What is this? From this page you can use the Social Web links to save Designing Meaningful Real-world Experiences to a social bookmarking site, or the E-mail form to send a link via e-mail.

Social Web


E-mail It
June 20, 2009

Designing Meaningful Real-world Experiences

Posted in: Observations

Editor’s note: This article was written for and originally published on Adobe’s XD blog, Inspire.

“Human beings need to touch, feel, show, share, and new technologies tend to cut them from such fundamental needs. It finally made an impact, and this is probably one of the main reasons behind the tiredness and rejection of technology you start to get from early adopters.” – Laurent Haug, The Early Adopters Crisis

The mobile landscape is finally changing. With smartphone penetration at 20%, the phone’s promise as a mini portable computer is being realized and we are increasingly using phones to virtually connect, often choosing text instead of voice; Facebook or Twitter over email. But, as our virtual interactions increase, a greater value is concurrently being placed on our real, physical connections. The most compelling applications will be those which infuse the virtual realm into our physical environment, creating synergies for tangible experiences and exchanges.

In the UK, postcard sales have risen by 30%. In 2007 Billboard reported a similar growth in vinyl record sales citing listeners desired a “warmer, richer” sound. Ranging from conference presentations at TED to a national Dentyne marketing campaign to “Make Face Time”, more and more people are “yearning for tangibility” according to the New York Times. Throughout history we are prone to backlash against our current realities. The grass is always greener somewhere else and nostalgia causes us to long for a seemingly happier, and in this case, more physically connected past. The answer is not to move away from technology, but rather to accept the current social challenge and design experiences which, as Renny Gleeson states, “make us more human, not less.”

How do we design meaningful tangible experiences? While I champion much of the philosophy behind MIT Media Lab and other related schools of thought, the results are still too farfetched to really meet our current social physical needs on a large scale. The answer isn’t to embed ordinary objects with technology, but rather to design our devices to encourage us to engage with our physical environments and each other. Contrary to many tangible media projects, the mobile phone is clearly identifiable as a technical device and it’s potential as a shared object has yet to be fully realized. Simple examples like pointing the phone outward to show someone a photo immediately creates a shared context resulting in a gratifying physical exchange. How can we push our existing personal devices to reach a whole new social level?

Let’s start with 5 principles we can follow. Like Adam Greenfield said in Everyware, “these principles are necessary but not sufficient: they constitute not an end, but a beginning.”

1 // Engagement creates a new shared experience

Social context and proximity of the device to other devices and people should drive the interaction. Culture is formed through “shared narratives”, not through individual exchanges. Punchcut’s Heckl Engine takes an individual’s mobile texts and tweets and projects it onto a public display. What was once a personal interchange is now a group dialogue, allowing everyone in the physical space to enjoy the resulting commentary.

2 // Helps people physically connect

There is no substitute for actually being there. According to John Thakara’s In the Bubble, being physically present allows your senses to take in 11 million bits/second of information. In contrast remote interactions only process 16 bits/second. Design technical experiences which help people get together. While the application Loopt has its challenges, the fundamental aim to create social interactions is becoming more and more socially relevant.

3 // Physical reality remains unchanged

The virtual aspect of our mobile lifestyle should add a new dimension to our physical reality. The work of Mac Funamizu, specifically the Future of Mobile Search series and Train Ceiling as Info Screen layers digital content onto our tangible and virtual surfaces without changing the underlying structures.

4 // Doesn’t compete for attention

Keep people grounded in the here and now. The internet has changed the way we consume information. We’re slowly losing the ability to process larger chunks of information due to too many competing information inputs. Help people stay present in their social contexts. One way to achieve this is by ensuring your technical solutions don’t add to the clutter by including non-intrusive, ambient displays.

5 // Emotional, not efficient

Design for HHI: Human Human Interaction. The Motorola research deparment has found that people are given more social points from friends for exchanges which require thought and effort, not those which are efficient. People are emotional beings. Designing group solutions which trigger an emotional response such as University of Leeds’ Dancing in the Streets or the pervasive Xbox 360’s Rock Band, will provide greater human and social value. As designers, we have the unique ability and responsibility to meet this growing desire for tangibility and to design applications which will compel users to engage with their physical surroundings.


Shilpa is an Associate Interaction Design Director at Punchcut.

Return to: Designing Meaningful Real-world Experiences