Screened devices, programs and apps are often touted as ‘human-centric’; after all, we exist in the middle of their screens. Swipe technology, rounded corners, and dimmed or faded lighting are purported to humanize the mediums in which we type words and interact with pixelated images and faces millions of miles away. Often, we can use a device without consciously realizing we are a part of the interaction. The products are designed for us, by us; they must therefore be centered around us, right?
Inside the screens, cogs churn away at algorithms based on data that we input. Apps are designed to measure our health, match dates, find the quickest way to maintain a vegan lifestyle. We find these apps intuitive, smart, intellectual, almost. Your iPhone can quickly sync your email contacts to the number on a business card, while Google Maps directs you to an address in an unfamiliar location. Fitbits measure the distance you walk and WhatsApp the hours you talk. The Internet of Things (IoT) extends almost into the realm of sci-fi and George Orwell novels as more and more interlinking technologies are created for our personal ease. The question is: how could technology-informed product design truly become more helpful, rather than adding multiple ‘helpful’ features?
The opportunity lies in what screen-based designs cannot often offer – true human- centricity, where the user is at the center of the design. Yes, many apps, programs, gadgets and games are intuitive, smart, and helpful in achieving everyday tasks and goals. Yet these gadgets are simply devices interacting with one another, an IoT with the user a void in the middle – which makes them, by default, not truly ‘human-centric’. The key lies in the word ‘user’ or ‘consumer’ – although we have to touch and press buttons to use a program, app or gadget, screen-based devices are often simply banks that output information in clever ways. You input your data, and a mathematical equation is displayed via several statistical methods. This model is based around service rather than interaction. For a product design to be human-centric, a product needs to deeply understand the people it serves. A truly human-centric product works with the user to jointly form, rather than calculate, the outcome for a larger societal purpose.
Design Thinking is a methodology for developing technology from a human point of view. If you take this line of Design Thinking , you might expand the question of human-centricity into what it is that makes a product easy to interact with. What is it that humans need to experience to make a product design encounter memorable? Is it taste? Touch? Sound? A medley of the above? The burgeoning Virtual Reality (VR) industry is one example of a move towards sense mimicry as a way to make brand experiences memorable. IBM continues its search to enhance the sense of touch in its wares, with infrared and haptic technologies usually associated with physical objects outside the reach of the screen
added to their devices. Angles away from the screen to more physical forms of connection are gaining traction.
The Five Senses are playing a bigger role in upcoming product design. In order to engage, you have to stimulate; in order to stimulate, you have to reach past the instant gratification of the machine and into what we experience without even knowing it. Research hubs such as The Osaka Science and Technology Center have created industrial forums for the growing ”Five Senses Industry’’, with the goal of creating a “high quality, safe and secure society” benefitted by technology-based 3D objects – objects that you can hold, hear, taste and smell, as well as see. Greater attempts are being made at computerizing the brain’s architecture through neuromorphic chip technology that slots into your screen-based device. The deviation from the screen-based product is in no way complete, but the drive for a more authentic experience is compelling and an easy way to fit a well-designed product into your own personal narrative.
Several world class product design firms have developed Design Thinking frameworks to put the human at the center of emerging technologies. Kohlex, a California based product design firm for example, has developed what could be the best framework for new product development and design. Their framework puts the human at the center, between feasible technologies and economical product development. According to Kohlex founder Christian Mackin, human-centric design is only viable if it can be developed and manufactured cost effectively.
Of course, the best way to involve the five senses in product design is to use a product that already ticks many of the boxes, and add technology to that. Kohlex is currently designing a Bluetooth desk that does just that. The connected desk moves with its occupant from a seated position, to standing, to seated again. The desk tracks the occupant’s fluidity of movement based on an accelerometer in their smartphone and then communicates to a microprocessor via Bluetooth to control linear actuators that move with rather than against the flow of the human body. In an Internet of Everything where reviews are king and personal preferences more accessible than ever, fitting around the consumer to support rather than void their presence is crucial. Adding value to the simplest of 3D objects can greatly impact user reviews and enhance the experience of using the product.
Amidst fields of products that are designed to give instant gratification and perfect the image on-screen only, technology that enhances everyday objects with a more human interaction, like desks, is an opportunity. Will you consider it in your next new product development session?
About the author:
Danielle Whitburn is an Account Director at a design agency in Auckland, New Zealand. She has managed several international brand launches over the past five years and views product innovation as a direct disciple of a strong brand. Visit her Behance page HERE