DESIGN:Far from being purely about looks, good design is all about a full user-centric experience and for Don Norman, it is a way of life, writes DAVIN O'DWYER
THERE WAS a time, not that long ago, when the word design was thought to relate purely to an object's appearance. A designer made things look pretty, whether it was clothing or book covers or cars or electric appliances. Design, it was thought, was more art than science. Now, however, we understand that design is as much about how things work as how they look. That shift in perception has much to do with the work of Don Norman, the renowned "usability guru" whose seminal book, The Design of Everyday Things, changed the way many people in the design world comprehend objects.
We've all pulled doors that were meant to be pushed, swore at an impenetrable timer on a radiator, or seethed when some apparently essential preference was found buried deep in the list of settings - so often, these incidents make us feel stupid and inept.
After reading the work of Norman, however, you will realise it was a designer who was guilty of ineptitude not the user.
"By now, we're so aware of usability, I'm not interested in it," Norman says now, proving how much things have changed since The Design of Everyday Things was published in 1988. "I take usability for granted now. That's like saying 'I should worry about whether the bridge will hold.' You're right, that's very important, but we've moved beyond that, you don't worry about the bridge holding now."
As Norman sees it, technology has moved along a developmental trajectory that has seen its priorities evolve along with the demands of the user. "In the beginning, it was 'Can you make the technology work?'," he explains. "Then 'Can you make it understandable?' Then 'Can you make it attractive and smoothly designed?' Now it is focused more on the experience. And I'm arguing we should be focusing more on the total experience - the ecosystem."
For someone who made his name by analysing how people interact with machines and technology, it might seem like a retrograde step to be analysing how people interact with services and businesses, but Norman feels this is the most important area for potential change. As he sees it, the success of products such as the iPod, iPhone or Amazon Kindle isn't purely down to the design of the devices themselves, but their success at creating a larger user experience that is just as thoroughly designed and user-centric.
"Here's what happened to me," he begins, effortlessly relating his theory in a personal anecdote, as he so often does in his books. "I was reading the New York Times on the Kindle, reading a review about Malcolm Gladwell's latest book. I said, 'Yeah, I ought to get it.' So I typed "What the Dog Saw", searched the Amazon store, clicked "Buy", and voom, it was there on the Kindle, instantly. It's the same with the iTunes store and music. It's about creating an ecosystem."
Another area he cites is the mobile-phone industry, which he sees as being restricted by the network operators until the technology, and especially the iPhone, forced them to adopt more user-centric policies. This newfound emphasis for Norman, about extending user-centred design from the device or object to the larger experience, is vital for modern businesses to grasp. "I just gave a talk to a conference, and I gave my 10 rules of success in business. And the first rule is: 'It's all about the total experience.' And rule 10 is: 'It's all about the total experience.' That's how important it is."
Other rules he feels companies need to embrace include "Complexity Is Good: Complicated Is Bad"; "Designing for People - Customers and Employees Both"; and "Everything Is a Product".
Norman's experience of business is not an entirely theoretical one, as he has frequently sought challenges outside academia. One of his most high-profile positions was at Apple in the mid-1990s, when he was vice-president of the Advanced Technology Group, where he worked on the Newton handheld device, a mobile computer that preceded the iPhone by nearly 15 years.
"The Newton failed for complex reasons. I thought there were parts that were really badly done, but I could not get anything changed. I went to the vice president in charge of the Newton, but he couldn't get the engineers to do anything. That was before [ the return of] Steve Jobs, when executives had no power." Though he doesn't dwell on it, it's clear that he believes in this case, a badly "designed" business inevitably leads to badly designed products and user experiences.
His spell at Apple is only one chapter in a varied and impressive career: he is currently professor of design at both Northwestern University in Illinois and at the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (Kaist); he is co-founder of the influential Nielsen Norman Group, an executive consulting firm he set up with web usability expert Jakob Nielsen; and he consulted at HP, among many other roles in industry and academia. And that's not including his many successful books, which have brought his theories of user-centred design and usability paradigms to popular attention. And there are the huge number of phrases he has coined or popularised in the world of design - cognitive engineering, human-centered design, affordance and user-experience. Cognitive psychology doesn't usually create celebrities, but Don Norman has achieved a level of recognition and acclaim that makes him a bona fide star in his field.
That level of achievement might encourage some people to rest on their laurels, but Norman has no plans to slow down, though he is retiring from his academic roles next year, when he will be 75. Sprightly and infinitely inquisitive, Norman is about as tech-savvy as they come - our conversation was over a video-conference on Skype, a perfect example of the benefits of what he terms "emotional design".
"I believe that emotion is far more important than cognition," he explains. "We are emotional creatures, emotion is how we assess the worth of something.
"The emotional impact is critically important. That has been understood for a long time in the design world, though the engineering world still doesn't quite get it. A good example is this conversation - it's rather nice that we can see each other, this conversation is more emotionally pleasing because of that."
Always alert and always thinking, he pauses at one point to type a note for his next book, an idea crystallised by our discussion - "It's all about the experience, actually it's about the ecosystem, where eco means not only the product, but also the environment, the planet," he types.
"My writing plans are that I just finished a book called Sociable Design, but after that I want to rewrite The Design of Everyday Things, because it's been a long time. So of course I'm looking around trying to decide what new things I should add," he says.
Indeed, though the examples of awkward-to-use VCRs will no doubt be replaced by examples of easy-to-use iPhone apps, there is a universality to his observations that make them applicable to a whole range of products and experiences.
"I consider my field the relationship of technology to society. Not design. Not usability. This much broader field," he says in summary. "I just enjoy life, that's one way of putting it."