Table of contents
1. Modern technologies—friend or foe?
2. Digital Society—Vision & Opportunities
3. Digital Designers—Architects for the digital society
4. A plea for people and technology that supports us
6. Ergosign GmbH—We innovate and create digital experiences
I am a technology optimist myself. I feel enthusiastic about the idea of a future in which people and technology form a synergetic unit, and in which technology, thanks to the sensible use made thereof, contributes to the quality of life and the prosperity of all people on earth. Thus, in my personal case, I tend to answer: “Friend”. At the same time, I am well aware of the risks. Hardly any other topic occupies anthropologists, psychologists, and technologists as much as the influence of artificial intelligence and robots on us as individuals, in our private and in our professional life. And digitisation is also a social maturation process that benefits from the common discourse. Thus, I consider that my optimistic attitude is a starting point for this discussion. I look forward to your thoughts about the lines below, which will probably take us a little closer to the answer to “Friend or foe?”, “WALL-E or Terminator?”.
First of all, let’s get an overview of the background to the recent technology invasion and potential anchor points for human-centred design. Some technologies are visible to us. The security camera at the railway station, the mobile phone in your hand or the pedometer on your wrist. However, there is also a hidden world in which micro-controllers connect inconspicuous everyday objects to each other and integrate them into digital ecosystems. Just imagine that a sensor monitors the amount of beans remaining in your coffee maker. If the sensor reports that the level is low, your favourite bean will then be automatically reordered, paid for and delivered to your doorstep, taking into account the most favourable price on the market. This world is called the Internet of Things (IoT). Research institutes such as Statista assume that we might be surrounded by up to 75 billion intelligent and network-connected devices by 2025.
If we look at body-hugging technologies, this trend continues seamlessly. The so-called “Human Wearable Bionics” expand the cognitive and physical abilities of human beings in a “magical way”. Bosch recently managed to shrink the technology required for smart data glasses to the size of a stylish eyeglass temple. Samsung has progressed one step further and holds the technical patent for an AR (Augmented Reality) contact lens. In the future, you will hardly be able to see with the naked eye the technical upgrade of the person you are talking to. The fusion of body and technology creates an almost intimate connection that requires trust and is hardly comparable with today’s relationship with our smartphones. For this purpose, human-centred design can use empathic methods to help address both people’s concerns and needs.
The acceptance of technology is also a cultural issue. Hollywood likes to tell the story of killer AI devices with red laser eyes who decide to wipe out the human parasite. In Far Eastern cultures like Japan, on the other hand, machines are not considered to be evil. “Artifact spirits”, so-called Tsukumogamis, breathe life into everyday objects and thus become family members. As a result, the faithful vacuum cleaner is ceremonially bid farewell when its service life is over, and humanoid robots regulate the check-in at the hotel reception as something absolutely normal. The natural closeness of people and technology is also evident in how the Japanese care for the elderly. Service robots serve coffee to people in need of care, therapy robots such as a seal called “Paro” provide emotional warmth and people who have passed away are “revived” in the form of AI-Chatbots and used in pastoral care or for people affected with dementia. Japan shows us how beneficial basic social trust seems to be for technology-based innovations.
Regardless of individual ethical views about holographic AI chatbots from beyond the grave, all examples give a common message: The latest technology wave has reached such a level in size and speed that an impact on our society is inevitable. My personal opinion: As digital designers, we should actively help shape the effects thereof.
But what could a digital society look like? As a technology optimist, I would like to place the focus on three positive effects, which I believe we can hope for, and which should inspire you concerning the influence you can have as a digital designer. I will give you targeted impulses to expand your methods and toolboxes, to allow us to meet the new challenges with a human-centred perspective and shape this exciting future vision together.
By definition, democracy is about “participation”. The democratisation of technologies concerns free access to them for all and the fact that their usability is not reserved for just a few with the appropriate technological expertise. The triumphant advance of so-called low/no code tools ensures that no doctorate is required to use artificial intelligence and to control robots. Complex programmes can be created by means of simple graphical user interfaces using the drag & drop method.
The democratic moment arises when, thanks to suitable software applications, anybody interested has the practical opportunity to actively help develop innovations with a social impact. But there is a challenge not to be underestimated therein: the translation of complex technical relationships into mental models that are understandable for the general public and into an intuitive user interface. Sounds again like a job for the digital designer, doesn’t it?
