In the Dubai of 2050, the world looks both instantly familiar and utterly strange. Here, urban planning is driven by an omniscient AI installed at the top of a skyscraper; your smart bathroom mirror tracks your physical health; and you interface with the government through a personalized “genie,” a hologram in the form of a virtual Emirati gentleman in traditional garb.
This is the work of the design-futures agency Tellart—specifically, their giant-scale installation at United Arab Emirates’ annual government summit. They call it the Museum of Future Government Services. The job is to construct a working, immersive prototype of a possible future.
Chayka categorizes Tellart’s work as design fiction, but that dramatically understates the scale and ambition of work like the Dubai project. The installation is an almost-nostalgic return to the spirit of the last century’s World’s Fairs.
Over the past couple of years, I’ve had occasional conversations with Paul Skinner and Christian Ervin, two of the designers of the project. I’ve been impressed by both the POV of the project and the academic rigor with which its trends are explored. (Check out Christian’s 2017 talk from Interaction and Paul’s 2015 talk from push.conference—both about this project. Seriously, gentlemen, when do we get to work together?)
It turns out the Museum of Future Government Services is a bonafide UX research study, albeit pumped up on steroids. Its exhibits are not the answer to how the future might look, but the opening question.
Tellart proposes that perhaps the best way to test out future paths is to go ahead and build them—and see what happens. Rather than being prescriptive of how things should be, they basically create a life-size usability lab to test what happens for things that might be. How do government officials respond to them? How do citizens? They lay out possible threads to the future and then tug on them.
Some of the ideas are delightful, others creepy, some downright horrifying. There’s a sense of humor throughout. The goal is to find a path that dances what turns out to be a surprisingly fine line between dystopia and utopia.
“Is this is a world where collapse happened, or a world where transformation happened, or growth?” [Tellart co-founder Matt Cottam] asks. Clients might pose a product or a problem, but Tellart brings in teams of outside consultants, from architects to futurists and sci-fi novelists, for world-building and selecting a relevant situation to simulate. You’re dealing with a robo-nurse at the emergency room of an automated hospital, say, or your self-driving car is running late to work and has to dodge traffic. Finally there’s the physical stuff, the kitsch and junk of the future that make the theoretical world realistic and give visitors cues on how to behave in it. Every detail must be considered.
As a design industry, we need more exploration like this at scales both large and small. We tend to plunge ahead without testing the waters. Few designers have the opportunity to tinker with prototypes at this scale, but all of us can do smaller versions in our own research practice. In my own work I try to build lots of little “what if” prototypes to gauge response, utility, and cultural impact. Splashing in puddles helps us test whether our ideas will tip into the utopian or dystopian side of the line.
In its client work, Tellart has effectively found patrons to fund its exploration of the future at grand scale. Doing this kind of work for clients, of course, necessarily changes the outcome. And there are always ethical decisions in the clients you choose. The UAE has a rough record on human rights, and it’s not exactly the world’s most democratic society. Chayka’s piece explores this effectively.
Then again, Tellart influenced the client—a country whose entire economy is based on oil proceeds—to take on climate change as its focus this year, though Chayka is skeptical that it has much bite. “In this future, the money from oil has solved all the problems that oil dependency creates — thanks to technology, the desert becomes a permanent oasis. Tellart’s work reassures its viewers that the environment is an issue that will simply be fixed one day, through no effort on their part.”
Tellart’s worldview, though, is that if you can at least suggest it will be fixed, we make actually find the steel to fix it:
The 2017 exhibition was a “reframing of climate change so it’s not seen as something that we can’t get control of, that’s beyond our capabilities,” Scappaticci says. “Here’s a version of our future in which we’ve come together, we’ve solved these problems, and we’re more in harmony with the world,” presenting the possibility of a solution so we don’t have to, say, give up and move to Mars. Tellart’s boutique futurism is ultimately an optimistic one, motivated by a belief that, with funding from its clients, we can tweak the incipient future simply by envisioning it.
Are you sorting out what the future looks like for your organization? Big Medium does ideation workshops and executive sessions to help companies figure out what’s next. Get in touch.
