Monday, December 8, 2008

Beyond the Browser: Designing for the Ambient Technology Revolution

When you stop to think about it, we've been designing for the same PC user interface for nearly 25 years. And what of the commercial Web browser? It has largely remained the same since the first Mosaic and Netscape incarnations almost a decade ago. There's been a lot of pointing and clicking since then.

But as the Web evolves from pages to systems, and the proliferation of digital, connected devices continues to expand at a mind-blowing rate, it's pretty safe to say that the next 25 years won't look like the last.

Already we are seeing major advances in touch-screen technology. But the next digital frontier won't be browser-based, it will be ambient. And if you look closely enough today you'll find signs that are leading the way.

The End of the Web Page

The notion of Web pages is coming to an end. Today it may be a war for the desktop, but tomorrow the focus will be ambient technologies.

Some semblance of ambient technology is surfacing on the desktop already. Twitter, IM, e-mail, Facebook, weather, stock tickers, news feeds and other widgets and gadgets point the way, as they are placed on secondary displays where an audible or visible alert calls attention to announce the arrival of some new bit of information or change in status.

As we move further away from stationary desktop screens, toward laptops and mobile devices, we can start to offer interactions that are more tightly connected to the context of the user at a given time and place.

For example, rather than checking weather on my computer or the television before leaving the house, a quick glance at an Ambient Devices umbrella with its glowing handle would immediately let me know if I need to take it along to work with me, based on barometric activity and other weather indicators. It adds value to the umbrella and puts the information closer to the actual decision point. The technology enhances an existing behavior, rather than assuming I am going to visit a Web site to check the weather and then go get my umbrella.

Ubiquity of Data and Devices means a Fundamental Change

As user interfaces diversify and gain popularity, a new set of design patterns will be needed to help ensure that these experiences are a welcome and expected part of our daily flow.

Want a good example? Gas station signage. The price of a gallon of gas is clearly displayed and the affordance is clear. But, while I frequently buy gas at gas stations, I don't particularly care what the price is when I'm at my desk. The traditional desktop browser is not the best device for checking out gas prices.

However, if my GPS device talks to my car, it could display nearby gas stations and prices when I'm driving about, thus serving my need for affordable gas where and when I want it.

With ambient technology, ideally the interface with the user is a welcome part of the environment. It fades into the background when not needed, making a positive contribution to the aesthetic landscape. It has a recognizable form and function so that users can remember where to find it and what it's for.


Many man-made design elements are a result of considering the cultural environment. Seating, doors, door handles and locks, faucets, light switches, windows, curtains and blinds—these are all examples of interfaces that allow us to control our environment. They are all frustrating when hidden, and can be invasive when too prominent. When well-considered, they become a design element that fits the context of form and culture of the environment.

While these are common sense principals to an industrial designer, Web designers have not had to give much consideration to the context of their work given the narrow range of user interfaces (mouse, keyboard, monitor) and physical context. Now digital designers must consider these things as our interaction with technology goes well beyond the desktop and into the wild of our everyday, everywhere lives.

My favorite example can be found by when waiting for or on public transportation.

Consider the posters, created on behalf of Target and Pepsi to hawk cola and CDs. Unlike flat posters which only occasionally catch our eye, these posters allow people with headphones to sample music or hear a marketing message in exchange for killing some time. As audio and video become more and more prevalent in public displays, users may want to opt in to the audio for a deeper experience—to hear a guided tour of the location, find out what concerts are playing locally or explore other sponsored content.


Umbrellas, posters, kiosks and interactive wall signs—these are just a few examples of where we think the ambient technology revolution will start to take us. Soon ambient displays that use sensor technology to become aware of a user's attention will be everywhere. Next month it could be as simple as replying to an offer presented by a digital billboard with a text message, or using a store window to see if the item you want is in stock. In the next three years it could become revolutionary as the most mundane of today's advertisements (such as billboards), become "street" movie theaters, screening coming attractions to anyone with a pair of Bluetooth headphones waiting in line to catch the bus.

The possibilities are endless and will be here sooner than you think.