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Donald Norman at EPL

Donald Norman spoke tonight (15 Jan) on his new book, Emotional Design: Why We Love (Or Hate) Everyday Things, at Evanston Public Library.

For those that don't know, Norman is a guru of intelligent approaches to designing consumer objects. For those that do know, it was interesting to hear that he has continued thinking about and advancing his theories of what makes good design, rather than resting on the success of his earlier work in The Design of Everyday Things and his other writings.

He has examined how people buy and use consumer products and deveoped some explanations for something that we've all observed: that we buy and use stuff that doesn't always make "sense." He chalks this up to the emotional response that these items bring to us, and he divides this response into three flavors (based on psychological studies):
- The visceral and immediate response to something that is common across most humans. This is the response that gets people pointing at our Mini Cooper, or wincing at something ugly.
- The behavioral level is the level at which we respond when things work well (or not). For instance the fact that the Mini gets great gas mileage or that the radio controls are infuriatingly small.
- And the reflective level is where we react based on pride and our sense of self. This is response comes out of the culture and context and all sorts of other factors. Reflective is why we bought the mini: a combination of visceral response, practical value and that certain something about the car that fits us to a tee. It's also associated with why people pay more for Jaguars or Rolex watches or even Apple computers. "Everyone knows that Apple users are superior."

In talking about good design vs. great design, Norman admitted to the fact that his design methodology (prototype, test, redesign, more testing, etc) will lead to good designs. To get great designs you need a tyrranical designer, like everyone's favorite, Steve Jobs.

From another perspective the usual problem with great designers is that they aren't interested in executing. If they get to a product and it doesn't work (Newton), they frequently give up and move on to the next thing. Norman suggests that great design done badly should be reviewed and made better, not thrown away, as is done by many organizations.

Time for another book.

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