Thursday, July 28, 2005

Whoa, Big Fella!

There are few people in the design community more respected than Donald Norman, author of the classic The Design of Everyday Things and Emotional Design: Why We Love (Or Hate) Everyday Things. Norman has long been a source of wisdom, common sense and balance. When the man talks, we UXCentrists listen!

That's probably why his recent essay, Human-Centered Design Considered Harmful, is raising something of a ruckus. Here's the first paragraph:
Human-Centered Design has become such a dominant theme in design that it is now accepted by interface and application designers automatically, without thought, let alone criticism. That's a dangerous state when things are treated as accepted wisdom. The purpose of this essay is to provoke thought, discussion, and reconsideration of some of the fundamental principles of Human-Centered Design. These principles, I suggest, can be helpful, misleading, or wrong. At times, they might even be harmful. Activity-Centered Design is superior.
Like Norman, I get very nervous when I run across those who swear by one particular methodology or ideology over all others. We live in a delightfully complex world that routinely demonstrates the foolishness of such approaches. This is particularly true when designing user experiences, digital or otherwise. The vast territory that UX designers must address makes "I don't know" one of the wisest responses we can make! As I've written before, one of my favorite aspects about UX is that it requires a large dose of humility. The fact that we don't have the answers is often the answer!

In this essay, Norman makes some excellent points. He's absolutely right that we cannot and should not rely solely upon human-centered design methods. (That's why my model for information architecture/UX design includes a hearty serving of activity, task and process analysis.) He also does a fine job advocating for the inclusion of what he calls "activity-centered design." And, rabble-rouser that I am, I appreciate his intention of stirring up discussion.

However, Norman does not support his claim of superiority for activity-centered design with evidence beyond the anecdotal. Similarly, he fails to demonstrate that human-centered design itself can be misleading, wrong or harmful. Indeed, by the end of the essay, he seems to backpedal away from that assertion, peppering his sentences with mays, mights and maybes—and even proposing a marriage of sorts between HCD and ACD. In conclusion—despite his intentions—this makes Norman's essay seem more jeremiad than reasoned call for debate.

Update, July 30: Peter Merholz and Andrew Otwell weigh in on Norman's essay.


Anonymous Ravit Lichtenberg said...

Thank you, Dave, for a great critique of Don Norman’s essay. As we’ve all seen in our years in the field, HCD, when misused or misapplied, can indeed result in costly mistakes. However, I too argue that Norman fails to support his assertion that ACD is superior to HCD.

First, Norman emphasizes throughout his thesis the difference in HCD’s and ACD’s approach tools and activities as drivers of human adaptation to technology. Human-Centered-Design is about experiences. Tools and activities are just two ways to help us think about experience- they do not stand independently of the experience.

With HCD’s emphasis on the Human Experience, it is not possible for products and services to “no longer be appropriate,” or too complex if we “pay too much attention to the needs if the users,” as Norman suggest. This is the very essence and promise of the Human Experience field in years to come. What separates an excellent Human Experience professional from the rest is his or her ability to create experiences that can dynamically and seamlessly grow and evolve with its users. Activities and tools will change, and so will technology- but the need we share, as humans, for experiencing, remains constant.


6:04 PM  

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