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Technology Forces Us To Do Things We're Bad At. Time To Change How Design Is Done

Distractibility isn't a human problem; it's a design problem, writes usability expert Don Norman.

Technology Forces Us To Do Things We're Bad At. Time To Change How Design Is Done

[Photo: Artur Debat/Getty Images]

There is a widely believed myth that human error causes some 90% of car accidents. Ninety percent of all accidents are blamed on human error. That is not the same as caused by people.

The real cause of most accidents is an engineering mentality that favors automating whatever we can and leaving people to fill in the gaps. This forces people to behave according to the machine's needs and on its terms: Things people are bad at. And when people are asked to do things they are bad at, they do them badly, which leads to accidents.

One frequent cause of difficulty is distraction, as if distractibility were a human failure. It isn't. It's a design problem. People are not distractible: We are curious and attentive to changes. These are positive virtues for living in a world filled with uncertainty, novelty, and unexpected events. They lead to clever insights, creativity, as well as resilience in the face of unexpected events. But these very virtues are labelled as undesirable when they take place in an environment where people are forced to pay attention to dull, tedious environments for long periods, forced to be continually attentive, and highly precise with repetitive activities, things people are known to do poorly. It's time to reset the entire framework for how we construct technology.

How Technology Complements People's Abilities

People and technology form a natural partnership. We have invented and created technology to enhance our lives and abilities. Now, we cannot exist without these technologies that clothe and feed us, educate and entertain us, allow us to travel, and record our thoughts.

People and machines are natural partners in part because they are so different: These differences form complements that, in the best of circumstances, merge to make the combination of people plus technology more powerful and effective than either alone.

People are curious, creative, and sensitive to changes around them, combining new events with current ones in clever, inventive, and productive ways. We are approximate and heuristic. We also get bored when there little to do, so we seek new activities to keep occupied. People are analog creatures; our behavior is suited to the natural world, not the world of modern machines.

The combination of these traits means that people have difficulty with continual, focused attention when little is happening—when they must engage in highly precise, repetitive actions such as driving. People are good at seeing the big picture, the trends, and the possibilities of combining novel components.

Machines, on the other hand, can maintain focus. They are capable of sustained attention for long, indefinite periods. They are precise, even with repetitive actions. Machines, at least at the moment, have no curiosity. They do not switch their focus of attention from their current activity to explore new events.

Will machines ever exhibit curiosity—and in a way that does not diminish their attention to ongoing events? Perhaps, but that is apt to be many decades away. Meanwhile, let's develop the important philosophy of design that treats people and machines as collaborative partners. The very different properties of people and technology (machines) should make for a powerful team. People get bored when forced to do the same thing over and over again. Machines don’t. So why not relieve people of the need to do repetitive, highly precise tasks and let machines do that? Why don’t we design things to take advantage of the complementary properties?

[Photo: Oliur Rahman via Unsplash]

Toward A People-First Vision Of Technology

Consider the calculator. The creative part of mathematics is thinking of the problem and the possible approach toward a solution. But solving the resulting equations requires attention to details and great accuracy.

People are very good at thinking of the problem, of phrasing it properly. But the mathematical solution requires attention to details and great accuracy. People are not good at this.

I understand the fundamentals of arithmetic (and higher mathematics as well), but I make simple errors. Ask me to do some computation that requires pages of work, and I guarantee I will go wrong somewhere along the way.

Calculators are wonderful at solving equations with never an error. They aren’t any good at deciding what to solve, or at determining how to formulate the problem so it can be put into equations and then, when the solution is determined, of evaluating it to determine if it is appropriate or not. These things are best left to people.

So form a team—person plus calculator—and the resulting teamwork is far more powerful than either alone.

Don’t like mathematics? Okay, consider maps or musical instruments or paints and brushes or computer drawing and drafting tools (well, some computer drawing and drafting tools). All of these can complement people by doing the parts of the task people are not good at, allowing people to concentrate on what they do so well: creativity, framing the problem, and evaluating (and modifying) the results.

That is not true of driving. Drivers must stare at the road for long periods even though very little action is required of them. The problem is that the need for action can arise at any moment, often unpredictably. In psychology, this requirement of sustained attention to boring tasks is called "vigilance." People are bad at it. The mind likes to keep busy. If nothing is happening with the main task, the mind turns to something else. Sometimes it pays attention to other events, to conversation with others in the car (or in today’s world, with others connected by our wireless technology), or to its own wanderings. These are perfectly normal, ordinary human behaviors. When an accident is blamed on people, claiming that they were distracted, that language of blame has it backwards. It is the fault of the machines, the technology—or more precisely, the fault of the people who designed, implemented, and deployed devices that forced people to behave in ways that they are bad at—a fact that has been known for more than a half century.

How Should We Design?

The proper way to design is to start off understanding the task that needs to be accomplished, structure the design of the tools to build upon human needs and capabilities, then construct technology that compensates for our weaknesses.

For centuries, technologists have placed the needs of machines over those of people, forcing people to act like machines. Then when people turn out to do these things badly, people are blamed. They are criticized for lack of attention, for being distracted. No: It is the technologists who should be criticized for forcing us to act in ways that are inhuman. It is time we regain our rightful place.

We need to reverse the normal technological strategy of asking people to fill in for gaps in machine performance. Instead, we should require machines to fill in for gaps in human performance. After all, technology was invented to enhance people's lives, not the other way around. Let’s build technologies that empower us, allow us to use our creative abilities, and relieve us of the stuff we are not good at.