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Q&A: Don Norman on Design in a Complex World

Provocative, straightforward and never less than insightful. That's how BusinessWeek described Northwestern University professor Don Norman when it named him "one of the world's most influential designers" this year. And in September, the magazine included on its list of the world's best design schools the MMM program, a dual-degree MBA and Master's in Engineering Management program co-directed by Norman at Northwestern.

A popular and dynamic speaker, Norman will deliver a talk, "The Research-Practice Gulf," May 11 at IIT Institute of Design's 9th Design Research Conference in Chicago.

Norman brings a unique mix of the social sciences and engineering to bear on everyday products. Throughout a long career, his goal has been to transform design from art into an engineering practice.

"He is to the world of technology product design what Knute Rockne was to football," wrote Michael Krauss in a Chicago Sun-Times column. "He's a coach showing us new ways of playing the game."

Although not a designer, Norman's studies and books on design theory coupled with extensive academic and industry experience help companies produce enjoyable and effective products and services. Norman has played a role in the design of everything from household goods to a digital photo frame to a nuclear power plant control room, always with people in mind.

Right now he is on the board of UICO, a Chicago-area company that brings the flexibility and ease of use of smartphones' multi-touch and gesture interaction to industrial equipment and home economics. Norman also serves on the board of reQall, a multinational company that helps people capture their ideas, tasks and commitments and then reminds them based on appropriate times and places. Norman hopes to visit all the company's offices in Silicon Valley, Calif., Hyderabad, India, Hong Kong and Singapore -- later this year.

"What do engineers do? They're creating things," Norman says. "Invariably, they're creating things about people, and that's what design is about. Design is about this mix of technology and making it work for people."

Norman is the Allen K. and Johnnie Cordell Breed Senior Professor in Design at Northwestern's McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science. He also is professor of electrical engineering and computer science and co-director of the Segal Design Institute. During his nine years at the University, Norman has been instrumental in developing McCormick's human-centered design curriculum, which extends from freshman year all the way through the graduate level.

Norman is a prolific author, co-founder of the executive consulting firm Nielsen Norman Group and a former vice president of Apple. His 16 books include the acclaimed "Design of Everyday Things." Norman's newest book, "Living with Complexity," will be published this fall.

He has enjoyed watching design thrive and grow at Northwestern, where it now is a cornerstone of an engineering education. Although Norman is retiring from Northwestern this June, he doesn't plan to stop breathing and living design.

Norman intends to do more writing, lecturing and traveling, including visiting major design centers around the world. He is on advisory boards for organizations in the United States, Portugal and Korea. "I retire in June 2010," he says, "but I am already booked through much of 2011."

The following Q&A with Norman features some highlights from an interview conducted by the Design Research Conference's co-chair, Raphael D'Amico.

RD: Your initial books used cognitive science to understand the objective parts of what makes a design good. Then with books like "Emotional Design" you shifted towards the more subjective aspects. What makes a great design that really "gets" people?
DN: When you talk about physical products and the ways we use them, the factors are physical. You can be more objective about it. But when you want to know what really "gets" somebody -- that really has to be subjective. We're starting to understand the importance of emotions, the physical nature of the interaction, the way it feels -- to hold something, to rub something. That's also one of the reasons why music is so compelling: first, you use your whole body in playing the instrument, but second, you feel the vibrations. We're moving towards the touch and feel, and probably later to smell and taste. That's subjective.

That's what I argue in my book. People think it's a trade-off between complexity and simplicity. Those are not opposite -- they're different. Simplicity is in the head.

I show a picture of an airplane cockpit in my book. If you just glance in and don't know anything about flying, it looks horribly complicated. But if you spend a lot of time in a cockpit, it's not. Everything is grouped in logical places, and lots of things are duplicated. Many are in quadruplicate as there's one set of controls for each engine. As soon as you know that, you cut the complexity by a quarter! Pretty soon it becomes fairly straightforward. Above you have all those switches that look messy, but they're circuit breakers.

Complexity is in the world; simplicity is in the head. The more you understand, the simpler things become. So the real trick is understanding.

So if the question is about my books becoming more subjective, it's because I'm talking about more subjective things.

RD: Is it true you are updating "Design of Everyday Things"?
DN: I intend to. I haven't started yet. I just finished my latest book called "Living with Complexity." In it I argue that everyone wants simplicity, and you're probably taught to make simple things, but actually complexity is good. Our tools have to match a complex world. It's that simple. Reviewers of technology say, "Why is this so complicated?" but when you give them a simple thing to review they inevitably complain about missing features. The very people who cry out for simplicity don't even follow it themselves.

It's about about complexity versus complicated. It may have to be complex, but it has to be understandable. I define complexity to be in the world, but complicated is in the head. So the question is, how do we manage complexity? How do we get rid of the complications?

Look at things we take for granted, like automobiles. People complain when they have to spend a half hour learning some new piece of complex technology, but they sometimes spend months or even years of practice to become good automobile drivers.

The world is complex -- so get over it. Once again, you have to step back to look at what people believe, and ask yourself: "Is that really true?"

RD: Your colleague Bruce Tognazzini talks about Apple living in flatland -- making software that is simple when it doesn't have to deal with much, but which becomes unusable when the data adds up (e.g. iPhoto with several hundred albums). Given that it's often held up as an example of simplicity, how do you think Apple's approach is working?
DN: Bruce is correct, as usual. It is very difficult to develop systems that scale nicely. Take the iPhone, with its simple interface and lack of menu structure. It is great for simple things, but I often struggle to remember how to change a setting, or get some complex result, or just which magical part of the screen I need to touch for this particular action to happen. I push the image up, down, left, and right, trying to remember just which way gets me back to where I started. Sometimes I succeed, but with no idea why. Often I fail.

But Apple usually leads the way. I think the iPad is going to dramatically affect the design of laptops. It's interesting what it does not have. For example, no external storage: it assumes that we're all living in the cloud. The iPad isn't really about production, it's about consumption, entertainment and watching.

That said, the thing that intrigues me most about the iPad is the iWork suite. A spreadsheet, presentation tool and word processor, all controlled with your finger. And they did it very nicely from what I can tell. I think that's going to be a major change. People think it's killing e-books, but really it's killing laptops.

RD: So what is the role of design research in coming up with products and services that meet people's needs?
DN: Inventors are the creative ones, and it's almost always driven by some new technology. They see it and wonder if they could use it, so they create something. Sometimes it's something they need for themselves, and they think everybody will, too, or they build it just because they can. Most of these fail, but occasionally they don't, and then design researchers can come along to find the real use and also make it work better. Often these inventions are only usable by the very dedicated early adopter.

My favorite story about Thomas Edison: he invented the phonograph and six months later he had a factory making phonographs. He didn't waste any time. But what was it for? He said he had invented the paperless office. It took a competitor to discover that the killer application was pre-recorded music by the great musicians of the day.

RD: So inventions are this generative force that happen almost randomly, and once they've started to take shape, design research can come in and reconceptualize or refine them.
DN: Right. I'm not saying that's the way it has to be, I'm just saying that's the way it is. Maybe that will change in the future.

RD: Do you have an inkling of the direction you're going now?
DN: No, I never know where I'm going. I only know where I've been. That's what makes life fun!

If I knew where I was going it wouldn't be as exciting! I go wherever the world takes me. I sit down to write one thing and something completely different comes out. I sit down to work on a problem and someone calls me up on something completely different, and I say, "Hey, that's exciting!"

I never know what I'm going to do until I'm finished -- but once I'm finished I'm not interested anymore.