Don Norman  

“The Don” Reveals All: Part 3

November 28th, 2004 by Don Norman :: see related comic

What are your favorite top 15 most important usability principles? Feel free to cite sources and canons to support your answer.

The most important consulting rule that I follow is: “Never solve the problem as stated.” Why? because it is invariably the wrong problem, usually being the symptom rather than the cause. Find the root cause and solve that, and then the original problem usually disappears.

I intend to follow that rule right now.> I’ve always wondered if the person who designed the first car with the steering wheel on the right hand side was a left handed person. What is your view on that one? Which one is the right (correct) side?!?

Well, first of all, let’s get our facts straight. As I have said before, bad questions deserve bad answers. What make you think the first cars to drive on the left — or right — had steering wheels? Steering wheels didn’t show up until around 1904. Not only that, but your question is ambiguous because there are two issues here: which side of the road do you wish to drive on, and given that decision, which side of the car would you sit on?

Why do you think the side of the road came about with automobiles? Horses were told to stick to the left going over London bridge (not the bridge that moved to Arizona) in 1756. The general Highways act of 1773 in Britain applied the rule to the entire country. And although I have looked hard, I do not see any steering wheels on horses. Napoleon made his troops keep to the right.

Most early cars had the divers sit in the middle, a practice that makes great sense to me. This way, you can separate those fighting kids — put one on your left, one on your right. When I lived in England, I drove a left-hand drive car and drove on the left, I found it superior because I could avoid all those drainage ditches in the Cambridge roads. And because all the oncoming driers were scared out of their minds when they saw me coming, they all made sure to keep a huge distance between our cars.

The Wikipedia says:

> “Most early motor cars had the drivers seat in the middle. Later some manufacturers chose to have the driver’s seat nearest the centre of the road in order to look out for oncoming traffic whilst others chose to put the seat on the other side so that the drivers could avoid damaging their vehicles on walls, hedges, roadside gutters and other obstacles. Eventually the former idea prevailed.” (

Folklore says it all has to do with swords and lances and yes, if the folks carrying them were right-handed (and everyone was right handed — left-handedness is a modern invention. In earlier times it wasn’t allowed (this is the “just say no” philosophy applied to genetics), they wanted to be on the left to free up their sword hand. Unless they were jousting, in which case they drove on the right to position the lance better. And even if you drive on the left or right, it isn’t clear where to sit, although there isn’t much choice when you are on a horse.

So anyway, it’s all a big muddle. and it has to do with history and folklore and stuff that nobody ever gets right, which is a good thing if you make your living as a historian: you can always make living disagreeing with the previous folks.

(If you want a serious essay, try But that won’t make you any wiser.)

> Dear Dr. Norman;

> I note that you have researched human memory, attention, learning, and design. As a grad student in Design, Housing & Apparel at the University of Minnesota, I am holding your new book <> in my hands. It closely relates to my thesis. My questions…

> Tell me why is emotional design important for you, and for education and learning?

> How does emotional design impact Multimedia and Instructional Design (it clearly impacts its audience)?

> Can higher levels of learning and problem-solving be achieved with electronic tools? Or as Jonassen (2000) “Toward a design theory of problem solving” says, are design problems (which he says are ill-structured) “uniquely human interpersonal activities”?

Ever see an unhappy student, bored, distracted, annoyed. Or fearful, anxious, stressed out. Do you think they are learning? Of course emotion (and motivation) matters for education and learning.

We expert teachers know that motivation and emotional impact are what matter. Sure, one can always get the students to relax and be happy — entertained, but although being laid back and relax can also lead to creativity, mostly it means that nothing much gets done. There is a good reason for the oft-made observation that the most productive people are unhappy people.

So what does a good teacher do? Create tension– but just the right amount. Give assignments with strict due-dates and penalties for missing them. Does this create stress? Of course, but the kind that makes you work the evening before and get the job done.

Ever notice that it doesn’t really matter how much time you are given on a project? You do the work the night before — that’s when the stress hits its peak: do it or die.

