This blog shares some of our thoughts about plain language, and the latest discussions about plain English and clear design in New Zealand, and around the world.

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09 January 2014

Everyday Things are Broken

Office talk on the first day back turned to what we read on holiday.

Donald Norman’s book ‘The Design of Everyday Things’ (published by Basic Books, 2002 edition) was a good holiday read. As the blurb on the back says, ‘It will do your heart good…’.

Norman’s book examines how people interact with Everyday Things — devices, equipment, appliances. He examines the tasks we need to perform to use Everyday Things, and they’re often not as straightforward as they should be. Norman is firmly on the side of the user.

We may blame ourselves when we can’t open this, or programme that. So it does your heart good when Norman clearly shows that struggling with the mechanical and information demands of everyday life is not always our fault. Many Everyday Things are not well designed.

So how do we cope? The answer is a complex mix of:
•  the psychology of human thought and knowledge — what we know about how things work
•  the psychology of Everyday Things — what information we get from how things look
•  the ability of designers to apply their knowledge of the first two points.

The designer needs to start with the goal to be achieved, consider the actions the user must do, make logical links between the tasks, and provide the user with visual clues.

We like Donald Norman’s debate about Everyday Things because we recognise the designer’s challenge with every document we write. The Write Plain English Standard mirrors the designer’s process — begin with the purpose of the task, consider what the reader must do, make logical links between chunks of information, and provide visual clues to make the reader’s task easy.


  1. Here's an example of rethinking a document so it works better for users: Peter Smart's redesigned airline boarding pass

    1. What a terrific re-work! Weather, seat type, easy-reference top strip - what a simple way to reduce the stress of the departure lounge.

  2. Very valid point. Nest (who were just bought by Google for $3.2 billion) strive to make the everyday appliance intelligent and well designed.

    I would add an extra point and say that people who make these everyday things need to recognise that design is extremely important. If it's going to be worthwhile, it needs to be considered throughout the process. From the very conception of the idea, through to manufacturing, rather than just as an after-thought.