How Designers For Physical Spaces And Digital Services Can Create Better Experiences Together

How Designers For Physical Spaces And Digital Services Can Create Better Experiences Together
Brand Activation & Immersion

Paul McConnell, Head of Design at Intersection, discusses what a civic style guide looks like in today’s society

PSFK Op-Eds
  • 24 july 2017

We move through a variety of spaces each day, such as transit systems, buildings, and the pathways in-between. These places have been shaped over centuries, adapting to the needs of people along the way through incremental design decisions. Our behaviors have informed everything from the layout of public plazas to the placement of street signage. But these rules did not anticipate our more recent digital behaviors.  

Over the past decade, the lines between our physical spaces and digital experiences have blurred. Technically enabled services, devices and platforms are coming together to change our environments.  With Gartner predicting over 20 Billion connected devices by 2020, the effort to make sense of technology for people is growing.

There has been a demand for connected experiences in recent years, not only from the organizations we work with, but from rising expectations of the customers they are trying to serve.  We aim to understand these changing needs and shape new experiences by bridging the gap between physical and digital.

As more assignments blend digital services and physical spaces, the following provides background on design methods, helps align teams, and brings form to new ideas.

Background

Regardless of digital or physical experiences, we all know the feeling of trying to understand something new. This might happen to us when we arrive in a new neighborhood or ride a transit system in a foreign city.  Good design aims to improve new or confusing experiences by understanding user needs, the intention of the space, and establishing clear design guidelines.  At a minimum, this establishes how a concept should look, through visual consistency, and feel, through ease of interaction.

Digital Experiences

For digital products and services, there are clearly established guidelines. Apple has been a leader in designing extended systems of intuitive design solutions. Apple’s Brand and Human Interface Guidelines ensure a consistent brand experience, from computers to iPhone applications.

In 2014, Google produced its Material Design language and, more recently, Microsoft shared Fluent, both of which aspire to bring each respective company’s expansive product line under a framework of interaction and visual design principles. These systems, and many others, have shaped trends and behaviors for a generation of technology-enabled services.

Spaces and Places

In our physical spaces, different design disciplines come together to define the experience. These designers might have backgrounds in architecture, interior design, environmental design, wayfinding, operations or service design. When these are all considered, the space and human experience are aligned. The Whitney Museum, for example, anticipates a visitor’s needs upon entry and uses static wayfinding signage to guide people through the building. This can happen on a larger civic scale with signage and maps that work together to create a sense of place, like City ID’s Legible Cities in Bristol, London and New York. Best practices for designing physical environments have been established by organization such as SEGD.

Changing Human Behaviors.  What’s Missing?

While traditional guidelines for digital and physical environments provide thoughtful details, they often feel isolated. People now expect their devices, spaces, and services to be in harmony.  And they want these experiences to directly improve how they’re navigating a physical space.  

This gap in experience is highly visible in retail. Online, we can search and browse inventory, get detailed product information, and read customer reviews. But we can’t touch it or try it on. In store, we can feel the fabric and see how it fits. But we have no idea that there’s another item that goes well with it on another floor or how others who bought it feel about it a week later. Inconsistencies between the technology and the space give the impression of separate companies.

Despite a growing user need, the process for designing connected spaces does not yet have the established guidelines and approaches like those of the digital and physical design communities.  With some exceptions, designers of the built environment and of digital experiences rarely work outside of their disciplines. This might often be due to different philosophical approaches to get to a “successful” design.  Silicon Valley has popularized the concept of “move fast and break things.” This might be more feasible for digital teams that can quickly update interfaces. However, this is difficult when working with the built spaces, as there are months of documentation to review and civic inspections to ensure public safety. This can lead to confusion during the design process and eventually an underwhelming in-person experience.

As people expect more from their connected experiences, decision makers (clients and public stakeholders) will expect designers to understand larger tech enabled systems and work together to create unique services.

Considerations for Bridging the Gap

In the absence of established guidelines for connected spaces, cross-discipline teams will need to work together to align with partners and take advantage of unique points of view to create a cohesive experience for the customer. Here are some considerations for your own digital/physical project:

 

  • Alignment / Creating a Shared Vision
    Workshops are a great way to align on project objectives and team roles. This is important when there are many people from different disciplines who claim the title “designer.”  By the end of the workshop, the team should draft a goal statement and define a rough customer journey map.  This will help identify key moments in the customer experience. Workshop playing cards, like the Method Kit Civic series is a great way to get people off of their devices and engaged with one another.  Organize findings into a journey map or ecosystem map.
  • Define Concepts / Prototype
    While thinking through the overall concept, teams should explore how to leverage technology. Technology should not be an afterthought. In order to quickly discover what concepts are promising, build prototypes and validate them with actual people. If possible, try to block out a dedicated temporary space to test the experience. Invite all stakeholders to these tests so the team can learn firsthand.  As test space is often hard to come by, use 3D CAD models and UNITY to serve as a digital walkthrough.
  • Shape a Future Vision
    A vision can be captured in the form of well-told stories, renderings, or videos to help others envision the space.  Often, this vision will help remind a team of the original concept months into a project. The next challenge is to ensure initial idea is properly built. So, how do teams balance the iterative nature of the build process with clear direction for successful implementation? They do this by providing guiding interaction and visual guidelines.

For example, at the Edward M. Kennedy Institute in Boston, guests are immersed in an interactive digital experience in a physical museum space. Vision and guideline documentation was used to communicate the intention of the space (see image) to the multi-discipline team as the multi-year project progressed. Review styleguides.io for additional guideline structure suggestions.

As connected spaces become more commonplace, best practices will become more established and refined. In the meantime, by taking a shared approach teams can come together and create cohesive experiences.

Paul McConnell is Head of Design at Intersection, the company behind the groundbreaking LinkNYC program and MTA On the Go kiosks. There he brings his experience leading strategy, design and technical development departments for a variety of products, service and communication solutions. His background has been instrumental in shaping the future of connected experiences in physical spaces for brands and their customers. Paul has built up a department of design researchers, innovation strategists, interaction designers and visual designers to ensure a high quality of work across all projects. The department strives to shape human-centered experiences that influence behaviors and add value to people’s lives while achieving client goals. Paul was a judge for the International SEGD Awards, spoke at industry events such as O’Reilly Design Conference and Fast Company Innovation Festival, and is a published thought leader for various design and technology publications. Paul has taught at Pratt’s Graduate Design Management Program, SVA’s MFA in Interaction Design Program, and serves as a founding advisor for the UA Maker Academy, New York City’s first public high school for Design and Technology.

We move through a variety of spaces each day, such as transit systems, buildings, and the pathways in-between. These places have been shaped over centuries, adapting to the needs of people along the way through incremental design decisions. Our behaviors have informed everything from the layout of public plazas to the placement of street signage. But these rules did not anticipate our more recent digital behaviors.  

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