Connecting people with the Internet of Things

This piece first appeared on Women 2.0 / Medium

I’m a classically trained designer. That is to say, most of my design education was based in the Bauhaus tradition which is focused on the visual. I spent endless studio hours doing exercises in color, form, line, shape, mass, balance, and harmony. I value my classical education. It taught me how to see.

When I was in design school, two events occurred in the market that made me question my classical education: the publication of Make Magazine and the announcement of Nike+.

MAKE Magazine launched in 2005. It was and still is the magazine of a growing maker movement — a DIY culture with access to affordable production tools and a community of makers who are generous with their knowledge. With these tools and these communities, people can make just about any product they can buy.

Nike+ was an early example of a commercially successful “Internet of Things” (IoT) product. The Nike+ sneakers had sensors in them that transmitted data to a user’s iPod and uploaded that data to the cloud: what we now know as a “smart fitness tracker.” But what caught my attention back in 2006, what made me pause and say, “There’s something special going on here” was how the product enabled users to form teams and to set and achieve collective goals. Nike+ was more than a pair of sneakers for an individual. It was a dynamic system that helped groups of people help each other.

MAKE Magazine revealed that more people will have access to product design tools and that the role of the designer will shift from “designer as expert” to “designer as facilitator of collaboration”; and the Nike+ system was a commercially successful example of that type of design.

Fast forward ten years: I’ve been helping run an IoT accelerator in Ithaca, NY, mentoring teams of inventors in product development and lean startup method. As we approach our third year running the program, I’ve written a list of design principles for IoT that is inspired by the things our teams often overlook. Some of these principles are formal and some more social. It’s the latter that I’ll share below, principles that are more than color and form. They are principles that foster meaning and connection. Why is this important? Because technology is an effective amplifier, and we need to decide, and then design, what it is we want to amplify.

  1. Longevity and Upgrades. One of the potential benefits of connecting a product to the web — unless wear and tear is an issue — is that it can be maintained with software for years to come. We no longer need planned obsolescence. With the lease or subscription revenue streams that upgradable products afford, we can find sustainable business models.
  2. Local Suppliers, CMs, and Distributed Fabrication. Depending on the size of a production run and other values that are embedded in a product design, we ought to consider working with local suppliers and contract manufacturers (CMs). When we in the IoT accelerator have skyped with Other Machine’s Danielle Applestone, she brags on the economic and social benefits of working with suppliers that she can drive to. MIT’s Anna Waldman-Brown is doing great research on how to make manufacturing decisions based on the goals and values that are embedded in your design. Included in her work are local and global supply chains and distributed fabrication which removes the needs for consolidated production runs altogether. The mainstreaming of distributed manufacturing may be a few decades away, but it’s already happening with furniture.
  3. Size- and Location-Specific Human Networks. The size and location of the human network that a product is designed for should inform the features of the product-system. Some products are designed for small networks of co-located people. Some interesting discussions are taking place on how families interact with Amazon Alexa in their homes. But other product systems, like environmental monitors or smart sneakers, should support larger networks of people that may be geographically dispersed. These systems require features that enable users to create large datasets that can be easily processed, compared, understood, and acted upon.
  4. Analysis of Complex Systems. There’s been a lot of discussion on how products with sensors will generate “big data” and might help us understand complex systems like cities. When we design products that live within these systems, let’s think about how those products can be used to understand urban areas in ways we never have before. What if each product in each apartment had an energy monitor? How might we design features for these products so they generate and analyze data that helps us understand urban energy. We could then pinpoint problem areas, propose changes, and measure the collective impact of those changes. Interoperability is an important feature here, as will be machine learning.

We now have an opportunity to design smart products and systems that connect people in meaningful ways. Let’s seize it.

 

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