Designing for ubiquity

When I first heard the term “ubiquitous computing” almost 25 years ago, it sounded magical. Computers then, I admit, didn’t make it easy to imagine such a world. I frequently found myself daydreaming of the films ET and Escape To Witch Mountain (I did say it sounded magical, didn’t I?)

ET_Wikimedia image

It evoked a vision of being able to do anything, absolutely anything, anywhere using a device connected to all humanity, well, of sorts.

We are close to that utopian vision.

Except one thing.

That vision didn’t warn us of the whining, attention-seeking brat that ubiquitous computing will become.

Just to balance the argument out, I spent a few days noting how much time and attention I divert to other ubiquitous technologies in my life.

Such as the trusty old wall clock in the kitchen which is how I know what time it is when I arrive downstairs bleary-eyed early in the morning, or the radio I listen to while I work, or the land-line telephone that rings, or the 10-12 year old blazer I might pick out for the day.

You are wondering, aren’t you, why I am referring to these things in the context of ubiquitous technologies.

Think about it.

My wall clock needs one battery change a year. The numbers are large and can be easily read by a just-awake person to assess if a leisurely cup of coffee is possible or if one must rush on with the day.

I need a land-line telephone because where I live the line-of-sight technology called mobile or cellular access does not work.

As for clothes, let’s try and count the ubiquitous but invisible technologies therein including cutting, stitching, buttons to name a few. Without even going into the material, the weaving, the suitability to the day’s weather etc.

I contrast this now with the devices that do mean ubiquitous computing to everyone.

My laptop, my tablet and my mobile phone.

They need charging twice a day at least. I have turned off most notifications but it takes a while to work out why Viber notifications need to buzz, even when the phone is silent or indeed why the phone, left face down, needs to vibrate each time a new email pops in.

Yes, I know everything can be personalised and fixed just as I like it.

I am asking a different question.

Why does one have to spend all this effort on ubiquitous technologies/ computing tailoring them, charging them, tweaking & twisting them, blah blah?

Was this Weiser and Seely Brown’s vision when they coined the term ubiquitous computing?

Or did we get here all on our own — in our rush to ship beta versions, MVP and pick-your-term-of-choice — without adequately thinking just how much energy and time we will expend just to make these things work seamlessly, easily?

When did ubiquitous computing become ubiquitously painful, annoying and draining?

But more importantly, why did it become so?

And what does it say about our attention to design?

What next for design? — Jonathan Ive at the Design Museum

Jonathan Ive was the last guest in Design Museum‘s 25th anniversary series of talks. Waiting for my friend to arrive, I stood outside the museum celebrity-watching as leading British designers steadily streamed in. The Conrans, Paul Smith, Ron Arad, and I think I spotted Anya Hindmarch.

Here are some quotes and insights from the evening.

On how objects embody our values, our identities

Talking of his first experience with a Mac near the end of his Design school education, where he had had frustrating experiences with the PC which he blamed on his technical ineptitude, Ive said:

Through the object, that I was sat in front (of), I had a very clear sense of the people that made it. I had a clear sense of their values, their preoccupations, the things they cared about, the reasons they made it. Vicarious communication via the object, I had a really clear sense of this company in California, that I didn’t know anything about. And that had never happened to me before. This was the beginning of the realisation that what we make completely testifies to who we are.

On the human condition, the imperative to create something (when asked how a company making desktop products went on to making things for our pockets)

Ive opened with a mention of the Apple Watch, a product, he said, you cannot buy yet. He said, “The parallels with what happened with the technology of timekeeping and what we are facing is really quite uncanny. .. I think it’s part of our human condition.” He later added, “And that is exactly what happened. It was a multi-century transition. From the clock tower to something that ended up eventually on your wrist. What we are doing has some robust historical precedence.”

There is this natural part of our condition. Which is when you see potent, phenomenal technology, there is somehow, I think, a desire to do a few things. You typically want to make it smaller. That always happens. The first thing you do is huge and you put wheels on it and drive around and stuff. Or you make it small, Or you make it cheaper. And therefore obviously more accessible. Then you make it better, more reliable.

On form and materials (discussing the merits of plastic and glass)

You cannot separate form from materials.

On the inseparability of making and designing (and hat-tipping Terence Conran)

Marc Newson wouldn’t be a great designer if he weren’t also a great maker.

