The Invisible Computer


Norman, D. A. (in press: Fall, 1998). The Invisible Computer. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Several draft chapters are now available: See Table of Contents at the end of this section for the links.


From Norman, D. A. (In press, Fall, 1998). The invisible computer. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. Copyright © 1997, 1998 Donald A. Norman. All rights reserved.



Thomas Edison was a great inventor but a poor businessman. Consider the phonograph. Edison invented it, he had better technology than his competitors, and he did a sensible, logical analysis of the business. Nonetheless, he built a technology-centered phonograph that failed to take into account his customer's needs. In the end, his several companies proved irrelevant and bankrupt.

Sound familiar? That's today's PC business. There are a number of parallels. Look at ease of use. The early phonograph was too complicated for office use: "persevere," early users were told, "it only takes two weeks to master." It took a hundred years for the phonograph to evolve to the state it has reached today. It has been modified so thoroughly that all of the underlying technologies differ and even the term "phonograph" is seldom used, being replaced by "tape," "cassette" and "CD." By analogy, the computer industry is in the era of the 78 RPM shellac phonograph records &emdash; it still has a long way to go.

A major goal of this book is to hasten the day when the computer and related technologies change so much that they fade away out of sight, with the new technology as readily accepted and easy to use as a cassette tape recorder or CD player. The problem is that whether it be phonograph or computer, the technology is the easy part to change. The difficult aspects are social, organizational and cultural.

Today's technology is intrusive, overbearing. It leaves us with "no moments of silence," with less time of our own, with a sense of diminished control of our lives. But all this can change. Now we are trapped in a world created by technologists for technologists. We have even been told that "being digital" is a virtue. It isn't: people are analog, not digital; biological, not mechanical. It is time for a human-centered technology, a humane technology.

The personal computer is perhaps the most frustrating technology ever. The computer is actually an infrastructure: it should be quiet, invisible, unobtrusive. Yet it is all too visible, all too demanding. It controls our destiny. The attempt to cram far too many functions into one box that sits on the desktop is partially responsible for the complexities and frustrations. The business model of the computer industry is another fundamental problem. It is structured in such a way that it guarantees ever-increasing complexity of its products. The result is that the entire industry is trapped by its own success, trapped into a cycle of ever-increasing complexity from which it cannot escape.

It doesn't have to be this way. This book recommends a new approach, one that bypasses the current state of affairs and introduces a new, powerful approach that frees us from the constraints of history. Start over again, make the computer invisible. An information appliance is a user-centered, human-centered humane technology where the computer literally disappears behind the scenes into a task specific device that maintains all the power of modern technology minus the complexity.

This change requires a completely new attitude. For manufacturers, it requires a new approach to design, hiring new kinds of people, changing the product process, perhaps restructuring the company.

Why not? There are far more people in the world who do not use computers than there are who do: that is the marketplace, that is where the opportunities lie. Companies shouldn't always talk to their customers: they should talk to those who are not yet their customers, but who have the potential to be. There is a way to move from the current generation of complexity and frustration to one where technology serves human needs, where information technology is commonplace and welcome. The human-centered, customer-centered way.



The purpose of this book is to take a realistic look at the world of technology, the better to understand why good products can fail, inferior products succeed. I take a close look at the reasons why the personal computer came to be so complex and how that complexity is so fundamentally intertwined with its heritage that nothing can be done about it. I believe that there is indeed a superior solution, the development of information appliances, but that if this solution is to become prevalent, it has to be done with full understanding of the difficulties that await. Information appliances have great hope and promise, but the path toward adoption is treacherous, filled with minefields, with fierce competitors. The existing technology, the personal computer, exerts a deadly gravity well that prevents the unwary from escaping its pull.

All technologies have a life cycle, and as they progress from birth, through troubled adolescence and on to maturity, their characteristics change. During this life cycle, the customer segment varies, starting with those technology enthusiasts who nurture the fledging early products and help them gain power and acceptability. In the early days of a technology, the engineers rule: each successive new product boasts of yet better technology: faster, more powerful, better this, better that. Technology rules the day, guided by feature-driven marketing.

When technologies mature, the story changes dramatically. Now the technology can be taken for granted. It does no good to make watches even more accurate than they are today: today's state is "good enough." The vast majority of customers wait for technologies to prove themselves, for the time when they can get value for their money, value without hassle. These are the late adopters who wait until the technology is mature. Now the product has to be driven by customer needs. Now it requires a human-centered development cycle.

Everything changes when products mature. The customers change, and they want different things from the product. Convenience and user experience dominate over technological superiority. The company must change: it must learn to make products for their customers, to let the technology be subservient. This is a difficult transition for a technology-driven industry to understand, a difficult change to make. Yet this is where the personal computer industry stands today. The customers want change, yet the industry falters, either unwilling or unable to alter their ways.

The high-technology industry is driven by engineers, by technology itself. It has flourished through a period of phenomenal growth, accompanied by high profits. As a result, the industry has succumbed to a technology fever, to the disease of featuritis, to pushing new technologies at the customer faster than even the most compliant customer can absorb. The normal consumers, who make up the bulk of the market, consist of people who just want to get on with life, people who think technology should be invisible, hidden behind the scenes, providing its benefits without pain, anguish and stress. These people are not understood by the wizards of high-technology. These people are left out. I consider myself one of these people

If the information technology is to serve the average consumer, the technology companies need to change their ways. They have to stop being so driven by features and start examining what consumers actually do. They have to be market driven, task-driven, driven by the real activities of those who use their devices. Alas, this requires a dramatic change in the mindset of the technologists, a change so drastic that many companies may not be able to make the transition. The very skills that made them so successful in the early stages of the technology are just the opposite of what is needed in the consumer phases.

Another basic goal of this book is to help companies make the transition from being technology-centered to being human-centered. I explain why today's technology is inappropriate for the average consumer. I explain the way that market factors impact sales. I explain why today's PC is fundamentally flawed, impossible to correct. And I show the procedures that must be followed to go on to the next generation of information technology that breaks away from today's technology-centered world to one that truly can fulfill the needs of consumers.



Table of Contents

1 Drop everything you're doing
2 Growing up: Moving from technology-centered to human-centered products
3 The move to information appliances
4 What's wrong with the PC?
5 There is no magical cure
6 The power of infrastructure
7 Being analog
8 Why is everything so difficult to use?
9 Human-centered development
10 Want human-centered development? Reorganize the company
11 Disruptive technologies
12 A world of information appliances
Appendix: Examples of information appliances