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Things That Make Us Smart: Defending Human Attributes In The Age Of The Machine

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In Things That Make Us Smart, Donald A. Norman explores the complex interaction between human thought and the technology it creates, arguing for the development of machines that fit our minds, rather than minds that must conform to the machine.Humans have always worked with objects to extend our cognitive powers, from counting on our fingers to designing massive supercomputers. But advanced technology does more than merely assist with thought and memory—the machines we create begin to shape how we think and, at times, even what we value. Norman, in exploring this complex relationship between humans and machines, gives us the first steps towards demanding a person-centered redesign of the machines that surround our lives.

304 pages, Paperback

First published January 1, 1993

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About the author

Donald A. Norman

33 books1,257 followers
Donald Arthur Norman is a professor emeritus of cognitive science at the University of California, San Diego and a Professor of Computer Science at Northwestern University, where he also co-directs the dual degree MBA + Engineering degree program between the Kellogg school and Northwestern Engineering. Norman is on numerous company advisory boards, including the editorial board of Encyclopædia Britannica. He currently splits his time between consulting, teaching, and writing. He co-founded the Nielsen Norman Group, a consulting group on matters of usability, which also includes Jakob Nielsen and Bruce "Tog" Tognazzini.

Many of Norman's books deal mostly with usability or with cognitive psychology. He loves products which are enjoyable to use, a feature which he attributes to putting together emotion and design, or heart and mind.

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Displaying 1 - 25 of 25 reviews
Profile Image for Adman.
172 reviews5 followers
December 18, 2017
"Many of the important parts of life go on outside the head, in our interactions with the world...with each other." (Donald Norman, Things That Make Us Smart, pg 117)

"[T]hose who benefit most from a technology and those who must do the work to make it function are different people." (pg 216)

In this 1993 book Norman observed, and mourned, that human experience has become subject to the calculating rhetoric of modern technology. Many tasks and experiences that people regularly engaged in had been reshaped to answer the needs of their tools, and those who controlled those tools. He described how this leads to discontentment but also, ironically, new types of errors, accidents and inefficiencies as the unique abilities of people are suppressed and the limited, albeit remarkable, powers of technology are given the run of the kingdom.

Norman promoted restoration of what he felt was the proper hierarchy by first exploring how people think and how they engage their environment, and then suggesting ways to partner people with technology so that people would stay at the center, and their tools remain in supporting roles.

This book is at its best when it describes how people and things work. There are interesting explorations of experiential vs reflective cognition, distributed cognition (a field that fascinates me more and more), surface and internal representations, memory, mental models and problem isomorphs (that was especially interesting), and how to structure information. One observation about memory I found poignant: "Much of our decision-making and problem solving is done by analogy," but memory's limits mean that we compare against what has recently occurred and extraordinary life circumstances - we do not judge against normal circumstance (128).

Unfortunately, Things That Make Us Smart also falters on many occasions. Norman becomes opinionated in a less-than-pedagogical way, but does not substantiate his positions well and more than once contradicts himself. For example, he bemoans experiential learning in museums and seems skeptical of curators' claims that people's curiosity must be inspired before they will seek learning (20-21), but later observes in his own research that students learn much better when they are already motivated to be interested (30). In another place, he praises abstract experimental models but also criticizes them, using the same premise for both arguments: a mental model is a simplified approximation (48-49) of reality. Toward the end of the book he disagrees with the axiom, "the medium is the message," saying that "the medium is the carrier, not the content. Nevertheless, the medium is not a neutral carrier; it has numerous properties that affect both how it is used and its impact upon society....Media can deceive and seduce even the discerning mind" (243-44). Well, if the medium can manipulate the message and its recipients, then how can he possibly claim the medium is not at least part of the message?

Norman also seems vague with some definitions, as when he tries to distinguish between good and wasteful activities. He occasionally describes an action as a waste of time, and more than once invokes 'higher pursuits' (such as 26-27, 44), but never convinces me that he has a clear definition of which is which. A book which assumes a corrective stance toward society and technology ought to have well-defined criteria....or am I falling prey to machine thinking? Another example of vague terms comes when he states that retaining skills requires practice, but "[i]n general, artifacts don't change our cognitive abilities; they change the tasks we do." (78) Doesn't relief from practicing skills that we used to know reduce our cognitive abilities, or have I simply misunderstood?

