Developing technology for design research

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Classic Designs » Essays » Developing technology for design research

When it comes to the business of design, especially the design of interactive products, systems and services — most companies have absolutely no expectations of design research. Generally, they seem to believe that design is only relevant to their business if related to engineering or advertising campaigns. 

Our job, then, is not to only develop design research and apply it to business, but to explain what design is and what it can contribute. To do this we must consider changes in technology. 

The three different stages in the development of technology: 

David Liddell was the leader of the team that designed the pioneering Star interface for Xerox that eventually led to the Macintosh and Windows graphical user interfaces. Liddell defined three different stages in the development of technology: 

1. The enthusiast stage: when people don’t care how daunting the technology is and are either thrilled by it for its own sake or find it so useful that they happily accept difficulties.

2. The professional stage: when the technology is developed and used by professional people. This stage benefits those who have learned a new programme and so have a unique skill to offer. When computer-aided design was introduced, for instance, the fact that it was difficult to learn gave those who had mastered it a very marketable skill. During the professional stage the people who use the technology are rarely the people who buy it: their company gives them the software, which they must use whether they like it or not.

3. The consumer stage: when the user is the buyer. In this final stage the user/buyers are diverse and are usually not interested in the technology itself but what can actually be done with it. 

Design makes the difference 

Information technology increasingly shapes the way we live. Equally clearly, it is rapidly shifting from the professional to the consumer stage. Technology companies previously made technical things for technically-minded people, now they also make things, to use Apple’s slogan, ‘For the Rest of Us’. 

One consequence of this is that the underlying technologies we now use are becoming increasingly similar — it is often hard, for example, to differentiate one PC from the next. So, as technology becomes more homogenous it is design that makes the difference and, in particular, the design of products or systems that enable ordinary people to interact with them intuitively, pleasurably and powerfully. 

So what should design research offer businesses? The research programmes of my institute, Interaction Design Institute Ivrea offer us, I think, some insight into how design research might transfer to the marketplace. 

Olivetti and Interaction-Ivrea 

Interaction-Ivrea, as the Institute is usually called, was established in 2000 in Ivrea, a town halfway between Turin and the Alps. Ivrea was the hometown of the typewriter and calculator manufacturer Olivetti.

Like many companies navigating the shift from mechanical to electronic engineering, Olivetti did not survive the sudden diffusion, at work and at home, of the personal computer. Yet its aesthetic flair and cultural progressiveness were legendary, as, ironically, were its technological innovations, some in the computing field.

Indeed, Olivetti has some claim to have invented (though sadly not developed) the personal computer. It is therefore in a spirit of rebirth that Interaction-Ivrea was established in Olivetti’s former research headquarters. 

The benevolent managerial style of Adriano Olivetti, the company’s owner and manager throughout the 1950s and 1960s, generated a dignified and pleasant working environment; people in Ivrea still have fond memories of working for the company.

Olivetti was evangelistically committed to the humanisation of technology, not just for the worker — the person producing it — but also for those who would eventually use it. He saw design as something that could transform life in the factory and the office. 

Adriano Olivetti initiated a huge social and industrial experiment. While people in Britain are probably more familiar with Olivetti’s designs, in Italy he is remembered as much for his forward-thinking approach to employment and the social uses of design.

But 50 years later, are we any further on? We undoubtedly face some of the same challenges. We also live in a world where information and communications technology often seem to have impoverished rather than enriched the experience of work. 

From the material to the immaterial 

Another challenge is the flight from material to immaterial products — a change that is developing at a very speedy pace. The manufacture of a product, for instance, used to be delegated to China, Taiwan or Singapore, but now the East is as capable as the West of designing it too. We, then, can only compete through innovation. 

Industrial production in Italy today falls into three dominant categories: Fiat, furniture and fashion. But while Olivetti and Fiat were once dominant forces in northern Italy, one is now dead, the other struggling. Emerging in the hinterland around Milan, however, is a dynamic nucleus of small and medium-sized companies that excel in furniture and fashion design. Interaction-Ivrea aims to find out how this kind of energy can be injected into an industrial situation. 

