The Design of Extraordinary Things

19 Jun 2016

This post’s title is an allusion to The Design of Everyday Things, by Don Norman. It’s a great book, and has a reputation to match. Today I started digging into Don’t Make Me Think by Steve Krug, another book with a great reputation, and so far it’s following through. The title, however has me wanting to run for the hills, and I think a lot of folks who tend to dismiss user interface design as a discipline react similarly.

It’s hard to come up with a better sound byte to turn off people who see computers as interesting puzzles, and derive great joy from thinking about them. Here’s a quote from the book that provides a bit more context:

And as a rule, people don’t like to puzzle over how to do things. They enjoy puzzles in their place—when they want to be entertained or challenged—but not when they’re trying to find out what time their dry cleaner closes.

This is a totally reasonable statement, but it betrays something I’ve lamented about the user interface design literature in general: it focuses heavily on, in Don Norman’s words, everyday things. As great as these books are, I am not excited by the idea of designing everyday things. I want to design extraordinary things.

I suspect the same is true of folks who design things like git, a powerful tool with a simple conceptual model and a horrible interface to it, or PGP, a tool that fills a really important niche better than anything out there — but is only used by geeks and folks whose lives depend on it.

It’s also probably true of people who will design brilliant systems that could bring back some much-needed privacy to the world, make the internet more secure for everyone, give people more autonomy, make it harder for oppressive regimes to censor critics, spur innovation, and so much more — if only they were actually usable.

It’s definitely true of folks who design the tools those people will use; when was the last time you heard of a UX designer helping out with the design of a programming language?

There are so many missed opportunities for great, innovative, important developments that people will actually use, because systems hackers and UX people tend to butt heads. I’d like to see less of that.

To systems hackers: give these books a shot. While they’ve got some problems, there’s some good advice in there. Most of it is common sense, but as Krug’s book says:

Like a lot of common sense, though, it’s not necessarily obvious until after someone’s pointed it out to you.

The basics are not hard stuff, and it’s worth your time to learn.

To user interface experts: think big. Write about how to design tools for serious work. You’re capable of more than helping people pick up their dry cleaning. Do something extraordinary.