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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: