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Chips, radios, and sensors are getting cheaper. Computation and connectivity are creeping into the world. Soon, we’re told, more things in our homes will chirp at us, chat with other things, and quietly send information back to the companies that made them. Inevitable though this future may be, the details remain foggy. We can assume our connected world will be useful, convenient, and creepy—we just don’t know in what ratio.
Designers have a crucial role in how this shakes out. As opposed to merely looking at products in terms of efficiency or profit, designers are trained, at least theoretically, to be sensitive to a broader spectrum of issues. They’re the ones who are supposed to think about how products fit into our lives and society at large. And more and more, they’re in a position to bring those considerations to bear on how a product is developed. In territory as vast, lucrative, and unknown as the Internet of Things, or IoT, that’s a hugely important responsibility. Thankfully some designers already are thinking hard about the job and the potential pitfalls of designing for our newly connected world.
Some of them convened last month at ThingsCon, a meeting in Berlin billed as “Europe’s leading conference about the future of hardware, connected devices and Internet of Things.” This was its second year, and as you’d expect of a group who paid a pricey entrance fee to talk about IoT, there was much enthusiasm about the transformative potential of it all. Yet some of the most interesting discussions centered on the need for sober, critical thinking about the Internet of Things.
One product of ThingsCon is the “IoT Manifesto.” Written by designers for other designers, it addresses high-level concerns about the IoT in the form of 10 pledges. Designers are encouraged to “build and promote a culture of privacy,” “empower users to be the master of their domain,” and be “deliberate about what data we collect.” Its most provocative pledge might be its first: “We don’t believe the hype.” It acknowledges an important fact about the Internet of Things: There’s a lot of action—but there’s also a lot of unconsidered design.
The conditions are ripe for making stuff. Thanks to the global explosion of smartphones, there’s been a flood of cheap components. Crowdfunding has made it easier to raise capital. The tech press reliably broadcasts enthusiasm for connected gizmos.
The result is a land grab. Marcel Schouwenaar, another IoT Manifesto author and half of the two-man design consultancy the Incredible Machine, says it reminds him of the early days of the web, when companies were beating down his door for websites. “People are making crappy stuff just to enter the space,” he says.
Scott Smith, another ThingsCon attendee, agrees. Smith is the founder of Changeist, a small group that does long-term technology forecasting for corporate clients. Right now, he says, many companies are doing stuff just because they can. That impulse has lead to IoT punchlines like the Wi-Fi–connected washing machine. “You get these periods of very narrow focus on the technology itself,” Smith says.
There are problems with this approach. For one, when companies focus on sheer technical possibility and not real-world need, an overstuffed world ends up with even more crap. But beyond the clutter, there’s an escalating creepiness factor. As technology moves onto our bodies and into our homes, the chances to alienate, abuse, and otherwise weird people out multiply. “There is an increasing potential for collision with quite deeply embedded social and cultural rituals,” Scott says. And when you’re narrowly focused on technology, it can be easy to lose sight of the intricate and often delicate social fabric your technological wonder is meant to fit into.
Smith offers a hypothetical: Imagine your startup is making a connected speaker that listens for voice commands. The product is potentially useful, not especially nefarious. But every connected product comes with subtle complexities. “Does that product also perhaps capture intimate conversations you didn’t plan for it to?” Smith asks. “What happens when you have intimate conversations stuck on a buffer in a server somewhere?”
The problem here isn’t maliciousness so much as obliviousness. Anthropologists spend their lives trying to understand the subtle interactions and cultural mores of the home; startups might not give them much thought. In the race to bring product to market, it’s easy to become so single-mindedly focused on solving one problem that you become blind to those you’re creating in the process.
The creators of the IoT Manifesto say the project is meant to keep these potential problems in the foreground. Designers aren’t expected to adhere to every pledge on every thing they work on. It’s more of a set of guidelines to keep these concerns in mind. “When you’re waist-deep in a project, it’s hard to remember your principals,” Schouwenaar says.
The manifesto also could be useful for designers who want to raise these concerns with clients. The designers who wrote it increasingly find themselves invited to the formative stages of product development. “We are all involved in the whole fuzzy front end of innovation where we define together with our clients what the concept is going to be,” Schouwenaar says. It’s easy to talk about things like data and privacy in vague or abstract terms or for thorny questions to be ignored once a project gains momentum. The manifesto gives designers something concrete to refer to right from the start.
Smith is developing his own tool for exploring these issues with clients. He calls it Thingclash. He envisions it as a series of cards one could play on a table to highlight potential points of friction in a product or situation. Both Thingclash and the IoT Manifesto are attempts to facilitate discussion and encourage thoughtful design. As Schouwenaar puts it, they’re an attempt at “structuring a sentiment in the industry.”
In the 1980s, design theorist Victor Papanek said technology’s transformative effects were accelerating so quickly that the designer’s job eventually would become simply making sense of all the change. Certainly the Internet of Things gives designers a lot to make sense of. It’s a chance for designers to think about the future they want to build—and the values they want to bring to the process of building it. As one of the manifesto’s authors points out, digital design is a young profession. “When you look at doctors, they’ve had hundreds and hundreds of years to develop their code of ethics. We’re still inventing ours.”
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