Design guru Don Norman slams Apple’s ease-of-use ‘disservice’
System Design & Management

Design guru Don Norman slams Apple’s ease-of-use ‘disservice’

“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.”

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Ayesha Salim

Ayesha Salim is Staff Writer at IDG Connect

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Comments

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Brad H. on August 13 2015

Never trust a designer who criticizes without providing specific use cases or examples. Also, never trust one who recommends Microsoft as "User Friendly" when the majority of my company's support requests are from Windows 8 and 10 users who have no idea what they're doing in the new interface.

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David on August 13 2015

Thank you for the great article. I like someone who is not afraid to stand up to a company like Apple. I love a great interface and will look up more of Don and his work. While I agree that Apple's ease of use has deteriorated over the past few years with iTunes as a prime example (both on the Mac and the phone). But I don't think that Don has used Nest's latest iteration of it's video camera software. It is poorly designed and very frustrating to use even as an experienced user. It is also difficult to record a "clip" and get to the history of clips that should be easy to access. Hopefully they will make modifications so that as Don says, you can use the software without a manual. That time can't come soon enough IMHO. Cheers. David

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Ant on August 14 2015

I wonder if Apple would still have this issue if Steve Jobs was still around. I miss the old Apple designs. :/

no-images

Steve H on August 14 2015

Points well made. In iOS Maps, have you ever tried to clear recent location searches? Or in iOS Safari, tried re-open recently closed tabs without starting from scratch with a search or bookmarking them first? Both are no-brainers to have, both are possible, but neither are easy to discern. There should be no reason for an article like 'Finding the Five Best Hidden Safari Features in iOS 8' to even exist!!

no-images

Mary C. on August 15 2015

Over the years I've found all the hype about how easy to use Apple products are to be nothing more than that: hype. While Microsoft products certainly aren't as transparent as one could wish, at least they make sense whereas Apple's frequently do not. But, obviously, YMMV.

no-images

Velimir B on August 17 2015

I'm sure Don knows how much effort, thought and attention goes into each Apple product and still is biased to say that their design is poor because he is obviously defending his own interests. There is no past Apple, current Apple etc, there only one Apple. The design principles existed before Jobs came back and before Ive joined. Ive and Jobs simply streamlined the Apple design language. Considering the Apple sales and the market perception of their products, its quite funny (yet interesting) to read the article.

no-images

Martin P on August 17 2015

Mary C.. Couldn't agree more. The ^opinion^ that Apple made intuitive stuff in the mid-90's took me back to my first encounter with a Mac - in the mid 90's. I wasted a good half day working out how to eject a floppy disk. (Drag it to the bin! Intuitive not).

no-images

Richard Williams on August 18 2015

I've now lost all respect for the Neilson group. To say Microsoft has better design than Apple is prepostreous. Has Mr. Norman bummed is head?

no-images

charvi on August 21 2015

Alas someone is bold enough to admit the obvious. Thank you for standing up. I have mostly found apple users to be blind followers with little objective thinking.

no-images

Andrew Thelwell on August 21 2015

I disagree with Don on this one. While I will not for one second say that Apple's stuff is 'perfect' -- it clearly is not -- I don't agree that Apple alone has caused the shift that we are seeing in design norms. They're a huge player, but in many ways they have been behind the curve. Has anyone looked back at iOS6 and compared it to the equivalent mobile UI's of the same time period? Now, there is a *trend* in modern apps towards minimalism in the visual design and away from explicit affordances. We can argue the pros and cons of that all day. But what we can't argue is that this is a general trend, and one that seems to be catching on fairly well and with much success with the user base. Now, honestly, I think in some cases it goes too far, and on this point I can agree with Don. But for the most part, in Apple's own native iOS stuff, they've got the balance just about right. All the core, basic functions on iOS can be accessed in drop-dead simple ways. There are buttons, icons, drill-down lists and toggle switches. It's all incredibly simple, intuitive and clearly visible. It's really rare that you HAVE to swipe to achieve a particular task, except for the truly 'natural' interactions such as scrolling, changing page, etc. Where Apple have used swipes for other functions, it is usually to enhance or provide a shortcut to the core functionality. Take, for example, the email app. Apple recently (iOS 7/8) introduced swipe-invoked shortcuts to Delete, Archive, Mark as Read/Unread. Personally, I hate this interaction, so I never use it... but these functions are available through traditional (visible) UI too, so what's the problem? This general pattern is followed in most (not all) places across iOS, so I'm struggling to see the problem. So, there is a shifting trend, the 'norms' are changing (as they always have and always will) and Apple is part of this shift, but I think Don's finger-pointing at Apple is misplaced and more than a little hyperbolic. Just my $0.02.

no-images

Jennifer Gracey on August 21 2015

Finally, someone who will publicly say that Apple doesn't have the perfect UX! They were innovative in their time, but things have changed in recent years. As a UX Designer/Developer, it is refreshing to hear another expert in the field of User Experience admit that Apple's products are not all rainbows and unicorns. Hopefully they can learn from user testing and feedback and adjust their designs to focus on usability and those three major design principles that Norman points out.

