The rapid development of Internet of Things (IoT) technologies is propelling us toward a world where an ever-increasing amount of our experiences are mediated by digital interactivity. As this trend continues, the task of designing our built environment will be as much about designing the interactive experiences that happen in that space as it will be about form, program, materiality and so on. The fields of interaction design and architecture will become one and the same, and we’ll need to work across disciplines and cultivate new skill sets to design new buildings.

James Patten, speaker at Design Futures Council’s Leadership Summit on Innovation and Technology

As technology plays a larger and larger role in our lives, its role in our own wellness becomes increasingly important. If we don’t design with the right principles in mind, we’ll wind up with technologies and experiences that isolate us from each other, rather than connecting us. Take the modern smart phone, for example. Ostensibly, it’s a device that helps us stay connected to each other. But its ecosystem of apps, social networks and so on mean that often it tends to isolate us from the people and places around us. It’s a tool for escape. This tendency toward isolation isn’t something that’s inherent in technology. It’s more a symptom of the design approach and values that underlie how these technologies are created. By embracing a different set of design principles, we can create technologies that help foster meaningful face to face connection, presence and awareness.

I’m an interaction designer, which is a broad term these days. People usually think that means designing websites or apps. But the kind of work I do is designing digital interaction in physical space and increasing the vocabulary of what’s possible in terms of that interaction by developing new technologies. Traditionally, much of what we think of as “interactive systems” has been confined to screens, like on our phones, laptops, etc. But advances in technology are removing some constraints, making it more and more possible to bring those interactions off of screens and into the world around us.

Right now, we’re at an inflection point in terms of how technology and the built environment are going to influence each other. Computation is becoming an essential design material, much like steel or glass. Technologies like sensors and actuators and tiny chips with incredible computational power are already being mixed into the built environment. While architecture is starting to move toward interaction design by integrating sensing into projects, interaction designers are pushing toward the same goal from the opposite direction. They’re moving interactivity off of traditional screens and into physical space.

This convergence of architecture and interaction design is recognized by both worlds, but the systems embedded in architecture can be slow to change. And this is the pivotal point. Both fields are independently moving toward the same objective: to eventually create spaces or things that sense and respond to people in different ways. The building is not a static thing that has no awareness of what’s going on inside it. Rather, it’s a dynamic system that reconfigures itself based on what the people inside it are doing. You can see the first steps toward this approach in the form of buildings that can optimize energy usage based on occupancy and so on, but the concept goes far beyond that. Imagine a gathering space in a building that could sense how it was being used and dynamically reconfigure itself accordingly, changing lighting, acoustic properties, signage, and perhaps even the shape of the space itself, based on whether the space was being used for a party or a business meeting.

We can see steps toward this future in products already on the market today, such as the Nest Thermostat, a self-learning, WiFi-enabled, sensor-driven thermostat. It doesn’t need to be programmed; instead, it learns your schedule and then connects to your phone or laptop through WiFi. But there are also examples on the market of what can happen when the interaction with a product isn’t carefully considered. One of my favorite examples are the automatic faucets one often finds in public spaces. You can never figure out exactly where to put your hand to turn them on and keep them on. They’re an example of technology adding needless frustration to our daily experience. Unless we approach the task of designing interactivity for the physical world with a set of carefully considered design principles, we’re bound to be in for more kinds of experiences like this one. Today, if we have to deal with an annoying website, it’s frustrating, but we can always walk away from the computer. But when we’re surrounded by this technology, when our door locks and thermostats and crockpots are all WiFi-enabled and sensor driven, all these little frustrations and poor design decisions will have a magnified impact on our daily experience because we won’t be able to escape.

In a larger context, when we design interactivity that is focused on group interaction or on connecting people to each other or challenging people to pay more attention to their surroundings, we can create technologies that help foster a sense of human connection and awareness of one’s environment. As an example, recently my studio created an interactive lighting installation called Lift. Lift senses human activity in its environment and responds with physical motion. If you walk by slowly, it might respond with a gentle flutter. If you make a more dramatic motion, it responds with larger motion of its own. It’s an exploration of what’s possible when using technology to give an otherwise inanimate object a sense of playfulness and dynamism. This motion transforms the object from a simple light source to a focal point of attention, a conversation starter, an unexpected opportunity for connection. Lift is just one example of how technology can help us engage in richer ways with our environment. To push these ideas further, architects and interaction designers need to collaborate to explore what’s possible as the interactive buildings and spaces of the future emerge.

Design Principles
• Combine physicality and interactivity
• Empower people to explore
• Create legible interactions
• Enable improvisation
• Design for the physical
• Make tools predictable
• Live up to real-world expectations
• Reward nuance with nuance

James Patten, Ph.D., is an interaction designer, inventor and visual artist whose work as the director of Patten Studio explores the convergence of interactive media and the built environment, pushing the edges of interactivity in the physical world. He is a TED Senior Fellow and speaker, and he earned his doctorate at MIT. 

Excerpted from DesignIntelligence Quarterly.