Don Norman: Designing For People

Nielsen Norman Group

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.