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This is the third in a series of three articles looking at the future of design for the patient experience. The first article was "Design for the Patient Experience", and the second was "Design for the Patient Experience: Health Axioms"

This week in our final article in this series, we'll examine some real world examples of software improving the patient experience. Each of these applications helps to address long-standing problems in American healthcare delivery from a patient perspective — in particular, lack of knowledge around personal health factors, pricing opacity, and billing confusion.

PatientsLikeMe
The PatientsLikeMe Web application contains a comprehensive registry of patients and their diseases, and is focused on recording and sharing real-world outcomes. PatientsLikeMe enables members to share their data — including condition, treatment, and symptom information — so that they can monitor their health over time and learn from each other. It compliments, but exists outside of the confines of the existing health system and doctor’s office, achieving a significant level of engagement with users and expanding the ecosystem of care. 

As users of PatientsLikeMe begin to more deeply understand the health issues associated with particular disease states, they can see recurring patterns and take action. Additionally, the data collected from the patient community can help clinical researchers to better understand a disease, ultimately leading to more effective treatments. The platform has about 200,000 users, covers more than 1,500 diseases, and has published more than 40 peer-reviewed research studies.

PatientsLikeMe UI

PatientsLikeMe enables users to share data and view the collective experiences of those who share their disease state.

hGraph
hGraph, an open source software tool for visualizing a patient’s complete range of health metrics, aggregates health data both on a personal and community level. It provides clinicians with at-a-glance analytics of a patient’s overall health, allowing doctors to spot patterns and red flags. hGraph works by comparing a person’s health data against targeted health ranges based on factors like age and gender. Metrics that appear red are either lower or higher than the “good health” range. The hScore is an overall, aggregated score of health (1-100) that represents a person’s health status, or grade. In this deceptively simple fashion hGraph enables the compilation and display of a considerable amount of information within a limited space.

Like PatientsLikeMe, hGraph encourages patient involvement in their own care, enabling them to better manage conditions and ultimately reduce visits to specialists and hospitals. hGraph is in use at corporate clinics for two Fortune 500 tech companies, and is being prototyped for use by a major retail pharmacy chain and next generation patient portals. 

hGraph Main Screen

hGraph shows all of a patient's health metrics in one picture.

Change Healthcare
The Change Healthcare platform is made up of a suite of tools for educating patients around healthcare costs — including prescriptions, medical procedures, and dental and vision services — with results that are based on an individual's plan, network, and location. As national healthcare costs have risen, so too have the costs that employers, workers, and even the retired and unemployed must bear. Co-pays, deductibles, and out-of-pocket expenses are up. Transparency in pricing enables better decision making, as patients can not be informed consumers if the costs of healthcare services remain hidden.

Change Healthcare’s cost lookup tool features pricing matched for the user's location, insurance plan design, and network; a view of total cost, member cost, and plan cost; and quality ratings sourced from public and private data. According to the company, the cost transparency software tool supplies the expected costs for more than 81% of medical services and more than 75% of prescriptions used by its client population.

The New Frontier of Patient Experience
If PatientsLikeMe, hGraph, and the Change Healthcare platform provide prime examples of how software is playing a huge role the patient experience of healthcare, it’s worth remembering that these services are, to varying degrees, still in their earliest stages. The current American healthcare system, with its structural roots dating back to the early 20th century, is unwieldy and burdened at best.

If we are to re-balance that system with an equal weight to the patient experience, it will take continued evolution of healthcare policy, mass adoption of these types of software systems, and practical, forward-looking steps like interoperability and standardization of EHR data. It remains unclear how the US will find a way forward in the debate over healthcare, but we should expect the patient experience to play a crucial role.

Designing for Healthcare
Have a healthcare design project you'd like help with? We'd love to hear from you.

Interested in further exploring the topic of design and healthcare? Have a look at some of our case studies, publications, and podcasts:

Case Studies
3M / Coderyte
Mount Sinai Hospital Icahn Institute
Partners HealthCare Gene Insight
Numera Health

Publications
Health Axioms
Inspired EHRs

Podcasts

Health_Station

This is the second in a series of three articles looking at the future of design for the patient experience. The first article was "Design for the Patient Experience." 

In the first part of this series, we discussed the myriad problems with the patient experience — from long wait times at the doctor's office, to confusion over billing for patients, to lack of knowledge of personal health factors.

