Russell D. Hoffman Interviews Donald Norman


Interview with Donald Norman

An interview by Russell D. Hoffman on his radio show HIGH TECH TODAY.

The following full transcript is from a radio show broadcast on radio station WALE. The views expressed are solely those of Russell D. Hoffman and his guest and do not necessarily reflect anyone else's point of view.

June 21st, 1995

Russell Hoffman ("Host"), High Tech Today
Donald Norman ("DN"), Author, Things That Make Us Smart

Host: ...And you're listening to High Tech Today with your host, Russell Hoffman. My guest today is Dr. Donald A. Norman. He's the author of...Things That Make Us Smart...I wasn't able to read the whole thing last night, but I read about three quarters of it and skimmed the rest...It's a great book--it's very interesting. And, we're going to be talking about the book, and about what he's talking about. So, I thought perhaps we would start--well, let's start by welcoming you to the show, Dr. Norman!

DN: Thank You.

Host: One of the most important things that I found in the beginning of the book, the first half anyway--is discussing the difference between 'experiential mode' and 'reflective mode'--

DN: Um Hm.

Host: --and maybe you can just explain for our listeners, sort of as a groundwork for the rest of the conversation, what we're talking about.

DN: Well, I got very concerned about the role that Hollywood is playing in our educational process. What I call the experiential mode is the way you feel when you see a really good movie. You know, you're sort of caught up in the action, you're caught up in the events, and the whole world around you disappears, and you are experiencing everything that's happening on the screen.

The same thing happens, actually, when you're captured by a good play or even a good book. Any demanding activity where there's a lot of things going on, that captures your mind--it becomes this experiential activity and it's fun, it's exciting, it's engrossing.

However, it's not the way to create new ideas and new thought. New thought is what I call reflective. You ponder this and you ponder that. You think of this idea, you compare it with that idea, you reflect upon the ideas. Reflective thought is harder, it's slower. It also requires external things, things that help make us smart, like writing things down or using other tools. Well, in some of the new educational movements, we're very concerned about kids who are engrossed by what they're doing--who seem to enjoy what they're doing.

But, enjoying what you're doing isn't the same as learning from it. And so I was very concerned about the use of multimedia technologies in schools which gives the experiential effect, but don't really create the kinds reflections that lead to deep thought and learning.

Host: Do you think there's a way to basically have both? To have a rich sit-back-and-learn educational experience, Edutainment, whatever, and have it drop you into a reflective mode, almost at will?

DN: That's exactly what you want. See, the trouble with the educational system is it's all reflective mode. Nothing is more tedious and boring, if you're not careful. What really, Hollywood for example is really good at getting you interested in something and keeping your interest, but wouldn't it be neat if you watched Jurassic Park and saw those dinosaurs, then afterwards, you could say "Hey, what kinds were those? Is that really true? Can you really make dinosaurs out of DNA?" And then go on and explore. So, what I would really prefer to see is this wonderful combination. Educators know how to put content in, but you know, their not so good at motivating.

Hollywood is really good at motivating, but not so good at deep content.

Host: They're willing to bend the rules, to make a good story, and it would be nice if they didn't do that as often.

DN: Or in fact, let you then discover how they bent the rules. You might actually learn more by having them bend the rules and then having you--having your teacher make it so that you discover--see, that's what a good teacher will do--will have it so that you think that you discovered it by yourself.

Host: The Making of Jurassic Park is a great film!

DN: Um Hm.

Host: Another topic that I wanted to have you talk about is "shared communication", which is something that is very difficult with computers, I mean, we have networks but they're not really a very efficient means of communication--your example about naval communication on a boat.

What are the advantages of 'shared communication', and what are the choices--what high tech choices do we have for doing 'shared communications'?

DN: Almost everything that we do is done with other people. In fact, the only time we do something all by ourselves is when go to school, and we're supposed to study by ourselves and take exams by ourselves. But in the real world most of our work is done with other people. And when you're with somebody else it's really important that each of the people know what's going on.

One of my favorite examples comes from aviation. If you look at the cockpit of a modern airplane, it has two pilots. The pilot on the left who's called the Captain, and the pilot on the right who's called the First Officer. Well, it's a very interesting thing that happens when you lower the landing gear. The switch for the landing gear on most aircraft is a fairly large lever, usually with a wheel at the end so that when you pull it you feel the wheel and that makes sure that you have the landing gear switch.

Now, it's a pretty big, large lever, and when the Captain wants to use it, the Captain has to lean across, towards the First Officer, grab the stick and lower it.

With modern computer control of airplanes, you could actually have changed that completely. It could be a tiny little switch under the thumb of the Captain, and the Captain could just sort of flip the switch, and the landing gear would come down.

