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Don Norman November 26, 2010
Why Design Education Must Change 1


Traditionally what designers lack in knowledge, they make up
for in craft skills. Whether it be sketching, modeling, detailing
or rendering, designers take an inordinate amount of pride in
honing key techniques over many years. Unfortunately many of
these very skills have limited use in the new design domains.
(Core 77 columnist Kevin McCullagh:

I am forced to read a lot of crap. As a reviewer of submissions to design
journals and conferences, as a juror of design contests, and as a mentor and
advisor to design students and faculty, I read outrageous claims made by
designers who have little understanding of the complexity of the problems they
are attempting to solve or of the standards of evidence required to make
claims. Oftentimes the crap comes from brilliant and talented people, with
good ideas and wonderful instantiations of physical products, concepts, or
simulations. The crap is in the claims.

In the early days of industrial design, the work was primarily focused upon
physical products. Today, however, designers work on organizational structure
and social problems, on interaction, service, and experience design. Many
problems involve complex social and political issues. As a result, designers have
become applied behavioral scientists, but they are woefully undereducated for
the task. Designers often fail to understand the complexity of the issues and
the depth of knowledge already known. They claim that fresh eyes can produce
novel solutions, but then they wonder why these solutions are seldom
implemented, or if implemented, why they fail. Fresh eyes can indeed produce
insightful results, but the eyes must also be educated and knowledgeable.
Designers often lack the requisite understanding. Design schools do not train
students about these complex issues, about the interlocking complexities of
human and social behavior, about the behavioral sciences, technology, and
business. There is little or no training in science, the scientific method, and
experimental design.

Related problems occur with designers trained in engineering, for although
they may understand hard-core science, they are often ignorant of the so-
called soft areas of social and behavioral sciences. The do not understand
human behavior, chiding people for not using technology properly, asking how
they could be so illogical. (You may have all heard the refrain: “if only we
didn’t have people, our stuff would work just fine,” forgetting that the point of

1 Donald A. Norman. email to: don at Column written for posting at

Don Norman November 26, 2010
Why Design Education Must Change 2

the work was to help people.) Engineers are often ignorant of how people
actually behave. And both engineers and designers are often ignorant of the
biases that can be unwittingly introduced into experimental designs and the
dangers of inappropriate generalization.

The social and behavioral sciences have their own problems, for they generally
are disdainful of applied, practical work and their experimental methods are
inappropriate: scientists seek “truth” whereas practitioners seek “good
enough.” Scientists look for small differences, whereas designers want large
impact. People in human-computer interaction, cognitive engineering, and
human factors or ergonomics are usually ignorant of design. All disciplines have
their problems: everyone can share the blame.

Time to change design education

Where once industrial designers focused primarily upon form and function,
materials and manufacturing, today’s issues are far more complex and
challenging. New skills are required, especially for such areas as interaction,
experience, and service design. Classical industrial design is a form of applied
art, requiring deep knowledge of forms and materials and skills in sketching,
drawing, and rendering. The new areas are more like applied social and
behavioral sciences and require understanding of human cognition and
emotion, sensory and motor systems, and sufficient knowledge of the scientific
method, statistics and experimental design so that designers can perform valid,
legitimate tests of their ideas before deploying them.

Designers need to deploy microprocessors and displays, actuators and sensors.
Communication modules are being added to more and more products, from the
toaster to the wall switch, the toilet and books (now called e-books).
Knowledge of security and privacy, social networks, and human interaction are
critical. The old skills of drawing and sketching, forming and molding must be
supplemented and in many cases, replaced, by skills in programming,
interaction, and human cognition. Rapid prototyping and user testing are
required, which also means some knowledge of the social and behavior
sciences, of statistics, and of experimental design.

In educational institutions, industrial design is usually housed in schools of art
or architecture, usually taught as a practice with the terminal degree being a
BA, MA, or MFA. It is rare for in design education to have course requirements
in science, mathematics, technology, or the social sciences. As a result the
skills of the designer are not well suited for modern times.

