Strategist, Speaker, Designer, Instigator

Master and servant [post 6/100]

Who’s the boss in our relationships with our technology?

Over the weekend I had lunch with a friend, who told me about a client meeting he’d had last week. The client was wearing some sort of connected watch, which kept beeping and flashing alerts at him throughout the meeting, which he kept glancing at and mostly dismissing, but which still amounted to a constant distraction for the whole room. It made it difficult to keep the meeting on track, and even the wearer of the watch didn’t seem too elated by what was going on.

This is a perfect example of something I wanted to write about – the point at which our many devices stop being in service to us, and our behaviour becomes dictated by them. I’ve been talking about this for a while and mostly people have scoffed, but this story really drives it home.

Think of it this way: most of us have got mobiles that notify us of various things – calls, tweets, emails. Some of us have even managed to work out how to configure these notifications, or turn some of them off. Most of us know to mute our smart phones during meetings. And most of us, if we really don’t want to be distracted, put those smartphones facedown, so that there’s not even a visual cue that something’s happened.

But there’s a big difference between a mobile, which you can turn face down or put in your pocket, out of sight, and a watch, which you wear on your wrist. Watches are far more glanceable, and they carry a heavier burden of body language than the smartphone, if only because they’ve been around so much longer. As my friend pointed out, openly looking at one’s watch during a meeting sends a clear signal that one’s time could be spent on better things.

Overall, a subtle but unmistakeable shift is occurring: these devices, and (most of) the apps on them, were created to assist humans, to make our lives easier, to be our digital servants. But when we feel compelled to check them, engage with them, pay them attention on an ongoing basis, even when we should or even want to be doing other things, that relationship changes: we are no longer the master of the device, telling it (in the immortal words of Julia Roberts’ character in Pretty Woman) who, when, and how much – the device is now, at least to some degree, calling the shots. Sometimes this is intentional – either with an altruistic goal, like the many fitness wearables that aim to help us achieve our goals, or with a seedier one, like getting us to play a game some more so that more advertising can be pushed at us through it. But just as often it’s an unintended consequence – which means we can design better to ameliorate the situation.

There’s two sides to this: the behavioural bit (what we do differently with these things) and the cognitive bit (how we think differently with these things). Behaviourally, new devices are having an effect on our social interactions and our everyday routines. Some of this is just a fact of life, and something we will have to adapt to – thankfully we humans are pretty adaptable creatures. But a lot of this falls into the purview of design, as context. The context of (to continue with this example) a watch is bigger than the sum total of the moments I’m actively interacting with it. There’s etiquette at stake here as well as task fulfilment. If I can’t make my watch be silent during a meeting or a date, that’s not just an annoying failure of interface functionality: it’s actually, actively rude to the other people involved. If you don’t believe that technology has already changed our physical, real-world behaviours, check out the book Curious Rituals, which outlines and illustrates some of those changes.

On the cognitive side, there have been plenty of studies over the past few decades around how shifting demands on our attention have affected the way we think. There’s a lot of argument about what the effects may be, but most scientists in the domain seem to agree that it has had some effect. I’ve personally had plenty of conversations with people about the pressure they feel to constantly check their devices – their email, their twitter, whatever – and the stress that causes.

This is a big responsibility for the companies making these products, and for those of us who design and develop them. We are literally shaping the future of human behaviour – whether we intend to or not. We should try to make sure it’s for the better.

The challenge to design of wearables and connected objects is massive, and I’ll continue this in another post – essentially it’s taking us into totally unprecedented territory, especially when we talk about household objects with no screens, but with which people have existing relationships (an iron, for example). We might know what these things were originally conceived to do, but we don’t necessarily know what people are doing with them. How can we design when we have no control over, and (in some cases) only the most rudimentary knowledge of, the context of use?

To be continued…