Human-Centred Design in the Age of Data Connectivity

Thoughts on data, design and the Actor-Network Theory

I left my home in Yokohama, Japan in the autumn of 2016 to study MA Innovation Management at Central Saint Martins in London, UK. I said good-bye to all of the glorious lifestyle inventions that completely spoiled me — a refrigerator that talked to me when I had left the door open, an automatic bath filling system that alerted me when the bath was ready, a toilet with a warm-seating with an automatic washlet and flushing — and the list goes on. Sure, these objects offered me convenience, comfortability and maybe even luxury. But at the end of the day, they were objects, existing in isolation. These objects did not interact with each other. They were designed only so that I could have the best experience in a particular place at a particular moment in time.

Fast forward to autumn 2017. I visited the IKEA House Party, a central London immersive space to celebrate 30 years of the brand being in the UK. Each floor of the house exhibited a snapshot of IKEA’s impact in homes starting from the 80’s to the present, and a snippet into the future. And it is in this speculative space where I found this caption:

Found at the IKEA House Party, London, UK

“Connected home of the future” it read, and I immediately thought of my home back in Japan, and all of those glamorous machines that sat in isolation. IKEA has always offered customers a total, integrated experience of their products, rather than their products alone. This is merely an extension of their brand storytelling — yes, speculative — but extremely convincing. But how do we design connectivity?

Humanising data

IDC’s Digital Universe estimates that the number of connected devices is expected to expand from less than 20 billion today to 30 billion by 2020 to 80 billion by 2025. The talk on IoT connectivity isn’t quite a big news, as we are constantly creating copious amounts of data — around 2.5 quintillion bytes — every single day. But what these numbers do not show is that our day-to-day interaction with data is crafted in the form of user interfaces and experiences. Raw data alone does not mean anything to people. In order for people to make sense of data, it must be humanised — i.e. designed to reflect and respond to human behaviours. Simply put, data is merely the means to an end, a new material for design.

For many design firms, this means taking a human-centred approach and bringing empathy and soul into data. Giorgia Lupi, an information designer and artist, has brilliantly elaborated on this topic in her TEDtalk, “How we can find ourselves in data”:

“…working with data means designing ways to transform the abstract and the uncountable into something that can be seen, felt and directly reconnected to our lives and to our behaviors, something that is hard to achieve if we let the obsession for the numbers and the technology around them lead us in the process.”

No matter how new or quick the digital landscape is, one principle should always remain the same: putting people at the centre of every design. But how do we keep this value intact when the environment that our people live in is vastly connected and constantly changing? How do we design for and in such connectivity?

Designing for connectivity

We are living in the age where network connectivity allows us, humans, to form relationships not just with each other, but also with our phones, home appliances, cars and infrastructures. Just a few days ago, the design consultancy IDEO announced that it has acquired Datascope, a Chicago-based data science company. Tim Brown, the CEO of IDEO expressed that “we have spent the past hundred, or thousand, years designing artifacts…we’re designing relationships now as opposed to designing artifacts.” This implies that today’s new product and service offerings should not be designed to exist on its own — but rather, designed to integrate within the shifting landscape of data connectivity.

This then poses a challenge to human-centred design: how does one ensure that new offerings are not only catered towards humans, but also take into account human to human, and human to non-human relationships?

Michel Callon, Bruno Latour and John Law’s “Actor-Network Theory (ANT)” precisely explores this notion of human and non-human relationships. ANT is an approach that examines “social” as a constantly shuffling networks of associations formed between heterogenous elements. These elements involve humans and non-humans, including ideas, objects and processes. They note, it is within this “peculiar movement of re-association and reassembling” that social can be identified.

ANT has a potential to be a useful approach when integrated with human-centred design. When human-centred design applies empathy in data, ANT can be used as a benchmark to map out the landscape of network connectivity. This ensures that company decisions are not made on tech-driven impulse, but rather as part of a coherent ecosystem that make people’s lives a little bit better. The combined methodology may even uncover hidden opportunities and new trail of associations. Data, people and connectivity—it may perhaps be the area where they meet that the new, untold story could emerge.

References

Budds, D. (2017) Exclusive: Ideo’s Plan To Stage An AI Revolution, Co.Design. Co.Design. Available at: https://www.fastcodesign.com/90147010/exclusive-ideos-plan-to-stage-an-ai-revolution (Accessed: October 17, 2017).

Latour, B. (2005) Reassembling the Social. An Introduction to Actor-Network Theory. Oxford & New York: O.U.P.


Megumi is an MA Innovation Management student at Central Saint Martins currently working on her dissertation exploring the relationship between IoT and design in delivering a service that becomes a useful part of people’s everyday life.

Feel free to leave a comment or email me at m.koyama0520161[at]arts.ac.uk
for questions/opportunities/enquiries!

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