Design Doing with Don Norman

A transcript of Episode 125 and 126 of UX Podcast. James Royal-Lawson and Per Axbom talk to Don Norman about VR, design thinking, living with complexity as well as artificial intelligence and the future of healthcare.

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Featured image by UXLx (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Don was interviewed on UX Podcast in April 2016.

Transcript of part 1

James: Hello and welcome to UX Podcast. Thank you for joining us. I’m James Royal-Lawson.

Per: And I am Per Axbom.

James: And we’re balancing business, technology and users every other Friday from Stockholm, Sweden. And today …

Per: We are interviewing one of the UX rock stars who …

James: Rock stars?

Per: Yes. I was going to say –

James: Legend.

Per: Legend, yes. But he really is a rock star without even trying to be a rock star. I mean he is Mr. UX.

James: If you could define someone as the grandfather of UX.

Per: Yes.

James: Then it is Don Norman.

Per: It is Don Norman.

James: Professor Don Norman.

Per: Professor Don Norman, Donald Arthur Norman.

James: Oh, you know his full name.

Per: Born in 1935.

James: Yeah, he actually turned 80 around about the same time as we had a Twitter conversation about this interview.

Per: Exactly. It was December 25.

James: Yeah, it was Christmas Eve. Was it Christmas Eve? It was Christmas Eve that we were chatting to him on Twitter.

Per: Yeah.

James: And then he actually turned 80 the day after. And we’ve fixed up eventually a time to talk to him. I know — or the first time I heard a talk by Don in person or the only time in person was UXLx in 2011.

Per: OK.

James: It was a closing keynote. It was an excellent finish to the day and I still use one of the examples from that talk when talking to other parents about kids’ tablets, using computers.

Per: OK, cool.

James: He gave an example of how — well, you know that we don’t know really what kids are doing. We just shout at them, “Put that tablet down! Stop playing with that computer.” Well he said …

Per: Yeah, they’re spending too much time on their iPad.

James: Yeah. And he said well, when he was little, his mom would never shout at him, “Don, put that pencil down. You’ve drawn enough today,” because it was such open creativity. It was clearly a good thing whereas now our kids are kind of hidden behind their tablets and we don’t spend the time taking — we don’t put the effort and to see what they’re doing to understand when they’re doing something creative or whether they’re playing Candy Crush.

Per: Yeah.

James: And that sticks with me. I use that example a lot.

Per: That’s really good. So those of you who don’t know who Don Norman is, he is especially known for his books on design and there’s a book called The Design of Everyday Things that people tend to refer to and he’s — I mean he’s widely regarded not only in the UX community of course for his expertise and design, usability, engineering, cognitive science and he’s also the co-founder and consultant with the Nielsen Norman Group and he’s a bit controversial in his stance in saying that the design research community has had little impact in the innovation of products and we get into that a bit talking to him I think. Let’s talk to Don.


Per: So Don, you are without a doubt one of the most influential voices in the UX and design industry but also cognitive science and some things that stand out for me are of course how early you were writing about human-centred design for the digital space, how patient you are with the rest of the world catching up with your ideas and thoughts and — but perhaps most of all it was — what I’m realising is that you never seem to be satisfied with your own conclusions. You’re always exploring new areas. You’re redefining, questioning your own conclusions. So start — how do you stay so curious?

Don: Well, first of all, I’m not patient. I’m sick and tired of, you know, crappy designs of our light switches and the stove controls and the trivial stuff and doors. Doors! Doors! I mean actually I’ve been trying to understand the United Airlines lounge in San Francisco which has these glass doors that you — to enter into the receiving area and one side says push and one side says pull.

Now — and they have the identical types of hardware. Now, of course when I see a sign that says “push,” the first thing I do is pull it to see what happens. And guess what. It works just fine. So it turns out these are really nice doors. I kind of like them because you can push it or pull it. It doesn’t matter. So why do they need signs? I’ve been trying to figure this out for a long time.

I’m just really annoyed because we keep making the same statements over and over and over again and then each time a new industry starts, they say, “Well, we’re different than everybody else. So we’re going to ignore all of that stuff you’ve done because we’re different,” and they make the same mistakes over and over again.

As you know, I recently wrote this diatribe against Apple but it’s not just against Apple. It’s against Apple and Google and all these gesture systems where oh, we love flat design. It’s OK. But you’re supposed to tell somebody what’s possible and what the alternatives are and that there are some fundamental principles like discoverability. How do I discover what the actions are?

I look at these wonderful displays and I can swipe to the left or the right or up or down or one finger or two fingers or three fingers or a single tap or a double tap or a long tap and come on guys. What am I supposed to do?

Per: And now we have 3D touch, so we can do one more thing.

Don: Well, actually that I like and here’s why I like it. So how do I keep curious? It is true. We’re getting new technologies and we’re doing new things that we never dreamed of before and we have to learn how.

So as we start moving into virtual reality, VR, and I’m an [Indiscernible]. I’m really excited by this I’ve been a fan of VR for like 20 years. It’s not at all obvious how you control things. I mean yeah, it’s easy to walk through the space. Actually it’s remarkably hard to walk through the space. I once did a wonderful VR experience and it was an abandoned warehouse. So I could go any place I wanted and not bump into anything. If you try it in your home, you walk a couple of feet and you bump into the wall or you bump into the furniture.

So even walking around is hard. And how do you control it? Gestures are bad enough on the screen but in the air, there’s only two or three gestures that are kind of universal. Lifting your hands up says more which could be more stuff or louder or brighter or whatever. And what else is there? There’s not much. Hold your hands up in front of you means stop. Well, maybe not.

