Rebel Rebel Hero 4


Posted by Ed / February 22nd 2017

REBEL REBEL: When a nudge becomes a tickle

Back in 2013 I returned to Art School to study a postgraduate degree. Inspired by the new post-discipline subjects emerging in the HE sector, and the energising dialogue around ‘design thinking’, I chose to study Design Innovation and Service Design at the Glasgow School of Art.

No more than two months into the programme, I was stood in front of the class, pitching an idea that I had drunkenly scribbled out the night before. At the time it seemed ingenious, but as I was saying it out loud, and hearing it for myself, I was cringing on the inside. The ideas was AI robots that are designed to be unhelpful, and unknowingly suicidal, that live in high rise housing blocks, and frustrate the residents in order to strengthen the community. 

The idea got some giggles, and incited a bit of discussion in the class. The tutors were not so impressed –at the time– with one standout common that echoed through my mind for the rest of the degree being “you are not at art school” (yes, I was studying at the Glasgow School of Art). 

The project we were working on was for the giant tech company Fujitsu, and we were set to pitch final ideas to stakeholders at the design HQ in Tokyo only a month later, so understandably the tutors wanted us to create something less provocative.

So eventually we toned down the idea. The final concept was fairly bland and nonsensical. If you read through the project publication, you can sense the feeling of defeat in the final line of the summary. However, at the moment when we were seriously talking about the suicidal robots concept, there was genuine excitement for the idea. It seemed so backwards. A rebellion against the notion that all services must be absolutely user friendly and simple to use. Maybe we were hungry for something different.  

So, a little background on the project. We were tasked with coming up with ideas for implementing the use of ITC technology to revitalise communities that live in high rise housing blocks. At this point in the project we had already gathered a huge amount of data from interviewing residents at a housing estate in Glasgow. We had analysed and synthesised the data, and had discovered a tension between residents, that was spawning from mixed cultures and language barriers. We found that there were perceived barriers to interactions because residents believed they didn't speak the same language, or couldn’t speak the same language. So the opportunity was to implement some sort of intervention, a nudge tactic almost, that would force residents to interact.

Rebel Rebel Tube Chat
Rebel Rebel Tube Chat
Rebel Rebel Tube Chat

It’s the kind of opportunity that makes me shudder. Like those pin buttons anonymously distributed on the London Underground that simple say ‘tube chat?’. The ideas that run on the assumption that people actually want to interact and talk more, but they need a nudge to do so.

We were determined to fight against this somehow. To inject a bit of humour into the project. We had one team member propose an idea. It was a robot snake, that would slither from door to door, and randomly knock on two doors, the residents would open the door to find each other, and then start a conversation. It was a terrible idea. We laughed. But it stuck with me. There was something about the snake-like robot that was both charming and weird. A robot that doesn’t conform to being good, or helpful, and has the characteristics of a snake.

The analogy I used to contextualise my idea was of the nightmare housemate. When I was in my first year of uni I lived in a shared house with three other freshers. And one of them was an absolute nightmare. I think my longstanding hatred of post-it notes was caused by their relentless use of them to highlight everything from dust on the counter, to a stray noodle down the side of the cooker. But on reflection, one positive that came from this, was the collective laughter I would have with the other two housemates. It was always a subject of conversation, something that would result in text messages being sent to each other, or a phone call to say “you’ll never believe what they have done…”

Rebel Rebel Concept Red

The first suicide robot concept sketch

The Idea of the inept suicidal robot spawned from a combination of this analogy, and the crazy robot snake. If we designed a robot that was the absolute frustration of residents, it would eventually unite some of them in conversations to vent and share their frustrations. But in order for this to work, there needed to be a reason for the robots to stay. Otherwise the residents would just throw them out the window. So we made them wifi-distributing robots. They were to provide free wifi to the whole building – in a speculative future scenario where access to wifi is a fundamental human right, and governments have a duty to provide access for every citizen – but, the wifi would only be active if the robots were in an upright position (not fallen over).

So finally we needed to figure out a way in which the robots would constantly fall over, so that residents would have to come out of their apartments to pick them up and restart the wifi. So I though they need some motivation to move about. A bit of desire. So the robots would be programmed to do two things. Provide wifi to the residents, but also to find another robot to fall in love with. In the area we had based our research, there were three high rise buildings, so it made perfect sense to provide each building with one robot. The three robots would constantly request to see each other. But this meant attempting to navigate the stairs, which would mean they would constantly fall over.

In the end, the concept was too complex, and too away from the reality that we live in right now. It would have never receive any serious consideration. If we managed to push the idea through to development stages, our project would be pushed into the realms of speculative, or critical design. 

But looking back, there was an urge driving this project, to rebel against the norms of service design. As technological innovation is accelerating, services are providing seamless customer experiences that are designed to be foolproof. User interfaces that are beautifully simple, to the point where instruction manuals are an artefact of the past. And tired tired flat UI design is the digital-trend equivalent of skinny jeans. These things are obviously great for user experience design, but sometimes it's nice to have a change of scenery. 

To summarise, there was no point to this article really. Only a slight introduction to a thought we have been playing with for a while at SLAPS studio. 

The thought of designing things in a post-perfection world... 

Posted by Ed on 22nd February 2017