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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In Hardware, Usability is Key

Four examples of hardware entrepreneurs and inventors that prioritize usability:

1. Leah Buechley celebrates 10 years of her invention the Lilypad Arduino, an affordable, easy-to-use electronics platform for prototyping wearable technology.

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image via adafruit.com

 

2. Hardware startup Moxxly is acquired to redesign the breast pump experience

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image via designerfund.com

 

3. The Bare Conductive team makes tools that make prototyping electronics easy and fun. Check out their latest project here: bare conductive lamp project on kickstarter

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image via @BareConductive twitter feed

 

4. Heather Kerrick, Senior Research Engineer at Autodesk, explores usability issues for future products and users. Check out this rad interview

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image via adafruit.com

 

Ithaca is a Maker City

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image source: Maker City by Hirshberg & Dougherty

This past weekend I was invited to share stories about my city, Ithaca, NY, on a panel at World Makerfaire in Queens. The panel was moderated by Peter Hirschberg, a well known urban innovator and co-author of the new book Maker City: Urban Manufacturing and Economic Renewal in American Cities. Hirschberg co-wrote the book with founder of Makerfaire and Make Magazine, Dale Dougherty. They wrote it to capture the momentum from the Maker Cities initiative that was issued by The White House in which mayors all over the country, including our very own Svante Myrick, signed an agreement to support maker culture.

But what is a maker culture? And what does it mean for our city? I have my hand in a few parts of Ithaca’s maker culture and admire it’s many other parts. My sense is that Ithaca has a lot of the pieces in place to elevate the spirit of creativity and invention that is already so deeply embedded here. Let me list some of these pieces that are already here to help us connect the dots, starting with organizations that serve youth to ones that support artists, tinkerers, and inventors–and those that support hardware startups and manufacturing.

We have organizations like The Science Center, Ithaca Physics Bus, and Xraise, who are working hard every day to make sure our young people grow up seeing themselves as STEAM innovators. We have a rich tradition of art and hand craft and music (fun fact: the Moog Synthesizer was invented here). We have Ithaca Generator, a high tech community makerspace right in the heart of downtown and Hammerstone School Carpentry for Women. We have higher education, like Cornell, Ithaca College, and TC3, who foster the integration of creative thinking, technology, and problem solving.

We have programs like Challenge Workforce and Fingerlakes Reuse that train people with disabilities or other job challenges to do product packaging and electronics repair. And we have co-working spaces and business incubators like Rev Ithaca that houses a prototyping lab and hardware accelerator. As far as manufacturing goes, we have contract manufacturers like Wicked Device and Incodema 3D that have manufacturing expertise and specialized tooling.

In addition to our rich maker culture, Ithaca is a walkable city with trails along three waterfalls that run through downtown. We have a flourishing local food scene and arts and culture festivals year round.

So yeah, we’re on the Maker Cities map. Creators and inventors, come check us out. And if you already live here and are interested in invention, be sure to appreciate all that we have because the startups or inventors that have succeeded here didn’t do it alone. They were lifted up by the creative community that we have here in Ithaca. It’s a great place to live and create.

This post was originally posted at IthacaGenerator.org

 

How to Run a Process Critique

A process critique is a short meeting in which you present your work-in-progress with the goal of gathering feedback. It’s a tricky thing to navigate because many of us feel more comfortable presenting finished work where we sell every decision we’ve made with confidence. But a process crit requires us to be vulnerable. And that’s not comfortable.

I learn the most when I’m out of my comfort zone. That said,  knowing how to navigate a process critique puts us in a better position for listening and thus getting the most out of the experience.