I think that’s a wonderful challenge and various people are experimenting with things and one of them is they have partial augmented realities so that you might — see one of the problems with VR is you can’t see your own body.

So if you move your hand, you have no idea what’s happening. So adding a little bit of augmented reality, so you can see the locations of your hand would also make it easier to do controls and yeah, we might do the things like you do in wizards — I wave my hand in the air and a menu shows up in the middle of the air and I can poke it. That probably will get used but we’re not sure how yet to design it. So that’s fun.

Per: Yeah.

Don: The other part, I’m going to say I’m on this diatribe is we don’t know what to do with it. So VR is wonderful. You could imagine it for games, games because it’s an artificial reality and I can let you work through the space but — and I can imagine this Facebook. I think it is great for social media to interact with the other avatars and we’ve been — people have been writing about that for 20 years at the various science fiction novels.

But think about telling a story. How would you tell a story? So the New York Times is experimenting with this and they get their reporters but they have to move through the space because you put a camera down and it’s fixed. So I can’t — I can look around in all directions as if I was standing where the camera is but I can’t move because it doesn’t work unless the camera moves with me.

So how you can tell a story isn’t clear and what they’re learning to do in new stories is it’s a voiceover narration and I can look around me and I can feel what it feels like to be in that experience. But it’s not really a story. Anyway, I’m excited by that.

James: I watched a program on the BBC the other week about virtual reality and how that was being experimented with in the porn industry. It was a very interesting …

Per: Well, that’s probably a driving force behind VR.

James: Well, yeah, and they were testing out some of the — because one of the problems with porn and virtual reality is the feedback mechanism that it’s quite a fundamental part of human interaction.

Don: Actually yeah, but I think they’re going to have body suits with vibrators all throughout.

James: That was basically what they were experimenting with is kind of tube-like things that you …

Don: A bunch of science fiction writers have already played with that. You can imagine that for non-porn VR except — even putting gloves on which is one way of getting better tactile feedback on the hands is — I don’t know if people are really — always want to put on this helmet and gloves and maybe a body suit.

Well, actually the realistic writers who have written about VR do that. They have the people get into a body suit but anyway — but porn by the way has actually been the driving force of almost every new medium. Even when the first books came out, it was — with movable titles. Porn was one of the big things. It was a big growth of the VR and they have the video cassette recorder industry and well, it’s a …

Per: Good broadband. Yeah.

Don: Cuts across all cultures.

James: Yeah, gambling and porn are two of those driving forces where you seem to return to.

Per: So we don’t even know what to use it for and so everybody is trying stuff out with it. One of the core concepts of design that you’ve always — well, talked about is how you actually have to go out and observe users and after that start building stuff. So you do it the other way around. You don’t build stuff first and then see how it works in the real world. You go out in the real world and observe users or people. You observe people and their habits and behaviours and then you understand what to build. When you’re trying out new products, how much should you build? How do you know how much to build before you actually go out and test it in the real world?

Don: Well, well, well, let me use that as a starting point for another direction. You said that — I’m always questioning my own statements and rethinking them and sometimes contradicting them. So let’s think about this statement because I’ve been thinking a lot about this. So there’s a procedure that’s just called — in the design world we have something called human standard design and design thinking and in the parts of the design world I inhabit, these are kind of the same and the argument is we have to design for people. That makes good sense to understand that people use them. Moreover, as we’re doing designs, we do a rapid prototyping test and modification.

The agile programming model can be used for this though a lot of the agile programmers don’t understand it. But here’s the real issue. First go out. Let’s make sure we’re solving the right problem. So let’s go out and take a look at what people are doing today and try to understand what their real issues and their real needs are.

Then I talk about the need for doing ideation and rapid prototypes and iteration, et cetera. So let me tell you why all that is wrong. First of all, it’s right. OK? It makes good logical sense and if you’re starting — it’s a good way of doing lots of things but in the real world, there are lots of things against it.

First of all, I just gave a talk to a bunch of educators who are trying — their job is to train people and go out and get jobs as programmers, coders. OK? And I gave them a talk in design thinking and how to make sure we solved the right problem and we do observations. We have to do the rapid prototyping and testing and then I met — I gave four small workshops where I met with smaller groups instead of 300, 400 in the audience, about 50 at a time. I get it four times.

After a while, I realised that the advice I was giving would get their people fired. What I was talking about was great for the research community and great for a company that is thinking of launching a new product or that knows that their existing products are deficient and they want to make them better and they have time.

But if you got hired as a programmer, then you sit down. You say, “I’m ready to go. I know this stuff. I’ve been doing it all from school,” and then your boss came over and said, “Here’s your first assignment,” and you said, “Well, how do you know that’s the right problem?” You wouldn’t last long.

So first of all, that kind of practice doesn’t work for the programming community. Second, what does work though is human-centred design that as they’re doing the coding, they should actually be thinking about who’s using it and should understand those people and it’s a good idea if you can go visit and talk and work and understand what their backgrounds are.

I have this problem. I was asked to give this keynote for this big conference but I was the opening keynote. So I really didn’t have much understanding of the audience and then afterwards, I really like to be the last keynote because then I can listen to the audience and drink with them and things and get a feeling for what they feel. I wanted to talk about how you learn and how important learning is and understanding and they told me, “Our students don’t want to learn and they don’t want deep understanding.”

They want a job and that they have to — well, these were not the elite universities, the elite research universities, which is what I’m used to. These were the lower level universities that trained 100s or 1000s or 10,000s of people who go out and do programming. They’re not the ones who are going to invent the next new brilliant thing. Well, they may but that’s not what they’re being trained for.

Per: Yeah.

