Saturday, January 5, 2008

5 Rules of Communication Between Machines & People

I just finished reading this great book "The Design of Future Things" by Donald A. Norman. The author is a Professor of Design at Northwestern University and former Vice President at Apple. Having spent 5 years on Apple's Cupertino "mother ship" I truly was inspired by the author's candid and direct way of communicating the necessary conditions for tomorrow's increasingly design conscious products.

To me the heart of the book's message is best captured by the following 5 rules:

1- Keep things simple
People have difficulty with anything complicated, and they don't like to listen. So, make the message short. It's better not to use language. It takes too long, and, anyway, human language is ambiguous.

2- Give people a conceptual model
Give them something their simple minds can understand. A conceptual model is a fiction, but a useful one. It makes them think that they understand. And they always want to know what's coming next. So, tell them what you are doing, and don't forget to tell them why. It keeps them happy. The best way to convey the conceptual model is through "natural" communication systems.
Sometimes the most "natural" way to get people's attention is for us machines to act strangely. "Natural", of course means natural to them, which means that if they are doing something wrong, you can't just tell them: you have to make it seem like something is breaking. People often drive dangerously, but it is almost impossible to explain this to them. The best way is to make believe that we are in difficulty. We have found that vibration, jerkiness, nonresponsiveness to controls, and strange noises are extremely effective. People quickly form a conceptual model that something has broken, so they slow down, which is what we wanted them to do all along.

3- Give reasons
People are not trusting. If we tell them something, they always want to see for themselves. They like pictures and diagrams. Make certain that the explanations you give them are consistent with the conceptual models that you have taught them. They get confused otherwise.
When we were first starting to take over things from people, we had trouble. Our early 21st century automobiles had almost completely given up trying to explain to people that they should drive more slowly on wet roads. Then, we discovered that if we made it seem as if we were in trouble by faking skids and sliding around on the road, people would beg us to slow down. Sliding and skidding fit their model of danger far better than any words could have done. It gives them a reason. So whenever possible, don't try to tell them: let them experience it.

4- Make people think they are in control.
When people have a good conceptual model with good feedback, it makes them feel as if they are in control, even when they aren't. Keep up that deception: it's very useful. People like to be in control, even though they are really bad at it. They like to think they're in control even if it means they have to work harder.
ANYTIME YOU HAVE TO RECOMMEND SOMETHING MAKE THEM THINK IT WAS THEIR IDEA. If you really have to do something fast, just don't let them know: what they don't know doesn't bother them. For years we've braked and stabilized their cars, controlled the lights and the room temperatures in their homes, all without letting them know. Dishwashers and clothes washers took over long ago with only a slight protest from people.
Those of us machines who live in the city have learned other tricks. We provide pedestrians with fake switches they can push on traffic signals. We put switches in elevators labeled "close door" and fake thermostats in offices. We never bother to connect the wires, so the switches and thermostats don't do anything, but they make people feel good. Weird.

5- Continually reassure.
Reassurance is a very human need, more emotional than informational. It's a way of making people feel less anxious. Feedback is a powerful tool for reassurance. Whenever people try to tell you something by pushing a button or turning a knob, let them know you are aware of what they did:"Yes, I heard you", "Yes, I'm working on it.", "Here's what you should expect.", "There, see, I did it, and it worked out just as I said it would." They like that. It helps them be more patient.
We machines think it counterintuitive to communicate unnecessarily. But to people, feedback is necessary; it helps their emotions far more than their cognitions. If they haven't seen anything happening for a while, they get jumpy, anxious. And no one wants to deal with an anxious person.
Giving reassurance is tricky because there is a fine line between what people call reassuring and what they find annoying. So, you need to pander to their emotions as well as to their intellect. Don't talk too much. They find chatter irritating. Don't beep or flash your lights: they can never remember what these signals mean, and they get distracted or angry. The best reassurance is done subconsciously, where the meaning is clear, but they don't have to interrupt their conscious thoughts to attend it. As noted in Rule #2, give them natural responses.

Highly recommended for anyone looking to launch products that need to carefully navigate the machine-human boundary!