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Integrated World, Integrated Experience

Posted on: 02/25/2013

We’ve long used our understanding of physical space to guide our comprehension of the digital world. Our language, and more and more our designs, are manifestations of this understanding. But what does the merge of physical and digital experience mean for UX? How do we approach design for an integrated, unfamiliar world?

Manifesting our Metaphor: The Internet of Things
In “Metaphors We Live By,” Lakeoff and Johnson argue that, more than just rhetorical embellishment, the metaphors in our language actually structure our perception and understanding of the world, and that our conceptual system manifests in our language. These metaphors are so deeply rooted in our understanding of the world that we don’t even notice them.

Think about the way we talk about the digital world. In conversation, we abide by the metaphor WEB IS PLACE:
You visit a website.
You navigate to pages.
You go to a URL.
Developers build websites.
We want an ad to drive visitors to the site.

There’s a reason that this metaphor exists. Our conceptual system is so influenced by our understanding of and experience in physical space that our brains naturally make the leap to thinking of the web as a metaphor of our physical environment.

The Internet of Things — a vision of a world of interconnected objects able to exchange live data — is quickly manifesting this metaphor in a mash-up of digital and physical experiences. Physical or digital experience, there’s no real distinction in our minds, and therefore, in reality, we are driving diminishing distinction between the two types of experiences, as well.

Implications for UX: Context, Context, Context
As the line between physical and digital experience continues to become more and more ambiguous, it will become even more obvious that a 360-degree, all-enveloping, contextually-driven consideration of user experience design is imperative.

If we plan on successfully designing experiences that move beyond Pictures Behind Glass, we have to evolve our approach to user research and design to include context in new ways. Traditional usability testing focuses on one user using one system to complete one task at a time. When the entire world becomes our interface, thinking of users as performing isolated, ordered tasks won’t cut it. We need to widen our view.

In UX research, we ask people questions to better understand their attitudes, behaviors and motivations. What if we could also ask questions of the everyday objects around us?

Look around the room and think of any object. What would you ask that object if it could answer you? What information would that object share with you? What would it know? What would it think?

What would you ask a phone? Who called you while you were in the other room? Okay, that one’s not much of a stretch. Let’s go deeper.

What would you ask an umbrella? Maybe: “How likely it is that it will rain today?”

What about a prescription pill bottle? If you had taken your medicine today?

What would you ask your wallet? How much money you had in the bank?

Anthropomorphizing objects could be one way to frame our minds for designing in a world of smart and connected objects.

This fast-approaching integrated world, born of our mind’s natural inclination to blur the physical and digital, calls for a new approach to UX. Rather than forcing stale technology into new contexts, let’s evolve our methods. To pull a quote from Bret Victor:

“…this is my plea — be inspired by the untapped potential of human capabilities. Don’t just extrapolate yesterday’s technology and then cram people into it.”

The world is your interface. Design beyond the screen.

(Photo Credit: Amanda Tetrault)

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