Are Users The New Designers?

By Paul Blackburn on August 11, 2015 in Web Design
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“”Lots of people still like newspapers, it’s just that many of the business models are broken,” says Davies, a former planner at the ad agency Wieden + Kennedy who writes a column for Wired UK. “We’ve sidestepped that by working out how to make money by printing five copies of a newspaper, or 5,000 – large media businesses can’t think that small.” The core of the system is still in the beta testing phase, but it allows users to design and print their own 12-page tabloid newspaper.” -The Guardian, reporting on RIG London’s Newspaper Projects.

The “Newspaper Project” is just one of the many projects James Bridle and his colleagues at Really Interesting Group London have created. Their projects are complex, and make us think about the line between user and designer; in effect, they’re defining the new artistic and aesthetic parameters for the digital realm. Their work ranges from digital newspaper printing to streaming audio to transforming social network data into Christmas ornaments. It’s an eclectic combination of projects, and it can tell us a lot about the future of experience design.

Bridle and his team define themselves as ‘designers, developers and thinkers’ and their expertise lies in ‘the web, publishing and the internet of things’ (IoT). Connected devices as part of IoT have recently opened up new possibilities for designers, and Bridle has conducted a number of experiments over the last few years in order to explore them.

The intention of this article is to look at one of RIGLondon’s most successful projects, Where the F**k Was I?, which blurs the line between user and designer. We’ll use this comparison to explain the relationship between the ‘user’ and ‘designer’, and we’ll get there by talking about everything from theatre (via academic researcher Brenda Laurel) to popular culture (via media theorist Henry Jenkins).

The User Becomes The Designer

Firstly, an explanation of Where the F**k Was I?, Bridle’s most successful project.

In 2010, James Bridle discovered that his Apple iPhone was collecting and storing his location data. As with most discoveries he came by it accidentally, by discovering some research by Alasdair Allen and Pete Warden. When he looked at the data and analyzed it, he realized that his phone had a better “digital memory” than he did—remembering places he had been and stops he had made which had lost significance to him. Bridle was moved to take the data and create a book, Where the F*** Was I?, where he presented the journey he had taken and warned other unsuspecting iPhone users that their phones were, in fact, tracking them.

This work presents a complete circuit from user to designer to interface. As a user, Bridle passively and unknowingly provided location data relating to his movements over a period of several months. The location data was collected by the computer interface he carried with him while conducting his daily business, in the form of an iPhone. Once Bridle came to know that this was the case, he considered the information as a designer, in order to study how his location data was being collected.

James Bridle's book

Where the F**k Was I? is the quintessential example of the current state of human/computer interaction design. There is a user, a designer, and an interface which interact with one another, much as the audience, actors, and crew work together in theater. In fact, theatre is an apt metaphor for human/computer interactions. The theater stage represents the virtual world the designer creates. The user is the audience, who more and more frequently is being invited onto the stage, to actively engage in the story as it unfolds.

Take the Stage, Take a Bow.

The work of academic researcher Brenda Laurel goes into greater detail on the theatre metaphor. In ‘Computers as Theatre‘, she states:

[Users] are like audience members…able to have greater influence on the unfolding action than simply…the conventional audience response. [Interactive fantasy] is like an audience member who can march up onto the stage and become a character, shoving the action around…It’s not that the audience joins the actors on the stage; it’s that they become actors.

In Bridle’s story, he was an audience member on the stage, which in this case means he was a user, but he was interacting with his iPhone interface as a designer. In order to write his book, he had to review the data compiled by his own movements; his former self was the designer of that data. Bridle’s book makes a point about how we can use iPhones and other smartphones as storytelling tools, tracing our own journeys and finding the stories within.

However there is another aspect to the “stage” set up which has not been mentioned yet, and that is behind the curtain, where the magic of theatre happens. The “magic” of Where the F**k was I? is perpetuated by software, which is programmed to locate the nearest mobile location and store data every time this occurs. The software magic is important because that is what a designer might change or update, based on what they learn from watching the user’s movements.

Bridle’s realization that we (designers) can learn from the data our phones collect is a precursor to how design will work in the era of interconnected devices. The amount of data collected by these devices, which will someday soon include the fridge and car as well as smartphones, computers, and televisions, will surpass any which the user could present, or even any level of design which can be applied, by retrospectively examining their activities as Bridle has done, or even setting up an automated system whereby they can analyse their activities in real time. This can be understood, if we look at how digital devices are being used to track the performance of professional and amateur athletes, by collecting data relating to their activity and body metrics, and extending this to include everyday activities.

Through these digital innovations, the roles of user and designer will become more intertwined, as IoT technology becomes commonplace in our daily lives. Users will contribute data that then influences design. How? Simply by interacting with networked devices in their homes, automobiles and workplaces. That data can then be extracted to update software and make it more innovative over time. Our interactions as users will, in effect, design our future devices.

The Relevance of Convergence

Another example of how this additional data might impact us as users is present in the work of the media theorist Henry Jenkins. Jenkins’ theory of ‘Convergence Culture‘ lends insight to the changes we are experiencing as a result of IoT technologies, by explaining social, cultural, industrial and technological changes as they are happening.

By convergence, I mean the flow of content across multiple media platforms, the cooperation between multiple media industries, and the migratory behavior of media audiences…”
Welcome to Convergence Culture

In other words, convergence culture is our culture: one where content comes from myriad media industries and inundates us. One pillar of convergence culture is collective intelligence, (a term Jenkins borrowed from French cyber theorist Pierre Levy). Collective intelligence is data that is shared, much the same as the data Bridle found his iPhone was collecting. Jenkins claims collective intelligence is a source of power, and he believes we are learning how this power can be used as we develop more IoT technology.

Jenkins makes the connection between our IoT technology and new points of entry for media and marketing industries. Users are now providing companies with the information advertisers need to target them more effectively, just as Bridle and other iPhone users provided the data to allow their devices to personalize to their needs. We the users are impacting the design of the advertisements, recommendations, and interfaces we use. By interacting with interconnected devices present in their home, which are networked via the internet to media corporations, we provide both data and contextual information.

The many potential outcomes of being more interconnected are not yet fully explained. The interconnected device in the case of Where the F**k was I? is just a basic smartphone, with the same functionality most of us carry every day. This brings us back to why the work of RIG London is so important. Bridle’s team is attempting to define the aspects of these new technologies which will ultimately lead to new cultural and social practices, or as they claim, a New Aesthetic.

Practical Applications

As the Internet of Things expands, and “smart” technology becomes commonplace, previously innate objects will become media delivery technologies. This means that we will interact with them, influence their design, and the line between user and designer will become more difficult to decipher. James Bridles’ project Where the F**k was I? demonstrates one way in which users are already designers. Curious users in the Internet of Things will constantly inform the work of designers both intentionally and by accident.

Want to blur the user/designer line? Here’s an interesting challenge for UX designers:

  • Consider where information about users can be collected, especially places as of yet unexplored.
  • Look into the work of Amaal Graafstra, which demonstrates how people are becoming more attached to digital devices, and are even now having them implanted.
  • Collect the raw information generated by implanted devices in the form of WIFI signals. All that is needed to collect these signals is an electromagnet. Take the example of a public place where people are passing through or congregating. With an electromagnet we would be able to measure the density of signal being omitted from the collective devices they have on their person, and even use it to power a public art installation or to track their movements—not unlike the tracking Bridle did.
  • To learn more about these types of digital project, RIG London is a great place to start, as is cont3xt.net, a collection of works by artists who are trying to address the difficulties if situating internet art in the gallery space.

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