creation of new, highly engineered and responsive smart materials
increases the potential for engagement with our surroundings. Massimo
Micocci & Marco Ajovalasit discuss how to maximise that potential.
world of design continuously delivers new technological innovations.
Whether we are charmed by it or indifferent, technology has become
deeply embedded in our ordinary everyday experiences. This evolution has
produced a very interesting mix of available product experiences that
are improving the way our environment helps and entertains us.
such as ambient intelligence, the Internet of Things and pervasive and
ubiquitous computing foresee that the environments of the future should
be ‘intelligent’ and products should be connected together through
computing capabilities so as to be sensitive to us. Researchers and
designers are then motivated to augment everyday objects and
environments with intelligent capabilities to provide a significant
support to our daily life.
Following this trend, changes in
product design are currently enabling products to be aware of the user,
using mainly sensors to detect information from the body. These
intelligent products are uncovering new ways to interact with users so
as to engage, entertain and inform them, coding new languages of
communication and interaction. This novel approach to consider consumer
products combined with endless growing technological possibilities,
creates a world saturated with stimuli from which users struggle to
untangle themselves. Tapping the screen of a device to make a phone
call, pinching a picture to zoom in and grabbing the handle of a
treadmill to check our heartrate are gestures and actions we had never
used a few years ago. The essential discovery of these languages of
interaction could be often frustrating and demanding. Even though we all
want to take advantage of the great benefits new devices disclose to
us, we don’t always feel comfortable with such non user-friendly
language. A process of simplification is then necessary to understand
how technology can be supportive rather than oppressive in our day to
Breakthroughs in interaction design are important to
develop products whose functions are easy to learn, easy to use, easy to
understand and effectively enhance the way people work, communicate and
interact. A human-centred approach requires needs, motivations and user
expectations to be converted to understandable product features. The
aim is then to allow the user to focus on the task, not on the
technology for specifying the task. The way people and machines exchange
information and actions should be enriched by simple and understandable
gestures and effective actions embodied in the product itself.
Materials are now a major focus in the identification of different
languages of communication to provide user information in a more
intuitive and natural way. Highly engineered materials that respond
intelligently to their environment, called smart materials (SM), can be
used to enhance the way we interact with products. ‘Smart materials’ is a
relatively new term for materials that have changeable properties and
are able to reversibly change their shape or colour in response to
physical and/or chemical influences, such as light, temperature or the
application of an electric field.
Their ability to react is not
intrinsic in the material, but is an engineered property, whose features
and characteristics must be designed beforehand. Each individual type
of smart material has specific properties which can be altered, such as
shape, volume, colour and conductivity. Those properties can give a
different dynamic pattern to our products or can be specifically
designed to be blended completely into the surroundings. Hence, even
though SMs are well known as sensors and actuators in different sectors
such as transportation, food packaging, construction, healthcare and
biomedical engineering, their potential could be expanded to design the
interfaces of the future. Bringing those materials from a purely
functional to an interactive level could expand design freedom and
unlock new modes of communication between product and user. The
interfaces those materials shape are then used to make changes in
physical and material properties, creating channels for new input/output
Consider a specific target group of users - elderly
people, who are potential beneficiaries of this study. This growing
group of people could use technological devices to improve their life
but they are often wary of using those devices. Smart materials can deal
with this concern by taking advantage of all the sensorial properties
the user can experience.
People with a minimal use of their senses
could benefit from a product with a dynamic and responsive interface
where there is no need for a keyboard, for example a piezoelectric film
could convert the touch of the fingers to a changeable light response to
detect the grip of a hand in rehabilitation tools; a glowing fabric
could be used to design smart clothes that communicate information,
through dynamic light effects, about the environment or the walking
performance of the user; or thermochromic polymers could transform
temperatures of objects into colourful effects to avoid burning with
household appliances. The new interfaces can provide a considerable
enhancement of the way we use products and how we understand their
features and functions in order to limit errors.
As a part of the
Light.Touch.Matters (LTM) Project, the ongoing research at Brunel
University aims to study how designers can embed the physical properties
of SMs in the everyday environment to support human activities and
provide an efficient product experience. Since SMs have changeable and
design-on-demand properties, the objective is to set a rigorous model
that enhances the potential of the engineered material as dynamic
interfaces. An initial exploratory study was performed to find out how
SMs can be applied in consumer products and what usability benefits they
can achieve. This process required an accurate investigation of
hundreds of relevant existing cases of interactive devices and academic
design samples. The results highlight issues associated with the
adoption of interactive properties of SMs into product design and the
resulting interaction pattern we should build with them:
Design for multi-sensory engagement.
Electronic devices have essentially the same shape and can be activated
by performing different finger gestures on a square screen. The human
body contains an undefined set of possibilities that SMs can exploit for
different purposes. Why should the inputting be performed exclusively
with hands and fingers? Information from devices can be delivered in
different modalities (change of shape, change of colour, change of
pattern, dynamic light effects, etc.), taking advantage of hearing,
sight and touch of the user. The time of reaction of the user speeds up
and the product creates an immediate and clear response.
Consider every surrounding surface a potential interface.
Every object around us could be embedded with different dynamic
properties. Matter is everywhere and that matter could be designed to be
responsive, adaptable and able to convey different qualities of
information. Responsive devices are less invasive and are more likely to
be socially accepted.
Consider interaction as behavioural encouragement.
Simplification of the product-user interaction will reduce the
frustration commonly felt by elderly people while interacting with
electronic devices. The user will go straight to the task, will save
time and will enjoy the interaction.
This vision is the first step
towards a big picture that aims to create consumer products that can be
adapted to human needs and expectations. Through this approach the
interactive parameters elicited by the materials work as a connection
point between the product features and the user expectations from a
consumer product. The possibilities we have to shape and engineer
materials based on our requirements is a great opportunity designers
should consider. But there is a strong need to organise the potential of
SMs in a method that designers can easily adopt.
products with material properties that can sense, reason and act, could
be a powerful approach to providing greater user friendliness of the
product, more efficient customer support and user empowerment that can
be adapted for different users in a range of contexts.
By Massimo Micocci & Marco Ajovalasit
Massimo Micocci is a PhD student at Brunel University, London within the Human-Centred Design Institute.
Marco Ajovalasit is a Senior Lecturer in Human Factors and Programme
Director of the BA Industrial Design and Technology at Brunel University
This article was first published in issue 531 of The Ergonomist, September 2014