We recently sat down over video chat and beer (as we do) with the Director of Strategy, Chris Watson, and Design Director, Kyle Buzzard at Chicago-based design and innovation firm MINIMAL to discuss what makes technology and connected devices “good” and why behavior change should be a bigger part of the design world.
Before the interview, you mentioned that the link between quantifying data and changing behavior often gets short shrift when it comes to wearables and other connected devices. Why do you think that happens?
Kyle: We’ve been seeing a lot of briefs for different companies that want to make smarter products. Not many have a strategy for making better connected products, they just know that they need to continue to advance their products to stay ahead of disruption. What ends up happening is that a lot of the smart concepts have no value-add as connected devices.
It seems like a lot of the devices that are coming out are just prioritizing convenience. From our point of view, connected devices and products in general should be about pushing toward a future of visceral and emotional human connection, not necessarily one of only service and convenience. We seem to be heading towards that trend, where machines are learning but we’re not.
Chris: We come at every problem from a very people-centered perspective. Like Kyle’s saying, we react against adding technology or connectedness to a device for the sake of adding it, or if the sole purpose is to differentiate that product from the competition and it doesn’t add value. We don’t want to take the human emotion out of things.
So how do you define success for technologically-centered products?
Chris: As a firm, we want to be careful and approach product design from a mindful place. There are a lot of successful connected products out there that do this well. A great example is how Tesla’s cars get updates as they’re parked in your garage at night. You come out and the firmware’s been updated, your batteries are now more efficient, and the suspension has been changed so the car’s a little bit more aerodynamic at highway speeds. That’s all done through connected sensors in the car’s monitoring system that allow improvements to be identified and pushed out from Tesla. It’s an incredible way to continue adding value.
Kyle:Agreed. If a product is connected in a way that allows it to improve over time and improve from the data that it’s collecting, then it’s valuable.
If you look at CES videos from the last 20 years or so, every year they always say, “Next year is the year of the Smart Home and Smart Kitchen!” Do you think it's different now?
Chris: I agree. The Smart Kitchen isn’t tremendously different than it was 60 years ago. Betty Crocker cake mix is a great example. When it first came out in the 1950’s, no one was buying it because it was too easy. All you had to do was add water to the cake mix. The experience was completely changed when it became, “Okay, now you have to add some water and crack an egg into the cake mix.” Just by adding that egg, it made it feel as though you were actually baking a cake.
We can use that as an example for the Smart Kitchen. There are plenty of conveniences that we have – especially a lot for the kitchen – but many of them just don’t connect with us. At the most basic level, the kitchen is difficult because as humans, cooking and sharing food is a highly emotional experience. Technology has to be very thoughtfully introduced so as to not break that process. Really, I think a connected kitchen product ought to make it easier for people to sit around and have a meal together. At the end of the day that’s how people connect across cultures.
As designers, we have the opportunity to look at the whole experience and try as best we can to ensure that we’re creating something with a net-positive effect – whether it’s taking away a pain point or making the experience better. We want to leverage technology so that it works for people, not just for the sake of existing or beeping or having a screen or a button to push.
Kyle: At the rate at which technology is advancing and miniaturizing – especially over the last couple of years – we’re kind of in the Wild West. We have the technology; now how do we use it?
Thinking about the Betty Crocker cake mix example, today’s equivalent of “just add water” is “just add Bluetooth”. It’s becoming a lot easier to cram things like that into every product because technology has gotten so small and fast and accurate, but nobody’s really figured out how to make everything connect. The question we’re trying to solve is, what is the egg and how do we add it? How do you bring emotion, love, and a feeling of human connection back into technology?
Game theory suggests that constant and immediate feedback makes people stay engaged and improve over time. As designers, how do you approach this when thinking about wearables and other connected devices?
Chris: Well, game theory assumes that the actors are 100% rational. That if someone is given data then they’ll make a decision based on that data. But as designers, we know that people don’t make rational decisions. They make really emotional decisions. The question is still, “Great, I have this data, now what? I’ve worn this device for the last six months and it’s telling me how many steps I took every day….and?” I don’t truly believe that people are making lasting behavior change by simply just seeing the numbers. They need the numbers interpreted for them.
Certainly, behavior change is an important topic and it’s increasingly important for the social sciences and design to come together, but there has to be something that closes the loop.
