Design tips from the King of Design, Don Norman!

by Wendy Soon on December 19, 2013

DonNorman_1We were extremely honored to have one of the world’s most renowned designer, Don Norman, at our grand year end Igniters meetup! It was a mega turnout with 500 people squeezed into the Cemex auditorium at Stanford Graduate School of Business. Still, we could not accommodate everyone who wanted to attend. Greatest apologies to those who did not manage to grab a seat. Here are some “summarized” takeaway points from his discussion. (It was so enriching, thus 18 points is already “summarized”!)

Here is the link to the session video/pictures of the unforgettable evening with the King of Design at Igniters event.

  1. Design principles have not changed over the years. True, time has passed, but design principles don’t change. However, technologies are different, which affects the ways these design principles are applied.

  2. Great products are only part of the story. You can come up with an awesome solution to a problem. However, if you don’t package the product well enough, it might still not work. Great features are important, but they are only part of the whole product. User experience completes the picture. Think about how Apple grabbed a large market by focusing on providing an amazing user experience. The ipod had the same function as the walkman — to listen to music on the go. However, it killed the walkman, simply because people loved the way the ipod worked — it was able to store more songs; easy to search for music; had a sleek design; minimal buttons to learn; etc. Every single detail that Apple invested into creating the best user experience with the ipod, enabled it to take the market by storm, and the ipod made history. That’s how important user experience is to a great product.

  3. The complete user experience is extremely important. Not just the product user experience, but the entire interaction between the user and your product. When you buy products (TV, cell phone, tablets etc), do you save the box? When you buy apple products, do you save the box? Most people will answer the 2nd question with “yes” more often than to the 1st question. Why? Apple is a good example of providing a full, complete user experience — from the moment you buy the product, to the time you go home, and open the box… you see the product first (not the cd, nor the user manual), and the phone that comes out of the box is also immediately usable (not needing “48-hour charge first”). That, is complete user experience. Not just how you use the product, but every single little interaction that you have with the product. And it all matters.

  4. Being too early is worse than being late! Don’t be too much ahead of the pack. Great designs are awesome, but make sure that your target customers are ready for the revolution you are thinking of! Being too early (and not having a sufficient plan to change the user’s thinking) is worse than being late. Why? Because the product dies off after a short while if it is too early. However, if you are too late, you just need to put in many more times the effort to catch up. Of course, neither is good, so besides thinking of the best design for the future, think about reception of your fantastic ideas before moving forward.

  5. Design might not be essential in an MVP — in the first iteration. If you can give great value to people (what they need), then UX and design won’t matter as much. But that only applies to the first product iteration. Design WILL matter in later iterations and in the future. So if you are a startup and you need to save on resources, give users what they need first, add the UX later. Focus on the technology, focus on their needs. Start by watching the people who will use your product. Don’t spend tonnes of money doing surveys. Just watch them. Don’t ask them, observe them. Many things we do are sub-conscious, so they won’t necessarily do what they say. Instead, observation is the most accurate way to know what features you need in your product to solve your customers’ problems. (More on UX observation tips at our blog with Everett Mckay)

  6. Focus. That’s what MVP is all about. Keep it simple. Even (or especially) in the design aspects. Have one dictator designer. E.g. Steve Jobs at Apple. He kept it all together, with one branding. Contrastingly, Microsoft had many different designers, thus they ship thousands of products but it is difficult to keep them all coherent. To have an integrated branding on your line of products, stick to one dictator designer to help you focus.

  7. The best designs come from knowing what to look for. How do you see the whole world without going all around it? The trick is to see things that other people do not see. I’m not talking about paranormal activity, but there are many things that are obvious to you, but you just conveniently ignore it. Only when someone points it out later, do you exclaim saying “Oh, that was obvious!”. Learning to look and observe the world is an important lesson. To be able to find something that no one else notices (despite it being extremely obvious), is when you know you’ve found something really big. The next question will then be — Can you change it?

  8. Make the world a better place, one green dot at a time. That’s an expression that comes from Don’s world, to say that “every small thing matters”. Go around Don’s apartment, and you will see green dots at every door knob. Why? Because the doors in his apartment open in different directions — some to the right, and some to the left. It is difficult to remember which doors turn right and which turn left. Some may say, this is a problem, but there are only 2 choices each time you try — if it is not right, it’s left! However, by placing a green dot at every door to indicate the direction, Don eliminates the need to even try his 50-50 options. With a simple green dot, he saves on time and frustration. That’s how great design is — simple and small, but life-changing.

