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Don Norman and The Psychology of Everyday Things

When you don't know how to turn on your radio

Donald Norman at UCSD, c. mid 1980s
Donald Norman at UCSD, c. mid 1980s

Don Norman wanted a large latte made with decaffeinated coffee and low-fat milk. He told this to the college student behind the counter at the Grove Caffe, the coffeehouse set among one of the stands of eucalyptus at UCSD. Then Norman, who’s been a professor here for almost 30 years, stepped back to wait.


It was a Tuesday, just after 11:00 a.m., and the cafe was so crowded that a time-conscious student seeking a cup of coffee might have worried about making a noon class. Norman himself had a 12 o’clock appointment halfway across the campus, and he had a newspaper reporter at his side, eager to interview him in the fast-shrinking interval before then. But when the student coffee technician finally slid a steaming cardboard cup in his direction, Norman didn’t snatch it up and dash for a table. He inquired in a mild voice, “This is a low-fat decaf?”

From the CD-ROM version of The Psychology of Everyday Things

“You wanted low-fat?” The server wavered. “Well, actually...it’s not. I can make you another one if you want.”

“Yes, please,” Norman nodded.

He’s a little, trim man with a white beard and curly steel-gray hair, 59 years old. Over the phone, he sounds like a boy. Now he looked serene. More than that. He looked interested in the chaos behind the counter. He watched it the way another man might watch a favorite TV show. “This is what I do,” he said in an aside to the reporter.

Don Norman

An everyday scene in which things are not working right. Errors. Confusion. Unproductiveness—grist, all of it, for Norman’s mill. A moment later, he rendered his interpretation of the example being played out before him. The big coffee-making machine was complex, but not too ill-designed. And the student probably knew how to make each of the dozen-plus beverages listed on the cafe chalkboard. “But he couldn’t handle the pressure,” Norman judged. It would take much better training — or a lot more time on the job — to transform the mistake-ridden fumbling into crisp, flawless proficiency.

“I used to watch the technology, but now I find the people more interesting,” Norman added.

But hadn’t Norman been watching people throughout his long career as a psychology professor?

“Oh, no, you don’t understand what psychology is,” he said with a chuckle. “There is a misunderstanding that psychology has something to do with people. It doesn’t. Now, there are several different versions of psychology, and the major split is between what’s called clinical psychology and academic psychology. In clinical psychology, people really try to treat people and help them. But in academic experimental psychology, there’s remarkably little observing of humans. In fact, we had this long, horrible tradition — given to us by the behaviorists — that you shouldn’t even watch [human subjects]. They studied animals. They would take their animals and enclose them in little boxes — Skinner boxes, after B.F. Skinner, the man who set back psychology more than anyone else in this century. And you wouldn’t even watch the animals. You just measured their responses. Much of academic psychology is pretty irrelevant to real life. It’s only been recently that we’ve gotten into the world.”

Norman himself stepped out before the general public with the 1988 publication of a book called The Psychology of Everyday Things. Scrutinizing such fixtures of ordinary life as stove burners, cabinet doors, and telephones, he argued that when these and other items are designed in accordance with principles derivable from a knowledge of how the human mind works, they’re much easier to use than when those principles are flouted or ignored. As much as anything, the book was a cry for liberation — the liberation of consumers from the tyrannies of everyday objects that confuse, frustrate, and complicate life, rather than make it better. Since that book was published, Norman’s sense of liberational mission has intensified; today he has all but turned his back on the university to dedicate himself instead to creating more “humane” information tools within the computer industry.

In a sense, Norman has come full circle from the vision of his youth. The son of a state department employee whose job required him to move every few years, he discovered electronics as a child and was entranced by it. “I was a radio amateur in the very, very early days.” He went to MIT to study computers. (“Those were the days when there were only a couple of computers in the world.”) And after getting his undergraduate degree, he took a job with the Burroughs Corporation in Pennsylvania, one of the first computer manufacturers.

To his surprise, the company offered to send him to graduate school at the University of Pennsylvania’s Moore School of Electrical Engineering, home of the first digital computer. “So I filled out the graduate school application, and lo and behold, they not only accepted me but offered me a stipend — basically a full-time job.” Norman resigned from Burroughs and got his master’s degree. But he was disappointed by the lack of any real computer science department “They were thinking of starting one, and I would have been their first student, but I would have had to wait around for four or five years.”

At the same time, Norman got wind that the university’s psychology department was branching into something new called “mathematical psychology,” and the head of this venture welcomed Norman to join them as a Ph.D. candidate. “I believe that life is a series of accidents, and the important thing is to seize those accidents and make the best of them,” Norman says today. “As far as I was concerned, I was doing the same thing I always had. I was studying the human computer. Instead of building them, I was trying to understand this one.” (He indicates his own brain.)

Don Norman at Apple headquarters in Cupertino, CA

He breezed through the psychology program (finding most of it “dull”) and sailed into a fellowship and then a teaching slot in Harvard University’s psychology department, where a center of “cognitive studies” was just getting started. “And that was a really exciting time. That was when I learned psychology. I discovered William James. I discovered the old psychologists, who really asked important and interesting questions. It was the most wonderful time of my life, because basically everybody in the world came through there, and so I got to know all the major figures in cognition.”

Despite his happiness at Harvard, Norman was pulled away from the East Coast by yet another “accident” — a chance conversation with someone at a cocktail party who mentioned that Norman ought to look into two departments gearing up in Southern California, one at Irvine and one in La Jolla. A single visit to the UCSD campus made him decide to join its embryonic team. (He was offered a position as a tenured full professor in the fledgling psychology department) The year was 1966. “The main road to Los Angeles went through the campus. There were only three people in the [psychology] department at that time. But George Mandler was setting up something called the Center for Human Information Processing, which was perfect.”

At UCSD, Norman continued what he’d begun at Harvard, studying human memory, something he says had hardly been done up to then. “Memory was something inside the head, and psychologists didn’t go inside the head.” He looked at short-term and then longer-term recall ability. He studied attention. Eventually he and UCSD colleague Peter Lindsay wrote a textbook called Human Information Processing, which was very successful but “ruined me,” Norman declares. “In trying to write an introductory textbook, you have to cover everything. It’s amazingly hard, and it causes you to think deeply about a wide range of areas. And ever since then, I haven’t been able to stop. I could no longer do my narrow little experiments.”

Seat adjustment from a Mercedes-Benz automobile

Norman says George Mandler, the man who’d started UCSD’s psychology department, helped propel him down interesting, if broad-ranging, byways. “Lots of the papers I wrote were started by questions he asked,” Norman recalls today. “One wonderful question was ‘What is Luria’s telephone number?’ ” Luria was a famous dead Russian scientist, and Norman says what was so fascinating was the immediacy and certainty with which everyone answered: They had no idea.

“But if I ask you for the telephone number in the house you lived in three houses ago, you will think really hard. So here’s something that’s really interesting. Something you don’t know, you can answer immediately, and something you do know, oh, my goodness, can take a really long time [to recover].”

Most memories can be retrieved “with enough time and energy,” Norman says, although “the problem with retrieving memories is that they may be wrong. Once you start remembering slightly wrong, then you start piecing together a whole bunch of things to make [the recollection] consistent.” By its very nature, memory is reconstructive, he points out. “Look, the way we perceive the world is constructive. For example, when you look at me, you see me clear and in color and distinct and you see all the objects around you in color and distinct. But if you look at the eye, only the tiniest little part of the central region where you’re looking is in focus. There aren’t even any color receptors out on the periphery. And yet when you look at the world, it isn’t unfocused and in black and white on the side and focused and in color at the center. What happens is that the brain constructs this myth of a clear, cohesive image of the world in the present. And memory does the same of the world of the past.

“There’s a wonderful phrase that [Harvard psychologist] Jerry Bruner used: going beyond the information given. One reason humans are so marvelous is that with just a tiny little bit of information, you think you understand everything. You hear a few footsteps and you recognize the person. Somebody calls you up, and in one or two syllables you can recognize the voice. But sometimes you’re wrong, because we jump much too quickly. Most of the time it works, but when it doesn’t work, it can be very bad, because it can take you such a long time to recover.”

While Norman was pondering such things, he was also helping to nurture the emerging discipline of cognitive science, which was bringing together strands of computer science, psychology, anthropology, sociology, linguistics, and philosophy. By 1983 he and colleague David Rumelhart had established a cognitive science program at UCSD. “It wasn’t a department, but you could get a degree by taking a variety of courses,” he explains. That program finally did become a formal department in 1987. Before then, however, Norman had decided that he needed a change, and in the fall of 1985 he moved his family to Cambridge, England, for a six-month sabbatical.

