Connectedland #2020

Design disciplines are converging, as smart and autonomous product ecosystems increasingly blend human, digital and physical service experiences.

fabio sergio
Oct 18 · 37 min read

Abducted by digital

When I joined Whirlpool’s Usability Lab in 1997 the front panels of washing machines, dishwashers and ovens were quickly getting adorned with small, monochrome dot-matrix displays, as digital processing power replaced the electromechanical control systems of the past. With increased processing power also came new and more sophisticated features and functions, that needed to be made intelligible to human intent. Usability rose to meet that challenge, and the adjective “user-friendly” became one of the dominant industry buzzwords of that decade.

Whirlpool’s Usability Lab was back then separate from the firm’s Consumer Design Center. I soon realised that I was operating at their intersection, and that the overlapping area was called Interaction Design. The two units eventually merged — as they should have from the very beginning — but their initial separation was an early stage indication of what’s been a relative constant across my last 20+ years of professional experience: adjoining design disciplines often share a similar mindset, but they are just as often separated by profoundly different ways of thinking and working.

In 2002, I wrote a short essay entitled Connectedland where I mentioned that:
“… connected devices will overlay and integrate physical objects and spaces with digital information…” and that “…the merging of physical and digital experiences also brings up an old desire of mine to see the Interactive Design and Product Design communities finally come together, as it should have always been …”.

It’s time to revisit those considerations as design disciplines are converging, and as smart and autonomous product ecosystems increasingly blend human, digital and physical service experiences.

The expanding universe of design

The reach and influence of design has been growing, hence the universe of design-at-large has also been steadily expanding.

Designers are a creative bunch and, to the un-initiated and initiated alike, the expanding universe of design can look and feel like a gaseous protogalaxy of evolving disciplinary definitions. Industrial, Product, Interior, Graphic, Visual, Interaction, Research, Content, User Interface, User Experience, Motion Graphic, Information, Content, Communication, Branding, Service, Business; these are just some of the labels that precede the word “design” to describe a design domain and its related nuances and sub-culture. One could also easily add to these domains other areas that integrate and overlap with design, but that wouldn’t necessarily feel comfortable using the term “design” as a suffix of sorts: Human Computer Interaction, Information Architecture, Usability Engineering, Data Visualisation and — dare I even say it — Architecture and Urbanism.

The goal of the reflections that follow is not at all to capture the complexity of the evolution of design and its disciplines, but rather to celebrate how the overlaps between many of the disciplines listed above have been growing, and hence their integration has been as well. I will, in particular, focus on how digital and physical design fields have been finally converging — what that implies.

Image: Diagram of areas of influence of the Eames Design Office.
Image: Diagram of areas of influence of the Eames Design Office.
Diagram: Eames Design Office

The space-time continuum of design (quite literally)

Over the course of the past two decades, I’ve had the good fortune to work across sectors and industries, and across physical and digital design domains. In this timeframe, I’ve always been fascinated by the apparent mutual opaqueness that seems to affect what I perceive to be adjoining and vastly overlapping disciplinary fields. Architects still hardly know what experience design is or does; physical product designers still often stop listening as soon as a discussion around plastic gives way to pixels; digital user interface designers puzzle over the way to capture the behaviour that a physical button might exhibit, once mirrored in a mobile application.

This apparent lack of inter-disciplinary exposure and, at times, even mutual interest has always been puzzling. It has been (and always be) all design to me. It’s always been inspiring, exciting and stimulating to think about how to bring together — rather than to differentiate — the various design cultures and sub-cultures. Over the years, I’ve come to realise that the differences are often driven by nuances and attitudes related to how designers in different domains are trained to think about time and space.

Fearlessly embracing oversimplification, (and accepting the probability of vitriolic purist design feedback), here’s what I’ve observed:

  • “Digital” product designers tend to think at the scale of the eye, and shape artefacts that are de-facto obsolete the very moment that they are launched into the world.
  • “Physical” product designers operate at the scale of the hand and body, and give form to artefacts that are meant to be in use for a few decades (although in high-tech circles this timeframe can shrink to a year or two at best).
  • Architects are brought up thinking about the scale of large human groups, and create artefacts that are meant to last hundreds of years, potentially even longer.

I will state again that the descriptions above are intentionally gross oversimplifications but, from personal experience, I believe that they capture how designers across the digital and physical continuum tend to think and work because of the very materials of their specific crafts.

  • Designers of digital artefacts — software, apps, websites — assume that the end-user outcomes of their work will endlessly adapt and evolve. They rely on the high plasticity of code to create products and services that are constantly updated, feeding off data to guide their evolution. They work and think in real-time cycles, but also have to make peace with the idea that the outcome of their work will change or even disappear in the metaphorical blink of an eye.
  • Designers of physical products and small-scale spatial experiences know that, even with the rise of additive manufacturing, industrially mass-produced physical objects are still expensive to alter, and that they require longer engineering and manufacturing cycles. Physical resources — whether plastic, metal, ceramic, wood or glass — are also inherently finite, and should accommodate longer-term circular thinking to reduce their environmental impact. As it is often said in product design circles: hardware is hard.
  • Architects and urbanists might even strongly object to being part of this list at all but, in a short while, I’ll mention the merits of connected buildings and smart cities, so I think they need to be included in these reflections. This group is probably the one that has the most visceral understanding of what long-term thinking and impact implies, be it Greek temples or modern business cathedrals. In his book “How buildings learn” Steward Brand elaborated on Frank Duffy’s ideas, showing how the various “layers” of a building are designed to age at different speeds, from the immutable structural strata meant to last for centuries to the more adaptable ones, likely to be refreshed or replaced every decade or so, such as the surface of a facade. Architects know it will often take years to see a blueprint or masterplan become a house, building or city block, but they also know that they will likely then stand for decades — or even centuries.
    To architects, time is a material just like stone, steel or reinforced concrete.
Photo: portrait of architect Renzo Piano.
Photo: portrait of architect Renzo Piano.

