Strategist, Speaker, Designer, Instigator

Your life as a cyborg superhero

A few weeks I did a workshop with this title at Frontiers of Interaction. This was not about dressing up as Seven of Nine or the Terminator; this was about getting people thinking differently about technology, design, the things we all make. I’m as enamoured with shiny new toys as the next person (probably more so than most), but that’s not what drives me. People are.  And I think that when we put technology first, we miss opportunities to make things that truly improve our lives.

There are a few real-life cyborgs out there: Neil Harbisson hears colours instead of seeing them; Nigel Ackland and Jesse Sullivan have prosthetic limbs with incredible fine-motor dexterity; Kevin Warwick has (among other things) RFID in his arm and an implant in his brain.

But if a cyborg is any being whose natural or normal capabilities are enhanced by technology, there’s an argument to be made that everyone with a smartphone qualifies. These devices extend and enhance our memories, amplify our voices, enable us to accomplish tasks we were unable to before. The downside is that they remove us from the world around us, place us in a cocoon. Sure, in that cocoon with you is all the content on the magical interwebs, but the only actual human inside it is you. You are either living your life in the real world, or you are engaging with the powers your device lends you. One or the other, but not both at once.

We keep cramming more and more technology onto our pocket supercomputers – the default delivery mechanism for almost any new idea is the Almighty App. And yet we know we only have limited, human attention spans, and that over 70% of downloaded apps are only used once. So why do we persist? Because we are creatures of habit, and because that’s the way the business ecosystem is currently structured.

In the workshop, I asked each group to think about it from the opposite direction. The brief was to design a specific, themed superhero (e.g. super cop, super-firefighter, etc.) by thinking about what kind of problem they’d want a superhero to help with (or what kind of hero they’d like to be), and which abilities their superhero would need to face those challenges – implants? Wearables? Connectivity with sensors and cameras in the environment? The point was to focus on the person and what they were trying to accomplish, using technology to address human needs and desires.

Then we explored what that would mean for the superhero – what they’d have to give up in exchange for these powers, what their lives would be like. At the end, each group told a story that featured their character. All of them were interesting, but one really leapt out at me: this superhero was by far the most augmented, with enhanced vision, hearing, smell, touch, etc. But the story described a journey where at the end, the man turned off all his tech-powers, because (as one of the participants said), “It’s the human that’s the real superhero.”

Well put, and I couldn’t agree more.

There are some products that are beginning to take us in this direction – Google Glass of course, though it remains awkward and difficult to use and this its future is still up for debate. Then there are smart watches, and various Quantified Self wearables and accessories that track our pulse and movement and provide us with reports later on. At this point, though, they’re still all more or less single-purpose devices, and don’t play together nicely, if at all. Each one has its own app to configure, consult and control.

Surely we know by now that a good experience is critical to success. Every year I hear more and more people talking about how important it is to think about the customer, the audience, the user. Yet, even though individual product experiences might be great, the digital consumer landscape is increasingly fragmented and chaotic. It’s clearly unsustainable but there isn’t yet much appetite for complementary (and perhaps even overlapping) digital products and services to work together.  Remember when we had a different remote for every item in our home cinema/hifi system? Remember how much that sucked? It’s like that. Only it’s going to get much, much worse when dozens of things – your wristband, your thermostat, your shoes, your home security system, your car, even perhaps (god help you) your refrigerator – are connected and have individual controls.

There is plenty of evidence that products and services that focus on people’s needs, articulated or not, are commercially successful. I’d suggest we begin to concentrate on the human need for our environment to be comprehensible and function at a tolerable noise level. If we start now, we can perhaps avert a saturation-related crisis and avoid the ‘Universal Remote’ problem happening all over again.