Chris Thelwell

The internet without screens

Designing relevance

Written on Tuesday, 18th August 2015 by Chris Thelwell

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The Internet of Things is a much hyped and confusing concept. It should be seen as creating a truly connected world to improve our lives with information, data and connectivity but more often it’s interpreted as the simple addition of an internet connection and a digital interface to an everyday object, providing little or no real benefit? In order to think more about making a real difference to our users, I believe it’s time for a radically different approach to how we conceive new products and services and how we use the technology available.

The way it’s always been

The computer monitor has always been just an output device alongside printers, speakers and other peripherals. But over the years – with the development of the personal computer – we have become far too attached to it. As designers and developers we create products and services that rely on the screen to communicate with our user. But this has become much harder with the explosion of technology over the last decade. We’ve seen the shape and size of the screens we create for vary wildly from giant multi-screen displays to tiny wrist mounted faces. I’m a product designer with a strong visual design background, but I think it’s time to rethink our screen first way of thinking.

The future of the connected car does not live in the centre console screen, the connected home will not have a touch screen display in every room and the answer is not to build an app to control this and an app to monitor that. With the fast approaching explosion in wearables, people will not be walking blindly around fiddling with their watch like they did when the first smart phones hit the market. If we are going to create an amazing connected world we need to get creative with how we think about our solutions as smart additions to our lives.

Back to our roots

I believe the answer is to rethink the original role of the screen. We need to think of the screen as just another output device again, one of many output devices available. Rather than designing for the actual device we need to design the output we want to get, then be disruptive in how it is delivered using the best technology available.

By focusing on solving the needs of our users we can get to the core output needed and deliver a real difference to their lives by considering how our connected devices can work together to find the right way to communicate that output. You could compare this to a ‘content is king’ approach or ‘form follows function’ but I think it’s more than that, this is about designing relevance for both people and their scenarios, putting design back at the heart of what we do.

A recent example of this approach is Nest Protect. Nest could have easily added a beautiful interface (as they did with Nest Thermostat) but by thinking about the users needs in the scenarios that are important, they found that the most effective way to communicate with their user was the combination of light, colour and an assertive human voice. This removes the cognitive load from the user and communicates clearly what the user needs to do in the event of a potential fire with little instruction. Nest where able to apply this thinking to the accompanying mobile app providing all the relevant detail needed to deal with any situations, even when the user is not at home.

Another great example is Amazon Echo. Amazon have re-invented the personal assistant app, by making it without a screen. It’s always connected to the internet, and responds to being asked, just like a traditional personal assistant.

Accessibility as an advantage

Accessibility is often considered as an after thought when creating new products and service. The main solution is created to meet the business objective or the users need, then accessibility is engineered into it after launch. But I believe we could use accessibility as an advantage – by putting the needs of a less-abled user first – as it forces us to really consider their needs leading to a new perspective on how we see our solutions. Applied disruptively this new perspective can be used to create and change markets, opening up the opportunities to use technology in new and different ways creating solutions less dependant on the screen.

As an example – in my winning entry for the 2014 Tata Communications F1® Connectivity Innovation Prize – I focused on a blind user and how they would experience the data behind Formula One. The challenge was to take the timing data set from a Formula One Grand Prix and bring it to life to enhance the fans experience. By focusing on the needs of a blind user I had to consider distilling the data down and extracting the important and insightful information (the core output) and then delivering it in an accessible format (the communication).

What I discovered was not only a simple solution for delivering complex data sets to blind users, but also a completely new way for all users to experience data. By turning raw, complicated data into simple, meaningful and human sentences and delivering them through an API – to be used in a variety of different ways – I also re-inventing how the screen is used, considering how to make the best use of the latest small screen devices such as Google Glass and Apple Watch.

You can read more about my winning entry here.

Re-inventing the screen

With our continued approach of creating product and services for use with screens we are limiting the impact we could have with the Internet of Things. I believe that by thinking more about the needs of our users we can use the technology more effectively to empower our users to meet those needs. Our chosen output devices whether that is a screen or something else should only be considered after we know how we intend to meet our users needs. The added advantage with this approach – of focusing less on the screen – means we have to rethink how we use the technology, unlocking new methods to engage with our users and finding new ways to use the screen we have become so attached to. By forcing ourselves to apply this new perspective we can really design relevance into our solutions and make a real difference to our users.