At the foundation

XVI.4 July + August 2009
Page: 66
Digital Citation

THE WAY I SEE ITDesigning the infrastructure

Donald Norman

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We live embedded within a supporting network of technology, much of it invisible but essential to our existence. Some of it is mundane, such as the structures that provide water, gas, and electricity and carry away waste as sewage or garbage. Some is more profound, such as the institutions of business, government, and education. But all are sustained by an evergrowing network of services and facilities. The result is colossal and threatens to overwhelm society. Huge expanses of earth paved over for cities and highways, for parking lots and playgrounds. Under the streets lies an entangled mess of wires, cables, pipes, and passageways [1].

We tend to ignore the infrastructure when we design. Infrastructure is often ugly—the mass of wires overhead or the pipes and valves in front of many buildings. Its visibility forces us to think about things we would prefer to ignore. We would rather design our new devices without concern for the wires and cables that support them.

Infrastructure must be serviced, upgraded, or superseded, and with time, it becomes increasingly expensive, difficult, or even impossible to maintain. Eventually, we become slaves to old-fashioned infrastructure, for once the fabric of a technological architecture has been established, society is so dependent upon it that it is difficult or impossible to replace, even when far better technologies exist.

Often multiple standards and techniques arise for the same service. Agreement upon a common standard can be difficult, fraught with technical, political, and business prejudice. As a result, we tend to end up with multiple, noncompatible standards for the same goal. For example, today there is a wide variety of ways to pay for things. I just spent a month in Korea, where one could pay for a taxi ride with an interesting variety of cash alternatives: cell phones; bank credit cards, and cards for the public transportation system. Transportation cards with embedded chips could be placed upon a pad to transfer funds; cell phones with embedded chips could be placed on a different pad to transfer funds; and certain bank credit or debit cards lacked the chips but had a scannable magnetic strip. The payment system also included a digital taxi meter that displayed the fare and a printer that provided receipts.

The infrastructure for payment had so many separate pieces of equipment that there was little room left for anything else. Still, as Figure 1 attests, the driver still managed to add a navigation system and water bottle to the built-in infrastructure of radio, clock, HVAC controls, and driving controls. The infrastructure continues outside of the taxi: Within seconds of payment via my debit card, I received a text message on my phone from my bank, confirming the payment.

Ah, infrastructure. Without it, we couldn't function. It is the hidden underpinnings of modern society. Under the streets we have sewers, water and gas lines, and cables for telephone, TV, and electric power. Some of it is outside—massive wires crossing the otherwise pristine terrain. The hidden infrastructure is not so hidden. In part because it is so massive, in part because each year some other technology emerges that requires its own infrastructure. Putting the infrastructure in place is a daunting exercise. Maintaining it is even more so, and oftentimes not carried out, at least not until our bridges collapse, water mains burst, sewage overflows, and power and communication fail.

Even nature plays a role. Recognize the infrastructure in Figure 2? With one rather small exception, everything in that photograph is infrastructure. Roads and curbs, bike and walking paths, light poles, traffic light, direction signs, traffic light controller, pedestrian crossing markings, and the Korean flag, for this was taken just after a national holiday. The trees, too, are infrastructure. They have been carefully planted in these locations and artistically trimmed. Even the birds get into the act; the big clump toward the top of the tallest tree is the infrastructure for the magpie: its nest.

Some of the infrastructure provides the necessary affordance for others: The poles provide the supporting affordances for the lights, wind turbine, solar cells, and signs. Some infrastructure serves as signifiers. The signs are deliberate, intentional ones. The magpie nest is an unintentional signifier, for wherever the nest is seen, it indicates there are apt to be a pair of magpies in the vicinity. If you examine the figure carefully, you can see one of the proud owners of the nest perched at the very top of the tree. The magpie is the only item that is not infrastructure in the picture. Even the background, barely visible in the figure, is of a river and flood plain, which also provides jogging, bicycling paths, and picnic and playing fields during nonflood times. Just as the trees are artificially placed in their location for aesthetic purposes, the river is carefully controlled as well, with high banks and numerous dams and spillways. The river serves several functions as essential infrastructure for the waterway and flood control. Finally, on the opposite bank of the river (dimly visible in the background), one can see buildings, roads, and other infrastructure of modern life.

