Dr. Fred Bortzbooks

Review of The Design of Future Things

by Don Norman

(Basic Books, $27.50, 256 pages, November, 2007)

Reviewed by Dr. Fred Bortz

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It's a common experience: You push on a door and it refuses to budge. Then you notice its inscribed one-word direction: "Pull."

"How stupid!" you chide yourself. And then, especially if you have read Donald A. Norman's classic coverThe Design of Everyday Things, you realize that the blame belongs not with you but with the design of the entranceway. A door, after all, should not require an instruction manual.

Now the Northwestern University Professor is back with a more informal byline, Don Norman, and an equally insightful and entertaining look ahead at the opportunities and foibles inherent in The Design of Future Things.

This book, like its predecessor, will disabuse anyone of the notion that a book about engineering has to be dull. Don Norman's delightful humor, inviting prose, and choice of topics and examples are guaranteed to make a connection with anyone who has ever driven a car, used a microwave oven, or searched for hidden treasures in a refrigerator.

He opens with a chapter on "Cautious Cars and Cantankerous Kitchens," giving readers a glimpse into the not too distant future when cars' computerized safety features will commandeer steering wheels and smart refrigerators will shout shrill warnings about bacon and cheese omelets if a member of the household has a cholesterol problem.

Norman recognizes the value in such features, but he notes that "So called intelligent systems have become too smug.... [T]hey need to be socialized; they need to improve the way they communicate and interact and to recognize their limitations. Only then can they be truly useful."

That is especially true when the machines fail or when they take command unexpectedly. The author cites a circumstance in which an adaptive cruise control system-one that adjusts the car's speed to traffic density-tromped on the gas when the driver exited a crowded highway onto an empty off-ramp. "The same mechanisms that are so helpful when things are normal can decrease safety, decrease comfort, and decrease accuracy when unexpected situations arise."

Fortunately, designers of future technologies are aware of these issues and try to anticipate them. But how can they anticipate every glitch in the machine and every circumstance that can arise during its use?

That's where Norman's professional expertise comes to the fore. His commonsense recommendations make interesting reading for designers and laypersons alike. In a series of chapters that discuss they way we humans interact with our technology and the way our technology ought to interact with us, he guides readers to a set of six sensible design rules for the future engineering of everyday things.

The book then turns speculative, envisioning everyday things of the future, starting with a dialog between a fashion klutz and a magic mirror with access to an automated wardrobe closet:
Mirror, mirror on the wall,
Does this clothing match at all?
Brown and blue are not for you.
Try this jacket. Use this shoe.
Many readers will balk at Norman's assertion that "Future generations may not be content with natural biology" and that much of the population will be bionically enhanced. Still they will be having too much fun not to follow him into his vision of the everyday world to come. Their reward for doing so is a hilarious Afterword where they discover what smart machines may be thinking of people.

"It's all very well to say that we are not allowed to injure a human being...," grouses an artificially intelligent machine about Isaac Asimov's famous rules of robotics, "but it's quite another thing to know what to do about it, especially when humans won't cooperate."

Physicist Fred Bortz is the author of a well-known book on engineering for young readers, Catastrophe! Great Engineering Failure--and Success.