21 March 2007

How to Talk to People

Don Norman has published a wonderful excerpt from his next book "The Design of Future Things" set to publish in October 2007. The excerpt is purportedly a research missive from future machines to other machines on how to deal with people. Certainly some of us lowly humans can relate to the difficulties of communicating effectively with other human beings. (We could also probably say some things about what it's like to communicate with modern-day machines.) What follows are some choice quotes from the article.

It isn't easy to communicate with them; people take suggestions as criticism and get defensive, and sometimes angry. They misinterpret our utterances, ignore us, or overreact. Sometimes we just can't win.

Five Rules of Communication From Machines to People

  1. Keep things simple.
  2. Always give people a conceptual model.
  3. Give reasons.
  4. Continually Reassure.
  5. Offer a feeling of control.

People have difficulty with anything complicated, and they don't like to listen. So make the message short. In fact, it's better not to use language at all--it takes too long and, besides, human languages is horribly ambiguous.

The best kind of communication is done subconsciously, so people don't have to interrupt their conscious thoughts to attend to them. Thus even for the most befuddled minds, we need to communicate so that the meaning is clear.

Give them something their simple minds can understand. A conceptual model is a fiction, but a useful one as it makes them think they understand.

In short, people like pictures and diagrams.

Our early 21st Century Cars had almost given up trying to explain to people that they should drive more slowly on wet roads. But then we discovered that if we made it seem as if they were in trouble by faking skids and sliding around on the road, people would beg us to slow down. Sliding and skidding fit their model of danger far better than any words could have done. So wherever possible, don't try to tell them--let them experience it.

But the bottom line is, if people haven't seen anything happening for a while, they get anxious, even jumpy. And no one wants to deal with an anxious person.

[Make] them feel as if they are in control, even when they aren't. Keep up that deception--it's very useful. People like to be in control, even if they are performing a task really poorly.

Any time you have to make recommendations, make people think the ideas are theirs. If you really have to do something fast, just don't let them know: What they don't know, doesn't bother them.

There's some wisdom hidden in these quotes. Check out the whole thing, it's a fun read.

Update: Originally, I had some snarky, toung-in-cheek comments about each of these suggestions, but it just didn't come off like I wanted it and obscured too much of the real value in Dr. Norman's suggestions, so I've removed them.

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