There Is No Cat

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Thursday, March 11, 2004

Nasty or nice?

The very first paragraph of The Guardian's interview today with user interface guru Don Norman states that "he was a sort of Nasty Norman, the academic who told you why your product was bad. Now he's become Nice Norman, who smiles and tells you how great everything is." Which is interesting. Back in the good old days, when the economy was creating jobs rather than destroying them, the company I worked for thought it was a good idea to periodically pay to have me learn how to do my job better and sent me to a couple of CHI conferences about human factors in computers. At the second conference I attended, there was a session where Don Norman was on the stage with two other people to debate something or other. I have a tremendous amount of respect for Dr. Norman, having read two of his books and explored the fantastic and charming CD-ROM he did based on them for Voyager some years ago. But he was so obnoxious during that session that I almost walked out. The other "expert" on the stage and the moderator could barely get a word in edgewise while Norman stepped all over whatever they said. So if this change that The Guardian notes extends to his interactions with his peers, I'd say it's a welcome change.

His new book, Emotional Design, sounds interesting based on the article (not surprising, given that I liked his other books). The book is about how to go beyond usability, to make products that have beautiful form as well as great functionality. Given the reputation of his company, Nielsen/Norman Group, that's a bit of a twist. But it's not surprising. Norman uses the example of the 1961 Jaguar, a car that people buy because it brings them joy, not because of how well it works. In my own life, I see this in the example of two shortwave radios I own. I have a Drake R8, which I describe as the Toyota Camry of shortwave radios. It's fairly large, solid, and a decent performer that just keeps chugging along. I don't use it much. Then there's my AOR AR-7030 Plus, a quirky, difficult-to-operate, temperamental radio that I just spent a small fortune to ship back to England to fix. I describe it as the Triumph Spitfire of shortwave radios. But it's a blast to operate once you get the hang of the controls. I had resisted buying Norman's new book because of the bad taste in my mouth from that conference lo! these many years ago, but I think I'm going to have to get it now.

Incidentally, I drive a Toyota Camry, not a 1961 Jaguar. It's nice to know there's room for the inspiring product and the reliable but stodgy performer. It's even nicer to see a leading light in the usability world recognize that.

Posted at 4:51 AM


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What do you mean there is no cat?

"You see, wire telegraph is a kind of a very, very long cat. You pull his tail in New York and his head is meowing in Los Angeles. Do you understand this? And radio operates exactly the same way: you send signals here, they receive them there. The only difference is that there is no cat."

- Albert Einstein, explaining radio

There used to be a cat

[ photo of Mischief, a black and white cat ]

Mischief, 1988 - December 20, 2003

[ photo of Sylvester, a black and white cat ]

Sylvester (the Dorito Fiend), who died at Thanksgiving, 2000.


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