This is a local mirror of an article published as A Conversation with Don Norman on-line in ACM Interactions, Volume 2, Number 2.
John Rheinfrank: It seems that almost every time we talk, you've just finished a book and have ideas that form the basis for another. In all these conversations you seem to be converging onto another critical aspect of good design. What's next?
Don Norman: I never look back at the stuff I've done. I look forward to where I'm going. This actually makes it hard for me to give talks because I get invited to speak about ideas of mine that may be five even ten years old. That's dull. If I don't do a dramatically new thing each year and learn a new topic, then I'll stagnate. It's part of my philosophy of life, to always push off in different directions. So yes, there is some really exciting work that I'm starting to do, but I can't quite tell you about it yet. In addition, my views have been changing, and very rapidly. When I wrote The Design of Everyday Things, it was partly out of frustration with products and partly out of a recognition that there really were some design principles that could be applied. I still think my initial analysis was valid but my diagnosis of the cause was wrong. The book went through about six or seven drafts—it changed radically. In the first draft I said, "It's the designers who're wrong. Stupid designers. How could somebody be so incompetent? How could someone design such a lousy product."
Yes, I really railed against designers. I actually very much remember my encounter with you, John, because I think you were the first real designer I ever met. I was at one of the early CHI conferences and had gotten up early for breakfast. I met a friend in the elevator who said he was going to have breakfast with some interesting designers and would I like to come along. At that breakfast I gave a short description of the book I was writing and my problems. I remember how disgusted all of you were. You had a big impact on me because when you started describing what you were actually doing as designers, I realized that maybe I didn't understand the problems that designers face. I actually did quite a bit of work between that draft of the book and the final publication.
John, you deserve much of the credit for making me try to understand that there are many forces that come to bear in designing. Now that I've been at Apple, I've changed my mind even more. There are no "dumb decisions." Everybody has a problem to solve. What makes for bad design is trying to solve problems in isolation, so that one particular force, like time or market or compatibility or usabilility, dominates. The Xerox Star is a good example of a product that was optimized based on intelligent, usability principles but was a failure for lots of reasons, one of which was it was so slow as to be barely functional.
JR: Then your experience at Apple is giving you a chance to play out the full spectrum of actions needed to make something both good and successful?
DN: I've really come to appreciate the pressures put on design. I'm in the process right now of a design project that we're trying to ship in fewer than 12 months. We consider it to be an extremely innovative and maybe even a breakthrough in the software industry. It's very interesting to understand the constraints that you have to face. I have some really excellent people working with me. We also have good engineers and good marketing people. But we have to worry about the international market, we have to worry about price, we have to worry about compatibility with the partners. So I've really come to broaden my appreciation for what goes on, which, in turn, increases my admiration for those good designs that are eventually produced.
JR: That's a dramatic change in emphasis for you. Say more about how you build these design teams and the roles people play.
DN: I think the design community has dramatically changed for the better in the last decade. We see this in the CHI community; I remember the very first SIGCHI (ACM Special Interest Group for Computer-Human Interaction) Conference where, essentially, we were just struggling to be heard, to define what it was that we did as designers. Today, more and more companies embrace what we are doing. They may not fully understand it yet, but they certainly are changing.
At Apple Computer the merging of industrial design considerations with behavior design considerations is a very positive trend. In general, these two disciplines still tend to be somewhat separate and they talk different languages. When I was at the university, I assumed that design was essentially the behavioral analysis of tasks that people do and that was all that was required. Now that I've been at Apple, I've begun to realize how wrong that approach was. Design, even just the usability, let alone the aesthetics, requires a team of people with extremely different talents. You need somebody, for example, with a good visual design abililities and skills and someone who understands behavior. You need somebody who's a good prototyper and someone who knows how to test and observe behavior. All of these skills turn out to be very different and it's a very rare individual who has more than one or two of them. I've really come to appreciate the need for this kind of interdisciplinary design team. And the design team has to work closely with the marketing and engineering teams. An important factor for all the teams is the increasing need for a new product to work across international boundaries. So the number of people that have to be involved in a design is amazing.That was my biggest surprise actually, when I came to work at Apple. Whereas I once thought that maybe one person could design a product, I now know it takes a team. It can't be a single person because the knowledge required expands beyond what one person ever could know and do.
