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.
7 thoughts on “UX designers should get into everyware”
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.
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!
What should I know to get into this?
“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/
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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