Donald Norman makes the point in 'Living with Complexity' that complex technology is an inevitable part of our lives and we wouldn't have it any other way.
That may sound counterintuitive to anyone who's ever cursed their remote control or slammed a computer mouse, but it's true. All things being equal, people nearly always choose a feature-rich item over a less-featured alternative. We market products by stressing new features that provide ever more functionality along with, inevitably, more complexity. I doubt a software vendor has ever touted their latest release as, 'containing even fewer features than our prior version'.
We all want functionality in our cars, software, and household appliances. We want the convenience of automated services and the ability to carry our electronic lives around in the palms of our hands. But we also want all of this technology to be understandable and this is the challenge of 'human-centered' design, as Norman calls it.
The problem is, too often, technology frustrates and confounds, not because of its inherent complexity, but because of poor design that neglects or disregards human behavior. People routinely and successfully drive cars, purchase tickets from kiosks, fly aircraft, and use complex graphics and audio software, demonstrating it's possible to design advanced technology in such a way that promotes effective learning and use.
In contrast, even simple technology such as salt and pepper shakers can be confusing if their contents are not easily distinguished. It's not a question of equating the importance of applying salt to flying a plane; it's the cumulative effect of living in a world where technologies of all stripes often appear indifferent or adversarial rather than assistive and even `social'.
For my generation, I suppose programming the VCR is the iconic example of struggling with bad design.
And just to show that being a design guru doesn't grant immunity from the effects of bad design, Norman describes his own frustrating experience saving configured sound parameters on his wife's electronic piano, with particular animus for the designers.
The book includes a number of entertaining stories of the author's exploits pointing out (often to no avail) such design flaws and their effect on user experience.
The result of all this confusion is the conventional wisdom that simple is always better than complex. Norman makes a very persuasive case that simple vs. complex is a false choice. What we humans naturally seek is a mid point between simplicity and complexity - too simple equals boring while too complex equals confusing and frustrating. Furthermore this middle ground will shift over time as our knowledge and experience grow. Norman worked at Apple and I enjoyed his discussion concerning why Apple at first chose a single button mouse at a time when PCs were new to most users and only later changed to a multi-button mouse as the average user gained more experience.
'Living With Complexity' is not a textbook in the classic sense of exercises and chapter summaries. It reads more like a personal meditation on how we interact with the technological world and how technology can be made more responsive to human behavior.
The ideas are much broader that simply how to build better gadgets. It was eye-opening to read Norman's views about how technology is used to coerce and maintain societal behavior. The chapter on social signifiers, such as ground lines that guide pedestrian and vehicle traffic, literally changed the way I view these commonplace markings. And discovering the not-so-universal attitude towards waiting in line might cause you to reconsider that visit to a Euro-mega-theme-park during busy season. There's an entire chapter on designing waiting environments to better meet expectations and provide a fair experience - retailers should buy the book for this alone.
Best of all, the author's writing itself is `well-designed': energetic, clear, crisp and direct.
There's so much to take away and ponder it's difficult to sum up. But one thing's for sure, after reading 'Living With Complexity' you'll never look at those salt and pepper shakers on a restaurant table quite the same way again.
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