Thursday, December 06, 2007

Are Cars Too Safe? Are User Manuals Necessary?

Applications from Don Norman's new book ...

"Design guru Don Norman argues for making autos less automated and for infusing gadgets with natural, easy-to-interpret feedback signals

In his new book, The Design of Future Things (Basic Books), Don Norman isn't afraid to call himself out on statements he made in his earlier, wildly popular publications such as The Design of Everyday Things. The co-founder of corporate design consultancy Nielsen Norman Group and the former vice-president of Apple (AAPL) now says that he has changed his mind on several design strategies he has advocated over the years.

For one, he now says that consumers should try conforming to technology, rather than for engineers and designers to focus on adapting existing technologies for use. Why? Humans are actually more flexible than machines. He also has changed his tune on whether people should blame technology or themselves when a device doesn't work. In the 1990s, he argued that consumers were right to be angry at a device that didn't function with ease. Today, Norman writes, he believes that if people admit fault when using a machine, they might take the time to learn how to use it correctly.

The focus of his new book, however, is not on how he wishes to update his philosophies of design and innovation. Instead, it centers on so-called "smart," or automated, gadgets and products. Increasingly being produced and marketed, these range from talking refrigerators that scold you for not keeping to a diet to cars that are comfortable and easy to drive to the point of distracting drivers from the dangers of the road.

The Northwestern University design professor spoke with BusinessWeek Innovation Dept. Editor Reena Jana about the perils of automation and subtle but effective strategies for improving product design, such as offering sounds or visual signals that are more pleasant and instructive than electronic blips and bleeps. Below are edited excerpts from their conversation.

The book opens with two scenarios: one, driving with your spouse, who is frightened by the sharp turns on a winding road; the other, driving with a car that expresses a sense of "fear" by tightening seat belts automatically. The second seems like it might be more effective in curbing reckless driver behavior. Did you have a bad driving experience that prompted you to focus on automation in cars and other everyday machines?

For a long time, I've been interested in automation—in nuclear power plants, in the aviation industry. I've been an advisor to auto companies. The real impetus for the book was a trip I made to a Japanese carmaker. We were talking about automated lane-keeping. One executive told me how relaxed it made him feel. But a problem with automation in cars is that we can forget that driving is dangerous. How can we ask car drivers to be alert when it seems like not much is happening when they're in an automated car?"    (Continued via Business Week, Putting People First)    [Usability Resources]

The Design of Future Things

Recommended Book

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