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Tech design with thought

Don Norman, human-computer interaction expert and author, shares his vision for The Design of Future Things.

If anyone knows a thing or two about designing for human-computer interaction, it's Don Norman, professor at Northwestern University, author of The Design of Future Things, and co-founder of the Nielsen Norman Group.

In addition to his current consulting work for leading tech companies and car manufacturers, Norman was vice president of the Advanced Technology Group at Apple, a company known for its ability to design well for the masses.

Norman took time from his busy schedule and book tour to give CNET a piece of his mind when it comes to what designers and developers are doing right, what they're overlooking, and what consumers can expect in their tech futures.

Q: So, when do we get rid of the mouse?
Norman: Why is there a need to get rid of something if it works well?...The issue here actually is not so much the mouse, as any task that requires sustained periods of repetitive operations. The real question is how do we interact with our technologies? The keyboard is still the best means of entering text, and selection is still best done by pointing.

What's the potential for the and Microsoft?
Norman: The touch-sensitive screen is really great for some things, but not for everything. In graphic operations where you want to manipulate but also position on the screen and maybe rotate, and in applications where many people wish to do operations at the same time. (It could be) good for collaborative problem solving, (but it's) not a tool that will replace everything.

With desktop widgets, skinnable programs and Web 2.0 apps, software is deviating from one centrally mandated look and feel. Is this a problem for human-computer interaction?
Norman: What's important is how easy these systems are to learn, and as long as they use the same principles of operation there's no problem. I don't see that the Web 2.0 interfaces or multitouch technology offer any major deviation from what we're all used to. When done well, these systems are quite compatible, easy to learn, and add more joy and power to the interaction.

Much of today's shopping is done online where the consumer doesn't actually see a product first-hand. Many make purchasing decisions based on the amount of features crammed into one product. How do designers and manufacturers teach people to appreciate quality over quantity of features?
Norman: I have a friend in the business--I won't give you his name, but he works for one of the largest software companies--who complains that, as far as he can tell, it's a law that every year we add more features and more buttons and make it more complicated, and it's because the people insist on it...What we've learned to do is go look up the reviews and get both professional reviews and also user reviews. Don't you do that?

Absolutely. I mean, I work for CNET.
Norman: I've spent a lot of time on CNET Reviews, but part of the problem I discovered is that the reviewers aren't normal people; they're enthusiasts. I mean that's why they're a reviewer...I see this when I read the computer reviews, cell phone reviews, and so on. The people who write them are often experts on all the competing products and, therefore, tend to move us to feature-itus. These are very well-intentioned, intelligent people such as you. But you can't help but compare it with some other product you just recently experienced and say, "Well, this doesn't have that."

Name some changes you expect to see in humans as a result of our increased involvement with computers, electronics, and robots.
Norman: For years I used to say, "We shouldn't have to adapt to technology, it should adapt to us." I now believe that's wrong. We shouldn't have to adapt to arbitrary technology. On the other hand, so much of our modern life has been a major adaptation to the technology surrounding us, whether it's heating systems, lights, telephone, or television.

If you'd asked me to predict texting I'd have said, "No, it's really too hard. Jeesh, you need to type three times to get a 'C.' That's ridiculous." Not only did people learn it, but (they) learned it so well...So, there's an adaptation for you.

Now, just as an aside, I think it has not to do with the age...I think it has to do with how you live your life...In my case, it was easy because I grew up helping develop the technology so I learned it as it was developed. For many, it suddenly sprung on them and it's true, it's hard to keep up.

As people, we should not care about the technology. We should care about the benefits it gives us.

The issue is not how tech-savvy you are, or how quick you pick up to it. I believe these are things that often take many hours to master...You just didn't want to spend the next 20 hours of your life mastering it. But a lot of the kids, they have that kind of time to devote to it.

Younger people aren't getting it quicker? They just take the time to learn it?
Norman: That's what I think.

Can you give some concrete examples of the new kind of adults that we're going to see because of changes in technology?
Norman: Heavier use, heavier social networking where we don't lose track of friends.

It's going to bring people together?
Norman: People are always in touch with each other now; it doesn't matter where you are anymore.

Second, the separation between personal life and work is disappearing...People often complain they're expected to do work seven days a week no matter where they are, no matter what time it is. That's true, but I think that's OK if I can do personal things no matter where I am seven days a week, no matter what time. Now many companies still don't get that, but people do. That's why they do instant messaging and Internet shopping at work.

