The Design of Everyday Things

I shamelessly poached the title of this post from a book I’m reading for professional development: The Design of Everyday Things, by Don Norman. I don’t include books I read for anything other than pleasure in my semi-annual book reports, but product and user experience design has been so much on my mind lately that I felt compelled to write about it. This is especially because when I encounter bad design in the real world, there’s generally no one I can provide my feedback to who has any level of influence. Not that anyone reading this blog has influence over any of these issues either, but I feel better writing out my frustration. Here are a few user-unfriendly experiences I’ve had this year.

  • The kitchen faucet at work. This thing is a joke among all my co-workers. Not even a joke – we despise it. The most expensive kitchen faucet imaginable, yet there is almost no water flow and the tension in the hinges gives way every few weeks, leaving the entire contraption lying limp and useless in the sink.
  • The rental car return experience at the Madrid airport. There was no signage anywhere about what terminal to go to. I drove around and around and around, through all the terminals and saw absolutely nothing about where I was supposed to go. At one point, I stopped and asked airport police, but they didn’t know either. I guess I was just supposed to remember what terminal I arrived at and go there.
  • The Philadelphia airport passenger pickup. Whatever terminal I arrived at (I think it was C) had equal looking glass doors on either sides of the baggage carousel. It wasn’t clear to me which side to exit to find my friend, but I definitely chose the wrong one. When I stepped outside, I saw signs for rental car shuttles and taxis, but no indication of passenger pickup. Where I did see passenger pickup was on the other side of a light rail line at another terminal. But I didn’t see any signage for how to get across the rail lines, and in any case, that seemed the worst design ever to have to cross the tracks for your ride. I tried to describe to my friend where I was, but again, no signs. There was nothing on the building I had just stepped out of indicating a terminal letter or name, or any other identifying information to tell my friend where I was.
  • Getting iced coffee at Panera. After I placed a food order (which I had to pay for with my credit card since the gift card I had could apparently only be redeemed with online pre-orders, something that wasn’t clear beforehand and also contributed to the bad user experience), I was handed a cup for the iced coffee I ordered. I went to the coffee station the cashier pointed me too, filled my cup, but found no straws and only lids for hot coffee cups. I wandered around, poking my head around the random dividers scattered around the very un-open floor plan. Finally, I made my way to order pickup, where there were lids for the cup I had, but no straws. On another wall, that my back was turned to, was the soda fountain, which had both the appropriate lids and straws, though no iced coffee, so you’d be out of luck if you hadn’t filled your cup near the entrance and cash registers.
  • The Modern Market app. This is the worst food ordering app I’ve ever used. It has two different ways to “log in” to your account. There’s an “Order Now” button on the home screen, but that’s apparently not the same as tapping the “Menu” button, selecting your location, and then choosing “Order Online.” The first way recognizes my account and allows me to use credits that I have, the second way does not. The first way also puts you through its own special hell of sending you emails stating “POS PAR Brink has requested to be added to your LevelUp account and would like the following permissions” to process the payment. But you can’t accept this request through the email and the app itself freezes in the meanwhile. You have to force close the app and start again, and then you can accept this random request the second time around. This has happened on three separate occasions and won’t happen again because I won’t use the app again. I’m all done. Which means I won’t eat there at all because it’s a mob scene at lunch and I won’t go if I can’t order ahead.

Possibly each of these scenarios involved some element of user error. In Philadelphia, for example, I had just come off a red-eye flight that provided me only three hours of fitful sleep, and I was not thinking clearly at all. But I’m an intelligent person who is well-traveled and used to navigating unfamiliar places. I rate myself highly on critical thinking and problem solving skills. And regardless of my own culpability, as Don Norman says,

If an error is possible, someone will make it. The designer must assume that all possible errors will occur and design so as to minimize the chance of the error in the first place, or its effects once it gets made.

For other technical writers out there who might be looking to improve their skills, here’s what else I’ve reading lately.

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