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They’ve Really Got a Hold on Us

The Invisible Computer: Why Good Products Can Fail, the Personal Computer Is So Complex, and Information Appliances Are the Solution
September 1, 1998

Some men see machines as they are and ask, “Why?” Donald Norman dreams of machines that never were and says, “Why not?”Actually, in this new book on the need for successors to the personal computer, Norman pursues both questions. And he answers them with the same wit, perceptiveness and prophetic zeal that made his 1988 book The Psychology of Everyday Things a minor classic.

Norman is a prominent expert in behavioral design, the art of creating tools that mesh well with their users. Well-designed objects, he teaches, require no special effort in order to be understood and operated. They do their jobs without calling attention to themselves. They make work efficient, even pleasurable.

Today’s personal computers, Norman argues, do none of these things. Instead, they regularly make their owners feel stupid, helpless and subservient. Today’s Macintosh- and Windows-based computers are immensely versatile, Norman grants, but when features and functions multiply to the point that the operating system is bigger than any of the applications it manages, frustration is the inevitable result. “Making one device try to fit everyone in the entire world is a sure path towards an unsatisfactory product,” he writes. “Either it will fail to accommodate the critical needs of some of its intended users, or it will provide unnecessary complexity for everyone.”

The problem, Norman believes, is that computer builders are arrested adolescents who think customers love new technology as much as the designers do and are equally willing to endure the inevitable inconveniences. But the majority of consumers, he argues, are conservative “late adopters” who demand reliability and ease of use. Technologies that do not mature to meet these demands must fail.

The solution to the PC’s daunting complexity, Norman argues, is to expand the new class of “information appliances,” each good enough for one purpose, but each made powerful by its ability to share data with other appliances. The digital camera, for example, could evolve into a general “image gathering device” that uses its data port as well as its lens to collect pictures, and transmits those pictures to printers, studios, storage devices, television displays or the Internet. But this part of the discussion is less persuasive than Norman’s critique of the PC. Smart appliances will have to mature before people will sacrifice the investment and learning time they’ve poured into their PCs. These capricious machines have a hold on us yet.

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