This book is often mentioned as a must-read for software developers who do user interface work. The basic idea is that when you have trouble using some item (whether it’s a phone or the controls of your stove) it’s not your fault, but the designer’s. Designers think more about their own needs than about users’. Things are often designed so as to look good, or to be easy to manufacture, rather than for usability. Norman writes about how and why design goes wrong, what kinds of mistakes and problems bad design can lead to, and of course how to avoid them. There are a lot of examples, some of good usability but many more of bad usability, and most quite entertaining.

I’m not going to write a summary of the book here. If you want one, try this one.

I have to say that my impression of the book was strongly affected by the relatively bad usability of the book itself. I found it difficult to navigate. It has a confusing layout (some headings are right-justified, some left; sections in italics are interspersed between normal paragraphs) and its structure is not very obvious. The text is organized more as a story than as a handbook: important points are hidden inside large blocks of text; lists of items are spread over many pages. And it has awful grainy photos that surely could have been updated for the new 2002 edition.

I wouldn’t say I learned very much from it. I suspect that I could have learned more if the book had been better designed. Also, I suspect that usability as a topic has become much more mainstream in the 20 years that have passed since the 1st edition was written. Now, much of the content felt familiar and obvious to me. The book does offer a structure for usability thinking, a terminology, a set of hooks to hang your intuitive thoughts onto – useful if you’re going to discuss usability with others in the field, or having to argue for or against some design.

Many people post 5-star reviews about this book but I was, honestly, disappointed. I would recommend it if you have never given usability much thought, or if you want to read a classic about this topic, but otherwise, well, not really.