The entire American healthcare system needs to evolve to better serve patients — shifting to non-invasive personal diagnostics, highly specialized clinicians that work closely with patients and their families, and self-monitoring, self-empowered patients. Design for such an experience requires an approach that takes into account not just the clinical environment, but also the larger health and wellness ecosystem that encompasses people's day-to-day lives.

At Involution Studios, our design philosophy for the patient experience — honed over a decade working with clients like Mount Sinai Hospital, Partners HealthCare, and Walgreens — is articulated, at least in part, in our Health Axioms, which have been featured on NPR, Patient Safety and Quality Healthcare (PSQH), and Health Populi. These axioms speak to critical areas of patient engagement, adherence, and clinical design, and are meant to inspire and support a healthy lifestyle outside of the health system and doctor's office.

Consider the full ecosystem
When designing for the patient experience, it's easy to get trapped into thinking that a solution set needs to exist within the confines of the existing health system. But the revolution in mHealth and sensor technology is making it possible to achieve greater patient engagement outside of the traditional confines of the doctor's office. For instance, a wearable device can help patients understand health issues, see patterns, and take action. Smartphone apps can track data, vital signs, and health habits, like sleep or nutrition.

In the future, technology will further expand our patient experience ecosystem. We'll use personal technologies even more to monitor micro changes in the body and fine tune medication, diet, exercise, and doctor's visits. Scientists will use patient-generated data for population studies on disease and treatment. Sensors, cameras, and a built-in touch screen will put health data at our fingertips — for example, heart rate or medication instructions — helping the sick get better and the well stay healthy.

The Doctor Is In Your Pocket

mHealth and wearables make up a powerful extended ecosystem for the patient experience.

Increase transparency
A patient's health habits and decisions are partially based on the information they receive. When doctors, hospitals, and labs give patients easy access to health data, they can act more knowledgeably. It's not enough to open the file cabinet; the healthcare system must exploit technologies that make getting and using  data more seamless with other tasks, like goal-setting, fitness-tracking, and calorie budgeting.

In a similar fashion, revealing costs also enables better decision making around healthcare. As national healthcare costs have risen, so have the costs that employers, workers, and even the retired and unemployed must bear. Co-pays, deductibles, and out-of-pocket expenses are up. Patients can not be informed consumers, if the costs of healthcare remain hidden. 

Give Me My Data

Transparency in both health metrics and cost leads to better decision making around health.

Encourage patient engagement
When patients are involved in their own care, they manage conditions better, and they need fewer visits to specialists and hospitals and fewer tests. For instance, patients who search online for health and medical information tend to trust their doctors and be better prepared for the visit. Whenever possible, designers should provide mechanisms encouraging patient engagement through education, reminders and alerts, and even gamification.

Let Patients Help

Patient engagement is critical to improving long-term outcomes.

Incremental steps are key to behavior change
Health behaviors are interconnected. A combination of small steps can lead to big changes like improved nutrition, greater activity, and more motivation. For instance, a small change in one area, like cutting down on TV time, can trigger changes in other areas, like diet.

When designing for behavior change, the optimal approach involves two small changes at a time, jump-started over a few weeks. If the patient can stick with them for six weeks, the amount of time needed to form a habit, they can add two more.

Take Baby Steps

Small steps build into healthy habits.

Next week we'll examine some real world software and technology examples of ways to improve the patient experience. Join us!

Designing for Healthcare
If you're interested in further exploration of this topic, you might want to check out:
Health Reform 2.0: Envisioning a Patient Centered System
Health, Technology, and Design

Health_Station

This is the first in a series of three articles looking at the future of design for the patient experience.

US Healthcare in Transition
The American healthcare system is out of balance: We spend too much and get too little for our hard-earned dollars. 

Recent headlines have touted the fact that the growth of healthcare spending in the United States is actually slowing. This is according to a report published by Medicare in the journal Health Affairs in December 2014, which indicates that in 2013 healthcare spending grew by just 3.6% — the lowest year-to-year increase ever. But we need only dig a little deeper to discover that the overall news is far from rosy. According to that same Medicare report, healthcare spending is projected to grow 1.1% faster than the rest of the economy during 2013- 2023, with its share of the GDP rising from 17.2% in 2012 to 19.3% in 2023.

We certainly know how to spend money on healthcare, but what does it really buy us? According to a July 2014 report from The Commonwealth Fund healthcare think tank, not nearly enough. The 2014 update to its report "Mirror, Mirror, on the Wall", which rates healthcare across a variety of metrics — including quality, access, and efficiency — shows the United States lagging its 10 industrialized nation peers, while spending 50% more per capita than its closest competitor, Norway.

