Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Being Analog in an Increasingly Digitized World

Donald Norman is one of my favorite Odd Ducks. He has been blending technical and human sciences since the 1950's.

In 1957 he received a BSEE in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, went on to earn a M.S. and a PhD in Mathematical Psychology which is "based on mathematical modeling of perceptual, cognitive and motor processes, and on the establishment of law-like rules that relate quantifiable stimulus characteristics with quantifiable behavior."

Next, as an associate professor in the Psychology Department at University of California, San Diego Norman was a founder of the Institute for Cognitive Science and an organizer of the Cognitive Science Society. 

Norman left UCSD to join Apple Computer in 1993, initially as an Apple Fellow as a User Experience Architect, using "User Experience" in his job title, and then Vice President of the Advanced Technology Group.  Don was an early advocate of "user-centered design."

"Design is a way of... determining people’s true, underlying needs, and then delivering products and services that help them. Design combines an understanding of people, technology, society, and business." - Donald Norman

But there is a ghost in the machine which Norman attempts to exorcize in an article entitled Being Analog, that was originally published as Chapter 7 of his book; The Invisible Computer.
(Being Analog is a very thought provoking piece, which you should read.)

Norman strikes at the heart of the matter in the first sentence;

"We are analog beings trapped in a digital world, and the worst part is, we did it to ourselves.

We humans are biological animals. We have evolved over millions of years to function well in the environment, to survive. We are analog devices following biological modes of operation. We are compliant, flexible, tolerant. Yet, we have constructed a world of machines that requires us to be rigid, fixed and intolerant.

Here we are, wandering about the world, bumping into things, forgetful of details, with a poor sense of time, a poor memory for facts and figures, unable to keep attention on a topic for more than a short duration, reasoning by example rather than by logic, and drawing upon our admittedly deficient memories of prior experience. 

When viewed this way, we seem rather pitiful. No wonder that we have constructed a set of artificial devices that are very much not in our own image. We have constructed a world of machinery in which accuracy and precision matter. Time matters. Names, dates, facts, and figures matter. Accurate memory matters. Details matter.

All the things we are bad at matter, all the things we are good at are ignored. Bizarre."

A troubling question is hiding on a deeper level; Are we, as children, parents and grandparents, becoming a bit too much like our digital systems? Norman's list of human traits; being compliant, flexible and tolerant, stands in striking contrast to those of the binary machines we have created which are rigid, fixed and intolerant. He says our machines demand that of us and that we, as the creators of those machines, have done it to ourselves. That is true, but falls short of the mark;

What we - as consumers - have done is allow the designers to give us technology the prolonged use of which may be turning us into beings who are becoming inflexible and intolerant. At least some of us.

Looking at the current discourse in the wake of the most recent election, what are we arguing and seeing others argue, about if not matters of accuracy and precision, time, names, dates, facts, and figures, memory and details.

As the ambiguity and complexity grows, left unaddressed, this situation will only get worse.

So, the question is; what can be done about it? Can designers save themselves and their customers from themselves?

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