Metaphorical refrigerators

Larry Irons · November 12, 2008 · Short URL:

Design challenges in ubiqutous computing

Whirlpool CentralPark ConnectionI've been meaning to write about Dan Saffer's Masters Thesis since reading it a couple of years ago. A recent post by Mike Kuniavsky provides an opportunity to do so. Also, it appears that Dan left his position at Adaptive Path to found Kicker Studio, a product design company. In The Role of Metaphor in Interaction Design, Dan noted that metaphors help users/customers understand new products and services by providing cues that orient and personify the experience of the familiar with the new. In other words, metaphors help us understand one thing in terms of another by highlighting similarities between the two, while at the same time implicitly recognizing differences. Dan also added that metaphors introduced to facilitate adoption of a new product can also limit its innovation in other ways. He specifically pointed to the Workspace is a Desktop metaphor, which conceptualizes the computer as an office tool primarily. I would add that the metaphor contributed to the myth of the paperless office by obscuring the differences between desktops and graphical user interfaces. Specifically, Dan contended that,
it could be argued that the desktop metaphor has hindered the development of ubiquitous computing as much as some hardware factors (p.22).
At the same time, he observed that the desktop metaphor was much more effective in gaining the widespread adoption of computers when compared to the previous metaphor, i.e. computers as programming environments. He recommended that whenever designers use a metaphor in a new product they need to begin with what is new, the subject of the metaphor, rather than what the metaphor refers to. In other words, don't force functionality into a metaphor. Use the metaphor to support a concept rather than the other way around. The point builds on the design principle of Cooper, Reiman, and Cronin in About Face 3.0 to, "Never bend your interface to fit a metaphor" (p. 279). Consider the recent set of observations about so-called intelligent refrigerators offered by Mike Kuniavsky.
Initially, the computer fridges were just tablet PCs stuck into the door of a conventional refrigerator. Why were they there? Who was going to be using it? How were they going to be used? No clue. And sure you could do all the stuff they advertised (listen to music, make a phone call) because you could do anything you could do on a laptop. ...Not until the most recent Whirlpool offering [centralpark Connection] does the idea of a computer fridge disappear entirely to be replaced by a series of functions that various modules can do. Each module is, of course, a computer, and every module can probably do the same functions as the other modules from a computational perspective. But that's not the point. The point is that the modules have different interfaces. They're different tools. Focused tools. Tools where the design uses a computer to help the user accomplish a task, just as they use waterproof plastic for the buttons and stainless steel for the shell.
I realize that the Internet of Things is all the rage these days, and the intelligent refrigerator fits into that overall movement in thinking about how to integrate computing ubiquitously into our environment. Nevertheless, refrigerators using ubiquitous computing technologies have yet to go beyond the desktop metaphor, though the new Whirlpool model Mike highlights is a move in that direction. "Custom choices will include satellite radio, a Web tablet with interactive message board and family calendar, a digital picture frame, a DVD/CD player and more." For example, the CEIVA digital picture frame attaches to the refrigerator. The CEIVA frame connects to the home wireless network and checks accounts for new photos. On the same design topic, Nicolas Nova observed that,
Giving “intelligence” to your fridge often corresponds to add new capabilities allowed by such technologies: internet browsing, fridge content scanning, automatic order over the internet to refill the fridge, etc...The role of context (spatial, social), practices and habits is very important to analyze regarding acceptance and usage of technologies since these different elements generally have direct or indirect influence on how people employ artifacts.

I agree with Nicolas' point regarding the importance of context in determining how to augment appliances with ubiquitous computing capabilities. On most refrigerators I've seen, pictures are distributed across the surface. Business cards of service providers (plumbers, electricians, fixer uppers, etc.), miscellaneous announcements, coupons, or gift cards are clipped into stacks with magnetic paper clips. The designers of the centralpark Connection appear to think that all these things attached to refrigerators by magnets are essentially so much physical clutter, replaceable by their digital equivalents such as the CEIVA frame. Designers of intelligent refrigerators would do well to think about how many paperless desks they've seen over the past decade or so. Tangible, visual artifacts found on refrigerator surfaces are worth considering in their context of use rather than assumed away as just so much clutter to replace with digital equivalents. People who adorn their refrigerators with photos might actually do so because they want them all available for viewing at the same time, rather than available for manipulation one at a time in digital form.

Whether people who use refrigerators want nice clean surfaces seems an open question. It is difficult to see how designers can integrate tangible media with refrigerators using ubiquitous computing , though the centralpark Connection makes a modest step in that direction. As Don Norman noted in The Design of Future Things, the Socio-Digital Systems group at Microsoft Research in Cambridge, England broke from the desktop metaphor, providing one design example of a different way to approach ubiquitous computing and refrigerators.

The Socio-Digital Systems group approached the design challenge of how to use ubiquitous computing with refrigerators by developing a set of magnets to use in organizing information and notes. One set of magnets was designed with the days of the week as labels, organizing time-sensitive notes related to weekly activities with surfaces that glow when the label matches the day of the week. In other words, the magnets accord with the point made more recently by Mike Kuniavsky that "the goal of ubicomp devices is to skip representation and directly enable activities in the world." How to achieve that goal remains the prevailing, though largely neglected, question. Don Norman's The Design of Future Things offers useful insights on how to approach design for ubiquitous computing, as does Adam Greenfield's Everyware.


Larry writes the blog Skilful Minds.


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