Addressing dilemmas around new smart tech

Exploring sweet spots between convenience and security

We regularly work on projects that explore new potential applications of smart tech. Usually there is already an explicit sense of potential, for enhanced convenience in people’s daily lives. But also a more unclear and implicit awareness of the need for sensitivity, towards consequences for people’s privacy and security. This means that exploratory and deep conversations with future users are important. With these insights you can develop a good understanding of the dilemmas around this particular technology from a user’s perspective. The foundational insights on these dilemmas help to shape evolving decisions on strategy and concept development. 

Some of the recent projects we worked on in this respect, were looking into applying smart technology embedded in house appliances. And in places that are traditionally less usual for the use of electronic devices, such as bathrooms, toilets, dressing rooms, etc. The challenge in these projects is to inform the participants just enough to make them aware that it might be possible to have embedded smart tech functionalities available in these places. While also keeping the conversations open enough to let them ponder any aspects that may interest or concern them. These exploratory conversations can take place in various stages of the development process.

Iterative conversations to gradually gain a deep understanding

For a recent project with an international client, STBY was asked to conduct research activities with potential future users. Research in every stage of the process of exploring and developing new embedded smart tech services: the foundational exploration stage, the concept development stage, and the final design stage. 

In every stage we used different methods to elicit the type of user feedback that could inform the decisions at hand. For instance, in the exploration stage we conducted in-depth research through interviews and diary studies; In order to get a good grasp of what matters to people in their daily lives in respect to the topic at hand. In the concept stage we asked participants to consider specific elements of the potential future offering; By imagining that this could be part of their future daily lives, for themselves and other people in their social circle. In the final design stage we shared more detailed information about the potential offering, in some cases with real live prototypes, and asked participants for feedback on their personal likes and dislikes. 

In each of these stages the focus points for the interaction with research participants were different, as were the granularity of the fieldwork prompts, and the research outcomes. In addition to the qualitative research activities in several countries (US, Japan and China), we also did a more large-scale international survey to validate the insights gained in previous rounds. The findings across the various countries revealed that many of the interests and concerns people have were fairly similar. Yes, they are attracted to the enhanced convenience, but they also want to be assured that their privacy and safety is taken care of. And they not only look at this from their personal perspective, they also consider the consequences for the people around them (family members, friends, visitors). They could point out quite specifically where they would draw a line in terms of the sweet spots on the dilemmas between convenience and security. Depending on the country where people live, they differ in how much they tend to expect that government regulation will be in place to help protect them.

Holistic and empathic information for strategic decisions

New smart tech can make some things in our daily lives more easy and convenient. But at the same time the embedded sensors and underlying algorithms are capturing, processing and storing a lot of data, and that can have less positive consequences for its users. How to find the best balance between these ends of the scale? How to find the ‘sweet spot’? This is a dilemma not only for future users, but also for our clients who are considering integrating new smart tech in their products and services. They are aware that they need to consider both ends of the scale (convenience vs security), and they are interested in making better informed decisions about this by learning from potential future users. And this is what we can help them with through our design research.

This dilemma about finding the sweet spot between positive and negative consequences of new tech is obviously also a concern for us as design researchers to address in our work. It is important that we actively engage with these dilemmas, and not shy away from them. By explicitly addressing these dilemmas in our conversations with research participants we create an opportunity to openly explore these topics together with future users. We find it very interesting and gratifying that the insights from these explorations contribute to making sure that new development of smart tech progresses in a human-centred and meaningful direction.
The research for this project was conducted by STBY in close collaboration with the excellent design team from Edenspiekermann. We have collaborated on many projects over the past years, and it’s always a dream to experience how smoothly design research, concept design and business strategy can inform and inspire each other.

Finding the right sweet spot is as important to clients as it is to the users of smart tech