Design now has a seat at the table, but now what? This was the question that most of the designers were asking at one of the biggest interaction design conferences this year: the IxDA 2019. Amidst the #snowmageddon and the unpredictable weather, designers from all around the world gathered at the Amazon HQ in downtown Seattle to question our common design practices and challenge the popular norms to go beyond just human-centred design but designing for life itself.

In this time of ethical whitewashing, where a coat of sustainability or ethics can be painted on to a product, what does it mean to design responsibly? The following are some provocations presented by the leading people in this scene that sparked interesting conversations and debates between the best designers in the world.

1. The next big thing is not a thing!

When Bill Buxton was asked: what is the next big thing? He replied: “The next big thing is not a thing, but it is a change in our relationship with technology itself. Things will be working together seamlessly leading to a significant decrease in their cumulative complexity.”


As the keynote speaker, Bill pushed for rethinking about ubiquitous computing which was put forward by Mark Weiser: 

“The first wave of computing were mainframe computers, computers that were the size of a room, followed by the second wave which is personal computing. This consists of our smartphones, laptops and other devices we use today. And now is the time for the third wave: ubiquitous computing, when technology recedes into the background of our lives. 

However, Bill explained his conflict for the term Ubiquity:

Ubiquity- The condition of being everywhere or in all places at the same time, in general use.

He instead proposed the word Ubiety:

Ubiety- Condition in respect of place or location; local relationship; whereness. 

Technology should be contextually aware of the moment when it is being used based on where it is being used. Based on where you are, the expectation from technology at the moment also changes, instead of having the same interaction model for general use. He primed this idea through the famous quote from the renowned architect Louis I. Kahn:

Thoughts exchanged by one and another are not the same in one room as in another.

The devil is always in the transitions. When you are on a call with someone at your home, you talk to them via your smart speaker, when you walk outside your house, the call is transferred onto your hearable, when you get inside the rental car, it switches onto the speakers of the car and when you reach the office, it transitions into your room speakers. Devices based on where you are, need to handle the painful transitions for you, since its always about your conversation and not about the medium. 

Mobility is no longer associated with a single device or technology; instead, it refers to human activity. It is dynamically supported by whatever appropriate technology available and relevant. And thus the word: Placeona (vs persona) was coined to understand the things you need in the context of location. By adding these two words: Ubiety and Placeona to the design vocabulary, Bill pushed for designers to think in the context of spaces.

2. Pathological Altruism

Designers frequently rely on empathy to design for disability, without understanding the implicit biases and long-term consequences of their good intentions. This was the argument put forward by Liz Jackson, founder of The Disabled List. Disabled people aren’t the recipients of inclusive design but are the drivers. Disabled people are self-capable people who need to be seen through the eyes of real empathy and not sympathy; they are being treated as portfolio enhancers by designers who stigmatize disability and twist design thinking with design thanking. 


Many a time, we have heard the story of a protagonist designer who comes in and designs solutions addressing the problems of a disabled person. The story always puts the designer in the centre, instead of the disabled person who is the actual driver of the project. Inclusive design needs to be done in partnership with the disabled participant and should be owned by them. Liz presented this example with the popular Nike ad which shows Justine Gallegos, an athlete with cerebral palsy in tears and speechless as he receives support from Nike. The simple act of signing a deserving professional contract was portrayed almost like a charity for brand enhancement.

The second example she used to talk about the topic was OXO. The line of proper grip kitchen utensils. Here the story revolves around a designer, Sam Farber who designed utensils for his wife Betsey who has arthritis to help her use them better. However, this story again victimises one and glorifies the other, when the inspiration and the actual idea was primed by Betsey: 

“Sam, can you do something about this? Make a better handle.” She grabbed some clay and started on her own. She recognised: “This is something that could be made better, and my husband used to be a housewares executive, and he should do something about it.” She was very involved in looking at things, trying things, and giving her input along the way.

Liz pushes designers to get out of their own biases that unintentionally stigmatises disability and closed with this quote from the book pathological altruism:


Saviour mentality is reinforced because the pet cannot verbally express an opinion of its own. The owner may project whatever interpretation he or she wishes on the pet’s behaviour and do so without fear of contradiction.

