Essays & Articles


Whose profession is design?

Originally published in Interactions Magazine

Designing a product requires many skills, and it is the rare individual who has them all. Design is, therefore, an exercise in teamwork, where each team member brings in a different mix of skills, attitudes, and values. Alas, quite often, members think their own set of attributes is the most important.

Thinking that one’s own discipline is the most important of all gets in the way of teamwork. It creates bigotry, which in our field of usability and interaction design means usability or interaction bigots. I have long worried that in preaching the merits of usability and interaction design, we have lost sight of the goal. For customers, it is to provide pleasure and accomplishment, letting them fulfill their needs both effortlessly and pleasantly. For purchasers, the product must be affordable and return value commensurate with the cost. For the company, the product must be profitable: people must buy it in sufficient numbers without requiring expensive service calls. And there must be a continuing revenue stream so that employees can remain paid and future profitability assured.

Whose profession is this? Nobody’s, at least in the sense that it belongs to any single group. Everybody’s, at least in the sense that we all have to come together to ensure that products are successful from everyone’s point of view. This means that there may be usability flaws, technology glitches, appearance issues, and marketing fumbles. But so what? We must look at the larger picture and ask, does each flaw really matter? And so everyone must pitch in, everyone must make compromises and tradeoffs, and everyone must put their profession second and the interests of the company and customer first.

In October 2004, Rashmi Sinha and Richard Anderson organized a symposium on this topic (“User Experience: Why do so many organizations believe they own it?”) for the San Francisco Bay Area Designing for User Experience Society (BayDUX). During the question period, an audience member asked me “Who should be in charge of the product,” clearly expecting me to say “the user experience team” (because it’s all about UE, isn’t it?). My answer was disappointing to her and many others in the audience. I said that everyone was in charge – marketing, sales, manufacturing, engineering, industrial design, communication design, graphics design, and, yes, user experience design. Mainly, the person in charge is the product manager. If the product manager can’t resolve the issues, then it becomes a business decision. Business decisions are for managers and executives to decide. (Disclaimer: I was once one of those executives.) When there are conflicts, we need to step back and ask what the total impact is upon the customer and the company: How serious are the problems? Does the product give pleasure. Will people recommend it to others? If, for example, form gets in the way of function, does the enhanced appearance help sales more than the impact on function hurts? The decision needs to be based upon what is best for the company and the customer: hopefully, these two coincide. So, the person in charge is the product manager first, managers and executives second.

“Product manager?” was the puzzled response? “But, then,” came the follow-up question,  “what discipline should the product manager come from?” My answer: “Who cares?” I have seen excellent product managers who were trained in English history, or engineering, or psychology, or Chinese calligraphy. What matters is that this person can pull the team together, can balance the talents of the teams and the needs and requirements of the customers, the company, the sales and marketing teams, the manufacturing and packaging teams, and all those big, powerful egos (as well as the brilliant, but quiet and insecure). Talented product managers make this all work in harmony. I am always awed by their skills. They are – and must be — generalists, people who can see the big picture. What discipline should they represent? None of them; All of them.

Whose profession is this, anyway? Nobody’s and everybody’s. We are all in it together, we all need one another.

Don Norman wears many hats, including co-founder of the Nielsen Norman group, Professor at Northwestern University, and author, his latest book being Emotional Design. He lives at