Well, that wouldn't work as well. With this really big switch, you have to lean over to pull it down--it means that the other person in the plane knows what you're doing. You don't have to say anything. All you do is lean over and pull it--the other person can't help but [notice]. And this has been a problem in newer airplanes. On some of the Aerobus planes, the stick--the wheel that the pilots use to control the aircraft, is replaced by a small joystick. In the older airplanes, whenever you tried to control the airplane this big, essentially a steering wheel, moved back and forth in front of both pilots, because they were connected together. Therefore each pilot knew what was happening. And when you switch to the high tech scheme of a little joystick on the side, one pilot doesn't know what the other pilot is doing, and it's not as effective in doing corroborative work.

Host: My guest today is Dr. Donald A. Norman. He's the author of Things That Make Us Smart. The subtitle is "Defending Human Attributes in the Age of the Machine." You're listening to High Tech Today.


Dr. Norman, why is it so difficult to write useful computer manuals?

DN: Well, really, it isn't 'difficult'. The problem is the computer, not the manual. See, if you really designed the computer correctly you would really not even need a manual. The point is that the way computers tend to be designed, is by putting the technology first, by putting the engineers and the programmers together, producing this monster, and then "Oh, My Goodness! We need a manual!" And then the poor manual writers come in, and they're given this incomprehensible machine, and [try] to make in intelligable--and they're usually not given enough time!

Now, if you really want to write a good computer manual, the way I would recommend is, when you're starting to design a new computer, bring in the manual writers, and have them write the manual--first!

So, they're going to write a really simple and short manual, that says only the basic stuff that you're going to need. They'll write a manual that's easy to understand! And now, the trick is to get the engineers and programmers to build a computer that matches the manual! That's the correct way to do it! The problem is not with people who write the manuals. The problem is the system that we use today.

Host: That--that's a great answer--with my fifteen years of computer experience--let me tell you folks, that's a great answer--and I appreciate it.

DN: Oh, thank you.

Host: Okay, another question I'll throw at you: What can be done to make online information retrieval easier to do? I mean, it's really difficult. You use in your book the example of OAG, the "Official Airlines Guide" and comparing using a voice system and using your pocket guide, and I've tried using CompuServe to get flight information, and I find that much more difficult than just calling up and waiting for the next available representative.

DN: Although you do remember that when you call the next available representative, that person is using the Online Guide to help you. So the problem is simply the tools that we're given. Now I happened to have switched over completely to an electronic OAG. The Official Airline Guide now sells floppy disks that you can subscribe to, and every month they come in the mail and I load them into my computer. And that is a superior method. I find it even better than the paper method because, with the paper method you want to make--well in fact, on Saturday I'm flying to Olso, Norway, and to do that I have to fly through Paris, and then take a plane from Paris to Oslo.

And it's really hard when you're trying to use the paper manuals, you have your fingers in several different places, trying to make connections. And with the electronic one, you just--Poof--suddenly get all the flights from here to Paris, then--Poof--get all the flights from Paris to Oslo, and you quickly can compare the two--you have the two simultaneously on the screen.

The problem is that most of the people who design these online tools, haven't thought about people. Haven't thought about the typical way in which we use systems. The online tool used for reference, can be far superior to paper tools, but only [if] the people who design them start off by studying what people really do with them, and how they like to use them. Then it would be better. If you just have engineers who--boombiddyboom--put together whatever they can real fast and say "Here! All you have to do is hit Command-Alt-F15", it's a disaster.

Host: What about database access, where there is so much information, and you're trying to scan for pieces that you don't even know are connected. What sort of guidelines could you suggest to us for making that sort of search easier?

DN: It's the same problem. Today, you have the computer scientist, who will study carefully the ways of storing information in a way that's most efficient for a computer. And then they devise a language--a query language, they call it, to get information out of the database, and you have to be pretty precise in your specification. Well, no wonder people can't use it! People don't think like computers, people think very very differently.

The proper thing to do is to start off by asking, what kind of information people care about, and what they know about what they are searching for. I mean, it's an interesting thing that when we go to a database to find out something, we don't know what we want! If we knew what we wanted, we wouldn't be looking for it! If you don't know what you want, you don't quite know how to ask for it. So, what you really want is a system that's built around that, you can sort of ask something, and the system will come back and give you something, and you say "No! That's not what I want!" And, if you do it right the system says "Oh, well, how about this?"

And, what you want is a dialogue. You don't want to have to perform a careful query. This nonsensical query. What you want is a simple dialogue with the system, and each time you get kind of closer, and then eventually you'll either find what you want, or better yet, you'll find something you didn't know you wanted, and you'll say "Hey! That's neat!"

There are such systems, but the important point is, to design it, don't start with the computer system, start with the person.

