Don Norman: The Want Magazine Interview

Sitting Down With the Godfather of "User Experience"

Wherein I get to interview the man who coined the term "User Experience."

Wherein I get to interview the man who coined the term "User Experience."

The ability to explain complex academic theories in palatable layman’s’ terms is the mark of a good teacher—and Don Norman is certainly that. “Don,” Adaptive Path founder Peter Merholz warned us, “likes to take people to school.”

He is, of course, much more than a professor. Often called “The father of User Experience,” Norman coined the phrase some two decades ago. He’s the co-director of the dual-degree MBA and Engineering program at Northwestern University. Professor. Author. Ground-breaking usability theorist. Being taken to school by someone in his league, I can deal with.
I arrived at his Palo Alto home with pad, pen, and camera crew to chat with him about the “Engineering of Want,” the theme of our maiden issue. I left with a surprisingly environmentalist critique of product design, a preview of his new book, Living with Complexity, and the idea that the ultimate state of UX is for it to disappear. Oh, and he accused me of being a marketer.

HCI & UX: Re-Framing the Big Picture

Norman began our lesson as soon as I asked him our first interview question: “What were the fields of User Experience and HCI like when you started?” He chuckled and pointed out that, back in 1989 (when he wrote the seminal The Design of Everyday Things), there was no HCI. “My research group and I had been looking at the problems of Unix and the problems with these clunky terminals. We didn’t yet have graphic displays.”

These early days of (non-)UX were marked by a lack of decent user interfaces. “In the beginning,” Don explained, “We really had to think about usability because the early computers, and for that matter almost all early products that used computers, were unworkable, unusable, not understandable—because they had tended to be [designed] by engineers, who were much more concerned with ‘Could we even get the thing to work?’…And we had done the book called User Centered System Design, which, I guess, you could say was the early days of HCI.”
Norman agrees that the field of UX has come a long way since then—in our thinking, if not in execution. “Now, lots of products are still unusable, but the principles of how we should make them usable are very well known, and they’re really not changing.”

“I think that we no longer need to focus. The usability people really have to focus on doing best practices or making sure that what we know, how we know to do things should be applied.”

Norman’s take is that we, as an industry, should agree on UX best practices and move on. To where, we wondered? He was glad we asked.

“The Real Focus is System.”

Norman’s impending new book, Living With Complexity, covers what he feels is the next level of usability—being part of a system. Lest you suspect that the author of The Design of Everyday Things has joined the Borg, he provided an example from everyday life. For a taste of his teaching style, here’s a short transcript:

Don Norman: Look at the iPod. Why is it successful? Is it a great music player? Yeah, but is it much different than the other music players? No.

Want: One might suggest it’s a more elegant interface design.

Don Norman: Barely. The others are easy to use. They’re often less expensive. They often have more memory. The basic player is not why the iPod is successful.
Want: iTunes?

Don Norman: Well, no, but you’re in the right direction. You may remember that in the really old days, it was hard to get music, and on top of that, it was illegal to do so. You really had to be pretty technical. Apple was the first company to do the licensing. So, first of all, they made it legal; second of all, they made the price sensible. Then they took a big database, an SAP database, and they made it usable, and that became iTunes. They made it easy to go there and find the music you wanted. They made the download effortless. You plug the iPod in and without doing anything, your iPod is up to date. And they also allowed other people, third parties, to build all sorts of accessories like external speakers. Those people are part of the ecosystem that Apple provided.

“So,” Norman said, summing up his definition, “We have a system that, under the surface, is incredibly complex, but at all touchpoints, is easy and enjoyable to use—from the licensing on the one end of music, to the licensing on the other end of third parties who are providing all of the accessories that expand the utility of the iPod. And everything is effortless.”

So Complex, It’s Easy.

Complex under the surface, but easy to use: that’s the future of products and services, according toLiving With Complexity. “People think the opposite of complexity is simplicity, but it’s not.” Don explained. “People who say, ‘I want it simple,’ want it understandable and usable.”

Norman’s new book argues that just because a product is complex, doesn’t mean it has to be difficult to use. “The problem with complexity,” he says with his trademark grin, “is that it often leads to being complicated. ‘Complicated’ is in the head. If we can make a complex thing that is understandable, then, in fact, we like it, because it gives us a lot more power.”
What is key to understandability? Good design plays a big part, by helping to make things modular. “You do that,” he suggests, “by providing a good, cohesive model so there’s a conceptual model; you do that by adding structure; and you do that by also learning it in small hunks.”

