Inspired by similar email lists like Reilly Brennan’s Future Of Transportation and Data Machina, my goal was to look beyond the immediate challenges of UX and the design patterns of UI (after all there are plenty of people offering links to great articles in these areas). Instead I want to consider the other forces at work on our industry.
My hope is that by looking a little further we might we inspired by technology, psychology, business and the role we play in the organizations we work for.
It’s a simple start, and it’s pushing me to evaluate what I call inspiration, but I’m going to keep digging for new things and sharing them.
As a little taster here are a few of the interesting links from the last few emails:
Interaction Design is a young profession. In its short history it has been in a state of continuous reshaping, redefinition and stratification. The chart below gives a quick idea of just how much this has turned us into a group of individuals tagged by acronyms and overlapping with adjacent disciplines.
What’s striking is how quickly this change has happened to the Interaction Designer. This change is driven by technology, and the pace of technological change continues to increase.
Today, the Interaction Designer—and I count myself as one—is the person you call in to design the ways that people engage with digital systems. We’ve developed increasingly dynamic interfaces to back-ends that are largely static. The potential for more dynamic front-ends is driven by advances to the interface technology; it’s characterised by the move from keyboard to mouse to touch-screen and voice.
The static back-ends we connect to are servers, computers and databases that only change when the user or system owner changes them. In the future these back-ends will have increasing artificial intelligence, and this marks a seismic shift for out profession.
The dynamic potential of the front-end will be matched by the new dynamism in the back-end.
There are many back-end systems that could be called ‘dynamic’ or ‘active’ today, and this shouldn’t be a discussion about the semantics, it’s more important to consider how changes on the system side (not the user interface side) will push the Interaction Designer into new territory. AI-powered products and services will mean far more exchanges between smart people and smart systems. In the past we focussed all of our energy on the design of dynamic interfaces, we’ll now need to account for dynamic back-end systems too.
At first it will look like the same Interaction Design we’ve been doing for 30 years; we’ll use the same tools, the same paradigms and the same principles. However, the changes will become gradually clearer as we look to benefit from the potential of the new technology. It’s impossible to say where the Interaction Designer will be in another 30 years (in fact it’s impossible to say where we’ll be in 5 years), but one thing that is certain is that the new phase of Interaction Design will require us to change, and change quickly.
Today, designers who can code are highly valued. A designer who can visually, architecturally manipulate code is rare. In the future we’ll need designers who can go further and be literate in the back-end systems too. Or, perhaps we’ll need a new role—someone who can sit between the front- and back-ends acting as a translator between the designer of interface and the designer of the AI system.
Systems are changing, becoming intelligent
The change Interaction Design is about to go through will be characterised by increased access to Artificial Intelligence but it won’t be a centralised intelligence in a few places, it will be a broad distribution of Intelligence around our (currently) static systems, this will make it harder to spot at first.
This distributed artificial intelligence isn’t how science fiction has thought about it so far it—forget the image of a singular ‘brain’ able to answer any question. In fact, forget any notion of human-like intelligence. Instead, think about a million smart thermostats observing patterns of heat control, combining it with the weather forecast and deciding to adjust your heating one hundred times a day to save you money.
The cognification that Kelly refers to is a very narrow type of intelligence. It will be somewhat disappointing at first as small steps make incremental improvements. But the effect will magnify as many things each have their own intelligence, as it multiplies across the dozens of products and services you encounter every day.
In the future, as things become intelligent, products and services will be even more complex to interface with; these systems will change between the times that users interact with them.
The very use of these intelligent systems will allow them to grow and evolve. For users this will be simultaneously exciting, unsettling, alien and empowering. We will need Interaction Designers to navigate these choppy waters, to advocate for users and to make the best use of new technology.
We will need to ask new questions: how will it feel to use something which has altered itself since you last used it? The key word here it itself, users are probably already used to variable and unpredictable experience with software. Generally this is triggered by human action. In the future there won’t be a human in the loop.
Cognification also suggests other, more nuanced changes to products. Not only will they be in a state of on-going, algorithmically informed self-improvement, they will start to be opinionated and express personality. These are not new things for digital systems per se, but they will become more commonplace, as underlying smartness becomes the norm. In some cases personality will be key to the success of the system, in other cases the cold logic of a computer system will be preferred.
Interfaces that are both a front end user experience and a learning opportunity for smart systems is new; it’s not yet clear how different it will feel for users to be active in the continuous building of machine intelligences much more powerful than themselves where today they are just the passive receiver of the output of systems.
