Designing enchanted products for our home environments of the future

Smart products will be part of our daily life (image credit: Her)

Your car door unlocks when you walk up to it. Your TV automatically turns on to the channel you want to watch. Your alarm clock sets itself, and even wakes you up at the right moment. (Krishna, 2013)

That doesn’t sound like future anymore. With the latest introductions of services like IFTTT and bots for messenger we already feel like everything is connected and regulated automatically. Furthermore, we are able to give digital services a physical embodiment. They are intelligent and regulate things even without input from a real person — almost enchanted and located among us. These transitional things begin to blur the boundaries between objects, services and the physical world. In addition, a huge amount of more data is being produced and shared in real-time. So many things attracting our attention might result in sensory overload. The big challenge we — the people of the IoT era — face is to design and develop technology that is appropriate to people’s needs and smoothly integrates in our home environments.

First of all, we must find a suitable design that pays heed to the stable and compelling routines of home environments. And second, it should be focused on the value for the user. Almost every object in a household can contain software, but does it really make sense in every single one? If people transfer every single task they are facing to a computer we will become lazy and powerless, like in the virtual dystopian world of the Pixar movie Wall-E.

(credits: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h1BQPV-iCkU)

To understand, how a product for smart homes need to be designed and to determine its value, we have to clarify what exactly that value is and how we can modify it. A product or connected thing is a physical device we can touch or manipulate in the real world with a digital service at its heart. Through the network of different sensors it can collect data about the environment it is placed in. It is able to measure several data like location, energy use, temperature, motion, humidity and more. So we will be able to track almost everything that occurs in our home. But do people want to have everything tracked? Is it worth and necessary for them to store everything they do? Sometimes it is better to forget something that has happened.

There will be some objects that just talk to other objects, and there will be products which need our attention to do something. The objects can be different in their overall design, in their variety of interactions and in the feedback possibilities.

Humans are inherently frustrated with everyday things. (Norman, 2013)

Therefore a designer, who produces new domestic computing technology for a quotidian home setting should keep in mind that the “thing” should support rather than distract people. The home environment in particular is a very complex and volatile setting where unexpected things with uncertain consequences can happen. To know how the smart “things” fit into daily routines is one part, but architects of a thoughtful home also need to be aware of the broader social effects of technology. They need to see the device in a larger context. It is also clear that there can never be a perfect appropriate design for all, but with integrating a “philosophy of care” into the design of domestic environments and ubiquitous computing, it can have a positive impact. The designers need to intertwine several design disciplines. The physical body, the hardware and software interfaces, and how it interacts with people or other objects around.

The nest protect impresses with a sleek design (image credit: nest)

First of all, the object needs a body to exist in the physical world. From elegant to pompous, over inconspicuous to robot-like appearance. There are different approaches to design “things” for the home environment. One of the best practices of redesigning an “unloved thing in your home” is nest. And there is currently nothing more unloved, yet more necessary, than a smoke detector, according to Fadell, the CEO of nest. The product nest protect is “designed to be attractive, intuitive, and not annoying — so that you are not tempted to disconnect it, like a traditional smoke or carbon-monoxide detector, compromising your safety”. It fits perfectly into every apartment, because it’s very restrained in terms of the design.

Another example shows, how the form of different smart things with almost the same features and behaviours can be completely different. On the one side there is Nabaztag, a small rabbit-shaped object, on the other side Amazon Echo, a 9.25 inch high audio tower. Both of them have been designed to be placed in a home environment and have nearly the same set of tasks. The almost ten year old device Nabaztag can read RSS news feeds or reminders and Amazon Echo is a cloud-connected smart audio system that can perform web searches in response to voice command.

(image credits: Amazon Echo and Nabaztag)

Both devices were given a personality so that in order to communicate with them the user can just talk to them. The Nabaztag has the problem that users don’t think a rabbit is really trustworthy when it reads messages to them. Normally rabbits don’t read, so it was probably not the best design choice, admits its designer Rafi Haladjian in an interview. In contrast, the cylinder-like design of Echo is kept very simple and elegant. The personality exists here only in the voice of the device. Before giving Echo a command, it must be addressed with the word “Alexa”. Alternatively another name can be set up. So both, Nabaztag and Echo, have a character, but only one design benefits of it. The big difference is that the rabbit is explicit and the character “Alexa” is optional. The voice-controlled “Alexa” is already very similar to the operating system in “Her” and this is not the only reason that the future is closer than most people think.

The design of smart products for homes need to follow the user-centred approach and should support people in their everyday life rather than overstrain them. Therefore, the most relevant aspect a designer should have in mind is that the user will always be the most important part of the setting. They should always own the control over their gadgets and they need to be able to have the possibility to turn the entire system off if needed.

Keeping an eye on design issues is not enough for the development of smart things in home environments. It needs to be clarified how users can express their desires to the device and how it presents information to the user. (Olsen, 2009)

At first, it seems that there are countless possibilities of human-computer-interactions, but the human abilities to interact are limited. It is known that humans have fixed ways to send and receive information; visual, audio and tactile. Usually devices address more than one sense to send the right information. Like a tablet or a smartphone these days, the objects in a smart home also will have various modes of operations. But they will have a huge advantage, because they don’t require a screen to interact with them. Therefore, the user doesn’t need to give his full attention to the device. The screen based media might not be disappearing, but the software interfaces are simply represented on other connected applications and they can be accessed from tablets and smartphones. This has the consequence that users don’t need to learn new gestures or commands.

There are so many more devices and sensors in our household environment offering us data and demanding our attention that we have to change our approach to information interaction as well. If the user doesn’t need the service right now, the system should be as unobtrusive as possible. They need to use calm technology systems that don’t vie for attention — only in the background — until the user actively decides to interact with them. But even if they are working in the background, critics still don’t like the fact that a thing is always listening and watching because the user can never really be sure what happens to his data.

It is estimated that there will be nearly 26 billion devices on the Internet of Things by 2020. How we will really interact with smart products and in which range they will irrupt into our daily life is one of the biggest questions the humanity has to face in the next years. They can have a lot of advantages, but also change our home environments drastically. Finally, disadvantages in terms of social interactions and privacy issues shouldn’t be ignored.

Founder of Beyond, PM Library & Riptide, Ex-N26, Co-Organizer of Product Tank Hamburg & Barcelona

Founder of Beyond, PM Library & Riptide, Ex-N26, Co-Organizer of Product Tank Hamburg & Barcelona