Book review: Living with Complexity

It's not complexity that drives people mad, argues Donald A. Norman in his latest book; it's confusion.

It's not complexity that drives people mad, argues Donald A. Norman in his latest book; it's confusion. Consider, for example, the range of challenges we navigate every day: we read, type, drive and cook. Learning to perform each of those tasks required effort, yet having learned them they seem simple. Why are computer systems still so confusing? The natural world is complex, and yet it manages to give us feedback without posting error messages. We don't need to be told we made a mistake — we need guidance on how to proceed.

Living with Complexity, especially the first half, circles back to many of the topics Norman first discussed in his 1990 classic, The Design of Everyday Things. And for good reason: despite his having launched the usability revolution that changed the industry's approach to writing software, most of us still stumble through the world getting confused by arrays of light switches, domestic ovens and washing machines. This time round, however, Norman heads for the previously unexplored territory of services — the source of some of the most profound frustrations of life in 2011. What's going on when customers scream at hapless call centre staff? Is there any real way to reduce the insane number of remote controls we all have to run our home entertainment systems?

True, there have been some successes. No-one now struggles to program their video recorders because the combination of frustrated-consumer feedback and the switch to digital recording allowed designers to reconceptualise the problem from "I want to record channel two at 9pm on Tuesdays" to "I want to record all new episodes of The Good Wife". People don't actually want simplicity, Norman says, because that means a lack of features; instead they want effective communication — as anyone knows who's ever travelled on the UK's rail network.

Norman devotes an entire chapter to waiting, and if I could I'd send it to every airport manager. Why? Because the way airport security queues are managed violates everything we know about how to handle such things. People get no feedback about how long the wait will be; there are multiple queues rather than a fairer, more efficient, single one; the experience begins with something mildly unpleasant and ends with something much more unpleasant; and there's nothing to fill the time (unless, like me, you carry magazines to read in your jacket pocket).

Norman finishes up with a chapter of ideas for how to improve matters. Most are aimed at designers, who must do better at understanding the cognitive behaviour of the humans they serve. A few, however, are aimed at us. Norman goes through life putting sticky dots next to light switches, door knobs and other paraphernalia to remind himself how they work — the equivalent of putting a little user manual on everything. Storing information in the world, he says, is much more efficient than trying to remember it yourself. As someone who writes in on AC adapters and plugs to show what device they're connected to, I have to agree.

Living with Complexity By Donald A. Norman MIT Press 298pp ISBN: 978-0262-014861-90000 Price: £18.95

Wendy M Grossman