UX designers should get into everyware

I’ve been read­ing Adam Greenfield’s Every­ware on and off and one of the things that it has me won­der­ing the most late­ly is: are UX pro­fes­sion­als mak­ing the move to design for ubiq­ui­tous com­put­ing?

There’re sev­er­al places in the book where he explic­it­ly men­tions UX in rela­tion to every­ware. Let’s have a look at the ones I man­aged to retrieve using the book’s trusty index…

On page 14 Green­field writes that with the emer­gence of ubi­comp at the dawn of the new mil­len­ni­um, the user expe­ri­ence com­mu­ni­ty took up the chal­lenge with “vary­ing degrees of enthu­si­asm, scep­ti­cism and crit­i­cal dis­tance”, try­ing to find a “lan­guage of inter­ac­tion suit­ed to a world where infor­ma­tion pro­cess­ing would be every­where in the human envi­ron­ment.”

So of course the UX com­mu­ni­ty has already start­ed con­sid­er­ing what it means to design for ubi­comp. This stuff is quite dif­fer­ent to inter­net appli­ances and web sites though, as Green­field points out in the­sis 09 (pp.37–39):

Con­sis­tent­ly elic­it­ing good user expe­ri­ences means account­ing for the phys­i­cal design of the human inter­face, the flow of inter­ac­tion between user and device, and the larg­er con­text in which that inter­ac­tion is embed­ded. In not a sin­gle one of these dimen­sions is the expe­ri­ence of every­ware any­thing like that of per­son­al com­put­ing.” (p.37)

That’s a clear state­ment, on which he elab­o­rates fur­ther on, men­tion­ing that tra­di­tion­al inter­ac­tions are usu­al­ly of a “call-and-response rhythm: user actions fol­lowed by sys­tem events.” Where­as every­ware inter­ac­tions “can’t mean­ing­ful­ly be con­struct­ed as ‘task-dri­ven.’ Nor does any­thing in the inter­play between user and sys­tem […] cor­re­spond with […] infor­ma­tion seek­ing.” (p.38)

So, UX design­ers mov­ing into every­ware have their work cut out for them. This is vir­gin ter­ri­to­ry:

[…] it is […] a rad­i­cal­ly new sit­u­a­tion that will require the devel­op­ment over time of a doc­trine and a body of stan­dards and con­ven­tions […]” (p.39)

Now, UX in tra­di­tion­al projects has been prone to what Green­field calls ‘val­ue engi­neer­ing’. Com­mer­cial projects can only be two of these three things: fast, good and cheap. UX would sup­port the sec­ond, but sad­ly it is often sac­ri­ficed for the sake of the oth­er two. Not always though, but this is usu­al­ly depen­dent on who is involved with the project:

[…] it often takes an unusu­al­ly ded­i­cat­ed, per­sis­tent, and pow­er­ful advo­cate […] to see a high-qual­i­ty design project through to com­ple­tion with every­thing that makes it excel­lent intact. […] the painstak­ing­ly detailed work of ensur­ing a good user expe­ri­ence is fre­quent­ly hard to jus­ti­fy on a short-term ROI basis, and this is why it is often one of the first things to get val­ue-engi­neered out of an extend­ed devel­op­ment process. […] we’ve seen that get­ting every­ware right will be orders of mag­ni­tude more com­pli­cat­ed than achiev­ing accept­able qual­i­ty in a Web site, […] This is not the place for val­ue engi­neers,” (p.166)

So if tra­di­tion­al projects need UX advo­cates on board with con­sid­er­able influ­ence, com­pa­ra­ble to Steve Jobs’s role at Apple, to ensure a descent user expe­ri­ence will it even be pos­si­ble to cre­ate ubiq­ui­tous expe­ri­ences that are enjoy­able to use? If these projects are so com­plex, can they be even got­ten ‘right’ in a com­mer­cial con­text? I’m sor­ry to say I think not…

Design­ers (used broad­ly) will be at the fore­front of decid­ing what every­ware looks like. If you don’t think they will, at least I’m sure they should. They’re not the only ones to deter­mine its shape though, Green­field points out that both reg­u­la­tors and mar­kets have impor­tant parts to play too (pp.172–173):

[…] the inter­lock­ing influ­ences of design­er, reg­u­la­tor, and mar­ket will be most like­ly to result in ben­e­fi­cial out­comes if these par­ties all treat every­ware as a present real­i­ty, and if the deci­sion mak­ers con­cerned act accord­ing­ly.” (p.173)

Now there’s an inter­est­ing notion. Hav­ing just come back from a pre­mier venue for the UX com­mu­ni­ty to talk about this top­ic, the IA Sum­mit, I’m afraid to say that I didn’t get the impres­sion IAs are tak­ing every­ware seri­ous­ly (yet.) There were no talks real­ly con­cerned with tan­gi­ble, per­va­sive, ubiq­ui­tous or ambi­ent tech­nolo­gies. Some basic fare on mobile web stuff, that’s all. Wor­ry­ing, because as Green­field points out:

[UX design­ers] will best be able to inter­vene effec­tive­ly if they devel­op appro­pri­ate insights, tools, and method­olo­gies ahead of the actu­al deploy­ment of ubiq­ui­tous sys­tems.” (pp.173–174)

