Information Age Education
   Issue Number 214
July 31, 2017   

This free Information Age Education Newsletter is edited by Dave Moursund and produced by Ken Loge. The newsletter is one component of the Information Age Education (IAE) publications.

All back issues of the newsletter and subscription information are available online. In addition, six free books based on the newsletters are available: Joy of Learning; Validity and Credibility of Information; Education for Students’ Futures; Understanding and Mastering Complexity; Consciousness and Morality: Recent Research Developments; Creating an Appropriate 21st Century Education; and Common Core State Standards for Education in America.

Donald Norman: The Design of Everyday Things

David Moursund
Professor Emeritus, College of Education
University of Oregon

More than 30 years ago, Donald Norman began to notice poor interfaces in the design of doors and many other things. His response was to write a book, The Design of Everyday Things (2013, 1988). I read and thoroughly enjoyed that book, and I strongly recommend the new edition to you.

Donald Norman has an undergraduate degree from MIT, and both a master’s degree and a doctorate from the University of Pennsylvania. His career has spanned psychology, cognitive science, and cognitive engineering. Quoting from the Wikipedia (2017a):

Norman made the transition from cognitive science to cognitive engineering by entering the field as a consultant and writer. In one of his projects, he studied a popular computer operating system named Unix. His article "The truth about Unix: The user interface is horrid" in Datamation (1981) catapulted him to a position of prominence in the computer world. Soon after, his career took off outside of academia, although he still remained active at University of California San Diego until 1993. Norman continued his work to further human-centered design by serving on numerous university and government advisory boards such as the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).

Have you ever carefully examined the design of a web page created by yourself, by one of your students, or by a “real” professional? Based on my own experiences, it is clear that some websites are much more user friendly, appealing, and effective than others.

Over the years, the art and science of designing good user interfaces has steadily progressed. Donald Norman has contributed to this progress throughout his long career. The video, Living with Technology, provides an excellent introduction to Norman’s insights into how computer technology is changing our world (Norman, 12/23/2014). Also, you can view his hour-length college course lecture on Design Thinking (Norman, 3/25/2016).

User Experience (UX)

The Nielsen Norman Group is a computer user interface and user experience company founded in 1988 by Jakob Nielsen, Don Norman, and Bruce Tognazzini. Their website is a rich resource on research on the design of effective user interfaces on the Web and in other types of computer uses (Nielsen Norman Group, 2017).

The type of research being done by the Nielsen Norman Group is illustrated by a talk that Jacob Nielsen presented at the 2016 Nielsen Norman Group User Experience (UX) Conference. In a longitudinal study conducted in 2004 and 2016, computer users were asked to find specific information on a website and report on their experiences in using the site. A large number of different websites as well as a variety of users were used in the study. The success rate in finding the desired information rose from 66% in 2004 to 82% in 2016. This indicates that the overall design of websites has improved from 2004 to 2016 (Nielsen, 12/29/2016).

The figure below is taken from Nielsen’s conference talk cited above. It reports on reasons for failure to find the sought information. For example, the data about information (third set of columns) indicates that nowadays a failure to find the desired information is seldom because the information is not actually available on the site. However, as the second set of columns indicates, there has been a continuing problem that users are just not able to find the information that is on the site.

User Failures Out of All Task Attempts, by Cause

While a website may contain just text organized sequentially as in a print book, many websites are nonlinear and interactive. A user needs to make decisions (click on buttons or text, slide sliders, etc.) in a search for the information being sought. A well-designed website is user friendly—it helps the user to make appropriate decisions. As explained in the next section, the term affordance is used to describe this design challenge.


Donald Norman is especially known for his work on what is called affordance. Quoting from the Wikipedia (2017b):

An affordance is the possibility of an action on an object or environment. Though additional meanings have developed, the original definition in psychology includes all actions that are physically possible.

Psychologist James J. Gibson originally introduced the term in his 1977 article "The Theory of Affordances" and explored it more fully in his book The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception [Gibson, 1979].

The basic ideas of affordance can be taken into consideration in anything designed to be used by others—including computer programs and websites. The short video, Affordances, by Donald Norman, provides a number of examples of affordances (Norman, 1994).

