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.