Experimenting With Technology
A human centred design philosophy places a premium on understanding human needs first, and then shaping technology to suit. However, human centred design risks becoming a one-sided polemic if it avoids creatively exploring what technology has to offer. I believe the creative exploration of developing technology is a crucial part of the innovation process. Treating human centred design as the only part of the equation risks leaving crucial technology capabilities and weaknesses undiscovered.
To explore this, we need to understand what technology actually is. The best definition I’ve ever come across is from landmark economist and theorist W. Brian Arthur, in his book ‘The Nature of Technology’. In it, he says technology is
“…a phenomena captured and put to use…”
Used in this sense, ’phenomena’ are observable (measurable) processes or principles of nature. Drilling down deeper on the concept of phenomena from W. Brian Arthur,
“Phenomena are the indispensable source from which all technologies arise. All technologies, no matter how simple or sophisticated are dressed up versions of the use of some effect - or more usually, of several effects.”
In other words, technology is a human construction that makes use of the principles of nature to achieve outcomes. Although new technologies are not always well understood, they are usually enhanced and developed with time. In turn, old technologies are often forgotten, even before they are applied effectively. Essentially, our expanding envelope of technological capability is always changing.
This has a tremendous implication for a human centred design philosophy. No matter how idealistic our intentions to put humans at the centre of our thinking, our innovation is forever shaped by the capabilities and limitations of the technologies we will eventually use to create our solutions. In this way, design and technology are a symbiosis, not a competiton.
You can see this in the natural history of innovation. Many of our modern products and services started with an unexpected, surprising or discovered application of a newly developed and little understood technology. For example:
Gum was an accidental materials technology based on chicle (a South American tree gum) that was too soft for use in products that would eventually use vulcanised rubber. That was, until someone Thomas Adams realised you could chew it.
Gunpowder was likely invented as an immortality elixir or health cure.
Celluloid was intially used in pool balls, which turned out to be a terrible idea, given its habit of exploding when enough force was applied. It was only after exploration that its use in film photography became apparent.
Internal combustion engines of many types were invented during the early Industrial Age. Lots of technological experimentation were required for these to be improved and then applied to transportation.
Computers famously seemed to have no wider commercial value outside a few narrow business applications. Experiments in places like Xeroc Parc created a vision for what could be done with computer technology. The vision eventually came true with the devices and interfaces we use today.
The internet, specifically the packet switching logic that makes the network run, wasn’t engineered for any of its modern uses. The original internet infrastructure was built with United States government grants to help researchers share files. Its technological infrastructure was built to be as flexible as possible, which allowed it to be applied to newly discovered needs over the next fifty years.
The expanded capabilities of new technology has the effect of expanding our imagination of what is possible. An exploration of these possibilities can lead us to new, previously undiscovered or misunderstood human needs. Human centred design and technology experimentation are not mutually exclusive concepts, but are two nodes in a co-dependent system of innovation.
We have to be willing and excited to experiment with technologies in controlled settings. They key message here is ‘controlled settings.’ It strikes me that figuring out how to safely experiment with technology benefits from Peter Palchinsky’s ‘Rules of Practical Failure’. I’ve talked about Peter Palchinsky before, a Russian engineer from the early 1900s, who suggested three rules to help protect experimentation:
Seek out ideas and try new things.
When trying something new, do it on a scale where failure is survivable.
Seek out feedback and learn from your mistakes as you go along.
We can experiment with technology and be just as human centred. We do this by ensuring that we don’t stop with the outcomes of our experiments. Instead, we should always bend back around into an understanding of the human needs, capabilities and limitations that drive the design. A rush to put technology in the wider world without understanding its impacts is the ultimate failure of a technology-first approach.
Arthur, W. Brian (2009) Technology Evolves. Allen Lane: Great Britain.
Claybourne, Anna. Larkum, Adam (2007) The Story of Inventions. Usborne: England.
Hardford, Tim (2012) Adapt - Why Success Always Starts with Failure. Picador.
Hunkin, Tim (1998 - 1993) Secret Life of Machines. http://www.timhunkin.com
Independent (2004) Secret life of Chewing Gum from https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/this-britain/the-secret-life-of-chewing-gum-70578.html
Jack, A. (2015) They Laughed at Galileo, Constable
Miodownik, Mark (2013) Stuff Matters. First Mariner: USA.
World Science Festival (2014) The Internet Everywhere from https://youtu.be/WkAwZmCm2Fs
Wikipedia Gunpowder from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gunpowder
Circut Board Photo by Nicolas Thomas on Unsplash