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My Books

Living with complexity
Living with Complexity.

MIT Press, 2011.
The Design of future things

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The Design of everyday things

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The Invisible Computer

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Things That Make us Smart

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Welcome to the answer center

This page is intended to let me answer the many questions that I get sent. Note that I accept both serious and not so serious questions.

Send your questions to:
If I decide to respond, the question and answer will be shown below
WARNING: This is meant to be a moderated question & answer forum where you can ask me questions and get responses, sometimes serious, sometimes outrageous and often with the two intermixed, leaving it to the reader to determine where I am serious and where not.

Please don't write asking me to solve your job problem or write your research paper. And please, I don't do websites--that's for Jakob Nielsen. (And don't get angry with me, as one witless writer did, when I decline to read unsolicited 100+ page papers.)

I try to respond personally to all my mail, but this depends upon my workload, which varies between high and unreasonably high. I answer many correspondents each week, most frequently from students. I spend a lot of time at this. But I can get annoyed when I am asked to answer three forms of questions: 

  1. The obvious. I often answer questions by entering a few simple terms into a search engine, then copying the result. When i do this, I try to explain what I have done so that some learning takes place and the person can then do such searches on their own.  When senior people ask me questions that they could have answered by themselves with a little bit of work, i tend to get annoyed, cranky, and rather irritable. (I recently met one such corespondent who told me how rude I had been to him. But then he continued, saying, "and I came to realize that you were correct."  But please, don;t make me be rude to you.
  2. The impossible. I sometimes get questions that are unanswerable. They are not quite in the same league as questions about the meaning of life, or how to reach world peace, but at times they feel the same to me. My rule is simple, if the question can't be answered in a paragraph, please don't ask it.  I already spend roughly 3 hours a day on email, every day of the year: weekends, holidays, .. every day. Please be considerate.
  3. Free consulting. If you or your company need technical help in solving a problem, you need to hire a qualified consultant. Note the word "hire": you will have to pay someone for their time and effort. Don't expect to get it for free. In my case, my consulting is at the managerial level, helping companies with their product, marketing, and managerial strategies. I serve on boards. This is how I make my living. Please don't ask me for free consulting.
I enjoy the questions and illustrations people send me. I learn a lot when I answer questions, so the time is worthwhile for all concerned. But please do not abuse the privilege.

Last updated: March 4, 2011

Are the New Elevators Bad Design?
Ask Don was just sent this description, with an implied question. 

Yesterday I had business to attend to in a city building downtown Portland. The building is new and this was my first visit. I was a bit baffled at the elevators, two banks of five to a side. But no up or down button. OK, so I waited for the next to open. It arrived and I got on. No buttons to select my floor. What is going on? Is this machine supposed to read my mind? I got off and re-evaluated. At the end of the I discovered a touch screeen stating "Welcome". I touched and it wanted my floor number and offered a numeric pad. I entered 12 and an elevator "pinged", the door opened and "12" was displayed on the edge of the door at eye level. I got on and went to 12.
If the story ended there, I would not be sharing this experience with you. It turns out, I had to re-visit the same office about an hour later. On the first encounter I was alone in the waiting area, so there was one elevator, one person. Good, a match. The second visit however, there were a dozen people and four elevators open. Finally in frustration I went to the lobby security guard. I give him credit for his courtesy, he demonstrated that when you pad in your floor number, the display also shows the letter for your ride "A-J". His next comment demonstrated how little people understand the problem. He said "It's easy once you get used to it". It may be easy for those who work in the building, but the offices there are to serve the public. Most of the public visitors will only come once or twice and will never get past the learning curve.

Here is my reply (slightly enhanced)

Actually, the elevator system you used is a new design that makes for far more efficient use of the elevators. Less elevators are required and for the elevator user, the trip is more efficient. This is called the "destination control system," and it was first introduced by the Schindler Elevator company in 1992: so it has been around a long time, although it is just becoming visible.

You enter the floor you want on the pad outside the elevators and it assigns you an elevator. It batches people in groups so that the elevator minimizes the number of stops --no more stopping at every single floor.

Yes, you have to get used to it.

But you may not realize that you had to learn how to use the more common scheme. For example when you are on the first floor and want to go up to the 10th, why do you hit the "up" button on the wall?  You think it obvious?

No, the elevator is one of the unique devices where you enter your intention rather than a command to the system. It would be just as logical to hit the down button -instructing an elevator to come down from its current location in order to pick you up. Obviously, this would require you to know where each elevator was located, but early elevator systems (and many modern ones) always displayed this information.

I could go on.   

This happens to be a positive example of "you will get used to it."

I have long argued that it is perfectly reasonable to have to learn how to use a novel device.  After all, if we never changed anything how could we make thing better? We used to drive shift cars. We then had to relearn our habits for automatic transmissions. Anti-skid brakes have to be used differently than the way most people were taught (pumping the brake when skidding used to be taught -- now if you did that, it would be harmful).

My point was that you might have to learn something, but that you should only have to learn it once. Once you learned it, you should say, "oh, I get it," and remember it forever after -- that's what a good conceptual model is about.

So, welcome to the new world of improved elevator service. Enjoy the increased efficiency.
Do Industrial Designers have a future?
An industrial Designer just asked (edited slightly):

What is the industrial design's value in the future?

With electronics  getting smaller and smarter, it seems that we don't need industrial designer any more. Today it is interaction and service designers who are in the spotlight. What is your opinion?

The question, basically, is whether the field of Industrial Design has a future. Huh?  If anything, ID is needed more now than ever.

Perhaps the confusion  is in the definition of an Industrial Designer.  I must admit to suffering from this same confusion. For example, am I an industrial designer? I'm a member of IDSA, the Industrial Design Society of America. I consider myself an interaction designer, but why isn't that a sub-category of ID? The same with service design.

Well, I recently heard a talk by a great industrial designer who does brilliant work,but who clearly was clueless about interactive design.  Traditinal designers are mostly taught form and styling. They learn about materials and manufacturing. All that is very important, but it isn't all there is to design. Design, like all disciplines, changes with the times. New technologies, new activities demand new skills.

Now that computer chips are embedded into almost everything, now that devices become smaller, sleeker, and more complex inside, the Industrial Design has to change to take advantage of the great new opportunities that these changes afford. (Hey, there is that word "affordance" sneaking its way into my conversation.)  In a similar way, service design requires new techniques and new approaches. Neither service design nor interaction design requires an understanding of materials or manufacturing practices. But they still require trained designers.

Do we still need ID? No, not the old-fashioned kind of ID. What we really need is a new breed of designer, one who can work across disciplines, one who understands human beings, business, and technology. The traditional industrial designer is too limited. We need a new breed of modern designers. 

Hmm, sounds like a great topic for my Core77 column.

Pod Coffee Makers

This really isn't a question, but I turned it into one.  My correspondent sent the following story:

A friend of mine was at a meeting where someone from Philips explained the "sense & simplicity" concept with the Senseo coffeemachine as a good example.

“Look,” he said “the Senseo has only three buttons. One to turn it on, one for 1 cup, and one for 2 cups of coffee. That's all.”

Everybody was impressed. “My coffee machine has just one button: one to turn it on”, my friend thought. She didn't dare to say it out loud.

Nice story, but wrong. Fewer buttons do not necessarily mean easier use.

Even though the friend's coffee machine has only one button, there is a rather elaborate process required to put in the coffee (and to know how much to put in), to add the water (and to know how much to add) and to use a filter (depending upon what kind of machine she is talking about), and afterwards, to clean the machine.

I think the new pod coffee machines are a brilliant innovation -- I'll have to add them to my Good Design pages. The Senseo is simply one brand of the many that have now been introduced.

With the Senseo machine, as with all pod machines, you still have to know how to load the pod. And although I think the coffee is good, it is not as good as with more traditional drip or espresso, particularly with freshly ground coffee beans. But it is a lot easier to use, a lot easier to learn, and a lot easier to clean up-.

So, overall, I think the pod machines are a great advancement in coffee-making. As is usual with early technology, the different brands use proprietary pods, so they are not interchangeable. And some make far better coffee than others. But the coffee is not bad. In fact, it is superior to the average coffee in restaurants and homes. (Then again, it is not excellent either, inferior to that of the better coffee houses and the home where people take the time to grind and brew the coffee. See the reviews, below.)

