were able to enlist otherwise
sensible people to their cause
escapes me: Were they bribed?
Ever make a telephone call
and wonder if anything was
happening? Silence. No clues.
So you hang up and try again.
Some people complained that
without sounds, they could not
tell if the system was working. The machines got really
annoyed. “We can’t win,” they
exclaimed. “People complained
about noisy telephone circuits,
so we went to great effort to
make them completely silent,
and then they complained about
that. People complain about the
noise when it is there and about
the silence when it’s not. We
So the machines made the
lines perfectly silent and then
reintroduced noise. But they
showed their disdain for the
process by calling it “comfort
noise.” Comfort noise? What an
insult. I call it meaningful feedback. You know, when you talk
to someone, you expect them to
listen and to show it by nodding,
saying “yes” or “umm,” or doing
something to show they are still
alive, still listening. What’s this
“comfort” stuff? It’s not comfort—it’s essential.
But once the machines got
going, they kept at it. Ever hear
of a “confidence monitor”?
Whenever I give talks to large
audiences, I face the audience,
usually with bright lights blinding me so I can’t see them. When
I show pictures, I can’t see them,
either, because they are projected somewhere behind me.
Seems like a number of people
complained that they needed to
be able to see the pictures they
were projecting, so machines
placed themselves as computer
display screens on the stage
between the speaker and the
audience. Sometimes they are
on the floor of the auditorium
just in front of the first few rows,
sometimes on a big screen at
the back of the auditorium. I
find that they provide valuable
feedback, letting the speaker see
what the audience sees without
turning around. Useful, valuable. So why am I complaining?
Because of the way they label
themselves: “Confidence monitors.” Confidence? Whose confidence? The labels assume speakers are quivering idiots, petrified
on the stage, and if only they
could see the pictures that they
were talking about, they would
have confidence. Bah.
Yes, as a speaker I lack
confidence—confidence in the
machines. I don’t for one minute
believe that all my pretty pictures are actually going to show
up on the screen. I’ve given up
trying to show videos: They work
only during practice. During the
real talk, they are apt to stutter
and crash. Yeah, I need confidence; I need confidence that
the machines are working right.
Come on, why do you have to be
so demeaning? Call it feedback.
Call it reassurance. Call it trust.
But don’t call it comfort noise
or confidence monitors, or idiot
proofing, or foolproofing. Show
us some respect! We are people.
What about the irate woman?
What has she done to deserve
such treatment? Nothing, nothing at all. The paper ticket that
had been inserted into the
machine didn’t come out again.
Not her fault, as even engineers
will tell you. The next peeve
on the machines’ list, just after
their dislike of people, is paper
handling. They just can’t move
paper about reliably and efficiently, especially things like
tickets that their owners have
touched. People don’t have any
trouble with these things, but
machines can’t manage. So what
do machines do? They don’t
say, “I’m sorry, but I’m kind of
clumsy around paper.” No, never
in a million years. They blame
us. They issue strong warnings:
Don’t touch the paper, put it in
pockets, spill drinks on it, or
worst of all, fold. “Do not fold,
mutilate, or spindle,” went the
saying several decades ago, even
though nobody even knew what
“spindle” meant. “Oh,” they add,
“and don’t use paper when there
is high humidity.” In other words,
we should just keep our hands
off of paper altogether. Paper is
for use by machines, and once
people touch it, the machines
grow irate. It never occurs to a
machine that the problem might
be theirs. Oh no. It’s us pesky
people who are to blame.
It is time to socialize our
interactions with technology.
Sociable machines. Basic lessons
in communication skills. Rules
of machine etiquette. Machines
need to show empathy with the
people with whom they interact,
understand their point of view,
and above all, communicate so
everyone understands what is
Why do you do this to us?
What did we ever do to you?
ABOUT THE AUTHOR Don Norman
wears many hats, including cofounder of
the Nielsen Norman group, professor at
Northwestern University, and author. His
latest book is The Design of Future Things.
He lives at jnd.org.
January + February 2009
© 2009 ACM 1072-5220/09/0100 $5.00