[Week 2] Bookclub: The Psychology of Everyday Actions

Welcome to Week 2!

It’s time to move into the second chapter. Below we have posed some questions to think on as you read, and to kick off our chat when you’ve finished. We’ll use this thread for discussion – jump in whenever you’re ready.


Building on the ideas presented in chapter one, Don Norman examines what happens in people’s minds after they’ve suffered a mistake with an interface, and also what happens if this occurs repeatedly or blocks them from proceeding. In return, the author proposes ‘seven stages of action’, and defines two ‘gulfs’ that designers should work to avoid or narrow.

Helpful things to keep in mind while we’re reading:

  1. Keep in mind the principles introduced in chapter 1 - visibility, a good conceptual model, good mappings, and feedback. Try and map these to the concepts and examples the author pitches in this chapter.

Questions to ask yourself right after you’ve read the chapter:

  1. Remind yourself of the seven stages of action.
  2. What insights does this chapter give you to the way people have responded to your own designs in the past?

Some additional questions to kick off group discussions

  1. How might we actually use the seven stages of action when designing?
  2. What examples can we find of this in action?
  3. Share some interfaces that have personally caused you to make errors. What were the errors? Are other people likely to make the same errors? Why is this?
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I made notes whilst reading this chapter!
I was interested in the idea that anxiety aids concentration, as my concentration has been worse this week and my general anxiety better.

This makes me wonder about burnout and the drop off in productivity in recovery. It could be related to lack of anxiety as much as recovering.

This chapter has presented a very structured logical way to look at what chapter 1 told us was illogical :slight_smile:

I tend to find frustration with objects I know “I should” be able to use is often taken out on the people that made it - rather than on myself.
“Why did they make it so hard?”
" What were they thinking"
We’ve just got a new oven and it looks confusing. The manual says it can do things but isn’t clear on how to do them. The oven makes me feel stupid for not being able to make it do what I want.

I am interested in eliminating all error messages and using help and guidance instead.
That sounds like rephrasing or repackaging feedback to be nicer, rather than reprimanding.
Feedforward is an interesting term to stick in my mind and consider help information.

Also I had no idea how a thermostat should work. I have my first home with central heating and it’s just been a bewildering box on the wall.
We have a Nest and it just makes sense. I can see what’s happening and make it change in the way I want. It’s very satisfying.

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Same – it makes is so much easier to condense my thoughts into writing at the end.

I was also fascinated by this.

I loved this chapter. I was interested to examine my own levels of conscious thought – the example of remembering what side a door handle was on by imagining a situation where you’re forced into a visceral response.

I was also drawn in by the idea that emotion and cognition can’t be separated. We tend to think of emotion as a negative thing and I’m not sure why that is. “She’s such an emotional person” doesn’t sound like a compliment, yet perhaps it should be.

Key points that I took from this chapter:

  • People aren’t to blame when technology goes wrong.
  • We tend to explain away difficulties by blaming ourselves…
  • Cognition and emotion cannot be separated.
  • Great designers use their aesthetic sensibilities to drive visceral responses. You need to make people fall in love at first sight.
  • Other emotional states take over as time passes. e.g. a bad experience can allow the reflective memory to overrule an initial visceral response.
  • Reflective memories are often more important than the reality.
  • Failing is a vital part of learning

I was most fascinated in the dictum to eliminate all error messages and positively frame required changes in behaviour. This seems like such a simple concept yet I have spent so many hours in the past trying to craft error messages.

Related: I’ve just spent an hour on Slack chatting with Aarron Walter about his book “Designing Emotional Experiences”. We talked about how emotion is often overlooked or avoided in design because it can’t be quantified, or because people are afraid to go past ‘comfortable’. To be truly great we need to push ourselves past mediocre and ‘comfortable’.

My favourite quote from the session was “A designer shooting for usable is like a chef shooting for edible.”


Here Don focuses on the emotional responses to design. I touched on this a bit in my last post, but bad design causes frustration or anxiety and user frustration or anxiety will cause someone to stop using a product. It is my experience that users will try maybe once or twice more when the get an error message (unless it’s a forgotten password then we’ll keep trying) from a product or can figure out how it works, then they’ll move on to get what they wanted another way. I know I have deleted many apps that were not user-friendly and found another that better fit my needs to complete a certain task, you can do the same with products. Find a different brand that works better for you. Therefore, if we anticipate a users frustrations and anxieties ahead of time and eliminate them their experience will be positive from the start with are product/app. And if an error is made, framing our error in a positive, conversational light will encourage users to try again instead of abandoning the task. Making users aware of help documentation at the time of the error will further enhance the users learning process an encourage a second attempt. They don’t need to use it, but knowing it’s there to support them if they need it is important to repeated user engagement after an error has occurred.