At Cambridge, Norman had an office in the applied psychology unit of the British Medical Research Council. “And I said, I don’t think I’m going to do anything. I’m just going to take my time, see what’s going on.” As he puttered around the council offices, his attention snagged on some unlikely details. “I was amazed how I couldn’t work the doors. I couldn’t work the light switches. I couldn’t figure out the water taps. Sometimes the hot water was on the left and sometimes on the right. And sometimes there were doors that should be pushed and pulled or even slid. And you could never tell what was what. This all struck home. It’s good to go to a foreign culture, since you notice things that you don’t notice in your own culture.”

Many people have that experience, but most don’t do what Norman did next. Rather than dismissing the balky doors and water taps and light switches as mere quirks of British engineering, Norman saw in them reminders of similar annoyances at home. And he saw more. “I began to realize that a lot of the principles I had been studying would apply here!

“I started thinking, I walk around the world and encounter all sorts of things I’ve never experienced before. I’ve never seen, say, this exact kind of paper cup.” Norman brandished his latte receptacle. “So how do I know how to use it?”

Part of the answer lies in the “affordances” of the objects that surround us, Norman decided. He says he’d first heard this concept from a perceptual psychologist named J.J. Gibson. “But I had never really understood affordances.” In the dark English winter, he began to understand the concept. Affordances spring from people’s perceptions of what can be done with things in the world, he explains. “This table that’s in front of me affords support. It lets me put my coffee cup on it. I could also sit on it. I could stand on it. It also affords hiding. I could tip it over and get behind it. Or, although it’s a little heavy, I could probably pick it up and throw it if I had to. It affords a large number of actions.”

Although Norman might never have seen the exact cup in which his latte was delivered, every cup affords holding liquids. “And if I learn that property, I can sort of understand all cups,” he continues. “You don’t need a lesson. You don’t need to have anyone explain it to you if the visual clues are obvious.” Flat plates afford pushing, so, “If you come to a door with a plate on it, what can you do except push?” In contrast, if you come to a glass door with no plates or vertical bars or handles or other obvious hardware, you might well stop in your tracks, stymied for a moment.

Other usability problems that Norman noted seemed to spring from poor “mappings,” that is, a poor correspondence between controls and the things being controlled. One example upon which the cognitive scientist pounced was that of stove-top burners and the knobs that control them. Most stoves have the burners arranged in some kind of rectangle, while the knobs are arrayed in a line. Which goes with which? Usually the two knobs on the left correspond to the left-hand burners, the right with the right. But even years after acquiring a stove, users may confound the controls for the front and back burners on each side. Alternatives do exist (see illustration). Norman began to ask why all stoves can’t be like these well-mapped ones. Why can’t other objects incorporate the same thoughtfulness?

Such thoughtfulness can relieve the user of the burden of remembering how the burners are controlled or which knob turns on the car radio or any of the myriad details about the thousands of objects that we encounter every day. From his own extensive studies, Norman was all too aware of the limitations of human memory. Short-term memory, the memory of the just-present, is limited to five to seven items, he says. And distractions can erase those items as surely as hitting the delete key on a computer. Long-term memory — memory of the past — doesn’t seem to have any practical limit on how many items can be placed in it. But the ability to call up long-term memories depends upon how the material was initially interpreted. According to Norman, “Storage and retrieval are easier when the material makes sense, when it fits into what is already known. When the material makes no sense, it will have to be worked on, structured, and interpreted until finally it can be retained.”

A--arbitrary arrangement of stove controls; B--paired controls are an example of partial mapping; C and D--two of Norman's "full natural mapping" of controls and burners

Because of these limitations, humans can be well served by things that incorporate information; Norman calls such information “knowledge in the world.” Other factors besides mapping and affordances can augment it. Norman says another crucial factor is the sage use of constraints, limitations on what can be done with an object — physically, semantically, culturally, or logically. Design the car so that it can only be locked with a key, and the driver can never lock himself out. Design the package shelf in the toilet stall so that the user has to remove whatever she places on it to get out the door, and you give people a secure place for their packages while protecting them from the common pitfall of leaving those packages behind.

Norman says that one day during his English sojourn, his landlady came over to the house he was renting to retrieve some personal papers. “She walked over to her filing cabinet and attempted to open the top drawer. It wouldn’t open. She pushed it forward and backward, right and left, up and down, without success. I offered to help. I wiggled the drawer. Then I twisted the front panel, pushed down hard, and banged the front with the palm of one hand. The cabinet drawer slid open. ‘Oh,’ she said, ‘I’m sorry. I am so bad at mechanical things.’ ”

Why on earth should she say such a thing? he asks today. “It wasn’t her fault. It was the filing cabinet’s fault!” Norman says one day in Cambridge he sat down and the first draft of a book “just came out of me, in, like, a month or two.” He says he had no particular audience in mind. “I just wanted to get it out on paper. Wanted to tell everyone about it. It’s so simple!”

Not long after finishing the draft, he moved on to the second phase of his sabbatical, at the Microelectronics and Computer Technology Corporation in Austin, Texas, and there he says he picked up yet more product-user horror stories. Norman also started to ask other people to read the book, including some product designers. “I learned a tremendous amount,” Norman says of this interaction. He says he rewrote his original outpouring three times, and “by the time the book was published, I had a complete revision of my understanding of the design process.”

Not that his criticism of poor design had been muted. But Norman’s final draft made a point of asking readers to “pity the poor designer.

“The manufacturer wants something that can be produced economically. The store wants something that will be attractive to its customers. The purchaser has several demands. In the store, the purchaser focuses on price and appearance, and perhaps on prestige value. At home, the same person will pay more attention to functionality and usability. The repair service cares about maintainability: how easy is the device to take apart, diagnose, and service. The needs of those concerned are different and often conflict.”

Nonetheless, Norman asserted, designers do get it all right at times. Witness scissors. Or Post-it notes. Or the 3 Vi-inch magnetic diskettes used in computers.

“Earlier types of floppy disks did not have this plastic case, which protects the magnetic material from abuse and damage. A sliding metal cover protects the delicate magnetic surface when the diskette is not in use and automatically opens when the diskette is inserted into the computer. The diskette has a square shape: there are apparently eight possible ways to insert it into the machine, only one of which is correct. What happens if I do it wrong? I try inserting the disk sideways. Ah, the designer thought of that. A little study shows that the case really isn’t square; it’s rectangular, so you can’t insert a longer side. I try backward. The diskette goes in only part of the way. Small protrusions, indentations, and cutouts prevent the diskette from being inserted backward or upside down: of the eight ways one might try to insert the diskette, only one is correct, and only that one will fit. An excellent design.”

Such passages seemed to have escaped the notice of the science writer who attacked The Psychology of Everyday Things on the pages of the New York Times Book Review soon after the book’s appearance in 1988. “There is nothing here that suggests any contact at all...with the life and work of the professionals Mr. Norman purports to advise: no interviews, no references to their history, nothing that gives a person any feeling for who does this work....” Today Norman still looks dumbstruck when he declares, “He was just wrong. Completely, absolutely wrong.”

He says the review hurt sales. Only slowly did the small first printing sell out. Yet recognition did grow. Today the hardcover book, in its 15th printing, has sold almost 30,000 copies, according to the Del Mar office of Norman’s literary agent, Sandra Dijkstra. Some 67,000 additional paperback copies have reached readers (under the title The Design of Everyday Things). “It’s being used in courses,” Norman says. “Somebody at IBM told me they bought copies for all their executive staff. And I still get letters, lust yesterday I got some electronic mail from somebody who’d just discovered the book.”

Norman says over the years a criticism that he’s heard far more often than the Times' reviewer’s is that the issues he raised in the The Psychology of Everyday Things are trivial. “And I’m trying to say no, no, no. These things are pervasive throughout our society!” Fresh examples strike him every day, and he recounts them with surprisingly fresh passion. “I was at my child’s school yesterday. They have a computer bulletin board, and they were explaining how parents could use it. And they told me my account name was going to be DNORMA. And I said, ‘Why can’t it be DNORMAN?’ And [the system administrator] said, ‘Oh, the names have to be six letters or less.’ ” Why? “ ‘Oh, that’s just the way it is with computers.’ ”

Norman says he happened to be familiar with this particular system and knew that it allowed for unlimited-length names. “But I had to fight with him! Finally, to get rid of me, he said, ‘All right, we’ll let you say DNORMAN.’ But I don’t think he understood the point, which is that we have names. They’re perfectly good identifiers. Why can’t we use them? I happen to like DNORMAN. Or even Don Norman. Why not that?”

