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The Technology Revolution Demands a New Approach to Design
- Jun 2015 -

Innovators, technologists and designers are defining our future existence, but are we all tackling this challenge with the consideration it deserves? As technology continues to disrupt different industry sectors globally, it's forcing us all to re-evaluate all aspects of our businesses from revenue models to operations. 

The same goes for Zinc and it has forced us to approach innovation and design in a new way. The world is getting ever more complex, and our role is to help deconstruct and navigate that complexity so we can design solutions that help technology become embedded into societies - where appropriate - in a way that makes sense, not just for users, but the world at large. 

We have long adhered to the principles of 'user centered design' but that design philosophy is no longer sufficiently relevant to solve many of the challenges today. With the blurring of boundaries between physical and digital, and the emergence of new technologies and ecosystems that affect multiple users, human relationships, environments, resources and society at large, we have evolved our approach to be more integrated and focused on overall context, not just users...something we refer to as 'Integrated Contextual Design'. 

It was not long ago that almost all global innovation was defined by product development. Back in the 1970's, product design was relatively straightforward, there was almost no software to think about. Then in the 80's and 90's computing began to take off and with it came a new paradigm for design: the digital realm. 

This began the dichotomy of industrial design and interaction design, side by side but not integrated, and to this day that divide in the design approach is clearly visible in many products and services being launched. However, the physical / digital boundaries are becoming more blurred and that divided approach will become increasingly antiquated and irrelevant. 

Although we still exist in a paradigm of objects and screens, there are many looking to change that, including ourselves. As this brilliant article in the Guardian talks about, the internet is still in its infancy, it is just a rough prototype that is still being shaped for the future. 

We have become conditioned to the current paradigm but do we really want to be a society permanently glued to screens? Screens won't be disappearing any time soon, but with devices becoming connected and able to communicate both with each other and humans, it opens up new possibilities in the way our lives can be internet fuelled without screen fixation. Google glass was really the first effort at thinking about human interaction with the internet without a 'screen'. 

The rationale behind it made a lot of sense: Whilst on the go, phones can be a nuisance and invasive, so let's try to solve that. The problem is that it was not designed in an integrated contextual way. Although there were some compelling use cases, the physical design was badly conceived and created a maligned perception towards the user of being a sort of weird techno geek. There were even instances of wearers being attacked in the street, and unsurprisingly they never took off. Lets see what happens next, with the chief designer behind Nest, Tony Fadell,now tasked with rethinking the design of Google Glass. Screen or no screen, it's time to be solving problems in a more holistic way. Beyond the 'user', we need to think more about micro and macro context, and how we design and construct societies for the future. 

Different technologies are enabling new human behaviors and capabilities. 

For example, Augmented Reality used to be a novel technology that was a bit of fun, but it's now genuinely solving problems and enhancing experiences for people. In contrast to the Google Glass, last year saw the amazingly successful crowdfunding campaign for Skully, a new augmented reality motorbike helmet that "fundamentally enhances the capabilities of humans". That's a bold statement from their CEO but one cannot help admire the brilliance of this product, clearly designed in an integrated way thinking about context. Basically it provides the rider with all the same tools as a car driver: a heads up 'Augmented Reality' display with a rear view mirror, GPS navigation, infotainment, and phone & internet connectivity. 

It massively improves the user experience of the rider, it should improve road safety for everyone and the physical design is appropriate and stylish for that market. That's why when they tried to raise $250K, they actually raised about $2.5m, with thousands of pre orders. (If you haven't seen this video, worth a look). 

Combinations of new technologies are also facilitating new ecosystems and making design more complex. We are currently working on our own toy robot and accessory ecosystem that combines robotics, beacon technology, Augmented Reality and digital gaming content. 

We are creating a new paradigm in which children can explore the physical and digital in a fundamentally different way, hopefully disrupting their fixation on screens only. We combine some of the magic of the digital world with the physical environment, simultaneously allowing children to play together or remotely. Our platform combines different technologies in hardware and software, upon which a layer of content can be overlaid. It's a pretty complex design challenge that not only requires consideration for physical and "digital" user interactions, but the physical environments, the potential threats to children's privacy, the parents, the gaming communities, the materials we use...pretty much everything! When it comes to the vision for this platform, we don't have different designers working on different elements...the whole of Zinc are involved. 

Likewise, when we ran an open invitation workshop last year on 'Will Robots Become Part of the Family', we wanted to explore what the implications of robots would be in the household. Beyond the benefits, we wanted to understand what impact they might have on families, on relationships, on pets, and of course the physical space itself. It's not just a user centered approach, it's an integrated contextual approach. One factor that deserves special mention in our technological future is individual privacy. 

How much are we prepared to be tracked? How much personal data are we prepared to give up? We usually agree to all the Terms and Conditions for the Apps that we download without having any idea what we're agreeing to. The T's & C's are too long and complex and that's a design issue. 

As described by the aforementioned article, we should be aiming to design products & services in the future that provide instant transparency about the value exchange of sacrificing individual privacy for enhanced experiences through data collection and analysis. 

So when we think about the future, we believe design schools and colleges should be teaching design in a new way...if they are not already. Less emphasis on choosing individual disciplines like 'Industrial' or 'Interaction' design, but rather a combination of the two, and a more holistic and even philosophical approach to understanding and designing around new interesting technologies, platforms and ecosystems. 

But I feel like I've only scratched the surface. Our technological future also demands consideration for other macro factors like Mother Nature, resources, energy and so on, all elements that make up the context of future innovation. 

That is why we believe that 'user centered' and even 'human centered' approaches need to evolve to think about context in a new way, in an integrated way...or what we refer to as...'Integrated Contextual Design'. But of course it's not the phrase that matters, it's the substance behind it that will help frame our future. 

Designing Robots for Citizen Centric Cities