Crossing the thresholds of indignation and inclusiveness

XV.2 March + April 2008
Page: 70
Digital Citation

(P)REVIEW: The design of future things

Gerard Torenvliet

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Don Norman
Basic Books, 2007
ISBN 978-0-465-00227-6

Reviewed by Gerard Torenvliet

When I was in university studying human-computer interaction, the first paper that I ever wrote was a review of automation issues in the design of air-craft cockpits. One author cited was Don Norman, then a cognitive psychologist at the University of California, San Diego (he is now at Northwestern University). While other researchers were arguing that development had to be slowed because automation had come too far, too fast, Norman instead argued that most problems with automation had arisen because the field hadn't progressed far enough. He thought that the advanced automation of the day was unable to provide the rich and nuanced feedback required for it to be a true partner with pilots in the cockpit. This argument made sense to me, but at the time I concluded that Norman's perspective would be difficult to apply as of the early 1990s. As my freshman pen put it, "Norman's solutions lie in the future."

Fourteen years later Norman and I are still in a dialogue about automation. I now make a living thinking about how to design work support (which includes automation) for pilots, and he's making a living thinking about the future. When I heard that Norman was releasing a book to help everyday people understand and demand more of the increasingly automated technology that the future will offer, my interest was piqued. I wanted to see if Norman would be able to do for the design of future things what he so successfully did for the design of everyday things in his 1998 book of the same name. In The Design of Everyday Things, he helped to make complex topics in cognitive psychology and product design accessible to the general reader, while at the same time prompting specialists to see connections they may not have noticed before. Would Norman's secret sauce be strong enough to do the same for the challenging issues involved in the design and use of advanced automation and intelligent machines?

Norman starts his investigation of the design of future things by taking a frank look at the advanced technologies that already surround us. He admires the ways in which technology has helped to improve our lives, while at the same time giving the reader eyes to see the limitations of these same technologies more clearly. Instead of griping about supposed "bad design" (a strange expertise possessed by design experts), Norman's tone is supportive; he points out problems only to make the reader a part of the solution. The emergent thesis is that humans and technology are doomed to be locked in a bad marriage until we come to terms with the fundamental and unchangeable limitations of our relationship. Technologists aspire to create a dialogue between humans and machines, but a prerequisite for dialogue is a common understanding of context. Norman thinks that machines will never be able to develop an understanding of context anywhere as deep, broad, and flexible as humans, nor do they have rich enough means of communication. So our marriage is one with monologues from the machine being met by monologues from us. Dialogue will never result, because two monologues don't equal a dialogue.

Without dialogue between us and our machines, it often feels as if they control us. Norman argues that this is a natural consequence of machines being weak. Their weakness means that they lack flexibility, and this forces us into conforming to their one best way of doing things. The more powerful a machine is, the more it is able to conform to humans, allowing humans to set the terms the relationship, to be in control. So the diagnosis is clear: Because even future things will lack the power to establish an effective dialogue with us, the promise of technology will always be accompanied by problems, and we humans will feel—to a lesser or greater extent—out of control.

Even though Norman doesn't believe that a cure is possible (or even desirable—just review 2001: A Space Odyssey to see why the cure might be worse than the disease), he believes that things could be much better than they are today. If the design of new technologies were informed by technology's fundamental limitations, the effects of many of those limitations could be mitigated, and even turned to good. Norman's overall design thesis is that designs need to become more "natural," where natural means a move away from the binary and discrete realm of computer logic to the rich and dynamic realm of human experiences. For example, while the electronic kettle circa 2008 might signal boiling water via a beep or a click, the good old-fashioned steam kettle circa 1850 signals boiling water via a whistle that builds from low and quiet to high and piercing. Norman doesn't want us to throw out digital technology in exchange for steam, but in a world where everything beeps he'd like to see designers experiment with a richer palette of sounds [1].

To be sure, kettles are simple. That's why they're just a building block of Norman's design ideal, an ideal that allows for a natural symbiosis between human and machine. The best expression of this is the horse and rider, a system in which the delegation of authority and the communication of risk between horse and rider is natural and almost effortless. This ideal is lofty, but not too lofty: Norman shows how research into the horse and rider is changing the way designers today are thinking about the car of tomorrow.

One surprising thing about this book is that while it speaks to many current research issues in the realm of automation design (including inappropriate trust, skill-shift and loss, behavioral compensation, etc.), it isn't bullish about automation. Instead of automated systems whose design metaphor is taking over for humans, Norman argues for augmentative systems whose design metaphor is amplifying the capabilities and efforts of humans. These systems already have a strong track record, from recommender systems on shopping sites to co-bots that are used in industrial settings to help operators move items in a warehouse, and they show promise for much more. Norman doesn't discard automation as a design option, but clearly feels that augmentative technologies are closer to his ideal of symbiosis, and so have strong potential for application to the design of everyday things.

This focus on everyday things is perhaps the greatest strength of Norman's new book. Even though he discusses a lot of whiz-bang technology, it never seduces him. His clear interest is in providing better, simpler—yet more powerful—technologies to help people get from place to place, families to work together, and friends to share experiences. He follows through with useful (but high-level) design guidance that is applicable even today. Thankfully, even though this isn't an academic book, Norman is faithful to the academic literature. Sure, some will complain that a point has been missed, or a paper hasn't been cited—and they might be right—but that's missing the point. The contribution of this book comes from the way that Norman brings together such a broad range of research and insight into a reasonably unified structure, all written and packaged to be accessible to a general audience. In contrast to those journal papers he might not have cited, this book might actually get read, and might help everyday people to demand a future where instead of technology requiring respect, technology will instead respect its users.

And at the end of the day, I was comforted to see the lowly steam kettle feature prominently in a book about future things. No matter what the future has in store, it's good to know that one of its foremost prognosticators will always be grounded by making tea the old-fashioned way. Revisiting my freshman thoughts after reading this book, I can happily report that some of Norman's solutions lie not in the future, but in the past.

back to top  References

1. As an aside, moving beyond the beep can also make technologies more accessible. Most of us with adult hearing can localize sounds, so the beep of the coffee maker can be easily distinguished from the beep of the washing machine or the timer by location. If you are deaf in one ear (like my son) or wear a hearing aid (like my grandmother), localizing sound is much more difficult, and use of a richer, more natural palette of sounds would make life just a little bit easier.

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Gerard Torenvliet
Esterline CMC Electronics
[email protected]

About the Author

Gerard Torenvliet is a senior human factors engineer at Esterline|CMC Electronics, where he divides his time between applied research contracts and product design for customers in civil and military aviation, as well as research institutes.

Fred Sampson
[email protected]

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©2008 ACM  1072-5220/08/0300  $5.00

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