Peter in Conversation with Don Norman About UX & Innovation | Adaptive Path

We’re pleased to announce that user experience pioneer Don Norman will be speaking at Adaptive Path’s UX Week 2008 conference. Earlier this month, I chatted with Don to see what he thinks about user experience design today and what companies need to do to innovate. The following are edited excerpts from our conversation. This essay represents maybe 25% of the full conversation (which also touches on the history of product design, organizational challenges, service design, systems thinking), feel free to listen to the full hour-long conversation.

Peter Merholz [PM]: I’m really excited that you’re going to be speaking at our UX Week conference in 2008. One of the reasons I’m excited is that in 1998, I did some research on the phrase ‘user experience’ and the first references pointed to you. I emailed you about it then, and you replied, “I invented the term because I thought human interface and usability were too narrow. I wanted to cover all aspects of the person’s experience with the system including industrial design graphics, the interface, the physical interaction and the manual. Since then the term has spread widely, so much so that it is starting to lose it’s meaning.”

So now it’s 2007, what do you think of the phrase, ‘user experience’?

Don Norman [DN]: Yes, user experience, human centered design, usability; all those things, even affordances. They just sort of entered the vocabulary and no longer have any special meaning. People use them often without having any idea why, what the word means, its origin, history, or what it’s about.

PM: Do you get a chance to design much any more?

DN: No, actually I don’t, but I teach design so it’s kind of fun, I get a chance to critique design, critique in a positive sense of urging the students on to do better, better thoughts, deeper analysis, sometimes more exciting designs, more pleasurable designs. And actually, the thing I really work on is asking the right questions, so the rule I have for myself when I consult with clients and the rule I teach my students, is: Do not solve the problem that’s asked of you. It’s almost always the wrong problem. Almost always when somebody comes to you with a problem, they’re really telling you the symptoms and the first and the most difficult part of design is to figure out what is really needed to get to the root of the issue and solve the correct problem.

PM: That resonates strongly with our experiences here at Adaptive Path. We spend most of our time in any initial discussions with clients doing some form of needs analysis. They know they feel a pain, they think it might be solved through some tool or approach, but they don’t necessarily understand the context and that’s frankly why they’re coming to you. It’s like you don’t go to a doctor with your solution. You go to a doctor with your problem and you let them figure out what’s the best way to address it.

In an essay you just published, you talk about how most innovations fail, and there’s this statistic that something on the order of 90 to 96% of product innovations fail. Why are these product innovations failing? In our experience, the single biggest reason that product innovation fail has nothing to do with designing a thing and everything to do with an organization’s ability to deliver on that design. So many organizations are hierarchical, they have those old charts and those old charts are great for optimizing delivery of existing products or services and they’re terrible for true innovation, for creating something new, because it often requires busting down silos, people working together who aren’t working before, etc. I’m wondering if this is something you’re dealing with — whether it’s teaching school or through your consulting work — and how you’ve sought to help companies address that side of delivering on experiences.

DN: Absolutely, that’s a major focus, both of my consulting and also of the courses that we are teaching. The easy part of innovation is the idea. The hard part is delivering it, making it successful, because in the end it’s a systems problem. You have to have the great idea, you have to make it, ensure it really matches people, you have to be able to manufacture it, deliver it, you have to get it to people’s attention, and then convince them they should do it and if it’s really a new idea, well expect to take about 10 years.

Palm is a good example. It’s a company that struggled. In the beginning it almost went bankrupt, several times, they finally had to sell themselves out to US Robotics. Then US Robotics itself collapsed and so 3Com bought US Robotics and said we need your modem business. They didn’t want the Palm part of the business and they tried hard not to get it but the condition of the sale was they had to take it. Eventually, many years later, 3Com found that the money, the only part of their company that was making money was this PDA called Palm. That demonstrates how hard it is to get a new idea out, even though it was a very good product.

PM: You were at Apple when the Newton was created right? What happened there?

DN: In my new book actually, I have a section on one of the many reasons why Newton failed. Newton failed for a fairly large number of reasons, but one of them was because the handwriting recognition was touted as a great marvelous part of Newton. Personally, if it hadn’t been advertised so much and you just knew it was there, it might have succeeded. But we got people’s expectations up so high that they just assume, “Hey, we just sit and write and it understands us,” Well the more you understood about handwriting recognition the technology, the more you were impressed with Newton. It was really clever.