JR: You mentioned the importance of good prototyping, which, of course, includes communicating about the direction of a project as it evolves and evaluating the results. Do you think we will get better tools for prototyping?
DN: I think we will, although sometimes it's hard to imagine how. For example, we can use stereo lithography to build product appearance protoypes quite rapidly. It's really important, though, that the prototype have the right text and feel. We sometimes deliberately "cartoonize" a prototype because otherwise people too easily believe it. I myself have been caught in the trap. Somebody was once showing me a prototype prepared with MacroMind Director. I know what Director is, I know it's a fake but nonetheless I got caught. I said "Well, gee, why can't we do this?" Someone had to explain to me, "No, no, no. That's just a picture." The cartoons keep us aware that something is really just a mock-up. The problem with this approach, of course, is that you may not get real behaviors.
JR: Then these cartoons give you quick glimpses at the future and get you started building up more and more hxigh fidelity stories about the future. What are the themes that cut through these stories?
DN: Well, what I really think is the issue is the incorporation of the exciting world of information technology (which, of course, is invisible) into the worlds of entertainment and communication. We are in a fully communicating world now. I assume that everybody will essentially always be connected. People also do their work in groups. Almost all work is group work and, in fact, what we see at the computational level is really a social revolution. What is the Internet about? It's really about people communicating. That's what MUDS are about, that's what email is about, that's what the Mosaic pages are about. So, if you are really going to study how people work in groups and communicate with each other and you want to study a new product, the prototype has to replicate the social interaction, which means it has to work.
But how on earth do we make smooth, working prototypes before we've even thought through the ideas? Of course, the only way is to actually try new ideas out, that's when we find out if we want them. I have a feeling that as fast as the prototyping tools are developed our needs for them will grow even faster. So maybe we'll always be complaining about the lack of tools.
JR: It's clear that part of your personal transformation is from critic to creator. What's at the core of that change?
DN: One of the problems I've had is finding my "voice." I'm interested in a very wide variety of things: Of course, in how the mind works, from a cognitive science perspective and then how we apply cognitive science as a cognitive engineer. As a design critic, I try to look at things and understand why they don't function the way we would like them to. I also try to be constructive and say what might be done to improve a product and I've become even much more constructive over the years because I've come to understand the design process. All my recent talks have been about the design process and how, if we are to improve design, we must restructure industry. The way industry is structured doesn't lend itself to the process of design, which cuts across all the normal domains.
I'm also a social critic. My last book was social criticismÑthe role of technology in society. Sometimes I would mix these up. So I don't always come across with consistency. It's interesting to me that when I speak, audiences much prefer me to give detailed criticisms of everyday problems they encounter, like the stamp-machine problem, problems of opening doors and locks, automobile-radio problems, etc. I could even imagine doing another book on such problems simply because the people seem to enjoy them But I've made the point already. I'd like instead to go into new areas, as I said earlier. I've yet to find my voice, but I'm beginning to. For instance, I'm glad to understand the role of design in business, where it is one of many facets. That's where I'm going, trying to look at the total picture.The total picture is really hard to describe.
JR: You just said that there may be some things about the computer industry, or any industry, that make it difficult to do good design. You said that design could only improve with industry restructuring. Can you say more?
DN: Let's look at the personal computer, which had gotten itself into a most amazing state, one of increasing and seemingly never-ending complexity. There's no way of getting out. Today's personal computer has an operating system that is more complex than any of the big mainframes of a few years ago. It is so complex that the companies making the operating systems are no longer capable of really understanding them themselves. I won't single out any one company; I believe this is true of Hewlett-Packard, Silicon Graphics, Digital Equipment Corporation, IBM, Apple, Microsoft, name your companyÑthese operating systems are so complex they defy convention and they defy description or understanding. The machines themselves fill your desk and occupy more and more territory in your office. The displays are ever bigger, the software is ever more complex.
In addition, business has been pulled into the software subscription model. The way you make money in software is by getting people to buy the upgrade. You make more money in the upgrade than in the original item. Well, how do you sell somebody an upgrade? First, you have to convince them that it's better than what they had before and better means it must do everything they had before plus more. That guarantees that it has to be more complicated, has to have more commands, have more instructions, be a bigger program, be more expensive, take up more memory—and probably be slower and less efficient.
