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Interface design: "everyday psychology." (Donald Norman, author of 'The Psychology of Everyday Things,' on software design)

INTERFACE DESIGN: "EVERYDAY PSYCHOLOGY" Less than two years after writing "The Psychology of Everyday Things," Donald Norman has already acquired the beginnings of a cult following. Like Frederick Brooks' "Mythical Man-Month," Norman's treatise on ergonomic design distills a vast amount of practical experience and insight into a few tighty-focused concepts that irresistibly change the way we deal with the problems of developing increasingly complex products.

As Norman points out, complexity by itself isn't always an obstacle to easy use. A typical new car has more than a hundred different controls that new users master almost instantly, while telephone systems with perhaps two dozen functions are notoriously baffling. Clearly, design is more than a cosmetic issue; products often succeed or fail on the basis of ergonomics as much as technology or marketing strategies.

Norman devotes relatively little space to specific software design issues (predictably, he likes graphical interfaces). But he does provide a rich vocabulary of general-purpose design principles--"mapping," "constraints," "feedback," "knowledge in the world"--that software developers might use to extend and improve existing interface techniques. "Mapping" a design to a real-world analogue, for instance, is Norman's version of what software designers call a "metaphor." But "mapping" turns out to be a broader and perhaps better concept than metaphor creation, and Norman's discussion of mapping techniques helps explains why some software metaphors don't yield intelligble products.

Moreover, "Everyday Things" often goes beyond conceptual issues and delves into nitty-gritty design details. Here's Norman advice about the best way to handle complex control panel environments (such as a feature-rich software package):

"We found [in our laboratory research] that to make something easy to use, match the number of controls to the number of functions and organize the panels according to function. To make something look like it is easy, minimize the number of controls. How can these conflicting requirements be met simultaneously? Hide the controls not being used at the moment. By using a panel on which only the relevant controls are visible, you minimize the appearance of complexity. By having a separate control for each function, you minimize complexity of use. It is possible to eat your cake and have it, too."
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Copyright 1989, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Date:Dec 26, 1989
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