This passed Thursday I had a Lyft ride with a particularly talkative driver. His name was Evan Blaustein and is the founder of Boston based techcessory company Mimoco. Specializing in USB flash drives that look like pop-culture icons, Mimoco (according to their website) is determined “to deliver FUN and FUNctional products that keep fans connected to their always-on mobile lifestyles.” Their vision is to impart “character, design, and soul into the world of personal tech accessories creating quirky and distinctively artful gadgets.” It was a fascinating talk not because I have any particular fondness for cute thumb drives but because he offered an interesting perspective I had not heard before.
When I asked how he was inspired to make this company he mentioned that thumb drives are very easily lost and yet, depending on what you are storing on them, are vitally important. He argued that perhaps one of the reasons they are so quickly misplaced is that they are relatively ugly pieces of technology and so are less valuable with regards to aesthetic. There is a disconnect between form and function here that Blaustein wanted to mend. He wanted to design a sort of visual reminder that this tiny memory stick is important. Combine this with pop culture and suddenly you have Mimoco.
Personally, I do not really want a Mimoco flash drive. I already have flash drives and would feel kind of silly plugging one into my computer. However, this conversation and the conversations that took place in our first TechTrek class really got me thinking about the role of design in technology.
After my ride with Evan Blaustein I began thinking about how other physical technologies are designed to influence the way we think about them. Of course, the device that immediately came to mind is the iPhone. Apple to me seems to be the leader in caring about its presentation. All Apple products come in clean, white boxes. The packaging is impeccable and the devices themselves are gorgeous yet unobtrusive. This design fits in to how Apple wants you to use their products. It is not a phone that is being sold but rather an experience (and a status symbol). By being unobtrusive the iPhone can easily fit into every aspect of one’s life. The phones never looks out of place be it in a business meeting or at the beach. Apple’s design has allowed the iPhone to be used everywhere without second thought. This is so much so that we often feel a sense of nakedness if our phones are not on us. Through design Apple has created a product that encourages people to use their phones as an extension of themselves.
Aesthetic design is crucial not just for getting you to remember something or increasing your usage. Without good design a device will fail in markets and can become downright unusable. For instance, in 1995 Nintendo released a game console called the Virtual Boy. It was marketed as the first console capable of stereoscopic 3D and as a concept is super interesting. However, it ran into design problems. It was not very portable, only offered games in a single color, and playing it required completely blinding yourself from your surroundings making it antisocial. Because of all these different design issues, the console was only sold for one year before being discontinued. Once the novelty wore off the major design flaws made people realize just how poor a system it was.
There are definite best practices when it comes to design. Do not make a portable thing any heavier than it needs to be. If it is meant to be unobtrusive do not make it neon pink. Handheld devices should fit in the average persons hand. While these examples are pretty obvious, many other critical aspects of design have only come about through thousands of hours of research exploring how people interact with the world around them. This area of study is known as human-computer interaction and stands at the intersection of computer science, psychology, and design. As technology becomes more integral to how we live our day to day lives, human-computer interaction is becoming more important.
It is because of research in human-computer interaction that we are seeing crucial solutions to problems that for a while plagued technologies like virtual reality. Much of the technology for VR has been available for a while now. However, users would report getting virtual reality sickness, the appearance of similar symptoms to motion sickness but induced from using a VR headset. By combining aspects in psychology and neuroscience like sensory conflict theory, engineers are able to improve the design of VR technologies to prevent people from getting sick while using the product. Though more research still needs to be done, by combining several different fields we are seeing the rise of technology for humans, rather than technology for technology’s sake.
It is possible to go on and on about the critical role design decisions play in technology. Whether it is making software that is less addictive or creating a device to have on us at all times, the design decisions that companies make have a drastic impact on the way we use technology. Now, by carefully studying the impact of design through research in human-computer interaction we can begin to develop more human friendly devices. These devices will not isolate us from one another or detract from our lives. Instead they will promote ease of use, social interaction, and improving the world around us. I am looking forward to these new devices.