What could pass for a dystopian vision of the workplace
is almost routine at the Swedish start-up hub Epicenter.
The company offers to implant its workers and start-up
members with microchips the size of grains of rice
that function as swipe cards: to open doors, operate
printers or buy smoothies with a wave of the hand.
biggest benefit, I think, is convenience,” said Patrick
Mesterton, co-founder and chief executive of Epicenter.
As a demonstration, he unlocks a door merely by waving
The familiar trade-off: convenience in exchange for our data.
This kind of exchange can be mutually beneficial when the scope is constrained and the use is transparent. Disney’s wildly popular Magic Bands, for example, have a specific scope and context, the grounds of the resort. And the company is extremely clear about how the bands work and how the information will be used.
When that information gets murkier, things can quickly go sideways—it’s not clear to what end or to whose benefit this data will be used. What am I actually paying in exchange for the magic trick of opening workplace doors with a wave of my hand? Who’s watching and why?
While mouseketeers may be happy to wear Disney’s Magic Bands, would they be as happy if asked to wear them by their government? Or their boss? I guess this Epicenter experiment will let us know just how much of ourselves we’ll give up for simple conveniences.
“People ask me, ‘Are you chipped?’ and I say, ‘Yes, why not?’” said Fredric Kaijser, the 47-year-old chief experience officer at Epicenter. “And they all get excited about privacy issues and what that means and so forth.”
If you’d like to turn off the LED light on your eero,
you can do so either through the eero application or
through the Amazon Alexa skillset.
I love this so much. As more and more of our physical objects light up with digital smarts, they’re lighting up literally, too—and often somewhat gratuitously. Every new gadget seems to impose bright, flashing lights on our living rooms, bedrooms, and offices.
Kudos to eero for offering a software setting to give users back control of their physical environment. Looking forward to the moment when “Alexa, ask eero to turn off the LED” evolves into “Alexa, ask the house to turn off all LEDs.”
50 Cent, Aerosmith, Snoop Dogg and Kiss have all deputized chatbots as their automatic, ever-alert greeters on Facebook Messenger, handling the flood of inquiries that would overwhelm any human.
Three things stuck out to me as interesting signals here:
Chat is emerging as a distribution channel. Bands are using chat to share pre-release clips of singles. (“Based on the data we’re seeing, it’s not crazy to think that a year from now it’s going to be [the music industry’s] No. 1 distribution channel,” according to Matt Schlicht, CEO of chatbot-builder Octane AI.)
Bots are moving beyond transactions and broadcast/marketing to start to manage common fan communications. (“Chris Mortimer, the head of digital marketing at Interscope, said Messenger was now a critical way for his artists to reach their fans. ‘Right now, a Facebook Messenger inbox is what an email inbox was before the spammers got to it,’ he said.”)
Bots may have even more promise as proxies for people than for brands/services. The emotional connection some fans feel with these bots is remarkable.
That last point reminds me of Rafał Cymerys’s experiments with automating his friends on Slack: “Behind most automated messages there’s a real person. Why not make it clear from the start? This will give the recipient a reference to a real person.” This approach may have legs beyond entertainment stars.
Cultivating this hero-by-proxy approach in bots relies on voice and tone that is true to the person (and personality) you’re “automating.” Which brings me to my favorite line of the Times piece:
Not all celebrity bots are quite up to the level of verbal verisimilitude, however. Aerosmith’s, for example, responds to virtually every inquiry with “Rock on.”
Exactly 40 years ago, Christopher Alexander’s book A Pattern Language kicked off the whole idea of design patterns. Erin Malone steps back to show how just how far we’ve come. Her timeline traces the path to modern design systems and style guides. (Fun to see my pal and collaborator Brad Frost given such a prominent place in the recent history of all this.)
It’s important to not forget about the explorations
and experiments and hard work that many people did
(in their companies and on their own time) to share
their knowledge and to advance the conversations and
the practice of user experience design. Without this
work, no one today would be so easily accepting of
the need for a robust style guide that contains interactions
Today we wonder how you could work (particularly in
the enterprise with hundreds of scattered designers)
In many ways, Alexa is the progeny of ELIZA. The way
it interacts with people is much more sophisticated
than the teleprinter-fed program that communicated
through a disassembling and reassembling of its users’
words, but the overall intended effect is still the
same. Both programs are meant to interact with users
in a way that’s supposed to elicit feelings of comfort
and intimacy within the user.
