Book Review: Things That Make Us Smart

Don Norman’s career has been primarily focused on how humans understand the world around them. His career has given him the opportunity to influence modern computing in multiple ways, whether it was his time as a Vice President of User Experience at Apple Computers, a Benjamin Franklin medal in Computer and Cognitive Science, or his many lectures to students and organizations around the world. This prestige is what led to him being named “One of the World’s Most Influential Designers” by Business Week in 2010 (BusinessWeek Names Don Norman One of World's Most Influential Designers, 2010).

In “Things That Make Us Smart,” Don Norman questions the interactions between humans and the technology that we create. Humans have always created tools to help extend our cognitive abilities, but modern technology is rapidly changing, and these changes have created a different relationship to humanities creations. To put the reader in the correct state of mind, the book begins with a quote from the 1933 Chicago Words Fair, “Science Finds, Industry Applies, Man Conforms.”

Throughout the introductory chapters, we are reminded that humans have achieved our status in the animal kingdom due to our ability to build increasingly useful tools that extend our capabilities(Norman, 1994). We can extend our capabilities via the creation of cognitive artifacts. The most universal method to demonstrate this concept is the pen and paper. This simple combination of tools has been shown to improve our ability to remember various text patterns, suggesting through external research that motor actions affect our ability to learn (Longcamp, 2006).

This text focuses on two specific modes of cognition, experiential cognition, and reflective cognition. Per the text, experiential cognition focuses on our perception of the objective world around us and how we react to external stimuli. Alternatively, reflective cognition is focused on more subjective ideas such as decision-making and thought processes. Reflective cognition the author describes, is where growth occurs, and this is where the premise of the book begins to come into focus. When examining modern technology within this lens it forces us to ask, are our interactions driving technology forward? Or are they allowing us to confuse experience for reflection?

The reviewer of this book works in the cybersecurity industry and this question of user interaction is one that has shown to have an elusive answer. As the use of technology increases, the risk to individuals also increases across areas such as privacy, data, or financial information. Yet, users continue to feel a “decreased motivation” to implement security controls in a manner not optimized around the way users process information (Adams & Sasse, 1999). This is in part because of a general distrust of the user by organizations. In 2014 SANS published a study that showed 51% of the surveyed companies felt that insiders were the primary threat, but only 28% of companies had a plan to monitor their users (Filkins, 2014).

The ability of the text to generate reflective thoughts is one of the strengths of the book. Throughout its many chapters, Don Norman provides a framework to allow technical and non-technical readers the ability to explore their environment and identify areas that can improve from a shift in usability focus. Since it was originally published in 1994, this book has somehow kept up with the rapid changes in technology that followed. However, it’s clear writing and timeless examples have ensured that its guidance applies just as much today as when it was written.