Friday, February 11, 2011

Design, nature and culture

The other day I picked up Don Norman's The Design of Everyday Things. I am not done with it yet, so this isn't a review. However, it triggered quite a few questions in, which highlight one of the main problems with design, a problem my mother pointed out 40-50 years ago. What she pointed out (in less words) was how the distribution of power in society influences design.

I love the main credo of Don Norman's book and approach to design. Rather than the top-down approach where "good design" is something recognized by the designer's peers and rarely truly appreciated by "regular people," Don Norman starts, like a true functionalist, with function, and claims that good design starts with good function. It has to work for the people who use it. I am almost ready to break out in hallelujahs here, I couldn't agree more. Then he goes through a whole stack of problems with design, listing several examples... and that's when I start seeing a different problem with how design is developed, based on the teachings of my mother.

Back when my father built the house we sold last year, fashion demanded small, scientifically designed kitchens, largely designed after time-motion studies. The idea was a work-space where the housewife would be able to reach everything with as few steps as possible. That's when my mother put her foot down, with the pretty precise analysis of the situation: "That's designed by men."

The traditional Norwegian kitchen was and is, excluding a period lasting from 1945-1970, a large, social room, today frequently merged with the living room thanks to efficient vents and fans. It's an important place for work, socialising and enjoyment, a focus which is even more important in an active, two-provider family where the socialising time is limited. It's where children are taught how to cook and clean, it's where the family cooperates to create an important value of the family life, and it's where work and socialisation can mingle, as it offers a chance to be together, work, chat or open up to each other. You can't do that in a tiny kitchen designed for one person to stand in one spot; you need room, several working spaces, and light.

Don Norman and I don't really disagree here, but still, this is where he uses his examples oddly, without consideration for status and power. One of his examples is an Italian designed washing machine that can do one hundred things, but the couple owning it barely makes it do one. My mother had some funky washing machines in her lifetime, and despite her low level of education and absolute terror of computers, she always made them work the way she wanted. Why?

The example in Don Norman's book is an extremely educated couple. I am sure they can operate any kind of technology they need to get their work done. But do they even care about the process of laundry? My mother would recognize materials by touch, she knew the nature of different colours (blue bleeds more easily than red), she would distinguish between weaves and was deeply offended by blends that changed the properties of all materials included. She'd treat each piece of clothing belonging to a large family individually, and the washing disasters with mixed colours were normally the fault of her not-that-focused daughters. In many ways, my mother was like the Austrian bus driver in another of Don Norman's examples, who, when asked if it wasn't difficult to keep track of everything in his complex panel answered "it's all where it should be."

Now we're getting where I want to. Yes, to a certain extent design is bad because it invites error. However: to a certain extent design is bad because it assumes people are all the same. We believe doing laundry is a simple task, because we all have to do it. It's knowledge we aren't trained or certified for, and so it has to be easy. Driving a bus, on the other hand, includes rigorous training and strict certification. It has to be complex. A complex washing machine causes frustration with the design, a complex bus causes respect for the handler.

Next couple that with gender theory, and we start to see one of the reasons why telephone systems are allowed to be designed as such horribly impractical tools. Most professional phone operators are women. They work a tool which we all use, and so we believe it's simple. They have jobs they are not certified for and which require very little special training. Also, where the bus driver might kill his passengers if he didn't find everything right at hand, nobody dies from a missed call (unlike it's to an emergency call center, and I suspect their systems don't look much like the ones Don Normal describes).

My mother loved to be able to adjust her washing machine to do exactly what she wanted. The bus driver probably has the same feeling about his bus. I love the huge clunky windows machine that I use for gaming, because it lets me do the same thing. I am a lot more frustrated by the apple machine I have through work, because it treats me like an idiot, "simplifying" things I want to do by hand. I use it as a compromise between weight, size and certain functions, and grind my teeth when it calls me stupid by making so many decisions for me. If I was a different kind of user, I'd probably worship it by now, just like I want my car to be simple to drive, and I would not buy a washing machines with functions I didn't recognize the use for.

So: Good design of everyday things is user-centered and based on tests, I am all with Norman there. I would however like to see him question the many places where he says "natural", possibly exchanging several of those with "cultural." After all, most desicions which feel natural to us aren't. They are cultural. Another example from the book: He has tied a string around his closet door in able to open it. At that age, I'd have been down in my father's workshop, looking for a door-knob. That was the culturally logical, available solution to me, and since I thought all fathers had a fully equipped workshop, it also would seem natural. The string was a very clever idea though!

2 comments: said...

A further place where Norman goes wrong, I think, is in assuming that people always know better than designers how to do what they want to do.

Often, people do know best. Humility is wise. But we all know that masses of people can be slaves to superstition, habit, or custom. People can, on average, be wrong. And people, on average, dont have a good sense of probability, or of the tensile strength of steel, or of the utility of a ruby closure.

Further, the mass of people know what they know, and in many places and times -- especially that of Norman's hypothetical suburbanites -- they know the status quo. If we want to improve the world, these may not be the best people to ask.

With regard to small kitchens: I think it's important to remember how great the change in cooking in this generation was. Remember: we're talking about homeowners -- which (say) 1870, meant people with servants. Fifty years later, nobody had cooks, much less scullery maids. But in 1870, someone had to fetch the water and stoke the fire and grind the flour and bake the breakfast bread; fifty years later, you got all that from the faucet and the grocery. You didn't need workspace for a team of four or five people in order to make dinner!

Given that change, the Bauhaus generation made a pretty good first guess at how we'd like kitchens to work. Yes, they got the social aspects all wrong, but they did get a surprising amount right.

Torill said...

I agree with you on a lot of this Mark, but I want to question this statement:

"Remember: we're talking about homeowners -- which (say) 1870, meant people with servants."

Who are these people with servants?

As far as I understand it, it is an error caused by literature written for and by the privileged to believe people in 1870 had servants. People in 1870 were craftsmen and women, they worked in factories or were farmers. Some of them served, some for a short period of time before they went on to buy or start something for themselves, some stayed on as servants for the rest of their lives. These were however the exceptions rather than the rule.