Solid Design in the IoT Age
I’m not going to lie to you, this post started off in a whole different direction. It was mid-June and I had just returned from the Solid conference in San Francisco full of piss and vinegar about how the conference was soooo much better the year before (because robots). I couldn’t fathom how the best conference of 2014 had managed to lose its way in only its second year of existence. I knew this fact to be true because my wife said her sales team was now talking about the conference; that surely meant it was the dying days of Disco for Solid. I constantly have to remind myself, however, that bitching about something is a pretty low bar. Instead, I set about shutting my pie hole and focusing on a constructive message around this year’s Solid. And that, kids, is how we got to today’s post, Solid Design in the IoT Age.
Software, Hardware, Everywhere, that’s the tagline of the Solid Conference. You notice it doesn’t say design or UX in there, and that is perfectly OK. Solid conferences are a little bit of everywhere, and remind me of the early-oughts Web 2.0 conferences where designers, developers, and system architects (and some random, misguided marketing folks) were in the same room talking about the potential of the web, arguing the benefits of new technologies, lamenting the Worm of Doom virus, and wondering why Pop Punk was even a thing (curse you Avril Lavigne). Having long been embedded with engineering teams, I tend to seek out these types of cross-functional environments over UX and design conferences, because they provide me, personally, with more inspiration and food for thought. It turns out I’m not alone.
Though not inherently a design conference, I was encouraged by the sheer number of designers in attendance at this year’s Solid. From only a handful the first year to northwards of 100 this year, we represented every sector; from product design people embedded in the likes of GE, Jawbone and Sonos, to design consultants from Adaptive Path, Meta, and Frog (and some jackass from Konrad+King). We were there to push the boundaries of our perspective design fields and discuss designing for the Internet of Things; that thought warmed my belly.
The connected world promised by these Internet of Things is a topic that I seldom stop yammering about. My message is usually the same: we as designers and UX’ers need to move beyond our fascination with and reliance on designing for the web, or even a 3 to 4 screen environment, and start thinking about and designing for a bigger picture. I know quite a few of you are already designing for the connected world but I would like to see more of your smiling faces over here. We need more voices and bigger discussions. Here’s why:
The wealth of design principles and UX best practices we have built up for web and mobile experiences need to be rebooted and reconstructed for the age of IoT.
We are moving away from devices that simply react to our requests and moving towards devices that react and interact with us, with each other, with their location and environment, with the context of the situation, the world around them…with skynet. There is no responsive design for this — nor are we equipped for the IxD and IA challenges we’ll face with that much data over that many devices. Let’s start thinking in that bigger picture; a picture where objects, environments, and systems around us are intertwined with the lives, devices, context, and data of the users we design for.
Matthew Milan, a friend of ours from Toronto’s Normative, summed this up with one of the best quotes of the conference: “The future of design is NOT human-centered.” While this sounds like blasphemy, it is certainly possible. The human is becoming a node in a distributed system. The other nodes collect and process data, and interact with each other, with or without us. Our job as designers is to find the best ways to join with the other nodes in the most meaningful manner, and interact with one or many of these systems in a way that works for both the human and the system – voice, touch, phone app, gesture, or whatever. So…multimodal interactions with distributed systems…are we having these conversations yet?
Well there was a bit of that conversation at Solid so let’s take a look at that. Andy Goldman (Fjord) and the always slightly irascible Tom Coates (Thington) had it out right in front of us with their back-to-back talks Zero UI: The End of the Screen-based Interface and Interacting With a World of Connected Devices, respectively. Let’s say that they agreed to disagree on whether the future of device interaction was having no more interface – the object becomes the interface – or always requiring an interface of some sort. While leaning more toward the former, I am still on the fence on this. On one thing I agree with them completely; our role as designers will change dramatically in the next five years.
The IoT designer will be as conversant in haptic feedback as they are color theory, as knowledgeable about material science as they are cognitive science, and as skilled in system architecture as they are information architecture.
Let me offer you an example of how we could design for the connected world. The Array of Things is one of my favorite IoT projects in the last couple of years (plus it helps wrap up this blog with a pretty little bow). While still a dream, the project plan is “a network of interactive, modular sensor boxes around Chicago collecting real-time data on the city’s environment, infrastructure, and activity for research and public use.” It highlights both the difficulties of fielding connected environments and the kind of connected goodness that can come when, just like Solid, a group of designers, developers, and system architects get together and talk about the potential of technology. While the technology plan is intriguing, integrated environmental monitoring, sensors, and data connection, my favorite part of the project is the proposed physical and digital design. The distributed system is always collecting, monitoring and interacting without us, but pay close attention to how it keeps humans in the loop with just a series of publicly displayed lights that provide information at a glance. Should that interaction peek our interest, we can use our mobile devices to become a node in the system and unpack more information about routes, air quality, pollution, etc.
In conclusion, I am not sure what the future holds for the Solid conference; it may have already nuked the fridge. I’ll use a music analogy. The first year of Solid was like the Pavement, Slanted and Enchanted album, gritty, DIY, rich in content, and influential. Solid this year was like any U2 album of the 21st Century, flashy, corporate, fluffy in content, and ineffectual. In the end, U2 sells more records.
What I am sure of is, whether we like it or not, the connected world is coming, and we as designers should get on board. One of the reasons that the IoT market and many of its products seem more bark than bite is because we as designers aren’t as committed or involved as we should be to making them better. Today, just as with many new technologies, IoT products are being created to fit user needs that never existed; thus the connected toaster becomes the poster child for IoT. This is a problem…but don’t we sound like just the huckleberries to solve that problem?