Another disappointment: in the final third of the book Norman acts like a futurist, badly dating the book and often digressing from the core thesis. In fact, I question how concretely he ever describes how we might work ourselves out of this predicament, for partnering the best of machines with the best of people requires a better understanding of the human needs and attributes he doesn't articulate very well.


"[T]echnology aids our thoughts and civilized lives, but it also provides a mind-set that artificially elevates some aspects of life and ignores others, not based upon their real importance but rather by the arbitrary condition of whether they can be measured scientifically and objectively by today's tools." (15)

Naturally, I perceived contemporary predicaments and attitudes in this book. I feel that the problems Norman describes are more pronounced than ever. We seem to have come to regret - if unconsciously - our human minds, with all their emotion, inconsistency, and inefficiency, along with our equally problematic human bodies, which can have such influence upon those minds.

At times we seem to be on a crusade to expel ourselves from ourselves. Can't we program, or legislate, away our endless fleshly scandals of inefficiency and inconsistency? Can we really trust people to ensure values like fairness and impartiality (or whatever calculus takes the place of what now seem like naive calculations of equality)? Shouldn't we prefer the new set of rules and new history that are already being written for us, according to the the precise recall and execution of our modern saviors, our cameras and data archives and search algorithms and tirelessly-executed lines of code?

But why do we take up this cause? Why are we so eager to judge ourselves - or at least everyone else - by machine standards? Of course we are not - not in every case. For example, in the workplace I have met numerous people who know that

"[t]he human side of work activities is what keeps many organizations running smoothly, patching over the continual glitches and faults of the system. Alas, those inevitable [issues] are usually undocumented...the importance of the human informal communication channels is either unknown, unappreciated, or sometimes even derided as an inefficient and obstructive, non-job related activity." (145-46)

At times, we are able to see how the factors that those in charge don't know how to - or don't want to - measure are drained of value. We sense the wrongness of this state of affairs, or we feel frustration, a sense of injustice, when human factors are mislabeled and mismeasured - when our characteristics are called what they are not and judged on bad pretenses. Yet how often do we once again return to the machine mentality - better quantification, better rules - to save us?

I believe that we are in a crisis of measurement. We place too much faith in calculation and in the calculations currently at our disposal. We struggle to understand the neutrality (or lack thereof) of the tools we use, we struggle to contextualize their immensity, which gives them a false aura of naturalness and inevitability, and finally we contend with the motivations of their creators. Or we do not have faith in any of these...yet either way, we struggle to find credible ways to opt out, to revise, or simply to preserve our meager humanity (whatever it is, it is meager by machine measures) in the face of these conditions. Or am I all wrong? How am I to know? What parts of myself should I trust in this or any problem-solving process, and what parts of myself should I augment with technology?

I wish that Norman had provided more clear steps to improve our predicament. I do agree with him that products and systems ought to be more flexible for people's sake, but in what ways, and how? For now, I will have to settle for the avenues of inquiry he opens up. As he himself observes, "[w]e often are not really certain of either the question or the answer: That is why we are looking" (239). I agree, and I hope for redemption of the role of uncertainty. Like Norman, I believe that with a better set of conditions, with more human-centered tools and systems, "the process of exploration will let us discover the question as well as the answer."
Profile Image for Vicki.
471 reviews189 followers
July 27, 2019
20 stars out of 10.

Hot DAMN. Everyone in tech should read this book. It should be mandatory if you are starting any kind of job in technology, particularly if you work with social networks. The main thrust is that there are things computers are good at, and things people are good at, and these are two different kinds of things, and for people who work with computers, they need to approach computer programs and interfaces with humans in mind first.

This book is from 1993 and predicts:

+filter bubbles
+ Google
+ Yelp
+ privacy concerns
+ video conferencing and remote work
+ self-driving cars
+ disinformation and misinformation
+ government data collection

And much, much, much more. Please read this book if you're in tech. There is so much wisdom here, and you kind of end up wishing Norman was at the helm of things like Facebook from the start.
Profile Image for Dave.
42 reviews3 followers
August 9, 2014
Definitely worth reading - my copy is now dense with Post-It flags - but the overall structure and coherence was not great. The latter half of the book felt like Donald Norman scavenged whatever writings he had on hand to hit his deadline. Mostly it was still interesting, but some chapters (especially the chapter on predicting future trends in technology) felt like an annoying diversion from the theme of designing-for-the-human instead designing-for-the-machine.

