This soporific book is a sort of spiritual antithesis to Brian Hayes’ Infrastructure: A Field Guide to the Industrial Landscape: while the latter opened my eyes to the surprising truth that good writing can make even the most seemingly boring topic an absolute delight, the former reveals that other styles of writing can make even the most interesting topic a dreary chore to read about. And the topic is interesting: who hasn’t felt like an idiot when struggling with an object that was created without regard to the principles of human-centered design (I’m thinking of you, shower faucets at a friend’s house)?
Following the author’s preface, which revels unbecomingly in the previous edition’s alleged popularity, influence and inspiring effect on readers, comes pages and pages of unmemorable text about the “seven stages” of this and “three levels” of that–a sort of flow-chart in prose (almost as tedious to read as you might imagine). Interesting examples of good and bad design feel few and Norman seems to spend more time criticizing designs than offering any creative solutions. For example, he repeatedly states that one human mistake should never be enough to cause a catastrophe in, say, a chemical processing plant, but he doesn’t give many realistic ideas for how a sufficiently complicated, resilient system, run by humans could actually live up to his criteria.
All in all, it is difficult to say what it is about Norman’s writing style that grates on me so strongly. He is the kind of author who briefly mentions a subject, then stops to tell you that more info can be found about it online (which is already reasonably obvious), then goes on to say that you could use Google to find the info (who doesn’t?), and then gives you the specific words you should use in Google to find the information, being sure to remind you to use quotation marks around your search phrase (we get it already! Google it!). In addition, I suspect that there is something about his general sentence formation that tends toward the mind-numbing. It’s not that he uses difficult words or concepts, it’s just that I seemed to lose interest about three-quarters through many of his sentences. I literally spaced out twice while reading the following gem and have still failed to process its main meaning: “Like prototyping, testing is done in the problem specification phase to ensure that the problem is well understood, then done again in the problem solution phase to ensure that the new design meets the needs and abilities of those who will use it” (229). There, I zoned out again, mid-sentence. It’s magical.
In the acknowledgments, Norman thanks his wife for telling him when he was “stupid, redundant, and overly wordy” (303). Ironically, two-thirds of those words are ones I would still use to describe the book (in case you’re curious which two words, please know that the author is definitely not stupid). Looks like Norman needs another wife or two.
[Why I read it: my friend, Joy, mentioned reading it in her book club and the topic sounded interesting so I ordered it from the library.]