The Uninformed Are Training the Uninformed

My experience with some of the world’s best design schools in Europe, the
United States, and Asia indicate that the students are not well prepared in the
behavioral sciences that are so essential for fields such as interaction and
experience design. They do not understand experimental rigor or the potential
biases that show up when the designer evaluates their own products or even
their own experimental results. Their professors also lack this understanding.

Designers often test their own designs, but with little understanding of
statistics and behavioral variability. They do not know about unconscious biases

Don Norman November 26, 2010
Why Design Education Must Change 3

that can cause them to see what they wish to see rather than what actually has
occurred. Many are completely unaware of the necessity of control groups. The
social and behavioral sciences (and medicine) long ago learned the importance
of blind scoring where the person scoring the results does not know what
condition is being observed, nor what is being tested.

The problem is compounded by a new insistence by top research universities
that all design faculty have a PhD degree. But given the limited training of
most design faculty, there is very little understanding of the kind of knowledge
that constitutes a PhD. The uninformed are training the uninformed.

There are many reasons for these difficulties. I’ve already discussed the fact
that most design is taught in schools of art or architecture. Many students take
design because they dislike science, engineering, and mathematics.
Unfortunately, the new demands upon designers do not allow us the luxury of
such non-technical, non science-oriented training.

A different problem is that even were a design school to decide to teach more
formal methods, we don’t really have a curriculum that is appropriate for
designers. Take my concern about the lack of experimental rigor. Suppose you
were to agree with me – what courses would we teach? We don’t really know.
The experimental methods of the social and behavioral sciences are not well
suited for the issues faced by designers.

Designers are practitioners, which means they are not trying to extend the
knowledge base of science but instead, to apply the knowledge. The designer’s
goal is to have large, important impact. Scientists are interested in truth, often
in the distinction between the predictions of two differing theories. The
differences they look for are quite small: often statistically significant but in
terms of applied impact, quite unimportant. Experiments that carefully control
for numerous possible biases and that use large numbers of experimental
observers are inappropriate for designers.

The designer needs results immediately, in hours or at possibly a few days.
Quite often tests of 5 to 10 people are quite sufficient. Yes, attention must be
paid to the possible biases (such as experimenter biases and the impact of
order of presentation of tests), but if one is looking for large effect, it should
be possible to do tests that are simpler and faster than are used by the
scientific community will suffice. Designs don’t have to be optimal or perfect:
results that are not quite optimum or les than perfect are often completely
satisfactory for everyday usage. No everyday product is perfect, nor need they
be. We need experimental techniques that recognize these pragmatic, applied

Design needs to develop its own experimental methods. They should be simple
and quick, looking for large phenomena and conditions that are “good enough.”
But they must still be sensitive to statistical variability and experimental
biases. These methods do not exist: we need some sympathetic statisticians to
work with designers to develop these new, appropriate methods.

Don Norman November 26, 2010
Why Design Education Must Change 4

When Designers Think They Know, But Don’t

Designers fall prey to the two ailments of not knowing what they don’t know
and, worse, thinking they know things they don’t. This last condition is
especially true when it comes to human behavior: the cognitive sciences.
Designers (and engineers) think that they understand human behavior: after
all, they are human and they have observed people all their lives. Alas, they
believe a “naive psychology”: plausible explanations of behavior that have little
or no basis in fact. They confuse the way they would prefer people to behave
with how people actually behave. They are unaware of the large experimental
and theoretical literature, and they are not well versed in statistical

Real human behavior is very contextual. It is readily biased by multiple factors.
Human behavior is driven by both emotional and cognitive processes, much of
which is subconscious and not accessible to human conscious knowledge. Gaps
and lapses in attention are to be expected. Human memory is subject to
numerous biases and errors. Different memory systems have different
characteristics. Most importantly, human memory is not a calling up of images
of the past but rather a reconstruction of the remembered event. As a result, it
often fits expectations more closely than it fits reality and it is easily modified
by extraneous information.