Whenever I’ve seen these three broadly defined communities work together, I’ve been impressed that they all share a similar mindset. Soon thereafter, I realise though that their operating space-time mental models are quite different, which can rapidly lead to disciplinary re-siloing, rather than hybridisation.

The shared mindset amounts to what I would probably describe as a “human-centric” view of the world, rooted in the creation of value for individuals and society, and often complemented by a visceral belief in the power of beauty.

Looking back almost 100 years to the very birth of Industrial Design reveals an ambition of its pioneers, (back then, mostly architects, sculptors and fine artists): to “bring beauty to the masses” through the means of industrial production. This is echoed today by the ambition to use digital technologies to make the world a more equal and inclusive place — socially and economically. Architects and especially urbanists have also been historically associated with movements focused on improving the quality of life in residential and urban settings.

While this shared human-centric mindset appears to offer ample fertile ground for disciplinary cross-pollination, the different operating mental models around space and time described above have — so far — often prevented a virtuous collaborative cycle from truly happening at scale.

Luckily, things are changing.

The age of experience

In design and business circles, the word “experience” is probably one of the most overhyped and overused of the last 20 years, but it remains relevant (if not essential) for design, for business impact and for these reflections.

If the universe of design is expanding, an ever-increasing focus on the human experience of physical and digital products is in fact the metaphorical dark matter that has kept the various design galaxies from pulling apart. Stretching the tenuous metaphor even further, a shared focus on human experience is actually the force that is pulling digital and physical design disciplines finally together at last, making their relative distances shrink and their overlaps grow.

The concept of strategically designing for human experience in a commercial context is not particularly complex to grasp, even though petabytes of data have been wasted to debate to death its various evolving definitions.
For the sake of these considerations I will happily stop at the “sum of all interactions with a brand’s products and services”, or at the “choreography of all human interactions with a brand’s touchpoints over time” — for those preferring a Service Design vocabulary.

It is self-evident that, for a business, a “customer experience” existed well before digital technologies made the term ultimately core to any strategic business conversation. Analogue touchpoints, such as packaging, instructional materials, physical product affordances and attributes all the way to advertising, communication and human interactions with sales and service personnel, have all been absolutely crucial to the market success of a brand ever since the beginning of commerce.

It follows that all traditional physical products like hammers, tables or lamps have hence always had a “customer experience”, and the same applies to all sorts of pre-digital services. It’s probably true is that the exponential complexity of digital systems has made the “choreography” of a brand’s touchpoints proportionately complex to manage. Let’s not forget the immense volume of customer data that’s generated, tracked and mined across all interactions with digital channels, to improve the quality of those touchpoints in return.

Today, we live in a world where everyone and everything is (or is becoming) digitally connected. Digital technologies are embedded in the objects we use, woven into the clothes we wear and built into the spaces where we live and work. Digital is now part of the fabric of physical reality, and this has changed everything.

Everything that could be connected has been, or will be

Make no mistake, the newfound physical-digital design convergence has been brought about by the digital revolution.

During my time at (the “original”) Razorfish in the late ‘90s, the company’s vision was: “Everything that can be digital, will be”. In hindsight, this statement seems almost obvious, but back, then the idea was far from being self-evident. Many companies were experimenting with early days wireless technologies, putting SIM cards into washing machines and heating systems to free them from the tyranny of knobs and cables. Although the term “Internet of Things” was allegedly coined around 1999, it has become an everyday reality only in the past few years. This is also because the turn of the millennium marked the commercial birth of key enabling wireless technologies such as WiFi, Bluetooth and 3G, which today we take for granted, just like running water or electricity.

Even companies like Nokia, which became the dominant mobile market player in the late ‘90s by “connecting people”, ultimately failed to truly understand the long-term implications of the term “connecting” in its own mission statement. By 2010, economic and social value creation quickly pivoted from hardware- to software-based living services. Companies like Nokia that did not or could not stop purely focusing on driving profits from physical goods were overtaken and eventually “eaten” alive — to reference Marc Andreessen’s famous quote — by software firms. This is, of course, still true to this day, a recent example being the hospitality industry and Airbnb. But physical has been fighting back.

From connected to smart to autonomous, via AI

My friend and former colleague Stefania Marcoli and I worked with Taiwanese OEM Compal Electronics to design Pupillo — a battery-operated, 3G-connected camera — in 2005.

The original idea for the product was derived from customer observation. People with second homes or running a business in scenic locations in Italy were buying 3G phones, and then setting them up with the camera looking out onto a room in the house, or onto a beach or a ski slope. They would then set the phone to automatically answer video calls, enabling themselves or others to call the phone to take a look around, either to check on their house or to verify snow and weather conditions in real-time. Some of the most digital-savvy entrepreneurs even posted their phone-cam’s number on their ads. This customer insight showed what’s known as an unmet need, and we quickly got to work on it, so that UMTS pioneer mobile network operator Three could launch the product in less than a year.

