Connected spaces: the new frontier in product design

Photo by Xianjuan HU on Unsplash.

How architects and product designers are teaming up to create digital-physical experiences that are distinctly human

With so much news over the past 18 months focused on how our digital data is being compromised and how our social media feeds are being cluttered with false information, one could be forgiven for not noticing how digital technologies are starting to transform our physical spaces as well. And I’m not just talking about learning thermostats and voice-enabled TVs (though smart-home devices do play a role). Physical spaces are being reconfigured with the help of sensors, the internet of things (IoT), artificial intelligence (AI) and other technologies in exciting new ways.

Last year, a company called Ori brought together MIT’s Media Lab and Yves Behar to design and develop a flexible room that can be reconfigured with a voice command or the touch of a button. On a commercial scale, the Amazon Go store in Seattle allows customers to walk out with their groceries without talking to a cashier or paying (their Amazon accounts are charged when they pass by a sensor synced to a phone app near the exit). Amazon Go has sparked a trend in automated shopping, and Google is also getting in on the action: Their Sidewalk Lab project is transforming an entire neighborhood in Toronto into a model of urban mobility, sustainable design and community with things like self-driving technology, predictive software for buildings and data-driven community services.

These are just a few examples of how advancements in technology are changing the built environment. The fact is, physical spaces are more in flux than they’ve ever been, and designers are increasingly being asked to discover digital value in our homes, office buildings, airports, sports arenas and cities.

As the Global Lead of Connected Products at Fjord, I’m increasingly focused on designing digital-physical experiences. In fact, Fjord and its parent company, Accenture, have been laying the groundwork over the past several years to become a leader in this space. My own company, Matter, was acquired in 2017 because of my team’s work on connected products and experiences. Other acquisitions and hires have put Accenture at the front of the pack when it comes to design and technology capabilities in this space.

What’s most interesting to me, however, is a question: How do we make sure the experiences we design are human? As we engineer efficiencies and shift human workers away from doing mechanical things like cashiering, we have to make sure to not strip out the human elements altogether.

For example, the past few years have seen a demand for “don’t-make-me-think” products that are so easy to use that they almost recede into the background. For some products, this is a good thing and a worthy design goal. We expect our thermostats to keep our homes cool and our digital assistants to retrieve the latest sports scores. The more “friction” we can remove from these experiences, the more efficient and functional they’ll be. But is this true for everything? In some cases, friction can be a necessary human ingredient.

Several years ago, I helped design the Disney My Magic+ system,which revolved around a wearable called the MagicBand that connected Disney World Guests to the Park and guided them through their experience. With the Magic Band, no one needs to look at their phones or take out their wallets. Sensors inside the park pair with sensors in the Magic Band to remove the need to check into a hotel, pay at a restaurant, schedule a meeting with Mickey and Minnie, or decide which rides to ride first. It works because it allows guests to experience Disney World without distraction. And yet, I worry that it makes things too easy and efficient. Isn’t a true human experience one of discovery, surprise and getting lost?

Similarly, the Amazon Go experience is pitched to shoppers as a new kind of convenience since the friction of cash registers and cashiers has been removed and shoppers can “just walk out.” Yet for some people, the experience feels cold and is distinctly lacking in the “humanness” that a trip to the grocery store can bring: things such as community, chance run-ins with friends, and the randomness of chatting with strangers.

Even more unsettling in the Amazon Go store is the obvious presence of cameras and the knowledge that you’re being tracked when you walk into the space (to know what you buy, the store has to “see” what you put in your bag and then scan your selections as you leave). Now more than ever, the idea that we’re being watched and our data being collected for who-knows-what feels distinctly at odds with our humanity.

I don’t want to dismiss the promise of having smarter buildings. If our workplaces can be engineered to make individuals more comfortable and productivity more convenient, then that’s a good thing. If smarter airports can get you to where you need to go with more efficiency, no one is going to complain about that. And if hotel rooms can intelligently cue up your Netflix account and your lighting preferences, then that can be a rewarding development.

But convenience, productivity and efficiency can’t be the only goals. In fact, the most human experience we could design is one that provides people with more time to spend with family and friends.

As designers in this emerging demand for digital-physical spaces, we have an opportunity to make sure that our designs assist humans rather than supplanting them. That means being more conscious of what we’re doing, and how we’re living. And it means ensuring that there’s a role for the uniquely human qualities of wonder, discovery, friction and exploration — and, most importantly, enhancing our connection with each other. Human to human.