Many designers are woefully ignorant of the deep complexity of social and
organizational problems. I have seen designers propose simple solutions to
complex problems in education, poverty, crime, and the environment.
Sometimes these suggestions win design prizes (the uniformed judge the
uninformed). Complex problems are complex systems: there is no simple
solution. It is not enough to mean well: one must also have knowledge.

The same problems arise in doing experimental studies of new methods of
interaction, new designs, or new experiences and services. When scientists
(and designers) study people, they too are subject to these same human biases,
and so cognitive scientists carefully design experiments so that the biases of
the experimenter can have no impact on the results or their interpretation. All
these factors are well understood by cognitive scientists, but seldom known or
understood by designers and engineers. Here is a case of not knowing what is
not known.

Why Designers Must Know Some Science

Over the years, the scientific method evolved to create order and evaluation to
otherwise exaggerated claims. Science is not a body of facts, not the use of
mathematics. Rather, the key to science is its procedures, or what is called the
scientific method. The method does not involve white robes and complex
mathematics. The scientific method requires public disclosure of the problem,
the method of approach, the findings, and then the interpretation. This allows
others to repeat the finding: replication is essential. Nothing is accepted in
science until others have been able to repeat the work and come to the same
conclusion. Moreover, scientists have learned to their dismay that conclusions
are readily biased by prior belief, so experimental methods have been devised
to minimize these unintentional biases.

Don Norman November 26, 2010
Why Design Education Must Change 5

Science is difficult when applied to the physical and biological world. But when
applied to people, the domain of the social sciences, it is especially difficult.
Now subtle biases abound, so careful statistical procedures have been devised
to minimize them. Moreover, scientists have learned not to trust themselves,
so in the social sciences it is sometimes critical to design tests so that neither
the person being studied nor the person doing the study know what condition is
involved – this is called “double blind.”

Designers, on the whole, are quite ignorant of all this science stuff. They like
to examine a problem, devise what seems to be a solution, and then announce
the result for all to acclaim. Contests are held. Prizes are awarded. But wait–
has anyone examined the claims? Tested them to see if they perform as
claimed? Tested them against alternatives (what science calls control groups),
tested them often enough to minimize the impact of statistical variability?
Huh? say the designers: Why, it is obvious – just look – What is all this statistical

Journals do not help, for most designers are practitioners and seldom publish.
And when they do, I find that the reviewers in many of our design journals and
conferences are themselves ignorant of appropriate experimental procedures
and controls, so even the published work is often of low quality. Design
conferences are particularly bad: I have yet to find a design conference where
the rigor of the peer review process is satisfactory. The only exceptions are
those run by societies from the engineering and sciences, such as the
Computer-Human Interaction and graphics conferences run by the Institute of
Electronic and Electrical Engineers or the Computer Science society (IEEE, ACM
and the CHI and SIGGRAPH conferences). These conferences, however, favor
the researcher, so although they are favorite publication vehicles for design
researchers and workers in interaction design, practitioners often find their
papers rejected. The practice of design lacks a high quality venue for its

Design Education Must Change

Service design, interaction design, and experience design are not about the
design of physical objects: they require minimal skills in drawing, knowledge of
materials, or manufacturing. In their place, they require knowledge of the
social sciences, of story construction, of back-stage operations, and of
interaction. We still need classically trained industrial designers: the need for
styling, for forms, for the intelligent use of materials will never go away.

In today’s world of ubiquitous sensors, controllers, motors, and displays, where
the emphasis is on interaction, experience, and service, where designers work
on organizational structure and services as much as on physical products, we
need a new breed of designers. This new breed must know about science and
technology, about people and society, about appropriate methods of validation
of concepts and proposals. They must incorporate knowledge of political issues
and business methods, operations, and marketing. Design education has to
move away from schools of art and architecture and move into the schools of
science and engineering. We need new kinds of designers, people who can work
across disciplines, who understand human beings, business, and technology and
the appropriate means of validating claims.

Don Norman November 26, 2010
Why Design Education Must Change 6

Today’s designers are poorly trained to meet the today’s demands: We need a
new form of design education, one with more rigor, more science, and more
attention to the social and behavioral sciences, to modern technology, and to
business. But we cannot copy the existing courses from those disciplines: we
need to establish new ones that are appropriate to the unique requirements of
the applied requirements of design.

