So You're Still Having Trouble Making Those Christmas Toys Work? Don't Worry, It's Not Your Fault

updated 01/09/1989 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 01/09/1989 AT 01:00 AM EST

If all you wanted for Christmas was a VCR, a camcorder, a computer or a CD player and what you got was a snarl of wayward wires and instruction tracts that are about as easy to decipher as the Dead Sea Scrolls, take heart: You are not alone. Even the handiest consumer can be easily befuddled by so-called modern conveniences, says Donald A. Norman, 52, an authority in the field of cognitive psychology and author of The Psychology of Everyday Things, a thoughtful exploration of Man vs. Machine. "Even though I understand the way everyday things work," says Norman, "I've never been good at using them. After studying the reasons, I concluded that people blame themselves, when the real culprit is bad design." Professor and chair of the cognitive science department at the University of California, San Diego, Norman, who holds a degree in electrical engineering from MIT, tried to sort out the problems of faulty design with senior writer Kristin McMurran.

For starters, what do you mean by "everyday things"?

They are the thousands of objects—at least 20,000—that surround us in our daily life. Things like light fixtures, clocks, appliances, utensils, paper clips, pens. Take clothing, for example. Notice the variety of fasteners—buttons, zippers, snaps, laces. Each is simple, but each requires its own method of operation. Many everyday things make life easier. It is only when they frustrate us that we notice them. It sometimes seems that too much of our time is spent maintaining inanimate things like our high-tech "conveniences," so that they are coming to rule our lives.

Why are we so often flummoxed by high-tech gizmos?

Designers focus too much on aesthetics and not enough on use. Take audio-video equipment. Even if each component is designed with care, the interaction between the components often causes trouble. The tuner, cassette deck, TV, VCR and CD player all seem to be devised in relative isolation. Put them all together and there is chaos. Simple home appliances like microwave ovens and washing machines should not look like Hollywood's idea of a spaceship control room. Each new feature that is added to our calculator or our dashboard makes operating the thing a little bit harder.

Why are so many instruction manuals impenetrable?

Manual writers are not first-time users. They are so proficient that they think their instructions make perfect sense. Also, writers are often pressed for time. Directions are usually written at the end of production. They should be written first; then the device should be put together according to the manual. The better the object is designed, the less need there is for instructions.

What are some examples of inexcusably poor design?

Stove-top burners where the pattern of the dials doesn't match the pattern of the burners. When simple things need labels, the design has failed. Doors that you pull when they should be pushed because they lack such hardware as a flat plate that sends the message to push. Slide projectors that have one button that can cause a slide to lurch forward or backward depending on your touch. And most digital wristwatches. Give me a few hours and I might figure out how to operate one.

Are there others?

The VCR is crazy. The president of the company that produces your VCR might learn something if he had to come to your home and watch you try to operate his product. Designers have a wonderful display screen available that can help the consumer—it is called a television. There are far more complex inventions that work very well because they use display screens.

Another example is the single-control shower faucet. How many times have you been standing in a hotel shower with soap running down over your eyes while you try to adjust the temperature? You grope for the knob and inevitably you freeze or scald yourself.

What principles should be followed to make commonplace things usable?

The human mind is exquisitely tailored to make sense of the world. Give it the slightest clue and off it goes. Visibility helps us make distinctions, so that we can tell the salt shaker from the pepper, for example. Feedback is also a factor. When you touch the button on a touch-tone telephone, you hear a tone. That is reassuring evidence that you have pushed the button correctly. There are some modern telephones that make no sound when you push the button so you never know if you have made contact at all.

Also, you should never feel that a device will self-destruct if you do something wrong. Many people are frightened by computers because they think that if they make an error, something disastrous will happen. In fact, computers should be built so that it is impossible to do anything harmful inadvertently. If you know that anything you do you can also undo, then you will have more courage to explore.

How important is sound in a design?

When sound delivers a precise message, it can provide information that is not available any other way. The scream of a smoke alarm says FIRE! The click of a bolt when a door slides home, the whistle of a tea kettle when the water boils, the roar when a car muffler gets a hole are all sounds that tell you exactly what is happening. But a general beep tells you nothing. A beep in your car could announce that your seat belt isn't fastened, your door isn't closed or that you are out of gas.

Are some poor designs the fault of the user?

Sometimes there is an attempt to solve one problem at the expense of another. Because people steal closet hangers in hotels, designers had to come up with a way to prevent theft. So they made hangers in two parts, one of which is removable. Better for the hotel, worse for the patron. We may have saved some children's lives with childproof bottle caps, but we may have confused some elderly people who find the bottles hard to open.

Are some design flaws deliberate?

Yes. Manufacturers are in business to generate profits. That paper towel dispenser in the public rest room is often deliberately difficult, so that you will use fewer towels. Seats in some restaurants are not so comfortable that you will linger after your meal.

What are the dangers of poor design?

In normal life such small things as whether you push or pull a door don't matter, but suppose there is a fire and you are in a hurry to get out. People have been killed in two-door automobiles by being trapped in the backseat, unable to push the front seat forward.

What are examples of skillful design?

Scissors, for one. If you had never seen a pair of scissors, you would be able to figure out how to use them without instructions. The new 3½-inch floppy discs are superior to the old ones because it is impossible to insert them incorrectly. Pushpins are a tremendous improvement over thumbtacks.

How should users cope with newfangled contraptions that confuse and frustrate them?

Approach the problem with a spirit of adventure. Manuals are bad, but try to read them. Most people don't. Also, have someone program the appliance, then, after you've been instructed, cover the controls that you don't need and put red adhesive dots on the normal settings that you want to use.

What advice do you have for designers?

They should test the device on the user and remember that the user is always right. If the consumer has trouble, the problem is probably with the design. To be fair, I don't put all the blame on designers. The problems they face are extremely difficult. Take frozen-food packages. The people who deliver food to markets throw it from truck to ground to conveyer belt. The packages must not split from manhandling, yet they must also be easy for consumers to open.

How would you counsel consumers?

Resist! Protest! When you are shopping for a VCR, try to program it. If you don't think you can understand how it works, don't buy it. Consumers are partly at fault for being so easily seduced by aesthetics. If people keep buying poorly designed products, manufacturers will think they are doing the right thing and continue to make them.

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