John Tierney, whose New York Times article I commented on in the post Neuroanthropology and Everyday Day Design, wrote me a kind email (Thanks, John!) to say:
Thanks… for writing about Donald Norman so perceptively. I enjoyed your advice to neuroanthropologists, and the cautionary words from the commenter [who was actually me] who bought one of those digital frames anyway. BTW, Don Norman was looking at design and other factors in our shopping excursion — one of the frames he liked better was partly due to the esthetics (it was a natural wood instead of black). As he and your commenter realize, people often buy something without testing it out and so the buttons really don’t matter from a marketing standpoint. Although with Amazon comments and other feedback, maybe usability will become more of a factor.
Tierney continued discussing Donald Norman’s work in this article “Smart Elevators, Dumb People.” The new smart elevators work without buttons inside the elevator; rather, you push a button in the lobby and are directed to the elevator that will take you (and others) to that specific floor. In other words, instead of each elevator making all stops, the new smart elevators attempt to group people going to the same floor into the same elevator. Faster service, energy saved…
Norman again points to two important aspects that concern anthropology—“years and years of experience” and a “clash of cultures.” For the experiential side, Tierney points to people reaching for buttons that are not there and using the door opening and the floor shown as the signal to get off. On the one hand, people had to learn that the button pushing happened outside the elevators; on the other, the engineers had to adapt their technology so that the floor being displayed and the floor where the doors opened actually matched. This point about experience, signals, and old habits highlights a realm that cultural anthropology does not explore much because its main causal explanations are things like “inequality” or “culture” or “discourse/ideology.” A lot of life is simply about years and years of experience, and in many ways, the things that interest anthropologists empirically build on these everyday things. Cognitive neuroscience—Donald Norman is a cognitive scientist—offers us a wealth of ways to think about and examine these sorts of habits and cues and behaviors in ways that will ultimately enrich out understanding of what “culture” means and does.
For the clash of cultures, Norman indicates the conflict in our everyday spaces (like elevators) between people used to one way of doing things with the engineers trying to foist another way of doing things on us everyday mortals. Something that culture does well is to make things less confusing—culture imposes an order on the world that is quite different from what all other animals do (even if there are shared roots to culture way back in primate evolution). But we humans are still animals, and we often diligently follow the dictates of our cultural environment. Sometimes less confusion doesn’t mean more enlightenment, it just means more efficiency and better execution. From an evolutionary point of view, that will often be enough.