Donald. The Invisible Computer: Why Good Products Can Fail, the Personal
Computer Is So Complex, and Information Appliances Are the Solution.
Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1999.
Norman introduces an expanded typology for ushering the computer
industry beyond its adolescent stage (27). As an improvement to the
feature-bloated, single-user PC as the default model for information
technology, Norman argues for "information appliances," a designation
that privileges simplicity and modularity. Norman focuses
his discussion on business and industry rather than academe. Because "[c]omputers
today  are too difficult," (89) he implores the technology industry
to "[b]uild special purpose devices, information appliances, where each device
is tuned especially for an activity" (85). Often in a manifesto-like style,
Norman makes a hard case against personal computers; he also decries particular
terms, such as "applications," (82) and tropes, such as metaphors
Norman prefers simplicity to both difficulty (outer workings)
and complexity (inner workings). Creeping featurism, or
featuritis, is, as it was in The Design of Everyday Things, the chief
hindrance affecting new computer technologies. A 1:1 relationship between
appliance (or device) and task is better, according to Norman, than an
all-in-one integration that loads expansive functionality into a single item.
It’s not clear, however, whether this applies only to the desktop PC of the late
1990’s or whether is also an overarching principle applicable to things like
iPod cameraphones. Choose simplicity over complexity, without compromising on
flexibility (presumably, the simple is more flexible?).
The account of a technology’s life cycle is one of the more salient
pieces of the project. Norman explains Progression from
technology-centered youth to consumer-centered maturity: five categories:
innovators, early adopters, early majority, late majority, laggards (31). See
charts pp. 32, 33.
Three axioms for information appliances: simplicity, versatility,
Five proposed solutions to the difficulty of use problem: speech recognition
(96), three-dimensional space (100), intelligent agents (104), networked
computer [primarily for ease of maintenance] (107), and small handheld devices
Six disciplines of user experience (189): field studies, behavioral designers,
model builders and rapid prototypers, user testers, graphical and industrial
designers, technical writers (190-191).
Norman again brings up affordances, this time relative to computers (a
complicated turn). He says that media have affordances (124), but it’s
not clear how well this jibes with what Gibson says about the environment and
Norman also praises the design of modern cars where specific features are
seamlessly, often invisibly, integrated (76). Problem: if you can’t see
it, can you work on it? Case against technicity? For consumers as
worry-free and oblivious?
Late in The Invisible Computer, Norman explains his preference for a
human-centered view rather than a machine-centered view (160).
It’s not clear why these are the only two orientations to choose among. Also, he
argues strongly for conceptual models to guide the design process, and he also
accounts for widespread processual constraints to design, production, and
circulation of information appliances. Finally, corporate restructuring
will be necessary to accommodate his plan for human-centered development and the
expansion of information appliances as computers fade from their explicit,
Key terms: life cycle of technology (ix, 24), technological revolutions (3),
Edison and phonograph (5), infrastructure (6, 113), market share (14), everyday
object (16), information appliance (20, 53), disruptive technology (23, 232),
early adopters (25), technology (27), human-centered development (39, 185),
complexity barrier (53), families of appliances are systems (62), creeping
featurism (80), rampant featurism (81), distributed systems (95), substitutable
and nonsubstitutable goods (116), affordances (123), technology-free zones
(131), Taylor’s "scientific management" (149), conceptual models (154,
177), human error (158), complexity and difficulty (167), contextual design
(187), rapid ethnography (194), contextual inquiry (195).
"The first lesson is that there is a serious mismatch between the
properties of machines and of people" (xi).
"The ideal system so buries the technology that the user is not even
aware of its presence" (xii).
"Today’s technology imposes itself on us, making demands on our time and
diminishing our control over our lives. Of all the technologies, and perhaps the
most disruptive for individuals is the personal computer. The
computer is really an infrastructure, even though we treat it as the end
object. Infrastructures should be invisible: and that is exactly what
this book recommends: A user-centered, human centered humane technology where
today’s personal computer has disappeared into invisibility" (6).
"Why is everything so difficult to use? The real problem lies in
product development, in the emphasis on the technology rather than on the user,
the person for whom the device is intended. To improve products, companies need
a development philosophy that targets the human user, not the technology.
Companies need a human-centered development (39). The product depends
equally on technology (43), marketing (44), and user experience
"Information appliance n.: An appliance specializing in information:
knowledge, facts, graphics, images, video, or sound. An information appliance is
designed to perform a specific activity, such as music, photography, or writing.
A distinguishing feature of information appliances is the ability to share
information among themselves" (53).
"Any single set of tools is a compromise when faced with a wide range
of tasks…. Try to make one device do many things and complexity increases"
"People are analog and biological; information technology is
digital and mechanical. Being digital may be good for machines, but
it is bad for people" (87).
"There are two kinds of economic markets: substitutable and
nonsubstitutable. Substitutable goods are products like groceries, clothes,
and furniture. Nonsubstitutable goods are invariably infrastructures" (116).
"The ultimate goal is simplicity. Make things fit the task, make the
difficulty of our tools match the difficulty of the job to be done" (183).
"The vision is clear. Move to the third generation of the personal
computer or, if you will, a generation of personal technologies, the
generation where the technology disappears into the tool, serving valuable
functions, but keeping out of the way. The generation where the computer
disappears into tools specific to tasks. The generation of the invisible