Let me say this is not novel. This is the way it used to be.

Norman: Before the industrial revolution, the whole family sewed, did carpentry, or farmed or whatever was going on as needed...It was only the development of the factory, the industrialized revolution, then later the white collar revolution that everybody had to be in their offices at the same time.

But guess what? We're now in a world society. Making sure we're all in the office at the same time assumes we're all in the same time zone...I think we'll find interesting mixes of scheduled activities where everyone must be encountered in more flex time, more flexibility.

Do you think things are going to move to servers and the Cloud or a personal laptop that also supports work?
Norman: Why do you care is the point?...We, as people, we should not care about the technology. We should care about the benefits it gives us...We'll probably always carry our own cell phone with us, but there'll be "the cloud in the sky" so no matter where we are, we can...access the same information. I think there'll be some mix.

What kind of long-term health issues can information workers expect as a result of bad design?
Norman: The couch potato comes into the office...We are in danger of becoming a sedentary society.

What's the biggest challenge automakers face as they look to implement more computer control devices into cars?
Norman: They have implemented quite successfully the computerization of the engine...Anti-skid braking and stability controls are computer controlled and done very well.

The difference is when there's a control issue. When the car decides you're going too fast, drifting out of your lane...and starts exerting its own control, that's where the problems come...Lane keeping I think is a good thing, but use it as a warning device, not as a control device.

There are lots of cases where this so-called intelligence fails because it's not intelligence, it's guessing. So I am a fan of complete automation...This intermediate stage is what's dangerous. What if I'm deliberately drifting out of the lane?

You mean swerving around something? I'm trying to think of a situation where you wouldn't put your blinker on and drift.
Norman: Now come on, most people change lanes without signaling with their blinker.

Well, they should. Maybe consumers have to adapt in exchange for these conveniences?
Norman: What we really want is if the car is going to do it, fine, let the car do it, keep the person out of the way. Or if the person is going to do it, let the person do it and keep the car out of the way. In the automobile, you have an ill-trained driver with maybe a half-second to respond...So, no wonder the people would like to automate it. I think that's a good thing, but the in-between stages could make things more dangerous.

In 2020, there will be all sorts of new things--some of which we can't even imagine today--that will both delight us and frustrate us.

You talk about a cacophony of signals and a need for more natural warnings. Explain what you mean by that.
Norman: I was actually on a talk show this morning and they asked me the same question and it suddenly occurred to me what the perfect example was (pause...then loudly closes a door). What did you hear?

A bang? Maybe a door closing?
Norman: It wasn't "beep, beep, beep" that you knew means I closed the door. It just automatically was a bang of a door opposed to some engineer saying, "Oh! When we reach this stage, it's probably important, so I better signal the person and where can I find a really cheap signal?"

Many signals have nothing to do with anything whatsoever.
Norman: It's completely arbitrary and we have to learn it...At a hospital recently, I was standing in the hall talking to some physicians. Out of the speakers above our head was "beep, beep, beep" so I asked, "What do those sounds mean?" They said, "Oh, nobody knows so we just ignore them."

What do you do when you're dealing with the computer interface?
Norman: When I drop something in the trashcan both Apple and Microsoft now have a sound like you're crushing a piece of paper and dropping in the trashcan...Almost everything else could have natural displays or natural sounds. And not everything should be a sound by the way; sounds can be very annoying.

Paint for me what a high-tech house will look like in 2020.
Norman: The home in 2020, don't forget was built in what was built now. So a lot of the stuff would be kludged together.

Rather than talking about what my house would be like, I'll tell you what my life will be like. More and more of my time is spent rebooting my house. Today, you call in a carpenter, painter, drywaller, plumber, and electrician. Well, add to the list, your information and technology expert, automation expert, audiovisual television expert, and maybe even kitchen appliances expert.

Are we going to just accept, "Well, this is just what's going to happen if we want these things," or will this movement to make things that are less intrusive take off?
Norman: A lot of the things that we are frustrated by today will be perfected and work quietly and efficiently in the background, just like we really wish. But guess what? In 2020, there will be all sorts of new things--some of which we can't even imagine today--that will both delight us and frustrate us, that will offer great benefits and will continually fail, or be confusing or interact in strange ways. So, you want my definition of technology?

Norman: What is technology? It's what people build. Everything is technology. Your clothes are technology, your watch is technology, your house is...

I don't have a watch, but, OK.
Norman: Yeah. You use a cell phone.