I’m Not Distractible…

…I’m Curious and Creative.”


Over 90% of industrial and automobile accidents are blamed on human error, with distraction listed as a major cause. Can this be true? Look, if 5% of accidents were caused by human error, I would believe it. But when it is 90%, there must be some other reason, namely, that people are asked to do tasks that people should not be doing—tasks that violate fundamental human abilities.

Consider distraction. This is a negative attribute of people, or so we are told. But think about it—what does this term really mean?

Whenever I wander around a city, I’ll often stop to examine some unique thing I notice. Why? Curiosity—a natural human trait. My curiosity frequently leads me to insights that have helped me in my career. So why is this wonderful, creative trait of curiosity given the negative term “distraction”? Because curiosity can distract us from a prior activity, which under the wrong circumstances can lead to accident or injury.

Cognitive scientists have long known that the human nervous system is very sensitive to changes in the environment. As a result, people are naturally curious. This sensitivity keeps us alert to environmental changes, both good and bad, that might affect us. It also allows us to notice novel patterns and opportunities. Curiosity is a great source of creativity.

Similarly, when people discover an interesting concept, the subconscious mind keeps working on it even as conscious thoughts go elsewhere. Psychologists call this process “incubation.” Finding a solution to a difficult concept or problem can require hours, weeks or months of subconscious incubation. Later, while doing activities that do not require much conscious attention, the subconscious incubation process can become conscious, a phenomenon called mind-wandering. This can lead to new, creative thoughts and to solving long-standing problems. From a human-centered point of view, mind-wandering is critical to creative abilities. From the technologist’s perspective, it is bad—yet another distraction.

Design Lab at UC San Diego
Don Norman directs the Design Lab at UC San Diego, a cross-collaborative space that focuses on the practice of design as a way of thinking.

Throughout my years as an academic researcher and an industry executive, I slowly began to recognize that the tension between curiosity and distraction was actually tension between a human-centered view of the world and a technology-centered one. We, as a society, have long emphasized technology over people. (The motto of the 1933 World’s Fair, for example, was “Science Finds, Industry Applies, Man Conforms.”) This technology-centered approach forces people to behave according to the needs and requirements of technology. No wonder there are so many accidents blamed on human error. We need to flip the emphasis to something like “People Propose, Technology Conforms.”

For many decades I have been part of the human-centered design movement to make it easier for people to use and understand technology. In other words, I helped develop the science of better patches. Today I realize that I was only treating the symptom. The real, underlying cause is that we have unwittingly accepted the paradigm that technology comes first, with people relegated to doing the actions that machines cannot do. This requires people to act like machines—watching over them, ever ready to take over when things go wrong, but with all our activities dictated by the needs of the technology.

This practice has been with us for so many centuries that it appears obvious, sensible and correct. The result, however, is that people are forced to do things they are bad at. And then, when people turn out to be bad at doing the things they are bad at, they are blamed. Consider the terms to describe the result: human error, distraction, lack of attention, sloppiness—all negative terms, all implying the inferiority of people. Nonsense, I say.

In order to change, the first step is to recognize the subtle biases that have led to this domination by the needs of technology rather than the needs of people. The second step is to reverse the priorities, starting with the strengths of people and constructing technologies that amplify those strengths. We already have numerous examples: The invention of symbol systems that can be drawn, saved and shared is perhaps the most powerful—symbol systems such as writing, mathematical, musical and dance notation. These tools have empowered us. So too with many of the communication tools we use today.

Scientists and technologists are continually discovering powerful new concepts. This is good. But difficulties arise in the mindset used in transforming the new ideas into products and services. Instead of starting with the technology and attempting to make it easy to understand and use, let us take human capabilities, and use the technology to expand our abilities.

We must change from being technology-centric to become people-centric. It is time to change our mindset. Hurrah for the human side.