Don Norman: Designing For People

Nielsen Norman Group

Interaction articles

Stupid Smart Stuff: Watches and Automation

08 March 2014

Whenever you see something labeled "smart" or "intelligent," be assured that it is actually rather stupid. It is time to for the designers and engineers of this coming automated world and take heed from the lessons learned over the years in the field of Human-Systems Integration, in studies of automation. Lots of excellent scientists working in the research labs of automobile companies know all this. Product people are notorious about ignoring the wisdom of research groups in their same company. We now have very smart devices, stupidly done. I fear the consequences will be a lot worse than waking people up at 4:30 in the morning. Pay attention, engineers: pay attention, designers. Pay attention or people will be killed.

Looking Back, Looking Forward

27 November 2010

Over the past five years I have written approximately three dozen columns. What has been learned? What will come? Obviously it is time for reflection. My goal has always been to incite thought, debate, and understanding. Those of us in the field of interaction, whether students, researchers or practitioners, whether designers or programmers, synthesizers or analyzers, all share some common beliefs and ideals. One of my jobs is to challenge these established beliefs, for often when they are examined, they rest on an ill-defined platform, often with no supporting evidence except that they have been around for so long, they are accepted as given, without need for examination. We need a rigorous foundation for our work, which means to question that which is not firmly supported by evidence, if it appears obvious. Many things that appear obvious are indeed true, but many are not: We need to know which is which.

Systems Thinking: A Product Is More Than the Product

03 September 2010

In reality a product is all about the experience. It is about discovery, purchase, anticipation, opening the package, the very first usage. It is also about continued usage, learning, the need for assistance, updating, maintenance, supplies, and eventual renewal in the form of disposal or exchange. Most companies treat every stage as a different process, done by a different division of the company: R&D, manufacturing, packaging, sales, and then as a necessary afterthought, service. As a result there is seldom any coherence. Instead, there are contradictions. If you think of the product as a service, then the separate parts make no sense--the point of a product is to offer great experiences to its owner, which means that it offers a service. And that experience, that service, is the result of the coherence of the parts. The real value of a product consists of far more than the product's components.

Gestural Interfaces: A Step Backwards In Usability

28 May 2010

Gestural interfaces are fun to use: gestures add a welcome feeling of activity to the otherwise joyless ones of pointing and clicking. The are truly a revolutionary mode of interaction. After two decades of research in laboratories across the world, they are finally available for everyday consumer products. But the lack of consistency, inability to discover operations, coupled with the ease of accidentally triggering actions from which there is no recovery threatens the viability of these systems. We urgently need to return to our basics, developing usability guidelines for these systems that are based upon solid principles of interaction design, not on the whims of the company human interface guidelines and arbitrary ideas of developers.

The Research-Practice Gap

03 April 2010

There is an immense gap between research and practice. There are fundamental differences in the knowledge and skill sets required by those who conduct the research and those who attempt to translate those results into practical, reliable, and affordable form. Between research and practice a new, third discipline must be inserted, one that can translate between the abstractions of research and the practicalities of practice. We need a discipline of translational development. Translational developers are needed who can mine the insights of researchers and hone them into practical, reliable and useful results. Similarly translational developers must help translate the problems and concerns of practice into the clear, need-based statements that can drive researchers to develop new insights. Neither direction of translation is easy.

Natural User Interfaces Are Not Natural

03 April 2010

Gestural interaction is the new excitement in the halls of industry. Advances in the size, power, and cost of microprocessors, memory, cameras, and other sensing devices now make it possible to control by wipes and flicks, hand gestures, and body movements. A new world of interaction is here: The rulebooks and guidelines are being rewritten, or at least, such is the claim. And the new interactions even have a new marketing name: natural, as in "Natural User Interface." As usual, marketing rhetoric is ahead of reality. All new technologies have their proper place. All new technologies will take a while for us to figure out the best manner of interaction as well as the standardization that removes one source of potential confusion. None of these systems is inherently more natural than the others. What we think of as natural is, to a large extent, learned.