If we look at the near future, the challenges in the design of barrier-free systems will go far beyond today’s regulations such as BITV 2.0, the German Barrier-free Information Technology Ordinance. The natural communication between the residents and the intelligent-autonomous infrastructure of a smart city, from transport services to supermarkets, will require the interaction with all of our senses. Just imagine pointing to a vehicle, giving the voice command “Book now” and hearing an acoustic confirmation. But what happens if your arm is in a cast or your hearing is impaired? This example shows that multisensory applications have to be designed to be extremely robust against the (temporary) lack of individual skills. In addition, there are exoskeletons able to make us mobile again, data glasses that provide cognitive relief and collaborative robots—so-called CoBots—that support us in physically demanding work.
With the aim of making the difficult cooperation with interactive environments and body-hugging technologies systematic and especially inclusive, I would like to introduce you to the methodology of service design a little further down in the text.
In the AVASAG research project, Ergosign and its partners are researching the use of a real-time controlled 3D sign language avatar for the automatic translation of German texts into sign language. A new type of online platform, which enables digital and barrier-free communication through the qualitatively realistic representation of a 3D sign language avatar, is being implemented. It offers the added value for deaf people to be able to participate better in the digital society.
Once and again, Hollywood shows us how quickly an unwanted change of power to a world controlled by machines can happen. The result is a vague fear of losing control over digital life and our beloved technical helpers. In my opinion, the first step on the way to confident handling of AI and Co. is that we break free from our reservations about modern technologies based on our own practical experiences. Fear is not a good adviser—but healthy scepticism is. In a second step, we should deal with the meaning of the term by answering specific questions: How much influence on our everyday life will we allow? When are digital systems considered “intrusive”? How much self-identity can I allow machine beings to have?
Even if at this point, we are still relatively at the beginning of our digital journey, one thing can already be said with certainty: Your experience and trained perspective as a designer of digital products and services are essential in this discussion.
I also recommend those interested in attending the Robophilosophy conference, which was last held in Denmark in 2020.
The human-centred design of the digital society is a mammoth task and cannot be mastered single-handedly. At the same time, I am particularly convinced that the UX designer with a broad knowledge profile could act as a kind of moderator in the dialogue between designers, technologists, and user psychologists.
And in this sense, the new complexity of interactive systems is forcing our “digital architects” to expand their toolboxes. In the following section, I would like to introduce you to three examples of the challenges of high-tech interaction spaces as well as to suitable tools I consider particularly valuable for a systematic design approach.
A robot as a social being that looks after us independently, hands as our medication and provides entertainment? To some people, this sounds okay, to others bizarre. The use of autonomous systems, for example in nursing, quickly sparked emotionally charged discussions about socio-ethical influences. And this is a good thing. Because at the end of the discourse there is often an accepted consensus which can be used as a basis for the design of future systems. At first glance, the social implications of the use of AI, robotics and the like are often not easily understood. To be able to make knowledge-based design decisions in such projects, we have to make their potential effects transparent to everyone involved in the project.
MEESTAR and Co. are frameworks which channel ethical issues. Basically, technological expansion steps are placed in relation to possible social influences. The result is a kind of ethical compass that systematically explores different opinions and areas of tension between people, the environment and business. Company-wide brand values, serving as anchored design principles for future products and services, are often consolidated in the discussion. The guidelines increase the likelihood that the market will accept the new offer in the area of tension between AI and robots, and therefore they are a valuable design tool. At the European level, the work of the ethical commission on dealing with artificial intelligence is a good—and very exciting—example.
One of the greatest challenges of the digital systems of today and the future is mastering their complexity. This results from the fact that innumerable subsystems have to work together in highly interconnected IoT systems, which then ultimately form the entire product or service. With the aim of having a “natural interaction”, future digital systems will also increasingly rely on multisensory human-machine communication. The orchestration of all active and passive players in such systems is anything but trivial and requires cross-disciplinary cooperation between all digital experts in a coordinated design process. Tools from the service design methodology can contribute to this.
The origin and focus of service design is the development of services and service-oriented products. The company-wide transformation towards customer and people-centricity starts with the UX design of individual touch points and ends with true service innovation. The great thing about it: At the beginning, technology is irrelevant for the method. Service design starts considering the optimal process, service or product as a problem using empathy maps, user journeys and service blueprints, transparently and comprehensively depicting multi-complex relationships between all players and the context. Then, during the solution process, technological options are evaluated and, if necessary, integrated.