Webcams already existed of course, but Pupillo was free from cables to stream its signal, and made it mobile just like the core 3G technology that powered it.

Photo: Pupillo 3G camera
Photo: Pupillo 3G camera
Photo: Pupillo

Pupillo is still a good example of the first stage of evolution when a physical product goes digital and gets connected. Connectivity brings at least a couple of interesting new traits to otherwise analogue physical products: it gives them new interactive behaviours and it instantly turns them into potential nodes of a new service ecosystem.

In designing how users would interact with Pupillo, we had to think not just about the affordances of its physical control systems, but also had to design around the limitations of a then relatively primitive video-call user interface. We used dial tones to enable and disable security features, and planned for a future evolution of the product that would have allowed users to orient the camera as well. The digital ecosystem around Pupillo was just not mature enough at the time, but we did imagine a set of possible service applications for the device, from affixing it Go-Pro style on top of moving vehicles, to possible live-streaming video platforms of various kinds.

Connecting and mobilising a camera forced us to design the experience for it and around it, and opened up our minds to the potential extensions of its service ecosystem.

Add embedded or cloud-based algorithmic intelligence to a connected product and what you get is a smart connected product. This is, by now, the familiar world of “learning” thermostats and “magic” mirrors.

Smart products take behaviour to the next level, as they feed off data to constantly adapt to human usage patterns and contextual conditions.

  • A smart glucose meter will not just measure but (over time) predict glycaemic curves (behaviour), and send off data to a healthcare specialist for improved health advice and coaching (service).
  • A smart fridge will learn grocery shopping patterns to lower its internal temperature in preparation for a heavy load (behaviour), or allow a family to buy milk and other essential products from the display on its door (service).

Smart thermostats, air conditioners and lights are also significant conceptual stepping stones towards the world of smart spaces.

Photo: Nest smart thermostat.
Photo: Nest smart thermostat.
Photo: Nest Thermostat

In the recent past, sensors and actuators of all kinds and sizes have been built into our rooms, homes and offices. They monitor and react to human usage and frequentation patterns, controlling devices that in turn purify or cool the air, control lighting conditions or open and close doors. In a retail or commercial environment they help us find and even buy the products we’re looking for. In an airport or in an entertainment park they help us find our way around and pay for food and other services.

Take smart spaces and scale their digital infrastructure until you have an urban network of sensors and self-adjusting systems that track pollution and manage resources and waste. Add digitally-enhanced public, personal and shared mobility services, mix in participatory, e-government platforms and you have most of the ingredients needed to build the MVP for a smart city.

Photo: autonomous driving mini bus designed by Sensible4 and Muji.
Photo: autonomous driving mini bus designed by Sensible4 and Muji.
Photo: Sensible4 Gacha self-driving shuttle bus.

Once their algorithmic intelligence becomes “smart enough”, connected products can be allowed to take autonomous decisions.

These days the term “autonomous” immediately evokes the world of self-driving vehicles and digital mobility services in general, but it applies to everyday, banal domains just as well. Glucose meters that automatically adjust insulin pump settings, fridges that order items before we run out of them, thermostats that turn heating off when they sense that no one’s at home. Scale this level of autonomy up again to more complex infrastructural city systems and you get smart electric grids that turn off air conditioners to avoid black outs, or streets that adjust speed limits according to time of day or traffic conditions.

Connected, smart, autonomous products, services, spaces and cities, all of course inherently depend on the rise of the many interrelated manifestations of Artificial Intelligence (more about that later).

Back to the magic of experience

It’s time to start closing the loop, and head back to the implications for design and designers in this new normal, where everyone and everything is or will be connected, smart-er and autonomous. Time to go back to the human experience of these increasingly complex systems, and how to design for them.

At the heart of everything that follows lies a simple assumption: we experience the world as an infinite flow of micro-impressions and interactions, and experience is the slow-burn result of the way in which we reflect on and comprehend the accumulation of those impressions and interactions. Not all of them will be memorable and relevant enough to transform our perceptions, opinions and beliefs, but they will all contribute to our constant evolution as individuals, and aggregately as communities and society.

Photo: portrait of Anaïs Nin.
Photo: portrait of Anaïs Nin.

We come to experience the world through our senses: touching, hearing, smelling, tasting and — of course — seeing. We currently live in a visually-dominant culture, from communication to digital applications, so we tend to attribute a higher value to this channel — so much so that various design theorists have even even equated design itself to the trained ability to see reality differently. I don’t fundamentally disagree with such an assessment, but even though we might live with our eyes glued onto an ever-growing range of displays, or increasingly immersed in various alternate digital realities, I believe that human beings remain creatures of the earth.

I will probably sound nostalgic (or maybe even delusional), but the physical world will always exert an irresistible pull on our bodies and senses… even if we’ll eventually be able to upload our conscience to some futuristic Black Mirror-like cloud service.

As digital permeates the fabric of physical reality we have to stop thinking of them as separate, and focus instead on designing for the full available spectrum of human experience.

Dissolving design into behaviour

It could be argued that the design of digital products and services has been heavily inspired by our natural interactions with the affordances of the physical world.

