Solipsism by Design?

Solipsism is the philosophical idea that only one’s own mind is sure to exist. As an early adopter, I’ve been increasingly aware of a trend in service and product design that I find worrying: product and service design that seems to be born under the assumption that the one user of the product, the one owner of the service, is the only person who matters, a kind of solipsism by design.

It’s not just that we’re designing things for people who don’t have families. We’re designing things for people as if they never interact with anyone else in the real world. This is a problem, especially when it comes to the internet of things and wearables, both of which are about real objects that have to work in your every day life, where you are (hopefully, unless you’re Ted Kaczynski) interacting with other humans on a fairly regular basis.

Two recent experiences got me thinking about this.

DYI Lifx Lightswitch (Blutak not included)

I recently purchased some LIFX connected light-bulbs for my home. Among the listed example uses in the accompanying pamphlet are things such as: using a geofence you can have your lightbulbs turn off when you leave the house. The bulbs also assume that you will be turning them on and off with your smartphone at all times. In short, it assumes that you are single, childless and live alone in a studio apartment (probably in SoMa). The bulbs themselves are great, but the interaction design needs some work. I am still chuckling at the mental image of all the lightbulbs in my house shutting down when I leave the house leaving my wife and kids to complete their morning routine in darkness. The idea of a light bulb that can be controled by smartphone is great. The idea of a light bulb that must be controlled by smart phone is a bit silly. People do not always carry their smartphones with them (sorry — they don’t) and what about visitors to your home? Along with how to use the 7 remote controls do I need start telling babysitters “please download the LIFX app if you want to be able to see this evening”? Our low-tech solution was to use an older generation Samsung Galaxy smartphone blu-taked to the wall. It’s still not quite as convenient as a real switch but it’s easier enough.

Another irksome example is the Apple Watch. Even in such a personal device, there are times when you want to use it as an interaction mechanism. For example, you might want to show someone else the time. This action — showing someone else the watch face, is exactly what turns off the display. Picture this: you’re looking at Mickey who’s smiling up at you, showing the time. You turn your hand so your friend can see him too and share in the pure, unadulterated joy of Mickey, and all your friend sees is a blank screen. Maybe Mickey is your imaginary friend? I understand, by the way, that they need to be pretty aggressive about turning the screen off to conserve battery power, but still — this is a pretty frustrating experience.

No obvious counter examples — technologies that are designed around or help to facilitate personal interactions — come to mind. This feels like a gap to me.

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