But beware: We must not lose the wonderful, delightful components of design.
The artistic side of design is critical: to provides objects, interactions and
services that delight as well as inform, that are joyful. Designers do need to
know more about science and engineering, but without becoming scientists or
engineers. We must not lose the special talents of designers to make our lives
more pleasurable.

It is time for a change. We, the design community, must lead this change.

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The Perils of Using Technology to Solve Other

People’s Problems


I found Shane Snow’s essay on prison reform — “How Soylent and Oculus Could
Fix the Prison System” — through hate-linking.

Friends of mine hated the piece so much that normally-articulate people were at a
loss for words.

What will it take to design socio-technical systems that actually work?

Susie Cagle

A real person thought it would be a good idea to write this and

post it on the Internet.

Susie Cagle @susie_c · Jan 30, 2016


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With a recommendation like that, how could I pass it up? And after reading it, I
tweeted my astonishment to Susie, who told me, “I write comics, but I don’t know
how to react to this in a way that’s funny.” I realized that I couldn’t offer an
appropriate reaction in 140 characters either. The more I think about Snow’s essay,
the more it looks like the outline for a class on the pitfalls of solving social
problems with technology, a class I’m now planning on teaching this coming fall.

Using Snow’s essay as a jumping off point, I want to consider a problem that’s been
on my mind a great deal since joining the MIT Media Lab five years ago: How do
we help smart, well-meaning people address social problems in ways that make the
world better, not worse?

In other words, is it possible to get beyond both a naïve belief that the latest
technology will solve social problems—and a reaction that rubbishes any attempt to
offer novel technical solutions as inappropriate, insensitive, and misguided? Can
we find a synthesis in which technologists look at their work critically and work
closely with the people they’re trying to help in order to build sociotechnical
systems that address hard problems?

Obviously, I think this is possible — if really, really hard — or I wouldn’t be teaching
at an engineering school. But before considering how we overcome a naïve faith in
technology, let’s examine Snow’s suggestion. It’s a textbook example of a solution
that’s technically sophisticated, simple to understand, and dangerously wrong.

* * *

Though he may be best known as co-founder of the content-marketing platform
“Contently,” Shane Snow describes himself as a “journalist, geek and best-selling
author.” That last bit comes from his book Smartcuts: How Hackers, Innovators, and
Icons Accelerate Success, which offers insights on how “innovators and icons” can
“rethink convention” and break “rules that are not rules.”

298 2:21 PM – Jan 30, 2016

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That background may help readers understand where Snow is coming from. His
blog is filled with plainspoken and often entertaining explanations of complex
systems followed by apparently straightforward conclusions — evidently, burning
coal and natural gas to generate electricity is a poor idea, so oil companies should
be investing in solar energy. Fair enough.

Some of these explorations are more successful than others. In Snow’s essay about
prison reform, he identifies violence, and particularly prison rape, as the key
problem to be solved, and offers a remedy that he believes will lead to cost savings
for taxpayers as well: all prisoners should be incarcerated in solitary confinement,
fed only Soylent meal replacement drink through slots in the wall, and all
interpersonal interaction and rehabilitative services will be provided in Second Life
using the Oculus Rift virtual reality system. Snow’s system eliminates many
features of prison life — “cell blocks, prison yards, prison gyms, physical
interactions with other prisoners, and so on.” That’s by design, he explains. “Those
are all current conventions in prisons, but history is clear: innovation happens
when we rethink conventions and apply alternative learning or technology to old

An early clue that Snow’s rethinking is problematic is that his proposed solution
looks a lot like “administrative segregation,” a technique used in prisons to
separate prisoners who might be violent or disruptive from the general population
by keeping them in solitary confinement 23 hours a day. The main problem with
administrative segregation or with what’s known as the SHU (the “secure housing
unit” in supermax prisons) is that inmates tend to experience serious mental health
problems connected to sustained isolation.

