Coping with Complexity

I’ve just finished a book1 by Donald Norman that I highly recommend. Actually I would recommend all of Donald Norman’s books. He is quite a remarkable individual. I had the privilege of introducing him at the 2006 Convention of the American Psychological Society that was held in New Orleans. He had received the Franklin V. Taylor Award for Outstanding Contributions to the Field of Applied Experimental and Engineering Psychology.

Norman makes a distinction between “complexity” and “complicated.” He uses “complexity” to describe a state of the world. He uses “complicated” as a state of mind, that state being confusion. Complexity is real and takes time to understand. Unfortunately some things are complicated when they need not be. These are cases in which the system is not intrinsically complex, but as a result of poor design are complicated and confusing when they need not be.

Norman offers the following rules for coping with complexity.

Acceptance. Realize that life is complex and accept products that are complex out of necessity. Complexity is a part of the world, an increasing part for that matter. It makes no sense to get uptight about it. If you need to, spend the time and resources to understand the complexity. However, for products that are not intrinsically complex, but are complicated and confusing due to poor design, there should be no acceptance. Rather there should be complaints about the faulty design. You should not hesitate to complain and to offer helpful suggestions to remedy the complexity (See Norman’s book for suggestions).

Divide and Conquer. Divide the task into modules that can be easily understood. Learn one module at a time. Keep in mind your limited attentional resources and make the task as easy as possible.

Just in Time Learning. Do only what is needed to learn to do the task. Slowly add other tasks and lastly the advance features again keeping in mind your limited attentional resources.

Understand, Don’t Memorize. Instead of trying to memorize by rote the steps needed to accomplish the task, try to develop a conceptual model of the technology to understand how it works and what it is doing. Remember that memory techniques work by making material meaningful. So understanding is key to effective memory.

Watch Other People. This comes under what the Healthymemory Blog terms transactive memory. Not only watch other people, how they do things, but do not be afraid to ask them for help and advice. Do not be afraid of appearing stupid. Everyone has difficulty confronting complexity initially. It is only through experience that true facility develops. So try to capitalize on this experience.

Use Knowledge in the World: Signifiers, Affordances, and Constraints. These three items also fall under the general rubric of transactive memory. Signifiers are basically signs in the environment, which can either be present in the environment or added to the environment (postits, for example). Affordances are features that guide you. Unfortunately, some affordances are poorly designed. Perhaps one of the best examples of affordances are the flat plates and handles that are placed on doors. The flat plate tells you to push the door, The handles tell you to pull the door. Unfortunately many doors that need to be pushed have handles. I remember encountering a lady at my previous place of work apologizing for trying to pull a door that needed to be pushed. I told her there was no reason to apologize for a faulty design of the door. Had there been a plate, there would have been no problem. At my current place of work, both sides of the doors have handles. They do have written signs indicating whether to push or pull. However, had they used a flat plate on the push side of the door, the signs would have been unnecessary. If you need to remember to throw out the trash, place it by the door where you leave so it won’t be forgotten. Constraints are features that make undesirable behavior difficult, if not impossible. So you might place a lid over a trash basket to prevent you from mistakenly throwing away something important. Or you could place the candy you are trying to avoid eating in a difficult place to reach (or take the lid from the trash basket and thrown the candy into the trash.

Use Knowledge in the World: Make Signs, Labels, and Markers. Here are more examples of transactive memory. When the operation of a device is ambiguous, use a sign, label, or marker to indicate how it should be turned, how to insert something, or how it should be operated.

` Use Knowledge in the World: Make Lists. Make lists of what to do, how to do things, or checklists. Checklists can assure that you have not forgotten anything.

There is much more of interest in Norman’s latest book. Let me reiterate my recommendation.  I also recommend that you visit his website

1Norman, Donald A. (2010). Coping with Complexity. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

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2 Responses to “Coping with Complexity”

  1. Http://Www.Thetaoofbadassreviewed.Co/ Says:

    Howdy! This post couldn’t be written any better! Going through this article reminds me of my previous roommate! He constantly kept preaching about this. I’ll forward this information to him.

    Pretty sure he’s going to have a great read. I appreciate you for sharing!

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