Donald Norman

Why We Love Everyday Things

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Professor Donald Norman
Professor of Computer Science and Psychology, Northwestern University
Cofounder, Nielsen Norman Group
Author, Emotional Design: Why We Love (or Hate) Everyday Things


Well, the modern marvels of technology have drastically changed the landscape of our daily lives.  Where would we be without our computers, cell phones, and home entertainment systems?  But those increases in technological gadgetry for better living have brought with them an added complexity.  Often causing one to wonder if we might just be better off without them.

Well, joining us today to discuss making technology more human friendly is Prof. Donald Norman.  Prof. Norman is cofounder of the Nielsen Norman Group, an executive consulting firm helping companies produce human-centered products and services.  He serves on numerous advisory boards for companies and education.  Currently, he is a professor of computer science and psychology at Northwestern University, and the author of the new book, Emotional Design: Why We Love (or Hate) Everyday Things.

Charles Lee (CL) talks with Donald Norman (DN) about emotional design of technology.

CL: You’ve had an interesting career advising companies on the design of usable technology.  I’m curious what do you think about our current level of sophistication when it comes to designing user-friendly technological devices.

DN: On the one hand it’s getting better every year, and on the other hand it’s getting worse every year.  Basically, as fast as some companies get the message and start to produce reasonable sensible devices, even more companies come up and produce all these whiz-bang things that none of us can figure out.  Actually, the same applies within the divisions of a company.  So, one division might be doing wonderful, sleek, neat, easy-to-use stuff, and another division, a monster.

CL: So, in your book, Emotional Design, you mention three levels of processing.

DN: It’s about the brain.  And, I oversimplify a lot of modern research on the psychology and neuroscience of emotion, and say, hey, there are three levels of processing.  The visceral, the lowest level, that’s the same for everybody, that’s biologically determined.  And, I say there’s a visceral design that goes along with that, that means it’s about the appearance.  Then there is the behavioral level, which is where we do all of our actions, still subconscious, that’s all the learned and skilled behavior.  And, there’s a side of design about behavioral design, which is all about can I use the thing.  Does it feel good when I use it?  Do I feel in control?  And, finally, the top level, which is if you like prefrontal lobe, the reflective level, which is where our self image resides, which is where we monitor our own behavior to see how well we are doing or how badly, and that’s where our memories are, and that’s where consciousness is.  And that is reflective design, which is about branding and positioning.  So there is a biological basis, but on top of that we can translate it into design.

Emotional DesignCL: And to what degree do you think most companies fit each of these levels in their design of technology?

DN: Well, at the moment, some of the various designers have good intuitive feel for the various levels, but they don’t have the language to describe it.  They don’t realize that they are talking about three levels.  And often what happens, designers will be arguing with each other, and I can come in and say, look guys, you actually are in agreement, but you’re talking about the visceral level, and you’re talking about the reflective level.  So, what I’ve tried to do is provide a framework so that we can get some common conversation.  But, I like to point out the Apple iPod as a device that functions really well at all three levels.  It’s viscerally attractive.  It’s behaviorally elegant.  It’s remarkably easy to use, and fun to use.  And even though you have thousands of songs, it’s not hard to find the one you want.  And finally at the reflective level, well it’s an Apple, and anybody knows that anyone who owns an Apple is a superior person.

CL: So, Apple is well known for making these pleasing devices that have some aesthetic appeal as well.  What do you think it is about Apple, compared with other companies, that they get this aspect in the design of their products?

DN: Well, the interesting thing is, most companies seem to think of themselves as technology companies.  In fact, I was just talking to a candy company that thought it was all about the candy and the taste.  And, I’m saying, no it isn’t.  And Apple recognizes that they really are a consumer company, and that what they need to do is make things fit into your lives that you’ll be proud to have.  And most of the other technology companies, well they’re still technology companies.  And, for this candy company, I was trying to point out that the whole point of candy was the pleasure it affords, including the wrapping and unwrapping, and it’s not just the taste.  Saying it’s just the taste is like saying to the technology companies, how many megabits or gigabits this thing has, or how fast it goes.  No.  That’s not what it’s about.

CL: So, what do you think it would take for most companies to make this shift in the design of their products?

DN: Shut them down and start all over again.

CL: Really?  It’s that entrenched?

DN: In the computer world, there is only Apple that gets it and Sony.  So, that the best and most attractive line are the Vaio line of Sony.  Microsoft, surprisingly, has a fair number of people who are trying to move in this direction, and who understand the importance of design and understanding the consumer.  But, Microsoft is like lots of other large companies, very very large and mostly technologically based.  And, so it’s difficult to turn around.  But, there are people at Microsoft that get it.  A company that really gets it is Disney.  That’s what Disney is all about.  It’s about your experience.

CL: So, in the design of these technological projects, how should companies actually go about approaching the design of a new product?  What should they put first?

DN: People.  First thing is, go out and watch your prospective customers.  What are they doing?  How do they live their life?  What do they consider to be important?  What do they like?  What do they dislike?  And, this also means that you have to look at different customer groups.  The cellular phone that a Chinese teenage girl likes, an American teenage girl may not like, and certainly an American businessperson definitely will not like.  First, you have to start off with your people, you potential customers, by observation, not by focus groups, not by questionnaires, not by surveys, because these ask their conscious reflections, which really don’t describe what they’re doing.  So, you have to watch.

CL: So, you bring up the Chinese, and it’s known that they do produce a number of these gadgets for emotional pleasure.  Do they have a better understanding of this?

