Things that make us smart

Someone just lent me a book by Donald A Norman called Things that Make us Smart . The Library Journal review of it on Amazon says that

By virtue of their design, machines shape the way we relate to the world. Moreover–as anyone who has been annoyed by voice message systems can testify – many technological "advances" that are efficient from the engineering point of view are of dubious value to those who must use them.

Although I saw it was written more than 15 years ago, it's a book that immediately appealed because today a) I tried twice to make a call to Carefirst, a healthcare provider, and the machine did not recognize a British accent as I said the numbers of my ID. For some unknown reason it also didn't recognize them when I punched them into my phone. Additionally I was on hold for 26 minutes the first time with a machine voice repeatedly telling me how to avoid allergies by washing my bed linen, and keeping my pets inside. At minute 27 I hung up. I tried again later and after being on hold – this time for 32 minutes a human voice was heard.

b) I tried to check-in online to the flight I am taking tomorrow and accidentally typed a wrong character when asked for my passport expiry date. I typed in 2006 instead of 2016. The machine instantly locked me out. I rang United who said there was nothing I could do and I would have to check in at the airport. So it's a very early start in the morning.

Norman's book, and a very informative presentation, have numerous examples of frustrating devices, and but follow these with good "usability guidelines" about how to think about designing. Four, from the presentation are:

Visibility
Make the relevant parts visible. By looking the user should be able to tell the state of the device and the alternatives for action (affordances)

A good conceptual model
Help the user by visually communicating a good mental model of how the system works.

Good mappings
Help the user determine the relationship between actions and results, controls and effects, by using natural mappings.

Feedback
The give immediate feedback to the user about the results of their actions and the state of the system.

At this point the guidelines reminded me of John Maeda's The Laws of Simplicity I think because the principles are similar both writers are suggesting that to manage the human/technology interface more effectively then technologies have to be designed in a different way. Norman says "Today we serve technology. … Technology should serve us". Maeda says "Technology has made our more lives full, yet at the same time we've become uncomfortably 'full'"

In talking about technology v humans it seems a very similar debate as that I was writing about yesterday: mechanistic v organic organizations. I wondered if the design principles that Norman and Maeda discuss are applicable to organization design. On first glance it seems so. Designing human centered organizations seems like a no brainer, but there aren't many guidelines on how to do this well. So I'll float the possibilities with the next organization design group I'm working with and see what their view is.

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