Don Norman on Smart Machines

January 16, 2008 at 1:19 am 2 comments

In a New York Times article last month, Don Norman, one of my heroes, said that intelligent devices should work without human intervention and should behave predictably. He gave the examples of a clothes dryer that stops when the clothes are dry and a tea kettle that whistles when the water boils. “But we are moving toward intelligent machines that still require human supervision and correction, and that is where the danger lies — machines that fight with us over how to do things.”

“Badly designed so-called intelligent technology makes us feel out of control, helpless. No wonder we hate it.” Don went on to say, “Our frustrations with machines are not going to be solved with better machines.”

I just struggled with a not very smart but quite powerful machine, a furnace. The conclusion was a happy one but it required the assistance of a specialist. In the interval between the detection and fixing of the problem, I certainly felt helpless, as Don said.

I wonder if the more intelligence a device has, the more helpless a person feels when the device is not behaving predictably – or as desired, which isn’t necessarily the same thing. And I wonder if the dislike one has also grows with intelligence since expectations increase.


Entry filed under: usability. Tags: , , .

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2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Lisa Neal  |  January 16, 2008 at 3:34 am

    I wrote to Don Norman that I posted a blog entry about him, and he read it and wrote back that “these ideas are the foundation of my newest book – The Design of Future Things.” I plan to read – and write about – it.

    Don also said “Nice blog”. Thanks, Don!

  • 2. Mike Gualtieri  |  January 16, 2008 at 2:01 am

    I wonder what you and Don, then, think about the internet? One could argue that the internet is a very poorly design “intelligent” machine. It does act predictably like the tea kettle. Sometimes I simply don’t understand how we got along without cellphones and the internet 20 years ago. Both are poorly designed “intelligent” machines.

    Funny Don should mention a tea kettle because I love my Breville Electric


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Lisa Gualtieri, PhD, ScM

Lisa GualtieriLisa Gualtieri is Assistant Professor at Tufts University School of Medicine in the Department of Public Health and Community Medicine. She is Director of the Certificate Program in Digital Health Communication. Lisa teaches Designing Health Campaigns using Social Media, Social Media and Health, Mobile Health Design, and Digital Strategies for Health Communication. Contact Lisa:


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