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Living With Complexity February 6, 2012

Posted by Joshua Higgins in Design-related Books.

Do you view technology as “the application of scientific knowledge” or as “new stuff that doesn’t work very well?”  In our society, technology has unfortunately come to symbolize the latter more often than the former.  Don Norman sets out to discuss the reasons for this in his latest book Living With Complexity.

Professor Norman’s central premise is that the world is complex, but it doesn’t need to be confusing.  Technology has come to symbolize confusion and difficulty because inept designers have failed to take into account how humans will interact with the technology they create.  Poor design creates confusion and frustration, good design creates satisfaction and empowerment.

Critics frequently ask for simplicity and complain bitterly about overly complex products, but simplicity is not really what they’re after.  They are seeking a straightforward way to manage the complexity that is inherent in everyday life.  Simple tools don’t make life easier; it’s easy to understand interfaces to complex and robust tools that accomplish this task.

If you find yourself frustrated with the complex interfaces you encounter in your everyday life, you should read this book because it will give you some solace in knowing that you’re not crazy and you have the right to expect the things you interact with to function more logically.  If you believe that there is a tradeoff between simplicity and complexity, then you NEED to read this book before you unleash any further sins of poor design unto humanity.

Norman argues that the trade-off between simplicity and complexity is a fallacy, complexity is a fact of life and simplicity is a state of mind.  People wrongly assume 1) that this tradeoff exists at all, and 2) that it describes a zero-sum game.  He offers:

“Human behavior can be deceptively complex: social behavior is even more so.  We must design for the way people behave, not for how we wish them to behave.  People function well when the devices they are using make things visible, provide gentle nudges, signifiers, forcing functions, and feedback.”

Norman’s keys to simplification are familiarity and organization and the value of his book is in the way he uses simple examples to illustrate his points.  You might have not thought much about toilet paper roll dispensers in the past, but you will look at them differently going forward.

There are small frustrations with this book, such as Norman’s discussion of complexities of written language and musical notation without seeming to take into account the value inherent in network effects of current forms – it’s almost as if he forgets his earlier point about familiarity being a key component of good design here.  Also, he spends an entire chapter on the design of waiting in line without really doing a great job of tying this topic back to the book’s central premise, but overall this book is outstanding and whether you’re designing business processes, furniture, or MP3 players, this book is worth reading.

Don Norman discusses Living With Complexity:



1. Dovik Nissim - February 11, 2012

Josh, Hi

Thank you for your comprehensive review. It was very interesting
I really liked your summary of it.

Honestly, I am a bit frustrated with the author, Don Norman, for doing only a fraction of the work he should have done. Let me share what I mean by that.

Norman does an impressive job in framing the theoretical problem:

– Our desire for “simplicity” is a false hope because life is complex.
– A complex life, leads to complex products
– Complexity, however, does not need to be confusing

hence the people who design devices (and systems) that “hide” the complexity of the world behind intuitively grouped and well-designed systems will garner success in our digital world.

Ultimately, he claims that what makes something simple or complex is whether the user understands its conceptual model.

Up to this point I agree…but that’s it? really? is that a novelty? I would risk and say that we all knew that – he just wrote a book about that.

What I expected him to do is move forward and not only state the problem (which is known to all) but also provide us with tools and steps to address it. In other words provide us with rules for taming complexity. Design best practices that overcome complexity and produce these intuitively grouped and well-designed interfaces.
That is the secret sauce. That is the designer’s million dollar question. That is why Steve Jobs was Steve Jobs.

Norman hides behind that declaration that “When the aspects of a problem are laid out clearly, problems appear less complex”.

In that sense, Norman took the safe route, He left the interesting part for someone else to write. His book is nice but nothing more than that.
He didn’t take a chance

I hope that makes sense…

2. jhpittman - February 16, 2012

Don’s work on user conceptual model is some of the pioneering work in the field. He wrote the Design Of Everyday things which does go into how one designs to reinforce conceptual models.

3. Don Norman - February 17, 2012

Thank you Josh and Dovik.

Excellent review. One of the ways I judge the success of my work is for people to say after they have read or heard it, “oh, yes, that’s obvious.” However, it wasn’t obvious until I pointed it out.

Steve Jobs was NOT a designer. He was obsessed with quality and with detail. But the design was left to others: his industrial design team led by Joni Ive and his interaction designers and graphical designers. Steve may have overseen it, but he didn’t design it. Note that elsewhere I have roundly critiqued the design of the iPhone (and Android) for its many deficits. The iPhone looks understandable because of modularity. Once inside an App the App is specialized and limited in its capabilities. Hence, no menus. Hence, a truly limited number of things you can do. If you want to do real work, you must go back to a Mac or Windows (or Linux) machine.

There is no organizational structure to the Apps. After you have downloaded 30 or 40, it can be a pain to find them. Sure, you can make folders, but it is tedious. Android is slightly better with its use of menus. Not much better.
Go to http://www.jnd.org and type “gesture” into the search box.

Dovik is correct about my discussion of music notation: it would be as difficult to change this notation today as it would be to switch to the Dvorak keyboard from qwerty (although I argue the switch in musical notation would reap more benefits). Once tradition is established, once there is a culture, it is almost impossible to change. Note that I am not the only person advocating a change in musical notation. It doesn’t matter: it is too late.

thanks for the critical read and comments.


4. dovik - February 26, 2012

Mr. Norman, Hi

Thank you for your response, I learned a lot from it and I am looking forward to hearing you speak in one of our classes. I know it will be an interesting talk.

In this case, However, I respectfully disagree with some of your claims and let me elaborate.

As I mentioned, I agree with your claim that what makes something simple or complex is whether the user understands its conceptual model. However, it is not enough to be a great designer in order to produce products with conceptual models that users can easily and intuitively grasp. That is why millions of designers will not be able to solve the problem you so nicely presented in your book.

There is an additional “layer” on top of the designer’s work that only a handful of people master. That layer is: Turning good ideas into great products, using rules and best practices for taming and overcoming complexity. That layer is the secret sauce to creating products that have pure, seamless and intuitive interfaces and that is the layer that I hoped you’d explore further.

In his own words, Jony Ive said “In so many other companies Ideas and great designs get lost in the process, The ideas that come from me and my team would have been completely irrelevant, no where, if Steve hadn’t been here to push us, work with us, and drive through all the resistance, to turn our ideas into products.”

In my eyes, this set of rules is the “art”. It is the secret sauce. It is the answer to the problem you laid down so beautifully in your book and it also is an unmapped field that still awaits to be explored.

So in summary, I agree with your description of the problem, but I honestly believe that the solution for the problem is far more interesting.That solution lies in a set of unmapped rules for conquering complexity. And Jobs knew them better than everyone else, though he chose not to share them for a reason I am not sure I understand. If everyone knew those rules, there would have been more great products out there.

I’ll leave you with one good example for the fact that such rules exist.
[taken from Walter Isaacson’s Book, Steve Jobs]

“ After looking at a bunch of screenshots, Jobs jumped up, grabbed a marker, and drew a simple rectangle on a whiteboard.”Here’s the new application” he said. It’s got one window. You drag your video into the window. Then you click the button that says ‘burn.’ That’s it. That’s what we are going to make” Evangelist was dumbfounded, but it led to the simplicity of what became iDVD. Jobs even helped design the “Burn”button icon.

I hope that makes sense.
Warm regards

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