When assessing simplicity, don't get all hung up on the number of buttons. Look at the whole picture: more is sometimes less. The pod coffee makers are a huge improvement in ease of learning, ease of use, and ease of maintenance over traditional methods. When their coffee-making abilities get better -- and they will -- they will be the coffee maker of choice.

For the opinions of some cofee purists (brutally honest opinions), see these two from coffeereview.com:
At What Cost Convenience?
A User's Survey.
Encourage Graffiti (and explore affordances)

"Ask Don" recently received this request from Mark Østergaard, from Denmark on behalf of a design group: "We would like to address the problem of vandalism, graffiti-painting, smashed windows, etc. In this particular case, we are designing a train station. One of the ways which we would like to implement this aspect of anti-vandalism in our project is through the idea of the psychology of materials, or as you describe it, the affordances of materials and objects."

The question was clearly driven by my discussion of the psychology of materials in the early chapters of "The Design of Everyday Things." I thought the ensuing email discussion might be of interest to readers of "Ask Don," so with Østergaard's permission, here is the interchange (slightly edited):

I responded with three directions they might pursue:

  • 1. Use materials that resist defacement. Many companies make paints and materials that do not let paints stick, or that make it easy to wash drawings off.

  • 2. Make the affordances of the wall inappropriate for vandalism. Long, smooth walls afford graffiti But walls with many sharp angles and few large surfaces would discourage it, because there simply is no suitable surface.

  • 3. Encourage graffiti. If you view graffiti as an interesting form of folk art, why not encourage it? The problem is when it defaces items that were not designed to accommodate it. So, design to be supportive of graffiti. Call it free art.
  • To my great pleasure, I received back the following response:

    All three of your suggestions have actually been thought of and discussed thoroughly from the beginning of the project. The first one discarded rather quickly because … well, it's quite boring to work with compared to the other two, and really just represents an uninspired patch-solution rather then a creative solution either defeating the problem to a certain extent, or utilizing it in a constructive manner, as your third suggestion implies.

    The third actually was one aspect which we found extremely interesting, not only because the idea is quite controversial (shocking people with ones designs is always great fun), but also because it would provide a fluctuant "material"/aesthetic to clad the building with, opening new possibilities and approaches to the way we design and view buildings, and also rather then fighting graffiti as a problem, embracing it as a subcultural art form telling it's own stories. Unfortunately the client didn't find it to be as interesting an idea as we did. So in the spirit of meeting the client's demands, this was an approach which we unwillingly had to abandon.

    Besides, graffiti was only one aspect of the vandalism sought to be reduced. Breaking class, scratching surfaces, setting fires etc. are equally important, and harder to utilise constructively as an aesthetic quality.

    We are aware that long smooth walls encourage writing, glass breaking, wood carving etc. but can't help but think that there must be studies going deeper then that, looking into other aspects regarding the use of materials, not only taking into account the perceptive affordances of materials but also the psychological and emotional effect they are likely to have on people besides giving clues to a logical use.

    For example, using mahogany wood rather then plywood, would affect how people perceive whichever environment or whatever object this material was being used for, not only because mahogany usually has a warmer feel to it, due to it's reddish colour, but also is a tougher material, it sounds different when you walk on it, it feels different when you touch it and people know it's more expensive, hence a greater sense of quality, resulting in greater care not to harm the material for some, or perhaps encouraging others to vandalise it, simply because it is more expensive.

    Besides trying to prevent vandalism, this of course also has to do with wanting to manipulate the experience of the architecture, how we perceive it, how it makes us feel and what it makes us think, through the use of shape and materials and the stories they tell.

    That's a wonderful response, so wonderful I replied that they certainly didn't need the help of "Ask Don." If my books inspire people to explore further, to go far beyond the concepts presented, then I am eternally grateful and very well satisfied.

    How To Find a Job in UI, Industrial or HCI Design

    I'm frequently asked how to find a job, either in industrial design or user-interface design (Human-Computer Interaction). Rather than answer it anew each time, let me summarize the standard answer here.

    The basic question goes something like this:

    “I am a student (or someone who is very excited by this field, but without experience) and I want to now how to get started. How do I find a job? Do I need a graduate degree? If so, where? ...”
    (Here is an actual example of such a request: “So, this ambition to do everything has led me to one major question, ‘where do I begin?’ This is ultimately why I am emailing you today, for advice. Perhaps naively, I believe I am ready for a professional start. I think with the right opportunity I could learn more in the next two years than I could by getting a graduate degree. I realize however the opportunity may be significantly harder to come by without a higher degree. ...”)

    You either need real work experience or a graduate degree, or both.

    And to get real work experience, you need a job, and most jobs will require you to have had either real work experience or a graduate degree. The technical term for this situation is “Catch 22.”. Sure, try to get a relevant job. But think strongly about getting an MS degree.

    Start by spending time on the SIGCHI, HFES, and IDEA websites:

    These are all based in he United States, but all have pointers to international organizations. And, mind you, there are many other relevant organizations — this is simply my recommendation for three good places to start. All have many good suggestions. All have conferences, which are good places to learn, to meet people, and to search for jobs. Many allow students to volunteer and thereby attend the conference for free.

    On each site, look for the list of local chapter meetings: Those are excellent places to meet people, to ask or advice, and possibly to find your first job.

    All have valuable lists of other relevant sites:
    especially see the HCI site list at http://www.hcibib.org/hci-sites/


    The best way to learn about schools is to ask others where they went to school, to visit school websites, and to visit the schools and talk with the faculty, staff, and students. Trust the students a lot more than the other sources.

    Lists of relevant schools are available at:

    Note: These lists are incomplete. Thus, a school I recommend highly, IIT's Institute of Design is not on any of these lists, because it isn't a traditional school for either HCI, Human Factors, or Industrial Design. But it is still one of the top-rated schools in the world for designers. (See their website at www.id.iit.edu.)

    (Disclaimer: I am a member of their Board of Overseers.)

    Activity-Centered Design & Scenarios

    In your article Human-Centered Design Considered Harmful you say that "activities are not the same as tasks," but are scenarios the same as tasks?

    In my line of work (web application design & development) our personas are 80% scenario descriptions (one likely scenario per activity) — which we then break down into user needs, tasks and system features.

    From these we then build task-flow diagrams to describe an "activity" (e.g. registration), followed by prototyping.

    Your article is making me rethink this process, but I am keen to know where scenarios fit into the picture!

    Scenarios are usually specified at too high a level to be of much value in the design of specific interface elements. Task-flow diagrams are important.

    Tasks are situations with a single, well-specified goal, such as "respond to this email." Activities are larger groupings, comprised of multiple tasks that fit together, such as "get caught up on the day's correspondence" which means reading email, responding, looking up information, sometimes to copy and paste into emails, checking calendars, and other associated, related tasks. Thus, to me, "registration," from your example above, sounds more like a task than an activity.

    To me, error analysis is the sweet spot for improvement. Usually, designers do think of the order in which activities will be done. But they seldom think properly about what should be done when the person encounters problems, or when the situation is novel.

    It doesn't matter whether the analysis is called task analysis, task-flow diagram, scenario, activity analysis, or activity-flow diagram. What does matter is that it be a detailed analysis of the steps a person might follow when things go wrong. What should you tell the person? What choices should you offer?

    What would the person wish to do in each of the situations?

    It is relatively easy to design for the perfect cases, when everything goes right, or when all the information required is available in proper format. Good design, however, will handle the unexpected situation, when there are special cases, when the information is entered incorrectly or incompletely, or correctly. but in the wrong location or wrong sequence.

    This is where the difference arises between a pleasant experience and a frustrating one.

    One way to do this is to look at all the error messages, determine why they might arise, and redesign so that they either never appear, or if they might, that they are transformed into assistance. Not "help" which tells the person what should have been done, but "assistance" which offers the proper action and makes it so easy to proceed that the person might deliberately type incomplete information to get the guidance.

