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Living with Complexity

3.82  ·  Rating details ·  713 ratings  ·  50 reviews
Why we don't really want simplicity, and how we can learn to live with complexity.

If only today's technology were simpler! It's the universal lament, but it's wrong. In this provocative and informative book, Don Norman writes that the complexity of our technology must mirror the complexity and richness of our lives. It's not complexity that's the problem, it's bad design.
Hardcover, 298 pages
Published October 29th 2010 by The MIT Press (first published January 1st 2010)
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Jul 20, 2017 rated it did not like it
Living with Complexity is an unfocused, incoherent, and redundant mess. The thesis statement presented by Bud Peterson in the foreword - what he thinks this book is about - is only applicable to the first few chapters and the last two. The rest seem like an old crank's ramshackle observations borne from a designer's penchant for exacting fussiness. Occasionally the examples are spot-on: unsightly wires connecting to a poorly-located outlet in the center of a conference room, and other times they ...more
Dec 20, 2017 rated it really liked it
Shelves: own
Another interesting book from Norman. Someone first gave me The Design of Everyday Things in grad school and I still hear its echoes almost every day in conversations about design. This book is not as groundbreaking as that earlier one, but I still found it valuable. The thesis of the book is quite simple: despite calls for "simplicity" we all actually want complex tools to deal with the complex world, so long as they are designed with care and empathy so that they can be mastered with ...more
Emma Sea
May 07, 2013 rated it it was ok
I was hoping for something a little more about complex systems, in terms of how design and human factors interact. While there were a few examples in this vein, the book as a whole felt like a rewrite of The Design of Everyday Things.

I do love Norman's writing style though; it's very pared back and sparse. There are just enough words to communicate what he wants to say, and nothing extra.

There was one awesome tiny thing that I loved: I had no clue there were places in the world where a salt
Feb 02, 2011 rated it really liked it
"Alfred North Whitehead: 'The guiding motto in the life of every natural philosopher should be, Seek simplicity and distrust it.'"

"But when that complexity is random and arbitrary, then we have reason to be annoyed."

"...complexity by itself is neither good nor bad: it is confusion that is bad."

"...things we understand are no longer complicated, no longer confusing."

"Difficulties arise when there are conflicts between the principles, demands, and operation of technology with the tasks that we
Rich Kelley
Jul 16, 2011 rated it it was ok
I recall reading Norman's The Psychology of Everyday Things back in the late 1980s and enjoying it immensely. That was his first book and it was groundbreaking. I haven't read any of the books he's published since--and he's written a lot. This was this month's selection for my UX Book Club in NYC and I found it much lighter than the other books we've read--and I had the distinct sense that much of the material was recycled. It didn't strike me as a stunning revelation that the world is complex, ...more
Oct 07, 2011 rated it liked it
I liked Norman's "Life of Everyday Things" better, maybe only because it was the first time I was thinking about how design affects our life. Norman goes further here, looking at how to make your wait in a line better or why hospital care is now focused on how you appear through your computerized records rather than your human-ness. He points out that things are more complex now, than they were even a few years ago, but it seems a bit too random with few solutions. I don't feel any better about ...more
Initially NO
Oct 26, 2014 rated it liked it
A philosophical discussion of why what might seem to simplify, actually complicates. The hole codes on salt and pepper shakers being up to the discretion and custom of those who use them; how Disney Land purposely keeps people waiting as long as they can at rides, so they don't have to build more, and instead offers street entertainment so people don't think too much about waiting...
A very pared-down accessible book, that is interesting enough.
Apr 22, 2011 rated it liked it
This book reminds me of one of the professor from my grad school. I still remember his pathetic look when I mentioned the same opinion the author want to talk about nature of design (it was almost 6 years ago now). He is one of well known groupie of the author of this book in Korea and now I am truly curious what he will think after reading this.
May 15, 2011 rated it liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
Was drawn in by the cover design and concept. The entire book is printed in sans serif type. Is that supposed to be indicative of less complexity?
Read on a design site that when something is printed in a font that's hard to read, greater understanding is the result due to forcing the reader to decipher the content.

It's also annoying.
Sandro Mancuso
Sep 22, 2016 rated it it was ok
This book was a bit frustrating as it mostly state the obvious. There is nothing new or groundbreaking there. Still don't know if the book is about design, complexity, or both(?). Regardless, it is shallow in both.
Jack Vinson
Nov 06, 2010 rated it really liked it
Shelves: gift
I decided to blog a review of this one after all. Good stuff.

