So, Erik, most shows do predictions for the coming year. When we reach the end of one year, we look for it and say, “What’s going to happen in 2014.” At The Digital Life, we can’t just do that. We need to do predictions for, let’s say, the coming decade because we just can’t contain ourselves with our excitement over designing for emerging technologies.
In all seriousness, there is these coming waves of technology that we’re seeing on the horizon are going to be critical to have design input into them, and that’s what we’re going to touch on a little bit today. The three main areas we’re going to talk about that desperately need design help are the internet of things, or you can call it the programmable world, or ubiquitous computing, or sensor-driven connected environments … whatever you want to call internet of things. I guess we’ll default to that. Then a very exciting startup technology is around genomics and synthetic biology, and finally we’ll talk a little bit about the coming waves of robotics technology and the sorts of things that designers might want to look for, too, and get involved in.
Let’s start with the internet of things and talk a little bit about that, because I think that’s probably the … not the more mature of these technologies, but at least one that is directly connected and familiar for folks who might be doing user experience for software, say, because it has that digital component to it; but it’s this bridge between the digital and the physical, which makes it … there’s a lot of differences as well.
Erik, I know you’ve done some initial projects in this space with Scott Sullivan over at the Invo Columbus studio. What are your initial impressions about designing for the internet of things, and what do you think people need to pay attention to as they start to dig into that aspect?
It’s definitely something that we’re playing around with. I think, as you mentioned, it’s probably the most … I don’t know if mature is the word I would use, but it’s getting the most coverage in popular media, and so people are typically more exposed to it. We’ve been playing around some of this stuff on some projects and some side projects here at the studio, and I’ve also given some talks about, “What does it mean for user-experience designers to play with emerging technologies, and how is that different than what we’re doing on our day-to-day jobs now … in traditional digital media.
I think I see … there’s a couple patterns that we start to see, and one of these that I think is important is when we start to talk … there’s a quote by Bill Buxton where he essentially says, “Each new device should reduce the complexity of the system and increase the value of everything else in the ecosystem.”
I think what we’re seeing now with this internet of things stuff is that each of these experiments into this connected environment, and these connected worlds, they’re trying to reduce the complexity, maybe, or a one-off problem, but they’re not really increasing the value of everything else in the ecosystem.
We’ve been playing around with those connected watches, the Pebble, at the studio. I used it for a couple days, and it helped me in some situations to be a little more casual if I was out in social situations and my phone would ring, or I’d get an email or a text message or something; but overwhelmingly, I felt like it was just one more device for me to manage.
I think we start to see this things, these experiments that are coming up, and they might be good, they might help solve a problem; but I think we’re still forcing … as designers and as technologists, we’re still forcing our end users … people … to manage infrastructure, having to manage the things that they shouldn’t think about. It still doesn’t work seamlessly with all contexts, so it’s going to work in a very limited range of context and then it’s going to fall apart.
I think that’s a pattern that we’re seeing across all these different internet of things and connected devices. They’re designed for a path, if you will. If we reflect back to the conversation that we had with Stephen Anderson around designing for understanding and this idea that he’s playing with around designing sandboxes instead of designing for paths. I think that we’re still very much in that state of designing for paths when we’re talking about the internet of things, so I think this is something we have to move beyond.
It’s good to have all these experiments. We have to be doing these things to learn, but ultimately we have to recognize that these are just experiments, and these are just prototypes. Even though they’re being put out there in the world as products, they’re still very much prototypes and very much explorations, and not necessarily the final solution or vision of the future.
I think that’s important, that we recognize that these are experiments. We also, as designers, have a vision for the future … what do we think the future should be? … so that we’re not just playing around, but we’re playing around with a purpose. We’re trying to make the world something that it isn’t today, and we have a vision for where we want to move forward.
I think that’s another thing that we see when we start playing around with these connected environments, is that there are a lot of unintended consequences that happen, and things you just can’t think of until you start to actually build this stuff, and make this stuff, and play around with it.
