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Don Norman Decries Design That’s Hostile to Older Users

Design guru and former Apple VP Don Norman, who’s best known for the influential book The Design of Everyday Things from 1990, has penned an editorial at Fast Company decrying the state of design, particularly as it impacts older people. Norman, now 83, points out some of the mistakes made by designers seemingly unaware of the physical limitations imposed by age and calls for thoughtful, inclusive design that helps everyone. He doles out criticism across many fields but reserves particularly cutting words for his former employer, noting, “Apple’s products violate all the fundamental rules of design for understanding and usability.”

What’s your favorite example of design that fails miserably for older users?

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Comments About Don Norman Decries Design That’s Hostile to Older Users

Notable Replies

  1. This is a GREAT article. Please read it…

    I’m at an age equal or greater than the Author (Don Norman). AND I have many issues like his with Apple products

    One he didn’t mention (that isn’t in the user-friendly design area) is Apple designers presumption that everyone has ~ 1 GBPS download Internet access. I have several friends that live away from the Fiber Optic downtown. Apple seems to have no understanding (or concern) about how their products are so difficult for these people

    Very personal but iDevices drive me crazy Other than searching out YouTube videos ((or attending NMUG’s weekly meetings) I don’t think there is an easy path for knowing how to ‘touch’ the touch screen. And don’t get me starting on the organization of Settings. When I want to observe ART I go to a museum; when I drive my car I want the pedals to be in the same place they were last week!


  2. Yeah, the settings are maddening, aren’t they? That’s why I wrote this, not that Apple has listened. :frowning:

  3. On a Mac system preferences at least offers all on one screen and a search by need

    I really dread the day that iOS finishes the takeover over of macOS


  4. Yes! And that it’s always on.

    And it’s not just Apple. Sometimes when I do not have internet access, Excel can take up to a minute to start up—or to quit!

    That did make me laugh out loud, which did not detract from its veracity.

  5. The most ubiquitous design problem, especially on phones, is gray fonts. Why can’t all text be black and easily readable? “Reader view is available” isn’t always available.
    What is so stylish about hard to read text?

  6. as a former apple employee there are too many items not designed for me (age over 80) that I can’t begin to list them. The automated testing is HORRIBLE. Automation doesn’t make mistakes, users do!. Half the time I get taken to somewhere I didn’t want to be, SIRI I almost useless, about 1/4 of the time I have to input y passcode instead of my fingerprint, etc etc
    I am seriously considering departing the apple stuff as it causes me more and more pain

  7. But is the “other stuff” – Windows, Android, etc – any better in terms of usability?

  8. Probably not. But it’s getting better. Meanwhile Apple’s usability is getting worse. Add to that mix that Apple’s stuff is a whole lot more expensive and many people will start considering their options to leave.

    Of course there is privacy, incidentally the almost only argument made against Android these days.

  9. I couldn’t agree more. For black text on a white background, anything other than black text reduces contrast and thereby reduces readability.

  10. Oh geez! Grey text on black, what fun! Thanks Adobe for making my life more difficult.


  11. I agree about white background/black text, and I greatly appreciate the way True Tone adjusts the white point on my iPhone. The difference is very noticeable between my iPhone and elderly iPad and MacBook Pro. Since there are a rather infinite number of Android phones, I don’t know if there is an equivalent and who’s on first with it. Knowing who is on first is a problem with any Android device because each manufacturer has the ability to mess with the OS to its liking, and they tend to very aggressively do so. An LG Android is different than a Samsung, etc., etc., etc.

    Whether it’s because I’ve been having a longtime love affair with Macs or not, I find Windows to be a cludgy, clunky, confusing usability disaster. AFIK, there’s no equivalent of Time Machine. Setting up a backup disk is torture, so is backing up if you’re not on a network. Searching is the equivalent of getting waterboarded, and there are no multiple tabs in the Preview equivalent. There is no equivalent to Mission Control that I know of, and I use this all the time. Updating apps is a major PITA, and deleting apps is about as easy as chopping off your head. Syncing and managing photos is a nightmare. You have to jump through hoops to save as a PDF.

    Windows typography drives me nuts; kerning and tracking have improved slightly over the past decades, but they are only slightly less abysmal. I forget the names of the new Windows default web fonts, but they stink almost as bad as Times New Roman, and if I remember correctly, Arial and Comic Sans are still among them. Droid Sans and Droid Serif aren’t any better. And since Microsoft or Google can’t assume everyone has a screen equivalent to a Retina Display, or even one that comes a little bit close, you’ll find fewer thicks and thins in display fonts.

    IMHO, I think Macs, iPads and iPhones clobber the competition in usability any day.

  12. It uses less power so they can boast of improved battery life without actually improving anything. That’s the what I see when I look at cheesy icon design and chicken scratch text.

  13. nls

    So I’m not the only long-time Mac user that absolutely despises iOS!?

