Cognitive Artifacts and Pre-Inscription

Donald Norman’s delineation between the personal and the system view of a cognitive artifact provokes some interesting questions which may be helpful in further consideration of design thinking. The most interesting of these questions, however, may be his assertion that a cognitive artifact might only be conceived of as “extending cognition” from the system view. From the personal view, Norman argues, the artifact does not extend cognition, it merely changes the task by delegating the original task to the object and requiring a new task of the user. By focusing on the latter insight, I believe Norman implies some interesting design insights.

First and foremost, it harkens back to a similar concept which Bruno Latour (under the pseudonym Jim Johnson) introduced several years prior to Norman’s publication: pre-inscription. Latour situates this concept among a number of others which describe the relationships of humans and objects, but pre-inscription in particular has to do with the idea that all cognitive artifacts require some level of learning or work before they can be used by human actors. This pre-inscription can be nearly invisible (like the learning needed for use of a hammer) — we call this intuitive design — or it can be entirely visible and require a great deal of concentration (like the learning needed to understand writing). When it is visible, because the user must focus on the pre-inscription, the user is much more aware of the fact that, as Norman would say, the task has been changed, or as Latour would say, the action has been delegated.

It seems that with a combined view of Latour and Norman, we can understand how complex computational media ought to be designed in order to achieve maximum efficiency on the systems and the personal level. Most simply, successful design of computational media most certainly need to take into account the burden of pre-inscription as well as the actually efficacy of the artifact in relation to the task for which it was designed. In other words, if the designer does not ask, “what must the user now learn to do as a result of the design of this artifact,” he or she runs the risk of designing a product which requires more learning by pre-inscription than toil otherwise required by actual action. I think of a product like Microsoft Excel, which, while extremely powerful, requires a great amount of pre-inscription. For most people, the amount of learning required to master Excel dwarfs the actual amount of time they spend on Excel (or spend googling how to achieve certain functions or asking colleagues the same questions). The way the task is changed via the cognitive artifact requires more exertion from the user than the unaltered task of data entry into cells, so people only use that capacity. Most simply, the dichotomy Norman draws here implies that design of cognitive artifacts are most effective when the exerted effort required by the new task is significantly less than the effort required without the artifact, either in a single instance, or as made evident over time. For some artifacts, like Excel, this imbalance is necessary. However, for those concerned with user-centered design, it ought to be one of their foremost considerations.


Norman, D. (1991) “Cognitive Artifacts.” In Designing Interaction, edited by John M. Carroll, 17-38. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press

Johnson, J. (1988). Mixing Humans and Non-Humans Together. Social Problems 35, 298–310.