Inside My Design Mind: Don Norman, Human-Centered Design Leader

by Heather Miller
- Apr 1 2015 - 4 min read
Don Norman Profile
Courtesy Don Norman

Don Norman is human-centered design. From his industry-defining book The Design of Everyday Things to groundbreaking work at HP, Apple, and as an IDEO fellow, he pushes the boundaries of designing for people: “people first.”

Norman has retired twice, but it doesn’t seem to stick. Now, at the University of California, San Diego, he has started yet another new job. This time it’s with the Design Lab, something he hopes will become a major destination for people interested in pushing design toward creative, human-centered approaches to the major socio-technical problems facing society. Human-centered design thinking is the tool.

Among the many insights here, Norman discusses this new project; situations where designers can sometimes try to solve the “wrong” problems; and the need to start really thinking about interactions with autonomous cars. Actually, how will that driverless car let you know it sees you in the crosswalk? The design challenges of new digital, social, and physical realities lie ahead. Read on.

You have an incredibly storied career, and now you’re embarking on an entirely new project with the Design Lab at UC San Diego. What is the Lab exactly and what’s in store?
We have a number of different directions for the Design Lab. We are going to focus on design as a way of approaching the complex, socio-technical problems facing society today, problems such as health care, education, or the future of work with the ever-increasing rise of automation.

Today, automation replaces jobs. Why not change the approach so that automation enhances jobs, making our lives more interesting, our jobs more fulfilling? We call this approach “human-technology teamwork.”

We want to work on the way designers approach these problems: Human-centered design thinking is what’s critical.

Courtesy Don Norman

Is there a particular example where you see designers trying to solve the “wrong” problem?
There are a lot of complex issues in health care, and many people want to improve the experience of patients. That’s understandable. But I believe it’s just as important to improve the experience of the medical workers.

Service designers want to make it better for customers. Well, what about the people serving the customer, working in the company? They need a great experience. This has two benefits. One is a better experience for the workers, which results in fewer job turnovers. The second is if people enjoy what they’re doing, they’ll do a better job. For health care, that means better quality of care, and that directly impacts the patient.

Are there any new innovations that face far more complex, human-centered design obstacles than others?
Take automation in automobiles and how that potentially plays out.

A person is crossing the street, and here comes a fully automatic car. How do you know it sees you? Is it safe to cross the street? What if you wave the car on, how do you know the car saw you? What if the car wants to wave you on, how does it do that?

This is a scenario that we need to think about. There are social, physical, and technical concerns that impact our lives.

Courtesy Don Norman

What are some of the major challenges facing design today?
I think we went through a bad phase—“we” being the design field—in that everything was on screens, everything was digital. Finally we are returning to physical objects, to things in the world that we can touch, move, and understand. The rise of powerful small, inexpensive tools such as 3D printers, laser cutters, and simple-yet-powerful drawing tools lets everyday people create wonderful things for themselves and their friends. We are witnessing the rebirth of cottage industries, where we can make, or have designed and made for us, things that truly reflect our needs and our personalities, instead of having to pick among items that are mass produced by the millions.

We need tools to make designing easier for everyone. Designers still use whiteboards and Post-it notes. We need better tools.

Are there any recent designs or developments you’ve seen and thought, “Wow, they really nailed it?”
What excites me is the combination of systems. Most of design is focused on a single item, a single service, or a single product. What’s powerful, though, is when you link them. I just had that experience yesterday, and although to some people it’s simple, to me it shows the power of coupling different sources of knowledge.

I was at a talk, and the speaker showed a quotation by Lewis Mumford on the screen. I said to myself, “Oh I like that. I might use it someday myself.” I pulled out my cell phone and quickly took a picture, trying to do it before he changed the slide. I didn’t get the whole thing because I didn’t have time to aim. I thought, “Okay, at least I got a picture.”

I was assuming that I would go home, look at the picture, and then try to find the real quote. But my phone buzzed, alerting me that it had analyzed the picture, searched for anything that matched the text, and discovered a paper written by the speaker that had that very quote.

I didn’t even know the speaker had written that paper, but it is something I definitely want to read. I didn’t have to ask; it just happened. And that’s what is powerful: I didn’t even have to ask.

Redshift’s “Inside My Design Mind” series explores the personal insights from leading designers across industries.

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