The Godfather of UX: Don Norman & User-Centered Design

Last Updated:Tuesday, January 23, 2024

Today we take the acronym UX for granted. But the concept of user-centered design was once fringe and freaky.

The first person to hold a position that had “User Experience” in the title was Don Norman, who coined the now-ubiquitous term when he worked for Apple in the mid-90s. Norman’s 1988 book The Design of Everyday Things remains a sort of UX bible, touting iterative development and frictionless relationships between user and object.

But who is this man and what exactly is user-centered design? 

The origins of user-centered design: Don Norman’s 80s odyssey from prof to design guru

“I walk around the world and encounter new objects all the time.

How do I know how to use them?”

                        — Don Norman

Formally speaking, Don Norman is a cognitive scientist and usability engineer (he was once awarded the Benjamin Franklin Medal in Computer and Cognitive Science). Practically speaking, much of his life’s work is rooted in research and advocacy for user-centered design.

These days, Norman keeps busy as co-founder and Principal Emeritus of Nielsen Norman Group, a self-described ‘elite’ user experience research and consulting firm. He’s also been spotted TED talkin’ about anxiety and pleasure in the creative process, and why good design makes us happy.

Norman studied electrical engineering and mathematical psychology at MIT and the University of Pennsylvania, respectively. He then started his career as yet another unassuming academic, an associate professor at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD) where he founded the Institute for Cognitive Science.

In 1981, he generated a big buzz writing about how Unix had a terrible user interface in the highly reputable computer-nerd magazine Datamation. That tasteful nip of controversy positioned him as a public figure fighting for the end-user, a role he retains to the present day.

A few years post-Unix takedown, while on sabbatical at the Applied Psychology Unit at Cambridge University, Norman had an epiphany about design, and his ideas on user experience became significantly more profound and holistic.

The catalyst was Norman’s humbling encounters with familiar-yet-unfamiliar British taps, doors, light switches, and other everyday objects he thought he’d mastered as a child. Suitably chastened, he was moved to consider the ‘perceived affordance’ (or elemental relationship) between user and item being used; in other words, “how we [manage] in a world of tens of thousands of objects.”

Norman would go on to cogently map out his philosophy of user-centered design in The Design of Everyday Things. 25 years later, in 2013, he brought out a revised, expanded version with examples more relevant to the digital era.

Norman’s treatise presents case studies of objects we interact with every day on earth, from door handles to computers and phones. He shows what good and bad design look like across a wide spectrum of devices, inviting us to think about all the daily ‘user experiences’ we take for granted, and why some things satisfy us and others make us want to smash them.  

The Design of Everyday Things became an instant classic upon release and remains in many ways the centerpiece of Norman’s long career. Dog-eared, worn out copies of the book adorn many a creative professional’s office library, offering simple, usable principles applicable to a broad range of design projects.


Discoverability, understanding, and more: UX and The Design of Everyday Things

By exploring the tactile and cognitive interaction between object and user, Norman generated new ideas on how the communication between the two can be combined to enhance the experience of using the object.

This approach to design neatly set aside the issue of visual appeal, irritating haughty aesthetes everywhere. For Norman, the most important thing about an everyday thing is how well it serves the user, not its ornamental value (i.e. form follows function).

Right at the beginning of The Design of Everyday Things, Norman puts forward the idea that the two most important components of good design are discoverability and understanding.

First of all, we need to be able to ‘discover’ or perceive the reason an object exists and what it can and will be able to do for us. Then we need to ‘understand’ it; in other words be able to figure out how the thing works, and what all its component parts are meant to do.

Norman outlines the fundamental principles of interaction with objects: affordances, signifiers, mapping, feedback, and conceptual models.

  • Affordances are cues that allow people to figure out what an object does without any instructions. They refer to the visible and non-visible (i.e. intuitive) properties of an object that indicate how it should be used. Norman gives the example of glass as a material that ‘affords’ visibility but has ‘anti-affordance’ properties like blocking access.

  • Signifiers are visible signs or sounds that communicate meaning to the user. They indicate what is happening, what can be done, and/or alternative actions that can be taken. A few examples: doors that say ‘Push’ on them; the lack of a crowd on a subway station platform, indicating a train has just left; or footprints in the snow.

  • Mapping refers to the relationship between two sets of things and is key for building an effective layout for controls or a display. ‘Natural mapping’ uses spatial analogies to promote immediate understanding (ex. Grouping related controls and placing them next to object you wish to manipulate). Cultural bias informs in great part whether or not a mapping will be legible to a user.

  • Feedback is when the result of an action is communicated to the user and should be immediate. An excellent example of ‘bad feedback design’ from Norman are those crosswalk buttons that don’t make any sound when pressed, thus provoking some of us to press them 100x times.

  • Conceptual models are generally simplified explanations of how something works. Examples include tactile objects like technical manuals and knob dials, as well as ‘mental models’ we generate internally to understand how to use an object.  

Ideally, these principles will be optimized to user needs, working in concert to produce a pleasurable experience for the user. This, Norman suggests, is what ‘great design’ is all about.

The Design of Everyday Things also unleashed the concept of ‘Seven Stages of Action’ onto the product development scene.

Norman identifies seven stages of product design from start to finish. Four stages constitute execution and three stages constitute action, as follows:

forming the goal-> forming the intention-> specifying an action-> executing the action-> perceiving the state of the world-> interpreting the state of the world-> evaluating the outcome

In case you zoned out going through that flow, the gist of the Seven Stages is troubleshooting so a product works intuitively, and gives results that are clear to the user.