On the creative process, its fragility, its evolution to being exclusive to being something that involves lots of people

Ive talked about the wonder of having nothing to having an idea to having a product.

I still haven’t lost the wonder for the creative process.. and the way it comes from nothing. … The best ideas .. start with conversations. If it is a big idea, you can distill the idea into a few sentences. I still think it is a very fragile process. Sentences are sometimes easier to mess up than an object.

Over the years one of the things i have had to learn a lot about is .. listening very very carefully.

A small change right at the beginning defines an entirely different product.

Part of the process is .. it always starts with a conversation and a thought. I don’t know anybody who has just had an idea and could stand up in front of a group of people like you and try and explain this vague thought. So it tends to be exclusive and fragile.

One of the things I have discovered over the years is that when you make the very first physical manifestation of what the idea was, it changes. It is the most profound shift in the entire process. Because one, it is not exclusive anymore, it is not so open to interpretation, it is there and includes a lot of people.”

On the motivation behind design, respect and caring

A lot of it starts with motivation. … our goal is not to make money. It’s much harder for good design to come out of an organisation and to come from that as a driving force. Our goal is to desperately try to make the best product we can.

We are not naive. We trust that if we are successful and we make good products that people will like them.. and we trust that if people like them they will buy them. And we have figured out operationally we are effective and we know what we are doing so we will make money. But we know it is a consequence.

There are many decisions we make which may not make fiscal sense. Which is why the motivation I described is so important. And it can cost a lot more to make it the way we want to make it. And that cant justify that extraordinary additional amount of money to make it other than it is the right thing to do. It’s made better. There is an integrity there.

I really truly believe that people can sense care. And in the same way they can sense carelessness. 

And I think this is about the respect we have for each other. If you give me something, and if you expect me to buy something, and all I can sense is carelessness, it is personally offensive.

On the idea that “good design lasts” and rapid obsolescence of objects now

They can not last so long because they are used, multiple hours of every day, they cannot last as long as you wish they did, because the technology relative to the technology that is now available is so much more compelling.

That is why we all find there is a certain delight in what tend to be singular function objects.

On how design has changed since Ive was a student

Ive once again referred to Terence Conran’s mantra about making being essential to design.

.. in design schools, workshops are expensive, computers are cheaper. .. It is just tragic that you spend four years of your life studying the design of three dimensional objects and not making them.

How on earth do you do that if what we are responsible to produce is a three dimensional object?

He talked about the physicality of objects, and how powerful devices now are in isolation and when connected, and what it means for designers.

In some ways .. the expectation that the contribution the object can make is more important than ever. Somehow for us as physical beings it is really important that the physical object is as compelling as possible. .. places a great demand on those skills to truly understand the physical world, to truly understand the nature of materials.

On copying by competitors and others

Ive discussed how a design studio plays with and develops ideas over extended periods of time, never knowing quite which one will work.

But once you have got a proof of concept “it works”, and then somebody.. it is not copying, it is theft. They stole our time. Time we could have had with our families.

“Do you think when somebody copies what you do it is flattery?”. No.

On being innovative

You know this George Bernard Shaw quote. .. it’s a beautiful thing to say “to do something truly innovative does require you reject reason“.

The conversation and the questions from the audience continued for just over an hour. A lot of thought-provoking points made. Time well-spent.

And one more thing…

Jonathan Ive at Design Museum

Jonathan Ive at Design Museum, Nov 13, 2014

Our mothers, ourselves and risk literacy

The web is on fire with Ms Angelina Jolie’s honest and unsentimental account of her elective, prophylactic double mastectomy, appearing in the New York Times. She writes about her mother, who died at 56, having suffered cancer for a decade. She also writes about how she is a carrier of the BRCA1 gene. Her risk profile, she writes, was estimated at “87 percent risk of breast cancer and a 50 percent risk of ovarian cancer”. This risk would manifest itself before menopause is reached.

Not for me to comment on how our mothers – living or not – continue to shape our lives. I lost mine when I was 4. As far as I am concerned, I will never find out what she may or may not have suffered from, had she lived to age 46 (which was the age at which Ms Jolie’s mother’s cancer was diagnosed, according to publicly available information). Or longer. Every day I live defies all risks I may or may not know of.

But in this age of “austerity”, and living in a country with a publicly funded healthcare system being ravaged by budget cuts and the looming threat of privatisation, I worry. Alas the NHS’s postcode lottery is all too well-known for us to hide from it.

