How Everyday Objects Affect Your Self-Esteem

We’ve all experienced frustration when dealing with a confusing product whether it was the shower knobs in a hotel room, the hotel toilets in Japan, or the twenty seven different remotes for operating a massive home entertainment system.

But now we finally have a product we can all use and understand – a coffee pot for masochists!

It’s designed by Jacques Carelman, the artist who created the Catalogue of Impossible Objects. He specializes in designs that are impractical, silly, and inconvenient as a statement to ridicule our consumer society.

The coffee pot is Carelman’s most famous design. You can even order one online, though this is just begging for a multimillion-dollar lawsuit by a disgruntled (and likely scalded) customer.

Coffee Pot for Masochists, by Jacques Carelman

Coffee Pot for Masochists, by Jacques Carelman

The Coffee Pot for Masochists playfully points out the gap in understanding often found between designers and consumers.

According to The Design of Everyday Things, by Don Norman, most of our problems come from a complete lack of understanding of the design principles necessary for human-machine interaction.

In other words, engineers like to design logical systems with the assumption that their users are equally as logical. However, this assumption has the potential to cause confusion, physical harm, and even lifelong damage to a person’s self-esteem.

The Design of Everyday Things, by Don Norman

The Design of Everyday Things, by Don Norman

Part of the challenge in designing for an imperfect consumer – that is, a human – is that most people do not know their needs or even the difficulties they are encountering.

This is because most of our behavior stems from our subconscious. As a result, most of our beliefs about how people behave, including ourselves, are wrong.

Because we are only aware of our conscious thoughts, we tend to be tricked into thinking that all human thought is conscious. We also believe that thought can be separated from emotion. Both ideas are false.

Cognition and emotion go hand in hand. A human with no cognition is dysfunctional; one with no emotion is a sociopath.

And yes, recent research shows that even engineers have emotions.

Since most products are used by mortals who are likely to misinterpret instructions, misuse the device, or otherwise screw something up:

You have to understand people and psychology in order to be a good designer.

Good designers create products that are both discoverable and understandable, which means each of the following characteristics is obvious and well-defined:

  • Affordance: how it can be used
  • Signifiers: where and how to use it
  • Constraints: restricting the kind of possible interactions
  • Mapping: how two sets of things are related
  • Feedback: how you know the system is working on your request
  • Conceptual Model: a highly simplified explanation of how it works

Having too much or too little of any of these characteristics can lead to improper or inadequate use of a product.

And knowing humans, errors are very likely to happen.

One type of error is a slip, in which our intent is correct but the actions are improper. Slips come in two different forms: capture slips and description-similarity slips.

A capture slip is when a more frequently or recently performed activity gets performed in lieu of the intended activity. An example from the book is counting copies at a copy machine as “…7, 8, 9, 10, Jack, Queen, King,” a slip made from having played a great deal of cards recently.

Description-similarity slips are when we mistakenly perform the action on an object similar to our intended target, but not our intended target.

Norman gives an example of a student coming home from jogging. He takes off his sweaty shirt, rolls it into a ball intending to throw it into the laundry basket. Instead he throws it in the toilet. Similarly shaped receptacles, completely different uses.

The Far Side, by Gary Larson

The Far Side, by Gary Larson – two unfortunate description-similarity slips

Errors can be disastrous, if not merely in the way that we interpret them.

For instance, blaming ourselves for making an error can have negative and unjustified consequences on our self-image. Being unable to use a complicated, feature-rich device may cause us to identify as being clumsy, stupid, or bad with technology.

In other words, we think it’s our fault rather than the fault of a poor design.

Once we blame ourselves, we neglect to learn the skills needed to overcome this problem and instead mold this idea into our identity, believing that it cannot be changed.

This is called learned helplessness. What was originally a flaw in the design now causes permanent damage to our self-image.

This same self-fulfilling prophecy can happen in any field whether it’s mathematics, sports, or social interaction.

Errors can also cause negative effects in the workplace.

Usually, engineers and mechanics work are worlds apart in their work environments. Because of this, engineers often neglect to consider the distant mechanic’s world and how it may differ from the ideal computerized model.

This creates issues with tooling, ergonomics, safety, accessibility, assembly, and procedures. Not to mention, mechanics make slips and mistakes too. Most of this stems from lack of communication and understanding between engineers and mechanics.

Poor communication is the primary cause of rework at most engineering companies.

So in order to be a savvy designer, you have to learn to think like a designer.

According to Norman, this means resisting the impulse to solve the immediate problem but instead, doing adequate research to determine the root cause before examining a range of potential solutions.

This process is called design thinking, and prevents designers from alleviating a symptom while ignoring the ailment.

It also saves them from the knot of uncertainty in their stomach when their boss asks them the all important question: “How do you know you solved the correct problem?”

Design thinking is necessary for us to solve the right problem while accounting for the needs and behaviors of the end users. It’s just another reason why designers need to understand psychology and human behavior in order to excel in their industry.

In summary:

  • Most problems come from a poor understanding of human behavior
  • You have to understand people and psychology in order to be a good designer
  • Designs should be discoverable and understandable
  • Avoid blaming yourself for an error that is most likely caused by a poor design
  • Use design thinking to solve the real problem instead of a surface level issue

***To learn more about the psychology of design and how designs can affect our self-esteem, check out The Design of Everyday Things, by Don Norman.***

***Be sure to FOLLOW this blog for more posts on business, psychology, and personal development.***

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