Y’know What, I’m Fond of Donald Norman

Donald Norman is the author of a book called The Design Of Everyday Things, which came out in 1988, 2008, and 2013. It is a book that has been pored over and referenced and cited and reconsidered for all sorts of disciplines, many of which come up in my PhD literature review, which is why it’s on my mind, and one of the things that keeps coming up in that – two things, really – is that Donald Norman is pretty sweet and people don’t seem to do much to dilute that.

Norman’s original book was, the story goes, about time spent in England as an American, and learning the way that the interface of common objects worked. From this grew a discipline of considering the everyday in terms of how people are meant to interact with them. It even got a term coined, of Norman Doors.

A norman door, if you’re not familiar with the 99 Percent Invisible Podcast video that got shared around about it, is a door where you remember enough about engaging with it because it’s wrong or badly designed, but you forget enough about engaging with it so you don’t route around the bad design. Say you have a door in your office that you only sometimes go to, and you know you need to do something different with it, but every time, you get it wrong as to whether you need to push it or pull it. Or it opens into a space you need to stand, but you never remember where to stand. You forget about it once you’re done, because that door isn’t regular or important. People often feel stupid or blame other people for messing up with the door, ignoring the greater reality: The door is probably wrong.

This is the principle of a Norman Door; a door that violates Donald Norman’s principles for everyday interface design.

I’m not about to just replicate the chunk of my literature review here, though because that should be done on an academic blog, and instead I want to talk about something that isn’t important to the academic side of things, which is: I like Donald Norman.

Donald Norman writes about interfaces with a sense of human engagement that I find personally, very sweet. It’s optimistic, too; there’s a real feeling to me that Norman’s design sensibilities want to put information in the hands of people using things, wants to empower people who are engaging with the design. It is important, in Norman’s vision of design, for people to know what the thing they’re using does, and why it does it that way, and it should be communicated to them that way. A disk drive should have a slotted handle to lock in place, not just because the disk needs it to be safe and secure, but because the person using it should be able to go ‘oh yeah, this is how I have declared this act done.’

But it’s how in he specifically has pushed away from User Centered Design as a terminology to Human Centered Design. It’s the same idea, generally speaking, but just the idea of referring to people as ‘Users’ positions the whole engagement as being about a machine, a system of some sort and that the human showed up to use it. They were still, in a way, being regarded as part of something.

When writing about human-centered design, Norman provides an example of throwing a basketball into a hoop at the free-throw line. This is something humans, even the best humans for the task, fail at. It involves throwing consistently accurately and accounting for variables. This is something machines do well. In the description of Human-Centered Design, then, Norman suggests the creation of a free-throwing machine that can do it perfectly, and:

“Why, that’s wonderful,” you should be saying. “Between us and our machines, we could accomplish anything. People are good at the creative side and at interpreting ambiguous situations. Machines are good at precise and reliable operation.”

Unfortunately, comma.

This is the plight of our now, this is the design failure of our landscape. The devices people are using are not made with interfaces to let the machine do the thing the machine is good at and the person do the thing the person is good at. Your machines teach you how to use this machine, and it’s an explicitly stated point of pride that many designs are good at getting you to use the related machines that are only made by one company. Apple devices behave the way apple devices behave because apple devices want you to use more apple devices. The inteface is not a door you pass through, it is a lock you must pick.

But Norman writes about it like it’s very obvious, and sensible, and good to make designs where the human gets to do the things the human wants to do, and the precision of the machine is the thing the machine is there to do. It’s hard to imagine interfaces like that – even for things like paint programs, I have a hard time imagining a painting interface that’s capable of (say), allowing free, sloppy colour selection and then fine-tuning it later once it’s all been determined. That seems to me bananas.

Thing is… I could do it.

Even as I say it, I’m thinking about ways I could do it.

I know how to do it.

But it’d involve constructing a bunch of nested folders in GIMP and moving them around depending on what I wanted them to do. I could make the interface there, but only because I’ve learned how to engage with it, after a long time building up practice.

Reading Norman talking about how designs should be is sweet and refreshing. He seems to like people, people with all types of access needs, and want them to have the best tools for their own interfaces. And that’s sweet to have, since he doesn’t then frame everything as being about success, as determined by money.