Don: So that’s why I had to revise what I was doing. It’s human-centred. So teaching them that is great because then they might actually have a second job possibility. It’s a little bit more user experience design, not just programming. But now we keep going. Suppose that you are still in this and your company does understand human-centred design and design thinking and so on.

Well, there’s Norman’s law. Norman’s law is the day the product team is assembled, it’s over his budget and behind schedule.

Per: Yes, and that’s so true always.

Don: Always, always. So you say I really want to go out and look — you want to revise this phone. Well, let’s go and take a look at what’s being — happening in Sweden which is different than in China, which is different than in Africa, which is different than in the United States actually. The United States is the Midwest United States. College students are different than business people. So can I go look? And they say no. You explain why it’s really good to do this and your boss says, “I understand. You’re absolutely right. But we don’t have time.”

Per: Yeah.

Don: Next time you can do it. When we get round to next time It’s the same issues, so you can’t do this stuff beforehand and my argument is that unless you have a separate team and the company that’s always doing it, so therefore — you know the products your company is going to be building. So when the next product team is assembled, they can come forward and say, hey, we already have all this understanding and here’s what we can tell you.

OK. One more thing and then I’m finished unless you provoke me. So in VR or in some new discipline where we have no clue of what’s going on, what do you go and watch? What do you learn? And well, I actually wrote an article with Roberto Verganti. He’s a professor in the Politecnico in Milan and we’ve talked about incremental and radical innovation. The argument basically was what I’m talking about in human-centred design and observation and so on is wonderful for incremental improvements because we can go out, watch people doing the tasks that we want to support and we can see how we can do it better and we make small improvements.

Usually when you go to design school or when you get your first job, you want to change the world. You want to do something radical and I’m saying there aren’t very many radical changes in the world. How many do you get to live through in your lifetime? A hundred or something? Well, a hundred of your lifetime isn’t very many, not per year. And most radical innovations completely failed and even the ones that succeed take 20 years or 30 years.

Gestures, Apple introduced gestures with the first iPhone. Well, yeah, but gestures have been in the laboratory for 20 years that people have been working with and the same with VR. It has been around a really long time and it isn’t — it hasn’t even been released commercially yet. It’s just barely coming out this year.

It takes a long time. So radical innovation is very different and it comes from anybody and I think actually the best way to do radical innovation design world is called doing research through design. That is stop thinking. Just go do something and you will be surprised how much you will learn. That’s what the VR people are doing.

I really applaud the New York Times who had no clue. So they said, OK, let’s just go and film things and let them — release them to the public and let’s see — let’s learn and that’s what they’re doing. So when it comes to something brand new where you — it’s hard to explain to people and you have no idea and you can’t watch what they’re doing today that’s similar because there is nothing that’s similar. All right. Let’s just throw it out and watch and learn.

James: Maybe this is also a challenge for — well, I see this as a challenge for the large or existing incumbent organisations that they then inherently struggle to innovate in the way that you’re talking about because of the in-built conservative nature of an existing organisational culture.

Don: Actually I’ve been making an argument that I’m sick and tired of design thinking. It’s time we started doing design doing.

Per: Nice, yeah.

Don: The thinking part is the — the D school and the design schools around the world, they love design thinking because it’s fun. You can be a voyeur. You go and you watch people and then you go and you try these ideas. You do rapid prototyping. You come up with a brilliant solution and then you have a presentation at the end of the class or maybe [0:20:28] [Indiscernible] design contest and you win prizes and that’s it.

Nothing ever happens to it because the hard part is — it may be hard to come up with good ideas but it’s even harder to actually do something with it, to produce a product. That’s really hard. We got to start focusing more on getting things done, producing real products and that means you can’t just stop when you’re finished designing. First of all you better get the salespeople and the service people and the engineering and the designers all together in the very beginning. So everybody understands, oh, there are different concerns.

Now you may have a lot of designers and only one or two engineers or marketing or service or whatever in the beginning. As you progress, the designers kind of try to kind of finish up. Then you move to more engineers and maybe just one or two designers and you start increasing maybe the other people. But you have all the way through continual representation because otherwise, designers — when they finish and they say, “OK, now build it,” the people trying to build it will say this is stupid and the marketing people would say nobody would buy it and so on and so forth.

Everybody thinks the other people are stupid and no, it’s not. It’s just that everybody has a different view of the product and you want to know which one is correct. Well, it turns out they’re all correct. They better be easy to manufacture. It better be something people will actually buy. It better be something that fulfils their needs. It better be beautiful. It better be reliable and better be inexpensive.

A lot of those are incompatible but if you’re on the room together, you can work it out. So I’m really a fan of design doing and that’s — and that’s where I will be putting a lot of my emphasis in the coming year or two.

Per: OK, interesting. You’ve been always ahead of — before we even come up with terms like the concept of lean UX. A lot of that stuff you were writing about even in the invisible computer in the early 90s. But how do you feel about this — there are so many words that are littering our space like “lean UX”. And then how do you feel about the word “minimum viable product”? Because that seems to come close to what you’re talking about right now, MVP.

Don: I’ve introduced a couple of words into the vocabulary. Affordance. I didn’t invent affordance. JJ Gibson did. But I introduced it into design and boy did it get misused and then I introduced the phrase “user experience” when I joined Apple in 1993. I became the user experience architect and boy, is that word getting misused.

James: Yeah.

Don: Cognitive engineering, well that still sticks around, and I mean lean and minimum viable product are basically about focus and I’m a big fan of that. But what has happened is again these things get misinterpreted. Agile is a good example of something that you actually read the way it was developed and you watch the way most people do it today. It’s not the same. With agile, people say, “Oh, that’s fast programming.” Here’s — let’s start coding on day one. We’re going to have a rapid sprint. We’re going to do a sprint for a week or two weeks and we take a little piece and we start doing it.

