The internet of things, ubiquitous computing, wearables and context-awareness are just a few of the monikers being applied to the frontier where digital endeavour meets the physical world.
Smart Design coined another term at its October 2014 event in London: the ‘Internet of Why?’. It feels closer than most to accurately describing the way connectivity, data and computing could mediate users’ relationship with the world. Alas, the process of defining terminology apt for a specific moment in time runs the risk of obscuring the wider, timeless goal: good design achieved with the latest tools – be they wearable, embedded or any other form of the Emperor’s New Clothes.
The video Smart Design showed at the start of the event sought to ally user-centred design, the in vogue ‘maker movement’ and wearable devices into a broad opportunity to deliver a better quality of life. It was made with Microsoft and attended by all the breathless visions of the future you’d expect. Amid such unconstrained optimism, there were also some pronouncements that rung true.
Bill Buxton, Microsoft’s principal researcher, sounded the clearest notes amid a cacophony of unlikely futurism. Technology, he reminded us, should only be considered fit for purpose when it feels as seamless and delivers as much unique benefit as a prosthetic limb. That’s as good as a description of what a ‘wearable’ should be as I’ve heard – and it doesn’t sound much like the PDAs-on-a-strap which characterise today’s ‘smartwatch’ market.
A similar note of caution was offered by Alexandra Deschamps-Sonsino (an alumnus of our MEX event), who has more hands-on experience than most of what it really takes to build connected products which fit seamlessly into users’ lives. Her Goodnight Lamp is an elegant product with great promise, but took much longer than she expected to reach the market. She reminded the tribe gathered in the artfully scrappy surroundings of the Wayra incubator that the video sketches of playing with Arduino, heavily featured in the opening video, were a world away from what it takes to build mass market, beautifully crafted connected products.
John Stanger, responsible for product planning and strategy at Ford, provided a moment of clarity when he stated bluntly: we’re scared our business isn’t going to exist in the future. Consider that for a moment: Ford, gone.
That fear has caused Ford to examine everything it took for granted, from the notion that cars are about aspirational, individual ownership to how quickly it can identify, evaluate and act on everything from new technology to potential acquisitions.
Stanger said he knows there is something happening where relatively cheap digital devices are meeting wireless networks. He didn’t seem sure of what yet, but Ford thinks it needs to experiment in these areas. It’s what I’d do if I were at Ford – you’d be a fool not to be evaluating those kind of risks – but I’m not sure it will ultimately prove necessary.
Comments made by the Microsoft panellist, Richard Banks, hinted at why. He recounted how his mum had asked for a digital photo frame for Christmas. Off he’d gone to John Lewis, the acceptable face of British consumerism in the festive season, and duly sought out the photo frame for her, despite his geeky disappointment she was so behind the times. John Lewis, however, no longer sold them. They’d been confirmed as a passing fad by the arbiters of taste in John Lewis’ buying department – a discerning team who have kept the company’s sales ringing happily every Christmas for the last several decades.
He posited that digital photo frames failed not because the technology wasn’t good enough, but because it had taken precedence over the frames themselves. Every time a manufacturer stamped their logo beneath the screen or introduced a flashing LED status light, they detracted from what most customers really wanted: a beautiful frame, just like the ones they knew and loved, which happened to show photos they took on their digital camera.
Perhaps this anecdote holds some lessons for Ford? People will still fall in love with beautiful constructions of glass, metal and leather that allow them to travel at extraordinary speeds, shielded from the wind and the rain. Cars are great. Technology can make them better too: faster, more efficient and easier to use. But the moment that technology obscures what people find beautiful about cars, you’ll start to lose them. Ford may find the biggest potential for disruptive technology is in the simple things, like bringing down the cost of motoring, rather than some new personal mobility initiative that shares your data, ranks your eco-driving and autopilots you to the nearest wellness provider.
The Tesco story is a good example of how powerful that notion of ‘why’ can be in the context of digital experiences. For those specific users, the convenience of easily adding preferred products to a shopping list was a sufficiently compelling ‘why’ justifying the use of their behavioural data, which might otherwise have raised questions of privacy. It highlights the importance of recognising this is not just about designing for a new class of objects, be they smartwatches or thermostats or anything else, but designing for new intersections between users’ physical worlds, virtual identities and the myriad digital touchpoints which mediate those relationships.
The practitioner skill required to successfully navigate these future challenges is an ability to identify where these different modes of user engagement group together in patterns meaningful enough to drive design across different touchpoints. If you can do that, while recognising the limitations of such patterns and where user-specific interventions are needed, you can equip yourself for a world where most products will be designed to exist outside their own confines.