Your product or service should provide a simple return from basic comprehension, and offer greater returns the more you learn it. Take iTunes: playing a song on it is easy. But as you learn each of its features, like playlists, the Genius function, syncing it with a portable device, you get more enjoyment out of it.

Norman cited cars and cell phones as other examples of this—but the one that he kept coming back to was cooking.

“You learn cooking slowly, over time. You start off by making, I don’t know, boiled eggs, and you slowly learn how to make scrambled eggs and omelets, and so on. You work your way up.
“Every little tool that we use in cooking is pretty simple. Cooking itself is made up of many simple steps, but the large number of simple steps, and the need for proper timing and the need for knowing what goes together, makes it a complex activity.”

Are the “Engineers of Want” the Enemy?

Keeping with our theme for Release 001, we asked him if it was possible to engineer “want” into a product or service.

“It’s interesting,” he remarked after a thoughtful silence, “that what we’re doing is sort of moving the user experience and design world into the world of advertising.”

And so the interview took a fascinating turn. The single question gave him plenty of reason to opine about consumer industry and its drive to iterate constantly in order to drive sales. Don, ever the academic, believes that advertising and marketing “create desires and wants and needs that never existed before.”

“Think about the environmental mess that we have…Is it really necessary to discard your cell phone every six months or every year or even every two years? Is it because the advertising community has figured out ways of, oh, wow, giving you some new feature you can’t live without? So maybe it’s not a good thing that we create these wonderful desires for something new that we don’t have.”

“Remember,” he advised, “the design world and the advertising world are not that far apart.”

Lest my Editor-in-Chief and I (both marketers at points in our careers) feel completely to blame, Don let us off the hook by tracing the origins of this iterate-to-sell point of view.

“It came from automobiles: deliberate styling to make your automobile obsolescent in one to two years. So there would be a model change every year in automobiles and every three or four years there’ll be a big change. And then the advertisers made it feel that you were evil—out of date—if you didn’t have the latest version.

“But is that any different than, ‘See, you have one of those old, clunky iPhones or one of those old, clunky iPods?’…The new ones are prettier and smaller, but the music sounds the same.”

“See,” Don offered with a wide grin, “The user experience community thinks they’re pure.

“’No, no, no!’” He added, lightly mocking product designers and usability experts everywhere. “’We don’t do that evil advertising stuff. We’re not doing evil marketing. We’re simply finding what people really want, and we’re providing it for them.’ Every six months, though, we provide new wants. Come on, what’s the distinction between that and what marketing does and what advertisers do?”

The Computer Becomes Invisible

Norman does concede that product line evolutions can offer significant leaps, rather than wasteful stylistic iterations: going from cell phones to smart phones, for instance. In fact, that’s the direction he sees the future of computing heading.

“What I’ve always advocated…and I think is happening, is that the computer disappears. [Take for example] the book reader, the specialized device just for reading books. Inside, it’s a computer, but who cares? A music player–a specialized device for listening to music–is a computer.”

iPad: Makes Great Fries!

Does this mean that we’ll see more products containing PC-level computers? Norman believes so, for better…and for worse. I mentioned the debut of a new line of microwave ovens with web-browsing ability, which amused him to no end.

“Too many times the technologists say, ‘Oh, gee, we could make a microwave oven that browses the Internet.’ Well, what for? ‘Oh, you could look up recipes on it.’ But if you actually think about the way people work, they don’t want to stand in front of their microwave looking for recipes.”

Which brought up a computer that he did consider a helpful device in the kitchen: The iPad.

“Suppose I’m thinking, oh, let’s have something different for dinner tonight. How do I do it? First of all, I peruse my memory and my knowledge of cooking and also my knowledge of what we have in the house to figure out what we might do. But I might turn to my cookbooks. I have a row of cookbooks there, and I might pull one out and read it.

“But why not…a portable reading device? It’s convenient to use. I don’t have to go to my office and sit under my desk. I can go to my couch, or I can sit here at the table. The new Apple iPad…would allow me to find recipes, maybe browse the Internet for cooking sites and see pictures, or if I’m not sure how to do the preparation, there’s a little video…People will start writing cookbooks not with photographs of the food, but with videos.

