There’s a push for products, and people, to be digital. The average American is just six years old when he or she gets a smartphone, and over 83% of families have tablets. But will most our future product interactions be with bits or atoms? Will everything that can be a digital experience become one? I don’t think so. It’s important to know when products should be digital, and when the interaction benefits from being more physical. Perhaps the most compelling use of digital technology today is when information is communicated and collected in a blended way, when digital functionality is integrated with physical products. This trend isn’t new. It’s been written about for some time, most often in the context of how blended experiences are smart marketing. But lately, I’ve been thinking about how this crossover really impacts people’s daily lives and emotions.
When digital interactions integrate tangible and physical components, they create a sensory crossover, leading to a greater sense of confirmation, engagement, and richness. The bookmarking pen at New York’s Cooper Hewitt Museum is a good example. Upon arrival, visitors pick up the pen and use it while strolling through the galleries to scan the codes of objects they’d like to learn more about after their visit. The interaction with the museum is enhanced as visitors engage with this tangible object, and their experience continues outside of the museum when they go online to retrieve their saved links. The bookmarking pen shows that a well-designed digital product experience can be richer and more multi-sensory than a screen alone. Products with digital components reference established norms that can help make experiences cross-generational and more quickly and universally adopted. Consider the fluidity with which seniors have adopted technology such as the iPad, which some cite as intuitive. Interestingly, some of the most successful digital gestures—like the smartphone page/photo “swipe”—reference established, physical movements, such as turning a physical page in a book. Complementing a purely digital interaction with a tangible component is especially helpful in the following situations.
When digital interactions integrate tangible and physical components, they create a sensory crossover, leading to a greater sense of confirmation, engagement, and richness.
Safety and Confirmation
Experiences that integrate physical and digital elements provide physical confirmation and resistance feedback. We all learn how to make sense of physical feedback at a very young age, and this is a valuable addition to interactions that need absolute confirmation for our physical or emotional safety.
We can look to medical equipment as an example of products designed with a sensitivity to physical confirmation for key interactions. When working on the digital user interface for one critical care device, for example, Continuum’s research uncovered that, while touchscreen interactions felt more modern and versatile, users regularly looked to physical buttons and dials as a back-up. The digital interface wasn’t as trusted as the device’s tangible elements, and the confidence that one could “override” a digital glitch was important.
Consider also the communication tools built into most laptops. Many offer video and audio conferencing ability, but missing is the physical confirmation when you finish your conversation. Is the camera really off? Is the microphone really disconnected? Even when using a typical conference phone, most people confirm the call is over by picking up the handset, checking for a dial tone, and hanging up.
Learning and Engagement
Combining tangible and digital attributes also enhances learning experiences. It enables haptic learning, for example, incorporating more of the senses and dividing the job of learning for better engagement and retention. With tangible objects, we can devote more mind space to exploring, experimenting, and creating, and less on navigating a purely visual, and often arbitrary, 2D interface. Just as taking notes by hand is significantly more effective for retention, interesting new learning products integrate tangible components with touch tablets.
With tangible objects, we can devote more mind space to exploring, experimenting, and creating, and less on navigating a purely visual, and often arbitrary, 2D interface.
Tiggly, for example, designs physical shapes that interact with iPad apps to teach children about math, language, and creative skills. Osmo takes classic activities, like tangrams and sketching, and digitizes them for the iPad, combining learning and play in a way that is more collaborative than a screen-only activities. Products with well-integrated digital components facilitates collaboration in a way that tablets, laptops, and screens alone can’t provide.
Richness and Warmth
Shiny plastic and glass surfaces lack richness and warmth. We instinctively enjoy interactions that include natural, textural materials. Pleasure is a product of the senses. Pushing a button to make your cup of Keurig coffee, or reading on your iPad is efficient, but not rich. Preparing a cup of pour-over coffee or reading a bound book introduces tangible elements to form a total experience.
This is likely one reason why we’re seeing a steady market for vinyl records. People still play most of their music via digital files, but when they want a uniquely rich experience, they flip through their collection, choose an album based on its cover, slide out the disk, and drop the needle to kick off their listening experience.
The Bang & Olafsen Moment creates a simple but uniquely rich interaction by using a touch-sensitive wood interface that combines the warmth of a natural material with magic of digital to create an interaction that feels simple and personal.
Future products and experiences won’t only be about touchscreens and incremental improvements to them. And, even though some retailers are moving away from physical stores and certain futurists predict artificial intelligence will render products like the smartphone obsolete, I believe our future is one of rich product experiences that will be enhanced by a strong digital component, and visa versa. Products aren’t disappearing, and there is an opportunity—and an obligation to us as designers—to find the most meaningful ways to make them connected, when appropriate.