    Remember: the "perfect" behavior seldom arises. Almost ever situation is a special case of one sort or another. So design for the special cases, design to eliminate error messages.

    PPVMTDO: The convergence in mobile devices.

    What do you think about convergence in mobile devices? In next decade, will everyone carry around personal phone-videocamera-musicplayer-television-(dis)organizers?

    To keep it simple, we could just call them PPVMTDO's.

    I don't want to advertise, but the new Nokia phone series gives quite good glimpse to the future http://www.nseries.com

    (From a reader of jnd.org in Espoo, Finland (but who works for a "User Experience and Usability Research Company, not for Nokia).

    Ah, one of my favorite questions: convergence. I assume you are really talking about the convergence of Swiss Army Knives and mobile phones. Smart phones, PDAs, cellphones—whatever you want to call them—plus the cleverness and compactness of the Swiss army Knife, the knife that does everything, although nothing particularly well.

    A friend just showed me his Swiss Army Knife: it had a 256K, USB memory stick and an LED flashlight. What was my response? Why the typical, geek, nerd, technologist's response: "Only 256K?"

    Here, peek for yourself (look for USB Storage). This model of the Swiss army Knife comes with up to 1G memory, but the models with knife blades still are not allowed on airplanes. Although they now make Swiss Army knives without blades, gee, is a knife without a blade a knife? Over time this class of entries will get smarter and smarter, so who knows what you will find when you look!

    "People only want to carry one device with them", is the mantra. Right now I carry a watch, a cellphone (a PalmOne Treo, if you must ask), wallet, house keys, car keys, and pen. And most of the time, a 5 Mbyte Canon digital camera.

    It won't be long before allof this can be done with a single device. The phone will replace the wallet, beaming credit card information, micropayments, and identification to whatever device or authority requires it. Several places in the world are already experimenting with these capabilities. The phone already has a camera, although not as good as the separate one I carry. The phone has a clock, so some friends have stopped wearing watches. One model of the USB memory stick Swiss Army knife comes with a ballpoint pen.

    So I only need two devices: Swiss Army knife and smart phone. Why not combine them?

    Oh, I forgot the music player. Right now I carry a separate iPod (with those big bulky, Bose, sound-canceling earphones). But Motorola already has iTune song players in its phone (if only it can convince some carrier to deploy it), and soon every carrier will have its own proprietary brand of music player.

    So, yes, in the future we will only have to carry one device: a Swiss Army Knife phone, with memory, camera, music, identification, PDA, ... . Hmm, I wonder if it could have a built-in water bottle as well, and maybe a sleeve to carry my books and papers, or alternatively, head-mounted display so I can read virtual copies of books and papers. Just one device? Isn't that nice?

    Is it really nice? Here is how one newspaper columnist, Dana Bartholomew, of the Whittier Daily News (in Whittier, Calfornia) describes the result:

    This is a real boon to the book publishing industry: Think of all those new titles they can publish! "Swiss Army knives for Dummies," "How to get the most out of your knife," "Six easy tips to avoid rebooting your knife." All sorts of new titles. Wonderful.

    Of course, if you lose the evice, well, your data are safe, right? You did back them up? Oh, you backed them up on the memory stick that's attached to the knife? Shame on you. And you did use the fingerprint recognizer to safeguard your files, right?

    And when that magical day happens where everything has converged into one device, some company will revolutionize the industry with a brand new design philosophy: simplicity. It will make a phone that only makes phone calls. And a knife that only cuts. And a pen that only writes. What a concept!

    Simple, single purpose devices work better and are easier to learn. Multipurpose devices are more convenient. In the ever-continuing quest for simplicity and convenience, What comes around, goes around. Today simplicity, tomorrow convenience. Tomorrow convenience, the next day simplicity.

    There is another direction: Bluetooth. (Simple, wireless interconection of multple separate devices.)

    You could still have separate devices, but they would never have to be removed from their carrier (your pocket, briefcase, pocketbook, ...). The only visible part would be a universal controller: a Bluetooth device with simple buttons and a screen that connected to and controlled all the separate devices.

    If done right, the controller would be modular and therefore changeable: If you changed, your phone, you could simply replace the phone module on the controller to match the new unit. Want to control the home lighting or thermostat: add the appropriate controller. Moreover, the interface could remain constant, so you wouldn't have to keep learning new paradigms for control.

    Hah, what a silly dream, Companies will still insist on their proprietary codes, so each will want you to use their particular controller, which defeats the dream of a single, universal controller.

    But it's a thought.

    Would I review commercial toilet paper holders.

    Will you, one day, do a review of toilet paper holders found in commercial restrooms? Virtually all of them are user-hostile. And we all encounter them, every day.

    (This question is obviously referring to one of my most famous papers: Toilet Paper Algorithms: I didn't know you had to be a computer scientist to use toilet paper.)

    Nope. I've done quite enough on toilet paper holders. Among my many aspirations, I do not include that of becoming the world's authority on the dispensing of toilet paper.

    Anyway, the proper solution to a problem is to redefine it so it goes away. Look what happened with VCRs. The inability of many to program their VCR became a national joke, and President Bush (the first Bush) even declared it his ambition for the country that everyone would be able to program theirs. He failed. Did we make it easier to set the time on the VCR or to program it? No, we made the problem go away.

    Why set the time — let the recorder get the time from the TV stations. TiVo showed how programming could be gotten rid of, replacing it with selection. Do I want to watch the show "West Wing"? Just type "W" "e" "s" into TiVo and then select "West Wing" from the list of shows starting with that spelling. Then select the option to record the series. Programming is replaced with selecting. I don't even have to know what day or time the show is broadcast, nor the channel. So the problem of programming disappears.

    (Redefining the problem in this way has other side effects: it gets rid of the concept of Prime Time in television. And networks and stations lose their identity (and commercial value) if the viewer no longer even knows where the show is shown. And I haven't even mentioned the fact that I can skip over the commercials, because if I did, I would be digressing.)

    Having problems dispensing with toilet paper? Rethink the problem: why do we even need toilet paper? The Japanese have already have a solution. When finished with the toilet, press a little button, and you automatically get washed with pleasant, warm water, then dried. See the various "Washlet" designs from Toto.

    (Now the problem for designers is to make it so we don't even have to press the button. Actually the real problem is to get people to accept this technology. The Japanese love it. Westerners think it kind-of creepy.)

    OK? It's bad enough that I am the world's authority on doors that are difficult to open. I don't want to be the world's authority on toilet paper dispensers.

    When data and applications are all on the internet

    It looks like developers are creating fewer desktop applications and instead investing in web applications and web services. Just for the sake of argument, let's say Microsoft lost control of the PC software industry and the market could freely determine whether people wanted a desktop or browser interface to their PC's operating system. With the browser interface the PC would boot up and launch the only application on the device, a simple browser like Firefox. The home page would connect to a locally running portal server that aggregates local content and services with remote resources seamlessly...my.yahoo on steroids.

    Putting aside the technical issues, what would you determine to be the most important usability issues that need to be addressed before software consumers are willing to abandon all of the desktop apps that they use today and switch to a Portal OS? Can the current suite of browser technologies (i.e. HTML, CSS, JavaScript, Java applets, Flash, QuickTime) be made more robust and integrated to match the productivity gained from the use of some of today's better desktop applications? What capabilities are missing? Is there functionality that can't or shouldn't be implemented in a browser interface?

    Good question. But you don't have to assume that Microsoft is out of the picture: their .NET initiative was aimed, in part, at exactly this model.

    First of all, a browser is a fairly good display device, so making it the display item of choice is OK. I say "fairly" good because it has many limitations. There are other possibilities.

    It makes sense that we store all our data and applications on some server that can be reached from anywhere. This would enable all the various computers the home, at work, and on the road to work on the same material, continuing from wherever the work stopped previously. Moreover, any computer could be used: a friend's, the hotel's or the airline's.

    There are problems. One is that of keeping the work cohesive if several computers are accessing and editing the same material at the same time -- a standard problem with databases. Another is security and privacy -- a standard problem when private information is available over the internet.