Healthcare Rankings

National healthcare rankings from The Commonwealth Fund

Healthcare administration certainly has our attention at a national policy level, contributing to polarizing partisan debate over the ACA. But the key to re-balancing the US healthcare delivery system and making progress toward reducing future costs, may lie in better understanding not its administration or even clinical care — while these both are important — but rather, the day-to-day needs of its patients.

Patient Experience as an Equal Factor
In software and other fields focused on the delivery of products and services, accepted best practice dictates that user experience, business and engineering play roughly equal roles. Each contributes to the bottom line and no one piece can really thrive without the other two. Conversely, in healthcare, while it may not be radical to say that the patient experience should have equal weight with the administrative / business and clinical factors, that view is far away from seeing real execution. 

Health is one of just a few universal human needs: From the moment we're born to the moment we die, our health is at the forefront of our lives. Despite this inherent importance, the American system remains reactionary rather than proactive. From a service perspective, a quick survey of healthcare delivery reveals a system that first prioritizes the administrative and business aspects, and second clinical care, with the patient experience and patient / provider relationship placing a distant third.

Complex organizations, processes and systems combine to form what can only be described as an intimidating problem set. However, the bevy of problems from a patient-centric perspective are long standing and well known. For instance, long wait times at the doctor's office and long lead times for specialists are commonplace. Insurance-gated care translates into confusion over billing for patients and caregivers with little to no transparency into what procedures actually cost. Technology increases friction instead of flow, and does not facilitate better outcomes. It's no surprise that the overall healthcare experience from a patient perspective, to put it mildly, feels unfriendly and cold.

Add to this, on the patient side, a cultural bias toward lack of personal health responsibility coupled with little knowledge of personal health factors, and its little wonder that American healthcare delivery is overburdened.

If we desire better care, quality clinical experiences and good clinical outcomes for patients, we must contemplate designing for a complete patient experience — from process to system to built environment — that emphasizes usability, functionality, and even beauty. We must also find ways to measure and analyze the quality of experience over time, building upon and enhancing existing quality of care and quality of life metrics.

In this three-part blog series we'll examine the complex problem set contributing to patient experience, design approaches for improving it, and some real world examples from a software and technology perspective of attempts to improve it. Join us next week for part two. 

Health_Jam_Ideas

Ideas for health prototype candidates

Designing for Healthcare
If you're interested in further exploration of this topic, you might want to check out:
Health Reform 2.0: Envisioning a Patient Centered System
Health, Technology, and Design

Health_Station

Greetings from the interwebs.

Dan W: Touring the showroom for the Pacific Trash Vortex

yiwu-stuff

It’s not too early to be thinking about large-scale consumerism, is it? This is simultaneously fascinating (logistically, architecturally, etc.) and depressing (for humanity, wasteful consumerism, etc.).

Toyota Mirai Fuel Cell Sedan

toyota_fuel-cell

The Invo team all got to see the Toyota hydrogen car at PopTech, but the windows were tinted so that no-one could see the interior. Now everyone gets a look.

The mathematician who proved why hipsters all look alike

hipster_math

As a solid mid-Boomer, I found this piece especially interesting. My older brother went to Bard College, wore his hair past his shoulders and laced-up Fryes, yet he carried the WSJ all over campus. Who knew there were contratrian neurons?

Highlights from this week

Yesterday we posted The Digital Life: UX Maturity, which extends the discussion presented in our 6-week article series.

On Wednesday we posted part 1 of the UX Maturity series, “Intuition.”

Monday’s Around the Studio gave an update on the global travels of the Graphic Advocacy poster exhibit.

yiwu_hallway

Because I’ve been a little slow learning to use Slack, I realized today that I missed some awesome links being shared around the studio and across the country. Here they are.

MakerBot Ghostly Vinyl Challenge

makerbot-challenge

If you know what an LP is...or a turntable?

Design a printable, win a 3D printer! All for the love of vinyl. (Thanks, Ben Listwon!)

Pixelapse

pixelapse

Pixelapse is a visual version control and collaboration platform for designers.

A recent Slack convo:

Ben: Has anyone tried out Pixelapse?

Eric: Way back I signed up for it, but noticed the link going around again pushing more github for designers. I see it supports Indesign and Sketch.

Ben: The visual versioning and diff support might be nice (or horrible).

Eric: The concept of it is nice..... stop me from duping the file a zillion times to version it myself.

Ben: At the very least it might make a super cool time lapse video. Or some neat graphs.

