Thursday, August 04, 2005


"what adapts? technology or people?"

Don Norman asks a very important question: do people adapt to technology, or does technology adapt to people? He points out that people can and do adapt to klutzy (unnatural) technology. He cites three examples of unnatural technology people happily use: the clock, writing systems, and musical instruments.

While Norman chose his examples because they are ordinary, they are also very old technologies. All of them developed before anyone thought to use a human-centered approach to design. And all of them involved many centuries of effort by humankind to master them. While successful, these unnatural technologies were hardly instantly successful.

Let's take musical instruments. Norman notes that repetitive stress is a common problem associated with playing many instruments such as violins. Despite this, people play violins. Therefore people have adapted to the violin. Well, not quite. They still get repetitive stress. If they had fully adapted, then repetitive stress would be a non-issue. If humans could adapt fully, people might need to do some special time-consuming exercises to conquer repetitive stress, but the inefficient work would prevent injury. But there is no fool-proof way to avoid repetitive stress injury.

The violin is also hard to play (I know from childhood experience.) If people could adapt easily to the demands of the violin, then there would be no need for Suzuki schools and similar punishments inflicted on children.

The design of the violin remains unchanged because people choose to suffer. Suffering is part of the prestige of playing a violin (prestige I am happy to forego.) If the violin were easy, would anyone bother?

The guitar is supposed to be easy (relative to the violin at least.) People interested in taking up the guitar are not generally masochistic, at least in the beginning. Not surprisingly, the guitar development has benefited from human centered design. Kim Vincente tells a wonderful story about how the Flender Stratocaster guitar was constantly redesigned based on feedback from musicians. Leo Fender made it easier to handle, more comfortable, and easier to play. The electric guitar was developed using human centered design principles. Vincente argues that without those improvements, rock music (Beatles, Stones, Who...) may have never taken off like it did.

So I agree with Norman that people can adapt to technology, but it hardly follows they want to adapt. Hundreds of millions use computer keyboards, but millions of people suffer repetitive stress from keyboarding. PCs are 25 year old, but we haven't adapted to the keyboard successfully.

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It has all guitar related stuff.

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