More funology: positions

XI.5 September + October 2004
Page: 43
Digital Citation

Interview with Don Norman

Mark Blythe, Marc Hassenzahl, Donald Norman

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MB: Most of our readers will be aware that your new book marks a change in direction for you. Why the turnaround? Are you hoping to inspire more designs like the Incredible Tea Juicer?

DN: The Incredible Tea Juicer? But of course!

I am trying to influence designers, so let me transform your question into asking what the "design field" knows and understands. Now, I put "design field" in quotation marks because it isn't quite clear what this phrase refers to. What I mean is an as-yet hypothetical discipline of research, theory, and practice that is concerned with design issues. This will encompass a wide range of existing fields. Thus, usability and HCI in general is one important facet, and perhaps the most advanced of these areas. But usability and HCI (which are basically synonymous), is only one small piece. Indeed, the focus has been upon software, although usability experts in human factors and ergonomics have long focused upon hardware.

We also need to consider materials, aesthetics, manufacturability, serviceability, marketing issues, design for pleasure and fun, etc. There are also business considerations. There are many design communities: graphic design, industrial design, mechanical engineering, computer science and other related disciplines, but as yet, these are disparate, unrelated communities. I think it time for a single, cohesive design field that captures all of these aspects, from mechanical and electrical engineering, through art and graphics, through usability and pleasureabillity, through marketing, distribution, advertising, and documentation (which should be an integral part of the design process).

Areas such as fun and pleasure are now of more importance, yet they are poorly understood. The same with the emotional side of design. This is why I started studying emotion. Moreover, I thought I could show how usability, aesthetic appeal, and deeper, more cultural concerns, concerns about one's self image, and the issues addressed by much marketing and advertising could all be brought together under a common framework.

Long answer, but the questions gets at the heart of the philosophy that derives my work.

MB: When something doesn't work you can make a rule forbidding it, as your good friend so famously does for Web designers. Isn't it much more difficult to identify what makes a design engaging?

DN: There are many different aspects of design. In Emotional Design, I identify three different components: visceral, behavioral, and reflective. Behavioral Design is where we can develop good rules for designers, and this is where most of the scientific efforts within HCI and the usability community lie and, as you point out, where Jakob Nielsen has concentrated his efforts. Visceral design deals with appearance, and here, although there are no firm guidelines, there is a lot known from art, typography, and graphical design about what constitutes good design. Golden ratios, symmetry, appropriate use of colors—and color combinations. Visual balance, proper use of white space, etc. These are not quite a science, but there are certainly excellent guidelines.

Reflective design is something else. Now we are dealing with culture, with individual idiosyncrancies, and with learned behavior. Indeed, the best reflective designs are often very controversial—despised by some, loved by others. This is indeed where the skills and intuitions of the designers play critical roles.

Does expansion into these areas make design more difficult? Yes, but I wouldn't describe it that way. I would say it makes it more interesting, more challenging, much more exciting. After all, if we could reduce everything to simple rules, why would we want to work in that field? So hurrah for the difficulties. If a field isn't difficult, then I'm not interested in it.

MB: You argue that many of our responses are "pre-wired," that we have certain in-built aesthetic responses. But the play of fashion shows that some aesthetic responses are learned, what we wear this year and consider to be the height of cool will look absurd to us in twenty years' time.

DN: Hah! You aren't going to catch me in that trap!

I have been very careful to distinguish three different levels of processing: visceral, behavioral, and reflective.

Elsewhere, Andrew Ortony and I characterize the emotions at the visceral level as "perceptually driven," those at the behavioral level as "expectation driven," and those at the reflective level as "intellectually driven." So the beautiful face, perhaps the enjoyment of a sunset, or a landscape marked by rolling hills, some open space and some trees, are all examples of visceral beauty. This is indeed beauty that is only skin deep.

Behavioral beauty refers to the very positive feelings of turning a smooth knob or controlling some device where one always feels in control, where the device responds precisely as expected. This is a form of beauty seldom spoken of (because artists concentrate upon visual appearance), but inasmuch as much of the beauty of music is expectation driven, this is perhaps the home of much music appreciation.

The question asks about "judgments of taste" that might be historically and culturally contingent. This is reflective beauty. This is the home of fashion, for example. Thus, although all cultures prefer human bodies with certain proportions and symmetry, some cultures prefer fat, some thin. Still, within those who are fat or thin, all would agree upon which is the most attractive. So this judgment is a mix of visceral and reflective tendencies.

So, to answer your question, I believe that everyone agrees upon what makes for visceral beauty, but not for reflective beauty; here is where personal experience and history, cultural and national differences have a huge impact.


MB: You've said in other interviews that we know how to make products that work but we don't know how to make products that make us smile. But some computer manufacturers still seem to be coming up with products that make us want to throw them out of a window.

DN: Mac, Windows, Linux are too complex to be much fun. Moreover, they are a single system intended for everyone in the world, so they must always be seeking compromise. No single design or single system can possibly appeal to everyone. But it is the complexity that gets us down. Far too complex. Far too difficult to find stuff, to maintain the almost constant barrage of updates, not just of the OS, but of the individual applications. I have to have a virus checker, a spam checker, filters on my e-mail. If I have 20 applications on my machine (and I do), and each requires upgrading twice a year, then I am upgrading almost every week. And in my experience, even simple upgrades can end up taking the whole day before you are finished.