Host: My guest today is Dr. Donald Norman, the author of Things That Make Us Smart, and is this book--this is just an--let's see, how do I ask this question: Is this a rebellion against assembly lines, among other things?

DN: It's a rebellion against assembly lines, it's a rebellion against treating people like machines. But it's not a rebellion against technology. I mean, I'm a technologist. I believe in technology. I work for Apple Computer! But what I believe in is making technology humane. Making--Understanding people, and then designing the technology for people.

By the way--Can I give an advertising plug, if you like the book?

Host: Sure, go right ahead!

DN: If you liked the book, then look at the movie! The Voyager Company, which does really marvelous multimedia books and also the Criterion Laserdisk series, the Voyager Company has brought out this ...CD-ROM. It's called First Person: Don Norman. And it has three of my books. It has The Psychology of Everyday Things, Turn Signals are the Facial Expressions of Automobiles, Things That Make Us Smart and then it has me in video, so as you read Things That Make Us Smart, suddenly I show up on the page and you click on me, and I say "Hey! I'm glad you asked!" And I try to re-explain, or sometimes say, you know, "I got it wrong here in this book and here's what I really think today." Or I give examples and demos. And then, just to make it fun, there are even some examination questions from the courses I used to teach using these books.

Host: And that's Voyager, came out with that disk?

DN: The Voyager Company.

Host: They're the same company that released A Hard Day's Night--

DN: That's correct.

Host: --on CD-ROM, which is a delightful addition to the movie! It's got the text... They do good stuff!

DN: Yeah, they do things that make us smart!

Host: (Laughs.) Let's see. One of the examples that you gave in the book concerned people who use digital watches, if you ask them what time it is, they give you the exact time to the minute, and invariably, their watch is probably off by more than a couple of minutes, or at least a couple of minutes and you didn't really care that accurately. If you were that accurate yourself, you'd probably carry a digital watch, with an uplink to the national time...

DN: Yes, I in fact--Just like I do! I'm wearing a digital watch and just Sunday, I dialed in to WWV and corrected my computer clock to the second, and of course set my digital watch. That, by the way, is something I should not be proud of! It's something that's actually a sign of succumbing to technology.

Host: (Laughs.) But if I want to know what time it is, I'm going to ask you! (Laughs.)

DN: I was in Australia, giving a radio interview in the studio, and I saw the best digital clock I've ever seen. Because, you ask somebody what time it is and they say "It's 7:58." 7:58? Why don't they tell you it's two minutes to eight? That's because, you know, with an analog watch you'd say that--it's almost eight o'clock. But a digital one, it tells you, 7:58. So, with this digital clock in the radio station, that's what it did, is it would say it's 7:15, it's 7:20, it's 7:30. And then it would say it's twenty minutes to eight, it's fifteen minutes to eight, it's ten minutes to eight. I thought that was very clever.

Host: Well, Us--us Radio People need to know because we have to break for commercials and we have to go off the air when our show is over, otherwise the engineers get really upset.

DN: Um Hm.

Host: Anyway, let's go with another question here: What new input and output devices do you think we'll see for the computer, because it seems like the ones we've got a pretty archaic.

DN: The first one I think that will be with us--this is just--(laughs) let me answer that by saying what old input device I think is going to stick around for a long time, and I think that's the typewriter keyboard.

Host: Uh Hh.

DN: Typewriter keyboards, for all of its faults and all of its problems, is still the most efficient way of entering text. Now, obviously in some far future time we're going to have speech input.

We already have simple speech input, and I've used a couple of telephone answering systems that recognize your speech, and do a really fine job. But, today's speech input is very limited. You usually have to train the system for a long time to recognize you, and then it won't work if you have a cold or something. Or, you have to have a fairly small vocabulary and speak...very...distinctly.

It would be decades before we have really good speech understanding systems, because the real problems is not understanding the words that [we] speak, the problem is understanding the language, and the meaning behind those words. And there, you know, we can't do that in research laboratories and universities yet, it's a long way away. But someday that will come.

What I expect to see coming fairly soon is, oh, say, gesture devices, pointing devices. I could be able to sit at my TV set and lift my hand in the air and lower it, and have the sound lower, or wave my hand and have the channel change, or make a circle with my hand and have the mute go on.

We should be able to have gesture systems. A little TV camera that looks at you and recognizes what you're doing and then responds appropriately.

Host: Well, there's certainly examples of that in the labs and at the shows, where you can step onto a mat or a carpet or whatever and pretend to be playing the drums and, you hear the drums being played according to where you're waving your arms--

DN: Exactly.

Host: --so the technology, clearly, is available for that. I guess it's just too expensive, and--and not perfected for home use.

DN: Right now it's too expensive; it doesn't do well with complicated background, and it isn't completely reliable, but that's exactly what I'm thinking of. If you can sort of see it demonstrated today, then in ten years it will be affordable.

