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Getting Emotional With… Donald Norman

Donald A. Norman is a professor emeritus of cognitive science at University of California, San Diego and a Professor of Computer Science at Northwestern University, but nowadays works mostly with cognitive science in the domain of usability engineering. He also teaches at Stanford University and is a member of the editorial board of Encyclopædia Britannica.

Norman’s earlier books deal mostly with usability or with cognitive psychology, but Things That Make Us Smart also makes a few remarks of critical nature regarding our society, in particular Norman dislikes the content-less nature of television and bad museum exhibits. Lately he has tended to focus on the positive. He loves products which are enjoyable to use, a feature which he attributes to putting together emotion and design, or heart and mind. He has explained this in detail in his book Emotional Design.

He is a promoter of the concept of information appliances, which he has covered in his book The Invisible Computer.

He co-founded the Nielsen Norman Group, a consulting group on matters of usability which also includes Jakob Nielsen and Bruce “Tog” Tognazzini. Norman currently splits his time between consulting and his teaching and research at Northwestern and Stanford.

I caught up with Don together with Javier Cañada. This interview has also been published in Product Magazine (Netherlands) and Visual (Spain).

The interview was conducted in December 2004.

Donald NormanEarlier this year you published your new book “Emotional Design; why we love (or hate) everyday things. About your other book “The design of everyday thingsyou explained that it was written out of pure frustration with products. Was “Emotional Designa result of that last bit of frustration left from product design?

I believe that we now do understand how to design so that the result truly fits people. By “we”, I mean the design community, the design theorists (which is where I fit), and the university community of design. Lots of individual designers are still hopelessly inept. So, although there are still many bad designs in the world, I no longer think that new work is required at this point – we simply need better education. Moreover, there are now many truly excellent products. And, in any event, having worked to make products easier to use for the past 15 years, I am getting bored.

Now it is time to move the focus from making things practical (they function well, they are understandable) to products and services that are enjoyable, that give pleasure, and even fun. That is the focus of Emotional Design: to make our lives more pleasurable. In this book, I present a framework for understanding the essence of the emotional appeal of products. I still have a lot to go, however.

An interesting part in your book is in the epilogue, where you say that “we are all designers, referring to personalization by users. C.K. Prahalad, the American/Indian management guru, points at product personalization as the way for businesses to survive. Which role do you think emotional design will have in product personalization?

We are much more emotionally attached to products for which we feel some involvement. So true personalization and customization makes a real difference. Once we have some commitment and involvement, it is ours forever. But, as I point out in the epilogue, just changing the color or other minor details will not be sufficient. The person has to make a real investment – they have to “own” the changes.

In The Invisible Computer you point at ‘information appliances’ as means to override most of the problems derived from today’s concept of computer. How would you integrate that idea with your more recent statements about emotion in design?

This has already taken place – for example, note the rise of the digital camera, the mobile telephone, the automobile navigation system, the music player, the Personal Digital Recorder (such as TiVo in the United States). We have a much greater emotional attachment to products that we carry with us at all times than to massive, complex things that sit on our desk. Actually, we do have an emotional attachment to those big desktop computers, except the attachment for many people is negative – frustration, and irritation.

In your book “The design of everyday thingsyou give many examples that could help designers to improve their designs. In this respect “Emotional Designis a summary of which emotions current designs evoke and why these designs make us feel those emotions. It doesn’t have that idealistic tone though, like “The design of everyday thingshad, saying: this is what should happen in order to improve design. As a result, some people claimed to miss a more practical approach on the “how-to’s” in “Emotional Design. What should designers look for in their search for affordable methodology in emotional design?

It is much easier to give rules for the design of usable products than for the design of pleasurable products. So, in Emotional Design, I don’t give rules. Rather, I give a framework for understanding the impact that emotions have. The rules and practical advice are in Chapter 8. Unfortunately, right now, the book only has seven chapters. Designing pleasurable, enjoyable products is hard. That’s why it is a wonderful challenge – and so much fun.

You are probably aware of the relevance that ROI (Return on Investment) issues now have in the usability / UCD industry. Do you see a way to relate emotional issues to ROI?

ROI and other economic measures are essential for the designer to understand. If a product is unsuccessful, or if the economics are so bad that no company will make it, then it doesn’t matter how well it is designed – nobody will ever use it. Artists can ignore the business side of their work. Product designers cannot – a successful product must have successful business model. So, in my design courses, I teach net present value (NPV), ROI, and the essence of a good cost model (including labor, overhead, profit margins, shipping, advertising, returns, and distribution channels – and their markups.). The designer who ignores this aspect of the business will fail.

You once “complained” that you are always asked about issues from your past books and never from the future ones. Ok, what do you have in mind now? What is calling your attention these days?

Hey, thanks for asking! I’m now working on Expectation Design. On the behavioral emotions, on transitions. On why we are so fascinated by the unfolding of coffee cup holders. On the behavioral emotions. On the feeling of control. And on Chapter 8 of Emotional Design.

Well, good luck with all that you are doing Don, and thanks a lot for your time. We appreciate it.

You’re welcome

An excellent Spanish translation of this interview by Luis Lopez Toledo can be read at Chilepd.

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