A powerful tool to explore conceptual scenarios when designing innovative products.
The invention of the microchip and the diffusion of consumer electronics on a large scale have enabled humans to greatly improve their life quality by surrounding themselves with an always increasing number of machines.
Over the decades, the relationship between humans and machines has been continuously evolving, and in this article I will identify three high level interaction paradigms that I believe represent the essence of technological evolution and human-machine interaction.
I have identified these three paradigms in over a decade of experience designing hi-tech product experiences for companies ranging from small start-ups to global corporations. I was lucky enough to often work on the first version of innovative products that didn’t exist before, such as a robotic smart lamp, a steam-less rice cooker, a wearable eco-system to improve your lifestyle, a remote controller for incontinent people.
In each project I had to identify which type of interaction paradigm would be the most relevant and appropriate: a key high level decision that often drove all the others.
Something / Somebody / A part of me
The three interaction paradigms are strictly related to our relationship with technology and how we perceive it. They go hand in hand with technological evolution and we could, in fact, consider them as sequential, as three stages.
Something. In the first stage, humans consider technology as “Something”, a tool they use to accomplish a specific goal. Most technologies, when originated, fall in this paradigm: automobiles, personal computers, domestic appliances, etc. A simple example is an Air Conditioning remote controller people operate to choose their desired cooling mode, fan speed and temperature. The interaction typically happens in a very machine-like way through interactors such as buttons, and the use of displays, LEDs and iconography to convey information and contextualise actions.
Somebody. In the second stage, that has been enabled by the recent evolution of AI and more natural means of interaction such as, for instance, voice-controlled interfaces, humans perceive technology as “Somebody”, an alive entity, often humanised. The recent diffusion of Alexa, Siri and Cortana, integrated in phones and computers or even materialising in new form factors such as AI speakers, are a good example of this paradigm.
A part of me. In the third and last stage, that is still in its infancy, Technology and humans seamlessly integrate into a single entity. Technology becomes “A part of” humans. Common Implantable devices, such as pacemakers or semi-implantable devices like cochlear implants represent only the beginning of a stage of human-machine interaction that will define the future lives of the generations to come.
“Why is it important to acknowledge the differences between these three stages and how could we leverage on them to design innovative products?”
Designing Meanings, Interactions and Look & Feel
Choosing the right paradigm is a key decision that should be taken in the early stages of a product innovation project, as it influences how we perceive the product, how we interact with it and how we expect it to look and feel like.
In 2018 I was involved in a very fascinating project for a health startup that designed an implantable device targeting women suffering from incontinence. As part of the system, I was asked to design a remote controller allowing patients to manually open and close their urethra when in need to empty their bladder.
Let’s call this remote controller, from now on, the “pee remote”.
I believe this was (and still is) a first of its kind product, a quirky solution that required deep considerations that went far beyond function and ergonomics.
Controlling your inner body functions through something artificial that lives outside of your body brings in fact important emotional, cognitive and physical implications.
To understand these, we explored a variety of concepts following the three interaction paradigms: ‘Something’, ‘Somebody’ and ‘A part of me’.
History is full of products “ahead of their time” that for some reason or another didn’t translate into a market success. Although timing and financing are often cited as common reasons for failure, we might argue that “lack of meaning” could be an equally important factor.
Differently from commoditised products in fact, innovative products do not have a well established meaning that helps people understand and relate to them.
This was exactly the case of the “pee remote” and the reason why we found it extremely beneficial to explore three radically different meanings for it.
Something. The remote is perceived as a utilitarian tool to manually open and close the urethra.
Somebody. The remote is perceived as a friend that helps patients manage their condition.
A part of me. The remote is perceived as an extension of the human body, as if the malfunctioning pelvic floor muscles (responsible for holding urine) were replaced by something outside of the body.
The three paradigms translated into three distinct ways of interacting with the “pee remote”.
Something. By pressing buttons, and navigating an icon-based or display-based User Interface, patients can have full control over the ‘pee remote’ functionalities, which are simple and straight forward.
Somebody. Patients interact with the “pee remote” as they would with an alive entity. The interaction is more conversational and particular attention is spent on the psychological and emotional aspects of the experience, as incontinence is a psychological disease as much as physiological.
Part of me. The remote integrates with the patient’s body unobtrusively and it is operated through instinctive gestures, such as a muscle contracting or a skin rub.
Look & Feel
Finally the technological paradigms translated into three different aesthetics for the “pee remote”.
Something. Whether rational and rigorous to communicate trust and reliability, or minimal and geometric to communicate friendliness and ease of use, or more emotional and expressive referencing women cosmetics accessories, this direction was characterised by a machine-like and industrial look and feel.
Somebody. This direction referenced humans traits to donate the design a friendly and communicative feeling. Shapes were softer like the human body, while maintaining a distinct simplicity to emphasise the approachability of the object. The use of LEDS and light animations, alongside voice contributed donating the design a lively personality.
A part of me. This direction displayed a more organic and complex look, strongly referencing the natural world. Parametric textures and sophisticated patterns were used to donate the product a feeling of something beyond industrial, almost natural in its complexity and elegance.
“These three radically different design directions generated an equally diverse range of concepts that, in turn, helped us test and identify the most appropriate solution”.
The three interaction paradigms can be applied to most projects related to both physical and digital experiences to conceptually explore the potential of a certain innovation and to create a strong vision for what it could be.