Design considerations for the Internet of Things

It’s been sixteen years since the term ‘Internet of things’ was first coined by and eighty-nine since Tesla alluded to it when he talked about converting the ‘whole earth’ into a ‘huge brain’. We’ve always been fascinated by it and for good reason. It seems as though the Internet of things would make the world more efficient, more laden with sensory experiences and more democratic. But it’s only now that that envisioned future is almost here that it doesn’t look as rosy any more. There’s several issues with intelligent systems that aim to make our lives better and there are some that I think interaction designers should consider more deeply. I think it’s almost our responsibility to do so since we’re in the privileged position of being insiders by the fact that we’re going to be the ones creating these interactions but we also come in with the perspective of outsiders — of sociology, psychology and other humanities — that lead us to think critically about what and why we’re designing. I think we often fall into the trap of designing in an insulated world for insulated worlds where everything’s perfect till it isn’t. This is especially true when it comes to the internet of things.

In her paper, Steenson quotes Rodney Brookes, “Eventually criticism surfaced that the blocks world was a ‘toy world’ and that within it there were simple special purpose solutions to what should be considered more general problems.” (1) The initial (and arguably, even current) design projects using the internet of things were cute and novel but almost seemed like a way for the internet of things to market itself as a cool idea to make new toys. To quote Steenson again, “the IoT often forgets it has users. It has no idea whatsoever about architecture.” (1) Rather than developing more ‘things’, we should be thinking about what the underlying architecture implies. In the process of making things easier to use, we could end up making them hard to fix. (2) Can we be absolutely critical of what we design, anticipate issues (that are not only top down requirements based only) before release and build in solutions? When things are designed only for the internet, does it mean that they break down otherwise? How can we include those who live outside gated communities and in developing nations without removing core features that define the product?

The internet of things needs individuals’ data to be collected, processed, stored, compared and analysed for the system to be most effective. Permission is implicit but often the providers of the technology themselves don’t understand the possible fallouts completely. Communicating that to users or subscribers is key but it’s not just about letting them know but also providing alternatives.

The internet of things by definition requires a closed ecosystem in which various ‘things’ or components ‘talk’ to each other about you. It’s just that you don’t have a say. What does it mean when these things share your information outside their closed systems without letting you get a word in? (3)

In a utopian world, we would have alternatives service providers if not alternatives to a technology. Unfortunately the realities of technology development today mean that it’s heavily capital intensive at all stages, not just research and development. If successful products are determined only on the basis of ‘distribution, distribution and distribution’, it’s no wonder it seems likely that our lives seem will be held hostage by monolithic Big Tech. Interaction designers may not have the power to change this by themselves but by thinking about the architecture more consciously, searching out functional problems, questioning the ways the which technology and information is disseminated and proposing critical solutions that don’t always fit neatly within the status quo, we might be able to influence the course of direction of the internet of things. (1) Molly Wright Steenson, “Architecture Machines & Internets of Things, or: The Costs of Convergence,” New Geographies 7, 2015.

(2) Jay Yarow, “My Snazzy New Nest Thermostat Started Malfunctioning — And I’m Not The Only One”, Business Insider, 2014 (3) Chris Davies, “Nest sees biggest business in selling data not thermostats”, 2014