JR: So where is this taking us?
DN: It's a steep ramp up in complexity. And although there's a lowering of cost to the consumer, the cost of development is immense. That's why most software development today is achieved by something like two or three companies that dominate the industry. Look at Microsoft Word 1.0, not a bad program, 2.0, 3.0, we're now up to 6.0. Imagine Microsoft Word 25.0. Somehow we have to get out of this. How?
Well, I'll tell you my dream. My dream is specialized software, specialized hardware, essentially the appliance model. It actually comes from a paper I once wrote with Jim Miller awhile ago; it was one of my two favorite papers. Jim Miller and I talked about the need for hardware appliances. We wanted to get away from the complexity problem. My address book should look and feel like an address book and I should use it like an address book. It should be like a mixer, the way that motors are used today. You only do one thing and it can be done fairly simply. It's much easier to learn. You just learn the task and the rest will follow.
When I think about mixing things together into one device, it starts to get too complex. But I still believe there is going to be a day when I take my address book and go home and throw it on my desk, it will communicate with my desk's address book and synchronize with the house address book. There are some companies doing very clever things along this line. Panasonic makes a little check-writing computer. You can carry your checkbook and it prints out your check for you and keeps a record. But it doesn't get updated when you go home.
DN: They're very primitive devices, but you can see the potential. There are the small Sharp devices and Franklin has a very clever line of specialized calculators, translators, spelling tools, even a baseball scoring tool. Their industrial design lacks a lot and their usability isn't great, but the concept is very important.
Now, how on earth do you move the software industry from here to there? The surety of the installed base really defeats us. For instance, Apple has 15,000,000 computers out there. We cannot bring out a product that would bring harm to those 15,000,000 customers. In addition, if we brought out a revolutionary new product, there's the danger that people would say the old one is not being supported, so they'll stop buying it. But they don't trust this new one yet. "Apple might be right but meanwhile we better switch to a competitor." This story is played out throughout the computer industry. It's not just true of Apple. Look at Microsoft, which has an even worse problem, with a much larger installed base. It's been a problem for many companies. I think the reason why a lot of companies don't make the transition into new technologies is that they can't get out of their installed base.
Mind you, the installed base insists upon the current technology. There's a wonderful Harvard Business Review article on just this: Why don't companies see the new technology coming? The answer is, they do. The best companies often are developing new technology. But look at the 8-inch disk drive which has replaced the 14-inch Winchester drives. It was developed and checked with the most forward-looking customers, who said, "That will never work for us." So the 8-inch drive wasn't pushed. Despite everything being done to analyze the market, in retrospect, the wrong decision was made. At the time, by the way, it was thought to be the correct decision.
It's really hard to understand how you take a mature industry and change it. The model that seems to work is that young upstart companies do it. Change almost always seems to come from outside the circle of major players in the industry and not within. There are exceptions, of course, of which IBM is an interesting one. IBM was once the dominant force in mechanical calculating machines and young Thomas Watson, Jr., the upstart, thought that digital computers were the coming thing. Thomas Watson, Sr. thought this was an idiotic decision. But actually Junior managed to get the company to do create the transformation. It's one of the better examples of change in technological direction, and it also was successful.
JR: So it looks as though we have another transition to manage. It's very strange that they call these devices "personal computers."
DN: Yes. First of all they're not personal and second, we don't use them for computing. We're using these things to get information, to build documents, to exchange ideas with other people. The cellular phone is actually a pretty powerful computer that is used for communication and collaboration.
JR: So what does that say to the industry about the kinds of hardware and software that they should be developing?
