Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Book Review–The Design of Future Things

I have been a fan of Donald A. Norman since I read The Design of Everyday Things a few years back. So when I saw The Design of Future Things I thought it would be a good book to read as well. As with his other books Dr. Norman uses several stories and pertinent examples to reinforce his ideas as well as entertain.

The Design of Future Things focuses on the interaction between “smart” machines and how we interact. We are in an age where machines are smart enough to operate very independently, think of robot vacuums and self-parking cars, but these machines do not always interact well with us.

For example many cars have GPS Navigation systems which assist the drivers in getting to their destination. These are very useful but there is no real interaction with them. You enter your destination and the GPS gives you directions. There is no real dialog or explanation as to why the route was chosen. This two way communication is the key to good interaction.

One of the best examples used in the book was our interaction with animals. Think about how in tune a good horseback rider and the mount interact. Simple signals with knees and a light touch on the reigns is all that is required to direct the horse. The horse can also provide information to the rider such as shying away from a dangerous area on the trail. The horse can also get the rider safely to a destination since it can make simple decisions on its own. As horse and rider work together they learn to recognize each others subtle signals which allows for a better riding experience.

Many natural processes have a particular sound or movement as a result of their process. Think about how a tea kettle sounds as it heats the water. First a low boiling sound then a whistle that increases in pitch as more steam is produced. Many modern machines use the same sound, generally an annoying alarm, for many conditions without the gradual buildup of natural processes. For example both my washing machine and dryer make the same sound when their cycles are finished. If I am not in the room I don’t know which one is done. They also make a very similar sound when the load is unbalanced. So just hearing the sound does not always give me an accurate picture of what is happening with my machines.

We are improving in this area. Cars now have more subtle indicators of danger. Many side mirrors now have a flashing light that displays when an oncoming vehicle is in the “blind” spot. There are also motors that vibrate the steering wheel when the car is cornering too fast encouraging the driver to slow down. One of my favorites are the new backup warning systems that vibrate the seat or steering wheel when a car is approaching as the vehicle is backing up.

There are many more examples throughout the book that emphasize the direction interaction can go. All of these anecdotes lead to Dr. Norman’s design rules for “smart” machines

  1. Provide, rich, complex and natural signals
  2. Be predictable
  3. Provide good conceptual models
  4. Make the output understandable
  5. Provide continual awareness without annoyance
  6. Exploit natural mappings.

The bottom line: Once again Dr. Norman describes the problems that can arise from human/machine interactions. His use of examples clarifies his points and strengthens his arguments for improvement. This book is a very interesting read for anyone interested in interaction with machines.