Episode 116 | May 06, 2024

Embracing humanity-centered design: insights from Don Norman

In this week’s Insights Unlocked, Don Norman talks with Jason Giles, UserTesting’s Vice President of Design, and Lija Hogan, UserTesting’s Principal for Experience Research Strategy. They unpack the essence of staying curious throughout life, rethinking traditional design principles in favor of humanity-centered approaches, and examining the evolving role of AI in design.

Embracing humanity-centered design: insights from Don Norman

Don Norman, a luminary in the field of design and user experience, shares his profound insights and visionary ideas that compel us to rethink the essence and impact of modern design.

In this week’s Insights Unlocked, Don talks with Jason Giles, UserTesting’s Vice President of Design, and Lija Hogan, UserTesting’s Principal for Experience Research Strategy. They unpack the essence of staying curious throughout life, rethinking traditional design principles in favor of humanity-centered approaches, and examining the evolving role of AI in design.

Why is Don Norman called the father of UX?

Don is often cited as the father of UX for a number of reasons, including coining the term “user experience.” Don is distinguished professor emeritus at the University of California, San Diego, where he was the founding director of the Design Lab and founding chair of the department of Cognitive Science. He is co-founder of the Nielsen Norman Group and a former Vice President of Apple. He is a member of the National Academy of Engineering and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. His 21 books include Emotional Design, Design of Everyday Things, and Design for a Better World: Meaningful, Sustainable, Humanity Centered.

What’s the big deal about The Design of Everyday Things?

Considered a must-read book if you work in the UX, Product or Design industries, The Design of Everyday Things has profoundly influenced the UX industry by providing a theoretical framework and practical approaches to design that prioritize user experience. This has made the book essential reading for anyone involved in designing user interactions, from physical products to digital interfaces.

Lifelong learning and being curious

At 88-years young and a 5-time retiree, Don has said he wants to learn something new every year. Lija asked him what advice he had for our listeners on being curious?

“I’ve always thought that my goal in life was to do important things, but to have fun doing them,” he said. “Find out what you like and don’t like. Try to avoid things you don’t like unless they’re really essential, then learn to like it.”

For someone who has written 21 books and countless articles and papers, Don said he started out disliking writing. He realized it would be a necessary part of his future work and so spent several years improving his writing and finding his own voice.

“The other thing is to be curious, I’m always curious,” he said. 

He teaches his students to always be curious, too. “The other thing I have to tell students to resist: They always love to go out into the world and come back and tell us all the things that are wrong with the way things are designed,” Don said. “And I say, ‘Nope, you’re not allowed to just tell us what is wrong unless you could also say how you could make it better.’”

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He emphasizes the importance of lifelong learning—a theme that resonates deeply in his personal and professional life. For Don, the process of learning is intertwined with the process of doing, suggesting that the best designs come from a deep, continuous engagement with one's crafts and the world at large.

Shifting paradigms to Humanity-Centered Design

One of the most compelling aspects of the podcast is Don's critique of traditional design paradigms that prioritize profitability and efficiency at the expense of environmental and social welfare.

“For the last 20 or 30 years, I've been advocating human-centered design. … And it's wrong. Now, why is it wrong? Well, none of the principles are wrong. I still believe firmly in how I teach it and what it is talking about. What is wrong is what it does not talk about,” he said. 

He said it does not take into account how products are built, whether that is mining precious metals or building products in such a way that they only have a lifetime of 2 or 3 years. “And so it’s all thrown away into big piles of junk, which is destroying the world,” he said.

Graphic for the UserTesting guide to Proving the ROI of UX research

In his new book, he offers suggestions on ways we can do things differently, work that he believes should be led by designers.

He advocates for a shift towards humanity-centered design, which considers the broader impacts of products and services on society and the planet. This approach challenges designers to rethink their roles and the consequences of their work, extending their responsibility beyond the user to the community and the environment.

The dual edges of Artificial Intelligence in design

As the conversation delves into the role of AI in design, Don provides a balanced perspective on its benefits and potential pitfalls. While AI can significantly enhance the efficiency and effectiveness of design processes, it also raises substantial ethical concerns, such as privacy issues, the amplification of social inequalities, and the potential for misuse. Don stresses the importance of incorporating ethical considerations into the development and implementation of AI technologies to harness their potential responsibly.

It’s a huge cost, it’s powerful, and it has no intelligence, Don said. “Don’t forget the A; it’s artificial,” he said. “It doesn’t understand what it is doing. It’s a pattern matching device. It finds patterns and then recites them. And it does a good job. It does a wonderful job and it finds interesting things. And, as we all know, it also finds the wrong things.”

"I think it's very powerful and it's very important and it is going to change the world and it will change jobs," he said.

Practical advice for designers

Throughout the episode, Don offers actionable advice for emerging and established designers. He emphasizes the need to be proactive in learning and adapting to new tools and methodologies, including AI. Moreover, he urges designers to advocate for ethical practices and sustainable choices within their organizations and projects. This proactive stance is crucial in evolving design education and practice to produce not only better designers but also better citizens.

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Don's insights from the podcast serve as a powerful call to action for everyone involved in design and technology. The principles of humanity-centered design and the ethical use of AI are not just academic ideals but practical imperatives that need to be integrated into the fabric of our professional practices. As we look forward, it is clear that the future of design lies in our ability to embrace complexity, advocate for ethical outcomes, and continuously adapt to serve humanity as a whole.

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