Review of The Invisible Computer

Originally published in the Design Council’s Design magazine, 1999. The Invisible Computer: Why Good Products Can Fail, the Personal Computer Is So Complex, and Information Appliances Are the Solution Donald A. Norman (The MIT Press, Cambridge, 1998) [Amazon.co.uk / Goodreads]

Cover of The Invisible Computer

Have you driven a computer today? Not metaphorically, but really? You may not have, and if you had you certainly wouldn’t been aware of it. But if you have travelled in any mid-range car today you most likely harnessed more processing power than you have in your desktop computer. Quite rightly you thought of your transport as primarily a car, not a computer. We are all familiar with cars: we know what they do, why they are useful, and most of us know how to operate them. What is the interface to this high-powered computer? A steering wheel, brake and accelerator, controls for signalling and windscreen wipers, mileometer, speedometer, fuel gauge. No right mouse button clicks with the control key held down in this interface. And when you crash your car it won’t be because of a ‘general protection error’ — and you will need a garage, not a reboot.

Information appliances will fill the space currently occupied by the computing, communications and entertainment industries

For Donald Norman such a car is an example of an information appliance: a device that is enabled by computing power, is focused on a singular task, and has an interface whose learnability reflects the difficulty of the task, not the complexity of the underlying technology. And why should we care? Because information appliances, and the infrastructure associated with them, will fill the space currently occupied by the computing, communications and entertainment industries — and much territory beyond — in the next century. If your company is producing consumer IT there are important lessons to learn. Norman also argues that the way conventional IT products are currently developed (whether software or hardware) is technology led and must be reversed if companies are to produce products that meet consumers’ needs. Simplicity, versatility, pleasurability are his watchwords.

Norman is best known for his seminal book The Psychology of Everyday Things, the reflections of a Professor of Cognitive Science at the University of California at San Diego, on real-world interfaces (think: opening doors). For many years he was an Apple Fellow, heading up the company’s Research Laboratories. And most recently he was an executive at Hewlett-Packard, before partnering with fellow consultant Jakob Nielsen in the Nielsen-Norman Group. Norman was once referred to as the Ross Perot of interface design: the man who knew all of the problems, but none of the answers. In The Invisible Computer he lays the basis for getting to the right answers: how do IT companies become consumer products companies; how do they reorganise to promote human-centred design; what is user experience and how can it be incorporated into the design process; and why information appliances provide the route to happier customers?

If, as Norman contends, information appliances are the future of computing, why are we lumbered with PCs that have become so complex, yet are jacks of all trades with such a legacy of fixes and patches that they are on the verge of being redundant? He provides a convincing description of the modern computer industry still driven by technology, unable to put the users’ needs first, and convinced that the model that created their success will work in the future. An industry which pays all its attention to existing customers (who tend to be ‘technology addicts’ in corporate IT departments and aren’t even the end users), ignoring potential users who will always be a larger market. An industry where development is led by feature lists which (even when they were requested by customers) miss the interconnected nature of tasks, and even then get chopped from the back as shipping deadlines loom.

Mould-breaking new products are often scuppered because they undermine existing ones in another division, or they are marketed too broadly

Mould-breaking new products are often scuppered because they undermine existing ones in another division, or they are marketed too broadly and — being new and immature — get sucked in by the ‘gravity’ of other products with which they are unjustly compared. Norman sees these companies stuck in a riptide of technology-driven product deadlines from which, even if they recognise their situation, they are unable to escape. (He points out with irony that all the office-automation technologies — including email — that we are encouraged to use by IT executives they shield themselves from with layers of support staff.)

There are broader problems too. As with the IT executives, computing journalists who rave about the latest toys rarely have to live with them. Yet in an attempt to be objective about these products they promote meaningless benchmarks that intimidate users — and pan companies whose latest product doesn’t demonstrate cool new technology. This preoccupation with technology is in evidence throughout society, where we are led to believe we live in the technology age. What we call technology is, in fact, any product that doesn’t work properly; when we have mastered it, it just becomes a pencil and paper, a gas stove or a paper clip.

The social, cultural and organisational impact of technology (not its bare existence) are the really interesting developments, and we see little change today on the scale witnessed a century ago; we do however perceive change, as technology today is considered to be its sole agent. The final element is that ordinary people have such a tenuous engagement with society that they are willing to blame themselves for problems caused by poor design rather than demand better products. Norman argues that IT companies must move from being technology-driven to being consumer-driven if they are to survive. This will involve completely reorganising, giving equal priority to technology, design and marketing. The discipline of user experience will need to be developed within the companies and small teams formed across their hierarchies. It will also involve gathering appropriate market information, properly analysing users’ requirements (not trusting focus groups) and iterating designs at an early stage (customers don’t know what they want till they are shown something) when it is less expensive to make changes.

Norman realises that great design cannot save a product (even if it is backed with great technology) if it is not properly marketed

Although clearly an advocate of design, Norman realises that great design cannot save a product (even if it is backed with great technology) if it is not properly marketed. He cites the Apple Macintosh as an example of a product that, while it had a longer run than most, marketed itself out of the business domain and was squeezed as this domain converged with its strongholds in education and the home.

Norman suspects that most of our industry behemoths will fail to make the transitions he advocates and will go the way of corporate dinosaurs of the past. Those that do mature will become products and services companies, not technology companies, and will sell their core product at low margins, with a goal of supporting the total user experience. These companies will be selling information appliances that are a joy to use.

Clearly information appliances are already here in some forms, but they tend to be isolated from one another, and their most critical technologies — flat-screen displays, batteries and wireless communications — are not quite mature. To overcome their isolation international standards, and a supporting infrastructure, will need to be established. The precedents for such co-ordinated action are poor but sooner or later (and let’s make sure it is sooner) we will be able to forget about ‘technology’ and start enjoying its benefits.

Notes

The Invisible Computer documentation on Don Norman’s Web site, including excerpts from a number of chapters.

Originally published at www.spy.co.uk.

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Nico Macdonald

Nico Macdonald

Educator, facilitator and consultant on innovation and creativity. Tutor @CIEELondon @LSBU_ACI / External Examiner @CSM_news. BIG POTATOES manifesto co-author