Amazon Dash: Tech’s chance to be more Mary Poppins and less Minority Report

[An advertising executive in charge of innovation asks how digital designers will respond to the expansion of multi-touch, always-connected, internet-of-things technology. This is from The Guardian, where the column includes links to related stories. For more on the Amazon Dash button, see coverage in USA Today. –Matthew]

Amazon Dash button

[Image: The Amazon dash button is a small, branded tab that lets you order stuff by pressing a stick-on button. Photograph: Amazon]

Amazon dash: Tech’s chance to be more Mary Poppins and less Minority Report

In digital, we often underestimate the importance of real, tangible experiences. But as everyday objects connect to the web, we have a chance to make the world feel a little more magical

David Cox
Chief innovation officer at M&C Saatchi
Thursday 23 April 2015

Get up, get out of bed, strap a virtual reality (VR) headset across your head. Then go back to bed because frankly your room, flat, trip to work, work, trip home from work, dinner, TV and the weather are all rubbish. Well, compared to VR they are. Or at least they will be soon.

If every tube carriage has every pair of eyes glued to a small rectangle of light now, can you imagine what it will be like when we can be anywhere imaginable via the pieces of tech we carry around with us at all times? Flying through the solar system, the galaxy, even eating a Galaxy. We will like it, we will be addicted to it and at any given moment it will seem slightly better than reality – or R as we might call it. We will think it’s brilliant, but it will make us sad.

Because, mundane though it is, the chocolate Galaxy option is probably not actually on the near horizon. Our eyes and ears are good ways of getting stuff into our brains so, while we have screens and headphones, flying through space is no problem. But the feeling of eating a humble chocolate bar – the taste, the texture and the release of happy chemicals to our brains – is way off. In digital, we often underestimate the importance of real, tangible experiences and how much we humans long to interact with the world through all of our senses.

The Amazon dash button is a small, branded tab that lets you order stuff like washing powder just by pressing a gaudy stick-on button in your kitchen. And this isn’t just the beginning of brands turning us into nothing but obedient lab rats pressing a consume button for that small spurt of endorphins that will get us through the next 20 seconds of being alive. It’s about the fact that it’s actually quite refreshing to see a real, chunky, physical button. Something you can actually feel.

Not long ago I went to a lecture by Bill Verplank, the father of interactive design; in fact he coined the phrase. During his talk he made the poignant observation that as interfaces have developed over the years, they have got ever closer to our most basic ways of processing information. Starting with text, morphing into symbols and now to touch – the very same stages of experiencing the world we all go through as we grow into adults, but in reverse. A directional pull that Verplank would say is inevitable.

For years we have used metaphors in digital design for things like buttons. But sometimes the best button design has been staring us in the face – ie a real button. With the internet of things, digital businesses will have to start thinking more about the way real objects look and feel rather than resorting to cold graphics on a screen. They will need to consider a product’s weight, its texture, whether it’s solid or malleable. Product designers have of course done this forever.

Car manufacturers, for example, invest huge amounts of time and money into the sounds of the door shutting – that satisfying, reverberating thud. It’s this kind of heightened user experience – one that appeals to all the senses – that digital brands like Amazon are going to increasingly need to take into account when creating products or touch points to fully engage people. And they need to start getting it right.

Design has a chance to use technology to make the world feel magical. A bit more Mary Poppins and a bit less Minority Report. Real things with mystical abilities that don’t wear their ‘digitalness’ on their sleeve. After all when everything has an IP address it will be nothing to boast about.

This enchanting, imaginary future is a long way from a gaudy plastic button. But the Amazon dash button might just be an early step in a trend that could go either way. When every surface can be touch-sensitive, every window a screen or every utensil has a personality, it could be an absolute nightmare – or it could be magical. So let’s try to keep it classy.

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