Don Norman: Designing For People

Nielsen Norman Group

In memory of Naomi Miyake

Naomi Miyake, a brilliant Japanese researcher, a close friend and colleague, and one of my early PhD students, died this year (2015).

Here are my reflections on her carer, published in the japanese Cognitive Science Society's journal: Cognitive Studies, 22(4), 1-38. (Dec. 2015)

UC San Diego: 1977-1983
You need to know what you don't know

Don Norman
Prof and Director, Design Lab, University of California, San Diego

I first met Naomi Miyake and Yoshio Miyake in 1975 where I was spending the summer teaching at the University of Hawaii. They were traveling to the University of California, San Diego (UCSD) to be my graduate students. They arranged to stop in Hawaii on their voyage from Japan to San Diego to meet my wife and me.

Little did I realize that this was to be the start of a lifelong friendship, a journey that both promised and delivered many happy occasions and many memorable contributions to science.

Both Yoshio and Naomi managed to survive their early years as graduate students in the newly formed department of psychology at UCSD. Both thrived, despite their initial difficulties with our brash American culture. This article is about Naomi, so I am certain Yoshio will forgive me if I devote the rest of the article to her.

Whenever I met with Naomi as part of my frequent advising meetings, she always carefully left the room by walking backwards, always facing me, bowing -- a very strange experience for me, a young American professor.

My favorite experiences with her resulted from her cleverness and her ability to notice things that nobody else noticed. She wrote a lovely paper (Miyake & Norman, 1979: Naomi had the idea and did the work, but insisted that I share the credit). The best part about the paper is the title, for it summarizes the work precisely and exactly: if you read the title, you have no need to read the paper. What was the title?

To ask a question, one must know enough to know what is not known.

Her PhD thesis, published as Constructive interaction and the iterative process of understanding (Miyake 1982, 1986) was brilliant, both in discovering the limits of people's knowledge and in developing a powerful pairing of people under study so that they naturally spoke their thoughts to one another (and thereby to the experimenter) without the unnatural instruction of "please think aloud." "Constructive Interaction," is what she called this method, and it been widely adopted by numerous researchers across the world. 

One of Naomi's notable findings was that all explanations and understandings have a limit. She asked both novices and experts to explain how a sewing machine worked, and when they gave their explanation, she asked  them why that was so. Eventually she would reach a level at which even the most expert person would have to admit to a lack of understanding. 

This repeated questioning of one's understanding has great practical value in today's field of design where we attempt to discover the true underlying problem that needs to be solved. It is also similar to the Toyota Motor Corporation's use of the "Five Whys": When you encounter a problem, ask why it is a problem, then ask why that answer is so, continuing five times. In fact, the number five is unnecessary: it is the spirit of continual probing to get to the fundamental root problem that is essential to Toyota's assembly line, to designers, and that was so nicely illustrated in Naomi's work. I don't know which came first: Naomi's thesis or the Five Whys, but I am certain that when she did the thesis neither she nor I knew of the Toyota Motor Corporation's methods.

The importance of these two first publications gave early evidence for Naomi's future impact upon the scientific community. Her paper on question-asking received over 3030 citations and the  Journal publication of her thesis received over 500 citations. 

My family soon became friends with her family: Julie and Don, with Naomi and Yoshio. Eric (my son) and Masaki (their son), born just six months apart). After Naomi and Yoshio completed their studies and returned to Japan, we continued to interact, both by email and by visits to their several homes and universities. Our sons Eric and Masaki continued their friendship, with Eric borrowing Masaki's BMW roadster while working for Toyota and living in Toyota-shi (driving a BMW instead of a Toyota evidently caused considerable discussion by Eric's managers at Toyota).

Naomi's academic career had a fortunate beginning, although it didn't seem so at the time. In 1984, in Japan it was difficult for women to be treated as fully qualified colleagues and even though I sent her back to Japan with high praise to my Japanese colleagues, her first job was at Aoyama Gakuin Women's Junior College, where she stayed for seven years. To me, an appointment at a woman's junior college seemed strange for such a talented scientist, but many years later Naomi confided in me that for her it was perfect. 

Aoyama Gakuin was not accustomed to having a young researcher who was continually being invited to give talks all over the world, so they gave her considerable freedom to do what she wished. She was able to expand her research activities far more than had she gone to a more traditional and higher-ranked school. Moreover, the students were energized by her presence, helping create a small, vibrant research group. This appointment gave her the freedom to pursue her research with vigor and I was pleased when several years later, one of my Japanese friends confided in me "we didn't quite trust you at first, but you were right when you told us she would be a star."

One of my colleagues, when informed of Naomi's death remarked that when she (my colleague) had been at the U.S. National Institute of Education, she invited Naomi "along with some high status professor who was serving as the relevant government minister to a conference on educational technology.  I always liked to think that this attention served to advance her career in the difficult cultural climate that Japan has been for women," said my colleague.

In 1991, Naomi joined Prof. Toda at the newly formed School of Computer and Cognitive Sciences at Chukyo University, Toyota-shi (also allowing both Naomi and Yoshio to work at the same location). Here she blossomed into a researcher of international stature, until her appointment in 2009 as Professor in the Graduate School of Education, the University of Tokyo, and Deputy Director, Consortium for Renovating Education of the Future.

I need not repeat her accomplishments here: that will be done elsewhere. My last visit with her was in September 2013, during my traditional visit to the team that has faithfully translated my last several books. My wife and I would visit the team for a few days at some traditional Japanese hotel or inn, often at a hot springs, and usually joined by Naomi and Yoshio. 

Japanese translation Team Sep 2010 reduced size .jpg
The Japanese translation Team Sep 2010. Clockwise from the left are Don Norman, Julie Norman, Yoshio Miyake, Naomi Miyake, Akira Okamoto, Iga Soichiro, and Mike Yasumura

False affordance Signifiers Japan 2013 (Prof. Naomi Miyake) Reduced size.jpg

False affordance Signifiers Japan 2013 (Naomi Miyake demonstrating the false anti-affordance of a post at the Usui Daisan Kyoryo Bridge in Annaka, Japan.

One of my fondest memories is of Naomi demonstrating the false anti-affordance of a post at the Usui Daisan Kyoryo Bridge in Annaka. (The post had the appearance of solid metal, falsely conveying the anti-affordance of preventing automobiles from driving along the road. In fact, they were made of rubber and would easily bend out of the way, as Naomi gleefully illustrated for me by pushing one down with her foot (and posing for the photos even though it was raining). I published the photograph in the Japanese edition of the revised version of my book, The Design of Everyday Things, where her image will hopefully inspire future generations of Japanese women.

The vitality, energy, and humor Naomi demonstrated in these photos hides the fact that she was soon to die of cancer. A wonderful person: a tragic death.


Miyake, N., & Norman, D. A. (1979). To ask a question, one must know enough to know what is not known. Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior, 18, 357-364.

Miyake, N. (1982). Constructive Interaction: DTIC Document. University of California, San Diego, Center for Human Information Processing (CHIP-113). 

Miyake, N. (1986). Constructive interaction and the iterative process of understanding. Cognitive science, 10(2), 151-177.


1. The Japanese translation Team Sep 2010. Clockwise from the left are Don Norman, Julie Norman, Yoshio Miyake, Naomi Miyake, Akira Okamoto, Iga Soichiro, and Mike Yasumura

2. False affordance Signifiers Japan 2013 (Naomi Miyake demonstrating the false anti-affordance of a post at the Usui Daisan Kyoryo Bridge in Annaka, Japan.