Living with Complexity

Complexity is everywhere.  We have to live with it!  I received Donald Norman's Living with Complexity as a (suggested) gift both because I have enjoyed his previous books and because I am going to the UX Boston Book Club discussion of the book on Thursday, the 6th.

As with all of Norman's books, this is well-written.  I found myself laughing a number of times as he described examples out of his own life.  A number of the images in the book are from his own camera, highlighting an aspect of design that he is discussing.  He even used the Evanston Davis Street Metra station as an example at some point - I've taken the train from there.  If you have any interest in design (products, websites, services, business) either as a designer or a consumer of the design, this is a great discussion of "why is this so complicated" as well as thoughts about how to overcome the problems.

The other reason I tuned into the book was the title topic: complexity.  It comes up in a number of areas of my life in various guises.  Norman's take on complex is something with many intricate and interrelated parts.  Complication and confusion are human reactions to things - it's not the opposite of complex.  From his perspective, the world is complex.  What I particularly like is that it isn't just the objects or services in the world that are complex, it is how we interact with them.  It is also what we bring to the table as members of the human race and our specific sub-cultures.  I like that he demonstrates that those things which we call "simple" often are not.

One example is the cover of his book: salt and pepper shakers.  However, which one is which?  He finds in asking people around the world that they are split 50-50 on the question.  There isn't a standard for something that seems so simple!  Is this the "fault" of the designers or the consumers?  This is complexity in his take. 

So, how do we live with complexity?  Norman conceives this as a partnership between designers and consumers: both are responsible for managing complexity.  One big element is the conceptual model people have when interacting with the object / service.  People react much better when they aren't surprised by the object / service.  Is the conceptual model obvious?  Or is it obvious only to people with specific training, such as the layout of an aircraft cockpit or by being from a specific background?  Without a model, the interaction becomes much more halting and confusing: it's complicated

Along with the conceptual model comes structure.  If the object / service cannot be simplified, then the design should reflect what people are expected to do.  Group similar activities or options together.  And if structure isn't enough, then we need signifiers: signs and markings that show/tell people what to do.  And then there are forcing functions to guide people in their interactions or mechanisms that nudge people in the right direction, such as default settings.  For designers all this structure and signifiers are part of how they communicate to people who interact with the device / service.  For consumers these things are evidence of what Norman calls knowledge in the world.  And he suggests taking full advantage of it.  Add your own, if that will help you and your fellows in the future. 

Consumers can overcome the complexity by accepting that the world is complex: take a breath, break down the situation and learn as you go.  But it's tough to do that in the heat of the moment.  Norman doesn't go into this in great detail, as it's the topic of many self-improvement philosophies, but my take is that I need to wear the world like a loose garment.  I can always learn something new if I give it time and take it easy.  I can't learn it all at once.  I like that he focuses on learning as you go and developing your own conceptual model.

I may post a follow-up after the book club on Thursday.  I have a number of other notes of interesting items in the book, so we will see where the discussion goes.

2 Comment(s)

Jason Robb said:

Great write-up and thanks for coming, Jack! It was great to have you add to the discussion.

Time to pick up a pack of these and mark up the world with knowledge. =)

Katherina Petrova said:

It feels like a thing to read. If the author points on the facts we did not notice before and proved his thoughts with examples the book must be interesting. It is like Baudrillard's simulates and simulacrums we suspected that everything is not ok with TV, but not wrote about. Or something like that. Thank you, I hope I will find the time to read the book.
Best regards, essay writer.

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