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Designing IN SPITE OF the Manufactured Normalcy Field

Venkatesh Rao argues in his essay about the “Manufactured Normalcy Field” that people, when presented with new experiences, will work hard to maintain a “familiar sense of a static, continuous present.” This is likely an adaptation mechanism employed by the mind to ensure that behavioral differences are minimized. For example, my grandmother refuses to learn how to use a computer simply because it feels weird to her.

This “normalizing” is done in one of two ways: by “mapping” strange new experiences back to familiar things through stories and metaphors, and by purposefully making design choices that de-emphasize strangeness. As an example, Rao highlights the inherent “strangeness” of flying in a commercial airplane, stating that a great deal of effort is put into the plane’s design and operation to ensure that passengers don’t realize they’re sitting in an aluminum tube 30,000 feet in the air, and that sensations they might perceive while they’re hovering in brief periods of zero-g feel no more discomforting than traveling in a wooden wagon on a bumpy road. The argument is that while passengers are flying, they’re in a manufactured normalcy field.

Given this, Rao argues that successful products do not attempt to alter a user’s experience noticeably, even if the underlying technology has changed significantly. He says that the role of the designer is to ensure the product is integrated successfully into the Field, and that even radically new and innovative products should be “normalized.” Consider the Wii Remote: an innovative game controller that feels simply like an extension of one’s hand.

I see the cause for this argument. If I have a virtual reality headset on, and my peripheral vision is consumed entirely by a digital world, my experience would be ruined if a “Battery Low” message were to flash on the screen. A lot can be said about immersing the user into an environment by ensuring that the experience feels as natural as possible. But I also feel it’s necessary to draw a line here, and make the distinction that radical advancements in technology DO alter a user’s experience noticeably, and it is precisely BECAUSE of these radical shifts in our perceptions that we respond to a product so positively that our experiences begin to take shape around them (the reverse is also true, and it’s how bad products die and stay dead). This is why my younger sister, who grew up with computers (and whose Normalcy Field already contains a computer), doesn’t find the concept of using one strange, even though my grandmother does. The “normalizing” occurs naturally via gradual (or not so gradual) integration into our daily lives, and a successful designer would be selling himself short by designing around the constraint that a successful product should be designed to fit into some comfortable box rather than to extend beyond the limits of innovation.

Consider the Segway: there’s nothing natural about riding one of those things. And didn’t humans (maybe) used to have tails before we stood upright? Well, we adapted.

111 comments to Designing IN SPITE OF the Manufactured Normalcy Field

  • Patricia

    I do think you make a good point when you say that a designer would be selling him/herself short by constraining to limits of “normalcy”. However, I do think there is a way to make technology feel like an extension of ourselves- like something we want and needed that we never knew we wanted.

    So maybe the designer’s job is not to constrain to normalcy, but to design what you didn’t know you wanted so that when you experience the product (be it the Google glasses and their virtual reality or the wii), you feel like it comes naturally to you.

    I also believe that, like you said, there is a generational gap between things that are/aren’t built for everyone because of how and with what people grow up. So maybe people have to decide their target audience before designing something to make sure their potential customer has the prior knowledge/expertise/interest to use their technology.

    The point is, I think, not to make your product normal but simply to not alienate the users and make them feel smarter while using your innovation, as opposed to making them feel like idiots because they can’t figure it out.

  • Nancy

    Oh this opens so many questions, avenues, and valleys to explore. Specifically, The Uncanny Valley. Do you know what that is? Check it out.

    Alan Kay’s definition of technology is : things invented after you were born.

  • Andres

    I think that fear of the unkown is a survival instinct, and we all have it in some measure.

    On the other hand, one can have a desire for adventure, to stop this “familiar sense of a static, continuous present”. And also to feel unique or special.

    Couldn’t it be a successful design strategy to cater to this adventurous nature? Like ‘have a mindblowing experience with our new product!’. Also, someone might buy/use a product just for being considered courageous, say ‘bla bla bla is too mainstream’.

  • bk1277

    My take from the article was that MNF is simply another consideration for designer and creators when they are bringing a new thing into the world.

    There are times when a design or product or artwork should disrupt our MNF, such as bringing attention to a social issue, or when alerting people in an emergency. On the other hand, if you are introducing a new medical device for the elderly, you may judge your product on its ability to avoid disrupting the MNF.

  • bk1277

    ^—Ben Kauffman

  • Nancy

    That’s a good point, Ben… I like the idea of the MNF as a sliding scale to be used appropriately in design.. but always thought about.

  • Xuedi "Chen"

    I agree that a successful designer would be selling himself short by designing around the constraint of “normalcy”. But I also think that a good innovation shouldn’t over step that boundary TOO much. Like you said, people adapt, but it takes time and adaptation comes easier when there is an accessible reference point. One of the most successful innovations in the past decade is the touch screen. It has seen so much success because it makes sense as a follow up to using a mouse but it also brings us back to doing things with our hands instead of a device. My friend’s 90 year old grandfather does NOT like using the computer. It’s weird, he doesn’t get how it works and it frustrates him to no end. No one thought it was worth it to get him an iPad because clearly he wouldn’t get it. We handed him one this summer and he couldn’t put it down!

