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Chapter 1: Making Technology InvisiableBergman: Why is the personal computer so difficult to use?
Norman: The use of digital technology is still in its infancy. The digital computer has indeed been with us 50 years, but it's only in the last decade that the personal computer has reached the desktop of so many people in industries, in business, and in so many homes. The PC as a result has evolved by historical accident, and as it has evolved, it brings that historical legacy-it drags a heavy weight behind it. The PC as a result has become incredibly complex, as well as unstable, and I believe that to a large extent, the complexity is unavoidable. The PC attempts to do all things for all people. It is one device: the same design for both hardware and software made to fit everybody in the entire world. You have the same machine then to do all the tasks and activities that you wish to do. As a result, there is no focus. You cannot design for a specific user's needs. You cannot design for a specific set of applications, but rather you must design for everyone. This means there must be something for everyone, which leads to an ever-increasing number of features, an everincreasing number of specific applications, and as a result, an ever-increasing complexity.
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It's not helped by the fact that as more and more people use computers, the more you have to take any new software and make sure that they can still run their old software, and this legacy really constrains what you can do. Anyway, I think the computer is too complex. We spend far too much time learninghow to use it, learning shortcuts, maintaining it, upgrading it. So I think it's time to start over again.
Bergman: What would it mean to start over again?
Norman: If you look at a lot of industries, they often start off at the beginning with a direction that is not sustained, and at some point people begin to understand what the new product is about and get to start over again and give you the benefits of the product without the early false starts.
My favorite example of this is the electric motor. The electric motor at first was meant to replace the steam engine. [Just as we] had one steam engine that would power an entire factory with belts running the whole length of the factory to transmit the power from the steam engine, the electric motor also was a single device installed at a central location in the factory with belts running to the remote areas of the factory. As the technology improved, we reached the point where you didn't need to have a single motor with belts. You could just build the motor into each device. What this did was dramatically change the nature of the factory, since you no longer had to place the instruments where the belts could reach. Now you could place the instruments wherever it made sense to put them, and the motor became an invisible part of the instrument. In fact, in manufacturing today you don't even notice the electric motors. They're just a fundamental part of the device.
Bergman: Using your analogy, how does "hiding the motor" relate to the transition from computers to information appliances? Norman: In the early 1900s you could buy a home electric motor-one motor for the entire home with a wide variety of attachments you could put on it. So you could do your sewing, attach a fan blade, attach a mixer hoop, a grinder. Notice-it was one machine with all these attachments, and so you had to do the work where the machine was located.
Today the electric motor is distributed throughout the house. You might easily have 50 motors in your home, most of which you're unaware of. Moreover, the devices that it powers are named not by the technology that's inside them, but they're named by what they do. We have an eggbeater or a coffee grinder, and if you look inside the two, you see they're almost the same. They're an electric motor that rotates a little blade with a hook on it, or a sharp pointed edge, which grinds the coffee.
Bergman: I believe the same kind of transition will happen with computers, that instead of one massive device that occupies considerable space on our desktop, we will have a wide range of devices that are designed to fit the tasks that we wish to do. And that inside of them there will be computers and a communication structure, but we'll be unaware of it. It will simply empower us to do our tasks. We won't think of using the computer. We won't go to use a computer, just like today we don't go to use our electric motor. We will go to write someone a letter. Or you'll go to check on the news or check on the weather. Or we'll say, "Let's see what's playing in nearby movie theaters." Or in a strange city you might ask, "Where are the good restaurants within walking distance of where I am right this minute?"
So, I see a change occurring from the one massive, centrally located infrastructure, the personal computer, to a set of rather small, widely distributed devices that we wont even think of as computers, we won't think of as telecommunication devices even though that's what they will be. We'll just think of them as a natural part of our daily activities and the tools that we use.
Won't there be too many of these kinds of devices? What will stop us from experiencing overload from the number of appliances we have in our lives?
[At this point in the conversation, Don Norman pulls a tiny flashlight out of his pocket to which an extremely small Swiss army knife is attached.]
Norman: This is a single AAA cell flashlight, just slightly bigger than the Swiss army knife, and it's a very small Swiss army knife, and the answer to your question is this . . .
We're sitting now in my living room. How many different devices do we have in the living room? There are more than 20. First of all, there're some pictures on the walls, and there's a mirror on the wall. Let's just call that one: wall hangings. There's artwork. Call that two: artwork-even though there are a number of different pieces. There's a couch that you're sitting on, and one I'm sitting on. We'll just call that one for furniture, for sitting furniture. But there's also the table in front of us. One, two, three, four-the table has a glass, five; a plate, six; a napkin, seven; a bowl, eight; with fruit in it, nine; with another fancy container, 10; with candy in it, that's 11; with my Palm on the table, 12; my notebook, 13; my pen, 14; the Swiss army knife and flashlight, call that one thing, 15; pillows, 16; lights, 17; piano, 18; and a fire detector, 19. We're up to 20 and I hadn't even decided to talk about your briefcase, the fact that I'm wearing shoes and pants and socks and a belt and a variety of clothes, which have different types of fasteners, and a wristwatch.
But somehow I don't go around and say, well, look, I have 50 different items in this room. They just seem natural...