3. Designing for Death

CPR is a favourite climactic tool in movies, where the protagonist is saved miraculously after someone performs a CPR on them. In fact, around 75 percent of characters in movies and series survive after a CPR to live long and healthy lives. Unfortunately, the chances of life after performing CPR is widely misrepresented through TV portrayals, the actual number of people who survive to lead a healthy life is just 10 to 20 per cent. And the people who go through this are left with fractured ribs, bruised lungs and even internal bleeding in some cases. It’s even a routine in hospitals to ask for your resuscitation preferences in case of heart failure, what would you choose?


This was the argument set forward by Ivor Williams for his talk on end-of-life care. End-of-life care involves treatment, care and support for people who are nearing the end of their life. Ivor through his project ReSPECT, assists people to make an active and informed decision on how they want to die when they are diagnosed with terminal diseases. He presents a scale where people can enter their preferences that span across preserving life at all costs all the way to prioritizing comfort.


The second talk was on the topic of The Digital Afterlife by Alberta Soranzo who questions about what happens to our online data after we die. Should it live or die with us? How about having a dead man’s switch? Once you leave, all your data can disappear along with you. If you wish to do so, [] is a service that lets you delete all your social media profiles and web accounts from a single place. Tell us once from is also another service that lets you report your loved one's death once instead of doing it over and over again for every service.


Through these examples and provocations, Ivor and Alberta shared how designing for the end, in fact, can make us more human, more compassionate and better designers for the human experience.

4. AI, the new UI?

Today AI is a black box that makes it hard to interpret the rationale of the machine. As a consequence, designers are experimenting with ways to visualise underlying data, connections, logic, dependencies, etc. with the intention of highlighting new insights and making it more transparent.

One interesting case presented by Ammon Haggerty revolves around predictive interfaces. Here, he gave the example of a smartwatch that anticipates your day based on your daily routine. Turn the bezel clockwise to go forward in future and see what the AI predicts you are going to do next and verify them or turn the bezel back to look at your history. Ammon uses the analogy of a child for AI, just like how kids make mistakes and learn from them, the same holds for Artificial Intelligence.


You might have noticed today while shopping online that if you add a shirt to your cart, you might get a recommendation for a pair of trousers, shoes or a blazer to go along with it. Vilma Sirainen the next speaker talked about how Zalando tested this recommendation algorithm by faking it first. She had a team of people who manually looked for patterns and sorted out best recommendations, but making it seem that it was the algorithm that was doing this. However, once she noticed that this led to a 30 per cent spike in sales, she decided that it was worth investing in actually building this AI based recommendation algorithm. This was then subject to extensive testing through their own version of Turing tests. Here they rated each recommendation that came from the machine and scored them based on how good the recommendation was.


Through these experiments, Ammon and Vilma proposed that even if AI is the new kid on the block, by offering transparency and control to the designers and end users, it can stop itself from being the black box.

5. Predict the future of tech with Tarot cards


The impact of new technology often comes as a surprise to us. Unintended consequences of tech designed for a better future is the popular fad that at least most designers are talking about by referencing to Black Mirror. However, trustworthy and transparent products can be designed by surfacing their outcomes during the design process.

Sheryl Cababa, creative director from Artefact, is trying to help tackle the ghosts of technology future to allow designers to build better products using outcomes-focused strategies and tools. Thereby pushing to think beyond the immediate benefits of product use to identify potential unintended consequences and design things that contribute to the desired outcome—for the user and at scale. She does so through interesting provocations that manifest itself in the form of tarot cards and Jeff Goldblum memes ;)

Pick a few cards and see the future of the technology you are designing. It could be The Smash Hit: 


Or maybe this, The Backstabber:


Based on the cards you pick, you can have your team discuss on the potential implications of the technology you are designing. What happens when a 100 million people start using your product? How will behaviours and norms change?

Or what could cause people to loose trust in your product?

All these exciting conversations and examples show how design is a discipline that is always in flux and is now at the pivotal point of transforming into something which goes beyond just human-centred design, but into a design that is mindful of people, societies, environment, nature and above all: life. Through empathy, mindfulness and conscious design, designers today have the right tools to shape the future of life. A decade ago, design was just an afterthought, a way for polishing technology, but now designers finally have a seat at the table, so now what? 

Written by Arvind Sanjeev, Design Technologist at Above