Dialogs. Donald Norman

13 October 2017

Donald Norman, father of anthropocentric design, director of the Design Lab at the University of California and former vice president of Apple’s Advanced Technology, has been a guest of Bologna Business School during the event Design Driven Transformation for the 21st Century. The emeritus professor of the University of California San Diego and Northwestern University shared with us his vision about design, aesthetics and future.

Why, in your opinion, do designers often fail to design user-friendly objects and solutions? Are not they themselves users in everyday life?


“Designers design a wide range of things and they can’t possibly be users of all of it. But the second reason, and perhaps the most important, is that the worst person to evaluate its own creation is the person who created it. This is true in art, in literature, in every field actually. That is why a writer has an editor. When I write, I have an excellent editor who tells me when I am wrong, when I write stupid things and the same should happen with designers.


Part of the philosophy we follow in human-centered design is: don’t start just designing your idea but observe people first. Whatever you are designing, it can be a kitchen or a street, watch people doing their tasks.  Don’t ask questions, just watch. After, you can ask questions. But first you have to understand what they really do out there. Than when you do your designs don’t believe you have all the answers. Go out, test your design.


Most designers now do test their products, but in the past they didn’t. I have a friend called David Kelley, he designed the Enorme telephone in collaboration with Ettore Sottsass.  He once told me “I love this phone; this is the worst possible telephone I could have possibly designed. How could I be so stupid? I will never design that way again, I will try to understand first”. What is good about Kelley is that he is an excellent designer but when he does something wrong, he admits it.


Do I feel being an expert in human behavior, do I know what people will do? No I don’t. Every time I go out and watch people to test my ideas, I discover I am wrong. And that’s a very important way for designers to work. In human-centered design, you can’t identify yourself with the user, you know too much.”


In your books, you explain how the user is guided by memory and interiorized experiences. How is it possible than, taking that into account, to design and propose innovative and disruptive designs that break with the past, still remaining user-oriented?


“If something is too new, too dramatic, it will not be accepted. Even if it is something people will love eventually, you have to do it slowly. In fact, I am staying here in Bologna in a wonderful B&B nicely decorated with a picture of a very first train for passengers. What they did was to make coaches to look like stagecoaches that used to be carried by horses. So, it didn’t feel so strange to be seated in this train pulled by big engines with the steam coming off a chimney. When we build something new, we often make it look like the old, helping people to make the jump between old and new things.”


In addition to switches, home appliances, push-in doors, what do you think are the most striking examples of ‘enemy’ designs? What is the object with which you had, or still have, the most controversial relationship?


“It is difficult to name some very bad designs because when designers fail they often go quickly away from the memory. Many early designs failed not just because people didn’t understand them. When I first joined Apple Computers, they were coming out with a new product. When I looked at it I said:” Oh, this will change the world, it’s wonderful.” But it failed. They tried the second time and it failed. the third time it failed as well. They gave up and never made it again. It was a camera that didn’t require a film. Today, digital cameras are so common. So, why did it fail? It was so different to use. After you took a picture you had to transfer it to your computer, but it was so difficult and it took forever. Moreover, you couldn’t print out the picture because we didn’t have inkjet printers jet. It was just too early. It was not that people didn’t understand how to take a picture, they didn’t know what to do after that.


Today I was on the train, trying to use the free Wi-Fi. I tried to sign up the system asked me to make up a password. After I have submitted it, I was told that the password is illegal and that I had tu use an upper letter, numbers, special signs, etc. This is such a bad design and it happens all the time. This password requirements are stupid and everyone requires a different set of signs. They never tell you what the requirements are until you do it wrong. Why designers do it so badly, do they never use passwords? Don’t they know that you have to be told rules first? And then of course, when it was all finished, it asked me to insert my credit card. I simply left it alone.”


In your book, Emotional Design. Why We Love or Hate Everyday Things, you tackle the conflict between aesthetics and usability. In the extreme case in which the two elements cannot be combined, a human being would gain more pleasure from a beautiful but ‘difficult’, or from a useful but unattractive object?


“There are two important principles in design: signifiers and feedback. Take the modern cellphone, the smartphone. It used to be very easy to use, skeuomorphic. A lot of buttons looked like 3D objects. That was actually a signifier, telling you what you could do with an object. When you pushed the button, it looked like it went down. That was useful too, it is called feedback. Now the new regime at Apple says that this is old-fashioned and we should use flat design. The result s that you look at the screen and you don’t know what you can click and what you can’t. Apple used to be famous because you were able to use its products without instructions. That is not true anymore.


Aesthetic is wonderful, but it doesn’t mean you should make the design unintelligible. That is what a good designer would do, design a beautiful thing with the right signifiers.


What is nice about human beings is that we can all be different. When I go to a furniture store or a kitchen supply store, I am not given just one choice. Sometimes I will buy something because of its beauty, sometimes because it works well, other times I will choose both. In my home, I have a Philippe Starck juicer. It is not a good juicer but I love it. I don’t keep it in my kitchen but in my living room, I call it art. There is a trade-off between aesthetics and utility, but I am always free to choose.”


Talking about The Design of Future Things, which is also the title of a work of yours, how do you think will take shape, the most realistically, the human-machine interaction?


“One of the things that will happen is that we won’t even notice this interaction. When we will walk into a room the lights will turn on, perhaps with different intensity according to the time of the day. We won’t have to say anything. While we get more and more intelligent devices, they will make decisions for us. Sometimes in ways that will make our lives easier, other times it will be frustrating having machines trying to read our minds. But I think that the future is going away from anything controlled by a mouse, or a keyboard. We will use gestures, voice, or maybe facial expressions. That is how the future is going to be. The hard part will be to design systems that will work with groups of people, responding to collective needs in different moments.”




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