You get the picture. Have you tried it? WDYT?

“Design Education is Tragic” in Dezeen

Jonathan-Ive_Design-Museum_Photograph-Andy-Tyler_dezeen_468_1

Photograph by Andy Tyler.

Apple’s head designer Jonathan Ive says he struggles to hire young staff as schools are failing to teach them how to make products. “So many of the designers that we interview don't know how to make stuff, because workshops in design schools are expensive and computers are cheaper.” Makes us feel good about our Make Things philosophy.

The Wood Whisperer

Draped-Plywood-2-detail

So, for the weekend, your homework is to think about making things. Start with Harry Roseman's lovely Draped and Folded Plywood for inspiration.

Plink

plink2

And if you are all finished with your homework, try Plink. Even if you think you aren’t musical, you will be!

Highlights from this week:

Episode 77 of The Digital Life: Designing for Ecosystems looks at the future of design for ecosystems—be it your body, your living room, your car or even your bathroom—as designers begin to consider how digital and physical products come together with the Internet of Things.

On Wednesday we introduced a new series on User Experience Maturity.

Monday’s Around the Studio took one last look at the Invo Pop!Tech18 experience.

slack-integrations

This is the final article in a series of six looking at the future of experience design for emerging technologies. The first five Future of Design articles were: Emerging TechnologiesGenomics and Synthetic BiologyRobotics, the IoT, and 3D Printing / Additive Fabrication.

We are currently undergoing a period of technological advancement that will alter the way we live our lives in nearly every way, similar to the Second Industrial Revolution in America — when inventions from electric power to the automobile first became prominent, helping to shape our modern existence. Over the coming decades, there is little that humans can imagine that we won't be able to do — from printing replacement organs to hacking our DNA, to embedding computers in our bodies. The fantastic vision of science fiction today will become the reality of tomorrow.

We need experience design to help frame our interactions with emerging technologies that are already racing ahead of our ability to process and manage them on an emotional, ethical, and societal level. Experience design will be a critical to tie the technology to human use. For those asking "How can we do this?" designers must counter, "Why and for whose benefit?".

Whether we're struggling with our fear and loathing in reaction to genetically altered foods, the moral issues of changing a child's traits to suit a parent's preferences, the ethics guiding battlefield robots, or the societal implications of a 150-year extended lifetime, it's abundantly clear that the future of experience design will be to envision humanity's relationship to technology and each other.

It's worth considering that when the World Wide Web first began to become mainstream in the mid-1990s, there was little agreement around how design should intersect with it, the emerging technology of the time. Today, we have interaction designers, usability experts, visual designers, and front-end coders — a wide array of sub-practices that cater to very specific areas of digital creation.

To compete in the future then, designers must draw our inspiration from technological fields we’ve never before considered, and break down boundaries to create experiences that are beautiful and humane. If you’re a designer interested in a multi-disciplinary practice, are flexible in your outlook, and accepting of complexity and dissonant ideas, you will do well in the coming technological sea change — perhaps as a human-robot interaction designer or a system biologist for artificial organisms or whatever cross-pollinated mix of careers comes about.

Drone_Tech_Talk

Daniel Drucker gives an emerging tech talk at Involution Studios on Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), more commonly referred to as drones.

In his essay “The Hedgehog and the Fox” writer and philosopher Isaiah Berlin describes two types of thinkers. Those people who excel in a multivariate environment, looking at many different things and approaching each situation in a new way, Berlin refers to as “foxes”. Those who want to focus on only one thing, who seek orderly specialization, he calls “hedgehogs”.

The future of UX design is likely to favor the fox. Designers are beginning to look beyond the screen, to the rich world of interactions and user experiences to be created for technologies ranging from the Internet of Things to robotics to additive fabrication to synthetic biology. We can imagine new areas of design practice, emerging from a multi-disciplinary brew of biology, computer science, and human factors.

Arduino_Class

Ben Salinas conducts a workshop on prototyping with Arduino for designers at Involution.

Designing for Emerging Technologies
If you're interested in further exploration of this topic, check out "Designing for Emerging Technologies", coming from O'Reilly Media this December, a project on which I was honored to serve as editor. In this book, you will discover 20 essays, from designers, engineers, scientists and thinkers, exploring areas of fast-moving, ground breaking technology in desperate need of experience design — from genetic engineering to neuroscience to wearables to biohacking — and discussing frameworks and techniques they've used in the burgeoning practice area of UX for emerging technologies.

