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By Don Norman

In this interview, Don Norman explains the importance of designing for the right audience, the role of the generalist and the specialist. He also reveals what makes good product design and why you should ask the stupid questions.

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“Ask stupid questions. The stupid questions are the most powerful questions. When you ask why is it this way? That’s where the power is, when you push. And that’s the breakthrough that leads to great radical innovation.”

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Don Norman is an academic in the field of cognitive science, design and usability engineering and a co-founder and consultant with the Nielsen Norman Group. He is the author of the book The Design of Everyday Things and Living with Complexity.
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Design of Everyday Things
Don Norman is an academic in the field of cognitive science, design and usability engineering and a co-founder and consultant with the Nielsen Norman Group. He is the author of the book The Design of Everyday Things and Living with Complexity.

Don Norman - Understanding Good Product Design

Don Norman
In this interview, Don Norman explains the importance of designing for the right audience, the role of the generalist and the specialist. He also reveals what makes good product design and why you should ask the stupid questions.

N.B This is the unedited transcript of the interview.

Can you introduce yourself?

I'm Don Norman. I write books. I consult with companies. I think hard about the principles of design and the higher level principles both of design and also what it takes to implement them. I discovered that actually there are many great designers out in the world, but they don't understand business and so they're continually complaining that, "Oh my company doesn't understand me" or "My client ruined my design". No, it's your job to understand the company, not the company's job to understand you. If your client ruined your design it meant it wasn't the right design. 

You talk about learning from your users and understanding what your users can teach you and then there's this other school of thought where you should design for yourself and you should actually be the case study. I just want to know, how can you learn from your users?

Let me use that as a three part development. First let me use your question to answer a question you did not ask. You notice that in my introduction I said most designers say, "Oh my company doesn't understand me" or "My client doesn't understand me". I go back and I say, "Well you know that user center design, human-centered design, you should understand your users.  Who are your users?".  They say, "Oh the person who buys the product or the person who uses it".  No, your users are your boss.  Actually not your boss, it's your boss's boss or your client. 

You need to understand what your boss's boss needs, which is a successful product. That's not the same as a great design. Your client needs a successful product and that's not the same as a great design. One of the things designers often do is they ignore their own users, which is the people who are paying them to do their designs. They don't understand the requirements of marketing, the requirements of engineering, the requirements of sales, the requirements of service. There's no wonder the company doesn't always listen to them. That's part one. 

Now let me get to the other two meanings that you get at. One is really you've got to study your users. You've got to make sure they understand because design is really about communication. You're communicating how to use this product and what it offers you to the person who uses it, but you can't see them. You have to communicate it through the design itself, the physical design itself.  That's a really important thing. The only way you know if you're successful is by trying it out with people who will use it. 

Moreover, if you don't understand how people really do their jobs you're not going to design it right, which means you have to go out there in the field and watch them. Don't ask them because they don't understand how they do their jobs either, but you watch and you'll discover what their real needs are.  That's very important. 

Okay, there's another point. If you do human-centered design you'll get better designs. Absolutely, I guarantee it. If you follow my procedure for human-centered design, I guarantee good design every time. Well, that's good and lots of companies could benefit from it, but you know what, many of us are not going to be happy with good design. We want great design. 

Human-centered design is a hill climbing method. In some sense its sophisticated design by committee in that we try our designs out. We say, "Oh people don't understand it, I've got to change it and make it better". That's a good thing to do. It's hill climbing. You get to the top of the hill. You make the design optimal. But you know what, there might be a better hill. You'll never get to the better hill that way. The only way to get to the better hill is through your instincts. You really say, "I think there's a completely different way of doing this", and that's how you get to the better hill. 

You never would have gotten to today's Smart phones. Gesture phones started with the iPhone. You never would have gotten there by trying to make the Nokia, old-fashioned phone, better and better and better, because this is a whole different territory. Now the first one usually is pretty crappy. Most of these things fail so the great designer takes these leaps. Most of the great leaps fail. 

Every great designer has great failures. In fact, if you don't have great failure you're not a great designer. It means you aren't really trying hard enough. The way you make some of those failures better is you go back to human-centered design. Now that we're in a different space now we do human-centered design and really understand our users and move up the hill. 

So human-centered design is for increments, not so much the radical design changes?

