UX Magazine

Defining and Informing the Complex Field of User Experience (UX)
Article No. 588 December 6, 2010

Smart Things: Ubiquitous Computing User Experience Design

You can download and preview Chapter 6: "Information Shadows." UX Magazine is also running a giveaway for five copies of the book. If you'd like to purchase the book, visit the Elsevier science and technology bookstore.

Mundane objects around us are quietly getting a lot smarter, fundamentally changing how everyday products are designed. Anoto pens, Vocera communicators, Roombas, and Tickle Me Elmos are all computers at heart, but bear little resemble their word processor-running, DOOM-playing ancestors.

Thanks to Moore's Law, it is now nearly as easy (and cheap) to incorporate information processing into a mass-produced object as it is to create a custom, injection-molded plastic part. The capability to manipulate information and create behavior has become just a component of products, instead of the entire goal of digital product design. Soon, Internet-connectivity will be one of the standard options, like the choice of color or finish, in products such as bathroom scales and wireless sensors in running shoes. Parking meters that send alert messages before they expire will become as normal and expected as Bluetooth headsets, MP3 players, and Netflix streaming.

This movement towards computational objects that don't look like what people think of as being computers represents a fundamental shift in the design of technology. It blurs the edges between industrial design, product design, architecture, and interaction design. This trend has many names: pervasive computing, ambient intelligence, The Internet of Things, and others. I call it ubiquitous computing, the name Xerox PARC gave the trend in the late 1980s.

The success of Internet services on mobile phones demonstrates that networked products can stretch beyond a laptop browser. The prices for CPUs have fallen below a threshold where incorporating them becomes a competitively viable business decision. Research labs have developed new technologies for embedding information processing in virtually anything. New businesses, such as FitBit and Green Goose, are leveraging the advantage of processing being cheap enough to be included in almost anything.

The idea of a single, general-purpose "computation" device is fading into the same historical background as having a single steam engine to power a whole factory, or a single electric motor to power every appliance in a house. As it fades, designers and developers have to learn to design smart things that serve the interests, abilities, and needs of people.

This book mixes theory and history with practical techniques and extensively documented case studies of shipping products. I wrote it to start a dialog about what the practice of ubiquitous computing user experience design can be, and how it's different from, yet clearly related to, other design disciplines.

You can download and preview Chapter 6: "Information Shadows." UX Magazine is also running a giveaway for five copies of the book. If you'd like to purchase the book, visit the Elsevier science and technology bookstore.


User Profile

Mike Kuniavsky is the founder of ThingM, a ubiquitous computing design and development company. He is also the author of Observing the User Experience, and the new book Smart Things: Ubiquitous Computing UX Design, both available from Morgan Kaufmann Publishers.

Add new comment


Hello. I am doing little research about Computing. And I found Open Access ( free to download and share) book “Ubiquitous Computing”. The aim of this book is to give a treatment of the actively developed domain of Ubiquitous computing. In effect, Ubiquitous computing environments give extremely new and futuristic abilities to look at and interact with our habitat at any time and from anywhere. In that domain, researchers are confronted with many foundational, technological and engineering issues which were not known before. Take a look, book is very useful. You can found it here: http://www.intechopen.com/books/show/title/ubiquitous-computing Cheers!

Love these ideas and I hope I win the book... :)

What about bandwidth and network capabilities? When will the infrastructure be able to actually handle all these internet-ready devices?