Thursday, 20 August 2015

The Challenge of IoT UX: The Future of Digital Design

This blog was written by one of our digital designers, Morgan Stokes.

You start having a conversation with someone and you find yourself talking about how blogging was so 2004, but then you realise that was 7 years ago, and then it turns out that actually blogging is so hot right now. The digital landscape is changing rapidly. We all know this and live it every day. We find ourselves well acquainted with initialled neologisms like “FB” and “TBT”, and depending on your technological inclinations, words like “IFTT”, “IoT” and “UX” somehow slip into your day-to-day repertoire. 

UX (or User Experience) design is not a new concept, and is certainly not limited to digital media. User Experience is about how a person ('user” suggests they are abusive of the system, i.e. drug user) feels when using a designed artefact. You feel something when you use a mug. You pick it up, the porcelain feels soft on your hand and it’s comforting. It feels hot when you have tea in it, too hot! MAKE IT STOP! These are not necessarily conscious critiques of the designed object, but they are thoughts that have (or should have been) considered in the design process.

The recent boom in the discourse about UX has arisen as a result of the digital revolution. The User Interface (or UI) of the digital medium, the visual elements that a person will interact with on the screen, is limitless. Compared to a mug which can only be made out of a fixed number of materials, the digital UI can appear to contain anything you want in the world. You want your app to be a solitary unicorn braying in the breeze? You got it. This is where the discussion about UX becomes critical. Maybe Users don’t realise you have to pat the unicorn three times to get something to happen. The confusion might make people frustrated. The unicorn might make people happy. The feelings that arise as a result of the UI/UX are infinite and, through design, can be infinitely manipulated.

Do you know what this symbol means? In 2008, you probably didn’t. UI/UX Designers have developed a visual language we slowly grow accustomed to as we get more tech savvy (sorry I used the term “tech savvy”). We only take 10 seconds to assess a site, or an app, to make our judgement: do we hate it or do we not hate it? These 10 seconds are critical. If something does not work the way we want it to, we give up and complain to our friends or, worse, we forget about it and never visit the site again.

Our understanding of screens is getting increasingly sophisticated. The process of how to interact with a digital screen is a visual language we are all slowly learning, and most of us are not even aware of it. We immediately recognise the burger menu, the kebab menu, the back arrow, the settings cog with no text caption needed. Our navigation, interaction and entire digital experience has been sharpened to the point that our attention span has dropped from 12 seconds a decade ago to 8 seconds in 2015. That’s shorter than a goldfish’s (at 9 seconds). The danger for brands in this highly sophisticated world is that average UX is bad UX, and design standards are only growing.


This presents quite the pickle for the UX designer of devices beyond the phones, desktops and tablets, to which we have spent years growing accustomed. We are guaranteed a world in the not-too-distant future (by 2020 at the latest), where screens will be an old concept. Surfaces will be how we interact with the digital world. Integrated within other pieces of objects and furniture, this future is referred to as the Internet of Things (IoT). Indeed, the role of the UX designer will be critical in shifting our relationship with technology to make the most out of IoT, to make these advancements manageable, friendly and useful. 

The challenge that the UX designer of 2015 faces is that the visual language of a phone does not necessarily translate to the visual language of a fridge. Both devices have certain capabilities, one will perform a task better than the other and vice versa. It is one thing to learn to double tap your phones home screen button to show open apps, it is another to learn to give your fridge a five-finger pinch to give you ice. 

The Digital Table

My job is as a digital designer for digital tables. 

Think about the tables in your life. The table is a unique, horizontal meeting spot, designed for any amount of people and for various personal and collaborative tasks. You can come at it’s surface from any angle, so unlike a phone or a computer, tables have no orientation. Tables are for leaning, work sprawls, food sprawls, chortling, chatting, sitting. Sitting at a table with a friend, while they are on their phone, automatically takes them out of the conversation. Personal devices break the social contract. The surface of the table is already a collaborative tool. As our tech savviness only increases, the digitisation of the table as a multi-user device makes sense.

A search for multi-user, multi-touch software design yields negligible quality results. This blog is aimed at helping people understand the challenges of UX design for the future, and also to help others to design for engaging multi-user, 360 degree usability based on our research at nsquared.

As technology advances, our digital user experience is constantly improving. To tackle this challenge, UX designers require innovation, creativity and a keen understanding of human behaviour.

My blog next week will be on what makes a successful tabletop app; a device that is horizontal, static and multi-user. 

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