UCSD Design Lab

This spring I’ve been enrolled in COGS 200 – the seminar course associated with the cog sci department’s talk series (this is a requirement of my IDP). This year’s lineup included speakers such as Ed Hutchins (former department chair), Scott Klemmer (peer studio), Eric Vinkhuyzen (parc), Bonnie Nardi (heteromation); yesterday was the last talk of the year, which was given by none-other than Don Norman.

Don Norman Design Lab
Pictured: Don Norman. Source: UCSD Design Lab Homepage

I want to talk about Don. He is the founding chair of UCSD’s Cognitive Science Department, co-founder and consultant with the Nielsen Norman Group, and former Apple VP. He is currently the founding director of UCSD Design Lab. Don is 80, but unlike many elders of the ivory tower, he is certainly not a Luddite. Instead of both shunning and criticizing contemporary tech-ware like many prototypical golden-agers, he only engages in the criticism part. Don believes that a device or piece of technology should be easy to use, and if it’s not, there is a flaw in the design (not with the person using it). To be more precise, it’s not that Don believes everything should be easy to use, per se, but that things should be more user friendly. Sure that idea may be obvious now, but it wasn’t always, and Don was an advocate for ‘user-friendliness’ before it was cool (see: The Trouble with Unix: The user interface is horrid (1981)). Naturally, he wrote a best-selling book about it called The Design of Everyday Things.

In the second chapter of this book, Dr. Norman focuses on the psychology of ‘doing things‘ – how people interact with tools and technology, and how they evaluate their actions. He highlights the role of the designer as someone who absolutely must consider the psychology of human-device interaction. The crux of his synthesis is that well-built products have intuitive functionality user-centered design, and manipulations performed on/with the device result in predictable outcomes.

The Designer, by Don Norman

No I’m not talking about another book by Professor Norman; I’m talking about thee designer apotheosis, in Don’s world. According to his formulation the designer, by definition, is someone who helps people bridge the “gulf” between execution (learning what to do) and evaluation (figuring out why an action did/didn’t work). If you’ve ever helped create a product and that wasn’t your main objective, you weren’t the designer, you were something else. Maybe you were the inventor, or the engineer, or the programmer, or the manufacturer, which are certainly important roles; but to reiterate, unless your main objective was to determine how to make a product/device more-better for humans, you weren’t the designer.

Maybe today Don will tell you that’s not at all how he defines the role of the designer. But that was his definition yesterday, mutatis mutandis. I know because he spent an hour explicating the complex mysteries of user-centered design, to me. To clarify, I introduced Don and provided an overview of his work; the goal was to craft a proem that could spark discussion ASAP. Why was that the goal? Well, for one this is an assignment, and it happened to be my week (there were two other students who could have started talking in the 10-second eternity between the time the instructor said “ok guys, go ahead and get us started”, and the time I opened my mouth… but they didn’t). Two, I barely know of Don. Yes, he is famous, but not in my field. Three, he was there, sitting right there in the front of class. How are you supposed to talk about the objet d’art when the artist is in the room? Four, to be honest I couldn’t give a shit about the psychology of design. But that was yesterday. I have since changed my feelings about the subject. All because of Don.

You see, product design is incredibly important to manufacturers and corporations. The tiniest detail can mean the difference between a product become highly profitable and one that flops. Thus, billions of dollars are invested every year in R&D; a chunk of which is spent on design consultants, for which Don has elite status. However, there is nothing remarkable about the intellect of Dr. Norman, the 80 year-old cognitive scientist. That is, aside from him being, at 80, far more sagacious than the average scientist studying psychology and human cognition. I presume this is because Don’s undergrad was in electrical engineering and computer science, at MIT. He was a student of the hard sciences, but somewhere along the way Don realized that he could be an elite psychologist. It was an interesting field, and he had lots of mental tools many psychologists lacked. So Don quickly worked his way to the top of the food-chain. He became intimately familiar with psychology jargon, inventing some of it; and now to listen to him talk, well, it’s just entertaining.

It’s just entertaining.