Or this: “My father has this telephone that he just bought from AT&T. He’s 91 years old. He went out and tried them all, because he was very concerned that he be able to hear, that it have a good amplifier in it. And this one was very good. So he gets home and now he’s going to program in the long-distance phone numbers of his relatives he calls frequently. And he couldn’t do it! Why? It turns out it’s easy to do. You take the receiver off the hook. You hit the button, ‘Program.’ You dial the number that you want, and then you push the button on which you want that number to be. What could be easier? But they make you take the receiver off the hook. So before he’s finished, it says, ‘If you would like to make a call, please hang up and dial again.’ Why do you have to take the phone off the hook? How crazy! Other machines you program don’t require that. I couldn’t believe this was required, and indeed the manual recognized the problem. It said, ‘If this happens, do it faster.’ Here he’s trying to put in 11 digits, and sometimes more. I timed how long you have. Eighteen seconds. And he’s 91 years old and very adept.” But why make him pick up the receiver at all? Norman asks.

“Again, each of these points by itself seems utterly trivial. ‘It’s no big deal. So they messed up. So what?’ But wherever I look, I find it. The whole point is that this is a symptom,” Norman insists. He says it’s symptomatic of what’s gone wrong with modern life, namely, that human needs and abilities all too often are subordinated to things.

Even as he was finishing up The Psychology of Everyday Things, Norman says he had begun thinking about writing another book. He wanted to move beyond examining everyday things to look at the electronic technology of the Information Age. Norman had come to believe this technology tends to be particularly inhumane. All too often it demands that people act unnaturally, not like human beings, but like machines. “The result is continuing estrangement between humans and machines, continuing and growing frustration with technology and the pace and stress of a technologically centered life.”

Norman hastens to add that, on balance, he’s no Luddite. Whereas most of the other people who have written books about technology and society “are opposed to it and write about how horrible it is, I really like technology.”

Much of it, after all, consists of what he calls “cognitive artifacts.” In plain language, these are the things that make us smart (unlike man-made objects that make us more comfortable or faster or stronger). Cognitive artifacts don’t just make us smarter, as Norman sees it; without them, the human brain can hardly be considered smart at all, he asserts. Over the centuries, humans have concocted a dazzling array of aids to compensate for our mental limitations. Because our memories are so constrained, we’ve invented paper and pencils, books, encyclopedias, libraries, tape recorders, electronic databases. To help us manipulate and organize and interpret our rudimentary abstractions, we’ve created systems of mathematics, reading and writing, logic, graphic representation. Human attention wanders, so we’ve contrived computers that can perform the same calculations millions of times without error. With our multitude of cognitive artifacts, we’ve expanded human intelligence to enormous dimensions.

The problem with electronic cognitive artifacts is that they’re often so hard to use. Why? In his 1993 book entitled Things That Make Us Smart, Norman points out that for one thing, modern electronic systems are all but invisible; you can’t see how they work. “The controls and indicators have almost no physical or spatial relationship to the design itself,” Norman writes; and as a result, “we now have arbitrary or abstract relationships between the controls, the indicators, and the state of the system.”

Compare an electronic file to a physical folder. “When a folder is open, it is visibly different from when it is closed,” Norman writes.

“When it is stuffed with paper, it looks different than when it is empty, even when closed. Not so with electronic files. [There] all we see is whatever the designer thought of providing, which is sometimes a lot, sometimes nothing. The difference is that with the physical folder, the visible properties are an automatic, intrinsic part of its existence, whereas with the electronic folder, any perceivable existence is dependent upon the goodwill and cleverness of its human designer....”

All too often, these designers haven’t been sensitive to the human users. “It’s not that they don’t care about people,” Norman says in the book. “After all, [designers] are people too. The problem arises from the focus upon machine performance.... As soon as one takes the machine-centered point of view, everything automatically leads to a focus upon human weaknesses rather than strengths.”

Humans in fact have marvelous strengths, which the cognitive scientist enumerates:

“Language and art, music and poetry. Creativity. Invention. Changing, varying the manner of doing a task. Adapting to changing circumstances. Inventing new tools. Thinking of the problem in the first place. Seeing. Moving. Hearing, touching, smelling, feeling. Every one of these things is hard for a machine. [Yet] the industrialized, machine-centered view of the person includes such terms as “imprecise, sloppy, distractible, emotional,” and “illogical”.... The question is, how did we manage to let ourselves be judged by these machine-based standards? Sure, every claim against us is correct, but who cares? Those are machine-centered concerns, not human-centered ones. If we take & human-centered approach, we get a different characterization of the same five attributes: creative, compliant, attentive to change, resourceful, and able to take a variety of circumstances into account.”

Just as good design can make everyday artifacts easy to learn and use, so too can cognitive artifacts be made more humane, Norman argues in Things That Make Us Smart. Indeed, some modern cognitive artifacts do complement their human users well, he contends, giving as one example the hand-held calculator. “People tend not to be good at arithmetic,” he writes. “[L]ong calculations are apt to contain errors. Arithmetic requires precision and accuracy, usually involving long strings of numbers that far exceed the capability of working memory.... Even small, inexpensive calculators far exceed the normal person’s ability to do arithmetic.” A hand-held calculator is unobtrusive and undemanding. “We control when and how it is to be used, we control the pace.” This is technology that “does not get in the way,” he declares.

He says dictionaries also provide a good example of how computer power can be used to humanize a (non-electronic) cognitive artifact. At his home, Norman has the unabridged American Heritage dictionary both in book form and on the computer. “And we use the computer one! You want to look up any word, you type it in and there it is, the full definition. Not only that, but it gets you related words. A thesaurus comes along with it, and it’s a long, detailed one. And any time you see a word you don’t understand, you can click on it and instantly get its definition. That’s a really exciting use of technology!” And it’s more humane than forcing dictionary users to page through all those hundreds of pages by hand, directed by the arbitrariness of alphabetical order.

Alas, most computer systems don’t offer anything like that ease of use, Norman laments. Most require a lot of training (“primarily because they force us to formulate questions using the unnatural and awkward precision of logic”). Most library retrieval systems and database query languages “insist upon more precision and specificity than we may wish to provide.” People often don’t really know either the question or the answer, Norman says. “That is why we are looking.”

“It is time to revolt,” he declares at the end of Things That Make Us Smart. And by the time those words reached bookstores, Norman had moved beyond just inciting the revolution. In the fall of 1992, he resigned from his position at UCSD to become a “fellow” with the Apple Computer company.


Norman remains a professor emeritus at UCSD and is still advising two graduate students. That’s what brought him to the campus that recent morning; he comes to La Jolla every month or so. But two years ago, he and his wife sold their beachside custom home in Del Mar and moved (with their now-14-year-old son) to the city of Atherton on the San Francisco peninsula. Most days Norman makes the commute to Apple’s headquarters overlooking Highway 280 in Cupertino. This enormous complex resembles a movie set; it’s a high-tech Emerald City replete with soaring architecture and slick graphics, espresso machines on every floor, blue jeans on most employees. Norman seems to take his fashion page out of the L.L. Bean catalog, favoring chinos and leather walking shoes, long-sleeved casual shirts, soft pullover sweaters.

He says a number of factors prodded him to make the move. One was his growing frustration with the irrelevance of much academic work. “University-based science is meant to impress one’s colleagues,” Norman has written. “Most academic study is designed to answer questions raised by previous academic studies.” Although his seniority and status enabled him to do some applied work while at UCSD, it was outside the norm, looked at askance by some, he says.

And there were other frustrations, Norman disclosed in a recent interview at his office at Apple. “In the university, each of the professors is out for himself.” In fact, “The university has structured itself to encourage that. You get rewarded in the university for being world famous, for doing things that make your colleagues across the world say, ‘This is very good work.’ ” In contrast, time spent working on committees trying to improve the university works to one’s detriment (to the extent that it reduces the time available for producing academic articles). “I thought this was absolutely crazy!” Norman says. “The university rewards people who ignore the sake of the university.”

He says this state of affairs is a little like the relationship between people and technology. “We’ve kind of just learned to suffer with the technology, and it never occurred to us that there was any other way.” Norman contends that universities can’t imagine any alternative to the status quo. “I once was actually on a committee trying to improve the teaching at UCSD. And we came up with all sorts of wonderful recommendations about trying to help professors learn to teach, giving them feedback. And this was frightening in the academic setting. I remember Harold Urey, the respected Harold Urey, winner of the Nobel Prize, one of the founders of the university, after whom a building was named. He stood up and basically said that this was nonsense, that all that was important was the quality of the students. And there were basically two types, he said. There are good students and they get it. And there are bad students and they don’t.”

Despite his frustration with these things, Norman says he was happy at UCSD. “I was treated very well. I had good students. I was enjoying myself. I felt I could live there happily until I retired or died.” But that in itself was a problem, of a sort. “Look, how do you stop yourself from growing stale? How do you prevent yourself from growing old? The way is to always be excited by what you’re doing and to do different things, to have new challenges. I wanted to be at a place where I would worry and didn’t know how to accomplish something.”

