Intelligent objects are certainly not a product of the 21th century. Since the introduction of solid state transistors in the ’60s we’ve been witnessing the “smartifications” of appliances and toys. Moore’s law made possible an exponential advancement in electronics, allowing us to manufacture always cheaper and smaller devices. So why has this term become such a trend topic over the past years? The answer to this question is to be found in tools, rather than technologies. Electronic prototyping platforms such as Arduino and the creation of Fablabs and makerspaces, along with the online communities that formed around them, gave design students, garage makers and creatives in general the spaces, equipment and support for testing their ideas. The subsequent rise of interest in smart objects also encouraged manufacturing companies and design studios to take a chance, and invest in the launch of their own product. And with the diffusion of smartphones and an increasingly powerful and social web, the opportunities for interactive, connected products exploded.

Among the most common smart products available today, many promote the possibility of remote control through a smartphone app as a core feature; but smart products really shine when they interact with services and platforms of the online world. Connectivity provides access to all sorts of data; it allows devices to take part in our digital life, integrating with the social networks and communication services we use every day; and lastly, it offers the possibility to take advantage of a huge number of online software services. This last aspect in particular is steering the design of smart products in exciting directions. Major technology groups (Google, Microsoft, Amazon) and a number of other start-ups, driven by advancements in machine learning, are providing ready to use, state-of-the-art tools such as voice recognition, object recognition, language translation, face analysis and many others. Accessible through web APIs, those capabilities can expand dramatically what a “thing” can do when connected online, introducing in their behaviours levels of sophistication that were unthinkable a few years ago. Smart products are learning to communicate with humans in their own language, understanding the world they live in and showing a great degree of autonomy.

We’ve recently started researching methodologies to design for increasingly complex and nuanced interactions, and the preliminary step was to create a language that allowed us to work in this different scenario. David Rose’s idea of Enchanted Objects offers a suitable metaphor when we are limited to augment ordinary objects (like his examples of as an umbrella that lights up when is about to rain, or a pill box that produces an audio signal when its user is due to take a medication), but is a short-lived solution when we deal with more complex technologies. To quote Tobias Revell on the subject, “when mag­ic goes wrong, the nar­ra­tive of mag­ic can quick­ly turn to hor­ror”. With the intent to avoid either of those extremes, we drafted a framework that guided us to design smart objects. What we came up with are three archetypal “personas” for smart devices. Is the product’s main function to fulfill a specific goal even against the user direct control? That is a police object. Do we expect the device to automate as many things as possible, leveraging technology to offer the most seamless type of interactions? We call that a butler. Is the product compensating users’ capabilities, working in symbiosis with them, but never imposing a final choice? That is a buddy behaviour. By employing human-like characters, hinting to modes of interactions we are already familiar with, our aim is to provide us and the users we design for, a set of metaphors that don’t feel deceiving and to reduce friction when they don’t behave in perfectly predictable ways.

But interaction design is not the only field that requires our attention. When dealing with connectedness, design choices reach far beyond the physicality of the objects and into our lives, both online and offline. Recent news confirms how important it is to try tackle product design with a more global view. Google’s shut down of smart home hub product Revolv reminds us how slippery the notion of ownership is when connected devices rely on external services to run. And a hacker attack in the USA that employed a network of compromised internet connected cameras, teaches us that security is not a matter to be treated lightly. Finally, as objects are increasingly automated, we need to carefully work to make sure they address diversity in the most appropriate way. Overall, the design of smart products lays at the intersection of a number of different disciplines. UX choices can easily interfere with security, and interaction design decision might lead to privacy consequences. Ergonomy needs to come together with software and data; business choices have substantial impact on the functioning of a product. Smart objects require us to become what architect and inventor Buckminster Fuller called a Comprehensive Designer, one that would eschew specialisation to be able to gain a better perspective of the whole picture, a necessary approach for designing smart products that are both useful and human-centered.

Originally published as a preface of the book Smart Product Design (SendPoint).

Written by

Designer and Technologist // Inventing products and experiences with emerging technologies at @ixdsberlin

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