Saturday, March 08, 2014

Design Thoughts from Wearables DevCon 2014

Design Thoughts from Wearables DevCon 2014

This past week I attended 2014 Wearable Devcon at the Hyatt outside San Francisco airport. I toured the booths and sat in on two presentations and one keynote. It's quite likely I missed many good presentations, but the two that I sat in provided interesting snapshots of the state of wearable technology.

The first presentation represented a continuing illustration of how each new generation of technology introduces and then has to solve problems that have been solved in prior generations of technology. The first presentation and discussion I attended revolved around the proprietary nature of wearable technology and the data produced and whether or how it was possible to integrate data from multiple sources in a secure manner. Issues of account control for vendors, as usual, are in opposition to customers's desires to be able to integrate data. No doubt there will be an emerging data management layer set of competitors that will include open source and proprietary platforms. We can also anticipate that algorithms used by sensors may become selectable and may trigger third party suppliers to provide better or differently tuned algorithms in addition to machine learning based improvement from the data owner.

The second presentation was far less technical but excellent. A Senior Interaction Designer, Sonia Koesterer, at Fjord, LLC, an Accenture subsidiary considered larger design issues. She first illustrated the problem we have all seen of people paying attention to their smartphones rather than family or friends with whom they are socializing. Like Susan Sonntag in On Photography, she posed the problem of experiencing the event, moment, or landscape rather than losing some of the experience as a result of recording it with a smartphone camera. She identified three problems as particularly important.

1. Our devices are making us awkward,
2. Our devices are over-sharing data with us and about us, and
3. Our devices are making us miss out on experiencing life.

She continued her presentation with an embarrassing story. A colleague in a meeting had placed her smart phone on the desk where it could be seen by a number of her colleagues. At one point in the meeting, a message from an application popped up so that it could be seen by people adjacent to her phone. It read: "Having sex today will maximize your chance for pregnancy."

This clearly untimely message in the context of a business meeting allowed her to introduce some important principles in design. In summary, she argues that good design should:

1. Encourage better social behavior through the device rather interfering with the social behavior
2. Be appropriate to the user's current environment
3. Should enhance rather than distract from the primary activity.

So if there exist a range of designs that can be thought of as a Venn diagram of three overlapping circles (the device, the context, the activity), good design is the overlap of all three. Design on a cell phone should be different than design on a computer. Design for a bike computer should be and fortunately is radically different, she pointed out. It's a simple on-off decision when the bike is going.

Perhaps surprising to some, the group discussion then proceed to revolve around one of the issues addressed in Innovation Zeitgeist, the idea of individuals being overwhelmed by technology, data and  choices and the need for "Intelligent Invisible Technology" which I compared to the Four Seasons Hotel. Unlike subscribing to a web site or mailing list or managing email where the consequences and risk of cybercrime are unpredictable, an interaction with a hotel is typically straightforward. The initial reservation transaction is normally understandable with few areas of uncertainty. When you arrive at the hotel, the transaction of checking in and going to your room is well understood. Standard hotel services (mini-bar, restaurant, dry cleaning, business center) are assumed to be available. And concierge services are available for query and custom services.

The design goal, in my view, is much more to pursue Invisible Intelligent Technology and it's interesting to see how other designers are reaching a similar conclusion.

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