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Musings on integration of hardware and software design

This article was written in response to a question posed to me recently by an old client, “What strategic vision can you share with the UX design team of a software company dedicated to expanding its product line to hardware ?”

My response to the question is guided by a few foundational beliefs in design, that:

  • Design is always under construction, not in the design studios but where people live.
  • Design is an act of everyday people continuously envisioning and building their own environment (physical and mental) and their experience of living in it.
  • In designing their environment and their experiences people are driven by a desire to seek meaning for their existence.
  • Search for meaning involves meeting emotional and physical needs, shaping and expressing one’s identity, finding a purpose and building collective synergies.
  • Collective synergies lead to Shared beliefs, ethics, habits, myths, rules and rituals.
  • The artifacts of design represent the society, culture, and way of life of a particular era.
  • The designer of the future is a participant in people’s meaning making process.
  • He/ she will limit his/ her involvement in the design process to providing stimuli for people designing their own environments and experiences.
  • The designers of the future must stimulate reflection and dialogue for meaning making.
  • I envision the future of design as “Co-Imagination for Co-creation”.

Today, several software companies are turning to building hardware products with software intelligence to carve out a more meaningful presence for themselves in people’s lives. Microsoft, Google and Amazon are a few examples of software companies’ foray into the material world.

Designing an integrated software and hardware UX design strategy would involve finding opportunities to become a part of shared beliefs, ethics, habits, myths, rules and rituals of the future as people go about designing their own environments and experiences.

Early stages of Hardware and software design can no longer be treated as separate functions confined to corporate ivory towers. The early stage concept development process must move closer to where target audiences are already tinkering with shared beliefs, ethics, habits, myths, rules and rituals. The design process must be facilitated by people who have the capacity to notice, interpret and recognize emerging patterns in human psychology, social interactions, and cultural characteristics of communities. New and innovative approaches will need to be developed to continuously participate in and stimulate shared imagination of the future closer to where people live and dream of a more meaningful life. Designers of the future will need to align themselves with the curiosity, imagination and creativity of their target audience and be engaged in a continuous dialogue with them.

I see a sign of hope in the Maker Movement, which has given a new impetus to moving ideation close to communities. By offering people tools for translating their ideas into artifacts maker spaces are beginning to engage the creativity of everyday people. However, most of the maker spaces have not adequately addressed the symbiotic relationship between social imagination and the physical artifacts. While they provide tools for creating new artifacts these maker spaces need to incorporate activities that involve community dialogue and synthesis of social, psychological and cultural insights. There is a greater need to stimulate social imagination for incubating socially and culturally relevant, ethically grounded and ecologically sustainable ventures.

Companies that harbor ambitions of creating unique niches in the marketplace must shift focus from capturing market share to earning a space in the shared and evolving imagination of the communities they want to cater to. This new mindset will involve making commitment to being present in, nurturing, cultivating and harnessing local imagination of diverse populations, marginalized communities and emerging tribes within those communities. It would require creating new and innovative community engagement programs that encourage people of diverse profiles to contribute their imagination, experiment with ideas and materials and get rewarded for co-creating artifacts that improve community life.

Designers and Innovators of tomorrow will be driven by a purpose to improve community life through participatory innovation. Future focused companies will be driven by a curiosity for and willingness to invest in ideas simmering in the minds of the communities they want to serve. The future belongs to those who will give design back to people.

In this process there needs to be a balance between design by manipulation of information and material. Software designers are often inspired by artificial intelligence, big data analytics, automation and Mixed Reality experiences of the future. In pursuing these state of art technologies one must recognize one fact- the purpose of design is to empower people in their own design process- of finding meaning and of serving their own needs. They must retain control and not become lazy or slaves to the tools that are supposed to inspire them or serve them in the first place. Designers must also respect one glaring reality well articulated by the journalist Sydney J. Harris,

“Computers may soon replace many people who work with their minds, but nothing yet can replace that finest physical tool of all, the human hand.”

Designers must be mindful of the sense of dignity associated with the use of human hands. Letting software take over design of everyday experiences will compromise mental and physical health, and turn humans into slaves of technology. We must build tools that will inspire and motivate people to get up, go around, discover, and play.

In summary software company foraying into hardware design space must:

  • Expand their own team’s awareness and imagination by making them mindful of the social impact of their actions
  • Cultivate Participatory mindset across the organization
  • Immerse them regularly in the environments in which people live and find meaning.
  • Build maker spaces of the future where communities gather to share stories, learn about the diversity and complexity of their own needs, discover inspiration, and tinker with materials and ideas.
  • Relocate designers and engineers closer to where people live to interact with them, to co-imagine and co-create the future.
  • Stay involved as the products you co-design are taken home, refined, modified, deconstructed or reconstructed by the people once they start living with them.
  • Give software designers exposure to the physical world in which people live.
  • Give engineers and designers exposure to social, psychological and cultural factors that influence what is meaningful to people.
  • Above all, apply one single criteria to every design- People must retain control over their own experience, no matter how intelligent the software could be.

I envision that such an approach to design will lead to creation of artifacts and environments that are empathic, intelligent, subservient to human intent, trustworthy, bound by ethical norms, mindful of social impact, take away stress (physical and mental) and add joy to life. The outcomes of such a design process will inspire people to get up, go out, discover, and play.

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Uday Dandavate

Uday Dandavate

A design activist and ethnographer of social imagination.