The design of everyday life
Contemplating the effects of personalization
In Don Norman’s 2013 updated introduction to his seminal book The Design of Everyday Things(1988), he points out that the original edition was badly outdated because “technology has undergone massive change.”
He says how new technologies have deeply influenced the principles of design, in particular the human-centered design process, and how “the total experience of a product covers much more than its usability: aesthetics, pleasure, and fun play critically important roles.”
In the intervening five years since he wrote the new introduction, technology has shifted yet again, providing one more critical design consideration: personalization.
The march of personalization
As technology continues to evolve, it has become possible, and even expected, to offer features that allow users to personalize their digital experiences. Spotify and Amazon Prime are well-known examples of digital personalization success. Advanced algorithms on these platforms anticipate our individual needs and wants and they continuously tailor recommendations and offers to meet our interests.
But personalized experiences don’t stop with the digital world. With significant advances in connected products, the Internet of Things, AI, and smart sensors, the reality of personalized experiences in the physical world is upon us. This promises to upend physical experiences everywhere.
Consider the hospitality industry. For years, hotel brands have been mass producing rooms with the same strategic thinking as a McDonald’s hamburger: it’s the same no matter where in the world you are. That predictability is what customers liked because it was comforting and reassuring. Now, mass-produced uniformity no longer holds the value it once did. As Airbnb has proved, there’s a huge demand for unique, characterful overnight experiences, and the hotel industry is scrambling to compete.
Expand this thinking into other places, and it’s not hard to imagine a range of industries that can benefit from the integration of technology in physical spaces to provide new levels of personalization. Office buildings, airports and retail outlets are all poised to be transformed by digital-physical design and the ability of individuals to customize their experiences.
As designers of these spaces, we have plenty to consider and question. As Don Norman says, “the total experience of a product covers much more than its usability.” As it becomes increasingly possible to unlock personalized experiences of all kinds, what are the real upsides and downsides?
Benefits of personalization
The positive outlook is only limited by our imaginations. Rather than checking into uniform but plain hotel rooms, guests could be treated to atmospheres, decorations and comforts more to their liking via projected light, digital music, or even scent through connected aromatherapy diffusers.
Hospitals are designed to get as many people through the system as efficiently as possible, sometimes at the expense of the personal touch. Using AI, it’s possible to get a system that’s intelligent while also giving the patient the feeling that they’re an individual, not a number.
Even theme parks can benefit from personalized experience design. My work on the Disney Magic Plus system for Disney World was just the start of a designed experience that could guide and assist visitors based on their food and entertainment preferences, budgets, and interests.
While the possibilities for good personalized experiences abound, the downsides are less obvious, but just as critical to consider. One of the ironies of the Internet age, with our instantaneous reach into cultures around the world and our unfettered access to information, is that we are becoming more homogenized. You’d think we’d all have turned into Renaissance-types, but we haven’t. We’re sticking to circles of friends on social media who think like us and believe in what we believe in.
What happens when we start to algorithmically engineer recommendations and personalized experiences? The recommendation engines employed by Netflix and Amazon are based on what we already know and like, so we’re less likely to experience something new or even have the chance to run across the unexpected. If we’re designing personalized physical spaces and products this way, we’re facing the same risk.
Algorithms vs humanity
A recent article in Rackedreviews the newest feature from Amazon’s Alexa, a style feature called Echo Look. Now that Alexa has a built-in camera, users can try on clothes, snap a selfie through Echo Look and get feedback and recommendations on their clothing choices using the Style Choice function.
As the author of the Racked article points out, this will only serve to destroy originality. “We don’t calculate or measure if something is tasteful to us; we simply feel it,” she writes. “Displacing the judgment of taste partly to algorithms, as in the Amazon Echo Look, robs us of some of that humanity.”
And therein lies the central challenge for all of us as we design experiences in the age of intelligent machines. How do we hold on to our sense of taste, freedom of expression, chance encounters, surprise, the unfamiliar — all the things that define what it means to be human and provide depth and meaning to our human experience? The curiosity of open exploration and the chance to learn something new must factor into our thinking as we design new kinds of experiences.
Widespread personalization is well underway, which is generally a good thing because we can get what we want and need more easily. The risk is that we may be reduced to living inside our individualized personalization bubbles and only getting the things we like instead of the new and the unfamiliar, both of which are soul-nourishing and intellectually stimulating.
Designers of personalized experiences should remember that we’re no longer in the business of designing Don Norman’s everyday things. Increasingly, we’re designing everyday life. As we go in that direction, we should be mindful of making them as human as possible.