XIX.2 March + April 2012
Page: 12
Digital Citation

The Omni project

Steve Portigal, Julie Norvaisas

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We have recently embarked on a self-funded research and innovation project called the Omni project. Working in an agency, we find the notion of a self-funded study frightening (at least financially) but also liberating. This effort emerges from our desire to work unbounded by the very necessary constraints of time, budget, and curiosity that restrict the put-food-on-the-table work we primarily are focused on. The seeds for this project spring from unexplored avenues in our consumer research; in nearly every study we have been involved in, people use powerful language to describe their relationship with technology. How is technology affecting people?

Erica, a participant in our Reading Ahead study on the future of the book, told us, "I'm worried that all of these devices that are supposed to make our lives easier and connect us more are, you know, in a sort of sci-fi way, making us a little bit zombied out." We consistently hear similar awkwardly humorous remarks. People muse about their own addictions to technology or comment on the ways in which their devices are integrating with their bodies. Although there is a celebration of the benefits, there is also an uncertainty about the costs. For understandable reasons, these larger issues are not ones our clients are in a position to address directly. Yet the data keeps pouring in, in study after study. As avid culture watchers, we are also noticing these issues in the zeitgeist, in media of all types.

We realized this question was calling to us, and it was time for us to answer. There's no hubris here: This question is amusingly and terrifyingly complex. We don't expect to answer it (unless you'll take "42") but instead see the Omni project as a journey. In consulting settings we are accustomed to moving from ambiguous to specific in order to craft a project plan, but usually it's someone else's ambiguity we are facilitating our way through, under, and around. What happens when it's our own lack of clarity?

Our first step was to name the project and posit a fictional client (ironically, that fiction makes it more real). The Omni name evokes both Omni Consumer Products (from the RoboCop movies) and Omni magazine, which only a few short decades ago offered a science fiction/science fact vision of the future, the future we are living in now. Of course "omni" also evokes key aspects of how we are experiencing technology right now: omnipotent, omnipresent, and omniscient.

We began accumulating articles and blog posts related to the topic. In fact, just about everything we read relates to this topic! We dug into these articles and synthesized them into six early and necessarily messy themes.

First, the discourse about technology and its consequences is remarkably polarized. We are either becoming dumber or smarter. Being threatened or enabled to greatness. Dehumanized or globalized. Diseased or cured. And on it goes...

Also, we are exposed to a constant discourse about our own personal exposure. We put our identity (or identities) out there, and our behavior gathers around it in a massive snowball effect, which to some extent defines us. How do we protect ourselves? From whom or what? Is it possible to be safe, or have we ceded control of our personal choices and activities in return for participation? The consequences of participation are unclear.

What is the impact of technology-enabled interactions on our relationships? Are we now closer to or more isolated from other people? Are we more or less human? We are forced to analyze and qualify relationships in new ways. As magical as the tools and technology we interact with are, our relationships with each other are even more complex than technology can support. We don't have the personal social tools to fully deal with technologically fueled communication. What are strategies to deal with all of our interconnections with both human and non-human actors? When do they fail?

We are in a constant state of transformation, fueled by the rapid and endless development cycle of experiences and hardware. We must first unlearn, then learn and relearn ways to perform both common and exceptional tasks. People, of course, have different levels of comfort and patience with these transformations—thus we have early adopters, laggards, and neo-Luddites. Behavioral change is a notoriously difficult charge for innovators, so how do we address the fact that we are thrusting people into such challenging zones on a regular basis?

Though we might privilege discussion of the virtual, technology is primarily tangible and is becoming biological. Consumer technologies that intersect with our bodies and minds are increasingly available, allowing us to quantify ourselves. Different poses are being established through devices and interactions. Handwriting is on the decline; finger typing is passé; thumb typing is prime; gesture and NUIs are on the rise. What are the implications as we increasingly think of technology as part of our brains, biology, and environment? How will our bodies and environments evolve to keep up?

Finally, the onslaught of information/data/content/feeds/streams/news/media suggests a wonderland, in the manner of Alice's rabbit hole. The Faustian bargain is on. Do we revel in the delight of access or cringe under the burden of the onslaught?

We also started dialogues with designers, writers, and other thinkers who have been looking at these issues. We have invited smart folks like Nicolas Nova, Adrian Hon, Julian Bleecker, and Molly Wright Steenson to riff with us. Even as we're trying to get a handle on what we're really even looking at, these interviews with experts are offering us dramatically different perspectives from history, from technology, from their own research, or from their own lives [1,2,3,4].

We have reached out to the blogosphere and Twitterverse to tap more richly into the everyday cultural beliefs that our relationships with technology are informing and are informed by. We crowdsourced examples—under the moniker "How did we do X before Y?"—of how technology has changed an ordinary task so fundamentally that we can't believe we once did it differently [5]. Even though we were there and did it, that reality is almost comically beyond our power to comprehend now. Provocative responses include: How did I ever pick people up at the airport before cell phones? How did I locate text in a document before Apple/Ctrl-F? How did we distract ourselves from important tasks before social media? How did we plan vacations without the Internet?

As of this writing, we are launching our initial contextual research, in collaboration with UC Berkeley. While we know this will provide deeper insights and clarify what we have been exploring already, our goal is to use this phase of research to further frame the problem. Because we've got to start somewhere, we're now looking at families in which technology ownership, usage, management, and integration are shared among the members. Even our pilot interview was brimming over with the kind of nuggets that make researchers deliriously happy.

Going forward, we will continue to gather and synthesize the stories in the media and explore the cultural landscape. We can't wait to aggregate examples of ideas from science fiction that have shaped and formed our expectations from technology (something Steve took a pass at in "We Are Living in a Sci-Fi World," interactions, September + October 2009). We envision a range of collaborations with design students far and wide, and an ongoing focus on contextual methods to help us dive deeply into these issues in a nuanced and insightful fashion.

We are planning a series of speculative design workshops to explore how the insights we gather could be manifested in products, services, technologies, and more. And of course, what we learn from doing and sharing this will inform our own consulting work.

You can find the latest at We are excited about this journey and hope you'll join us for the ride!

back to top  References

1. Nicolas Nova interview;

2. Adrian Hon interview;

3. Julian Bleecker interview;

4. Molly Wright Steenson interview;

5. How did we do X before Y?;

back to top  Authors

Steve Portigal is a principal of Portigal Consulting. Expert in capturing and reframing user insights.

Julie Norvaisas is a consultant with Portigal. Passionate about bringing a humane vision to business problems.

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©2012 ACM  1072-5220/12/0300  $10.00

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