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Posts from the ‘Handy’ Category

The Design of Everyday Things: Action Summary and Outline

I recently finished “The Design of Everyday Things”.  I found Norman’s perspective on inanimate objects eye-opening.  But, I did find the book dense and if I have one criticism- it’s that the book isn’t designed to guide you towards becoming a better designer.  “The Design of Everyday Things” is a psychological treatise that is loosely organized with lots of examples.  So what I have tried to do in this post is breakdown the key points and rearrange them a bit, so that it reads more like a manual for better design.  If you haven’t read the book, you can buy it here.

Design Basics

“Design must convey the essence of a device’s operation; the way it works; the possible actions that can be taken; and, through feedback, just what it is doing at any particular moment. Design is really an act of communication, which means having a deep understanding of the person with whom the designer is communicating.”

“Each time a new technology comes along, new designers make the same horrible mistakes as their predecessors. Technologists are not noted for learning from the errors of the past. They look forward, not behind, so they repeat the same problems over and over again. Today’s wireless devices are appalling.”

“Whenever the number of possible actions exceeds the number of controls, there is apt to be difficulty.”

How People Do Things – The 7 Steps

1)       Forming the goal

2)      Forming the intention

3)      Specifying an action

4)      Executing the action

5)      Perceiving the state of the world

6)      Interpreting the state of the world

7)      Evaluating the outcome

Repeat back to #1 based on what has happened as a result of actions

The point of understanding How People Do Things is to avoid the Gulfs of Execution and Evaluation when designing products.

A Gulf of Execution arises when there is a difference between the intentions and the allowable actions provided by a system.  For example, if you want to open the sunroof, but there are no buttons to be found that might allow you to open the sunroof.  Alternatively, a long sequence of actions may be required that are unintelligible to you, so you just don’t open the sunroof.

A Gulf of Evaluation arises when a great amount of effort is required to interpret the physical state of a system and/or determine how well expectations and intentions have been met.  A good example of this is a CD player where it is impossible to tell whether there is a CD in the player or not.  In addition, a system that provides no feedback – i.e. you click a button and nothing happens affirmative or negative – resulting in a Gulf of Evaluation.

Building on these concepts, you can ask yourself 7 questions to make sure your design is inline with How People Do Things:

1)  How easily can one determine the function of the device?

2)  How easily can one tell what actions are possible?

3)  How easily can one tell if the system is in the desired state?

4) How easily can one determine mapping from intention to physical movement?

5)  How easily can one determine mapping from system state to interpretation?

6)  How easily can one perform an action?

7)  How easily can one tell what state the system is in?

The 3 foundations to good design serve to answer these seven questions:

A good conceptual model. The designer provides a good conceptual model for the user, with consistency in the presentation of operations and results and a coherent, consistent system image.

Good mappings. It is possible to determine the relationships between actions and results, between the controls and their effects, and between the system state and what is visible.

Feedback. The user receives full and continuous feedback about the results of actions.

What Knowledge Does Your User Have?

Common and instinctive visual knowledge is easily retrievable and visible/audible.  There is no learning required and ease of use at first encounter is high.  Challenges are that the user may need to try to interpret the design since information is not communicated explicitly.  In addition, the design may not be aesthetically pleasing given a common need to maintain a lot of information.

Remembered or learned knowledge makes for efficient use and minimalist design.  However, it requires learning to use, particularly before initial use.

How Does the User Know What to Do?

Placing constraints makes it easier for the user to know what to do

Physical constraints

Semantic constraints

Cultural constraints

Logical constrains

Allowing the user too many different ways to use a device by not constraining the controls/functionality is a common cause of poor design.

Make the invisible, visible

                Have a good display

                Use sound to enhance visibility

How Do You Keep the User From Making Errors?

