Kevin Cheng  

Ask “The Don” Norman

October 22nd, 2004 by Kevin Cheng :: see related comic

When it comes to industrial design critiques, there’s one name everyone knows. Remember that guy? He wrote that book with that strange tea pot and then another one with an alien looking juicer on the cover. He seems to know a lot about design and he has a sense of humour about it all (enough to not sue us for making him a superhero). Now you can ask him your burning questions about design - and receive the answers you didn’t want to hear.

Here’s a question from reader WG:

I’m at a friend’s house in Seaford (in England, near Brighton), and thinking of you because he has a light switch outside the bathroom (I don’t know why the English think that if you have a light switch *in* the bathroom you will perforce electrocute yourself). He said, “Just hold your finger on it until the lights do what you want.”

The switch is a little metal sort of button. It’s not entirely comfortable to hold your finger on it.

It also turns out that “until the lights do what you want” is incredibly difficult to time correctly — and it has to be precisely correct. It’s fairly easy to get the lights to turn on part way. It’s not that hard to get them to turn on all the way. It’s incredibly hard to get them to turn all the way off without coming back up again.

Answer From The Don

The switch is obviously meant as a test for drunks. If you can’t set the light properly you are in no condition to use the bathroom — you should go outside and use the bushes.

Ask Your Question

Send your question to: and we will select the best questions to ask him in a few weeks.

Questions put in the comments section will not be answered but feel free to discuss randomness anyways.

Note : Because of the low volume of mail that we anticipate, we will not be able to provide a personal reply. Neither posting on this site nor the relevance of the answer are guaranteed.

When The Don is being serious, he can be found at

22 Responses to “Ask “The Don” Norman”
Kevin Cheng wrote:

Sorry about missing out the e-mail address earlier. We’ve put the address where you should submit questions to the Don. Ask anything you want and we’ll forward the best to Don Norman.

Steve Burgess wrote:

Just a comment about bathroom light switches “in the bathroom…” the electric codes for many (if not all) towns in New England require the switch to be outside the bathroom. So, it’s not just the Brits…

"The Don" wrote:

The reason that so many electric codes in New England require the switch to be outside the door is that the town council members never grew up: they still think it fun to sneak up on unsuspecting bathroom users (who are presumably taking baths?), and turn off the lights.

Some people seem to think that this is done so that you can tell from the outside whether someone is in the room or not, but this is false, for lots of obvious reasons. Everyone knows that the best way to find out if someone is in the bathroom is to open the door and look.

Eric wrote:

My Honda minivan has automatic side doors. The model I own uses door handles that look like your typical automotive door handle, which is the problem. The vast majority of first-time users trying to enter the van by a side door grasp the door handle and try to slide the door open using the handle. Well, as it ends up, this completely expected behavior causes the door to partially open (but not enough to enter the vehicle) then stall and beep at the user until the driver closes and then reopens the door using the dashboard controls. If at any time during the procedure, the user attempts to once again grasp the door handle (which naturally happens a lot!)—the driver must yell, “don’t touch the handle again” while frantically pushing the dashboard buttons, trying to get the door to allow the user to enter. (You may be thinking, “just turn off the power doors and use them manually.” Well, the manual functioning is fine if you are quite strong, otherwise you can’t budge the darn thing at all.)

I assume all this is by design. If so, can you explain how this kind of crazy design gets “out the door”?

"The Don" wrote:

The driver in your example is behaving inappropriately. This is actually a Psychology experiment, testing response inhibition or, if you prefer, “Will Power.” The question being tested is: how long can people refrain from touching the handle of a car door when they wish to enter?

By yelling don’t touch the handle again, the driver is providing a hint, thus invalidating the test– so it will have to be repeated.

The results of these studies will be very important in designing future products. Once it is known just how long people can refrain from touching the door handle (studies already show this to be age-dependent), the car doors can be designed to require a slightly longer time. This will allow desingers to reduce the number of people carried in cars, thus providing untold advantages to society.

Jez wrote:

I have a similar light-switch for my bedroom. You may find that simply tapping it once will turn it off, or to a preset level (if off when tapped).
The difficulty is setting it in the first place since the halogens don’t react as fast as the regular bulb!

reed wrote:

Is there an advantage to this kind of light button? I can’t think of one.

I guess it’s got no moving parts to break, but that’s why dimmable lights have — for decades at least — used a completely obvious round dial which can be replaced for less than a dollar at any hardware store.

I could go on and on about how difficult it is to do basic maintainence on my cars (e.g. attach jumper cables or remove the battery, replace air filters, change belts) without dissasembling half the engine compartment.

julian wrote:

Why even after your book do people still fail to get doors right?

"The Don" wrote:

I am proud to state that my book, “The Design of Everyday Things” is widely used by door designers. One designer thanked me most graciously, explaining that prior to my book, he discovered that people seemed able to open all his doors, which was a concern to him. After reading my book, however, he was able to change his design methods. His observations now show that more than half the people going through his doors push the pull doors and 75% try the left one when only the right is operative (or vice versa). Indeed, he was most proud of the statistic that it took an average of 3.14 attempts for people to open his doors.

His goal is to increase all the pecentages to 80%, with the average number of tries 4, or even 5. He was most thankful for the principles given within “The Design of Everyday Things,” for, he stated, without those principles, only 10% of people would fail, and the average number of tries would be around 1.5

So you see, the book did have an impact.

Alice Moultrie wrote:

Back to this bathroom idea. Your theory that the complicated switch is designed to as a litmus test to steer unsuccessful users to “go outside and use the bushes” is clearly gender-biased. It is very difficult for a female user to actually pee upon a bush (without a step stool or ladder — either of which will be considerably more difficult to operate than that piddly little light switch in a state of intoxication).