Wait a minute. That isn’t how agile works. How do you know what you’re actually building? Who are you building it for? What is this product about? Know that programmers want to get going on day one. You’re not supposed to get going on day one. You’re supposed to get going when you understand what you’re trying to do.

Then you’re also supposed to use each sprint to give you feedback not so you can come do the next sprint on the next part of the product but maybe one — or even throw what you just did and re-do it in a different way because the neat part about a sprint is that you do a small little piece. It’s the minimum almost viable product but you can test it and you can get feedback whether it works or not. People forget that and my experience with the people who — the start-ups who say we’re using minimum viable product principles, first of all, they keep adding extra features because they can’t resist it. That isn’t minimum and second of all, forget the word “viable”. They think minimum viable product means minimum product.

Per: Yeah.

James: Yeah.

Per: That’s true.

Don: But let me tell you, if you put out a shitty product, you don’t get a second chance. It’s better to put out a product and people say, “Wow! I love this. But I wish you could do this one other thing,” or “It isn’t quite exactly what I need but it’s really close.” If that’s what people think, you’ve won because they love what you’re doing and now you can come back with what they’re asking for and they’re — oh, wow. They will keep asking for more and more but that’s a different issue. But as long as they keep asking, you’re wonderful. But if you do a crappy job, nah, we will go up to somebody else.

James: That’s kind of the classic story in all theatres, isn’t it? You leave the audience wanting more.

Per: Yeah, exactly.

Don: Exactly. Leave them wanting more.

Per: Yeah.

Don: We have to make sure we do that on this podcast. So OK, thank you very much. Bye.


Per: So was that the end? Did he just hang up on us?

James: Are you wanting more?

Per: Of course Don did not hang up. But this is a — we will play along. This is perfect.

James: It is.

Per: You will get more of this in part two.

James: Which will be on next week.

Per: Yeah.

James: In part two, we carry on talking to Don about more excellent topics including, “Is technology making us dumber or smarter?” We also look at living with complexity which is the title of one of Don’s books but in particular Don takes us through a practical example of big data design in medicine and healthcare and how that can pan out and should turn out.

Per: He’s actually diving into just complex problems in his research right now. He’s building a lab at UCSD around complex problems.

James: So it’s a fascinating …

Per: The curiosity of this man is just amazing.

James: It’s endless and it’s fascinating talking about it. Then we finish off in part two with our hepta-scale challenge.

Per: Right.

James: And he gives some great answers to our 1 to 7 questions.

Per: He always gives great answers.

James: Yeah.

Per: Looking forward to it.

James: Keep tuned in for — tune in to our podcast.

Per: Of course you do. You tune in.

James: Yeah.

Per: I guess. I don’t know.

James: So tune in to part two of our interview with Don Norman.

Per: Remember to keep moving.

James: See you on the other side.


[End of transcript for Part 1]

Transcript of part 2

Per: Hello and welcome to UX Podcast, balancing business, technology and users every other Friday from Stockholm, Sweden. I’m Per Axbom.

James: And I’m James Royal-Lawson.

Per: And welcome to part two of our interview with Don Norman. Let’s just quickly talk about what did we talk about in part one.

James: For those of you that have not gotten around to listening to it yet or listened to these podcasts out of order, a quick recap.

Per: Yeah. But if you haven’t listened to part one, go back and listen to it.

James: Oh, yeah.

Per: Yeah. He’s fantastic.

James: We covered three — kind of lots of topics but three main topics I would say. We covered virtual reality. Don gives lots of insights into his experiences with — and thoughts around virtual reality.

Per: Sure. And we talked about the porn industry and suits, body suits, vibrators throughout. Yeah. That was Don’s idea.

James: Yeah, and also design thinking. How do you know it’s the right problem? You’re talking about design doing, which I really loved as a phrase.

Per: Thinking is easy. Doing is hard. It’s what he said.

James: A lot of talk about human-centred design of course and even radical innovation and how rare that is.

Per: Yeah, he said something — I don’t know where the figure came from. I haven’t even checked it after that. But he said something around you may be able to experience a hundred innovations over your lifetime.

James: Or something like that.

Per: Yeah.

James: And most of us come up with very long …

Per: Exactly. It takes 30 years for something to develop the combination. Yeah.

James: Or radical intervention. So most of the stuff we deal with is not radical.

Per: Yeah.

James: And then also we get a bit into terminology because of course you can’t talk to Don without talking about the term “user experience” because he gave birth to it.

Per: Yeah. Given birth to a lot of different terminology actually and everything is being misinterpreted. It’s what he’s saying.

James: Yeah. And that was the recap of part one. Now we will just jump straight into part two.


Per: Actually I was thinking about one of your books now about how people misinterpret things and things that make us smart back in 1994. I think you published that and you had a concept there. You were talking about the power of the unaided mind is highly overrated and you were making a case for how we need artefacts and maybe perhaps technology as well to help us grasp complex concepts and help us talk to each other around something that is comprehensible. That is something else and not so abstract that it would just describe it in words and text

These days, people are talking about how technology is actually making us dumber in the sense that we don’t even have to think anymore. We can Google everything. We get all the answers and we don’t have this curiosity that I was mentioning that you obviously have in the beginning there. Where do you see us moving? Are we moving towards actually having technology make us smarter or is technology making us dumber right now?

Don: I think it was Plato who first raised that argument against books, that he hated books because it made him dumber. That’s in the book Things That Make Us Smart by the way, the quote, and because if I’m talking to a person and I disagree, I can argue with the person and we can debate. We can learn. If I’m reading a book with maybe the very same words and I disagree, there’s nothing I can do. I can’t argue with the book and he was right.

