Designing the Future; September 1995; Scientific American Magazine; by Norman; 2 Page(s)
The difficulty of programming videocassette recorders has become a worldwide joke. "I'm a rocket scientist," one engineer complained to me. "I design missile systems, but I can't figure out how to program my VCR." Why is it that we sometimes have so much trouble working apparently simple things, such as doors and light switches, water faucets and thermostats, to say nothing of computers and automated factory equipment? The answer lies not with the hapless user but with designers who fail to think about products from the operator's point of view. The steps required to run modern devices frequently seem arbitrary and capricious often because they are indeed confusing.
Although most problems arise with electronic equipment, certain fundamental design flaws can be illustrated with simple mechanical objects. Consider the door. With most doors, there are only two possible actions: push or pull. But which? Where? Poorly designed doors turn the operation into a guessing game, requiring the posting of signs to indicate the appropriate action. Now suppose a door had a flat metal panel along one side. The panel by itself would essentially say, "Push here." You would immediately know how to proceed, because the maker included a visible cue to the door's operation. The best cues offer an intuitive indication of the things you can do with an object--what James J. Gibson of Cornell University had termed the object's "affordances." In general, if a simple piece of equipment such as a door or a kitchen stove requires labeling, that need is a sign of design failure. Wonderful capabilities become meaningless if they are hard to discover and use.