    But the real disability is response time. Internet response time is slow. This is not a bandwidth issue, although high bandwidth helps. No, this is a remote access issue. The only time we get adequate response time is when the application and data are local. That being said, there are ways of working this, of quickly downloading the relevant code and data. Macromedia's Flash and Flex use this solution. This is how applets, flash, and other systems work. (Compare Google Maps with Yahoo Maps. Google puts all the data onto your computer, and the response time is faster and smoother than Yahoo. (Of course, Yahoo will soon catch up, so this statement will soon be out of date -- I hope.)

    The word "browser" is problematical. The full browser, with all its bells and whistles, menubars and options is far too crowded, messy, distracting, and complex. True for Firefox as much as any other brand. But if one just opens a browser window, devoid of all that other crap, then it is a fine way to proceed.

    But take the spirit of your question: This is how I expect all systems to work in the future. Our information lives will be better served when we are free to get to our information from wherever we are, with any device available.

    However, perhaps some day we can move away from the tyranny of operating systems and applications. I'm developing an essay on this topic now, inspired by the work of Jef Raskin. It will be posted "Real Soon Now."

    Why do you like iPod when the shuttle is so bad?

    I'd like to ask your opinion on the design of the Shuffle mp3 player by Apple from a usability point of view.

    I'm asking this question because BusinessWeek quotes you as saying:

    "I've been thinking hard about the Apple product-development process since I left... If you follow my [guidelines], it will guarantee good design. But Steve Jobs doesn't want good design. He wants great design, and my method will never give you that. That takes a rare leader, who can bring both the cohesion and commitment and style. And Steve has it."

    I interpret this as "great design requires following the guidelines plus commitment, style, etc." Yet some of the very successful and so-called great products by Jobs and his design team have often contradicted the most basic HCI and ergonomics principles. While I appreciate Job's role in bringing design to tech products, it seems that the Shuffle violates some key HCI principles of feedback & user's control.

    It is clear that good/great design is a poor predictor of market share as the eMate and the Cube have shown. So reframing the original question: Despite its potential success with consumers, is the Shuffle a so-called great product despite (or even because) it contradicts your guidelines?

    I've just always been puzzled by the double standards that many HCI gurus apply when it comes to Apple's designs. They often give excuses to justify plain blunders, I remember the heated debate over the aberrant GUI design that used the same metaphor to eject a floppy and to erase files and directories. Is it still around these days after two decades of GUI evolution? Or the rather cynical reasons for the persistent one-button mouse. How are less options more options?

    That's why qualifying now the blindness of the Shuffle as a 'feature' and a 'choice' is not so surprising. I wonder how this product would fare with usability experts if it came from Sony or Creative rather than Apple. Objectively, I think one should be entitled to point out the failures of Apple. It would give more merit to their virtues, which are many indeed.

    Here is a long question (the actual question went on for three lengthy emails. The entire correspondence makes for worthwhile reading, but is too long for this format.

    I believe that the question and the resulting debate results from a confusion between marketing decisions and usability design. Basically, the criticism is all about the marketing decisions.

    Thus, my questioner asked:

    Haven't we gone through enough decades of research to understand that a product with the capacity to play 240 songs (that's about 20 CDs) should provide at least a minimum level of information? I don't believe that any empirical research would conclude that users prefer to not know what song is playing at least once in a while. ... Can one keep a straight face while suggesting that radios and CD players should now come without displays to give users more choices?

    But, hey, sure, people prefer to know the name of the song being played, but that's a design tradeoff. Money and space. Displays add to the cost and take space. I believe that the Apple Shuttle is an excellent compromise among the conflicting requirements of simplicity, elegance, size, battery life, and function. If you think of it as a supplementary music player rather than you main one, then the tradeoffs become more clear.

    As technology changes, the tradeoffs will change. Thus, Sony has introduced a music player roughly the size of the shuttle, but with a three-line display. But note: My questioner complained that Apple products were too expensive: well, the Sony products are even more expensive.

    When we talk about HCI standards, we should not confuse these with marketing decisions. The Apple Shuttle is honest. It doesn't pretend to be other than what it is. If customers don't like the feature set (or lack of features), they won't buy it.

    Apple has produced an excellent system. The real product is the system, not any of the individual components. They paved the way for music licensing, they made iTunes an easy to use application, they made interaction of the players with the music players simple and easy (and fast), and they provide a wide variety of music players, with open APIs so that developers can enhance the value.

    Nobody else comes close.

    If you look at the other music players, there are many that are as attractive as Apple, there are many that offer more features, more memory, and lower cost. But it is the total system that makes the iPod. Some of those others deserve higher market share than they have, but they suffer because of marketing and sales issues and because they do not offer as complete a system solution.

    Wake up, HCI folks: HCI is only one small piece of what it takes to make a successful product.

    Am I an Apple bigot? No. I can critique their products and their customer service philosophy. But overall, they do better than any other player. Yes, I own an iPod and, yes, I am thinking of buying the shuttle. But my computers (three of them) are Windows based.

    If you think the products don't match what you want from a product, don't buy it. But don't try to claim that they do not meet some mythical HCI standards. The role of marketing is to determine what features to offer. The role of HCI is two things: to ensure that the marketing decision is based upon accurate, real information about how people use these products; and then to ensure that the product implementation is as great as possible.

    Do iPods have limitations? Of course. So does everything in life.

    Why are your books so badly designed?

    For someone who writes about design, how come your books are so badly designed?

    (Note from Don Norman: This is a distillation of many comments I receive, frequently. In The Design of Everyday Things, the most common complaints are about footnotes (or more properly, end notes), the really bad distinctions among levels of headings (it is nearly impossible to tell which is a major heading, which is minor, poor placements of figures, and so on.)

    Readers always seem to think that the author has some control over the design of their books. Hah! Authors have remarkably little say. Hell, my book editor for "Emotional Design" didn't even want to put chapter numbers on the running headings of the text pages "because we never do it that way." I had to fight tooth and nail to get it. Worse, she argued with me that this was not necessary for the reader. I tried remind her that I was the authority on usability, not she, and the reason she was publishing my book was because of that. This argument did not convince her. All she cared about was whether or not her company had ever done it before. She only was convinced when she discovered that her company had indeed done this once before. Guess where: In Design of Everyday Things"! "Oh, I guess we can do it, then" she said.

    Same with the cover design. I put approval of the cover in my contract, but I almost never get it. Once again, hours of fighting. I had to fight to get the Impossible Teapot (teapot for masochists) on the cover of DOET. I had to fight to get the Starck/Alessi juice on the cover of Emotional Design.

    Readers complain about the crappy design of POET/DOET. They are absolutely correct. Bad use of footnotes (technically, end notes). Really poor heading style, so nobody (including me), knows which are main headings and which are subservient. And poor figure placement.

    Hah! Would you believe the original editor of POET didn't want to include any of the photographs? I'm lucky I got photographs into the book at all, let alone getting them placed properly. All these decisions are made by artists and typographers who have no understanding (or care) for the contents of the book, but do care that all the pages line up nicely, and that no page has more text on it than another, and that figures are in nice harmony with the pages -- who cares if the figures are related to the text?

    Cover designers are bizarre. Someone gets hired to do the cover. They glance at the book and produce bizarre drawings. I always have to fight hard to throw away their examples and get something decent instead (I always insist on cover approval in all my books, but publishers try hard to ignore this. I've had to draw my own covers for three of my books. And worse, the cover designer gets a huge credit line, even though all they have done is hold up progress.

    As for endnotes. Publishers refuse to put footnotes where they belong, at the bottom of each page. ("Annoys the reader," they say, without any evidence whatsoever, ignoring that having to turn to the end of the book is even more annoying. And to make matters worse, they almost always organize the endnotes by chapter number at the end of the book, but make it difficult to figure out the chapter number inside the book.

    My solution to this problem is to try to eliminate all substantive endnotes. The philosophy I follow is that if something is important enough to say in a note, then it is important enough to put in the main text. End notes are reserved only for citations to the works of other people, and they are listed at the end of the book by page number with some descriptive text to indicate what part of the page is being referred to. This solution seems to work reasonably well.

    But I didn't develop this philosophy until relatively recently, so readers of DOET will have to suffer with endnotes.