But books make us smarter. They really do. It’s actually — we don’t get smarter. It’s we plus the books get smarter. It’s us plus our technology and by the way, everything artificial is technology. The invention of writing is technology. Paper and pencil is technology. Lots of people think technology is all this brand new stuff that we don’t understand, but no, it’s — everything is made by humans to aid humans. To aid themselves is technology.

So I’m a big fan of technology in giving us more power and I believe that look, people misuse technology. So Google is a really good example. I know you learn all that stuff.

No. What does Google give you? So I have a friend who works at Google. His name is Dan Russell and he writes a blog. I wish I could remember the name of the blog and I can’t see it on my screen. I may be able to pull it up. It’s wonderful. He writes his blog every week and I don’t know how he manages it but it’s brilliant and it’s interesting. What he does is he wanders about the world. He goes running in some strange place and he sees weird poles and he takes a picture and he comes back and posts and says, “OK, people. What is this and where am I?”

So you can just Google anything and find the answer? Ha! And then he also — he sees a phrase and he says, “I love this. What does it mean?” and he gives these wonderful questions that you just can’t Google for the answer. You use Google but you have to really think and understand and you have to then search this and that and the other. It’s wonderful.

James: Inspires thought…

Don: Yes. So — just a second. I think I know where I might find …

James: You use Google …

Don: Well, that’s interesting. It’s not clear on how to find what I’m looking for.

Per: Excellent. Make it challenging to find your blog.

Don: To find his blog. I’m not Googling for it. Oh, there it is. I found the mail. It’s called “searchresearch”.

Per: Yeah, we have it on our screen. James found it and I was — yeah.

Don: And it’s just fun to read. It’s wonderful and moreover, it shows you that how much you can learn — how powerful Google can make you to be able to think deeply and learn much more about topics and so that’s what I’m getting at. Google doesn’t make us dumb. It makes us smarter.

Now does it make a lot of people dumb? Yeah. OK? Do people just look for easy answers? Yes. But I suspect that was truly from before we had all these fancy technology. They would look for some simple answer. You can just watch the American political system and they have various candidates that you can see.

But it’s true in Europe too by the way. It’s not just the US.

James: Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah. It’s quite, quite true.

Don: Because it’s true about people. It’s not a statement about a country. It’s lots of people love to have a simple answer. That’s one of my favourite quotes which is in the Living With Complexity book. It’s from an American journalist who said every complex problem has a simple answer. That’s kind of useful to know, isn’t it?

But it continues and it is wrong. Every complex problem has a simple answer but it’s wrong and yeah, complex problems have complex answers. The technology though allows us to explore them and understand them and see the nuances and get different points of view.

The most powerful technology that we ever invented is writing and if you expand that a little bit to drawing, nowadays to building, it’s all kind of the same thing. It’s making something physical and then that serves as your memory and it also serves — in order to make it, you have to think it through a bit more in detail and then other people can see it and experiment with it.

Designers like to say they think with their hands. They think by building. They think by drawing. They think by making things and there’s a lot to that. The answer is think with their body.

I have a friend who has been studying dancers and he watches the people creating and who dance and they — the choreographers. He’s moving his body around and as he’s trying out what could possibly work and then he’s — you know, tells the dancers what to do and it’s a dance notation. It helps him write it down and so on.

Per: That’s a great example of design doing. You’re actually doing it while you’re designing it.

Don: Yes, design by doing.

Per: Yeah.

James: I’m just thinking now about complex problems. Do complex problems require complex solutions?

Don: Well, the word “require,” no. Quite often there’s a reframing and then suddenly the complexity disappears. Complexity often is a point of view and sometimes when you’re viewing it in the wrong way, it’s very difficult and if you can just get the right point of view, then oh, it becomes a simple problem.

But the kind of — I’m actually studying complex problems now. That’s a lot of the focus of this new design laboratory I’m building here at UC San Diego, University of California San Diego.

There are lots of people who design products and services and there are lots of good places to learn about how to do that. So I didn’t think the world needed another one. But I thought the world didn’t need people who could move into these complex problems like healthcare, like education, like finance, like the role of automation in the world, in the automobile industry where most of our work is now. But also it’s going to be in the world of business.

In healthcare for example, as we get to personalize medicine and genomics, the amount of data that’s going to be given to a physician is overwhelming. You can no longer go to your physician and he looks at you, he does a few tests and then gives a prescription. First of all, they will have so much data about you and second of all, every prescription will be unique because it will be one that’s based upon your particular needs, your body type, your genomes, your history, et cetera.

So we’re going to need huge data and we have to develop — present it in a way that’s really useful because the physician actually would like to be able to do this in minutes, would love to be able to give you an answer as you leave the office.

So how do we present it and how do we organize all of these data to help the physician guide through the analysis and give a recommendation? It’s really interesting. I had a conversation yesterday with some people in the health system about IBM Watson which is trying to be used now in healthcare. But the problem with Watson, Watson doesn’t understand anything.

The problem with modern artificial intelligence is it’s all based on pattern recognition on huge data. It looks for patterns and oh, I’ve seen that pattern before. Here’s what the answer was or it reads all the literature, sure, and knows everything the literature says but it doesn’t know how to reason about it because it’s all statistical. It’s neural network [Indiscernible] and there’s no understanding.

But rather than say that’s a weakness, my friend who’s saying Watson is worthless, I’m saying no, it isn’t. It’s really neat because it’s just like Google. Google — which is you actually have — Google works too. You ask Google a question. It gives you an answer but it may not — I’m not — when I go into Google with a question, often the answer is not what I really want. I’m trying to make a decision and I need to be — I need to know whether I want to do A or B or — and so I have to ask Google questions and it gives me information and I have to now put it together and finally decide.

