Don Norman is an idiot, and other observations

Okay – idiot is perhaps too strong a word but I am infuriated by his latest article published in Fast Company titled “How Apple Is Giving design a Bad Name“. In my humblest opinion, the article comes across as a well disguised attempt to increase his personal brand and sell more books. I’ve always understood why many designers had respect for Don – he’s brought awareness to the practice of designing elegant products. But this article he co-wrote feels like a desperate attempt to get himself press in a world that is increasingly difficult to gain readership attention.

I am self-aware that I am a bit of a hypocrite in my critique of Don – because my biggest criticism of him is that it is so very easy to criticize and complain when something does not meet your own hyperbolic expectations.

Don is also guilty of hypocrisy in his lambasting of Apple – he uses elegant writing with subjective opinions to complain about Apple’s elegant design with Apple’s subjective influence. If you took all of his fancy college words and polished sentence structure out of the article, it would read like an 18 year-old linux developer’s rant on Microsoft.

I also realize I have titled my own critique of Don in an over-the-top way to gain readership, just like Don.

I’ll point out a few examples where I believe Don is flat incorrect:

First paragraph:

Once upon a time, Apple was known for designing easy-to-use, easy-to-understand products. It was a champion of the graphical user interface, where it is always possible to discover what actions are possible, clearly see how to select that action, receive unambiguous feedback as to the results of that action

Actually, Apple as never known for designing easy to-understand products. Their products were just easier than that of all other alternatives, and by an order of magnitude. The mouse, for example, did not have design affordance until it was explained to us. The Graphical User Interface was incredibly difficult to understand for those who never encountered one before (which was everyone) – the products Apple designed 3 decades ago were designed for the mostly technologically savvy, not the novice user who desired instant technical approachability. If you read between the lines, he’s complaining that today is not a simple and carefree as the “good old days” – he’s suffering from selective memory.

Sixth Paragraph

when Apple moved to gestural-based interfaces with the first iPhone, followed by its tablets, it deliberately and consciously threw out many of the key Apple principles. No more discoverability, no more recoverability, just the barest remnants of feedback. Why? Not because this was to be a gestural interface, but because Apple simultaneously made a radical move toward visual simplicity and elegance at the expense of learnability, usability, and productivity.

I would agree that many gestures Apple has introduced lately are difficult to find and remember. However, learning their more obscure gesture language is not a requirement of interaction. They are analogous to keyboard shortcuts, a useful way to enable power users to interact with certain power features. But the gesture of “swiping” to navigate a touch screen, and the gesture of pinching to zoom, are some of the most ground-breaking interaction design implementations ever released in a piece of technology. Remember what existed before it? The 5 button cursor system and endless menus on your blackberry. Don complains about discoverability throughout his article, suggesting that there are missing interface elements to access rarely used features. I’m quite shocked that this is Don’s stance given his reputation on the simplicity of design in everyday things. I went through and counted the discoverability issues he had. To account for all of them, Apple would have had to create more than a dozen extra buttons or interface elements to make features more discoverable.

Ninth Paragraph

What kind of design philosophy requires millions of its users to have to pretend they are disabled in order to be able to use the product? Apple could have designed its phone so that the majority of people could read and use the phone without having to label themselves as needy, disabled,

For this, I’ll quote the first comment on his article, written by Andy Barker:

I’m not suggesting apple haven’t sacrificed some usability in recent times of aesthetic, but this article is just a rambling mess of supposition Hyperbole and spurious claims: ‘What kind of design philosophy requires millions of its users to have to pretend they are disabled in order to be able to use the product? What, excuse me!?. Can you point to some figures on this please, you mention ONE anecdotal case.

Eighteenth Paragraph

Worse, other companies have followed in Apple’s path, equating design with appearance while forgetting the fundamental principles of good design. As a result, programmers rush to code without understanding the people who will use the products….

… And executives get rid of user experience teams who want to help design the products properly and ensure the products are made usable during the design phase, not after manufacturing, coding, and release, when it is too late. These uninformed company executives assume all this up-front design research, prototyping, and testing clearly must slow down the development process.

Um, what? I’ve worked with hundreds of executives who have implemented user experience practices singularly because of Apple’s leadership in this area. I can only speculate that Don has become out-of-touch with what is happening in the enterprise.

Twenty Fifth Paragraph

So What Went Wrong?

One of us, Tognazzini, worked at Apple with Steve Jobs in the early days. Norman joined Apple shortly after Jobs departed and then left shortly after Jobs returned in 1996. We were not present during the shift from the days of easy-to-use, easy-to-understand products (where Apple could honestly brag that no manual was necessary), to today’s products where no manual is included, but is often necessary. We do know that before Jobs returned, Apple had a three-pronged approach to product design: user experience, engineering, and marketing, with all three taking part in the design cycle from day one to when the product shipped.

If I read this paragraph out of context I would have brushed it aside. However, IN context it read to me like Don and the other article’s author, Bruce Tognazzini, not only have the audacity to complain about Apple’s design but to also blame Steve Jobs himself for being the cause.  I find it telling that Don and Bruce were at Apple only during Apple’s iconically bad design years. Seems to me that both of them have built their careers around working in Apple’s design team and yet complain that Apple has screwed things up during the times they weren’t there (when clearly the market has proven the exact opposite) – I’ve managed people like this. They typically can’t hold a job anywhere for long because they simply do not have the skills to practice the craft they are so ready to lead.

Don then continues into a laborious lecture of what good design is and how to think about it. The rest of the article frankly feels decades old.

One final note.  From my experience working with a huge team of designers and engineers at EffectiveUI, I can definitively say that the best designers are the ones practicing it daily. Not the academics, not the critics, not the authors and certainly not the pontificators. Contrary to Don’s position, the most elegant and graceful solutions come from those designers with deep empathy for the customers and whom focus on the most simple interface design possible… regardless of the dogmatic practices evangelized by the ‘Don Normans’ of the world.

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