So yes, both Apple and Microsoft have made truly excellent strides. But the overall computing experience is far too complex. That's why we end up wanting to throw them out of the window. When everything goes well, we often feel relieved. Relief? That's not a positive emotion.

You know where the excitement is, where the "invisible computer" really exists? It is the mobile phone. That is the platform for the future. On my mobile phone (a Palm Treo 600, in case you ask), I take photos, I send text messages, I read my e-mail, have my calendar (diary), address book, and notes. I have restaurant guides for the most important cities in the world, I can instantly tell you the weather for the next five days, or the currency conversion in five cities (and I can change cities in a minute or two), and so on. Oh yes, it is a music player as well.

Small screen? Sure, but always with me. Ubiquitous computing is here.

So far, the Treo 600 is a delight to use. But that will soon cease, as we pile more and more applications upon it, many ill-suited for the tiny screen and keyboard.

I have seen the future and it is the mobile platform. And it is déjà vu. Here we go again!

MB: You account for the prestige of certain items at the reflective level; does this take into account any of the work in semiotics by writers like Roland Bathes?

DN: Nope. Is my work related to semiotics? Yes, of course. Even in my Design of Everyday Things, the definition of "affordance" (or as I prefer, "perceivable affordance") is perhaps best interpreted as a semiotic concept, because an affordance can be interpreted as a signal. But I find that the style of thinking and writing from within Cognitive Science (which is where I reside) is so different from many of the European semioticians, that although I think I am in agreement with much of what they are saying, I can't understand them well enough to make any solid connection. We inhabit different cultures.

MB: Usability engineering has a strong tendency towards simplifying scientific models. Aesthetics, experience, and emotions add a new layer that will make business even more complicated. How will those issues translate into practice?

DN: The usability community has no clout, not in academia—where it is often a lowly-ranked discipline—nor in psychology, cognitive science, or computer science, nor in industry, where it is rare to find a group that has any real say in products. (Microsoft and Nokia, by the way, are good, positive examples of companies in which usability groups actually do have impact.)

Why is this? Elsewhere, I have argued that because the field is analytical, capable of finding fault, but not capable of actual design. We need to become designers, not just analyzers. But the second reason is that we tend to be usability bigots, believing that usability is the most important part of a product. Product developers know better, so they ignore us.

We need to branch out beyond making something usable into making it more desirable. To making the products and services pleasurable. Just changing usability has little or no impact upon sales, and sales (and profits) is what drives business. So we'll be a lot more successful as a discipline—and have a lot more fun, besides—if we focus on those aspects of a product that improve the total customer experience, that improve sales, and that do indeed make a practical, business difference. Usability does matter, but only as a part of the entire complex of functions, features, appearance, pleasure, image, and, of course, cost.

MH: Do you think HCI academia will address emotions and experience more often in their research? Or will industry take the lead in developing the field?

DN: The answer already is yes, academics are taking more interest. Look at this special issue of interactions! And as you know, I just served as action editor for the journal HCI for a very nice paper by you, Marc Hassenzahl, called "The interplay of beauty, goodness and usability in interactive products" [1]. I thought your paper—and the spirited reviews—important enough that the editor (Tom Moran) agreed to make this into a discussion, where the reviewers of the paper provided commentary, and you got the final word. Beauty, goodness, and usability: three different concepts! We have tended to think that usability is everything and that beauty is quite independent. Tractinsky [4, 5], in a nice series of papers, argued that beauty really did matter—that it impacted usability (and Tractinsky was one of the reviewers and discussants). I built upon that work in my book. You disagreed: You suggested that beauty is separate from usability, but that both beauty and usability affect goodness—and it is goodness that we should be caring about. (But see Lindgaard & Dudek, 2003.) I think adding "goodness" to the story is a very valuable contribution.

MH: Usability engineering was hard to sell to industry. Will they pay extra cash for the upcoming new techniques, such as "enjoyment testing" and the "pluralistic emotional walkthrough"?

DN: I have no doubt that industry will buy into this notion with great joy. ("At last!" they are likely to say. Of course, now the fights will come with marketing and advertising who believe they already own this discipline.)

For example, although at the time of this writing, my book has only been out four months, it has already resulted in my being contacted by people in broadcasting, automobile interior design, retail selling, banking, and other industries that before only paid trivial attention. I've even been working for a candy maker. Yes, this will be an easier sell. But only if we actually deliver!

back to top  References

1. Hassenzahl, M. (2004). The interplay of beauty, goodness and usability in interactive products. Human-Computer Interaction, 19 (4).

2. Lindgaard, G., & Dudek, C. (2003). What is this evasive beast we call user satisfaction? Interacting with Computers, 15, 429-452.

3. Norman, D. A., & Ortony, A. (2003, 12-13 November). Designers and users: Two perspectives on emotion and design. Ivrea, Italy. Symposium on foundations of interaction design.

4. Tractinsky, N. (1997). Aesthetics and Apparent Usability: Empirically Assessing Cultural and Methodological Issues. CHI 97 Electronic Publications: Papers

5. Tractinsky, N., Adi, S.-K., & Ikar, D. (2000). What is Beautiful is Usable. Interacting with Computers, 13 (2), 127-145.

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