There are two major kinds of innovation that we care about as designers. One is incremental improvement and the other is radical. Radical is what everybody wants, but let me tell you it's rare. How many radical revolutions have you been through in your lifetime? It's really not many. You can count them, 10, 20.  That's a lot in your lifetime. How many incremental revolutions?  Gee, every new product release is an incremental improvement. Incremental is far more important, but less sexy.

On your blog you mention this, the rise of the small, and how everybody has access to executing on their ideas. So it's really easy to design your own ideas, but people don't have the expertise. It's so easy to do a Kickstarter. We're going to start seeing people doing their own thing more, but they don't have the hands or the craft to do that. What do you advise for those that want to actually do their own thing?  Where should they start?

Well, let me look at a related phenomenon, which is the rise of desktop printing. Maybe many of your audience, don't remember. They're too young to remember, but before the days of computers there were not that many authors.  What the modern personal computer has done is it made it easier for people to write. With the use of good word processors and fonts and good printers many, many people are starting to publish. They publish their own newsletters, they publish their own office memos, they publish. We write a lot. Nowadays we can even print them.

In some sense everybody was empowered to be a writer, but just as you said not everybody is really a good writer. Basically everybody can do things that they never could do before and a few people realized that it wasn't that high quality and so they started studying writing. Taking courses in writing, getting people to critique their writing as they got better, and they got better and better and better. 

Well we now have, as you say, new technologies that suddenly make it possible for us to do drawings. Lots of drawing programs out there, some fairly simple to use, some more complex, which gives us more power, of course the rise of 3D printing. First of all applications, which are available on the Smart phones, which high school kids are making applications. Lots of people can make their applications. The same with 3D printing, lots of people can now start constructing their own physical objects. 


This is wonderful. It unleashes the creative spirit in all of us. A lot of these are crappy. Some of them may work well, but their just ugly. They're not very sophisticated. Well, I think that's a good start. It's much like the writing. It's really wonderful that people write a lot now, even though they're not very good at it. A few people will say, "I'm not very good at it" and they will study.  They'll take courses, they'll read books, they'll try, they'll get people to critique them, people to help them. That's the way we improve. 

The other way is we'll say, "Wow, I now understand why I need a real professional". Actually the fact that everybody can do it makes the professionals even more valuable. 

I was listening to one of your talks and you mentioned how IDEO ensures that their team remain as generalists, not so much specialists, because it gives them a fresh outlook when their solving different design problems. Do you think that's important for someone starting out? Should they think about being a generalist or should they try to become a specialist? Not someone that's working at a design consultancy, but someone that just wants to design their own product. Should they be an expert or should they then call upon an expert when they get to a certain stage?

We need both generalists and specialists. What you, an individual, should do really depends upon your interests and your own talents. We need people who are specialists who really understand the details and the depths, who know technology and the exquisite little details of technology.

We need people with all of the separate specialties. I never want to advise people against being a specialist. However, to put something together the specialty alone is not enough. You need to employ a general knowledge because you're going to integrate together the work of many specialties. The generalist can't really do that much either because a generalist is integrating all the specialties so they need the specialty. 

Some people really want to know more and more and more about a particular topic and those are wonderful people and those are the specialists and I encourage that. Some people, though, like to learn a little bit about everything.  They're interested in everything and that means they're not very deep about anything and that's a generalist. Those people I encourage too because we need them. Let me warn you that although I think it's a generalist who's great, who can put things together, it's much harder to get a job as a generalist. 

In a job I say, "I'm the world's expert in this" or "I know everything there is to know about C++ coating" operating systems or whatever. If you say, "Well I know a little bit of this, a little bit of that", nobody knows quite what to do with you.

Do you think designers have a responsibility to solve simple problems or should they take on the more challenging stuff out there? Forget the apps and stuff, but solve real, real problems in the world.

Yeah, but come on, I think designers are being rather simple minded when they think they're going to take on the big problems, or that somehow design profession has a responsibility to humanity. Everybody has a responsibility to humanity, but you know what designers design, that doesn't do anything. It's the people who build, who create, who distribute, those are the ones who change the world. If you're a designer and you want to change the world then you also have to make sure that your designs actually get implemented and get distributed and get used. 

That requires other kinds of talents. That's really important because in the end it doesn't matter how great your design is if it isn't out in the world and people aren't using it. That's a different kind of talent. Most designers work for companies or work for clients and they actually have remarkably little say on what they're designing. Their company is restricted in what its product range and what it can do and their clients have specific problems. 