“But the nice thing is…not that suddenly the Internet gives us information—it already does. It’s that it gives it to me in the way I want to think about cooking. That’s what I think is going to be so powerful. These devices now will fit our lifestyles instead of us changing the way we work.

“When we look at the way things will come together, it’s going to be based around people’s activities, not because the technology suddenly makes it possible for your refrigerator to show TV programs,” he added with a professorial smirk.

Good Design is…Well, Advertising

And yet, we still hadn’t gotten Norman to address “the engineering of want” to the level we, well, wanted. Perhaps we never would. But it was worth another try.

We decided to address it from an angle he had established in his book, Emotional Design. There, he outlines three levels at which people process the products they buy and use: visceral (styling & perception), behavioral (look & feel) and reflective (one’s self-image that comes from the owning/using of the product).

Then we asked him how one could use those levels of emotion to instill want or desire into the creation of a product…and then he went off on a bit of a rant. But just a bit.

“Hmmm, here we go again. Doesn’t that make designers somewhat into advertisers or marketing people because we’re asking, ‘How do we make it so people should enjoy the product?’ Now, that’s not entirely fair, because why not make it so people really enjoy the products?”

A fair question.

“But yeah, make it attractive. Make it so it really feels good. That’s why we like precision tools. That’s why as a cook, I really like a well-balanced knife and good tools for cooking.”
“The question is the balance. We don’t want to sell things simply because we figured out how we can sell things: ‘Whether or not people care about it or need it, we’re going to make them care about it.’

“But if you can sell things that people really need, that really do make their lives better and do not destroy the environment, then sure, the distinction between designers and marketers, I think, is very small. Both of us are trying to do what the customer wants. The goal of marketing is to understand what people are willing to buy, and the goal of designers is to try to understand what people really need, and these groups really ought to be working closely together.”

All edifying and fine food for thought. But we still wanted to find that secret sauce. I pressed the issue from yet another angle:

Want: You’ve also written about how emotional attachments trump practicality. How much of that can be an exploitable trait when seducing audiences, when creating customers and of course the making of successful products?

Don Norman: Gee. You really are a marketing person, aren’t you?

Want: How did you know?

Don Norman: How much of that could be used to seduce the customers, to have them buy this, or have them overlook the horrible flaws we have on this side because this part is so wonderful and attractive?

Marketing as Damage Control

Which brought up an interesting point: How much of marketing and advertising is about promoting a product’s good points—and how much of it is about covering up flaws?

“You know, it’s interesting that all of this can be used to exploit people. Because…when something is really good and pleasurable, we do overlook the minor faults…We recognize that we can’t make everything perfect, and so we try to make a total great experience.

“One of the standard stories I tell is going to, say, a Disney theme park. I ask people what they hate; invariably they hate the lines. ‘[But] would you go back?’ Yes, most people would go back.

“The point is, the lines from Disney’s point of view are unavoidable. There’s no way they can prevent the lines because the only way really to prevent the lines is either have the rides be shorter or have more rides. But rides are very expensive: $10 million, $20 million a ride. They can’t put in many more rides. So here’s a case where all that I’m saying works: by making the total experience a great one, people are willing to overlook the minor problems of, you know, boredom and standing in line. But they didn’t deliberately put a negative in. They didn’t know how to get rid of the negative, so they made the surrounding experience positive. That’s what I like.”

“And so, with all of our products, which may have some unavoidable negative components, yeah, make it good, but I wouldn’t seduce them by saying, you know, we actually know this part is crap, so we’ll make this part really wonderful and maybe they won’t notice.”

“I would hate to have that used, though, as a way of deliberately allowing ourselves to have faults and making up for it by some other thing, say, by the packaging or by the styling or something else. I would hope that we do our very best.”

Finishing Up (at Northwestern)

Recently, Norman announced that he’d be retiring from his position at Northwestern University later this Summer–which, as he writes on his website, “…will let me do more consulting, travel more, stay longer, and be more spontaneous (but I’m booked until early 2011).”

Even after three-plus decades of ground-breaking work, Don Norman is by no means slowing down. Anyone who might suggest that he’ll be teaching less has not had the pleasure of interviewing him.