Design Fiction Probes — Interrogating Technologies of the Future
This post is based on two papers on design fiction probes, featuring the two artefacts “Homes for Life”, written Britta F. Schulte (UCLIC), Paul Marshall (UCLIC) and Anna Cox (UCLIC), presented at NordiCHI 2016 (published in the ACM Digital Library / open access pre-print here) & “HawkEye”, written by Renee Noortman and Britta F. Schulte (UCLIC), Paul Marshall (University of Bristol), Saskia Bakker (TU/e) and Anna Cox (UCLIC), presented at CHI 2019 (published in the ACM Digital Library / open access pre-print here).
Building technologies takes time, deploying them is complicated and it might take years until their impacts can be observed. Design fiction probes are a means to anticipate, communicate and elicit discussion about emerging technologies.
We are constantly promised changes that are just around the corner: smart home automation, the rise of domestic robots or virtual agents that anticipate our every need are part of our collective imagination. Whether we eagerly await them or fear their arrival, we are surrounded by narratives through newspaper headlines and editorials, discussions in panels and social media and even popular culture. For those who do not want to wait of how and when the changes will occur, but want to learn about peoples’ fears and wishes or question existing narratives, design fiction probes might be a useful tool.
Comparable to science fiction that puts scientific facts into the foreground, design fiction discusses design. While science fiction might invent a new rocket fuel that propels humankind to the edge of the universe, design fiction might explore how we live inside the rocket, design the controls and past times we have on board and plan our journey ahead. The boundaries between the two are blurry and debates about the exact distinctions might be futile, but in essence their difference lies in where they place their focus. In addition, in design fiction one builds an artefact, but also the world that surrounds it, the world in which the artefact can reasonably exist. We often learn how the artefact came to be, why it is there and when and by whom it might be (mis)used through the narrative, the story that is told around it.
Design fiction can be a useful means for prototyping as one can develop an artefact on paper alone — written out or sketched for example. In addition, the development can have as much nuance as one would need: quick and dirty or refined, design fiction can take many shapes. The artefact and its consequences can further be explored through the narrative, in a video, a story or a fictional artefact. By developing an artefact that offers an alternative to the current narratives surrounding technologies, the design fiction already interrogates the future.
My suggested use of design fiction probes goes further by using a design fiction as a research tool, as a means to probe peoples’ fears and wishes about an emerging technology. The term combines design fiction with another research method, the technology probe. A technology probe is a prototype that lives with potential users to explore how they might engage with it, define it, understand it. In many cases ambiguity of use lies at the heart of the deployment, giving the user much freedom about how to interact with the device. The artefact therefore comes with little explanation about how it came to be and how it is to be used. Design fiction provides a degree of ambiguity that enables the user to explore and voice their relationship towards this technology of the future, but it is also embedded into a narrative that explains to the user how the artefact came to be and into their life. Ambiguity and detail therefore need to be carefully balanced to enable the user to step into this alternative world and find themselves in it.
In my own work I explore technology use in dementia care and have used design fiction probes to learn where people draw the line for technologies that are ethically debatable. Monitoring technologies have the potential to support dementia care, but they might also be harmful when placing someone under undue surveillance or limit their autonomy. If peoples’ fears about these technologies gain the upper hand, the technologies might not be deployed on a large scale, leaving the underlying problems unresolved. A critical engagement with these technologies is needed, not to abolish these technologies, but to improve them. Understanding concerns before these technologies are developed into smart homes, robots or voice assistants therefore might be a useful means to rebuild the technologies in a way that they fit better into the everyday life of potential users.
‘Homes for Life’ is a written design fiction that explores potential issues around monitoring technologies embedded into a smart home. The story is told in form of an interview with a person who has bought a smart home for their parent as an alternative to a care home. With current developments projected into a near future, the story aims to give a balanced view in which benefits and mishaps are evenly distributed. The reader therefore has to decide for themselves how they position themselves in regards to the technology. The narrative led from the motivation to buy the house, up to the point of when a decision had to be made what happened with it next, which led to the easy question whether the audience would move into the house themselves. The probe started as a fiction published in a conference paper and has since been turned into a video to be used with participants in focus groups. It enabled participants to think through some issues they had not previously thought about and led to a couple of suggestions of what the technology could and should (not) do. Another example is the ‘HawkEye’ project that builds on the idea of the ‘Homes for Life’ probe, but takes the idea further: both in materiality and conceptually. HawkEye is a tangible, functional prototype that has been deployed in peoples’ homes to learn how they come to terms with being a remote caregiver who has control and responsibility for someone else’s life, mediated through technology. Instead of watching a video and seeing a story unfold as in ‘Homes for Life’, with ‘HawkEye’ the user steps into the role of a caregiver and has to make decisions in the moment, rather than debating them theoretically. The artefact was introduced through a letter that established the motivation for the artefact and explained why the reader had been selected, creating a fictional world is which such a device already exists.
Design fiction probes can take many shapes and forms, depending on the audience, the mode of distribution and the question underlying its deployment. The various approaches nonetheless share that they enable an audience to step into a fictional world, explore it and be asked about the experience afterwards. They can be useful tools to learn about peoples’ fears and wishes surrounding novel technologies, thinking through issues that might arise from their use and thereby improve the (design of?) technologies. To probe the future, one only needs to ask ‘What if …’