Have a vision of where you want to go as a designer of what the world looks like, but also be open and understand that these things that we’re doing today in this space are really just experiments; so play around with them, but be ready to throw it away and evolve the concept, and evolve the idea, and evolve the products.
I agree with that sentiment, and I think … in my mind, as a consumer of products that are immature, I think of this as the tyranny of the bell curve, of the adoption bell curve. If you’re an early adopter, you get to play with the cool new stuff which ends up being complete garbage very shortly. An example of this in my own life is the Rio MP3 player I purchased, I want to say in like 2001, before the iPod, before any economies of scale. I got 16 MB of memory to house my songs on. Do you know how many songs you can fit on 16 MB of memory? I think I could get four, and I thought that was the bomb because I had a very specific reason for having it.
It was the same size as the iPod. I think it was called the Rio Diamond player, so I shelled out $250 for that only to see a few years later Apple comes out with these multi-gigabyte iPods where people are putting their whole music collections on them, and I’m like, “Oh, my God, I funded that research and development,” somehow by buying this early product that was a completely crappy experience and was difficult to get music onto and off of. It was a complete mess. But because of this research and development need, these … you call them the prototype products … no one wants to sell them to you that way, but that’s what they are. That’s the hard truth about being an early adopter as opposed to being in the middle of that bell curve where economies of scale make things cheaper.
Another piece of that is … and we’ve had this discussion before about the needs for economies of scale and all of those elements that companies and designers aren’t necessarily ready for. We’ve talked about how durability is not really built into some of these early internet of things … consumer products, anyway. They’ve been tested as consumer electronics, but what they really are is infrastructure for your life, so they’re more like shoes than they are like a computer. You beat on your shoes. You wear them every day. You tear them up.
A classic example was the Jawbone UP where it was just getting busted left and right, and people thought it was a crappy product because they didn’t have the opportunity to rigorously test it before they launched it, and people beat it up because it was a piece of clothing. It was with them all the time.
Those are the problem and challenges that we run into as we’re getting the internet of things off the ground, and that’s just on the consumers’ side. On the industrial side, there are a host of concerns as well, definitely something worth paying attention, from analytics for traffic to sensors in your beer-brewing vats, like if you’re a microbrewery, to sensors on the production line.
The internet of things is of tremendous importance in 2014. I’m not going to say that that’s going to be the year where it breaks out, because I have a feeling that people already have the media saturation point of a breakout year for the internet of things; but it’s going to increasingly become important for us, as designers, to pay attention to.
I think that’s right. I think that we’re also seeing an interesting split. You’re describing these products that are getting worn, so wearable computers like the UP and many of the other ones. They were essentially designed as consumer electronics but are being worn as essentially a piece of infrastructure, and they weren’t designed with that amount of durability. Even within the consumer realm, we start to see this shift between designing for fashion and designing for infrastructure, and that doesn’t even take into account when we actually start talking about the industrial internet, or these massive components that actually are in what we traditionally think of as infrastructure.
I think we’re going to start to see a shift or a divide between designers that continue to play in the space of what I’ll call fashions, things are changing, things that it’s okay if it’s not durable, whether it’s just a website or whether it’s something else that doesn’t necessarily need to last because the lifespan is expected to flip in a year or two; versus people that are now designing products that need to be much more durable. I think we’re going to see those things not just designed by technologists but more and more designers involved in those industrial-level products, even at the consumer level.
I love that. That is spot on, Erik. Paying attention to the internet of things, our next emerging technology that is going to be important in 2014 and beyond … we’re going to talk a little bit about genomics and synthetic biology.
Maybe I’ve told this story before, and bear with me if you’ve heard it, Erik. When I was just out of college, a buddy of mine was working for a company that was creating biodegradable plastic that was created by essentially … we call them the “little bugs,” so little … I’m not sure it was E. coli or what the strain of bacteria was, but they had gone and reprogrammed these guys to spit out biodegradable plastic. A decade later, these plastics that were created by these bacteria, they’re in products that you can purchase now from plastic cups to plastic forks and spoons and all those things that you normally toss away are now not going to sit in a landfill for a thousand years but, rather, return to the earth.