Please offer a better (but equally amusing) theory.



"The Don" wrote:

Ah, Alice. I have pondered your question for an inordinate amount of time, carefully trying to vizualize just how a step stool or ladder might be of assistance. I must admit to failure. I have walked all around that ladder, looking down, looking up … no great insights come to mind (exccept that it is not wise to look up).

Now, because I am indeed an expert observer of human behavior, I have some useful observations: I am mailing a photogragh to Kevin to see if he has the courage to post it. In addition, careful Googling (for example, using the search string “female standing urination” reveals possible solutions.

Good luck. And I will keep observing.

Kevin Cheng wrote:

Perhaps forever erasing the “stuffy gurus” image, I give you the image Don sent me.

Alice Moultrie wrote:

Indeed, and admirable solution when presented with a nice smooth porcelain fixture (whose smooth edges clearly afford a certain amount of intimacy — if not in an entirely sanitary fashion . . . but I digress). This interface however becomes considerably less comfortable (although, most likely more sanitary . . .) and more likely to leave you with soggy sneakers and scratched unmentionables when the fixture is replaced with one of those bushes of the spiny garden variety.

I think I’d have to take my chances in a dark lavatory . . .

noah wrote:

reed, I think the advantage is supposed to be that the user can set a preferred light level once and always go back to exactly that setting with a single press — I’m guessing the designer was not married…

I was apartment shopping a few years back and one day we saw a place where an owner had installed one of those touch slider dimmers, the kind that looks like a small metal strip with an almost unnoticeable on/off switch on the side on the unit. Three of the bulbs in the light were burned out and the rest were so dimmed as to be considered off, which meant to me that none of the real estate agents had any idea how to use it.

Then our agent proved this by attempting to turn on the light by poking at it repeatedly which made it jump around but never fully light up.

My point? Um… when in doubt, poke? >:)

nobuo wrote:

I am not good at pressing the right button to keep the doors of the elevator open. OPEN and CLOSE buttons are often marked by icons like and >|

Kat wrote:

I have the same problem with elevators, especially when I try to find the open button to hold the elevator for a person who is trying to come in.

I thought it may be cool to just have the open button in GREEN, so it is easy to find; and have the close button removed and intergrate that function with the floor buttons … since people love to press the floor button hoping to speed up the elevator and take them to the floor =)

Not sure if the one button for open/close function in an elevator that nobuo mentioned, has the function that I just talked about?!?

Nasir wrote:


Nasir wrote:


noah wrote:

The only thing you can safely do with an elevator as a casual user is hold a door open, anyway. Light and pressure sensors are there to take the place of a full-time operator, so all a close button can do is tell the door to “close sooner than usual” — and if there is a real sensor problem, then usually the button does nothing at all.

Add to this the insanely short stay-open timers on the elevators in my office (whereby any hesitation means you are attacked by a closing door), and you’ve rendered the case for a close button moot.

Direction indicators on elevators are my biggest pet-peeve, mostly because I’ve seen so many installed improperly. One building I worked in had round lights for indicators above the doors, so naturally the building installed them vertically–thus, a red circle on the left meant down, and a white one on the right meant up. Only the red-white convention saved us, but if you were in a hurry, it was still easy to get mixed up.

nobuo wrote:

Holding the door open seems like the best way for now.

Green OPEN button and removing the CLOSE sounds good, too.

Although the buttons area labled open/close, two buttons are for complely diffent purpose. OPEN is for the safety while CLOSE for haste. They shouldn’t be placed side by side in the first place. Yet, placing two buttons differently doesn’t solve the problem, sorry.

Jo wrote:

Speaking of bad elevator button design - I have seen a great example in one of the government buildings in Canberra. I guess it is sort of an IQ test to see if you are capable of getting into the building.

Outside the elevator on the ground floor (at eye level), there are a number of round buttons which have the floor numbers on them. These buttons look like you can press them and are highlighted in green. Below these are two very large buttons (about 20cm diameter) in charcoal grey (which blend in with the wall). One with an arrow pointing up and one pointing down. However, you need to stand in exactly the right position to catch the light on the button to see the symbols.

Due to my perverse sense of entertainment, I have sat outside of the building and observed many bewildered public servants trying to get into the building, and usually trying various approaches before finally (and usually accidentally) pressing an up or down button.

Yes, there are some creative minds out there designing elevator interfaces.

Andy Hurford wrote:

wow. i’m an abd student of complex adaptive systems learning at the University of Texas and just read Dr. Norman’s intro to Gentner and Steven’s (1983) mental models.

as i often do, i searched the ‘net to see who this Don Norman was…

i repeat, wow. heckuva website to encounter when i was expecting to find another fully retired professor emeritus, meaningful for my work, but understandably completely inaccessible for questions or conversation.

wish i could be at NW this week…

on a different note and by way of a serious question, i wonder what Dr. Norman would say, twenty years later, about the subject of mental models? how did you react to Rip’s (1986, in The Representation of Knowledge and Belief) “Mental Muddles”? what/whose work do you think i should be looking at in the present?

good luck and more power to you and your Corp, Dr. N. —-a.

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OK/Cancel is a comic strip collaboration co-written and co-illustrated by Kevin Cheng and Tom Chi. Our subject matter focuses on interfaces, good and bad and the people behind the industry of building interfaces - usability specialists, interaction designers, human-computer interaction (HCI) experts, industrial designers, etc. (Who Links Here) ?