Don Norman's thoughts on designing for the digital age

Maria Lumiaho • Service Design Lead

Adopting a human-centered design approach is more important these days than ever before. Digital services are becoming a key customer touch point for many companies and there is a need to approach the design of digital services in a new way. Great digital services are now built on two–way dialogue, they are social, they allow for customisation and the have integrated analytics and user feedback mechanisms.

As part of the NordicCHI 2014 held in Helsinki, three Futurice designers (Anton Schubert, Maria Kulse and Anna Kolehmainen) had the wonderful opportunity to meet one of the design icons of our times, Mr. Donald Arthur ‘Don’ Norman, author of Emotional Design and Living with Complexity.  

We started drawing our thoughts, and so did Don!​ We started drawing our thoughts, and so did Don!​

The two main topics covered in this 1 hour long session were:

  1. How to do user-centered design in this new digital (social) age?
  2. How can companies adapt to this rate of change and can Futurice's "Lean Service Creation" way of working offer a solution in this rapidly changing environment?

Part 1: Let’s talk about about the digital revolution – or rather the social revolution – and the role of user centred design

The creation of products and services has been turned on its head. Long gone are the days when companies had all the best ideas and created products and services for ‘consumers’ to consume. The consumer has shaken off its forced title to assume the role of the creator leaving big companies wondering about their role in all of this. Many of the old world industries are desperate. Don agrees and then adds that the real revolution isn’t necessarily the fact that it’s digital, it’s a “lot more about accessibility”. 

He continues, “take the example of the DJ”. (I secretly believe Don is a passionate DJ himself, knowing so much about this? He only smiles.) The music industry has been putting together bands, been packing them up, controlling their distribution and the eventual ‘consumption’. DJ’s however, they use what others have already made to create something entirely new of their own. For DJ’s their turntables are their instruments, the music they make is their creation: new music. They have become the creators, making use of the abundant and readily accessible content. 

Above all, “it’s a social revolution”, Don says, “since the production comes from people, they directly share and people go back and forth between each other”, they make the music and they even ship the music to each other! We see the same happening in similar industries, the creative arts, journalism, writing, publishing, both fiction and non-fiction. The central thing is no one knows how this is working — we still need musicians and journalists but do we need the distributors? What becomes clear is that companies don’t want to give up the control because they feel they will become obsolete and die (“correct, they will die!”) and they are trying to disrupt this model of sharing and creating. 

The current level of sharing is unprecedented  —  it’s actually not really a digital revolution, it's about, sharing, dialogue, creation, it's social. Never in the history of our planet have we connected with each other this much. Digital has not only enabled this but in itself has become the most important and preferred medium for this dialogue. 

"DJ’s are as creative as any musician”, Don argues, but the major issue is the question of payment. Everyone has become a producer and a consumer, and big companies want to patent and to control. The power however, lies within the fact that every person’s creativity can be copied by another. 

So, in all of this, where does the user-centered design (UCD) process fit in — where can it be best used? If we all have become creators, is UCD dead? Let’s take a look at those turntables — the tools that enable the creation of this new music. How does one distribute the results? “This is a user-centered design problem”, Don argues. And how do we find music for instance on youtube? It’s in social networks, where people talk about it and where the links are being shared — and designing for this ecosystem and distribution is where UCD is needed. It’s needed to define the focus.

Don: “[The big companies] have one advantage. When they decide to pack a band, they could pack the stores and the radio and TV programmes with that music — well that’s gone.” However, “we still need ways to find out what’s new and hot. For that help from UCD is needed."

Don’s drawing of the social creation of music.​ Don’s drawing of the social creation of music.​

Part 2: How do we respond to this (rate of) change?

In order for companies to stay competitive, they have to adapt to these new ways of creation, but often struggle to do so. 

Building briefs — that’s what companies used to be good at, but the briefs were not solving the real problems. The British Design Council calls this process the ‘double diamond’ — Futurice calls it 'Finding a Problem Worth Solving'. The clients know they need to do something digital, but are not really sure what it is or more importantly for whom? They know they need to transform but just don’t know how and are often too fearful. 

Lean Service Creation (LSC) is a way of working pioneered at Futurice. This way of working is a approach that answers to the challenges facing many companies in this digital age. At its core is a multi-disciplinary team that includes business, design and technology expertise plus client experts and end users. This team works together early in the process through a number of Service Vision Sprints (SVS) to define a Service Vision (SV) together with the client. 

Only once the initial hypothesis and assumptions have been evaluated does 'Tweaking and Scaling' occur with confidence. Lean Service Creation combines Design Thinking and Agile development with a startup mindset. It naturally includes many of the UCD methodologies, tools and principles.

Futurice's Lean Service Creation Model, Don’s annotations and his beautiful drawing of the double diamond.​​ Futurice's Lean Service Creation Model, Don’s annotations and his beautiful drawing of the double diamond.​​

Allowing for changes; designing change into the process – “the sooner one can do it, the better”, Don agrees; “this is consistent”. Clients still come with a brief, or not, but it doesn’t even matter, it’s the same, because the brief is not what they want to do anyway. The process still applies. 

Don: “The brief is merely a description of the problem they have today. And it’s wrong to solve it, cause it’s really a symptom.”

Even though companies realise what they need to do and how they should work, there are two main issues that prevent change: culture and organisation. It’s like trying to fit a square peg in a round whole. Companies do realise it’s the viable thing to do, and yet they seem unable to adapt. They typically have 3-5 year innovation processes and it’s very hard to get it to work. 

“In the end, really it’s all about the people in the organisation”, Don explains. We have all these wonderful models and ways of working. However, the larger the organisation, the harder it gets. They often love what [you do], you discuss, but they are slow: “Most of the time it’s waiting for the next damn meeting!” says Don. So the question is, how are the big companies going to survive?

Don: “They are not. They are just prolonging their death. It’s the startups [that will survive].”

The startups do not have these slow processes; they can easily leapfrog the big companies. Startups are already taking over, in the music industry, the publishing industry, amongst many others. 

Don continues, there are fundamental challenges due to the sheer size of those companies. Innovation cycles take months and decisions are hard to reach. The only way to survive for them is by designing for change; continuous change. This makes the process messy, and difficult. But life indeed is complex and messy, so maybe, he concludes, “it was [all] meant to be that way in the first place.”

Warm thank you to Don for making it to cold, cold Helsinki. Kiitos!​ Warm thank you to Don for making it to cold, cold Helsinki. Kiitos!​

It was an absolute pleasure meeting Don. We feel honoured to have spent such valuable time with him discussing topics so close to our hearts. This is why we love what we do – Don you have been an inspiration to us all.

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