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Things That Make Us Smart

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In his 1993 Book Things That Make Us Smart - Defending Human Attributes in the Age of the Machine Donald Norman explores the tensions between machines and the humans using them. The books opening slogan which opposes the motto of the 1933 Chicago World Fair Science Finds, Industry Applies, Man Conforms to a person-centred motto for the twenty-first century: People Propose, Science Studies, Technology Conforms is a great summary of the book’s main point: Making technology work for the human rather than the other way round.

Book Cover The book works a lot with two types of cognition which Norman distinguishes: The experiental type and the reflective type. Both are important, but in different situations and it may worth keeping that in mind when designing interactions or learning experiences for people. It then speaks about The Power of Representation, highlighting how the choice of presentation of a kind of information can drastically change how well and readily it can be understood by the recipient. A fun example of a phone-based airline information system is given to show how using ‘modern’ technologies can make simple tasks unnecessarily difficult.

Further chapters deal with sharing information and how this automatically happens in places like airplanes or ships simply by spreading the communication to everybody in non-specific manner or with organising a desk or a library with a focus on finding a useful organisation. Even the question how to apply that to things like the internet arises.

The penultimate chapter on Soft and Hard Technology points out that humans and machines find different things easy, doable acceptable and thus that it’s important to design machines with the human users in mind, rather than only following some engineering logic. And in the final chapter Technology is not Neutral Norman urges people to use technology appropriately as its affordances affect how people can use it. Making an effort to be helpful at that is suggested.

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

December 1, 2009, 6:54

Tagged as book, donald norman.

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