“Deprived of normal human interaction, many segregated prisoners reportedly
suffer from mental health problems including anxiety, panic, insomnia, paranoia,
aggression and depression,” explains the social psychologist Craig Haney in a
paper for the journal Crime & Delinquency. Shaka Senghor, a writer and activist
who was formerly incarcerated for murder, explains that many inmates in solitary
confinement have underlying mental health issues, and the isolation damages
even the sound of mind. Solitary confinement, he says, is “one of the most barbaric
and inhumane aspects of our society.”

Due to the psychological effects of being held in isolation, the UN Special
Rapporteur on Torture has condemned the use of sustained solitary confinement,
and called for a ban on solitary confinement for people under 18 years old. Rafael
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architects to stop designing prisons that support solitary confinement—the
argument being that they enable violations of human rights. Snow’s solution may
be innovative, but it’s also a large-scale human rights violation.

Snow and supporters might argue that he’s not trying to deprive prisoners of
human contact, but wants to give them a new, safer form of contact. But there’s
essentially no research on the health effects of sustained exposure to head-
mounted virtual reality.

Would prisoners be forced to choose between simulator sickness or isolation? What
are the long-term effects on vision of immersive VR displays? Will prisoners
experience visual exhaustion through vergence-accommodation, a yet-to-be-
solved problem of eye and brain due to problems focusing on objects that are very
nearby but appear to be distant? Furthermore, will contact with humans through
virtual worlds mitigate the mental problems prisoners face in isolation, or
exacerbate them? How do we answer any of these questions ethically, given the
restrictions we’ve put on experimenting on prisoners in the wake of Nazi abuse of
concentration camp prisoners.

How does an apparently intelligent person end up suggesting a solution that might,
at best, constitute unethical medical experiments on prisoners? How does a well-
meaning person suggest a remedy that likely constitutes torture?

* * *

The day I read Snow’s essay, I happened to be leading a workshop on social change
during the Yale Civic Leadership conference. Some of the students I worked with
were part of the movement to rename Yale’s Calhoun College, and all were smart,
thoughtful, creative, and openminded.

The workshop I led encourages thinkers to consider different ways they might
make social change, not just through electing good leaders and passing just laws.
Our lab at MIT examines the idea that changemakers can use different levers of
change, including social norms, market forces, and new technologies to influence
society, and the workshop I led asks students to propose novel solutions to long-
standing problems featuring one of these levers of change. With Snow’s essay in
mind, I asked the students to take on the challenge of prison reform.

Oddly, none of their solutions involved virtual reality isolation cells. In fact, most
of the solutions they proposed had nothing to do with prisons themselves. Instead,
their solutions focused on over-policing of black neighborhoods, America’sSubscribe for less than $1 per week

aggressive prosecutorial culture that encourages those arrested to plead guilty,
legalization of some or all drugs, reform of sentencing guidelines for drug crimes,
reforming parole and probation to reduce re-incarceration for technical offenses,
and building robust re-entry programs to help ex-cons find support, housing, and
gainful employment.

In other words, when Snow focuses on making prison safer and cheaper, he’s
working on the wrong problem.

Yes, prisons in the United State could be safer and cheaper. But the larger problem
is that the U.S. incarcerates more people than any other nation on Earth. With five
percent of the world’s population, we are responsible for 25 percent of the world’s

Snow may see his ideas as radical and transformative, but they’re fundamentally
conservative — he tinkers with the conditions of confinement without questioning
whether incarceration is how our society should solve problems of crime and
addiction. As a result, his solutions can only address a facet of the problem, not the
deep structural issues that lead to the problem in the first place.

Many hard problems require you to step back and consider whether you’re solving
the right problem. If your solution only mitigates the symptoms of a deeper
problem, you may be calcifying that problem and making it harder to change.
Cheaper, safer prisons make it easier to incarcerate more Americans. They also
avoid addressing fundamental problems of addiction, joblessness, mental illness,
and structural racism.

