cover of Living with Complexity by Don Norman

Living with Complexity

Don Norman

Copyright 2011, MIT Press

I’d never heard of this book prior to buying it at a used bookstore in town, but I knew of Don Norman and so I guessed it was worth checking out. I was not disappointed. Norman is most known in design circles for The Design of Everyday Things, a book published in the 80’s that for many people, is a wonderful primer for designers wishing to design for humans.

In Living With Complexity, Norman seeks to help readers understand the ways people handle complexity in their lives by separating complexity from complication. Complication is a thing that we often find insurmountable, while complexity is a problem that can be dealt with. Norman observes many ways that we handle complexity in our daily lives. From these observed coping mechanisms, he helps frame a series of tools designers can use when designing complex things. The book is clear, easy-to-read, and delightfully educational.

Norman initially establishes that complexity is not only a normal part of everyday life, it is often a necessary part of many tasks and tools. We should, he argues, not run from this fact, but instead seek to find ways to embrace the complexity with wisdom - guiding users into mastery and mitigating potential mistakes as much as possible. The argument was persuasive and successful to me.

I love the idea of carefully embracing complexity; I personally enjoy the payoff of learning and understanding complex tools as they enable me to accomplish tasks that otherwise might be impossible. But there is always the risk that seeking to learn a complex tool will be an exercise in frustration if the designers have not given proper care. If you wish to help avoid creating more frustration for users in the things you build, I highly recommend this book.