What STBY can learn from the Eames studio

Visiting the Eames exhibition at the Barbican in London gave some nice inspiration for STBY work. We can learn from the Eames studio, for our efforts to communicate knowledge that we created in our design research. Interestingly enough, much of the work of the Eames studio was commissioned by large companies, in particular IBM in the late 1950s and throughout the 1960s. The position of IBM then was not very different from the position of STBY’s larger digital technology-driven clients now. IBM realised that computers were making many things possible in society and business that were still unimaginable for most people. If you make these ‘mysterious’ computers, how do you explain to their future users the possibilities and consequences? Same issue exists for several of STBY’s clients in the digital age: if people do not know or understand what is possible, why would they use it?

The Eames Studio and IBM took a very human-centred approach to this problem by comparing for instance the development of a seating plan for a dinner party with the organisation of the national railway system, and then explain that both could be modelled by computers. Our confidence grows because we understand that the principles behind both are the same. And if what a computer does is also modelled by the few principles that people use when making decisions in a complex situation, we can understand that computer too.

The way we work at STBY is not entirely different: we start with human behaviour too, and analyse these to learn the patterns that exist in that behaviour across different participants in our design research. The principles that we learn must then be communicated, not to the general audience but to the teams that works on new product service systems that use complex digital technology. Today, it is not the audience that needs to be informed on the computers that are coming, but the teams at the digital technology companies that need to be informed and inspired by people’s behaviour to make sure the product service systems they create are relevant and valuable to people. In both cases, human behaviour is the norm that makes technology understandable and meaningful.

So what can STBY learn from the Eames studio then? The most important thing we can learn is how what complex technology does can be compared to what people do. Whether you organise a national railway system or a dinner party, essentially the same activities are needed. In a way, making this comparison is still what STBY is asked to do today by its large tech clients. They have technologies that they would like to turn into useful and meaningful product service systems. This will only happen if the technology connects well to people’s existing behaviours. STBY researches which human behaviours are relevant to take a look at when developing a particular technological product service system. In our case, the engineers and designers are learning from a particular human behaviour and adapt their technology to that behaviour.

The Eames Studio was helping IBM to prepare the public for a new technology by making it familiar, our clients work the other way around: they are preparing their technology for the people that will need to use it. IBM hired the Eames studio to explain to the general audience what the simple principles behind its complex computer technology are, and that these are familiar to humans too. Our clients hire us to explain what patterns exist in complex human behaviour, and to find out with them how these relate to what their technology can do. It is the other way around, but essentially not different.