Make tech work for people

Why AR, IoT & XR need user-centred design

Interview with Melanie Dreser

Emerging technologies like artificial intelligence, the internet of things or augmented and virtual reality have the potential to improve service experiences in big and small ways. To understand what role user-centred design and particular designers should play, we spoke to Melanie Dreser, design director at the design and technology firm Futurice.

Melanie, why do you argue that emerging technologies need user-centred design?

Emerging technologies are never the complete solution to a problem. Solutions might use emerging technologies such as machine learning or VR in order to solve a problem in the most effective way. Consequently, the design and innovation process itself does not change, rather it’s the tools or technologies one uses in this process that may change. Regardless of whether emerging technologies are being used, as creators and designers, we need to keep the focus on the human element — these could be users, customers or another kind of stakeholder. Service designers who ensure a holistic, user-centred and co-creative approach play an important role when creating solutions that harness machine learning; they work closely together with data scientists to advocate for user needs throughout the creation process. That’s why at Futurice we set up multidisciplinary teams of designers, creative technologists and business experts from the very beginning of a project.

What are the risks of not taking a user-centred approach, not conducting any user research, or building prototypes and testing things?

User research is a tool to uncover needs and pain points in order to develop meaningful solutions. Without this understanding, any solution is based purely on assumptions. In order to develop services that are truly meaningful, these assumptions need to be validated before bringing new services to market. This reduces the risk of failure, such as losing customers and wasting money. Prototyping and testing, however, are not only tools to validate and enhance holistic services, but they also help ensure humans can interact with a service in the right way. Usability, desirability and accessibility are only some of the aspects that are improved through an iterative and human-centred design and development process. Taking a user-centred approach delivers value to users and other stakeholders because it mitigates the risk of launching a service that is either not needed or performs so poorly that your business loses exist- ing customers. What’s more, many solutions including emerging technologies such as Internet of Things — IoT — or Artificial Intelligence — AI — are more intangible and less visual than typical screen interactions or graphical user interfaces (GUI). This makes it even more important to test the interaction with the service. Another benefit of a user-centred approach is that designers who have close contact with users also develop a deeper sense of empathy. This is essential in creating ethical solutions that respect people’s privacy and quality of life.

Why do you think designers should get involved in discussing ethics?

When it comes to the creation process, designers — especially service designers — represent the voice of the users. We have a responsibility to ensure that solutions treat people equally and fairly, prevent harm and respect their autonomy. (Actually, this is a standard part of a designer’s role). This renewed focus on ethics is possibly due to aI technologies magnifying the conscious and unconscious impact designers have on people’s lives. According to experts, aI will spearhead the next industrial revolution. At the moment, narrow aI (such as machine learning technologies) is mainly used to forecast the future, recommend content, uncover hidden structures and mediate decisions. However, learning systems are complex and get more and more unpredictable. A purely technical perspective does not address the ethical implications. Intelligent systems have the potential to be used to manipulate without us being aware of it. In addition, intelligent systems can be biased — either trained with biased data or built using biased algorithms. For humans, biases can be learned implicitly as part of our cultural contexts.

Without even noticing we might pass on our own biases to machine learning systems. The big risk here is that these systems often run in the background and users might not even notice any unethical consequences — how can they be expected to, if the creators who designed these systems might not even be aware of them?

What are the concrete things you learnt throughout this journey and by working with various clients who are exploring emerging technologies?

Emerging technologies themselves are neither good nor bad. It’s all about how they are applied. As creators, we have the power to influence this application. Working with clients, it’s often our responsibility to raise concerns and make sure that the solutions are beneficial to all stakeholders and avoid hidden negative consequences. Here at Futurice, we believe that understanding the possibilities, risks and biases of emerging technologies is key for us to deliver the best possible consultancy and design work for our clients. In addition, we develop our own tools such as the Intelligence Augmentation Design Toolkit which aims to help people who are not necessarily experts in tech, to create smart service concepts. The material is free and licensed under Creative Commons. The tool incorporates, for example, so-called “unexpected bug cards” which describe common failure cases and biases that affect machine learning systems. With the help of these cards, you can identify which failures might impact your service, and design to minimise those risks.

What things are you going to do next?

As a company, we are focusing on IA, Intelligence Augmentation, the use of machine learning to support and enhance human capabilities on a task. The system acts as a smart assistant to the human, rather than completely automating the work and replacing the human. We continue learning with each and every project. The knowledge from our projects gets fed into the tools we develop, which we often share via open source to help others create meaningful and ethical solutions. Now is a great time to be contributing as a company to solutions facilitating human-machine interactions. I strongly believe that every business needs to take a position on what kind of AI services and solutions they create. Here at Futurice, we challenge ourselves to use emerging technologies to co-create a future that we all want to live in.

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You can find the Intelligence Augmentation Design Kit at iadesignkit.com

Melanie Dreser is a design director at Futurice. She has a background in service design, innovation strategies, and researches meaningful human-machine collaboration.