It's News To Me

Design and UX News: Designing for Ecosystems

November 13, 2014          

Episode Summary

In 1980, Bill Gates famously wanted a computer on every desk and in every home. Now perhaps Microsoft would like a fitness band on every wrist and all your health data in the cloud.

With the release of its Health platform and fitness band into the already crowded fray, Microsoft is(again)staking a claim to your quantified self data, along with competitors Apple and Google. The battle for your body’s health data has just begun.

On another front, the war for your living room is heating up, with Google Play now on Roku and the Amazon Fire TV stick premiering for a mere $19. Perhaps most significantly, even Walmart is getting in the game, with their Vudu spark streaming service.

In this episode of the Digital Life, we discuss the future of design for ecosystems — be it your body, your living room, your car or even your bathroom — as designers begin to consider how digital and physical products come together with the Internet of Things.

Welcome to Episode 77 of The Digital Life, the show about our adventures in the world of design and technology. I’m your host, Jon Follett, and with me is founder and co-host, Dirk Knemeyer.

Hey, Jon. What are we going to chat about this week?

I think there’s a huge … I don’t know if you’d call the ‘Shift’, but maybe in addition to the digital and physical product design that we’ve been seeing in the user experience space, and it’s related to the products that are being created for the Internet of things, the wearables, the on-body devices … all the things that connect to the Internet whether it’s your home speaker system or God forbid your refrigerator. There’s all these devices that are now sending data up to Cloud and back down again, and I’m looking at this as an ecosystem design problem.

I thought today, we could talk about some of the different and major ecosystems that we have in our lives, and how these Internet of Things products are basically starting to invade those spaces additionally along with those products. You’ve got all the accompanying digital companies, whether it’s Google or Microsoft, or Apple that are all of a sudden in very different places in your life. They are no longer simply attached to your phone or to your desktop. They’re in some very different spaces, so I thought we’d dig into that.

Sure. Sure. Did you want to start in a particular spot or do you just want me to jump in with analysis?

I thought it be interesting to start with what I’ll call ‘The war for your living room’, right? This has been going on for a while, but it’s really heating up right now. One thing that we’re going to see a lot of in the holiday season are these little streaming sticks that you plug into your high-def television via an HDMI port, and you can stream whatever movies from whatever service you’d like.

There are countless examples of these new products coming in. I think it’s fascinating that this is like the new fist fight, the new frontier for digital because if you remember in the ’80s, founder of Microsoft, Bill Gates, famously wanted to get a computer on every desk and in every home. Now, all of a sudden, that’s not enough … the big digital giants want to get on to your TV set.

What have your impressions been so far, Dirk, of the invasion of the living and all these streaming devices?

God. I’m embarrassed to admit this, but I’m actually bored by it. You mentioned that it’s been going on for all it has. I mean, I give a speech in 2004 talking about the battle for the living room, right? This is ground that has been battled over and bled over, and rehashed and recycled and …

There was a time when I was breathlessly like, “Oh, wow. Who’s going to win? What’s it going to be?” I want a correct and transformative digital experience in my living room. That’s great, but it’s just not going to happen. It’s totally not going to happen because the companies that are battling for it, and even some of the companies … Some of the companies that are battling for it, and there’s actually many companies, but some of them have such well-established content platforms that totally clash with the other participants.

There’s never going to be that one solution because they aren’t going to play ball together. I had noticed recently the new Amazon product, or maybe it’s not new, maybe it’s just new to me, called ‘Amazon Echo’, and kind of an interesting play for the living room, voice-activated. The idea isn’t like it’s in appendage of the television set or directly the computer, but it’s hanging out and it’s attached to the Cloud, and it’s voice-activated and can just do a lot of interesting things, so at least they advertise it doing interesting things … so just talk and music with what are said to be very good speakers and sound picks u, you can say …

Apparently, you initiate it by saying the word ‘Alexa’, so you say, “Alexa”, and then, “What will the weather be like tomorrow?” That’s great. I mean, I’ve wanted that for a long time. Like one of my pet peeves is that there’s no easy solution for me to wake up, roll over in bed and look at something that says, “Dirk, wear two layers and a light coat today”, right? That’s such an obvious use case that we still don’t have a solution for. Like this is heading down that path and doing some interesting things, but it’s Amazon, and I’m looking at the features and functions, and they don’t come out and say it, but if you read between the lines, it pretty clearly doesn’t integrate well with iTunes.

