Open Doors
  Who Is Who  

Amsterdam - 14, 15, 16 November 2002

Humanising Technology
Design interventions in
emerging technology companies

Ellie Runcie and Gill Wildman

The power of design to link technology to the latent needs of users in not fully appreciated by businesses. The result is failure to develop systems and solutions that connect with people, add value and succeed in the market. So in the short time available we would like to share some early insights with you from an exciting new project that will demonstrate the impact design can have in the development of emerging technologies.
At the Design Council we have embarked on a three year journey working directly with a group of nine early-stage, cutting-edge technology firms. We want to demonstrate how design can prevent the misuse of technology by intervening to ask ‘to what question are these technologies answers?’

Who’s involved?

We are bringing the businesses together with small teams of design, business and technology experts to help identify areas where design can intervene at early stages to drive the business forward…

Matt Marsh, Simon Williams, John Boult, Richard Bowles, Linda Rost, Oliver King, Chris Thompson, Richard Gregory, Mike Pearson, Jim Rait, Sean Devanne, Malcolm Garrett, Simon Thorpe, Nick Durrant, Fiona Raby, Irene McCara Mc Williams, Rachel Jones, Dorothy McKenzie, Yu Shuen, Andrew Diston, Chas Simms, Chris Duckworth, John Duckett, David Fisher, Phillip Joe, Lorna Ross.

…and as the project progresses over the next few years we want you to be part of this journey to understand how design can improve the process of commercialising science.

Be a part of the journey

Design as strategic business tool
This is about using designers to think with during critical pre-market stages of a technology, when decisions have to be made in terms of benefits of future applications – at this stage design is just as much a strategic business factor as investment and market research.
Persuasive techniques
How do you, as designers, engage technology businesses in the benefits of design at such early R&D stages when perhaps they only see it as bringing the science to life via a great looking prototype once they’re ready to commercialise?

The design challenge is that there are different approaches and techniques that can catch mistakes at the research stage, achieving early wins for a business. Great design may be perceived as expensive for a small business but it doesn’t cost nearly as much as when it is brought in too late in the process.

Share the learning
We will gather evidence of how design can assist in connecting real scientific breakthroughs with the values and needs in existing and future markets, and from this we’ll develop new, flexible processes and methodologies for other technology businesses. As a result they will understand the value of design and at which stages they should be design-led.

Capture knowledge
During the next three years we will be capturing new knowledge as a result of working with nine companies, tracking the progress they make in using design at pre-market stages. What works and most importantly, what fails, is important to share with other technology businesses and designers. The nine companies have committed to sharing this knowledge with us so that others can learn from their experience.

Trust worthy maps
As part of the process, the Design Council is working with each company to identify a set of design opportunities that are relevant to the vision and available resources of the business. We then develop trust worthy maps with the company so that they can navigate their way over the next three years as they integrate design at a much more strategic level, helping them to plan their future products and services, understand who their customers of the future might be and where they think there business should be in 3-5 years.

Design Council
The Design Council is the UK’s national authority on design. It inspires and enables the best use of design by business, education and government to improve prosperity and quality of life.
To enable others to use design effectively we run practical design demonstrations that show how design works in a variety of contexts, across business and public services. Humanising Technology is one of these demonstrations…

Design at it’s best communicates added value and in this context, serves to translate exciting scientific knowledge or ideas into future possibilities. It also facilitates the flow of communication within a business….

Design creates space for common language between disciplines.
One company we are working with is developing highly complex software for large businesses in the energy industry. The company moved from being knowledge consultants in the industry to developers of a new technology that will allow real time financial modelling. Even before they have a UI the small, highly specialised team realised that there was no shared representation of the technology and therefore different perceptions of the benefits it will bring. By developing metaphors for communicating the benefits of their technology to investors and future customers, they have also started to conduct deeper market research, through new methods, resulting in better informed decision making within the business.

(above) Just as important for businesses developing tech that’s far removed from end-users
The technology companies we are working with cover those developing end-user applications but also those developing component technologies, such as nanotechnology, that sits at the bottom of the food chain and will impact upon a complex value chain. Here design will be critical in helping to position the company as it forms strategic partnerships in researching and developing potential applications and future products using the technology.

(above) Tools we used….
To identify design opportunities we used tools that brought everyone in the business out from their specialised areas, into a common space of shared representation. In one particular case, a medical devices company, the design opportunities ranged from the specifics of styling a device to contain the technology, to the revolutionary opportunity of creating new markets within medical diagnostics.

Fuel cell
This company – a university spin out and developers of fuel cells – have a wonderful technology that outperforms the rest, however the market isn’t ready and may not be for a number of years. Through design input they realised their business had to be about creating the market by changing perceptions of power consumption. Design helped them to look beyond the ‘box’ to position the company in a global market delivering future power solutions to markets that are more ready than others…

Design as interface ….
“It’s what happens between the disciplines that matters”
Design is the bridge between the technology, the people developing and one day using it, and the direction of the business. We have followed this model to form small interdisciplinary teams to work with us and the nine companies to identify and roadmap design opportunities: as a strategic business tool, design decisions have to be made alongside those of investment, market, and technology, otherwise it will not become integrated.

