Designing for the Internet of Things

Today I went to a workshop, Design for Communication Without Words, at Method in San Francisco. It was part of Interaction15, a conference on interaction design. The workshop was focused on how to communicate to the user when there isn’t a screen. As ‘internet of things’ devices get more complex, they need to convey more statuses than just on, off, and battery low. How do we design this when a lot of these devices have no screen?

Henri the box with a speaker, some lights, and physical controls

We would be using a new device that they had created to prototype these types of communications. The device had five variables that could be controlled by physical dials. There was a light on the outside which could be more or less bright. On the front was a ring of LEDs which could be animated or could pulse at varying speeds. Finally there was also a speaker which could play any recorded sound.

On our way into Method’s offices we were given a chip with a household object on it. These were used to break us into teams. My team was Front Door. The first task we were given was to decide on a personality for our door. We debated a variety, including sassy, stern, and motherly. What we decided on was “excitable dog.” What could be better than the door getting really excited when you come home, and really sad to see you leave?

Once we’d figured out the personality we chose a few scenarios to design for:

  • When a friend comes to the door
  • When something strange is going on outside
  • When the FBI comes to your door

We had to figure out how a door, with the personality of a dog, would communicate to you in these scenarios. What was nice is that we figured out very different approaches to each solution. For the FBI we were able to be quite literal, we used a flashing blue and red light to represent police. When a friend came to the door we used something less literal; The door would cycle between a few pleasant colours with a playful melodic sound playing. Finally, for something strange going on outside we needed something more ambient, more like ‘thinking,’ so we went with the outside light gently pulsing. Though, on reflection, a door with it’s edges gently pulsing could be a little too poltergeist-ey.

Take Aways

Design is about constraints, and this was no different. It was incredible seeing the breadth of emotions and messages that could be conveyed through a few lights and a speaker. One team designed an iron that could disapprove of your fashion choices, which is a pretty complicated communication.

The physicality of the device was also really fun. Hardware is difficult to make, but it can have a different type of impact to just software. This isn’t a surprise, but is important to remember.

My biggest takeaway, however, was process based. It was useful it is to think about a personality for the product from the beginning. This idea is in Aaron Walter’s Designing for Emotion (there’s an excerpt specifically about personalities on A List Apart), but this I hadn’t gotten to practice it until now.

Overall it was a really fun workshop. Thanks to all of the great folks at Method.

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