This chapter talked much about the seven stages of action. As he requested us to do, I think we all should examine at which stage a poorly designed product fails and how a well-designed product masters the seven stages.

Don introduced the three levels of processing (Visceral, Behavioural and Reflective) and its implications for designers. My understanding of it is that designing for the visceral level would mean creating a good first impression. Designing for the behavioral level would mean creating the proper interaction responses. Is this correct? Also, how does one go about designing for the Reflective level?

Digital form fields having a rigid fixed format is quite a pain to users. Being in the telco industry, most of our forms on web and apps invariably have the mobile number form field. And of course, people would fill it in various ways while the system will work only in one format. I have seen various ways of this being tackled, some being limiting the input field characters or having a placeholder number. Now we have finally implemented fields where the user can enter in any format and the system will still work.

Learned two new terms, Learned Helplessness and Feedforward

Favourite Quotes

“We like to think we understand ourselves. But the truth is we don’t. Most of the human behaviour is a result of subconscious processes.”

“What we call an error is usually bad communication or interaction”

“I predict that even in the twenty-second century, there will still be forms that require precise accurate formats for no reason except the laziness of the programming team” :slight_smile:


Yep, emotion is definitely overlooked and it is essential to be taken into account.

I was interested in getting this book. Is the 2011 version the latest?

Nice one. I some how missed this

I think so, yes.

I like to think of myself as a psychology nerd. I’m interested in people, the way, why and how they think. As a non-designer I found this chapter a bit confusing so my response isn’t about design as much as it’s about the way I deal with people.

The idea my frustration with things could indicate that I felt out of control really stuck out. I’m taking a math class this semester and I am acutely aware of feeling frustrated because I just don’t get it sometimes which means my grades may not be good. (Good grades are important to me.) I just never thought that what I feel about math could extend to not being able to get the dipstick back into the hole. :wink:


I just came across this comic that sums up the first chapters :slight_smile:

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Ha! Love it.


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Hahaha! Yeah! Totally! :laughing:

I think this is especially interesting for speech system designs because the industry seems to be on this endless cycle of long, but canned apologising for making a mistake “I’m sorry, I didn’t get that…” (to put the onus on the machine for the problem and apologise even if the error was the user didn’t actually say anything); then that was repetitive, and overly verbose so just ‘Sorry’ or ‘Again’ but always an almost word for word repetition of the prompt that the caller didn’t respond to or didn’t respond as expected, (so the system always treats an error as though it were caused by a lack of confidence in the response or some kind of hearing error on the machine’s part. rather than perhaps the system did a poor job of asking the right question or communicating its needs.)

One year someone had finally done some presentable research that I always thought should have finally broken that habit, and presented at a conference about whether users preferred the experience of a voice interface that was quicker (shorter prompts, shorter error handling, less questions) vs one that had more help in error handling, but was a little more verbose and thus a longer experience overall, and his finding was that people perceived the longer experience not only to be better, but actually shorter than the other one, because they felt like they’d progress. That never seemed to catch on in designs though. I try to sneak it past when there are no input errors, if I can

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I’m finally getting caught up (sadly I’m getting caught up because the test platform has been besieged by gremlins and I can’t actually work on work, sigh)

The tendency to internalise design problems as a failure on our part as users, either that we screwed up, or aren’t smart enough to understand, or are the only person having an issue is really fascinating. I’ve been in usability tests where something goes wrong, and the user is failing miserably, like so bad it took will power not to want to ruin the test and go give them a hint, but they just keep trying beyond when anyone should reasonably have given up, never did achieve their goal and then when asked to rate the system gave it a positive score and didn’t knock the experience. That’s one of the drawbacks with usability testing and finding that how many tries do you have to recover before abandonment point, because people tend to believe that if you give them a task it must be possible to succeed at it, and are even more likely to blame themselves and be too polite in feedback.

I really liked the quote 'Most Innovation is done through incremental enhancement of existing products. Radical ideas come about by reconsidering the goals and asking what the real goal is."

and also that the most critical aspect of the behavioural level is that every action is associated with an expectation.

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Once more a really interesting chapter.
Most interesting part for me are the importance of visceral responses and the strong connection of emotion and cognition. I probably underestimated tha in my past projects.

