2 December 2006

Donald Norman on the design of future things

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Donald Norman's Horse and Rider
Donald Norman has posted a draft of the first chapter of his new book “The Design of Future Things”.

The book will be published by Basic Books, probably in early 2008. According to Norman it is about the ever-increasing role of automation in our homes and automobiles, why it is being done so badly, with suggestions for doing it right through what he calls “natural interaction”.

Entitled “Cautious Cars and Cantankerous Kitchens: How Machines Take Control“, the first chapter aims to set out the driving questions of the book: “As we start giving the objects around us more initiative, more intelligence, and more emotions and personality, what does this do to the way we relate with one another? What has happened to our society when we listen to our machines more than people?”

Some quotes from the first chapter:

“We fool ourselves if we believe we communicate with machines. Those who design advanced technology are proud of the communication capabilities they have built into their systems. The machines talk with their users, and in turn their users talk with their machines. But closer analysis shows this to be a myth. There is no communication, not the real, two-way, back-and-forth discussion that characterizes true dialog, true communication. No, what we have are two monologues, two one-way communications. People instruct the machines. The machines signal their states and actions to people. Two monologues do not make a dialogue.”

“As our technology becomes more powerful, more in control, its failure at collaboration and communication becomes ever more critical. Collaboration requires interaction and communication. It means explaining and giving reasons. Trust is a tenuous relationship, formed through experience and understanding. With automatic, so-called intelligent devices, trust is sometimes conferred undeservedly. Or withheld, equally undeservedly. The real problem, I believe, is a lack of communication. Designers do not understand that their job is to enhance the coordination and cooperation of both parties, people and machines. Instead, they believe that their goal is to take over, to do the task completely, except when the machine gets into trouble, when suddenly becomes the person’s responsibility to take command.”

“More and more, our cars, kitchens, and appliances are taking control, doing what they think best without debate or discussion. […] The problem is the lack of dialogue, the illusion of authority by our machines, and our inability to converse, understand, or negotiate.”

“Successful dialogue requires a large amount of shared, common knowledge and experiences. It requires appreciation of the environment and context, of the history leading up to the moment, and of the many differing goals and motives of the people involved. But it can be very difficult to establish this shared, common understanding with people, so how do we expect to be able to develop it with machines? No, I now believe that this “common ground,” as psycholinguists call it, is impossible between human and machine. We simply cannot share the same history, the same sort of family upbringing, the same interactions with other people. But without a common ground, the dream of machines that are team players goes away. This does not mean we cannot have cooperative, useful interaction with our machines, but we must approach it in a far different way than we have been doing up to now. We need to approach interaction with machines somewhat as we do interaction with animals: we are intelligent, they are intelligent, but with different understandings of the situation, different capabilities. Sometimes we need to obey the animals or machines; sometimes they need to obey us. We need a very different approach, one I call natural interaction.”

Norman goes on to ask what it would mean to have a graceful symbiosis of people and technology, and argues for a more natural form of interaction, “an interaction that can take place subconsciously, without effort, whereby the communication in both directions is done so naturally, so effortlessly, that the result is a smooth merger of person and machine, jointly doing the task.”

Read first chapter

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