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A Book that Changed My Life: The Design of the Everyday Things

A month or so back, I attended a book reading put together by Kevin Smokler for his edited work, Bookmark Now: Writing in Unreaderly Times. At the end of the event, he asks the audience to tell him about a book that changed your life.

I thought for a moment, but not much more than a moment. Don Norman’s The Design of Everyday Things emerged in my head as the obvious choice.

The year was 1994. I was one year out of getting my B.A. in anthropology at Cal. In June, I moved from San Francisco to New York to intern at The Voyager Company, a multimedia CD-ROM publisher. Voyager was expanding pretty rapidly. “Multimedia” was to 1994-95 what “.com” would be to 1998-99.

I was brought in to work on a series of CD-ROMs called Our Secret Century, a curated selection of films from the Prelinger Archives (much of which can be viewed at The Internet Archive). However, shortly after I began, that project was shelved.

There were CD-ROMs in production needing to get out the door, and so I was put on Quality Assurance duty. The first title I worked on was “First Person: Donald Norman – Defending Human Attributes in the Age of the Machine.” I had never heard of Don before. The CD-ROM consisted of the full text of his three books up to that point (The Design of the Everyday Things, Turn Signals are the Facial Expressions of Automobiles, and Things That Make Us Smart, all listed here), annotated with animations and videos of Don that further explained the concepts in the books. My job was to go, page by page, and click around, and make sure everything worked.

This is an odd way to read a book, but it also meant that I engaged with the text to a level of depth I probably wouldn’t otherwise. And, as has happened with so many other people, when he criticizes thoughtless door design, or the lack of mapping between the controls of a stove and the burners themselves, I had that “Aha!” moment. And as I continued reading about conceptual models, system images, recognition versus recall, affordances (affordances! and in the CD-ROM, there’s a little video of Don describing affordances using a book, talking about how a book, among other things, affords scratching), the power of forcing functions, the photo of beer keg handles used to distinguish controls in a nuclear power plant.

Don’s book opened my eyes to a field I had never heard of. With this book, he essentially brought the notion of “user-centered design” to a wide audience. (He had earlier worked on “User-Centered System Design,” but that was pretty much strictly for academics.) And though it would be a few years before I practiced user-centered design, it was this book that set me on that path.


The Voyager Company, after disappearing in 2002, has re-emerged as a website, where, it looks like, Bob is selling whatever was left in the warehouse in Irvington. While the catalog contains copies of the other First Person titles (Marvin Minsky, Stephen Jay Gould, and Mumia Abu-Jamal), there are no copies of the Don Norman CD-ROM. Nor can I find one anywhere on the Web. If you have a copy, and would be willing to either sell it or copy it, I would much appreciate it. Thanks.

  1. Hi Peter,

    I’m reading your blog for a while now and I thank you for your insightful postings!

    Don’s book has been an eye opener for me as well in 1998 where (as a Business Ph.d. student) I wanted to demonstarate that it’s worth it for a company to invest in the usability of digital meadia as well.

    Interestingly the book got its final kick in the community ever since it has been re-named from “The Psychology of Everyday Things” (this has been placed in the “Pychology rack in the bookstores) to “The Design of Everyday Things” (consequently being moved to the Design books in the stores).

    At least for Don Norman design did pay-off 😉

    Have a nice day,
    Ralf Beuker, Germany.

  2. My answer would have been the same. I learned to usability test, ran my first big test and picked this off the bookshelf from the usability team.

    Talk about a paradigm shift. I have not thought about things the same since. I have re-read the book twice and still pull it out as a reference whenever I’m teaching the basics of mental models, error etc. I also recommended it as the first book for the online IA reading group.

    I have had another paradigm shift recently, reading The Paradox of Choice, Flow and A Whole New Mind almost simultaneously. This has really changed the way I think about consumerism, our need to have so much stuff, what makes us happy and where we are headed.

  3. I too was introduced to Norman through the CD-ROM. I was working in Chicago as a tech writer. Having recently bought a Performa 6400 VEE (a step up from the Performa 600, which was a step up from the Macintosh Classic), I saw the CD-ROM in the Borders down the street and bought it. The rest is, for me, also history. It’s why I moved out of tech writing and into more UX stuff.
    Sadly, the CD-ROM runs only in OS 9–and I think you have to boot into the OS. I’ll check.
    Contact me off line….

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