Product Design For an Animate World

Good products are the result of careful listening. Success happens when designers listen to the needs of stakeholders, breaking these requests apart into components that inform the problem solving process. These constraints, in turn, situate what designers learn about user needs. Synthesis and decision making are dependent upon both gathering enough data and collecting it from the right sources.

Yet how many designers listen to the product? Let me explain. The tools we use and the objects that populate our lives have persuasive qualities. Take the saying, “with a hammer in hand every problem looks like a nail.” While said in jest, there’s clearly an element of truth. The things that help us shape the world have an interfacial quality, subtly augmenting our perception of reality.

Martin Heidegger’s essay The Question Concerning Technology helps explain this phenomenon. When a dam is constructed, Heidegger notes that our perception of the river is transformed. The body of water, which once was an object of hymns, is now set upon by the dam, enlisted as a source of mechanical energy. The dam has an interfacial quality which alters our perception of the river, transforming it into what Heidegger calls a “standing reserve.”

To varying degrees (and in combination) all objects participate in shaping our perception of the world. The essence of this transformation, according to Heidegger, is to transform the world around us into a set of ready commodities. Equally important, objects shape the conditions of users. Think about how roads dictate our ability to travel, mandating the use of certain vehicles. Or consider the ways gig economy apps enlist labor, altering the relationships between those who are employed by the app and those using the service.

This is where product designers come into play. Product designers are uniquely suited to address the stakeholdership of our objects for three reasons: 1. Designers are able to influence the creation of these products. 2. designers know how to listen and have a preexisting sensitivity to interactions between humans and things. 3. Working on digital products, designers have a sophisticated understanding of interface that can be employed in exploring and altering the ways our products augment reality.

Translated into a product design practice, there are key strategies that can be adopted. To begin shifting the way products alter perspectives, designers must think at scale. Dimensionally, this means considering a product at varying perspectives, moving from microscopic, to continental, stopping at human scale along the way. Pierre Bélanger describes this process in his lecture We Have Never Been Urban. For designers this may mean considering the electrons moving through the circuits powering an interface. We can ask is this a worthwhile use of power? How data intensive is this process? Moving out in scale we must consider what cloud services are being used; where is the server infrastructure located on the continent? Finally, as microscopic pulses of light moving between servers, located on opposite coasts, converge in the user’s hand, we must ask: what is the cognitive load? What is this enabling the user to accomplish? While occupied with this task, what are they being prevented from doing?

An example of a project employing these tactics is IPFS, or interplanetary file system, which examines what an internet would look like at solar system scale. Dealing with issues of intermittent connection, vast distances, and limited data, this protocol proposes creative solutions that prove eminently useful here on earth.

Similarly, it is useful to consider products in the context of different time scales. This may mean assessing long term durability, as is done with aircraft and pieces of vital infrastructure such as bridges. It can also mean considering the multigenerational trajectory of a product, as google explores in their “Selfish Ledger” project (though I do not admire the motives informing this work).

Another strategy involves considering extreme edge use cases. This means expanding consideration to second, and third hand users. How will this product be used when it ends up in a thrift store? How will its usage be altered through refurbishment and alteration? In the book Invisible Users, Jenna Burrell describes how young people in Ghana use computers discarded from the global north. These computers are given a second life, long after the end of their considered utility. Examining these use cases is seldom undertaken by designers, yet can have significant impacts.

The strategies described above may seem impossible. They may be beyond the allocated research budget. Or they may seem to require a God’s eye perspective. However, these considerations become less daunting when framed as obligations we owe the product. Rather than consider every possible user, we can instead focus on providing a product with a meaningful existence. In Matters of Care, María Puig De La Bellacasa considers how to live with things while acknowledging their animacy. From this perspective, products really are stakeholders. We owe them meaningful use, dependability, care, and a dignified end.

This concept is not as foreign as it may seem. Consider the United States Flag Code. Certain obligations are owed to the flag and these are honored by keeping the flag from touching the ground, folding the flag in a specific manner and flying it above all others. These rules even extend to the correct disposal of an old flag.

Acknowledging the stakeholdership of products reorients a practice. From this perspective, thinking at scale is a necessity. Yet the obligations do not end there. understanding we have obligations means a product design practice also involves the care of things already in existence.

An often forgotten part of the practice must be the reenlistment of objects around us. We are required to take a up a practice of “Maintenance and care” as described by Shannon Mattern. This means extending the life of the things we use. It means finding clever ways of repurposing and reusing. Product design then becomes about making what we have work.

Pratchaya Phinthong’s piece, Spoon (2019), is an excellent example of this practice of care. Using the shells of bombs dropped by Americans over Laos during the Vietnam War, Phinthong displays a spoon made from the recast material. Taking weapons of war, Phinthong reenlists the material into a domestic tool.

To bring this essay full circle, I want to return once more to the Dam. Utilizing all the strategies mentioned above, is it possible to alter the way a river is augmented by technology?

Yes! Near where I live, a river called the Elwha runs from the high glacial streams of the Olympic mountains down to the Straits of Juan de Fuca. In the early 1900s it was dammed to provide power for a lumber mill. Blocking the river, the dam effectively ended upstream salmon spawning.

However, eight years ago the dam was removed. This decision was made for a variety of reasons. Considering the long term health of salmon populations, and their impact on local industry and ecology, the removal was recommended. This meant thinking about the project in generational terms. Furthermore, this removal was considered to be beneficial to the entire peninsula region, bolstering not only salmon populations but all the populations dependent upon salmon as a major food source, including whales, seals, bears and humans. Importantly, this process was facilitated by first nations groups who spearheaded the removal effort. Often marginalized from decision making processes, the removal represented an important act of decolonization, both in terms of infrastructure and leadership.

Though the dam is gone, the river remains enframed by technology. With monitoring equipment observing large swathes of the watershed, quantifying the return of salmon populations, the river is arguably more technologically inscribed than before. However, this mediation has shifted the way in which the river is enframed. The river remains enlisted as as a reserve. However it is a reserve which is regenerative in nature, bolstering what Heidegger calls the “growth of saving power.” No longer coerced into filling a role as energy supplier The Elwha has returned to being a home, an agent, and the site of hymns.

As a product designer, I hope to emulate this kind of transformation. I want the products for which I hold responsibility to have an interfacial quality that inscribes the world with saving power. Importantly, this must remain cogent at scale. Not only do I owe it to my human stakeholders, I owe it to the product, as a stakeholder in its own right.

in earnest?