Being Present: The Future is Ambient

Janani Vasudev

User experience design is a discipline that deals with experiences shaped by interactions with technology. The field is rooted in a human-centered approach which fuels the creation of products and services that deeply resonate with its audience. The iterative design process involves a consideration of what people do, what they desire, and the problems they face as they carry on their day as central to the design. It is about interpreting contextual insights and anticipating needs to design a meaningful product or service that will, in some way, empower them.

Historically, user experience design has been associated primarily with screen-based digital products (think: websites, desktop software and apps). As technology advances, the interaction paradigms evolve. Where we once used a mouse to point and click, now anything and everything is available at a touch and swipe of a finger. We once had to sit down at a desk to access a website, now we scroll through pages of social media feeds on a smartphone or tablet as we wait for an Uber to arrive (also hailed through the assistance of our mobile device).

The iPhone, followed by the iPad, paved the way for technology to proliferate into our everyday lives. With an app for pretty much everything you wanted or didn’t realize you wanted in your life, the iPhone let us do anything, including make calls. The ‘meaning’ of a phone was forever changed.


The rise of ambient experiences

The technology landscape is different today. Advancements in IoT, biometric recognition, voice control, haptics, computer vision and artificial intelligence are changing people’s expectations for how they experience technology. These innovations make it clear that the future will not be made of buttons. Interactions are moving beyond the screen and we are interfacing with devices around us in more natural ways. We are able to communicate with technology on our own terms — in our natural words, behaviors and gestures.

For example, the evolution of voice assistant have brought digital butlers into our home or workplace allowing us to do everything from hailing an Uber to ordering groceries all without having to reach for a smartphone or tablet. Looking forward, these assistants might even summon a ride for you based on information in your calendar with the help of artificial intelligence. The bottom line is that these devices are powering truly ubiquitous experiences.

As these devices become commonplace, they’ve also become pervasive within our physical environments. Everyday objects — thermostats, lights, locks, doors, appliances, and automobiles — promise a smarter and a more connected world. We open and shut doors using our phones. Want to experience a sunset in the Savanna? Just open the app on your phone and instantly be transported across the globe. Even toothbrushes can talk to phones providing data on how to take care of our teeth. While the phone is the key to connectivity today, it won’t be long before we move to an era of ambient experiences where data seamlessly flows across multiple touchpoints blending the physical and digital environments as the user journeys through space.

As we begin to expect ‘connectedness’ to follow us everywhere at all times, it becomes important to ask, what constitutes true connectedness to people? How does connectedness and the ambient experiences it enables influence spatial design? How can we enable connectedness to the point where the medium becomes irrelevant? And finally, how can these ambient experiences build experiences of place? Asking these questions is the first step in the right direction to creating experiences that are less piecemeal and more integrated into human lives.


Placemaking in the digital age

The concept of placemaking in urban design and planning dates back to the early 1960s. It is the human-centered approach to designing spaces with an emphasis on the needs and aspirations of the people that will use the space. It focuses not on building spaces, but on fostering a sense of community and promoting people’s health, happiness and economic well-being through design.

The principles remain true today, but the importance of technology in creating meaningful spaces cannot be underscored. In the digital age, placemaking involves elevating a ‘space’ into a ‘place’ by skillfully marrying technology with physical spaces to create memorable experiences. While a space is nothing more than a three-dimensional box, a place, in contrast, is associated with the activities that happens within. Places have “soul.” They are emotive, they are communal and, more importantly, they tell a story. At times, this story is theatrical. At other times, it is less dramatic, so quiet that we don’t even notice it. Yet, our lives change for the better.

Today’s concept of placemaking goes deeper than creating a mobile wayfinding app that assists people in navigating a space, AR or VR entertainment, or attaching high-resolution displays to physical locations. Technology experiences such as these are usually an afterthought — bolted onto the space as an addition after it’s designed and built. Technology is used for technology’s sake and the experience does not consider how people use and move through the space. With placemaking, we take a ground-up approach, considering how a space interfaces with technology resulting in improved experiences for the people it’s designed for.

Let’s for a moment think about the experience design of the Amazon Go store. Powered by a network of intelligent cameras and sensors, this grab-and-go store allows guests to do just that — walk in, grab items and walk out — without ever having to pull out their wallets or wait in line to checkout. While the underlying technology is groundbreaking, this redefined shopping experience shifts the paradigm on how both the physical and digital components of the store are designed. In this world, the connectivity between these components is critical — they influence one another and will need to work in harmony to create a truly connected experience for the shopper.


Thinking and designing for Ambient

We define ambient experience design (AxD) as the emerging interdisciplinary design practice that draws from an array of traditional design disciplines such as UX/UI, industrial design, architecture, interior design, material science and more to build places that resonate with the people that occupy them.

Like most design disciplines, AxD is rooted in a human-centered approach to understanding the lives of the people that will journey through spaces — physical and digital — to discover people’s needs and aspirations. Any light on a person’s expectations, mindset and behavior as they enter the experience is essential to its design. As architectural and digital designers develop a shared empathy to who they are designing for and align on a vision for the experience upfront, a holistic design strategy surfaces. Floor plans are generated to map the space and show traffic patterns through the environment. Technology experiences both within (e.g. wayfinding) and outside the space (e.g. customer affinity and engagement apps) are outlined. This strategy helps the design of a place that supports the people and their activities both spatially and technologically — and helps them achieve their goals, augments their lives and ultimately provides real meaning.


What does all this mean

The qualities to design for and embody in a place will ultimately depend on its purpose (i.e. the meaning it is meant to take on for people). Advancements in technology and material science and the emergence of ‘zero interfaces’ are leading designers to a new realm where experiences become more physical and sensory. The imminent fusing of the physical and digital worlds for the consumer is real. As people consume connected experiences in their homes, they will expect similar experiences in other fields such as retail, healthcare, and hospitality. Interactions with physical and digital touch points will need equal focus as we think about the design of a service or an experience.

As a result, designing tomorrow’s consumer experiences cannot be a siloed process. To build harmonious environments, a collaboration between different types of design practitioners is beholden. It will require cross functional teams to collaborate and refine current design methodologies and develop new ones as they go. Digital designers will learn to let go of the screen carving a path into a new territory that challenges the way we think and design.

An understanding of a person’s movements through a three-dimensional space will be critical. Thinking about the built environment with a product mindset is something new for architectural designers too. They will think about technology and the experiences that it enables during conceptual design. Even as the nature of design deliverables change, prototyping will become a key tool in the design toolkit. We are figuring out how to do something no one has before, so prototyping ideas allows us to take risks, experiment, learn and move on. It is also a great way to get feedback and tinker forward. We will learn that figuring out what questions to ask is part of design. And an understanding that the experience a person will have within a space — whatever it may be — will be framed by their lives.

Janani Vasudev

Written by

I dream, design and tell stories of a good life. Experience Director at a creative innovation studio in Portland. www.amplifiedbydesign.com

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