Books You Should Read: The Design Of Everyday Things

With everything from APIs to Raspberry Pis making it even easier for us to create and share objects shaped by personal whim, it’s high time that Don Norman’s sage design advice falls on not just the design student, but the hardware hacker and DIY enthusiast too. Grab yourself a coffee and a free weekend, and settle into the psychology of people-struggling-how-to-use-that-widget-they-just-purchased in The Design of Everyday Things: Revised and Expanded Edition.

Who’s to blame for a door that opens with a pull when everything about how it looks says it should open with a push? In Don Norman’s world, it’s not you; its the designer. Enter a world where blame is inverted and mistakes can be critically categorized. Norman takes us example by example showing us how common items in the world poorly serve the needs of their user, mainly because the designer simply ignores key aspects of our humanity. This book is a crisp, concise overview of human psychology when applied to engaging with things combined with a language of ideas to help us apply this psychology to better interactions. (And it reads like butter!)

Opening Up to the Language of Design

What’s an affordance, you might ask? Well, simply put, it’s a way that an object can be used by a human. How about a signifier? That’s a communication “signposting” scheme that object uses to suggest to you how it should be used. If that sounds a bit fluffy, just think about the last time you tried to push open a door that needed to be pulled. Something about that door was suggesting that you could push it open, but it couldn’t! It “fooled” you because all the object’s signifiers were telling you otherwise.

But Don Norman goes beyond a vocabulary that inverts our understanding of how we engage with objects and gives us another fresh perspective on how we make mistakes with out devices. Once again, these errors aren’t something to be ashamed of, but are categorizable interactions with our devices that, once understood, can be designed to accommodate or designed out altogether. Errors actually come in two large categories: mistakes and slipsMistakes are, by and large, errors in planning, and slips are errors of action. Have you ever set your alarm for 7PM when you meant AM? That’s a slip. Or perhaps you forget some items on your grocery trip? That’s a mistake But there are actually multiple subcategories, each clearly explained with examples from real life, often accompanied by disastrous consequences that may have been preventable with different design choices. Norman’s language for understanding mistakes is precise. And with this precision, we too can unpack everyday “mistakes” into a systematic way that lets us understand why they happened and how to mitigate or prevent them.

Here lies the power of the book. It’s a grammar book, one that teaches us the language of designers. Armed with the grammar of design, we can start to see the choices of designers and start making some thoughtful design choices ourselves.

A Refreshing New Look

Once you read this book, I’ll warn you. Though you may be armed with a new language, be careful with your criticism when you re-enter the world beyond that comfy armchair and empty coffee cup. Yes, in a way, this new vocabulary feels like a clever way to point a finger at “bad design.” And sure; with these new words and clearly articulated descriptions, we can do that. But let Don Norman do the blaming for you. This book is already riddled with examples of bad design drawing from either history or Norman’s personal experience. Instead, let’s put it to good use. The Design of Everyday Things is an opportunity for us as creators to reflect on how we communicate, how we suggest experiences, to the people who use our creations. So let’s make sure those experiences are good ones.

Side Note: the Revised and Expanded Edition of this book reads very differently from the original edition released way back in 1988. I strongly suggest finding the latest version if you can help it since so many of the examples have been brought up to speed with our times.

Books You Should Read: The Boy Who Harnessed The Wind

For many of us, our passion for electronics and science originated with curiosity about some device, a computer, radio, or even a car. The subject of this book has just such an origin. However, how many of us made this discovery and pursued this path during times of hunger or outright famine?

That’s the remarkable story of William Kamkwamba that’s told in the book, The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind. Remarkable because it culminates with his building a windmill (more correctly called a wind turbine) that powered lights in his family’s house all by the young age of fifteen. As you’ll see, it’s also the story of an unyielding thirst for knowledge in the face of famine and doubt by others.

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The Truth Is In There: The Art Of Electronics, The X-Chapters

If you’ve been into electronics for any length of time, you’ve almost certainly run across the practical bible in the field, The Art of Electronics, commonly abbreviated AoE. Any fan of the book will certainly want to consider obtaining the latest release, The Art of Electronics: The x-Chapters, which follows the previous third edition of AoE from 2015. This new book features expanded coverage of topics from the previous editions, plus discussions of some interesting but rarely traveled areas of electrical engineering.

For those unfamiliar with it, AoE, first published in 1980, is an unusually useful hybrid of textbook and engineer’s reference, blending just enough theory with liberal doses of practical experience. With its lively tone and informal style, the book has enabled people from many backgrounds to design and implement electronic circuits.

After the initial book, the second edition (AoE2) was published in 1989, and the third (AoE3) in 2015, each one renewing and expanding coverage to keep up with the rapid pace of the field. I started with the second edition and it was very well worn when I purchased a copy of the third, an upgrade I would recommend to anyone still on the fence. While the second and third books looked a lot like the first, this new one is a bit different. It’s at the same time an expanded discussion of many of the topics covered in AoE3 and a self-contained reference manual on a variety of topics in electrical engineering.

I pre-ordered this book the same day I learned it was to be published, and it finally arrived this week. So, having had the book in hand — almost continuously — for a few days, I think I’ve got a decent idea of what it’s all about. Stick around for my take on the latest in this very interesting series of books.

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Books You Should Read: Exact Constraint: Machine Design Using Kinematic Principles

Surely, if you’re reading this website you’ve teased the thought of building your own 3D printer. I certainly did. But from my years of repeated rebuilds of my homebrew laser cutter, I learned one thing: machine design is hard, and parts cost money. Rather than jump the gun and start iterating on a few machine builds like I’ve done before, I thought I’d try to tease out the founding principles of what makes a rock-solid machine. Along the way, I discovered this book: Exact Constraint: Machine Design Using Kinematic Principles by Douglass L. Blanding.

