Looking Back, Looking Forward
Donald A. Norman
Nielsen Norman Group, Northwestern University, KAIST Industrial Design | firstname.lastname@example.org
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 with no
supporting evidence other than
the longevity that exempts them
from examination. We need a rigorous foundation for our work—to
question that which is not firmly
supported by evidence, even if
it appears obvious. Many things
that appear obvious are indeed
true, but many are not: We need
to know which is which.
I’ve questioned the role of
usability in products, suggesting
that although it is important, it is
never the most important characteristic. I’ve questioned the time-honored prescription that we
should design products by first
engaging in user research, then a
period of iterative rapid prototyping, assessment, and reconceptu-alization. Although this sequence
seems eminently logical and
necessary, it seldom works in the
time- and money-constrained
world of product development.
The research community has
argued for the critical importance
of doing research first, but with
continual failure. This should be a
signal that the logical time course
simply cannot be accommodated
by the reality of product schedules, so that other solutions and
approaches must be developed.
We cannot continue to argue
that everyone else is wrong.
The research-practice gap
is real, I have argued, and we
should stop pretending that
researchers and practitioners
speak the same language.
Human-centered design (HCD),
I argued, can be harmful, for,
among other things, it is really a
sophisticated take on design by
committee, guaranteeing continual good results. But what if
the goal isn’t merely the good but
rather the great and wonderful?
Then HCD gets in the way. Great
designers do not use HCD. And as
a corollary, great designers have
both great successes and great
failures. HCD promises to avoid
both these extremes.
Everyone, it seems, cries out
for simplicity: We need simpler
products, goes the cry. But when
I examined simplicity, I found
that even those who cried the
loudest actually complained
when given simple products.
Simplicity, I have argued several
times, should never be the goal.
The world is complex and so too
must be our tools. Complexity is
good. The quest for simplicity is
misguided—what people need is
understandable products. They
need the power that complexity
provides, but they seek the com-
fort of things that can be under-
stood. It is confusion that they
dislike, not complexity. This is a
great finding, for it puts the major
onus on designers: Transform
complexity into products that are
understandable, as such things
are judged to be simple.
The Lack of Feedback
I have examined many themes
in my column over the years.
Have they made a difference?
How can one tell? If I am to judge
by the paucity of email I receive,
the infrequent citations, even
in blogs, and the need for me to
repeat many of my arguments
year after year, I would have to
say that the columns have not
had any impact. Is this due to the
work’s inelegance, the passiv-ity of this audience, or perhaps
the nature of the venue itself?
I reject the first reason out of
self-interest and the second out
of my experience that in person,
you are all a most vocal group.
That leaves the third reason.
November + December 2010