Don Norman on Digital Age - brief notes

Lloyd Wood (
Wed, 3 Mar 1999 22:07:07 +0000 (GMT)

Notes on the fourth Innovation Lecture & Inaugural Lecture for The
Digital World Research Centre <>,
University of Surrey.

Professor Donald Norman, Apple Fellow (University of California,
<>), Wednesday, 3rd March 1999, 5.30pm. "Why is
Everything so Complicated in the Digital Age?"

Points he made, in brief, roughly chronologically:

Norman says he's for for-profit education, selling courses to
companies for lifelong learning, and he's involved with companies
doing that. Worryingly, that got a lot of nods among the audience. I
swear, the UK education system is going to short-term US hell, where
you learn nothing much in your twenties but lifelong learning will
supposedly make up for it; the needs of industry are paramount.

Trotted out Moore's Law, which really needs retiring since it's past
its sell-by date, if you ask me. What will you do with a computer one
thousand times more powerful in fifteen years' time? Specialist vs
general devices; good specialist devices are what's needed.

Technical development isn't the problem. Social, communication are the
problems. Not what we've got, but how it gets implemented and used.

There's a lack of good conceptual models for interfaces; building your
own mental models of behaviour of digital devices is tricky, and
design criteria often favour form over usability. This was illustrated
by a salt and pepper shaker - how do you know which is which? - and
then a discussion of that old favourite, the nuclear power plant
control room. Improvements in said control rooms and in cockpits were
cited - Norman claimed there weren't any crashes on
commercially-scheduled flights last year, which caused me to do a
double-take (SwissAir? Far eastern flights?), but presumably he was
talking about internal US flights.

I had to do some mental gear-shifting when he started talking about
how hard early phonographs were to use, too. And, speaking of
gear-shifting, when he talked about how easy a car was to
drive: complex car versus simple unicycle, which is far simpler in
constructon but is much harder to master.

['Easy to drive' may be for US automatics, but here we have driving
lessons, narrow roads, and gears - and nothing much happens if you
fall off a unicycle, whereas cars do things like explode if you steer
them into walls. 'Easy' includes weak penalties for things going
wrong, and then there's cognitive load, which is why driving a car is
so tiring. Lousy shallow example that doesn't hold up to inspection,
if you ask me.]

The best technology isn't technology, and isn't sold around its
technology. Illustrated by watch branding as an item of jewellery, as
the technology is invisible. He discussed SMH, owners of Swatch and
other brands.

[No mention of that counterintuitive Internet Time though, but then
this wasn't Negroponte - Swatch's latest website wheeze is sending
voice recordings and 130-character (GSM SMS length) messages into
space, by the way.
Use this when content exists (?) Would you buy a watch from these

No mention of iMacs as an attempt to move computing into a similar
mature-product post-technical-features phase. In fact, he didn't
mention Apple at all. Well, they're just another middling computer
company with badly-designed hardware and overly complex
impossible-to-use unstable software that is going to hell these days.

Human-centred design is needed, using cognitive engineering. 75% of
accidents are attributed to human error, and there's a tendency to
blame the human as the cause. A tailored-to-the-audience example
given: a satellite launch goes off-course, because digits are
transposed, and has to be blown up (Don mentioned a Russian launch,
but leaving a minus sign out of Mariner 3's launch sequence also
sprang to mind) - human error, human gets disciplined, even though
transposition errors are unavoidable human behaviour. If the same
result occurred due to noise in the circuit, you'd redesign the
circuit - process engineering should be designed around the human as
an invariant; work should be adopted to humans in the intellectual
age, rather than humans adopted to work as in the mechanical age.
(replace 'work' with 'education' and that reads a bit worryingly, if
you ask me.)

Electronic books - Norman is involved with one company, doing lots of
user testing, figuring out good user-centred product design, etc. In
the meantime, three other companies are marketing (worse?) products,
trying to find a business model that works. There's a gap between the
two approaches that needs to be bridged, which is where
cross-discipline cognitive engineers - social science background,
practical implementation-driven bent - come in.

[Great idea. Unfortunately, all the social scientists I know do
social sciences because they don't like, care for or can't do
engineering/sciences. Norman's background is masters in
engineering then a jump into social psychology for his PhD, so I
think he's preaching to the wrong crowd. He should be talking at
engineers who have started finding people more interesting and
easier to work with than boxes, if you ask me - but then my viewpoint
is equally biased. I'm with Heinleing: an engineer can learn the
fuzzy stuff, but the reverse is much harder.]

Three to five people is an effective number for a group. The Mythical
Man Month got a mention. Universities got criticised for always
favouring theory over implementation; people doing implementations get
sneered at. Yup, Norman's got an engineering background, all right.
Bet he laughs at Dilbert, too.

Social sciences have problems, not least of which is physics envy and
the desire to stick 'science' in the title, but they need to
understand people and behaviour and communicate that to different
disciplines - engineers, designers, and given the DWRC sponsors,
the four cellphone manufacturers whose representatives were present.
Cognitive engineering, an angle on the problem Norman's spent most of
his life evangelising as a new field, got a few more mentions.

Emphasis on mature viewpoints rather than that of a 22-year-old
designer enthralled by neat features - but then Norman is looking a
bit greyhaired himself these days.

Interesting if abstract talk - no slides, although the lights dimmed
halfway through at 6pm and then rose again, which turned out to be due
to 'smart lighting' in the new lecture hall that senses movement, and
everyone was sitting still at six.

[My thought: wouldn't infra-red detection of body heat work better?
Or of audible noise? Norman's comment: 'Why is it called smart'? A
sleeping student wouldn't need light, but hey, it's a lecture hall
after all. I think Norman should spend some time in France, seeing
corridor lights that turn off as you're halfway down them - my
experience in ENST, Supaero, INRIA etc. French regimentation over
and above fluorescent ballast power/lifetime considerations.]

All in all, I'm wasn't surprised by anything said. I was surprised by
the reaction of the audience to what he said; it's almost as if they'd
never heard of any of this stuff before. Now _that_ I find scary.


but I'm not sure _why_. Maybe it's because they're simply more human.