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Here Comes the Screenless Fork

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By: John Brassil

Innovating Innovation

The 'Internet of Things' is changing everything - even
innovation. In Product Development, the demand to make almost every conceivable
object 'smart' or 'connected' requires developers to approach design in
revolutionary ways. The 'Internet of Things' is breaking new ground in the way
humans interact with the most basic objects - forcing innovators to re-invent
the wheel (literally and figuratively) in design and process.
Increasingly, clients ask our designers at bb7 to incorporate sensors and
radios into everyday objects, allowing them to interconnect.  These new 'smart' objects are becoming part
of the fabric of the 'Internet of Things'. 
As early implementers, designers recognize that computing and radio
communication technologies are now mature enough to overlay an information
dimension onto previously static objects. 
Take, for example, a fork that senses the food and activity of eating to
improve the experience and simplify the task. 
For connected products like the screenless fork, our initial
work considers the technical feasibility of the sensors & radios and their
integration with a suitable computing stack to create a system.  Requirements analysis and design engineering are
the normal process steps, followed by prototyping and testing.
Along with demonstrating technical feasibility,
multidisciplinary design teams tackle the tasks of understanding the product
from a user-centered standpoint.  Industrial
designers, interaction designers, and human centered design researchers work
together to harmonize the new possible functions for these products, meeting the
needs and goals of users.  Feature sets
and product functions are conceptualized and evaluated against users' possible
desires and expectations. Analyses, models, and prototypes of product concepts
are synthesized, compared, and refined.  This
is the standard, familiar innovation methodology.

But, somehow putting a radio into a familiar product changes
things up a little.  The familiar innovation
methodology itself needs to be innovated to meet these products' surprising
needs.  Although these products might
appear exactly as their predecessors; indeed they provide new, surprising but invisible
functionality.  This presents a break
from traditional task-referenced, user-centered design.  Suddenly, traditional industrial design and
Human Computer Interaction (HCI) norms do not provide sufficient guidance:
What's the Play
without a Display?

HCI standards mainly need a display and these new products
may not have displays.   Basic HCI principles
like responsiveness, feedback, task analysis, consistency, reversibility,
recognition, and tolerance are still valid for these new products, but they are
not fully informative for products that present unfamiliar feedback to users,
if any feedback at all. The existing norms of HCI depend on close interactivity
between the computer and the user. 
Although new connected products will indeed manifest
interaction between user and computer, these interactions may be silent and
unobservable.  Users will need clarity
about the hidden, silent activities of their products and surroundings, which
HCI norms do not yet provide.
Familiar but
Different

Traditional task-referenced user-centered approaches to addressing
user needs may fall short also. The new functions afforded by invisibly sensor-laden
and connected but otherwise familiar-looking products may not follow smoothly
from the functions of predecessor products. 
Interaction Design
for New World of Product Interactions

Refined gestural interaction between users and technology remains
in infancy compared to traditional GUIs. 
Handheld, screen-less, everyday objects like knives and forks will
accelerate the need for new and meaningful norms of gestural communication
between people and objects.
The Fork that Gathers
Food and Data

The connectedness of some products may serve no obvious
purpose to users at all.  For example,
some products may just deploy sensors invisibly supporting an analytics
system.  Users have more or less accepted
that websites and apps often have the dual purpose of meeting users' needs
while collecting information.  High
integrity products must be clear and explicit about this dual purpose.  New challenges will arise for products whose
information gathering capability may be completely hidden (like a fork that
inconspicuously gathers data about eating habits for market research).
The emergence of connected products will lead to the
augmentation of traditional design approaches with revolutionary new ones.  HCI could become Human Computer Object
Interaction (HCOI) in surprising ways.  
While these developments are ongoing, everyday design will evolve as a
combination of traditional and new ways:
Innovating Innovation
Methodologies

Existing fast track incremental methods like user
observation, task analysis, and best practice HCI will not be good enough. Designers
will have to discover emergent, new user goals and related tasks.  These discoveries will be more
imagination-driven than traditional user-responsive ones.  Here, time becomes an issue: Imagination-driven
products tend to need lots of refinement.
Wanted: More
Prototyping

Designers will have to plan extra prototyping and usability
test cycles, so they can discover and refine the opportunities afforded by
connected technologies in products.  Importantly,
they'll have to explore and address users' new relationships with these
products.  Once radios go inside,
familiar objects may have completely new meanings to users, which will present
the opportunity for increased functionality.
Teaching a Fork to
Speak: New Design Language

We'll need to develop a design language to signify products'
new but hidden connected capabilities.  These
may be power or data ports, antennas, sensor bulges, or graphics logos to express
the existence of certain capabilities.  How
can a design team develop a fork that communicates its new functionality (e.g.
calorie count or nutritional data procurement) without sacrificing its 'forky'
design and use? Many new gestural approaches will be tried and some winners
will emerge. In time, language norms will solidify, initially to communicate
the simple existence of otherwise hidden connected technologies. Eventually,
there will be so many products with sensors and radios that language norms will
evolve to communicate beyond the mere existence of connection to focus once
again on functions, outcomes, and feelings.
When products afford revolutionary capabilities, the rules
of design must adapt.  The era of new
smart objects is here.  These smart
objects will demand the development of revolutionary design methods, just as
did the computer GUI in the 1970s and the smart phone of the 2000s.  Maybe the screenless fork won't revolutionize
design, but a simple, everyday object is likely to change the future. As the
pace of technology development accelerates, the pace of design methodology
accelerates also.
About the Author: John
Brassil is an accomplished Senior Project Manager for bb7, a comprehensive product development firm.
He has applied his background in Mechanical Engineering to lead
multi-disciplinary teams to develop commercially successful scientific
instruments and award-winning medical devices. This
researcher-engineer-inventor-innovator-teacher has published numerous papers in
scientific journals - recently on the subject of organ transplantation. With
patented inventions in medical devices, consumer products and scientific
instruments, John's work has won design awards (Red Dot, IDEA, MDEA, Good
Design, and National Design Triennial). He developed a kidney transporter which
is in the permanent collections of the Art Institute and MOMA. Further, he
is the recipient of an NIH grant to study pancreases, and the Gates
Foundation 2012 grant for pest control
. The latter experimented with a pest
resistant bowl which included an RFID chip ' an inspiration for this article. John
holds a Master's degree in Mechanical Engineering with a focus in
computer-aided design.

About bb7: bb7 is a
global Product Development firm known for being the secret weapon behind
profitable products that solve untapped demand, unresolved needs and business
goals ' across nearly every industry. The key to bb7's high project success
rates: More in-house capabilities than the average PD firm. Start-ups through
Fortune 500 companies have relied on bb7 for product strategy, consumer
insights research, concept development, ID, prototyping, engineering, testing
and product implementation.

                

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