Things That Make Us Smart

The motto of the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair was “Science finds,industry applies, man conforms.” Donald A. Norman argues that itis time instead to begin designing human-centered technologies thatfit the unique needs and abilities of the human mind. In an age ofexploding information, when our most important technologies areintended as cognitive rather than physical aids, the designers oftechnology too often take a machine-centered view, resulting inartifacts that confuse and frustrate the people they are intendedto assist.

Norman explores the different strengths and abilities of peopleand of machines, pointing out that human characteristics seen asweaknesses from a machine-centered point of view are actually ourgreat strengths. Machines are precise, orderly, logical,undistractible, unemotional. People are not. Instead, we arecreative; we can perceive our changing environment and adapt to it;we can identify problems, think of questions; grasp and respond tothe total emotional and social context of our situation. Machinesare exceedingly poor at these important activities.

Unfortunately, technologies are usually designed around themachine’s need for un-human precision and accuracy. When humanoperators predictably fail to provide it, the flaw is attributed to “human error” rather than to the underlying mismatch between thedemands of the machine and the strengths and abilities of humanbeings. Norman provides many concrete examples of this mismatch,form piloting aircraft to voice message systems. His critique, farfrom a wholesale rejection of technology, provides suggestions forthe creation of human-centered technology in which the strengths ofmachines would complement rather than conflict with the strengthsof people. THINGS THAT MAKE US SMART sounds a note of hope forthose who are disappointed by the unrealized potential of ourtechnological marvels truly to enhance rather than encumber humanlives.