Where-able Devices and Ubiquitous Computing + Case Study

“In the future, everything is about whereable computing with an ‘h’.” — Bill Buxton, Principal Researcher at Microsoft

Ubiquitous computing technologies exist, but they’re not quite… ubiquitous (yet).

Internet of things (IoT) technologies are here, and it probably won’t be long before we start seeing more everyday items retrofitted not only with internet connectivity, but bluetooth, personal wifi hotspots, speakers that talk at you, and retina-displays covering every inch of your new tea kettle. Jokes aside, IoT is rapidly expanding from applications in business to applications in household devices and everyday life. In fact, we now have consumer products like water filters that automatically order replacement filters, bluetooth-enabled espresso machines (with accompanying mobile apps!) and lights you can turn off with your phone (without ever leaving the couch!). Yes, sometimes I’m too lazy to get off the couch to turn off the lights, but these products seem unnecessary to me.

Is indulging in superfluous internet-connected devices the type of behavior that consumers will adopt? (Is that a future we want?)

As ubiquitous computing devices pervade our homes and the environments around us, it’s possible that they’ll only worsen the constant bombardment of beeping, vibrating, and ringing from all of our personal devices that vie for our much-desired attention. It seems like people (even in Silicon Valley) are starting to realize this. As we continue to arm ourselves with the latest wearables that also cry out for our attention, more and more people are realizing that increasing the quantity of internet-connected devices (especially all-purpose on-person devices like phones and smart watches) isn’t necessarily a lifestyle (or future) that we want.

So, how might we design ubiquitous computing products that fit people’s lifestyles and meet their needs without becoming bombarding or superfluous?

(We’ll get to the answer in a minute. But first, if you would allow me to share some relevant context…)

In the design community, most people say that the best technologies are the invisible ones. That is, they are so intuitive to use that the design fades from view — it’s actually the bad designs that stick out. Mark Weiser, the man who coined the term “ubiquitous computing”, expressed this idea in 1991 when he said: “The most profound technologies are those that disappear. They weave themselves into the fabric of everyday life until they are indistinguishable from it.”

During a talk I attended with Bill Buxton, Microsoft’s principle researcher, he drew a simple illustration of this concept using traditional household items. He pointed out that if a dinning room table were put in a bathroom, it would be weird. It would stick out like a sore thumb. But when the table is left in the dining room, it becomes unnoticeable, blending into the background by serving the right purpose in the right place. Modern technology is no different. Ubiquitous computing devices are most useful and usable when they seamlessly integrate into our lives by presenting the right information or function, at the right time, in the right place.

Ubiquitous computing is all about the “where” (and when).

So what’s an example? How can we actually apply these ideas about designing technology for the right place and time?

I’m so glad you asked, because now I get to present my case study of a small 4-hour project I did that was inspired by Bill Buxton’s concept of “whereable” technology. I’d like to think that the result is an out-of-the-box solution that more effectively addresses user needs than just another mobile app or website.

Case Study: Redesigning the Weather App

Over the past 2 days I took on a design challenge with the following prompt:

Needfinding

The prompt told me about one person’s experience. But do other people experience similar problems? To find out, I interviewed 5 of my friends. Rather than focus on hypothetical questions (i.e. “About how often do you usually use weather apps or sites?”) that might provide inaccurate information, I asked questions that focused on specific experiences. For example, I asked “Can you tell me a story about a time where you weren’t prepared for the weather?”. I compiled a Google Doc of my interview notes and I audio recorded each interview. Here were the main needs and insights I discovered by interviewing each of the participants:

1. People need to know about the first rain or storm of the season (because they only check the weather when it has rained recently).
2. It’s not good enough to have a mobile app that passively displays the weather. People need to be actively notified when rain is on the horizon, even when it has rained the previous day.
3. In order to plan for the weather effectively, people not only need to know the weather, but their schedule for the day as well.
4. Some people don’t need to know the weather, they just need to know what clothing is most appropriate for the weather.

Concept

These insights from the interviews served as the basis for my design. I knew that a decent design would address all these needs. But what platform would be most appropriate? Of the 5 people I interviewed, 4 of them checked the weather on a mobile device. So, designing for mobile seemed like a natural choice, but even those people who used mobile weather apps still got caught out in the cold (literally), so maybe that wasn’t the right direction after all…

I recently attended a talk by Bill Buxton, a principal researcher at Microsoft. His discussion about whereable technologies inspired me to consider other locations and devices/artifacts that I might redesign to more effectively address user needs. But what artifact might that be? Looking back at the original design prompt, the answer was right in front of me:

“ …I packed my bag for work, got my son ready for school, and went out the door.”

The door. The prompt just made it clear. Instead of redesigning a mobile app, I would put the information users needed in the location they needed it by redesigning the door. That way, users could check that they had everything they needed (and pick up an umbrella, or anything they forgot) before walking out the front door. Here are some concept sketches and a storyboard illustrating the concept:

Jordan’s alarm wakes him up at 7:15am. She’s supposed to be at class by 8:00, but she hits the snooze button — she’s exhausted from the compilers assignment she just finished coding last night. She gets up at 7:30, spends a little too long singing in the shower, and is in a rush to get to class. As she’s rushing out, the app on her front door reminds her to get an umbrella. Later at 3pm it starts raining, but thanks to the app on her front door, she’s ready with an umbrella!