If we do not tend to the appropriate design of infrastructure, it is apt to collapse. Every year infrastructure requirements grow. This is for many reasons: more people demand services; more services are developed and provided to people; competitive forces provide new ways to distribute old services but require new infrastructure; existing infrastructure needs maintenance; and what maintains one class of infrastructure often damages another. Thus, adding a new underground service requires digging up roads and sidewalks, disrupting foot and vehicle traffic. The digging can accidentally cut power or communication cables and puncture water, gas, or sewage pipes. As a result, whenever one element of infrastructure undergoes service, numerous other providers have to be on the alert. Getting permission to service, maintain, upgrade, or install infrastructure often requires coordination with numerous local, regional, and national government agencies as well as the many different service providers. In cases of emergencies when there are accidents or deliberate sabotage, the number of agencies that must be involved is so great that their responses are hampered by coordination and communication difficulties. Often there is insufficient space to provide the new services, so political fights erupt over who has rights. Citizens demand the services, as long as the infrastructure is not visible to them. "We want better cellular telephone service," they say, "but don't you dare put that ugly and dangerously radiating antenna near me." Hence the term NIMBY: not in my backyard.

What is the designer to do? We must turn our attention to infrastructural needs. We must insist on standards, or where we lack the political power to enforce them, invent methods that allow competing systems to coexist without a proliferation of technologies. We can, for example, insist upon standard plugs and cables, even if the signal structure carried by them differs (although it would be best to solve that problem as well). We must pay attention to the A's of infrastructure: aesthetics, access, and affordability. If we fail, our technological societies might very well come tumbling down. We will devote more space, time, and energy to providing and maintaining infrastructure than to the services they are intended to provide.

The infrastructure of our computer technology can be overwhelming. My computer's infrastructure gets more complex each year, and all this complexity requires attention: upgrades and security modifications; password changes for many accounts; an up-to-date list of passwords synchronized across all my computers; the need to reboot, defragment, do continual scans for viruses and malcontent software; the need to renew batteries and accounts and file backups. It seems that every day I spend considerable time on infrastructure.

Because the ability to maintain infrastructure is seldom designed with care, each simple activity can become daunting. Each new device requires installation, complete with registration, agreeing to unread but undoubtedly onerous legal conditions, and finding space and sockets for all the communication and power cables. Did I mention that these invariably require stopping all work, saving everything, and rebooting, after typing in a long, complex registration number?

I am reminded of the ways in which our physical infrastructures get modified. No sooner does a street get paved than a new set of workers arrives to cut holes and trenches into it so they can add their own sub-street layers. Each trench requires a myriad of permissions. The trench is dangerous, so warning signs must be posted. In some cases, the signs themselves can be dangerous, so they require attention-drawing flashing lights. Even that is not enough, so sometimes it is necessary to add signs warning of the warning signs.

Infrastructure is taken for granted, but it's time to pay it as much attention as the primary applications. Otherwise, maintaining the infrastructure will itself become our primary activity. In an earlier column I proclaimed Norman's Law:

The number of hours per day spent maintaining our equipment doubles every 18 months.

Spend an hour a day maintaining infrastructure, and within five iterations—slightly over seven years—the day will be completely filled.

It is time to work on our infrastructure, which threatens to dominate our lives with ugliness, frustration, and work. We need to spend more time on infrastructure design. We need to make it more attractive, more accessible, and easier to maintain. Infrastructure is intended to be hidden, to provide the foundation for everyday life. If we do not respond, it will dominate our lives, preventing us from attending to our priority concerns and interests. Instead, we'll just be keeping ahead of maintenance demands.

We must turn our attention to infrastructural needs. We must insist on standards, or where we lack the political power to enforce them, invent methods that allow competing systems to coexist without a proliferation of technologies.

back to top  References

1. Hayes, B. Infrastructure: A Field Guide to the Industrial Landscape. New York: W.W. Norton, 2005.

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Don Norman wears many hats, including cofounder of the Nielsen Norman group, professor at Northwestern University, visiting professor at KAIST (South Korea), and author. His latest book is The Design of Future Things. He lives at

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back to top  Figures

F1Figure 1. Taxicab Fare-paying Infrastructure in Korea. (from the center bottom, moving up) The pad where one touches a credit or transportation card with transaction chip; the taxi meter, with calculator keypad for entering the amount of cash payment; the pad where one touches the transaction-enabled cell phone; just to its right, the credit card–reading device for normal credit cards with magnetic stripe, complete with keypad, which I assume is for manual entry or security codes; just above the credit card reader, a printer to provide receipts for any of the payment methods; at the very top center, the navigation system, this time displaying map information instead of a television show. I have skipped over the auto's infrastructure, including radio, tape, and CD player, HVAC controls, shifting controls, and steering wheel, all of which are also visible in this photograph.

F2Figure 2. Nature as Infrastructure. An intersection in Korea.

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