Toby Boudreaux: Designing A Technological Environment To Bring People Together [PSFK 2014]

In an age of ubiquitous devices and sensors, privacy becomes an activity rather than a default state.

In anticipation of his presentation at the PSFK CONFERENCE 2014 we spoke with Toby Boudreaux, the CTO of Control Group who helped create the new MTA’s subway wayfinding kiosks. Read his thoughts below on how the universal Internet of Things is inevitable, but it will be a subtle reorganizing of our current world rather than a totally new one.

What are the biggest shifts you’re seeing in terms of how people are using technology? What are the new set of consumer expectations?

The most significant pattern I see lately is the embrace of peripherals and intelligent objects/spaces after a few years of heads-down mobile and tablet use.

Over the past six years, there has been a lot of demagoguery around mobile computing as embodied in smartphones and tablets. Everybody was so excited and blown away by the power of smartphones (notably the iPhone), that all our attention went towards those devices and the interactions they enabled.

Designers went crazy for skeuomorphic design, with touch screens becoming/replacing any physical device you’d ever needed. The “app” boom promised that phones and tablets could replace everything from your gaming console to your desktop computer to your navigation system to notebooks and paper.

I’m pleased to see that, over the past couple of years, most folks have rebounded from the view of “There’s an app for that” toward a new respect for purpose-built objects with intelligence. The new phrase might be, “There’s a smart device for that… and it works with your phone… and your computer… and your cloud…” Not as catchy, but I’m no Steve Jobs.

Now, everything from our bathroom scales to our carbon monoxide detectors to our children’s toys are “smart” objects – coupled with phones or running their own operating systems and, often, multiple applications. Have smart objects always been around? Yes, sure. But now, they’re stealthily integrating, plugging together all the little gaps that apps and analogue allow. No single shiny product or solution is sticking up and standing out. Instead, a slow, simmering movement toward distributed, connected, micro-specialized computation is filling the product space that sites, then apps, have always dominated.

This is branded, “The Internet of Things” or, “The Internet of Everything” but I think it’s something wider, more varied, and more powerful than simply connectivity. It’s a diffusion of computational power away from the privileged pocket computer du jour to traditional objects that benefit from a CPU. It’s not necessarily about the Internet, or connectivity. Instead, it’s about recognizing that you can’t replace everything in your life with a mobile app, and embracing that dedicated physical objects and interfaces are usually better tools than touch screens. Everything has a brain, now, and everything is speaking relatively understandable languages.

What are the key end user needs you’re designing for when creating projects for your clients? How do you ensure that these engagements feel personal and relevant?

Humanity does not evolve very quickly. When designing integrated physical environments with helpful technology behind the scenes, we have to root all decisions in basic usability, accessibility, and the constraints of ownership. We are well past the shock and awe of being technologists. When any of us first begin our careers, we are often drunk on the feeling of power that comes with being a creator. The ability to make any whim into a reality is powerful stuff. Like consumers, though creators seem to be maturing and restraint and respect for craft seem to be trending. This is a good thing for everybody because it means technical solutions can sometimes disappear.

For a recent project for the New York City MTA, we designed and developed a wayfinding and messaging kiosk system. At certain points in the project, we considered gestural control to solve for the problem of dirty hands and dirtier screens. After playing through some of the scenarios, we realized that gestural control was not necessarily a valid goal in this case. Instead, the goal was shifted to limiting navigation tools. We stopped assuming that information needed human intervention. From the shift in goal, we designed a very elegant means of navigating the NYC subway system with a single touch. This may not be as novel as gesture control, but it’s far more effective, and that’s what matters.

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As connected technologies become more embedded and ubiquitous, how will that change our physical environment? How will people interact within this new ecosystem?

Most of the efforts to improve and connect the world are around investing familiar objects and spaces with smarts. This is preferable to replacing everything or adding tons of new objects to each room. We have enough stuff, in general. Effective design is about enhancing clunky interfaces, improving usability, adding awareness, deriving knowledge, and continuously improving. We went through a reductionist period, during which folks tried to replace items with apps on smart phones, eliminating the original object along the way. Now, we focus on connecting our belongings and exploiting their abilities in new, combinatory ways. No app will ever replace a toothbrush, but a toothbrush can rate brushing habits and help brushers improve their overall technique.

People will continue to interact as they always have, but with proximity awareness and sensor activation, we can check the sleep habits of our kids, measure the exercise level of our pets while they are in kennels, and let our spouses know when our train is delayed – automatically. Pay attention today to how many environmental questions you ask. Is it raining? How did you sleep last night? Have you been to the gym today? Have you seen Rachel? Did you do your homework? All of these can be answered before you ask.

What role will personal data have in this future? How do we ensure privacy is part of these exchanges?

I don’t know that privacy is a goal that many consumers really want to ensure. In a world of gadgets, sensors, and databases with endpoints every few inches, privacy becomes an activity rather than a default state. It’s a function more than an attribute.

Privacy is and will remain hard work. The term and policy will be continually redefined – by the populace and by the owners of collected data. Reasonable expectations will be questioned in new ways. And we will hope the judiciary can keep up with the technology while the technologists work in the interest of consumers without sacrificing the legitimate goals of business.

The truth is, most data collected by all our devices, interfaces, and digital tools probably isn’t used for anything, save food for a log rotate job. We all emit a lot of information, but most of it proves to be noise. This is a problem for service providers and consumers. When designers and product managers become more experienced with data, and as data scientists are added to product teams, I’ve experienced huge increases in value of collected data while the volume dropped by orders of magnitude. Aside from volume and value, propriety is always a hot topic in the business, civil liberty, and regulatory crowds. Data ownership, identity, and portability will probably be hot button topics forever, but we can help create user-friendly products and platforms despite a lack of black-and-white universal principles.

Despite some noise and ever-changing trends for users I’m confident we’ll see some pretty stellar (and likely subtle) cases of intelligent objects and spaces that react to personal presence (and data) to help us understand ourselves, meet our goals, and enjoy our limited time together.

Thanks Toby!

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