UX pioneer Don Norman on privacy, IoT and innovations

UX pioneer Don Norman on privacy, IoT and innovations

Daresay Team - February 17, 2015

We’ve met Don Norman, the UX pioneer who’s been there, done it all and written the book. 

Don, you worked at Apple for five years in the 90s, and for a year with Steve Jobs when he returned to the company in 1997. Since Steve Jobs passed away, some claim it’s failed to innovate and lost its edge. What’s your take on it? How long can Apple continue with incremental innovations and still be successful?

It was always amusing to be inside Apple and read what journalists said we were doing. Journalists have little idea of what is happening inside a company, so they make things up. Most journalists have never worked for product companies, so their knowledge is superficial at best.

I notice the same reaction to Google Glass being moved to a new consumer division at Google. “Google Glass is dead”, said many, and they gave reasons. No, it isn’t dead. Moving it to a special division for consumer products, headed by someone with great experience in the consumer world, is precisely what is needed. People look at Virtual Reality goggles from Microsoft, Facebook (Oculus Rift) and others and say, “See? These are far better than Glass.” Nonsense; they are neither better nor worse: they are designed for completely different things.

How long can Apple keep innovating? Who knows? It has a lot to do with the people inside of Apple as well as with the economic climate of the world. In other words, it has to do with things both under Apple’s control and things that are not under their control. So quit speculating: just enjoy.


‘Affordance’ is a term that has really caught on following the success of your bestselling book, The Design of Everyday Things. Since then, the distinction between physical and digital domains has become less clear, with the rise of connected devices, Internet of Things, and so on. What do designers have to think of when designing IoT devices, in terms of affordance? Has it changed in the last couple of years?

Affordances became very popular and important to designers. However, affordances really work well in the real world with physical objects and products. In the virtual world, the critical thing is not so much the affordances as the parts of the design that signal the possible actions.

Designers kept misusing the term affordances, trying to use the word to reflect the cues, signals, and icons they were providing. In my book, Living with Complexity, and then again in the revised edition of The Design of Everyday Things, I introduced the term “signifier” for the signaling component of a design. A signifier can be the perceived affordance, but more often it consists of icons, text, signs and illustrations, all signifying to a person what the appropriate set of possible actions might be.

Modern design, especially in the world of IoT, where there are multiple items connected and the actions being performed have their consequences in some remote location, the real design trick is about communication between the devices we interact with and the person. Signifiers are the communication channel for much of the design.

Speaking of IoT, you argue that innovators create radical innovations while design researchers create incremental innovations, like releasing a new version of a mobile phone or car. Are there any IoT products so far that you would consider as radical innovations, or even close to it?

Actually, that isn’t quite what I said. Basically, there are known procedures that are quite effective for producing incremental innovation, those small but all-important changes that keep improving the things we use. That’s why things like household appliances, automobiles and other everyday devices that have stayed pretty much the same for a hundred years are dramatically more efficient, powerful, reliable and far less expensive. Incremental innovations add up. There are no known ways of getting to radical innovation. Moreover, most radical innovations fail. Even the ones that succeed take decades to move from laboratory to everyday use.

IoT is an example. The concept of interconnected information devices is a radical innovation, but the basic concept has been around for a long time. Slowly, through many incremental innovations, this radical idea is becoming usable, affordable and useful. But still, most things today can be connected, but nobody quite knows how just yet; it will take a few more years of incremental innovation to make the radical concept that everything can talk to everything else into a useful, usable, robust world.

Recently, there has been much discussion on the subject of digital privacy. When we interviewed Aral Balkan (founder of Indie Phone), he said that we have created a world where nearly every phone, app and web site spies on us, and that “the only real choice we are given today is this: do we use these tools and get spied on, or do we not and disconnect from modern life?” Do you share his view of the current state of affairs? To what extent do you consider digital privacy an issue of good or bad UX?

Privacy is highly overrated. It is also a relatively new concept. What we need is more control over our lives and over our personal information. What is immoral is that so many corporations seem to think they own data about me. No, I own it. My medical records are mine: I should be the one who controls them and decides who gets to see them and for what purpose. Same with information about my income, my places of residence, and my lifestyle. It’s not a lack of privacy that bothers me, it is the misuse of information that is about me and should belong to me, information that can be used to my disadvantage. The corporations who own my data often will not let me use it for things that might benefit me. It’s time people take back control of their lives. The component of privacy is simply a small part of what is wrong.


Daniel Eriksson

Service Designer

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