Complexity vs confusion

A guest at the “Meet the Media Guru” conference in Milan, Don Norman painted a far-reaching picture of the future, when good designers must offer “solutions to complex problems, like those to do with education, health and the environment” and stop complexity turning into confusion.

Design for the 21st century? “It’s certainly not a case of designing beautiful objects. That’s just a small part of it. It is, however, a special way of thinking and proposing solutions to complex problems, like those to do with education, health and the environment”.
Donald Norman, a guest at Meet the Media Guru in Milan paints an ambitious and far-reaching picture of the future. The two-day “Future ways of living” event (11-12 June 2015) celebrated its tenth anniversary by asking scholars, artists, designers and theorists from a range of disciplines to imagine and design the future evolution of the digital culture and technology – i.e. what affects all our lives. People’s everyday lives, the real ones, have always been close to Norman’s heart and he has said: “Engineers struggle with design because they are too logical. We have to design for the way people really behave, not as engineers or economists would prefer them to behave.”
Donald Norman
The public of the “Future ways of living” event in Milan (11-12 June 2015)
After graduating in engineering from MIT, he specialised in psychology and was vice president of Apple for a while. He has written celebrated books such as The Design of Everyday Things , Things That Make Us Smart , The Invisible Computer and the more recent Living With Complexity that laid the bases for a design concept centred on the user. Norman continues to pursue his own path without second thoughts and says that, at 79 years of age, he has “a new job” at the University of San Diego. It is a design work shop set to resolve problems featuring a mix of technology and the use of social tools.
Engineers struggle with design because they are too logical. We have to design for the way people really behave, not as engineers or economists would prefer them to behave.
“Our first project – he explains – looks at health system and we’re working with the School of Medicine of the University of San Diego. Right now, if we look at cancer treatment, we can see that it involves numerous disciplines and branches of medicine: the GP, radiologist, oncologist, radiotherapist and so on. It’s a highly complex process that requires a lot of time. We’re working to provide better communication and synchronization between all these phases, improving the experience for the patient, their family and the hospital staff.”
Donald Norman
Donald Norman helding his conference

Whatever their sphere, argues Norman, good designers must offer a structure and stop complexity turning into confusion. Automation is the new challenge in this sense. “I’m working on the design of a car that drives all by itself and I’m coming up against problems linked to the way this vehicle can communicate and interact with us and the environment. How can such a car convey to us that it has seen us crossing the road and how can it, in turn, know that it is time to move on after allowing the last pedestrian to cross? I’m constructing rules and procedures that allow such tools to improve our lives.”  

Many companies in the United States and elsewhere are focusing their research on the driverless car. The best-known project is Google’s but the designer is working for another three companies, although he cannot yet reveal their names. Norman’s approach is also very human-centred in the field of automation. Machines should only replace us in activities we do not perform well – driving is apparently one of these.

I’m working on the design of a car that drives all by itself and I’m coming up against problems linked to the way this vehicle can communicate and interact with us and the environment.
Norman has long promoted a web-design concept based on user needs but, generally speaking, the direction he points to via the Nielsen Norman Group, founded with Jakob Nielsen, is an ever closer  partnership between humans and machines, real teamwork. “Who’s the best chess player in the world? It is not an IBM Deep Blue supercomputer or even a human player; it is a human-machine mix: a medium-grade automatic system combined with human action can achieve exceptional results.”
© all rights reserved

Latest on Design

Latest on Domus

Read more
China Germany India Mexico, Central America and Caribbean Sri Lanka Korea icon-camera close icon-comments icon-down-sm icon-download icon-facebook icon-heart icon-heart icon-next-sm icon-next icon-pinterest icon-play icon-plus icon-prev-sm icon-prev Search icon-twitter icon-views icon-instagram