“Apple has done the world a great disservice by emphasising the appearance and actually making their products more difficult to use. Apple has completely forgotten that an important part of design is being able to understand and use your stuff,” Don Norman, professor and director of the Design Lab at University of California, San Diego vehemently tells me over our Google Hangouts session.
Norman’s statement comes as a bit of a surprise as it’s not a view you often hear about Apple since, after all, Apple prides itself on mixing beauty with function. But then again, if anyone knows what they are talking about it’s Norman. In his TED talk, with a touch of humour, he explains how well-designed products need to hit certain emotional cues. He was also VP at Apple in the 1990s, founded the hugely influential Nielsen Norman Group user experience consulting firm, and has written a ton of stuff about design, including a book called The Design of Everyday Things.
Did he hold this opinion when he worked for Apple too?
“No,” Norman quickly responds. “We had a really good team at Apple. [At Apple] you didn’t need to read the manual; you could understand what to do. It has gone downhill in the last five years. The invention of the gesture phone and this crazy notion of minimisation and eliminating anything that might help the person has caused this deterioration.”
For Norman, Apple lost direction when it forgot design’s three most essential principles: discoverability, feedback and correction. He explains this as discovering what users can do, understanding what has happened and getting back to where the user previously was.
“All this is gone and those are very important critical parts of design,” he says. “I actually think the company that is doing the best job today in terms of usability is Microsoft. Microsoft lost out on this attempt to make everything beautiful and simple but I think they have done the best job in making things that we can understand how to use.”
As we are now entering the Internet of Things era, for Norman these design principles will be critical “because we will have a zillion different devices”. He tells me he dislikes the phrase “Internet of Things” but admits that it reflects the fact that there’s been a “big revolution in size, power, and cost”. Size and cost have gone very far down and power has gone up but for Norman, we are in a “period of experimentation” and this can only be a good thing.
“I am disturbed that a company like Apple or for that matter, Google’s Android makes things that are incomprehensible, that confuse us but when a large number of startups just experiment in clever ways and even badly done ways – I think it’s wonderful because it’s how we learn.”
A lot of Norman’s work revolves around the importance of appearance in products but also whether they serve our needs. To fit our needs, the product needs to be attractive and users need to feel proud of wearing it or putting it in their homes.
One company that wants to dominate the IoT space in the connected home is Nest. The Google-owned company has a range of sophisticated products like a smoke alarm and a self-learning thermostat that detects “unsafe temperatures” in the home and notifies the user on their phone.
Does Norman think Nest’s products have been designed well?
Norman smiles and says he’s friends with the two owners, so of course he will be a bit “biased”. In his opinion, Nest represents the “old Apple which did great stuff” and is a good example of a company that has made products that are both beautiful and attractive in your home but also they are easy to install, use, and fit users’ needs.
“I own two different Nest thermostats and I’m re-modelling my house at the moment and putting in a bunch of Nest smoke-alarms. So yes, I think they are extremely well done and I know when they did the thermostat, they did an incredible number of tests giving it to people and understanding how they used it, to make sure that it actually was usable and did the job. And on top of that it keeps getting better all the time. They are a good example of a company that is doing it well.”
I agree with Norman that Nest’s products are designed extremely well. Does Norman think their design was influenced by Apple?
“Well these two people worked at Apple for many years. But I wouldn’t say its Apple’s influence. Why do we have to say it’s Apple? The myth of Steve Jobs and Jonathan Ive – those are not the only two people in the world. Good clean design is actually often present in many companies. A good example that gets little credit is Philips. Philips has always had an excellent design team.
“I actually know the designer that Nest used and the designer that did the work was not from Apple. He’s a local person in Silicon Valley but very excellent. And part of what was so good about it was because of how well they worked together. They didn’t just give it to a designer and say make it look good! It was a joint interaction.”
Nest’s CEO Tony Fadell says the company’s vision is to create a “thoughtful” home. Does Norman think they are on the right track to do that and what sort of things would he like to see them release?
“Now, Nest has a difficult problem as to where they are moving. They are trying to find what we call sweet spots. They don’t want to just get another device everybody else is building. [The thermostat] has been around for 50 years and nobody thinks much about it. And [Nest] say 50 years later we can completely reconceive what this does. And that was what’s brilliant about Nest. Their challenge is to find more and more of those wonderful places where nobody else has reconceived the product. Therefore they have a great competitive advantage.”
I agree with Norman up to a point. But I challenge him on this idea of just working with products that we already have. Shouldn’t companies like Nest be coming out with something really innovative and different?
“Well that’s overrated. The number of completely different innovative things that have changed over your life is remarkably low,” Norman tells me. “That’s what every designer wants to do. When we teach design courses in the universities, every student wants to revolutionise life but how many revolutions have you lived through in your life?”
Norman thinks Nest was extremely innovative with the thermostat and the fact that it can “learn the patterns” and notify users ahead of time that their smoke alarm battery is going to die soon should not be underestimated in terms of its capability and innovation. For Norman, “incremental improvements” are the most important innovations. At the same time though, he agrees that we shouldn’t “ignore the radical ones that change lives”.
I ask Norman what he would wish to see in the connected home.
“I‘m pretty happy. One thing I am still waiting for is better control of lights. Right now it’s very complicated to put in light switches. But you know, that’s a very minor thing in life. What do I need? I think the modern home is pretty well designed and equipped so I’m pretty happy. No outstanding great wish.”