Design of everyday things in America

A trip to USA 10-15 years ago would mean buying stuff that you couldn’t buy in India. I remember my relatives getting me Nike shoes, TI scientific calculator, wonderful chocolates and awesome toys. However, as India progressed, most of these stuff became available in India. Shopping in USA is no longer an adventure of discovering new and wonderful things to take home.

It is now an exercise in mental math – 75$ means – 75*60 = 4500Rs. How much is it in India? 5000Rs? hmm… maybe I will buy it in India itself…. And I hate the retailers here for not displaying the total amount. Taxes are extra which always destroys my already weak calculations.

However, staying in USA is a different matter. Here, the people are known to pay a premium for convenience and hence, I find lots of products that you would never find in India. One example is this –


Lemon Juice bottle!

What a brilliant idea! I don’t have to buy lemon, cut it myself and squeeze. It is pre-squeezed and a joy to use.

Ever since I read the book – “Design of Everyday Things” by Donald A Norman, I notice a lot of design & usability aspects of things I use. I had earlier commented on how intuitive design slowly becomes bad design(or convention) due to technology change(

In this regard, I regret to say that I find a lot of things in USA which are absolute nightmare to use. Here are some examples –


This is the photo of my exhaust system. if you notice closely both the light and fan switches are pressed to the right side, but you know ?  The fan is ON while the light is OFF. To switch off the fan you have to keep the switch in the middle( pressed neither to the left nor to the right).

Another thing I noticed is of minimizing the number of switches or controls to improve the aesthetics of the product. Norman has been very critical of this in his book and I was wondering why. Now, that I face with the issue everyday, I know the frustrations of Norman first hand. Here are two examples below –

Two lamps with one switch

There is a single switch in the middle for two lamps. You have to rotate the switch to the right to turn on the right lamp. Rotate it again and the right one switches off and left one switches on. Rotate it again and both switch on. Rotate it again and both switch off. Whats the problem with that?

Here is exercise for you -Both lights are on.I want to turn off only the right lamp. What do you do? GO. You have 5 seconds to tell me the answer :-)

The second example is my shower. See the photo below –

Shower control

Shower control

There is a single control. Right most is off. As you turn the control, the water becomes hotter. So far so good, but how do I increase or decrease the amount of water?I tried pulling the lever and almost broke it. There doesn’t seem to be any control over it.

From what I have seen, If you want cold water, then water flow is at a certain rate, if you want it little warmer, both the cold water and hot water taps are opened and flow of water is little more and if you keep turning the handle to the left the cold water stops and flow again reduces. I have been in this room for a month and I am pretty sure there is no way to control the flow of water or it is a well hidden control!

Next principle Norman talks about is designing things in such a way that it is hard for the user to bad things that causes harm to the product or injury to himself. One great example is the microwave oven. The moment you open the door, the oven switches off. One bad example is given below –


The door handles of the two cupboards are pretty close. If i open one, the door almost grazes the handle of the second door. I know what you are thinking, it is fine… whats wrong with that? Well…what do you think made me realize it is a flaw? One fine day, I was closing the left one while simultaneously tried to open the right one… I was jumping about in my room for the next five minutes trying not to scream in pain.

An ideal way to design this would be to somehow make sure that the left door is completely closed before unlocking the right door. I am sure the carpenter did not even realize this issue when he built it.

Finally, I found great examples of what Norman calls – “Putting the information in UI”. Basically, just by shaping the things in a particular way, we can make users intuitively use it.

There are two doors to enter or exit  many stores in USA. Although I don’t know the reasons for this two door system, I am guessing it is to conserve energy( heat in winter & cold in summer) by reducing the amount of outside air coming in.

Anyway, our hotel also has this two-door system and here is the first door. Look at the photo and tell if you have to push or pull the door to open it.

Hotel door 1

Correct answer – Push. The horizontal bar puts the information that you have to push it to open. I would guess that 100% of you got that correctly.That is good design

The second door looks like this. Guess whether you have to push or pull –

Door 2


Correct Answer – Push.  If i have to guess, I would say more than 50% of you got it wrong. This is because, the handle looks has if you have to hold it and pull it towards yourself. I am guessing that that is what the designer had designed the door for, but due to some reasons they had to put the door in reverse so that you have to now push with a handle that looks like you have to pull.

I have always found the best designed door handles in toilets. Yes, it has been true in India and it is true in USA also. Here is the door handle of our toilet in Aptean Atlanta office –



The handle makes it clear that you have to pull the door and the other side is just flat surface so that you automatically push it.

As we design software, we need take care of same principles that applies to the physical world. We need to make sure the user has no problems in guessing what actions need to be taken to accomplish something. This is something that is gaining attention in recent times. However, that is just one aspect. Many of the products that we develop act as a platform for other developers to work on. Hence, this platform APIs must also be designed in such a way that other developers have no confusion as to how to use a particular API or what it does. We should strive to write APIs in such a way that documentation should become redundant even for APIs. I have always found Microsoft to be a leader in this domain always creating APIs that are easy to use.

Finally, I know you didn’t read the last paragraph as your mind was thinking about only one thing. Let me clear your doubt – Yes, I take great risks like taking a camera into the toilet to bring you awesome blog posts. So, if you like it, please share with your friends and do comment!!


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7 Responses to Design of everyday things in America

  1. Jayantha

    Very funny yet thought provoking! And… be careful while taking photos in US… Uncle Sam watches and interprets everything :)

  2. Amal

    Tell me… are you put up at Extended stay america by any chance?
    I once stayed in one room there for 8 hours in -10 degree celsius where i couldn’t locate the heater switch because they had hidden it under a flap which had the same colour as the damn wall.

    • Ashish Iddya

      Yup….spot on! Looks like Extended stay America is getting a bad reputation!

      • Amal

        Do they still have those plastic fragile punch card as door keys?
        Mine used to break every other day since I was used to keep keys in my pocket along with mobile.
        Never really understood why they never used metal keys as we have here.

        • Ashish Iddya

          Yes. That is the standard here. One advantage for the hotel for using cards is that they dont have to worry about you losing keys. They also can lock you out of the room when you said you will be checking out. When I had gone to Seattle,my flight was in the evening and so I had left my luggage in the room. But checkout was at 12, when I returned from Microsoft office, I couldn’t get my luggage without paying for the extra hours.

  3. sangeeta

    What a good read Ashish!!! Thanks for sharing…Would like to appreciate the fact that, many people read books, many see things and think at that moment, but very few write about it and share. It actually made me think on many design flaws that i have come across till date. Now i know our platform API is in safe hands 😀

  4. Merlyn

    This is a fun read! BTW we have lemoneez here – but check with the wife 😉 about its usability

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