CX Insights

Web Designers Should Just Become Designers: an Interview With Don Norman

18 min read

Donald Norman is one of the world’s most influential designers and writers about design. We are big fans, and really proud that Anneke could talk to him about his books, the future of designing for the web, emotional design, the balance between design as an art-form and as a form of marketing, and much more.

'Emotional Design' by Donald Norman - a must read
'Emotional Design' by Donald Norman - a must read.

Usabilla: When you wrote The Design of Everyday Things you focused on utility and usability, function and form. In your book Emotional Design, your focus is on the emotional side of design. Do you think the term ’emotional design’ is gaining more momentum? And if so, why?

Donald Norman: Yes, absolutely. The scientific understanding of emotion has really increased. When I wrote The Design of Everyday Things, we really didn’t understand emotion or even know how important it was. It was a neglected area, but that was over twenty years ago. There has been a tremendous increase in our knowledge since then.

You want new technology to become a more fundamental part of your life, and you want pleasurable things.

In fact, the reason that I wrote Emotional Design was that I had recently joined Northwestern University and re-met some of my old friends —one of them who is an expert on emotion— and we decided that it was actually time to try to bring together what had been learned. We were writing a scientific paper, and as we wrote the scientific paper I realized ‘oh’ we can apply this. And so I wrote the book. And that thought, and that knowledge and interest, didn’t occur just to me but to others as well. In addition, in any new technology, the first decade—if you will—is sort of making it work, understanding what it can do. But after it becomes accepted, you want it to become a more fundamental part of your life, and you want pleasurable things. I see behind you artworks, and photographs, and we want that out of our technology too.

You wrote an article on how technology comes first, products second, and needs last. It seems that design-wise, products also go through some sort of cycle: from a ‘utilitarian’ focus to a more ‘aesthetical’ one. The web has been through its ‘utilitarian’ phase and now more focus is being placed on ‘higher’ needs such as amusement and pleasure. Do you agree with this? And what do you think is next for the web?

I think what is happening on the web, the Internet, is that in some sense it’s disappearing

I do agree with this. And I think what is happening on the web, the Internet, is that in some sense it’s disappearing. It’s disappearing in the same way that plumbing has disappeared. It doesn’t mean it’s less important, but it is sort of built into everything and therefor we take it for granted, and therefor we only notice it when it fails. We expect to be able to get access to information all the time, we expect to be able to talk to people all the time, and we don’t consider this that I am connecting to the Internet, that I’m tweeting you, or you and I are Skyping, and we’re talking and we see each other. We just take that for granted. We don’t necessarily consider this part of the web or part of the Internet, but it is.

We’ll sit in front of our television set and we’ll watch movies which are streamed over the Internet, but we won’t call it the Internet, we’ll call it watching a movie. And the same with listening to music, and with more and more of our activities. So today we only think of the web, the Internet, when we go to a website using some big URL address—and I think that will diminish because it will just happen automatically.

What role do you think web designers should play in making web usability more pleasurable, more amusing?

I would like to see web designers disappear and become designers

Actually, I would like to see web designers disappear and become designers. Web design was this specialized activity because we had these screens, we had this fixed format and we had to figure out how to display it so that it was understandable, usable, so you could find the stuff, so you could navigate the complex architecture of the website. On top of that, you had amazingly little control over what it really looked like on the screen.

Well, that lack of control is going to expand with the modern smartphones. They come now in all sizes and shapes. They come very small, to larger and larger and larger, and when they become too large we don’t call them a phone anymore, we call it a pad. But it’s really the same device, just getting larger and larger and larger. And pretty soon they’re on the wall, they’re big TV sets, or displayed, or projected. And so the designer’s job is much more complex and very, very necessary. But it’s not web design, it’s information design, communication design.

Do you think there is a danger of injecting too much emotion in a web page? How can a designer find the right balance?

No, because it will happen. And people will say that it’s too cute, or blah, but it will just take care of itself. Look, that happens in art. We have kitschy artists who have too much emotion. It happens in the cinema, it happens in everyday products. Alessi is a good example, his products are right on the edge sometimes. And it sorts itself out. Some people like it, or don’t—I wouldn’t worry about that.

Do you think everyday people are becoming more ‘design literate’? Or is this a common designer bias that should be avoided?

I don’t know. In some domains people have always been design literate—architecture, fashion, interior design. They have not been quite as design literate in product design, although somewhat, and in the computer electronics technology there has not been that much emphasis. But that’s growing. So I wouldn’t say that people are more design literate, I think that design literacy is moving to these new areas. People who were savvy about architecture, and art, and fashion—even food—are moving to add that savviness to these new areas.

The second question is, is the designer biased and should it be avoided. What’s the hidden message behind that statement?

Usabilla: Designer’s might design something a bit more sophisticated thinking that the user will understand how it works.

