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Computing companies urged to simplify

To get better, computers are going to have to get simpler and be more "human-centered," says author Donald Norman at the Embedded Processor Forum.

SAN JOSE, California--To get better, computers are going to have to get a lot simpler.

So said Donald Norman, author of The Invisible Computer and a consultant with the Nielsen Norman Group, today at the Embedded Processor Forum here, a three-day event for designers of the chips that go into everything from game consoles to cell phones.

"Embedded processors promise a revolution in consumer goods, but only if you adopt human-centered design philosophy," he told the engineers, marketing executives, and others in attendance.

The mass market is driven by consumer needs, not the development of new technology, Norman said of Silicon Valley's tendency to sell products based on an ever-expanding, and often confusing, list of features. Among those needs: a desire for entertainment, leisure, and ongoing education. Devices that address these needs--such as a device that synchronizes schedules for all family members and keeps them in communication with each other--have huge potential, he said, pointing to the growing popularity of pagers and cell phones.

An era of what Norman terms "always on, real-time" communication afforded by cable and DSL service will also become a larger factor in another decade or so, offering the opportunity to create devices for specific uses in different areas of the home, such as televisions with Web browsers integrated into the set. To date, however, computer companies have failed to tap into the mass market, he asserted, in part due to the complexity of the systems they have designed.

"There is a massive change underway fueled by a revolt against complexity and unreliability of the PC," Norman said.

Microsoft was noted as a company that listens too much to customers and designs in more features than they can ever use, driving up overall system complexity. Conversely, the PalmPilot devices from 3Com's Palm Computing were hailed as examples of good designs that employ technology appropriate for a limited set of tasks.

"We are in the age of consumer-driven markets, but we're not delivering the right products," Norman said. Yet, in spite of numerous examples of confusing products and bad design, technology companies are still making money, so the impetus to change remains muted.

The lack of what Norman calls "human-centered design" will increasingly become a problem for high-technology companies as the market for their goods converts from one driven by technology driven one to one centered around customer needs. Already, some signs of this trend are cropping up, as a number of PC companies are expanding the services that come bundled with a PC. Another sign: processors can now give information appliances enough power to do their tasks well, he said.

Still, the products are too complex to reach mass market penetration, Norman suggested. So who will design information appliances of the future?

Sony and Philips are two companies doing a reasonably good job of designing consumer electronics products, although the final output from both still lack in certain ideal qualities, he said. Disney, America Online, and Procter & Gamble were cited as examples of companies that understand what motivates consumers on an emotional level, and are well suited to designing easy-to-use information appliances.