You can’t talk about user experience (UX) design without talking about Don Norman. In his 1988 book, The Design of Everyday Things, Norman first used the term “user-centered design” sparking a revolution that’s more relevant than ever today.
Norman continued to lead the evolution of user experience design when he became the first person to have the term in their job title as Apple’s User Experience Architect in the early 90s. Since then, Norman has worked as a Researcher, Writer, Business Executive, Professor, and Advisor. He’s currently the Director of The Design Lab at the University of California, San Diego.
So, what can you learn from the pioneer of user experience design? Here are some of Norman’s top UX design tips from more than thirty years in the industry.
Think Outside the Project Brief
It can be easy to focus on the final product (like an app or website) when thinking about the user experience. But according to Norman, the definition of user experience is much broader.
Norman defines UX as encompassing “all aspects of the end user’s interaction with the company, its services, and its products.” That includes engineering, marketing, customer service, packaging, as well as graphic, industrial, and interface design.
For example, in a video on the term UX, Norman talks about his time at Apple in the early 90s when computers were bigger and more complicated to use. The packaging didn’t easily fit into the consumer’s car. When the consumer got home, Norman describes opening up the Apple box as scary, not exciting. The overall experience was “weak,” leading to the creation of the User Experience Architect office at Apple.
Today, Apple is known for its bright retail stores, sleek packaging, easy product setup, and intuitive design. Every part of the user experience is designed to make things easy for the customer.
The takeaway here is that the problem the designer is asked to solve is “almost always the wrong problem,” according to Norman. For example, if Apple focused solely on making the computer better, customers might have never discovered the product because the pre-purchase experience was weak. Question the scope of the project to find the right problem and work towards a solution.
Emotion is Underrated
If you think about brands or products you love or hate, it might be hard to nail down exactly why.
Norman wrote a whole book on the topic, arguing “that the emotional side of design may be more critical to a product’s success than its practical elements.”
In Emotional Design, Norman uses the iconic colorful iMac computer as an example. Sales of the computers boomed (compared to the plain model), even though the computer used the same hardware and software as other models. Norman attributes this to what he calls “reflective design,” which considers the “rationalization and intellectualization of a product.” In other words: What will my friends think about me if I buy this product? What story does it tell?
Reflective design is one of the three aspects of design Norman writes about in Emotional Design. The other two are visceral design, which “concerns itself with appearances” and behavioral design, which has to do “with the pleasure and effective of use of a product.”
The lesson here is that when it comes to user experience, how well a product works, how it looks, and how it makes the consumer feel are equally important. You can put this idea into action during the testing process by asking users reflective questions (e.g. “Would you recommend this to a friend?”) in addition to typical questions about utility and usability.
When “We’ve Always Done It That Way” Is the Right Way
When asked to solve a problem, we often want to come up with a new solution. But according to Norman, a new way of doing things often causes complications for the user.
In The Design of Everyday Things, Norman uses water faucets as an example. A lot of the time, the left knob of a faucet is for hot water, and the right knob of the faucet is for cold water. This is what’s called a common cultural convention.
But we’ve probably all used tap or shower controls that left us confused, or worse, scalded by hot water because the knobs did the opposite of what you were expecting. Someone somewhere decided a new tap design would be better.
According to Norman, for a change to be worth it, the new way of doing things should be “vastly superior…to outweigh the difficulty of change.”
If you need to provide instructions for a situation that could otherwise be intuitive for the user, there’s a good chance the change isn’t worth it. Sometimes the best solution is to continue doing things the way they have always been done.