Design to reflect human values

The O'Reilly Radar Podcast: Martin Charlier on industrial and interaction design, reflecting societal values, and unified visions.

By Jenn Webb
February 24, 2015

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Designing for the Internet of Things is requiring designers and engineers to expand the boundaries of their traditionally defined roles. In this Radar Podcast episode, O’Reilly’s Mary Treseler sat down with Martin Charlier, an independent design consultant and co-founder at, to discuss the future of interfaces and the increasing need to merge industrial and interaction design in era of the Internet of Things.

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Charlier stressed the importance of embracing the symbiotic nature of interaction design and service design:

“How I got into Internet of Things is interesting. My degree from Ravensbourne was in a very progressive design course that looked at product interaction and service design as one course. For us, it was pretty natural to think of product or services in a very open way. Whether they are connected or not connected didn’t really matter too much because it was basically understanding that technology is there to build almost anything. It’s really about how you design with that mind.

“When I was working in industrial design, it became really clear for me how important that is. Specifically, I remember one project working on a built-in oven … In this project, we specifically couldn’t change how you would interact with it. The user interface was already defined, and our task was to define how it looked. It became clear to me that I don’t want to exclude any one area, and it feels really unnatural to design a product but only worry about what it looks like and let somebody else worry about how it’s operated, or vice versa. Products in today’s world, especially, need to be thought about from all of these angles. You can’t really design a coffee maker anymore without thinking about the service that it might plug into or the systems that it connects to. You have to think about all of these things at the same time.”

To create products in this kind of ecosystem environment requires cross-disciplinary teams working together. Regardless of the background of each team member, everyone needs to have at least rudimentary knowledge of the other fields, but the key, Charlier said, is for a diverse team to start with a unified vision:

“Every field needs to know a little bit, have a basic understanding, of the other side. In some of the most interesting projects I’ve seen, the team was made up of somebody with an industrial design background, somebody working on the technology, and somebody doing more interaction and user experience design. The key, though, is that they started working as one team together, before splitting up into their respective domain areas, so that there was a joined vision. I think that’s the most important thing: to come up with a joined vision. That’s where, for example, interaction design and industrial design need to think of both sides. I’d like to think there are a lot of interaction designers who also think about the product and think about the physical side, and equally, there are industrial designers who think about what an interface might be or how you might interact with the product they’re designing.”

What products looks like and how we design them to be used aren’t the only considerations in the age of the Internet of Things. Charlier pointed out that how our values as a society are reflected in our designs — how particular designs change people’s behavior and how they affect their lives — also is important:

“There’s the old example Adam Greenfield talks about in Everyware: an elevator company creates a new elevator system that is more efficient because it tells you which car to get into and then it gets you to your floor faster. The flip side of that is you never bump into anybody anymore that works on a different floor because the system wouldn’t put you into the same car. We’re in the very beginning, but it’s becoming really important for designers to think about where we are headed … What about the more human values like the serendipity of bumping into somebody?

“Designers need to think about the values behind some of this — is it all about efficiency, productivity, and getting you to work faster? … I’m not saying that the future will be this cold-hearted world. I’m just saying that I think, almost similar to the role that philosophers have in society, designers need to need to start to think in that way and question — when we design this connected and smart stuff that does things for us, is that really what we want to build? … Designers need to start thinking about how they change people’s behaviors.

“I think the elevator story is a great example because it turns the people in that building into worker drones that are slaves to the physical system. … I think there’s a new responsibility for designers to start to think about that stuff, too, these implications. … There is a TED Talk by Kevin Slavin that really influenced me in that way, How Algorithms Shape Our World. He talks about how some of these systems shape the world around us without us even really realizing it.”

You can listen to the podcast in the player embedded above or download it through TuneIn, SoundCloud, or iTunes.

Post topics: Emerging Tech