That wonderful feature of, “Hey”, just say, “Play”, whatever the name of the band is, this song, and then it starts playing. I mean, it’s totally lost because they are competing on content with Apple, and over the last … I don’t know how long it’s been … at least 10 years, maybe closer to 15, I’ve been buying all my music on Apple.

Now, that solution is broken for me. If there would be an Apple solution that was similarly competitive, I’ve bought all of my … or it’s more limited, happily, but what movies and TV shows I’ve bought are all on Amazon. The Apple device wouldn’t get me into that content of mine.

I think that the battle for the living room is just a clusterfuck,I think. You’ve got all of these different platforms with all of these different content owners that don’t align with each other, and so getting that one thing where in the old days, you bought a Sony TV, you picked a brand, you bought the TV, and everything was taken care of. That’s not the case anymore. It would be like the old Sony TV locking out some of the channels on your cable system in the old days, which would have been maddening and crazy, but that’s what we’re dealing with.

The whole battle for the living room, because it’s such a long … the fight’s been going on for so long. Nobody is winning; it’s so protracted. I don’t find it interesting on that front, but then, even more than that, the content ownership is so dispersed, all of these idiots are just trying to get the power grab and get all of the control, so they’re going into it in ways that are entirely not user-friendly, so none of these solutions are going to work for me, so I’m like, “The hell with it!” I stopped caring.

Yeah. I hear you. I think there’s an interesting plague going on right now for people who are not early adopters like you or me might be. There was an interesting news item from the other day where basically Walmart owns a streaming service called ‘VUDU’. They’re planning to sell one of these sticks that plug into your television. Similarly, Amazon is selling one of these around Christmas time, as the holidays come upon us.

I think Amazon’s price point for their Prime members if you bought in early was 19 bucks for the stick, right? You got to figure that Walmart is going to at least match that. There’s this whole play of the middle … the bell curve here that late adopters or mainstream adoption where streaming services are now … I’ll be at horribly imagined from a user experience standpoint and probably clashing with each other all over the place, but they’re coming in in a big way, so it’s no longer us, but perhaps my dad ends up with one of these.

I think what’s interesting from that standpoint is, what that means is there’s a whole another degree of user-friendliness and just demand that’s going to be put on these products that have not been before. If you and I get frustrated with the interface for Amazon Prime movies, say, or NetFlix, you can only imagine what people’s experience is going to be like if they’re not used to that paradigm to begin with, which …

Well it’s sort of a mixed bag, though. We bought a Samsung DVD player, I don’t know, two years ago -ish and we were thrilled to notice that you can hook it up to the Cloud and you can stream movies on NetFlix and Amazon, which is great; but the UI, especially in Amazon, is horrible. It’s so bad. Like every time we load it I’m sort of fuming.

I think your average consumer will have more tolerance for it not less, because the problem with that UI as bad as it is isn’t that it’s confusing. It just takes a bajillion clicks to get to things that should be very easy to get to. You have to do a lot of maneuvering and then if you fail, which is easy because the remote for this thing, there’s a ‘home’ button and a ‘back’ button and the … I don’t know if that’s the term, whatever, but there’s all these buttons that in theory could mean ‘go back’ if you push the wrong one. It takes you like ten screens back or whatever.

I think that your mainstream consumer will sold you through that in a way that I sure won’t, because as more of an early adopter of front curver, I don’t know, I’m really going to hold out for exceptional experiences; whereas, I know from some research that I’ve done that your mainstream consumer, they’ll tolerate more mediocrity in the UX.

That’s interesting. I hadn’t considered that prior to you saying that, but yeah, that seems like there’s some truth there. I’ll have to think on that some more.

The other ecosystem to use the term that I’m throwing around today …

Well before we get off this ecosystem, I do think your point that it’s interesting to see what’s going to happen now that it’s heading towards more mainstream adoption is the smart one and that is whereas personally as a consumer, I’m disinterested in this. It is interesting when you’re looking at it from a mainstream perspective and I thought the entry of Walmart that you pointed out is particularly fascinating.