Interaction designers will be working with smarter, opinionated products existing on new non-screen-based interfaces. These products will change through use, and the more popular they are the more they will change.
Everything here talks to the dynamism of the back-end. The nature of technology also means that the front-end interfaces we’re designing are also changing. This is why the change we’re about to experience is so seismic.
Interfaces becoming cloud powered
One of the bigger driving forces in this new age of interaction is the proliferation of wireless connectivity in smaller and smaller devices. When a device is permanently connected to the Internet it benefits from two things, the first is the remote access to data and when devices don’t need hard drives to store data the physical size can reduce. At a certain point devices become so small that having a screen or a keyboard doesn’t make sense either. It calls for more novel forms of interaction.
Ironically, ‘novel’ interfaces here are very familiar to people: voice is becoming a feasible way of interacting; gestures and motion tracking are also starting to become more common. In theory we already know how to use these interfaces—how to talk, how to move—but we need to quickly learn how to design them to best serve the people using them.
The second benefit of connectivity to the cloud is the ability to access the higher computing power of the server. Things that would otherwise be too time or power intensive to run on a personal device with limited RAM and hard drive space. When I search Google on my iPhone, all of the power sits on the Google server; my phone is little more than a portal to the back end.
These increasingly small, increasingly powerful tools and services drive novel interfaces like voice and gesture but they also suggest increasingly confusing future where we spend most of our time trying to figure out how to use things rather than actually using them. Some are attempting to define principles for these new interfaces: Intercom’s first attempt at Principles for Bot Design suggest some interesting and perhaps unexpected directions for text/chat interface experiences.
In addition to the two benefits of cloud connectivity above, a less clear effect will be one of interconnectivity: as more products and services become connected they will expect to talk to each other. Products will rely on other products. We’re already seeing an explosion in API companies that simply provide the back-end plumbing for others to build with. What will it mean for services to be intertwined with each other in this way? How will we design for graceful failure when failure happens to a third party service that the user is unaware of?
There are many benefits for the Interaction Designer in the future, and many more challenges to tackle.
Cognification + Cloud: distributed AI
The two forces of cognification and cloud power suggest the coming era of distributed AI accessed through new interfaces, this will obviously have ramifications beyond the discipline of Interaction Design, but the Interaction Designer will be key to helping people make sense of the changes coming out way.
Distributed AI—by its nature—will be everywhere, it will be cheap and it will become expected by users. Although, while the distribution will be wide, the individual use cases for products will be narrow.
Narrow AI is being applied to diverse and complex human problems like sentencing criminals and deciding which patients should be discharged from hospitals. Equally, each smart product will have a narrow remit and look to tackle specific problems.
The individual systems will be highly specific, but the Interaction Designer’s skills will need to diversify: there’s already a need for the us to be competent in a range of skills: wire-framing, visual design, coding, animation and sketching are often expected. The future will call for an understanding of writing, logic, psychology, machine learning and behavioural economics. The future will probably call for a dozen more we can’t even imagine at the moment.
Growing these skills will call for collaboration with different experts, and that we each become more inquisitive about the new adjacent fields we’ll be working with. As part of this change i’ve started to collect interesting links together in a fortnightly email—Future Interaction Designer—please subscribe and submit your own links. It’s experiment to see if I can keep up with the rapid pace myself, I hope many can contribute.
When will it start?
The examples above are all current products and services—so this is the world we’re already living in. In fact some of the examples here aren’t even that new. So the question is not when will it start, but when will you start. When will you start to add to your knowledge, start to collaborate and start to help the rest of us navigate the choppy waters?
As the cost of data storage drops and we continue to see the democratisation of AI tools like TensorFlow from Google, we have the choice to ignore the future or play a part in it. This future will accelerate toward us whether we like it or not.
A (vaguely) mathematic exploration of why small teams can move more quickly
Working with teams of designers at Hyper Island earlier this year illustrated a typical problem that growing teams face when trying to get alignment. Of the six teams in the class all were in groups of five designers apart from one that had six. The team of six had trouble finding consensus and developing a healthy team culture. On the surface one extra team member shouldn’t make a difference. In fact, shouldn’t it have been an advantage?
There are a few ‘rules of thumb’ I’ve heard about managing a team size. Google has a Two Pizza rule (if you can’t feed your team on two pizzas your team is too big).