no-images

Nickster on August 24 2015

Dragging the floppy to the trash to eject it was always a short cut. The primary method (and IMHO the obvious one) is to click on the disk and then select "Eject Disk" from the Special menu. Of course, if your interface doesn't have menus, you can't find things like that.

no-images

Roger on August 29 2015

We're talking about Don Norman here, not any designer.

no-images

@davesabine on September 06 2015

Microsoft is experimenting and, courageously I'd argue, trying desktop UI optimized for touch. Microsoft's Surface, combined with Windows10, is the most innovative form factor and UI to enter the market since the iTouch. Apple, a company who built their reputation on innovation, is taking things carefully now. The Apple desktop interface hasn't changed in 15 years - users know it well by now.

no-images

Didier Baudois on September 07 2015

Hi ! Apple prides mixing beauty with function = OK and true. But it's better to allow a good activity through beauty and in this case, as said Don Normann, Apple is bad. This is the lesson to be learned from Don: beauty is nothing if it impairs your activity. Consequently, a good company is a company that works according to activity's ergonomics... And that's all for today ! Regards Didier

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Erik on September 09 2015

Never trust somebody who calls Don Norman "a designer"...

no-images

Jared on September 23 2015

And never trust an anonymous poster who questions someone with an established reputation via fallacious red herring arguments.

no-images

David F on October 05 2015

Mr. Williams, it appears from your comment that you've "lost all respect for the Neilson group." I see on LinkedIn that the "Nielson Group" coaches organizations for breakthrough performance. I'm not at all sure why you felt it relevant in this forum to dis that organization. No matter, because it's comforting to know that you've reserved no displeasure for the "Nielsen Norman Group," an organization that pays attention to detail.

no-images

Lee on October 07 2015

Eagerly awaiting this takedown. If you are invoking Windows (8? 10?) as a paragon of design, I expect concrete examples and comparisons.

no-images

Bas on October 26 2015

Really disappointing read... This starts out as an article about Apple's downfall in UX, while praising MS?!? Really? Besides that the article doesn't provide more details about specific pain points and examples for improvement - or a comparison of Apple vs MS product ID, UX, UI. Next it turns to worshipping nest for whatever they do and what else they couldashouldawoulda do. What's that headline again?!

no-images

Abderrahmen on February 17 2016

I share the idea that says that we shouldn't trust a designer that recommends Microsoft 's design decisions. The UI of windows 8 is very different from all the versions of Microsoft 's OS.

no-images

Brad H. on August 13 2015

Never trust a designer who criticizes without providing specific use cases or examples. Also, never trust one who recommends Microsoft as "User Friendly" when the majority of my company's support requests are from Windows 8 and 10 users who have no idea what they're doing in the new interface.

no-images

David on August 13 2015

Thank you for the great article. I like someone who is not afraid to stand up to a company like Apple. I love a great interface and will look up more of Don and his work. While I agree that Apple's ease of use has deteriorated over the past few years with iTunes as a prime example (both on the Mac and the phone). But I don't think that Don has used Nest's latest iteration of it's video camera software. It is poorly designed and very frustrating to use even as an experienced user. It is also difficult to record a "clip" and get to the history of clips that should be easy to access. Hopefully they will make modifications so that as Don says, you can use the software without a manual. That time can't come soon enough IMHO. Cheers. David

no-images

Ant on August 14 2015

I wonder if Apple would still have this issue if Steve Jobs was still around. I miss the old Apple designs. :/

no-images

Steve H on August 14 2015

Points well made. In iOS Maps, have you ever tried to clear recent location searches? Or in iOS Safari, tried re-open recently closed tabs without starting from scratch with a search or bookmarking them first? Both are no-brainers to have, both are possible, but neither are easy to discern. There should be no reason for an article like 'Finding the Five Best Hidden Safari Features in iOS 8' to even exist!!

no-images

Mary C. on August 15 2015

Over the years I've found all the hype about how easy to use Apple products are to be nothing more than that: hype. While Microsoft products certainly aren't as transparent as one could wish, at least they make sense whereas Apple's frequently do not. But, obviously, YMMV.

no-images

Velimir B on August 17 2015

I'm sure Don knows how much effort, thought and attention goes into each Apple product and still is biased to say that their design is poor because he is obviously defending his own interests. There is no past Apple, current Apple etc, there only one Apple. The design principles existed before Jobs came back and before Ive joined. Ive and Jobs simply streamlined the Apple design language. Considering the Apple sales and the market perception of their products, its quite funny (yet interesting) to read the article.

no-images

Martin P on August 17 2015

Mary C.. Couldn't agree more. The ^opinion^ that Apple made intuitive stuff in the mid-90's took me back to my first encounter with a Mac - in the mid 90's. I wasted a good half day working out how to eject a floppy disk. (Drag it to the bin! Intuitive not).

