turning. Being a father of two young children, I get to experience all kinds of other examples of this principle where the users, my children, have no preconceived notions about how an object is supposed to be used. In my day to day life, I am intimately aware that couch arms afford riding, crayons afford breaking and throwing, stairs afford falling, and wrapping paper tubes afford swinging - normally at a sibling. The next time you're designing a new feature for a product, think about how it would be used in the hands of a six-year-old, and you'll be getting close to its real affordances.

This is all good stuff, and there are many more essential concepts described in much more detail in the book, including things like "knowledge in the head or in the world" and "making the right thing easy and the wrong thing hard." There is a wealth of design wisdom here that should be learned and internalized, but the book is not without shortcomings that I found hard to overlook. They seriously impacted my enjoyment of the book and made me hope that there is a better treatment of the material somewhere else. Here is what I'm talking about.

I couldn't decide whether the tone of the book was more patronizing or more pandering to the reader. Donald constantly reminds you that the average person has great difficulty using the most basic of objects, especially doors. He would go on and on about poor door designs and how he and other people he meets are frustrated by not being able to open doors. You would think we were suffering from an impossible door epidemic. Now I am sure there are some terrible door designs out there, but in general that has not been my experience. If the book would have focused on those bad designs and how to improve them using the presented design principles, that would have been better than trying to overgeneralize the state of door design and the people trapped behind it. Granted, he did do some explaining of how the principles applied to doors, but it was lost amid the torrent of grievances.

Okay, enough about doors. Some of the other examples used were even more confusing. When he was talking about design constraints he extolled the virtues of a LEGO police motorcycle and rider as a perfect example of how to use constraints to make a design easy to use. Test subjects could almost invariably assemble the toy without any picture, instruction manual or help from the moderator. But why would you try to exhibit good use of design constraints by cherry-picking this LEGO set from a type of toy whose main characteristic is that it is free from design constraints so that you can use your imagination and creativity? I'll bet if he had picked any LEGO set of moderate size, the test subjects would have had significant difficulty putting together the set's featured vehicle, even with the picture on the box. He should have at least picked something that was meant to be constrained as an example. As it is, this was entirely distracting.

Later in the book, Donald reasoned that slow evolution of design was better than rapid iteration, and used the classic telephone with a separate handset and a cradle as an example. He argued that the cradle prongs protected the switch hook from being depressed and hanging up the call if the telephone happened to fall off the table. Really? That is the intended function of the prongs? How about to hold the handset on the cradle when the phone is hung up? That is what the prongs are doing 99% of the time. I think the fact that the prongs protect the switch hook from that rare fall is incidental, and would be a design feature by coincidence. I wonder what he thinks of the modern phones that are products of rapid iteration instead of slow evolution. The iPhone, in particular, is considered to be of exceptionally good design. Of course, there is the problem of butt-dialing.

One last thing that drove me crazy was the way Donald constantly referred to DOET or POET as if they were separate works that he was referencing. I always had to stop and think about what he meant before remembering, oh yes, that's Design Of Everyday Things, the book that I am, in fact, reading right now, or its previous title, Psychology Of Everyday Things. At best this was terribly annoying and jarring, and at worst it came off as pretentious and aloof. Why was that necessary?

Designing Interfaces

This book covers all of the main design principles that were laid out in The Design of Everyday Things, but in the context of a set of design patterns for software user interfaces. Jenifer tries to be comprehensive, and is fairly successful, covering everything from the ubiquitous Thumbnail Grid pattern to the exotic Data Brushing pattern and everything in between. Every chapter started off with some pertinent design tips for the pattern category being presented, and patterns were well organized into logical categories such as information architecture, navigation, layout, forms, etc.

I found the chapters on data presentation (chapter 7) and visual design (chapter 11) particularly interesting. The discussion about displaying data in a clear and user-friendly way at the beginning of the data presentation chapter was quite good. It emphasized making the visual presentation as obvious and understanding as  possible, and provided great tips for doing it. For example, preattentive variables, the graphical characteristics of the displayed data, can be used to highlight important data points. Varying the color, texture, position, size, or shape of the data can all make it immediately apparent what the user should pay attention to.

The visual design chapter covered the basics of creating attractive layouts and provoking a desired emotional reaction by judiciously choosing design elements. I enjoyed seeing how color, typography, lines, space, texture, and images could be used to completely change the feel of a design without changing any of the content. I think this is an area of software design that every programmer could benefit from learning more about. Having a better understanding of how the look of software affects the user's experience has arguably become just as, if not more important than the features and function of the software.

What I like most about this book is that it is pragmatic. It uses real-world examples to showcase the practical use of the design patterns presented, and offers concise, focused explanations of the principles behind the patterns. It makes for a great overview on the first read through, and then it can be used as a reference or an idea generator when you are actually designing software. The only issue I can see is that the design principles tend to take a back seat to the patterns because there are so many of the latter. But since this is a book about patterns, that was probably the right choice.

And the Winner Is...

Designing Interfaces, of course. I felt that it did a much better job of presenting the principles of good design without being distracting, annoying, or pretentious. Even though the focus was on the patterns, the principles came through clearly and were used to good effect when explaining the patterns. Because it is specific to software interfaces, it doesn't have the general applicability that The Design of Everyday Things does, but for designing software that doesn't matter much.

I really did want to like The Design of Everyday Things. The premise of developing good design principles in the context of everyday objects that we're all familiar with is intriguing. Some of the examples were actually entertaining, but the logic for including others doesn't hold up very well. By the end of the book I was getting preoccupied with disagreeing with the author instead of learning from him, and I found his perspectives on computers and the internet about as befuddling as the ones on doors and phones.

I would certainly appreciate a good book that focuses on design principles, one with better execution than The Design of Everyday Things. I'm sure that it was groundbreaking in its day, but I'm also sure that there are better alternatives available today. I even have a few on my list to try out. Until then, Designing Interfaces will do. Even though the focus is on patterns, it does a fine job of covering the relevant design principles as well.

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