Our current digital desktops — populated by files and folders — still show how in the early ‘70s, real-world metaphors were leveraged to replace the command-line complexity of early days expert-oriented IT systems, welcoming consumers to the promised land of personal computing. And if you think we’re talking about the Stone Age of digital technologies the skeuomorphic user interfaces of most Apple products still mimicked the aesthetics of physical objects as recently as 2012… and even Google’s current and otherwise “flat” design language is called Material. These might be signs of a medium that’s still in its infancy, (as a reference, film has been around for roughly 130 years; print for over 2000 years), but this also speaks to the point I was trying to make above about our undying affection for the physical world that we grew up feeling with our senses.

Central to any physical or digital human-designed product or service is that they are meant to support human intent and behaviour, and possibly even encourage and reward usage. The intent to hang a picture on a wall can be supported by a hammer and a nail, and the human behaviour that will put them to good use will result in the satisfaction resulting from seeing the picture adorning the wall. The intent to share a photo with a friend or with a broader audience can be supported by a digital application, and the resulting comments or likes will motivate to share even more photos.

Industrial designers Naoto Fukasawa and Jasper Morrison coined the label Super Normal to indicate an approach to designing products that steers clear of the temptation to use them as misguided vehicles of artistic or narcissistic self-expression. Super Normal products should just “be” there when needed, invisibly supporting human tasks without requiring unneeded attention or creating cognitive friction.

Photo: Muji CD player, designed by Naoto Fukasawa.
Photo: Muji CD player, designed by Naoto Fukasawa.
Photo: Muji CD Player, design: Naoto Fukasawa

This ethos is in part an echo of the infamous “Form Follows Function” mantra and of Dieter Rams’ “Good Design” principles, but it is also the manifestation of a philosophy that can easily bring together digital and physical design communities.

The difficulty of designing “convergent” physical and digital experiences is that holistically supporting human behaviour is hindered by the different time-space operating mental models described a few paragraphs above, and by substantial variances in when and how different design teams are brought into the product development process.

  • The “digital” design team will probably be working until hours if not minutes before the target launch date, and will simply continue to work after it to implement features off a backlog, fix bugs and evolve the experience according to customer usage patterns and feedback.
    Today’s digital enterprises update their products several times a week.
  • The “physical” design team will have stopped working months (if not longer) before the product starts shipping, and they will have likely made early stage decisions not just about the formal expression of the product but also about its mechanical and electronic architecture. They will also continue to work on the product’s next generation, but probably their timeline will be months — if not years — before the next release.
  • If the brand behind the product also has physical stores the interior designers and architects called to define that portion of the experience often have nothing to do with all the activities described above. They are usually working with the branding, marketing and communication functions of the organisation instead, to ensure that the retail experience is aligned to the latest brand guidelines and marketing campaign messages.

Instead of invisibly supporting a holistic experience — from intent to fulfilment and hopefully satisfaction and delight — the various organisational and disciplinary silos often break the customer journey into isolated, discontinuous steps.

When shaping a holistic customer experience, it’s important to ensure that everyone involved works in collaboration and not in isolation from other contributing functions and disciplines. The first step to achieving this collaborative environment is to design a customer-centric organisation inspired by a shared vision and guided by a common brand experience strategy.

Fully unpacking this last paragraph is beyond the ambition of these reflections, but I cannot stress enough how this apparently obvious set of enablers is often overlooked or missing altogether — even in large, well-established organisations. Let’s very briefly touch in reverse order the three essential assets hinted at above: strategy, vision and culture.

Experience Strategy
At its most basic an experience strategy can be encapsulated and communicated by adopting an exhaustive set of shared principles and assets usually called a Design System. InVision has a comprehensive set of resources and case studies showcasing both the value and complexity of creating a company-wide digital Design System, including various approaches to ensure that it is kept a living tool and not a set of instantly obsolete guidelines. Similar solutions exist for physical products and for spaces.

A Living Design System that accounts for human, digital and physical branded touchpoints is a powerful asset not just to ensure the coherency of the experience across channels, but also to increase efficiencies and to accelerate time to market by maximising reusability of atomic components and common patterns.

In the absence of a compelling vision for what a brand ultimately has to feel like for customers and for employees even a Living Design System won’t be enough to prevent political agendas and cultural differences getting in the way of staying true to a shared path .

What’s the long-term net perception that people will instinctively associate with a brand, as experienced over time through all interactions with its human, physical and digital expressions? Purely as an example, take Volvo, and what that word most likely immediately evokes in one’s head. Volvo has long made safety their key customer promise, and they have been driven by an ambitious vision to have “nobody killed” in one of their vehicles by 2020. This shared sense of meaningful purpose informs everything that the company does, and shapes what customers ultimately feel whenever interacting with the brand and its people, products and services.

When a long-term vision is not just communicated and choreographed for external audiences — but also informs how people inside the organisation feel and operate on an everyday basis — the word that’s typically used is purpose. Purpose is the explicit value system that guides business tactics and strategies.

Fjord and Accenture talk of a Living Business, which is when the vision, mission, purpose and strategies of an organisation are all aligned and properly supported by collaboration and communication tools.

With the “mechanics” of experience covered by a Living Design System and collective efforts oriented by the light of a shared purpose the organisational glue needed to keep it all together can be generically referenced with the term “culture”. This broad and often misunderstood word encompasses both “soft” rituals and “hard” procedural facets of the experience of working together with other human beings. In a design-led organisation, creating and sustaining a strong, distinctive culture is often one of the most valuable competitive assets. It’s often supported by manifestos, rituals and inspiring spaces that explicitly link the company’s vision and purpose to how it’s meant to feel and operate on a day to day basis.