This stuff is real, and it is here. Green­field points to the exis­tence of sys­tems such as Octo­pus in Hong Kong and E-ZPass in the US. Hon­est­ly, if you think beyond the tools and meth­ods we’ve been using to com­mu­ni­cate our designs, IxDs and IAs are well-equipped to han­dle every­ware. No, you won’t be required to draw wire­frames or sitemaps; but you’ll damn well need to put in a lot of the think­ing design­ers do. And you’ll still need to be able to com­mu­ni­cate those designs. It’s time to get our hands dirty:

What ful­ly oper­a­tional sys­tems such as Octo­pus and E-ZPass tell us is that pri­va­cy con­cerns, social impli­ca­tions, eth­i­cal ques­tions, and prac­ti­cal details of the user expe­ri­ence are no longer mat­ters for con­jec­ture or sup­po­si­tion. With ubiq­ui­tous sys­tems avail­able for empir­i­cal enquiry, these things we need to focus on today.” (p.217)

So, to reit­er­ate the ques­tion I start­ed with: are there any UX design­ers out there that have made the switch from web-work to ubi­comp? Any­one con­sid­er­ing it? I’d love to hear about your expe­ri­ences.

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Kars Alfrink

Kars is a designer, researcher and educator focused on emerging technologies, social progress and the built environment.

7 thoughts on “UX designers should get into everyware”

  1. Kars, thanks for the thought­ful men­tion. I’ll con­fess that it is pre­cise­ly the iner­tia (or lack of inter­est?) you’ve iden­ti­fied that has let me to leave the IA com­mu­ni­ty behind, in search of places where the emer­gent real­i­ty of every­ware is being dealt with. It sad­dens me that IAs en masse seem to want to define them­selves out of a role by peg­ging their work too close­ly to the Web.

    Fur­ther­more — and I’m wary of say­ing too much along these lines, because I’m only too afraid of paint­ing myself even fur­ther into the unwant­ed role of Mr. Neg­a­tiv­i­ty I seem to have earned — but the image of IA exter­nal­ly is suf­fer­ing from this lack of inter­est.

    I wish every­one on the IA Sum­mit com­mit­tee could have heard the things I did at ETech in San Diego last week, as the hand­ful of peo­ple who attend­ed both events fil­tered in from Las Vegas: all I heard was things like “use­less” and “a total waste of my time” and “I won’t both­er next time.” It was very, very hard to hear, but it was hon­est and direct and unadul­ter­at­ed.

    And poten­tial­ly valu­able, if heard by the right ears, in the right way. There’s still a chance for IA to earn a seat at the table, to be a part of the larg­er dis­cus­sion hap­pen­ing, but it’s pal­pa­bly dis­ap­pear­ing.

    It may be, of course, that we are two of a very small group of peo­ple who seem to care much about this, and if this is the case then the wis­est course of action may sim­ply be to give up. I’m no Sisy­phus, and that’s not a career path I much rec­om­mend for any­body else, either.

  2. Adam, it’s nice of you to drop by and leave a com­ment. I hadn’t expect­ed you to find your way to this obscure blog!

    I can see what you mean when you say IAs risk being exclud­ed from the ubi­comp debate by cling­ing to the web as their only domain.

    I was edu­cat­ed to do inter­ac­tion design for any medi­um, so it seems nat­ur­al for me to get involved with this stuff as it ris­es in promi­nence, as I did with the web before. (Although I have not found a way to effec­tive­ly get my hands dirty, yet.)

    I wouldn’t say the IA Sum­mit was a waste of my time; I enjoyed the event a lot. Admit­ted­ly, this was pri­mar­i­ly due to meet­ing a lot of fun and inter­est­ing peo­ple and less so because of the pro­gram. Per­haps the IA Sum­mit is not the venue for the top­ics you (and I) are inter­est­ed in, although I’m tempt­ed to say it should be.

    As a com­par­i­son, Reboot has been very thought-pro­vok­ing the last two years I attend­ed, but at the same time much less prac­ti­cal­ly applic­a­ble. I actu­al­ly pre­fer a mix of both kinds of con­fer­ences.

    Com­ing from some­one who has just writ­ten a book on the sub­ject, I can’t imag­ine you’ll give up on mak­ing design­ers aware of every­ware any time soon. For what it’s worth, I’ll con­tin­ue to do it in my own way for the fore­see­able future!

  3. So if tra­di­tion­al projects need UX advo­cates on board with con­sid­er­able influ­ence, com­pa­ra­ble to Steve Jobs’s role at Apple, to ensure a descent user expe­ri­ence will it even be pos­si­ble to cre­ate ubiq­ui­tous expe­ri­ences that are enjoy­able to use? ”

    I have just pub­lished a post on how engi­neers can com­mu­ni­cate project require­ments back to senior exec­u­tives effec­tive­ly. The bot­tom line — use your tech­ni­cal skills to show the val­ue of a project pro­pos­al using finan­cial terms. Here is a link: http://www.embeddedcomponents.com/blogs/2007/09/roi-as-an-effective-communications-tool-for-engineers/

  4. Wow, I don’t see the aver­age expe­ri­ence design­er do ROI cal­cu­la­tions but I guess in some cas­es it might be help­ful.

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