Unintelligent Design

The New York Times has an interesting article on unintelligent design. No, this has nothing to do with the debate over creationism versus evolution, this is about lousy design in something really important: gadgets.

So the bad news is that despite two decades of lectures from Dr. (Donald) Norman on the virtue of “user-centered” design and the danger of a disease called “featuritis,” people will still be cursing at their gifts this Christmas.

And the worse news is that the gadgets of Christmas future will be even harder to command, because we and our machines are about to go through a rocky transition as the machines get smarter and take over more tasks. As Dr. Norman says in his new book, “The Design of Future Things,” what we’ll have here is a failure to communicate.

“It would be fine,” he told me, “if we had intelligent devices that would work well without any human intervention. My clothes dryer is a good example: it figures out when the clothes are dry and stops. But we are moving toward intelligent machines that still require human supervision and correction, and that is where the danger lies — machines that fight with us over how to do things.”

Can this relationship be saved? Until recently, Dr. Norman believed in the favorite tool of couples therapists: better dialogue. But he has concluded that dialogue isn’t the answer, because we’re too different from the machines.

You can’t explain to your car’s navigation system why you dislike its short, efficient route because the scenery is ugly. Your refrigerator may soon know exactly what food it contains, what you’ve already eaten today and what your calorie limit is, but it won’t be capable of an intelligent dialogue about your need for that piece of cheesecake.

It's actually an amusing, yet disturbing, read. Dr. Norman is not at all optimistic that designers of many of these gadgets will figure this problem out in the short term. Norman has spent two decades or more trying to get designers and engineers to design the human-machine interface in a way that makes sense to the end-user. It is an uphill battle at best, a losing one at worst. Gadgets just keep coming out that appear to have extra "features" tacked on for no apparent reason whatsoever. Fundamentally, however, the problem is not really the machine as much as it is the human element, of course.

“Our frustrations with machines are not going to be solved with better machines,” Dr. Norman said. “Most of our technological difficulties come from the way we interact with our machines and with other people. The technology part of the problem is usually pretty simple. The people part is complicated.”

Or, as I like to say, the nut behind the wheel is loose.

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One Response to Unintelligent Design

  1. H Chambers says:

    Don Norman was one of my favorite professors at UC San Diego in the 1970s. He was the featured speaker at our freshman and parent orientation and was totally absorbing. I still have the textbook from one of my classes, Human Information Processing, that he wrote involving early computer modeling of how the brain interprets sensory inputs. One of his later books, perhaps The design of Everyday Objects, was fascinating. He looked at safety data from aircraft accidents and nuclear incidents and realized that some controls were too similar so that ‘pilot or operator error’ was more likely to occur. Also, automated controls would compensate for problems without alerting the operator until the problem was a crisis with little time to react. On more mundane topics, he addressed such things as the design of stove top controls. The controls are usually placed 4 across, whereas burners are placed with two in the rear and two in front. I have all too often turned on the wrong burner because of the mismatch – poor design leading to operator error. Anyway, it’s nice seeing that he is still trying to promote the need of designers to better assess and actually design for real users.

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