Interaction design defined 

What is interaction design? To me it is the design of anything micro-processor-based that humans can interact with. This includes interactive spaces and environments, mobile devices, software and systems. At Interaction-Ivrea the design process has one simple underlying imperative: to understand the user. 

Interaction design is very different to what I experienced as a graphic designer. Graphic designers design things, books say, that have existed for 500 years. But interactive products are so new that nobody quite knows what they are. 

So to be inspired and rooted you must go back to the users: both to ask them about their lives — their needs, wants and desires for the future — but also to observe the things they do, the way they carry out their everyday tasks and pleasures. 

This invariably provokes many ideas, prototyping and modelling solutions. We teach many techniques for modelling, from making paper flip-books to building interactive prototypes with electronics. Interactivity is a medium like plastic or watercolour is a medium.

Each medium has its strengths and limits and it is essential that the student understands its qualities. You can only do this by making and building, because when you see or interact with a model or a prototype you understand something new about it. Interaction-Ivrea encourages ‘just enough prototyping’ — just enough time to find out what it is you need to find out. 

The three types of design research 

Our research falls into three stages:
1. Experimental research: where we take existing contexts but look at future possibilities. This involves a consortium of people from Interaction-Ivrea and business working together on short and medium-term projects.
2. Theoretical research: this tends not to attract interest from companies but is essential in enabling designers to understand and develop the intellectual structure of their discipline and, as such, design ‘outside the box’.
3. Applied research: this third stage is essential because it is where the knowledge gained in the first two stages is applied to real market-led projects. 

Interactive design is so new that we have much to learn from companies about the technological platforms being created, about how they are designed, their constraints, and what the next steps might be.

Our students and faculty are therefore collaborating with companies on projects of varying lengths. If we were not working with business, we would not be able to develop new things with confidence. 

On the other hand, as an educational institution we can experiment with a range of possibilities that might be hard to justify in company design departments. We are interested in the space between the outrageous and the real’ because this is where creative imagination, released from a habitual frame of mind, can speculate freely about possible futures. 

Sharing to create 

Our curriculum includes a sequence of two-week workshops in collaboration with companies like Sony, and Hitachi in Milan, and with the research group of our sponsor Telecom Italia. These typically comprise eight students and two or three designers from the company working together on several different topics. 

We have also embarked upon experimental programmes, such as a six-month project with Fiat, focusing on its Multipla car. However, rather than just look at the car and how it appears, we are imagining scenarios and designs for the future, considering for instance, a car that will operate as a shared service and that is not purchased by a sole owner. We are also part of a new consortium, ‘Convivio’, which, as the name implies, investigates ‘convivial’ technologies and how they might be used to support everyday life and culture. 

Then there are the students’ thesis projects. We are currently exploring the relationship between the company and the thesis. Response from students has been that, while they are happy for the company to provide the context for the thesis, they want to come up with the ideas themselves and not feel obliged to create something that could be presented to the market immediately.

It is important that at this stage students are not constrained by the practical day-to-day problems of making money tomorrow. 

Design technology case studies

Case studies are created to examine how technology fits into everyday life and culture: new uses, better design, and the added value that designers can bring. One student looked at products linked by the Internet with Bluetooth or Wi-Fi. He built a whole platform comprising a small box with a wireless board and input and output.

He then made a huge range of different input and output boxes — simple cardboard cubes — because he wanted to concentrate more on behaviour than form. These were linkable over the Internet, while graphical software allowed the user to configure their interconnection. Because these connections proved easy to make, the platform enabled us to explore the possibilities of this technology even though we had not devised any practical use for it. Though not yet a project for companies, it was invaluable in helping us to understand the potential of the technology. 

