Ergonomics: The Donald Norman Interview
By John Geirland, Fri May 24 00:00:00 GMT 2002

A "cantankerous visionary" strives to put consumers first in a wireless world.


Far too many consumer products operate as if anti-social engineers designed them in the wee hours of the morning while strung out on caffeine and pork rinds. At some point in the design process hapless consumers appear to be forgotten - if their point of view entered in at all. Fortunately, users have a "cantankerous visionary" (Business Week) on their side in the person of Donald Norman.

Norman has been an advocate for "human centered design" for decades, an approach he has articulated in best-selling and readable books like "The Design of Everyday Things" and "The Invisible Computer: Why good products can fail." He is a professor of computer science at Northwestern University and professor emeritus at UC San Diego, where he started the cognitive science program. Norman holds B.S. and M.S. degrees in electrical engineer and a doctorate in Psychology from the University of Pennsylvania.

He's been a manager at Hewlett-Packard, an executive at Apple and is co-founder of the Nielsen Norman Group, an executive consultancy that helps companies create human-centered products and services. His current work in progress is entitled "The Future of Everyday Things."

"I have fumbled my way through life," Norman once wrote, "walking into doors, failing to figure out water faucets, incompetent at working the simple things of everyday life... I began to realize I was not alone."

TheFeature: What is human-centered design?

Norman: Human centered design starts by watching people. In other words, start with people, their needs, and their behavior. The technology comes second. In addition, it means iterative design, where early sketches are tested, then refined and further tested, with this design-test-refine cycle continuing to the very end. Guess what - this speeds up the development cycle. I've always thought a good way to design a product is to start by writing the manual - making it as simple as possible - and then give the manual to the engineers as the design spec.

TheFeature: You believe human-centered design is especially important for the mobile market. Why?

Norman: The engineering community designs a huge number of cutting edge products, often with little attention to the people who will actually use them. If you want to see what this approach leads to in the telecommunications industry, get some of the older Motorola cell phones. It's almost impossible to put someone's number in the address book.

The mobile market is changing very rapidly. We are adding more capabilities to phones - address books, selective ring tones, Web browsing and location-based services - features that add complexity. Coupled with the fact that these devices have small screens, a limited number of controls, and are often used with one hand in a rush, the design parameters become critical. Unless you follow a human-centered design policy, you simply will have unusable devices that alienate consumers.

TheFeature: Will some of these design problems go away when voice-driven interfaces become more common?

Norman: Voice is everyone's favorite solution. When a task seems too hard, the thinking goes, I'll just talk to my cell phone. Which is wrong. First, the task is usually complex and talking isn't going to help. Second, it would be very inappropriate to use voice interfaces in places like a meeting. (One of the powers of a non-voice interface like SMS is that you can use it while other people are talking and doing things.) Third, voice recognition is still very difficult, especially with a cell phone. You're often in a noisy environment. If you're stressed, your voice sounds different. Voice can be effective where the task and the set of things you're saying are limited. Voice will be very powerful and it should be used. But voice won't solve these design problems.

TheFeature: Ease of use is a key goal in human-centered design. So how do you explain the SMS phenomenon? SMS messaging is difficult to do, but people send billions of them a month.

Norman: On the face of it, SMS messaging is damn near impossible to do. It's hard to get to the SMS service because it's several layers deep. Then it's crazy typing out a real message. Therefore, SMS must fill a real human need. It's so important to people they'll put up with all this crap to do it. That means there's a fantastic opportunity to get rid of these difficulties.

The RIM two-way pager is email but acts like a dedicated SMS. I think the reason they are so popular among business people is that the RIM is so easy to use. What if you made SMS just as easy to do on a cell phone? Usage would skyrocket.

TheFeature: SMS is an example of a technology that teenagers captured and reinvented for their own purposes. SMS was originally intended for business users. Operators had so little faith in the feature that they didn't even market it.

