An Interview with Mike Kuniavsky, author of “Smart Things”
December 5, 2010
|David Bevans: Your interest in the relationships between humans and computers has led you to start two companies (Adaptive Path and ThingM) and write two books (Observing the User Experience; Smart Things), and design countless tech products and tools. What’s drives this interest; how did you get involved with this?
Mike Kuniavsky: There are two things: One which is biographical and one which is kind of personal in a different way.
The biographical interest is that when I was a kid my dad was an engineer at Ford motor company, during the period when they were transitioning from primarily mechanical to primarily electronic control of their internal combustion engines. And he, as a person who had been trained in traditional mechanical engineering, had all this trouble with the technology.
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|He eventually mastered it, but during the early to mid ‘80s he was working very very hard to try to understand how to use digital technology in place of mechanical means of doing things. For me, this was a very formative insight into the problems of computer technology as tools as it relates to people. I resolved to try to—partly in the interest of helping my dad, but really in the larger interest of answering this question—understand what the relationship between people and digital technology was. It was the subject of my high school honor’s thesis; it was the subject of my undergraduate education. It’s been the subject of my work ever since.|
The personal aspect is that I’ve been using computer technology since I was a kid. I got my first computer in 1980. I got on the internet in 1980, back when it was totally nascent. Ever since then, I’ve seen firsthand the really difficult issues and situations created by especially network computing, and I’ve just been very interested in that because of my personal access to it ever since I was 12.
Dave Bevans: Wow. It’s so rare that you meet someone that has done what they do for their whole life or even starting in high school.
Mike Kuniavsky: I wouldn’t have predicted this or planned it, but in retrospect it’s very clear that this is what I’ve been doing my whole life in one form or another [Laughs].
Dave Bevans You can look at how technology works and what tools can work best, but what drives you to make them easier?
Mike Kuniavsky: “Easier” is a difficult question. I like to think of it as using technology in appropriate places. And I can think of it as creating technologies that help people live their lives better. What tools can we build to help people have happier and more productive lives? Part of that is understanding the appropriate places for technological interventions based on the available technology, and part of that is understanding the way to make those technological interventions appropriate to people and to what they’re trying to do. I think the combination of those things is what combines to form the concept of easier. Because when technology is easy to use, it means that it’s appropriate to the task and it’s sufficiently understandable to be able to be used for that task.
Dave Bevans: What’s the difference then between an appropriate place to use that technology, and what’s, for lack of a better term, an inappropriate use?
Mike Kuniavsky: That’s a good question but a complex one, because it’s culturally constructed. Certain people at certain places at certain times with certain technologies where it’s a good fit. It’s up to designers to try to understand what that set of parameters is to create the appropriate technology.
Dave Bevans: It’s up to designers to figure out what fits during this time.
Mike Kuniavsky: What fits for this particular use for this particular audience for this particular context. And there are a lot of people that make technologies that aren’t appropriate. Sometimes there are technologies that are totally great and are for the right group of people and happen at the right time, but there are other contextual things that might make them not work well. They’re really hard to use. People are confused. Things that seem like an obvious win fail until the next iteration of it, in which case someone figures out, “Oh! Now it’s the right place.” Tablet PCs are the classic example. You know, tablet PCs have been around for 20 years. There was never a market for twenty years but it was obvious that there was something there that was interesting. I think what happened is that, over 20 years, people had been primed by a combination of a deep penetration of laptops—so that people kind of understood the value and social role of mobility for a certain class of activities—in addition to the familiarity with the applications on the iPad specifically that were created for the iPhone. People had several years of familiarity with the iPhone and the apps that ran on it to understand the concept when Apple said, “Check out this bigger iPhone. It’s called an iPad.” And people said, “Oh, right. It’s kind of like laptop and kind of like an iPhone. I get it.”
Dave Bevans: So you’ve used a laptop, and you’ve used an iPhone, you know how to use this and what you can use this for?
Mike Kuniavsky: Whereas when Grid Computing were doing their tablet PCs back in ’91, people were like this is the Newton. The Newton failed were the iPhone exceeded. People were like “Well, the harbor isn’t great, and I’m not really sure what I’m going to use this for, because I’m using this pen as a mouse, and it’s actually not as good as a mouse.” And so it took this set of things, this technological revolution and also a social revolution for people to understand that this is what they use this for.
