Session 7

The Psychology of Everyday Actions


Environment, Technology, and Society

Opening Comment

My current favorite story in the vein of Norman's return/enter key story is about the photocopier in my department office. The on/off key is right next to the copy key, but it's bigger and more obvious. I don't know how many times I've set up a complex copy job and then hit the on/off key when I wanted to make the copies -- losing my set up and having to start over. Like most people, I feel sheepish about doing that, but I know enough to know that the designers of the copier should have done a better job...

Exercise: Errors in Everyday Action


You have read Chapter 1 of The Design of Everyday Things and learned about a model for how users act on goals and evaulate the results.


  1. To understand Norman's seven stages of action and how they affect the the use and design of devices.


Work in teams of three or four people based on the number in the upper right-hand corner of this page.

  1. Come up with two or more examples from your own lives where people (maybe one of you!) blame themselves when they use a device. Are there kinds of devices where people are more likely to blame themselves than to blame the device? Why (not)?

  2. Identify the seven stages of action outlined by Norman (pages 48-47) for these two scenarios:

    If you don't feel like you understand the seven stages of action yet, this is a good time to discuss Norman's model and ask questions!

  3. Choose one of your examples form Task 1. Explain it using Norman's model. In what stage or stages does the user's difficulty arise? What could the device designer have done to reduce the probability -- or at least the cost -- of an error?

At the End

  1. Your group submits a written report of your results from the three tasks. As always, your report should summarize any discussion that ensued and should answer any questions directly asked.
  2. Each group will present some of its conclusions.

Summary from Exercise

On Task 1: Norman says that we are most likely to blame ourselves when we think the device is simple and when we think that others don't make the mistakes we do (page 40). Yet he also says that people tend to blame their own failings on environment and others' failings on their personalities (page 41).

Naive physics: Even educated people misunderstand how the world works. Aristotle's physics is naive compared to Newton's, and Newton's physics is naive compared to the modern quantum mechanics/relativity theory. Yet the naive models generally "work better" in the real world, at the level of human action, because they are more specific models (for example, they assume gravity and air :-).

Learned and taught helplessness -- math and computers.

Many everyday actions involve opportunistic goals, not planned goals. We adapt our plans and actions to take advantage of an opportunity, which become a part of subconscious action, not planned action.

Problems in everyday actions tend to arise in the gulf of execution between a well-formed goal and a well-formed action to take. This gap occurs because people don't know how the device works, have constructed an inaccurate or inadequate explanation in their minds, and act on the erroneous model. Designers can improve their devices by providing more direct mappings of reasonable user goals/actions onto the device.

This is true for all kinds of device, from the physical things we build, to the bank account descriptions we write for clients, to the lesson plans we create for students, to the software we write.

Students Summaries

Eugene Wallingford ==== ==== October 2, 2003