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The Invisible Computer

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Book Cover Donald Norman’s 1998 book The Invisible Computer discusses the development of technology. It stresses how the technology we get to use only depends to a small degree on what’s technically feasible and that the reality of the market may very well favour inferior products and be very conservative and fearsome when it comes to substantial change.

The book puts a big focus on ‘Information Appliances’, specific technical devices and puts them in contrast to a fully fledged computer. I agree with the basic point made: small specific devices can be better to use (but we all have seen many that miss even that opportunity!); Likewise I enjoy the general PC bashing:

What’s wrong with the PC? Everything. Start with the name. The personal computer is not personal nor is it used to do much computing. Mostly, it is used for writing, reading, an sending things to one another. Sometimes it is used for games, entertainment, or music. But most of the time it is using us. […] The personal computer isn’t very personal. It’s big and clumsy, sitting there on a desk, occupying space, requiring more and more time to maintain, requiring lots of help from one’s family, friends, and neighbors. Rather than being personal, friendly, and supportive, it is massive, impersonal, abrupt, and rude. [p. 69]

… which continues by ridiculing the concept of ‘booting’ and suggests that graphical user interfaces may be outdated - after all they were researched and invented for tasks of decades past with little in terms of progress happening since and the ‘market’ locking people into existing metaphors. (A very interesting point of which I would love to see a more detailed discussion) It then highlights that the main problem is the complexity of general purpose computers and goes on to point out that this is not an easy problem to solve, listing a few hailed and failed attempts to do so.

Mr Norman then goes on to discuss the big role infrastructure plays and how it can skew the marketplace in terms of what can be sold and what can’t. In the nicely titled chapter Being Analog the difference between humans and machines is discussed. Rigid vs. flexible, precise vs. imprecise, and so on. This culminates in saying that a big part of the frustration in human-computer-interaction comes from forcing people to behave in a way that computers can handle directly, rather than using all the power of the machines to actually support the user.

In the final chapters the book discusses Human-Centered Development and what kind of awareness and structures are needed in a company to make it work - rather than being crushed between engineering and marketing - as well as Disruptive Technologies where Norman highlights how people regularly fail to see the advantages of newer technologies because of their disruptiveness. And he puts Information Appliances as a possible next example for that.

While I can see the general point about Information Appliances and the joy of having a simple well-designed device for a single task, I am still sceptical whether Norman is right on that one. And I think the jury is still out on this. Looking at recent developments like the iPhone and its competitors suggests that some kind of middle-ground is popular right now: While the device is a fully fledged computer that can (theoretically) run arbitrary applications, the applications that do exist tend to be very simple and single minded.

Thus making the device a box containing a bunch of Information Appliances, trading the simplicity of one physical object per task for the simplicity of only having to carry a single device. Of course this ‘dumbed-down’ attitude in current applications - owing both to the disincentive to develop bigger stuff imposed by Apple and the crude finger gesture interface - finds critique as it ends up in clumsy usage scenarios (like the inconvenient switching between applications) at times. It will be interesting to see how this develops. Or what Mr Norman’s current take on the issue is.

[Buy at amazon .com, .uk, .de]

November 28, 2009, 11:38

Tagged as book, computer, design, donald norman.


Comment by Arne: User icon

Hi Sven, it’s kinda funny. I’m still in the process of reading The Invisible Computer. I’m writing my Master Thesis about an iPhone App, and I regard the work of Norman as quite inspiring. One important point why iPhone Apps cannot be regarded as Information Applicances is the fact, that Norman stresses the possibilities to easily sync content between apps, which is a feature the iphone clearly lacks (except the possibility to start apps from within other apps and syncing via some web-services).

Did you read any other of Norman’s books?

Greets, Arne

November 29, 2009, 23:44

Comment by ssp: User icon

I agree that Norman’s texts are very interesting. Particularly his analyses of what is important in interface design. (Less so his predictions for future developments I think, which seem a bit tedious and, as predictions for the future go, may not stand the test of time.)

Even though Apple’s current software-dictatorship makes it unnecessarily hard for applications to stay synchronised, efforts to achieve that are on their way. Be it through ‘cloud’ services (as seen in DropBox or simply IMAP e-mail accounts) or because developers make the effort of setting up their own syncing system (say in Delivery Status’ syncing with the Dashboard Widget). Yes, this isn’t as seamless and invisible/magic as it could (should) be, but I see that more as a business/ideological/idiotic obstacle than a difficult conceptual or technical one.

Filling that gap could be a great opportunity for other ‘smartphone’ makers. But seeing that their gross incompetence keeps them from doing anything that Apple haven’t done before, I wouldn’t hold my breath. Which is a shame as without pressure from the competition, there will be no incentive for Apple to get their act together on this.

I read a bunch of Norman’s other books. The design of everyday things being my favourite and matching my own ‘blame the designer’ attitude. I thought Emotional Design (strangely no blog post on that) was very interesting as well in clarifying how the ‘impression’ left by an object/device/tool affects the way we use it. A read Things that make us smart after The Invisible Computer and while I’m not sure his experiential vs. reflective model ‘clicked’ with me, it’s an interesting analysis and breakdown of the stumbling blocks of human-machine-interaction.

A worrying/depressing aspects of all those books is that these exist in even in a readable form and, yet, most designers and business people seem completely unaffected by the thoughts they contain.

December 1, 2009, 9:52

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