Anybody Home? Where did design dissapear off to?

Here is the transcript for my talk at IXDA in Helsinki on March 2nd.

Il faut confronter les idées vagues avec des images claires. – Jean-Luc Godard

I want to talk about the areas that were abandoned by design and designers and why they are worth rediscovering.

Hello. On good days I describe myself an industrial designer & an interaction designer. This is what I was trained as and that’s what my degree certificates would say for all the world to see if I ever bothered to frame and hang them. On bad days I say that I’m an internet of things designer. This means nothing to most of the people, I say it because it feels clearer to me than what industrial or interaction design stands for within the internet of things community that has grown worldwide over the last five years.

Making not Designing

Between 2007 and 2010 I was CEO and Co-Founder of Tinker.it later renamed Tinker London, the first UK distributor of the Arduino boards. At the time I was fresh off an interaction design course where I had come up with the Good Night Lamp. Gillian Crampton Smith who is sitting in the room is responsible for this and I would like to thank her for that. We helped promote the use of the Arduino to computer science students. flash developers, web developers, jewellerers, graphic designers and researchers. We ran workshops around the world for the public and for clients. People never thought of the Arduino as supporting a design effort, but it should have been. It should have been the tool that industrial designers would learn about and design higher resolution prototypes so they could own more of the design pie in a project. So that they could stop complaining that people came to them at the last minute with crappy products people just wanted to pretty up. So that they could quit their day jobs and start product companies everywhere. But that wasn’t to be. The Arduino became about other things, about ’making’, about open source, about empowerment, about knowledge barriers were being broken. Not about design. It featured the story of a web developer who had grown a little tired of screens could pick up some electronics skills easily and ‘make something’. Making and designing became separate activities.

A growing community of non-designers designing 

Our workshops always attracted more technically savvy  people than industrial designers, architects, graphic designers or UX designers. The timing was terrible of course, as the Arduino came out the iPhone was launched so UX designers left the table and went to distract themselves with smaller screens. And the industrial designers didn’t engage much at all, preferring to design things for others however frustrating that was than to spend a bit of time understanding how to code and engage with designing electronics. Knowing how to prototype electronics is still not as prevalent as knowing how to draw 10 years on, because we still see more value in someone being able to draw us a scenario of someone using a connected object than build us a prototype to figure out how an interaction feels with the constraints of connectivity and technology. Because oh my god are there constraints. And if you’d prototyped with the technology you’d end up really understanding that making lights switch on and off from around the world seems easy but turns out to be incredibly difficult.

Technical founders, not designers

So between the iPhone and Nest being acquired in early 2014, the internet of things grew slowly and with minimal design community engagement. It’s almost as if designers were waiting to be called up to the table. Design courses might run one or two introductory Arduino classes but nothing that stuck to a designer’s head and more importantly to their fingers. In London, the founders of internet-connected startups have continued to come from technically-savvy professions or graduate program: engineering, electronics engineering, computer science, industrial automation, military applications, sometimes (rarely) advertising. All of them were told about designing for users and user-centric design, but they were not told how. They weren’t even told that design and user-centered research are one and the same. I co-ran a workshop with Dott studio yesterday in London where we invited internet of things startups to come and share their process from coming up with an idea to whatever stage they were at. They were all able to articulate their process and the reasoning behind business decisions, but design was almost completely absent in the first 6 months of development. It was all about the prototyping and testing. No questioning of the ‘why’ not paper prototyping, not user interviews, no personas, nothing.  At best agile software development processes were attempted inside of a mashup of other processes. Forget the double diamond, this was more like the spaghetti plate. And these are the bravest people, they quit their day job, are wrestling to find funding, join incubators, spend a LOT of time on their ideas, but don’t work with designers from the word go. This is crazy when you consider that in London we now have 11 iot meetups and that cities like Prague attracted hundreds of people at its first iot meetup a few months ago.