* * *

Some of my hate-linking friends began their eye-rolling about Snow’s article with
the title, which references two of Silicon Valley’s most hyped technologies. With
the current focus on the U.S. as an “innovation economy,” it’s common to read
essays predicting the end of a major social problem due to a technical innovation.
Bitcoin will end poverty in the developing world by enabling inexpensive money
transfers. Wikipedia and One Laptop Per Child will educate the world’s poor
without need for teachers or schools. Self driving cars will obviate public transport
and reshape American cities.

The writer Evgeny Morozov has offered a sharp and helpful critique to this mode of
thinking, which he calls “solutionism.” Solutionism demands that we focus on
problems that have “nice and clean technological solution at our disposal.” In hisSubscribe for less than $1 per week

book, To Save Everything, Click Here, Morozov savages ideas like Snow’s, regardless
of whether they are meant as thought experiments or serious policy proposals.
(Indeed, one worry I have in writing this essay is taking Snow’s ideas too seriously,
as Morozov does with many of the ideas he lambastes in his book.)

The problem with the solutionist critique, though, is that it tends to remove
technological innovation from the problem-solver’s toolkit. In fact, technological
development is often a key component in solving complex social and political
problems, and new technologies can sometimes open a previously intractable
problem. The rise of inexpensive solar panels may be an opportunity to move
nations away from a dependency on fossil fuels and begin lowering atmospheric
levels of carbon dioxide, much as developments in natural gas extraction and
transport technologies have lessened the use of dirtier fuels like coal.

But it’s rare that technology provides a robust solution to a social problem by itself.
Successful technological approaches to solving social problems usually require
changes in laws and norms, as well as market incentives to make change at scale.

I installed solar panels on the roof of my house last fall. Rapid advances in panel
technology made this a routine investment instead of a luxury, and the existence of
competitive solar installers in our area meant that market pressures kept costs low.
But the panels were ultimately affordable because federal and state legislation
offered tax rebates for their purchase, and because Massachusetts state law
rewards me with solar credits for each megawatt I produce—which I can sell to
utilities through an online marketplace because energy companies are legally
mandated to produce a percentage of their total power output via solar generation.
And while there are powerful technological, economic, and legal forces pushing us
toward solar energy, the most powerful driver may be the social, normative
pressure of seeing our neighbors install solar panels—leaving us feeling like we
weren’t doing our part.

My Yale students who tried to use technology as their primary lever for reforming
U.S. prisons had a difficult time. One team offered the idea of an online social
network that would help recently released prisoners connect with other ex-
offenders to find support, advice, and job opportunities in the outside world.
Another looked at the success of Bard College’s remarkable program to help
inmates earn bachelor’s degrees, and wondered whether online learning
technologies could allow similar efforts to reach thousands more prisoners. But
many of the other promising ideas that arose in our workshops had a technological
component — given the ubiquity of mobile phones, why can’t ex-offenders haveSubscribe for less than $1 per week

their primary contact with their parole officers via mobile phones? And given the
rise of big-data techniques used for “smart policing,” can we better review patterns
of policing—including identifying and eliminating cases where officers are over-
focusing on some communities?

The temptation of technology is that it promises fast and neat solutions to social
problems. It usually fails to deliver. The problem with Morozov’s critique, though,
is that technological solutions, combined with other paths to change, can
sometimes turn intractable problems into solvable ones. The key is to understand
technology’s role as a lever of change in conjunction with complementary levers.

* * *

Shane Snow introduces his essay on prison reform not with statistics about the
ineffectiveness of incarceration in reducing crime, but with his fear of being sent to
prison. Specifically, he fears prison rape, a serious problem which he radically
overestimates: “My fear of prison also stems from the fact that some 21 percent of
U.S. prison inmates get raped or coerced into giving sexual favors to terrifying
dudes named Igor.” Snow is religious about footnoting his essays, but not as good
at reading the sources he cites — the report he uses to justify his fear of “Igor” (nice
job avoiding accusations of overt racism there, Shane) indicates that 2.91 of 1,000
incarcerated persons experienced sexual violence, or 0.291 percent, not 21 percent.

