Neuroanthropology and Everyday Design

Today’s article by John Tierney, Why Nobody Likes a Smart Machine, from the Tierney Lab illustrates several points that neuroanthropologists should pay attention to.  It’s about the work of Donald Norman, best known for his book “The Design of Everyday Things,” and his analyses for why modern technology often frustrates people so much.  (By the way, I just bought my wife one of those picture frames mentioned in the article for Christmas—ah, a bundle of frustrating joy.)  So, in the course of the article, Tierney and Norman mention four different aspects of how we relate successfully or unsuccessfully to machines (and, from my point of view, much of the world).  They are: 

-Predictability (the pedestrian who keeps walking so the bicyclist easily avoids him)

-Being Understandable (human-sized signals like the whistle from a tea kettle; having an intuitive feel—read, culturally modeled, metaphorically presented, and visually and tactically available)

-Control (the clever solution to wrapping a wet paper towel around the electronic sensor on the bathroom faucet)

-Feeling Helpless (computerized shades that worked on their own without being able to be locally manipulated) 

These factors are tied up into three related phenomena—evolution, culture, and the brain—at the core of neuroanthropology.  In this case, they are (1) achieving behavioral success in often stochastic evolutionary environments, where acting on environmental information in goal-directed ways often led to good things (like food) (the evolutionary problem), (2) how culture built off human tendencies—our ability to apply learned, controllable, regular solutions in novel ways (but not badly designed ways—hence the problems with some technology) (the cultural side), and (3) the brain systems that handle stress, where unpredictable, uncontrollable stressors are the ones that make us react the most (the brain).  Hence, the predictable line of frustration, anger, and then simply giving up and making do the best you can with the present situation. 

Plus Norman did participant observation and interviewing as his methodological approach!  If you want to talk more, just email me at  Best, Daniel Lende

5 thoughts on “Neuroanthropology and Everyday Design

  1. In thinking more about the article during the day, I’ve realized that Tierney and more importantly Norman overplay their hand. Let’s take that digital photo frame that I bought yesterday as the example. Sure, I understand Norman’s point about some of the impracticalities of its design. But an equally interesting question, or point, is why did I buy that particular one?

    Aesthetics matters. And aesthetics is a cultural phenomenon–the companies want to match as close as possibly historical photo frames. And ours looked exactly like one from the front, and that’s the part that matters–the image that gets seen and evaluated by others. As for the particulars of why that one, I went with one that had two different colored frames (brown and black) rather than one (again, aesthetics). Plus that particularly frame was on sale, so price mattered. And finally this one had more built-in memory than other frames. For me, having that internal memory to store photos was the core purpose of the photo frame (besides the actual screen). So here was a design-determined factor that helped sway the purchase. If the buttons matter, they matter later. The companies know their neuroanthropology (buying behavior, in this case) pretty well too!

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