|Things That Make Us Smart: Defending Human Attributes in the Ag|
|author||Donald A. Norman|
|summary||Hey, it turns out that we are smart!|
Many people may be familiar with one of Norman's other books, "The Design of Everyday Things". Well, the good news is that this book is as engaging, and the bad news is that it isn't all that much different. Norman, the uber-advocate of person centered design, uses this book to debunk the motto of the 1933 Chicago World's Fair "Science Finds, Industry Applies, and Man Conforms".
Things That Make Us Smart has a double meaning. Norman spends a decent chunk of this book explaining how humans have very defined cognitive abilities, like pattern recognition. Not only do we have these cognitive abilities, but we're good at them. If you are ever at a cocktail party (which most geeks avoid) and someone says your name, you are likely to pick it up out of a host of other ambient noises in the room. So the first meaning of the title of this book is that humans have abilities that prove we are smart. The second meaning is that we have created cognitive artifacts to extend the limits of our mentalities. These are the "things" that make us smart. Now, we are used to thinking of tools expanding our physical abilities. We use a hammer so we don't pulp our hands while smashing them against the head of a nail. We use a car because we can't run that fast. What Norman explains is that we have also created a ton of tools that help us expand our mind's capability.
It starts with cuneiform. We have bad memories for facts, so when we wanted to remember facts we started writing them on clay tablets. Books were great innovations, since they help us not only remember stuff, but allow us to write down our thoughts and share them with people we'll never meet. Computers have developed as the latest tool we use to expand our cognitive abilities. They do things we can't do very well, and vice versa. We can only hold about 5-7 things in our memory at any one time. Computers can handle lots more. Still, before you start looking for your personal Hal, there are important things that we can do that our computers cannot. Even computers running un a Linux OS. A computer sees a picture of a butterfly as just dots on a screen (yes, I know they are working on this at Bellcore) while we are immediately able to apply meaning to those dots. My favorite example that Norman uses is shooting a free throw. The very things that for us are easy, like identifying the hoop, are incredibly tough for the computer. However, whereas we have big troubles with accuracy the computer can shoot all day once it has figured out the calculation.
Now this would be a great situation if we were intelligent about it. Technology helps us to do the things nature did not wire our brains to do. However, so much of the current market of technology is centered around what the machine needs or can do that we are expecting humans to conform to the technology, making us the tools to the machines. It's an easy trap to fall into. Humans can tolerate a lot of ambiguity. It's one of those things that makes us smart, but Norman argues that we should be designing in a way that augments our lives, not living in a way that validates our design.
This is a great introduction to Donald Norman for those who have not read him. A great bathroom book, you can skip around alot and the examples are engaging. The early part of the book also does a great job of teaching cognitive psychology, with sensical examples and descriptions of human cognitive processes. Also, the theory of user centered design is extremely important, and Norman does a wonderful job of supporting its tenets.
What's Bad?If you already know a lot about Human Computer Interaction, or are pretty good with cognitive psychology, this book may seem to slow. Also, it's only a mild variation on other Norman books, though if you've not read any to this point, start with this one. The second half of the book is light on quantative evidence, but that's more because you've entered the land of large statements about the meaning of life from the author rather than that he doesn't know how to quantify results.
So What's In It For Me?
If you do any programming, or put together sites for general viewing, this is a valuable book for the argument towards user centered design. Almost anyone can find something out of this offering, from the defense of lowly human cognition, to the descriptions of how we can use technology more intelligently.