Text: Jens Persson
What unites Facebook and Google, Apple and Microsoft, Uber and
Airbnb? They are all companies that can perhaps best be described
as mega-platforms, providing the hardware and software foundation
for others to operate on, and plug in to. The internet-of-things
(IoT) revolution has also allowed these global actors to market and
sell physical devices that "speak to each other" while collecting
data in peoples' homes and on peoples' bodies. Networked products
such as smart homes, smart phones and digital wearables are now
part of the everyday lives of billions of people around the world.
Altogether, these are all products and business models that have
created enormous wealth for their founders and shareholders.
Apart from the obvious services that these companies offer, they
also represent complex digital infrastructures that are
specifically designed to produce data about what we do, to
influence user behaviour and to keep us on their platforms for as
long as possible. Most of these activities are typically part of
carefully designed dark patterns, hidden away from the user.
Has design lost its ways?
People within the design community will likely say that
interaction design should be about the interaction between product
and user. It seems, however, that the rapid rise of global tech
platforms has challenged the relevance of traditional design
principles, such as user-centred design and transparency for the
user. How can we make sure that user advocacy and openness once
again become part of the design process, as these inter-connected
digital things become even more complex?
Heather Wiltse, associate professor at UID and co-responsible
for the course, explains.
"If today, human experience is the resource that is mined as a
data-fied resource and used to produce audiences, behavioural
futures markets, and means of influencing behaviour as products,
then it is data science and analytics that is mediating these new
basic relations of production and consumption. Interaction design
now designs only the mining tools. This is a shift that has
profound consequences for design, as significant as the shift from
craft to industrial production."
Heather Wiltse, associate professor at UID
and co-responsible for the course 'Fluid Assemblages'.
The IxD2 course, Fluid Assemblages, challenges students to deal
with these multifaceted issues. The brief was to design a thing
that is a fluid assemblage, meaning an interconnected product that
plugs into an existing platform. Students chose to confront the
challenge from a range of different viewpoints.
A different streaming experience
Maja Björkqvist and Selvi Olgac decided to tackle the online
video streaming industry, responsible for 80 percent of the carbon
emissions produced through internet usage. After a comprehensive
research process and an intensive ideation phase they presented a
service that aims to generate awareness and reflection around
online video consumption.
- The service we created, YouTube Reflect, is geared towards
people becoming more aware of their patterns when it comes to
streaming on the internet. We've added certain filters that you
need to set before you start a YouTube session. The parameters you
choose relate to the topics of your videos, the length of your
session as well as image quality and sound quality. YouTube Reflect
acts as a counterweight to the current auto-play function that
merely serves to keep users on the platform for as long as
possible. Also, simply by making these choices you're starting to
reflect on what you're watching and why, says Maja
Selvi Olgac (left) and Maja Björkqvist
presenting their YouTube Reflect prototype. Photo:
- This course has been about going deep into what's happening in
the background of these systems, rather than designing a pretty
interface. If we want to change things, this course has forced us
to figure out ways to build services that are for the user rather
than taking advantage of the user, says Maja Björkqvist.
Vote for YOUR Facebook representative
Another student aims at reforming a different tech giant,
Facebook. Connie Jehu sketched a scenario in which Facebook becomes
a democratic digital space where users are part of the
decision-making process. Through her service, "Facebook citizens"
get to elect their own representatives.
- My project explores how we can democratize online platforms.
You can actually draw parallels between Facebook and a nation. For
example, they govern a community were millions of people come
together. Recently, there has been talk about Facebook launching
their own currency. To a certain extent we live our lives in these
digital spaces and I wanted to explore what it would look like if
Facebook were to engage users in its governance systems, says
- The service allows users to get elected to certain committees
that aim to represent the broader user base, rather than the
individual. These committees would deal with, for example, content
moderation. I believe that a shift towards user agency should be on
the minds of decision makers at Facebook, not in the least
considering the amount of scrutiny they've come under in the past
Fällefors. Connie Jehu presenting
her project 'Facelect' during the 'Fluid Assemblages'
- As designers, our products go out into the world and plug into
different systems. They're not stand-alone products anymore. I
think it's important for us to connect with and understand what
drives our society; and that includes politics, governance and
business. This course encouraged us to engage with these complex
issues which was really freeing in a way, says Connie Jehu.
Different problem, different strategy
Clearly, design seems to be playing catch-up when it comes to
defining and shaping the interconnected products of the modern era.
It's a new playing field. The industrial designer of the past was
more in control of the process and the final output. They dealt
with, for example, the ergonomics and durability of a physical
product, with the needs of the user always being a clear priority.
There has been a seismic shift from the way industrial design
worked under industrial capitalism and the systems of mass
How digital products are designed going forward will influence
the political and economic landscape for decades to come. The
ability to make money off users without them knowing it, by
harvesting personal data, has led to something of an identity
crisis within the design community. Who are we really designing
for? If traditional core values such as transparency and
user-centred design are to once more become guiding principles, new
design practices need to be developed.
"These design practices must be able to describe how these
digital products show up in the world, what roles they play and
most importantly - how they could be different", says Heather
Find out more about all the student projects from
the 'Fluid Assmablagew' course