It strikes me that purposeful efforts to create a genuine emotional connection can backfire when they’re even a few degrees off. Here at home, our Echo has a 80–90% success rate understanding our daughter and me. But it never understands my wife Liza. An emotional connection has been made, for sure: Alexa annoys the hell out of Liza.
A voice UI that doesn’t understand your voice is frustrating. An affection UI that inspires anger is doubly so.
I tapped a link in the Twitter app, which showed as
google.co.uk/amp/s/www.rt.c…, got a page in Twitter’s
in-app webview, where the visible URL bar displays
the reassuring google.co.uk. But this is actually
content from Russia Today, an organisation 100% funded
by the Russian government and classified as propaganda
by Columbia Journalism Review
and by the former US Secretary of State.
Google are allowing RT to get away
with zero branding, and are happily distributing the
content to a mass audience.
This is not OK. This is catastrophic.
Betts is talking about content cached by Google’s AMP (Accelerated Mobile Pages) platform. While the goal of the platform is ostensibly to speed delivery of pages, it also serves those pages from a Google URL. With the URL spoofed, the origin of the content is hard to discern. This “recklessly devalues the URL,” Betts writes, and makes AMP an attractive petri dish for fake news:
If the world’s biggest content discovery and delivery platforms
prioritise security, performance and popularity, over authenticity,
evidence and independence, well, the likely result is an exponential
rise of simplistic, populistic thinking, inevitably spreading and
amplifying until false beliefs become tacitly accepted as facts.
… [W]e need a much stronger focus on authenticity as a strong ranking signal.
This is not only critical to avoid potentially huge societal implications of
bad decision making, but also cultivates better content by improving incentives for creators.
Technology decisions in AMP are affecting far more than page speeds, aggravating what I consider to be one of the big civic crises of our times: the erosion of trust in the fourth estate. At the very least, let’s protect the URL as citation and origin model.
Another day, another hacked dishwasher. Miele’s internet-connected dishwasher is vulnerable to an attack that could allow hackers to take control of the network and make a mess well beyond the kitchen. While the security problem is bad enough, Hackaday points out there’s no good way to address it:
The problem is, a dishwasher is not a computer. Unlike Microsoft,
or Google, or even the people behind VLC, Miele donât
have infrastructure in place to push out an update
to dishwashers worldwide. This means that as it stands,
your only real solutions are to either disconnect the
dishwasher from your network, or lock it behind a highly
restrictive firewall. Both are likely to impede functionality.
While poor security is already becoming a hallmark of internet-of-things gadgets, the lack of a plan for fixing inevitable problems is even more concerning. It suggests a vacuum of care not only for customer experience but for sustainability of the product. Sending your dishwasher to the landfill for a software bug shouldn’t be part of the product lifecycle.
First, Andy Clarke said web style guides should be more stylish. Then Jeremy Keith said beauty is in the eye of the beholder; the design and style should suit the audience.
Now Brad Frost adds to the exchange by suggesting that there may be more than one audience for a design system’s style guide. If establishing consensus is a key goal of a design system (and it should be), then its style guide should welcome a big, broad group:
A style guide has the opportunity to serve as a watering
hole for the entire organization, helping establish
a common vocabulary for every discipline invested in
the success of the company’s digital products. Establishing
this common vocabulary can lead to more efficient work,
better communication, and more collaboration between
disciplines across the organization. That’s why the
style guide should be an inviting place for everybody,
not just [core] design system users.
Amen. As the front door to the design system, this reference site should be at once approachable, practical, and yeah, even a little inspiring for the whole organization. That can happen over time; get it out there, refine it, and help your organization to shape it to its disparate needs.
That’s a pretty good triangulation among the three points of views here. The one thing I’d also add: style guides are ideally built out of their own components, guidelines, and design principles. They should be not only a container for the design system, but a living demonstration of it. It should be exactly as stylish as the underlying system.