We’ve talked in other places about how our country has become so bipartisan, so sort of, I would say black and white, but so red and blue bipartisan. I wonder if at some point people will opt into or out of technology platforms based on the politics of the provider, which is to say … I mean Walmart is so red, right? Most technology providers, the Amazons, the Google, the Apple, they’re so blue. They are so blue

If Walmart gets into this in the right way, could they leverage the fact that a majority of mainstream America is Republican, not Democrat. Whereas, more of the innovators, early adopters are more Democrat or more blue. Is there a way that they could manipulate their marketing to get in there? To differentiate by virtue of better aligning with people’s essential selves. I think there’s some really interesting questions in there because Walmart is the zag to the zig of all of these liberal, progressive Silicon Valley, Seattle, West Coast companies. I don’t know.

Yeah, well I could think of a lot of ways they could do that with the content they stream, right? Certainly there is plenty of content that wins one way or the other, especially in the news. Yeah, it’ll be interesting to see how the Walmart play for the living room works out. As you pointed out, this battle’s been going on for a long time and I’ve seen it going on for a while longer.

The other ecosystem that I want to mention today is your body, basically; the on-body devices, wearables, whatever you want to call them. I thought it was notable that Microsoft has sort of resurrected their health ambitions with a somewhat quietly launched product called their ‘Microsoft Band’. Not to be confused with an actual band, but this one is a wrist band.

These are more sensors at along the lines of your Fitbit, Jawbone Up. Microsoft actually has a number of sensors that they’ve included in their band and they’ve also launched their health platform extensively to compete with Google and Apple’s offerings.

We’ve talked about the Quantified Self quite a bit on the show and we’ve also talked about health tracking and all of those sorts of things, ad nauseam; but I think it’s really interesting that in a lot of subsegments of our lives, we are now seeing this invasion of the giant tech company. What I mean by that is if you’ve got Amazon or Google or Walmart in your living room, you’ve now got Microsoft or your Apple watch or your Fitbit or whatever it is on your body when you’re exercising. All of a sudden you’re moving from your office desk to your exercise regimen to go home and watch some TV at the end of the day and all of those things are being tracked. Your data is all of a sudden being monitored in a lot of different ways and a lot of different systems.

For me, that raises all kinds of questions about how we’re designing these systems and then additionally, what the overlap is, especially if you’re giving up your data to these large companies. What are your thoughts on that?

Yeah, I mean this topic covers a few different factors. On the privacy side, we’ve talked about on previous shows that at this point I’m just kind of … for the moment I don’t care, which is to say that there are none of the companies that I would buy and use the products for. That seems so Big Brother-ish to me that I’m concerned about manipulating or hurting me with data that I give them. I’m just not concerned about that at the moment so I don’t even think about it.

It’s like I’m going to try these things out, I’m going to use these things; they’re going to be a part of my life. Privacy, yeah, if the world seemed more gloomy and grim from the standpoint of these … again, very liberal companies that I tend to buy the stuff of, then it might be a concern, but for now I’m just mailing it in. It’s like, “Uh, it is what it is.” Maybe that will be proven to be stupid if that gets down the road for me or my followers, my children, future generations; but I’m just going to go with the flow for the moment.

To the ecosystem, to the product category, itself, it’s another one as a consumer that I’m really not interested in. Five years ago I think we started to experiment with products like these, really when it was Quantified Self Movement was just getting started, very nascent and trying these things out.

What I’ve figured out from using them, from thinking about them is they’re going to be a curiosity, they’re going to be something just to uber geek or the uber athlete or the uber something until one of two things is realized.

One, either instead of the device being a new device, it is part of your phone or part of your digital device is that you go around the day with. That it’s not this extra clumsy thing that gets in the way when you’re using your computer that has to be taken off in some cases when you take a shower; that is sort of odd when you’re being intimate or whatever it might be.