Cited in Toward a Theory of Design as Computation.
Profile Image for Michael.
264 reviews31 followers
February 19, 2020

Norman is such a pleasure to read. His prose style is light and easy, he has brilliant examples, and he mints some very useful concepts. The Things That Make Us Smart picks up many of the themes of The Design of Everyday Things, but gives them a different emphasis. DOET focussed on physical artefacts like plugs and door handles, whereas TTMUS focusses on information technology. DOET focussed, rather humorously, on design failures. TTMUS is more abstract and general, as Norman tries to explain how 'human-centred design' can apply to incorporeal objects like software programs.

The crucial chapter in this book is Chapter 3, 'The Power of Representation'. In this chapter, Norman introduces the book's three key concepts: problem isomorphism, representation and cognitive artefacts. 'Problem isomorphism' is the ability of a single problem to appear in different forms. These different forms might be logically equivalent, but can have very different meanings for a human user. A 'representation' is a particular way of displaying a problem to a human or a machine. 'Cognitive artefacts' are machines that humans use to extend their cognition—for instance, a pen and paper to extend our memory, or a calculator to extend our arithmetic. Norman combines these three concepts to explain why electronic systems are often so poorly designed. The system chooses to represent the problem in a way that is convenient for the machine, but inconvenient for the human user. The system therefore fails to function as a cognitive artefact, making it harder for the user to think through their problem when it should be making things easier. But since problems can be represented in multiple logically equivalent ('isomorphic') ways, it should be possible to design systems that fulfill the inner requirements of the machine while also fulfilling the requirements of human cognition.

It is an elegant theory, and Norman supports it with many examples and arguments. He draws together many ideas from cognitive science, data visualisation and other fields to buttress his conception of human cognition. I must say that the book does tend to rehash material from DOET. The familiar concepts of 'natural mapping', 'slips vs. mistakes' and 'affordances' return. And there are not quite as many examples in TTMUS as in the earlier book.

There is no doubt, however, that this is a brilliant work on the subject. And it is edifying to read a book on machine intelligence that focusses on how human and machine can work together intelligently. There are no silly fantasies of 'superintelligence' or 'singularity' here!

Profile Image for Stuart Macalpine.
227 reviews13 followers
December 29, 2019
A really interesting topic, which explores how cognitive artefacts can support thinking and make us smarter. As someone who loves to use lots of these tools, and generally covers their windows in post-it notes, much of this resonated with me. The essential point is that any cognitive artefact, from a sketch on paper to a complex computer program, has three attributes: it has affordances, which is what it lets you do, such as the ability to quickly compare size or importance; It has limitations, which are all the things that it cannot do, for example a pencil drawing of a system map does not allow you to see flows between stocks, in the way that Loopy online system app does. And most importantly, the cognitive artefact has a mapping, which is how it maps to the reality that it seeks to represent.

I have noticed a pattern with Norman’s books, but he tends to start off with a couple of good ideas, which are really promising, and then the book falls into storytelling and visiting quite predictable, albeit intellectually high quality companion works, for example Herbert Simon, or books like Cognition in the wild, which are kind of archetypes of different ways of thinking. But the point is they are not Norman’s thoughts, and he doesn’t add much to them when he cites them. So it feels a bit like playing Trivial Pursuit. I do enjoy his books, and intend to read the others in the series, but I do wish he spent more time developing his own ideas and presenting them simply and powerfully.
Profile Image for Abhilash Gopalakrishnan.
44 reviews1 follower
May 15, 2020
Dan the Guru of Design Brings us to get to understand how as human race we are smarter and continue to be. The attributes would help us defend when automation can overpower us in many areas. Important to read to make yourself comfortable that we will win the race!
Profile Image for Obdam.
14 reviews
October 22, 2018
Well written, very good insights about how the world influence the view of people.
Profile Image for Tyra Baker.
11 reviews
May 5, 2019
Incredible and very quick read. Would suggest everyone reads this at least once in their life.
1 review
June 10, 2021
Its a reading assignment from one of my class. Not bad for a rough understading of how technologies evolve.
Profile Image for Jacob Madsen.
11 reviews
January 4, 2022
A little bit dated now--sometimes this contradicts Norman's claims and insights, but more often it supports them. I enjoyed this book
Profile Image for Tracey.
2,031 reviews47 followers
December 18, 2007
I've had this book sitting around for awhile - I'd read Norman's The Design of Everyday Things (originally titled The Psychology of Everyday Things) sometime last summer and really enjoyed it.

