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.