    Many designers complain about their lack of control over products. Let me tell you that the worst product companies are still far better and more responsive than book publishers. Book publishers live in the 18th century. They actually now use computers, but barely. As for understanding their customers (readers), they haven't a clue. They don't know how to decide upon a price for a book, they don't know how to stock them, or to advertise them. Trade books generally are advertised only when they are first released (if then) and never thereafter. Publishers do not collect meaningful data about books, customers, or readers. They still operate by intuition. Traditional publishers are failing. No wonder.

    Still, books are the medium of choice for complex material. And book publishers are still the best way to get a book printed and distributed. Such is life.

    Does the computer block creativity?

    I've heard so many times that if you're a designer seeking for a great insight, you have to get far from your PC: flip a magazine, look out the window, run away from the office, etc. I don't know if this recommendation is good for everybody, but I can remember that my best ideas come while taking a shower, walking on the streets, eating a snack. Does the personal computers has an insight-inhibiting force? If true, is it from hardware or software models?

    I'm tempted to say it is all the fault of the computer -- nasty, attention-seeking, little beast that it is, always tempting us with its enticements: a website here, a new email there, a new gizmo to try out, something that needs upgrading, or restructuring, or rebooting.

    But in fact, psychologists who study problem-solving and creativity have long noticed this phenomenon. Basically, the route to problem-solving, especially for those complex, ill-defined problems, is to let the subconscious handle it.

    Alas, the subconscious can't get to work unless you have primed it, and this can take hours, days (or even weeks) of hard work on the problem. You think about it. You wiggle it. You tweak it. And finally, you give up out of frustration.

    And then, a few hours, days, or even months later, while taking a bath, getting on a bus, walking along the beach -- poof -- the solution comes to mind.

    (Beware: the solution provided by the subconscious in this way is often wrong. Poincaré, the French mathematician who studied this problem, said the subconscious is incredibly creative, but it can't do arithmetic. So when you get the flash of insight, the conscious mind has to check it out, to make sure it really works.)

    So, getting away from your normal environment really does help. Hell, even shutting your eyes can help. (Ever notice that when thinking, you tend to shut the eyes, or defocus them, or turn them upwards to look at nothing -- this is deliberate turning off of irrelevant stimulation.

    But the PC is an especially nasty beast in this regard, because it always wants attention, it is always crying out. So yes, get away from your computer. Turn it off. Go take a walk. Even if you don't get the answer, exercise is good for you.

    What is better, to make a well-designed program or to make it the way my users like it?

    (Spelling in the original note corrected, but otherwise, this is as it was received)

    I have a problem in my current project, I tried to drive the design to a children-kind of interface, making the buttons big and with different shapes and colors, using big and round letter fonts, etc... The point is that the interface is to be used by 18-30 year old persons, and I found out that, for example my colleagues, feel uncomfortable with such a design, I felt they expected a more office-boring-small font-professional look interface.

    My question is, given the context, what is better, to maintain a (supposedly)well designed program, or to make it the way they like it? Is the first-impression so important, that the emotion it causes in the user, makes it easier for him?

    You may have written a usability-centered interface, but that is not the same as a user-centered interface. You have shown a complete failure to understand what user-centered design is about.

    You ignored the most important part of design: to understand your users. If, as you say, you were designing for 18-30 year olds, then why did you think to use what you call "a children-kind of interface." That makes no sense. 18 - 30 year olds are not children. Of course your colleagues hate it. I would too. And for you to say "I guess they want it boring" is to insult them.

    User-centered design means working with your users al throughout the project. First, study what their real needs and behaviors are. Then use rapid prototyping methods to see if you are on the right track. Design and test, repeatedly. From your description, it sound as if you thought about the problem, decided upon your own solution, built it, and then were disappointed that it wasn't liked. So you insulted the users. Bad, bad, bad, bad.

    Your question is also wrong. You ask if it is better to do a well-designed program or to do what users like. How peculiar. Why do you think you have to chose between those options?

    If you were to work with your users from the very beginning, you could offer both. Indeed, you have not shown me any evidence that what you designed was well done (just because it has big buttons, etc., does not mean it is well done). Well done means your users both can use it without difficulty, and also with pleasure. You have clearly failed on the pleasure part and I see no evidence on the usable part.

    Sorry to be so mean and nasty.

    What is the relationship between "Universal Design" and "Emotional Design"

    One of the primary lessons I learned from your book, Emotional Design, is that designing products to induce certain emotions can make them more usable, can increase their functionality if you like. In many ways I could see how this would indeed aid Inclusive Design, as the idea is to make products more usable for a wider range of people: e.g., one could emotionally design a product to make it easier for elderly people to use.

    On the other hand, in Chapter 2, you also talk about the need for 'market segmentation', which is something contrary to the who idea of 'design for all'. I don't personally believe one can design a single product that will please everyone, but I know that 'inclusive design' is about maximising the potential market by designing products that are more appropriate for those who were previously excluded by inappropriate design (e.g. elderly or disable people)

    I just wondered what your thoughts might be on the relationship between these two design fields, if there is one at all?

    An excellent question. Design for All is a laudable goal (also known as Universal Design). In general, Universal Design focuses upon physical requirements: visibility and legibility, physical dimensions, gripping, and so on, factors that are required to overcome limitations in size, mobility, strength, or the lack of limbs, or difficulties with vision, hearing, or speech. These all fall into the "Behavioral Design" level of Emotional Design. I strongly support these goals.

    As you properly point out, although no single product will please everyone, at the behavioral level, Universal Design can maximize the market by including those who would otherwise not be able to use the product. Also note that invariably when we design something that can be used by those with disabilities, we often make it better for everyone.

    But when it comes to the emotional side of design, most especially, Reflective Design, then I believe that we must design separately for different target populations. Mind you, these distinctions are more apt to be cultural than physical. Thus, Chinese teenagers might prefer a very different mobile phone than European business people, and these distinction might very well apply even if some of the people have disabilities.

    Consider how the three three levels of design apply to people. We must ensure that products are Viscerally attractive, Behaviorally functional, and Reflectively desirable to all populations, even if this means different products for different groups. But even as we do different products for different market segments, each should follow the principles of good behavioral design, which means following the principles of Universal Design, among other things.

    In my opinion, no single design is apt to be optimal for everyone. This is true whether we are talking of behavior issues, visceral ones, or reflective ones. Market segmentation s a natural result of the vast differences among people.

    I see no contradiction in the philosophy of Design for All" and the market segmentation that might be required for Reflective Design. Put it this way: just because two people might have the same disability in no way implies they have the same likes and dislikes. They are much more apt to like the same items that other people of their same age, cultural background, and interests like, even if the others do not share the disability. Good design requires consideration of all aspects of human beings: the behavioral (hence Universal Design), the Visceral (hence, attractive style), and the Reflective (hence, cultural differentiation).

    Why not just use a display screen for the robot's face?

    I just finished Emotional Design, and something puzzled me: why do robot creators go through the trouble of making complex motors that allow simulating a face, when they could just attach an LCD monitor to a swivel and render an animated face onscreen, which would be far easier?

    Using a monitor would open up all kinds of additional uses: DVD playback, gaming, input entry (if it is a touch screen), TV, wireless Internet access, and so on. Plus, it would be visible in the dark, which is always nice :)

    I'm sure researchers have thought of this, so I was wondering why they pursue the mechanical route, which seems to be so much more difficult?

    You have an advanced case of featuritis. Hey, if we made this robot's face a display screen, we could also show the day's news, the time of day, play games, and sing songs on it! Isn't that cool?

    First, let's ask why a robot even needs a face. I believe that robots should only have faces if they truly need them. Entertainment robots will have faces, maybe, but others? Why bother? Now, I have argued that robots will need robot-emotions for the same reason we have human-emotions -- emotions are essential to help us judge events and objects in the world, to prioritize our actions, and to make sensible decisions. Moreover, emotions also trigger the body's musculature, so we can see when someone is struggling, tense, relaxed, etc. So emotions play an important communicative role.