In fact, you know those wonderful lectures that are perfectly clear - crystal clear? Bad. No pain, no gain works for all muscles, including the one between our ears. You gotta sweat a bit to learn. Learning works best when you struggle, but struggle at just right level: too little and you don’t learn, too much and you give up.

While I’m at it, I hate teachers who are always perfect. They practice the night before so they won’t make a mistake in class (this is especially true of mathematics and computer science profs). This is bad teaching. Students then think that if they have difficulties,they aren’t doing it right, or worse, aren’t fit to learn math or programming. Teachers ought to do each problem cold - no preparation. Show the class that they make mistakes all the time. Struggle, go off in the wrong direction. Make a mistake? So what - simply try again, with a different approach. We all make mistakes. Even bored certified Gurus. Find the mistake and fix it: no big deal.

(You figure out where the comma goes — “bored, certified Gurus” or “bored certified, Gurus,” or bored-certified Gurus.” Eat shoots and leaves. (Inside joke.))

I follow what I preach. You won’t catch me giving clear lectures. AS for all those mistakes I make — they are on purpose — to teach you how to deal with them. Just remember that: it’s all for your own good.

You also ask:

> Can higher levels of learning and problem-solving be achieved with electronic tools? Or as Jonassen (2000) “Toward a design theory of problem solving” says, are design problems (which he says are ill-structured) “uniquely human interpersonal activities”?

Now it sounds as if you want me to write your thesis for you., Shame on you. But here are some hints. Question one: Yes (because it is, to coin a phrase, “Things that make us smart”) . Question two, Yes, so?

By the way, what has all this got to do with apparel and multimedia? What does multimedia have to do with apparel? Ah, I get it, wearable technology: “he wore his screen on his sleeve.”

> Dear Don,

> Inspired by some of your comments on aesthetics and emotion in design I have been thinking about its application to relationships; here are some thoughts:

> Are people more tolerant of attractive partners? Do we overlook defects? Do we put up with more errors than we would do with similar less attractive models?

> Do people expect attractive people to be dumber? I recall a national radio show had a phone-in about the correlation between attractiveness and cleverness in the female of the species, which I presume applies to males as well if indeed it does hold true (professors being the exception to this rule of course!) – the usability equivalent may be people like my grandparents that shy away from flash, new technology as they don’t think they’ll be able to use it (i.e. it’s less useable than the plain stuff).

> Is there a utility model for relationships? Attractiveness + Cleverness + Wealth + X + Y = Z

Stop reading. Go to the nearest therapist. You are in severe trouble and need immediate counseling.

> Is there some sort of heuristic review we could devise to help people find their perfect match, or flaws in their partner that could be improved?

> As a business case we might also look at the evolution of technology!! – those people/items with the greatest utility score will be more successful and have their genes/blueprints passed down to other generations of successful people/designs. As with nature, sometimes looks and brawn outweigh brains in a partner’s selection.

> The field of HCI is ever expanding – is it time for us to move into relationship management, design, review and maintenance?

I mean it: Stop reading. Run, don’t walk, to the nearest therapist.

_When “The Don” is being serious, he can be found at Ask him questions at: . Also check out a full list of “The Don” Reveals All._

5 Responses to ““The Don” Reveals All: Part 3”
X wrote:

Panda waddles into a bar. Eats shoots and leaves. I often hear this joke retold with the wrong verb. I also eat leaves, so one can imagine how I react. I was surprised, however, that the premise of asking the question which should’ve been asked in place of the actual asked question didn’t prompt a certain number’s emergence. I suppose we’ll be waiting another 10 mill for that one.

Oluseyi wrote:

Throw a comma in there (”Eats, shoots and leaves”) and realize why the phrase is the title of a book on punctuation.

Moi wrote:

An extra comma makes the punchline to the joke about Pandas being bad lovers. “Because he…”.

sanket wrote:

What is your opinion on outsourcing lot of software/ UI work to India? and Indian usability practioners doing work for an american and european products??

Oli wrote:

I thought they ate roots, shoots and leaves? At least that’s the way the bad joke goes regarding Kiwis in New Zealand (’to root’ being a verb with different connotations than it has for Americans ;-)

Keep ‘em coming Don!

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