A Designer's Perspective

by Jan Fleury

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As a new member of STC, I was intrigued by the article written by Beth Davies in the last issue of the Broadside. I would like to comment further on the problem she describes with winding the thread onto the bobbin of a sewing machine. In my viewpoint, the difficulty goes back to usability in general and design specifically.

Recently, I picked up a book at my local library when I was scanning documents on the general topic of design. After reading it through in one sitting, I'm convinced it should he required reading for all technical writers.

The book, entitled The Psychology of Everyday Things by Donald A. Norman (Basic Books, Inc.; ISBN 0-465-06709-3), goes beyond the old call to make things "user-friendly" (a concept just about ignored out of over-emphasis). It suggests that we consider the kind of trouble Beth had with the sewing machine is not her fault, nor the fault of the manual, but is due to inherent -- and correctable -- design flaws in the device itself.

The way most things are designed and documented today leads me to agree with Beth's conclusion that reading the manual is a good idea. It always is a good idea!

However, Mr. Norman's thesis is that things could be better. Whether we design software, industrial devices, everyday tools like sewing machines, or user manuals, we would all do well to keep in mind the basic tenet: users confronted with any system are armed only with the device itself, past experience, and perhaps a manual.

It is the responsibility of the system designer and technical communicators to build in clues to that system's operation and to include mechanisms to prevent errors in its use.

Specifically, a user trying to wind thread onto a sewing machine bobbin should be able either to deduce the correct procedure or look it up; but, at the very least, he/she should be prevented (by virtue of the design) from using it in a way that would cause damage.

While this example is somewhat of an over-simplification, Mr. Norman's concepts and examples are far more involved and subtle. In this case, it's in the book!

Jan Fleury owns and operates Miele-Fleury Graphics in Milford, Massachusetts.

© 2001 by STC Boston, Boston, Massachusetts, USA
Originally published in the July/August 1991 issue of the Boston Broadside.