by Sanjiv Sirpal
A new era in design.
We are now in an era where the objects that inhabit our world have the potential to intelligently serve us and our needs. These objects will effortlessly become a part of our beloved habitats. They work on our behalf as ubiquitous tools and services - spanning geographic and social-economic boundaries.
The vision of an ambient network of objects that augment our lives with the very best of technology married to the very best of design lingers on the periphery of all futurists. Will this grand vision of one possible tomorrow materialize? Or will it become a footnote in history - another dream lost.
Kickstarter, Indiegogo & Quirky are amazing catalyst's for the democratization of the design of objects. Unfortunately, products are created that are transient, with a throw it against-the-wall crowd-sourced approach to design. They inherit their spirit from digital products that are being produced for web & mobile. This might be fine for apps, but when they take the form of objects they are short-lived and will occupy much of our landfills in a few years. Because who really needs another smart dongle, to tell you, you've accelerated too fast. Or an egg carton, that tells you the chicken needs to lay another dozen because you're down to the last one. Or even a ring that lets you make a gesture in the middle of the air just so you can answer a call.
There's nothing wrong with these ideas, except that they just won't last. They're like dress rehearsals for the real thing. The car dongle, will just get integrated into the car. The egg carton, will either become a part of a mythical food management vision sensing system, or be rejected as too much information. And well, an interface for an interface? Too complex, isn't reliable, requires charging, and has a high cognitive load. That too will be parked on a shelf (thats where mine is).
A brief history of Products and Technology.
In the 18th and 19th century the industrial revolution, created a rich world full of mechanical products that solved real world problems, and acted as a catalyst for technological advancement. These technologies formed the infrastructure of travel, construction, and long distance communication. Steam engines, light bulbs, and telegraphs laid the foundation for what came next.
The early 20th century ushered in new products that are still with us today. They were produced in environments where technology developed rapidly, and the future followed in the footsteps of science fiction. These products were purpose built offering a form of semi-intelligence and autonomy - through the use of integrated circuits and other advanced electromechanical systems. Telephones, automobiles, radio, and TV all brought with it entire ecosystems to produce and operate.
In the late 20th century, personal computers ushered in a new era of sense of imagination. These devices created new methods of working, from capturing, managing and manipulating data to creating new content. These devices required new methods of interaction - no longer was everything a direct one-to-one correlation. The invention of the graphical user interface allowed users to bridge the digital world, with their real world. Desktops, file folders, and documents - were used as affordances for their digital copies. Personal computers were destinations and although they looked somewhat familiar, they were disruptive. But the best was yet to come.
The Internet created a network of networks - connectivity between computers. With the WWW, came new media - hypertext documents and applications. These ushered in a new era of services alongside a social-connective tissue, that is always on and ever present.
Smartphones are not just powerful personal computers, that are always connected. They're more then the marriage between PCs & the WWW. They facilitate location based services, enhanced communication, multi-channel social, and micro-cultures around anything. These intimate devices act as extensions of the individual.
A multitude of pre-digital era products are being reinvented. Their analog shells are being injected with new capabilities: the capacity for intelligence, connectivity, sensory input, remote access, etc.
What is driving the creation of these products? Is it the bespoke movement that looks to craft "hand" made things? Or is it the 'build-an-app-and-put-it-in-the-market place' mentality that app companies are adopting to physical products.
Perhaps its having access to technology that allows products to built so fast, that little regard is given to their full life cycle. Agile, Lean, and MVP's play a part. If we can make apps this way, then why not hardware product's?
These products expose an ugly underbelly - hyper connectivity, with little value. They are in their infancy, and their potential has yet to be realized. Meanwhile resources are being wasted, landfills are filling up with mutant products, that lacked the foresight to become ubiquitous.
The Lens of Time - Examining the Intended & Extended Life
Up until the Digital era, the world around us has been designed for longevity, either by intention, or by extension.
Digital products do not age well. They tend to disappear. Post-Digital products by intention, are meant to live long.
The case for the Post-Digital Era
Digital is not dead. Far from it, digital offerings are here to stay as content inside devices and ecosystems. But a new era of products & design is upon us. The Post-Digital era. An era that requires old world thinking to balance the nature of these objects against the expectations of rapidly changing technology.
Post - Digital can be defined not only by a period of time (the time after Digital), but by a new breed of products. These products layer connectivity and sensors to create heightened experiences that can exist in both the offline and online worlds. They offer functions and services that echo digital, but are biased towards analog experiences.
Post-Digital Design Principles
The following principals create a design framework for creating this new breed of objects.
1. Objects should be designed for longevity and not obsolescence.
Post-digital objects should be intentionally designed to span a life of multiple owners, multiple environments, and multiple years. They should be designed carefully to consider a cradle to grave life-cycle.
2. Objects must communicate a clear purpose and value
Objects must have a clear purpose from which value is derived. If its purpose is not clear, then its value is eroded. This speaks to the intentionality of the object.
3. Objects must be functionally aesthetic.
Objects must balance their function, with their form. They must strive to reflect an aesthetic that reinforces their purpose.
4. Objects do not exist in isolation.
Objects do not exist in a vacuum. They exist along side other objects, on surfaces, in spaces and routines.
5. Objects must function independently of other objects.
Post-digital products need to function independent of other objects. Their purpose and value can be augmented, but not dependent on other objects.
6. Objects must function in low connectivity states.
For objects that require connectivity careful consideration must be taken, so that value can be derived from high connectivity states (network connection, connection to other devices), and low connectivity states (low to no connectivity).
7. Objects shouldn't require configuration.
Objects must endeavour to be used right out of the box. They should not require programming, and be optimized for no or minimal configuration.
8. Objects should interpret their surroundings.
Providing sensors to objects, allows for them to interpret their environment. This simple interpretation alone doesn't make objects post-digital. This information gained from these sensors should reinforce the purpose of the object. Be forewarned, reliable interpretation of the environment and intelligent understanding will always be difficult to achieve. Try not to be too clever.
9. Objects should be operable naturally and at human scale.
Objects should be designed to be operational by multiple input systems, but should be optimized for human scale, ergonomics and muscle memory.
10. Objects should age well.
Finally, Post-digital products should age well. They should gracefully show their age, their forms should slowly evolve to reflect their environment and the value that was loved by their owners.
Productecture: New era, new name?
Productecture has to do with planning, designing and shaping experiences, interactions, behaviours, and form to reflect functional, emotional, social, environmental and aesthetic considerations for post-digital products.
In this new era, new champions need to help usher in objects that will become the antiques of tomorrow. Productects are these champions. They are a blend of Architects, Industrial Designers, Interaction & Interface Designers, that focus on the complete experience. These new designers will be educated in the old ways, brought up in studios environments with holistic outlooks, uncovering insights and contexts, and be less concerned with titles, and more concerned with how they can shape the world of tommorow for human scale. They will use appropriate tools and techniques in order to create informed products that respond to human need and experience.
A new era in shaping products is already upon us. Design has to respond, and products must meet the demands of this era. We must look back, to move forward.
by Sanjiv Sirpal
Founder and Principal of formscale.com. Designer, photographer, inventor and strategist. From architecture to product design. Nothing is obvious, until it is.