This is the Remarkable People podcast. We’re on a mission to make you remarkable. Today, we’ll discuss the life and work of Don Norman, professor and the founding director of the Design Lab at the University of California of San Diego.

He has a diverse range of history, including a university professor, Apple executive, company advisor, author, speaker, and curmudgeon; Don has contributed to many fields, including electrical engineering, psychology, computer science, cognitive science, and design.

And for a time, he was my boss at Apple when I was an Apple fellow. I’m surprised he doesn’t introduce himself that way.

Don is the author of one of the most influential books on design and usability called The Design of Everyday Things. He has a new book called Design for a Better World: How to Create a Meaningful, Sustainable, and Humanity-Centered Future.

Join us as we dive deeper into the life and work of this esteemed expert in design and usability.

Please enjoy this remarkable episode Don Norman: Putting the User Back in User Interface!


If you enjoyed this episode of the Remarkable People podcast, please leave a rating, write a review, and subscribe. Thank you!

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Transcript of Guy Kawasaki’s Remarkable People podcast with Don Norman: Putting the User Back in User Interface:

Guy Kawasaki: I'm Guy Kawasaki, and this is Remarkable People. We're on a mission to make you remarkable. Today is upper reunion day. I'm so happy to present someone from my checkered past. His name is Don Norman. He is currently a professor at UC San Diego, and he is the founding director of the design lab at UC San Diego. He has a diverse range of expertise, university professor, Apple executive, company advisor, author, speaker, and curmudgeon. He has contributed to many fields, including electrical, engineering, psychology, computer science, cognitive science, and last but certainly not least, design. For a time, he was my boss at Apple when I was an Apple fellow. I'm surprised he doesn't introduce himself that way.
Don is the author of one of the most influential books on design and usability called The Design of Everyday Things. He has a new book called Design for a Better World, How to Create a Meaningful, Sustainable, and Human-Centered Future.
Don, I have to tell you, I just remember working with you at Apple in just the fondest ways. Those were such fun times, although maybe retroactive and always more positive than when it was happening.
Don Norman: My experience at Apple, I forget how many years I was there, let's say six, something like that, I say those were five and a half years of my best experience in life. Five and a half out of the six. The last six months were hell.
Guy Kawasaki: Well, what happened in the last six months?
Don Norman: Well, you know what happened. First, I was there between Jobs. I got there just as Jobs left and when Jobs came back, he fired me. Now, that doesn't bother me because it was typical Jobs. He said, "What is that advanced technology group ever done for Apple? Get rid of it." That's what I was told. Because Jobs never spoke to me. And I said, "No, that's not what he should have said." He should have said, "The advanced technology group is wonderful. We've used a lot of the stuff that they've done right in today's machines. And not only that, I'm going to use some of the new stuff in, on the newest machines as they come out." And he did that.
But he should have then said, "We are really struggling. We're almost bankrupt. And this is a research group. And the one thing a company cannot afford when they're struggling like this is a research group." So he would've gotten rid of us, but we would've felt better. And when he got rid of us, all I did is I talked to my friend who ran the Microsoft research group, and I talked to my friend who ran IBM's research group, and all my people were hired within days.
Guy Kawasaki: Oh really?
Don Norman: And usually higher salaries and with bonuses. And I had a problem was that I wanted to write another book, but people kept trying to hire me and hire me, so I finally took a job just to set them up. But the real problem was that I went through a succession of CEOs from John Scully, who I really liked; the problem, he was bright, had good ideas, but he never understood what it took to run a company like this. Because he would call me in his office and he'd say, "Don, stop everything you're doing. I have this great idea."
And I would say, "John, you said that last week" and it was a great idea. This is even better. "Yeah, but John, your idea last week will take 200 people, two or three years. You can't change your mind every week. This is really hard stuff to produce." So John left, and then we had another person, and then another person, and then another person. And the last CEO, oh, I will tell you a story, but not on the air about that. But suddenly, I was no longer...
Guy Kawasaki: Oh, come on.
Don Norman: There was a C-suite of people, and I had the worst manager I've ever had in my life. I once tried to say, "Let me explain what we're doing, what we're trying to accomplish." And I was told, "I don't want to waste my time hearing all that stuff, just if you have a real problem, then come to me, otherwise don't come to me." What? And anyway, but Apple was a great company at the time, and I think it's lost a lot of its luster at this point. And the products have gotten harder and harder to use. And they've gotten prettier and sexier, but that doesn't make them easier to use. It makes them harder to repair.
This book, which you are, I presume, is wanting to talk about, Apple was one of the bad guys in this book because Apple makes products that cannot be repaired not easily, that have a lifetime of a couple of years, that when you throw them away because you can't really repair or upgrade it, you can't. It has very valuable materials inside, but you can't disassemble it in a way that makes it easy to reuse. And so we destroy the environment in mining to get those exotic materials, we destroy the environment in the factories, usually in China. They spew out fumes in the air and in the water and the ground, and we destroy the environment where we use it because of the electricity costs and the repair costs, and if we do get it repaired and we destroy the environment, or we throw them away because they can't be disassembled. Rough.
Guy Kawasaki: Madisun, as you can tell, it's very hard to get Don started on something. It takes a while for him to come out of his shell.
Don Norman: Introvert, I don't like talking much.
Guy Kawasaki: So wait, Don, let's back up. To this day, this is wearing maybe your previous hat, but to this day, I don't understand why companies get the human-centered design. We'll get the humanity design, but human design, why do they get it so wrong? What's so hard that they get it so wrong?
Don Norman: It is hard because people are hard. Because we have all sorts of pressures on us and all the people are different. And when we're trying to use something, we often have some goal in mind that maybe isn't what anybody thought I would want to do, and then I get interrupted, and then I have a new task, and then I have to do something else on the side. So, if you take a look at my computer system right now, I have a screen that's this big, like a meter, and it's 38 inches. And then I have another screen that's that big, and there's all sorts of stuff going on. And the systems really weren't designed for the activities that people do. So there is attention to making sure that any page can be understood and what everything does, but to understand the activities that I do, that's a different kind of design, and few people get it right.