This is a retroactive explanation for the success of the iPad. I mean, they’re could be something else entirely attributing to that success. But it is an interesting example of a technology that people have been sort of hammering at for twenty years that wasn’t successful until now.
Dave Bevans: Shifting gears a bit, the world is obviously becoming more computerized and in the event of social networks, which there seems almost to be a social network for everything. As the world becomes more computerized socially, at what point will this just become overwhelming and not useful? Or “not appropriate?”
Mike Kuniavsky: Making a general case is very hard, because there’s a wide range of people’s tolerance to social connectivity. People are declaring email bankruptcy because they have too much email and saying that they’re never going to use email again, so call them. Whereas other people can’t live without having instantaneous Facebook updates on their phone and constantly sending stuff to it. I think ‘too much’ is culturally determined. I think there will definitely be situations where social networking will become more and less appropriate. Spending all your time at work on facebook? Probably not an appropriate use for most people.
But you know. That’s also the case for, nowadays, drinking at work. But if you look at Mad Men, that wasn’t the situation 40 years ago. Now, you’re not going to have a scotch at noon because now we’ve socially determined that that’s inappropriate. At some point you might not be able to facebook at noon [Laughs]. It’s not about ‘too much;’ it’s about understanding what the appropriate place is for technologies in terms of people’s lives.
But the nature of people’s relationship to it is changing. I just had a conversation last week with a recent Yale graduate. She’s 22. She was saying that, “Who you friend and who friends you on facebook is now a huge description or presentation of self for people at a top-end or Ivy-league school because a potential future employer might look at who your facebook friends are, or you may want to run for office”—because that’s the sort of thing you do when you want to go to Yale, right?[laughs]—“and look at who my friends are. I need to be friended by the right people and have to have the right compliment of friends on facebook and say that right things.” So what’s happening is that this entire generation is changing the way they present themselves through these social networks, which doesn’t mean that they’re not using it more or less, they’re just negotiating how they use them.
Dave Bevans: In an interview with Wired, self-proclaimed Futurist, Nick Bilton said that social is the next step for all technology; obviously it’s there, but it’s continuing to grow. He expounded on the “erosion of privacy.” He also talked about cyberbullying being a problem and people having a forum to say terrible things to others. And although Bilton says that the pros of technology far outweigh the cons, there are still plenty of problems to hash out. He says that a balance must be struck and there has to be responsibility for actions. What’s your take on this?
Mike Kuniavsky: I agree with all of that. To me, it’s an evolution of social norms. If you go to Berlin, where I just was last week, there are parts of town where it’s totally okay to tag or graffiti on all the walls political slogans. And there are parts of the town where it’s actually not okay but it used to be ten years ago. People negotiate where particular technological interventions are appropriate and where they aren’t and how to express themselves. And that becomes a sort of social negotiation. I agree human beings are social animals; everything in a certain sense is social. Human beings have found ways to bully themselves using every technology since sticks and stones.
Dave Bevans: Getting back to the ubiquitous computing… Coffee shops were the pioneers of Wi-Fi, and now everywhere has it. I’d probably say the culmination of this Wi-Fi culture is when McDonald’s restaurants started to offer it to customers. Almost feels like, to me, fast food Wi-fi—it’s there and it’s to be consumed, but ultimately, it’s unsatisfying. The new trend is now “unplugged” coffee shops. Why do you think unplugging is the trend?
Mike Kuniavsky: The last chapter of Smart Things starts out with me discussing the fact that I wrote it in a coffee shop with no wi-fi. Again, it’s a negotiation of the appropriateness of technology. I think that the wi-fi or no wi-fi in coffeeshops is a temporary thing anyway because soon it’s not going to matter because you’re going to be get internet anywhere through 4G networking. You might have to pay for it, but it’s not going to matter within in a matter of months where you’re sitting, because you’ll be able to get internet everywhere.