The notion that design is somehow a responsibility to change the world, well I think everybody has that responsibility. The real question comes, who has the ability?

You touched on this earlier that design is more than just the appearance, it's marketing, it's distribution.

Even before you do that it's not about appearance.

No, it's more than that.

Great design is beautiful, but it has to be functional, right? It has to actually solve the needs that I have. But that's the design part, but yeah marketing worries about what people buy and marketing may require you to change your design. If you have a great design but nobody buys it then it doesn't do any good. The marketing side is very important. The engineering side is important. They're going to tell you that's too expensive to produce or that's impossible to produce or that will be unreliable. The manufacturing side also in the same sort of issues.  So, yeah, great design has to think about all of these things. 

You're now saying that complexity is a good thing, which goes against the grain of simplify, simplify, simplify, keep it simple. Why do you think complexity is so important?

What a great lead in to talk about my last book, ‘Living With Complexity’. Living with complexity I say, "Look everybody wants simplicity".  We argue over simple things, but guess what if we build a simple phone and we sell it, nobody wants it. You say, "Well it's a nice phone, I like that, I wanted simple, but gee can I remember the names and phone numbers of the people I call?" "Well, gee I want a list of all the people who have been calling me recently so I can see who I missed."  "I can make the return call easily." or "You mean, I can't send text messages.", "Well gee can't I take a picture, I want to send a picture to my friends" and etc. 

People don't want simplicity. They don't want a simple thing.  Life, the world, is complex and our tools must match the complexity. But what we don't want is confusion, which I call complicated. I say, "Complicated is bad, complexity is good". You know, if you understand something it's simple. If I walk you into the cockpit of a jet airplane, if you're not a flier it might look horribly messy, complex, complicated to you, but to the pilot it's very simple and very straightforward. Once you understand something it's usable. It's simple and it's appropriate. 

The real point is not simplicity. The real point is max the requirements of what I must do and make it in an understandable way. That means modularization, that means grouping things together, that means appropriate structuring, it means what I call good mapping, good signifier, good restraints. In other words, good design. A great designer transforms something that would otherwise be messy, complex, confusing into something that's understandable and learn-able. 

I'm not for simplicity because it doesn't allow us to do the jobs we need done and I'm not for complicated, confusing. I'm for something with just the right amount of complexity that I can learn and understand.

So in the startup world they talk about focusing. Let's just say focusing on one feature to get going until you've tested that and you know how people respond to that. When you're developing something it becomes layered. You build something and then you improve from that and then you add something else and you add something else. Are you saying that you should come up with everything straightaway? 

Well this is actually the role of design researchers that what I need to do is go out and watch people doing the task, try to understand what is the minimum possible product and start with that. It often isn't just one thing, it's a combination of things, but it's not everything. If I want to do an accounting package I need to be able to enter amounts, I need to be able to say give enough to take care of one type of accounting situation. That may require a fair number of different components, but it's just one little situation. When I'm all finished I can then test it. 

This is basically the new agile style of programming at which we take a vertical cut and we try to say, "Let's make sure that one works". But it has to be a vertical cut that's useful so that people can actually start using it for that one thing.  Then we come back and we look at accounts receivable and we look at maybe reports for the specialists and so on. We start adding those, but I think we do it through a task analysis. We do it through design research, understanding exactly what is that the people who are going to be using this set of features require to make it viable. 

Minimum viable product, that's the catchword. There's a wonderful book called Lean Startup. Lean Startup actually argues, but just for this approach. 

Which products, apart from the Apple stuff, address what you're talking about now, in terms of living with complexity? Which product, give us some more examples because everybody can talk about the iPhone and it being usable. 

If you actually look at Apple products there is incredible confusion with a lot of them. Even experts at Apple have great trouble doing lots of things inside the operating system of the PC or with the iPhone or tablet. It's actually interesting to watch people who love this stuff and tell you how simple and wonderful it is and then get confused and say, "Oh I don't remember" and gesturing this way or that way. Was it two fingers or three, maybe it was four, maybe I'm supposed to tap two times and rub my head with my left. 

So are you saying that Apple products are not designed well?

Apple products are not as good as their religion would have you believe. They often, though, are enjoyable so after you've had all this confusion you're still having fun experimenting. So you don't mind it so much, but I often lose my place especially with a tablet. It's somewhere and then I hit it by accident and I don't know how to get back to where I was. 