A process critique has three parts:

  • Presenting the Work
  • Soliciting Feedback
  • Interpreting Feedback

 

PRESENTING THE WORK

  1. The Big Picture. Start off with “the big picture” but keep it short. A one page diagram accompanied by a one sentence description of what you are working on will do the trick.  The big picture provides context and orients the listener.
  2. Tell Us Your Problems. Point out in the big picture diagram one to three problem areas that you’ll focus on for the crit. Focus on only one to three because if you call out too many problems, your listeners will lose you. If you don’t highlight problems, your listeners may not focus on the feedback you want.
  3. Share Your Process. Summarize how you’ve navigated, or engaged in, these problem areas. That is, once you articulate a problem, tell us about your attempts to solve it (and whether you succeeded or not). For example, “Customers weren’t finding this button so we tried making it red, we tried making it bigger…” and so on. This gives your listeners a glimpse into your problem solving process.

 

SOLICITING FEEDBACK

  • Write Everything Down. Write it down. Write it down. Write it down.
  • Ask for Specific Feedback. If you have a problem that you are stumped by, ask for suggestions on how to approach it. If you are unsure about how a part of your project is being perceived, ask for feedback on that part.
  • “I like it” isn’t enough. Don’t  ask the question, “Do you like it?” In the same vein, don’t be satisfied with the response “I like it.” If someones says they like it, ask them to tell you more.
  • Don’t be Defensive. Resist the temptation to defend your work. A Process Critique is an opportunity for you to listen and learn. If someone says something that feels negative, rather than defend your work ask, “Can you say more about that?” Train your ear to find the underlying problem that the speaker is responding to.

 

INTERPRETING  FEEDBACK

  • Perspective Matters. The critics are no longer in the room. Look at your notes and pay attention to who said what. If a piece of feedback came from an expert in a certain area, take note of that. If feedback came from someone who is a target customer or strategic partner, take note of that too.
  • Distinguish Prescriptive from Descriptive. Some of your critics offered you solutions. That’s called prescriptive feedback. It sounded like, “You should do this.” Others offered you their responses to your work: “This piece over here feels unresolved.” That’s called descriptive feedback. They pointed out a problem but didn’t tell you how to solve it. The type of feedback you prefer is a personal choice. Just don’t confuse prescriptive feedback for an action item, because you may be led to consider changes prematurely.
  • Back to Vision. Once you’ve mulled over the feedback, you can decide what to do with it. Now that you’ve received feedback, your job as the designer is to find the sweet spot between your vision and your user’s comfort zone. Too much “vision” and you risk losing your user. Too little vision and you haven’t achieved anything interesting.

 

It’s important to get feedback on your work while you’re creating it. But it’s also important to use that feedback wisely. I hope these guidelines help.

 

Visualizing Air Quality Data

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This semester my Ithaca College students in Make Better Stuff Studio are collaborating with Wicked Device Electronics Co., the makers of Air Quality Egg–an affordable, web-connected air quality sensor made in Ithaca, NY–to design an exhibit for EdTech Day at IC. Make Better Stuff (MBS) Studio is a pilot course in IC’s Department of Environmental Science. In the course, students learn sustainable design principles and design methodology through hands-on projects.

Last week we had one of the egg’s inventors, Vic Aprea, visit our class and help us install an egg in the lab. The students enjoyed meeting Vic and gained a sense for what it takes to get a complex product like the egg up and running and collecting data.

The question I’m asking the students to consider for the exhibit is this: How might we inspire people to engage in air-quality monitoring and activism? The students have been brainstorming, paper-prototyping, and testing creative responses to this question. Their next step is to take their ideas from prototypes to reality. To help them, they will learn to use some new tools: a laser cutter and the arduino.

For laser cutting, we are visiting Elliot Wells, a member of the local makerspace Ithaca Generator, to learn how to create 3D objects with a combination of laser cutting and good old-fashioned wood glueing and clamping. Then next week I’ll introduce the class to arduino and we’ll program color-changing lights. The laser cutter and the arduino are the two dominant tools in a discrete “box of crayons” the students have to work with for the project. These “constraints” will help make the exhibit pieces from each of the six teams display as a cohesive whole. I’m excited to see what they do with these tools and how they respond to the challenge at hand.

AQE in FastCompany

AQE facebook page

Ithaca Generator makerspace

IC EdTech Day

Arduino

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