Errors come in two different flavors- 1) slips result from automatic behavior and 2) mistakes result from conscious deliberations

Common slip errors

  • Capture error – a frequently done activity is swapped with another frequently done activity
  • Description error – the intended action has much in common with others that are possible
  • Data-Driven error – data-driven activities can intrude into an ongoing action sequence causing unintended behavior
  • Associate Activation error – internal thought triggers incorrect action – Freudian slip
  • Loss-of-activation error – forgetting to do something
  • Mode error – when a device has different modes of operation, and the action appropriate for one mode has different meanings in other modes

You need feedback loops in place for the user to detect that there has been a slip!


Are Power Bands a Fraud?

The best answer is:  sort of.  They work as advertised, but not for the reasons advertised.  My mom recently got me a Power Band because I was in a rut.  And out of curiosity, I put it on.

If you don’t know what a Power Band is, I didn’t either until two weeks ago.  It’s a rubber bracelet (like the Livestrong ones) that has a hologram on it.  By wearing it, you are supposed to achieve maximum concentration, sleep better, be more relaxed, improve athletic performance – you name it.  The reason for this improvement is that the Power Band helps you improve your balance.  It has gotten the endorsement of Shaq and a number of world class athletes.  Sales have taken off.  Tens of millions of dollars of rubber bands have been sold.

According to the manufacturer, the mylar holograms help bring your negative ions and scalar frequency in line (seriously).  And the fact of the matter is that the Power Band works.  In a test suggested by Power Band, a person stands on one foot and holds out their arms, someone pushes down on one arm and the person falls over.  Now the person puts on a Power Band, stands in a similar position and has an arm pushed down.  The person never falls over.  Ta-daa!

So the Power Band works, but it has nothing to do with the mylar or the frequencies or any of that stuff.  It works because of the placebo effect.  Studies have shown that people know the push is coming and think the Power Band works, so they don’t fall over the second time.  Any old rubber band will have the same effect.

How to Write on a Mirror

The easiest way to write on a mirror is to use a wet erase marker – just mop up with a moist towel when you are done.  DO NOT use a dry erase marker on a mirror.  If you use a dry erase marker on mirrors, acrylic or polycarbonate surfaces, it will leave a “ghost” behind.  Dry erase will come right off with a dry towel, however, when you look at the mirror at an angle, you will still see a faint outline of whatever it is that you wrote on the mirror.  Should this happen, don’t throw away the mirror, just use glass cleaner and it will come off.

Perhaps I jumped to conclusions and you want to write on a mirror permanently.  Then lipstick or other waxy materials will work great to make a mirror, er, not work as a mirror anymore.

Why on earth would you want to write on a mirror?  You might want to leave yourself a reminder that you are awesome for the next time you look in the mirror.  Or, in my case, I am trying to film a video where the audience can see me writing and talking at the same time.  You can do this in two ways:  1) by writing on a mirror or 2) by writing on glass that is clear with the camera in front of you.  For the latter method, unfortunately, you have to write backwards, which I am not that good at.

How to Fix a Thrown Out Back Fast

I throw my back out far too often.  It happened again yesterday as I went to lean over and plug in my blackberry.  That’s all it took.  What really happened is that I got lazy at doing the preventative exercises that I should have been doing, which had actually been working.  So what I’ll do in this post is give you the step-by-step of what I do to get better fast (1-2 days) and then stay better.  As a word of caution – this only applies to folks who throw out their back because of muscle spasms.  If you have a herniated disk or other spine issues, I can’t really be of much help.  I am not a doctor; I am just a guy who has figured out what works for me.

1)  Take some ibuprofen.  I take 4x 200mg three times a day for the first two days.

2)  Fill up a nalgene or other water bottle with boiling water.  Lie on it for 30 minutes right after you throw out your back.  Repeat twice a day for the first two days.

3)  Steps #1 and #2 should get you operational again.  Now for the first two days, avoid sitting up as much as possible.  Lie down as much as you can.

4)  When you aren’t lying down, do the following Egoscue exercise.  There are a lot of different Egoscue exercises, but the one that works best for me is the following – lie on your back at the base of your bed, with your butt against the bed.  Put your calves and feet on top of the bed, so that your back is on the ground, your quadriceps are against the side of the bed and your feet are on top of the bed.  Now lie there for 5 minutes.  Repeat a few times per day for the first two days.