It’s a basic checklist for designers to make sure they don’t have too big a gulf of execution, in which case the user has to think too much and is diverted from the intended task, or too big a gulf of evaluation, in which case the result generated by an object/system/user interface/etc. is not clear, or does not line up with user expectations.

Norman argues against traditional linear design processes, advocating instead for iterative development.

Users are involved throughout the research and development process, allowing the designer to identify the context of use and, subsequently, user requirements. From there, design solutions can be proposed and evaluated against user requirements. These four phases are repeated iteratively until a design solution has been found that addresses user needs to the desired level.

Apart from practical considerations of effectiveness, Norman also explores the emotional component of user experience. He posits that emotion “is an information processing system in the head, determining what’s good or bad, safe or dangerous, and it takes precedence over cognition most of the time.”

This means that not only must a product be ‘effective,’ it also needs to be affective—spurring emotional involvement in the user and supporting their self-concept, social life, and desired mental state (i.e. not being pissed off at the thing you built).

This fascinating, broadly important concept is explored in much greater depth in one of Norman’s other books, Emotional Design.


A couple of critiques of user-centered design, just for good measure

Not trying to burst any Don Norman-shaped bubbles here, but it’s worth noting that user-centered design does have its detractors.

One common argument against Norman’s principles is their putative short-sightedness and lack of ‘big idea’ type of imagination.

The negging invariably goes something like this: user-centered design works from in-depth, present-day research of a ready-made public and their existent routines and desires, which is great and all, but it means you can’t engage future possibilities in any starry-eyed, game-changing way. What about the public ten years from now, and the shape of the market following the mass adoption of this and that technology?

Another anti-Norman argument hones in on the moral and ecological consequences of designing things user-first. When ‘the user is right’ and the designer’s job is simply to deliver the most attractive, friction-free experience, without the burden of considering environmental costs or educating the public, the specter of excessive waste rears its head.

As well, streamlining a product (i.e. removing obstacles to learning) can result in a lack of consciousness about said product’s true inner-workings, resulting in a ‘dumbing down’ of user behavior. Consequently, totally functional products can be abandoned to landfills when they stop delivering user empathy in sync with the fads of the day.  

While these are definitely legitimate criticisms, user-centered design remains indispensable and dominant for a number of reasons.

For start-ups, Norman’s baby-step, iterative methodology is just what the doctor ordered in terms of creating an effective, usable product fast. Many of us are simply not in the business of thinking on an interstellar, longue durée level like Elon Musk or Bill Gates. There’s nothing fundamentally wrong with wanting to create a great tool for a discrete set of tasks, one that brings real value to users in the here and now.

The moralistic objection to user-centered design can likewise be countered by the many instances of user-centered design doing good in the world. Take the example of the Interaction Design Foundation, a Danish NGO/independent nonprofit that strives to bring Ivy League-level UX design education to a global audience on the cheap. Backed by Stanford, IBM, and other heavyweights, the foundation’s open-source coursework exports Denmark’s free education model to encourage social mobility through design worldwide.


Why should user-centered design matter to startups?

During a 90s product presentation, Steve Jobs nailed the point of user-centered design while replying to an infamous heckle attack. After some intense water bottle clenching and reflectively staring down at his custom-patched Levi’s 501s, he says:

“You’ve got to start with the customer experience and work back toward the technology—not the other way around.”

For Jobs, it made no sense to have marketing leaders “sit down with the engineers and figure out what awesome technology we have and how we are going to market [it].”

Witness also this flaming hot exchange between Apple co-founder programmer/engineer Steve Wozniak and Jobs in Michael Fassbinder’s movie Steve Jobs. It’s totally fictional but does illustrate Jobs’ IRL philosophy pretty well. Jobs may have been a ruthless captain of industry (particularly in this movie), but he knew he had to steer the good ship Apple towards humanity, and that meant getting down and designing for people on their level.

Wozniak had the brains, Jobs had the brawn; they made lots of money.

It’s true that Steve Jobs and co. were very, very talented, but their actions were also quite timely, and they benefited immensely from the business environment of the ’80s and ’90s, a long computing boom when big opportunities presented themselves for the taking. Things were certainly competitive back then, particularly during the mid and late-90s, but these days the competition chasing consumer money is exponentially fiercer (thank you internet).

Nevertheless, the merits of user-centered design principles remain the same. To re-’iterate’ (couldn’t resist), user-centered design is still great for small teams because it’s real-deal lean, allowing you to develop your product according to identifiable user needs.

Before you spend any money on developing something, you can first determine whether or not anyone wants it to exist. By shadowing potential users and identifying the nature of their issue, you also develop a sense of empathy, which in turn informs your ability to develop a solution from their perspective.

User-centered design plays to the strengths of the little guy. It allows your business to chip away at a bite-sized problem by using the timeless principles of psychology, cognition, action, emotion, and interaction, solving discrete problems that other businesses may be too big, distracted, or set-in-their-ways to have identified and/or adequately solved.

When you’re not Apple or Microsoft, or any number of other deep-pocketed behemoths, it’s really important to know if a product will gain usage, and the best way to do that is to talk to people.

After all, as Norman notes in The Design of Everyday Things, most radical innovations fail or take years to be accepted, while incremental innovations are comparatively quick to gain broader usage.

Observing data, generating personas from user behavior, soliciting feedback and re-testing iteratively—not exactly world-changing stuff in and of itself. But hey, if Don Norman has taught us anything, it’s that all the little details count, big time.