Dish on design: Intersection of technology and human connection

In an age when artificial intelligence is leading technological innovations, how can designers make a human connection?

Cathal Loughnane, creative director at Design Partners, shares his thoughts in this Color + Design Newsletter exclusive.

Cathal Loughnane, creative director at Design Partners
Cathal Loughnane, creative director at Design Partners, shares how designers can create meaningful connections with consumers in a technological age.

Each year, CES is a grand bazaar of technology innovation.

From the wild frontier of Eureka Park where thousands of startups eagerly pitch their breakthrough ideas, to the main stage where the world’s leading brands vie to define our future, it’s a grand journey. This year, the impact of artificial intelligence on our relationship with technology has become clearer and more immediate.

There is now an opportunity and expectation for inherent intelligence in technology. The words “Hey Google” seemed to be the soundtrack to this year’s event, and the proliferation of robotics was simultaneously intriguing and unnerving. CES has always been about technological advancement, but each year I leave with the same question: “What does this mean for people’s lives?”

Few exhibitors put people first when showcasing their technology.

There were a handful of exceptions such as Vivint, which built a wonderfully human streetscape to help communicate the benefits of its community-based home security platform.

For technology to gain acceptance and market success, it must:
1) provide clear benefits for people’s lives and
2) communicate those benefits in clear, human terms.

The most successful and life-changing innovations are grounded in a distinct sense of purpose. Why should this technology exist and how will it benefit people? At Design Partners, these questions are central to every project and client relationship.

First, what does the brand stand for? We get close to the brand to understand its values, purpose and ambition. Next, we tune-in to potential customers to empathize with the lives of real people – their motivations, desires, needs and concerns. Our design work aims to connect brands with people through meaningful innovations that truly make life better. This approach is baked into the entire product development process. It guides every decision we make about the user experience, functional requirements, user interface behavior and formal expression of the product – right down to the colors, materials and finishes of the constructed artifact.

Sensory engagement drives much of our decision making.

People understand the world around them by a myriad of sensory inputs that are processed instinctively at a subconscious level. First impressions count, as people can evaluate a product within the first few seconds through emotional connection. The color, texture, weight, feel, sound, smell, motion, etc., are all informing the person about the product. These characteristics determine the quality of the experience and even the level of commitment by the brand to deliver this innovation.

This is where many new products fall short. In the race to present technological innovations, the human side can be neglected. It takes time and an iterative process to select and refine the key ingredients that will engage people’s emotions.

Leading brands work with material specialists and manufacturing partners to innovate beyond the technology into the physical structure and cosmetic expression. This is part of a complete design process in which all decisions are guided by the higher purpose and core benefit of the innovation. It begins with defining, in words and images, the key attributes required from the material … light, ridged, smooth, dry, seamless, etc.

By precisely identifying such attributes, we narrow the field of material selection and everyone in the development chain can align on the project’s ultimate goal. Creativity can be targeted and assessment criteria can be applied to material selection.

There is a clear trend to deliver even more engaging haptics in materials for consumer electronics. By creating and manufacturing beautiful and tactile surface finishes, people connect with products through the sense of touch. Combining advanced polymer manufacturing with fabrics, metals, ceramics, woods, coatings, etc., simplifies and humanizes the embodiment of technology. Material suppliers must work hand-in-hand with designers so that creativity can guide product development. Designers love being exposed to new material developments and samples, which can unlock creativity and lead to new applications. Pioneering materials such as polymers can be used to integrate high chroma colors, textures and strength – creating endless possibilities for devices’ interior and exterior.

In 2007, we were frustrated with the limited texturing options in molded plastics – and so began a project titled, “Textural Frontier.” The aim of this ongoing project is to work with ambitious material suppliers and manufacturers to push the boundaries of material haptics. We meet as a team every month to review new materials and discuss potential applications for future projects.

Our ambition is to design and control the surface texture down to a micro-level, while opening up creative opportunities for future products with a deeper human connection and advanced performance.

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