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06/11/2010 / craigmartinallen

Design Rules Based on Analyses of Human Error

The article below was written in 1983, its advice remains true for designers of any systems, including web sites and learning systems.


Norman, Donald A. (1983)
Communications of the ACM, Vol. 26, No. 4, April, pp. 254–258

  • Modeerror occurs where one button is given multiple functions, and there is insufficient system feedback as to the current mode. Ideally each button or switch in a system should only represent one function.
  • ‘Description’ error occurs when either operations or the mechanisms to follow through with the operations are too similar. A low risk example is a system where upper and lower case keystrokes of the same key result in different operations; a high stakes example would be a nuclear power plant with identical looking switches and controls with very different resultant operations.
  • ‘Capture’ error results when two different operations can be combined with one command, making the combination of commands automatic.However, the sequence becomes so automatic process that users who may not want to quit still combine the command, producing an unintended action.
  • ‘Activation’ error occurs either when a command produces an unintended result or when an intended command is not carried out. These occur due to memory failures, so designing a system to bolster the user’s memory during a process can help prevent these errors.

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