I've found two seemingly incompatible definitions of "system image" (surprisingly both by same author)

"system image": the information conveyed by the physical product itself. (Originally published in Norman & Draper's User Centered System Design (1986), and reused frequently thereafter: The Design of Everyday Things (1988, 2003) and Emotional Design (2004).


How do we form an appropriate conceptual model for the devices we interact with? We cannot talk to the designer, so we rely upon whatever information is available to us: what the device looks like, what we know from using similar things in the past, what was told to us in the sales literature, by salespeople and advertisements, by articles we may have read, by the product website and instruction manuals. I call the combined information available to us the system image.

Page 31 of The Design of Everyday Things (revised and expanded edition) by Don Norman

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    Don Normal is the only one that's really going to be able to clear up what he meant. In general he is good, but he often is inconsistent, or uses silly reasoning behind some of what he says, so don't take everything he says as absolute truth.
    – JohnGB
    Commented Jun 10, 2016 at 12:17
  • I think its more to do with 'simplification' - trying to cover something complex in a few words.
    – PhillipW
    Commented Jun 10, 2016 at 12:21

2 Answers 2


Don's just clarified in the second quote.

The first article mentions other physical items such as manuals etc.

However the information in a manual could also be delivered in a non physical form, such as a training course, or in a less structured way by a salesperson in a shop.

Eg: if a sales person mentions say the double siding capability of a printer in a shop, then when you first unwrap your new printer you know to go looking for the function which does this.

  • Your answer clarifies the question a lot, which I think shows it to be a lot less opinion based than what I had understood. Hence I'm re-opening the question.
    – JohnGB
    Commented Jun 10, 2016 at 15:41

All information (affordances, signifaiers, manual infos,..) which user have access to use product create System image.

Udacity has videos in HCD course with expampels: YT playlist

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