Because my friend was working in this lab … it was just a startup in Kendall Square, and we’d go in at night, at 2 in the morning, and you’d go check on these vats of these bacteria producing the plastic. He was basically the brew master. He’d have to go in and do these periodic checks.
That was my first exposure to synthetic biology, and it’s really coming to the fore now as a technology for production, a technology that could help with everything from environmental problems from biodegradable plastic to energy problems. Synth-bio techniques are being used to generate fuel, for instance, at some startup companies.
It’s an interesting problem set for those of us designers who are not as technical or oriented towards the sciences. How do we get involved in these very early stages of something like synthetic biology?
As we’re digging into this field, you realize that there is a product lifecycle for the creation of synthetic biology products. This is the design of nature that we’re talking about, and while the complexities of it I don’t want to underplay, the sheer amount of complexity that goes into this, but there’s an aspect of it which is essentially product lifecycle management, the same types of approaches that you might use to designing a very complicated computer, say a laptop, can be applied to some of these synthetic biology processes.
Over at my alma mater, Boston University, they’re creating some of this software infrastructure to help the synthetic biology labs generate projects where they can reuse processes, they can have a library of synth-bio patterns that they can use to create new things, and that knowledge, the knowledge of complex systems, from a user experience standpoint, suddenly becomes very important.
In the challenge of looking at technologies and understanding that, as designers, we’re not going to understand everything that we need to understand immediately about the science, I think it’s working keeping in mind that our knowledge of workflow, user experience and process can be extremely valuable. I guess my call to arms would be, “Don’t be shy. Don’t be afraid to get into the technical deep end with a project that might require some hard science,” because ultimately I think user experience designers have something very valuable to bring to the table, whether it be around process or at the end stage, the human relationship to these technologies. I think there’s a lot of value to be brought there as well.
I think that’s really interesting, and I think that shouldn’t be played down at all. This idea of designers … there’s opportunities in a lot of these places that you wouldn’t normally think designers could play. You need to be open to learning about technology and picking up some new skills, but you don’t have to do it all on your own. I think we’re going to see more and more of these … it’s going to be collaborations between designers and technologists and bench scientists. You need to play your part, but you need to know enough to be able to be literate in the bench science, or in the technology, so you can talk to each other.
This isn’t really that new a phenomenon. Ten, fifteen years ago, when I was going research on scientific collaboration, we saw the same sort of thing, where these huge government-funded scientific collaborations around scientific tools, or scientific datasets. You’d have a set of bench scientists that were doing the actual science work, and you’d have a group of computer scientists that were creating the infrastructure to manage all the data, and they had their own roles to play but they had to know enough about the other person to really collaborate cleanly and to make a product together that was worthwhile.
I think there’s more and more of these opportunities coming up for designers to get involved and play in synth-bio and other things, which is really pretty exciting.
We’re lucky in Boston in that we have both Harvard University and Boston University, which have some pretty significant genomics and synthetic biology labs. That’s technology number two to pay attention to in 2014 and beyond.
Before you on to the next one, there’s an interesting pattern, I think, both in the genomics and the synth-bio and the internet of things which is this idea of the UI design, moving off-screen.
In a recent talk I gave I had the quote that, “The algorithm is the new UI,” and I think we’re starting to see a lot of the design work that we’re doing comes down to figuring out what’s the algorithm and how does the algorithm work? How does that impact all of the interactions that are taking place between the person and the system that has nothing to do with the screen?
Whether it’s the algorithm or whether it’s off-screen interactions in an environment, figuring out how does someone engage with the synth-bio things or genomics, and how does that relate to the humanness of it all? I think that we’re just seeing more and more, as designers, moving into designing algorithms as opposed to designing pixels on a UI, which I think is pretty exciting.
I think that, in some ways, that is the new practice; but in another way, that is really applying a level of design thinking in a way that designers always have. At the beginnings of the industrial revolution, you had completely technology-driven elements that eventually industrial design found its way in. You can make the same argument for graphic design related to the print industry, and ultimately user experience design and the software industry.
