SOMETIMES LESS IS BETTER
Every year we as consumers search out what’s next. We look to the same devices, the same technology, but newer and ‘better’ versions. Better resolution, better battery life, better processing, better machine learning, better design. We’ve created a culture of anticipation fueled by rumors, hype and promise of something better. With our team recently back from CES we thought it would be a good time to reflect on what ‘better’ really is.
CES can feel like an exercise in the excessive tech. We tend to see the same things each year but supposedly smarter; from TVs to toasters. It can be a good way to benchmark the value of something new – having a consistent foundation to compare new features. It’s why, for product design, a chair still seems like the perfect way to express a skill set. Do we really need more chairs? We still haven’t found the perfect one so onward we go. Designers are hitting the same headwinds, trying desperately to create meaningful interactions while the temptation to inject every bit of new technology looms in the background. We are losing constraints simply because we are getting better and faster at developing new tech. For design, CES is a place where restraint is a rare bird. Back in 2015 we wrote a piece on the state of Human Interaction. Touch screens were everywhere– we were putting them on everything from fridges to toilets. While technology has changed, we are seeing the same issue. Innovation managers are now putting flexible touchscreens in places we never thought possible (or necessary) as we are no longer bound by the 3rd dimension.
There are newer, less visible technologies about to suffer the same fate. Just about everything is getting injected with AI and controlled through a virtual assistant with voice command. Thanks to Kohler, you can now talk to your toilet – Likely a decision to show dominance in a fiercely competitive lavatory market. We get it: you are developing a product and you want to make sure it’s the most intelligent and innovative in the world. But what is intelligence without intelligibility? What is innovation without relevance? Essentially we have now a critical household product that should last at least 25 years, and made it doomed for obsoletion in the very near future.
Deiter Rams took a “Less, but better” approach designing electronic products for Braun in the 1950’s. While most people admire the form and detail that inspired Apple Design, it was his approach that really mattered. What are we adding and what are we taking away? More advanced can be incredibly simple. Another designer, Victor Papanek stressed socially and ecologically responsible design proposing dual flush toilets in the late 1970’s. It was a very simple challenge to a very real problem. by adding a single button, 3 liters of water were saved, every flush. It had such a big impact on water consumption that by the 90’s the feature had been made legislation in multiple countries.
As product, interaction and experience designers we are story tellers and creators of the future. We are at a crossroads where everything is getting smarter, faster, more advanced and more accessible. But it is our responsibility to ask ‘is it better?’
At CES 2019 Virtual Assistants dominated. Google was omnipresent, Amazon’s Alexa had its first ever dedicated space along with supporting products dotted throughout the show. Samsung’s Bixby promised a more seamless and connected world combining AI and the IoT with 5G. Virtual assistants seem to be everywhere and there lies the challenge: What do they do and why are they there?
To integrate machine learning in a meaningful way, we don’t need to put the same assistants with the same capabilities into every device. Most of the time we just want our artifacts to do what they do, but better. A big part of this is to understand their immediate context, and the unique connection they share with other objects. It is expected that a smart object ultimately serves its context first, and then appropriately connects with others to add value. If you are building a team of experts, you don’t want them all to have the same skill set, you want them to work better, together.
I was using Android TV the other day, and ran into a very basic problem. I pressed the Google button and said “NHL”. I got everything from YouTube channels to articles about hockey. What I didn’t get was the NHL app I had installed the day before. Similarly, I tried setting up a pair of Bluetooth headphones using the assistant – same experience. Saying “Bluetooth” gave me a ton of resources from the outside world but I realized that my digital assistant knew nothing about the device it was built into. The design failed to address a critical use case of why I might want a Virtual Assistant in my smart TV. A smart system needs to start with the device.
Nest got this right. The product ecosystem is simple and smart. It learns our behaviors and works together. I don’t need to ask my thermostat the news – I need it to be the expert in home comfort. I love that Nest connects through all of my digital servants (because I can’t commit to just one) but I don’t need it to be one. It just needs to play nicely with others.
8k video, 360 audio, VR, 5G connectivity – We are pushing every aspect of fidelity to create hyper-real, immersive experiences that we can share, in real time. How much ‘better’ can we actually perceive? Can we even register visually the difference in resolution between the highest res screens? Our technology seems to be improving beyond human perception – but then when we see it, in real life we still get that magic feeling, like we are seeing something for the first time.
