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Design Vision

“We’re filling the world with amazing devices,” says design guru John Thackara. “But we cannot answer the most important question: What is the stuff really for?”

What happens to a society when there are hundreds of microchips for every man, woman, and child? What cultural consequences arise when every object around us is “smart” and interconnected? What happens to you psychologically when, as science-fiction writer Bruce Sterling so memorably put it, you step into a garden to look at the flowers, and the flowers look back at you?

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John Thackara — designer, critic, business provocateur — is most comfortable with his work when it makes other people uncomfortable with theirs. Discomforting others was part of his role at the influential Netherlands Design Institute, a government-funded “think-and-do tank,” which Thackara ran from 1993 until late last year. Making people uncomfortable is also the defining spirit behind Doors of Perception, a conference series and “knowledge network” that has developed a fervent following in Europe — and to which Thackara now devotes his full attention. And it’s how he likes to deal with professional colleagues and with companies for whom he consults — whether that means delivering a blunt critique of high-tech design to a worldwide gathering of computer scientists or urging engineers at Canon to put fewer buttons on their video cameras.

Today, as he entertains a visitor to his flat, which overlooks Amsterdam’s trendiest shopping district, just a few blocks from the Van Gogh Museum, Thackara, 49, is in vintage form. (Thackara’s apartment doubles as the nerve center for Doors of Perception, until its headquarters is built.) “We know how to do amazing things,” he says, “and we’re filling the world with amazing devices. But we cannot answer the most important question: What is this stuff really for?” That is the latest in a series of infrequently asked questions that have been occupying Thackara. Another one, he says, is, How do we — as designers, engineers, business strategists, citizens — get smarter about interacting with all of the “smart objects” that we are creating? “Our devices are smarter than they were a generation ago,” he says. “But are we happier than we were a generation ago?”

That question was at the heart of a keynote address that Thackara recently delivered to CHI2000, a worldwide gathering of specialists in “computer-human interaction.” Thackara says that he spent three months preparing for that address — and that preparation showed. “The Design Challenge of Pervasive Computing” dealt with topics ranging from smart houses to medical telematics, including a manifesto aimed at the design profession itself. Among its recommendations: “We will not flood the world with pointless devices.”

It’s easy to figure out what Thackara doesn’t like. In his address, he offered a small but telling example: a list of some dazzling features and functions of a high-end Pioneer car stereo. “This car stereo is about as complex to operate as a jumbo jet is,” he marveled. Yet nowhere within the documentation, he added, could he find an on-off switch. Of course, he quipped, jumbo jets “also have no on-off switch — as I found out the first time I asked a pilot on a 747 to show me the ignition key.” Back in his flat, Thackara reflected on a workshop that he’d conducted for engineers at Canon. He had asked them to put less functionality in their video cameras so that people could feel as if they could master the devices, rather than be intimidated by them. “They had no idea what I was talking about,” Thackara jokes. “To them, designing a better product meant adding more buttons.”

The result of that kind of thinking, he says, “is a divergence between technological intensification and perceived value.” And that divergence, he warns, is bound to bring about such negative consequences as disappointing products, dissatisfied users, or failed companies. Half in jest, he has coined Thackara’s Law: If there is a gap between the functionality of a technology on one hand, and the perceived value of that technology on the other, then sooner or later that gap will be reflected in the marketplace.

But Thackara is not merely a critic — he’s got a program to help companies close the value gap. First, he argues, businesspeople need to get beyond their obsession with moving faster — an attitude that he dismisses as “speed freakery.” He cites a Hitachi slogan: “Speed Is God, Time Is the Devil.” Really? “Industry is trapped in a self-defeating cycle of continuous acceleration,” Thackara warns. “Speed may be a given, but it is not, per se, a virtue. We need to distinguish between ‘time to market’ and ‘time in market.’ Understanding requires both time and place.”

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The time has also come, he says, to shift some of the focus of innovation away from work and toward everyday life. The early users of digital devices are almost always business users, so product designers have a natural inclination to create and design products with the workplace in mind. But that tendency can make for bad design, especially when those products migrate beyond business. People put up with technical difficulties in their work lives that they would never tolerate in their personal lives. So forget “personal” computing, Thackara says, and embrace “social” computing. “As computing migrates from ugly boxes on our desks to something that suffuses everything around us, a new relationship will emerge between what’s real and what’s virtual, what’s mental and what’s material. There are few limits to the number of services that we could develop if we simply took an aspect of daily life and looked for ways to make it better.”

Thackara offers a final principle for getting smarter about smart products, one that is rooted in the logic of digital technology itself: Pervasive computing contains the seeds of its own renewal, he argues. As software becomes a bigger and bigger element of even the most “hard” products (aircraft, bridges, buildings), human beings have a capacity to “melt” those products — that is, to customize and connect them in ways that meet our needs more directly. But delivering on that capacity means inviting people to help shape products that they need. Don’t create products for customers — cocreate with them.

“Making a system easier to use for someone does not, for me, make that system better,” Thackara says. “You bring a ‘user experience’ to life by designing with people, not for them. Users create knowledge, but only if we let them.”

Rekha Balu (rbalu@fastcompany.com) is a Fast Company senior writer. Contact John Thackara by email (john@thackara.com). You can learn more about Doors of Perception on the Web (www.doorsofperception.com).

Sidebar: Design Principles

John Thackara recently unveiled 10 “Articles of Association Between Design, Technology, and the People Formerly Known as Users.” The principles are meant to capture his reservations about the rush to build a world of pervasive computing and to challenge designers to think differently about their priorities. Here are some of our favorites.

Article 1: We cherish the fact that people are innately curious, playful, and creative. Therefore, we suspect that technology will not go away: It’s too much fun.

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Article 2: We will deliver value to people — and won’t deliver people to systems. We will give priority to human agency, and we will not treat humans as “factors” in some bigger picture.

Article 3: We will not presume to design experiences for people — but we will do so with them, if asked.

Article 4: We do not believe in “idiot-proof” technology — because we are not idiots, and neither are you. We will use language with care, and will search for words that are less patronizing than “user” or “consumer.”

Article 8: We will not pretend that things are simple when they are complex. We believe that, by acting within a system, you will probably improve it.

Article 9: We believe that place matters, and we will look after your place.

Article 10: We believe that both speed and time matter too — but that sometimes you need more of one, and sometimes you need less. We will not fill up time with content.