Power or magic?

Well designed technology is magical. We like this magic in technology and we do not even want to decode it. But we want to have the feeling of understanding the technology behind the magic.

In an “internet of things” project I recently was designing a system was offered to the user with which he could stream tools. Just like music streaming he only had an abo which was paid somewhere in the background so that he does not have to worry about that. Also there is no need for him to own tools anymore. The user just goes to a public shelf in a hardware store and takes the tools he before reserved at his IoT-toolbox at home.

When the user comes nearer the lockers of the tool-shelf containing the reserved tools start to glow, so the user knows that the shelf had recognized him. He now subtly gets the message that he might want to take exactly these tools with him.

He just has to hold his phone on the shelf for opening the lockers. A simple, subtle and even magical interaction that takes the users worries he instead would have had. No annoying typing into a terminal-screen, no searching on hundreds of badly visited sharing-websites, no arrangements with other people who might have the exact tools the user needs. Just going to the shelf and taking the tools. The rest is managed by the technology. Isn’t that magically great?

But does the technology really prevent worries from a human? Does he have to think less about troubles than before? The former user now does not have to actively use a system. Where before there was a user there now is a human. The technology does serve him in a magical way where he wants to get work steps taken off him.

From the user centered design to human centered design

Users can be analyzed through using processes. When a user becomes a much more complex human being the analysis gets quite harder. What characterizes a human being? Isn’t the essence of being human the autonomous thinking? When we as designers impose ones will he most likely will react alienated. Possibly in between the reservation of the tools and the visit of the hardware store he has changed his project concept. Maybe he now needs different tools and is bothered by the system, which thinks it knows the tools he wants. Even if the system works so perfectly that it can calculate all this and despite the right result the man still feels incapacitated.

It is quite interesting to watch which reactance you can raise when you try to help senior citizens. For example with a button for emergency calls which automatically sends messages and calls out to relatives when the person had an accident like falling down the stairs. This button beyond doubt is a good thing without any downsides is what the seniors relative would say. But what does he know about the fears this technology might wake in his grandparents?

Maybe with my IoT-toolbox I get the same reactance emerging from fear and incapacitation of the man whose work I wanted to make easier and now he does not feel well when the lockers begin to glow without him knowing how he caused this.

Not everyone is the same. People are different. This platitude now has to attract more attention from us than ever before because we now enter the most private sphere of people. IoT gets into every single corner of their homes. And with that fact in mind we can not allow us to disregard peoples fears and more importantly their sovereignty like unfortunately so many products labeled IoT do right now.

Exactly there is a great cleavage: IoT wants to ease processes but it may not take away decisions. If these decisions are made by humans themselves or by the technology should at every point be the decision of the humans who are the center of our design, the center technology should concentrate on.

How do we solve this problem?

As a designer I now am confronted with the following problem. I really want to use this IoT-technology which core competence seems to be taking unnecessary processes and tasks from people and doing those for them. But simultaneously the man should be able to take over these tasks when he wants to and he should be able to do this without asking for permission. An apparently unsolvable issue.

At this point I want to refer to the beginning of this article. Power or magic? Humans like magic. Technology fascinates them. And humans like power as well. Or at least the feeling to be in charge. And exactly this feeling should be what I am concentrating on as a designer. Humans must have the feeling of being in charge at every time. Having this feeling they do not actually need the power itself.

A using knowledge and a small insight behind the magic is everything it needs. Exactly so much that the magic is not going away.

When I drive my motorcycle I am exited by the magic. How this bit of technology can develop so much power. But simultaneously I have the felling of power over the machine. Without fully understanding the technology I still roughly know which part does what. But I am not able to fully understand what is happening inside the motor. This is remained a secret for my eyes and so it keeps it’s magic.

This wonderful tightrope walk is what we have to do as designers of IoT-products. It is sufficient if the user of my tool-shelf knows that there is a wireless technology inside his phone that only works over short distances and the locker is glowing if he gets near to it with this technology. It is good when he thinks that this short distance gives him safety, the amount of data is not very high and contains little information. More is not necessary. He does not have to understand the technology itself. Indeed he does not have any power this way but he does not feel disempowered the same time. He keeps having the feeling of being in charge. Nevertheless the lockers’ glowing keeps it’s magic.

Enlightened human being or undiscerning consumer?

At this point I could end my article with a few nice words. We seem to have solved the problem. In good, manipulative design we found the answer.

But with IoT as a deeply intruding technology comes a great responsibility for us designers.

My just stated solution was: The people want to be tricked. They just want the advantages of IoT so we have to conceal the disadvantages. But wasn’t it the thesis of an enlightened, mature man which has brought me to this consideration? Can the answer really be that we just have to manipulate people more efficiently and maybe encourage their possibilities to make free decisions? In the end isn’t the human being still just a undiscerning consumer we have to serve properly? Or shouldn’t we take him as what he is: an enlightened, mature and independent human being who does not want to be made incapacitated.

Our job as designers

May we arrogate that people should belief in IoT like we do? An idea we think of as groundbreaking but no one was ever asked to judge democratically. An idea no people were offered to decide if they want this or not. We could get people to think good of this with a little manipulation.

Or should we rather concentrate on our actual job — or a little lofty — on our duty?

To help the people where IoT is actually useful. To examine processes and take action on one important point in these processes. To develop a product which fulfills this one task perfectly and simple.

For though there are so many needless IoT-projects there are a few very great ones as well. The ones which convince due to their simplicity. The ones which functionality everyone understands easily and which still do not forfeit any of their magic.

Further reading
Who is observing whom?