Two other events brought his situation to a crisis. First, as budget pressures increased, UCSD began offering early retirement to its most senior (and thus most expensive) professors. Then a friend of Norman’s who’d received $100 million in start-up capital asked him to come work for the high-tech Interval Research. “That was when I finally faced the fact that it was time to leave,” Norman recalls. He says other friends in Silicon Valley advised him to get some other offers, so he talked to an acquaintance at Apple. “And he said, ‘Oh, you should be an Apple fellow.’ ”

To compare the two companies, Norman says he spent a full day at both, “making believe that I worked at each.” He found Interval to be “exciting, Filled with very bright people with great potential. They didn’t know what direction they wanted to move in, and they wanted me...to help guide them. But the meetings sounded just like my meetings with bright graduate students at UCSD.... When I went to Apple, all the ideas that I was thinking about, people were already producing. There were products. And I said, ‘I am 56. How many more years do I have? Ten or 15? At Interval in 10 years they’ll start thinking about making products. At Apple, they’re doing it right now.’ I could really see the impact. That’s why when I came to Apple, I said, ‘I don’t want to work in research. I want to work on products.’ ”

Now, two years into the job, Norman says he’s carved out the role of “user-experience architect” for himself at the company. “User-experience means all aspects of the product, from the choice of the product, to how it’s used, to what it does in your life, and also the human interface side: what it should look like on the screen.” Norman says the term, which he invented, has now largely replaced “human interface” at the company. “People thought of that as what the icons looked like or what the menus looked like. And I said, ‘No, it’s more than that! It’s, Why are you doing this task at all? Why are you using this kind of machine?’

“I think the computers we have today are the wrong model,” he continues. “They’re too complicated. The hardware, the software, the way we interact with them. It’s crazy. The so-called graphical-user interface was invented over ten years ago, and the first successful one, on the Macintosh, was made for a relatively small machine, no hard disk, not many files — simple things you were doing. But today...we have tens of thousands of files and it’s hard to find things and the applications you buy are monstrous — too complicated by far. It’s the wrong model for today. It was the correct model for ten years ago.”

Today “the computer is irrelevant!” he asserts. “The computer is a tool! So if you focus on the computer, you miss the point. The whole goal in my life is to get rid of the computer.” Think of the way people now interact with electric motors, Norman suggests. “You don’t go to your kitchen to use your electric motor!” You go to whip up a cake batter or run the dishwasher or chop onions with your Cuisinart. All of those actions use electric motors, but “you never think of it like that. That’s how your computer ought to be,” Norman asserts, an invisible enabler of whatever task you want to accomplish.

Besides conjuring up these “broad, visionary dreams,” Norman says he’s spent a lot of time worrying about the gritty, practical paths that must be cleared to reach the vision. “You can’t just plunk in a new method of doing things and say, ‘See, it’s so much better!’ ” he concedes. “People will say, ‘Go away! I don’t care whether it’s better. I don’t have time.’ ” He says he and Apple’s industrial design team have come up with many mockups for how different devices might look and feel. Norman reaches for a small black panel about the size of a book. “Here’s my way of maybe reading something or maybe making quick notes. Nice thin, flat device. We’d like to have something that doesn’t sit and take up the whole desktop. Also, it should support the activities that you do in a better way. So we send anthropologists out to watch people and do what we call ethnographies — we see how people really work.”

As he’s begun to clear the paths, Norman admits he’s encountered problems. “I’ve had some people take me aside and give me lectures.” The biggest shock came in learning how to react to colleagues’ ideas. “What you learn in the university is how to criticize. Somebody gives a talk, and you savagely attack all the ideas. You see, it’s well understood in that culture that you can rip apart the ideas but really like the person.” Norman says that’s what he did when he first arrived at Apple. “Ohhhh,” he moans. “It doesn’t work at all. People would be destroyed. They’d go home and they would sulk and be really mad at me. Here there’s no distinction between [attacking the person and his or her ideas]. If I say there’s a problem with your idea, it must be I don’t like you as a person.”

He’s says he’s also been taken aback by the amount of time required by the corporate decision-making process; he cites the example of one small change that he thought would take four or five days to effect, but which took more than three months, as department after department weighed in with its perspective on how the change would affect it. “On the whole, however, my experience has been very positive,” he pronounces. “Whereas in the university, the emphasis is on individual achievement, in a company the rewards are for what the company produces.” Norman seems to marvel at and approve of his earnings being dependent upon Apple’s fortunes (a third to a half of executive salaries consist of bonuses that are tied to how the company performs).

One other aspect of life in the business world that startled him was the pace. “I had thought it was impossible to work harder than I did as a professor,” he says. “In the university, you’re always on trial: What have you published? What new finding? Even the most senior distinguished professors are continually being evaluated to see how well they are producing this year.... It’s very stressful.” That kind of stress is absent at Apple, but “I work harder here,” he asserts. “It’s very intense. It goes on 24 hours a day. But it stops on vacations and on weekends. Christmas break was a real shock to me. Christmas break at the university is when all the professors get their work done! The volume of e-mail increases substantially. Here, suddenly, poof, it just dies. I think it’s because the pace is so intense, you’ve just got to have these periods away from it.”

In his office at Apple, the intensity of Norman’s pace seems evident. In addition to carrying the user-experience banner within the company, he says he’s still writing articles, plus he gives an average of two talks a month, traveling the world to do so. He also has worked with a New York company called Voyager to produce a CD-ROM called Defending Human Attributes in the Age of the Machine. Just released in October, the little disk holds the full text of all three of Norman’s popular books (The Psychology of Everyday Things, Things That Make Us Smart, and a lighter collection of essays called Turn Signals Are the Facial Expressions of Automobiles), plus three original lectures by Norman, plus a workbook “to test your new design IQ.”

When Norman heard that the review copy sent by Voyager to the reporter interviewing him had proven impossible to use, his jaw did not sag, but his stomach must have dropped. Newsweek magazine, after all, once dubbed this man “the guru of workable technology.” But Norman is a mild-mannered fellow. He just strode to his telephone to call the CD producer and demand some explanation for the glitch. (It turned out the review copy had come without the necessary installation instructions.)

Norman seemed frustrated, also, that the reporter had missed out on the chance to experience the disk, and this he rectified on the spot, calling it up on one of his three large computer display screens. Within a moment, text from one of his books filled the screen, a bit harder to read than when printed on paper and much less portable. But with a book, you can’t do what Norman did next: click upon an icon and bring a screen-sized incarnation of himself to life. The tiny video Norman, relaxed and conversational, started to talk about the difference between reading text on a screen and holding a book in one’s hands. Other clicks on other icons studded throughout the text bring the video Norman to life joking, philosophizing, amplifying.

With yet another click of a button, the CD-ROM images disappeared, and Norman settled back down to talk. But again and again he would dart up and return to one of the three screens — pulling up a memo on one, retrieving a relevant electronic mail comment from another, plucking information from the vast collection of data on his desk with an ease so practiced it seemed almost compulsive. It was like interviewing Norman and his extended brain. He talked for a while about his e-mail. He uses three separate e-mail systems and figures that he gets between 50 and 100 messages a day (some 10,000 to 20,000 a year).

Does he make himself check them every single day?

“Every day?” he looked incredulous. “You can never let more than a few hours go by! When I travel, the first thing I do when I get into a hotel room is to plug my Powerbook into the hotel telephone and I check my e-mail. It’s really quite amazing, but no matter where I am, I have telephone numbers for where I can call.” Up again, he moved to one of the screens and summoned the phone list. “This is my Amsterdam number. France. Far East, Germany.... When I check out of a hotel I can easily have a phone bill that’s $50 to $100.”

Just then, one of Norman’s computers, a talking one, intoned, “Sorry, no mail.” It sounded apologetic, and Norman made a wry face.

“All of us here think it should now say just the opposite — ‘Hey! [perkily] No mail!’ And when there is mail, it should say, ‘Sorry....’”

At home, Norman lives with five phones, a fax, six or seven computers and an Ethernet to link them, three modems — one for each member of the family. It’s a lifestyle that he says he can’t yet recommend.

“I very deliberately go overboard in using a lot of the technology. I really want to understand it. So I put up with a lot of nonsense. Look, we’re in the midst of this very interesting revolution that will take 20 or 30 years to play out. But it will change our lives.” Norman says the only way he can understand it is to submerge himself in it all. “Because then I can begin to understand what the potential is.” Someday, if he has his way, the wired life will be a solace. But for now, he says, “It does come at quite a bit of pain and cost.”

