Don Norman: Designing For People

Nielsen Norman Group

Thoughtless acts? Observations on intuitive design.

A brilliant book, fun and educational to peruse, and wonderful for training the art of ethnographic observation. This short book is basically all photographs and no text. Indeed, most of the text consists of captions to the figures, and these are all hidden at the back of the book, making it difficult to read along with the photographs. In other words, you have to supply your own interpretations. The result is a brilliant tool for teaching and enhancing one’s observational skills.

The book is by Jane Fulton Suri, IDEO’s resident expert on human behavior. (IDEO, for the non-designers reading this, is one of the world’s foremost industrial design companies, headquartered a few blocks from my home in Palo Alto, CA.) Each photograph shows how people use the existing environment to enable their lives. Flat surfaces are good for supporting, so why not use the top of a trashcan, or a protruding edge in a building wall to hold one’s lunch, or personal items. Protruding objects can serve as hooks, so why not hang light objects from it? Etc. The captions, Jane explained in her talk at IDEO where she described the book, are hidden in the back so as not to bias the viewer. Learn to analyze the photograph and determine for yourself what is of interest and what the interpretation might be. Read the caption afterwards (or perhaps never) to see what her thoughts were. To read the captions first would bias the viewer, and Jane holds that her observations are not necessarily more correct or complete than yours. And it is this lack of captions that makes the book such a wonderful teaching tool. It is difficult to chat, so the viewer is forced to observe, to think, and to speculate. “You can see a lot,” said Yogi Berra, “just by looking.” Well, this book teaches looking.

I find it valuable and enjoyable to pick the book up and open to a random page. Then I try to figure out what it was about a particular scene that made it worth including. Some are obvious, some not at all. But even the obvious scenes often have non-obvious observations waiting to be made. Many reviewers of the book have complained that it is lacking in substance. That’s because the substance is provided by the reader. The photographs are divided into seven categories: reacting?, responding?, co-opting?, exploiting?, adapting?, conforming?, and signaling?. Why the question marks? Because even the categorization is provisional: you are free to recategorize and relabel.

The book also has a website — — which both contains the photos from the book and allows readers to add their own.

The most surprising thing is the really poor design of the website, this for a book by someone who is truly a pioneer in “human-centered design.” I hope she had nothing to do with the design. Tiny font. I mean tiny. Is it resizable? Of course not — hey, this is DESIGN! Designers don’t do readable type, let alone resizable.

(I deleted a large diatribe about the inadequacies of the website. No, the website hasn't improved, but I'm resigned to the shoemaker's shoes problem: Design firms seem to be universal in their inability to design useful websites. They turn it over to the Flash developers, who love tiny font and ineffective controls: oops, here I go again. And here I promised myself to be nice.) (My comments about the websites have really annoyed both Jane Fulton Suri and the folks at IDEO. That's life. Still, I decided to remove most of the comments.)

I recently came across an excellent review of this book, one that reviews and informs. See Kevin Henry's article on Core77 -- Making Do and Getting By + Thoughtless Acts (Mapping the quotidian from two perspectives).

Buy the book. Even the most skilled observer will find new insights. You will never view the world the same again. I give it away as a gift.
Link to page at