DN: Well, I think it says a lot. If you watch the Internet revolution, it's quite exciting. The whole WorldWideWeb phenomenon is telling us something very important. If you actually look at the technology used to support the Web, it's old fashioned. There's nothing new there. Even so, when you start to use it, you realize there's a qualitative difference that supercedes anything we've ever experienced before. I think it tells us a lot. I think it tells us how to transition to the next generation of computational machines. (It would be nice if we had another name, by the way.) Actually, that's what I am trying to do at Apple. I work in a group we call the "user experience architects office" because we want to emphasize the experience of working with a particular technology, how the experience feels. We call ourselves architects because that's what we do. We worry about high-level structure and functionality and we don't do the detail design, which gets done later. In the group I have all ACM SIGCHI members: Austin Henderson, former chair of CHI and a designer; Harry Saddler, a well-known designer who published a paper in the first issue of interactions; Tom Erickson, who trained as a cognitive psychologist and has spent many years doing design at Apple in the human interface group and at a graphics company earlier in his career. What we're trying to do is move to this next generation to without losing the old one. Very interesting design problem—I would like to come back a year from now and publish the story in this journal about how we did it. At this point it's premature; we're still in the middle of our process. We hope to be able to ship a product in roughly a year.
JR: So in what direction do you think computer-interface design should go? Many companies are making moves to simplify entry and interaction (Packard Bell's Navigator and Microsoft's BOB). In the short term, how does this fit your vision?
DN: The question really is, in what direction do I see our future computers moving? Microsoft has introduced BOB as a social interface, which they think is an important new direction. Let me respond to the direction and I'll comment later on BOB. As I've said before, I believe our machines have just become too complex. When one machine does everything, it in some sense does nothing especially well, although its complexity increases. My Swiss Army knife is an example: It is very valuable because it does so many things, but it does none of the single things as well as a specialized knife or a screwdriver or a scissors. My Swiss Army knife also has so many tools I don't think I ever open the correct one first. Whenever I try to get the knife, I always get the nail file and whenever try to get the scissors, I get the awl, etc. It's not a big deal but it's only about six parts. Imagine a computer with hundreds or thousands of "parts." I think the correct solution is to create devices that fit the needs of people better, so that the device "looks like" the task. By this I just mean that, if we become expert in the task, then the device just feels natural to us. So my goal is to minimize the need for instruction and assistance and guidance.
Microsoft had another problem. Their applications are indeed very complex and their model is based on the need to have multiple applications running to do, say, a person's correspondence, communication, checkbook, finances. How did they deal with the complexity with which they were faced? There has been some very interesting social-science research done at Stanford University by Cliff Reeves and Byron Nash, which argues that people essentially treat anthropormorphically the objects with which they interact, that is they treat them as things with personalities. We kick our automobile and call it names. Responding to computers in fact has a tendency to go further because computers actually enter into dialogues with people, not very sociable dialogues, but dialogues nevertheless. So from their research, Reeves and Nash did some interesting analysis (somewhat controversial, by the way) in the social-science community about the social interactions between people and inanimate objects. That's all very fine, and you can take that research and draw interesting conclusions from it. It's a very big step, however, to take that research and say that, because people impart devices with personalities, you should therefore build a personality into a device. That was not supported by the research. There was no research, in fact, about how you should use these results in actual device construction.
It's very difficult to decide what is the very best way of building something which has not been studied very well. I think where Microsoft went wrong was that, first of all, they had this hard problem and they tried to solve it by what I consider a patch, that is, adding an intelligent assistant to the problem. I think the proper way would have been to make the problem less complex in the first place so the assistance wouldn't be needed. I also think they may have misread some of the research and tried to create a character with an extra cute personality.
Microsoft has a long history of learning from its mistakes and, of course, there are some good points about BOB. But the one thing that really did surprise me about BOB was that some of the parts are badly done from just a straightforward, human-computer-interaction standpoint. It's hard to believe that Microsoft didn't have some good design people on the team. They wouldn't have done it that way or maybe the team didn't do good user testing. It would have caught the simple things. But I'm not going to tell you what they are. Let Microsoft find them out all by themselves.
JR: It seems as if substantial changes in design will take a long time to develop. Will we have something good enough for the ten-year-old with "Nintendo thumb" before he or she grows up?