Perhaps for Snow, isolation for years at a time, living vicariously through a VR
headset while sipping an oat flour smoothie would be preferable to time in the
prison yard, mess hall, workshop, or classroom. But there’s no indication that Snow
has talked to any current or ex-offenders about their time in prison, or about the
ways in which encounters with other prisoners led them to faith, to mentorship, or
to personal transformation.

The people Shane imagines are so scary, so other, that he can’t imagine interacting
with them, learning from them, or anything but being violently assaulted by them.
No wonder he doesn’t bother to ask what aspects of prison life are most and least
livable, and which would benefit most from transformation.

Much of my work focuses on how technologies spread across national, religious
and cultural borders, and how they are transformed by that spread. Cellphone
networks believed that pre-paid scratch cards were an efficient way to sell phone
minutes at low cost — until Ugandans started using the scratch off codes to send
money via text message in a system called Sente, inventing practical mobile money
in the process. Facebook believes its service is best used by real individuals usingSubscribe for less than $1 per week

their real names, and goes to great lengths to remove accounts it believes to be
fictional. But when Facebook comes to a country like Myanmar, where it is seen as
a news service, not a social networking service, phone shops specializing in setting
up accounts using fake names and phone numbers render Facebook’s preferences
null and void.

Smart technologists and designers have learned that their preferences are seldom
their users’ preferences, and companies like Intel now employ brilliant
ethnographers to discover how tools are used by actual users in their homes and
offices. Understanding the wants and needs of users is important when you’re
designing technologies for people much like yourself, but it’s utterly critical when
designing for people with different backgrounds, experiences, wants, and needs.
Given that Snow’s understanding of prison life seems to come solely from binge-
watching Oz, it’s virtually guaranteed that his proposed solution will fail in
unanticipated ways when used by real people.

* * *

Of the many wise things my Yale students said during our workshop was a student
who wondered if he should be participating at all. “I don’t know anything about
prisons, I don’t have family in prison. I don’t know if I understand these problems
well enough to solve them, and I don’t know if these problems are mine to solve.”

Talking about the workshop with my friend and colleague Chelsea Barabas, she
asked the wonderfully deep question, “Is it ever okay to solve another person’s

On its surface, the question looks easy to answer. We can’t ask infants to solve
problems of infant mortality, and by extension, it seems unwise to let kindergarten
students design educational policy or demand that the severely disabled design
their own assistive technologies.

But the argument is more complicated when you consider it more closely. It’s
difficult if not impossible to design a great assistive technology without working
closely, iteratively, and cooperatively with the person who will wear or use it. My
colleague Hugh Herr designs cutting-edge prostheses for U.S. veterans who’ve lost
legs, and the centerpiece of his lab is a treadmill where amputees test his limbs,
giving him and his students feedback about what works, what doesn’t, and what
needs to change. Without the active collaboration with the people he’s trying to
help, he’s unable to make technological advances.

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Disability rights activists have demanded “nothing about us without us,” a slogan
that demands that policies should not be developed without the participation of
those intended to benefit from those policies.

Design philosophies like participatory design and codesign bring this concept to
the world of technology, demanding that technologies designed for a group of
people be designed and built, in part, by those people. Codesign challenges many
of the assumptions of engineering, requiring people who are used to working in
isolation to build broad teams and to understand that those most qualified to offer
a technical solution may be least qualified to identify a need or articulate a design
problem. This method is hard and frustrating, but it’s also one of the best ways to
ensure that you’re solving the right problem, rather than imposing your preferred
solution on a situation.

On the other pole from codesign is an approach to engineering we might
understand as “Make things better by making better things.” This school of
thought argues that while mobile phones were designed for rich westerners, not for
users in developing nations, they’ve become one of the transformative
technologies for the developing world. Frustratingly, this argument is valid, too.
Many of the technologies we benefit from weren’t designed for their ultimate
beneficiaries, but were simply designed well and adopted widely. Shane Snow’s
proposal is built in part on this perspective — Soylent was designed for geeks who
wanted to skip meals, not for prisoners in solitary confinement, but perhaps it
might be preferable to Nutraloaf or other horrors of the prison kitchen.

