A Step Backward In Usability
Donald A. Norman
Nielsen Norman Group and Northwestern University | email@example.com
Nielsen Norman Group | firstname.lastname@example.org
One step forward, two steps back.
 Norman, D. A.
“Natural User Interfaces
Are Not Natural.”
interactions 17, 3, (2010);
Once again, the usability crisis
is upon us. We suspect most of
you thought it was over. After
all, HCI certainly understands
how to make things usable, so
the emphasis has shifted to more
engaging topics, such as new
applications, new technological
developments, and the challenges of social networks and ubiquitous connection and communication. Well, you were wrong.
In a recent column for
interactions, Norman pointed out that
in the rush to develop gestural
(or “natural”) interfaces, well-tested and understood standards
of interaction design were being
overthrown, ignored, and violated
. Yes, new technologies require
new methods, but the refusal to
follow well-established principles
leads to usability disaster.
screw things up. Nielsen put it
this way: “The first crop of iPad
apps revived memories of Web
designs from 1993, when Mosaic
first introduced the image map
that made it possible for any
part of any picture to become a
UI element. As a result, graphic
designers went wild: Anything
they could draw could be a UI,
whether it made sense or not.
It’s the same with iPad apps:
Anything you can show and
touch can be a UI on this device.
There are no standards and no
Why are we having trouble?
• The lack of established guidelines for gestural control
But the place for such experimentation is in the lab. After
all, most new ideas fail, and the
more radically they depart from
previous best practices, the more
likely they are to fail. Sometimes
a radical idea turns out to be a
brilliant radical breakthrough.
Those designs should indeed
ship, but it’s important to realize radical breakthroughs are
extremely rare in any discipline.
Most progress is made through
small and sustained incremental
steps. Bold explorations should
remain inside the company and
university research laboratories
and not be inflicted on any customers until those recruited to
participate in user research have
validated the approach.
September + October 2010
 Nielsen, J. “iPad
Usability: First Findings
from User Testing.”
Alertbox, 26 April 2010.
Recently, Raluca Budui and
Hoa Loranger from the Nielsen
Norman Group performed
usability tests on Apple’s iPad,
reaching much the same conclusion. The new applications for
gestural control in smart cell
phones (notably the iPhone and
Android devices) and the coming
arrival of larger screen devices
built upon gestural operating systems (starting with Apple’s iPad)
promise even more opportunities
for well-intended developers to
• The misguided insistence
by companies (e.g., Apple and
Google) to ignore established
conventions and establish ill-conceived new ones.
There are several fundamental
principles of interaction design
that are completely independent
• The developer community’s
apparent ignorance of the long
history and many findings of HCI
research, which results in their
feeling empowered to unleash
untested and unproven creative
efforts upon the unwitting public.
• Visibility (also called per-
ceived affordances or signifiers)
• Consistency (also known as
• Non-destructive operations
(hence the importance of undo)
In response to Nielsen’s article
about the iPad usability studies,
some critics claimed it is reasonable to experiment with radically
new interaction techniques when
given a new platform. We agree.
• Discoverability: All operations can be discovered by systematic exploration of menus.
• Scalability: The operation
should work on all screen sizes,
small and large.