Udacity: The Design of Everyday Things

Photo: Juicyrai
Happy New Year 2014! It's been a long time since my last post. However, in this coming 2014, one of my resolution is to resume blogging and post at least 1 post per month here until the end of the year. I'd like to start with what I had been learning lately.

About 3 weeks ago, I was surprised to received an email from Udacity stating that Introduction to the Design of Everyday Things course is now available. Now, I always appreciate smart, clever and well thought-out designs. Moreover, Don Norman, who is going to teach this course, is well-praised by the community of Hacker News. So I quickly sign-up and in this blog post, I am going to share my experience for lesson 1 so far.

Here is the summary from its main page:
"Everyone designs. Design occurs anytime you deliberately change an environment to make things better. When you decide what seat to take in an auditorium you’re designing your experience. When you rearrange the furniture in a room or draft an email, you’re designing.
This course provides a summary of key concepts from the first two chapters of Design of Everyday Things (Revised and Expanded Edition, November 2013) by Don Norman. It’s intended to be enjoyable and informative for anyone curious about design: everyday people, technical people, designers, and non-designers alike."

Lesson 1: Affordances and Signifiers (4 hours)
Lesson 2: Conceptual Models and the System Image (4 hours)
Lesson 3: Gulfs of Evaluation and Execution (1 hour)
Lesson 3 Project: Design the User Interface (UI) for a Timebank (7 hours)

It's a rather short course which would take about 16 hours to complete, compared to other Udacity courses that I had taken before (Introduction to Computer Science and Web Development). At least 3 weeks if you spend 5 hours per week. Moreover, 80% of the time will be spent doing the course work. After all, learning-by-doing has been a core philosophy of Udacity.

Most courses in Udacity are delivered in bite-size videos of 30 seconds to 3 minutes. Each covering a single topic. So they are easy to pick up and put down. Plus, you can learn at your own pace and best of all, it's free! That's why I prefer to study at Udacity over other MOOCs.

Bite-size mini lessons

Earlier in lesson 1, we are asked "Why are you here?" and here's my answer:
  • Short answer: I like good design and wish to gain the skills to create good, beautiful things with my creativity.
  • Long answer: I am a programmer, robotics engineer and I want to improve my designing skills. So that I can make great UI/UX for the software that I write and/or well-designed robots/products.

Here's my submission for one of the course works of lesson 1:

Confusing female toilet door
Confusing Design
"Most people are not science students and would not recognise the symbol. They would thought that this is the male toilet although the symbol says otherwise. I had seen ladies walk pass this door while looking for the ladies toilet at work to know that it's confusing."

Things that I learnt in Lesson 1
According to Norman, affordance and signifier are quite different concepts. They are independent.
  • Affordance—possible actions an actor can take upon an item in question.
  • Signifier—sign conveyed to the person about the possible action.

These are two important concepts in lesson 1 which are confusing to me initially in the lecture video, but it became clear to me as I wrote them down on paper and read and reread the notes again.

Here's a mini lesson:

It talks about missing/invisible affordance. It's basically shows the Tesla Model S handle that pop out to allow its owner to open its door when approaching with its car key. Where as it's almost impossible to open that door without its car key. A really cool design, but I doubt it'll be practical during emergency.

A Few More Examples
  • Door handle which implies pull when the required action is push (confusing affordance and signifier)
  • Ads on webpage that mslead visitors to click on them such as virus-infection alerts (fake signifiers)
  • Tesla model S car handle (invisible affordance)
  • Fake plastic plants (fake signifiers)

It certainly has been an interesting course so far. Earlier in lesson 1, I came across a new way of solving problems from Norman's interview with Tim Brown (CEO and President of design company IDEO): design thinking.
"A set of tools that allows you to approach life, particularly the part of life where it might be advantageous to solve the problem differently. It allows you to approach that with some level of confidence because you got some ways of going about it......Design thinking gives you a different way of tackling a problem, often one that centred around the needs of the people you are trying to solve for." — Tim Brown
As an example given in the interview: when you're throwing a dinner party, you don't just wait until 6 pm and start thinking about what food to serve to your guests. With design thinking, you would try to design the experience. You would think about the food, the space, and how these two elements work together. It's all centred around the needs of your guests.

Another takeaway from this lesson is developing a pair of observant eyes. I find myself noticing things that I ignored before. I started to see good designs and bad designs all around me. It's like putting on a pair of magic glasses. It would certainly make Norman glad. Nevertheless, one of the important things in the course is developing the eye of a designer.

If you have read until this far, you probably want to sign up for this course at Udacity. Next, I'm going to start on doing the mini-project for lesson 1 and currently looking for a confusing signifier. I will post back on my work when I'm done. On the other hand, I had started on Mobile Web Development at Udacity which was just launched this week (6th Jan).

So, stay tuned.

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