Interview with Donald Norman: Design Skills in a Complex World

(Originally posted here, the blog of Manifesto Ibridi)

Donald Norman is an Electrical Engineering and Cognitive Psychologist. He’s co-founder and principal of the User Experience/Usability consulting firm, the Nielsen Norman group.

He’s an Hybrid Guru in the transdisciplinary fields of Usability, Interaction Design and User Experience Design with an amazing career.

We think that in the design of the last 20 years, as a profession, there are interesting emerging balances and combinations of competencies to front a more complex world. So we proposed to Norman for questions about the main skills of the future designers.

We asked him a few questions:

  1. What are the necessary skills for a designer to face the future challenges of a more complex world?
  2. Could the transdisciplinary attitude and skills of brilliant designers be a model useful to be adopted in other fields?
  3. Do you think that the future of user experience design will need a different level of competence on the several psychological and social layers of the users?
  4. Reading the Manifesto Ibridi, what is the most important concept that captured your attention since you are working in the same direction?

To which he answered:

“The skills of the traditional designer are not adequate to cope with the requirements of today’s world, especially not adequate for the new areas in which design is asked to play a role.

Traditional design education is still, well, tradition: craft based. The undergraduate education is all about craft skills and the professional graduate degree is simply more refinement of those skills.

Today the designer must know more about the world, about art and science, technology and engineering, social and behavioral sciences, political science and economics. Business. But very few designers receive the broad kind of education necessary to work on the problems that are so desperate in need of good design skills.

The problem is made worse by the fact that most academic disciplines are very narrow and abstract. Academics focus upon academic, deep knowledge. Designers work in the real world: they need to knowhow to apply the knowledge of the other disciplines, but the university is perhaps the worst place to learn the practical implication of the necessary other disciplines.

Although I think it is time for design education to change, I believe that the larger and more important problem is that it is necessary for all education to change. Instead of narrow, theoretical disciplines, we should have problem-based areas of focus, where theory and practice share the issues, where people with different backgrounds add their knowledge and experience. We need to reward practical applications, not just theoretical ones. we need to reward people with wide, generalist knowledge at the same level we know reward people with deep, narrow knowledge. Designers need the knowledge within the other disciplines: the other disciplines can use the unifying vision of great designers. But today, neither knows quite how to work with the other – the broad, generalist knowledge of the designer who wishes to build and accomplish things versus the deep, narrow knowledge of the academic scholar who wishes to understand things. Both are needed. We need a way to make them work well together, for each to respect the skills of the other.

Design has to move away from its base as a skill-based discipline. People who design services and communities need not have craft skills. But they are still designers. Different kinds of designers need very different skills.

Why do I support the Manifesto Ibridi: because it is making an argument quite compatible with the one I just wrote, to live and understand complexity, to deal with the rapid acceleration of knowledge and technology, to understand the interaction of humans and technology (cognition and artifacts) – except cognition must include emotion and action – the body as well as the mind.”

— Don Norman

(Image courtesy of John Knox)

Davide Casali – Social Experience Design – Interaction 13

Davide Casali: Social Experience Design – Shifting The Focus Where Really Matters from Interaction Design Association on Vimeo.

Another great speach of Davide about our Motivational Design at the Interaction 13, with a little mention of the Manifesto Ibridi.

User Centered Design vs Genius Design

Starting from the post of Cennydd Bowles “Looking Beyond User-Centered Design” I wrote some questions to italian friends interaction designers.

I want to thank them for the interesting discussion. These are two post emerged from these emails “A Better Look at User-Centered Design“, “Oltre il singolo designer“.

The challenge is to avoid as much as possible (we are always limited) exogenous and endogenous errors. Simultaneous create the environment that best expresses the explicit and implicit qualities in the “system design process” (from the team, the relationship with the customer , the market, etc..).

It ‘s like the metaphor of the blanket too short: pull on the one hand it turns out the other and vice versa.
This is the condition that you find in any situation where you want to increase the limit of its capacity (as an individual, group, and system).

The solution is a dynamic adaptive balance in the searching for the greatest possible harmony.

The concept seems too broad and not enough pragmatic? The operationalization is necessary, but it’s always a partial choice, starting broader visions that guide us. It ‘s so within the limits of Knowledge (see for example Popper) or any human challenge.


So, what now?
The challenge is to get out of the dichotomy in a third solution that integrates and solve the two options (I’m not so fan of Hegel…).

The center is the man with the method (UCD) that supports him and the man with the talent that allows him to make good intuitions.

In this period I’m working on this topic developing an approach on the edge of chaos between the risk of an “Egoic approach” and the risk of “the refuge of the sheep in the flock”. I’m “trying”, as always 🙂

Social Usability Workshop – Lift13 Geneve

On February, 8th I’ve been at the Lift 13 Conference with Davide to present our workshop about Social Usability.

Social Usability is a quality attribute that assesses how easy social interactions are to make. We proposed the Social Usability Checklist as a tool of analysis and design for social network dynamics and apps.

It was a great experience with several interesting questions, solutions and feedback. I want to thank all the participants that made it possible.

Manifesto Ibridi


We are at a real turning point and the main challenges require hybridization of skills, ability, intelligence and knowledge.