Technology First, Needs Last

05 December 2009

I've come to a disconcerting conclusion: design research is great when it comes to improving existing product categories but essentially useless when it comes to new, innovative breakthroughs. I reached this conclusion through examination of a range of product innovations, most especially looking at those major conceptual breakthroughs that have had huge impact upon society as well as the more common, mundane small, continual improvements. Call one conceptual breakthrough, the other incremental. Although we would prefer to believe that conceptual breakthroughs occur because of a detailed consideration of human needs, especially fundamental but unspoken hidden needs so beloved by the design research community, the fact is that it simply doesn't happen. New conceptual breakthroughs are invariably driven by the development of new technologies The new technologies, in turn, inspire technologists to invent things, not sometimes because they themselves dream of having their capabilities, but many times simply because they can build them. In other words, grand conceptual inventions happen because technology has finally made them possible. Do people need them? That question is answered over the next several decades as the technology moves from technical demonstration, to product, to failure, or perhaps to slow acceptance in the commercial world where slowly, after considerable time, the products and applications are jointly evolve, and slowly the need develops.


02 October 2009

We live in exciting times. Finally, we are beginning to understand that pleasure and fun are important components of life, that emotion is not a bad thing, and that learning, education and work can all benefit through encouraging pleasure and fun. Up to now, a primary goal of product and service design has been to provide useful functions and results. We should not lose track of these goals, but now that we are well on our way to doing that for an amazing variety of goods and services, it is time to make sure that they are pleasurable as well. Not only does this require emotions to be a major component of design thinking, but we must incorporate action as well, actions that use the whole body in movement, rhythm, and purpose. New technologies allow creativity to blossom, whether for reasons silly or sublime. Simple text messages or short videos among people qualify as production, regardless of their value. This new movement is about participating and creating, invoking the creative spirit. This is what the transmedia experience should be about. All of these experiences are allowing people to feel more like producers and creators rather than passive consumers or spectators. The new design challenge is to create true participatory designs coupled with true multi-media immersion that reveal new insights and create true novel experiences. We all participate, we all experience. We all design, we all partake. But much of this is meaningless: how do we provide richness and depth, enhanced through the active engagement of all, whether they be the originators or the recipients of the experience? How will this come to pass? What is the role in everyday life? Will this be a small portion or will it dominate? Will it even be permitted within the confines of contemporary commercialism? Those are the significant design challenges.

When Security Gets in the Way

01 August 2009

If we ever are to have systems with adequate security and privacy that people are willing to use, then the three fields of Security, Privacy, and Usability must work together as a team. Without usable systems, the security and privacy simply disappears as people defeat the processes in order to get their work done. We have a wonderful design challenge before us. It is time to make systems that are more secure, that enhance privacy, and that are still eminently usable. We need systems that are effective at performing their tasks, while providing high quality of user experience at reasonable cost. The solution is going to require sensible analyses, the development of appropriate technologies probably including automation, enhanced interaction protocols and interfaces with better feedback, and the development and continual communication to support the development of an appropriate conceptual models. The only way this will happen is if all parties work together as a team from the start. With notable exceptions, the security and privacy concerns have been addressed by the security and privacy experts, coupled with the arbitrary rules and policies of system administrators, where these concerns have been tacked on to existing systems as afterthoughts.

Designing the Infrastructure

01 August 2009

It is time to work on infrastructure. It threatens to dominate our lives with ugliness, frustration, and work. We need to spend more time on the designs for infrastructure. We need to make it more attractive, more accessible, and easier to maintain. Infrastructure is intended to be hidden, to provide the foundation for everyday life. If we do not respond, it will dominate our lives, preventing us attending to our priory concerns and interests and instead, just keeping ahead of the maintenance demands.

Compliance and Tolerance

01 August 2009

Our computer systems are still far too intolerant of everyday human behavior. The systems demand strict adherence to their requirements. This essay recommends changing the battleground. Bring it back to human terms: ask for compliance and tolerance. Compliance and tolerance means to allow inconsequential deviation from a rigid format. Allow dates and telephone numbers in any form that a person would understand. Allow flexibility, allow tolerance for small deviations. No dramatic scientific breakthroughs are required, simply a different philosophy. Those are new concepts for designers, but concepts that are easy to understand. Ask our engineers, programmers, and fellow designers to aim at compliant systems, tolerant systems.

Memory is more important than actuality

01 August 2009

An experience exists only for that brief moment of time we call "the present." The memory of the experience can last an entire lifetime. It is the memory that matters, and as much experimental evidence demonstrates, memory is a highly distorted view of actuality. So what does this mean to the designer? Design for memory. Exploit it. What is the most important part of an experience? Psychologists emphasize what they call the primacy and recency effects, with recency being the most important. In other words, what is most important? The ending. What is next most important? The start. So make sure the beginning and the end are wonderful. Make sure there are reminders of the good parts of the experience: Photographs, mementos, trinkets. Make sure the experience delights, whether it be the simple unfolding of a car's cup holder or the band serenading departing cruise ship customers. Accent the positive and it will overwhelm the memory for the negative.

