Things That Make Us Smart

Donald Norman is well known in the field of design. For many years he has been helping designers become aware of the qualities that must exist in products for people to use them effectively. As a cognitive psychologist, Norman bases his recommendations on an understanding of the human mind—both its strengths and its limitations. Well designed products (including software) take advantage of our strengths and help us overcome or work around our weaknesses. They don’t complicate tasks by forcing us to do things that we aren’t good at. They help us do things without drawing undue attention to themselves. We who are involved in the field of business intelligence, whether we know it or not, are designers. The reports and dashboards that we create are products. Just like any product, they must be designed in a way that can be perceived and understood by the human mind. Every business intelligence professional can benefit from Norman’s work.

Norman is probably best known for his book The Design of Everyday Things, which is superb. When I first read it several years ago, my neck became sore from the constant nodding that occurred as I recognized one point after another that made so much sense I couldn’t help but nod and smile. Although I’ve read several of his other books and papers since, for some unknown reason I managed until recently to miss his 1993 contribution to design entitled Things That Make Us Smart: Defending Human Attributes in the Age of the Machine (Basic Books). I would like to encourage you to add this book to your library. Allow me to entice you with a few quotes.

Society has unwittingly fallen into a machine-centered orientation to life, one that emphasizes the needs of technology over those of people, thereby forcing people into a supporting role, one for which we are most unsuited. Worse, the machine-centered viewpoint compares people to machines and finds us wanting, incapable of precise, repetitive, accurate actions. Although this is a natural comparison, and one that pervades society, it is also a most inappropriate view of people. It emphasizes tasks and activities that we should not be performing and ignore our primary skills and attributes—activities that are done poorly, if at all, by machines. (p. xi)

The good news is that technology can make us smart. In fact, it already has. The human mind is limited in capability. There is only so much we can remember, only so much we can learn. But among our abilities is that of devising artificial devices—artifacts—that expand our capabilities. We invent things that make us smart. Through technology, we can think better and more clearly. We have access to accurate information. We can work effectively with others, whether together in the same place or separated in space or time. Three cheers for the invention of writing, reading, art, and music. Three cheers for the development of logic, the inventory of encyclopedias and textbooks. Three cheers for science and engineering. Maybe. The bad news is that technology can make us stupid. (p. 3)

My goal is to develop a human-centered view of the technologies of cognition. My theme is not antitechnological, it is prohuman. (p. 12)

The power of the unaided mind is highly overrated. Without external aids, memory, thought, and reasoning are all constrained. But human intelligence is highly flexible and adaptive, superb at inventing procedures and objects that overcome its own limits. The real powers come from devising external aids that enhance cognitive abilities. (p. 43)

A good representation captures the essential elements of the event, deliberately leaving out the rest…A representation is never the same as the thing being represented, else there would be no advantage to using one…Herein lies both the power and the weakness of representations: Get the relevant aspects right, and the representation provides substantive power to enhance people’s ability to reason and think; get them wrong, and the representation is misleading, causing people to ignore critical aspects of the event or perhaps form misguided conclusions…Representations are important because they allow us to work with events and things absent in space and time, or for that matter, events and things that never existed—imaginary objects and concepts. (pp. 49 and 50)

My concern is with the violation of psychological principles, whereby graphs are used in inappropriate ways, sometimes deliberately to confuse but more often out of sheer ignorance. My frequent complaints to friends, colleagues, students, and newspapers are commonly met with the excuse “My computer program did that for me automatically; I had no choice.” Poor reason: Ignorance of the law is not a valid excuse, whether it be a governmental law of a psychological one. (p. 94)

The things we are good at are the things natural to humankind. The things we are bad at are unnatural. And guess what? We can build machines that perform flawlessly many of the things we are bad at. As for the things we are good at, it is very difficult, today usually impossible, to build machines that can do them. “Why that’s wonderful,” you should be saying. “What a marvelous match to our abilities! Between us and our machines, we could accomplish anything, for the one complements the other. People are good at the creative side and at interpreting ambiguous situations. Machines are good at precise and reliable operation.”

Hah! That isn’t what has happened. Instead, technology has decided that machines have certain needs and that humans are required to fulfill them. The things we are good at, those natural abilities, are hardly noticed. Machines need precise, accurate control and information. No matter that this is what people are bad at providing, if this is what machines need, this is what people must provide. We tailor our jobs to meet the needs of machines. (p. 222)

It will take extra effort do design systems that complement human processing needs. It will not always be easy, but it can be done. If people insisted, it would be done. But people don’t insist: Somehow, we have learned to accept the machine-dominated world. If a system is to accommodate human needs, it has to be designed by people who are sensitive to and understand human needs. I would have hoped such a statement was an unnecessary truism. Alas, it is not. (p. 227)

Convinced? Do yourself a favor and read this book.

Take care,


One Comment on “Things That Make Us Smart”

By Tim. April 2nd, 2007 at 2:58 am

Thanks Steve for posting these great quotes. Some of them succinctly express the essence of what I’m trying to elaborate in a paper about the Rationale software.