The article header image is an algortithmically generated artwork, created especially for the "Designing for Emerging Technologies" project by Seth Hunter. 

Sparse_03

This is the fifth in a series of six articles looking at the future of experience design for emerging technologies — including the Internet of Things, robotics, genomics / synthetic biology, and 3D printing / additive fabrication. The first four Future of Design articles were: Emerging TechnologiesGenomics and Synthetic BiologyRobotics and the IoT.

Additive fabrication—more popularly known as 3D printing—is a process of creating a three-dimensional object by printing one miniscule layer at a time, based on a computer model. This flexible technology can use a wide variety of substrates including plastic, metal, glass, and even biological material. Custom production using additive manufacturing techniques promises to disrupt many industries, from construction to food to medicine. Possibilities for this technology range from immediately practical applications such as printing new parts just-in-time to fix a broken appliance; to controversial, uncomfortable realities, including generating guns on demand; to hopeful and futuristic methods, perhaps the ability to create not just viable human tissue, but complete, working organs, which could be used in transplants or for the testing of new drugs and vaccines.

Disrupting the Construction Industry
Today, additive fabrication is already changing architecture and construction. In April 2014, WinSun, a Chinese engineering company, reported that it can construct 10 single-story homes in a day by using a specialized 3D printing technology that creates the main structure and walls using an inexpensive combination of concrete and construction waste materials.

WinSun 3D Printed House

The walls of this house were constructed using a massive construction-grade 3D printer. (Photo courtesy WinSun.)

Changing Healthcare
In the field of health, the work of roboticist Easton LaChapelle represents the change made possible by additive fabrication in medical-device prototyping and production processes. The 17-year-old wunderkind has created an ultra-light, fully functioning prosthetic arm whose parts can be 3D-printed for about $500. Traditionally manufactured prosthetic arms that are currently available can cost upward of $80,000. LaChapelle’s prosthetic arm is controlled using an EEG headset, which measures brainwaves and communicates with the arm wirelessly via Bluetooth.

At the Business Innovation Factory BIF9 conference in Providence, Rhode Island, held in September 2013, LaChapelle demonstrated his invention and discussed his amazing progression through the design and prototyping phases. The first generation of the product LaChappelle created was a robotic hand, made of Lego bricks, surgical tubing, and five servo motors. He created the second-generation robotic arm by using 3D-printed parts and a Nintendo Power Glove. Now in its third generation, the arm is made almost entirely of 3D-printed parts, and most dramatic of all, it has human strength. While LaChapelle has not made the leap from prototype to a manufacture-ready device, it’s easy to imagine the potential for disruption in the market it represents.


 

A Revolution in Prototyping
From a process standpoint, LaChappelle’s methods in designing and engineering the prosthetic demonstrate the speed at which ideas can move from a designer’s imagination to becoming something real and testable. Even though prototyping has always been a part of the designer’s toolkit, additive fabrication makes it possible to apply the same rapid and flexible process of ideation, creation, testing, validation, and iteration to physical products that used to be reserved for the realm of digital development.

Designing for Emerging Technologies
If you're interested in further exploration of this topic, check out "Designing for Emerging Technologies", coming from O'Reilly Media this December, a project on which I was honored to serve as editor. In this book, you will discover 20 essays, from designers, engineers, scientists and thinkers, exploring areas of fast-moving, ground breaking technology in desperate need of experience design — from genetic engineering to neuroscience to wearables to biohacking — and discussing frameworks and techniques they've used in the burgeoning practice area of UX for emerging technologies.

The article header image is an algortithmically generated artwork, created especially for the "Designing for Emerging Technologies" project by Seth Hunter. 

Sparse_03

This is the fourth in a series of six articles looking at the future of experience design for emerging technologies — including the Internet of Things, robotics, genomics / synthetic biology, and 3D printing / additive fabrication. The first three Future of Design articles were: Emerging TechnologiesGenomics and Synthetic Biology, and Robotics.

The IoT is popular shorthand which describes the many objects that are outfitted with sensors and communicating machine-to-machine. These objects make up our brave, new connected world. The types and numbers of these devices are growing by the day, to a possible 50 billion objects by 2020, according to the Cisco report, “The Internet of Things: How the Next Evolution of the Internet Is Changing Everything.” Inexpensive sensors providing waves of data can help us gain new insight into the places in which we live, work, and play, as well as the capabilities to influence our surroundings—passively and actively—and have our surroundings influence us. We can imagine the possibilities of a hyper-connected world in which hospitals, factories, roads, airways, offices, retail stores, and public buildings are tied together by a web of data.