The problem is it didn’t work. But if you were an expert in the field you didn’t notice that. And there were a couple of people who could write on Newton with almost 100% accuracy. But here’s the real killer and this is the real point I’m making in the book. Whose fault was it? In Newton, they used some very sophisticated mathematical algorithm using whole word recognition and what it did was find the nearest neighbor match and when you wrote a word it tried to find a word that was closest to what you wrote, but if it was wrong, mathematically what you had was close, but perceptually had no relationship, no apparent relationship. Se you wrote one thing and out came something, you would say, “Huh?” and then, “What a stupid machine.” You blamed the technology. With the Palm it’s interesting, when you wrote a word, you’d say, “home,” and it would come back and say “Nome” and you’d blame yourself, you’d say, “Oh, I didn’t put that first bar long enough on the H so it thought it was an N.” And it’s kind of interesting because it goes against exactly all that I preach.

Here’s a case where if you blame yourself, you say, “Okay, I’ll be more careful next time. It’s a good machine.” Whereas with the Newton, you say, “You stupid machine, I’m going to throw it away, it’s no good.”

PM: One of the things we end up talking about at Adaptive Path in terms of how can organizations get good design and great experiences out into the world, is that there are two tacks to take. There is definitely following solid methods, doing design right, and that tends to be bottom up. But there’s also that need for some type of top-down, executive sponsorship, possibly executive vision, such as what Steve Jobs delivers now, and what might have been lacking with the Newton experience.

What does an organization need to succeed in delivering good design if they don’t have that kind of executive mandate or engagement or is it simply not possible?

DN: I think it’s not possible. I think in the end you need a design dictator, someone who has good focus, who knows what this product is to be about and refuses to allow distractions to change the product. It doesn’t matter if someone supposed, “Oh, that’s really a neat thing to add to the product.” If it doesn’t fit the model, it doesn’t go in, so you need somebody strong and with good taste that understands the vision but then has the managerial authority to make it stick. That person has to have the support of the higher management. So, ideally, that person should be higher management.

PM: It seems to me to us that in order to succeed particularly in doing anything kind of worthwhile or valuable in design in the modern day, you can’t be in a box, you can’t have interface designer’s only do wireframes and visual designers only do color and typography and engineers who only either write code or do hardware. Instead, we’re seeing that to a certain degree everybody has to kind of do a little bit of everything. I don’t know if this is resonating with you…

DN: Absolutely. What I teach is systems thinking and systems design and that you and nothing is an island and you have to really understand the entire story, but even our field has its boundaries and it stops at the business model. It stops at the profitability, it stops at marketing; marketing is often the enemy of our field, which is wrong. Because, yes, sometimes what you have to do to make a product sell makes it harder to use or makes it less effective but, so what, if nobody buys the product it doesn’t matter how good it functions. Second of all, understanding what it is that causes people to buy things and quite often it’s visual appearance, brand recognition, how it fits in with other things they own, how easy it is to understand, or how easy it is to use. Price is an important factor, appearance is an important factor, reputation is an important factor, and the good designer has to understand all of that.

PM: Interesting. Well, obviously I think we could probably carry on this conversation for many hours and luckily we’ll have at least another 45 minutes or an hour to continue talking in August. Before signing off, I have one more question that I want to ask you, “Where are you currently drawing your inspiration? What is stoking your fire these days? Where are you getting stuff that kind of excites you, makes you think, and encourages you to noodle on ideas or whatever?

DN: The world. I go about observing the world. And I maintain a sense of curiosity, I’m always curious, I’m always asking why. I just like to stop and watch and I now discovered when I’m stuck in line, I don’t consider that a negative, I consider that a positive, I can get to watch the other people. I look and I ask why we have this, why do we have that, why are people behaving this way. A group of students take me out to talk to me and they are all drinking bottled water and they take a sip, they unscrew the top, they take a sip, and they screw the top back on, “Why do you screw the top back on?” I ask and they say, “Well to prevent dirt from going in.” Well if you had a glass of water here, would you cover the glass after each sip? Well no. You’ve got to watch and ask and the real insights come from asking about obvious behavior, so obvious that nobody else would ask about it. That’s how I keep young, that’s how I keep going, and how I keep getting new ideas. On top of that I question everything, hence my question about ethnography, filling the much needed hole, hence my questioning of human center design, is that really what works when you have a million users, can you really do that? I question my own ideas and that’s the only way to make progress, always curious, always questioning.

PM: Don, thank you. We’ll continue this conversation at UX Week 2008.