How does the nature and value of a connected object change the moment it leaves its packaging and enters the real world? How do teams conceiving, creating, selling or regulating a proposition for the IoT anticipate the messiness of the world? Where does the generic IoT product, service or ecosystem break down in the hands of an unexpected user? These are the kinds of questions Thingclash was created to probe, and it’s proving to be a successful tool to generate new insights around design for the IoT.
To unpack these and other big questions, three of the Thingclash project team (myself, Susan Cox-Smith and Sjef van Gaalen) worked with a mixed group of 20-plus designers, developers, researchers and product marketers through guided exploration at our recent Thingclash workshop at the invitation of Thingscon Salon in Eindhoven. As hoped, the discussions were eye-opening, the debate and discussion was rich, and valuable insights emerged about how to better craft an IoT that works for all.
It was our second open Thingclash workshop, and gave us an opportunity to test a revised format, new materials and a wider set of “Things” using the card-based tools we’ve developed. Earlier workshops had given us a sense of what vertical complexities of the IoT needed deeper consideration (from supply chain down to data collection, networks and legacy systems) and ways to think about scale, both of which we folded into the new exercise.
Following our initial prototype workshop at Thingscon in Amsterdam last December, we had an opportunity to incorporate feedback, reflect on some of our own insights from that session, and think a lot about ways the Thingclash toolset could be adapted both to more narrowly defined vertical areas as well as scaled to address complex systems like neighborhoods and cities.
In this round, we set out more explicit ways to start thinking about the capabilities and limitations connected things may have at different scales—particularly at personal, community and global scale. We also introduced a wider range of personas and contexts, the latter aligned with these three levels I’ve mentioned.
For the workshop itself, we were kindly hosted by VPRO Medialab. We kicked off with an intro to Changeist and the Thingclash project, and sorted participants by professional role in order to get a good disciplinary mix in teams. For us, this mix is important to get the kind of cross-practice discussion Thingclash is built around, connecting design with engineering, policy, marketing, content and other elements of a balanced IoT.
Our first step was the “Know Your Thing” phase. The purpose of this step is to help everyone at the table get familiar with the various guises, functions and limitations of each Thing—teams get two to familiarize themselves with collectively. For example, there are dozens of kinds of connected appliances, and members of a particular team may have different perceptions of what any given type can do or not do, what it’s key functions and promises are, and where it sits in a larger ecosystem. Getting to know and discuss these characteristics and boundaries helps lay the ground for the next activity. We asked them to pay particular attention to different capabilities and limitations at the scales mentioned above—personal, community and global. At the end of this phase, we took a moment to discuss what had been learned about each team’s assigned Things, and each selected one of their two Things to take into the “world”.
At this point, we dealt out a series of context cards that provided suggested situations or places at the three levels of scale: at home or in temporary accommodation, at school or care facility, in a market or at a festival, for example. Some of these contexts were expected, and some weren’t, just as in the real-world life of a Thing.
Being anchored or situated in one context presents its own challenges, while moving a Thing across different contexts can change the challenges it’s presented with along many vectors, and bounces it across various jurisdictions, social norms, networks and spheres of value (imagine a smartwatch in a gym vs a church vs an office). Frictions and uncertainties already emerge at this stage, just imagining how to accommodate the different contextual frames.
Lastly, after uses were described and new situations reckoned with, a user arrived on the scene, and not all similar to the ones in the typical IoT product advert. Each group encountered a user from outside the typical normative description of an early adopter. Encountering unexpected users changed the way the groups evaluated their imagined applications against the needs of a fleshed out persona—a central pivot point of the exercise.
One team had chosen a self-driving car, but had to think about accommodating child as solo passenger, sent to school by the legally responsible operator of the vehicle, its parent. A second team dealt with a connected trainer, but had to consider a dependent as user, in this case an elderly parent whose adult children monitored the shoe to be in touch with a parent’s activity levels. The third team had been working with a personal enjoyment device—a connected sex toy—but drew a university student with a disability, which they interpreted as social anxiety and sensory disabilities. Our fourth team, which had settled on a motion and activity tracker as their Thing, had to deal with a high status individual, which they interpreted as a celebrity keeping a low profile at a public festival.
All of these were the types of situations one might reasonably encounter in the real world, but only the high status individual resembled anything like a standard issue marketing persona, and even then, only in certain situations. In the process of considering Thing + Contexts + User in combinations, many more frictions and “clashes” emerged just at the application level. How free was the user to adapt the product, service or connected ecosystem to their unique needs in each context? Who or what was in control in each situation, and was that control consented to? What level of privacy did they need vs what could be expected out of the box initially, and would it need to be adjusted situationally? What new uses might emerge (self-driving car dating, for example)? Where did boundaries of control and responsibility begin and end, and would these be legible at all? How much does design or expectation created by applications drive social behavior (one example was shared of a Runkeeper wearer jogging through red lights in order to keep a consistent data trail).
Bigger questions about the exercise itself were also discussed. To what extent could teams speak for personas and experiences they didn’t have—always a challenge in design workshops? Discussion veered into deeper issues of data privacy, storage, management and transmission that needed another hour to delve into and map (another workshop!). How did the Things differ from each other in scale, complexity, volatility and so on, and how can a single user understand and adapt to all of these?
Even in a brief workshop under two hours, we had a rich discussion, both at the individual team tables and as a group, but we could go on. Our experience in the first two public workshops has been that the discussions and debates taking place within the teams, both in getting to know Things and recognizing frictions and obstacles, are one of the biggest values of the process. A lot of divergent views are aired, and common definitions emerge, but not as easily as simply unboxing a product and plugging it in.
As with most technology, the identity and culture of an object is socially constructed. The sheer complexity of the IoT, overlaid on the messiness of culture, constrained by vague and changing business models and regulatory regimes, make the IoT a far more complex prospect than the Kickstarter pitches and CES press releases reveal.
We are already tweaking the tools we used in this workshop, and will be releasing the cards and worksheets soon. In the meantime looking at new versions of the Thingclash workshop for smart cities — many things, many clashes — as well as an upcoming large-scale workshop for financial services and the IoT. Other versions of the tools and workshop process are already coming to mind using different lenses on the IoT
We're also on the lookout for interesting funding opportunities to grow the project further. Watch this space for more info, and we’d welcome your thoughts, questions, feedback, or the chance to run a workshop near you.
Thanks to Emma Charleston for the extended Thing design set, to Mariska van Gaalen and Ellen Bokkinga for assistance playtesting the tools, and to Thingson Salon for the invitation to stage the new workshop format.