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Norman Doors & Human-Centered Design

Life is hard. Doors should not be.

This video from Vox about bad doors is a great introduction to the concept of human-centered design. The idea is that if we pay attention to people, we can make things — products, apps, services, spaces — that are easy, intuitive, and even pleasurable to use. 

You'll also hear the term "user-centered design" to mean pretty much the same thing, especially in the tech world. But I love Don Norman's comment about that in the video:

"I decided at one point the word 'user' was a bit degrading. Why not call people 'people.'" 

The human-centered design process considers the way a thing will be experienced in context by the people who will actually use it. The design should account for all the needs and expectations a person brings to the interaction. We don't just need doors that open and close, we need doors that communicate something about how the opening and closing will take place. 

Don Norman literally wrote the book on human-centered design — The Design of Everyday Things. The tyranny of confusing doors is one of his go-to examples of unnecessarily bad design.  

Drawing on research in psychology and engineering, Norman lays out a vocabulary of terms like signifiers and affordances and discoverability and feedback to help us talk about designed objects and the way we interact with them. With my academic background in communication studies and rhetorical theory, I'm particularly interested in the extent to which design problems are also communication problems. As Norman writes:

"Good design requires good communication."

But it's not just about a door clearly communicating whether you're supposed to push it or pull it. I'm thinking about the whole framework of terms and metaphors by which people make sense of objects they've never encountered before. Consider: skeuomorphism in visual design may be falling out of fashion — your Notes app no longer looks like a yellow notepad — but we still bring all the language and concepts of physical notetaking to make sense of that digital experience. 

I'm still working my way through Norman's book, but I think there might be some resonance here with what he calls "conceptual models" — which a rhetorician like me is likely to think about as fundamentally shaped by language. 

 (Full disclosure: the Vox video gets bonus points for featuring Roman Mars, who happens to be an alumnus of the same tiny college I graduated from. Go Llamas!) 

Michael Lawrencedesign