An interview with Claire Rowland

Claire is an independent product and UX strategy consultant specialising in the Internet of Things. She has a particular interest in taking connected products from an early adopter user base to the mass market, and technologies that support mundane, everyday activities.

Before becoming independent, she worked on energy management and home automation products as the service design manager for AlertMe.com, a connected home platform provider. Previously, she was head of research for design consultancy Fjord, where she led EU funded R&D work investigating the usability of interconnected embedded devices. She has spoken at the EuroIA twice before in 2007 and 2010, and we are very happy to have her as our keynote speaker.

What do you love about the job you do?

Well there’s my job, and there’s my work. In terms of my job, I run my own independent consultancy, and I love the autonomy and variety of that. In terms of my work, I love the enormous variety of opportunities and challenges there are embedding computing into the everyday world: technical, social, design. I’m particularly interested in how people will cope with moving from being able to understand the things they use as concrete objects, to having to think in terms of systems of interconnected things, intangible services and data moving around all over the place. That’s not a thing that brains are naturally all that good at, so it’s going to be interesting to see how it develops.

What are you going to focus on for the rest of the year?

That’s a good question! I have a couple of projects that are winding up at the moment, and looking at what to do next. I have a few events coming up, there’s the EuroIA, there’s a conference in Mannheim and we are putting together some talks and presentation materials with some of my co-authors, for hopefully something I can’t announce just yet, but hopefully some training stuff next year. So that’s what I am working on. And I have a number of clients I’m talking to about various things: some of them being software platforms for IoT, for wellness wearables, we’ll see.

What advice would you give your colleagues to prepare for the future?

Focusing on the part I know about (there are lots of others things to do if one is going to prepare for the future), I would say connected devices or rather the services that incorporate connected embedded hardware (which is not quite the same thing), are becoming the bigger part of the work that many people will do. So that may not take the form of making a physical thing, it might well take the form of working with data that come out of connected devices, things like smart meters (the EU is mandating the introduction of smart energy meters, I think everybody should have one by 2020 assuming they want one), so there is a lot of work going on in energy, I hope the UK is not going to bail out of that, but we’ll see. There are a number of things that are different when working with very distributed systems (which is what these things are) with a lot different devices often quite asynchronous, not everything being in sync at the same time; there are also massive challenges in areas like privacy and security; and designing for things that are systems and not designing for software, you know like a few interfaces. So I would say brush up on that stuff.

I think there is obviously a lot of buzz around machine learning at the moment and that will force designers even more to move away from thinking about screens per se and more about conversations. I am not a great fan of the whole No UI thing at the moment, I think there’s always a UI. I don’t agree with the way that is being spun, but I think we are going to be working with services that are much more dynamic for various reasons. I am really excited by the pace of things going faster and faster and I think flexibility is probably important.

Switching modes constantly?

Yes, I think actually one the challenges of working with systems, is having this ability to (this is really important thing for people to be able to do) be able to focus on big picture, like a service design type approach, at the ecosystem level, well parts of the ecosystem, and then being able to zoom back down to something very specific, like “that screen” in “that app” and that issue that’s happening there, and just being able to hold, look up and look down and not get dizzy. So I think that kind of integrated thinking, not everyone is ever going to be brilliant at all of those things, but being able to understand how what you are doing fits into the bigger context. Being able to think about the different layers is important. Understanding the business context, this isn’t new, and the technology context, these things are massively shaping the ecosystems, the more these things blend in the physical world, and the more it’s having an impact on the UX, it’s important to keep half an eye on that stuff as well.

Going back to the EuroIA, why it it important that people come and listen to your talk?

I thought quite hard about what I was going to talk about; and I came to several different issues. It’s a great responsibility being the opening keynote and I thought about what people, who define themselves as IAs, want to know about and I assume there will be some people who haven’t had the opportunity to work with connected products yet, but are interested in that. What I am going to try to do is set the scene for “this is what it is like when you’ve been in the trenches making the stuff”, because I think some of the assumptions that I made, when I started, about things that would be important in UX were wrong. I was right about some of the things and I was wrong about some of the other things. And I got a whole lot of other things that hadn’t even occurred to me which became radically important to shaping that. I would say come if you’re interested in what it’s like to actually be in there, what things are going to be exciting but are also going to come as a surprise you when you first start working in this domain. Some of it will be quite IA specific and some will be kind of general experience design.

You are quite familiar with the EuroIA?

Yes, I have spoken a couple of times before and it’s the first proper conference I spoke at back in 2007 and in 2010 with my colleague Chris Browne talking about design for IoT, when we were first starting to design for it. It is lovely to come back for the keynote after kind of growing up with it.

What is the biggest opportunity in it for you?

If you mean the biggest business opportunity, if I knew that I would be making it! I just see that as something that is going to quietly fold, it’s not a thing anymore, much like asking what’s the biggest opportunity in the Internet. The idea of sensing and controls being baked into the fabric of the world (it may sound like a creepy statement), but there are so many opportunities from this. Those things also come with a very interesting set of challenges, which are also kind of common across types of systems and devices. There will be lots. I think that we are at the point where it is probably about to fall off the top of the Gartner hype cycle. Everyone’s bored about hearing about IoT for its own sake. We are probably going to stop being a thing to talk about, it’s happening already, there is no stopping.

To wrap it up, what question do you think I should have asked you that I haven’t so far?

All I can think of is all the questions that I am happy you didn’t ask! I guess I am very interested to know what most resonates with the IA audience. There are definitely advantages approaching things from the sense-making perspective and also there are some things missing in the conversation, judging by what people are talking about in IA at the moment. I would like to share my perspective on it and see how it resonates.