We can study the affordance provided by the user interface. About 30 years ago, Donald Norman began to notice that that the world contained many different affordances that often mislead people (Norman, 2013, 1988).

As one simple example of affordance, have you ever attempted to open a door by pushing it, when it only opens when you pull it? Such doors are poorly designed. It is not obvious whether they should be pushed or pulled.
Suppose that a restaurant wants to have a swinging door going into and out of the kitchen, and there is only enough space to have just one door. People coming to the door from either side need to push the door. But, they may well push the door into the face of a person coming from the other side.

It doesn’t do much good to put a sign on each side of the door, warning about this problem. A window in the door would help solve the problem. However, you may have noticed that a person carrying a heavy load of food or dishes may back into the door, so a window is not a foolproof solution. A person approaching the door might break a light beam that causes a bell to ring on the other side of the door. The redundancy of providing both approaches may be desirable.

For a second example, I live on the second floor of a four-floor condominium with elevators. Outside each elevator there are two call buttons, placed one above the other. The top one indicates I want to go up, and the bottom one indicates I want to go down. That makes sense to me. If the buttons were beside each other, I suppose that one could have an up arrow on one, and a down arrow on the other. That design wouldn’t be as good, as it requires the used to read and figure out the arrows, and could be a challenge to a person with poor eyesight or if the hall lighting were not as good as it should be.

In addition, each of the two call buttons has a small red light in its center. When the call button is pushed, the light comes on. Unfortunately, the light in one call button on my floor has not operated for the past several weeks. Thus, when I push that button I have no idea whether I have pushed hard enough, whether the elevator is out of service, or whether the light is burned out. There is no redundancy. Adding a soft beep to the button would greatly improve its design.

My story continues inside the elevator. The building has only four floors. It seems logical to me that the four floor buttons would be in a vertical row, with 1 at the bottom and 4 at the top. Instead, they are in two parallel vertical rows, along with a “door open” and a “door close” button. I find this arrangement confusing—not intuitively obvious to me.

Once one becomes aware of the idea of affordance, it turns out that affordances are everywhere. For example, a crosscut in a street curb is designed to help people in wheelchairs. But it also helps people who are unsteady on their feet, and it helps skateboarders.

Affordance in Designing Children’s Toys

Designers of children’s toys tend to have good insight into what children consider to be intuitively obvious and/or what children can quickly learn. In addition, even quite young children seem to have a built-in trial and error mechanism. When given a new toy, young children push it, pull it, hit it, squeeze it, pick it up and throw it, taste it, etc. If the result is somehow pleasing to the child, the child is apt to quickly learn to repeat the process that led to the pleasing result. A well-designed child’s toy has affordances that encourage and facilitate appropriate use.

Such an approach carries over to electronic handheld devices such as games or cell phones. Most children will push a button, listen to the sound, look at the display, and so forth. They usually will continue such random activities until achieving some satisfaction or becoming bored. I find it truly amazing how rapidly young children can learn through trial and error, with appropriate and well-timed feedback from themselves and from others.

A Tidbit about Artificial Intelligence

One of the grand challenges in the field of artificial intelligence (AI) is to develop computer programs that can learn somewhat in the way that children learn. Researchers carefully study what appears to be going on as a child learns. They see that very young children are able to use a trial and error approach.

Such research seems to have a long way to go before AI is able to make the quick learning leaps of young children. However, useful progress in AI has been made through computerization of trial and error.

A computer is set to doing some task and is provided with some measure of satisfaction—such as an increased score in a game. The computer can do many millions of trials, and does not get bored. It is programmed to remember what it has done to get an increased score and tries this approach in a large variety of situations. Gradually, the program learns ways to get an increased score that will work in many different situations.

If the game is one played against an opponent, the computer can learn by playing against itself, i.e., playing against the best program it already has developed up to a particular point in the learning process. As the computer makes progress in developing a better program, it is being challenged by a better and better opponent—the opponent is a program the computer has itself developed.
Educational Implications

The work of Donald Norman and others is leading to the development of more effective computer user interfaces. Research such as that reported by Jacob Nielsen provides evidence of the progress occurring in improving computer user interfaces.