I’ve actually been tempted to open a café called Faradays. It would have a Faraday cage around it that would prevent all RFs from going in and out, so that you are in the city, but you’re off the grid networking-wise. I think people are going to want that. People are going to want that situation.
Dave Bevans: Why, in the case when were you writing Smart Things , did you prefer to work off the grid?
Mike Kuniavsky: Well, partially because the Internet is an infinite well of distraction that you can always dip into. And as it pervades our daily lives, people realize that. And just as sometimes people don’t want certain distractions, you don’t necessarily want this infinite well of distraction being available to you all the time. I was reading about some writer who has gone to the extent of pulling the networking card out of his laptop and super-gluing a cut-off Ethernet cable into the Ethernet jack of his laptop so he can’t plug an ethernet cable into it, so that when he uses his laptop he is guaranteed to be off the net. It’s the same reason that people who live in the city go on vacation to the country to get away from the high level of input that the city provides. Similarly, people would want to go away from Internet and the high level of input that it provides. I think that that is part of it, and part of the larger understanding of how to use the internet as a tool. And it may become like in the same way that you don’t drink at work anymore. There might be places where you don’t use the internet at work.
It’s hard for me to generalize. Is this a large social phenomenon? Yeah. Is this a going to be a thing that’s going to be happening everywhere? Maybe. I think that people or some subsets of people are going to find some useful way of managing their own lives and their own productivity and happiness. There are lots of ways people do that already: There’re some people that don’t have TVs and there are some people that have these enormous AV systems. In between, there’s everybody else.
Dave Bevans: Getting back to Smart Things . Clearly, there’s a use for these products. How do you go about discovering the use for these products, thinking of the tool, and finally designing that tool?
Mike Kuniavsky: It’s hard. [Laughs.]
Dave Bevans:Really? It’s not just 1-2-3?
Mike Kuniavsky: [Laughs] No… I see the larger program that I’m involved in is continuously trying to understand the appropriate uses of technology in terms of people’s lives. In some cases the iteration starts from technology and other cases it starts from people’s lives. In all cases it ends up going through a cycle of examining what problems or what situations people are currently experiencing then examining what technologies are available and then trying to figure out how one can affect the other. It’s always a reciprocal process. You can start with a technology and say, “What problems does this technology solve?” Then you go back to those problems and say “What other ways do you solve those problems that may not involve technology at all and may involve a different tech intervention?” And then you say, “Okay well there’s this other technological intervention that may solve this problem, and is this the same problem we started with?” You go through these cycles that end up with—because you have to end up with a product or service that generates money—you have to end with something that you can sell at the end. You end up going through this constrained cycle and hopefully coming up with something that has a good business model and also solves people’s problems and ideally makes the world a slightly better place. So, I’m not sure if that answers your question, but that’s kind of the process I’m continuously going through whether it’s with my company or my clients for whom I do this on their behalf.
Dave Bevans: It does: It’s always nice to get into the creative process and see how something is produced from that. Moving on, in your speech at Emerging Technology Conference in 2007, you compared ubicomp to magic, and you likened a bad, difficult-to-control product to Mickey Mouse’s dancing, mischievous mop and bucket. What’s the secret behind creating a successful, usable product? How do you make sure that people don’t become the parable but actually know how to control the enchanted object?
Mike Kuniavsky: I think the lesson that we’ve learned from Mickey is that what you think the technological solution is up front isn’t necessarily the right way to solve a problem. Every single technological intervention that we make has unintended consequences, because we might not know how this actually will behave when deployed in the real world. He didn’t know chopping up the broom wasn’t going to create more brooms. He didn’t read the broom manual. Well, that’s not the case either, because things don’t come with manuals. Mickey didn’t know that that’s how that particular technology was going to behave.
Dave Bevans: He didn’t understand it.
Mike Kuniavsky: And we never fully understand our technology. We may understand the technical aspect of it, but we never fully understand the social implications of it. Lots of people point out that every technology is a double-edged sword; for every positive thing that it does, there’s a negative effect that it has. What we do is try to balance those. As designers, I think the role is to try to understand as much as possible about that, given the time, budget, and knowledge constraints that we have, in order to be able to make decisions to try to mitigate the negative aspects while amplifying the positive aspects of technology.