At IDEO teams are rarely above 4. We have extended teams with supporting roles, but the core team is invariably three, four or five.
Meanwhile, back on Hyper Island
At the end of project review the team was feeling a little down about the situation as their team communication challenges felt like personal failure. To be clear, the amazing teaching team at Hyper Island spend a lot of time supporting healthy team culture and this was the only team with six members and a problem. I drew them a little chart I’d seen IDEO design director Steve O’Connor draw to explain what was going on.
The challenge becomes clear when you start to map out the lines of communications for a five- and six-person team. While we’re at it, let’s look at a four-person team too:
As you can see as you add team members the amount of communication gets very complex quickly. A five person team has 10 potential lines of communication. A six person team jumps to 15. In fact the difference between a four- and six-person team is 150% jump in communication management.
Of course there are many other factors at play in the success of a team. But paying attention to the number of people is very important.
I was delighted to return to Hyper Island in Manchester again this year to teach the User Research module for the Digital Experience Design course. As with last year, I thought it might be good to capture the points that generated most discussion. If you find this usefulor want to talk more given a shout on the Twitters.
Design Thinking in 50 diagrams
Having shared the design thinking process with may different audiences recently (clients, startups, students) I’ve noticed quite how many ways there are to visually describe the process. A google image search for Design Thinking yields at least three main types:
Perhaps most surprising is that we at IDEO, who lay some claim to the process, don’t actually have a definitive version on our website. How could it be that there isn’t a generally agreed picture of a process which is so widely shared an apparently understood?
The theory that I shared with the students is that while the process is generally understood, it’s also a flexible approach that requires each designer and team using it to define in their own terms and precise usage. Much like language, it is defined by usage. I wonder if this is why it has been so successful in the last 10 years, and continues to be adopted by new and old organisations: it requires it’s participants to be creative just in the act of use.
It does raise a new question for those of us employing this way of working: do we all agree on the method and goals? Is there a danger that the loose definition leads to ambiguity? I’m now much more aware of the way I describe it to those who’ve never done it before. How will you make sure there is consensus and confidence in your team’s use of the approach?
Ethics and Principles
This year, our client has forced our students to have an active discussion about their ethics and principles as designers. While most courses raise the question of ethics, very few actually have the students really address the situation. It’s very easy in the idealised world of academia to denounce projects for arms dealers, petro-chemical companies or big pharma, but we’ve given the students a far more complex situation to resolve.
I won’t go into specific details – other than to say that the client isn’t in one of the industries above – however the group has already dealt with more mature and important discussions than most professionals have in a year. I have immense respect for their willingness to deal with things head on, and hope that they see the value in the process.
Probably the most important thing that’s emerged is the need for the students to both form a personal stance but also to respect the views of those around them. Very often the most vocal members of a group will set the tone for everyone and it’s important as a vocal participant to see the effect of their actions. It’s equally important for people to stand up for their beliefs and be vocal when they believe it is the right thing to do. Thus defining a grey area between passion and tolerance.
And you thought this was just about design?
How many interviews do you need to do?
Finally, and to bring a little levity back to this post, I shared a recommendation on the ideal number of participants for a Design Research programme. We would suggest 5-8 participants will give you all the inspiration you need to move your design forward.
“You expect us to base our future on the views of just six people”
In a word yes.
In a few more words, yes but they need to be very carefully selected. Furthermore, we don’t take these 6 opinions and build an idea, we looks for underlying patterns in this carefully selected group. The common themes between them will absolutely be enough to inspire a design team to build the right thing. And at this stage, we aren’t looking for market sizing or business cases – that detail can be added once we’ve built something concrete – for now we just want to make sure we’re building something people actually want.
The process of interview 6 people doesn’t replace the 1000 person beta prototype, or the business model design process. The 6 interviews replace the hunches that lead you to start the project in the first place. Very often teams have set off on a path to build something new based on their instincts and combinations of past research. The goal is therefore to make sure that these things are right.
We’ll repeat the process of testing multiple times as we iterate towards a solution, each time we’ll select 5-8 carefully chosen participants – in fact you can think of them as members of the design team as we want their opinions on very specific things.
Don Norman has an excellent chart that illustrates the point. Here he shows that the first 6 participants will identify 90% of the total UX problems in a prototype. We feel this graph is equally true at every stage of the design process.
Always remember, your goal is to inspire the design process and build the right thing.
We’ll be getting into the details of running a design research interview, and the ethical issues the teams might encounter while out in the real world.
