The Problem With Designing Communal Devices for the Always-on Era

“Smart” devices are a dime a dozen now, yet virtually none of them has been designed as a communal device. That’s a huge issue.
March 4, 2022
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One thing about me is that I love hosting get-togethers at my place. My wife and I are thrilled to cook, put on some music, get people to know each other, and whatnot. But being the host has 2 horrible things that come with it—tidying up and atrocious music recommendations. 

I guess you won’t hold anything against me about the tidying up part: doing piles of dishes is one of life’s unavoidable little horrors. But you might be wondering “why to bring up music recommendations?” Well, it makes sense in context. See, we use our TV to play music, mainly because I like having music videos accompanying our parties. 

We use my YouTube account for that and, as we don’t like to impose our music onto our guests, we always invite anyone that wants it to add their own songs. You see where I’m going with this—music that I don’t particularly like or care for starts popping up in my suggestions. 

Now, I know that there’s an option buried in YouTube’s configuration that allows you to pause your history to avoid this kind of “pollution.” But that’s precisely the point I’m about to make. It shouldn’t be so hard for me to stop these added songs from contaminating my recommendations. 

The reason I’m telling you this is because it’s one of the many day-to-day examples of a bad approach to the design of our smart household devices. Why “bad approach”? Because engineers treat all home devices as if they were intended for individual users when, in reality, they are communal devices. 

Individual Devices Used by a Community

Seems like a really specific problem I’m having? Think again. “Smart” devices are a dime a dozen now and virtually none of them has been designed as a communal device. From digital picture frames that show photos of a roommate that no longer lives where the frame is located to smart assistants that won’t turn on the lights for guests. 

All of those things can work wonderfully—as long as they only serve an individual person. Once you start adding people as users, problems start to arise. From devices failing to answer commands to content getting mixed up to the sheer inability to use the device at all, many users trying to use the same smart devices can bring a lot of trouble.

The reason for that is simple—they aren’t communal devices. You might be asking what these “communal devices” I keep yapping about are. Basically, they are devices aimed at serving multiple users, often at the same time. There was a time when our household devices were extremely communal, from our tube TVs to our landline phones. Everyone used them and there were no distinctions.

But then came the desktop computer and everything changed. It certainly started as a communal device (remember having a “computer room”?) but then, as operating systems evolved, the idea of user profiles began to emerge. Quickly, each user had their personal space and enjoyed the possibility of a tailored and personalized experience (not that everyone took advantage of it, mind you).

The epitome of that initial and personal approach finally appeared with the rise of mobile phones. When the iPhone hit the markets, people understood they had the option of owning a personal and individual computer in their own pockets. Fast enough, smartphones became the norm and practically an extension of everyone’s bodies. Mobile phones, in short, erased the idea of “communal”, especially from the developers’ minds.

But the landscape has changed yet again. The emergence of the Internet of Things (IoT) and its interconnected devices have put the need for a communal approach on the table once again. It makes sense if you take a close look at the whole thing. Light automation systems control something that any home’s inhabitants use. The same goes for smart thermostats, fridges, and virtual assistants. In the office, digital whiteboards and video displays intended for team sharing call for a communal focus, too.

Yet, even when the uses of these and other technologies are clearly communal, the design still feels individual. As anyone sharing a Netflix account can attest, it often happens that the person setting up the device ends up having their information and accounts associated with it which the rest of the users end up employing anyway. That can bring countless issues—you might have read about kids using Alexa to easily shop for toys without their parents’ consent or how IoT devices are being used for domestic abuse

Potential Solutions for a New Approach

You might argue that a lot of the problems I mentioned above are “easily solved” through proper use of the devices’ options or even a factory reset. While I can see what you mean, that’s different from what I’m saying. Companies developing smart devices are using the “adjust features and add options” alternative to mitigate these issues. Guess what? It isn’t working.

People don’t have the same digital abilities (nor the patience) to constantly set up devices. The devices are still limited in that they can’t accommodate multiple users at the same time without breaking something (have you tried to talk to an Echo during a dinner with friends?). What’s worse, there are things that more options can’t tackle.

Security and privacy are great examples. You can set up a Chromecast to show your personal pictures in a loop, yet, if you’re inviting people over to whom you don’t want to show those photos, you need to change the settings before they arrive (and after they leave). It shouldn’t have that kind of friction. Inversely, you don’t want your kids ordering things online just by shouting at your assistant. Here, you want more friction.

And that’s without considering the dangers of having people access your personal information or devices, such as those domestic abuse cases I cited above.

There are issues with today’s smart devices that can’t be solved with more options. That’s why we need a new approach, one that covers the varied scenarios of the always-on era. If smart devices are always there, listening, watching, waiting, then we need their design to contemplate different aspects of their use. A great O’Reilly article about this topic suggests that there are 5 main aspects:

  1. Identity. Who are the users of the smart devices? Communal devices have multiple users by default, so their possibilities and features should always focus on servicing different people in different contexts at all times.
  2. Privacy. Who has access to what through a smart device? Not all users are the same, so you can grant the same access to all of them. I should be able to enjoy my personal photos on my Chromecast but also keep them private when certain guests arrive.
  3. Security. What can each user do with the smart device? It’s ok if I can easily purchase something through a smart assistant but that shouldn’t be an option for the plumber that’s taking care of the leak in my kitchen faucet.
  4. Experience. How should the smart device decide if a particular action is appropriate for its current context? If I’m sitting with my kids getting ready to watch a movie, platforms should offer appropriate films for everyone, even if I’m in my own profile. What’s more, that adaptation shouldn’t have lasting effects on my profiles, as maybe I don’t want these recommendations when I’m watching alone or with my wife.
  5. Ownership. Who owns the data and the services associated with a smart device? We’ve written about the dangers of the IoT some time ago and those criticisms really apply here.

Answering these questions isn’t easy. There are technical factors that still limit the possibilities about these aspects. We still need to better understand how people use communal devices, which might be more common than ever but still have evolving uses. What’s more, we need to have a clearer picture of the users’ expectations around them, as that’s the only way we can remove friction or add it where it’s needed.

As it stands today, I can’t affirm that we have communal devices, only individual devices that we’re using communally. It isn’t ideal and it can bring a lot of issues, but it is what it is. Unless we acknowledge and tackle this approach, we’ll have to deal with inefficient devices and annoying experiences. Now, if you excuse me, we have people coming over for dinner so I’ll have to pause my YouTube’s history.

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