Monthly Archives: December 2012

Engagement in The Post Smart-Phone Subway Station

Two days ago I left a technology event in Cambridge, MA. The night before I had just flown in from Europe and fell asleep before I plugged in my iPhone. I woke up early and left the house with only a third of my normal charge. Inevitably, by the time I reached the technology event in the afternoon, the phone was dead.

As a designer, I often make a special effort to be observant. While some people might forget where they are, or zone out while competing their mundane daily activities  I’m often doing the opposite, trying to understand exactly how and why things are happening. But not all the time. Often, like most people in Boston these days, I’m on my phone sending an e-mail, googling some fact, reading an article, or playing a game.

As I left the technology event and headed towards the subway I instinctively reached into my pocket for my phone. I took it out to check the time on the train, and play a game or keep refreshing an empty browser window wishing that down in the subway the one bar signal was good enough to load my content. But this time, my phone was dark, and so instead all I could do was explore the station.

The first thing I noticed was how many people were on their phones. Before the ubiquitous mobile phone, you were either reading the newspaper, reading a book, people watching, or just waiting for the train. It seems to me that the phone is the most distracting of these–unless you have a particularly good book. Most of the people also had headphones on.

The next thing I noticed was the different pieces of information that were placed around the station. The neighborhood had invested some time and money to tell a story in this station. From the interactive instrument installation to the history of Cambridge timeline on the wall there is relatively a lot to learn in the Kendall Square T station. But with the smartphones, there was less attention and little idle time.

Before the smartphone, installations in a subway station were an easy win. You have a captive audience outside of the cold just passing the time–learning from your display. As long as you design for the short term visitor you could have a true moment of engagement. Today, to create the same engagement, it will take something different. You have the new competitor that has much more to offer, is much more customized, and can be as quick or long as the user wants. So how do you compete with the smartphone? You don’t, you join the team.

So far this isn’t being done correctly. This is being done backwards with difficult and unhelpful QR codes, seemingly outdated SMS interactions (in this context), and both of them relying on a wireless signal the user doesn’t have. We need to rethink this. We need to ask how and why we grab the user’s attention. We need to understand how the system degrades gracefully so when the phone or tech doesn’t work you aren’t left with a hassle or mess. We need to create engagements that enhance and are enhanced by the smartphone. In doing this, we have an advantage–these displays take place in the real world with real people, and at least for now, if done correctly, this has a lot more potential and wonder to unlock than even the best designed app.

Big Data and the Character of Cities

I’m here at the Urban Age Electric City conference. Siemens’ presented on their vision of the future city. It is not too dissimilar from IBM’s vision of the Smart City. The basic story goes like this:

In the new smart sustainable city we have a range of new technologies. Construction technologies that make the buildings more efficient, transport technologies that improve mobility, energy technologies that collect and share power more efficiently. All of these urban systems are cutting edge. They improve efficiency, they are profitable over the long term, and they are green. All of these new technologies are embedded with a range of new sensors. Everything is connected by IT. The city can be monitored and managed by its numbers, arriving in real time, at the micro-scale aggregated to the urban level. We see the city with a layer of complexity and depth as never before.

This city is embedded in the cloud and producing its own big data set. Much of this data is collected from the myriad of sensors plugged into these flows. From smart power meters, to transport cards, pollution and environmental monitors, traffic counters, etc.

These cities aren’t truly smart. They are definitely logical, and perhaps self-aware physically, but not truly intelligent. While we see a new layer of the city and can improve many systems as never before, there are still old layers we can’t see. We have to be careful that all of the new information we can see doesn’t distract us from what we used to see.

The best forces of urban life come from the character of cities. The combination of art, architecture, relationships, food, memes, style, and diversity. The sensors for this are qualitative, they come from people and must be interpreted by people. There is a great opportunity for technology to incorporate these qualitative sensors and ideas of the city. Tools like Ushahidi show how small organizations or community groups can collect and dialogue through technology in new, affordable, hi-tech and powerful ways.

I hope that the smart city companies of today learn how to use the human-centered technology necessary to bring the character of city life back into view. If we want to be truly innovative we won’t be able to find our muse in the Big Data City.