A Lab Guru’s Short Course On Good Design

Published in the San Diego Union-Tribune, February 8, 2016

“Design is how it works.” – Steve Jobs.

Great design is hard to categorize, but you know it when you see it.

Now meet Don Norman – not only can he describe it, he can and he has created it. He was educated in electrical engineering at MIT, got his doctorate in mathematical psychology at Penn, taught at Harvard, came to UCSD for 27 years, then left and went to work at Apple and HP. He was a consultant to DARPA and NASA, served on multiple boards and in his spare time managed to author 20 books on topics in his field. A classic underachiever.

And now he has returned to his roots to lead the UCSD Design Lab. He is the acknowledged guru in the field of usability engineering and cognitive science. And he is the passionate advocate for user-centered design.

So I pressed him to give me the short course in design for dummies. Norman was a consultant after the Three Mile Island nuclear meltdown disaster. Why and how did it happen was his assignment. The initial assumption in many disasters is “user error” – the technicians or the pilot made a mistake. But Norman’s work peels back the onion and tries to understand why there was user error. And his thesis is that it is often because of bad design.

Case in point – Three Mile Island had eight knobs on the main panel and they all looked identical and were the same color. An accident waiting to happen.

On airplanes, it used to be that the flaps and the landing gear were right next to each other. If you reached for the wrong one, the landing gear would retract and the plane would just drop on its belly onto the tarmac.

When you hear this stuff, you think, how stupid can they be? But Norman will tell you – it is not stupidity, it is simply bad design.

Norman would say that his work centers on “trying to understand how the mind works” and then design for it, rather than around it. “The real danger in hiring the world’s best experts is that what they create will probably be unusable by ordinary people.”

I asked him about startups, and he made two points that are absolutely required – “product process” and “deep focus.” He tells the story about going in to see John Sculley, then CEO at Apple, and John would tell him a great idea. Norman told him that sure, it was a good idea, but it would take 200 people two years to do it. OK, get started. And then the next day Sculley would call him into his office and give him another good idea. And so on.

Norman preaches focus. And process. And of course, Steve Jobs was the archangel of those two themes. Norman says, “the simpler a product appears, the harder it is to get it that way.”

(At one point, Steve Wozniak reported to Don Norman. It was because Woz “wanted to be an employee.”)

He poked fun at the infamous meme MVP (minimum viable product) – he says many young entrepreneurs “forget the word viable.” When he was at HP, he says, “you were only allowed to take risks on projects if everything turned out OK.” In thinking about user-centered design, he says, “What we are first told is the problem is usually only the symptom.” You have to dig deeper to properly understand the issue. “You have to solve the correct problem.”

For example, when you go to a hardware store to buy a three-fourths-inch drill bit, maybe what you really want to do is mount a picture – and maybe there is a way to do that without drilling a hole. What is the real problem?

Don Norman is 80 going on 16. He has a twinkle in his eye and a healthy irreverence for the status quo. He questions everything, and believes “that the technologists, not the academics, accomplish the breakthroughs.” He is at UCSD because he wants to do “something important and exciting.”

And that means he wants to expand the design universe. The two most famous design labs are at MIT and Stanford. His mantra is to make UCSD the third one.

I asked him for his final thoughts for entrepreneurs – “to make a difference, have fun.” I love this guy.

Rule No. 454

Answer the right question.

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