Imagine contact lenses with built-in display technology that can paint an interface across your view of the world. What if these lenses were also cameras that could interpret your gestures – a miniature Kinect-like system – and allow you to interact with virtual objects such as menus, programs and 3D game sprites? Isn’t that the convergence point for Google Glass, Leap Motion, and smartphone technologies? Are we on the verge of developing a single super-gadget? One device to rule them all?
“Here we go again!” says Don Norman, cognitive scientist, usability engineering expert and long-time critic of computer interface technologies. Though he’s on speaker-phone, you can almost see him rolling his eyes. “You think that there’s an absolute answer to what appears to you to be a simple question – but it’s not a simple question.”
MISC has called Norman to talk about wearable technologies, and we’ve been asking what seemed like reasonable questions: how are wearable technologies likely to converge in the near future, for instance. Norman is having none of it. Now he goes seemingly off-script and starts talking about kitchen knives. “When I’m in my kitchen, I own twenty-five different knives that I use at different points in cooking. I may use four or five different knives in the course of cooking.” If there’s no such thing as the ‘perfect knife’ that you’ll use for everything in the kitchen, why should we imagine there could be a perfect wearable technology, one that will do everything for us? Convergence, Norman is saying, may never happen – and we may not want it to.
Don Norman made his reputation by pushing back on received wisdom about design principles. Having received his first degree in 1957 – in electrical engineering and computer science – he’s had the advantage of being present while computers evolved from early punched-card-driven monsters to today’s smart phones. From engineering, he took a turn into the study of human factors, and his subsequent PhD was in mathematical psychology. Norman was on hand to pioneer the discipline now known as cognitive science, among other things helping to found the Institute for Cognitive Science at the University of California at San Diego. Through his consulting work, lectures and articles, and books like The Design of Everyday Things, he’s been an advocate of user-centered design since the 1960s.
All of which may explain why he’s sounding rather weary now as he dismantles the notion of the ‘universal gadget.’ He’s been down this road before. One of his most famous essays, “The Trouble with UNIX”, incurred the wrath of the operating system design community when it was first published in 1981. UNIX was the darling of the programmers. It’s a kind of Swiss army knife, a toolkit of little command- line apps that can be chained together in endless combinations. Using the UNIX command shell, a programmer can often do sophisticated manipulations of data and files without invoking any sort of dedicated program. It’s incredibly powerful. It’s also incredibly non-intuitive.
“The Trouble with UNIX” was the ‘Emperor’s Clothes’ of computing, with Norman playing the role of the little boy pointing out the king’s nakedness. It’s true that UNIX is a kind of universal gadget for programmers; it’s also true that if you’re going to design an app to search for stuff on your computer, you should probably name it ‘search’ or ‘find’, rather than, say, ‘grep’.
Of course, we all know this stuff now. We know that interfaces should be intuitive and devices should broadcast how to use them in their very shape. Yet there’s a reason why Norman has just said, “It’s not a simple question,” to the idea of functional convergence. As he puts it now, “Intuitive is a dangerous word. Intuitive means that you learn something so well that it becomes automatic, and you’re unaware of how you do it. It may actually take years to reach that point. For many people, driving a car or riding a bike is intuitive. Both of these activities take months to learn, and then a year or two before the activity becomes intuitive. That’s what will happen with our devices, but it will take time.”
There are no shortcuts, and no easy answers. But for Norman, this is a good thing. Taking the example of the fitness band he tried, he points out that ‘seamless’, ‘intuitive’ and ‘invisible’ may be the exact opposite of what you want. “If my device had sensors and simply took note of my consumption for me, and did the caloric count, that wouldn’t work so well. In order to modify behavior, you must make the user conscious and aware of that behavior. The fact that I had to manually enter my food intake was a virtue because it made me think more about what I was consuming. The important step in changing behavior is that we have to be aware of the behavior. Most of our behavior we are unaware of. So making it conscious and making it a little harder to do is the first step in modifying it.” If active attention is the point of the device, don’t make it intuitive.
How, then, do designers keep a user engaged? If inherently intuitive design is neither possible nor necessarily desirable, what principle can we rely on? For Don Norman, there seem to be as many answers to this question as there are potential products. With wearables, however, and in particular those devices that we hope will help us change our behaviors, he has a simple prescription: It’s all about social pressure.
“Most people do not like to exercise. Most people like the way they feel after that exercise. I have been running faithfully for decades. How do I keep going? Many of my friends start and stop. Well, I tell people that I do it. I tell people how much I do it. I do this very deliberately. I’m not trying to brag. I’m trying to make a public commitment that I’m doing this. I don’t want to lie. The power of social networks is far more powerful than other mechanisms.”
Clearly, there’s a lot to be tried, and many new opportunities in the wearable space. As our conversation winds down, we have one last question for Don Norman. Is he an optimist or pessimist? Are wearables just a passing fad?
There’s no hesitation before he answers. “I think wearables will be around forever.”