Well, that’s what Watson could be good at. It can really help — it knows about obscure diseases but it also knows about the different symptoms and it can just sort of suggest things to the physician. The physician then reasons about it. So what I’m looking for is human technology teamwork. A calculator is a good example. Dan Russell’s Search Research blog is another example. It helps me do things I’m bad at but it allows me to do things I’m really good at which is creativity, putting things together in unusual ways, doing reasoning, understanding the side effects, implications.

James: Yeah. So it helps you explore the problem space. It’s a tool to assist rather than take over.

Don: Absolutely, absolutely. Actually in the medical case, it’s — or in any dangerous type situation, it’s kind of nice to have this thing whispering in your ear. That seems appropriate. But do you consider this possibility? One of the kinds of errors that people do make is they focus upon a solution and then — I call that a mistake. If you diagnose something wrong, then it’s really hard to change your mind because you see the wrong diagnosis is cloaked to the correct one. It’s consistent with the symptoms that you’ve seen and oftentimes the first steps you do as a result are appropriate. That makes it harder and harder for you to back off and say, “Wait a minute. Maybe that’s wrong.”

If you look at a lot of errors from nuclear power accidents to aviation accidents to medical accidents, you see that people get trapped in that first conclusion and again because it — the first conclusion isn’t stupid. It’s actually often the most common conclusion for the symptoms that were there.

But every so often you get the uncommon one. So it’s really useful to have a voice on the side saying — think about this for a second.

James: To help you overcome your own biases and then fall into place once you’ve checked off the first points in the list. Well, this is right. That’s right. So it must be this. Yeah.

Per: I mean you could transfer that too to development process as well. They usually start off with doing wireframes and you have the menu to the left and you’re doing everything right but that probably — you’re not solving the right problem usually.

Don: That’s one reason we try to train our people. Never do a wireframe. do three very, very different ones and the real virtue in that is that you don’t get trapped into — if you can do one wireframe and keep developing, you’re in love it, then it’s really hard for you having to back out. But if you’re doing three at the same time, well, OK, I’ve decided to go with this one. Well, I will go with that one.

Per: Then you need a hypothesis and then you need to disprove or prove why it’s better or worse than the other one.

Don: Yeah, but the best way is to throw it out in the world and see what happens when they use it.

James: Yeah.

Don: It may actually turn out that oh — that each one is preferred by different groups of people.

Per: Right, yes.

Don: Then it’s up to you to decide whether you want to do several products or whether — well, you have to decide this group is better or maybe there’s some compromise that isn’t as good for either of the groups but might work better overall.

Per: I think it’s time to move on to our one to seven scale questions and I’m just going to briefly explain what that means. I have two questions. James has two questions and we’re going to ask you to, well, rate these on a scale of one to seven.

James: Or answer them on a scale of one to seven.

Per: Answer them.

James: Where one is that you agree — oh, it’s the least, the lower end of the scale and then seven of course is the higher end of the scale.

Per: Right. And we’re going to go through all four and you have to rate them or say a number and we can comment on them afterwards. I will start out.

James: Go on then.

Per: On a scale of one to seven, how tired are you of the term “UX”?

Don: Six.

James: Yeah. Here’s my first one. On a scale of one to seven, how well-designed are everyday things?

Don: One, five, seven.

Per: OK. On a scale of one to seven, how much do you believe in the concept of self-driving cars?

Don: Seven.

James: And my last one here, on a scale of one to seven, how likely are you to buy the iPhone 7 when it comes out?

Don: One.

Per: Excellent. We got all points of the scale there.

James: And some bonus ones as well.

Per: Yeah. Is there anything you want to comment on there?

Don: Well, obviously each one deserves a comment. You want to just quickly review them and I can give a quick answer why I gave that answer?

Per: Sure. The term “UX,” you gave it a six.

Don: Well that one is — the whole point of the term “user experience” is we should think about the entire experience that’s involved in something and people who do this really well are hotels and theme parks and it sort of goes downhill from there.

I really like what hotels and theme parks do. They want everything to be a wonderful experience when you first learn about them, to when you show up, to how they take care of you. The better ones anyway, the ones who do it well.

I’ve talked to a few people who helped design them and they’re really good. But — and that’s what I had in mind. I was thinking in those days about Apple and I was talking to my friends who were working for Apple.

How they actually think about what it looks like in the store and then when someone buys it and they try to take the box and it won’t fit in their car. That’s a bummer and it turns out it doesn’t fit in their car not because it’s really — the box has to be that large. Because the people who designed the box never really thought about it and they could — they learned how to make a smaller box and they did them, et cetera.

Tesla does a fantastic job of that. Tesla cars fall upon it all the time. They’re really not that reliable but I have a number of friends who own Teslas and they don’t mind. They say they get treated so well when they go — when they take their car back and they’re treated well and they’re given another car and it gets fixed and so on and so forth.

Now Tesla owners are a special breed because they’re expensive cars and every Tesla owner has several cars in addition to the Tesla. But the point is they work really hard and — today, when someone — user experience design, it makes they do websites or something or apps and they don’t — the whole term is lost.

Next question?

Per: We will take one more. I was mostly intrigued by — you gave the answer one, five and seven to James’ question of how …

Don: That’s because some stuff is just so crappily-designed, I can’t believe it. I can’t believe they still make it. So that’s one and on the other hand, some stuff is just brilliant, wonderful. I don’t have to think about it and that’s my seven. But most of the stuff is kind of mediocre, five.

James: Yeah. I completely agree with you. We hop between fantastic stuff and poor stuff constantly in every single day.

