Real-world interfaces are in an awkward and playful stage

The O'Reilly Radar Podcast: Josh Clark on the world as an interface, avoiding data rash, and the importance of play.

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World_Alarm_Clock_Bob_Bob_FlickrIn this week’s episode of the Radar Podcast, O’Reilly’s Mary Treseler chats with Josh Clark, founder of design agency Big Medium (formerly known as Global Moxie). Clark talks about the changing nature of his work as the world itself becomes more of an interface, how to avoid “data rash,” and why in this time of rapid technology growth it’s essential for designers to splash in the puddles.

The world is the medium

The influence of the Internet of Things is beginning to touch every aspect of our lives, from how we communicate to how we work to how we play. This fundamental shift away from screens to the real-world around us not only is influencing how designers approach their craft, but is changing the medium itself in which designers work. Clark talked about this shift and how it’s affecting his own work:

Over the last couple of years, I’ve found the nature of my work has been changing as well as my interests. I think the culture of digital design is changing, too, as we start moving off of screens. It felt like an opportunity to redefine my own work, so I also did that with my agency and changed its name to Big Medium. The idea of that being that the Internet itself is a pretty big medium, and in fact starting to expand beyond the bounds that we’ve traditionally associated it with, which is the screen. Increasingly, as we’re seeing connected devices — the smart phones were kind of the leading edge of this, but now we’re starting to see wearables and the Internet of Things — this idea that the Internet is becoming embedded in our environment and in everyday objects means that anything can be an interface.

My work is starting to engage more and more with that truly big medium, which is the world itself. Finally, the world is the interface, which of course it always has been, but now we’re able to create digital experiences that belong to the world that we actually move in instead of us having to dive into the screens.

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How to treat a data rash

With all the opportunities this increasing connectivity of humans and the world around us presents, we mustn’t overlook the potential pitfalls — the “toxic byproducts” of technology that Clark wrote about in a recent post, Smart Watches, Wearables, and That Nasty Data Rash. He talked about how this information overload — this data rash — phenomenon is emerging and how we, as designers and as consumers, can ward off the rash:

A data rash is kind of this unexpected, unwelcome, and certainly unsightly eruption of data and notifications on your skin, which is the danger, I think, maybe the fear, of this idea that as anything can be an interface, the horrible potential outcome of that is that we have everything screaming for our attention, including now wearables that we’re putting on our own bodies. We don’t want our skin to constantly be itching with this rash of notifications, right?

Unfortunately, I think for a lot of app makers we all feel this on our phone. I think that early adopters with smart watches are finding this, too, where the defaults are way too many notifications for just innane pieces of information that really aren’t urgent.

How do we both as consumers as well as designers start being a little bit smarter and gentler to ourselves and to our customers with how we really present information and data? I think in a sense we are in this period of luxury where we have so much access to information and it feels like this pleasure. I think one of the real luxuries is finding ways that we can actually protect ourselves from information, to find an oasis where the information is a tool for us rather than the reverse.

I think that we are starting to turn the corner from realizing you know it’s not really about the data, but it’s about what insights can we get from it, particularly when you look at consumer products. … I think it’s the same for when we think about creating smart objects, smart homes, and stuff like that. It’s not so much, ‘let’s make everything talk.’ It’s not about the talking. It’s about the conversation. Maybe it seems like a semantic difference, but it’s really about the value of what’s being said.

Take a break from the grind

In times of rapid technology change, Clark pointed out, it’s important for designers not to get mired in the day-to-day grind. He stressed the importance of experimentation and play — inspiration for “serious” explorations into the ways we relate to data and information and interactions can emerge from a romp into more “silly” experiments:

I do think that at periods of change and opportunity, it’s really important to spend some time experimenting and just splashing in puddles. I think that, for example, we’re at this moment now where we’ve got this ability to embed, essentially, smartphone brains into all kinds of different things or put sensors into objects that our phones and other smart computers can talk to.

It means that we have this sort of period of exploration where we figure out what it means to wear data, to wear computers, to be surrounded by objects that have some sort of intelligence. I think that we’ve got this opportunity to really change the way we think about relationships to information and data and interaction — basically, physical interfaces to digital systems. I think that it’s really important to step back from the work that we typically do day in and day out to play with those possibilities.

I really do mean play. I think that’s important. I take a lot of inspiration from game and toy designers, who, after all, often are making these physical objects, which is kind of our new realm of inquiry and exploration right now. I think the game and toy designers are the best interaction designers we’ve got.

Ben Evans has this great line in talking about this stuff, which is that the future always looks like a toy to people who are too comfortable with the past. I think it’s really smart, and it lines up with this idea that we have to take some risks and do some things that sort of feel a little bit silly — not as the goal, but as a way of experimenting, of improving our practice.

Image on article and category pages by Bob Bob on Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license.

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