Book Review: Living with Complexity

Book | Author | Review

By Gerd Waloszek, SAP AG, SAP User Experience – July 3, 2012

This review takes a personal look at Donald A. Norman's book Living with Complexity.



Cover of Living with Complexity     

Donald A. Norman
Living with Complexity
MIT Press, 2010

ISBN: 032131140X

General, Design



Photo of Donald A. Norman

Don Norman has a background in both engineering and the social sciences, with both academic and industrial experience. He is currently Professor of Computer Science at Northwestern University and Professor emeritus at the University of California, San Diego. He is active as co-founder and principal of the Nielsen Norman group, happily engaged in advising numerous companies on products and services for consumers. He was an Apple Fellow and Vice President of the Advanced Technology Group at Apple Computer, and an executive at Hewlett Packard and UNext (Cardean University), a distance education company.
(From Don Norman's Website, adapted)




Some time ago, a student asked me for references to the topics of simplicity and complexity and to their mutual their relationship. He had contacted me, he wrote, because I had published a great deal of material in this area on the SAP Design Guild Website. I had not really been aware of my engagement there, but as I went about to collect references for the student, I discovered that I had indeed repeatedly dealt with both simplicity and complexity in one form or another. And, when I reviewed my past as a UI designer at SAP, I found that I had been involved in several projects that addressed both simplicity and complexity from various perspectives: I had combated complexity in SAP's R/3 System, I had created guidelines for simple Web applications and miniApps (later called iViews), I had built prototypes for simple touch screen applications, and even written an experimental simplification guide that you still can find on this Website.

When I wrote a review of Nathan Shedroff's book Design is the Problem for the SAP Design Guild, I encountered Shedroff's remarks about there being too much emphasis on simplicity, particularly in product marketing. He writes (highlighting by the author):

"Simplicity can be a winning strategy sometimes, but clarity is always required, no matter what the level of complexity is. [...] clarity relies on the prioritization of cognitive models and features that are most important, while downplaying those that are less critical. This can be done through careful arrangement of elements in the visual, auditory, temporal, and other sensorial dimensions."

In the course of the review, when looking for further references to simplicity, I discovered Don Norman's article Simplicity Is Not the Answer, which later became one of the building blocks of his book Living with Complexity. Thus, after Norman's book was published, a review almost suggested itself. However, a colleague of mine read the book while commuting to work and beat me to it by offering a review for the near future. Of course, I agreed to his proposal. Regrettably, however, the promised review never materialized. In the end, rather than do without one at all, I decided to write a review myself. Sadly, my own endeavor also encountered unforeseen obstacles and delays. "Thanks" to the complexity of life, it took me more than a year to complete my review. Here it is at long last!

Introduction to the Topic

Norman's book is entitled Living with Complexity for good reason: The author does not advocate substituting complexity with simplicity. As we will see below, this would not make sense to Norman, because he regards simplicity and complexity as opposites of each other: The first is, according to him, a state of mind, whereas the other is a state of the world. Much like Shedroff, Norman points out that complexity is an essential ingredient of the world and, thus, of our lives. Norman writes that technology reflects this complexity, which by itself is neither good nor bad: It is confusion that is bad. We see order and reason in complexity (and in complex technology) when we understand the underlying principles. When complexity is random and arbitrary, we are confused and have reason to be annoyed.

Conceptual Models (Mental Models)

Conceptual models help us transform complex physical reality into workable, understandable mental concepts. ... They enable us to understand things, learn how they work, and figure out what to do when failures occur. A conceptual model resides in people's minds, which is why it is also called a mental model.
Page 37, order reversed

As evidence, Norman demonstrates that simple things can actually complicate our lives: A bank of light switches, for example, may look simple but provides no guidance as to what each switch does. He argues that while perceived simplicity decreases with the number of visible controls and displays, operational simplicity can, on the other hand, be dramatically improved by adding more controls. Norman admits that this paradox is indeed a challenge to designers. He also points out that simple things can just as easily make life less interesting. He states that people need a certain ("medium") degree of complexity (which is a moving target because we are learning all the time) to experience life as interesting or even a challenge. Simple things, however, do not challenge us, and thus soon become boring.

