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Don Norman on Cloud Computing, Complexity and Emotions @ CHItaly 2011

Don Norman Don Norman (photo on the left), author of many popular books about design and technology, is in Italy this week as a special guest of CHItaly 2011 (the Italian conference on Computer-Human Interaction, which starts tomorrow), organized this year in Sardinia by Sebastiano Bagnara  (University of Sassari). Today we had the opportunity to ask a few questions to Don. His answers are reported in the following (the italian translation is instead available at this link).

1) In your new book (“Living with complexity”), you point out that the pursue of simplicity by interaction designers does not always bring more usability and user satisfaction.  What are the kind of errors that a designer can make in this sense?

It is possible to make things so simple that they are difficult or even impossible to use. Imagine a mobile that only had one button: would it look simple? Yes, but what could you do?  Many elegant designs look very attractive, but when you start to use them, you cannot figure out how to do so.

The problem is the confusion between visual simplicity (where no controls and simple lines are the ideal) and cognitive complexity, where it is best to have a single control for each operation  This looks very complicated but actually it is far easier to use. This is how systems for waiters in restaurants are designed: many buttons, one for each item on the menu. Looks horrible, but it is very easy to learn and to use.


2) Your book on Emotional Design has been very influential in the design community.  Do you see a synergy between designing for emotions and designing for complexity?

But of course!  The best design will convey the correct emotional state — maybe power and control, or perhaps calm and comfort. I like things that indicate subtle pleasure and excitement. These emotions are conveyed through the visual design, through a feeling of understanding how to use the device and what it can do. Emotion and complexity are intimately related. Things that look confusing and complicated invoke a feeling of anxiety and dread, perhaps a lack of self-esteem. Make it look approachable and under control and the positive emotions soar. That is what I like about my Gaggia coffee machine: it invokes pride and passion.

3) In the “Invisible Computer” you predicted that information appliances which hide technology from the user would have been the means to achieve more ease of use and convenience. Do you think that the current trend towards Cloud Computing will help to further materialize this vision?

Cloud computing is wonderful, except when the clouds go away. Here I am in beautiful Alghero, but I am struck dumb by the cloudless sky. No internet in my hotel room — I have to go downstairs to the hotel lobby to be able to buy time in order to use the network.  No internet on my mobile because international roaming charges for data are outrageously high. I can’t even buy a data card for my mobile because the amount of data I am allowed is ridiculous: maybe 50MBytes, which in my life means one file.   

The cloud does allow powerful appliances.  I love Google’s translation system which even allows me to photograph a sign in Italian and have it show up in English. Or I can photograph a plant and be told what it is. Maps and navigation systems are wonderful appliances.

But these only work if the cloud is available, and the people who need it most cannot get to the cloud. I refer to tourists who visit another country. The telephone service providers are too greedy. They make roaming access to data so expensive that those who need it the most cannot afford to connect. I know the EU is working on this, but we also need a world-wide solution.