The future is mundane

As we were working on The Log, a design probe from our project on the future of consumer advocacy, I kept coming back to Nick Foster’s talk on The Future Mundane. It’s a talk about industrial design futures and how not to do them. There are a few things from the talk that particularly stick out to me, so I thought I’d write about how they influenced what we made.

Our homes are full of new things and old things

“When designing a new screwdriver, it’s important to remember that it will probably sit in a toolbox filled with other tools, perhaps inherited from a previous generation.” -Nick Foster

We’ve been wrestling with this a lot. For every connected product that someone owns, they’ll have lots more non-connected products. Our homes will never be a vision of sleek, connected things. They’ll be full of old stuff too.

So rather than design for connected products as a separate, distinct group we’ve been designing for them in the same context as the other things people own. In our demo of The Log you can see connected products like iPhones and are included alongside analogue products like a hairdryer.

The Log lists connected and analogue objects. (Photo: Andrew Corrigan/IF).

In the context of consumer rights, this felt like the right thing to do. The privacy and security of a connected product is inextricably linked to how safe a product is and whether it works as it should. Why can’t this information be as visible as its warranty?

We should focus on things we take for granted

“The characters in our future will not necessarily need to save the world at every turn- most of them will simply live in it, quietly enjoying each day.” -Nick Foster

Many of the products that will soon be connected to the Internet have blades or heating elements. As seductive as it would have been to spend our time thinking about consumer rights for driverless cars, it’s the everyday things in our home that we feel deserve more thought right now. That means things like lawnmowers or coffee makers, as well as the connected things we already own like tablets or TVs.

I think that’s partly because we’re a pragmatic team. But it’s also because we can see the problems people have with things they already own and can imagine what it’s going to be like with the next generation of connected things.

For me personally, I think it came from a conversation I had with my mother-in-law last December. She wanted my help, because she wanted to add new music to her devices. But iTunes on her laptop, iPod Nano and IPad were stuck in an infinite loop of impossible requirements: either through lack of storage or because they all needed different updates — none of them would let her do what she wanted. Luckily I managed to help… but it made me think that in a few Christmases time I could be coming home to a conversation about how her oven won’t update.

Designing for when things go wrong

“In truth, for every miraculous iPad there are countless partly broken realities: WiFi passwords, connectivity, battery life, privacy and compatibility amongst others.” -Nick Foster

Designing for when things go wrong is important. As we discovered working with the Co-op on Paperfree, it’s in those moments when things go wrong that people can become vulnerable. I think it’s why we should be thinking about security not only as a cryptography or developer problem, it’s a design problem too.

We should make things that let people know when they’ve gone wrong. We need to make sure people understand what’s happened, and what they can do about it. Partly because that’s the right thing to do, and partly because people just aren’t going to tolerate being shut out from the things they own for much longer.

This post is part of a series about the Future of Consumer Advocacy, supported by Near Now. We’ve also been looking at how data can help consumers make confident buying decisions and how marks can create trust between consumers and products.