Q&A with connected product designer Alexandra Deschamps-Sonsino

As founder of designswarm, Alexandra Deschamps-Sonsino is an interaction designer, product designer, entrepreneur and speaker that focuses on the Internet of Things. She takes the NEXT15 stage on 25 September for a hands-on workshop with Knowcards, a tool that allows anyone to design connected products. Contagious spoke with Deschamps-Sonsino about her product design philosophy and how the IoT will impact consumers and brands.

Contagious: What are the most important factors to consider when designing connected products? How do you identify a need?

Alexandra Deschamps-Sonsino: It’s difficult to answer this question without falling in the trap of quoting typical business advice. Finding a market big enough, testing with customers … all this is true, but what I find endlessly fascinating is giving normal people opportunities to see the potential in connected products. So many connected products hint to a life that we don’t quite live or understand yet. We’re afraid of this future, what it might do to our way of life, but we’re also fascinated. We’re looking for the same enthusiasm about the future that the post-war era provided us with around private heli-pads and smart kitchens.

What entrepreneurs in this space are trying to do is answer questions that people haven’t even started asking themselves. My family is going through a difficult period at the moment with a bed-ridden father with cancer and there are so many devices I wish were available to give my mother peace of mind. These things don’t exist yet, but they are possible.

I’m not saying we have a completely blank slate as most connected products aren’t trying to reinvent the material landscape of everyday living, but we are trying to look at everyday objects in a new light, with digital thinking and data to guide us. I think, when designers get involved and technologists understand more about product design, we will see an unprecedented revolution of small, niche applications that will solve problems large companies have been very bored by or worried about.

Right now we’ve only invented electricity and we’re trying to figure out what to do with it. Before we start worrying about design process and how to do things well, we need to re-invent the idea of success and growth with connected products.

Many early-stage product companies will make hundreds of something for a long time before they make thousands and millions. You just can’t replicate the infrastructure of Bosch or sales figures of Apple overnight. Those things are hard to believe for young minds brainwashed by the ‘Agile hardware’ rhetoric and hard for hardware-shy investors to swallow. It’s down to small-scale successes that make people happy and change lives.

How will the infrastructure around the Internet of Things grow? Will we call technicians to connect our house like we call plumbers and electricians?

I don’t think we should hold on too tightly to the idea of ‘everything connected to everything seamlessly’. I think we must have inherited that from ideas of flow, and thinking of our lives as machines that need to be made more efficient. Everything about our homes tells us this isn’t true. We live with varying degrees of worry and care when it comes to our home lives and the objects around us. It’s what allows us to maintain social lives, hobbies, work and home lives all at once. When technologists and designers work on the basis of behavioural pyramid schemes (if-this-then-that) we lose the human behaviour in the mix. By knowing everything about everything all the time, our worry-scape increases and we don’t want that. We have busy enough lives.

Some technologically-enhanced products will only ever act in isolation and do something clever really well. The Good Night Lamp does that, it doesn’t try to inter-operate from the get-go with the world around you. It’s a lamp with a little extra but it’s not taking over your life or your home.

So I’d like to think the dream of ‘ubiquitous, interoperable objects, homes and office spaces’ will be difficult to realise. We shouldn’t see that as a sign of failure from industry though, just a sign of our humanity.

How will connected products be adopted into the mainstream?

That’s a tricky question, as again, it’s like asking, ‘how will everyone use electricity?’.

It will happen one application at a time and it will be different for everyone, depending on their budget and where they live. Not all of us have smartphones or take Uber. We’re not all white, male, middle-class creative types living in high-density urban areas.The more ideas are successful at selling several hundred units for a few years, the more likely they are of picking up a good market for their niche application. But there won’t be something that everyone, universally, will buy as most of us tend to cover our basic needs before we spend money on other things.

We will get through this rough period where the internet of things is a ‘thing’, hyped up and very aggressively pointed at. Tech press will move on, leaving companies to try making products or large companies to take more risks. We will have crossed the bridge of ‘this is new’.

Lots of companies will fail (and I mean real companies that tried, instead of crowdfunded products that never shipped) and others will succeed in finding the one small thing that changes people’s lives. That will be the wedge and then people won’t even imagine how they could have done without those small functionalities embedded in their daily lives. Just like teenagers don’t know what to do with a rotary phone.

How are companies changing their businesses to incorporate the IoT?

I don’t think many are yet. When I ran Tinker, we encountered a lot more curiosity from R&D departments in large businesses. Now, a lot of management consulting firms are getting paid to assess the next move. I think the next five years will see them being more assertive and invest in making organisational changes.

The biggest challenge, of course, is that software meets hardware meets product design meets customer support in the internet of things. These are not separate business units, they should be part of the same delivery process and that’s difficult for many large businesses to imagine. To bridge the gap they may decide to acquire or partner with startups but ultimately they have to change the way they do business.

Why do the predictions about the growth of IoT products vary so wildly?

Predictions are made by people who have something to sell, whether it’s data providers, infrastructure providers or chipset manufacturers. It’s just another way of advertising your services. I recently assessed Gartner’s approach to ‘predicting’ the internet of things over the last ten years and it’s laughable. There’s little truth in these predictions; the only true thing to do is to get involved and make something. That will take you the time it takes to worry about predictions. This isn’t a market that you can easily predict in the same way gold and publicly listed companies can be assessed, and their ups and downs predicted, so I wouldn’t worry about how large the IoT market will be. It will be as big as the number of people who will decide to quit their jobs and build new things in the world.

That’s as far as I’m willing to care about predicting this area. I’ve been running the London Internet of Things Meetup for four years now and I see a lot of energy, but I also see people preparing themselves to do something. I see people waiting for the right time. As the saying goes, ‘The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second-best time is now.’

What is the difference between the Internet of Things and ‘smart products’?

This is a common misconception. I built a litmus test for the Internet of Things because of this.

Many companies who have built ‘sensor networks’ for the industrial sector started saying they’d always been doing IoT products. For me, the criteria for an IoT product is that the company provides a consumer physical product that depends on open standards or accessible (API) web and software infrastructures. This makes the product act as a citizen online (as my friend Adrian McEwen would say) and allows an ecology to grow around the product later. You want that because things happen and maybe companies go bankrupt, you’d like someone to enable you to still use your product; otherwise it’s just wasteful!

We have many responsibilities as product designers, and one of them is to avoid pointless e-waste. By being clear about what is ‘smart’ and what is an IoT, product we make sure the right people are meeting and getting involved and collaborating.

You’ve said in the past that ‘incremental innovation beats radical innovation.’ What do you mean by that? And how do you define ‘innovation’?

I saw it with the Good Night Lamp when I came up with it in 2005. It was too far too soon, and not close enough to anything people knew. There’s a danger in pushing people’s comfort levels too early, and that’s what I call radical innovation. Incremental innovation in connected products is really about taking something people know and pushing it just a little in a different direction, one that doesn’t naturally clash with the affordances of that object. It’s tricky, but it works better than taking glasses and turning them into cameras, like Google Glass.

What are your favourite examples of connected products?

I love Nabaztag, Little Printer and Bleep Bleeps. I love the future they pointed to: a future of playful experiences with little screen attention needed. A future that was closer to Teletubbies than 2001: A Space Odyssey. There’s great power there and I’d like to see that playfulness present in the products that will take off. I don’t see it often enough and I don’t think it’s about infantilising, but we need to break the discourse of the 50s where technology is there as a way of making things better, more efficient. We have entered a period of great productivity loss, homo ludens, we might as well see technology as contributing to this.

(This article was originally published on contagious.com, 10/9/16).