Designing our Digital-Physical World

March 23, 2017 in Notes from the Field
Kristi Woolsey
Product Lead

Banner Image Source: Anna Dziubinska,

“We shape space and thereafter space shapes us.”
―Winston Churchill

Our physical surroundings exert influence over how we move, behave, and experience life. The walls, the views, the colors and textures, the specific sequence of spaces; all of these physical realities create behavior preferences, making it easy to choose certain behaviors and difficult to choose others. Because of that connection, physical space influences the way we behave and the habits that become the framework of our lives. The design of space can be thought of as designing that framework.

With 3.7 million U.S. employees telecommuting in 2015 (, co-working spaces are rising in popularity due to their ability to influence focus and productivity. Image Source: Alex Robert,

Design the desired human experience first, then assemble the physical elements that drive that experience.

The research is clear on the kinds of spaces that create a preference towards collaboration, create a preference towards learning, or create a behavioral preference towards focus and productivity. If we want those behaviors as outcomes, we can create environments that will create preferences towards those behaviors and, with the addition of the ability to add digital information to physical space, we have even more behavior influencing tools at our disposal.

We know the power of experience, but we generally choose objects over a wholistic design.

We collect pictures on Pinterest of a great front door, beautiful conference room, or perfect desk chair, curating pieces of inspiration with the hopes of incorporating all our favorite elements into one “perfect” space. We lean towards creating an assembly of individual objects rather than designing a complete experience for both physical and digital worlds. As a result, we tend to select an object because it supports an individual function , disregarding any overarching experience that would cause a designer to choose “this tool over that one” or to put “this screen in this place versus that one”.

Our object focus is exacerbated by the silos that often define relationships between space designers (facilities department) and technology specifiers (IT). To create successful physical spaces, we will need to learn to use a specific designed human experience that drives a preferred set of behavior patterns, as shared criteria for decision making.

As digital objects begin to crowd our physical world, experience design for physical space becomes critical.

Data exists all around us. Imagine a near future where augmented reality creates a layer of visual, voice, or other information sources on top of the physical world, all vying for our attention. These integrated smart environments will include information objects like physical desks that have digital images of co-workers’ information floating above them artificial intelligence that anticipates a desired route and uses smart lighting to guide you there, or coffee machines that prompt new users with voice instructions. However, placing more of these information objects into our physical spaces without an overarching experience design is like adding random features to an app. You might get lucky, and the object serves its function well without detracting from the human experience. But if that information object is not thought of as part of the overall experience, you miss an opportunity to leverage the design of physical and digital space—the opportunity to decide what behaviors you want using influencers that will most likely drive those behaviors.

We need to design digital information in physical space.

Designing data in physical space can be approached in one of two ways. First, we can make existing data visible at a particular location along the user journey. For example, the temperature exists in your space, but the technology of a simple thermostat lets you see that information making pre-existing data visible. From conference room booking software that provides visual information about room usage to fitness trackers that visualize step numbers or heart rate, the data has always been there, but these tools make that data visible to the user. By making this information readily available, we can change how a user experiences an environment and influence their behavior in the process. The experience design question becomes “where to make what data visible in order to support desired behaviors?”. The second approach is to put additional data into the physical space that isn’t already there. That is, not making existing data visible, but adding new data. Historically this has been accomplished with signage or perhaps a button that when pushed provides audio explanation.

In 2015, we experimented with AR technology to visualize digital information in a physical space. Image Source: MAYA Design

Digital is becoming physical.

We are now able to use sensors and AI to recognize your presence and activities so the space can respond to those specific activities with just the information that you need to make things easier The space can respond with voice, visual, or even tactile experiences that appear as needed, and retreat into the background when not influencing human behavior with both its content and timing.

What is even more interesting is our ability to create proxys, floating digital objects that “exist” in physical space. Like the Pokémon Go characters that, through your phone’s camera, appear to exist in reality, these digital stand-ins’ change the experience of physical space. With a proxy’s existence, it can be designed, placed, and stocked with information to influence behavior and experience as a person moves through physical space.

With artificial intelligence and machine learning, we can also create experiences that adapt to individual users. I may see different proxys that have different information than you do. With a machine’s ability to read emotion from facial expression (often better than people), the proxy that I see and information I take in will most likely be different each time I move through that space. The experience design question becomes not just “what data to show?”, but also “what form that showing should take?”, where will the information appear in the physical space and what human behavior will reveal the it?

There are endless complexities and possibilities when it comes to matching infinite data with user experience.

Without a cohesive experience design, there is no framework for decision making, no larger goal that would provide guidance for creation and editing. Like the crazy aunt’s house with eclectic, mismatched furniture, the experience becomes chaotic and unsettling. There is no “there” there. The facilities department may creates one kind of space that influences behavior in a particular direction, while IT may choose a completely different language of technology tools that pushes behavior in a different direction.

In the early days of software development there was little concern for the experience of the user. As the chaos mounted, the discipline of user experience (UX) emerged as a way to allow humans to more comfortably connect with developing technologies. The human-experience-focused thinking of UX can be a launching place for physical and digital space solutions and must be applied to the digital tools and information that are now part of our physical experiences.

UX can be a launching place for physical and digital space solutions and must be applied to the digital tools and information that are now part of our physical experiences. Image Source: Anna Dziubinska,

Visualizing information in a specific physical location is a powerful tool for influencing human behavior.

Whether you use that power to influence customers, employees, or your own behavior, begin by defining the desired experience and behaviors, then use that to guide choices around spaces, objects, and tools both digital and physical. Design the experience, then make it real.

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