So let me tell you about my new automobile. So I bought a new electric car, and it comes with a manual, 400 pages long, and who's going to read that manual? But not only that, but the manual doesn't tell me when you're driving, and you need to switch from full automation to, say, simply lane following, here's what you should do. Or when you come to a stoplight, and you put on the brakes, and that turns off the automation, so here's what you have to do to regain it.
No, they simply describe every single button and every single feature in a completely isolated way. So each of them really works quite well. It's a really sexy, neat car, but there's no cohesion. And it is if that each different division did each of these different things and then they threw it together without saying, "So suppose the guy's in traffic and it's raining and then his wife says, 'Can you change the music?'" How does this work when you really should be paying attention to the road? Because half that book of 400 pages is lawyer's warning saying, "Don't trust this system. Here's this wonderful system that does these wonderful things, but don't trust it." But it does do wonderful things. And my best experience as I was driving, again, with my wife, and it was very heavy traffic, and it was raining, and usually that makes me tense and nervous and I'm exhausted. But no, I just sat there, watched the road, and it kept the lane, and when you want to change lanes, you flip the turn signal, and it only changes lanes if it thinks it's safe to do it and the car can see better than I can because it has six cameras or seven cameras, including one that's watching me and it has radar, it has sonar, and it was really safe and relaxing. And guess what? I put on Android maps and on the right it says, "You want to play your favorite music?" And yeah, I played my favorite music. That's where the way it ought to be. But the system design is really hard. And in my book, I talk about this, I talk about the fact that there's this rule about measurement that says if you can't measure something, it means you don't understand it. And it was Lord Kelvin who said that.
And people keep saying, "See people in the science, in the psychological sciences, they're no good, they can't measure everything." But they forget what he said. He didn't say he had four words in front of it, he said, "In the physical sciences." And the physical sciences, look if I pick up something and I drop it, and I pick it up again, and I drop it, the fact that I dropped it once before doesn't change the way it falls a second time.
That's called path independence. People don't have that. Whatever I do to you affects what's going to happen the next instant. And that's what makes it so hard to design. In fact, I once argued that you can't ever make the perfect design because if you made the perfect design, people would use it in ways you'd never thought of. And then in those new ways, it wouldn't be perfect anymore.
Guy Kawasaki: But there's so many instances where I see how a product works, and my only conclusion is that no one at the company has actually used it. And I'll give you an example. So with my MacBook Air, it has two USBC ports, right? And I look at that and I said, "So am I the only person in the world who needs to have power connected plus a printer, plus a camera, plus a scanner?" How is it that nobody at Apple thought we need more than two ports? And I don't want to carry a dumbass dongle. So how did that decision get made to have only two USBC ports?
Don Norman: I want to remind you the first time Apple started at USBC, they only gave you one port. And I thought they said to themselves, "Oh, this one port is all you need because you can connect it to another display or you can connect it to a power supply or you can connect it to anything else you want." And right, but some people claim that that's because Apple makes money off all those dongles. They want to sell them to you. Yes.
Guy Kawasaki: Yeah, but I don't subscribe to the fact that Apple is sitting around in smoke field rooms plotting how you have to buy a twenty-nine-dollar dongle. I think it's worse than that. It's just lack of-
Don Norman: Actually, I agree with you. I think that because my experience at these companies is that the executives are actually smart, they have good motives, they have good intentions, but they are driven by profit. In fact, the Norman's Law is the day the product team is assembled, it's over its budget and behind schedule. And that's one of the problems because when you say, "Look, we need more time to look to go out and study what people are going to do with these new ideas so we can design it right," the product manager will usually say, "You are absolutely right, that's what we should do. But right now we can't cause we have to really meet the Christmas rush" or whatever is driving the sales.
And so it really makes it difficult to do things that require long-term thinking. So I've argued that you shouldn't make that part of the product cycle. There should be people always studying because if you're in a company, you know what they're going to make this sort of stuff, but it doesn't get done. And also, I think engineers who often drive these decisions, engineers and marketing people, why do we need these designers and these user experience? We're people, we understand people. No, no, you don't.
Guy Kawasaki: Okay. So let's get out of our past and move on to the transition from human-centered to humanity-centered. So first, let me ask you to explain the difference.
Don Norman: But first, the past determines the future. That's the whole point is our history. Those who don't know history are doomed to repeat it. No, that's not true. But those who don't know history don't learn from it. Because as I said, our behavior is heavily affected by our history. And human-centered design, which I helped develop, create, was basically aimed at the old model of what design was about. Design was about helping a company sell their products more and make more money.
And it started with the industrial revolution, where designers painted the pottery to make it look pretty so they could increase. Over the years, design became more and more important part of helping sell, but design was thought of as an accessory; it made things pretty attractive. And in the Second World War and afterwards in the electronic and then the computer revolution, it became harder to use stuff because when it was mechanical, you could look at it and figure it out; when it was electronic or computer based, whatever the whims of a programmer was at 2:00 AM to do something novel, is what caused it to work that way. And who knew what the person was doing?
And so it became harder and harder and hence the profession of let's study and let's actually look at people's activities and design for it. And that has caught on, and most companies use it, but most of the time, the people who do this stuff are in the middle layers of a company, and they don't have much say. And that's the problem with human-centered design. It's been effective in many ways, but it looks at what you have to do to make this product more understandable, more usable, more enjoyable. But look at today's world and look at the ecological crisis that we're in, and look at climate change. And a lot of that has to do with the way we manufacture things, and we manufacture things in ways that, as I said earlier, like diatribe, we have to mine for exotic materials which aren't really necessary.