While the “soft” side of shaping and evolving a healthy design-led culture often gets most of the attention and merits it would be a serious mistake to forget the value of its more infrastructural and operational side. This is where the fast-growing influence of Design Operations — or DesOps — is making its importance and relevance felt.

To create a shared culture among design disciplines that might be operating at different speeds and scales it is important that strategy, vision and rituals are regularly communicated and reinforced.

From what I have repeatedly observed when it comes to the convergence of human, digital and physical experiences in a business environment, there’s also a direct correlation between a company’s customer-centric strategies and its design maturity. The absence of a Chief Experience/Design Officer is usually the most visible indicator that an organisation still has a few steps to go on its way to designing and customer-centric nirvana.

Designing products as service ecosystem avatars

The most interesting shift I’ve seen happen in the last decade or so relates to the way physical products are initially conceived.

Let’s go back to hammers, nails and human intent. In Service Design circles, it is often said that people don’t need a metaphorical hammer or a nail at all — they just want to enjoy a photo or an art piece on a wall. This goal can be achieved by buying a hammer and a few nails, but it could also be fulfilled by a service provided for a reasonable fee, designed to offer a great experience, and which might even include the artwork as well as the hardware and labor. This is, in essence, how convergent products should be conceived at this point in time.

Some teams might instinctively set about to design a better hammer, or an app to go with the hammer to better level picture frames, or even an artwork e-commerce service. Afully convergent design team should start from a shared vision for how to improve people’s experience of enjoying art on their walls, then work together to make every step and touchpoint of that journey simple and delightful, physically and digitally.

Today, physical products need to be designed as the extension of a digital service ecosystem from the very beginning.

A great example of this integrated and convergent way of thinking and working is represented by the Disney Magic Band experience, where the vision was to “bring back the magic to the park experience”. More recently, the work led by Fjord’s Max Burton for Carnival Cruises was aimed at enhancing the “before, during and after” of going on a cruise, radically simplifying the complexity of life on a ship while maximising the enjoyment of onboard attractions and activities. At the heart of such an experience lies a physical smart medallion, which allows cruise participants to unlock cabin doors and pay for onboard amenities without the need to carry their wallet or smartphone, so that they can purely focus on having a good time.

Photo: Portrait of Ivy Ross, VP Product Design, Google.
Photo: Portrait of Ivy Ross, VP Product Design, Google.

The idea that a physical product should be conceived from the start as the avatar of a digital ecosystem is also well captured by Google Vice President of Product Design Ivy Ross in the quote above. A physical Google product is not just meant to stand on its own aesthetic and functional merits, but rather to give a tangible manifestation and enhance customers’ perceptions of Google as a service and as a brand. In other words, a Google physical product is meant to make people feel Google-ness (and I will add that products designed by Ross’ s team could probably fit the Super Normal category, with just a hint of Olivetti heritage to spice things up).

Digitally-enhanced physical spaces like as contemporary stores, offices, hotels, museums and airports should also be thought of as service ecosystem avatars. Consider, for example, innovative retail experiences like the one offered by Amazon Go, which takes the brand’s iconic 1-click online shopping to its next physical evolutionary step: zero-interaction cashier-less checkout. Now compare that to airline brands and the excruciatingly long and broken sequence of digital and human interactions required to get on a plane in any current airport. Whether branded smart spaces are meant to express speed and efficiency or offer theatrical, immersive experiences, the meaningful choreography of their human, physical and digital touchpoints will once again require not just alignment, but true cross-disciplinary design hybridisation.

Space as a service

As I have pointed out, buildings and cities are becoming smarter, and ever more autonomous at self-regulating the soft — and often invisible — infrastructural flows that keep them functioning and growing, such as climate and pollution control, mobility, energy and waste management. Time to think bigger and briefly touch on the disciplines that work with time and space at the largest scale, like architecture and urbanism. The need for them to change might still appear less than obvious, but the clock is ticking at an ever-accelerating Moorean’s pace, and at varying and interdependent levels.

  • At the scale of the home, for example, IKEA has been partnering with robotic furniture start-up Ori to launch a line of smart walls that can change the layout of small apartments to adapt living conditions to changing human needs across a day, from sleeping to working to dining.
  • At the scale of the building, Thomas Heatherwick and Bjarke Ingels have been designing new headquarters for Google in Mountain View. The initial renderings have, over time, given way to to a slightly less visionary plan, but the initial concept pivoted around the idea of a tent-like canopy protecting a set of working modules that could be rearranged over time to reflect the evolving spatial needs of Google employees.
  • At the scale of the city, the need for a much higher level of housing flexibility has broadened the appeal of industrially Prefab(ricated) residential buildings that can be as mobile as their inhabitants, and of modularly, expandable structures that can adapt their density to demand.

To meet these evolving market demands, companies like Katerra are redefining not just how buildings work, but their entire lifecycle management, adopting agile methodologies and applying them to construction workflows.
Traditional ownership models are also being replaced by “space as a service” platforms, such as WeWork.

From pop-up stores to pop-up offices, residences, neighbourhoods and cities.

In many Romance languages the word “furniture” comes from an evolution of the latin term “mobilis” (moveable). In Italian for example the word is “mobile”. This is because home possessions were not just moveable from house to house, but also because they gave residents the ability to change the function of a room by moving them around during the course of a day.

The English term “furniture” comes instead from the French verb “fournir” (to supply or provide) and positions objects like beds, tables and wardrobes as structural “assets of a house”, hence the term is somewhat devoid of the implicit dynamism of its Neo-Latin counterparts.