After the talk the fantastically engaged audience asked lots of smart questions generally giving me plenty of faith in the future of the design industry in Manchester and beyond.
My three favourite questions:
What is the most important skill you’ve learnt in your professional life?
One of the most formative projects in my design career was designing bus maps. The skill I used the most on that project was not a creative one, it was writing emails. Lots of emails. In fact, more time was spent justifying our design decisions than doing the original design work.
If you think that doesn’t sound like a designer’s job, but you’d be completely wrong. Having a great idea is key design skill, but an equally important skill is being able to communicate your thinking.
No piece of design speaks for itself so developing the ability to critically analyse and justify design will actually be something you do more often than actually designing. Being able to communicate is the more important skill.
I’m a graphic designer working on an architectural environment project, I seem to be doing work that moves away from graphics, is that the right thing?
In short yes!
If your research and design work is taking you to the overlaps with adjacent creative discipline don’t be afraid to go and spend time with the people in those fields.
Learn their language and tap into their expertise: there’s a chance that their deep knowledge will unlock opportunities back in your world. Learning enough about architecture, coding or data science to be able to have a smart conversation with other professionals is a core skill for any designer so the sooner you get into this way of working the better.
The only caveat is this: don’t spend too long away from your own expertise area as you risk becoming a generalist. The downside of being a generalist is that you won’t be able to offer anything back to the architect (or coder or data scientist) you’re hoping to collaborate with.
What skills are you looking for in new graduates?
Whatever your starting design profession is today the chances are you’ll be doing very different things in a few years.
If you’re a graphic designer today it’s safe to say that, even if it’s still called graphic design in 5 years, it won’t be the same set of skills, tools and activities as you do today. Get comfortable with that coming change: it’s an opportunity not a threat.
The skills that I’m personally interested in are informed by the fact that I’m an interaction designer and do I’m thinking about that and the adjacent disciplines. I’m always in the look out for designers who have strong coding skills.
It’s incredibly difficult to maintain deep skills in both design and coding, but those that do are in high demand. For the digital designers out there code is one of your raw materials and so at the very least you should have proficiency in some of the front end languages. If you can find a way to push both the creative and the programming forward together I’d like to talk to you. I’m also interested to see if designers start to pick up the ability to manipulate data – as another raw material to design with.
Have a look at this Medium collection that I’ve written for, if you’d like to learn more.
The final week at Hyper Island and the team’s visited the BBC at Media City in Salford. We’re very grateful for the BBC’s involvement in this project – providing a real brief and venue for the final presentations.
Each team did an amazing job and, despite each being set the same brief and taught the same methodology, came out with unique perspectives on the BBC’s challenge.
Presenting without screens
One stipulation I made for the final presentations was the banning of screens. The teams had to be creative and hands on in order to present and think more about their individual roles.
At IDEO our equivalent mid point presentations often have the same physical design with posters and props taking the place of projectors and laptops. At this point in the process presentations should feel like ‘work in progress’ and open to questions and improvement. Screens signal completeness, worse still you’ll spend/waste time finessing the way it looks rather than what it says.
There are challenges of course: you should plan very carefully the layout of the room, and how it can support your storytelling, but generally tangible presentations better engage your audience.
The students in this year’s Digital Experience Design crew were very lucky to have Colin Burns as thier client. After the presentations he made time to review each group and gave fantastic constructive feedback.
One area we discussed was the naming of Opportunity Areas. At IDEO we use the term Opportunity Area to encompass an area rich with potential for ongoing design. We often share them at the halfway point of a project and work with our clients to pick the ones we want to dig deeper into in the second half of the project. The teams from Hyper Island were tasked with presenting their areas, but most lacked a memorable name.
Colin recommended something evocative and arresting. For example “Cat Buckets”. When you hear the phase cat buckets you’ll immediately picture something, and the chances are you’ll remember it. It’s a great example of a simple phrase that contains a lot of information. Something you should strive for when naming your own Opportunity Areas in the future.
The final thought from me is to say congratulations to all of the students for completing the Understanding People module, and good luck with the rest of the course.
The whole group was highly engaged throughout and picked up new ideas and methodologies with great skill and thoughtfulness.
I’m sure they’ll all go onto great things, and I hope to cross paths with them in the future.
By the third week of teaching the Understanding People module at Hyper Island in Manchester things got serious; we went through the process of synthesis and sense making. We did it in just one day.
