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Living With Complexity Book Summary – Donald Norman

What you will learn from reading Living with Complexity

– How to design services to improve customer satisfaction and reduce anxiety.

– The Psychology of waiting and how to make a wait more bearable.

– What a conceptual model is and why it’s important in design. 

Living With Complexity Book Summary:

Living With Complexity book summary explores how we all make sense of a complex world.  Donald Norman explains that we need to make problems visible and also dives into the psychology of waiting.


Key Insight into Simplicity in design:

Simplification is as much in the mind as it is in the device. Phrased differently is it easy to understand what to do or how to do something?

Remember – Life is always a complex mixture of trade-offs.


Conceptual Models:

A conceptual model is the underlying belief structure held by a person about how something works. Conceptual models help us transform complex physical reality into workable, understandable mental concepts. 

Important side thought – When some novel situation occurs, either because of the desire to do something new or because something has gone wrong then we are in trouble: without a relevant conceptual model, we lack guidance. And then what? The emotional reaction can manifest as frustration or anger. We may complain – Why does this have to be so complicated?  


We need to see easy solutions to problems

We humans are always seeking explanations, always seeking to understand what is happening. These explanations come from our conceptual models. 

Overarching narratives shape our perceptions. “The world is out to get us” will frame all interactions in this narrow lens.

The designers goals it to provide people with appropriate conceptual model.  


The problem with Tech: – The problems are invisible.

When dealing with the electronics world where things are invisible we are at the mercy of those who know what is going wrong. 

When things go wrong which they will their needs to be responsiveness. No explanation leads to no understanding of what issues are and why you can’t be helped.

Then guess what you feel? ANXIETY. That’s right lack of understanding or belief in someones competence to fix the problem leads to uncertainty.


Design for constraints:

Most tools assume that no other task interrupts the project and the activity will be completed in one sitting. Or other constraints such as distractions.  

Design for Usage: 

Feedback and conceptual models are most important here. 

One is when product or service is first experienced, for now these aid in learning what to do and what to expect. 

How can you create obvious feedback to guide action?

How do people know what to do when there are problems or unexpected delays? Can you make this experience easy for customers. 


Design for the Whole Experience – Integration as a whole 

The only way to solve complexities of service is to treat them as systems, to design the entire experience as a whole: 

Take for example a train and user interaction points: 









Each step is a design opportunity. Psychology is easier to change than physical reality. 

The fundamental problem is always integrating all of the parts into one seamless experience. 


Apples Design – Design Holistically

Apple succeeds at three things: 

  1. Creating cohesive systems, not isolated products.
  2. Recognising that the system is only as good as its weakest link.
  3. Designing for the total experience.

Avoid Featuritis by asking what is core?

As with all services there is always a temptation to add new features, adding to number of options that can be offered to customers. This always incurs the cost of increasing complexity. 


Remember it is perceived quality not objective quality that matters:

Scientists measure what they can measure and pronounce the rest to be unimportant. The most important parts of life are qualitative, but still we persist in measuring and recording.

It is said that the Japanese first eat with their eyes and then with their mouth. How a meal looks is as important as how it tastes. – Japanese folks saying. 

The total experience goes far beyond the product itself. It’s all about expectations, how they are set up and then met. In other words, it covers every aspect of interaction, from the initial engagement, to the experience, to how well the company maintains the relationship. 


The Psychology of Waiting: 

The person in line soon develops a long list of questions. About efficiency, fairness and even the nature of the line itself.

We always look for explanations to close the gap of chaos, give someone a model of what is going on and they will accept it.

The lack of feedback is what causes anxiety – How much longer will this take? Will I miss my next appointment? What if I get to end and I’m in the wrong line? Why are the other lines moving quicker than this line? 


6 Design Principles for waiting lines:  

  1. Provide a conceptual model
  2. Make the wait seem appropriate
  3. Meet or exceed expectations
  4. Keep people occupied
  5. Be fair
  6. End strong, start strong

Conceptual model – The environment must provide clear and unambiguous indication of what each line is for, how to enter the lines, and what information or material is going to be required at front of line. 

Remember – Uncertainty is a prime cause of emotional irritation: a good model coupled with feedback removes this anxiety. When problems arise people need assurance: they need to know what is happening.

Even an explanation that source is unknown gives people reassurance that relevant people are aware of the problem and working on it. 

One problem with multiple lines is the other line appears to be moving faster. 

Waits that are deemed unreasonable are often those where fairness was violated or rules of behaviour not well stated. 


Line of visibility in customer service: 

When contacting customer services anxiety occurs when things are done behind the line of visibility. (See picture below) If the customer can’t feel or see feedback in solving the problem they become quickly frustrated.