This book is a casual but thorough introduction to the design of machines using the method of exact constraint. This methodology invites us to carefully assess how parts connect and move relative to each other. Rather than exclusively relying on precision parts, like linear guides or bearings, to limit a machine’s degrees of freedom, this book shows us a means of restricting degrees of freedom by looking at the basic kinematic connections between parts. By doing so, we can save ourselves cost by using precision rails and bearings only in the places where absolutely necessary.

While this promise might seem abstract, consider the movements made by a 3D printer. Many styles of this machine rely on motor-driven movement along three orthogonal axes: X, Y, and Z. We usually restrict individual motor movement to a single axis by constraining it using a precision part, like a linear rod or rail. However, the details of how we physically constrain the motor’s movements using these parts is a non-trivial task. Overconstrain the axis, and it will either bind or wiggle. Underconstrain it, and it may translate or twist in unwanted directions. Properly constraining a machine’s degrees of freedom is a fundamental aspect of building a solid machine. This is the core subject of the book: how to join these precision parts together in a way that leads to precision movement only in the directions that we want them.

Part of what makes this book so fantastic is that it makes no heavy expectations about prior knowledge to pick up the basics, although be prepared to draw some diagrams. Concepts are unfolded in a generous step-by-step fashion with well-diagrammed examples. As you progress, the training wheels come loose, and examples become less-heavily decorated with annotations. In this sense, the book is extremely coherent as subsequent chapters build off ideas from the previous. While this may sound daunting, don’t fret! The entire book is only about 140 pages in length.

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Books You Should Read: Designing Reality

These days, budget CNC builds are mainstream. Homebrew 3D printers and even laser cutters are old hats. Now I find myself constantly asking: “where’s it all going?” In the book, Designing Reality, Prof Neil Gershenfeld and his two brothers, Alan and Joel, team up to answer that question. In 250 pages, they forecast a future where digital fabrication tools become accessible to everyone on the planet, a planet where people now thrive in networked communities focused on learning and making.

Designing Reality asks us to look forward to the next implications of the word “digital”. On its surface, digital  means discretized, but the implications for this property are extreme. How extreme? Imagine a time where cnc-based fabrication tools are as common as laptops, where fab labs and hackerspaces are as accepted as libraries, and where cities are self-sufficient. The Gershenfelds invite us to open our eyes into a time where digital has vastly reshaped our world and will only continue to do so. Continue reading “Books You Should Read: Designing Reality”

Books You Should Read: Sunburst And Luminary, An Apollo Memoir

The most computationally intense part of an Apollo mission was the moon landing itself, requiring both real-time control and navigation of the Lunar Module (LM) through a sequence of programs known as the P60’s. Data from radar, inertial navigation, and optical data sighted-off by the LM commander himself were fed into the computer in what we’d call today ‘data fusion.’

The guy who wrote that code is Don Eyles and the next best thing to actually hanging out with Don is to read his book. Don’s book reads as if you are at a bar sitting across the table listening to his incredible life story. Its personal, hilarious, stressful, fascinating, and more importantly for those of us who are fans of Hackaday, it’s relatable.

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Hackaday Links: June 3, 2018

All the Radio Shacks are dead. adioS, or something. But wait, what’s this? There are new Radio Shacks opening. Here’s one in Idaho, and here’s another in Claremore, Oklahoma. This isn’t like the ‘Blockbuster Video in Nome, Alaska’ that clings on by virtue of being so remote; Claremore isn’t that far from Tulsa, and the one in Idaho is in a town with a population of 50,000. Are these corporate stores, or are they the (cool) independent Radio Shacks? Are there component drawers? Anyone want to take a field trip and report?

A few years ago, [cnxsoft] bought a Sonoff WiFi switch to control a well pump. Despite this being a way to control the flow of massive amounts of water with an Internet of Things thing, we’re still rocking it antediluvian style, and for the most part this WiFi-connected relay worked well. Until it didn’t. For the past few days, the switch wouldn’t connect to the network, so [cnxsoft] cracked it open to figure out why. There was one burnt component, and more than one electrocuted insect. Apparently, an ant bridged two pins, was shortly electrocuted, and toasted a resistor. It’s a bug, a real bug, in an Internet of Things thing.

eInk is coming to license plates? Apparently. Since an eInk license plate already includes some electronics, it wouldn’t be much to add some tracking hardware for a surveillance state.

Hold up, it’s a press release about crypto hardware. No, not that crypto, the other crypto. Asus has announced a new motherboard that is capable of supporting twenty graphics cards. This isn’t a six-foot-wide motherboard; it’s designed especially for coin mining, and for that, the graphics cards really only need a PCIe x1 connection. The real trick here is not using PCIe headers, and instead piping everything over vertical-mount USB ports. Yes, this is a slight cabling nightmare. So, you still think the early 80s with fluorinert waterfalls and Blinkenlights that played Game of Life was the pinnacle of style in computer hardware? No, this is it right here.

Here’s a book you should readIgnition!: An Informal History of Liquid Rocket Propellants by John Drury Clark is a fantastic book about how modern liquid rocket fuel came to be. Want to know why 60s cartoons and spy movies always referenced a ‘secret rocket fuel formula’ when kerosene and liquid oxygen work just fine? This is that. Back when we covered it, the book, used, on Amazon, cost $500. It’s now in print again and priced reasonably. It’s on the Inc. 9 Powerful Books Elon Musk Recommends list, so you know it’s good. Thanks, [Ben] for sending this one in on the tip line.