Reading for the Boston area UX Book Club meeting on 6 Jan 2011.
May 02, 2011 rated it it was ok
If Donald Norman had written nothing else prior to this book I would probably rate it higher. But by comparison to his earlier books, this one seems disjointed, discursive, and dull. If you're interested in design, I would recommend his 'Design of Everyday Things' and 'Design of Future Things'.
Nathanael Coyne
Sep 18, 2010 rated it it was ok
Shelves: work-related
You could very easily read this instead of DOET/POET, or if you've read his early work then there's not much new in here. The concept of complex vs complicated could be summed up in just one chapter, not spread over a whole book. Nonetheless, it's still a book you should read.
Apr 13, 2011 rated it it was amazing
The best book for understanding the interaction design !
Brandon Carlson
Jun 17, 2011 rated it liked it
Not bad. Had some good parts and some bad parts. It was interesting when the author was discussing queueing theory and it's relationship to design.
Jul 25, 2017 rated it liked it
Having never read a book on design before, this was an interesting-enough foray into the field. Norman discusses how our world is inherently complex, so the design of objects and technology has to take that into account while still providing coherent conceptual models of how a thing should be used. I thought certain ideas were more intriguing than others: the chapter on designing waits was probably the most enlightening, with some of the material about social signifiers and the design of systems ...more
Francis Norton
Oct 01, 2012 rated it really liked it
I'm reading Don Norman's Living with Complexity for a UX Book Club London meetup, but I am also trying to prepare for the Service Design short course at Central St Martins that I will be taking next month, so I'm going to focus on his comments on Service Design - especially since this is the first Don Norman book I've read where he discusses this topic.

In many ways the book is something old, something new. The old bit - and none the less true for it - is his job description for designers:
Craig Johnson
Sep 25, 2018 rated it liked it
"Complexity" describes a state of the world which is not inherently bad, and is often necessary. "Complicated" describes a state of mind marked by confusion and frustration (often due to bad design). The goal of a designer is to make it so that complex systems are not complicated for the user.

Tessler's Law of Irreducible Complexity states that "when we add automation to simplify the demands upon people, we increase the complexity of the underlying technology."

Increased complexity increases
Jody Barton
Jan 04, 2019 rated it really liked it
Shelves: design
One of Norman's least inconsistent books, has some interesting observations, still think he contradicts himself, and makes claims without evidence of any kind, including seemingly personal experience, many of which are claims to universality.
Daniel Zavala
Dec 15, 2019 rated it liked it
Good follow up to Design of everyday things... a lot of things about the mixture of complexity and simplicity of the current products and services that we encounter everyday. Maybe there are a couple of chapters repeated between both books.
Jun 06, 2018 rated it really liked it
“Modern technology can be complex, but complexity by itself is neither good nor bad: it is confusion that is bad. Forget the complaints against complexity; instead, complain about confusion.”
Dec 10, 2018 rated it liked it
Shelves: ux-products
I gave 3 stars not because this book is not good enough, but the content somewhat overlaps with "The design of everyday things".
Maria Teresa
Aug 23, 2017 rated it really liked it
Shelves: hci
A must read for interaction designers!
May 09, 2019 rated it liked it
Much preferred ‘The Design of Everyday Things’ over this book. Would suggest just picking and choosing particular chapters if you’ve read the aforementioned.
Jan 08, 2013 rated it it was ok
Don Norman, father of modern common-sense interaction design. He is worth listening to as a person in general, but his seminal work is still The Design of Everyday Things and this is not that book.

This book's most interesting point comes early on: complexity and usability are not mutually opposed. The rest of the book consists of Don Norman picking a few design issues that seem to have bothered him recently and making sure you know that they could be improved. He spends four consecutive pages
I picked this book up because I thought this was more a discussion of complexity in our every day lives (professional and personal) and may be even ways to combat it. It isn't.Its a book about complexity of systems and services that we interact with in everyday life and what we can do as designers and users to ease it. The central thesis of the book is two-fold. The first one is that users we need to accept that as we want more our of our life complexity becomes inevitable and we need to put in ...more
Jul 07, 2012 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: working-smart
I loved everything about this book - the writing, the examples and the takeaways. Donald Norman does a great job with this book, illustrating exactly his primary message - making a complex topic user friendly and accessible. The photos bring his case studies to light and it made me think more deeply about signifiers and other ideas.

In my daily work, the chapter on waiting was a gem and relevant to creating positive event experiences for attendees. Anyone wanting to think more about how to work
Dave Peticolas
May 10, 2014 rated it liked it
This book completes my Donald Norman trifecta. Reading all three (including The Design of Everyday Things and Emotional Design) at once provided an interesting perspective on the evolution of Norman's thinking. I actually think this was his best book, despite several Amazon reviews that suggested it was his worst. Here he steps back from individual objects and looks at whole systems (including service systems like hotels and airports). He also considers the nature of complexity itself, where it ...more
Jul 21, 2016 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: non-fiction
Listened to the entire audiobook on the plane. It was really good. I enjoyed reading the little stories throughout, and his critical parsing of the notions of complexity in design, usability, social organization, productivity, systems, etc, was really insightful and brought to light a lot of things that I hadn't considered, or had thought of only in very stereotyped terms. I almost teared up at the plane scene at the end, it was quite moving, perhaps because I was on a plane myself. I'd like to ...more
Jul 14, 2013 rated it it was ok
This book requires a lot of thinking. Donald Norman makes some magnificent points as to the amount of complexity our world requires, and how we over exceed ourselves with our devices. I will just say I was only half in the mood to think so hard. Definitely not a summer read, but it would probably make an interesting read for someone who enjoys pondering the issues we have today and the origins of these problems. I'm sure there are a number of people who would enjoy this book. I'm just one for a ...more
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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 ...more
“We must design for the way people behave,
not for how we would wish them to behave.”
“Simplification is as much in the mind as it is in the device.” 6 likes
More quotes…