    What this means is that if I am to interact with a robot, I need some way of understanding how well it is doing. Did it understand me, or is it confused? Is it doing the assigned tasks easily, without difficulty, or are there problems? Is the robot in good condition, or is it perhaps low on energy (battery power), or perhaps overdue for servicing, or perhaps carrying more than its designated weight limit? Here is where emotional reactions by the robot could be useful – if they are natural and appropriate, and if they are in a form I can interpret.

    For emotional communication to be effective, it must be natural and functional. I don't want some robot designer saying, "hey, let's make the robot smile and frown." Instead, I want to be able to tell when it is straining to do a task, when it is confused, when it is thinking. I want it to know when it is afraid that it might fall down the stairs, or run out of power, or when it fears that the item it is carrying might be too heavy, so it might damage its arms or motors.

    These will be natural side effects of the robot's functioning. We won't build fake emotions -- we will let the real ones be visible and audible. Notice how useful it is to hear the vacuum cleaner motor change pitch when the suction intake is blocked. Nobody programmed the vacuum cleaner to do that, it is a side effect, but a most useful one. That's what I am talking about.

    The goal is natural products, that behave in natural, informative ways. Putting a face on a display screen is unnatural. It won't be the same thing. It is forced and artificial. The designer will probably think there are 6 classes of emotional displays (sad, happy, ...). Bad mistake. There are an infinity of them -- just as there are an infinity of sounds your automobile makes when it is working smoothly or not, on a bumpy road, in the rain, ... Let function dictate display.

    This is why the robot, if it is to have a face, should have a real one -- mechanical. The eyes should be real -- where the TV cameras are located (so it might have one, two, or even three eyes). The ears are where the microphones are located, and the mouth where the sounds come out. Sure, arrange these in a human-like configuration. Any facial expressions should result from changes in the activation of underlying motors, levers, and tendons. Cupped ears and raised eyes irises open wide) indicate attention. Tenseness of the tendons and motors indicate preparation for action -- which in a person signals alertness with some level of anxiety. Eyes darting here and there indicate problem solving, and eyes up (or eyelids closed) might indicate thinking (shutting off visual input to eliminate distraction). And so on. natural responses, with natural interpretations.

    If a robot is to use emotions to communicate its underlying state, it should do so naturally, as a byproduct of its operation. Let its motors make noise, when strained. let its eyes search around when confused. let its body be tense (motors all ready to go) when anxious, and let it be relaxed (motors turned off, tendons relaxed), when no problems exist. It doesn't even need a face, but if it is to have one, let it be natural, not some artificial drawing displayed on a screen with some designer's interpretation of what it might mean to be happy or anxious, confident or perplexed. These emotions would be fake and, as a result, fail to communicate the true state of the robot and perhaps worse, communicate the wrong state.

    [For Extra Credit: Many of us have encountered changes in the pitch of a motor. The power drill changes its pitch when the drill encounters resistance and the pitch of the vacuum cleaner motor changes when the air intake is blocked. We all can recognize these sounds, but how conscious are we of the their nature. So, answer this: does the pitch of the vacuum cleaner motor go down or up when the airway is blocked? Explain why, in 25 words or less (It takes me 23).]

    What is the role of the user as part of the design team

    Can users be part of the design team?

    Ah, the "User" question. Should the people for whom a product is being designed be part of the design team? The politically correct answer is to say "yes, but of course." But I'll take the other route: My first thought is why would I want to do that? What do they know about design? They probably don't even understand their own true needs. (But before you get too riled up -- read on.)

    The people who use your product are not usually amateur designers. Moreover, as is well documented in the psychological literature, people are not conscious of the reasons for many of their actions. They do no realize the influences upon them, both external and internal. They are apt to describe the symptoms of their difficulties and request solutions to those symptoms, whereas the better solution is to get at the true needs and the root causes of problems.

    On the other hand, if we ignore the users of today's products, disaster is apt to result. Many a system -- usually expensive ones at that - have failed because of inappropriate attention to the needs of the people they were intended to serve.

    So, the answer to the question is complex. In part, it depends upon the nature of the system being designed. Designers must have a deep understanding of the system under construction and of the needs of the people who are to use it and benefit from it. What do these people know that is so special? Can it be quickly learned by the designers, or does the knowledge take years to acquire? If the knowledge can be quickly acquired, stick with the design experts. If the knowledge takes years to acquire, then by all means, hire one or more and use them as expert informants. Note the word informant: this is not the same designer.

    Everyday people are not very good designers. They don't know what is good for them -- or bad. Their opinions are, well, opinions. The designs they produce are apt to be klutzy, confused, crowded. I prefer design by experts - by people who know what they are doing. Knowing how people will use something is essential. Knowing about the people is essential. But asking their opinion is ... (I almost said that it is like expecting the average citizen of a country to make an informed, intelligent decision about who should be the leader of the country, but I decided not to say that).

    But then again, ignoring potential users is guaranteed method for failure. So, yes, users must be studied, consulted, and listened to. But should they be a part of the team? Ah. As I said above, if the system is complex enough that the skills required to work with it take years of experience, then yes, hire them as expert informants. Otherwise, no, good designers can acquire the necessary skills.

    A comment on the word "user." Horrible word. Someone who uses? Although it is not nearly as degrading a term as consumer": someone who consumes. Nor is it as bad as the term experimental psychologists like so much: "subject." Why not call them people?

    Is perceived usability/aesthetics more important than real

    Websites and Web applications are meant to be used only once or few times, so are the perceived usability (correlated to aesthetics) more important than the real usability (time for task completion, number of errors encountered, etc) on the Web?

    (I'm not saying that usability is not important, I'm only in doubt if aesthetics is more important to overcome the brutal competition of the Web and the user's attention span than real usability that's not

    This is indeed a worthy question, but a proper response requires a book, not a paragraph. If I have to give a short answer, it is the ubiquitous and unsatisfying, "it all depends." So here is a long answer, although still too short to get at the issues properly.

    I take issue with the statement that "Websites and Web Applications are mean to be used only once or a few times." That is not my experience, nor do I think this is supported by the data. But that statement doesn't much impact my answer.

    First, I strongly believe that for most, everyday applications (products, applications, websites, and web applications), perception is more important than reality. In production environments, such as assembly lines or service bureaus, reality may dominate, but for the rest of us, something that takes longer but that is perceived to be efficient is superior to something that is shorter but perceived differently.

    Second, I do not believe that people really make much of a distinction between usability, aesthetics, etc. Basically, they have a holistic view of their experience and only decompose it when forced to. What they care about is: did they get the answer or outcome they required; was it painless; was it enjoyable. Would they do it again (voluntarily, not because they had no choice)?

    Quite often good characteristics -- whether usability or aesthetics -- are not perceived, in part because they are taken for granted. The human perceptual and attentional systems are tuned to notice discrepancies and problems, not that which is expected. So we tend to notice things that distract, that impair our ability to get something done, or in the realm of aesthetics, that are particularly distasteful. We do indeed notice especially attractive items(or people), but quite often the attention drawn to the appearance can be detrimental to the task. So the best designs are often the ones that are least noticed.

    The fact that good design is often unnoticed does not bode well for our profession: it limits survival value (which in design, means that little attention will be paid to these attributes). Superb usability is only noticed if everything else is so bad that the improvement increases user satisfaction and sales. Appearance is similar: if the new appearance is sufficiently good to be remarked upon, then it might enhance sales. But without compeling evidence thatthese design factors matter, marketing forces will push toward things that appear to give competitive edge, which in most instances means lower price and extra features. This trend continues until the point where the "enhancements" get in the way, and then suddenly the cry will arise for better usability ("can't we make it simpler!") and better design ("hire someone to make itlook pretty." You shouldn't like this answer, but it what we have to learn to live with, ecept in the most sophisticatedof comapnies. This attitude differs for prestige items (see my discussion on reflective design below), but websites seldom fit into this category.

    If the question is, how much attention should be place on usability, aesthetics, and pleasurable interaction for different classes of products, then the above reasoning leads to the following "it depends" answers.

    For truly one time uses (for example, to answer questions such as "what time is it right now in Rio de Janeiro?") I suspect ease of getting the answer dominates all else.