We have to make the thing slim and small and lightweight. It has to be fused together, and it's either glued together or with tiny little secret screws like Apple users that require special tools to use. And we've taken it apart. Brian X. Chen, who's a technology reporter for the New York Times, told me how he tried out an Apple's new kit, which says you can repair it yourself, and in the process of trying to repair his phone using this kit, he actually broke more of it. And it's not easy to do. And I'm saying, "Look, the principles of human-centered design are focus on people. Make sure you solve the right problem. Realize that this is a system that's going to be connected to other things, and also realize we're designing for people. So don't just design it and forget it, but you have to have it built and try it out and redesign to make sure it's really working."
Those four principles are fine, but I want to expand them. This is a system, yes, but I want you to look at not the system of the computer and the desk at the work you're doing, but the system where I have to mine the materials, or I have to discard it, or I have to repair. I want a system that includes the environment, all living things because we're all coupled; we're all part of this system. And what affects other parts of the system affects us. It is a big circular feedback system. So I want to focus on what my product has to do, how it affects all of humanity. And I've been to India, and I've seen the kind of harm that these wastes of trash burning can do to a country. And why is that? So the other thing is that, instead of focusing upon people, again, we have to focus upon a larger group.
But that's basically the difference. But is it important? Very important difference, and it's going to be hard to implement. And so the next step is, there's something called the circular economy. And that is to say we should be able to manufacture something so that all the parts can be reused with no waste and companies are starting to do this, but it's hard.
So let me take a computer electronics company, doesn't matter what name, it's true of all of them. They make their money, they stay in existence by having to sell you new stuff every couple of years. Now I'm saying we have to stop that because that's leading to waste, but I don't want to destroy the company. And so we need a different model for the company to stay in business. So part of the problem of making these changes is, as you said, it's not that executives are greedy or nasty or evil, but they do after all want the company to stay in business. So how else can we stay in business if I can't sell you a new product every two years?
Guy Kawasaki: But this sounds like an intractable problem. Until we get an enlightened consumer base that highly values circular economy products, what's going to get us off this treadmill of buying a new MacBook Air every two or three years?
Don Norman: I only work on intractable problems because most important problems are the most difficult. Right? And so the reason I wrote this book is I said, "I've been spending my time making things better and easier to use and understand. And that's nice, but that's not going to change the world. And actually I do want to change the world because we are in a bad cycle. And yes, it seems intractable, but we know we've changed the world already." Many fundamental beliefs of people, the nature of sex and gender, whether two people of the same sex can get married, whether women are allowed to vote. How many years did it take to get women permission to vote? I think it took like a century. A hundred years or more. It's not even true yet, in all parts of the world. But that means yes, it's difficult to change, but it can be changed.
And yes, you need enlightened consumers, but you also need different business models that actually work. A friend of mine, Amory Lovins, who started what is called used to be the Rocky Mounted Institute, now it's RMI, said, "You can't convince a company to do something because it's good for the world. You might convince them and they might start, but as soon as it's an economic problem, they'll stop. So what you have to do is convince them that the way they're working is that is wasteful. That's smoke coming out of the factory or the stuff you're throwing away. That's money." So he says, "Let me show you how you can reduce that waste, save money, and also be good for the world." And that's my goal, actually, is to show that you will still be doing good for the world and you'll still be doing good for your company.
Guy Kawasaki: I, for one, Apple came out and said, "All right, so now we have more ports so that there's more flexibility. You can actually swap the CPU, you can add and subtract RAM." If you could do all these things, I would pay for that system. I'd pay for that flexibility so that when there's an M4 chip, I don't have to throw away my M3 chip MacBook Air. I'm willing to pay for that.
Don Norman: ...M4 chip. If everything went a little bit thicker, not much, a few millimeters thicker, then you could have a bigger battery. First of all, the battery would last longer, it wouldn't run out just when you needed it, and second of all, so you make it easier to open and take it apart and switch, change things. Yes. So I could still upgrade it. Now there'll be some point where there are too many changes, you can't upgrade it, fine. But again, it's easy to take apart and you could design it so that say, the case, the material - the easiest thing to recycle is metal. Because it can be remelted and it comes out just like new metal. So metal is really great. Metal and glass are the easiest things to recycle. And yeah, we could design things that were like that, that were expandable. And not only that but no, I'll sell you the stuff that makes it expandable.
Guy Kawasaki: Imagine if we could buy electric cars today that we knew when better batteries came out, we could just unplug the current batteries and put the next generation batteries in for it.
Don Norman: That's going to be hard, that's going to be hard because look at Tesla, which is actually very clever in the way they manufacture things. They're starting to say, "These big heavy batteries at the bottom of the car, we're going to make that part of the strength, the infrastructure that holds the car together." And so you can't just unplug the battery, and the batteries are very heavy as well. That's a problem. But yeah, there was an attempt earlier to recharge batteries by just unplugging the batteries, plugging in the new, already charged batteries. So in five minutes, you'd have a new, freshly charged car. That didn't work because it would require standardization of all across the automobile. And it was also too early in the days of EVs. But when I say it can't be done because what a good designer would say, "Come on Don, when you say something can't be done, that's a challenge to me. I'll show you how it can be done." So yeah, your idea is probably a good one.
Guy Kawasaki: Reading your book, I learned a new word, and I'm sixty-eight years old, I didn't think I could learn another word. But anyway, so I love this word. It's, hope I pronounce it right. Schismogenesis, right? What a great word. So-
Don Norman: In writing the book, I learned that word. I didn't know the word either. So I discovered it.
Guy Kawasaki: So just tell us, what is schismogenesis?
Don Norman: We're talking about different societies here, and what anthropologists were discovering was that you have two societies that basically live the same way, they hunt the same things, they eat the same things, and they're local really near each other. So they would assume that "Oh, these two different groups are going to be very similar in how they behave and what they do." But no, in fact, they became hostile to each other and they became very different because basically they wanted to show that they were different from this other group.
