Putting People First: Tips and Advice from UX Pioneer Don Norman

Don Norman is a legend in UX design. Since the 1960s, he’s been on the forefront of human-computer interaction and was a pioneer in user-centered design (or people-centered design, as he prefers to call it). He has a long legacy in academics at the University of California, San Diego, but was also vice president of the Advanced Technology Group at Apple (he joined the company first as a user experience architect, the first recorded use of the words ‘user experience’ in a job title).

Don now runs The Design Lab at UCSD and has authored many books on the subject of design (his most impactful, The Design of Everyday Things, has recently been revised, updated, and re-released). We asked him to share some of his knowledge and advice for UX designers of all skill levels.

You, literally, wrote the book on user-centered design. What does the term mean to you?

In the late 1980s, my research team, then at the University of California San Diego, was very concerned about the difficulty people had using computers. We started off looking in general at people’s relationship with technology. As computers for home use started coming out, like the Apple II, the IBM PC and MS DOS, all of these things were just not made for people. So we decided to explore how you design for the people who must use them. We wrote a book called UCSD, for our university but also for the term ‘User-Centered System Design.’

Many companies, especially Apple and slowly Microsoft, started to understand the need for this. They were selling things for the home and people were just confused. They were programmed by programmers, they weren’t designed. They used technical talk and scolded you if you made an error.

Now, more and more, industries have begun to understand designing for people who use your product makes sense, makes your customers happier, and reduces your cost.

The word ‘user’ has always bothered me, though. I don’t like calling people users. We switched to human-centered design. Even that bothered me, I don’t call people ‘humans.’ So today, we’re calling it people-centered design.

How does this term apply when you’re designing for millions of different people?

The people-centered design methods we devised might be good for designing for a few people. Frankly when you’re design for millions of people these methods aren’t appropriate. A variant of this is called activity-centered design. If you design something that people feel is appropriate for the activity, they will accept it and learn it, even if it’s awkward.

The violin is a great example. It’s a crazy device, and you have to distort your hands and arms and fingers to play it and strum, and it leads to many occupational injuries. Many violinists have to give up because of this. But everyone thinks ‘that’s how a violin should work,’ and so there are no complaints about the design.

What I’m talking about is an opposite approach. If you really understand the activity, you’ll do what it takes to learn it. You will do what it takes to drive a car, which seems natural and obvious, but we forget it took us months to learn how.

Is it about having purpose for your design?

It’s not so much purpose as it is structure. We don’t want a computer or car, really. We want something else, but our computer or car are enablers. Now with a car, most people use it for transportation. It’s the same with our computers, which are tools to do other things.

We design to make the tools easy to understand, and an appropriate tool to do those other things. It’s the whole activity.

What can a UX designer do to make sure the user is successful in completing the activity?

The problem with a lot of UX designers is, they look at the little things. They want to make sure the menus, the swipes are understood, or the page, they make sure people can understand what they see in front of them. They seldom step back and say ‘well this is not what people are trying to do, this is a step along the way.’

Think about what people are truly trying to do and realize that’s a system. Designers need to back up and say ‘let’s design for the whole system,’ and make the main activity simple to discover. I should be able to discover what is possible, and understand what is happening, and should be able to reverse and undo to backup my actions and learn. The undo function is so powerful we often use it on purpose; I deliberately make a change knowing I can easily undo it.

All of these considerations have gone away in a rush to make today’s latest technology. One of the key to bringing discoverability back to your product is affordances; what is the signal to tell you what’s possible. I need a signifier to tell me which part of the screen to click on, and if it should be a double-click or a swipe.

Another key principle in this is constraints. I can make my product like so, so only a few key things are possible. Then there’s feedback; I need to know what’s happened as a result of my actions and be able to undo.

What’s your advice for new UX designers or those who want to break into the field?

I have complaints about the education our designers get. There are two ways of approaching UX design teaching, and neither of them is satisfactory.

One, you come out of a traditional design school, and those are typically art based and concerned about beauty and emotional impact. That’s very important, but they don’t learn the underlying theory and understanding of people’s behavior that’s so necessary.

The other school comes from the field of human-computer interaction. Today, it’s mostly computer scientists, and they do understand the fundamental theory, but they’re not very good designers. Most are not capable of making an emotionally pleasing, delightful experience. They can make things that are understandable.

What we need to do is combine these new skills, or at least have them work as a team. Designs are not done by single people, they’re done by teams. You need to work with others who bring in different points of view and skills. Watch people do the task you’re trying to support, and support the whole task.

If I support the task well, and I don’t do some of the details well, or a bit clumsily, it’s okay. It’s far better to support the task and mess up a little on the details, than it is to get all the details right and not support the task.

What should a great design achieve for the person using your product?


It’s a paradox. If you do it right, and allow the person to pleasantly achieve their goal, they don’t actually notice your design. That’s the real danger of doing great design–it’s invisible.

Look at Uber or Lyft, they got rid of a major pain point of taking taxis. One of the pain points people never notice, however, is once you’ve reached your destination and say thank you to the driver, you just get out of the car. Most people never notice the ease-of-payment feature or list it as one of the wonderful parts of the service. There’s a danger in that, and it’s so easy people don’t realize the design.

Here’s where marketing is essential. When we make something easier, that makes your people’s lives easier because it’s activity based, nobody notices. It’s marketing’s job to make sure everybody knows how wonderful it is.

The main thing I encourage designers to do is be great observers and don’t assume you understand how things work or how people do things. Go out and watch real people. I’m also a big fan of iterative design, so when you think you have an approach go try it out. Do it quickly or draw pictures of it on paper so you can give it to people who’d use the system, and ask ‘what would you do here?’ Get some quick feedback, think about the whole system, watch real people doing their job, and iterate.

To learn more about Don Norman and read more of his design insight and advice, head over to his website.