Signifiers (Social Signifiers)

A signifier is some sort of indicator, some signal in the physical or social world that can be interpreted meaningfully. Deliberate signifiers are intentionally created and deployed. Incidental signifiers are accidental by-products of activities and events in the world. Social signifiers result from the behavior of others. Social signifiers allow us to navigate in otherwise complex, potentially confusing environments. In the world of design, signifiers are often called affordances or, more precisely, perceived affordances.
Page 89, order changed

Thus, for Norman, the paramount question is not how to avoid complexity but how to manage or cope with it. In his book, he offers a number of approaches to taming complexity: conceptual models (also known as mental models), signifiers (also called affordances – Norman changed his terminology, but nobody seems to have followed him), organizational structure, automation, and modularization. This is were designers come into play: They have the potential to create technical systems that are understandable and usable. Norman goes even further: "Taming complexity is a partnership between those who design and those who use." Thus, managing complexity and living with it includes the people themselves: They also have to play their role in the "complexity game". But before Norman tells his readers – both designers and interested lay people – more about their roles, he takes them on an interesting journey through some of the challenges that "civilized" life has to offer, including the pitfalls of cultural complexity, "idiot proof design", interruptions, and (unexpected) waits, just to name a few. I will briefly describe this journey in the following chapter overview.

Chapter Overview

Let me jump right to an overview of the chapters of Living with Complexity:

You can see that I have inserted two separators between the chapters that I call "magic jumps". I will explain what I mean by this term in a minute.

In the first three chapters of his book, Norman introduces and deals with complexity and its counterpart simplicity. He explains why he believes that complexity is necessary, or better, why complex systems exist: Because, as I already mentioned, the world itself is inherently complex. I also mentioned that Norman regards simplicity essentially as a state of mind, not of the world (as is complexity). I slightly disagree with him and will return to these distinctions in the discussion below. Finally, Norman provides evidence that simple things can complicate our lives in many ways. For me and my above-mentioned colleague, this section is brimming with of gems that can be used as quotes for highlighting the characteristics of simplicity and complexity. You will find some of them in the collection of quotes on this Website.

Then, for the next four chapters – for me, all of a sudden – Norman jumps to subjects that I would subsume under the topic of "sociable design". Actually, I had a hard time finding out what this term really means – "socially-friendly design" might be an appropriate circumscription. The author discusses four areas: social signifiers (clues like the absence or presence of people that help us interpret real-world situations), design in support of people (includes interruptions, and desire lines), socially-friendly design of systems and services (for example, hospital care), and finally, the socially-minded design of waits, which deals, among others, with waiting lines and their vagaries. All of these topics are definitely interesting in themselves, but, while reading the book, I often asked myself how they relate to the overall theme of complexity. In the end, everything that is "non-transparent" in one way or another can be connected to complexity, but in my view, the overarching theme of this section is definitely "sociable design", not "complexity – a fact that Norman more or less admits in his acknowledgements. Nevertheless, the middle section of the book is a rich source of experiences and observations from everyday life. It clearly shows how bad design can make life complicated and how good design would improve it. As was I reading the book, my own experiences often came to mind and underlined and supplemented Norman's writing.

Desire Lines

Originally, desire lines are trails of people seeking the most efficient path across fields, lawns, grasses, and even flower beds. The term can be broadened to include any indicator of people's natural behavior.
Page 126-131, order reversed

In the final two chapters, Norman returns to the main topic of his book, complexity. That's why I included a second "magic jump back". He discusses various ways in which complexity can be managed – I already listed the basic principles above and will not repeat them here – and also the above-mentioned partnerships, in which designers and "ordinary" people have to engage to make the most of their lives in a complex world. Norman closes his book with an outlook on the challenges that exist for designers in their quest to help people get along with complexity.


After this brief rush through the book, I would like to focus my discussion on two issues: (1) Norman's distinction between complexity as a state of the world and simplicity as a state of the mind, and (2) the conception of the book.

Complexity and Simplicity – A State of What?