But we never know. As Google will tell you with all the products they create that don’t succeed, there are a lot of things that seem totally awesome on paper, in the lab, and even usability testing that end up being not successful products. Sometimes they have genuinely large negative social implications, like Facebook is experiencing with all its privacy issues. So I think that the best that we can do is do a lot of user research, we can do a lot of iterations, we can do a lot of creating things and then observing how people use them, creating prototypes and sketches of things and observing people very closely.
My whole first book, [Observing the User Experience,] I almost titled Twenty Ways to Get Inside the Head of Somebody Else. Not one of them is the only way, and not one of them is going to give the absolute information; they’ll all give parts and facets of it. You’ll never have the whole story, but all you can do is try to get as much of the story as possible given the constraints the project is under, and then try to create something that satisfies it, or that you hope will do more good than harm. I don’t know if that answers your question.
Getting back to magic, my point there about magic was that magic is this metaphor of technology, because magic objects have always been essentially culturally codified wishes of technology of what we would want to have. Magic is this way of envisioning and explaining technologies as a kind of design tool. It is not necessarily the thing we should be aiming to create or we should be telling people we’re doing, because you don’t want to tell people that you’re creating magic… because you’re not. Although, from our experience of our every-day lives, we now know so little about how the technologies that we use actually function, that most things that people use for electronics, they’re effectively magic anyway. People don’t even know why their cars don’t stall now.
Dave Bevans: It’s this technological world that people just assume that these things just kind of happen and they’re just expected to run.
Mike Kuniavsky: It’s a very different world than it was 150 years ago, where you could walk up to the most complex technological object of the time, say a windmill, and you could actually figure out how it worked just by looking at it. Nowadays we don’t even know the basic physics principles on which the technologies that we use work, much less how they are actually implemented.
Dave Bevans: One more question. I enjoyed your take on the idea of the read-only culture (a product of the industrial revolution) being dismantled with the conditions of today. What culture has emerged from this and what can you foresee dismantling this current culture?
Mike Kuniavsky: I’m not sure what’s going to come after this culture. But we’re getting a lot more read-write culture. It’s actually Larry Lessig’s term that he was using when talking about creative commons and copyrights. I was applying it to the physical manufacture of things of our everyday lives, and our interaction with them. We’re getting a lot more ability. The centralization of control of the manufacture of everyday objects that happened during the Industrial Revolution is being dissipated by the fact that we’re getting more tools that allow us to distribute the digital blueprints to how to manufacture them. The distribution of knowledge around how to make things and the creation of more inexpensive tools that can use those digital instruction sets is actually creating a culture where we are getting devices that can make us everyday things on-demand, rather than us going to Walmart to buy something that’s made by an enormous factory somewhere else. It’s creating a culture that—not yet, but maybe ten years from now—will be more efficient to have certain classes of things made—not just a novelty, but economically efficient—locally rather than shipped in. Once they’re made locally you have more control of what that object is, and how it looks and what it does, which will allow for more customization and more personalization. Rather than going to IKEA to buy a chair that was made from wood that was farmed in China and then shipped to Sweden to be flat packed and then shipped to America to be sold, you’ll get the digital design from Sweden and you have a local wood farm that produces wood that is laser-cut, and assembled—perhaps even flat packed locally—and all you’re doing is just moving 100 miles instead of ten-thousand. And this is better because you can modify your chair; you can make it taller; you can get it a little wider and have the arms in this shape. You can get it made out of local wood that would be cheaper for you. The chair is going to be cheaper and can be made to your specifications.
Dave Bevans: Thank you very much Mike. I appreciate the time that you’ve taken. Did you have any lasting words for the readers?
Mike Kuniavsky: I don’t think so. Well, okay, just a second [laughs]. I think we’re entering a period where design as an activity is expanding its boundaries and involving more and more kinds of activities. I think it’s now a great time to start thinking about what it is to be a designer and to really start embracing the notion of design as a critical activity in the creation of technology, which is what a lot of people are doing right now. A lot of what knowledge work is, in a sense, technology creation. I think it’s a real interesting time to approach it from the perspective of design as a structured kind of creative activity around the creation of technology.