How do you design applications that remove screens, and not add more rectangles of light to your environment? A lot of public screens are ignored, ‚banner blindness’ manifesting itself physically. Screens may get in the way even, distracting you, like some car UI’s.

At the first day of ThingsCon I attended a workshop Designing Discreetness by Sami Niemelä of Nordkapp, who invited us to explore with him ways of removing screens, and get to more discreet designs. Think of a butler who anticipates your desires, and is there at the right moment, but otherwise gets out of the way.

Sami, the workshop host, described the workshop as “Our homes, workplaces and vehicles are being saturated with glowing rectangles, all competing from our attention. We augment ourselves with pieces of glass we carry, and we are at the dawn of an era where all the world’s data is accessible to us everywhere, all the time. There must be a better way. I believe the answer to cracking this is creating and experimenting with smart, connected things that are silent, behave well, and play nicely with others. How to approach connected physical objects and the attached services as a medium for something larger, instead of the thing itself? Join me in 90-minute workshop where we will discuss and sketch the new frontiers and behaviors for the post screen world ahead of us. Because someone has to.”

The workshop felt like a good fit for me, because Sami used the urban touch screens in Helsinki as a trigger. When we were in Helsinki 18 months ago I also noticed those screens and that they were unused and thus disfunctional.

Sami explained how with wearables and connected things we’re still very much in the innovators and maybe early adopters phase, and that robustness, natural language vs gestures, privacy vs proximity, and useful for mainstream vs niche experts are still aspects in need of a lot of attention.

He then took us through a work format, reminiscent of the Spimes workshop I did in Lisbon at SHiFT in 2008, and the open data workshops I do myself:

Choose one of the following to improve / brainstorm around:

1. ATMs
2. Car UIs
3. Public information screens
4. Shop transactions
5. Wearables
6. Something else

Pick one or more from each of the following:

What: private / personal / shared / common / public
How: haptics + screens + touch + voice + other = 100%
When: Now / next year / in 3 years / in 5 years or more

There was also a card game, again reminiscent of my open data workshop, that provided inputs, APIs and outputs, out of the combination of which you had to build an application.

Then generate ideas for a different approach.
I was in a group that worked on public information screens.

Two notions came up early on. One, that these screens may be obsolete because of mobile phones, and are a digital replacement of earlier fixed info points like maps etc. So making them interactive etc may not actually be useful. Two, we treat them like adverts and ignore them, but those adverts are only there to pay for the screens, so if we find a different way to finance it we can do without adverts.

I shared the idea of a park or street bench that changes color according to air quality, pollen and/or particulate matter (which came up during an open data workshop once). The color signals if it is ok to sit there, and there is no need to actually share the underlying environmental information in much detail, so no screen needed.
If you can move the information into existing street furniture, you also bypass the financial constraints that necessitates advertising: all that street furniture has its own budget cycles.

We did see a need for more sensors, to be able to better contextualize information public screens share. E.g. if it is raining maybe adapt information shared towards indoor activities etc.

Moving away from fully public screens to e.g. more personal apps, we suggested that maybe info-apps could learn or recognize me as a repeat visitor. If I am in a new city, I may have a need the first day for information on how to get by metro from the hotel to the conference. On the second day I already know that, so maybe I want to hear more about things along the way, or an event that evening close to where I am. An application that helps you quickly establish a rhythm in your new environment.

I enjoyed the workshop, although I was pretty much out of energy at the end of a long day. The ‚recipe’ we used I will add to my thinking toolbox.

Update: Sami posted the slides and notes of the workshop