We’re trying to design for a world of 7 billion people. And so actually one mistake that we are making with some of our technologies is trying to design one thing for everybody

Yes, that will happen—and I think we’ll find that always happens. Look, we’re trying to design for a world of 7 billion people. And so actually one mistake that we are making with some of our technologies is trying to design one thing for everybody. But if you look at established devices, products and services, we don’t do it that way. There is a wide variety to choose from. So sure, some things will be too sophisticated for a majority, but liked by some, and some will be too oversimplified for the majority, but liked by some. We will just have to find the various niches.

You have said that ‘in design we should always create a persona for the product and ensure that everything in that product is consistent with that person’. How are the marketing and design teams involved in this process and how can their relationship be improved?

First of all, this is a new concept that I don’t think has been widely deployed so nobody quite knows how to do it. I think there will be the standard fights and arguments among say the designer’s interests and the marketer’s interests and I think that those fights already exist on how you design something, and what features you put in, how it should operate. And I think they are legitimate fights, actually.

There are sort of two kinds of designer, in the extreme. One is the ‘design is art’, the designers who want to make a statement, who do things for themselves really. The other, more modern type of design, is where we’re trying to understand what people really do and how we use it and make sense of it—that’s the human-centered design approach. So those are in conflict already.

And then there’s the marketing approach. Let’s take the sophisticated marketer who understands those two approaches and says oh that’s very fine and obviously we should design things that fit people’s needs but we also have to design things that people buy. And the way that people make buying decisions is not necessarily based upon what really is good for them. That’s a legitimate conflict—it doesn’t matter how good your design is if people don’t buy it. That has to be worked out probably each time differently. And I always argue that’s the product manager’s job to reconcile these and you have to ask in the end what’s best for the product itself.

With the accelerated changes taking place in web design, as a designer, how can you stay on top of your game?

The way you’ve always stayed on top of the game.

Any designer who is not in touch with the world is going to fall behind.

First of all, you are always observing people, watching people, trying to understand how people are getting along with their lives, or are getting along with the products you have already designed, or the product family that you’re working on. And second, you have to keep in touch with what’s happening in the world, what’s happening not only in politics, in activities, in the structure, and of course in the technologies that are available and affordable. Any designer who is not in touch with the world is going to fall behind.

Do you have suggestions as to where a designer can look to for inspiration? How do you stay inspired?

It’s the same answer. I just try to be an observer. And I travel continually, last year it was 200,000 kilometers. I’m always observing. I’m reading a tremendous amount, I keep up-to-date with the technical literature, I go to talks, I go to conferences, I try to observe what’s happening.

Where does my inspiration come from? It comes from all over. You never know. In fact, it’s often belated. I travel with a camera–now we have good camera’s on phones, that’s even easier–but I always carry a good camera with me. And I try to take pictures of things that I think are going to be important. But it’s interesting that I often see things and sort of note it and then, the next evening, or even a week later, I say ‘ooh, that was significant’. And it’s too late to go back and get it. Sometimes things that inspire me, the inspiration takes a while to settle down and gel before I suddenly realize, ‘ooh that was something going on there’.

For those of us who are interested in following your work, what is the best way to stay updated on your projects, follow your musings, and find out which books you’re currently reading?

Well actually that’s what my website is for. There’s an RSS feed and I try to post everything I’m writing there. The significant books that I’m reading , well I just posted yesterday three book reviews. In the last couple of days I posted two new articles, one that was just published on Core77—where I am a columnist—and one that will be published in a computer journal but it’s about the technology cusp we’re at where things are changing so rapidly and yeah it’s going to cause lots of benefits but also lots of confusion and difficulty. So, my website is where I try to keep everybody up-to-date.

Are there any interesting projects you are working on at the moment that you would like to share with us?

I am playing with a new book, too early to tell you what it might be about because I myself don’t know. So the books, of course, are where I try to put it together but those come out obviously at a slower pace, every couple of years. This book will be probably on the shelves two years from now.

How do you personally use social networks?

My problem is keeping out of touch with people

My problem is keeping out of touch with people. I have I don’t know how many Twitter followers, 3,000 or something, and I don’t tweet. I have lots of Facebook followers and I seldom post. The three social networks I use are LinkedIn—where I am very strict, I do not link to you unless I actually know you, I have met you and I have talked to you. So there’s 1000 people linked to me. Facebook where I am much freer. And Twitter which I follow sporadically.

I use the social networks for two reasons. One is, it does keep me in touch with people that I haven’t interacted with for a while. And second, it is very important that I try out all that’s happening. As you’ll understand, that’s part of what a designer has to do is keep up. I’m always surprised when I meet a designer who says ‘oh no, I don’t use those’. Well then how do you know what’s happening in the world? ‘Well, I don’t like smartphones’. I don’t care if you don’t like it, you have to be using it so you understand what other people are doing.