Kyle: At the end of the day, for people to change their behavior, they have to want to change. Data and wearables and technology, all this stuff is just one part of a much larger ecosystem of factors that play a role in their lives. A lot of people see a wearable or fitness tracker as a silver bullet that will help them lose weight or whatever it is – like a diet pill – but they put way too much reliance on that. Then, if they don’t see results fairly quickly, they start to lose interest. Regardless of how eloquently you present data, there has to be a comprehensive strategy to support actual behavior change.
Does this focus on behavior change and creating emotional connections, on a practical and tactical level, influence the way that you conduct design projects?
Chris: From a strategy standpoint, yes. As another historical example, there were lots of toothpaste brands before Pepsodent existed in the early 1900’s. All of them marketed themselves on the ability to clean your teeth, but Pepsodent was the first toothpaste to introduce mint. Because mint is a mild irritant, it gives your mouth a tingly feeling. The mint closed the loop by making people crave that feeling and in turn, create a new habit of brushing their teeth. It wasn’t enough to just make them aware of the product. Pepsodent took off and became the largest brand of toothpaste for a long time.
We’re looking to create that tingly feeling with data and technology. We have to look for what’s going to create a craving to help people form new habits.
Tell us about MINIMAL’s “When does smart get stupid?” campaign.
Kyle: We thought some of the headlines coming out of Silicon Valley and around the country felt more like Onion headlines than actual articles. So we had some fun and created fliers with Onion-type headlines for smart connected devices that don’t exist. We passed them out at The Smart Kitchen Summit and explained our point of view on the back with the line "When does smart get stupid?".
A few examples: “Smart Skillet refuses to cook after local man deviates from recipe.” On the back of that one it states, “Smart products that treat us as incompetent and leave no room for creativity aren’t smart. Join the conversation.” Some others were, “Startup awarded first and last place in sustainability competition for selling organic food out of single use plastic pods.” “Local family gathers around refrigerator to kick off movie night."
The point of the cards was to get a conversation going, attract those with like-minded views, and ultimately do work on projects that we believe are actually adding value.
What are some recent projects that you're particularly proud of?
Kyle: The Misfit Ray – which came out at CES last year – is one we’re pretty proud of. When we started research, we saw that everything in the wearable space looked pretty techie. Many devices looked obvious enough that they made a statement about you that you might not want to make and weren’t always appropriate depending on the situation. But if the data wearables collect relies on trends over time to be more impactful, a gap from taking the wearable off kind of blows up the whole point. Our goal from a design perspective was to create something low profile that could be customized to complement the user's style and didn’t necessarily look like technology. In other words, something that they wouldn’t need to take off. We also made the Ray with replaceable batteries that last for 6 months so it doesn’t even need to be taken off and charged.
One of the startup successes we collaborated with is Nucleus. Its founder, Jonathan Frankel, was having difficulty connecting his family who was spread across the country, and even communicating within his own house. He saw an opportunity in the home intercom space and developed a user-friendly system that not only works from room to room, but also from home to home. This helps connect family members more easily, especially younger kids and elderly people who are outside of the range that might use things like Facetime and Hangouts.
The Nucleus team also decided to integrate with the Amazon Echo, which is a brilliant idea. Going back to the question of, "If you have a device, how can you expand it to be more useful and add more value?" If somebody only has one Echo device but wants to talk throughout the house, this is a perfect way to do it, because as an intercom system it can naturally be in every room.
Chris: Another great recent project is Snooz. A couple of young entrepreneurs came to us after a successful Kickstarter campaign and we got involved designing their product. Snooz is a white noise-generating machine that goes next to your bedside, in an infant’s room, or wherever you might need one. We’re excited because it’s erupted in a category that has been essentially unchanged for the last 60 years. We see a lot of opportunities for them as a brand to really expand what it means – not just to be a noise generator, but to get good sleep.
Kyle: It’s an example of a connected device that is using technology in a meaningful way. When setting up a noise machine in a nursery, people are really worried about the device being too loud for their baby’s ears. This essentially turns your phone’s microphone into a noise-level detection monitor, so when you hold it next to your baby’s crib, it automatically adjusts the speed down to a safe level.
MINIMAL creates award-winning iconic products, market-disruptive brands and meaningful user experiences for the world’s most innovative startups and global companies alike. We collaborate closely with our partners and clients to define product strategy, elevate execution and amplify brand value. www.MNML.com
Read more conversations with smart operations leaders in our Two Beers interview series.