Prototyping “in the Wild”

Eager to test out the door concept, I quickly sketched a simple interface that displayed weather info using paper and pen, and taped it to our apartment door. Would my apartment-mates even notice it? Given that it’s finals week here at UC San Diego, I thought that people might just rush by it. To find out, I sat in the corner and waited by the door with my phone, ready to start filming in case anyone came downstairs to leave. I waited, but no one came. When I had to leave for work, I discretely setup my iPad in the corner, pressed the record button to start filming, and left (hoping that I might capture someone interact with it). It recorded a whole hour of footage… during which no one went in or out the door! But I knew that it was only a matter of time. Then, finally, an apartment-mate left to do laundry, and I caught it on tape:

Left: paper prototype on door. // Right: Apartment-mate looking at prototype.

He actually read the interface! And that’s all the prototype needed to test. However, there were two things to note:

  1. The user did not change what they were wearing (although this is simply likely due to the fact that it was just a paper prototype and not credible).
  2. The user was fully clothed.

What?! Of course the user was fully clothed!

I only mention this because at this point I realized that there might be a better place to locate this redesigned door. Rather than display weather info at the front door, why not display it in their closet? This would allow users to dress for the weather at the start of their day, rather than reaching the front door and only then realizing that they had chosen weather-inappropriate clothing. (Of course, it would be possible to do the same redesign with both the front door and closet door, but I chose to focus on the closet door.)

Sketching

I had user needs, I had a refined concept, and it was time to create. I starting sketching out many different iterations of simple interfaces. (Yeah, I’m obviously not a pro at sketching, but it’s just about getting into a creative flow to come up with lots of ideas!)

Displays only the most extreme weather highs/lows and conditions.
You can know about the rain, but ultimately it’s about actually being prepared for it.
Combines the last two iterations to show alerts/reminders and the weather at the same time.
Based on the feedback from participant 4, this iteration simply lays out what wardrobe items are most appropriate for today’s weather.
In needfinding, I discovered that a passive weather app wasn’t enough — push notifications of severe weather conditions might be helpful. In this sketch, the person receives the alert on their phone in addition to the reminder on the door.
Other people I interviewed explained how their daily schedule impacted how they plan for the weather. Here, I combine a user’s google calendar with an overlay color indicating temperature.
In the same vein as the last one, but without color coding. Also added icons to represent weather conditions in addition to temperature.
Once again, knowing the weather is one thing, preparing for it is another. This iteration identifies weather conditions and makes appropriate suggestions.
The final sketch.

My ideas became more and more developed as I continued sketching. I ultimately chose to combine elements of several sketches into a higher fidelity prototype. I knew that combining all these elements should address the needs I discovered when interviewing, but would combining all these overload users with too much information?

The only way to find out was to test it with a prototype.

Deployment

Using Sketch + InVision, I created a clickable prototype of the closet door’s interface. Here’s the annotated version:

Annotations:

  1. Provides a calendar for people like participants 2 and 5 (see my linked interview notes for info on participants 2 and 5) who plan what to wear based on their schedules.
  2. Provides alerts for participants like 1, 2, and 5 who were unprepared for the weather because they weren’t informed.
  3. Provides clothing recommendations for people like participant 4.
  4. Places the calendar, weather, and weather alerts out across a digestible, easy-to-understand layout.

I pulled up the prototype on my iPad and hung it on the closet door that I share with my roommate:

This prototype pretty closely approximates the real thing!

In the morning, I asked my roommate, Boon, to help me out by using the prototype to figure out what clothes he would wear that day (according to the weather conditions shown on the app). He obliged, and he quickly and easily gathered the clothing that he would need for the weather conditions!

Testing out the prototype with my roommate.

Wrap Up

That’s where the project ended. It was only a 4-hour project anyway. If I had more time, I might make different Sketch + InVision prototypes, and test them with different users by measuring the time it took them to complete the task (picking an outfit) and assessing whether or not they gathered appropriate clothes.

This project was a fun exploration of what’s possible when we think about redesigning artifacts in the environment around us. And I think that my proposed design solves people’s needs better than most traditional apps could.

I love it when I get to approach design problems without the constraint that the deliverable has to be an app or website. But that’s a luxury. (As I’m sure you know all too well.) And sometimes, trying to design apps to solve every problem is like trying to fit a round peg in a square hole.

Designing for screens is undoubtedly an essential skill, but design thinking doesn’t apply only to pixels.

Modern artists constantly dabble in new mediums — they use whichever materials most accurately convey their ideas. I believe that the best designers are the ones who use whichever medium is most appropriate for the challenge at hand.


Thanks for reading! Do you have any interesting examples of ubiquitous computing? Thoughts on the topic or case study? Feel free to comment :)

See Also:

  • Context Aware Computing (specifically section “14.3: Context-Awareness as Enabler for Ubiquitous Computing”) from the Interaction Design Foundation. Context-aware computing is a thought-provoking topic for anyone who’s interested in ubiquitous computing (or just likes watching Black Mirror!).
  • Refrigerator Refresh by Viget. A fun (and neatly designed) look at reimagining a everyday household item for a ubiquitous computing future: the fridge.
  • Bill Buxton’s Talk on Ubiquitous Computing. from the UC San Diego Design Labs “Design at Large” Speaker Series. This is the 45-minute talk I referred to in this article. He gives plenty of examples of how ubiquitous computing devices can and could work.