1 December 2010

Reflecting on the book “Living with Complexity” by Donald A. Norman

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Living with Complexity
I just finished reading Living with Complexity by Donald A. Norman (previously announced here) and consider an important contribution to our field, and this for three precise reasons.

First, Norman has a huge reputation, also outside of our professional UX sphere. His books are often the first (and sometimes the only ones) that managers, academics, policy makers and business people will read if they want to know something more about user experience. And he does an excellent job at living up to that reputation by making the difficult digestible and easy to grasp, understand and implement in daily practice.

During a recent trip to Korea, I was again reminded of how influential Norman is, and frankly said, we have an excellent spokesperson in him advocating our field to an extremely important non-UX audience (who often become our clients and interlocutors).

This book is his latest contribution in sharing our practice, as it explains how the often heard strive for simplicity is a mistaken ambition, and that designers – interaction and service designers in particular – need to concentrate instead on supporting people in managing the necessary complexities of daily life.

The second reason why I like Norman’s writing is that he sometimes manages to explain an idea with greater clarity than I have ever read before – and it that sense he can also teach us, UX professionals a lesson. Take this little story about how the field of interaction design came about and how it evolved (page 143-144):

“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 up the right parameters for the action that was to take place. As a result of the difficulties being faced, computer scientists, psychologists and other social scientists, and designers developed a new discipline, interaction design, to figure out the most appropriate ways of handling the interactions. As the technologies have evolved, and as the sophistication of the people using them has increased, the field of interaction design has had to deal with more and more advanced techniques and philosophies of interaction. From understanding and usability the field expanded to incorporate emotional factors, toward a focus on experience and enjoyment. Today, more and more products contain hidden, embedded microprocessors (computers) and communication chips. As a result, interaction design is now a major component of almost all design.”

Norman then goes on to define service design with the same clarity, which he considers – rightfully – to be “far more complex than product design.”

Finally, while the book can sometimes seem a little digressive, Norman does a great job in tying it all together in the final chapters, where he presents a series of cleverly structured design principles for managing complexity – to be used by design educators, design students, young professionals and senior designers alike – and a number crucial challenges that address the larger social, cultural and business ecosystem of our work.

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