[EAS] Ignore Your Customers Sometimes

Peter J. Kindlmann pjk at design.eng.yale.edu
Thu Aug 4 03:52:13 EDT 2005

(INNOVATION, 3 August 2005)

       Usability and design guru Don Norman has come up with an
iconoclastic  notion -- the customer isn't always right, and
sometimes the difference between good design and great design boils
down to ignoring customer feedback: "Great design, I contend, comes
from breaking the rules, by ignoring the generally accepted
practices, by pushing forward with a clear concept of the end
result, no matter what. This ego-centric, vision-directed design
results in both great successes and great failures. If you want
great rather than good, this is what you must do." Norman notes
that some companies who've spent too much time paying attention to
the customer (Human-Centered Design) end up making products that
work well for a small group of individuals, but at the expense of
future users. "Design  for the individual of today, and the design
will be wrong tomorrow."  Activity-Centered Design, on the other
hand, focuses on devising a cohesive, well-articulated solution to
the task at hand, including the sequential requirements of the
underlying activities that accompany it.  Norman cites companies
like Southwest Airlines that has successfully ignored customer
feedback in order to focus on its major strategic advantage --
inexpensive, reliable transportation. Passengers complain  about
open seating, but they still prefer the airline. Norman warns: "The
'listen to your users' produces incoherent designs. The 'ignore your
users' can produce horror stories, unless the person in charge has
a clear vision  for the product, what I have called the 'Conceptual
Model.' The person in  charge must follow that vision and not be
afraid to ignore findings. Yes, listen to customers, but don't
always do what they say." (Interactions  Jul-Aug 2005)

Donald Norman first gained wide recognition among designers and
engineers with his 1988 book "The Psychology of Everyday Things."
Later it was re-issued as "The Design of Everyday Things," because
the publisher felt that "psychology" was too challenging a word for
the buying public, particularly business executives.

The world of that first book had much bad design, but recognizable
as such with Norman's teaching. His goal was to develop and champion
the user's good sense. It would be better to say the "customer's"
good sense. If you think about it, adjectives like "demanding,"
"discriminating" and especially "tough" work much better with
"customer" than with "user." Who ever heard of a "tough user"?

Alas, bad and unnecessary design has gathered pace in the present
day in myriad forms, alluring, byzantine and incomprehensible. No
longer considered educatable to become an informed participant, the
customer spoken of here has become a user, a Caspar Milquetoast,
humored but not considered qualified to contribute to the improvement
of his surroundings. Oh brave new world that has such Donald Normans
in it. --PJK

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