I’m not sure how we resolve the dichotomy of “with us” versus “better things.” I’d
note that every engineer I’ve ever met believes what she’s building is a better thing.
As a result, strategies that depend on finding the optimum solutions often rely on
choice-rich markets where users can gravitate towards the best solution. In other
words, they don’t work very well in an environment like prison, where prisoners are
unlikely to be given a choice between Snow’s isolation cells and the prison as it
currently stands, and are even less likely to participate in designing a better prison.

Am I advocating codesign of prisons with the currently incarcerated? Hell yeah, I
am. And with ex-offenders, corrections officers, families of prisoners, as well as the
experts who design these facilities today. They’re likely to do a better job than
smart Yale students, or technology commentators.

* * *

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It is unlikely that anyone is going to invite Shane Snow to redesign a major prison
any time soon, so spending more than 3,000 words urging you to reject his solution
may be a waste of your time and mine. But the mistakes Snow makes are those that
engineers make all the time when they turn their energy and creativity to solving
pressing and persistent social problems. Looking closely at how Snow’s solutions
fall short offers some hope for building better, fairer, and saner solutions.

The challenge, unfortunately, is not in offering a critique of how solutions go
wrong. Excellent versions of that critique exist, from Morozov’s war on
solutionism, to Courtney Martin’s brilliant “The Reductive Seduction of Other
People’s Problems.” If it’s easy to design inappropriate solutions about problems
you don’t fully understand, it’s not much harder to criticize the inadequacy of those

What’s hard is synthesis — learning to use technology as part of well-designed
sociotechnical solutions. These solutions sometimes require profound advances in
technology. But they virtually always require people to build complex,
multifunctional teams that work with and learn from the people the technology is
supposed to benefit.

Three students at the MIT Media Lab taught a course last semester called
“Unpacking Impact: Reflecting as We Make.” They point out that the Media Lab
prides itself on teaching students how to make anything, and how to turn what you
make into a business, but rarely teaches reflection about what we make and what it
might mean for society as a whole. My experience with teaching this reflective
process to engineers is that it’s both important and potentially paralyzing, that
once we understand the incompleteness of technology as a path for solving
problems and the ways technological solutions relate to social, market, and legal
forces, it can be hard to build anything at all.

I’m going to teach a new course this fall, tentatively titled “Technology and Social
Change.” It’s going to include an examination of the four levers of social change
Larry Lessig suggests in Code, and which I’ve been exploring as possible paths to
civic engagement. The course will include deep methodological dives into
codesign, and will examine using anthropology as tool for understanding user
needs. It will look at unintended consequences, cases where technology’s best
intentions fail, and cases where careful exploration and preparation led to
technosocial systems that make users and communities more powerful than they
were before.

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I’m “calling my shot” here for two reasons. One, by announcing it publicly, I’m less
likely to back out of it, and given how hard these problems are, backing out is a real
possibility. And two, if you’ve read this far in this post, you’ve likely thought about
this issue and have suggestions for what we should read and what exercises we
should try in the course of the class — I hope you might be kind enough to share
those with me.

In the end, I’m grateful for Shane Snow’s surreal, Black Mirror vision of the future
prison both because it’s a helpful jumping-off point for understanding how hard it
is to make change well by using technology, and because the U.S. prison system is a
broken and dysfunctional system in need of change. But we need to find ways to
disrupt better, to challenge knowledgeably, to bring the people they hope to benefit
into the process. If you can, please help me figure out how we teach these ideas to
the smart, creative people I work with—people who want to change the world, and
are afraid of breaking it in the process.

We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write

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Norman states at the beginning of this article that he is forced to

read a lot of “crap” as a juror/reviewer/mentor. Would Norman find Shane

Snow’s proposal as described in Zuckerman’s article from last week to be

sub-standard based on why he finds to be substandard in the designers’

work discussed in this article?

Make another annotation in Normans Annotation reading called

“Why Design must be changed”

Write 50-75 substantive note regarding the question above, make sure to highlight in Normans

Reading to relate to the question.

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