Q&A with Don Norman, Northwestern University

cofounder of the Nielsen Norman Group, and former vice president of Apple Computer. 2/05/2008 8:55 PM Eastern

Q&A with Don Norman, Northwestern University

cofounder of the Nielsen Norman Group, and former vice president of Apple Computer.

Don Norman

PRO AV: In your appearance on “60 Minutes” last year, you discussed having to hire the Best Buy “Geek Squad” to set up your television, despite your technical expertise. Is consumer technology too complicated for the average buyer?

NORMAN: Absolutely. And the fault lies with the manufacturers. The standardized remotes that allow you to control every device have become database collections of hidden IR codes. I have remote controls from the same manufacturer that are incompatible with each other. What we need is a set of standards — one set of standards. The problem today is that many people are aware of these difficulties, so we have a large number of different standards to solve the problem. A large number of standards is not a standard.

PRO AV: How do you think we came to this point?

NORMAN: On the whole, the manufacturers of these components have very little interest in making it easy for the consumer. They have interest in long lists of technical features, some interest in the physical appearance, and very little interest in the life of the consumer.

PRO AV: Have the manufacturers not learned anything from the flashing 12 o'clock displays of the old VHS players?

NORMAN: They have not learned anything. In fact, the correct way to solve the problem of programming a VCR is to make it unnecessary. Someone recently said to me, “Isn't it bizarre that his new HDTV requires him to manually set the clock even though the TV stations are required to send the time out every second?” That's an excellent point.

PRO AV: What is the solution for over-complicated equipment?

NORMAN: I'm bullish on geekdom. The future is great for someone who can devise the home assistance program that you can subscribe to. A company that will come and visit your home, set up your AV equipment, keep it up to date, maintain it as changes happen, and while they're at it, also take care of your Internet networks and computer systems. That's a really great opportunity for a business. That may be the solution.

PRO AV: What role did you play in helping to set the technical standards for high-definition television?

NORMAN: The computer companies wanted really high quality images, but the TV manufacturers and broadcasters didn't really care about that. I was the representative from Apple Computer and was locked in this lawyer's office in D.C. by the FCC with representatives of computer companies, the movie industry, the broadcasters, and the manufacturers. It was a weird negotiation, but the result was a compromise that ended up with about 16 different standards, which is today's measure. We agreed upon two high-definition signals: 720p and 1080i. We would have preferred 1080p, but we just didn't think it was possible. Today it looks like it is actually possible.

PRO AV: What do you think the future holds for HDTV?

NORMAN: Things will settle down and be a lot better after we're through the transition from analog TV for two reasons. One, we won't have to maintain both the old and the new, but two, a lot will be learned about what works and what doesn't. I maintain a mild optimism about the future, but I'm very pessimistic about the ability of the existing manufacturers to work together. Maybe this is going to take a newcomer to come and do it right. What I know is that my consulting business will never lack for things to do.

A professor at Northwestern University, Norman is the author of The Design of Future Things, cofounder of the Nielsen Norman Group, and former vice president of Apple Computer.

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