It’s this human-centered thinking, human-centered process, acting as that bridge to the technology, itself. I think that’s always been design’s role, and it’s always been the role of the designer to advocate for the human being interfacing with the technology, whether that be onscreen, which we’re … currently that’s our obsession, but that, too, shall pass; or these new technologies that are coming in waves. Great point, Erik.
The last technology we’re going to talk about in this episode, certainly not the total scope of emerging technologies for 2014 and beyond, but robotics at this point is becoming more and more important to just about every industry you can think of, from healthcare … a remote healthcare can be handled by robots, if you can believe that … to the military. There is nothing but news about the US drones and bomb-defusing robots and things like that, to industry, and even to the home where you’ve got your domestic robotic industry starting to take off, a fine example of that being the Roomba line of cleaners from iRobot.
I think it’s probably worth discussing a little bit how this technology relates to human beings and the work that humans do in manufacturing, in any of these industries that are going to be largely affected by this technology. I think there’s this innate fear that comes with change where, if you’re a line worker in a factory, you say, “Hey, what’s my role going to be, because I’ve been going this one thing and then all of a sudden here is a mechanized robot that can do some of the things that I did, but certainly not all of them.” There’s this fear that you’re going to lose jobs, that people are going to get displaced, and there is going to be this pressure. What will people do?
I can really sense that, and my hope is that it becomes clear that human beings are going to move on to positions and work that are adding more value to the chain rather than disappearing from that chain of production.
Rethink Robotics, for instance, has a collaborative robot that learns by doing. The human being shows it what to do, and then the robot can mimic those movements. In that example, the human being is providing the “training” for the robot.
My general feeling is that humans will always be part of this chain of production and will just move up the ladder, while the more difficult or dirty jobs can be assigned to robots. What’s your take on that, Erik?
I think what you’re saying is right. It’s an extension of what we have been saying as designers in the digital world for the last 10 or 15 years, “Take things that computers do really well and allow computers to do that, and then allow the humans to do what they do in terms of interpretation and synthesis and that type of thing. Let humans do that, but take the offloading of memory and cognition that computers can do really well, like calculations and things, and let the computers handle that stuff.”
I think we’re just seeing the same sort of argument, the same kind of pattern, extend into robotics. What can robots do really well? They can do manual labor that is precise and consistent and repetitive. Over time they can do those things over and over again without getting tired and all these types of things like that that humans aren’t as great at doing. You start to see the robots taking over that type of space.
I think it’s going to be interesting to see, and I think it’s going to require people being adaptive and open to new things. I think there also needs to be an infrastructure in place in terms of policies and how do we treat people. We can’t just expect people to bounce back if their job was taken because a robot can do it now. We have to have, I think, some transition for those people. How do we move those people from one thing to another and just say, “Okay, you’re out of a job, and now you need to be resilient as a person and just figure it out.” I think, if we’re going to push in this new ear of robotics in popular culture, I think we also need to shepherd that through and take care of the people that it’s displacing.
I think, in that aspect, one of the design challenges, then, that would come from this is designing change management, designing a system that can enable this transformation from what you’re doing currently to this higher-level position.
There’s this very nice relative story for the industrial revolution when folks moved from an agrarian society to a more industrialized society, and moved to the cities and then ended up doing something entire different from farming. Now they were working in factories.
There’s that transition taking place, and of course, we know that, in the industrial revolution, it was extremely difficult and that transition point was horrible for a lot of folks. Having that historical data to work with, we can see where this next wave of technology might be affecting people in a negative way and anticipate some of that. I think that falls within a problem set that is worth applying some design thinking to, as you just articulated, Erik.
If we think about it in the concept of pace layering, the layers of, say, infrastructure, governance, and culture, when we start to talk about bringing robotics into taking over these activities, we’re talking about injecting them into these layers of infrastructure; and when that starts to then rub against these layers of governance and culture, you start to have problems. There’s disconnects between those layers, and they have to catch up.
