UC San Diego's Don Norman On Thoughtful Design

Don Norman is a guy who tinkers for a living. He’s spent his life thinking about how to make things work better, whether it’s a door, a computer or an entire health care system. His obsession with improving the way a device or system operates has led him to jobs at several universities as well as Apple Inc. His best-selling book The Design of Everyday Things is considered a classic.

He’s now the director of UC San Diego’s Design Lab, a perch from which he’s able to offer suggestions on how to improve our education system, our car culture, our healthcare system and a variety of other things. The successful designers of the future, he says, will “make sure technology fits the real needs and abilities of actual people.”

(1) Why is the work you do important?

We bring to technology a human-centered point of view. All too often our technologists fall in love with the things they’re building. They don’t think about how it affects people. “People will get used to it,” they say. We say, “No, let’s first figure out the things that people really need and how best to accomplish that need.” To us, design is a way of thinking. It’s a way of making sure we solve the real, fundamental problems, not the symptoms. And you always need to have the human at the center of the approach.

(2) What are the influential/exciting developments happening in your field now and why?

Automation is taking away people’s jobs and we believe it shouldn’t. Instead of automating whatever we can automate and letting people pick up the rest of the pieces, we say, “What we can build that can make people’s lives easier and more effective and more enjoyable?” How can we use machines to enhance our abilities, not to replace us? A calculator is a great example: With a calculator, I can focus on formulating the problem and let the calculator handle the messy details. A person plus a calculator is smarter than either alone. Some things need to be automated. Take, for example, automobile driving. Some 30,000 people die every year and a million people are injured, just in the United States. We think automating the automobile is going to be wonderful. We will relieve the tedium and boredom of driving. You can work; you can sleep; you can talk with your friends. The highways will become more efficient because the cars can travel at a steadier speed, closer to each other. Automation never gets tired, never gets distracted, and never falls asleep. That’s a difficult, tedious job that’s going to be replaced. But automation of driving will have a severe negative impact as well. Driving is one of the largest sources of employment in the United States – think taxis and delivery services, think trucks. What will happen to those who are displaced?

(3) What’s the next big thing?

As a friend of mine said, predicting the future is easy. The hard part is getting it right. How we handle the energy crisis and global warming are going to have a really big impact in the next decade or two. Two major components of what we do in our lives have to change radically. One is health care. The other is education. MOOCS (Massive Open Online Courses) have caused people to rethink education. It’s allowed us to say, “Gee, why can’t we just learn things when we need them, throughout life?” We still rely on professors lecturing. Lecturing is the world’s worst way to learn something. I’m a fan of virtual reality, and I think virtual reality is going to change our whole educational experience, and the way we design things and entertainment.

(4) How big of an impact will your field play in shaping the future of the San Diego region and beyond?

We would like the Design Lab to be a major player in San Diego. We’ve been working with the UC San Diego Extension, with San Diego Regional Economic Development Corporation, with the Mayor’s Office, with the Port of San Diego and with major industry leaders, saying, look, there’s a powerful design community in San Diego, let’s take advantage of it. Design can help transform a city.

(5) Hop into your time machine…what does the future look like for this field in 50 years? How can individuals/companies get prepared for what’s next?

The best technology is the technology we don’t even notice, that just enables us to live our lives more effectively, more enjoyably without us even noticing. As we add more and more technology in our lives, let’s use it not to make our lives more frustrating and complex, let’s use it to make our lives more enjoyable. And I think that in 50 years, or less than 50 years, that will come to pass. We’ll see much more automation that takes care of the more onerous tasks in our lives, freeing us to be creative, imaginative and effective. People will enjoy life more.

Don Norman along with design, business and civic leaders will be discussing the importance of design, especially human-centered design, at Design Forward > San Diego, a day-long summit to be held on June 16.

Did you know that UC San Diego Extension offers a certificate program in UX (User Experience) Design? Find out more about the courses and programs that we have to offer in Digital Arts.

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