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.