Emotions run high for 'Knute Rockne of tech'

January 5, 2004


This is an emotional week. The holidays are over. It's time to go back to work. In the technology business, it's time to count up wins and losses and make plans for the future. As tech execs search for answers, the calls begin to Chicago's Don Norman and his Nielsen Norman Group. Norman, 67, is professor of computer science and psychology at Northwestern University. He is to the world of technology product design what Knute Rockne was to football. He's a coach showing us new ways of playing the game. And Norman is changing the world of product design right here in Chicago without fanfare or celebrity.

This is also the week that Norman's latest book, Emotional Design: Why We Love (or Hate) Everyday Things from Basic Books hits the stores.

To understand Norman's work, think of the old Tina Turner song, "What's Love Got To Do With It?" When it comes to creating successful technology products and services, the answer according to Norman is: plenty.

The emotional appeal

Products that appeal to our emotions are more likely to succeed. Yet, too often, the engineers who create the technology products and the finance wizards who run the technology companies forget there's more than logic involved in the purchase decision. It's about emotion and feeling.

"There's a strong emotional component how products are designed and put to use," Norman argues. "The emotional side of design may be more critical to a product's success than its practical elements."

Consider the NFL headset created by Chicago design firm Herbst LaZar Bell for Motorola. That's the one you see on national television sporting the Motorola logo atop the heads of NFL coaches. It's given Motorola great visibility. What made the headset successful? According to Norman it's an understanding of the emotional side.

"Coaches are the leaders of a large, active team," Norman observes. "Football players are among the most muscular in sports. The headset had to be muscular itself to convey the image of a coach in charge of things."

Coaches had to want to wear the headset. It had to feel right to them. Lighter weight designs were possible, but the winning design "was cool, functioned well, serves as an effective advertising tool and enhances the self image of the coaches," Norman says.

Well, the headset might not have helped Bear's coach Dick Jauron keep his job, but we get Norman's point.

Norman's recent comments about robots are stirring up a heap of strong emotions. He wants to program emotions into a new generation of autonomous machines. "Emotions are essential to human functioning," Norman tells me. "If we're going to have autonomous machines, they will need a form of emotion. As soon as I start saying that -- voom, people get upset."

Arousing visions of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Terminator movies, Norman recently told New Yorker magazine that "Our emotions protect us, guide us and make us inquisitive. Robots will need the same kind of equipment. And robots need to display their emotions so that humans will be able to tell at a glance what's going on inside them."

Then in Scientific American he said, "Machines should have emotions for the same reason people do: to keep them safe, make them curious and to help them learn."

Computer scientists are able to build basic emotions into machines right now.

While Norman's comments about robotic emotions are provocative, his thoughts about the local technology design scene are equally passionate.

Chicago at the center

"Chicago is the center of expertise in product design, but isn't known for it," he laments. He points to the work of world class design firms like Herbst LaZar Bell and IDEO that have major offices here. He serves as a trustee at the Institute of Design at IIT, which he says is "one of the major design schools in the world at understanding user needs."

Plus Norman's building new programs at Northwestern University's Engineering School. "Engineers build things that get used by people," he says. "They must understand people's emotions if they're going to do a successful job."

Now there's a novel thought from the City of Big Shoulders.

Michael Krauss is a Chicago based tech writer and consultant, and senior vice president for Hostway Corp., Chicago.



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