Per: Just like you started out with that — the door that said “push” but you could pull it as well. I mean you react to these things every day, everything you — if you’re in this industry, you think about these things constantly.

James: Yeah.

Don: It’s a good sign of that, good sign of that. They will always need to hire us.

Per: Yes.

James: Yeah. I actually bought a new kettle this week because my existing one broke and I learned something about modern kettles. I didn’t think — when I was researching what kettle should I buy, I didn’t think at all that I would need to check that it actually boiled water. So I bought this kettle. It filled all my other requirements that I worked out and came home and it was one with these modern display panels.

Per: Oh, it’s an electrical kettle.

James: Electric kettle, yes. Sorry, not a stove top one. Electrical kettle which I know aren’t so common in the US. But it has got a number of buttons and a temperature gauge on it and you could only choose between 60, 70, 80 and 90 degrees Celsius. Now of course to boil water, I need 100 but 100 did not exist as an option.

Don: What they’re saying, they’re saying you stupid customer, you don’t realize you’re using this for coffee. Coffee you should never use boiling water. You should always use 90s, the correct temperature of a coffee and tea, well, that depends what kind of tea you have. Is it green tea? Then you probably want it 70 or especially a subtle white tea, 70. A black tea, yeah, maybe you can use 90.

But — and they’re correct by the way if you actually try it out and do the research except not allowing you to have 100, not allowing you to boil, that’s crazy. On top of that, if you actually use it, I bet it goes all the way to boil.

James: I tried actually a few times Don. I tried a few times. It got to 93. Ninety-three was the maximum. I tried it a few times. I kind of gamed myself with the kettle. Can I get it to get to 100? Ninety-three was my record before I took it …

Don: The way they’re designed is it actually boils. Forget what the temperature gauge says. You can hear the water boiling but then it stops boiling because I think what they do is — it’s easy to do up to boiling and then they got to cool off. They stop at the instant the boiling occurs and then they let it cool off to the temperature that you’ve asked it for. It’s kind of bizarre.

James: I was surprised that they — I could understand why they would offer a certain number of temperatures but I couldn’t for the life of me understand why a kettle that was meant to boil water didn’t actually do it. It’s fundamental. The simple job, the one …

Don: See, you old-fashioned person, you think that you’re supposed — you want to boil water. You actually don’t want to boil water. You actually wanted a lower temperature. You don’t know that but I’m better than you. I know that.

James: Yeah, exactly. It knows best.

Per: Never ask the user. That’s the thing. OK. Don, it has been fantastic that you wanted to do this with us. Excellent. I don’t remember it but I interviewed you back — eight years ago, I interviewed you as well. It was equally excellent. You always explained stuff so eloquently and it’s so easy for people to actually understand the concept that you’re grasping at. So thank you so much for that.

Don: Well, you’re quite welcome and as you can tell, I enjoyed it as well.

Per: Excellent.

James: Excellent, great fun.

Per: Thank you.

Don: OK, thank you.


Per: How do you summarize Don Norman? Because we talked about everything.

James: That’s actually one of the instant reflections from it. Forty-six minutes of talked we had with Don. He brought up and went through and touched upon several of the topics we’ve covered in the podcast over the last couple of months from …

Per: Agentive technology …

James: Yeah, and also artificial intelligence, which we talked about with Amber Case and even Melissa Perri with discovery and working out how — if you are doing the right thing.

Per: Working in teams.

James: And if you look even farther back, we’ve covered even more. Part of this is you just realise how big an influence Don probably has and has had …

Per: And how big of a handle he has on everything that’s happening, which is just mind-blowing.

James: I tweeted actually the other day that — when I was listening to this interview, so we can record these intros, outros. If I’m even like just 20 percent as connected and as up-to-date and as smart as Don is at 80, when I’m 80, I’m going to be so pleased. That’s just really mind-blowing.

Per: I love like when we’re interviewing him and we’re proposing things, he never really agrees with us. He’s always saying something contradictory or tweaking it, what we’re saying. It’s like he really has a handle on what he thinks and how not to agree with common sense, which most people would regard as common sense.

James: Even if he did slightly agree at times, then he still managed to reframe it back at us with an example that maybe force you to think. An excellent ability.

Per: I like how he called me out in the beginning because I was calling him really patient and he said, “I’m not patient.” So yeah, he has a calm demeanour but he’s not patient with people. He’s really frustrated that people are not getting this. The industries are doing this over and over again. They’re doing the same mistakes. Everybody is saying, “We’re different. We’re different.” But they’re really not different.

James: And some of his things, some of his writings, I mean they’re getting quite old now. They’re not new.

Per: Yeah.

James: They’re decades old, some of the writings.

Per: I think most of his work is actually pre-world-wide-web.

James: Yeah. And yet some of the things he’s suggesting and advising you to do is still applicable and still not being followed. But the — one of the things I’m going to remember is actually from his — a quote from his book The Design Of Everyday Things is Norman’s Law. The day that the product team is assembled, it’s over budget and he’s behind schedule. Now we’ve laughed and agreed.

Per: We agreed instantly. It’s true.

James: And yes, I mean I — we’ve been involved in this trade now for a fair while and yeah, things don’t come in under budget and ahead of schedule really ever.

Per: And then I liked what he said because the problem he was describing there is that — so we tried to do research but then we’re already over budget, so we don’t get the money or the resources to do those — whatever ethnographic studies or whatever we want to do and to use. He says, “You can’t do this stuff before.” So he’s proposing that you actually have a separate team that’s always constantly doing the research.

