"Urbicomp & the new new media" - Chris Heathcote at London IA

Martin Belam by Martin Belam, 7 June 2011

Just because I wasn’t blogging at the time doesn’t mean I wasn’t taking notes at events, and so I thought this week I’d post some write-ups of events I went to in April and May. This post is about Chris Heathcote’s talk at April’s London IA. It was about “urbicomp”, and the increasing pervasiveness of computing in our lives.

He started with a bit of nostalgia for when he used to design “things” that were tangible in the real world, with screenshots of the first phones that could make calls without having an aerial sticking out of them, or that had crude colour screens and the ability to “kind of” surf the web. I can remember frantically learning WML in case it was the future.

Our digital experiences are no longer bound up in physical objects though, and Chris argues that design in 2011 is effectively wrangling an invisible data stream. He cited experiences like being emailed by Uniqlo after visiting the store, or TfL knowing to send him a message about the Northern Line closing because it had mined his Oyster travel data.

He suggested that the much-touted future where your phone buzzes in your pocket to instantly send you a discount coupon to a nearby store is unlikely to work.

Firstly, it doesn’t scale - if your phone vibrated every time you walked past a coffee shop in London you’d soon turn the damned thing off. Secondly it raises all kinds of consumer data issues - why me with this voucher, and why now? Was it a nearby credit card transaction, my Nectar card usage, number plate recognition when I parked my car, traces of my Oystercard on the transport system, or a “check-in” at a rival store that generated it?

Most of the time people don’t think about the data residue they are leaving, but as corporations increasingly use that data, we will become more aware that it exists. Chris talked about being greeted like a long lost friend at a restaurant by people who appear to have Googled him after he made his reservation, and believes that as a society we will have to develop the etiquette for “being your own celebrity”, where increasingly customer service agents know your name. It is a disconcerting feeling to be given personal treatment when this is just the manifestation of the fact that you are a piece of data passing through a CRM system.

Chris argued that the people in the room were well-placed to be making sure that these experiences are well designed, and comfortable for people. He cited a range of tools that he thought designers interested in the intersection between the physical and digital worlds should be experimenting with - Arduino, Processing, Python, Pachube, openFrameworks and Cinder. He also felt we should accept that we are in the business of behaviour modification - “Designers who don’t accept that they are trying to change people’s behaviour are living a lie” he said.

Chris has blogged about what he called “mundanecomp”, and posted his slides on SlideShare - “Urbicomp & the new new media”.

London IA: Notes from the talks
Martin Belam, foreword by Ann McMeekin Carrier
London IA is a network of designers, information architects and thinkers. Since 2009 the group has been holding regular meetings featuring talks about UX, or of interest to UXers. This ebook is a compilation of my notes from those evenings, featuring talks by Andy Budd, Giles Colborne, Cennydd Bowles, Claire Rowland, Jason Mesut, Ben Bashford, Chris Heathcote, Dan Lockton, Relly Annett-Baker, Michael Blastland, Margaret Hanley and Richard Rutter amongst others. Topics covered range from ubicomp to psychology, from learning how to sketchnote to how to write a UX book, and how to improve digital design through diverse routes like copy-writing, designing for doubt, learning from music technology or taking care of typography.
London IA: Notes from the talks is available for Kindle for £2.47.

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