I had the whole time moments thinking that he is so right… really enjoy this reading.

What I didn’t get until now are those seven stages of action. I think the principles in the first chaptet where way more helpful for me.

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Hmm, so I had an interesting time reading this chapter. I share @Piper_Wilson’s confusion, and I’m an experimental psychologist who has studied many of these topics. I don’t think the issue I was having is with what’s being said but, rather, how much breadth is being covered in such a limited space. (A lot of the concepts discussed are much more complex than they are conveyed here–by Norman’s own admission–due in part to writing space constraints and whatnot. That is understandable.)

It looks like subsequent chapters will be diving more deeply into these issues, though, so I suppose it is most helpful to think of this chapter as a primer for the individual, focused, more in-depth chapters to come.

For that reason, rather than summarizing this chapter or discussing key points (like I did last time), I’m just going to touch on the things I thought were interesting or the things that simply made me think.


  • He doesn’t call it this, but on pg. 52 he briefly touches upon expectancy-violation theory. One basic premise of expectancy-violation theory research is that having better-than-expected experiences are remembered more positively than simply having your positive expectations confirmed. This is perhaps especially true in the tech industry where innovation is an essential keyword–and when I think about my own experiences as a consumer, I think majority of my favorite tools utilized design in clever (or even subtle) ways that altered my expectations of what technology could do for me. For example, the Noom app (a health app) blew my mind when I started using it five years ago. The original interface design took what otherwise would have been a cumbersome, mathematics-heavy experience for the user and translated it into something that was extremely easy for me to visualize, monitor, and understand. Specifically, rather than using boring calorie count tallies, there was a color pie chart that updated itself every time you logged your meals. This chart helped you–in real time–keep track of the ratio of healthy, so-so, and unhealthy foods you were consuming within the context of your entire day. It sounds like an extremely simple visual trick in retrospect, but at the time it had a significant impact of my health and my ability to really understand how I needed to eat to be healthy (and how each meal contributed to my progress throughout the day). I still love this app and actually do find myself recommending it to numerous people (I’m sure their UX research team would love to hear that, lol).
  • Although positive psychology can be somewhat characterized by “positive thinking” and “feeling good about oneself”, it’s also about understanding the factors that contribute to optimal performance and enjoyment of tasks. I think it’s worthwhile to understand how positive psychology could be applied to our understanding of UX studies (especially from the participant’s perspective), and thus was disappointed to not see more of this kind of discussion. Especially when the chapter had previously mentioned one of positive psychology’s most popular theories (flow). It would have been nice if those two discussions had been tied together, given the implications for both usability and user experiences. I am particularly interested in how design may impact flow.
  • I really enjoyed his discussion about shifting our language from human error to system error or design error. Consistent with the previous chapter, we are extremely quick to assume that machines are superior to humans. However, if a machine’s purpose is to serve some human need or end, and it fails to do so, then is it really practical to suggest that the best solution to that problem is to train or reshape the entire human race? In any case, this shift in terminology use should be reflected in the ways in which we speak to research participants and in how we can help shape their expectations of UX research sessions.
  • The discussion of learned helplessness reminded me that there is a larger context beyond the impact that failure has on future failure; our perceptions of others’ expectations of us can also contribute to what others may mistakenly believe to be learned helplessness. For example, stereotype threat (the fear of confirming others’ negative performance expectations of you as a member of a social group) can cause capable people to underperform. Older adults may be most likely to struggle during UX research sessions due to the well-known stereotype of older people not being skilled with technology, and that can impact both older participants’ experiences participating in UX research studies and our ability to accurately interpret data collected from them. As UX researchers, it is especially important for us to take extra time to set the right tone for our research sessions so that older participants really do understand that it is the product that’s being evaluated, not them as a member of a group that we expect to perform poorly on tasks.
  • Pages 61-62 discuss what’s known as the fundamental attribution error and the self-serving bias (again, they’re not called that, but that’s basically what this section was about). Much of this discussion is framed from the point of view of individualistic, Western cultures, but research suggests that people from collectivistic cultures may make different attributions for other people’s actions (and perhaps for their own actions). Taken together, this suggests that users from individualistic versus collectivistic cultures may differ in the causal relationships they attribute to system/design errors. In other words, members of one culture may be more likely to blame themselves whereas members of another culture may be more likely to blame the technology (design).

Memorable Quotes

“Cognition attempts to make sense of the world; emotion assigns value.”

“A human without a working emotional system has difficulty making choices. A human without a cognitive system is dysfunctional.” :joy: