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Philosophy Major Makes Good

Posted on 30 September 2008

Of all the maligned liberal arts studies in college, perhaps the pursuit of a degree in philosophy is most suspect. How often have you heard: What in the world are you going to do with THAT? Well, if you’re Andy Norman, the answer is: quite a lot.

After earning a doctorate in philosophy and spending the first part of his career entrenched in that high-minded discipline, Norman wandered into the digital economy as a senior analyst with MAYA Design. Founded in 1989, MAYA is a Pittsburgh-based, 42-employee, product design and development firm. Norman and his colleagues in MAYA’s human sciences group employ a variety of skills to help clients make their products simpler, more intuitive and easier to learn.

“No matter how powerful the technology is,” says Norman, “if the user’s needs and goals are not represented in the course of the design process, the outcome is not likely to be truly pleasant and empowering to use. Too many design decisions are driven by engineering considerations, and too few driven by human considerations.”

Head of the Class
The son of two professors at the University of Pittsburgh, Norman followed their lead into the academic world. Having an interest in science and technology, he first focused on physics. Undergraduate philosophy courses convinced him, however, that society needed more people who understand the complex interplay of technical and human concerns.

Norman says: “I came to realize that, in our society, arts-minded people and technology people don’t talk. Call it the divide over the fuzzies and the techies. But bringing them together can resolve problems in our society.” It helped that his studies focused on the pragmatic school of philosophy, pioneers like John Dewey and William James, who emphasized the practical significance of concepts, theories, and ideas. In other words, there were no pointless discussions about the unobserved tree that may or may not make a sound when it falls in the forest.

Such thinking was a natural segue to his work at MAYA. The pragmatic thinkers examined simple tasks like hammering a nail into wood. If the tool works the way it should, Norman explains, then the user forgets that he’s using it at all and focuses on the nail and piece of wood. Similarly, if a computer and keyboard is designed effectively, he says, the user forgets about the tools and hardware and focuses strictly upon the ideas being pursued beyond the screen.

A New Approach
“Well designed tools allow users to enter what psychologists call a state of flow: a kind of absorption in which attention is directed, not at the tool but through it.” Such reasoning is well earned: Norman graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Wesleyan University in 1986, then went on do his graduate work at Northwestern University. He served as a tenured professor of philosophy at Hamilton College, and his work has appeared in scientific journals like The Philosophical Quarterly and Philosophia.

At MAYA, he finds considerable satisfaction in producing practical results with his wealth of insight. And, of course, he has proven that you actually can make a decent living with a philosophy degree. “We look at existing technologies and explore ways of making them easier and more rewarding to use,” Norman says. “In a way, I’ve been working on these questions for years. My whole academic training was about taking the arcane and making it seem real, useful, and relevant.”

Information technologies, he thinks, are stressing the human mind in much the way that the heavy machinery of the industrial age stressed the human body. “People were literally bending over backwards to meet the demands of machines. We had to invent the discipline of ergonomics to relieve physical stress. Now we face various kinds of information overload and have to invent disciplines that relieve cognitive stress. Information is becoming more pervasive, but there’s only so much attention we can devote to it,” Norman believes. “Human attention is becoming a precious resource. Products that respect users’ attention and help them focus it wisely will consistently outcompete products that waste user time and attention.”

As for lunchroom conversation, Norman admits that colleagues engage him from time to time with ethical conundrums or questions about human identity. But no, the one about the tree in the forest doesn’t often come up. “I was never trained to answer that one,” Norman says, laughing. “I never could understand why anyone thought it didn’t make a sound. Of course it does. It makes the air vibrate, after all

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