And so anything in the other group did, they said was bad and they did the opposite basically. And pretty soon, you had these two completely different groups, even though they all logically would say they should be actually be behaving and living the same way. And they gave this impossible name to that phenomenon. But I've seen this too that when people were arguing political issues; quite often, I don't think the people are that much in disagreement. They have slightly different points of view, but when they start arguing, they'll amplify the disagreements and make them seem much, much worse than they really are. And it's the same phenomenon.
Guy Kawasaki: And what can designers do to reduce schismogenesis?
Don Norman: Designers, I think, should have a lot of power because design is a way of thinking and are trying to get at the core problem. But no single profession is magical or can solve all the problems in the world. The lack of communication that we're finding between different peoples today in the political realm is a really difficult one to understand and to know how to change because it wasn't always like that. There always were people who understood that politics is actually an important part of life. It's when people have different opinions and usually it isn't so much they disagree in fundamentals often is that they have a different point of view.
And often, these different opinions from each of their point of view is correct. So how do you reach agreement? And so the answer is, you have to understand the other people's point of view, and you compromise. You're not going to get everything you want, but neither will they, but you can therefore move forward. That's how politics works in the best case. Now, how do we get back to that? I don't know. But we used to be there at least closer. Not never perfect, but closer. So I think we are in an anomaly today, and we should get back to the norm. And I think that's possible. Social media has not helped, I must say.
Guy Kawasaki: I had Leon Panetta on this show, and he said back in the old days, all members of Congress used to live in the same geographic area. So when you went to the softball game, whether you're a Democrat or Republican, your kids might be on the same team. And this led to conversations in the stands, but now everybody's off on their own thing, and there's none of this informal interaction, and that alone could help the schismogenesis that is Congress.
Don Norman: But let me actually say a positive word. If you actually look at today's Congress, for example, because what we read in the newspapers is all the conflicts and fights, but they've actually passed a fair amount of reasonable legislation where the two parties got together and passed the bills. So we have to be careful not to let what we see in the media distract us from reality that it isn't as if it's a complete stalemate and nothing is happening. It isn't that they meet every day and yell at each other. There are people working behind the scenes, and they're getting some stuff done.
And one of the other issues is we, for example, everyone agrees that the infrastructure in this country is broken. Everybody agrees that homelessness is a horrible problem in this country. There are disagreements about the solutions, but a lot of it also has to do with money. And it's not an unreasonable disagreement that there is a limit to how much money a country or an individual or family or a company can spend because otherwise you get outrageous inflation. Now, this is a very complex topic, so I'm going to stop here because I know the arguments on both sides of this. But when you talked about monetary policy, that is a difficult area and it doesn't necessarily divide up between Republicans and Democrats, different divisions.
Guy Kawasaki: Part of your book makes a case for the democratization of design so that more people can design stuff and be designers and do that function. And I think you make the case that if this were the case, then there would be more humanity-centered design. But I don't understand that. So if we have all these people designing stuff, how do we know they're going to align behind humanity-centered design as opposed to their personal human-centered design?
Don Norman: No.
Guy Kawasaki: Why democratization fix that?
Don Norman: That's not quite what I said. So let me explain. But making things for mass markets, I think the way we do it essentially is good. And I don't expect to change it, I want professional designers to design things, and I do want them to expand and think more about their impact on the world and the ecosystem. But essentially, it's okay. What I was talking about was when you go into design, "Oh my goodness, the people in South Africa or India or China or wherever you want to go or some remote location in the United States, oh they're suffering from this problem." So we send in the experts, and the experts study the problem and say, "Oh, I understand the problem and here's a solution." And then we go and spend a huge amount of money over a long amount of time because usually these are big projects that take billions of dollars and take a decade and they never work.
We spent billions and billions of dollars in foreign aid on just these kinds of tasks and problems coming from United Nations or as international groups or as countries or as foundations. And most of it doesn't work. And why? Because yes, the experts understand the issues, but they don't know the people and the resources of the people. And so it's the worst things of legalism. That is some other country comes in and says, "Oh, you can't govern yourself. We'll govern for you. Isn't that nice of us?" No, it isn't. People, society groups, don't like outsiders coming in and telling them what's good for them. So I'm saying the people who live in those communities, they know what their problems are; they don't need to send in the anthropologists. And not only that, but there are eight billion people in the world, and there are a lot of really intelligent people in the world and they probably have people already are trying to tackle their problems.
So why don't we not design for somebody, telling people what's good for them, why don't we look and find the really creative people and design with them? In other words, we want a design by the people. And I'm talking about not a device, but I'm talking about like a sewage system or sanitation or better education or better healthcare. How can we deal with taking advantage of what you already know? But you still need advice. And the professionals, the designers and others can be mentors and facilitators. And one problem often happens is that they are solving the symptoms of the problem. But unless you solve the underlying causes, those symptoms come back. But they don't have the resources to do that.
And so again, the outside people can help them by talking to the politicians, by maybe supplying funds, by being able to provide a more general background. So that's what I meant is design with people and by people. But this is for these larger societal issues, not for the kinds of products that you and I use every day.
Guy Kawasaki: One of the examples, my reaction would be, God forbid, we could actually learn something from other people, what a concept. And your book didn't go into detail, and I was just so fascinated about the negative aspects of air conditioning, and you cited something that was either Iran or Turkey, where they have a building that has very good temperature control, but not based on air conditioning. They did something with the design of the building, and can you just tell me more about that building? What made that building so great without air conditioning?