Moving from the foggy start of the day surrounded by post-it notes to a coherent end point was tough but very satisfying. I was joined by two fellow IDEO Design Researchers – Jenny Winfield and Kate Wakely. They brought great experience and knowledge to the day and helped each team to shape their research into a clear set of insights, themes and opportunity areas.
This was probably the hardest and most enlightening day for the group. The feedback at the end of the day was very positive and it’s testament to the abilities of each and every member of the Digital User Experience cohort as it was a new process for them all.
Synthesis is a simple concept but a difficult process; you learn it by doing it. I learnt what I know from working alongside more experienced colleagues and observing the way they approached the challenge. The IDEO designers worked alongside each group throughout the day. This certainly wasn’t about giving some tips and letting them try it alone.
As with previous posts from my work with the group, I’ve picked out a few points that generated discussion
Synth setup basics
Five rules for a successful synthesis session – preparation is everything.
1. Close laptops, phones on silent. Get rid of anything that will distract you. You need to get lost a little, and your email beeping will break this up. Print out your photos, and your notes should be handwritten (as you wont have used a laptop to make note in the first place).
2. Everything in one space. Before you begin make sure you have enough post-it notes, wall space, pens, paper and anything else you’ll use to capture a structure your ideas. You should also have all of your downloaded research activities in the room with you. If you haven’t downloaded everything, do that first.
3. Snacks and sugar. It can help to have a few snacks in the space with you. It’s a draining process and so you might find you need the sugar/coffee/tea close to hand to get through it. Going to get a drink will be the first thing that breaks up your flow; once it’s broken it’ll take at least 15 minutes to get back up to speed. If anyone needs to go to the toilet, go now. And wash your hands.
4. One conversation at a time. This is one of IDEOs Rules of Brainstorming, it’s vital for several reasons: making sure only person talks at a time means that everyone hears what is said. It means that the group’s focus in magnified in one place and not dissipated around the room in multiple conversations. It’s also polite to listen to everyone, it signals that everyone in the room is of equal importance – and if they are in the room, they are.
5. Explain every Post-it note – tell stories. When you take it in turns to share an observation or quote make sure to explain it fully. If you don’t understand a post-it note ask the owner to clarify it. Everything that comes out of the session is owned by everyone involved. It’s your responsibility to understand everything.
During this week’s synthesis session I reflected on the physical nature of post-it noting in a room surrounded by other post-its. It struck me that the process is no accident. As a group, when we structure our shared intelligence as many small fragments stored spatially we essentially create an external map of our collective brain.
When you move, or introduce a new post, it’s vital to explain it; everyone needs to understand and agree with it. Don’t just read it out, tell the story that inspired it.
Once it’s placed you aren’t allow to move it without everyone seeing where it moved to and from.
In doing this you build the shared brain of the group. Sticking the post-its onto walls means that you make use of people’s spacial memory skills. Humans are wired to remember things spatially, think about how easy it is remember the route between your home and work. It’s an amazingly complex sequence of stages, but you make it without thinking. Laying out the thinking from a group synthesis session spatially means we can literally free space in our brains and store ideas in a way that’s easy to find later.
Maybe this is obvious to everyone else.
One of the most disconcerting things that the group experienced is sometimes known as ‘The Fog’. It’s the murky place you might find yourself in as you complete your research phase. You bring together your notes and start to wonder if any of it makes any sense.
It’s marks the point of maximum divergence. The notion of divergence is sometimes expressed as a Double Diamond or a graph line. They both point to the process of exploring and looking outward, at first it’s fun – but after a while it gets a little uncomfortable.
This is the fog.
You can’t avoid the fog, and nor should you. It’s a natural part of the creative process, the best thing is to recognise it. You might even come to love and embrace the fog. But only if you have a clear path forward.
The next step will be to synthesise your ideas, it begins with downloading – you can read more about that here:
At IDEO we’re putting high resolution prototypes out in the real world to test ideas and design with real people in real situations.
In other words, we’re shipping product. Invoking the methodologies of a startup we can put our designs out in the wild and see how they respond under every day use.
This is great because it means we can move far more quickly than our clients could. We launch is days not months.
But when you ship product – even if it’s secretly a high resolution prototype – you start encountering other issues.
Features = barriers to use
Every single feature you put into an app becomes a barrier to use.
This should feel humbling/frustrating/counterintuitive to every interaction designer that reads this post. But every time you add functionality to a service you complicate it and force your users to make decisions. These decisions are, in part, evaluations of the service as a whole.