“Smart furniture” actually fits both etymological acceptations, as it straddles the line between mobile and structure. Think again of Ori’s walls, which integrate furniture as a Swiss-army like feature, while dynamically adjusting the available space to optimise its layout for the desired living function.

Photo: Robotic furniture system designed by Ori Living.
Photo: Robotic furniture system designed by Ori Living.
Image: Ori Living

Ori’s robotic furniture walls are not load bearing, but it doesn’t take much to imagine a building whose structural layers will no longer be static and forever-lasting, but mobile and adaptable. Imagine an exoskeleton building where a 3D array of load-bearing cranes will kinetically reposition living or working modules to accommodate the liquid expectations of its occupants, or the evolving needs of the urban context around it.

Construction paradigms are also being reinvented, leveraging the power of digital in the form of 3D-printed buildings, realtime manufacturing and emerging “full-stack” services that use data to customise living modules to suit customer preferences, and to optimise them for the geo-specificities of the target location.
In even more fascinating scenarios such as those imagined by Autodesk’s The Living Lab or by MIT’s Mediated Matter Group we will learn from nature and design structures that will grow, rather than being built.

Structure is morphing into system, and the system will grow instructed by software. Digital and physical, as one.

Image: Architecture designed by The Living.
Image: Architecture designed by The Living.
Image: The Living

Making the invisible visible

Designers are often accused of being obsessed with form. I actually think there is merit to the accusation, but devoid of the inherent related assumption that they mostly or only care about how things look.

Designers are obsessed with form, from the point of view that they tend to have a vision of how things should be, function and look in their head, and their obsession lies in bringing that vision into the world, so that others can experience it as well.

Designers are obsessed with bringing the invisible form of a possible, better future into the present, making it visible and accessible to other human beings.

Thanks to this obsession one of the most impactful outcomes of design in general is its ability to give human-intelligible form to information that would be otherwise impossible to perceive, and hence to experience. This is true of design outcomes like products and services, and of design as a process.

This is one more area where the convergence of physical and digital experiences creates an amazing fertile ground — not just for experimentation but also for truly disruptive innovation. Thanks to everything and everyone being connected today, human, physical and digital branded service manifestations all generate data for every interaction that customers have with them. This data exhaust is the fuel that powers any digital business — and therefore every business these days. The ability to make sense of where customers have been, what they have done and where they went afterwards — both in real and data space — is at the core of the promise to over time learn not just their behaviours, but their very intentions; to proactively offer solutions before the need even arises. If this sounds creepy and potentially intrusive it’s because it is, but this is not the place to enter a privacy rabbit hole (I incidentally did that working with WEF in 2011, and think that many of the conclusions of that exploration are still valuable and applicable).

I am not just referring to the rise to fame and relevance of data visualisation and storytelling, to the growing number of architects applying their expertise to imagine and shape virtual worlds, to the esoteric potential of digital twin scenarios, or to the ability for Design Thinking to unearth and manifest the hidden or missing connections in human or business ecosystems. I am speaking of the potential for design to use data to synchronously and asynchronously support and influence human behaviour, reflection and decision-making.

For their 2019 Milan Design Week exhibition, “A space for being”, Google welcomed visitors by having them wear a sensor-laden bracelet, which was then used to track their physiological response to three similar but sophisticatedly different physical home environments, designed with Swedish furniture brand Muuto. Upon exiting the exhibition visitors were then shown how their body reacted viscerally to the spaces, and could then compare their impressions with the hard data tracked by their wearable device. A beautifully whimsical graphic representation of their data sealed the visit. This also left them with a uniquely personal artefact that could afterwards be used to relive and retell the story, and trigger reflections about how the experience affected their perception of space from that moment on.

Photo: Booklet cover of Google’s “A space for being” exhibition.
Photo: Booklet cover of Google’s “A space for being” exhibition.
Photo: Muuto

In many ways, this example represents well the hidden potential in today’s data-rich total experiences, and also highlights the inherent complexity of choreographing transitions between human, physical and digital touchpoints:

  • How do we meaningfully manifest synchronous and asynchronous stimuli to guide through an experience without dictating the sequencing or pacing of its flow?
  • How do we free up people to pick their own path to fulfil a practical need, achieve a personal goal or speak to a higher-level aspiration?
  • What if the environment in Google’s exhibition could have reacted in real time to the emotions of the visitor, at its most basic adapting lighting conditions and temperature, but why not also by adding a soundtrack, or a scent… and why not even dynamically adapting the proportions of the space itself, or the colour of its surfaces?
  • What about a completely adaptable and reconfigurable environment that could attune itself over time to the practical and emotional preferences of its inhabitants?
  • How and when should we turn the data into information, to then increase the knowledge of the end-user, and ultimately make them a bit wiser, adding meaning to their lives rather than just adding digital noise to the purity of the experience itself?

In short: how do we dissolve design into behaviour?
By designing a total experience strategy that gently surrounds people with an invisible, flowing array of human, physical and digital solutions that can be freely reassembled according to user intent, mood and context.

Total experience at its best is the artful, meaningful and human-intelligible manifestation of this support system.