It's actually hard to find good products. It's hard to find really good examples. I've been working a lot with kitchen appliances recently and some appliances are well done. But most of the ones that are electronic are incredibly badly done, which tells me that, "Hey there's a real opportunity here". 

There's a company in Australia, called Breville, that makes really good kitchen products. They have this wonderful toaster where they added a couple of features. You'd think a toaster would be pretty simple, but one of the features you basically take a quick look. You push the button and it lifts the toast up so you can see it and then it drops it down again. You get a feeling for how well it's coming along. There's another button that says, "Just a little bit more" so if the toast pops and you look at it and say, "Oh I want it slightly browner", you just push this button and then it lowers the toast again and gives it just a little bit more zing and then comes up again. I thought, that's a company that's thought a lot about how people make toast and they've actually enhanced what we thought was a product that couldn't be enhanced. 

You're known for saying that designers don't ask the stupid questions.

Designers do ask stupid questions, good designers do. Look, designers often don't know anything about the world. If you actually look at design education it's mostly learning how to draw and make models and do sketches and prototypes.  As a result, well they become generalists in many ways actually, but they know surprisingly little about science and technology and about people. 

When you go out into design you don't know anything. You're calling in this project and it's completely new and a completely new application in a new field you don't know anything about it. What you have to do is become a quick learner, a quick study. You have to become an expert, kind of an expert, in the field. The best way is you watch people, you ask people to train you, and you should ask questions when you don't know. 

Don't be afraid to ask stupid questions. Lots of people are afraid. They say, "Oh you know that must be something that's really elementary, I'm embarrassed to admit I don't know". Guess what, the stupid questions are the most powerful questions. When you ask a question that everybody else thinks is elementary and is common sense, anybody in the field.  You ask them, "Well why is that?" and it'll turn out they don't know. "Oh well we've always done it that way.  That's just the way it is."  “But why is it that way?” 

If you push that's where the power is. You push and you discover that it doesn't have to be that way. Guess what, there's a whole different way of doing things and that's the breakthrough that leads to actually great radical intervention, that it doesn't have to be this way. That's where the great designs come from, asking the stupid questions. Whenever I'm a professor and students apologize for asking the stupid questions I have to stop them and say, "No, it's really important to ask the stupid questions. Those are often the most fundamental ones, so yeah don't be afraid to ask stupid questions." 

Tell me about your new book.  

The Design of Everyday Things has actually been amazingly successful. For many years I've talked about possibly revising it to bring the examples up to date. The publisher always said, "Oh no, don't touch it because sometimes revisions make a book worse."  But then one day Amazon called and said they're no longer going to sell the Kindle edition because they get too many complaints from people. 

Because the book was written 25 years ago, way before we had electronic books, in fact before we were really using computers very much, and the publishers didn't use computers and so there's no digital copy of the book. The Kindle book, the eBook was kind of a photograph and it wasn't up to the standards of real eBooks. My publisher said, "Well we're going to have to retype the whole thing in so maybe this is a good chance to revise it." So I've revised it.

So I thought all I will do is just change the examples, slide projector. Nobody knows what a slide projector is or some of the phones I talk about. The telephones are completely different today. We learn a little bit and I know some places where the people have problems so I'll just make it clearer, but it will be simple. I'll do it in a month or two.  Ha. 

Completely different story.

It took a lot of work. I think I've revised every single word and I had to get rid of all of the figures and get all new pictures because nobody had the originals anymore or the old ones. I had to take new pictures or draw new pictures and I've even hired some design students to redo them for me because my drawing skills are not very good. The book is finished but it takes publishers about nine months to transform a finished manuscript to a published book.  We hope to have it come out in about August of 2013.

I've actually been trying the book out on a lot of friends who think it's actually pretty good I like to think. It's really hard to transform a book that has become a classic. You're so afraid to touch it and make it worse. There's lots of stuff I'd like to say. I've learned so much in those 25 years that I did not say because one of the virtues of the book is it's relatively easy to read. You can read it quickly. Many people in classes assign it for the first week of school as getting people started and I didn't want to lose that.

I didn't want to add stuff. I have the same number of chapters, almost the same chapter titles, the same outline, but better explanations, some better examples that I hope will last for the next 25 years. A little bit about the product process, which I didn't have before, in which I describe human-centered design, I describe the way we ought to design things, followed by a section called, "You know what I just told you, it doesn't work that way." 