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Lessons learned from eating the same thing again and again
Donald Norman at UCSD, c. mid 1980s
Donald Norman at UCSD, c. mid 1980s

Don Norman wanted a large latte made with decaffeinated coffee and low-fat milk. He told this to the college student behind the counter at the Grove Caffe, the coffeehouse set among one of the stands of eucalyptus at UCSD. Then Norman, who’s been a professor here for almost 30 years, stepped back to wait.


It was a Tuesday, just after 11:00 a.m., and the cafe was so crowded that a time-conscious student seeking a cup of coffee might have worried about making a noon class. Norman himself had a 12 o’clock appointment halfway across the campus, and he had a newspaper reporter at his side, eager to interview him in the fast-shrinking interval before then. But when the student coffee technician finally slid a steaming cardboard cup in his direction, Norman didn’t snatch it up and dash for a table. He inquired in a mild voice, “This is a low-fat decaf?”

From the CD-ROM version of The Psychology of Everyday Things

“You wanted low-fat?” The server wavered. “Well, actually...it’s not. I can make you another one if you want.”

“Yes, please,” Norman nodded.

He’s a little, trim man with a white beard and curly steel-gray hair, 59 years old. Over the phone, he sounds like a boy. Now he looked serene. More than that. He looked interested in the chaos behind the counter. He watched it the way another man might watch a favorite TV show. “This is what I do,” he said in an aside to the reporter.

Don Norman

An everyday scene in which things are not working right. Errors. Confusion. Unproductiveness—grist, all of it, for Norman’s mill. A moment later, he rendered his interpretation of the example being played out before him. The big coffee-making machine was complex, but not too ill-designed. And the student probably knew how to make each of the dozen-plus beverages listed on the cafe chalkboard. “But he couldn’t handle the pressure,” Norman judged. It would take much better training — or a lot more time on the job — to transform the mistake-ridden fumbling into crisp, flawless proficiency.

“I used to watch the technology, but now I find the people more interesting,” Norman added.

But hadn’t Norman been watching people throughout his long career as a psychology professor?

“Oh, no, you don’t understand what psychology is,” he said with a chuckle. “There is a misunderstanding that psychology has something to do with people. It doesn’t. Now, there are several different versions of psychology, and the major split is between what’s called clinical psychology and academic psychology. In clinical psychology, people really try to treat people and help them. But in academic experimental psychology, there’s remarkably little observing of humans. In fact, we had this long, horrible tradition — given to us by the behaviorists — that you shouldn’t even watch [human subjects]. They studied animals. They would take their animals and enclose them in little boxes — Skinner boxes, after B.F. Skinner, the man who set back psychology more than anyone else in this century. And you wouldn’t even watch the animals. You just measured their responses. Much of academic psychology is pretty irrelevant to real life. It’s only been recently that we’ve gotten into the world.”

Norman himself stepped out before the general public with the 1988 publication of a book called The Psychology of Everyday Things. Scrutinizing such fixtures of ordinary life as stove burners, cabinet doors, and telephones, he argued that when these and other items are designed in accordance with principles derivable from a knowledge of how the human mind works, they’re much easier to use than when those principles are flouted or ignored. As much as anything, the book was a cry for liberation — the liberation of consumers from the tyrannies of everyday objects that confuse, frustrate, and complicate life, rather than make it better. Since that book was published, Norman’s sense of liberational mission has intensified; today he has all but turned his back on the university to dedicate himself instead to creating more “humane” information tools within the computer industry.

In a sense, Norman has come full circle from the vision of his youth. The son of a state department employee whose job required him to move every few years, he discovered electronics as a child and was entranced by it. “I was a radio amateur in the very, very early days.” He went to MIT to study computers. (“Those were the days when there were only a couple of computers in the world.”) And after getting his undergraduate degree, he took a job with the Burroughs Corporation in Pennsylvania, one of the first computer manufacturers.

To his surprise, the company offered to send him to graduate school at the University of Pennsylvania’s Moore School of Electrical Engineering, home of the first digital computer. “So I filled out the graduate school application, and lo and behold, they not only accepted me but offered me a stipend — basically a full-time job.” Norman resigned from Burroughs and got his master’s degree. But he was disappointed by the lack of any real computer science department “They were thinking of starting one, and I would have been their first student, but I would have had to wait around for four or five years.”

At the same time, Norman got wind that the university’s psychology department was branching into something new called “mathematical psychology,” and the head of this venture welcomed Norman to join them as a Ph.D. candidate. “I believe that life is a series of accidents, and the important thing is to seize those accidents and make the best of them,” Norman says today. “As far as I was concerned, I was doing the same thing I always had. I was studying the human computer. Instead of building them, I was trying to understand this one.” (He indicates his own brain.)

Don Norman at Apple headquarters in Cupertino, CA

He breezed through the psychology program (finding most of it “dull”) and sailed into a fellowship and then a teaching slot in Harvard University’s psychology department, where a center of “cognitive studies” was just getting started. “And that was a really exciting time. That was when I learned psychology. I discovered William James. I discovered the old psychologists, who really asked important and interesting questions. It was the most wonderful time of my life, because basically everybody in the world came through there, and so I got to know all the major figures in cognition.”

Despite his happiness at Harvard, Norman was pulled away from the East Coast by yet another “accident” — a chance conversation with someone at a cocktail party who mentioned that Norman ought to look into two departments gearing up in Southern California, one at Irvine and one in La Jolla. A single visit to the UCSD campus made him decide to join its embryonic team. (He was offered a position as a tenured full professor in the fledgling psychology department) The year was 1966. “The main road to Los Angeles went through the campus. There were only three people in the [psychology] department at that time. But George Mandler was setting up something called the Center for Human Information Processing, which was perfect.”

At UCSD, Norman continued what he’d begun at Harvard, studying human memory, something he says had hardly been done up to then. “Memory was something inside the head, and psychologists didn’t go inside the head.” He looked at short-term and then longer-term recall ability. He studied attention. Eventually he and UCSD colleague Peter Lindsay wrote a textbook called Human Information Processing, which was very successful but “ruined me,” Norman declares. “In trying to write an introductory textbook, you have to cover everything. It’s amazingly hard, and it causes you to think deeply about a wide range of areas. And ever since then, I haven’t been able to stop. I could no longer do my narrow little experiments.”

Seat adjustment from a Mercedes-Benz automobile

Norman says George Mandler, the man who’d started UCSD’s psychology department, helped propel him down interesting, if broad-ranging, byways. “Lots of the papers I wrote were started by questions he asked,” Norman recalls today. “One wonderful question was ‘What is Luria’s telephone number?’ ” Luria was a famous dead Russian scientist, and Norman says what was so fascinating was the immediacy and certainty with which everyone answered: They had no idea.

“But if I ask you for the telephone number in the house you lived in three houses ago, you will think really hard. So here’s something that’s really interesting. Something you don’t know, you can answer immediately, and something you do know, oh, my goodness, can take a really long time [to recover].”

Most memories can be retrieved “with enough time and energy,” Norman says, although “the problem with retrieving memories is that they may be wrong. Once you start remembering slightly wrong, then you start piecing together a whole bunch of things to make [the recollection] consistent.” By its very nature, memory is reconstructive, he points out. “Look, the way we perceive the world is constructive. For example, when you look at me, you see me clear and in color and distinct and you see all the objects around you in color and distinct. But if you look at the eye, only the tiniest little part of the central region where you’re looking is in focus. There aren’t even any color receptors out on the periphery. And yet when you look at the world, it isn’t unfocused and in black and white on the side and focused and in color at the center. What happens is that the brain constructs this myth of a clear, cohesive image of the world in the present. And memory does the same of the world of the past.

“There’s a wonderful phrase that [Harvard psychologist] Jerry Bruner used: going beyond the information given. One reason humans are so marvelous is that with just a tiny little bit of information, you think you understand everything. You hear a few footsteps and you recognize the person. Somebody calls you up, and in one or two syllables you can recognize the voice. But sometimes you’re wrong, because we jump much too quickly. Most of the time it works, but when it doesn’t work, it can be very bad, because it can take you such a long time to recover.”

While Norman was pondering such things, he was also helping to nurture the emerging discipline of cognitive science, which was bringing together strands of computer science, psychology, anthropology, sociology, linguistics, and philosophy. By 1983 he and colleague David Rumelhart had established a cognitive science program at UCSD. “It wasn’t a department, but you could get a degree by taking a variety of courses,” he explains. That program finally did become a formal department in 1987. Before then, however, Norman had decided that he needed a change, and in the fall of 1985 he moved his family to Cambridge, England, for a six-month sabbatical.

