As hands-on consultants we spend most of our time thinking about the day-to-day challenges of our practice. We refine and perfect our techniques for the benefit of our clients, and sometimes we share those lessons here.
However, I recently decided to take a step back from the nuts and bolts and do a little thinking about ‘what it all means.’ I considered how the trends I see today may affect our business—and our world—five years from now. Lately my thoughts have turned to the effects of ubiquitous computing, which is likely to be the next big user experience revolution.
I’m increasingly convinced that, as networks of smart objects permeate our environment, people’s attitudes toward technology will become more animist. In other words, we’ll start to anthropomorphize our stuff.
But first, a little context.
Ubiquitous computing has been “coming soon” for years. However, the proliferation of fast chips, convenient networking, low power consumption, stable embedded operating systems, and open communication protocols have made the concept of tiny computers embedded in all kinds of objects a lot more tangible.
Formerly gee-wiz technologies are getting more concrete. We have digital cameras the size of pens, tiny speakers that can put out full-spectrum sound, and radio frequency ID tags (RFID tags) that can track all kinds of objects. Wireless networking allows many of these devices to talk to each other easily.
This has created a class of digital devices that take few cues from the traditional PC. They have no keyboard, no dot-matrix display, and no mouse. The home-automation sector is certainly working on embedding computers in walls and household objects, making the idea of a single “home computer” ever more archaic.
An Intelligent Future
So how will people react to a ubiquitous computing world?
It’s already difficult to predict how technological objects will behave when their functionality is hidden in black boxes and radio waves. Once these technologies are widely distributed in everyday objects, the environment they create will become too difficult for us to explain in purely functional ways.
When we don’t have a good functional model to explain how things work, we anthropomorphize them. And when enough things around us recognize us, remember us, and react to our presence I suspect we’ll start to anthropomorphize all objects.
In other words, because we have no other way to explain how things work, we will see the world as animist. Animism is, in its broadest definition, the belief that all objects have will, intelligence, and memory and that they interact with and affect our lives in a deliberate, intelligent, and (in a sense) conscious way. When this happens, we’ll stop expecting our tools to be mechanical and predictable and will begin to expect more complex, intuitive capabilities from all of them, even the dumb ones.
This sounds far out and spacey, but I think it’s right around the corner. This kind of intelligence is already starting to leak into mainstream products, and I bet that designers will have to think about it seriously within the next five years. Perhaps the biggest change for user-experience designers will be a user’s subsequent disregard for predictability.
Animism and User Experience
Certain designers have already started to exploit this. Toys and games have been “intelligent” for years (maybe because kids already project intelligence onto their toys and so are more likely to accept it there).
Smart games and toys work by adding enough complexity to their behavior that their actions are no longer predictable, which users then accept as part of the fun. With AIBO, Furby, Musini, and video game AIs, we—the users—cede our desire to predict the actions of our technologies in exchange for more “entertaining” behavior.
Arguably, unpredictability has been part of games since Peek-a-Boo, but what’s interesting now is our willingness to let other more utilitarian technology operate independently and unpredictably. One of the “magic” things about TiVo is that it surprises us with its accuracy in choosing programs that we’ll like. The Roomba vacuum cleans your carpet and knows when you’re out of the room. The Airbus A320 jumbo jet has “fly by wire” controls that prevent pilots from doing things that would be dangerous. Stocks are traded automatically by software.
These behaviors make for a better experience, but at the cost of predictability. What if you don’t want to watch every cop show? What if the pilot really needs to do something that the control software designers never thought of?
When we trust technology to do what we mean, rather than what we say, we establish a fundamentally new attitude toward it, new expectations.
Developing for New Expectations
What heavy computer user has never had the urge to search for house keys by doing a “Find File” on their bedroom?
Expectations are the blueprint for how people try to interact with an interface—be it physical, environmental, or on screen. Our experiences with technology shape our expectations of the world, and the more technology permeates our world, the greater our expectations. Thus, knowing users’ expectations about an interaction is critical to designing it. And it may even be more important to meet expectations than to get the interaction perfect.
An animist outlook—one where people project behaviors that may have nothing to do with how objects actually function—means that knowing expectations becomes incredibly important.
Rather than focusing on matching people’s capabilities (what they can remember, understand, how well the software domain matches the users’ tasks, and so on), user experience design will have to be more sensitive to respecting, creating, maintaining, and selectively breaking expectations.
This, in turn, raises several questions for experience designers:
- Under what circumstances do people trust or mistrust objects? Do the walls really have ears? If I sit on that park bench, will it tell my student loan officer how much money is in my pocket?
- What kinds of communication between objects are appropriate, acceptable, or desired? I want my sandals to tell my fridge if I’ve walked off last night’s pizza so that I know whether to have a salad or a sandwich for lunch. However, it may not be desirable for them to report my whereabouts to every poster I pass on the street. Thus, designing for systems of objects will be very different than merely designing for object interoperability.
- What functions will naturally cluster to form new kinds of common objects? Cameras and phones have already begun to merge with each other and with instant messaging clients, but their integration with electronic notepads (in the form of PDAs) seems a bit more dubious.
- How will design communicate the functionality of objects? As we move from general-purpose smart devices to ones that solve specific problems, how will devices tell us what they do? The Nikon Coolpix digital camera announced through its split and twistable camera body that it was a very different kind of camera than the film cameras the company had made before, even though the device was entirely conventional otherwise.
- How will object intelligence play in terms of the desirability of objects? Industrial design has been very busy the last couple of years giving everyday objects “personality” through appearance. What happens when they can actually mimic personality itself? Where is the line between cute and cloying (for a given target audience, of course)?
The most basic change that will happen as a result of increasingly animist attitudes, however, is one that’s happening already. We used to start by making a new technology and then adjusting it to solve people’s problems. Now we’re starting with a problem and developing technologies that help address it.
In the end, once object intelligence is as ubiquitous and expected as electric power, it won’t be the limits of technology that drive design, but human needs.