People: the way I see it

XII.3 May + June 2005
Page: 51
Digital Citation

Whose profession is this?

Donald Norman

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You have to believe that whatever work you are doing is the most important activity in the whole world—at least if you want to be good at what you do, and enjoy it. That's the philosophy I have always preached—and followed. If you don't believe that what you are doing is the most important thing, why are you doing it?

Designing a product requires many skills, and it is the rare individual who has them all. Design is, therefore, an exercise in teamwork, where each of the members brings in different skills, attitudes, and values. And each thinks their own set of attributes is the most important.

The attitude that one's own discipline is the most important of all, though, gets in the way of teamwork. It creates bigotry, which in our field means usability or interaction bigots. When we find flaws—and there are always flaws—we preach, we rant, we rave. We complain bitterly about those deficits. All of which makes us look like the complainers and whiners we are. But the question we should be answering is "Do these flaws matter?" Instead of pointing out problems, we should be providing solutions. Managers and executives don't want to hear about problems: They want to hear about opportunities and solutions.

I have long worried that in preaching the merits of our approach, we have lost sight of the point of the exercise. For customers, it is to provide pleasure and accomplishment, allowing them to fulfill their needs both effortlessly and pleasantly. For purchasers, the product must be affordable and return value commensurate with the cost. For the company, the product must be profitable: People must buy it in sufficient numbers without requiring expensive service calls. And there must be a continuing revenue stream so that employees can remain paid and future profitability is assured.

Where does usability, visual appearance, marketing, feature lists, ethnographic studies, manufacturability, technology, etc., appear in the list? Nowhere. People don't purchase or use items because they are usable, or filled with high technology. They do so because they accomplish their goals, and those goals are rich and varied, sometimes at conflict with one another, sometimes varying from moment to moment even within the same person. And, despite the low esteem with which most design teams hold the marketing, advertising, and sales teams, without them nobody would buy anything and the product—no matter how superior—would fail.

Whose profession is this? Nobody's, at least in the sense that it belongs to no single group. Everybody's, at least in the sense that we all have to come together to ensure that products are successful from everyone's point of view. This means that there may be usability flaws, technology glitches, appearance issues, and marketing fumbles. But so what? We must look at the larger picture and ask, does each flaw really matter? And so everyone must pitch in, everyone must make compromises and tradeoffs, and everyone must put their profession second and the interests of the company and customer first.

At the "Whose profession is this, anyway" symposium held recently at Stanford, an audience member asked me who should be in charge of the product, clearly expecting me to say "the user experience team" (because it's all about UE, isn't it?). My answer disappointed her and many in the audience: We are all in charge, and when there are conflicts, it becomes a business decision—and so it is for managers and executives to decide. But mainly, the person in charge is the product manager. If the product manager can't resolve the issues, that's why we pay executives all that money—to make these kinds of business decisions. (Disclaimer: I was once one of those executives.) The decision is based upon what is best for the company and the customer: hopefully, these two coincide. Unusable? Does it matter? Form gets in the way of function? Will it impact sales? Does it prevent the job from getting done?

"Product manager?" was the puzzled response. "But, then, what discipline should the product manager come from?" Grrrr. That's someone who doesn't understand. The correct answer is, "Who cares?" I have seen excellent product managers who were trained in English history, or engineering, or psychology, or Chinese calligraphy. What matters is that this person can pull the team together, can balance the talents of the teams and the needs and requirements of the customers, the company, the sales and marketing teams, the manufacturing and packaging teams, and all those big, powerful egos (as well as the brilliant, but quiet and insecure folks). Talented product managers make this all work in harmony. I am always awed by their skills. They are—and must be—generalists, people who can see the big picture. What discipline should they represent? None of them: All of them.

Whose profession is this anyway? As a professor, I like to say there is no such thing as a bad question. Then again, there are exceptions to every rule, and this would appear to be one of them.

If you have to ask the question, you don't get it.

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Donald A. Norman

About the Author:

Don Norman wears many hats, including co-founder of the Nielsen Norman Group, professor at Northwestern University, and author; his latest book is Emotional Design. He lives at

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