Things That Make Us Smart is more scholarly - discussing the viewpoint that technology should adapt to us, instead of the current state where we are adapting to technology. The majority of the book discusses experiential vs. reflective experiences and how we can harness technology's strengths and "affordances" to compliment human thought and behaviour in both realms. The book is no beach read, but not quite as dryly written as the average textbook.

Norman makes some very good arguments, and I'd be curious to read an updated version, as it was written in 1993, just prior to the explosive growth of the Internet and World Wide Web. He makes a passing reference to "personal information devices" as well - I wonder what he thinks of the current generation of PDA's?

A good library read, though if you're interested in man-machine interactions, it is probably worth purchasing. I'm planning on reading some of his other books on this topic - such as Turn Signals Are the Facial Expressions of Automobiles (love the title!) .

FYI: Don Norman's website: http://www.jnd.org/index.html (why am I not surprised he's associated closely with Jakob Nielsen? :^)
Profile Image for Yates Buckley.
636 reviews22 followers
August 12, 2018
Donald Norman’s work opens the mind to a vast space of science that is still nascent at the boundary of Psychology, Neuroscience, Computer Science and the intangibles of Design and Computer Human Interaction.

Most of all the refreshing perspective is how much room there is for different kinds of methodology in study, which could be as simple as qualitative research from reporting one’s sensation to quantitative studies worked around specific questions.

And most importantly the perspective is a humanist view of technological development and its challenges. When we make technology we transform culture and this should maintain the human at its center rather than be a bureaucratic system.
Profile Image for Dwight.
476 reviews7 followers
August 28, 2014
It is amazing that this was written in 1993. That is a few years before many people had internet access. Except for a few sections and anecdotes that talk about the state of the art in '93, this book could have been written yesterday.

The premise is that people and machines are good at different tasks and we waste much time trying to get each to behave like the other. The author argues for a human centered view of technology where the machines conform to us rather than the other way around.
Profile Image for Jaco Delport.
6 reviews
March 8, 2014
Using tools such as writhing to extend our intelligence, very thoughtful observation.

As an engineering major I can definitely relate, it is nearly impossible to analyse an engineering problem with many variables without the tool of pen and paper to extend your working memory and a calculator to automate tedious arithmetic.

Very good book. Examples are outdated but principles still apply.
5 reviews
April 9, 2009
I first read this book probably 12+ years ago. I've read it once since then. I remember it teaching some very key points that can help many non-IT people understand why a software development requirement that may appear to be very simple ends up being a very difficult implementation.
Profile Image for Tore.
61 reviews2 followers
September 11, 2014
Raises key points about our attitudes towards machines and ourselves. Artefacts and human-centred design. Generally well written.
Norman also makes some surprisingly accurate (and of course some blatantly failing) predictions about technology usage.
3 reviews1 follower
February 15, 2016
Delightful! Being human in a world of technology: perhaps a more critical account of the phenomenon than Neil Postman's. Both Norman and Postman are brilliant, but Norman's I think makes a sharper point for a more critical audience. Enjoyed the read.
43 reviews1 follower
June 1, 2008
Just admit the machines have won already!

Heh, kidding aside, it had a few interesting ideas, but it wasn't as well thought out or explained as his more famous works.
Profile Image for Mikhail.
32 reviews
June 15, 2015
Halfway through the book I still felt as if I were reading a prologue. A general idea here, another one there, but not much substance. An average post of LessWrong.com provides more food for thought.
Profile Image for Joe Raimondo.
39 reviews1 follower
February 23, 2008
Thoughtful and challenging perspective on how humans thinking about extending intelligence.
Displaying 1 - 25 of 25 reviews

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