Living with Complexity

Geoffrey K. Pullum is in sympathy with a lucid account of how ingenious design can simplify life

January 27, 2011

Preparing to lecture at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics, I face a projector control panel with two buttons and the label PAUSE below them. The ON button is illuminated. Does this indicate the current state, telling me the projector is on? (It doesn't seem to be.) Or does it signal the relevant action, meaning the projector is off, so I should press ON? And wait...why does the label below say PAUSE? Does ON put the pause function on, making the projector temporarily off?

Donald Norman has stood at such consoles. He is a cognitive scientist who worked for Apple, and he has written half a dozen books on technology and design and taught at several US universities. He analyses the design of complex artefacts and systems, and the ways we let design fight against our complex tool use. He writes lucidly enough to be read by a child of 10 - yet interestingly enough to entrance an adult who (like me) has reviled the frustrations of our technological environment for decades.

By my bed is an alarm-clock radio with 15 buttons on the front, bearing tiny labels pertaining to two or three different functions each. To shift from preset radio station 1 to preset station 2, the command syntax is: Row 2 Column 1 then Row 1 Column 4 then Row 1 Column 3. Try that in the dark.

Norman has slept beside similar inscrutably interfaced design disasters, and works to warn people of the impractical and ugly complexity in the products they make or tolerate.

Deep and enjoyably nail-hitting insights and recommendations fill his book. Yet it induced deep melancholy in me. Norman hears the music, but the world does not. The flood of maldesigned junk persists.

Norman once proposed to the organisers of a design competition that the objects the jury judged should be set up and positioned for actual use, with plugs and cables attached and visible. They smiled indulgently and ignored him. Messy tangles of wires and disastrous inaccessibility of crucial sockets and switches on the back were not going to figure as design issues; juries would continue assessing the elegance of isolated non-functioning boxes on plinths.

Do not imagine that Norman thinks the world should be simpler. He sees complexity as good: we need it. His point is that devices can and should be designed for elegant handling of the irreducible complexity of modern life. There are ways to manage complexity.

Often he sees complexity where some wrongly see simplicity. The book's cover shows a ceramic salt and pepper set. Which shaker is which? You can't tell (people check by shaking a bit into their palm). Some think the one with more holes is the salt, and the others think it is obviously the pepper. You have to know the beliefs of the person who filled the things in order to know how to use them. The potentially simple has been made confusing. (Norman's suggestion: transparent casings.)

Botched design impedes our lives daily. And we tolerate it rather than rising up in revolt. I constantly marvel at people's willingness to be content with workarounds. (Admit it: haven't you sometimes deleted a paragraph and retyped because you couldn't get Microsoft Word to stop mis-formatting it?)

If you resonate with what I've said, you will like Norman's calm voice, keen observations and sage counsel about what could be done. Read his book.

And weep; for it may be just the three of us - you, me and Donald Norman - who hear the music.

Living with Complexity

By Donald A. Norman

MIT Press, 280pp, £18.95

ISBN 9780262014861

Published 10 December 2010

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