"It's what happens between the disciplines that matters" [Colin Burns, IDEO Europe]

(above) Model showing our area of focus
Evidence we gathered suggests that the successful exploitation of emerging technology requires 3 phases:
· Science - discovery and definition of properties
· Application - discovery and definition of applications
· Commercialisation - discovery and definition of design responses to identified markets
Many young businesses make the leap from science to commercialisation without recognising how design can help them at the critical ‘application’ stage, partly as a result of the massive time and financial constraints. Technology push occurs at the design free ‘application’ stage, when a product is defined in the minds of the technology developers, in turn based on an understanding of markets as defined by traditional market research. The application stage should be a continuous model for design to identify and test possible applications for a technology before key decisions are made.

Here’s one we met earlier
We came across businesses who had begun pursuing the application of their technology within one major industry, yet through using design continuously at the application stage, they began developing more immediate products for completely different markets. Terfenol - D, an alloy of iron and two rare metals that changes shape in response to magnetic fields, was being developed by Newlands as a device that could harness the force created by this physical process to stimulate a foetus in order to manipulate it into the proper position for subsequent ultrasound scanning.

But by using design input at the applications stages they soon saw many other opportunities. Just under two years later, Hull-based Newlands now has its product on the market and selling well. It’s called Soundbug. It plugs into a personal stereo’s headphone socket and, via a suction pad, it attaches to rigid flat surfaces (table tops, windows etc) turning them into loudspeakers by translating the audio signal into vibration.
With this success the Newlands team is busy developing a string of other applications; further down the line is ‘ambient audio’ a surround sound technology to deliver discreet commentaries in exhibition environments, the first of which has been installed in the Minitram electric vehicle, unveiled to the press on 26 June at Althorp House (resting place of Princess Diana). Orange’s ‘at home’ project in Hatfield also features Newlands technology driving a glass ceiling with 5.1 DVD audio. Moving away from audio, they are also exploring applications within household products working with FMCG companies.

What are they like?
The nine companies we are working with are representative of thousands of young hi-tech companies around the UK: highly innovative, knowledge based businesses. They are involved in the development of display technology, artificial intelligence, fuel cells, software, medical devices and diagnostics and nanotechnology.
Covering a range of technologies that are predicted to enter mainstream markets between 18 months and 6 years, we will show design adding value to technologies at different stages of development – in many cases the technology works but the market isn’t ready for it.

The businesses are primarily research based, in most cases they have been established as university spin out companies and comprise of small, science-based teams.
The motivations of such companies tend to be the technology and what it can do. We want to show how design is the link between this motivation with the range of different uses based on identified needs in order to lead to their chances of success.

(above) Catch them when they’re young
We are working with small hi-tech companies between 0 and 2nd rounds of funding – typically under considerable financial and time constraints, but at this stage there is more of a chance they will grow into design-led businesses.
SMEs are significant to the UK economy….
Small businesses are economically significant – the UK Government maintains that to keep the growth rate of approximately 2% well into the future, almost half will need to be met by the successfully exploitation of emerging technologies.
If the UK contributes 4.5% of the world’s spend on science, produces 8% of the world’s scientific papers, we need to be better at translating this knowledge commercially, based on real needs in existing and future markets.

Design myopia
Most businesses in the emerging technology sector don’t need to be persuaded that design is important, but it is about getting the timing right during the early stages. The majority of smaller businesses don’t do this well and design is absent during the very stages that key strategic decisions are made about the company’s future.

Here’s another inspiring story…..

David Lussey discovered by chance a new form of ‘Quantum Tunnelling Composite’ (QTC), or in other words: ‘smart materials’. This material had many unusual properties: left untouched it’s an insulator, but pulled, pressed or twisted it becomes a conductor, and its various forms are among others; thick black ‘stuff’, nano-powders, or liquid. Overwhelmed by the myriad possibilities for such technology he began working with designers to help identify and test the credibility of the technology in potential future applications, in various contexts.

Bringing the technology to life in this way helped the company to attract major interest from organisations such as NASA who are testing the substance to use in space suits, with QTC ‘soft switches’ built into the fabric. Other potential uses for QTC include washable fabric computer keyboards, hospital bed sheets capable of detecting patients’ pressure spots and car seats that can relay information about the size and weight of a passenger to airbag mechanisms, causing them to activate safely and effectively.
Their first major commercial achievement came recently with Peratech and the Wool Research Organisation of New Zealand linking together to form a new company called ‘Softswitch’ – this new business has just developed the ‘plugged in Parka’ with Burton Snowboards which incorporates QTC within the fabric to control devices such as an MP3 player.
One of the things that struck Lussey most about his dealings with designers is the completely new thought processes that have been injected into Peratech’s almost exclusively science-based team.

Design intervenes during the flow between science and market in various ways:
It can contribute to building a more holistic vision of a business comprising mainly science-based teams; identify possible applications of emerging technology; connect these applications to user needs; demonstrate the credibility of new technology for investors, customers, suppliers and other partners; anticipate future market opportunities and trends.

UFO = Unwanted Feature Option
So with Humanising Technology we want to persuade and enable technology businesses to use design to connect more closely to the needs of the people that will eventually buy their products and services.
If businesses don’t use design to bridge the significant gap between scientific breakthrough and user needs then in future people will continue to experience close and very irritating encounters of the unusable kind.



updated Monday 31 March 2003
Address: Wibauthuis, Wibautstraat 3 • 1091 GH, Amsterdam
The Netherlands • T +31 20 596 3220 • F +31 20 596 3202
Doors of Perception 2002. We are happy for this text to be copied and distributed, as long as you include this credit: "From Doors of Perception: www.doorsofperception.com".
Want to send us your comments? Email desk@doorsofperception.com