Because the challenges transcend the limits of traditional knowledge models.
Because the opportunities are often in the “middle-earth” between disciplines.
Because the questions and answers that are producing the most interesting ideas are often bridges between different visions.
Because research and innovative projects have logics and teams with hybrid expertise.

I know many hybrid talents, intellectuals and professionals, they able to recognize each other, however, they are lacking a common identity when the society has a great need for this “bridge skills.”

So, five years ago I wrote the first draft of the Manifesto Ibridi and today, thanks to three great persons that supported me in this project, is online!



Siamo ad un punto di svolta epocale e le principali sfide necessitano di ibridazioni di competenze, capacità, intelligenze, conoscenze.

Perché le sfide trascendono i limiti dei modelli di conoscenza tradizionali.
Perché le opportunità sono spesso nella “terra di mezzo” tra discipline.
Perché le domande che stanno producendo le risposte e idee più interessanti sono spesso ponti tra visioni diverse.
Perché le ricerche e progetti più innovativi hanno logiche e team con competenze ibride.

Conosco tanti talenti, intellettuali e professionisti ibridi, capaci di riconoscersi tra loro, sono però privi di una identità comune quando la società ha un grande bisogno di “competenze ponte”.

Così 5 anni fa scrissi la prima bozza del Manifesto Ibridi e oggi, grazie a tre persone di grande valore che mi hanno supportato in questo progetto, è online!

BJ Fogg: a Psychology for the Design of Behavior Change

An interesting introduction by BJ Fogg of his Behavior Change Model. It’s the most famous model of Persuasive Psychology applied to change behaviors for designers. The talent of BJ to intercept the new frontiers of design is combined with his capacity to synthesize psychological competence in simple models and tools for designers.

Simplicity is the approach and methodology of BJ Fogg, that’s why he’s very effective in specific processes like changing habits for diet, sports, etc.


Sherry Turkle: Connected, but alone?

Sherry Turkle doesn’t need an introduction. She’s one of the most famous Psychologist in the digital technology and mediated interaction fields.

All new technologies bring with themselves opportunities and risks. Turkle shows how the social digital interaction could be a mirror of our personality, our fears and our talents. An other important example of how the social networks, the pervasive mobile are a real, strong extension of our relational world, experience and capacity.

We have to learn and to spread new psychological competences, like the emotional intelligence. The social digital interaction push us to be more aware of ourself. It’s an unstoppable change with risks and opportunities. At the same time the Interaction Design, the User Experience Design need more and more psychological competencies.

Technology and human are part of a co-evolution and the product influences the producer.


Collaboration in physical and digital space

From an interesting article of Jonah Lehrer on The New Yorker

Digital space is also a social space so we have to use the proximity variables to design platforms and communities with collaborative objectives.

A few years ago, Isaac Kohane, a researcher at Harvard Medical School, published a study that looked at scientific research conducted by groups in an attempt to determine the effect that physical proximity had on the quality of the research. He analyzed more than thirty-five thousand peer-reviewed papers, mapping the precise location of co-authors. Then he assessed the quality of the research by counting the number of subsequent citations. The task, Kohane says, took a “small army of undergraduates” eighteen months to complete. Once the data was amassed, the correlation became clear: when coauthors were closer together, their papers tended to be of significantly higher quality. The best research was consistently produced when scientists were working within ten metres of each other; the least cited papers tended to emerge from collaborators who were a kilometre or more apart. “If you want people to work together effectively, these findings reinforce the need to create architectures that support frequent, physical, spontaneous interactions,” Kohane says. “Even in the era of big science, when researchers spend so much time on the Internet, it’s still so important to create intimate space.

Design the physical space, the rooms where we work all days it’s an important factor for complete project of User Experience Design in Social Business.

A new generation of laboratory architecture has tried to make chance encounters more likely to take place, and the trend has spread in the business world, too. One fanatical believer in the power of space to enhance the work of groups was Steve Jobs. Walter Isaacson’s recent biography of Jobs records that when Jobs was planning Pixar’s headquarters, in 1999, he had the building arranged around a central atrium, so that Pixar’s diverse staff of artists, writers, and computer scientists would run into each other more often. “We used to joke that the building was Steve’s movie,” Ed Catmull, the president of both Disney Animation and Pixar Animation, says. “He really oversaw everything.”
Jobs soon realized that it wasn’t enough simply to create an airy atrium; he needed to force people to go there. He began with the mailboxes, which he shifted to the lobby. Then he moved the meeting rooms to the center of the building, followed by the cafeteria, the coffee bar, and the gift shop. Finally, he decided that the atrium should contain the only set of bathrooms in the entire building. (He was later forced to compromise and install a second pair of bathrooms.) “At first, I thought this was the most ridiculous idea,” Darla Anderson, a producer on several Pixar films, told me. “I didn’t want to have to walk all the way to the atrium every time I needed to do something. That’s just a waste of time. But Steve said, ‘Everybody has to run into each other’. He really believed that the best meetings happened by accident, in the hallway or parking lot. And you know what? He was right. I get more done having a cup of coffee and striking up a conversation or walking to the bathroom and running into unexpected people than I do sitting at my desk.” Brad Bird, the director of “The Incredibles” and “Ratatouille,” says that Jobs “made it impossible for you not to run into the rest of the company.”