Don Norman: Well actually, many cultures have done this. Yes, India is another example of buildings like this. So when you don't have modern facilities, you don't have unlimited electricity and air conditioners, what do you do? First of all, you don't make a building with all sorts of windows facing the sun when you're living in a hot area. And second, you can actually have windows. But if you have an overlapping ledge and you design the building properly, it turns out that in the summer, the sun is higher up in the sky, and in the winter, the sun is lower in the sky. So with the proper ledge, guess what? In the summer, the sun doesn't shine into the windows. You are in the shade. And in the winter, the sun is lower in. And guess what? The sun shines through the windows. So first of all, you get the sun working in your favor, second of all, you use very thick walls, heavy walls. And because heavy walls, the big buildings that we built in the southwest, the Indians used to build, because they're so thick, they capture the heat. If in the summer, at night, they cool off. And so that coolness is there for the rest of the day. And in the winter, they heat up in the daytime, and they give you that heat in the summer at night.
Now there's another process called a wind tunnel. Basically, you want hot air to come into the bottom and go up through the middle of the building, and that automatically causes a breeze and causes the temperature to be uniform. And some of these buildings beneath the building, they have these big pits filled with water or whatever. But because that maintains its a constant temperature. And so again, the constant temperature makes you comfortable in the winter and comfortable in the summer.
The other thing you learn is that the best kind of cooling and heating is a heat pump. And electric heater is a hundred percent efficient because all the electricity is changing to heat. But a heat pump can be three or four hundred percent efficient because it takes the heat out of the air. Let me try this with water, you have water. In order to make it evaporate, you require to pump a whole bunch of heat into the water. And in order to take the air and make it back into liquid, you have to get rid of the heat. And so when you compress air to make it back into a liquid, guess what? It releases a lot of heat. That's how a refrigerator works. And that's how you could do a heat pump works. And heat pumps dramatically reduce the need for energy. So between better buildings, we got lazy in building buildings because we had, "Oh, we could always use electric power to heat and to cool." No, because electric power is polluting the earth because of the way we generate the electricity.
Guy Kawasaki: In the same sense, we got lazy with cheap oil, right?
Don Norman: It's easy. And we also thought the earth was inputted. It's so big. So I'd do some mining here. So what? It's just a small piece of the earth. We've been at it for hundreds of years now, and the earth is not unlimited. Wouldn't call it lazy. It was that we didn't look at the larger picture.
Guy Kawasaki: So Don, let's suppose that Joe Biden calls you up and says, "I read your book. I think we need to embrace humanity-centric design. I'm creating a new secretary of design position." So first question is, Don, do you take the secretary of design position? And second question is, assuming you would take it, what do you do?
Don Norman: I'm not going to take it because you said you were sixty-some-odd years of age. I am eighty-seven years of age, so it's not for me, and part of when I give talks on this book to people around the world and especially students, and sometimes they ask me questions like that, and I'll say, "I don't know the answer to that question." And that's good by the way because when I don't know the answer, it's because it's a really difficult problem and I don't believe anybody knows the answer. But you and I point at the students, "You are the answer because you are the ones who are actually going to have to live with these issues and I want you to be the ones who are thinking deeply about these issues and you are the people who will have to supply the answers." So I want a younger group of people to be part of this office of the Secretary of Design, but design is a field that is a way of thinking methods, but no substance, if you will.
And so designers are generalists. And what we have to do as designers is use all the specialized knowledge. And so I need this office to be populated by people from the different technologies, from the arts, from the sciences, from the engineering, from the humanities. The other thing is that we tended to populate it with technologists, but technologists don't understand people. And then I say, "Who understands people best? And everybody says, "Yes, social scientists and psychologists." No, the people who understand best are novelists because if you write a novel, you have to give a story in which you have real people doing real things where it sounds like it's really true. And, "Oh yeah, I recognize that person or that situation. So let's bring some novelists in as well."
Guy Kawasaki: That's a first, Don. I've never heard that theory, novelists?
Don Norman: They understand people because they're good observers. And that's one of the things I try to teach my students is to be good observers. As you go through life, watch other people, look at the things that are happening around you, and that's where you get your great ideas by just being curious. So here's my favorite novelist who actually attacks these problems. Kim Stanley Robinson, who writes these wonderful books where he actually delves deeply into what is going on inside people's minds and the kind of politics.
He has this wonderful series about Mars, Red Mars, Green Mars, Blue Mars, and in the United States, green is good. It turned out that in Mars, they decided red was good because red was the people who said, "We don't want to destroy Mars, we want to leave it the way it is." And the green Mars people are the ones who say, "No, we want to build an atmosphere, we want to grow plants so that we can live and survive." But he did a really good job of showing that even the people who started populating Mars got into these political fights, political divisions and couldn't agree upon things. And I just love his books. His latest book is The Ministry of the Future is all about the climate change problem.
Guy Kawasaki: I could make the case that Margaret Atwood definitely is being proven right?
Don Norman: There we go. It's the clever novelists who look at these issues who really do understand people.
Guy Kawasaki: Segue here, but I loved in your book how you discuss about the power of stories that these stories and stories of people and cases are very useful and illustrative. Okay, that's the good news. The bad news is, do you know who Daniel Simons is? University of Chicago? He did that famous video where he told people to watch the people in white t-shirts tossing balls to each other. And in the middle of that video, somebody-
Don Norman: The gorilla. It's the gorillas our age. Yes, of course I know it.
Guy Kawasaki: So he did that. His new book basically says that people are so focused on things that they ignore the other conditions. And I'll give you an example we can relate to very well, which is there's this line of thinking that Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates, and Steve Jobs didn't finish college, so if you want to be a great entrepreneur, you don't need college. Dan Simon's point is that yes, those three people didn't go to college and succeeded, but there's also another group of people who did go to college and succeeded, and there's other groups that didn't go to college and didn't succeed and didn't go to college and did succeed. But all we think about is Zuckerberg, Gates, and Jobs and so, telling stories, done incorrectly or without considering all the other boxes in the matrix, can be very misleading. So how do you balance the power of stories versus the power of stories to give you a very limited view of the world?