  14. Try reading movie descriptions in iTunes Store app on your iPhone if you want to truly experience that! One movie description is in a font too small Grey on black background, next one is orange on black background, and no, that font is NOT one of the Dynamic Fonts that you can change the size of in Settings. PLEASE go to and make your thoughts known about these issues! THAT is what Apple pays attention to along with AppleCare calls that are logged. They don’t read Tidbits or other 3rd party sites where the complaining takes place at. :frowning:

  15. A design pattern that fails miserably, and not just for older users, is hiding stuff.

    In his article, Don Norman already mentions the example of hiding meaningful interactions behind gestures that are often difficult to discover and difficult to remember.

    Other examples are hiding meaningful interactions behind badly designed on-screen controls, such as a bit of plain text that’s actually a button, so it lacks any “perceived affordance” that tells you that tapping the text will trigger an action.

    Another example is hiding meaningful information by abbreviating text. This is a design problem that’s found everywhere these days, but particularly in media applications such as iTunes. Apparently, these apps’ designers don’t like the look of text that wraps over more than one or two lines, so anything beyond that is hidden behind an ellipsis (or, worse, three periods…).

    If you’re frustrated with these design mistakes, which Apple unfortunately also makes a lot of these days, and you think about abandoning the Apple ecosystem, do consider this: as a “normal” user, you realistically have three options for computers platforms — Linux, macOS, and Windows — and a mere two for mobile phones — Android and iOS.

    While Android is a very well-designed OS overall, it’s usually watered down by every device manufacturer whose name isn’t Google. I’d still consider Android a viable alternative to iOS, at least for slightly more tech-savvy users.

    On desktops, though, expect to be surprised by some seriously quirky and annoying design details on Linux and Windows. As the HCI professor at my alma mater once said, “I don’t prefer Apple because they design everything perfectly, but because [of all the OS makers] they get the most things right.”

    All in all, I doubt that a “normal” user with non-expert tech skills would be able to set up a personal digital ecosystem that is easier to use, better integrated, and more trust-worthy(!) than a combination of macOS and iOS devices.

  16. Aha, I was looking for Don Norman’s article! And I was pretty sure I could guess what he’d say, because bad design is rampant in the tech world. And it’s bad for everyone, not just older people. My theory about this is twofold: First, products/websites/software are being designed by a younger generation (or two) who have grown up with increasingly obtuse interfaces and simply think this is normal. It doesn’t even occur to them that there are good reasons to do things because human beings are made a certain way.

    Second, there’s the maddening trend toward copying bad ideas because they’re new, different, flashy, etc. This is particularly acute in web design, where sites are bogged down by massive quantities of graphics and overlays that have to load, where things slide around behind each other, pop on and off, or come shooting out of the side to get in your way. Menus (if you can find them) don’t behave consistently, or they drop down right in front of the thing you’re trying to see, or make the whole page go dark. NONE of this is useful or helpful, it’s just annoying and tedious. I marvel at how much less usable my bank’s new website is compared to the old one!

    And don’t get me started on jam-packed, low-contrast UIs. Light gray on dark gray? A zillion tiny icons replacing words? Sure, why not! I’m rather glad to be a video engineer, not an editor or graphic artist who has to spend all day looking at these screens. What is the end-user value of an interface that can’t be understood???

  17. Oh geez! I’ve complained to just about every bank I use as they “improve” their interface. Now things take scrolling, waiting while this circle in the middle of the screen spins, and more clicks than they used to. Chase was a big one. To this day I never know which login screen style is going to show up for me.

    I have a local historical research site that “improved” in late 2017. I used to be able to bring up a screen of 200 thumbnails in two clicks. Now it’s 6 clicks, type, click again (no more hitting enter) and I’ll get my list - in groups of 10. And the thumbnails are much larger than before so I only see a few at a time.

    As I counted clicks, I see they have at least improved the results screen a bit. I can now select list OR grid which helps. In list view, I only see 3 results before having to scroll.

    That page annoyed me so much I called them and went through step by step why it was worse in real life use. I can’t understand why people take a fully functional site and completely re-write it. Never mind the cost to do so.


  18. Have you seen Windows lately? Suffering the same fate but it is far worse than Apple. It feels schizophrenic. This is because different teams wrote different portions of the OS without any consistency. You have the legacy control panel items alongside newer Settings screens all doing the same thing. Except you have more advanced settings in the legacy views. Now as Win10 evolves those legacy things are being stripped away. Choice is being removed. Not to mention the privacy problem. Even with all the settings off Microsoft is still collecting massive amounts of data.

  19. I agree that usability has fallen off the Apple priority list. I am also older, 73, and visually impaired, so that usability is important to me. I don’t like the gray type, but equally important to me was the loss of color and custom icons in the Finder window sidebar. The primary purpose of the sidebar is navigation, and color made that much easier. Unfortunately, Mavericks was the last OS to support color, and the Finder hack colorful sidebar stopped working in El Capitan, so I am stuck with the hard to use gray on gray sidebar. I’d gladly strangle the person at Apple who thinks that the loss in usability is justified as a stylish UI upgrade. It seems as if Steve Jobs death smothered the macOS in morbid, gothic gray. Bah.

  20. Nope, I think it sucks big time, totally illogical and non intuitive!
    I still can’t figure out how to make certain adjustments.

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