I find it fun to look at textbooks written many years ago, and compare them with today’s textbooks. For example, browse through some of the McGuffey Readers (McGuffey, 1836, 1837). Well over a hundred million of these books were sold, and they served as a backbone of grades 1-6 education in the United states for many years.

Today’s textbooks are much longer, contain many color illustrations, and are designed to be appealing to students. I wonder what evidence we have about the effectiveness of today’s textbooks versus those from my parents’ childhood times. Do students learn more, better, and faster from the modern books? Do they make more effective use of what they are learning and do they remember it longer? I am not a student of the history of school textbooks, so I don’t know the answers to these questions.

What I do know is that print textbooks are gradually being supplemented and sometimes supplanted by online texts. I also know that there has been considerable research on the effectiveness of Highly Interactive Intelligent Computer-assisted Learning (HIICAL) systems versus non-computer instructional delivery systems (Moursund, 12/23/2016). These are also called computer tutor systems (Moursund, 9/11/2011). Such systems are gradually being improved and the evidence of their effectiveness is growing.

Final Remarks

Think about affordance as you encounter the word in your everyday activities, including your use of smart phones and computers. Engage your acquaintances and students in talking about affordance. Have your students look for examples of poor affordances they encounter in their everyday lives and in their use of computer technology.

If you are a teacher, you may have heard some of your students ask, “Why do I have to learn this?” Recall the definition, “an affordance is the possibility of an action on an object or environment.” Put simply, any increased knowledge or skill broadens one’s horizons and increases the possible actions one can take. A good response to the student’s question is to help the student understand the possible benefits of an increased personal horizon based on the increased knowledge and skill that can come from what you are teaching.

References and Resources

Gibson, J.J. (1979). The theory of affordances. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

McGuffey, W.H (1836, 1837). Free McGuffey readers. Retrieved 6/1/2017 from

Moursund, D. (12/23/2016). The fourth R. Eugene, OR: Information Age Education. Download the Microsoft Word file from Download the PDF file from Access the book online at

Moursund, D. (9/11/2011). Intelligent computer tutor systems. Retrieved 6/1/2017 from

Nielsen, J. (12/29/2016). Web UX 2016 vs 2004. (Video, 21:13.) Retrieved 6/1/2017 from

Nielsen Norman Group (2017). Retrieved 6/1/2017 from

Norman, D. (3/25/2016). Don Norman on design thinking. (Video, 59:42.) Retrieved 5/31/2017 from

Norman, D. (5/1/2015). The impact of persuasion. TED Talks. (Video, 17:11.) Retrieved 5/31/2017 from

Norman, D. (12/23/2014). Living with complexity. (Video, 33:34.) Retrieved 5/31/2017 from

Norman, D. (2013, 1988). The design of everyday things. Philadelphia, PA: Basic Books.

Norman, D. (2003). 3 ways good design makes you happy. TED Talks. (Video, 12:42.) Retrieved 5/31/2017 from

Norman, D. (1994). Affordances (Video, 1:51.) Retrieved 6/2/2017 from

Wikipedia (2017a). Don Norman. Retrieved 6/2/2017 from

Wikipedia (2017b). Affordance. Retrieved 5/31/2017 from

Free Educational Resources from IAE

IAE publishes and makes available four free online resources:


David Moursund is an Emeritus Professor of Education at the University of Oregon, and editor of the IAE Newsletter. His professional career includes founding the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) in 1979, serving as ISTE’s executive officer for 19 years, and establishing ISTE’s flagship publication, Learning and Leading with Technology. He was the major professor or co-major professor for 82 doctoral students. He has presented hundreds of professional talks and workshops. He has authored or coauthored more than 60 academic books and hundreds of articles. Many of these books are available free online. See

In 2007, Moursund founded Information Age Education (IAE). IAE provides free online educational materials via its IAE-pedia, IAE Newsletter, IAE Blog, and books. See Information Age Education is now fully integrated into the 501(C)(3) non-profit corporation, Advancement of Globally Appropriate Technology and Education (AGATE) that was established in 2016. David Moursund is the Chief Executuve Officer of AGATE.


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