People Are From Earth, Machines Are From Outer Space

14 November 2008

People are from earth. Machines are from outer space. I don't know what kind of manners they teach in outer space, but if machines are going to live here in our world, they really need to learn to behave properly. You know, when on Earth, do as the earthlings do. So, hey machines, you need to become socialized. Right now you are arrogant, antisocial, irritating know-it-alls. Sure, you say nice things like “please” and “thank you,” but being polite involves more than words. It is time to socialize our interactions with technology. Sociable machines. Basic lessons in communication skills. Rules of machine etiquette. Machines need to show empathy with the people with whom they interact, understand their point of view, and above all, communicate so that everyone understands what is happening.It never occurs to a machine that the problems might be theirs. Oh no. It's us pesky people who are to blame.

Signifiers, not affordances

14 November 2008

One of our fundamental principles is that of perceived affordances: that's one way we know what to do in novel situations. That's fine for objects, but what about situations? What about people, social groups, cultures? Powerful clues arise from what I call social signifiers. A "signifier" is some sort of indicator, some signal in the physical or social world that can be interpreted meaningfully. Signifiers signify critical information, even if the signifier itself is an accidental byproduct of the world. Social signifiers are those that are relevant to social usages. Some social indicators simply are the unintended but informative result of the behavior of others. Social signifiers replace affordances, for they are broader and richer, allowing for accidental signifiers as well as deliberate ones, and even for items that signify by their absence, as the lack of crowds on a train platform. The perceivable part of an affordance is a signifier, and if deliberately placed by a designer, it is a social signifier.

Simplicity Is Not the Answer

19 August 2008

Everyone wants simplicity. Everyone misses the point. Simplicity is not the goal. We do not wish to give up the power and flexibility of our technologies. We are faced with an apparent paradox, but don’t worry: good design will see us through. People want the extra power that increased features bring to a product, but they intensely dislike the complexity that results. Is this a paradox? Not necessarily. Complexity can be managed. The argument is not between adding features and simplicity, between adding capability and usability. The real issue is about design: designing things that have the power required for the job while maintaining understandability, the feeling of control, and the pleasure of accomplishment.

Workarounds - Leading Edge of Innovation

19 August 2008

Where do new ideas come from? How should designers create, transform, innovate? Do we need formal observational methods? When I talk to today’s foremost designers, most are scornful. Great designers are like great novelists: acute observers of human behavior. Although they are scornful of formal methods, they themselves are expert practitioners of observation, and if you can corner them in a quiet room (or better yet, a noisy bar), they will brag about those abilities. Many ordinary people use the objects around them in unordinary ways. Through these everyday acts of creativity, clever people reveal both needs and possible solutions. They lead to the innovations that will benefit many. Hacks and workarounds: those are the soul of innovation. Observing is easy: recognizing the innovation and then knowing what to do with the observations are where the difficulties lie.

Waiting: A Necessary Part of Life

17 February 2008

Interaction design is about interfaces, which means it is about synchronizing the events of different systems, about memories, buffers, queues and waiting rooms. Waiting is an unavoidable component of interfaces, an unavoidable part of life. Just as dirt collects in crevices, buffers collect in the interfaces between systems. It is their natural home, and life would not work without them. I have become fascinated by buffers. I see them everywhere I look. They cannot be escaped.

A Fetish for Numbers: Hospital Care

17 February 2008

I've been spending a lot of time in hospitals recently. No, not as a patient, as an observer — following doctors and nurses on their grand rounds, watching patients get admitted, nurses doing shift changes, pharmacists filling prescriptions, and then watching nurses actually deliver the prescribed medication to their patients, waving barcode readers over the prescriptions, the medication, and the patients. The modern hospital is a complex system, with multiple complex interactions among people, equipment, laws, institutions, and a confusing wealth of information. It is time to turn our attention to the multiple interfaces and design issues within this complex system. Healthcare is a problem that needs immediate attention. We need to start now, for the issues are life-threatening.

Filling Much Needed Holes

21 September 2007

Many of our clever ethnographic and field methods are designed to find unmet needs. You know what? Most are far better off if they stay unmet.

