Designing beyond individual product boundaries

In the future, how a digital product interacts with others will be the most significant factor determining its success. This is the coming generation of Neighbourly Computing.

Designed within individual product boundaries

What we understand today to be connected products actually have quite basic, linear connection profiles. Users connect through a single device to consume content or communicate with others. The flow of bits can be likened to a water pipe, moving from source to a single point of delivery, primarily in one direction. This generation of mobile devices, PCs and TVs is connectable, but is not shaped by connectivity.

The constrained usage pattern influences the design of software and hardware. Greater emphasis is placed on creating an experience which succeeds in isolation than one which is multiplied by the value of its inter-connectivity.

Take display capabilities, for example. Currently, a marketing priority for smartphone manufacturers is the quality of displays. Each strives to ensure devices are equipped with the highest quality screen permitted by form factor limitations and channels all aspects of the experience through the concentrated funnel of a single display.

Thinking neighbourly

The Neighbourly Generation may still have such screens, but will place greater priority on the benefits of connecting with external displays, from large, static, in-home panels to tiny, wrist-mounted notifications. In doing so, Neighbourly Computing devices have the potential to eliminate screen size as the determinant of overall product dimensions and create visual experiences diffused across several display surfaces.

This will be true not just for displays, but for all digital capabilities, from storage and input mechanisms to sensing and sound.

It is tempting to mistake this trend for the buzz around ‘cloud computing’, but to do so does not properly recognise the importance of hardware design and on-board software in successful Neighbourly Computers. The cloud, understood as the ability to abstract function from on-board to remote processing, will be an important enabler of Neighbourly Computing, but should be recognised as having a service role similar to the plumbing and wiring which underpins physical buildings.

The multiplier effect

The most successful Neighbourly Computing products will be those capable of combining with other digital touchpoints to provide experiences greater than the sum of their parts. A basic form can be seen in today’s content replication services. Apple’s ecosystem, for instance, already allows users to access the same videos and music on any of their devices, from Apple TVs to iPhones. A user can buy a video with their PC, start watching it on their iPhone during the evening commute and then finish it on the big screen TV at home.

Neighbourly Computing has greater potential.

Imagine being able to photograph your friend’s bookshelf using an embedded camera in the frame of your eye glasses. The photograph is uploaded in the background using the wireless link of your personal mobile device and, when you return home, the big screen in your living room shows you a selection of videos on topics linked to the books in your friend’s collection.

What if there were projectors embedded in the ceiling of your office, pre-mapped to detect any available blank wall space and capable of turning it into a touchable display on command? Imagine voicing your instructions through a microphone embedded in your lapel, and the latest charts from your tablet are projected on the meeting room wall, where you can manipulate them through physical touch.

These are just hints of a new generation of products made possible and shaped by inter-connectivity.

Evolving design process

There are, however, implications for design process as we move from creating devices where design stops at the boundaries of the product, to digital experiences influenced by every other touchpoint they may connect with. The ramifications will be felt from user research through to information architecture and UI design.

Successful designs will start with one consideration foremost in mind: how might the user experience of an individual product be affected by connectivity.

When conducting user research, this may mean placing more emphasis on understanding the users’ wider connected landscape, in addition to the usual study of how they respond to the specifics of your product. To take an obvious example from an environment such as the car, users’ behaviour may be shaped more by their response to the in-built controls than by any third party digital product they are using on a mobile device.

The UI canvas for a product should be considered across all of the interconnected touchpoints. Staying with the example of the in-car environment, this would mean giving as much consideration to how the car’s integrated displays, speakers and microphones could become a seamless part of the experience as the display of the mobile device.

These implications continue right through to the information building blocks of the experience. Data will need to be structured and stored in an architecture compatible with as many inter-connected touchpoints as possible. Employing widely compatible data structures and cloud services will be essential.

For manufacturers, the considerations of what makes a Neighbourly Computer will extend to physical characteristics. It might be something as simple as evolving the form factor of a phone to make it a more suitable companion device for a tablet. A more complex example might see a manufacturer using signature design elements across a portfolio of products which, when used together, make an overall experience. It is easy to imagine a manufacturer doing something clever with status LEDs on a phone, tablet, home media server and big screen display so that they all worked together when the devices were physically close.

There will be implications outside the digital space too: how will, say, furniture manufacturers respond if wireless charging becomes popular and users exhibit demand for tables and chairs with integrated charging hotspots?

Neighbourly Computing can be understood as both a manifestation of an emerging trend for designers in all industries to create products which thrive on connectivity rather than in isolation, and an enabler of that trend through advances in digital technology.

Those in the business of product design can equip themselves to succeed in this era by:

  1. Orientating design goals in the broadest context of their users’ lives, not the received wisdom of industry verticals.
  2. Recognising sometimes the best way to deliver a capability is to connect with a third party product better equipped for the users’ needs.
  3. Investing in ongoing polymath exploration to better understand other industries and quickly absorb the nuances of new product areas you may be required to connect with.
  4. Looking at every interconnection to create a multiplier effect rather than simply combine two existing capabilities.

These issues are at the heart of MEX Pathway #2, entitled ‘Principles of multiple touch-point design and new, diffuse experiences‘. It is a topic we’ve been looking at for some years now and will again be in focus at the next MEX in London on 26th – 27th March 2013. Some of the questions to be considered include:

  1. How does user research differ when studying behaviour across multiple touchpoints?
  2. How does the psychology of use change with the multiplication of digital touchpoints?
  3. How will multi-touchpoint services evolve beyond simple content replication to deliver experiences greater than the sum of their parts?
  4. To what degree does the cloud both enable and limit good user experience in a multi-touchpoint environment?
  5. Will digital experiences diffuse to the physical fabric of users’ lives? Which tasks performed today on mobile devices could become embedded in architecture and furniture?

I’d love to hear views from anyone working in this area. Feel free to add your comments to the article, get involved at MEX or get in touch by email or by Twitter.

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