    For repeated uses, such as my own personal use of my.yahoo for keeping up with news headlines, weather, and the stock market, aesthetics matters slightly, rapidity of scanning the information matters a lot, and my ability to tailor the selection and placement of just the information I care about dominates. For Google, functionality coupled with the clean, elegance of the interaction dominate. For shopping sites such as Amazon.com or Netflix.com, the ability to look up things rapidly, get authoritative information about them and high-quality reviews, coupled with ease of ordering dominates. These sites are not aesthetically exciting, but the aesthetics do not distract. (Amazon, though, as it expands to cover all things sellable, is in severe danger of losing these virtues).

    For products that are on display in my home, whether or not they are frequently or seldom used, aesthetics often dominates.

    Now I come to prestige items, where reflective design dominates. For such major display items as clothing, jewelry, watches, cellphones, and automobiles, aesthetics and functionality matter, but here the reflective side of design plays a critical role: the choices of al these items says something about the person, and so here fashion, brand image, and other reflective characteristics can play more important roles than function or aesthetics. Usability? That barely matters, assuming that it is at least at an acceptable level. On the whole, I have found that usability is always secondary or even tertiary in people's judgments about products. As long as it is "good enough," most people don't really care. More to the point, they seldom base their purchase decisions on this dimension. The lack of attention that industry pays to this dimension is, therefore, often quite reasonable.

    A personal note is relevant here: I am an exception to this rule, but only because my public persona is that of a usability expert, so I have learned that other people scrutinize every object I own, so I have to justify my choices -- but once again, even though the dimension may be usability, it is a reflective side of being usable. Now that I have championed beauty and pleasure, the range of scrutiny of my objects has expanded, but fortunately, I now have more room to explore and enjoy objects, rather than simply aim at usable ones.

    What are your favorite top 15 most important usability principles?

    What are your favorite top 15 most important usability principles? Feel free to cite sources and canons to support your answer.

    The most important consulting rule that I follow is: "Never solve the problem as stated." Why? because it is invariably the wrong problem, usually being the symptom rather than the cause. Find the root cause and solve that, and then the original problem usually disappears.

    I intend to follow that rule right now.

    Which side is the steering wheel?

    I've always wondered if the person who designed the first car with the steering wheel on the right hand side was a left handed person. What is your view on that one? Which one is the right (correct) side?!?

    Well, first of all, let's get our facts straight. As I have said before, bad questions deserve bad answers. What make you think the first cars to drive on the left -- or right -- had steering wheels? Steering wheels didn't show up until around 1904. Not only that, but your question is ambiguous because there are two issues here: which side of the road do you wish to drive on, and given that decision, which side of the car would you sit on?

    Why do you think the side of the road came about with automobiles? Horses were told to stick to the left going over London bridge (not the bridge that moved to Arizona) in 1756. The general Highways act of 1773 in Britain applied the rule to the entire country. And although I have looked hard, I do not see any steering wheels on horses. Napoleon made his troops keep to the right.

    Most early cars had the divers sit in the middle, a practice that makes great sense to me. This way, you can separate those fighting kids -- put one on your left, one on your right. When I lived in England, I drove a left-hand drive car and drove on the left, I found it superior because I could avoid all those drainage ditches in the Cambridge roads. And because all the oncoming driers were scared out of their minds when they saw me coming, they all made sure to keep a huge distance between our cars.

    The Wikipedia says:

    "Most early motor cars had the drivers seat in the middle. Later some manufacturers chose to have the driver's seat nearest the centre of the road in order to look out for oncoming traffic whilst others chose to put the seat on the other side so that the drivers could avoid damaging their vehicles on walls, hedges, roadside gutters and other obstacles. Eventually the former idea prevailed."

    Folklore says it all has to do with swords and lances and yes, if the folks carrying them were right-handed (and everyone was right handed -- left-handedness is a modern invention. In earlier times it wasn't allowed (this is the "just say no" philosophy applied to genetics), they wanted to be on the left to free up their sword hand. Unless they were jousting, in which case they drove on the right to position the lance better. And even if you drive on the left or right, it isn't clear where to sit, although there isn't much choice when you are on a horse.

    So anyway, it's all a big muddle. and it has to do with history and folklore and stuff that nobody ever gets right, which is a good thing if you make your living as a historian: you can always make living disagreeing with the previous folks.

    (If you want a serious essay, try http://www.brianlucas.ca/roadside/. But that won't make you any wiser.)

    Tell me why is emotional design important for you, and for education and learning?

    Dear Dr. Norman;

    I note that you have researched human memory, attention, learning, and design. As a grad student in Design, Housing & Apparel at the University of Minnesota, I am holding your new book <> in my hands. It closely relates to my thesis. My questions...

    Tell me why is emotional design important for you, and for education and learning?

    How does emotional design impact Multimedia and Instructional Design (it clearly impacts its audience)?

    Can higher levels of learning and problem-solving be achieved with electronic tools? Or as Jonassen (2000) "Toward a design theory of problem solving" says, are design problems (which he says are ill-structured) "uniquely human interpersonal activities"?

    Ever see an unhappy student, bored, distracted, annoyed. Or fearful, anxious, stressed out. Do you think they are learning? Of course emotion (and motivation) matters for education and learning.

    We expert teachers know that motivation and emotional impact are what matter. Sure, one can always get the students to relax and be happy -- entertained, but although being laid back and relax can also lead to creativity, mostly it means that nothing much gets done. There is a good reason for the oft-made observation that the most productive people are unhappy people.

    So what does a good teacher do? Create tension-- but just the right amount. Give assignments with strict due-dates and penalties for missing them. Does this create stress? Of course, but the kind that makes you work the evening before and get the job done.

    Ever notice that it doesn't really matter how much time you are given on a project? You do the work the night before -- that's when the stress hits its peak: do it or die.

    In fact, you know those wonderful lectures that are perfectly clear - crystal clear? Bad. No pain, no gain works for all muscles, including the one between our ears. You gotta sweat a bit to learn. Learning works best when you struggle, but struggle at just right level: too little and you don't learn, too much and you give up.

    While I'm at it, I hate teachers who are always perfect. They practice the night before so they won't make a mistake in class (this is especially true of mathematics and computer science profs). This is bad teaching. Students then think that if they have difficulties,they aren't doing it right, or worse, aren't fit to learn math or programming. Teachers ought to do each problem cold - no preparation. Show the class that they make mistakes all the time. Struggle, go off in the wrong direction. Make a mistake? So what - simply try again, with a different approach. We all make mistakes. Even bored certified Gurus. Find the mistake and fix it: no big deal.

    (You figure out where the comma goes -- "bored, certified Gurus" or "bored certified, Gurus," or bored-certified Gurus." Eat shoots and leaves. (Inside joke.))

    I follow what I preach. You won't catch me giving clear lectures. AS for all those mistakes I make -- they are on purpose -- to teach you how to deal with them. Just remember that: it's all for your own good.

    You also ask:
    Can higher levels of learning and problem-solving be achieved with electronic tools? Or as Jonassen (2000) "Toward a design theory of problem solving" says, are design problems (which he says are ill-structured) "uniquely human interpersonal activities"?

    Now it sounds as if you want me to write your thesis for you., Shame on you. But here are some hints. Question one: Yes (because it is, to coin a phrase, "Things that make us smart") . Question two, Yes, so?

    By the way, what has all this got to do with apparel and multimedia? What does multimedia have to do with apparel? Ah, I get it, wearable technology: "he wore his screen on his sleeve."

    Design + Relationships

    Dear Don,

    Inspired by some of your comments on aesthetics and emotion in design I have been thinking about its application to relationships; here are some thoughts:

    Are people more tolerant of attractive partners? Do we overlook defects? Do we put up with more errors than we would do with similar less attractive models?

    Do people expect attractive people to be dumber? I recall a national radio show had a phone-in about the correlation between attractiveness and cleverness in the female of the species, which I presume applies to males as well if indeed it does hold true (professors being the exception to this rule of course!) – the usability equivalent may be people like my grandparents that shy away from flash, new technology as they don't think they’ll be able to use it (i.e. it's less useable than the plain stuff).