Do I really want to store my photos on this website? Do I really trust these guys to deliver on time? Do I really want to play this free game?
Questions your users are asking right now
The only reason Google is where it is today is because they stripped everything away from the experience and basically launched an MVP. There was zero friction from their interface, they got out of the way and before you realised you’d arrived on their site you’d already interacted and got value from them. And they still do the same today.
include only the features that people need to accomplish their goals
Google’s advice to developers
This problem is best highlighted by an innocuous feature we added to the app we’re building at the moment. We thought it would be useful to have the app capture a photo of each user. We could add it to their profile and it would help us track people and the data we’re building with.
But adding a photo is a hurdle. And a big one at that. People didn’t want to add one. And bear in mind that we’re paying our participants to be in our trial – so we have some licence to ask them to do certain things. But it forced people to stop and evaluate.
Worse for us, an incomplete sign up profile meant no data being captured and no design iteration happening.
When building new experiences, especially the crucial interactions around sign up and on boarding, make sure you have as little standing between you user and the core experience you want them to get to.
Every feature you add will cost you users and reduce your growth rate. Even if you think the feature is cool/nice/important think twice about it’s relevance and if it blocks your users from getting to the heart of your product.
Every feature you add is a hurdle for your next new user.
As ever, a thoughtful piece of design from BERG has kicked off some interesting analysis and writing by the design community.
Sitting in a more useful corner of ‘the smart home’, their Cloudwash washing machine concept/prototype is an interesting instantiation of a ‘mod cons’ becoming connected.
While most of the chatter has focused on the choice of device and what it says about men (and don’t get me wrong I think this is a tremendously interesting area of discussion, go and read Rachel Coldicutt’s post) the thing that really caught my attention was the roll of a single function button.
Single Function Buttons
In an era of touch screens the presence of buttons becomes more noticeable. The iPhone’s mute button; the turn page button on a nook ebook reader; the Nest’s dial control.
What do they have in common? They all represent such a fundamentally important control for the device that they get their own button. (Incidentally, I don’t include on/off buttons in this group – I’m focussing on the functionality once the device is on.)
These buttons also allow for more tactile interaction, a learnable physical behaviour. In the case of the iPhone it’s easy to switch mute on and off without even taking your phone from your pocket. On the nook my gaze never leaves the page. Click.
On BERG’s washing machine the button that is given its own sole function is the notification override. It makes a lot if sense: notifications are both very useful, yet have the potential to become a big annoyance.
Buttons for Interaction Designers
The consideration of physical buttons by interaction designers is more important now than ever before, as touch screens have become the most pervasive format (perhaps even the default format) in such a short period it’s easy to forget the point of difference that a physical button brings.
What functionality deserves a button? What type of button is best? What is the button’s default state? What does it sound like? How does it feel?
From an accessibility perspective physical buttons are also tremendously important. The reason that you don’t get touchscreen ATMs? They’d be tough to use by those with limited vision. Equally those with restricted dexterity may also benefit from something more tactile and forgiving than a capacitive iPhone screen.
A final thought on the roll of buttons from the new product developer at BERG (and recently Luckybite), Durrell Bishop.
The marble phone is an investigation into an entirely physical interface to an answer phone. Each new message is stored on a marble which rolls out onto the top of the machine when a message is left. You then listen to the message by placing the marble on the playback cup.
It’s easy to see at a glance if you have messages without a little flashing light (or notification). In fact it allows the technology to manifest as a piece of sculpture.
No buttons, no screen.
Worth thinking about when you next start designing the interactions or interface, on screen or with buttons.
In the last few weeks we’ve been experimenting with domestic sensors – the first wave of commercial products in the Smart Home area of consumer electronics. As part of our research i’ve been immersed in a world where my plants send me emails and the occasional push notification warns when CO2 levels rise above 1000ppm in our studio (whatever that means).
Admittedly it’s been a slightly contrived situation; with half a dozen devices all running in close proximity, and mainly in the office rather than at home. But even having said that there have been some interesting findings and I thought i’d share them here for future reference.
Emerging principles and questions
1. Simplest Setup imaginable
Most of the systems and sensors i’ve played with are designed to make use of your home wifi network, this means that you need to grant them access to your router and give them permission to use your Internet connection. On the surface this seems fairly straightforward but when you have to run through half a dozen steps – including disconnecting and reconnecting to your network, downloading apps and optimal sensor positioning, you quickly see how prohibitive it will be to those less technically competent and patient.
