Tuesday, 19 May 2009

The Psychology of Everyday Things

What could be more disturbing and embarrassing? Minding your own business, sitting on the toilet, and suddenly the door opens and you are left, red faced, trousers round ankles, facing the first class carriage of the 8am London to Edinburgh. Not much, Id say.

So I was very interested to see the level of effort and information that had been put into the toilet compartment of said service to ensure this didn't happen to any unlucky visitor.

A very large sign, saying don't use the toilet unless you have locked the door:

And a detailed '5 point plan' to follow to ensure the door is, indeed, locked.

Why should such a simple task require the rail company to put so much effort into explaining it?

I think the answer lies in the functional design of the door buttons themselves....

A more appropriate user interface might be apparent. Indeed, the extra flexibility of the available 'use cases' of this design could only be useful for people with tasks in mind that are not necessarily what the rail company would find acceptable!!!

The Psychology of Everyday Things was recommended to me as a read on this subject a few weeks ago. Written in the mid-80s it talks with great clarity on this subject, and is now compulsory reading (so I understand) for any design engineer. If it were really absorbed and followed by humans with design responsibility none of the above would be the case.

In fact, it so commonly is the case that we tend to be delighted beyond words when we encounter something that is well designed for humans to use. Oh, and quite prepared to spend money on it.

So why arent we surrounded by well designed objects that add to the spiritual quality (or at least dont subtract) of our lives.

One reason is that its hard. But we have done many very hard things (men on the moon, etc).

The answer may lie in our business vocabulary:
  • Time to market;
  • Cost income ratio;
  • Business model.
A new paradigm beckons:

The Design-Led Business


  1. I've heard people talk a lot about The Design of Everyday Things, it's on a list of books that I hope to get around to reading one day ... thought that the title sounded strangely similar, they are by the same person! I have to say that the toilet door looks like a textbook example of what not to do ...

  2. Yeah, they are actually very similar (if not entirely similar?) books.
    Its definitely worth the read, and makes you see the world as something that has definitely had enough time to be better than it is....