Host: My guest is Dr. Donald A. Norman, and you're listening to High Tech Today...


Let's turn to another topic here. My question concerns video stores, and its: When will downloadable and online movies be replacing video--the video store as a means of getting your movies. Now, as an aside, when I rent a movie, what I prefer to do, is to go over to my friend's, who has thousands--literally thousands of movies, and he's seen them all! And when I want to get a movie from him, I ask him what it's about, and what it's like, and how gory is it, and if it's not too gory, and it's got a good plot, I'll borrow it. Not only is this cheaper, but it assures me that I'll get the movies that I'll really want, are much more likely to, anyway. So, what's that replacing is the box, and the expert, all at once. What are they going to do to get rid of these video stores, which seem like a terrible waste, and yet they're so common, and everybody uses them.

DN: Well that's actually several questions in one. They're very good questions, and they're points that I've given quite a lot of thought to. Let me take the friend first. You're very lucky, you have this friend nearby. Most of us don't have friends nearby who have such extensive knowledge and collections. But all of us have friends who share our taste, or maybe even have a friend we know we think just the opposite of, and we often check with them about movies or books before we go and see them or read them.

One of the things we're trying here is an experimental program that is a way of letting you select books, and also movies, by looking to see what you're friends like, so that in short, you can join this cooperative thing. When people see a movie, they say "I really hated it" or they say "That was a neat movie." And they give a short description. And what happens is over time, you build up the preferences of these people, and you kind of decide which ones you match, because after you've seen a movie, you can give your opinion, and then you decide which people it matched with. What happens is after a while--it doesn't take very long--you have this really neat set of advisors, and next time you want to see a movie, you sort of say "Well, what do you suggest?" And your computer has sort of figured out which people are like you, and which people are not, and it therefore can make--kind of like your friend does--and make a suggestion that is intelligent.

Well that's only one problem, which is--what am I going to see next? But as we move towards movies-on-demand, move towards the case where TV stations, or cable stations, or maybe even your electric utility company is going to have tens of thousands of movies available, you simply say which one you want. The selection process will be a big problem.

Host: It already is! I've found myself spending half an hour in the video store, trying to pick a ninety minute movie.

DN: Yeah. (Laughs.) I've noticed the same phenomenon myself. This should help.

Host: And, also: In terms of having the computer recognize what I've been watching, and decide what I want to watch next, that has the problem that I always want to watch something new and different, that I've never seen before! How is the computer going to make that decision?

DN: Actually, we know that. And we've actually built quite a bit of intelligence into this program so that--we realize that. That you sometimes want to be surprised. You don't always want to see things like what you've been seeing. In fact you might very well want something just the opposite of what you saw last. And actually the sophisticated programs they're developing can recognize that.

And you know--it can always ask you! That's the important thing. You don't have to put all the intelligence in the computer. You can sometimes say, "Hey, do you want to see something like that, or would you like to have a change of pace? Maybe you'd like to be surprised, and you answer what you'd want.

But let me get to the "when" question.

Host: Uh Hh.

DN: The "when" question is interesting. It has nothing to do with technology. It has all to do with politics, and regulation, and cost. And as you know, there's a new teleregulations bill. Telephone, cable, TV regulation bill that's going through Congress right now. And that will actually change things dramatically.

There suddenly will be a lot of competition from companies wanting to provide movies on demand. Companies are going to spend billions of dollars making the equipment available. The weird thing is, movies on demand are something almost everybody wants, but doesn't use very much. And moreover, the amount of money you're willing to pay for a movie on demand is just a little bit more than you would pay for renting a movie at the VCR store. So, nobody quite knows how it's going to work, because it's going to cost billions of dollars to set it up, and you'll get three or four dollars per person, once a week, twice a month. The numbers don't add up. So the real issue here is not technology, the issue here is what we call a business case. When does it make sense to provide this?

Host: My guest has been Dr. Donald A. Norman, the author of Things That Make Us Smart. And I guess one last question: What's you're next book going to be about?

DN: I never know! I'm always observing, watching, writing things. Every morning I like to write for an hour or so, and we'll see. I often surprise myself, the things that come out.

Host: So, you haven't started it yet.

DN: Well, I've been watching...I've been watching.

Host: You're listening to High Tech Today with your host, Russell Hoffman. My guest has been Donald Norman, the author of Things That Make us Smart, which is out at your local bookstore right now, which is a high tech device for getting communication equipment into your home. That's the local book store. The subtitle of the book is Defending Human Attributes in the Age of the Machine. I'd like to thank you very much for coming on the show, Dr. Norman.

DN: Thank you very much, I've enjoyed it.

Host: Thank you....You've been listening to High Tech Today...Bye Bye.

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