Session 3

Software and Interfaces: The Big Picture


Software Systems

More on Don Norman

Don Norman is a cognitive scientist who has built a career out of studying how people use things. "Why Interfaces Don't Work" was written in the late '80s and reflects his thinking from that time. Also in the late 80s, Norman wrote a book that I think all designers, including software designers, should read. It was originally titled The Psychology of Everyday Things, but you are more likely to find it in its second release under the title The Design of Everyday Things (Basic Books). You should read this book. It will change how you think about users, tools, and software--and doors.

Exercise: Why Interfaces Don't Work, By Norman


You have read Donald Norman's article, "Why Interfaces Don't Work". You have just constructed a list of at least three points from the article that you thought are especially important.


To understand better the issues that human-computer interface designers face.


Work in groups based on a number assigned in class.

  1. Discuss the list of three important points that each of you made. Make sure that every member of your group understands each point.

  2. Based on your discussion, construct a master list of three to five of the most important or most thought-provoking items in the article.

    For each item on your master list, explain why it is important and give an example from a piece of software not discussed in the article.

  3. Make a list of three to five things that software designers could do today to make interfaces better, based on your list from Task 2.

At the End

  1. Turn in your group's master list of important points from Norman's article and your group's list of action steps for interface designers.
  2. We will discuss your work and Norman's article as a class.

Summary of Discussion

As noted above, Norman wrote this work ten years ago. Since then, he has changed his mind on some things having to do with interfaces but not on all. At the end of the semester, you will read some of his newer work. I am interested in seeing how much your ideas about users and interfaces change in the meantime!

What ideas in the paper had the biggest effect on you? The three that you mentioned willingly in class were:

Here is my list, in roughly-ranked order:

  1. I'm not using a computer; I'm doing my job.
  2. Interfaces "get in the way", that is, stand between the user and her task.
    which leads to
    Our goal as system designers might be to make the interface--the computer--"go away".
  3. We should ask ourselves, "What tools does my program provide?", not "What user interface do I build?"
  4. The trade-off between (generality + power) and (specificity + ease)
  5. The possible advantages of specialized "information appliances"

    Another idea that struck me was: Keep the technologists busy--and away from product design. :-)

    The idea of specialized appliances caused some discussion of the clutter that might occur if my desktop computer were replaced by a datebook, a web browser, a word processor, ... But take a look around your dorm room, apartment, or house. How many devices with radios do you have? Or with clocks? Do you have access to a stove and a microwave? Do you have a stereo and walkman? This sort of clutter occurs even for devices with the same basic function! And we have TVs, VCRs, telephones, ... But by having specialized devices, won't we give up the glorious power of our desktop, general-purpose computers? Yes. Haven't we already done so with all these other appliances? I'm not sure that the specialized-appliance approach is correct, but I don't think that clutter or loss of power are the reasons.

    Have technological advances made most of Norman's concerns in this paper go away?

    Exercise: Why Interfaces Don't Work, By You


    You have read Donald Norman's article, "Why Interfaces Don't Work", and considered which of his ideas you think are important.


    To apply some of these ideas to devices you use every day.


    Work in the same teams as you did for Exercise 4.

    Select two appliances with electric or electronic interfaces. Examples include a VCR, a calculator, an electric stove, a telephone, and a stereo system. One of the items that you select should be an item that you all use daily, and the other should be an item that you all use infrequently, but have been using for at least 1 year.

At the End

  1. Turn in your group's analysis of common hardware interfaces.
  2. We will discuss your work and Norman's article as a class.

Eugene Wallingford ==== ==== January 16, 2001