Another project, ‘Telekatessen’, looked at consumer services and how to make a beautiful, physical (indeed edible) ‘digital delicacy’ out of an SMS message. We encourage students, who do not have much time, to work in video so that they can quickly show, vividly, what their designs can do.

In this case a video shows a girl ordering a treat on her mobile phone to send to her boyfriend. He receives an SMS message: “A surprise waits for you at the [specified] café. Will you accept it?” He then goes to the café to pick it up — a chocolate printed with an affectionate SMS message from the girl. The student was inspired by our sensuous relationship to food — its detail, the delight we derive from it, the impact of beautiful, simple pleasures — and wanted to connect this to a similarly simple, everyday technology.

Designing new ways of living 

Another project, which began as a thesis project at the Royal College of Art in London, starts from the idea that our relationship to time differs completely from that of the industrial age. Ancient Greece had two words for time, Chronos and Chairos. Industrialisation favoured Chronos, the time of timetables, structured time. The post-industrial world, however, is increasingly ruled by Chairos, a more spur-of-the-moment, directionless kind of time. And so our project designed services to support it. 

We focused on how people live their lives rather than on the technology. The mobile phone allows people to plan their lives opportunistically from minute to minute, to keep their options open. For instance, when young people in particular arrange to meet, they say “Ring me around 5pm. I’m not quite sure where I’ll be”. We wanted to know whether Chairos could be applied to the institutional as well as the social world and if technology could keep us constantly up-to-date with hospital- appointment queues or public-transport delays, say, allowing us to adapt our movements accordingly. 

We aimed to develop a system that would support today’s less structured time-frames. We wanted to invent ways of linking people to events through devices and interfaces that are fun and beautiful to use and that could be applied to opportunist time-keeping in relation to travel, home- repair men, or restaurants and so on. The idea was that this ‘time service’ could work as an integrator between the network provider and the user who subscribes to the service. 

The Turin bus service project 

We explored this by embarking on a bus service project for Turin. We asked local people to live with our prototypes for a month, each designed to alert them to how the Turin bus service was currently running. Some were given mobile phones, some were fitted with a tiny mobile device fitted onto a gauntlet like a watch, others had ambient devices installed in their homes. 

Three interfaces were offered. One told the user, depending on how the service was running, the most appropriate bus stop, how many minutes away the buses were, and how many minutes he would have to wait for the next one.

The second option showed how far a bus was from the stop so that just by glancing at his watch the user could see whether or not he would have to run for it — one participant said he learned to adjust his walking pace to what he saw on the device.

The third interface, finally, was aimed at those who prefer a more orderly existence and prefer to see exactly where the buses are. This device was set up in the home, enabling the user to see the distance of buses from his stop: some were just arriving, while others were quite a long way away. This enabled him to judge his timing exactly to what else he wanted to do. 

It was significant that the basic system was designed so that different people could use it in different ways. One bus project participant liked to fill her time, so used her device to save as much time as possible. Another was utterly time-unaware, never punctual, but enjoyed the fact that he could use the device to make sure he would catch a bus late at night when they were infrequent. 

It was an ideal example of how a theoretical idea can be carried into a real context to explore its feasibility. Did people like it? Was it useful? What problems did the interface pose? We hope to introduce it eventually to a broader range of communities and applications. 

Making design research work in real time

We have discovered through this kind of research that a major difficulty in transferring this knowledge to companies is often that researchers are not interested in the market, while those who work within the market are so close to it that they cannot see the point of more speculative ideas.

We are increasingly convinced that the great benefits to be gained from the new technologies — to companies, users and society as a whole — will come from a greater understanding between these two groups, and that these shared insights will be gained by their working together on interaction design projects. 

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Written by Simon
I am a published writer, journalist and photo-journalist. I have an MA in Creative Writing and Journalism from the University of Wales and my journalism has been published in a number of UK national newspapers including 'the Observer'. I have life long interest in creative design, art and function and this website is an exploration of that in all its forms and guises.