James: Yeah, because he was also saying about that — you can’t expect programmers going there and question the motives and that point — are you sure you’re doing the right thing? He was saying to us this was in part one. No, the program was a better program. I mean, yes, they should have an understanding of human-centred design and keep the user in mind while they’re doing their work.

But you can’t have them questioning the fundamentals of what they’re doing at that point because it’s too late when he gets to that point. You could argue. Some people out there are probably going to get — trying to say, well, if you’re iterating close enough and fast enough, maybe it’s not too late. But I think you still pass that point of deciding what to build when you get into the …

Per: Actually I proposed that where I’m working now that we actually have usability testing booked, like one Friday every month, because then you get into that way of thinking as well. You invite everybody to participate. You always have something to test. I mean it’s impossible not to have something to test.

James: I think it’s an excellent suggestion Per because also it gets you out of that excuse pattern that if you — you can always say, well, we do it next sprint or we will do it next time whereas if you said, “No, we’re doing something this Friday. This is what we’re going to do.”

Per: Exactly.

James: There’s no question about what we’re doing or not.

Per: What’s most important

James: What allows us to learn the most, this time.

Per: I’m pretty sure people will stand in line. Every large queue of people wanting to test stuff.

James: Maybe it doesn’t have to do with testing. You could actually do some kind of research thing as well. I think it’s an excellent idea Per. Next time I’m going to demand that we book in.

Per: Demand? I love that.

James: We’re going to demand that we book in testing or research specific things to learn about what we’re doing.

Per: I like it, yeah. What are you saying — also what — people misunderstanding agile which I loved. I didn’t love the people misunderstanding it. I loved what he said.

James: Misunderstanding agile, lean and UX.

Per: Yes. People are always — at the end of a sprint, people are — want to get ahead and decide the next thing and the next sprint but that’s not what agile is. You actually design something in sprint and then you find out. Did it work or not? Then you throw it away and redo it.

James: How often do you throw away?

Per: Exactly. People just keep building and building and building. So they’re doing the same thing or the same mistakes over and over again.

James: Companies and organisations find it very difficult to fully be agile in the sense that they should be prepared to throw away the results of a sprint if it has fulfilled its purpose.

Per: Yeah, exactly.

James: I really enjoyed Don’s answers to our hepta scale challenge questions. So far the people that we’re run this with, he’s the one that thought the most. There were some wonderful pauses.

Per: Yes, he really did think.

James: Well, he did think about the answers and …

Per: Except with the iPhone.

James: Oh, no. There was no thought there at all. He just spat out one. I’m going to remember his answer to the state of design when we asked him about that and he replied with one, five and seven. the state of design by Don Norman summarized in four words and three numbers, one, five and seven. It’s so true.

Per: It’s very true and he’s not afraid to break the rules. He didn’t choose one number. He chose three numbers.

James: Yeah, yeah. He pointed out as well. He didn’t choose one, four and seven.

Per: Yes, exactly.

James: He chose one, five and seven.

Per: I don’t think that was by mistake. He meant that either products are really shitty or they’re a bit more than OK or really excellent.

James: Yeah.

Per: There are no products in between shitty and OK.

James: Yeah, basically. I think it has more to do with the frustration, isn’t it? Around it that something is either designed and makes you incredibly frustrated or it’s kind of OK or it’s excellent. That in between though, between one and five. Yeah, you do get pushed to the — coping with it or hating it.

Per: We did manage also — I liked at the end to segue into really practical advice around wireframes and he said always do three wireframes and very different wireframes because that challenges your thinking. It’s so common to just go ahead and do one.

James: And also it prevents you from falling in love with your initial idea or your favourite idea.

Per: Yes, exactly.

James: Or like cognitive biases that we have even.

Per: That was actually in relation to what he was saying about healthcare and that when you have a diagnosis and you make that and you always — you fall in love with your diagnosis and if it’s the wrong one, then you’re in big trouble.

James: Yeah. You look at the data and you misdiagnose due to similar patterns and similar results in front of you.

Per: It’s so easy to design something in the way that you’ve seen someone else design it.

James: Yeah. Getting stuck in your head the kind of — the one or two observations you made, which maybe were representative of everyone.

Per: I think we could do a whole show just talking about the interview with Don.

James: We could do a whole series actually. There’s a huge amount of fantastic information and I will be listening back to this again.

Per: Yes.

James: Because I feel like I’ve got even more to learn by listening to him a few times in the future.

Per: Right. What else do we have? We have show notes. Go to our website uxpodcast.com and there will be links attached to the page that this episode is published on.

James: Including the mysterious blog of Don’s friend that was difficult to find.

Per: I actually looked at it yesterday. It’s really fun. He asked questions to the people who are reading his blog which was nice.

James: You can all sign up for our backstage mailing list by just getting in touch with us any way you like with your email address and we will add you to the list.

Per: Or you can tweet us right now.

James: Yeah, or you can go to the website and fill in there too. Backstage@uxpodcast.com is the email address. We’re having a link show for you next week.

Per: Oh, yeah. Exactly.

James: And I’m saying next week. It is next week.

Per: This every other Friday, we’re trying to get out of that loop. We’re sort of doing them more often now.

James: Well, we’re testing doing 2-parts … We’ve a Link show coming up so stay tuned for that.

Per: We will be talking a bit about simplicity.

James: There we go.

Per: OK then. Remember to keep moving.

James: See you on the other side.


[End of transcript]

This is a transcript of a conversation between James Royal-Lawson, Per Axbom and Don Norman recorded for UX Podcast in April 2016. To hear more episodes visit uxpodcast.com or search for UX Podcast in your favourite podcast client.

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A twice-monthly user experience podcast brought to you by @beantin and @axbom. Balancing business, technology and people within the realm of digital media.

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