DN: Actually, I think this is true of all cultures, and a lot of the things we like are the things that give us emotional pleasure.  Cell phones are actually a very good example, the very small, sleek cell phones. What’s interesting is if you watch people using them, a lot of people hold them in their hands and fondle them.  They turn them over and over and over again, or rub the sides of the cases.  And that’s kind of a visceral pleasure, and it has nothing to do with the fact that you can talk on it or send messages.  It’s all about the feeling.  It’s not unlike the Japanese, or for that matter Chinese, person who puts dongles on it, or hangs little things off the side, or puts little lights over the antenna that glows whenever you use the phone, or puts stickers over it, or changes the cases, or people in Europe, the U.S., or anyplace in the world who buy special ring tones.  It’s all for the pleasure.

CL: Are there any good examples of technology that has those aspects to them?

DN: I think all technology in the end, because technology is made for human purposes.  Especially if you look at technology that belongs in the home, it should have these things.  Watches.  What is a watch?  It’s supposed to tell you the time, but we actually call it jewelry, because it’s been around long enough.  We care a lot about the appearance it makes, and the impression it makes.  And many of us wear multiple watches depending on our activity and how we’re dressed, whether it’s very formal or informal.  Our television sets dominate the house, and it’s about time our televisions became attractive additions instead of these glaring monsters.  And the new flat screen sets have actually moved us in that direction, very attractively styled.  Even kitchen appliances can be tasteful, the great success of Michael Graves’ line of kitchen appliances that are very attractive to look at.  He isn’t the only one, but that’s a name that most people are familiar with.

CL: In the design of many technological devices, sometimes the device that is the first on the market becomes the standard, and it becomes harder to get more aesthetically pleasing devices on the market.

DN: This is a very complex story.  The first mover advantage is highly overrated.  So, what was the first popular home computer?  Actually, I forget the name of the first computer…

CL: …the Altair.

DN: Right, the Altair.  But the most popular early one was Apple.  Apple had the dominant lead, and then was taken over by the IBM PC, in my opinion, by a massive set of blundering by Apple’s marketing division and by Steve Jobs who said, ‘we don’t care about business people, this is a computer for the rest of us, for the small minority of us’, so Apple lost the lead.  And it’s the same with the first American automobile company.  You don’t even remember the name.  It’s dead.  But there are two kinds of product.  One is an infrastructure product.  And it is to everyone’s advantage to have the very same type of infrastructure.  But, second is the one that doesn’t depend on infrastructure.  And, that is very much where the PC market is today.  Yes, we’ve all standardized on the Windows operating system, because that has made life easier.  But, that doesn’t put any restrictions whatsoever on the shape, form, and manner of the computer, the physical box.  The fact that everyone has followed the same form factor, this dull, beige nothing, is simply a lack of imagination.

CL: Even with infrastructure products, the keyboard that is on computer is the most ineffiecient keyboard there is, the QWERTY keyboard.

DN: Well, I can give you a lot more inefficiencies.  An alphabetically organized keyboard is dramatically more inefficient than the QWERTY.  The QWERTY isn’t bad, because you may remember in the early days that the keys on these mechanical typewriters jammed.  So, to stop the jamming, you made keys that were typed together as far apart on the keyboard as they could think of.  But, they tended to make them on opposing hands, and guess what?  You see, they tended to type with just one hand, or one or two fingers, and today we type with both hands and all fingers, and the QWERTY is pretty fast, because we tend to alternate hands.  Yes, there’s a keyboard that’s faster, DVORAK, but it’s not enough faster to make a difference.  What I find bizarre about the keyboard is how big and monstrous it is, that it has never changed since the early days of the early IBM machine that got adopted for some old reason for the keyboard of these machines.  And, it has things on it like ‘Print Screen’, ‘Screen Lock’, ‘Number Lock’, and ‘Pause Break’.  I don’t even know what they mean.  And they occupy a large space, that’s why it’s so big and so monstrous.  The problem is people have learned to make these monstrous keyboards for just a couple of dollars, and when you try to simplify it, it winds up costing you more, because you don’t have the volume.  So there’s an example, that’s the appendix of the computer.  ‘Print Screen’ is like the appendix of the body.  What’s it doing there?  ‘Screen Lock’?  ‘Pause Break’?

CL: Well, we are running slightly out of time, but as long as we are talking about input devices, I am curious if there are any more aesthetically pleasing input devices that you would recommend rather than a keyboard?

DN: If you are going to be doing standard manuscripts and standard writing, the keyboard in my opinion will be with us forever.  It’s better than anything else, including speech, because it uses a different motor system than thinking.  And for pointing, we’re going to move towards gestures.  We have the mouse, which isn’t bad.  We have touch-sensitive screens. That’s appropriate at times.  And, we’ll soon have gesture systems where we have TV cameras that look at us.  But hey, you forgot about fun!  People often ask me about usability and making it work well.  My goal now is to say look the stuff is good enough, and we can use the stuff.  Let’s make it pleasurable and fun, and that’s what I’ve been working on, making it fun to do, making it attractive, making us proud to own it, making us look forward to using our technologies, instead of relief that I got through it.  That’s what the new book is all about.

CL: So, as final word, what would be your recommendation to companies to design their products?

DN: My recommendation is it’s not about technology.  It’s about people.  So, let’s go out and watch people.  Start off by going out and watching and understanding people.  Do iterative design, where you do quick cycles trying to understand if this is going to work.  Look for novel uses, and make sure it is a joy and a pleasure.  Emotional design is what it’s about.  It’s not about technology.

CL: Good words of advice.  Prof. Norman, I want to thank you for your time and joining us today.

DN: You’re quite welcome.  I enjoyed it.

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