Make It Magic - User Experience and the Internet of Things

Our interfaces are leaping off screens and onto our bodies, into our living rooms, and steadily into the most intimate spaces of our lives. There’s huge opportunity here, but also significant risk. Will the technology bend to our lives, or will it be the reverse?

With a word or a gesture, we’re now able to summon invisible forces to do our bidding. Back in the day, they called these spells. Today, we call them user interfaces and digital systems. Somehow, though, we’ve lost something essential in that shift from fantasy to science fiction.

As technologists, we tend to be overly enamored of our technology. For us, the device too often becomes the end goal, and we lose track of the genuine human need that we might otherwise meet. We talk about “technology solutions” but lose track of the problem we’re trying to solve (or we create entirely new ones). A subtle shift in perspective will help us build the right things: let’s stop aiming to invent science fiction and start making magic instead.

Centuries of myth and legend have given us the design patterns for what happens when we light up everyday objects with magical powers: magic mirrors, shoes, rings, cloaks, food, you name it. We finally have the science to actually do it, but we haven’t connected these emerging products back to these timeless stories—and to what they tell us about human wants and needs.

The best kind of magic makes an object even more of what it already is: a bag that can hold an impossible amount, eyeglasses that can see anywhere, a flute that plays irresistible music. The appeal of the story is not in the materials or the enabling technology, but how the magic amplifies what we most want or love about the object itself (and often, ourselves).

How can we bring the same approach to the smart home? How can we use technology not to “disrupt” the home, but to make it _more_ of the home we already love? How can technology help to reinforce the home as a calm oasis, a place to connect with family and friends? Connected isn’t always smart, and smart isn’t always good. We have to meet a real human need. Let’s do more than just make things talk; let’s improve the conversation.

In my Qt World Summit talk, Magical UX and the Internet of Things, I’ll share the perspective I’ve been applying to my product work lately. I no longer look at the tech around me and ask, “what can I build with this technology” or “what if I strap these sensors and processors onto your body?” Instead, I’ve started looking at everyday objects and asking questions like, “what if these glasses (or this mirror, or this ring) were magic?” Changing that starting question has led my design work down a very different product path, less focused on engineering and technology, and more on basic human wants and desires.

My product work has turned asthma inhalers into protective talismans and watches into magic amulets. In the end, they’re still enabled by familiar technology, but they’re animated by a design approach that builds on existing behaviors and contexts—and essential human needs.

New kinds of interfaces require new kinds of thinking. Starting from a place of magic gives us permission as designers and engineers to let go of old, screen-based habits, and create things that genuinely delight and amaze.

I hope to see you in San Francisco at Qt World Summit 2016 -- Register now.


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