Lights, Camera, ACTION!

It is the dreadful hour of 6 a.m. I just want need one cup of coffee. I plug in the Keurig and lift the handle to insert my drug of choice. This morning’s choice is Extra Bold Green Mountain. I press the big, flashing, bright blue button that reads, “Brew.” It’s as simple as that, right? Maybe it is the crust in my eyes or the darkness that still covers the sky or that all-nighter I just pulled to finish the paper, but it never seems to be that easy. 

Don Norman, in his chapter on The Psychology of Everyday Actions, clearly explained much of what goes in to each action we take, whether big or small. This is extremely important as we think about design because it is important for the design of the object to just make sense for the action to be taken. In other words, the coffee should simply begin brewing when I push the button.

Norman referred to two gulfs: the gulf of evaluation and the gulf of execution. The task for the designer is to bridge that gulf as effectively as possible so that the consumer is able to effectively use the machine. The gulf of evaluation, he describes, is the amount of effort the person must make to interpret the physical state of the device and determine if it worked. When I see that flashing blue button, I decide that is what it takes to make this machine work. However, there is often a major gulf between what I think will happen and what actually does. The major design elements that help build that bridge and feedback and a good conceptual model.

There are two main parts of an action: executing the action and evaluating the results. But, there are seven stages of action. They provide a useful framework to understand the actions taken and to guide the design process. The 7 stages are:

1. Goal: form the goal… A hot cup of coffee.
2. Plan: the action… Push the BREW button.
3. Specify: an action sequence… Open container, insert K cup, press BREW button, then sip on liquid caffeine.
4. Perform: the action sequence… Open container, insert K cup, then press BREW button.
5. Perceive: the state of the world… Is there coffee in my cup? NO.
6. Interpret: the perception… What happened? Does this thing even work?
7. Compare: the outcome with the goal… I wanted needed coffee. I got an empty mug.

The mind is extremely complex, and there are many levels in the process of thought that are influential when deciding how to design a machine. Norman draws from his book, Emotional Design, for the three levels of thinking he identifies.

1. The Visceral Level:

  • Most basic level of processing
  • All people have the same basic visceral responses
  • Fast and completely subconscious
  • For designers: it is about immediate perception

Screen Shot 2014-10-09 at 10.05.28 AM2. The Behavioral Level:

  • These are our learned skills
  • We are aware of our actions, unaware of the details
  • Every action is associated with an expectation (expected positive outcome = positive affective response)
  • For designers: Feedback is important because it gives a feeling of control

3. The Reflective Level:

  • Deep understanding
  • Conscious cognition unlike Visceral and Behavioral
  • Slow process, not immediate
  • Often occurs after event has happened
  • Highest level of emotions

I also really liked Norman’s discussion of people as storytellers. He says that we are innately disposed to look for causes and explanations, creating a story from our experience. People then connect with each other through these stories because they resonate with certain experiences. More than one of you has had this experience with a coffee maker that won’t seem to give you what you want…No matter how simple it may seem. He then compared conceptual models to stories: they help us understand our experience, predict the outcome of our actions, and handle unexpected occurrences.

Lastly, similar to his last chapter, Norman discussed how often we blame the wrong thing. Something doesn’t work and we are not the expert, so we think we are simply stupid. We use phrases like user error or operator malfunction. But, really the fault lies in the manufacturer or the design of the product. Did I push the button wrong, or is there a design flaw in the very strict sequence I must follow in order for my Keurig to do what I want? We need to learn to not be so hard on ourselves when something goes wrong.


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