Saturday, September 23, 2006

Cautions Cars & Cantankerous Kitchens

A preview of Don Normans new book ...

DRAFT: Chapter 1 of The Design of Future Things
Copyright © 2006 Donald A. Norman. All rights reserved.
Cautious Cars and Cantankerous Kitchens: How Machines Take Control

I’m driving my car through the winding mountain roads between my home and the Pacific Ocean. Sharp curves with steep drop-offs amidst the towering redwood trees and vistas of the San Francisco Bay on one side and the Pacific Ocean on the other. A wonderful drive, the car responding effortlessly to the challenge, negotiating sharp turns with grace. At least, that’s how I am feeling. But then, I notice that my wife is tense: she’s scared. Her feet are braced against the floor, her shoulders hunched, her arms against the dashboard. “What’s the matter?” I ask, “calm down, I know what I’m doing.”

But now imagine another scenario. I’m driving my car through the same winding, mountain road. But then, I notice that my car is tense: it’s scared. The seats straighten, the seat belts tighten, and then the dashboard starts beeping at me. I notice the brakes are being applied, automatically. “Oops,” I think, “I’d better slow down.”

Do you think example of a frightened automobile fanciful? Let me assure you it isn’t. The behavior described in the story already exists on some high-end, luxury automobiles. And even more control over driving exists in some cars and is being planned. Stray out of your lane and some cars balk: beeping at you, perhaps vibrating the wheel or the seat, or flashing lights in the side mirrors. One car company is experimenting with partial correction, partially steering the car back into its own lane. Turn signals were designed to tell other drivers that you were going to turn or switch lanes. Today, they are the means for telling your own car that you really do wish to turn or change lanes: “Hey, don’t try to stop me,” the turn signal signals to your car, “I’m doing this on purpose.”

I once was a member of a panel of consultants, advising a major automobile manufacturer. Each panel member started with short talk, explaining his or her point of view. I told the stories above, about how I would respond differently to my wife and to my automobile. “How come,” asked fellow panel member Sherry Turkle, an MIT Professor who is both an authority on the relationship of people to technology and a friend, “how come you listen to your car more than your wife?”

“How come?” indeed. Sure, I can defend myself and make up rational explanations, but those all miss the point. As we start giving the objects around us more initiative, more intelligence, and more emotions and personality, what does this do to the way we relate with one another? What has happened to our society when we listen to our machines more than people? This question is the driving force behind this book.

The answer is complex, but in the end, it comes down to communication. When my wife complains, I can ask her why and then either agree with her or try to reassure her, but also through understanding her concerns, modify my driving so that she is not so bothered. When my car complains, what can I do? There is no way to communicate with my car: all the communication is one way.

This is the way with machines. Machines have less power than humans, so they have more power. Contradictory? Yup, but oh so true."    (Continued via jnd.org)    [Usability Resources]

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