Some of the smarter systems let you pair your devices using QR codes as a shortcut (this is actually a pretty good use of the format), or some other method that doesn’t involve lots of smartphone typing, but the reality is that unless your new system is pre-paired it’s a fairly awkward series of stages to go through. One exception is a system that promises to work straight out of the box; it uses bluetooth and cellular 2G data rather than wifi for it’s connectivity, but even thi solution comes with its own limitations.
Questions for designers: how long does the new systems take to get up and running? Will I need a smart phone to set it up? How much fun is the set up procedure? How technically confident will I need to be to install it?
2. Meet one need
As with many technology driven solutions, there is a desire to pack many features into new products. More features = more functionality, right? Wrong. And doubly wrong in this world of new technology; these new products can be overwhelming enough by themselves, multi-functioning open ended systems are even more complex and require a lot of learning by the user.
We could take a hint from the ‘App’ world here and make sure we are focusing on solving one problem at a time. It seems like there’s a clear analogy here between so called Modern Conveniences or ‘mod cons‘ of the 40s and 50s (the first wave of home technology products), each did one job and it was easy to grasp what the benefits would be — a washing machine washed clothes, a toaster toasted bread — meeting one need at a time is crucial to new users’ understanding and adoption these new systems.
Questions: how would you explain your new system to a 5 year old/85 year old? What current need are you meeting? How many functions does the product have? Is that too many?
3. Give actionable insights
It’s common for these new sensing devices to feedback information about their environment, but very few of them go a step further and suggest what the user should do with the information. One environmental sensor we experimented with was able to show the CO2 levels in the room, not only that, it sent a warning message as the level went past 1000ppm. But what does that mean? Is it high? Is it dangerous? Later it would send another warning message when the level had passed 2000ppm. Was this serious? Should we evacuate?
Turning raw data into useful information is only one part of the process, the crucial step further tells the user that 1000ppm is too high and that opening a window or door might be a good idea. If this is done well the user will learn much more quickly what the new sensor data actually means.
Questions: what should your user do with the data your system provides? How important or serious is this data? How should/could the user respond to this data?
4. Fail very gracefully
Most of the sensors out there today are reliant on other technology to function, typically this means joining your home wifi network and often connecting to the internet through it. It’s a certainty that at somepoint these other systems will fail – the question is how the new sensor product handles this failure. These systems must be designed for the imperfect world they will go into, when something goes wrong how much of the full functionality can you still provide? And when things do go wrong don’t bombard the user with error and warning messages. (For a seven days after I removed the sensor, one of my plant pots was still emailing me demanding more water).
It does rasie the question of how error messages could become more ambient; just because i’ve given something the power to send me push notifications doesn’t mean i want to hear from it every hour.
Questions: how much of the system can keep running during a break in connectivity? Does it really need to connect to the internet? When things start to go wrong, how much can the system hide from the user?
5. Manage sensor fatigue
In the coming years we are going to invite dozens of self aware devices into our homes, and they will each have a voice to express their needs, observations and concerns. It’s going to be a hectic place to live if each of these new systems isn’t aware of the current ‘noise’ levels of their new homes. Systems should at least be conscious of this, if not actively able to adjust to better ‘fit in’.
I have an oven at home with an alarm clock that I never got round to programming, occasionally i’ll accidentally nudge into it and then it’ll beep at me. So i turn it off. In a house with 10 things that might all start beeping at me the quietest devices will probably remain switched on for longest. A reversal of the old addage that “the wheel that squeaks loudest gets the oil”.
But there is a counter concern that if these systems do too much by themselves that eventually people will become numb to the things that affect their environments: don’t fiddle with the complex air conditioning system for 5 minutes, just open the window.
Questions for designers: how many other systems will your new one be functioning alongside? How much extra stress do you load onto the user in the management of the new system? How will the new system be welocmed into a household?
Finally, this is a personal plee to keep some of the fun in these new systems. It’s all too easy to celebrate the technology and the amazing data that it can produce, but something that makes me smile will earn it’s place in my home. Apple does this very well, even if it does get carried away with it sometimes.
Questions for designers: is there an opportunity for a bit of fun? Will it make me smile?
I hope some of this might be useful to designers working in this field, there certainly needs to be a dialogue about what we feel is right and wrong in this new world. I’d love to know what people think.