Amplifying human potential

The almost direct consequence of having access to an invisible but always present support system that can quickly offer solutions to our ad-hoc or recurrent needs and desires is that technology has become woven into the very fabric of our lives. We have come to rely on our GPS devices and smartphones to find our way around; we count on Wikipedia to answer burning curiosities or quickly settle arguments with friends; we track our blood pressure, weight, metabolic health and air pollution levels in our homes; we buy goods online at any hour of the day or night; we feel and are in contact with anybody, anywhere, anytime. We are connected… or as I also framed it a few years ago when talking about the “Body Electric”: we all know how it feels to “see through satellites” now.

This invisible, super-human set of capabilities is one of the most exciting and promising areas where convergent physical and digital design disciplines can help to define a new experiential palette — one that could even stretch beyond the senses we are naturally born with. How to give people an ability to indeed metaphorically “see through satellites”… or — maybe more accurately — see, hear, taste, touch and even think better, or differently?

This is a very broad and fascinating space, which takes one more step from products and services being connected, smart and autonomous to products and services becoming embodied and implanted. It’s a world that overlaps with science fiction and covers a wide spectrum, from the the fringes of brain implants, biohacking and transhumanism all the way to 3D-printed prosthetics and FDA-approved ingestible sensors that can track medicine intake and help adhere to a prescribed regimen.

Photo: Woman with Neuralink brain implant device.
Photo: Woman with Neuralink brain implant device.
Photo: Neuralink

Funky experiments aside, this a huge opportunity area — not just to restore human capabilities compromised by illness or injury, but to truly extend and enhance physical and cognitive human potential. Smart wristbands like Microsoft’s Emma or Empatica’s Embrace respectively exemplify how convergent products and services can effectively restore human capabilities degraded by Parkinson’s disease, or support people affected by epilepsy or other debilitating chronic conditions. Beyond these essential, life-saving applications lies the world of convergent solutions that stretch human capabilities outside their biological limits. Think in-ear realtime multilingual translators, brainwave-reading meditation devices and rings that can rule all of our Alexa devices.

All of these products are effectively designed as physical avatars of a digital service ecosystem, and rely on one or more of the many flavours of Artificial Intelligence to deliver on their promise. AI is most often celebrated for its ability to automate repetitive tasks and for detecting hidden patterns in huge datasets, but one of its most intriguing roles is and will increasingly be to dynamically augment human capabilities, creating what in the game of chess is known as a “centaur”: a human being and AI working/playing together as one intelligent system smarter than the sum of its two individual parts.

Add robotics to the collaborative pairing of human and artificial intelligences and you get all sorts of solutions that physically augment human capabilities, including mind-reading exoskeletons that will help us walk or lift heavy weights, wheeled and flying delivery drones, mechatronic assistants that will follow us around to livestream our lives, carry our belongings and at times simply creep us out. We’ll continue to marvel at the manual dexterity required to solve a Rubik’s cube, but the hand might just not be human.

In all of these cases the design challenge will be about establishing new rules of engagement and interaction with products that will often lack a user interface as we’ve come to think of it, and will not just co-inhabit our living and working spaces, but potentially become our pets, peers and Cobot-laborators. Even more than in other cases solving these novel challenges will require an artful blending of human, digital and physical design crafts.

Applying the ideas described above to design itself is finally one more fascinating area of convergence. The potential of machine-amplified creativity is emerging across all design disciplines, from AI-assisted logo design, to parametric software that generates infinite permutations of a possible structure, like Autodesk’s Generative Design solutions or dynamic floor plan generator Finch.

In these scenarios the role of the human half of the system is shifting to that of an expert curator. Rather than working at the repetitive “brute force” end of the creative process Design Centaurs will set the boundaries and rules of the system, guide it to generate and evolve solutions along a preferred or serendipitous vector, and use their hard-earned expertise to craft final outcomes aligned to their desired vision.

Designing any and all of these robotic and AI-assisted solutions so that they will be transparent to human intent will require fully understanding all of the facets of their experience, and blending them with elegant simplicity.

Photo: Industrial metal parts generated by Autodesk software.
Photo: Industrial metal parts generated by Autodesk software.
Image: Autodesk Generative Design

Rekindling confidence in the power of beauty

I’ve touched so far on many of the opportunities that lie at the confluence of technological innovation and human experience. As I approach the end of these reflections, I also wanted to briefly mention the often hidden, even controversial value that older, more mature design disciplines like industrial and graphic design can bring when integrating with more recent, digital-native ones.

I expect to once stoke vitriolic commentary tendencies by stating that in my observation interaction, experience and service designers have, over time, steered their disciplines to speak the analytical language of data-informed intuition and financial outcomes, and away from the sheer business value of great aesthetics. The recent rise to fame of design (thinking) as an innovation process has only reinforced and accelerated this trend. “Beauty” has always been a difficult word to use in business circles, and many designers who have gained access to strategic decision making have learned to shy away from talking the language of intuition and beauty, especially in digital circles.

It’s time to reverse the tide, and help new and old design disciplines re-learn how to wield the power of aesthetics with confidence.

Photo: Portrait of R. Buckminster Fueller.
Photo: Portrait of R. Buckminster Fueller.

Steering clear of false “function vs. beauty” dichotomies, beauty affects human perception to the point of making “attractive things work better”, (using the words of cognitive psychologist Don Norman). I have witnessed the truth of Norman’s scientific assessment in many customer research activities, where less effective and efficient products got scored higher in perceived ease of use and most importantly propensity to buy than other less aesthetically attractive products.

Beauty does not just make things work better, beauty sells better, period.