Automobile in HCI's Future-2

21 September 2007

The automobile industry is badly in need of guidance on human factors. Excellent people already work in the companies, but they suffer the problems faced within the consumer electronics and computer industries over the past few decades. This is an important arena, one where human-centered design skills are essential. But success will come only when our discipline can provide seasoned managers who know how to work across disciplines, with engineers, designers (stylists), manufacturing, marketing and, of course, upper management.

UI Breakthroughs-2-Physicality

21 September 2007

We have evolved as physical creatures. We live in a complex, three-dimensional world filled with physical objects. We are analog beings in an artificial world of digital devices, devices that abstract what is powerful and good from the physical world and turn it into information spaces, usually in arbitrary ways. These new approaches put the body back into the picture. They require us to control through physical action, which means through mechanical devices, not electronic or graphic, through physical rather than virtual.

UI Breakthrough-Command Line Interfaces

07 February 2007

Want to know what I think the next UI breakthroughs will be? Here is one: Command line languages. Did you think they were dead? Forever vanguished by graphical user interaces? Think again. Search engines have added command structures, and now these have migrated to the desktop. The new command line interfaces still have a way to go. They have appeared serendipitously, as system developers slowly expanded the capabilities of search tools. But now it is time to recognize them for what they are â€" and for how much better they could become. Command line interfaces. Once that was all we had. Then they disappeared, replaced by what we thought was a great advance: GUIs. GUIs were â€" and still are â€" valuable, but they fail to scale to the demands of today’s systems. So now command line interfaces are back again, hiding under the name of search. Now you see them, now you don’t. Now you see them again. And they will get better and better with time: mark my words, that is my prediction for the future of interfaces.

Simplicity Is Highly Overrated

09 December 2006

Yes, we want simplicity, but we don’t want to give up any of those cool features. Simplicity is highly overrated.

Three Challenges for Design

09 December 2006

The invisible, ubiquitous computer has arrived, ensnaring almost any conceivable activity within its grasp. This raises wonderful opportunities and challenges to the field of human-computer interaction, for if the computer is everywhere, then everything is within our domain of study.

It is time to consider where the next application areas might be. As I look to the future, I see numerous domains of concern, but with three large, overriding issues:

The ever-increasing complexity of everyday things
The ever-increasing burden of security, authentication, and identification
The ever-increasing use of automation

Logic Versus Usage: The Case for Activity-Centered Design

17 July 2006

In my consulting activities, I often have to explain to companies that they are too logical, too rational. Human behavior seldom follows mathematical logic and reasoning. By the standards of engineers, human behavior can be illogical and irrational. From the standpoint of people, however, their behavior is quite sensible, dictated by the activity being performed, the environment and context, and their higher-level goals. Activity-centered design organizes according to usage: traditional human-centered design organizes according to topic, in isolation, outside the context of real, everyday use. Both are needed.

Words Matter. Talk About People: Not Customers, Not Consumers, Not Users

10 June 2006

Words matter. Psychologists depersonalize the people they study by calling them "subjects." We depersonalize the people we study by calling them "users." Both terms are derogatory. They take us away from our primary mission: to help people. Power to the people, I say, to repurpose an old phrase. People. Human Beings. That's what our discipline is really about.

Why doing user observations first is wrong

02 April 2006

How many times have you had to fight hard for the ability to do field studies and other observations at the very start of the project? How many times have you patiently explained that taking time now would be rewarded by faster time to market overall? And how many times were you successful? The HCI community has long complained about product processes that do not allow time to start with good observations. The more I examine this issue, the more I think that it is we, the HCI community, who are wrong. This includes me, for I have long championed the "study first, design second" approach. Well, I now suggest that for many projects the order is "design, then study."

Emotionally-centered design

02 April 2006

Web 2.0 is coming. Rich Internet applications (RIA) are here. Hurrah! The internet has caught up with the desktop, at long last. As a result, they provide some natural experiments in emotionally-attractive websites, allowing us to contrast the more traditional, static html page website with these more interactive, dynamic ones, where there are natural controls for information content, utility, and usability. So let’s see what we can learn from them. In this exploration, I concentrate on map websites because they provide the ingredients for appropriate comparisons. We are moving from static pages with their clunky, slow repainting of the page to fluid, dynamic displays, where the movement is a major part of the charm. We are moving from behaviorally effective designs to ones that add emotional engagement.