Entering the Main hall at CES this year, LG really stole the show. It wasn’t just the sculptural curved installation, it was the sheer scale of it. Standing in front of it was so impressive, it really demonstrated the promise of 8k; it lets us go big – really big. The simplicity of the experience was enough. Our expectations of what we can visualize in a space are changing. We are losing the tradeoff between resolution and scale.
Sony took a different approach, focusing on immersive HD audio experiences. Their listening bar offered an escape from the noise that is CES. The sound was incredible, but can we really hear the difference in HD audio without a trained ear? Most of us can’t, so Sony built an experience to reflect the artist’s intent. From the creation process to the listening experience visitors are gradually immersed. After walking past the album stands reminiscent of a record store, entering the ‘listening bar’ with foam walls and carpeted floors I put on the enormous over-ear headphones, twisted the huge knob on the music player and played some Miles Davis. It all made me feel like I was hearing something special, away from the crowds, the noise, all the flash of CES. As I walked away I thought can I really hear the difference? The experience sold it, not just the technology. HD audio? Ok, I believe you.
Consumers get excited by the promise of something new, but they crave experiences that go beyond the technology. This presents an opportunity to amplify innovation beyond the immediate benefit. Every touchpoint contributes to make a bigger, more emotional impact and ultimately to deliver a more memorable experience.
Products aren’t stories, brands are. We know consumers don’t see the boundaries between what they buy, their imbedded technology, and the services they provide. The brand is the sum of all parts. As designers, we a well positioned to create meaningful narratives through the products and services we create. It’s hard to understand the benefit of a digital assistant for example, without a clear contextual story.
One of the first things we saw at CES was Google’s giant Gum-ball Machine. The machine essentially gave prizes to participants after they asked Google a question. They clearly had the biggest presence at the show. Literally any direction you looked you were likely to see a ‘human’ Google Assistant in one of their white jump suits with the slogan ‘Ask me anything’ printed on the back. Their huge booth was even equipped with a themed rollercoaster ride. Gumball machines are fun, so are costumes and free stuff, it just felt more like a popularity contest then a clear message about their proposition. People are literally arguing that Google won CES simply because they made the biggest splash. What is Google Assistant and how is it different from Alexa, Siri and Bixby? When everything does a million things it’s hard to focus on what really matters. Google rolled out a number of fantastic features and product integration but everything just felt a little disconnected. Most digital assistants seem to be chasing the ‘ask me anything and everything’ story. It’s hard to relate to ‘everything’. Although Apple’s presence was small, they had a very simple message. A giant billboard with the line ‘What happens on your iPhone, stays on your iPhone.” It’s was clear that Apple cares about their customer’s privacy. With that one line they tell you immediately how they’re different to their competitors. While Googles ‘Ask me anything’ message clearly states we are your new digital assistant, its so broad the same could be said about every assistant.
I was excited to jump into Audi’s electric car at the Amazon booth to understand how Alexa might transform your commuting experience. When I got in the car, a rep hopped in the back and told me to push the button on the wheel and ask Alexa anything. “Just like the dot?” I asked, “yes’ He responded. The demo just didn’t sell it, it lacked story. I can ask Alexa, Google or Siri anything, on a ton of devices – tell me what the benefit is. Why is this better than CarPlay? How is it different? What is the story? As soon as you walk in the booth, you see the car. From that moment until you leave, is an opportunity to experience a connected narrative. Amazon might have focused on fewer more transformative interactions, like facilitating an immersive conversation between the connected car and the connected home, rather than finding a thousand places to put Alexa.
BETTER IS WHAT YOU MAKE IT
Restraint is arguably the most powerful tool we have as designers. We can’t just keep adding for the sake of innovation, we need to ask if what we bring to the table is truly more valuable than what we are replacing.
Making things smarter is almost instinctual. Understanding how things work better, together is a little more tricky. If we start by ensuring smarter products better serve their immediate context we can evolve how they connect with others in more meaningful ways.
A little narrative goes a long way. Stitching an experience together to amplify benefit while taking consumers on a more emotional journey will help them contextualize innovation. Make your audience feel why it matters.
Better is what you make it. CES has traditionally been a place to throw anything at the wall and to see what sticks. The formula needs a refresh – It’s not good enough to say something is better, we need to define what better is.
POV by Kenneth Weigelt, Creative Director, Products and Services, INDUSTRY