Uncommon Objects

I just watched a perspective-shifting talk from Russell Davies, Head of planning at Ogilvy and co-founder of London’s Really Interesting Group. RIG is a collective of designers, developers, and strategists who build and think about things that connect the web and the world. Russell’s 20-minute talk, “Buttons, Behaviour, Robots and Toys. What Happens When We Put Data in Things,” is below:

Up until now, the majority of mainstream innovations in interactive have been limited to where humans meet the screen. The traditional “interface.”

From DOS to Windows to touch screens to augmented reality, we’ve seen leaps forward in the field of interface design. Meaning: the relationship between screens and human behavior. Aaron Koblin from Google Creative Labs, taking a cue from Marshall McLuhan’s catchphrase, “The medium is the message,” and put it like this:

“The interface is the message. An interface can be a powerful narrative device, and as we collect more and more personally and socially relevant data, we have an opportunity and maybe even an obligation to maintain the humanity and tell some amazing stories as we explore and collaborate together.”

(Watch Aaron’s talk on that point here.)

To Davies’ point, this is limiting. Focusing on interactions between humans and screens leaves out the rest of the world. At best, with augmented reality, the screen acts as a translator between the digital and real world.

If you’re anything like me, you’re always ready to get the hell out from behind your screen. Working in an office all day, whether you’re wading through emails, spreadsheets, designs, Microsoft word…it leaves you longing for something tangible. In a world overwhelmed by bits and pixels, it’s surprising this is a field that hasn’t been given a lot of love.

A couple of simple examples of this are:

MIT’s Proverbial Wallet

…in which your wallet displays a physical response to your financial situation

Proverbial Wallets from John Kestner on Vimeo.

John Kestner’s Tableau

…in which the nightstand drawer “acts as a bridge between users of physical and digital media, taking the best parts of both.”

What else?

What could it mean for other objects in our lives to understand our connections, our financial behaviors, shopping preferences, location trends…and do something with those that is relevant and meaningful to our specific context?

A car that knows we’re over budget as we drive toward the mall. A cello that understands what you’re playing, how you’re playing it, and can accompany you on its own (this is a real thing, Yo-Yo Ma uses it on tour). On and on.

Our finances, and the data produced by our financial actions, carries with it the root of our preferences, behavioral drivers, and trends we might not even see. It seems like if any field is ripe to jump into something this, the financial industry is it.

Enabling & Facilitating

One of my favorite points of Davies’ talk is that the cross-section of new social tools and accessible technology will give birth to “products that technologists wouldn’t invent, that Sony wouldn’t invent, that people would invent.”

The bottom line? If we’re really looking for new ideas, new perspectives, and new actions for the industry, we should focus as much, if not more, energy on enabling innovation from the consumer marketplace as we do trying to encourage innovation from within our organizations. We can’t do it ourselves.

One simple example is from brand new P2P payments startup Dwolla, who opened up their API and already sees a half-dozen new consumer-developed uses spring up each week.

But why does this kind of creative enablement have to be limited to coding?

DIY Culture. Because technology is easier to use, and knowledge is easier to share, people are creating their own tools. Making their own ways for their world to be more relevant. And because their ideas don’t need a business plan, they don’t need to be mass produced, they only need to solve a problem that is incredibly specific to them – such weighty barriers to lift from the creative process – the creations of DIY culture can be incredibly quirky, specific, and creative.

But this is how some of the more brilliant ideas have historically happened anyway, right? From a quirk, a specific reaction to a need. The difference now is that it’s so much easier to act on your need. The tools are right in front of you.

For example:

  • The man who made a homemade prosthesis.
  • The thousands of ways people are learning to hack the Kinect to turn it into something more interesting.
  • The Angry Bin, which becomes increasingly pissed off the more you use it instead of a recycling bin.
  • The walker workbench, for a mobile workspace.

That said, we — the financial industry — can’t possibly invent all the new meaningful stuff ourselves. So a bigger question might be how can we enable the people we serve to invent new meaningful stuff?

I’d love to hear your thoughts and ideas. How could we use the goldmine of consumer behavior data that each financial institution sits on to make the tangible world more reactive, intelligent, relevant, and meaningful? How can we enable consumers to help us create the a future that’s more relevant to them because they’ve actively helped us design it? Is anyone in the financial space – from existing financial institutions to quirky financial startups – doing this well right now?

About the Author

When Brent Dixon was a kid, he wanted to be a tractor. That didn’t work out, and now he’s a designer, speaker, and advisor specializing in young adult issues. Brent is the founder of The Habdash, a multidisciplinary design studio, and works with the Filene Research Institute to distill their young adult research into successful outreach initiatives. Among those initiatives is The Crash Network, a growing community of around 200 young credit union leaders fighting for the future of cooperative finance. He tweets as @itsjustbrent.

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