While Norman regards complexity as a state of the world, he defines simplicity as a state of mind. He also introduces complicated and its synonym confusing to describe the state of mind in response to complex and non-transparent systems (actually, I would use the term confused for describing a state of mind). I am not a native speaker, and therefore do not want to engage in discussions on the subtlety and pitfalls of the English language, but personally, I would regard simplicity as a state of the world as well, even though we also talk of "simple minds". Anyway, as a state of the world, simplicity is associated with "few parts" and "few and simple relations between the parts". Finally, as mentioned at the beginning, Shedroff brings in the term clarity in his book as a principle that provides the feeling of simplicity to our minds. To organize all these ideas and tidy up my own confusion, I created the table below:

  Complexity Simplicity Confusion Clarity
State of what?
State of the world
State of mind
Characteristics Complex (many) relations – many intricate and interrelated parts (photo editor) Simple (few) relations – few parts (hammer)

Complicated, confusing, perplexing, frustrating, non-transparent

no structure, arbitrary, disorder(ed)

Clear, satisfying, enjoyable, desirable, pleasurable, transparent

underlying structure, order(ed)


One powerful tool for many purposes

Complex tools may require extensive tool and task training

Visual complexity but easy actions (one button for each function)

Many simple tools for different (possibly related) purposes

Simple tools lack power and usefulness and may also require extensive training (depending on the task)

Visual simplicity but complicated actions (more button presses, awkward key combinations, ...)

Conceptual / mental model

No / wrong / complicated / confusing conceptual / mental model

arbitrary steps

Clear, logical conceptual/mental model

logical steps

Results of Design Poor design: perplexing, confusing, frustrating Good design: desirable, pleasurable, providing a sense of empowerment


Perhaps one reader or another will profit from my exploration – or send a rebuttal...

Conception of the Book

In his acknowledgments, Don Norman writes that his book was initially supposed to have the title Sociable Design. There are indeed first drafts with this title, but Norman seems to have changed his mind at some point in time so that, as he writes, the book "found its true home in complexity", probably a more up-to-date topic. For me, the origin of the book still shows: Norman's book has the appearance of two books in one cover. In the middle part, there is a book about sociable design, which has been "sandwiched" by a book about complexity that acts as an introduction and a conclusion. In the middle section, references to complexity are scarce (see the index!). But, as I already mentioned, everything that makes our lives more complex and thus more complicated can somehow be subsumed under the topic of complexity, and thus, many readers will follow Norman's and not my reasoning.

But why not write two shorter books instead of one voluminous book? Short books are faster to read and provide a lower entrance barrier for the reader. However, when I look back at the history of my book reviews, it seems that there was an unwritten law that books have to comprise about 300 pages. Personally, I would have had no objection if some of the authors had restricted themselves to about 100-150 pages for the sake of conciseness and the readers' precious time. But, for all of these books, including Norman's, it's too late for a change.

In his acknowledgements, Norman also points to his disposition to redundancy and thanks his reviewers – and his wife in particular – for reducing a lot of it. I emphasize with Norman, because I suffer from the same disposition when writing articles and book reviews for the SAP Design Guild. Accumulating experiences and knowledge over a lifetime makes bells ring all the time, and often the same ones, thus causing redundancy. For my part, I feel that – despite all of her efforts – Norman's wife did not completely succeed in reducing redundancy from her husband's book. But I'll leave it to the reader to decide whether they share my opinion or not.


In my review, I combined critical remarks on the conception of Norman's book with positive ones about what it has to offer to the reader. While the first issue is one of personal taste that may or may not interest readers of my review, the second is the one that actually counts: The whole book is a treasure trove and a resource for designers who want to tame technical complexity and make life easier for people. The world of today has reached a level of complexity that makes many of us flounder far too often, particularly as we get older (in a sense, the world has always been complex, but our modern world tops this by far). Therefore, I urge designers and all those who are interested in design to read Norman's book, internalize its message, and set off to make our complex, technology-overcharged world more understandable and manageable, and thus more sociable.



Don Norman Links

Book Reviews on the SAP Design Guild

SAP Design Guild Design Tidbits


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