Starting my first solo design project at CIID

Sami Desir
7 min readSep 23, 2018

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Design research, object-centered style

A wrap up of the research phase of my 10 weeks long graduation project at Copenhagen Institute of Interaction Design (CIID) which took me to speak with fitness lovers, customisers, tattoo artists, and a coffee press about the strange relations we entertain with our things.

What does the future looks like once we welcome intelligence into something as simple as a coffee maker? This is the question I chose as the starting point of my final project after hearing premonitions that the Internet of Things holds the possibility of facilitating the creation of an economy where waste could be a problem of the past. How would that work? IDEO speculates that with progress in sensors and AI, we could look at designing updatable — as opposed to disposable — products embedded with intelligence that will allow them to adapt to their context. This left me wondering what an evolving object might look and feel like, so I decided to find out by looking for early signals in our brave new world.

To understand the potential of this promise, I wanted to explore two areas that seemed relevant to this project. First, what is it like to live with a product that has a form of intelligence, and second, how things around us evolve and how the different processes of evolution can apply in designing for AI ?

With this plan in mind, I spent the first three weeks of the project in full exploration mode and conducted user and expert interviews and attended various events at Copenhagen’s Techfestival.

Forming Artificial Relationships

One of the objectives of the research was to talk to different actors in this human-product relationship at the core of this design direction. I first spoke with a researcher investigating the way people relate to their social media algorithm and sat down with people that used smartwatches to stay active. Of course, this empathy exercise wouldn’t have been complete if I didn’t try to understand how the other side of the relationship might feel, I needed to get the objects point of view!

“You could also try to interview an object to understand its context, that could be fun “ — the perfect advice from Simone Rebaudengo

On suggestion from Simone Rebaudengo, I decided to get a little weird with my design research. I called a friend doing improv to set up an experimental design interview between me and one of the french press we have in the kitchen. It turned out to be a pretty insightful way to brainstorm on the idea of what context and knowledge could mean to an object. Did you know for example that it’s not uncommon for a french press to have to sit there and watch us make a cup of instant coffee ?

A french press can be desperate for attention…

Through these interviews on the human-object relationship, I learned that products are not looked at for what they are as much as they are “looked through” for the purpose they have. Take Facebook, for example. The product is opaque and shows very little about the ways it gathers data to tailor the experience for each users, so people don’t have a feeling that they can do much to influence it, and they just don’t think about it so often.

These don’t have a personality, but we understand them pretty well because of the feedback they give us credits : @Andresurena on Unsplash

How could AI and algorithms be brought back to the foreground in the user experience? Personality has the advantage of bringing up the product itself to the foreground, but in practice I’m not sure giving a personality to every smart object would be a desirable solution.

Another thing that came out during the research is that we often prevent ourselves from looking at what products might be because we create very purpose oriented mental models of what they are to us. This becomes a problem once intelligent products pursue undisclosed goals, like data mining for example, because we’re not able to perceive it. Could smart objects use this bias to deceive us soon?

“A smoke detector with a microphone that’s a data parasite.”
— Felix Heibeck

Could that even be done to serve a greater good ?

A Certain Theory of Evolution

Another key part of my project is this idea of updating products to allow them to stay relevant, and therefore avoid having them sent to the landfill. To understand what it could mean to design for evolution, I met different people who were keen on modifying what they had. So I talked to people with tattoos all over their arms, visited Copenhagen’s most modular bike shop, talked with the owner of a co-created furniture shop and had a chat with people who hacked their way into building a smart home.

At XYZ Cargo, customers are invited to participate to the construction of the bikes.

Through these explorations, I found interesting parallels related to the fact that tools are not looked at for what they are; for those who participate in the process of evolving a thing, it becomes natural to look at the product for what it is and what it’s made off, which allows them to better understand and fix the product when the need comes.

Could we, in the same way fix our AIs if we were more actively engaged in constructing them through their training and learning?

Aesthetic considerations

Looking at evolution under all these different forms also highlighted interesting parallels between the process of evolution and the way an Artificial Intelligence grows its knowledge, which opened intriguing ways to approach the aesthetics of this project. Artificial Intelligences are dynamic, how could they live in static products that would reflect the nature of the knowledge they accumulate?

So, what are the aesthetics of AI ?

First, there is the question of the form of AI, which as Dario Buzzini pointed out during an interesting conversation we had, require to ask if AI even needs a form in the first place? After all, in a pure form follow function approach, does it make sense for knowledge to be physical? Alexa is a voice interface because it does not get used in the same way that we interact with a pencil sharpener. Looking at things from my evolution angle, could the aesthetics of AI be approached more as a process than an object?

An expired way of talking about AI

Then, there is the question of the metaphor we want to use when we talk about AI. Letting the metaphor guide the form factor could be a way of forming a mental model of AI that fosters better relationship to it. Is AI human? Animal? A tool? Plants?

Either way, as Joshua Walton reminded me, a metaphor doesn’t have to be entirely honest to the reality of the system it represents. Even though electric current and water have very different characteristics from a purely scientific point of view, the water analogy can get a beginner a long way to understand the basics of electronics.

Next steps and the bigger picture.

What would these principles look like applied to a french press ?

The next 7 weeks of my project will be dedicated to building prototypes of a future IoT experience in the home. But in the beginning, I will bring AI in different contexts inside and outside the home as a way of approaching these questions under different angles. This will help me to define the type of knowledge that makes sense to be integrated in a product and to play out different scenarios of evolution for the user-AI relationship.

In parallel of doing this exercise, I will continue my exploration of the aesthetics of AI and see how this might inform my iterative process. This is my playground.

Through these experiments, I will also have to ask myself how I want to bring the insights of this 10 weeks project to the conversation about Artificial Intelligence, the Internet of Things, and the role they will play in the direction taken by consumerism under the rise of the service economy — which is establishing yet another black box for consumers to not be able to see through.

At this point, I’m still undecided about whether I want the result of this project to bring understanding to the users of my product, or directly to the audience of my project. After all, throughout my exploration I kept coming across designers advocating to move away from solutions centred on humans and to start making solutions acknowledging the complex systems in which humans are treated as just one of the participant in the environment, sometimes going as far as making a point by treating people like mere resources to be mined for the public good.

“It’s time to go past critical design, what we need now is cynical design.”

—Overheard during the research

This was my first entry to the my final project journal, I might decide not to write more as the project evolve, let’s see…

An for all the people who took time to talk to me up to this stage and helped me to frame this project, the list is long and GDPR is confusing but for who it may concern, thank you.

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Sami Desir

Interaction Design Program 18 at CIID (Copenhagen Institute Of Interaction Design)