According to a study by the digital association Bitkom, many smart gadget users want more transparency. 84 percent of those surveyed said that data protection standards were important or very important to them. Smart gadgets make decisions about everyday life in the background – regardless of the user, often not visible. That sounds scary to some. Product designers are therefore looking for solutions for how smart gadgets can be packaged as pleasantly as possible visually and haptically.
The devices would therefore first have to be “domesticated”. Only when you design gadgets well, then you win the battle. That starts right after the purchase process. The first look at the gadget when it is unpacked. The feeling in hand. Sounds when switching on. A greeting. Smart gadgets not only have to perform tasks, they also have to communicate well with the user. One tries to solve this problem with design.
Designed for people only
To this end, he observes three different strategies in product design: “One tactic is camouflage.” This means that some products pretend to be traditional household appliances that everyone knows. In fact, hidden digital processes run behind artificial design.
Smart heating thermostats are a common example. Traditionally, thermostat heads are usually cylindrical in shape, colored white, made of steel. To open and close the valve, you have to turn a grooved plastic wheel. Smart heating thermostats often use a similar shape made of steel. The color: white. Some of them can even be turned to change at least a few settings. Technically, this would be unnecessary and could also be solved with buttons, a screen or an app – but: The device tells the user with a familiar feel: Trust me.
With traditional devices, sensory impressions were often created by technical processes and components: the rattling of wheels, the humming of a cooler. Instead, product designers made sure that smart devices consciously make artificial noises. Components and materials become design elements.
Another trend: Smart gadgets are becoming more human in their appearance. Amazon’s Alexa is one of the best known. The voice assistant reacts to a woman’s name and speaks in its standard setting with a female voice. In the United States and Australia, language designers have even developed versions of Alexa’s voice with different emotional tones: from happy to depressed. If Alexa is activated, it can play a sound if desired. Product designers, however, tried to make the process more transparent.
Fusion of man and machine
Design scientists like Judith Dörrenbächer are now considering the extent to which humans and machines are merging with one another through increasing similarity. In her book title “Animated Things” she writes of that “magical thinking” that – like a child – can no longer distinguish between the inner and outer world. In spite of everything, the devices do not appear completely human. Organic shapes such as hands are often greatly simplified, surfaces are noticeably smooth and metallic.
Many designers consciously work with fine materials or even futuristic shapes. Digital processes of smart gadgets should be translated into design and felt for the user. What looks new, different and technical is often perceived as having a higher quality. Devices that are particularly sensitive in terms of data technology often work with abstract forms. For example, the manufacturer advertises the Koova camera robot with a »clever brain« that can also recognize faces. In terms of design, however, it is a simple metal cylinder. Such designs are particularly attractive for typical techno-future customers.
Playing with loss of control
Sometimes the feeling of strangeness and the fear of losing control is even consciously taken up artistically by designers. The London design studio Dunne & Raby, pioneer of the Critical Design movement, has been creating ideas for smart gadgets that stimulate thought and question technical products for several years. One example is the “Technological Dreams Series: No.1, Robots” project. Robot 1 is a red ring. What exactly he does is unknown to man. He is “very independent,” as the description says.
So far, however, humans are not completely without control. The tasks and rights of smart gadgets are still rather restricted. Often it is more about simple processes: windows open or closed. Heating on or off. An apartment can be smart without being a spaceship.
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