  • Maria Paula

    I think it is not possible to create a rule for how the human being in relation to innovative products and technology. People are different. Some are tech-savvy, some aren’t. My grandmother can’t handle a mobile phone but her husband, which is 10 years older than she, is able to use phones and computers. I am totally comfortable with the idea of ubiquitous computing but I have a friend that is afraid of technology and she totally freaks out when we talk about ubicomp…

  • sjg447

    I take it for granted that people are awful at understanding the benefits of new things and am of the opinion that, in general, focus groups and user testing and that sort of thing hinder innovation rather than help it along because people just don’t know what is good for them.

    The adaptation notion is interesting, though, because sooner or later the truly useful things become integrated into our lives despite initial resistance that may be related to traditional notions and values or even the makeup of our brains. It reminds me of a story on Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring that Radiolab radio ran which described how listeners actually had to make neurological adaptations to enjoy the new sound. The whole riot thing is questionable, but it’s still an interesting episode:

    http://www.radiolab.org/2007/sep/24/

  • wc876

    Will Canine

    “Normal” is inherently a political concept. It is “normal” — comfortable, seemingly natural, unquestioned in day-to-day existence — that more than half the world’s population lives on under a dollar a day. Capitalism — the cycles of innovation, production, circulation, and accumulation that have been at work for no more than 400 years — is perhaps the most obvious example of an arbitrary system that has been “normalized.” People even go so far as to say it is “natural.” But when you look at the history of the human race, Capitalism actually represents a radical departure from what has been considered “normal” for most of our existance — the holding of large swaths of land in common, not as private property, for one example.

    I think that technology can be seen as anything that reframes normal, that brings about a new normal. This can be an institution, like trans-continental financial markets, a material process, like pressing counterfeit-proof coins, or even an idea, like the famous self centered “homo-economicus” at the center of all the normalizing justifications around Capitalism.

    The most important thing to remember about “normalcy” is that it is always in someone’s interest, just like it is always in someone’s interest to change normal. Designers try to smooth out some of this inherent roughness in the world. Introducing a normalcy altering artifact like the iPhone would not have been as easy or successful had the phone itself not been so well designed and easy to use. To get people to break from their patters, to change the very way individuals connect with society, you need to make them want to, make it easy for them to do so. To insure adoption you need to obscure the edginess that comes with anything revolutionary.

    Its important to remember that designers also smooth out the experience of cows going to slaughter. Normal is something that a person creates, often for themselves, but, in the case of a designer, for someone else. The most important thing to do when talking about “normalcy” is to question for whom it works, and who might wish there were a different normal.

  • Liz Khoo

    Same thing as Democracy–an unusual concept as recently as 300 years ago. I really agree with Will’s point about normalcy being in someone’s interest: manufacturing within or outside “The Field” as Rao calls it is a means to an end.

    Having come from an advertising background, it’s personally a little disturbing to me how often I hear colleagues talk about the need to position brands to consumers as relatable and personable, especially in regards to social media. People ending being die-hard fans of a brand that provides a valuable service or product, not because the “brand voice” on Facebook somehow resembles an actual human being. Talk about weird, non-normal, inauthentic interactions.

  • Rafael "Gross Brown"

    Designers are usually destined (or doomed) to put into place their skills to design tools for human implementation (i.e., implemented by humans, for themselves or for their animals, objects, etc.), such as any piece of technology, that will have an immediate practical impact or widespread consumption. From this derives a need to abide to “the field”. This is necessary, and yet it clearly puts a limit on the amount of ” out of the box” implementation. But, that is where the toughest design challenge lies. How does a designer translate an “out of the box” concept that is groundbreaking to the world. If the designer fails at this, then he is not solving any problems, but rather unfortunately and paradoxically, causing more problems, by bringing user unfriendly products to many users. A simple multiplication of the results will yield mass confusion (many users confused by the same confusing out of the box device/concept/product).

    Also, it is interesting that sometimes, as a stroke of genius, a designer can design beyond her times. That is, a designer who has enough forethought that allows her to see connections that at present cannot be made, but in the future will be put into practice. The forethought often includes not only design answers, but identifying problems that do not necessarily exist, or whose immediater or widespread solution is not demanded at that present moment.

    I think it is important to remember that design derives from our human instincts of exploration, which leads to construction, which then leads to improvement, where design comes into play. Improvement for use, for implementation, for easy implementation. The less effort is required to operate a product, the better design made it. Design exists to make the life of the human race easier, hence the fundamental need of a “field”. Without a field ,we are merely talking about a constructive pre-design stage.

    Alas, it would seem that the only way to escape the need of a field, is for humans to learn more easily, faster, with less energy, less effortlessly. But this is an evolutionary challenge, it is for nature’s evolutionary spontaneous designers to improve us at some point in the future. Unless, of course, one believes in the absolute power of the Singularity.

  • Rafael "Gross Brown"

    *the better the design that made it.