When TV celebrity Jade Goody died of preventable cervical cancer at the age of 25, it increased the uptake of pap smears in the NHS. When Kylie Minogue made the news of her breast cancer public, there was a 20-fold increase in the uptake of mammograms and early screening. There may now well be a worldwide surge in the uptake for genetic testing for BRCA mutations, which may be attributable to Ms Jolie sharing her experience.

Which is not all bad news. An estimated 20000 breast cancer related deaths could be prevented every year in the UK, not all attributable to advance knowledge of genetic markers.

I am sure you all know everything I have written so far. So I come to my main point. It is both a policy concern and a societal concern.

Risk literacy in the general public is rarely if ever discussed, even as risk communication remains ever-present, slightly sensationalised, yet incomplete or poor. For instance, BRCA mutations are almost exclusively discussed as a risk factor for breast cancer, following which ovarian cancer. Why not discuss that BRCA mutations may almost double the risk of cancer of the fallopian tubes? Which can be detected early and treated.

We still haven’t fully explained, in plain English, what it means to have a risk of X% versus Y% of getting A or B type of cancer. Risk really is a two-part concept: an undesirable outcome and the probability that it will come to pass. The probability may be expressed in numerical terms — making it sound, to most people, very accurate and reliable, which may not be the case — or in generalised terms such as “negligible”, “considerable”, “very likely”. Thereon it is a case of how one’s own risk propensity matches up to the description of a risk. That is what decisions are often guided by.

Here’s a story. A friend of mine, who had her first child at age 34, was told she had 1 in 1200 chance of having a baby with Down’s Syndrome. She said she took the chance. She is a highly educated, mathematically literate, senior pharma industry executive and struggled to explain to me what it really meant. To take that chance. She finally said: “Whatever I get I shall deal with.”

So that is what it comes to. Dealing with it.

Ms Jolie dealt with her risk in a certain way and shared her decision in unsentimental language with the broader public. It will increase awareness about BRCA for sure, but will it lead to better-informed decisions? Hard to say. Not everyone who gets tested — with the myriad (if you will ignore the pun**!) of genetic testing firms mushrooming in the market — will have access to the sort of counselling Ms Jolie might have had access to. Increasingly the choice to get screened or not is being left to the patient, even as this review took place because too often women are informed of the benefits of screening but not the harms. Back to risk literacy then.

Ms Jolie’s candid sharing of her experience needs to ignite a debate on risk literacy — not just BRCA mutations, breast cancer, or preventative mastectomies.

I have a final point. Men get breast cancer too. Because the absolute risk is low, the increase in the chances of a BRCA mutation carrying man getting breast cancer by age 70 or beyond is dramatic. This is also the age, when a lot of medical and health insurance policies start to enforce exclusions on the insured. With institutionalised differences between how men and women are treated by the healthcare system, surely risk communication about BRCA should include the risks to men, shouldn’t it?

Of course, I care about the issue as it affects men — I have only one parent left and it is my father.

(** If you missed the pun please read this. As well as the history of the company. Thanks.)

Four For Friday (20)

This week’s readings are mainly about cultural themes – openness, archiving, sustainable thinking (yes, even in luxury!) and – in the week that welcomes Olympics to London –  performance enhancement.

Academic research should go from “filter, then publish” to “publish, then filter“.

How can museums preserve our digital heritage?

Rio Tinto (yes, them!) launches a sustainable jewellery collection. It is the only miner certified by the Responsible Jewellery Council at every stage of the pipeline.

British Medical Journal discusses the science of hydration and sports drinks, and the links between the industry and academia. You may be able to watch this BBC Panorama programme titled The Truth About Sports Products too.


Four For Friday (18)

This week’s interesting reads leaning towards culture and the web:

University of Bristol research finds that professionals do not realise their vulnerability online, that principles of professionalism apply to social networks, and that most do not understand privacy guidelines. Now there’s a surprise!

And on the subject of motivation and use of praise as a tool, Carol Dweck’s research finds praise may make a student avoid challenge. In other words, praise may have a significant cost to self-esteem and motivation. Fascinating read.

Joe Kraus of Google Ventures talks about slow-tech and how tech is creating a culture of distraction.

Finally, do you have a bunch of energetic, curious kids on your hands this summer? In London, look up GoToTech. In New Delhi, look up Newton Club for Kids. Yes, you are welcome!