5)  This regimen should get you better in two days.  But more importantly, to keep it from happening again, I recommend doing two exercises for 5 minutes per day plus the Egoscue stance I described in #4.  The first is a sort of extended sit-up which you can do with a pillow (no need to buy the equipment in the video).  The second is a simple hand and leg extension exercise.  The point of both exercises is to strengthen your core, which should keep you from throwing out your back again.

Do 15 of these a day:


And 15 of these a day.  This one may look easy, but put a water bottle on the small of your back – it should not move while you do the exercise.  This forces you to “suck in” your stomach and stabilize your body.


How to Jump Start A Car. Without Cables. Even If It Is Automatic.

I actually didn’t know how to jump start a car with jumper-cables until this morning.  Until today I have been unwittingly “jumping” cars without cables.  In this post, I am going to run through the basics (how to jump a car with cables – which was new to me), the junior varsity (how to jump a stick shift car without cables) and the varsity (how to jump an automatic car without cables – yes it can be done).

The Basic – I had never jumped a car with cables because I was always worried that I was going to get electrocuted or the battery would blow up.  The standard steps for this are below:

1)  Get a car that has a working battery and park it near the car that has the dead battery.  Turn the working car off.

2)  Connect the red (positive) jumper-cable to the positive side of the stalled battery.

3)  Connect the red (positive) jumper-cable to the positive side of the good battery.

4)  Connect the black (negative) jumper-cable to the negative side of the good battery.

5)  Connect the black (negative) jumper-cable to a metal surface on the car with the dead battery – the engine block is an OK place for this.

6)  Start the good car and run it for 2-3 minutes.  It actually helps to rev the engine if you feel the battery isn’t charging.  I say this from experience.  I once got a jump from a guy wearing only a pair of jean shorts and a cape (I live in California), who drove a tiny car and we only got mine to start after a few minutes of running the engine of the working car at high RPMs.  If you feel you are getting a weak transfer of power to the dead battery, try changing the location of the black jumper-cable in step #5.  If this cable is connected to the side of the car or a dirty piece of metal, the process won’t work well.

7)  Start the car with the dead battery.

8)  Remove the cables in reverse order.

9)  Keep the car with the battery that was dead running for about 30 minutes.  It helps to run the engine at high RPMs.

Junior Varsity – You can charge a car without jumper-cables.  This is typically done with stick shift cars, but I have done it with automatic cars too.  With a stick shift car, follow the instructions below:

1)  You will need to roll the car, so if it is at the top of a hill, great.  If not, you will have to find someone or a few people to push it, since you will have to be in the car to start it.  Remember, the steering wheel and brakes do rely on electrical systems, so don’t roll down a very steep hill.

2)  Take off the hand-brake, release the foot-break and push down the clutch to get the car rolling.

3)  Once the car gets going to about 5 miles per hour, try starting it by turning the key in the ignition with the clutch down.

4)  If that doesn’t work, while the car is rolling, turn the key in the ignition as you release the clutch into gear and depress the accelerator into gear.  You will want to give it a lot of gas, so it is recommended that you put the car into second gear when you push down on the accelerator.  This has never failed me.

Varsity – Contrary to popular belief, you can jump-start an automatic car without jumper-cables.  It’s been documented and I managed to do it in a McDonald’s parking lot in Vallejo, California.  The principles are the same as with a stick shift car:

1)  Again, you will need to roll the car, so find a place and the right bodies to get the car in motion to about 5 miles per hour.

2)  Release the hand-brake and foot-brake, and put the car in second gear.

3)  Once the car gets up to about 5 miles per hour, try starting the car by turning the ignition.

4)  If that doesn’t work, keep the car in second gear and push down the gas as you turn the ignition.

Let me know if you have any trouble!

Most Unusual Way to Charge A Cellphone – The Onion

I’ve remarked before that I am not very technologically savvy.  Looking at the hits on this video means that a lot of people have seen it, but this was new to me.  We all learned that this was possible in high school – charging a battery by moving electrons around – but who knew it could have been so useful.