To school or not to school

02 April 2006

To school or not to school, is that the question? Should you go back to school? Whatever you do, remember that you must continually be learning. It is essential to keep up with rapidly evolving practices, with new technologies, procedures, business models, markets, and so on. So no matter what your schooling, make sure you are always engaged. Go to all the talks, seminars, and meetings you can. Attend national conferences. Subscribe to the journals and magazines and newsletters. Often these will disappoint or even bore you, but stick to it. You will be surprised how your sophistication grows over time, even though no single event seems responsible. When I go to a five-day conference, if I get one new insight, that makes it worthwhile. One insight after five days? Yup. Insights are rare. One or two a year, and that is a rich life. To school or not to school is a question only you can answer.

Whose profession is design?

02 April 2006

Designing a product requires many skills, and it is the rare individual who has them all. Design is, therefore, an exercise in teamwork, where each team member brings in a different mix of skills, attitudes, and values. Alas, quite often, members think their own set of attributes is the most important. Whose profession is this, anyway? Nobody’s and everybody’s. We are all in it together, we all need one another.

Trapped In a Lufthansa Airline Seat

21 November 2005

I consider it part of my self-imposed job requirement to purchase and try out every new technology. How else am to know the pleasure – and trauma – associated with their potential and their realization? My experiences demonstrate the need for the field of HCI expand its horizons far beyond that of the traditional computer. This essay gives one example.

HCD harmful? A Clarification

03 September 2005

Many have had difficulty with my article "Human-Centered Design Considered Harmful" In particular, I failed to make clear what I meant by "Activity-Centered Design," (ACD) and how it differs from "Human-Centered Design"(HCD). Some people think I have renounced everything I have said before. No, no, no. So, this short note tries to clarify.

There's an Automobile in HCI's Future

13 August 2005

Consider the modern automobile. It is a wonder of computation. multiple CPUs, hundreds of miles of cabling. Automatic this and automatic that. Lots of automatic stuff. How do we automate sensibly, controlling some parts of the driving experience, but ensuring that drivers are kept alert and informed -- "in the loop" is the way this is described in aviation safety. The current designs for automobile automation are being done by engineers who are ignorant of the lessons learned from studies of automation. Here we go again. Each new industry fails to learn the lessons of the previous ones. So, once again, here is a field in desperate need of help, yet not quite realizing it. A field with new lessons to learn, and a lot of very old lessons that have to be taught once again.

Do companies fail because their technology is unusable?

22 July 2005

Wonderful user experience is important, but neither necessary nor sufficient. If the company fails, it doesn’t matter how good the experience was. For us, as a discipline, to be successful, we need to understand the entire picture. Our job is to make the company succeed.

Human-Centered Design Considered Harmful

22 July 2005

Human-Centered Design has become such a dominant theme in design that it is now accepted by interface and application designers automatically, without thought, let alone criticism. That’s a dangerous state — when things are treated as accepted wisdom. The purpose of this essay is to provoke thought, discussion, and reconsideration of some of the fundamental principles of Human-Centered Design. These principles, I suggest, can be helpful, misleading, or wrong. At times, they might even be harmful. Activity-Centered Design is superior.

Robots in the Home: What Might They Do?

29 January 2005

Robots are coming, but what does this mean to ordinary folks? First of all, don't believe all the hype. Three likely directions for the future are entertainment, home appliances, and education. We can start with today's existing devices and slowly add on intelligence, manipulative ability, and function. Start small and build. The market for robots that entertain by being cute and cuddly is already well established. The second generation of vacuum cleaners is smarter than the first. Sony's dog gets smarter and less expensive with each new version. We don't yet think of washing machines, microwave ovens, and coffee makers as robots, but why not? They don't move around the house, but they are getting better and smarter every year. And when the coffee maker is connected to the pantry and dishwasher, that will be a home robot worthy of the name: same for the coupling of sorting, washing, drying, and storing clothes. Education is a powerful possibility. There is already a solid basis of educational devices that aid learning. Today's robots can read aloud in engaging voices. They can be cute and lovable — witness the responses to the multiple quasi-intelligent animals on the toy market. A robot could very well interact with a child, offering educational benefits as well. Why not have the robot help the child learn the alphabet, teach reading, vocabulary, pronunciation, basic arithmetic, maybe basic reasoning? Why not music and art, geography and history? And why restrict it to children?

Interaction Design for Automobile Interiors

22 September 2004

The automobile industry is ignoring all the advances in user-interface design, and all the lessons about safety. Unlike home computers where bad design is simply a nuisance, with automobiles, bad design can be a major safety issue.