In a similar fashion, when we wear these sensors on our bodies, they can become our tools for self-monitoring. Combine this capability with information delivery via Bluetooth or other communication methods and display it via flexible screens, and we have the cornerstones of a wearable technology revolution that is the natural partner and possible inheritor of our current smartphone obsession. If we consider that the systems, software, and even the objects themselves will require design input on multiple levels, we can begin to see the tremendous opportunity resident in the IoT and wearables.

Increasingly, designers will also need to be system thinkers. As we begin considering technologies like the IoT, wearables and connected environments, the design of the ecosystem will be just as important as the design of the product or service itself.

A good example of such a product is Mimo, a next-generation baby-monitoring service that goes far beyond the usual audio and video capabilities in soothing the anxieties of new parents. A startup company led by a group of MIT engineering grads called Rest Devices has created an ingenious baby “onesie.” It’s a connected product that delivers a stream of data including temperature, body position, and respiration information, ensuring that mom and dad are fully versed in the minutiae of their offspring. What at first glance might seem like the enablement of over-parenting paranoia, could, in fact, also provide valuable scientific data, particularly given that crib death or SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome) is a phenomenon that is still not fully understood.

The Mimo baby monitor from Rest Devices

The Mimo baby monitor from Rest Devices allows parents to get real-time audio and insights about their baby’s sleep activity, on their smartphones, from anywhere in the world.

From a design perspective, a company such as Rest Devices has a range of needs typical of those startups in the budding wearable technologies industry. The onesie itself must be designed for both functional and aesthetic elements—a mixture of industrial design for the “turtle” on-body device which houses the sensor and the fashion design of the garment itself. The mobile software application that provides the data interface requires interaction design and visual design—not to mention the UX design of the total system, which must be optimized for setup and navigation by nervous parents. Whether one person or many provide these different design skills for Rest Devices, it’s clear that at every point at which people touch the technology, there is ample opportunity for the interaction to be carefully examined and optimized in relation to the entire ecosystem. In this way the Mimo is a good example of the first wave of wearable technology.

Like the Nike+ Fuelband, the Fitbit, and even the Recon heads-up ski display, these wearables represent technology embedded into the infrastructure of our lives in a way never before seen. But the magic of the consumer experience of these products is only possible through the design of a complete, and hopefully seamless, ecosystem.

Nike_Fuelband

The Nike+ Fuelband and accompanying mobile application represent a first wave of technology embedded into the infrastructure of our lives.

Designing for Emerging Technologies
If you're interested in further exploration of this topic, check out "Designing for Emerging Technologies", coming from O'Reilly Media this December, a project on which I was honored to serve as editor. In this book, you will discover 20 essays, from designers, engineers, scientists and thinkers, exploring areas of fast-moving, ground breaking technology in desperate need of experience design — from genetic engineering to neuroscience to wearables to biohacking — and discussing frameworks and techniques they've used in the burgeoning practice area of UX for emerging technologies.

The article header image is an algortithmically generated artwork, created especially for the "Designing for Emerging Technologies" project by Seth Hunter. 

Sparse_03

This is the third in a series of six articles looking at the future of experience design for emerging technologies — including the Internet of Things, robotics, genomics / synthetic biology, and 3D printing / additive fabrication. The first two articles were: The Future of Design: UX for Emerging Technologies and The Future of Design: UX for Genomics and Synthetic Biology.

More so than any other emerging technology, robotics has captured the imagination of American popular culture, especially that of the Hollywood sci-fi blockbuster. We’re entertained, enthralled, and maybe (but only slightly) alarmed by the legacy of Blade Runner, The Terminator, The Matrix and any number of lesser dystopian robotic celluloid futures. It remains to be seen if robot labor generates the kind of negative societal, economic, and political change depicted in the more pessimistic musings of our culture’s science fiction. Ensuring that it does not is a design challenge of the highest order. We must seek to guide our technology, rather than just allow it to guide us.

In the near term, robots are ideal for taking care of jobs that are repetitive, physically demanding, and potentially hazardous to humans. There are immediate, significant opportunities for using advanced robotics in energy, health, and manufacturing. Designers working in robotics will need to help identify the major challenges in these areas and seek proactive solutions — not an obvious or easy task. 

