WARNING: Complicated Designs Will Cause Confusion


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For some reason, my dad has this fixation with reading labels. Food labels, hygiene product labels, appliance labels. If it has a label, he reads it. Over the years, he’s shared some of his favorite “idiot proof” warning labels with me:

  • On the wrapper of a fruit roll-up, WARNING: Remove plastic before eating.
  • On a hair dryer, WARNING: do not use while sleeping or while in the shower.
  • In a microwave oven manual, WARNING: do not use for drying pets.

Sadly, these ridiculous labels are common, and probably necessary. Don Norman explains in the first chapter of his book, The Design of Everyday Things, that a good design should deter people from making these errors and alleviate the need for some of these labels. He says that people often blame themselves for making a mistake while using a certain machine, but in reality, the fault should go back to the machine itself, or the designer of the machine. If you become frustrated after forgetting to unwrap the fruit roll up or feel discouraged by not realizing you can’t dry your hair in your sleep, don’t blame yourself. Blame a bad design!

Okay, so maybe we can’t blame some of our own shortcomings on an unclear design. But some errors can be avoided if designers design with simplicity. Norman claims that designs usually become too complicated because the designers, usually engineers, think too logically. Not everyone is an expert on the product you’re making, and even experts make mistakes, so products must be designed on the “assumption that people will make errors” (8).

A good design evokes discoverability and understanding for all who encounter the product.

What is discoverability?

Discoverability is observing the uses of the product and ways to implement these uses.

What is understanding?

Understanding is knowing how to use the product and why you use it in this way.

3 ways successful designs make YOU happy:

Upon first glance, these concepts may seem obvious and easy to follow. But if you begin to think about designing a product in a way that eliminates ambiguity, it becomes more difficult, especially as the products become more complex. The key to design, Norman states, is Human Centered Designing:

An approach that puts human needs, capabilities, and behavior first, then designs to accommodate those needs, capabilities, and ways of behaving. Good design starts with an understanding of psychology and technology (8).

Human Centered Designing, or HCD, must turn away from the logic centered design and instead focus on the human behavior centered design. This does not mean, however, to fire all engineer designers, because the product must still be able to work! Norman simply implies that the early stages of design must focus on a user’s experience with the product. Designers must have the mindset of designing for the person who has never seen their product before or the person inclined to not read   the instruction manual or fine print of warning labels. The design itself should serve as a warning label!

Questions to consider:

  • What’s the strangest label you’ve ever seen?
  • Do you think new technology makes discoverability and understanding easier or harder to convey in design?

Until next blog,



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