Design of Everyday Things at Redfin

“Rule of thumb: if you think something is clever and sophisticated beware-it is probably self-indulgence.”

- Donald A. Norman


To supplement the Redfin new developer library (JS the good parts, Effective JS, Effective Java) I recently borrowed Donald Norman’s “The Design of Everyday Things” from Kevin, a UX designer on the Commerce Team.  This book is all about the psychology of creating usable objects, and takes a rather academic approach to the subject in a way that was groundbreaking in 1988.  Many consider Norman to be UX’s earliest advocates, and when hired at Apple Computer in 1993 he was actually the first person to ever use the phrase “User Experience” in a job title.  The dude is a founding father.


Norman: founding father of UX and master at holding his hands awkwardly

Norman: founding father of UX and master at holding his hands awkwardly


I’d heard about DOET (an acronym Norman himself uses) through a few friends, and have known about its near cult following in the tech community for a while.  As a software developer on Redfin’s New Business Engineering team, we’re currently busy trying to turn the messy and painful world of Title Insurance into a smooth part of the Redfin experience.  This means we’re always questioning how home buyers and real estate agents will use the site, and how we can make it more intuitive. In DOET, Norman gives us some advice.


Norman Quick Hits

1. Visibility.  The user should know the state of the system and the possible next actions.  Don’t hide important information for the sake of ‘looking good’.

2. Provide a good conceptual model.  Users should have a rough idea of how your product works, even if not at a fine-grained level.  Incorrect mental models are a huge cause of user frustration (e.g. incorrect assumptions of how a thermometer works lead to people raising the temp past their desired state in attempts to heat the room up faster).

3. Constraints. Limit the number of possible errors a user can make by making them harder (e.g. popup warnings for leaving unsaved work, making the USB insertion slot on a PC too small to fit in the Ethernet cable).

4. Affordances.  Different objects are instinctively associated with certain actions. (e.g. buttons ‘afford’ pushing, knobs ‘afford’ turning).

5. Mapping.  Leverage your UI to exploit natural mappings, or pre-set associations the user will have.  These mappings can be physical (turn the wheel right to turn the car right), or cultural (red text is associated with ‘stop’ and ‘error’).

6. Feedback.  This one is huge. Users should get clear responses from your system when an action has been completed, or when an error has occurred (e.g. kettle starts to whistle when water is boiling, signup form displays warning when user enters a non-valid email address).

7. Beware feature creep.  It’s always tempting to add one more bell or whistle to your product, but it ultimately frustrates the user. Separate out different functionalities into separate areas whenever possible (similar to keeping different logical actions in separate functions).


the creep

Don’t let these extra features ‘Creep’ into your product


What’s next in UX?

As important as Design of Everyday Things has been in the industry, there are definitely sections of the book that can be a snoozefest. Parts of the book – just like legwarmers and Wall Street cocaine addiction – are very much products of the 80′s.  It just feels dated.  I found myself agreeing with the premise of a chapter after the first few paragraphs and then forcing myself to read through the next 15 examples of slight variation.  About halfway though the book, I came to an epiphany – this dullness should be interpreted as a UX victory. It’s a sign of Norman’s success!  DOET entrenches itself for a fight that many readers (especially considering the selection bias) are ready to concede: that design matters. It matters in doors, it matters in nuclear power plants, and it sure as hell matters in your website.

Design can be the difference between a successful product and a flop – between a iPod and a Zune, or an Edsel and a Model T. Since the 1980′s, Silicon Valley and Co. have learned that great engineering has to be coupled with serious thought of the user and their interactions with the system.  In this brave new world, DOET could use a facelift. I would probably recommend checking out the revised and expanded DOET, or some of Norman’s more recent books listed in the footnotes.  Even more exciting is the fact that there is a free new Udacity course that builds off the original text and brings some interactive implementations of DOET philosophy to the masses via MOOC (Massively Open Online Courses).


DOET at Redfin

Redfin Through The Years

Redfin’s homepage over the years – a certified blast from the past


As mentioned by CEO Glenn in the last company meeting, doubling down on design was a big theme for Redfin in 2013.  We built out a killer design team, and shook up the company org to have more designers embedded within the engineering teams.  This way, designers aren’t given a page and told to ‘make this pretty’, but are part of the conversation from the very early stages.  As someone who was never great in art class (here’s how the homepage would look if I had to make it), I’ve learned so much by talking to design folks from the conception of a feature to the launch.  With stronger design, we ship stronger products.

The Redfin online experience has always been about making the home-buying experience as smooth as possible, and to continue improving we have to build tools that are intuitive and easy.  We have to ask ourselves – WWDND (What would Donald Norman do)?



Hungry for more?  Here’s a list of some great DOET themed resources to check out.

  1. Read the book for free here or throw Norman a bone and buy it
  2. I’m also been recommended Emotional Design, a later Norman work
  3. (learn how NOT to design – good for a laugh)
  4. (Norman’s new free online MOOC on design)
  5. (A good summary from the University of Anchorage Alaska)
  6. (A good summary from some guy named Matt)