Don Norman: Here's another story which will answer your question. I say this is how decision-making seems to get done in big companies, and I've been one of the executives in just these kinds of situations. All the executives pile into the boardroom, and there's a fancy expensive wooden table with very comfortable seats around it, and we all sit down in those seats, and there around the edges, there are these wooden uncomfortable chairs, and that's where all the staff sits. And now, the team comes in to make a proposal about a new product, and they have PowerPoint slides, and they have Excel spreadsheets, and they tell you all the wonderful things, and they show you the profit that's going to be gained in the increased sales and all that stuff, and then they leave the room. Now the executives have to make up a decision. So they have all those numbers in front of them, and they have all the information, and they're saying, "Oh, I don't know." And they talk about this, that, and the other. And then somebody says, "My daughter came home from school the other day and she told me..."
Guy Kawasaki: I love this.
Don Norman: And she tells a story and the point is, then they make their decision after maybe a few people tell stories. But here's why: stories are not enough because stories get you into a particular situation, and you begin to understand the context, but there are millions of situations, billions of them. So a story is a very limited sample and it's exactly the kinds of problems you mentioned. You tell a few stories and you assume this applies to everybody. No, that's not true at all. But you have these numbers and you have these statistics and people have done whatever measurements or analyses they can make, but the problem with that is once you put that into numbers, into the graphs and diagrams, it's very abstract. It's reduced from reality. And so, I feel that what is important is the combination. The stories put some reality to the numbers, and the numbers, they'll expand to tell you about the impact on a larger population of people. So it isn't that stories alone are sufficient - you need the combination.
Guy Kawasaki: Okay, I knew you were going to say that. I love that story.
Don Norman: Yes, you're probably in that situation, both in the early days, sitting around those uncomfortable chairs, and then the later days in the comfortable chairs.
Guy Kawasaki: Oh yeah, I could just imagine Donald Trump saying, "My daughter Ivanka said..." and let's go from there. This is going to sound like a weird series of questions, but I understand the transition from human-centered to humanity-centered. But should we not question whether humanity is the center of the universe? Maybe the center of the universe is not humans. I think a lot of people think that the universe exists for humans, right? We're the center and everything is for us. But have you ever thought that maybe we're not the center of the universe and it's God or science or truth or something else and we're just a pawn in this system?
Don Norman: Sure. I think almost every thinking person has wondered about us and where we are, where do we stand in the world? And then, where does the world stand in the universe? For that matter, where does the universe stand in the galaxy, et cetera? But I think that yes, we can think about that, but if you look at what it is that we are capable of doing at this point in the development of human beings, the best we can do is take care of the world, the globe. And I believe that this requires us to really understand though that, again, this is a complex system where all living things like plants, animals, and the other classifications of life do impact human life and very much ourselves.
We have to take care of the environment and ourselves and what I call humanity. But humanity is not just human and not just alive things, but everything. I only have one word in a three-word phrase, humanity-centered design. Some people say, no, it should be planet-centered or it should be life-centered. You only have one word. One word is going to be wrong no matter what you choose, so I try to define it to be broad. But you're right, we're a part of a larger scope of things, but we can't modify that. We can modify the globe.
Guy Kawasaki: Could it be that there is a higher form of intelligence? And at extreme, I think that machines are going to be smarter than people really soon. And so, maybe we should let machines run the world. And so-
Don Norman: I don't agree.
Guy Kawasaki: ... this is a semi-facetious question, but if today you said to me, "Guy, you have a choice: you can either have Donald Trump be president or you could have ChatGPT 5 be president." I would pick ChatGPT 5.
Don Norman: I wouldn't.
Guy Kawasaki: What would you pick?
Don Norman: I wouldn't. Whether you like Trump or not, Trump had some of his ideas were good and in fact, are still being followed. ChatGPT though, GTP, what a horrible name. I actually tried to figure out what GTP stands for, and I do understand what it stands for, but I can never remember because it's invented words. The technologists inventing names. That's not the way to go. But it has no intelligence. It does not understand what it's doing. So you wanted to give some ethical values. No, it can't. Because ethics requires you to be able to sit back and think and have some knowledge and understanding about what's going on. People seem to forget that AI, the letter A stands for artificial. It's not human intelligence, it's artificial intelligence. And what it is capable of doing is stringing together stuff. But it can be nonsense because it has no way of knowing.
It has no understanding. In the old days, we used to have what we called good old-fashioned AI, which I actually was a part of. And we used to develop systems that had really deep understanding. The problem was that our computers were primitive, our tools were primitive, and we were doing this by hand coding, and you can't do that. And what is the breakthrough in artificial intelligence and neural networks is not the neural network. That was a small breakthrough, but the power of computers has gone up thousands of times, maybe even 10,000 or a hundred thousand. And that has allowed all sorts of things that weren't possible in those early days. But again, it's simply pattern matching. It's a very complex, sophisticated pattern matching, but has no understanding. And so I wouldn't want a world run by that because how does it learn what it's doing?
It learns by watching people and learning from people, and therefore it has all of the biases and ill-conceived notions of people. And so that's not good. Now, what I'm aiming for is collaboration, because actually even ChatGPT, the way it exists today, is a powerful tool. A friend of mine sent me a paper about using technology to help the elderly, et cetera. And I said, "Well, it's a twelve-page paper, and I didn't feel like spending my time and reading twelve pages. So I put it in Chat and I said, "Summarize it for me and given 200 words. And it did. And I sent him the summary, and I said, "This is actually a better abstract than the one that you have." And he said, "No, it is not a bad abstract, but it leaves out the most important points of our paper."
And I said, "Good, because that's what I'm hoping for. I'm hoping for collaboration." And when people write a paper, they hate to write the abstract. It's something the editor requires when they just do a quick job. But here, I can have Chat do the abstract and give it to you, and you say, "Oh, that isn't quite right." But when someone gives you something that's not quite right, you can fix it. It's much easier to fix it and make it better than it is to start from scratch and try to write it. And so there's a good way of collaborating, and I'm hoping that more and more people will learn that we can use these AI tools to make our lives better.