At Cambridge, Norman had an office in the applied psychology unit of the British Medical Research Council. “And I said, I don’t think I’m going to do anything. I’m just going to take my time, see what’s going on.” As he puttered around the council offices, his attention snagged on some unlikely details. “I was amazed how I couldn’t work the doors. I couldn’t work the light switches. I couldn’t figure out the water taps. Sometimes the hot water was on the left and sometimes on the right. And sometimes there were doors that should be pushed and pulled or even slid. And you could never tell what was what. This all struck home. It’s good to go to a foreign culture, since you notice things that you don’t notice in your own culture.”

Many people have that experience, but most don’t do what Norman did next. Rather than dismissing the balky doors and water taps and light switches as mere quirks of British engineering, Norman saw in them reminders of similar annoyances at home. And he saw more. “I began to realize that a lot of the principles I had been studying would apply here!

“I started thinking, I walk around the world and encounter all sorts of things I’ve never experienced before. I’ve never seen, say, this exact kind of paper cup.” Norman brandished his latte receptacle. “So how do I know how to use it?”

Part of the answer lies in the “affordances” of the objects that surround us, Norman decided. He says he’d first heard this concept from a perceptual psychologist named J.J. Gibson. “But I had never really understood affordances.” In the dark English winter, he began to understand the concept. Affordances spring from people’s perceptions of what can be done with things in the world, he explains. “This table that’s in front of me affords support. It lets me put my coffee cup on it. I could also sit on it. I could stand on it. It also affords hiding. I could tip it over and get behind it. Or, although it’s a little heavy, I could probably pick it up and throw it if I had to. It affords a large number of actions.”

Although Norman might never have seen the exact cup in which his latte was delivered, every cup affords holding liquids. “And if I learn that property, I can sort of understand all cups,” he continues. “You don’t need a lesson. You don’t need to have anyone explain it to you if the visual clues are obvious.” Flat plates afford pushing, so, “If you come to a door with a plate on it, what can you do except push?” In contrast, if you come to a glass door with no plates or vertical bars or handles or other obvious hardware, you might well stop in your tracks, stymied for a moment.

Other usability problems that Norman noted seemed to spring from poor “mappings,” that is, a poor correspondence between controls and the things being controlled. One example upon which the cognitive scientist pounced was that of stove-top burners and the knobs that control them. Most stoves have the burners arranged in some kind of rectangle, while the knobs are arrayed in a line. Which goes with which? Usually the two knobs on the left correspond to the left-hand burners, the right with the right. But even years after acquiring a stove, users may confound the controls for the front and back burners on each side. Alternatives do exist (see illustration). Norman began to ask why all stoves can’t be like these well-mapped ones. Why can’t other objects incorporate the same thoughtfulness?

Such thoughtfulness can relieve the user of the burden of remembering how the burners are controlled or which knob turns on the car radio or any of the myriad details about the thousands of objects that we encounter every day. From his own extensive studies, Norman was all too aware of the limitations of human memory. Short-term memory, the memory of the just-present, is limited to five to seven items, he says. And distractions can erase those items as surely as hitting the delete key on a computer. Long-term memory — memory of the past — doesn’t seem to have any practical limit on how many items can be placed in it. But the ability to call up long-term memories depends upon how the material was initially interpreted. According to Norman, “Storage and retrieval are easier when the material makes sense, when it fits into what is already known. When the material makes no sense, it will have to be worked on, structured, and interpreted until finally it can be retained.”

A--arbitrary arrangement of stove controls; B--paired controls are an example of partial mapping; C and D--two of Norman's "full natural mapping" of controls and burners

Because of these limitations, humans can be well served by things that incorporate information; Norman calls such information “knowledge in the world.” Other factors besides mapping and affordances can augment it. Norman says another crucial factor is the sage use of constraints, limitations on what can be done with an object — physically, semantically, culturally, or logically. Design the car so that it can only be locked with a key, and the driver can never lock himself out. Design the package shelf in the toilet stall so that the user has to remove whatever she places on it to get out the door, and you give people a secure place for their packages while protecting them from the common pitfall of leaving those packages behind.

Norman says that one day during his English sojourn, his landlady came over to the house he was renting to retrieve some personal papers. “She walked over to her filing cabinet and attempted to open the top drawer. It wouldn’t open. She pushed it forward and backward, right and left, up and down, without success. I offered to help. I wiggled the drawer. Then I twisted the front panel, pushed down hard, and banged the front with the palm of one hand. The cabinet drawer slid open. ‘Oh,’ she said, ‘I’m sorry. I am so bad at mechanical things.’ ”

Why on earth should she say such a thing? he asks today. “It wasn’t her fault. It was the filing cabinet’s fault!” Norman says one day in Cambridge he sat down and the first draft of a book “just came out of me, in, like, a month or two.” He says he had no particular audience in mind. “I just wanted to get it out on paper. Wanted to tell everyone about it. It’s so simple!”

Not long after finishing the draft, he moved on to the second phase of his sabbatical, at the Microelectronics and Computer Technology Corporation in Austin, Texas, and there he says he picked up yet more product-user horror stories. Norman also started to ask other people to read the book, including some product designers. “I learned a tremendous amount,” Norman says of this interaction. He says he rewrote his original outpouring three times, and “by the time the book was published, I had a complete revision of my understanding of the design process.”

Not that his criticism of poor design had been muted. But Norman’s final draft made a point of asking readers to “pity the poor designer.

“The manufacturer wants something that can be produced economically. The store wants something that will be attractive to its customers. The purchaser has several demands. In the store, the purchaser focuses on price and appearance, and perhaps on prestige value. At home, the same person will pay more attention to functionality and usability. The repair service cares about maintainability: how easy is the device to take apart, diagnose, and service. The needs of those concerned are different and often conflict.”

Nonetheless, Norman asserted, designers do get it all right at times. Witness scissors. Or Post-it notes. Or the 3 Vi-inch magnetic diskettes used in computers.

“Earlier types of floppy disks did not have this plastic case, which protects the magnetic material from abuse and damage. A sliding metal cover protects the delicate magnetic surface when the diskette is not in use and automatically opens when the diskette is inserted into the computer. The diskette has a square shape: there are apparently eight possible ways to insert it into the machine, only one of which is correct. What happens if I do it wrong? I try inserting the disk sideways. Ah, the designer thought of that. A little study shows that the case really isn’t square; it’s rectangular, so you can’t insert a longer side. I try backward. The diskette goes in only part of the way. Small protrusions, indentations, and cutouts prevent the diskette from being inserted backward or upside down: of the eight ways one might try to insert the diskette, only one is correct, and only that one will fit. An excellent design.”

Such passages seemed to have escaped the notice of the science writer who attacked The Psychology of Everyday Things on the pages of the New York Times Book Review soon after the book’s appearance in 1988. “There is nothing here that suggests any contact at all...with the life and work of the professionals Mr. Norman purports to advise: no interviews, no references to their history, nothing that gives a person any feeling for who does this work....” Today Norman still looks dumbstruck when he declares, “He was just wrong. Completely, absolutely wrong.”

He says the review hurt sales. Only slowly did the small first printing sell out. Yet recognition did grow. Today the hardcover book, in its 15th printing, has sold almost 30,000 copies, according to the Del Mar office of Norman’s literary agent, Sandra Dijkstra. Some 67,000 additional paperback copies have reached readers (under the title The Design of Everyday Things). “It’s being used in courses,” Norman says. “Somebody at IBM told me they bought copies for all their executive staff. And I still get letters, lust yesterday I got some electronic mail from somebody who’d just discovered the book.”

Norman says over the years a criticism that he’s heard far more often than the Times' reviewer’s is that the issues he raised in the The Psychology of Everyday Things are trivial. “And I’m trying to say no, no, no. These things are pervasive throughout our society!” Fresh examples strike him every day, and he recounts them with surprisingly fresh passion. “I was at my child’s school yesterday. They have a computer bulletin board, and they were explaining how parents could use it. And they told me my account name was going to be DNORMA. And I said, ‘Why can’t it be DNORMAN?’ And [the system administrator] said, ‘Oh, the names have to be six letters or less.’ ” Why? “ ‘Oh, that’s just the way it is with computers.’ ”

Norman says he happened to be familiar with this particular system and knew that it allowed for unlimited-length names. “But I had to fight with him! Finally, to get rid of me, he said, ‘All right, we’ll let you say DNORMAN.’ But I don’t think he understood the point, which is that we have names. They’re perfectly good identifiers. Why can’t we use them? I happen to like DNORMAN. Or even Don Norman. Why not that?”

