01 December 2010

Don Norman and poorly researched design

Don Norman is in typical form here. Taking as his starting point, Kevin McCullagh's comments on the relevance of traditional design skills to many modern design problems, Norman is vexed by the simplistic design solutions to difficult social and environmental problems that often win design awards (awards where, to quote, 'the uninformed judge the uninformed'). He links back from these headline winners to the inadequacies of the design education that led to them. I'm not sure a direct link is fair. Often design firms propose solutions to high-profile, complex problems as PR pieces, usually without the context of working with a client who can help focus design work. On the basis that there's no such thing as bad publicity,* these PR proposals seem to work well, and provide affirmation to the design team which, yes, can then result in naivety or optimism about the problems they can tackle well.

In Norman's eyes, though, the responsibility for the over-confidence these solutions represent lies with design education that fails to teach designers how to research problems and test solutions. He thinks design schools  perpetuate a culture that cherry picks superficial research findings, and bends them to its purpose (see Harry Brignull's comments on this tradition). Norman mitigates his criticisms (although I think he's tough enough not to feel any threat) by conceding that design is a different discipline from science and engineering and brings different qualities to product development. He also acknowledges that research in human sciences has its own agenda; not, in many cases, to inform designers.

Many of the issues Norman raises are cultural problems with foundations in the psychology of individuals and teams. I recently gave a talk about working in user experience design to a university research group of artists, designers and psychologists. One of the artists asked why my role was needed since everything I had said about understanding users and testing ideas was so obvious, don't designers do it anyway? As an example I talked about the need to test design solutions and revise them in the light of feedback from people outside the design team, and asked him how he felt when a paper he had written was returned to him for revision, editing etc. Did he ever feel reviewers had misunderstood his intentions, some reluctance to revise? Then imagine those feelings transferred to a team, committed to working on a product or service together together. He began to see what I meant.

*Tangentially, note piece in the NY Times about unscrupulous business, DecorMyEyes, using adverse commentary on the web to drive hits to its site and elevate its ranking in Google searches. Anecdotally, from Google's analytics of this blog, I see that one of the most frequent searches hits my post on IDEO's speculative work on the Bloomberg screen, a project that received as much negative as positive commentary. 

[Norman article via InfoDesign; NY Times article via Tim O'Reilly]

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