The Design of Everyday Things in Everyday Terms: Those Dang Doors and Doomsday Buttons

Sherry Yu
9 min readOct 26, 2020


Hello there, fellow readers! I will run a blog series on the revised and expanded edition of Don Norman’s The Design of Everyday Things.


When I started my UX Design journey, my mentors recommended this was book as — now I may be paraphrasing this- a book that almost everyone in UX Design reads and has read. Seems to be true- everyone in the UX Design field that I’ve interacted with so far recognizes the name.

So who is Don Norman?

Don Norman is a leading figure in the UX Design field and an advocate of user-centered design. He is a researcher, professor, and author. Notably, he is the director of The Design Lab at the University of California, San Diego and Co-founder of the Nielsen Norman Group (a prominent User Experience/Usability consulting firm).

I will have to admit — I did not know that he was still alive when I first learned of him. My concept of people that I read about, especially in educational settings, tends to be of historical figures who exist way before my time.

This is a great reminder to me and you readers that UX Design is a concept that, although has existed for a while in the background, has only more recently been professionally studied as a fundamental factor towards successful design.


This will be my third time reading this book (at least, the first 2 chapters). Why am I re-re-reading it? Because I did not give the book the attention that I should have. Each chapter is filled with many concepts and ideas for a reader to take in, and in hindsight, I should have started the book with a plan to take notes. So, here I am.

Unlike my usual learning methods, I will not be outlining the entire book like a textbook (oh, the days of school). Instead, I envision a series of commentary and my general thoughts on a few points every chapter.

I encourage you to do as a reader to:

  1. Purchase or borrow the book to read yourself — I will be posting a new chapter each week book-club style (at least, I think that’s how book clubs work).
  2. Take in the content at your own pace with whichever method works best for you. I retain information best visually and by noting them down.
  3. Engage by reaching out to me with your thoughts!

I hope like me, you will learn a lot as you read along and see products in a different light!

Happy reading!

Chapter 1: The Psychopathology of Everyday Things

  1. The Trouble with Products — It’s Not You, It’s the Design!
  2. Affordances & Signifiers
  3. Feedback

1. The Trouble with Products — It’s Not You, It’s the Design!

The most memorable part of this chapter was his classic “Norman Doors” example. He shares his trouble with simple products like doors, and notes that “the design of doors should indicate how to work it without any need for signs, certainly without any needs for trial & error.”

Doors? How hard can they be?

Now, in the book he describes a door that his friend had come across in another country, where his friend was not able to figure out how to pass through the door. There were no signs or indicators to show him what to do nor how to do it. He struggled to go through until a resident happened to pass through, and he quickly followed suit.

Although not as drastic, I also had a similar experience with doors while in another country. My first time in another country was for my study abroad program in Korea. Just as in the U.S., there is not one standard door design (what would the world be like if each country had its national door…). My experience with sliding doors at the time was that you either pulled it along the side with the help of a grip or handle or it was automatic.

So when I saw an automatic door, I did what I normally did — walked up to it. However, instead of opening a path for me, it just stayed there. I stood there by myself and waited for what felt like a minute, and then waved — nothing happened. It admittedly it took a minute before I noticed a pair of black bars where door handles are typically located.

And here’s the real kicker — it was labeled PUSH.

In English.


Norman’s example brought up some great points:

Cultural differences can produce different ways to understand design. What is normal in one setting is not necessarily normal in other settings.

That guy struggled with that door. I’m sure if he lived there and was exposed to this type of design like that other group, he would’ve had no problem with it. I also struggled with this door. What’s worse is that the sign was right in front of me! I was blinded by my assumptions on how doors work that I did not think to check the door

Never design with beauty in mind over utility, because no matter how nice it looks, if it cannot be used, it won’t be used.

Granted, people in Norman’s example know how the doors operated and so they did use the doors. And in my case, it was just a matter of not being attentive.

I’m certain you’ve had the same door issues, even with doors designs that you are familiar with. Whether it’s pushing on a pull door or even waiting for the stopped revolving door to start revolving, we’ve all been there!

Norman then points out what he says are the two most important characteristics of good design: discoverability and understandability.

Discoverability measures the presence of actions that can be taken, as well as the where are how to perform the actions.

Understandability measures what the user makes of the information.

Just to reframe it a little differently:

Everything that the user needs to use the product should be obvious, & they must communicate the right message.

Now, Norman does give some leeway to more complex products that require help with a manual or some form of instruction, but he also cautions against products that are too complicated to understand. His refrigerator example is one I recommend that you check it out — I learned something new there!