Or this: “My father has this telephone that he just bought from AT&T. He’s 91 years old. He went out and tried them all, because he was very concerned that he be able to hear, that it have a good amplifier in it. And this one was very good. So he gets home and now he’s going to program in the long-distance phone numbers of his relatives he calls frequently. And he couldn’t do it! Why? It turns out it’s easy to do. You take the receiver off the hook. You hit the button, ‘Program.’ You dial the number that you want, and then you push the button on which you want that number to be. What could be easier? But they make you take the receiver off the hook. So before he’s finished, it says, ‘If you would like to make a call, please hang up and dial again.’ Why do you have to take the phone off the hook? How crazy! Other machines you program don’t require that. I couldn’t believe this was required, and indeed the manual recognized the problem. It said, ‘If this happens, do it faster.’ Here he’s trying to put in 11 digits, and sometimes more. I timed how long you have. Eighteen seconds. And he’s 91 years old and very adept.” But why make him pick up the receiver at all? Norman asks.

“Again, each of these points by itself seems utterly trivial. ‘It’s no big deal. So they messed up. So what?’ But wherever I look, I find it. The whole point is that this is a symptom,” Norman insists. He says it’s symptomatic of what’s gone wrong with modern life, namely, that human needs and abilities all too often are subordinated to things.

Even as he was finishing up The Psychology of Everyday Things, Norman says he had begun thinking about writing another book. He wanted to move beyond examining everyday things to look at the electronic technology of the Information Age. Norman had come to believe this technology tends to be particularly inhumane. All too often it demands that people act unnaturally, not like human beings, but like machines. “The result is continuing estrangement between humans and machines, continuing and growing frustration with technology and the pace and stress of a technologically centered life.”

Norman hastens to add that, on balance, he’s no Luddite. Whereas most of the other people who have written books about technology and society “are opposed to it and write about how horrible it is, I really like technology.”

Much of it, after all, consists of what he calls “cognitive artifacts.” In plain language, these are the things that make us smart (unlike man-made objects that make us more comfortable or faster or stronger). Cognitive artifacts don’t just make us smarter, as Norman sees it; without them, the human brain can hardly be considered smart at all, he asserts. Over the centuries, humans have concocted a dazzling array of aids to compensate for our mental limitations. Because our memories are so constrained, we’ve invented paper and pencils, books, encyclopedias, libraries, tape recorders, electronic databases. To help us manipulate and organize and interpret our rudimentary abstractions, we’ve created systems of mathematics, reading and writing, logic, graphic representation. Human attention wanders, so we’ve contrived computers that can perform the same calculations millions of times without error. With our multitude of cognitive artifacts, we’ve expanded human intelligence to enormous dimensions.

The problem with electronic cognitive artifacts is that they’re often so hard to use. Why? In his 1993 book entitled Things That Make Us Smart, Norman points out that for one thing, modern electronic systems are all but invisible; you can’t see how they work. “The controls and indicators have almost no physical or spatial relationship to the design itself,” Norman writes; and as a result, “we now have arbitrary or abstract relationships between the controls, the indicators, and the state of the system.”

Compare an electronic file to a physical folder. “When a folder is open, it is visibly different from when it is closed,” Norman writes.

“When it is stuffed with paper, it looks different than when it is empty, even when closed. Not so with electronic files. [There] all we see is whatever the designer thought of providing, which is sometimes a lot, sometimes nothing. The difference is that with the physical folder, the visible properties are an automatic, intrinsic part of its existence, whereas with the electronic folder, any perceivable existence is dependent upon the goodwill and cleverness of its human designer....”

All too often, these designers haven’t been sensitive to the human users. “It’s not that they don’t care about people,” Norman says in the book. “After all, [designers] are people too. The problem arises from the focus upon machine performance.... As soon as one takes the machine-centered point of view, everything automatically leads to a focus upon human weaknesses rather than strengths.”

Humans in fact have marvelous strengths, which the cognitive scientist enumerates:

“Language and art, music and poetry. Creativity. Invention. Changing, varying the manner of doing a task. Adapting to changing circumstances. Inventing new tools. Thinking of the problem in the first place. Seeing. Moving. Hearing, touching, smelling, feeling. Every one of these things is hard for a machine. [Yet] the industrialized, machine-centered view of the person includes such terms as “imprecise, sloppy, distractible, emotional,” and “illogical”.... The question is, how did we manage to let ourselves be judged by these machine-based standards? Sure, every claim against us is correct, but who cares? Those are machine-centered concerns, not human-centered ones. If we take & human-centered approach, we get a different characterization of the same five attributes: creative, compliant, attentive to change, resourceful, and able to take a variety of circumstances into account.”

Just as good design can make everyday artifacts easy to learn and use, so too can cognitive artifacts be made more humane, Norman argues in Things That Make Us Smart. Indeed, some modern cognitive artifacts do complement their human users well, he contends, giving as one example the hand-held calculator. “People tend not to be good at arithmetic,” he writes. “[L]ong calculations are apt to contain errors. Arithmetic requires precision and accuracy, usually involving long strings of numbers that far exceed the capability of working memory.... Even small, inexpensive calculators far exceed the normal person’s ability to do arithmetic.” A hand-held calculator is unobtrusive and undemanding. “We control when and how it is to be used, we control the pace.” This is technology that “does not get in the way,” he declares.

He says dictionaries also provide a good example of how computer power can be used to humanize a (non-electronic) cognitive artifact. At his home, Norman has the unabridged American Heritage dictionary both in book form and on the computer. “And we use the computer one! You want to look up any word, you type it in and there it is, the full definition. Not only that, but it gets you related words. A thesaurus comes along with it, and it’s a long, detailed one. And any time you see a word you don’t understand, you can click on it and instantly get its definition. That’s a really exciting use of technology!” And it’s more humane than forcing dictionary users to page through all those hundreds of pages by hand, directed by the arbitrariness of alphabetical order.

Alas, most computer systems don’t offer anything like that ease of use, Norman laments. Most require a lot of training (“primarily because they force us to formulate questions using the unnatural and awkward precision of logic”). Most library retrieval systems and database query languages “insist upon more precision and specificity than we may wish to provide.” People often don’t really know either the question or the answer, Norman says. “That is why we are looking.”

“It is time to revolt,” he declares at the end of Things That Make Us Smart. And by the time those words reached bookstores, Norman had moved beyond just inciting the revolution. In the fall of 1992, he resigned from his position at UCSD to become a “fellow” with the Apple Computer company.


Norman remains a professor emeritus at UCSD and is still advising two graduate students. That’s what brought him to the campus that recent morning; he comes to La Jolla every month or so. But two years ago, he and his wife sold their beachside custom home in Del Mar and moved (with their now-14-year-old son) to the city of Atherton on the San Francisco peninsula. Most days Norman makes the commute to Apple’s headquarters overlooking Highway 280 in Cupertino. This enormous complex resembles a movie set; it’s a high-tech Emerald City replete with soaring architecture and slick graphics, espresso machines on every floor, blue jeans on most employees. Norman seems to take his fashion page out of the L.L. Bean catalog, favoring chinos and leather walking shoes, long-sleeved casual shirts, soft pullover sweaters.

He says a number of factors prodded him to make the move. One was his growing frustration with the irrelevance of much academic work. “University-based science is meant to impress one’s colleagues,” Norman has written. “Most academic study is designed to answer questions raised by previous academic studies.” Although his seniority and status enabled him to do some applied work while at UCSD, it was outside the norm, looked at askance by some, he says.

And there were other frustrations, Norman disclosed in a recent interview at his office at Apple. “In the university, each of the professors is out for himself.” In fact, “The university has structured itself to encourage that. You get rewarded in the university for being world famous, for doing things that make your colleagues across the world say, ‘This is very good work.’ ” In contrast, time spent working on committees trying to improve the university works to one’s detriment (to the extent that it reduces the time available for producing academic articles). “I thought this was absolutely crazy!” Norman says. “The university rewards people who ignore the sake of the university.”

He says this state of affairs is a little like the relationship between people and technology. “We’ve kind of just learned to suffer with the technology, and it never occurred to us that there was any other way.” Norman contends that universities can’t imagine any alternative to the status quo. “I once was actually on a committee trying to improve the teaching at UCSD. And we came up with all sorts of wonderful recommendations about trying to help professors learn to teach, giving them feedback. And this was frightening in the academic setting. I remember Harold Urey, the respected Harold Urey, winner of the Nobel Prize, one of the founders of the university, after whom a building was named. He stood up and basically said that this was nonsense, that all that was important was the quality of the students. And there were basically two types, he said. There are good students and they get it. And there are bad students and they don’t.”

Despite his frustration with these things, Norman says he was happy at UCSD. “I was treated very well. I had good students. I was enjoying myself. I felt I could live there happily until I retired or died.” But that in itself was a problem, of a sort. “Look, how do you stop yourself from growing stale? How do you prevent yourself from growing old? The way is to always be excited by what you’re doing and to do different things, to have new challenges. I wanted to be at a place where I would worry and didn’t know how to accomplish something.”