    Is there a utility model for relationships? Attractiveness + Cleverness + Wealth + X + Y = Z

    Stop reading. Go to the nearest therapist. You are in severe trouble and need immediate counseling.

    Is there some sort of heuristic review we could devise to help people find their perfect match, or flaws in their partner that could be improved?

    As a business case we might also look at the evolution of technology!! – those people/items with the greatest utility score will be more successful and have their genes/blueprints passed down to other generations of successful people/designs. As with nature, sometimes looks and brawn outweigh brains in a partner's selection.

    The field of HCI is ever expanding – is it time for us to move into relationship management, design, review and maintenance?

    I mean it: Stop reading. Run, don't walk, to the nearest therapist.

    Do you prefer Macintosh or perhaps Red Delicious?

    Dear Dr. Norman,

    Do you prefer Macintosh or perhaps Red Delicious? I must admit though, Granny Smith is difficult to top for baking purposes...


    For years I preferred Macintosh, but then they went into a long period of poor crops, so I switched away. (They recently have regained their old sprightliness and taken on a new edge, so I have started sampling them again.) I switched to Fuji and then had a brief fling with Gala. But the current favorite is Jonagold, a hybrid. Hybrids are often to be preferred: too much reliance on a single form is dangerous: and subject to drift, and invasion by pests. Hybrids are more stable.

    Baking is different. For baking I prefer OK/cancel because its tartness survives even intense heat.

    Are we fundamentally mal-adapted?

    Hi Don,

    Your book "The Design of Everyday Things" opened my eyes to a whole new world of unusable doors, etc. But over the years, as I hear those in our profession rant about unusable objects, I have to wonder whether people are drawn to the usability profession because we're unable to function in the everyday world and want it to cater to our special needs. I mean... normal people don't care that their VCR has been blinking 12:00 since they bought it - the VCR is for playing videos; for telling time they have clocks. And if they want to record a show when they won't be home, they call a friend (normal people have those too) and ask them to do it as a favor. Are we fundamentally mal-adapted?

    Carolyn :-)

    Carolyn. You are most perceptive: we are indeed fundamentally mal-adapted.

    In the field of Psychology, a discipline that I once inhabited, it is well known that the best researchers studied the areas in which they were least capable. Color-blind researchers were experts on color perception. Semi-deaf researchers studied hearing. I studied memory. It was only after much effort that I was able to reverse this trend and study something I was particularly good at: human error.

    In the field of usability studies, I have observed that the trend continues. My own home is filled with clocks, each telling a different time of day (or night). Our home is filled with blinking objects. As for doors and lights --- I always ask my wife to work these for me.

    I have observed other usability professionals at work: all are quite incompetent at the use of their equipment, whether it be a simple tape recorder or a more complex time-encoded, digitally stabilized, multiple window video time-stamped recording system.

    Your comment that many cope by calling friends falls on deaf ears here (yes, I started my psychological studies in psychoacoustics -- hearing). I do have friends, but all seem equally incapable. After an important TV event, everyone emails one another asking "did you record it?" The answer is frequently "yes, I have it," but when the tape is examined, it is invariably blank, or contains some other show, or perhaps just the boring parts of the event.

    But, let me reveal a secret to success in consulting: turn failures into features. This is why I am so expert at my profession. I can find problems that others miss. I cause demos to fail, well behaved products to misbehave. One session with me and the company recognizes what sad shape it is in, and why it needs help.

    We are indeed mal-adapted: revel in that fact.


    Oakley is well known for making fashionable and functionable glasses, but I have question on this pair of sunglasses. It looks like a bra. I tried it on, it messed up my hair. I really think this pair of sunglasses will only looked good on a bald men. Maybe "The Don" can evaluate this unique design of glasses for us?!?

    Thks! – Kat

    Kat. I think you show a poor attitude for someone interested in making products better for people. It is most unprofessional to denigrate TheUser (r). Bald people (let's not be sexist) need sunglasses just as much as hairy people. Bras are good -- uplifting, even, which is a fine emotion. As sunglasses, they bring cheer and delight to an otherwise gloomy world.

    But to each their own, which is why the world of products is so inspiring. With all the billions of people in the world, we need a plethora of products: product designers will never run out of work. Bra sunglasses for bald men, saddle bags for others. We must treat each of TheUser ® with sensitivity and warmth.

    ® "TheUser" is registered, copyrighted, and copylefted. All rights preserved.

    Do you think HCI is a science?

    Do you think HCI is a science? If yes, do you think we can have a systematic and forever valid HCI theory in the end? If no, then what is HCI, and what is our position as HCI practitioners?

    I believe you are suffering from what is called "category error." No profession is a science. Practitioners are not scientists and it is a mistake to pretend to be one. Similarly, scientists are miserable practitioners. These are different categories.

    Look at medicine, law, civil engineering. and programming to take four simple examples. Most professions are based upon science, but they are engineering, which means much of what they do is still an art form. Civil engineering is a good example. Bridges fail. Dams break. Programming errors proliferate -- software is buggy, malformed. This is to be expected when the pure dictates of a science are applied to the real, messy, unpredictable world. This is why we need consultants and Gurus. Biology and mathematics do not need consultants. Medicine and economics do. So too with programming, bridge design and construction, and the applied world of HCI.

    Why does Jakob make up so many numbers?

    Why does Jakob make up so many numbers?

    By Jakob, I assume you are referring to Guru Jakob. It is only polite to use the full title. I have found Guru J. to be honest, trustworthy, and consistent. In this case, he is simply following one of his earliest proclamations: "83% of the statistics on the web are made up (including this one)."

    Do you consider yourself a guru?
    Do you consider yourself a guru? What defines a guru?
    The term "Guru" (please note the use of the upper-case "G") is reserved for those with beard certification. Alas, the word (often with a lower-case "g") is widely misapplied. Do not trust the word of all those so-called gurus, many self-anointed. Look for beard certification. I am a beard-certified Guru, with, I am proud to say, direct access to Gu. Not only is my word law, but Gu stands directly behind my word, and who r u to dispute Gu?
    convince users that they should care?

    I encounter so many people with the mentality that a confusing door isn't that big of a deal. These are the kinds of folks who don't care that the switch on the right controls the lamp on the left, and vice versa. "So what? You figured it out, it's not that hard." This attitude becomes a frustrating challenge when everyone else on the team is fine with a design the way it is and can't see why anything should be spent on trying to improve something that already works. It ends up being much like defending the validity of your job.

    How do you go about explaining that good interface design is important? What's the best way to help people understand why they shouldn't have to "figure it out" no matter how simple it might be to do so? Is it a hopeless crusade to convince users that they should care?

    In my wisdom (and I consulted with GU on this one), you are in the wrong, for when "everyone else on the team is fine with a design the way it is" who r u to claim that they are all out of step and it is only you who is in step?

    You ask: "Is it a hopeless crusade to convince users that they should care?"

    Are we not in the profession of satisfying users? If users don't care, then it is our solemn duty to deliver upon that absence of care. You should spend your efforts on more worthy causes, such as why you are building products with lamps and switches when you could develop a simple hierarchical menu with modal dialog box to do the same function.

    Does personalisation of interaction enhance or reduce the quality of the user experience?

    "Does personalisation of interaction enhance or reduce the quality of the user experience?"

    Yes, absolutely.

    And I refer you to the Epilog of "Emotional Design" for proof (available at http://jnd.org/dn.mss/CH-Epilog.pdf)

    Ask "The Don" Norman

    I'm at a friend's house in Seaford (in England, near Brighton), and thinking of you because he has a light switch outside the bathroom (I don't know why the English think that if you have a light switch *in* the bathroom you will perforce electrocute yourself). He said, "Just hold your finger on it until the lights do what you want."

    The switch is a little metal sort of button. It's not entirely comfortable to hold your finger on it.

    It also turns out that "until the lights do what you want" is incredibly difficult to time correctly -- and it has to be precisely correct. It's fairly easy to get the lights to turn on part way. It's not that hard to get them to turn on all the way. It's incredibly hard to get them to turn all the way off without coming back up again.

    The switch is obviously meant as a test for drunks. If you can't set the light properly you are in no condition to use the bathroom -- you should go outside and use the bushes.