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Published: 2019-07-19

Changing Things - Designing for Transparency in a Digital World

NEWS In their new book, "Changing Things: The Future of Objects in a Digital World", assistant professor Heather Wiltse and professor Johan Redström explore what the networked, digital products of our time actually do and whom they are really designed for.

The tech gadgets we surround ourselves with in our everyday lives are getting more complex each year. At the same time, they often seem more simple and intuitive to use. These digital products of our time are constantly changing and adapting with our behaviour, finding new ways to be helpful. Devices such as smart phones, laptops and wearable fitness trackers are simply more complex in nature than the physical objects created by designers in the past.

I sat down with Heather Wiltse to talk about how we can unpack and understand these multi-faceted digital products. How can designers contribute in promoting transparency for the user and perhaps influence what these networked digital things could look like in the future?

"These things are developing so quickly and design is having a hard time keeping up as they are being shaped by other trajectories; such as marketing, business and technological engineering. For example, a smart home is all about making our lives more convenient and efficient, but connected devices are also designed to collect data about people and their behaviour. The actual needs of the end user are not the only ones considered when these products are developed, or even the primary ones", says Heather Wiltse.

The message here is that design needs to catch up in defining and shaping these products, ultimately to take care of all of the users and functions of modern digital things in a more holistic way. Today, that is often not the case.

"If you're not paying for it, then you're the product"

In the book, Heather and Johan coin the term "fluid assemblages", referring to these layered, networked things that are composed of a variety of components (assemblages) and that are constantly changing (fluid). One such product is Spotify.

"In the case of Spotify for example, which we discuss at length in the book, they are turning their users into an audience in order to then be able to deliver their attention to advertisers. This may be fine, but we need to recognize that using Spotify to listen to music involves a very different set of dynamics and consequences than using something like a tape player to listen to music. Today, the creation of such digital products and services are driven by these other forces that have a vested interest in collecting data. As is often said now, 'if you're not paying for it, then you're the product'.

"This is the case with Spotify, Google, Facebook, and other free services that rely on an advertising model. So, this is clearly not user-centred design in the sense of caring about human experience, values, and integrity. Although the experience that users have with these things is often quite good in terms of engagement and ease of use, this is often an experience that is intended to mask what is actually going on when people interact with these things."

"So, the book actually poses an open question: How can we, going forward, work with these things which are in fact really exciting and full of possibilities? For us, it's a question of figuring out how we can do it in a responsible way, exposing current and often problematic dynamics but also imagining and prototyping how things could be different."

Design vs. Platform Capitalism

Heather and Johan make the case that it is vital to provide some form of meaningful transparency and choice regarding what fluid assemblages actually do. Clearly, design has fallen behind here. In at least recent decades, design has been driven by user centeredness, the goal being to create useful and appealing products for end users such that they will want to buy them. Today, other considerations drive the creation of networked products. "Platform capitalism" is one way to describe the complex nature of such products, services and companies and the larger forces driving their development.

Platforms - such as Amazon, Google, Facebook, Spotify, and others - provide hardware and software resources that others can use in creating products and services.

"This is of course quite useful, but it also puts these companies that own the platforms in key positions where they are serving as the meeting ground for many different actors, and where they can record all of the activities that run through them. This is an enormously advantageous position, especially since the primary way of pursuing economic growth now is through leveraging data. This situation has been called platform capitalism."

"Under platform capitalism, data collection is a top priority. So, rather than making things that are transferred from producer to consumer at the time of sale, there are now ongoing relations between producers and consumers. Consumers get continual product updates and personalization, while producers collect tons of data about what people do. The ultimate goal is to have people logged in all the time across devices, as Spotify boasts to advertisers. This is a drastically different kind of design, and of relations between making and use, than the industrial design that came into being at the time of the industrial revolution"

"We have already seen that if you have companies that are extremely powerful with no checks on them, things can quite easily go wrong."

Today, everything is designed around keeping users logged in, keeping us interacting, ultimately making it an addictive experience. That means that often new functions and products are developed solely with the purpose of keeping people on the platform. Such product development is hardly driven by the real needs of the user."

Being Digital - The Human Experience in a Digital World

Design research is very much about going from an existing to a preferred situation. It's not just about understanding, it's also initiating change. So, how do Heather and Johan presume to create a framework where these things, these fluid assemblages, can be unpacked and understood? And how should a new foundation be put in place where user-centred design once again become part of influencing what these fluid assemblages will look like in the future?

"The goal for the next three years of this research project is to try to develop ideas that can help us understand and talk with others about what is going on, and how these things could be different. Number one, how do these fluid assemblages show up in the world? This relates to the actual making of things, and to their expression and aesthetics. Often fluid assemblages try to mimic earlier types of things - for example, an Apple watch that is really more like a small computer than a mechanical watch - and try to hide the complexity of what they are actually doing. But what other aesthetics could be possible, and more appropriate and transparent?

"Obviously, it's a massive design challenge to make something visible that is so complex and layered. And these things might be like computational black boxes, but they are not ones that we can just open up in any straightforward sense! But one way to get there is to create new design practices describing how these products show up in the world and how they could be different."

"Number two, we want to further explore what these things actually do as part of larger networks. What are the functions that are not facing the users but other entities, what kind of data collecting is going on? At a larger scale, we can even ask how our images of the world are being shaped when we as societies represent and deal with everything in the terms of computation.

"From the social media products that many of us use every day to industrial processes, scientific practices, cultural production, governance, and more, computation has become the dominant mode of sense-making in the world. Computational things - and specifically fluid assemblages - are the touch points where data is produced and access to the world is mediated. How these things are designed and used in the future is thus, in our view, crucially important."


Text: Jens Persson