What resonates with me is his example of a washing machine with many advanced features that was not utilized because it is too complicated! At home I use your average washing machine with four wash settings and 3 temperature settings. I dump all of my clothes in one load, and to this day run the machine on the “warm” and “normal” wash settings…

A few more personal examples;

  • smartwatches where I only utilize the time and pedometer
  • blenders where I only use one setting
  • expensive DSLR or fancy camera phone where I only point and shoot

What can I say, I’m a simple gal — well.. low maintenance gal maybe.

Both Norman and my point here is that when products become too hard for us to use we simply memorize one or two fixed settings. The purpose of the design is lost when the product and its manual are too complex.

Let’s pause a bit to make sure that we’re aligned on what we mean by design.

Norman defines design as the concern with how things work, how they are controlled, & the interaction between people & the product.

When people fail to understand how to use the product and the product does the wrong thing, the people blame themselves for being incapable. Did I press the button on the remote correctly? Did I not press it hard enough? Or fast enough?

However, it is the product & designer at fault. The product is for the user, so if the user cannot understand how to use the product, then we need to reconsider how the product is designed.

We — designers, consumers, producers — all believe that designers are the experts in their field and know what is best. I mean, they’re the professionals, right? But expertise in their field is not enough if designers do not have an understanding of the design principles that are necessary for effective human-product interaction.

I like to use the example of a teacher or tutor who is smart and very knowledgeable on their subject matter, but struggles to explain things to a student. We don’t doubt their credibility, but in the end what matters most is for the student to successfully learn and understand the content.

What designers, teachers, and tutors sometimes mistakenly think is that the end-user — whether it may be the consumer or the student, think the same way they do. That is very wishful thinking — remember the phrase “Common sense is not common”? Instead of designing for or teaching the way you want it to be, consider how the end-user is. We have to accept human behavior and thinking the way it is, not the way we would wish it to be.

Now that the book has covered the what, how, and why of bad design, let’s look into the what, how, and why of good design!

Norman writes that good design requires good communication, especially from the product to person, indicating what actions are possible, what is happening, and what is about to happen when things go wrong. How does a product communicate that though? By showing or guiding the user on how to find these cues.

Discoverability, as we briefly defined earlier, results from the application of the 5 fundamentals psychological concepts:

  1. Affordances
  2. Signifiers
  3. Constraints
  4. Mappings
  5. Feedback

(There is a #6 to this trick question but you will have to read the book to learn more!)

Let’s look at affordances and signifiers.

2. Affordances & Signifiers

I admit I had to read this section of the book a couple of times to understand the difference between affordances and signifiers. Let’s look at my attempt to reframe the concepts:

Affordance is the relationship between properties of physical object & person (i.e. capabilities). It depends upon properties of both agent & object. Most importantly, affordances need to be discoverable and perceivable.

A signifier is a signaling component of affordances(i.e. indicator)

Signifiers communicate where the action would take place, while Affordances determine what actions are possible.

As much as designers would like to control what users notice and make of their product’s design though, what people see and make of it is what will be. A designer may design the doomsday button to be red to indicate to the user that the button is dangerous, but if I understand the button as “Urgent, please press” and press the button well… it doesn’t matter what the intended message is. Considering this example, signifiers are then more important than affordances, for the purpose of the product does not exist to the user without their interpretation of the product.


3. Feedback

When users are faced with an unfamiliar situation, designers need to consider ways to guide users to make the appropriate action through feedback.

Here, feedback is defined as a way to let users know that the system is working on your request.

Norman explains that feedback needs to be both immediate and informative.

Let’s go back to my doomsday button. I have pressed the big shiny red button. What does it do? Hopefully, it will tell me right away! (Immediate? Check.) What does it tell me? That I just hit a doomsday button that will end the world in 1 minute. (informative? A very big fat check.)

Norman makes a good point that poor feedback can be worse than no feedback as it is distracting, uninformative, and in many cases, irritating and anxiety-provoking. What if I press the doomsday button and it just blares out loud alarm sounds? Or what if it just tells me that I hit a doomsday button? How is this information enough to help me do what I should do? Hopefully, it will tell me how I can undo my big boo-boo because it would be unfortunate if there was a way to cancel the action, but the world ended because no one told me how…

We discussed the mental and behavioral relationship between the product, consumer, and shed some light on the invisible mastermind behind the curtains. I barely scratched the surface with bad design, affordances, signifiers, and feedback in Chapter 1. If you still have not read it yet I encourage you to catch up — Chapter 2 is coming!

Share your thoughts in the comments, and feel free to reach out through my portfolio.



Sherry Yu