When calculators were first developed cheap enough that school kids could have it, the schools used to forbid you to use a calculator, not anymore, because I make mistakes in doing arithmetic and the calculator doesn't make mistakes. And even solving calculus problems, a calculator can solve the problem, but it can't conceive of the problem. My job is to conceive of the problem and what equations I need and then when I look at the solution that the computer gives me, I say, "Oh, that isn't what I wanted at all." So I must have framed it differently. And some of the design tools, and even with the Chat tools, when someone has won an art contest by painting that Chat did, it wasn't Chat, I'm sorry, it was one of the drawing programs, and they complained and he said, "No, no, no, no, it took me a month to do this. It was a collaboration. I could not have done that without the computer, but the computer could not have done it without me." And that's what I'm looking for. That two of us work together.
Guy Kawasaki: Since you mentioned this exercise of abstraction because of your book, I read that article about the art of muddling through, or that's the name of it, right?
Don Norman: Yep.
Guy Kawasaki: And Don, I got to tell you, oh my God, that is like 10,000 words of gibberish that if I could copy and paste that into ChatGPT and get the gist of it, it would've been very helpful. I'm not a dumb person, but man, you really had to struggle to read that damn...
Don Norman: That's a good idea. I should try that. I want to do the same with my manual of my car or 400 pages. I don't know how to put it into Chat, but I think that would be so wonderful where I could just ask, I'd say, "How do I change this scale on the map that you're showing me?" I could ask questions and Chat, I bet you, it could actually start to answer them. I think the paper that you read I feel was a very important paper, but it was written by an academic or an academic audience, and it uses a language of academics, and a lot of this stuff is really hard going. And it doesn't have to be that way, it's just the way that academics talk to one another, and they're used to it. So I'm not disagreeing with you, but I think there was a lot of good stuff in the paper. But yes.
Guy Kawasaki: Oh, I'm going to push back a little bit on ChatGPT, right? So I use it as a research assistant. I don't let it write for me, I don't want that. I don't need that. But it seems to me that I have a hard time believing that if ChatGPT or artificial intelligence would create a line of thinking or a body of laws that says it's rational and optimal to reduce LGBTQ rights, let's reduce women's rights. Let's stop the study of history and Black history and let's subsidize coal. Like, I refuse to believe that ChatGPT would do that, whereas Ron DeSantis will. So that's why I think ChatGPT should run the country. Now tell me why I'm nuts.
Don Norman: Look, five years ago, you would not have conceived of a ChatGPT. You wouldn't have believed that something could actually produce coherent material that you would say, "Wow, that's pretty impressive. And in fact, I couldn't distinguish it from something that somebody wrote." But what we have today is in its infancy, and I think it's really much too early to try to judge it and try to see what it really will be good at and what it won't be good at. We know some things it'll be good at that's already proven itself, but there's a lot we don't know. And I think that I complained earlier that it has no understanding, no deep understanding, and it's also not collaborative, and it's often been trained by human data, which is not what we need. But if you take a look at the way that these systems have learned to play games like chess and Go, they used to be trained by human data, but not anymore.
Now what they do is they train by playing against themselves and as a result, they have created all sorts of moves in chess and in Go that the experts never would've thought of. In fact, when they first make the move, the experts say, "Wow, the system is always stupid. Whoever would've made that stupid move?" And then except the system then ends up winning the game. And I think what's going to be happening more in the future as well, that we're not trapped by our past, but this thing can explore new ways. But also, there are people trying very hard to add some knowledge systems. And one of the ways of doing this is maybe go back to the good old-fashioned AI and try to add some of the lessons we learned there and add them to today's systems. And I think that the systems that we will see in ten years will be much more powerful and different than the ones we see today. And so it's really dangerous to extrapolate from what you see today to what we will see in the future.
Guy Kawasaki: Okay, I have a specific question here. I think the only example when you use the donut hole graphic was that every arrow was pointing out, which is bad, right? But there was one arrow that pointed back in which is the ozone hole. So what do we learn from the example that the ozone hole issue has been reversed? Like why can't we do that to climate change if we can do that to the ozone hole?
Don Norman: Yes, actually, there are many people who are saying just that. And the ozone hole, though was because it was mainly caused by hydrocarbons. It was the material that we use in refrigerators, Freon, and other gases that when it would leak either because of leaky pipes or because we threw away the refrigerator, the air, the Freon, escaped and so on, that was dangerous to the atmosphere. But it turned out there was a solution. There were other kinds of fluids that could be used in refrigeration that were not so dangerous. And so, here's where the laws are useful. So law often it can help because to force a company to change what they're doing, the companies don't want to do it. It costs money, and that will make them non-competitive. But there's a regulation and a law requiring them to do that, then all the companies have faced the same issues, so again, there's no problem about competitiveness, and that's what happened.
So what happened is there was a simple technical solution. It took a while, number of years, but the technical solution therefore got rid of the dangerous gases and replaced them with new gases that were much new liquids. It's a liquid gas combination that were much less dangerous. Now, can we find solutions in some of the other areas? Plastics is one of the great harm, and there are many people working a new type of biologically derived plastics that we believe will be less harmful. And again, there's a hope that we can actually turn around other things just like we did the ozone penetration.
Guy Kawasaki: So suppose a young person is listening to this and now is just fascinated with how design can change the world and make it a better place. Let's say this person is a senior in high school or a freshman in college, and he or she wants to ask you, "Don, so I believe, what do I do? How do I go about implementing your ideas?"