Two other events brought his situation to a crisis. First, as budget pressures increased, UCSD began offering early retirement to its most senior (and thus most expensive) professors. Then a friend of Norman’s who’d received $100 million in start-up capital asked him to come work for the high-tech Interval Research. “That was when I finally faced the fact that it was time to leave,” Norman recalls. He says other friends in Silicon Valley advised him to get some other offers, so he talked to an acquaintance at Apple. “And he said, ‘Oh, you should be an Apple fellow.’ ”

To compare the two companies, Norman says he spent a full day at both, “making believe that I worked at each.” He found Interval to be “exciting, Filled with very bright people with great potential. They didn’t know what direction they wanted to move in, and they wanted me...to help guide them. But the meetings sounded just like my meetings with bright graduate students at UCSD.... When I went to Apple, all the ideas that I was thinking about, people were already producing. There were products. And I said, ‘I am 56. How many more years do I have? Ten or 15? At Interval in 10 years they’ll start thinking about making products. At Apple, they’re doing it right now.’ I could really see the impact. That’s why when I came to Apple, I said, ‘I don’t want to work in research. I want to work on products.’ ”

Now, two years into the job, Norman says he’s carved out the role of “user-experience architect” for himself at the company. “User-experience means all aspects of the product, from the choice of the product, to how it’s used, to what it does in your life, and also the human interface side: what it should look like on the screen.” Norman says the term, which he invented, has now largely replaced “human interface” at the company. “People thought of that as what the icons looked like or what the menus looked like. And I said, ‘No, it’s more than that! It’s, Why are you doing this task at all? Why are you using this kind of machine?’

“I think the computers we have today are the wrong model,” he continues. “They’re too complicated. The hardware, the software, the way we interact with them. It’s crazy. The so-called graphical-user interface was invented over ten years ago, and the first successful one, on the Macintosh, was made for a relatively small machine, no hard disk, not many files — simple things you were doing. But today...we have tens of thousands of files and it’s hard to find things and the applications you buy are monstrous — too complicated by far. It’s the wrong model for today. It was the correct model for ten years ago.”

Today “the computer is irrelevant!” he asserts. “The computer is a tool! So if you focus on the computer, you miss the point. The whole goal in my life is to get rid of the computer.” Think of the way people now interact with electric motors, Norman suggests. “You don’t go to your kitchen to use your electric motor!” You go to whip up a cake batter or run the dishwasher or chop onions with your Cuisinart. All of those actions use electric motors, but “you never think of it like that. That’s how your computer ought to be,” Norman asserts, an invisible enabler of whatever task you want to accomplish.

Besides conjuring up these “broad, visionary dreams,” Norman says he’s spent a lot of time worrying about the gritty, practical paths that must be cleared to reach the vision. “You can’t just plunk in a new method of doing things and say, ‘See, it’s so much better!’ ” he concedes. “People will say, ‘Go away! I don’t care whether it’s better. I don’t have time.’ ” He says he and Apple’s industrial design team have come up with many mockups for how different devices might look and feel. Norman reaches for a small black panel about the size of a book. “Here’s my way of maybe reading something or maybe making quick notes. Nice thin, flat device. We’d like to have something that doesn’t sit and take up the whole desktop. Also, it should support the activities that you do in a better way. So we send anthropologists out to watch people and do what we call ethnographies — we see how people really work.”

As he’s begun to clear the paths, Norman admits he’s encountered problems. “I’ve had some people take me aside and give me lectures.” The biggest shock came in learning how to react to colleagues’ ideas. “What you learn in the university is how to criticize. Somebody gives a talk, and you savagely attack all the ideas. You see, it’s well understood in that culture that you can rip apart the ideas but really like the person.” Norman says that’s what he did when he first arrived at Apple. “Ohhhh,” he moans. “It doesn’t work at all. People would be destroyed. They’d go home and they would sulk and be really mad at me. Here there’s no distinction between [attacking the person and his or her ideas]. If I say there’s a problem with your idea, it must be I don’t like you as a person.”

He’s says he’s also been taken aback by the amount of time required by the corporate decision-making process; he cites the example of one small change that he thought would take four or five days to effect, but which took more than three months, as department after department weighed in with its perspective on how the change would affect it. “On the whole, however, my experience has been very positive,” he pronounces. “Whereas in the university, the emphasis is on individual achievement, in a company the rewards are for what the company produces.” Norman seems to marvel at and approve of his earnings being dependent upon Apple’s fortunes (a third to a half of executive salaries consist of bonuses that are tied to how the company performs).

One other aspect of life in the business world that startled him was the pace. “I had thought it was impossible to work harder than I did as a professor,” he says. “In the university, you’re always on trial: What have you published? What new finding? Even the most senior distinguished professors are continually being evaluated to see how well they are producing this year.... It’s very stressful.” That kind of stress is absent at Apple, but “I work harder here,” he asserts. “It’s very intense. It goes on 24 hours a day. But it stops on vacations and on weekends. Christmas break was a real shock to me. Christmas break at the university is when all the professors get their work done! The volume of e-mail increases substantially. Here, suddenly, poof, it just dies. I think it’s because the pace is so intense, you’ve just got to have these periods away from it.”

In his office at Apple, the intensity of Norman’s pace seems evident. In addition to carrying the user-experience banner within the company, he says he’s still writing articles, plus he gives an average of two talks a month, traveling the world to do so. He also has worked with a New York company called Voyager to produce a CD-ROM called Defending Human Attributes in the Age of the Machine. Just released in October, the little disk holds the full text of all three of Norman’s popular books (The Psychology of Everyday Things, Things That Make Us Smart, and a lighter collection of essays called Turn Signals Are the Facial Expressions of Automobiles), plus three original lectures by Norman, plus a workbook “to test your new design IQ.”

When Norman heard that the review copy sent by Voyager to the reporter interviewing him had proven impossible to use, his jaw did not sag, but his stomach must have dropped. Newsweek magazine, after all, once dubbed this man “the guru of workable technology.” But Norman is a mild-mannered fellow. He just strode to his telephone to call the CD producer and demand some explanation for the glitch. (It turned out the review copy had come without the necessary installation instructions.)

Norman seemed frustrated, also, that the reporter had missed out on the chance to experience the disk, and this he rectified on the spot, calling it up on one of his three large computer display screens. Within a moment, text from one of his books filled the screen, a bit harder to read than when printed on paper and much less portable. But with a book, you can’t do what Norman did next: click upon an icon and bring a screen-sized incarnation of himself to life. The tiny video Norman, relaxed and conversational, started to talk about the difference between reading text on a screen and holding a book in one’s hands. Other clicks on other icons studded throughout the text bring the video Norman to life joking, philosophizing, amplifying.

With yet another click of a button, the CD-ROM images disappeared, and Norman settled back down to talk. But again and again he would dart up and return to one of the three screens — pulling up a memo on one, retrieving a relevant electronic mail comment from another, plucking information from the vast collection of data on his desk with an ease so practiced it seemed almost compulsive. It was like interviewing Norman and his extended brain. He talked for a while about his e-mail. He uses three separate e-mail systems and figures that he gets between 50 and 100 messages a day (some 10,000 to 20,000 a year).

Does he make himself check them every single day?

“Every day?” he looked incredulous. “You can never let more than a few hours go by! When I travel, the first thing I do when I get into a hotel room is to plug my Powerbook into the hotel telephone and I check my e-mail. It’s really quite amazing, but no matter where I am, I have telephone numbers for where I can call.” Up again, he moved to one of the screens and summoned the phone list. “This is my Amsterdam number. France. Far East, Germany.... When I check out of a hotel I can easily have a phone bill that’s $50 to $100.”

Just then, one of Norman’s computers, a talking one, intoned, “Sorry, no mail.” It sounded apologetic, and Norman made a wry face.

“All of us here think it should now say just the opposite — ‘Hey! [perkily] No mail!’ And when there is mail, it should say, ‘Sorry....’”

At home, Norman lives with five phones, a fax, six or seven computers and an Ethernet to link them, three modems — one for each member of the family. It’s a lifestyle that he says he can’t yet recommend.

“I very deliberately go overboard in using a lot of the technology. I really want to understand it. So I put up with a lot of nonsense. Look, we’re in the midst of this very interesting revolution that will take 20 or 30 years to play out. But it will change our lives.” Norman says the only way he can understand it is to submerge himself in it all. “Because then I can begin to understand what the potential is.” Someday, if he has his way, the wired life will be a solace. But for now, he says, “It does come at quite a bit of pain and cost.”

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