Norman: The best products are the ones flexible enough to be used in ways the inventor never thought of. The key thing is how technologies are administered. When the early time-share computers were being used for email, computer center directors tried to shut it down. They thought sending email was a waste of a powerful computer. When the first telephones were deployed, the telephone companies warned customers not to use them for "idle chatter." Once you recognize that teenagers are picking up on SMS, the real trick is to make SMS even better for teenagers.

In retrospect, it's easy to see that the difficulty of sending SMS messages - especially anything of length or depth - is what makes it inappropriate for business.

TheFeature: You believe that emotions will play a big part in the design of future technologies.

Norman: The cell phone to a large extent is used as an emotional tool. We call people with really short messages to let them know we're OK. If you look at SMS messages, there's not much content: "Where are you?" "What are you doing?" It's all about affect and emotions.

TheFeature: Commercials in Japan feature couples using picture email to make up after a fight.

Norman: These photos are iconic symbols that say, "I'm really sorry. I apologize." Being at a distance empowers you to say things emotionally that you couldn't say in person. I don't see any reason why this should only be limited to the Japanese. Emotion is a phenomenon that cuts across cultures, countries and peoples. I was recently talking to a teenager about her cellphone usage and she said that she could tell people things over the cell phone that she couldn't say in person. Email, by the way, is even more powerful in this regard: It's easier to say it in an impersonal email than in a personal phone call or a really personal, face-to-face conversation.

TheFeature: You also believe that aesthetics have been undervalued in design.

Norman: There's a wonderful study that was first done in Japan in which the researchers used two ATM designs, one which people judged as ugly, the other being judged as pretty. The ATMs were identical in terms of function and usability. But people thought the one that was pretty worked better and was easier to use.

A group of Israeli researchers said "we don't believe it. Maybe it's the case with the Japanese, but Israelis don't give a damn about looks. All they care about is that the device gets the job done." The group repeated the experiment. To their great surprise, the Israelis showed an even bigger effect.

TheFeature: So you believe people will perceive aesthetically pleasing mobile phones as better working and easier to use than ugly ones?

Norman: Do you ever feel like your car runs better after you wax and polish it? A positive experience actually changes the way the brain works. That means things actually do work better. When you are anxious or afraid, simple tasks become hard.

TheFeature: What is your take on the following companies in terms of their likelihood of developing the best interface for next generation mobile devices? Microsoft.

Norman: Microsoft is superb. They've hired some of the best human factors/user interface people and large numbers are in their product groups. Some breakthroughs in interface design will come from games and toys - areas in which Microsoft is working.

TheFeature: Nokia.

Norman: Nokia practices human centered design. Nokia's human factors people have looked carefully at the patterns of usage and realized that whenever I place a phone call I may want to save the number with a person's name. The phone does it very nicely. I have great confidence in Nokia.

TheFeature: You were once a manager at Apple. What is your take on that company now?

Norman: When Steve Jobs took over the company he demolished most of the human interface groups, so I have doubts how they can continue to be a leader in terms of interface design. On the other hand, one of the advantages of having a strong leader at the helm, like Jobs, is that products are cohesive and sensible. Most companies' products have inconsistencies because different parts of the company put them together. Apple doesn't suffer that.

TheFeature: We know that you aren't a big fan of voice-driven interfaces. Where else might we see significant innovation in user interface design - pen-based computing, mobile phone screens, keypads or text-to-speech synthesis?

Norman: None of the above. We already have pretty good keyboards. Maybe someone can make a pen that's better and cheaper. What I'm interested in are whole new modes of interaction. When I'm driving my automobile, steering and braking, I'm actually controlling quite a number of microprocessors that are watching what I'm doing and how far away the other cars are. I'm not thinking I'm using a computer because the inputs aren't anything like what I think of as computing.

I look for innovations in our communication structures in much the same way. Maybe it will involve automatic ways of getting information to me that don't require my attention. What about a whole new approach? That's where I would put the effort.

And I'd start, once again, by watching people.

It's Mobile Research Week on TheFeature! Check back daily for reports, analysis and in-depth articles about the wireless research community.

John Geirland is co-author of "Digital Babylon," a book about the online entertainment business, and writes about mobile wireless developments from Los Angeles.