Actually, I’m impressed with what Facebook has done with its new timeline. I know it’s controversial, but I think it’s actually a very clever—very brilliant even—design format to organize the large body of material in a very engaging way. So I think they have done a very good job.

And once again, the fact that I use Facebook, and experiment, and learn, and try to see what they’re doing, that even though the timeline isn’t officially released, I have already launched my own site using it. That’s what I try to do, is keep up with what’s happening.

With all these technological advancements, how do we find time to keep up with everything? It’s like you have to become a member of Twitter, a member of Facebook and all these new things that are coming up. How do you choose?

Well, of course, the most precious commodity we have is time. But that’s my life, that’s what I live, and that’s what I write about, and that’s what I think about. So for me it’s absolutely essential.

We received some questions for you through Twitter. First up: how will persuasive design be in the future, and how can we apply it?

I worry about persuasive design. Is that a clever name for advertising? That’s what advertisements have always been, trying to persuade us to buy things that we might not otherwise want or need. So it’s been with us for a long time. I’m not sure that this is anything different except a new name.

There’s a whole lot of literature in the advertising journals which probably most designers have not read, and a lot of the people who do persuasive design have not realized, but there’s a large number of journals about advertising and marketing and that’s what their concerns have long been. I don’t like it, but it’s reality.

Another question from one of our followers: do you think we should design product out, or experience in?

Could you translate?

Usabilla: I think he means should we design from a product perspective or from an experience perspective?

I think that really depends upon the nature. If I’m designing a Disney theme park, I design it from the experience perspective. If I’m designing a new coffee maker, I want to design it from the product side. And I will have some product requirements, it may have to do with the footprint and size, it may have to do with ease, and I hope it also has to do with the quality of the coffee that it makes. So all three of those will be designed from the product side. So I think that both of those are legitimate approaches.

Usabilla: So basically it depends on the product.

And the audience.

One last question from our followers: what is your assessment of how the industry has adopted or has not adopted your ideas?

Well I’m actually really pleased with the impact that my ideas have had. I continually meet people who tell me that they use my ideas in some product that I may even be using and not aware of. I’ve met people who tell me ‘Oh, at our company The Design of Everyday Things is required reading for all new employees’. So I’m very pleased. There’s still a lot of room to go.

And the way I kind of see it, is that every year I see better and better products and more companies that use good processes and do good things. At the same time, even more companies come in who are clueless, and don’t know what they’re doing and give us disgusting products.

Actually, one of the things that really has most surprised me is the rise of gestures on our smartphones and tablets. They’re not well done. Especially Apple. I think Apple’s iPhone and iPad is a disgrace in many ways in that they completely ignore decades of research on what it takes to understand a product, the notion of discoverability, that we can experiment and learn how to use it, feedback, undo, all sorts of fundamental principals are gone.

Apple just deliberately violated the lessons of the past

The Android is only slightly better. So actually I’m putting my hope on Microsoft because Apple threw away their user experience designers and they just deliberately violated the lessons of the past. Android has its own problems, at least it has a menu so you can discover some things, but not much. And Google does not really appreciate the role of designers, they like to do everything by algorithms and numbers. So the one major manufacturer left is Microsoft who actually has really excellent design teams that they listen to. So I’m looking forward to Windows 8 and Windows Phone 8 because from all that I’ve been able to learn about it, it looks to me like it will be the superior system.

To answer your question, I am very pleased with the advances we’ve made over the years, and yes how people do pay attention. But I am very discouraged now that the companies that have been doing well suddenly have forgotten the lessons and moved on to these new devices. I don’t know how you’ve felt, but when I use an iPad I sometimes can’t figure out how to go back, or how to select. You know on the computer when I read the NewYork Times, I can search. On the iPad when I read the New York Times on New York Times application, I can’t search so I can’t find the article that I care about. A step backwards.

I actually think that the new Fire, which is the Android tablet that’s a Kindle, is actually not as good as their E Ink Kindles. So the latest, new advanced one, the fanciest is actually a step backwards in many ways.

Do you think there is a difference between product designers and web designers, in that product designers look more to research to base their product designs on, and on Internet it seems anything goes.

They are different disciplines. Although the fundamental principles of design about understanding the user, and what is going to be done with it, should be the same. They are quite often trained in different ways. Product designers are traditionally trained in industrial design schools where as web designers can come out of almost any place. They can come out of computer science, they can come out of communication departments. They don’t as often come out of design schools. In the design schools, that’s often when the web design is treated more like design is art. Where as product design today is much more human centered. So I think that’s a problem.

This actually links to what you said at the beginning, you want designers and not web designers.


The whole Usabilla team wants to wholeheartedly thank Don Norman for taking the time for this interview.

Anneke Schapelhouman
Interested in user experience, social media, and anything design.