Human-Centered, Observational Design

In Chapter 6 of Design of Everyday Things, Don Normal lays out four stages of the cycle of Human-Centered Design: Observation, Idea Generation, Prototyping, and Testing. In the first stage of design, Norman discusses the importance of not only observing the potential customers in their natural environment, but also keeping in mind the intended audience for the design while choosing to observe a group. Norman discusses the importance of detailed analyses of the intended group because of cultural and age differences, but goes on to touch on the marketing that will be involved to appeal to the intended demographic.  

While reading about the importance of picking the right group to do observational research for a functional design perspective, this also brought me to thinking about analyzing the intended target market for aesthetic design purposes as well. Branding and style play a huge role in marketing as well as maintaining repeat customers as well. For many visual people, functional design is only half of the role of the product itself. Additionally, paying attention to the demographics that interact with similar products can say a lot about why those people use that product in the first place, and by interpreting the problems with competition, can help the designer improve their own product.  

Norman says “different methods have different goals and produce very different results. Designers complain that the methods used by marketing don’t get at real behavior.” I would disagree with those designers who say that observing marketing strategies do not imply true behaviors, because I think what draws people to products, services, or everyday objects has a lot to do with how and why they use those products. Looking at demographic data says a lot about the users who interact with your product, and by analyzing the design trends that overlap between those demographics can give designers a good idea about how to design their products, where they should focus their advertising efforts, what purpose the design serves, and so much more.  

Human Error, or Poor Design?

When errors are made, who do we blame? Do we blame the person who made the error, the external factors of the error, or both? Don Norman argues that errors are at the fault of the design, but are lessened not only by educating the user, but improving the quality of the design to be more intuitive. 

The blame of errors is always placed on the person involved when situations regarding everyday items or common knowledge are overlooked, ignored, or misunderstood. Recently, I learned that my boyfriend, in his 24 years of existence, does not know how to use a can opener. Surely, there have been many changes in the designs of can openers over the years, including automatic can openers that solely require the user to place the can in the correct spot with no elbow grease required. However, when I asked my boyfriend to open up a can of beans for me while I was busy with other facets of my meal prep, I came to realize when I heard pieces flying all over the floor that something had gone wrong. I came to find that the tiny pieces of my can opener had freed themselves all over my kitchen, and I was very confused, as my can opener is a pretty nice quality.

When I asked him what happened, he told me that the can opener didn’t work, which I knew wasn’t true because I have never had a problem using it, and I had used it to open up a can a few minutes prior. When I asked him to show me, I came to find that we both have different intuition when it comes to using this object; I typically hold the can opener similar to the way it is shown in the image above, perpendicular to the top of the can, whereas my boyfriend held it parallel to the top of the can, causing the opener not to pierce the metal of the can properly. 

Surely, I was confused as to why he held a can opener this way, but I learned that he grew up with an automatic can opener which opens cans similarly to the way he held my manual can opener. At first, I couldn’t believe that he didn’t know how to open it, but I gained some sense of empathy for him when I realized that by looking at the object, it is difficult to tell how to use it unless you already had prior knowledge of how it worked. 

This kind of error would be described by Don Norman as a “Knowledge-Based Mistake,” which is described by a situation where a user is consciously problem solving. Norman says, “knowledge-based behavior is required either when a person encounters an unknown situation, perhaps being asked to use some novel equipment, or even when doing a familiar task and things go wrong, leading to a novel, uninterpretable state.” I couldn’t tell you if I ever have looked at a manual on how to use a can opener, simply because I have been using the same type of one my whole life, and if one did come with my Kitchenaid opener, I most likely threw it out immediately. However, I would imagine that without practice or clear instructions, this everyday object might fall apart on anyone’s floor, solely on the observation that can openers are not intuitively designed objects.

Convenience, Constraints, and Knowing the Difference

Constraints are a part of everyday life: what matters most is the adaptability to those constraints so that they no longer are seen as major issues. Don Norman, author of “Design of Everyday Things”, talks about different types of constraints that we face all of the time. Physical attributes, cultural behaviors, and logical reasoning all come into play when we move through life, using different products and being around other people. At times, these constraints oppress our behavior, and other times they provide limitations that make sense despite the inconvenience.  

Sometimes constraints have their rhyme and reason. For example, there are times when you might leave your house on your way to work, walk all the way to your car, and realize you forgot your keys. Keys play a unique role because they allow you and only you to access whatever is behind the lock. However, the disadvantage comes into play when you, the person needing access, does not have your keys, and have to go back to either retrieve them or otherwise. Nevertheless, you would much rather have to walk and go find your keys, or obtain new keys if necessary, but you would much rather go through that trouble than having your car stolen or house entered by intruders.  

On the other hand, constraints are not always welcome, and it is usually the goal of design to curb these types of inconvenient restraints so that accessibility is more convenient for the user. These constraints also drive the invention of new products that assist people everyday to improve issues they may face. A constraint that I face all the time comes from food shopping; I live alone, and I live in a city where I sometimes have to park my car a block away from my house, so there is always a struggle getting all of my groceries to the car in one trip, unlocking my gate, and getting everything in my house without bags breaking. Using better bags helps to an extent, but if it’s more than just groceries, sometimes having more hands would be more convenient (can’t really get around that one). Living in a city comes with many constraints, and after living in Philadelphia for many years, I have adapted to many of them, but there will always be something because of so many factors.  

There will always be constraints, and there will always be evolution of adaptability. As innovators and designers, it is our job to make that bridge smaller so that things are more intuitive where they matter most, and for superficial or necessary reasons, creating ways to improve the lives of people so they have more time to do what they would like to do.  

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