This is the title of a 2014 post by Inventor Sun Tianqi. In the post he asks the question: What if plants had more control over their behavior? He explores answers to this question in his robotoc and AI work. Hexa robot pictured above. See it in action here
The Internet of Things (IoT) is a category of products and systems that use computation and web connection. It’s a tough category to describe because computation and web connection enable so many different things. One thing is for sure, these aren’t the products of the 20th century. They are something new. And they behave differently. Whereas many products of the 20th century were stand alone and kind of static, 21st-century products work in systems and get smarter over time. Here are a few forms that you might see or imagine:
SOCIAL. Some IoT systems allow you to coordinate tasks with other people. Uber is essentially an IoT system: it allows drivers and people who need rides to coordinate their goals. Another social IoT system that does this is FitBit. They have a “challenge” feature that allows you to set competitive goals with the FitBit community.
GEO-SPATIAL. For some IoT systems, location really matters. If you are tracking air pollution with on-the-ground sensors, for example, you are going to want to see that data on a map. Autonomous vehicles need to sense and respond to geospatial data too.
HUB and SPOKE. Not every single object needs full computing power on board. That would be a waste of money and energy. Some systems work better in a hub and spoke model. Philips hue, for example, has a hub that communicates with multiple light bulbs throughout a home. Yesterday my students imagined a cattle tracking system that had a light sensor device on each animal, and that data from those sensors would be gathered by a mobile hub (a drone).
BIO-SENSING. We have sensors that can sense and track living things. Fitbit, mentioned above, is one. Other systems for human patients or herds of animals are emerging and enabling easier, and more effective tracking of vitals. “I’ve fallen and I can’t get up” wearables ought to be IoT enabled by now, yes?
SENSE and RESPOND. Mentioned above with autonomous vehicles, some systems not only gather data through sensing but enable the system to act on that data in real time. You could imagine a hydroponic farming system that can sense the temperature of the system and actuate heating and cooling as needed. If only the HVAC systems in office buildings worked as well!
Designing for individuals is a deeply rooted practice in our culture. When Keeping up with the Joneses is a major concern for customers, designers and advertisers exploit that. And while it’s certainly necessary for some products, it should no longer be the default.
Media theorist Douglass Rushkoff tells an interesting story about urban vs suburban design. When he was a kid growing up in the Bronx, folks in the neighborhood would gather on the street every Friday evening for a bbq and a block party. Each person would bring a dish or something for the grill. They’d bring music or games and it was a great time. But when his folks moved the family out to Long Island, no more block parties. Each house had a fenced-in yard equipped with its very own bbq cooker.
“Design for individuals” influences how we connect with one another. For example, I have a newish car with a real-time average MPG gauge on my dashboard. I track it and lighten my foot on the gas pedal to burn less fuel. It’s kind of fun, like a video game. But the driver behind me has no idea what I’m doing. They think I’m just driving slow and they are annoyed with me. But what if the design of my MPG gauge weren’t for my eyes only, but for the cars and drivers around me (displayed on my rear window or something). Then they’d be in the game too. The could use my gauge to burn less fuel in their cars. This public visualization of real-time behavior would help us work toward a common goal.
More consumer technology should be designed for community. More design should help people engage in, and get feedback on, collective positive impact. We have the technology. Let’s use it to its full potential.
90% of new products fail. They fail because the team that designed the product paid more attention to their product and features and their own motivations than they did to their customers’ problems and worldview.
Take for instance that little voice-activated robot in my kitchen (Amazon Alexa). It’s crystal clear to me that the Alexa product team is much more focused on making shopping on Amazon easy for me than they are with my actual needs in the kitchen. It’s early days so I’m somewhat forgiving, but in the moment when I really need a reminder of how to make miso dressing, I get pissed off. Each time I have to put down my knife, wash and dry my hands, and walk over to my phone or laptop to get a recipe using my wet fingers, I just cringe. Alexa, why do you hate me?
I’m tired of orienting my computing toward a screen. I want to search the internet for recipes while I’m cooking and my voice-activated robot doesn’t accommodate that well. I want to write while I am taking a walk or in the shower–the best ideas come at those times. I want to watch a movie while stretching or lying flat on my back. I want to help my partner figure out how to do something online without having to look over his shoulder at his screen which is way too small for me to see clearly anyway. I’m ready.
UX is commonly understood as the web or app piece of your product or service. Also thought of as interface design. Most often it’s handled by the token designer on a team and understood in terms of cool visuals and animations. But this understanding of UX is too small.
Then there is UX, the entire user experience that your customers have with your product. That experience may start with an ad, a sales call, a word of mouth recommendation. Then, if you are lucky, that’s followed by customer buy-in and a registration or setup process. After that is the experience your customer has with your product over time. Does your product get to know your customer and adapt its behavior to better meet their needs? Does it give your customer the kind of feedback that they need? Does it inspire your customer to level up if leveling up is part of your business model?
These questions help us understand UX at a high level. It’s rare that the lone junior designer on your team will even know to ask these questions. But if you examine these questions with a small team on a regular basis, then your designer is well positioned to give you a range of potential solutions.
If you design, build, and ship consumer tech, run don’t walk to pick up a copy of Sarah Wachter-Boettcher’s book Technically Wrong: Sexist Apps, Biased Algorithms, and Other Threats of Toxic Tech. In the book, Wachter-Boettcher points out dozens of examples of tech-development-gone-wrong and offers tips and insights on making it right. One rule right out of the gate: Resist the urge to “design for average.” Instead, take inspiration from extreme use cases!
Another rule, kind of an overarching one in the book: Hire and support women developers. Diverse dev teams will not only help your company avoid embarrassing mistakes, but they will make your products super better!
Melanie Shapiro is the CEO and co-founder of a wearable identity system, Token. Shapiro holds a PhD in Consumer Behavior from the University of Reading, sold her first tech company, Digsby, in 2010, and has spent time as a researcher for Microsoft.
In this video, Shapiro spends a glorious eight minutes talking about her product at a high-level, “We are trying to give people control of their identity and we start by eliminating all of the things that you have to carry around to prove who you are.”
She’s talking about the social and human behavior that her design team is responding to (the problem space) and not the technological features that her team is building (the solution space). Shapiro offers us some history,
“When we were living in villages, our society was only as big as the 150 people around us. People knew us by our personhood…and that was enough. Complexity was added when that society grew to be a global society and suddenly I need to prove who I am to someone that is all the way on the other side of the world and that person has no history with me. How do we create that sense of trust?”
And then goes on to critique the centralized and siloed structure of our current solutions for creating trust. It’s an insightful and articulate critique.
It’s such a pleasure to watch a tech video that isn’t focused on features but rather on human behavior, culture, and society. And I appreciate a smart device team that thinks beyond the screen and beyond siloed solutions as the Token team is doing. The tech world needs more of this.
TAKE IT FURTHER
You can read more about Shapiro’s human-centered approach on the Token blog
The designer’s role on a product team is to be an advocate for the user of the product or system that’s being developed. This advocacy starts with empathy–understanding the user’s values, behaviors, environment, problems and so on. This empathy and understanding then manifests itself in the product as usability and delight–designs that are not only easy to use but that inspire joy.
Designers might find the periodic table of enchantment above by David Rose particularly useful and joyous. It organizes product categories not by industry sector or manufacturing process, but by the human desires that they address. The six categories that Rose calls out are: the desire to be omniscient, to be telepathic, the desire to be safe, to live forever, to transport from one place to another, and the desire to be expressive.
When you think about your product in this way, you think less about your team’s technical capabilities and more about helping your users and customers become the superheroes that they so long to be. It’s an excellent perspective from which to design.