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Living with Complexity

Living with Complexity

Donald A. Norman
Copyright Date: 2011
Published by: MIT Press
Pages: 312
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  • Book Info
    Living with Complexity
    Book Description:

    If only today's technology were simpler! It's the universal lament, but it's wrong. We don't want simplicity. Simple tools are not up to the task. The world is complex; our tools need to match that complexity. Simplicity turns out to be more complex than we thought. In this provocative and informative book, Don Norman writes that the complexity of our technology must mirror the complexity and richness of our lives. It's not complexity that's the problem, it's bad design. Bad design complicates things unnecessarily and confuses us. Good design can tame complexity.Norman gives us a crash course in the virtues of complexity. But even such simple things as salt and pepper shakers, doors, and light switches become complicated when we have to deal with many of them, each somewhat different. Managing complexity, says Norman, is a partnership. Designers have to produce things that tame complexity. But we too have to do our part: we have to take the time to learn the structure and practice the skills. This is how we mastered reading and writing, driving a car, and playing sports, and this is how we can master our complex tools. Complexity is good. Simplicity is misleading. The good life is complex, rich, and rewarding -- but only if it is understandable, sensible, and meaningful.

    eISBN: 978-0-262-29686-1
    Subjects: Technology, Art & Art History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Books by Donald A. Norman
    (pp. vii-ix)
  4. 1 Living with Complexity Why Complexity Is Necessary
    (pp. 1-31)

    The person in figure 1.1 sits unperturbed by the apparent chaos of his desk. How does he cope with all that complexity? I’ve never spoken with the person in the picture, Al Gore, former Vice President of the United States and winner of the Nobel Prize for his work on the environment; but I have talked with and studied other people with similar-looking desks, and they explain that there is order and structure to the apparent complexity. It’s easy to test: if I ask them for something, they know just where to go, and the item is retrieved oftentimes much...

  5. 2 Simplicity Is in the Mind
    (pp. 32-61)

    After Turin, Italy, was designated “Design Capital of the World,” I had to visit, in part to see their exhibition, and in part to be on a panel with Bruce Sterling, science fiction author and provocateur who was guest curator of their year-long design show. Before the panel started I meandered through the halls looking at the presentations. Sterling discovered me and declared that I had to see the exhibit by Chris Sugrue. “Why?” I asked. I had already passed by it: a computer display with moving creatures, each looking like the single-celled organisms one sees through a microscope in...

  6. 3 How Simple Things Can Complicate Our Lives
    (pp. 62-87)

    Complex things do not have to be confusing. Similarly, confusing things do not need to be complex. Even simple things can lead to bewilderment: doors, light switches, stovetops. It isn’t that any of these simple things is difficult to understand, it is that each seems to have its own way of working, so that when you first encounter yet another new example, it can be annoying and frustrating. A single example of a simple thing is just that: simple. But when there are many simple things, each with its own rules of operation, the result is complexity.

    Consider the locks...

  7. 4 Social Signifiers
    (pp. 88-109)

    Despite the complexity of the world, most of us manage to function quite successfully. We even manage well in novel situations, where we do not have the benefit of prior knowledge or experience. In part, this is through the subtle cues provided by the activities of others. People’s actions have side effects, leaving behind traces and trails of their activities that enable us to retrace their steps. Most of this is done without conscious awareness, but the side effects are important social signals: what I call “social signifiers.” Social signifiers allow us to navigate in otherwise complex, potentially confusing environments....

  8. 5 Design in Support of People
    (pp. 110-141)

    “Stupid machine,” I heard a woman shouting as I walked through the lobby of the building. She had parked her car in the garage and had now returned, ready to drive away. But first, she had to pay for the parking, using a machine thoughtfully set up in the lobby next to the elevators that would take her up to her car. All she had to do was insert her parking ticket into the machine, which would compute how much money she had to pay. Then she could pay by cash or credit, and the machine would validate the parking...

  9. 6 Systems and Services
    (pp. 142-181)

    Most of my work has been with computer and telecommunication companies and with startup firms that make use of these technologies. These companies manufacture electronic products: computers, cameras, cell phones, navigation systems, and so on. In the early days of these new technologies, people had enormous difficulties understanding and using them. These were interactive devices, where an action by a person would lead to a change of state of the machine and then the requirement to do some new action. In many cases the person and the device had to engage in a form of conversation in order to set...

  10. 7 The Design of Waits
    (pp. 182-219)

    A waiting line is a simple phenomenon, but even so, it can give rise to considerable complications, along with the resulting confusions, frustrations, and buildup of emotions. Unexplained waits are annoying; unfair waits can be anger inducing. A wait is always a sign of a bottleneck in processing, a place where there is more demand than can be accommodated. Waits are side effects of complex systems.

    There will be waits whenever one system has to send items or information to another. It doesn’t matter whether the interaction is between two organizations, two people, two machines, or a person and a...

  11. 8 Managing Complexity A Partnership
    (pp. 220-252)

    Complexity is both necessary and manageable: that is the message of this book. But complexity can overwhelm and frustrate us. So what should designers be doing to tame the complexity? And how do we cope with the complexity that remains? We’ve already covered the fundamentals: now is the time to put them together. It is important to recognize that this is a partnership between the designers and us. Designers can do their part, organizing and structuring the systems we deal with so that we can understand and learn them. But we too have to do our part: simplicity, after all,...

  12. 9 The Challenge
    (pp. 253-266)

    Complexity can be rewarding, but it is also a challenge. Complex activities, events, and objects can be deep and satisfying. Complexity provides for multiple experiences and opportunities for engagement. It is to be relished and sought after. But complexity by itself is not a virtue: ill-structured, ill-advised complexity can be confusing and frustrating. The challenge for the designer is to provide well-structured, cohesive experiences, where the complexity can reveal its desirable face, not its ill-tempered, mystifying one. The challenge for us is to take the time and effort to learn the structure and the power of the design. Even the...

  13. Notes
    (pp. 267-274)
  14. References
    (pp. 275-284)
  15. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 285-286)
  16. Index
    (pp. 287-298)