We can see an example of these major challenges in the tragic events of the Fukushima meltdown. On March 11, 2011, a 9.0 magnitude earthquake and subsequent tsunami damaged the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear reactors in Japan. Over the course of 24 hours, crews tried desperately to fix the reactors. However, as, one by one, the back-up safety measures failed, the fuel rods in the nuclear reactor overheated, releasing dangerous amounts of radiation into the surrounding area. As radiation levels became far too high for humans, emergency teams at the plant were unable to enter key areas to complete the tasks required for recovery. Three hundred thousand people had to be evacuated from their homes, some of whom have yet to return.

The current state of the art in robotics is not capable of surviving the hostile, high-radiation environment of a nuclear power plant meltdown and dealing with the complex tasks required to assist a recovery effort. In the aftermath of Fukushima, the Japanese government did not immediately have access to hardened, radiation-resistant robots. A few robots from American companies—tested on the modern battlefields of Afghanistan and Iraq—including iRobot’s 710 Warrior and PackBot were able to survey the plant.  The potential for recovery-related tasks that can and should be handled by advanced robotics is far greater than this. However, for many reasons, spanning political, cultural, and systemic, before the Fukushima event, an investment in robotic research was never seriously considered. The meltdown was an unthinkable catastrophe, one that Japanese officials thought could never happen, and as such, it was not even acknowledged as a possible scenario for which planning was needed.

Soldier with Packbot

An explosive ordnance disposal technician with the PackBot. U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Jhi L. Scott. This image was released by the United States Navy with the ID 090310-N-7090S-001.

The Fukushima catastrophe inspired the United States Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to create the Robotics Challenge, the purpose of which is to accelerate technological development for robotics in the area of disaster recovery. Acknowledging the fragility of our human systems and finding resilient solutions to catastrophes—whether it’s the next super storm, earthquake, or nuclear meltdown—is a problem on which designers, engineers, and technologists should focus.

In the DARPA competition mission statement, we can see the framing of the challenge in human terms.

History has repeatedly demonstrated that humans are vulnerable to natural and man-made disasters, and there are often limitations to what we can do to help remedy these situations when they occur. Robots have the potential to be useful assistants in situations in which humans cannot safely operate, but despite the imaginings of science fiction, the actual robots of today are not yet robust enough to function in many disaster zones nor capable enough to perform the most basic tasks required to help mitigate a crisis situation. The goal of the DRC is to generate groundbreaking research and development in hardware and software that will enable future robots, in tandem with human counterparts, to perform the most hazardous activities in disaster zones, thus reducing casualties and saving lives. 

The competition, so far, has been successful in its mission to encourage innovation in advanced robotics. In the competition trials held in December 2013, robots from MIT, Carnegie Mellon, and the Google-owned Japanese firm, Schaft, Inc., competed at a variety of tasks related to disaster recovery, which included driving cars, traversing difficult terrain, climbing ladders, opening doors, moving debris, cutting holes in walls, closing valves, and unreeling hoses.

Schaft Robot

The Schaft, Inc. robot completing a task in the DARPA robotics competition.

The gap between the problems we face as a species and the seemingly unlimited potential of technologies ripe for implementation begs for considered but agile design thinking and practice. Designers should be problem identifiers, not just problem solvers searching for a solution to a pre-established set of parameters.We are on the cusp of a new technological age, saddled with the problems of the previous one, demanding that as we step forward we do not make the same mistakes. To do this, we must identify the right challenges to take on: the significant and valuable ones. Because this is where emerging technologies, like robotics, can have their greatest impact.

Designing for Emerging Technologies
If you're interested in further exploration of this topic, check out "Designing for Emerging Technologies", coming from O'Reilly Media this December, a project on which I was honored to serve as editor. In this book, you will discover 20 essays, from designers, engineers, scientists and thinkers, exploring areas of fast-moving, ground breaking technology in desperate need of experience design — from genetic engineering to neuroscience to wearables to biohacking — and discussing frameworks and techniques they've used in the burgeoning practice area of UX for emerging technologies.

The article header image is an algortithmically generated artwork, created especially for the "Designing for Emerging Technologies" project by Seth Hunter. 

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This is the second in a series of six articles looking at the future of experience design for emerging technologies — including the Internet of Things, robotics, genomics / synthetic biology, and 3D printing / additive fabrication. The first article was The Future of Design: UX for Emerging Technologies.

The greatest design challenges of this century may not be found in the bits and bytes of the digital world, but rather in the realm of nature itself. We are only at the very beginnings of understanding what it means to modify DNA, the code of life.