I have had good experiences with a variation of the user journey when determining the requirements for multisensory systems, expanding the classic dimensions of the individual phases at touchpoint level to include individual modalities such as seeing, hearing and speaking. This creates a picture of which modalities are already heavily compromised in individual usage situations and which still have capacity. Barrier poverty can also be specifically addressed in this way.
But service design can do even more: Collaborative methods and workshops form a kind of guiding thread for the co-creative cooperation of all digital experts and radiate far beyond the product or service into the workforce. A common vision arises.
Real innovation requires the regular review of the idea through real market feedback and real test users. And the use of suitable prototypes is just as important as the right method. The fact that the scenario can quickly appear confusing and abstract to the test users depends once again on the complex interplay of sensors, buttons, graphic and non-graphic interface components. The results are distorted test results.
The principle of “Triangulation” described by the Nielsen Norman Group has proven to be a good mix for me. The combination of expert opinions and empirical and qualitative surveys helps to avoid assumption-based design decisions in early and late design phases.
One key factor is the creation of integral hardware-software prototypes. Tools such as Antetype or Protopie.io cleverly combine classic GUI components with physical turn-push controls or voice inputs and make innovative products tangible and testable at an early stage of their development.
Within APEROL, Ergosign works closely with partners from the fields of research and industry in the development of human-centred concepts for the mobility of the future. APEROL works on the implementation, testing and validation of a holistic approach for optimised autonomous traffic.
Technology-based innovations are also often associated with high investments. For the first published version of a new product, I therefore recommend developing an MVP (Minimum Viable Product). The scope of functions should be carefully prioritised and precisely cover the functions that are necessary, so that the profitability (business), attractiveness (user) and feasibility (technology) of a product or service can be demonstrated and validated directly on the market. The MVP roadmap also ensures a manageable functional “step size” for innovative new developments, which can drastically reduce investment risks.
At Ergosign GmbH, at the Saarbrücken location, we have set up our own IoT lab. At the “Multi Experience Lab” we use holistic prototypes to get to the bottom of the question of which technologies have the potential to provide people with useful support. Our mission: Innovation you can touch.
Exoskeletons compensate for physical limitations. Low code tools allow us to automate our private everyday life independently and according to our highly individual wishes. Highly interconnected and environmentally efficient mobility services transport us to anywhere in the world. And the use of CoBots and AI agents could increase the added value so much that we get part of it back as self-determined (leisure) time.
We counter sceptics with human-centred products and services in which modern technology serves people and not the other way round. And for this purpose, we need to expand our toolboxes. ELSI provides an anchor concerning ethical questions. The contribution of service design is the systematic design of the complex, interactive cooperation between human beings and technology. And the validation with holistic prototypes ensures that our technological innovations will later also find the approval of potential customers.
Since the World Economic Forum 2020 in Davos, corporations (with effect on the media) have gone head over heels with commitments to a sustainable and circular economy using the latest recycling technologies. German automotive companies are relying on hyper-automation of their production lines, but with their “Human First” promise they are rediscovering their most important asset—people. Ergonomics scientists are increasingly proposing the thesis that our workplaces will become more comfortable and efficient thanks to mechanical helpers, but that technology will hardly ever replace people entirely. At the political level, workgroups discuss the sovereignty of one’s own digital identity in the EU using so-called distributed ledger technologies—better known as blockchains. And recently, among other things, the Chairman of Bitkomt proposed a new ministry entirely dedicated to the questions and answers of digitisation.
Technology is neither good nor bad—it depends entirely on us what we make of it. The unswervingly human-centred perspective of the UX designer preserves direction and overview in the process of change towards a digital society and causes this profession to be one of the most exciting of our time. In my personal opinion, participating in this process is our responsibility and also a unique opportunity: For technology to support and empower people, instead of dominating them!
Are you ready to save the world?
Ergosign is convinced about digital products that support people in their work and enrich their lives. As a leading digital agency with a focus on user experience in the DACH region, Ergosign provides full service to clients from a wide variety of industries and business areas with a human-centred, goal-oriented and collaborative mindset. Awarded several design awards—such as the Red Dot, the iF or the UX Design Award—the more than 180 employees at 6 locations in Germany and Switzerland have extensive digitisation experience from over 3,200 projects.