DN: I think for a while things aren't going to look very different. The personal computer paragon could be with us another decade. Maybe in a decade it will be over with. I'd like to hope it will be. But as long as it's with us, there aren't too many alternatives. We really haven't thought of any better ways of getting stuff in or out besides pushing buttons, sound, voice, and video. Certainly we could do more with recognition of simple gestures; that's been done for a very long time, but we don't use gestures yet in front of our machines. I mean gestures like lifting my hand up in the air. We could, of course, have pen-based gestures as well and we could have a pen and a mouse and a joystick and touch-sensitive screens. Then there is speech input, which will be a long time in coming. Simple command recognition can be done today but to understand, that's a long time away. So in my opinion the real advance is going to be in making devices that fit the task. For instance, I really believe within five years most dictionaries will be electronic, within ten years even the pulp novel, the stuff you buy in the airport to read on the airplane, will have a reader. What you'll do is go to the dispenser and instead of the best 25 best-selling books, it will have 1,000 or 2,000 books for browsing. When you find a book that you like, you'll put in your credit card and the book will download to your book reader. The reader will be roughly the size of a paperback book today and look more like a book than a computer. The screen will be just as readable as a real book. Then look at any professional, say a design professional. You couldn't really do your design without a pencil. Look how many pencils good artists will use. They may have 50 or 70 or 100 different kinds of drawing implements. We have to have at least that kind of fine-detail variation in the input style in the world of computers. I don't think we'll have the power that we have today with manual instruments until we reach that level. I think the only way to get that power,though, is to have task-specific devices. That's the direction in which I see us moving.
JR: The Voyager CD seems to be quite successful. Voyager seems to be very sensitive, a new kind of publisher, with very high standards and broad appeal. What was that experience like?
DN: Don't forget their Criterion laser discs or movies. Voyager was the company that introduced letter boxing. And they believe a movie should first of all be the director's cut. After it's the way the director wanted, then add all sorts of commentaries and voice overs and out-takes and other information so that it becomes a thing you can study as opposed to a movie you simply watch. So Voyager has a very rich tradition. I was attracted to Voyager when I saw their book Poetry in Motion. It was exactly what I thought an electronic book ought to be. There was a poem, but when you clicked on a window, suddenly the poet appeared and read you the poem. A different window showed what the poem was saying. Then, in addition, there was a commentary. I thought this was a wonderful example of how the oral medium of poetry could be enhanced. This could not be done by a normal book. The Voyager people were really quite amazing. They had this wonderful beach house in Santa Monica, a very big, old, rambling house right on the beach. I spent many hours over a course of many months there with some extremely creative people. I discussed the concept of the book with Voyager's designer and editors and programmers and together we tried to understand how it might fit together. The way they put it together in the end was wonderful, and different. Instead of a little window popping up with me inside of it, I just walk across the pages of the book and I can actually point to the objects in the book. The goal of the Voyager book was to motivate people. If anybody wants to read the book they should go buy the print copy. It's not easy to read a book on a CD-Rom on your desktop, but what I tried to do is to explain me, so they could hear me talking, they could see me and they could understand my enthusiasm and the way I approach problems. This, I really believe, makes it much easier to understand the author and the points that are being made. The CD is a strange book. It's not the way a book ought to be done. If you really want to do an electronic book, you should design it that way from the very beginning. This was a conglomeration. This is really three traditionally published books, plus essays that I've written from other books, plus exam questions, plus video segments that I tried very hard to make relevant and provide commentary on what was in the book. I think we succeeded but I'm not completely satisfied with the result. If I had a chance to do the whole thing over properly I would. One more point, a single person can write a book. It may take three or five or ten years, but a single person can do it. No single person could have done that Voyager book. The filming alone required a Hollywood sound stage with a crew of about 10 people, lighting people and sound people and photographers and a director to keep things moving and a prop person and a stage person and a script person, etc. Then after that, the editing, the mockups, the programming that was required, the insertions into the pages of the book, and making the flow be very smooth. That was done by a very talented team. No single person can do that. We've entered a very different world now in the production of published material. In fact, a frightening world in the sense that it may require a committee.
I was the hired talent. In fact, some of the people doing the filming were very surprised that the hired talent didn't have a script. I made it up as I went along. They're not used to that. Would I do it again? Yes, I would. It was a very invigorating experience. I will also write a printed book again. It's a totally different experience. The two kinds of books complement each other. Maybe that tension is part of finding my voice.
Don Norman is an Apple Fellow at Apple Computer, where he directs the User Experience Architecture Group. He is professor emeritus in the Department of Cognitive Science at the University of California at San Diego. His books are viewed by many as establishing the definitive standard for the design of interactive products.
Donald A. Norman