The following review was written and posted for the course Impact of New Information Resources: Multimedia and Networks , taught at the University of Michigan by Howard Besser in Winter of 1996.

William Robboy


First Person: Donald A. Norman: Defending Human Attributes in the Age of the Machine. Produced and edited by Melanie Goldstein. Irvington, N.Y.: Voyager, c1994.

System requirements: Any color Macintosh (25-MHz 68030 or better recommended); 5,000K of available RAM (at least 8 MB installed); System 7; 13-inch (640x480 resolution) color monitor; QuickTime-compatible CD-ROM drive (double-speed recommended).

This CD contains the full text of three of Donald Norman's books published in print format in the late 1980s to early '90s: The Design of Everyday Things, Turn Signals are the Facial Expressions of Automobiles, and Things That Make Us Smart: Defending Human Attributes in the Age of the Machine, all embellished sporadically with brief audio or video segments of Norman providing commentary. Also included are an introduction containing video segments of Norman giving three original short talks, plus video clips of Norman explaining aspects of the CD itself; an Essays section containing previously published articles written or co-written by Norman; and "The Gallery of Unfindable Things," a selection of images by artist Jacques Carelman from his book Catalogue d'objets introuvables, with audio commentary by Norman. Supporting materials on the CD include an Index (or rather, both a traditional book index appearing as text with page references for topical terms, and a Find function that will retrieve instances of any word or phrase), a glossary, and text transcripts of the audio and video segments.

Norman's books and essays on this CD all deal with the relationships between people and technology. The earliest of the books, The Design of Everything Things, focuses on Norman's ideas about user-centered design, a concern that continues to reverberate through the later books and many of the essays and talks: in Norman's view technological devices (from doors and faucets to electronics) should facilitate their own lucid and successful use. Turn Signals are the Facial Expressions of Automobiles is a wider-ranging exploration of the societal relationships between humans and technology. In Things That Make Us Smart, Norman examines how technologies can amplify (rather than thwart) human cognitive capabilities. The Carelman images portray a series of whimsical imaginary devices with nonsensical relationships between their forms and their apparent functions.

Given the content of these works, we may assume Norman thought long and hard before putting them on a CD-ROM: What would this technology do that print could not, or do better? What should be the relationship between the CD's form and its content? How might its very design aid the user's grasp of the specific ideas being presented?

Such reflections are largely unexpressed on the CD itself. Though he mentions his general concern that a CD-ROM on design issues should be well-designed, and that particular features should be helpfully crafted, Norman's discussion of his reasons for making the CD in the first place is surprisingly brief (not to mention hard to locate). It boils down to two considerations: the utility of an automated index for all three books, and the cogency and immediacy of being able to see and hear the author himself talk about the work. He does not elaborate as much as one would wish on how an indexed CD is better than reissuing the books as a set in print format with a unified index. Norman is definitely a charming and videogenic presence, and the audio and video segments on this CD are fun to hear and watch, but they are not a particularly strong support or augmentation of the content of the text--partly because he is already a writer of great warmth, persuasiveness, and vivid personal voice, and partly because the talks seem shallower and less carefully crafted than the books.

A more compelling reason for making this CD-ROM might have been to exemplify the design principles the books themselves espouse. So having read some of this work before, I approached the CD with an eye towards the relationship between the content and the user interface--between what it says about design and what it does about design. As a nearly-virginal user of CD-ROMS, I was in an excellent position to do this. After all, one of Norman's fundamental principles of good design is to minimize the amount of memorized knowledge the user of a device must bring to bear, and maximize the extent to which the device's possible functions and manner of operation are self-evident. It should be obvious what it can do and how to do it. Even supporting documentation should be unnecessary; Norman declares (in Turn Signals) that the need for a user's manual is a sure sign of a badly designed device.

So it seemed an ill omen when the CD-ROM was accompanied by a printed User's Guide with a lengthy explanation of various folders that need to be copied onto the computer's hard drive before one can begin to view the CD. Once this is done and the CD-ROM is started up, the User's Guide also explains how to navigate around it and use its various functions. Of course, for this information you don't need to have the User's Guide. The CD itself contains a video section of Norman explaining how to use it. How do you know it does and how do you find it? Well, the User's Guide tells you.

Or sort of does. It directs you to "The Making of the CD-ROM: How it Works," in the introduction. Now, this subsection does not appear in the initial table of contents; without the User's Guide you won't know it's there, and even if you do it's not self-evident how to get to it. But if you can figure out (from previous knowledge?) that clicking on the section title "The Making of the CD-ROM" will produce a list of subsections, and then click on "How it Works," you will be presented with a page with eight or ten images of Donald Norman strewn around it in a nonlinear arrangement, and the instruction "Click on a Don to start."

Any Don? And will every Don give you the same content? No, it turns out that every Don activates a different video segment explaining a different aspect of the CD. There is no way to know which Don is associated with which information except to try them all and memorize them or write them down. This is disheartening in the light of Norman's design prescription that mappings between controls and functions should be non-arbitrary. At least the Dons aren't all identical; they're all standing in different postures, but only one posture is obviously iconic of the information associated with it: the Don who explains the tool palette is gesturing toward a picture of it. That's right, a picture of it; if you try to click on one of its buttons, you get a message telling you this isn't the real tool palette. If you want the real tool palette, click on the toolbox in the corner, and the (identical) real tool palette will appear in the same spot where the fake tool palette is now. Oops, what happened to Norman's prescription for visible feedback on the results of actions? You're looking in the wrong place, dummy; the difference is, the toolbox's lid is open now.

Another of the Dons is in an almost iconic posture. Click on him and you'll find out about marking pages. How do you know this? Because he's pointing to the upper right corner, and that's where you click to mark pages with a message. How do you find that out? (The corner is utterly blank.) Why, click on Don. Other functions are similarly invisible: click on a page header to see a table of contents; click on the left side of the page (a blank panel in a slightly darker shade of beige than the rest of the page) to see the tool bar; there is no way to discern these things except to stumble on the right Don in "How it Works," or read the User's Guide. Where are the "affordances" that Norman says should be visible and clear?

So it seems Norman is right not to tout this CD-ROM as an exemplar of his design concepts. Technology design is easier to write about than to do. Perhaps, after all, Norman's CD is best approached as an opportunity to meet the author. Get this CD-ROM if you want to hear Norman talk the talk. If you hope to see him walk the walk, you may be disillusioned.

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