Photo: Samsung Serif Smart TV, design: Rowan & Erwan Bouroullec

I am not at all suggesting of course that interaction, experience or service designers don’t care about aesthetics. However, it’s almost that these disciplines, as if to gain credibility in business circles, have had to divest language which in the past perhaps trapped designers into being perceived as only caring about the “superficial skin of things” — something which usually reflected their immensely valuable obsession with form, materials, colours, typography and graphics — or essentially how people and customers perceive and experience industrially-produced reality in general.

This is an area where I think that physical and visual design communities have something to teach back to digitally native disciplines, while remaining open to embrace the power that data has to augment their hard-earned sophisticated sense of aesthetics. While not necessarily a fan per se of the idea of metaphorically and infamously testing 41 shades of blue there is huge value in looking at how deductive and abductive workflows can complement and strengthen each other, rather than being wrongly pitted as opposites.

Steve Jobs is often famously quoted saying that “Most people make the mistake of thinking design is what it looks like, that’s not what we think design is. It’s not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works.”

I will dare to riff off of Jobs’ words in saying that in the head and hands of an experienced designer, beauty is how things work.

If you ask me, beauty is how the world should work, and this does not just apply to product and service ecosystems. Organisations, businesses and governments can and should aspire to be beautiful.

Designing fast and slow, small and large

Even in the 21st century, designers are still tool-shapers at heart, constantly on the lookout to create better ways for people to address their needs, achieve their goals or fulfil their aspirations.

As Marshall McLuhan allegedly channeled in the quote above, the tools that we use have an often subtle but amazingly powerful net effect over time. They have the potential to change our way of thinking, and hence our very culture. In the last 20 years, for example, our always-on digital tools have slowly but surely turned us in return in a an always-on society, blurring work-life boundaries and creating expectations and demand for 24/7 service models.

We live in complex and often unpredictable times. 280 characters Tweeted by the right person can cause a company’s shares to plummet, or change the world’s political balance. Individual consumption choices at the growing scale of humanity are having devastating effects on the planet and its future. Whether we acknowledge or even like it, design sits at the heart of many of the sources of these butterfly effects, as it increasingly helps to set the strategic agendas of private and public organisations alike.

Connected, smart and autonomous products, spaces and services have the potential to truly affect the world at unprecedented speed and scale, but their interdependence and inherently systemic nature makes it particularly difficult to define clear boundaries to assess their short and long-term implications. They also raise crucial questions about the inclusivity of these systems, given how existing flawed data-sets can lead future algorithms to extend or even amplify existing biases, rather than finally correct them.

The ethical thermostat of design is, at the moment, still looking for much more effective feedback loops to improve its ability to positively impact a world that has a very real — and not just a metaphorical — temperature control issue.

In the past decades, designers have often described themselves as customer, user and human advocates. We live in the golden era of human-centred design, but we need to extend and scale our thinking to humanity and beyond, accounting for the largest living (eco)system that hosts not just our species, but all the other ones as well.

Photo: Portrait of designer Anab Jain, founder of Superflux.
Photo: Portrait of designer Anab Jain, founder of Superflux.

Taking responsibility of the intended — and especially of the unintended consequences and long-term implications of design decisions is another, essential shared area of focus that brings together digital and physical design disciplines. We need to think as inclusively as possible, adopt a systems-thinking mindset, and renew our efforts to embrace a responsible innovation ethos.

Photo: Freeways passing over each other (Photo: Ed259)
Photo: Freeways passing over each other (Photo: Ed259)
Photo: Ed259

Connectedland #2040

As a trained architect and industrial designer abducted by digital, I could not be more excited about the shape of things to come, as we continue to ride the mounting wave of what’s possible when putting technological innovation at the service of human potential, and hopefully humanity.

System-level challenges require looking for the nodes in a system that have the most connections and the least possible resistance, exerting pressure on them to tip the system into a new state, constantly looking for new points of dynamic balance. Design in no way offers any end-all answer to all of our problems, but it has proven valuable to frame them in new ways, shaping solutions that often manage to creatively combine apparently opposite concepts, and encouraging to take action and experiment.

I do believe that we live in the golden era of design, but only by staying humble can we aspire to make a meaningful difference. We need to take responsibility over the long-term outcomes of our work, but should not shy away from applying our iterative process to solve large, systemic problems — one small experiment at a time. Being serious about such a goal will require us to continue challenging and changing our own mindset and methods, looking not just for better collaboration across all design disciplines, but stretching (as we always have) well beyond the boundaries of design, and continuing to strengthen our connections with the larger ecosystem of responsible business and technology innovation.

I wrote the first “Connectedland” in 2002. It’s mind-boggling just to think how far design has stretched in the past 20 years, from product aesthetics all the way to systems and ethics, and back again (and I know that it’s only 2019, so the numbers don’t really add up… but I am a designer, so file that under “creative math”).

I cannot start to imagine where we’ll be heading in the next 20 years, but just like in 2002 I surely know where you’ll be able to find me: smack in the middle of the maelstrom.

Here’s to Connectedland #2040.

See you there!

Design Voices

A publication for designers, developers and data nerds - from the aspiring to the expert, and anywhere in between. Content created and curated by Fjord, design and innovation from Accenture Interactive.

fabio sergio

Written by

regional design director EALA @fjord | frog design alum | passionate about the intersection of design, technology and human aspirations, desires & dreams.

Design Voices

A publication for designers, developers and data nerds - from the aspiring to the expert, and anywhere in between. Content created and curated by Fjord, design and innovation from Accenture Interactive.

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