Session 9

Knowledge in the Head and in the World


Environment, Technology, and Society

Exercise: Knowledge in and out of my head


You have read Chapter 3 of The Design of Everyday Things and learned a bit about how knowledge can take different forms, both in a user's mind and in the world itself.


  1. To understand how different kinds of knowledge can affect the usability of a device -- and how we can design things better.


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

Pick some computer program that everyone in your team has used, such as an e-mail program, a web browser, or Microsoft Word. Base your answers to the following tasks on your collective experience using the program.

  1. Come up with two or more examples for each kind of "knowledge in the head" that the program requires:

  2. Come up with two or more examples for each kind of "knowledge in the world" that the program offers or requires:

  3. Choose one of your answers from the previous two tasks in which the user can have difficulty using the program correctly. Offer an improvement to the program by changing the kind of memory required. For example, you might replace some arbitrary knowledge in the head with a natural mapping, or a reminding with some knowledge understood by explanation.

As always, if you don't feel like you understand an idea from Norman's yet, or if my instructions are unclear, this is a good time to discuss the idea and ask questions!

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, anbd participate in wild discussion.

Summary from Exercise

Examples from my experience...

More complex devices usually give more, and more interesting, answers to this exercise. Simpler devices, including most everyday devices, are created to require little in the way of explicit knowledge to operate them. Simple programs can be like that, too.

Do you believe the "labels" principle (Page 78)? I apply it to CS students writing comments in programs...

I thought the motorcycle turn signal was cool. Find a mapping that fits (in this case, the way the handlebars work) and suddenly the problem goes away. Do you think that is what the designers intended?

Students Summaries

Eugene Wallingford ==== ==== October 21, 2003