The Paradox Of Technology And 5 Ways To Avoid It


Sabina Idler

December 15, 2011

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Does our life become easier with every new invention on the market? I don’t think so. New technology presents us with great possibilities and limitations at the same time. Let’s have a look at this quote:

The same technology that simplifies life by providing more functions in each device also complicates life by making the device harder to learn, harder to use. This is the paradox of technology. — Donald Norman, The Design of Everyday Things (1988)

What Norman said about technology in 1988 is still valid today. Our economy, educational system and our social interactions have changed dramatically with available technologies. In order to stay competitive, products become more and more ingenious, their features adding up. The idea is to make our lives easier. But does it work?

New technology is a paradox: It is both liberating and confining at the same time. I will have a look at various aspects of this paradox and show you five ways to avoid them and still offer popular and innovative products.

The paradox of technology


In order to keep pace with the fast technological progress, we need to keep it rolling. We need to be open minded and flexible to get involved with all the new stuff in the first place. We need to use it a lot in order to learn it, and we need to filter features and put those that we can’t implement in our work process on our growing mental ‘ignore-list’. If we manage to do all that, if we can make a sufficient selection and focus on what is important, we can profit extraordinarily from increasing complexity. If we can’t, we get distracted, confused, and eventually pay with a decreased of efficiency.

New technologies enable us to access enormous loads of information. The Web, as an insatiable platform, offers information about pretty much anything. However, due to limited control of what people make available online, we constantly rely on our own judgement to select what’s relevant. This selection requires a certain degree of media literacy. If we don’t know how to efficiently approach the Web with all its content, the logical consequence is an information overload that we will most likely fail to handle.

We also get lazy using all these gadgets. I’m not saying this is a bad thing. I very much appreciate my smart phone and all the things that come with it. But every now and then, I get scared of how addicted I actually am and even worse, how dependent. I’m not sure if I can still manage to get things done if it wasn’t for all the to-do lists and reminders my phone keeps track of. I literary feel stripped down if I don’t have my phone with me and I almost panic if for some reason I can’t access my emails. I feel that using my phone as much as I do makes me stop using my brains.

The boundless and easy communication through social media also has its down side.We tend to forget how great and valuable it is to talk to someone in person. When we communicate through different mediated channels, the messages we send will never be as rich and clear as those we send face to face. Besides, being connected with everyone at any time makes it difficult to live in the here and now and we loose focus of the people we really care about. We spend so much time in virtual worlds, not because we like it there so much, but because we have pushed to the back of our minds how great the real world is.

5 ways to avoid the paradox of technology

The keyword here is: focus. Focus on your users. Focus on your main functions. Focus on what really matters. More is not always better. Let me show you how to avoid the paradox of technology and still offer popular and innovative products.

1. Know who you design for

Know the people you design for. Never start programming or designing before you have defined the functions and features that your users really need. If you don’t know your users, you will never be able to minimize or even eliminate the paradox they see in technology. Create personas and get to know your users. Find out what they want and how they will use your product. Come up with use cases, create prototypes and test your ideas.

2. Don’t distract your users

Keep it simple. These three words can make all the difference. After you know what functions your users need, it is your task to combine them in a usable way. Make sure users find and recognize all functions. Omit features, that don’t increase the overall quality of your product but might lead to distraction or confusion. Don’t be scared or too proud to let ideas go. Even good ideas might just not work. By leaving some features out, others become more salient and possibly more intuitive. Ask users to prioritize and categorize features to be certain you make the right selection.

3. Keep information to the point

Only offer information your users really need. People come to your site with a goal in mind. Your job is it to make them reach their goal as quickly as possible. This includes anything from making your site easy to find in search engines, to a clear presentation of your content. Know what your users look for and then offer it to them the way they expect to find it. And keep in mind that their they are anything but simple.

4. Support your users, don’t make them superfluous

This might have some overlaps with what I wrote earlier, but I think it’s important enough to give it an own paragraph. No matter what you offer, be it a service, a tool, or a tangible product, make sure it’s relevant. With relevant I don’t mean extremely important or extremely innovative. I mean that you should offer something your users can actually use for something useful. Try to support your users in something they do or even do it for them, but don’t try to do something they can really do themselves. To some extent, you can look at this as the responsibility of a designer to support us with what we do, without making us superfluous.

5. Focus on the user experience

With the wide range of new technologies, our lives seem to become increasingly impersonal. We communicate, but seldom face to face. We interact, but not with each other. We consume, but we don’t pause to appreciate. As a designer, you have the chance to make products that are user friendly and therefore easy to use. But you can also make products fun and personal. You can create a user experience that makes us enjoy to learn new things and face new technologies. With a great user experience, you can convince anyone of your product, regardless how many features you had to leave out in the process.

I believe that new technology is a paradox. It offers us great possibilities and at the same time, it confines us in what we do and how we do it. Through a focused product design and the way we select and offer information, we can minimize and even eliminate this paradox for our clients.

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