That’s why I think it’s going to be crucial that the governance layer, the setting policies around, “How do we do the change management?” is going to be crucial to having it successfully adopted as a cultural norm, that robotics can fit into our lives.
Yeah, I totally agree. Those are our three technologies to pay attention to in 2014 and beyond: internet of things, genomics/synthetic biology, and robotics. If you’re interested in learning about some of the business and economic impacts of these technologies, there is a McKinsey Global Institute report which I believe is still available for free. It’s called, “Disruptive Technologies: Advances that will Transform Life, Business, and the Global Economy,”
and we’ll put that link on the website and maybe Tweet that out as well so you can have a look at that. That, from an economic perspective, shows you the magnitude of some of this technological change to come.
Of course, in 2014, you can keep an eye out for Designing for Emerging Technologies, which is going to be published by O’Reilly Publishing and will feature work from myself and from Erik as well. We’re very excited about that book coming. Even though it’s a lot of work to put together a book, it’s a lot of fun, too.
Finally, if you’re interested in continuing this conversation with myself and Erik, we invite you to come by Involution Studios in Boston or our Columbus location. We have open office hours every Thursday from 4 PM to 6 PM Erik, why don’t you talk a little bit about that and how that open office hours has evolved.
I’m really excited about this. It’s something we’ve been doing now for about a year and a half. We do it every Thursday from 4 PM to 6 PM, and that way there was no ambiguity around, “What week? Is it an on week or an off week?” Really, it’s pretty simple and casual. We open our doors to the public, and anyone can walk through the door. You can make an appointment, let us know ahead of time, or just come in, first-come-first-served basis, and we’ll stop what we’re doing and we’ll talk with you.
We’ve had everyone come in from independent freelance designers that just want some other eyeballs on some work that they’re doing; a lot of startups come in, tech-driven startups that have no design capabilities and they’re like, “This is what we’ve cobbled together. Can you help us evolve it?” We’ve had some people come back over and over again. We give them some feedback and advice, and they’ll go off and work on it for a week or two and then come back and show us their progress, which is pretty exciting to see.
We also have a lot of people that come in wanting UI advice on something that they’re doing, and we’ll start to dig in and really try to understand why they’re doing what they’re doing, just as a business and as an idea. A lot of times, that turns out to refactor their entire startup concept, or at least focus it mostly on one particular thing, and help them identify what the core concept or idea is. Then they go off, and they’ll do some additional work to evolve it.
It’s really fun for us, as designs and technologists, to stop what we’re doing and see all these different ideas come through the door, and allow us to jam on them with people that we otherwise wouldn’t get to work with.
It’s really exciting, and we’ll continue to do it indefinitely as a way to get us excited about stuff, but also as a way to give back to the community and help up-level everybody and everyone else’s design skills.
That’s right, Erik. In Columbus you also have some development resources who recently joined the open office hours.
That’s right. One of our technology partners, development partners, Test Double, which is a local studio here in town, have started to join us, just last week at the time of recording, so just in December; again, indefinitely they’ll be here every week with us, so we can offer advice from research to concept to UI design to interaction design to all kinds of development questions around software applications and beyond … service design as well, other types of stuff. Come in with your question. It’s pretty exciting.
That’s right, Erik. Listeners, remember that, while you’re listening to the show, you can follow along with the things we’re mentioning here in real time. Just head over to thedigitalife.com … that’s just one L in the digitalife … and go to the page for this episode. We’ve included links to pretty much everything mentioned by everybody, so it’s a rich information resource to take advantage of while you’re listening to the episode, or afterward if you’re trying to remember something that you liked. If you want to follow us outside of the show, you can follow me on Twitter @jonfollett … that’s j-o-n-f-o-l-l-e-t-t … and of course, the whole show is brought to you by Involution Studios, which you can check out at goinvo.com … that’s g-o-i-n-v-o.com. Erik?
You can follow me on Twitter as well @eadahl, and I’m happy to chat there.
Terrific. That brings us to the conclusion of episode 57 of The Digital Life, and the conclusion of our episodes from 2013. We will see you in 2014.