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The Invisible Computer: Why Good Products Can Fail, the Personal Computer Is So Complex, and Information Appliances Are the Solution Hardcover – September 21, 1998

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Product Details

  • Series: Harvard Oriental Series; 52
  • Hardcover: 340 pages
  • Publisher: The MIT Press; First Edition edition (September 21, 1998)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0262140659
  • ISBN-13: 978-0262140652
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 0.6 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.3 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (25 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,613,466 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews Review

Currently, computer users must navigate a sea of guidebooks, frequently asked questions (FAQs), and wizards to perform a task such as searching the Web or creating a spreadsheet. While Donald Norman acknowledges that the personal computer allows for "flexibility and power," he also makes its limitations perfectly clear. "The personal computer is perhaps the most frustrating technology ever," he writes. "It should be quiet, invisible, unobtrusive." His vision is that of the "information appliance," digital tools created to answer our specific needs, yet interconnected to allow communication between devices.

His solution? "Design the tool to fit so well that the tool becomes a part of the task." He proposes using the PC as the infrastructure for devices hidden in walls, in car dashboards, and held in the palm of the hand. A word of caution: some of Norman's zealotry leads to a certain creepiness (global positioning body implants) and goofiness (electric-power-generating plants in shoes). His message, though, is reasonably situated in the concept that the tools should bend to fit us and our goals: we sit down to write, not to word process; to balance bank accounts, not to fill in cells on a spreadsheet. In evenly measuring out the future of humanity's technological needs--and the limitations of the PC's current incarnation--Norman presents a formidable argument for a renaissance of the information appliance. --Jennifer Buckendorff

From Publishers Weekly

The personal computer industry is still in its "rebellious adolescent stage," says Norman, who asserts that it is time for it to "grow up" and "enter the... world of consumer appliances"Aconvenient, versatile, pleasurable tools with potential to communicate with each other in a global information matrix. Norman (The Design of Everyday Things; Things That Make Us Smart), an established voice in the field, explains why and offers prescriptions for how such changes are to come about, together with specific ideas about what kinds of information devices might emerge. He synthesizes wisdom from the history of technology, industrial social sciences, product design and marketing to support his vision of information appliances. The key reform he advocates is human-centered product design emphasizing user experience in addition to technology and marketing considerations. Norman's provocative analysis is laced with analogies and anecdotes, and is augmented by 128 illustrations. Though all the subtitle's claims are addressed in distinct chapters, some portions seem superfluous. Because "usability often lies in the details," the argument can occasionally get bogged down in minutiae or broad-stroke summaries of motion study and other historical innovations. Stylistic glitches aside, however, Norman offers an enlightening and pragmatic account of the interrelated currents and riptides affecting product development in the computer/information industry. Readers who digest this analysis will be well rewarded.
Copyright 1998 Reed Business Information, Inc.

Customer Reviews

A very good book, in a very easy to read style.
Unfortunately, this part is the thinnest of all with only a few obvious examples.
Bruce McCarthy
I haven't finished reading this book but I needed to take time out to rant.

