Books: Donald A. Norman
Donald A. Norman is a cognitive scientist who has made a name for himself as an expert on usability and design. His first book, The Design of Everyday Things, is well known as a manifesto for making products that make sense. In it he picks up on all the little design flaws we encounter everyday: doors that pull when you want to push, light switches which show no correspondence to the lights they control, buttons and dials that only make sense to the engineer who designed them and no-one else, and especially objects that look pretty have no discernable means of operation.
To counteract these problems, he returns to the psychological roots of how we interact with objects and devices. One of his recurring themes is that of the ‘mental model’. When we interact with an object, we form a model in our head of how it operates. The correctness of this model directly influences our success in using it. To this end, Norman advocates simplicity and transparency. The designer should try to keep the operation simple and have it clearly communicated to the user.
Emotional Design was written to counter the claim that Norman favoured designs that were “usable but ugly”. In this second book he addresses the question of what makes us love and enjoy the things we use. Usability is only one criterion. Others that he identifies are the visceral appeal (the way it appeals to our senses) and reflective appeal (the way it appeals to our self-image). Each of these three kinds will lead to different design decisions.
The idea of the mental model returns particularly when he start to discuss anthropomorphisation. We tend to model complex objects as “persons” attributing intentions, desires and emotions to them, and imagining our interactions with them as social relationships. So we get angry at computers when they let us down and refuse to do what we want. And we have feelings of love and trust for objects which work reliably and empower us.
There are many things here for game designers to draw on. The construction of mental models is also part of the way our players interact with our games. We may want to ask ourselves how do we communicate the model to our player? Do we want full transparency? Or are there aspects we wish to hide? Norman reminds us that in our reflective layer we can learn to enjoy the negative aspects of a product, such as when we take pride in mastering a difficult musical instrument, or the pleasure we take in fairground rides that scare us.
The chapter on personalisation is also relevant to games. The ability to customise our avatar is a common feature in many games. Norman points out that customisation is much more limited than personalisation. A personalised object shows more evidence of our history of interaction with it, with all the scars and patches that involves. Perhaps the same can be done for our game avatars.
There is much for game designers to learn from both these books, and this review has only scratched the surface. Furthermore they are both quite entertainingly written and accessible. I highly recommend them to designers of every stripe.
PS: Donald’s next book Socialable Design promises to address the social factors behind design. How do we design to encourage social interaction? This is of course a major concern of multiplayer games. I’ll be keeping an eye out for it.