Screens that hide a world of design opportunities

So if designers aren’t working with startups, maybe they’re working with corporations. But then it’s 2016 and Samsung have released a smart fridge which they call the Home Hub. I had to check my watch to make sure I hadn’t been sent back to the 1950s. Home. Hub. Who spends enough time in the kitchen to think that it is the be all and end all of their home life? 1950s housewives. Noone else. I don’t know a single woman who would have the money to buy this fridge and would spend any time at all in her kitchen. Maybe out of guilt of buying a Home Hub for a while. Where were the designers when this was manufacturered?

Designers go around the world and talk about user-centered design with anger because we don’t understand why people could create such horrors. But that’s because they never showed  in the first place. They didn’t want to become middle managers, then proper managers, they wanted to stay close to the craft of design. So that’s what happens when you dissapear inside a company, when you stop inspiring people about what you do and what values you bring. People design fridges with screens on them because we never told them not to. Designers weren’t important enough, the technologists were.

Designers were given the job of designing the screen’s user experience. Noone stepped up and said: maybe we should rethinking shopping interactions, not the fucking fridge. Not the end point of interaction. But that’s the trouble of the internet of things, there are too many touch points that need designing so we start with the easiest: the screen.

Exciting, shiny screens! Nevermind the systems and the injustice they enable. Screens can be designed! Interactions can be designed. Some interactions.  People’s micro-interactions can be observed without building a physical object, without seeing how quickly they throw your product in the bin or stop using it. Big data up to a point.

Changes can be made on the fly (sortof). Oh the flexibility, oh the addictiveness. Oh the design possibilities. But not for the dying or the bed-ridden. For the middle class who watched a bit too much Downton Abbey. For people who would never want to have an au pair or a cleaner full time living at home, but still want access to those ‘services’. So we designed the glossy touch point of the so-called the sharing economy. The economy of job insecurity, exploitation, property bubble, car-obsession and people who are always hungry but can’t cook. We buy crappy furniture off eBay, we leave the seal on our mobile phones so we can sell them on eBay. We get delivery from our favorite restaurants, we stopped going to hotels, we started renting out our apartment to pay for our retirement or our holidays. We went from designing interiors like they really mattered, like people were going to judge us if our napkins didn’t match our plates, to designing our digital wallpapers. Design now allows us to create social value elsewhere, so why bother with interiors and communities.  So we engage less with our local community or our local councils. We become the high class citizens of nowhere in particular. High-class migrants with an addiction to television shows, craft hamburgers, expensive coffee and personality-less interiors on instagram.

But what about all this stuff we’re designing?

So how can we even start to think about an industrial revolution which would require us to care about our homes and interiors again? Most of the internet of things is about ‘smart home’ or ‘smart city’ service product experiences that feature someone stable, in the 1950s, who will always live in their home.  Someone who knows their neighbours, and organises PTA meetings. Someone uses that fridge’s screen to check the weather and the news. Someone who doesn’t have flatmates because they are too poor to live on their own. Someone who is going to care about the napkins matching the plates. Someone who is going to buy fabric napkins in the first place. Someone who doesn’t exist anymore.

Even Ikea’s Steve Howard says we’ve reached peak stuff, peak home furnishings. Because those things have lost their appeal for us. We’re bored of them, things are much more important online even if that’s not true, it feels true.

Where can design go now?

It’s not true because where we have peaked is in the pointless stuff. We have yet to design the stuff that matters actually. The stuff that is going to permeate our lives soon. We still haven’t seen or thought about the products we’ll need to buy to see if our water is clean, our air is breathable, our family safe and healthy. We still haven’t designed the interactions that will convince our governments that these are important issues and policies need to change. We’ve not even begun to think about how we will deal with the disposal of all the stuff that we’ve decided to through away because we’re reading Marie Kondo. Those are the products and interactions that are going to be really worth designing.

Those companies of course already exist but they don’t do well, they barely exist on the fringes of what you might call success, mostly because designers don’t get involved or they don’t show up to help. It’s too hard, too techy. But that’s precisely why it’s interesting. Why it’s worth doing. Why it’s worth coming out of your comfort zone, why being a designer should be not only about doing total design, both online and offline. The world is changing and you have to change with it too.

 

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designswarm

Founder of designswarm & the Good Night Lamp. Ex CEO of Tinker London, Head of Bulb Labs till May 2019.