Designing for usability

Wikipedia defines interaction design as “heavily focused on satisfying the needs and desires of the people who will use the product.” Lowgren describes interaction design as “shaping of interactive products and services with a specific focus on their use.”

I majored in mechanical engineering for a whole year in college. To draw a comparison between mechanical engineering and interaction design, engineering is focused on efficiently building products that are structurally stable and function according to the design. While the end user is also considered, the emphasis is more on creating a product that works according to plan.

Interaction design is centered around the user; its not just about creating a structurally sound product, but it also takes into account asthetics of the design the look, feel, and emotion that the product evokes as well as the psychology of the user – does the product look the way the user expects it to? Is the product intutively designed? Is the product usable? Will it be used? By whom and how?

In his article, “The Mouse and WIMP”, Kuhn discusses the failure of first mouse being not about functionality, but it was due to the high learning curve.

“The mouse became one of the primary devices in the system they developed. It used a complex sequence of nouns and verbs. There was an assumption that the user would be trained in this language before they got started. This enabled for the display to do without any real user interface. The user would rarely take their hands off the keyset and mouse to use the keyboard or take their eyes off the screen.”

Principles of Interaction Design

In his book The Design of Everyday Things, Norman describes these design principles:

  • Creating conceptual models – Can a user tell how something will work by looking at a model or picture?
  • Visibility – What does the user see that indicates how the product is to be used?

“The user needs help. Just the right things have to be visible to indicate what parts operate and how.”

  • Mapping – Are the controls for the product where they should?
  • Feedback – Are users able to provide information to the designer on why something does/doesn’t work

Similarly, Jonas Lowgren discusses that good interaction design includes asthetics, understanding the task or problem, expressing ideas in tangible forms (models), and creating the conditions for interaction.


While reading this week’s assginments, I couldn’t help but draw a comparison to a project I am working on at my job.

I am on a team that is developing a new website/database system. This process is a great exercise of Normans principles. We are in the internal testing phase of the project which brings to light an interesting disconnect between the functionality created by the designers and the practical use of the site by the testers (ultimately consumers).

During the internal testing, the web designers are basically looking to see whether or not the website they created is functioning the way it should. However, the testers are not designers, and are judging the site from a practical usability viewpoint:

Is the site intuitive?

Do users know how to navigate the site just by looking at it?

Are the contents of the page where users expect them to be?

One of the most recent arguments was around homepage navigation via the product logo. Most web users understand that clicking a company or product logo will redirect them to a main page. There was a lively discussion between the website design team who wanted the logo to direct users to project page, while the website testers preferred the logo redirect users to the main homepage. Ultimately, the testers recommendations were made to the site.

Final Thought on Norman

After reading The Design of Everyday Things I find it difficult not to analyze the objects around me according to what they look like and what they are used for. For example, design flaws in the elevator buttons in my office or the poor design of bathroom stalls in airports.

Anyone else experiencing this now?


“Interaction Design.”

Norman, Donald. The Design of Everyday Things. Basic Books: New York; 1988.

Lowgren, Jonas. “Interaction Design”

Kuhn, A.”The Mouse and Wimp”


4 thoughts on “Designing for usability

  1. Hi Heather,

    Reading your post reminds me of my understanding of the set of reading we were assigned on Monday. I can’t agree more that interaction design is user-centered as it is mentioned in “Design of Everyday Life” by Norman. ” The Mouse and WIMP” also indicated how important usability is. Users are extra important in business communication interaction design. Interaction involves human in any aspect. Business professionals conduct good, efficient communication through good interaction with technology.
    “Design of Everyday Thing” makes think of human adaptability. Bad design will not survive and really good design is appreciated. What about the OK design? Some design has good features and bad features, do you think it will be accepted after more and more people are used to it?

  2. Your connection to the project you’re currently working on is great! I certainly see poor design in webpages and I definitely agree that the logo should connect to the homepage of the website (at least that is what I would expect it to connect to). I think it is especially useful that you are able to interact with the end users to better understand their needs and suggestions rather than just doing what the designers want to do. It is strange to think that designers would forget what it is like to be a typical consumer and maybe make the webpage too difficult to navigate. All in all, a great post about Norman!

    P.S. I’m extremely jealous of your ability to connect bold, italicized, indented, etc. passages. I am still working on getting the hang of blogging and your posts are always so visually stimulating!

  3. It is interesting (and reassuring) that your company is taking some time to focus on how user’s are reacting to the new website that you are creating. What I often wonder though, is when we will be able to measure or tell if designers are actually taking user’s feedback and applying it to their designs (that is, not just considerin user’s feedback and then still going with their own ideas of what a product should include). I read about user-centered design in a previous course during my graduate studies and am familiar with this concept; however, I have yet to be exposed to literature that tackles the complexities of how to measure change from this type (and similar types) of design. Anyone have any good suggestions? Or is it too early to talk about measuring this sort of change? Norman’s text was written in 1988, surely there’s some sort of findings on the effects of applying user-centered design by now?

  4. Elevator buttons — those always bug me! It seems like there’s a perfect example of an interface that should be universally standardized.

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