no-images

Richard Williams on August 18 2015

I've now lost all respect for the Neilson group. To say Microsoft has better design than Apple is prepostreous. Has Mr. Norman bummed is head?

no-images

charvi on August 21 2015

Alas someone is bold enough to admit the obvious. Thank you for standing up. I have mostly found apple users to be blind followers with little objective thinking.

no-images

Andrew Thelwell on August 21 2015

I disagree with Don on this one. While I will not for one second say that Apple's stuff is 'perfect' -- it clearly is not -- I don't agree that Apple alone has caused the shift that we are seeing in design norms. They're a huge player, but in many ways they have been behind the curve. Has anyone looked back at iOS6 and compared it to the equivalent mobile UI's of the same time period? Now, there is a *trend* in modern apps towards minimalism in the visual design and away from explicit affordances. We can argue the pros and cons of that all day. But what we can't argue is that this is a general trend, and one that seems to be catching on fairly well and with much success with the user base. Now, honestly, I think in some cases it goes too far, and on this point I can agree with Don. But for the most part, in Apple's own native iOS stuff, they've got the balance just about right. All the core, basic functions on iOS can be accessed in drop-dead simple ways. There are buttons, icons, drill-down lists and toggle switches. It's all incredibly simple, intuitive and clearly visible. It's really rare that you HAVE to swipe to achieve a particular task, except for the truly 'natural' interactions such as scrolling, changing page, etc. Where Apple have used swipes for other functions, it is usually to enhance or provide a shortcut to the core functionality. Take, for example, the email app. Apple recently (iOS 7/8) introduced swipe-invoked shortcuts to Delete, Archive, Mark as Read/Unread. Personally, I hate this interaction, so I never use it... but these functions are available through traditional (visible) UI too, so what's the problem? This general pattern is followed in most (not all) places across iOS, so I'm struggling to see the problem. So, there is a shifting trend, the 'norms' are changing (as they always have and always will) and Apple is part of this shift, but I think Don's finger-pointing at Apple is misplaced and more than a little hyperbolic. Just my $0.02.

no-images

Jennifer Gracey on August 21 2015

Finally, someone who will publicly say that Apple doesn't have the perfect UX! They were innovative in their time, but things have changed in recent years. As a UX Designer/Developer, it is refreshing to hear another expert in the field of User Experience admit that Apple's products are not all rainbows and unicorns. Hopefully they can learn from user testing and feedback and adjust their designs to focus on usability and those three major design principles that Norman points out.

no-images

Nickster on August 24 2015

Dragging the floppy to the trash to eject it was always a short cut. The primary method (and IMHO the obvious one) is to click on the disk and then select "Eject Disk" from the Special menu. Of course, if your interface doesn't have menus, you can't find things like that.

no-images

Roger on August 29 2015

We're talking about Don Norman here, not any designer.

no-images

@davesabine on September 06 2015

Microsoft is experimenting and, courageously I'd argue, trying desktop UI optimized for touch. Microsoft's Surface, combined with Windows10, is the most innovative form factor and UI to enter the market since the iTouch. Apple, a company who built their reputation on innovation, is taking things carefully now. The Apple desktop interface hasn't changed in 15 years - users know it well by now.

no-images

Didier Baudois on September 07 2015

Hi ! Apple prides mixing beauty with function = OK and true. But it's better to allow a good activity through beauty and in this case, as said Don Normann, Apple is bad. This is the lesson to be learned from Don: beauty is nothing if it impairs your activity. Consequently, a good company is a company that works according to activity's ergonomics... And that's all for today ! Regards Didier

no-images

Erik on September 09 2015

Never trust somebody who calls Don Norman "a designer"...

no-images

Jared on September 23 2015

And never trust an anonymous poster who questions someone with an established reputation via fallacious red herring arguments.

no-images

David F on October 05 2015

Mr. Williams, it appears from your comment that you've "lost all respect for the Neilson group." I see on LinkedIn that the "Nielson Group" coaches organizations for breakthrough performance. I'm not at all sure why you felt it relevant in this forum to dis that organization. No matter, because it's comforting to know that you've reserved no displeasure for the "Nielsen Norman Group," an organization that pays attention to detail.

no-images

Lee on October 07 2015

Eagerly awaiting this takedown. If you are invoking Windows (8? 10?) as a paragon of design, I expect concrete examples and comparisons.

no-images

Bas on October 26 2015

Really disappointing read... This starts out as an article about Apple's downfall in UX, while praising MS?!? Really? Besides that the article doesn't provide more details about specific pain points and examples for improvement - or a comparison of Apple vs MS product ID, UX, UI. Next it turns to worshipping nest for whatever they do and what else they couldashouldawoulda do. What's that headline again?!

no-images

Abderrahmen on February 17 2016

I share the idea that says that we shouldn't trust a designer that recommends Microsoft 's design decisions. The UI of windows 8 is very different from all the versions of Microsoft 's OS.

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