One of the paths is integration into the phone or some other device we already otherwise carry. The technology is going to keep moving forward. Could it be in your credit card, right? Like could it be integrated, I mean that’s not the best solution, but my point is that you’d have to look at what is all the stuff that people will continue to carry around and how can it be integrated directly into that, instead of this really odd, heavy, chunky bracelet that you’re wearing around.

Or the second path and the one that I’m more interested in, which I also think is the scarier one for most people is embedded. I want an embedded device that does all of that stuff. The first company that can prove biological safety as well as reliability to some device they put in under your skin that never comes out, that’s always cranking, that captures a lot of metrics and puts them in the Cloud and gives them to my doctor, like I am onboard, that’s the killer app right there.

All the stuff are just different shades of clumsy that are coming out right now. People who are just sort of discovering them for the first time are excited about them just like I was when I was discovering them for the first time. There are different types of people that are sort of minority groups who find them useful on a day-to-day basis even in their current form, but the hockey stick comes when it’s again, either in your phone or equivalents or it’s subdermal and for me subdermal is the cool one.

Yeah. I think for the wearables and the health trackers and things like that, you’re right, it’s sort of at this clumsy stage where we’re not quite sure what all these things are that are potentially dangling off of our wrist or off our ankle or whatever it is. I think, going forward, the more interesting things that are going to happen are going to be because there’s this huge concentration on tracking your health data, whether the final format ends up being embedded in your skin as you were talking about; or some other device that you always have with you.

I think as a person, this idea that I am generating data that needs to be analyzed, coming off of my body, my activities during the day, regardless of the fact of how familiar I am with it, that’s a new realm for me to enter and I think it’s not for me to enter. I think it’s not just the idea of doing it, but the longevity of it, right?

Like I’m used to thinking about my data being distributed from my laptop computer to the Cloud or on Dropbox or however else I’m manipulating it. It’s another thing entirely for me to think about the data that’s coming off of my body and that somehow also has to be monitored or safeguarded or shared or any of other actions that I take within my, call it ‘desktop ecosystem’.

Then we were talking earlier about the living room, just all of that connectedness that’s there. It’s not any one of these things but as a collection of things I feel like this cyber invasion of my life in all these different ecosystems makes me uneasy.

I think this is just the start of it because certainly if you look at cars, for instance, there’s a space where I spend at least two hours every day in my car. You’ve got Microsoft operating systems for your car dashboard or what have you and that’s just another space where digital technology could show up.

Additionally, we’ve talked at Involution for some time about monitoring your health data via the bathroom. So where do you go for some privacy these days? Not the bathroom because there’s going to be sensors in there. Then we’re also connecting our offices, our places of business in much more sophisticated ways, whether it’s via cameras so we can have video conferencing or various tracking where you are in the building and the building can respond to you.

I don’t if it’s an overarching sense of that Big Brother monitoring that’s got me feeling queasy, I don’t think that’s it; but it feels fast to me and I know if it feels fast to me other people have to feel that same way.

Yeah, I don’t know. We, broadly as designers, are taught to or get accustomed to by virtue of the work that we do designing things, designing something that is sort of a tiny system into itself. The things we’re talking about today now are getting into the ecosystems and as designers you have to be thinking at. Even if you’re just designing one little thing inside that ecosystem, it’s relevant, the context around it.

The context in that ecosystem, itself, as well as in those that are adjacent to it. That’s going to become only more important as both the products and their ecosystems become more complex as they’re going to continue to do with emerging technologies.

It’s tricky. For a lot of people it’s hard enough just to design the damn thing, let alone keep their eye on all of the stuff and understand how the ecosystem level plays into it. Especially, if you’re looking to advance, get into harder problems, get into greater career opportunities, it’s really the level you have to be aspiring toward even if you’re not there yet.

Listeners, remember that while you’re listening to the show, you can follow along with the things we’re imagining here in real time. Just head over to the, 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 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. Of course, the whole show is brought to you by Involution Studios, which you can check out at, that’s Dirk?

You can follow me on Twitter @dknemeyer, that’s @-D-K-N-E-M-E-Y-E-R, or email me

Well that’s it for Episode 77 of the Digital Life. With Dirk Knemeyer, I’m Jon Follett and we’ll see you next time.

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