  9. Design is when we deliberately change the environment. Almost everything we do is design. It’s everywhere in our lives. It’s where we make choices — when we choose to sit at the front row of a cinema, or when we choose to place our mug to the right corner of the table — that’s us designing our preferred environment. But the fact that we are all involved in designing our own worlds, does not degrade the status of the professional designer. Instead, it actually helps us understand and appreciate their work better! Just like how everybody writes and plays tennis, but that does not negate the status of bestselling authors and Wimbledon champions. Thus design is everywhere in our lives, but designers are still important.

  10. The hardest things to design are those that have gone wrong. It’s easy to design things when all is well. The hard part is when something goes wrong. That’s when we need to observe the problems. We don’t get frustrated when the computer works well. We only get frustrated when an error appears! That’s what we need to solve, and that’s the difficult part. Designing a pretty looking computer, is so much easier than designing a computer that doesn’t produce errors. But unfortunately, that’s where all the value is 🙂

  11. Iterate your designs, many many MANY times! Should you get tired when you do many iterations? NO! Because your potential users  are helping you do it. People are testing it for you, and you are solving it for them at each iteration. When they can finally use the product, that’s your MVP and there is no more need to test. Thus there is no chance to get sick and tired of your design, because it changes each round, and stops the moment the goal is accomplished..

  12. Stop iterating when you run out of time. Iterations can go on and on and on… forever. But you will never get it perfect. So get as close as you can get. It better be good enough for your users by then, but you need to stop when you run out of time. That’s the simplest gauge as to when to stop iterating your product.

  13. Be familiar with how you want your customers/users to feel. If Don Norman suddenly left in the middle of his talk — that’s how you want them to feel — Wanting more!

  14. Complex problems need to be approached as a whole. Complex problems can be approached both as a whole, or in pieces, but the ideal approach would be as a whole. This applies to most products we talk about, because the world is getting more complex, and everything seems to be interacting with everything else. It is a difficult task, but we have to deal with it. You need a good mixed team of experts (e.g. engineer, designer, driver etc for Tesla). The toughest part is effective communication between these groups of individuals working on the same project. The larger the group, the tougher it will be, and the higher the chance the final product will have non-ideal features due to the lack of communication. That is the problem of large companies, so if you are a small startup, make full use of that advantage you have over large companies. (Of course, there can be times when the problem is too big to be solved, or involves too many variables to become optimum. That though, is a discussion we will continue next time.)

  15. The predictive rate to making sure your users are ready for your innovation, is ZERO. It’s hard to predict how new things can revolutionize the world — or not. No one knew how internet browsers will be like, before Netscape came out. No one knew how smartphones will be received by users. By the time people adopt these technologies readily, the technology is already obsolete. That’s how it is / or will be for blue-ray discs, high-definition TVs, electric cars etc. So it will be a risk to produce a product like this, but the greatest things come with the greatest risks. That’s how it is, and probably will be for some time to come.

  16. The smallest design details can help your product push social norms. Take google glass as an example. It is very well done in terms of design. Very small, sleek and not too in-your-face. And the details help in solving users’ worries about how we know if someone is taking a picture of them, or searching the internet instead of listening to them during a conversation. Google glass is designed so that people can know when you are looking at the screen, because it is located only in the upper right corner. And photographs and videos are noticeable when in use, because a red light starts blinking. These very small and seemingly unimportant details help nudge the social norm gently. A second way to push norms is to maximally involve your early adopters. The earliest adopters are those who will let you know more about what your product is about, and whether it will push the rest of the community to adopt it. And that is also what google glass is doing, with its beta testers.

  17. Design is cross-cultural. How can we best design to a global audience, when design is usually tied to one’s cultural background and experiences? Don finds that there is actually hardly any impact of culture on design. It’s all the same, wherever you are. There are cultural differences obviously, but task-centred designs (not human-centred designs) will fit all cultures. For example the violin, automobile, cameras, refrigerators, cell phones etc, are all the same across cultures, because they serve the same purpose! Culture is not about how the product looks like, but the interaction — where you put the refrigerator in your home, or the way people drive an automobile differs across cultures. Even social products are largely the same — facebook and equivalents work in similar ways in every country. (Even Don’s answer to this question in different countries is the same, and is just as well received regardless!) So there should not be any major worry to try to change your design methods to fit a global audience.

  18. In “MVP”, “M” is the most difficult to attain. Some wonder if there is any tension between Minimal vs Viable, because they seem to be proposing opposite directions. However, it is really quite rare that people can keep it simple, to keep it to the bare essentials. Most problems lie in having the “V” but missing out the “M”, rather than having only the “M” and missing out the “V”. Thus there really isn’t much of a problem trying to reconcile the “minimal” and “viable” together. That term mainly asks to focus on keeping the product “minimal” so as to make sure the product only serves the purposes it needs to, and nothing more.


For the full video recording of Don’s talk, visit HERE. And looking forward to meeting you again at more amazing future meetups!


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