Don Norman: I welcome those people. I think that these are the people who are now in high school or even younger and in undergraduate schools who are going to be the future. So I'm trying to help. So first of all, I have a website. I have my own private website. It's called JND is a psychology term that means just noticeably And that's where I have my own notes and messages and things, writings, and when I talk about my books. But second, I have a new website. The book is Designed For a Better World. So the new website is, which is filled with resources. If you know about the book and you learn more, I'm trying to add into courses that says, "Here's, you can read more. Here are societies you might join. Here are organizations that are hiring, here are people working on this."
I'm still trying to increase the amount of information, but I want this to be a place people can go and find where they can learn more or do more. Or there are lots of student groups that are also working on these issues. You can join them. And so, that's one step. Second step, some friends of mine kept saying they wanted to make a design prize, the Don Norman Prize, and they were going to give it to some famous designer for doing good stuff. And I said, "No. First of all, I resisted it for a while calling it to Don Norman Prize. But second of all, I didn't want to give a prize to a famous well-known designer. It's too late. It won't change anything they're doing. And so I said, "Okay, let's do it. But let's give it to a young early career professional who has a notion, but I'm not going to give the prize for the notion..." Too many designers win prizes for doing beautiful concepts, and they win awards, and they get contests, but it actually, it never works in the world. So I want somebody to have this great idea, and they build enough of it and try it out enough that we can see this has great potential, and we can therefore bring attention to the young entrepreneurs that are actually doing something in the real world that might make a difference. Because over time, I'm trying to raise enough money that we might be able to give, say, five prizes of $50,000 a piece for five, and in two years, that would be ten. And in ten years that would be fifty.
And then I also want to have a conference that goes along with it where all the people working on these issues could come together and share their ideas. And I think this could make a difference. And I have an advisory committee that's helping me, we're in the process of trying to raise efficient funds to make this work. But again, it's a way of incentivizing the young people to go off and do great things because an award like this early in the career can be life-changing.
Guy Kawasaki: Do you think that guy who created the system to gather plastic floating on oceans, he's actually doing it? Is that the kind of thing that might win?
Don Norman: Yes, I think it is. There are a number of examples I know of people who are doing things. Like in India, there are people who have taken garbage and stuff that we couldn't be recycled, but they built these monstrous machines. You throw it in it and it compresses it and makes it into blocks, building blocks that you actually can then use to make buildings. So yes, these are the sorts of things, but I want it to be not from people with lots of money behind them already, I want it to be when people were just struggling to get their ideas out because that's the people who need the encouragement the most.
Guy Kawasaki: Okay, so this is my last comments last question. Okay? So you know how the NRA has a scorecard for politicians, and basically all the Republicans get A's, and all the Democrats flunk? So I think you should do a Don Norman's scorecard slash grading system where you give companies a grade for the degree of Humanity-centered design.
Don Norman: Why don't we make it the Don and Guy system? Or the Guy and Don system? Actually, it could be the, it's either Guy or Don, that's God, G-O-D.
Guy Kawasaki: But wouldn't that be a good thing to recognize companies who are doing it, and Apple might get a C plus, right? Because nothing is upgradable or repairable.
Don Norman: So I think that there are existing systems to rate them. They're not well. But for example, Patagonia gets scores very high on this that they really made this part of their plan. First of all, they're B Corp, which is therefore the B Corp as opposed to a C corporation is one that's not out to make profit, is out there to do good for the world and they really live up to that. But that's a very specialized sporting goods companies so we need other companies that do this.
But other large companies, a few of them have said that's what they're doing. You have to be careful that what they say they're doing has to be tested. Because a lot of them say they're doing things and they're not. But yes, I think this would be a good thing to do. I don't think I have the resources to do it, but maybe Guy and Don could partner together. After all, you have a very big network of people that listen to your podcasts and pay attention to what you say. You are an evangelist, actually. You've been in your career since you were at Apple. You were one of Apple's first evangelists. So how did you become an evangelist for the good of humanity?
Guy Kawasaki: I believe that, yeah. You know how you said you're eighty-seven and you don't want to be Secretary of Design. I'm sixty-eight, and I feel the same way about a lot of these things.
Don Norman: But the other way of doing it is just like I do is you call upon the network of people that you know, which is a rich and impressive network.
Guy Kawasaki: Yep, absolutely. It's been a real pleasure. I hope it's not another few years before we interact again. This has been just delightful. So thank You very much.
Don Norman: It's been good to see you, it's been a long time since the audience may not know this...
Guy Kawasaki: You live in San Diego?
Don Norman: Guy used to report to me when we were at Apple, except I gave up on him.
Guy Kawasaki: That's right.
Don Norman: Oh, Guy. Because I was vice president of Advanced Technology and Guy was a really great marketing person, who was an evangelist, as I said, that wasn't what we were doing. And so I said, "You're doing great stuff, but you really should be working for someone else, like in marketing or some other area where who really focused on your kinds of talents." And so that's actually what I think is good about the companies where you when... I wanted to say, I like Guy, I think you're doing great work, but it doesn't fit my requirements, so I'm not going to fire you. I'm going to say, "Let's find a place where you are better matched."
Guy Kawasaki: Those were the days, Don. Those were the days.
Don Norman: Yeah, they were the days.
Guy Kawasaki: That's it for today's podcast on the life and work of Don Norman. We hope you enjoyed hearing about his diverse range of roles, contributions to various fields, and influential books on design and usability. Don's impact on technology is undeniable, and his ideas about usability and design continue to influence products today. In fact, I wish his ideas would influence products even more today. But let's not go down that rat hole at the end of a podcast. There's no doubt that he has left an indelible mark on the world of design and technology. Maybe he will inspire you to do the same.
I'm Guy Kawasaki. This is Remarkable People, and now I want to thank the Remarkable People team: Peg Fitzpatrick, Jeff Sieh, Shannon Hernandez, Alexis Nishimoto, Luis Magana, and Madisun Nuismer. Until next time, mahalo and aloha. Can you tell this is the fourth recording I made this afternoon?