Monday, January 24, 2011

The Design of Future Things, Chapter 1

Title: The Design of Future Things
Author: Donald A. Norman

Mr. Norman opens "The Design of Future Things" with a story about him and his wife as he is driving a car. He describes how his driving makes his wife uncomfortable but he only tells her to calm down, rather than drive safer. He then describes a similar scenario, except his wife's discomfort is replaced by the car's discomfort - it sounds alarms and tightens the seatbelts and performs all manner of actions to let him know his driving is dangerous. Mr. Norman proceeds to drive safer.

This example motivates the discussion that continues throughout the chapter. The point is that machines are becoming more interactive with humans. He gives several examples to support this point, some hypothetical and some anecdotal. Back to the car example, he describes a hypothetical car that might buck its driver in dangerous situations in the same way a horse might buck its rider. Other examples, such as smart houses, kitchen appliances, and even a toilet are given.

But there's more than just a statement of what is happening. Mr. Norman posits that this increasing interaction is not all good. The increasing reliance on machines causes both good and bad - because we are trying to use them to automate everything. Many tasks are made less tedious, are performed more efficiently, and are made safer by automation. Other tasks, when automated, can be dangerous - an example with 'smart' cruise control is provided to illustrate this assertion. Mr. Norman believes that continuing on this path toward machine autonomy and control is not the proper way to continue forward. He instead suggests that the proper approach to our increasing reliance on machines should be one of augmentation, rather than automation.

It wasn't the greatest opening, in my opinion, but it demonstrated his point clearly and had me thinking in the proper direction. I wasn't riveted, but I knew what to expect, and Mr. Norman jumped into the subject immediately. At times I felt he was beating the (zombie) horse a little - each of the sections in the chapter probably could have lost an example and the end result, with a little tweaking, would have been the same. Regardless though, he has stated his point clearly and supported it well enough that I'm open to reading more. I'm not sure if I agree with him, at this point in time. I need to read more.

When I read the part about how people are designing cars that give feedback to you based on their observations of a horse's feedback, I remembered this picture...

Problem solved.

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