Because in the real world we want to start with design research. We want to understand our users, we want to do some rapid prototyping, etc., etc., etc., and your product manager says, "Oh we don't have time for that" and you say, "But it's essential, how do we know we get it right, how do we know what the people really need" and the product manager says, "You're absolutely right. You're correct. I apologize, but we're behind schedule".  


So we can't do it. Next time we'll do it.  Next time it's the same story. 

Same story, always behind schedule.

I actually dented the Norman Theorem, which is that the day product development starts you are over your budget and behind schedule.

The day, yeah.

And so we have to figure out other ways of doing this.

And what is the solution to this problem?

Well I think the real solution is we have to have design researchers unleashed from the product team. If you're in a company, or even if you're a design consultancy, you know the types of questions your clients come into you with. If you're at a company you know what products your company produces. The design researchers should always be going out studying what's going on, studying what tasks people are doing, looking for opportunities. And so the day the executives decide to redo a product or do a new product the design researchers can say, "Ah we've already been studying that so here's what we already know and where we can start."

Spotting design opportunities.


So you're out in the field now, what do I need to look for in terms of this is where we need to be focused on initially.

Work arounds. You know IDEO developed the Swiffer for Proctor and Gamble.  The way they did it was they weren't looking for a Swiffer. They were just watching how people cleaned their homes and they discovered that sometimes they couldn't reach things. So they took a broomstick and they used duct tape to sort of connect it to a cleaning pad because they couldn't reach or it was too uncomfortable to be on their hands and knees to scrub the floor. 

You start looking at how people do work around or how people modify the stuff they have in their home to do the tasks they need to do and you say, "Wait a minute that's a product opportunity". The same is true in the workplace. The same is true in the automobile. You start watching where people have difficulties. 

Now people don't even realize they have difficulties. For example lots of us put stuff on the dashboard of our automobiles and, guess what, as we drive through the city it all falls off or you make a sharp curve and oomph they're all off on the floor and so on. But we don't think of those as difficulties because it never occurred to us that it could be designed differently to help. Well the designer sees that and says, "Wait a minute". The top of the dashboard really wasn't made as a place to hold things, but people put things there so there's obviously a need for something to be able to put stuff where you can get to it quickly and where it doesn't fall off every time I brake, accelerate, or turn. 

You get an exquisite sense of watching and seeing where the opportunities are. I've developed it in myself and it's amazing when I point things out to people. People with me are watching the same things I am and they don't see it. After I point it out they say, "Oh yeah that's obvious". But it wasn't obvious until you pointed it out. What a great design researcher has done over the years is develop this wonderful sense of noticing the incongruities and the work arounds and the little difficulties people have and that's an important design sense you have to have. 

So the great designers are the great observers?

Oh yes, absolutely. I know some great designers who never do design research. They say, "I never do any of that crap, I just know what's best." Well it turns out they do a lot of that, they just don't realize it. They are great observers of how people lives their lives and what they do. Great journalists, by the way, and great writers are the same way. You read a really great piece of fiction and there's lots of little details about people doing things and the way people's personalities are or the way people interact. How do you get that? You get that by watching, observing, and reflecting. It isn't enough to look, you have to really observe and think about what you're seeing. 

I normally ask guests for one last tip in terms of going forward when everyone goes back to their studio. What's the one last tip?

Well here's a different tip and maybe it isn't for going back to your studio. Lots of people wonder about what they should do, what kind of a job they should get, or what career to follow or what company. You ask and they should give you a specialists or a generalist and my answer is you really have to follow your own instincts because you have to enjoy what you're doing. If you do something because you think you're supposed to or you're just doing it because you were told to do it but you really don't like it, you're not going to do a good job.

I think it's really important to do the stuff that you really enjoy doing because you'll be good at. First you may really enjoy doing something that nobody else cares about and so you may have trouble getting a job or you may have a low paying job because nobody quite understands it. But you know what, if you look at the great designers most of them started out not being understood because they were pursuing their own direction, which turned out to be a powerful direction, but when they started nobody understood it. But when it became understood, wow they were on top of the world because they already had all these skills and they were the leader. 

Even if you don't get discovered, it's much more important to be happy and to love the stuff you're doing than to get a big salary or to get a high sounding position. No, follow your dream. 


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