In 2003, the publicly funded Human Genome Project sequenced the entirety of our DNA, providing the blueprint for building a human being at a price of $3 billion. President Clinton, announcing the working draft sequence of the Human Genome in 2000, said: “Without a doubt, this is the most important, most wondrous map ever produced by human kind.”

Fast forward just over a decade, and the cost of sequencing a human genome has dropped to roughly $1,000 — an exponential reduction in price far exceeding what Moore’s Law would predict. A host of companies are racing to introduce technology to make even more rapid and inexpensive sequencing possible. With the widespread affordability of this sophisticated test quickly becoming reality, genomics can provide the map for a new wave of personalized therapies — highly targeted drugs for fighting cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and other hereditary illnesses. 

Human Genome Printout

The human genome transcribed into more than a hundred volumes. Each book is a thousand pages long, written in type so tiny it can hardly be read. Photo by Russ London. License: CC-BY-SA-3.0

As with genome sequencing, the price of DNA synthesis continues to drop. It is now 25 cents per base pair or less via services like GenScript, DNA 2.0, and others. Writing the code of life is the cornerstone of the science of synthetic biology — the intentional design and engineering of biological systems — that will make incredible things possible. George Church, geneticist, Harvard professor, and perhaps the most well-known scientist in this field, in his book “Regenesis”, outlines some of the inventive solutions offered by this future potential, including bio-fuels, targeted gene therapies, and even virus-resistant human beings. In Church’s expansive vision, we see a future where humans have the capability to design and change the fabric of biology and human evolution.

A Multi-Disciplinary Approach
The challenges inherent in genomics and synthetic biology are far too great for an individual to encompass the requisite cross-domain knowledge. For this kind of work, then, the team will become paramount. It is a multi-disciplinary mix of scientists, engineers, and designers that will be best positioned to understand and leverage these technologies — and it is crucial that these creative disciplines evolve together. From such collaborations new roles will be created — perhaps we will soon see a great need for the synthetic biological systems engineer.

This cross-pollination of science, design, and engineering is already happening at organizations like the Wyss Institute at Harvard, whose mission is to develop materials and devices inspired by nature and biology. The Wyss structures itself around multi-disciplinary teams. Forward-thinking design firms are adding synthetic biology to their established practices of industrial and digital design.

As an example of this cross-pollination, in a presentation, “Life is what you make it,” given at a Friday Evening Discourse at The Royal Institution of Great Britain in London, esteemed scientist and Imperial College professor Paul Freemont described how biological design could take its cues from computer software engineering, using an abstraction hierarchy for biological design. In the design of complex systems, an abstraction hierarchy allows engineers to focus on solving the problems at hand, because they don't necessarily need to understand the complexity of the lower levels of the hierarchy. In software development, for example, engineers can code in Java or C++ and not need to understand the machine-level code that ultimately executes the program. In the coming revolution in biological design, such an abstraction hierarchy will allow bio-engineers to operate similarly. 

While programming may be an apt analogy for that manipulation of nature, there are fundamental differences between the writing of computer code and genetic code. Even if we know the outcome of the genetic code we write, the environment into which it is released is far more complex then the controlled operating system of a computer or mobile device. There is so much unknown about biological systems that prototyping and testing will be critical steps for responsible innovation. While designers won’t necessarily need to become genetic engineers to contribute to the field of synthetic biology, we’ll need to understand the materials just as deeply. 

Innovative designers like Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg and Daan Roosegaarde are already incorporating synthetic biology into their forward-looking projects that run the gamut from bacteria that change color to indicate the presence of toxins in our gut, through our fecal matter to glowing trees to light our streets and highways. 

To find our way forward as designers, we must be willing to take risks — relying upon a combination of our education, experience, and intuition — which can be key to innovation. We must always keep in mind both the benefits and consequences for people using these new technologies, and be prepared for mixed results.

Light_Emitting_Tree

Studio Roosegaarde's visualization of a light-emitting tree with a bio-luminescent coating, as seen on Dezeen.com.

Designing for Emerging Technologies
If you're interested in further exploration of this topic, check out "Designing for Emerging Technologies", coming from O'Reilly Media this December, a project on which I was honored to serve as editor. In this book, you will discover 20 essays, from designers, engineers, scientists and thinkers, exploring areas of fast-moving, ground breaking technology in desperate need of experience design — from genetic engineering to neuroscience to wearables to biohacking — and discussing frameworks and techniques they've used in the burgeoning practice area of UX for emerging technologies.

The article header image is an algortithmically generated artwork, created especially for the "Designing for Emerging Technologies" project by Seth Hunter. 

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