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

33 of 36 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on January 11, 1999
Format: Hardcover
His basic argument in this book is that the computer industry has matured to the point where it can no longer just cater to the early-adopter technologists and must appeal to the masses to continue growth. Unfortunately, the industry doesn't know how to do this and continues to deliver technology for technology's sake, leading to fat computers and technology that aren't that useful or appealing to most people, and are beginning to exhaust the technologists too. He introduces some recent, but standard models of technology adoption for discussing the problems, customer-centered design in cross-disciplinary teams (marketing, engineering, and user experience) for designing products that transcend the problems (explicitly discussing Contextual Design a few times), and "information appliances," multitudes of small, task-focused technology products that will replace our big, cumbersome, general-purpose (but not great at any) PCs.
Norman's forte is definitely cognitive and experimental psychology in product design, and not being a technological or product development process visionary. I found very little new or interesting content in the book, and I don't think he articulated even some of the derived ideas very well. The whole book could have been condensed into a long magazine article. His prose is wordy and redundant, and the book is regrettfully lacking in many of the detailed case studies and examples he's used in previous books to elucidate his ideas. I want the idiosyncratic and outspoken psychologist professor back, such as he was in The Design of Everyday Things, or the powerful academic argument of Things That Make Us Smart.
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21 of 23 people found the following review helpful By B. Scott Andersen on April 1, 2002
Format: Paperback
I'm a fan of Donald Norman's work so when I finally had a
chance to pick up "The Invisible Computer" I had high hopes.
Unfortunately, this work didn't provide the same insight and
focus as his previous books such as "The Design of Everyday
Throughout the work Norman draws upon "Crossing the Chasm"
and "Inside the Tornado: Marketing Strategies from Silicon
Valley's Cutting Edge" [both by Geoffrey Moore]. Also
heavily emphasized are the ideas put forth by "The
Innovator's Dilemma: When New Technologies Cause Great Firms
to Fail." All of these books are interesting--but I wanted
something from Norman himself.
Chapter 7, "Being Analog", was more in line with what I had
come to expect from Norman. He ends this chapter with this:
"Alas, most of today's machines, especially the computer,
force people to use them on their own terms, terms that are
antithetical to the way people work and think. The result is
frustration, an increase in the rate of error (usually
blamed on the user--human error--instead of on faulty
design), and a general turning away from technology. Will
the interaction between people and machines be done
correctly in the future? Might schools of computer science
start teaching the human-centered approach that is necessary
to reverse the trend? I don't see why not." That's what I'm
looking for! If only the rest of the book had followed that
Instead focusing on human factors and man-machine
interface issues, Norman wanders discussing substitutable
goods vs.
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11 of 11 people found the following review helpful By David Lenef on January 21, 2000
Format: Paperback
The book is a rallying cry for the technology industry, a call to arms for the geek troops. Sure, the writing is like a beta version that the publisher decided to go live with, but the essential concepts and emotion come through loud and clear.
Norman builds a solid foundation for his arguments, citing historical cases and several written works. The book was a fun, easy read. When I finished Invisible Computer, I felt the same sort of illumination and clarity that came after reading Alan Cooper's About Face.
His vision of ubiquitous information appliances and devices will undoubtedly come true in ways none of us can imagine. But what will become of the PC? Will I have 100 individual devices replacing the 100 software programs I have installed? Hardly. But the book doesn't really address the ongoing need for a general purpose computer.
In the end, I would recommend this book to anyone involved in technology. It definitely altered my personal perception of where tech products have come from and where they are headed. Time will tell if his ideas are strong enough to truly help shape the future of software and product development.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful By Alicia Crumpton on September 16, 2004
Format: Paperback
The content strives to support the design of information appliances due to the complexity of the computer coupled with creeping featurism. Human centered design must be used to overcome the increasing complexity.

Chapters 7 (Being Analog) and 8 (Why is Everything So Difficult to Use) are reminiscent of Things that Make Us Smart and The Design of Everyday Things also by Norman.

Chapters 9 and 10 focus on human centered development by defining it as a process and then describing 'immutable principles' that should apply. Six disciplines of user experience are identified.

As I progressed through the book, I had to continually return to the cover and back pages, rereading the title and description to remind myself of what the book is about. Read the two referenced books first!
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Most Recent Customer Reviews

More About the Author

Don Norman is a voyeur, always watching, always on the lookout for some common-day occurrence that everyone else takes for granted but that when examined, yields insight into the human condition. (If you are rushing to catch a train, how do you know if you got to the station on time? Empty platform? You probably are too late. People milling about, looking at their watches,peering down the tracks? Probably OK. Who needs technology when people are so informative, even if as an accidental byproduct of their activities.

Business Week has named him one of "the world's most influential designers," the influence from his books, essasys, courses and students, lectures, and consulting.

He takes special delight in the interaction of people and technology. "Develop the skill of observation," he councils: especially pay attention to the obvious. "Question the obvious and you will dis cover many hidden insights. What seems to be obvious often is not."

He is a fellow of many organizations and former lots of things, including VP at Apple Computer and even President of a startup. He has honorary degrees from the University of Padua (Italy) and the Technical University Delft (the Netherlands). He was awarded the Benjamin Franklin medal in Computer and Cognitive Science and is a member of the National Academy of Engineering. He is known for his books "The Design of Everyday Things," "Emotional Design," and "The Design of Future Things," but he is most proud of his students, now all over the world, who put into practice his human-centered design philosophy. his latest book is "Living with Complexity," which argues that complexity is necessary: Our tools must match our tasks. When people cry out for simplicity, they are wrong -- people want understanding. That is not the same as simplicity -- simple thing are often the most confusing.

He is currently revising "Design of Everyday Things" to keep the message the same but update the examples. Expected publication date is August 2013.

He lives at, where you can find chapters from his books and loads of essays.

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