December is one of the peak times of year for enchantment. Ordinary objects become more special. They evoke memories and bring people together through shared experiences.
All five senses are involved, with colorful displays, crackling fires, wintery scents, seasonal foods, and holiday music. Technology can amp up the magic with elaborate lighting and fast shipping. Travel reservations, playlists, recipes, and classic films at our fingertips. Not to mention the enchanted animals and technology of folklore.
The enchantment of the season can be a sharp contrast to many of the objects that we gift each other around this time of year.
Glass screens that demand our full attention. Physical objects that need to be stored and taken care of when not performing their one function. Items that promise to make our lives better, but interrupt us, erode relationships, consume time or energy, or quickly become obsolete. Interactions that are more awkward or frustrating than enchanting.
In his book, “Enchanted Objects: Innovation, Design, and the Future of Technology” author, entrepreneur, and MIT Media Lab instructor David Rose explores how designers, strategists, and technologists can approach creating products that enhance and enchant our world.
We’ll look at how we can use the frameworks he offers to both evaluate the products in our portfolio and design new ones. His tips are from the perspective of creating physical products, but even digital or service-based businesses can be inspired by his thoughts on enchantment.
Comic books count as research
“Enchanted objects” are ordinary objects that enhance our lives and address core human needs and fantasies in subtle ways. Practically, they leverage technologies like sensors, actuators, wireless connection, and embedded processing to do more than the ordinary object could, but less than an all-powerful device.
We can find design inspiration in myths, fairy tales, and comic books. Look to any popular book or movie in science fiction or fantasy and you’ll spot a number of enchanted objects that help the characters achieve their goals. Flying carpets, magic wands, invisibility cloaks, and truth-telling lassos.
The objects are often familiar, yet help augment our abilities in a way that feels more enchanting than other interface options.
Pick the future you want to help build
Rose contrasts a world filled with Enchanted Objects to other popular models of future human interactions with technology.
In a Terminal World, screens would dominate, with a flat screen on every surface. In the Prosthetics World, computing would become more embedded into our own bodies and the fashion we wear. Another alternative is the Animism World, where robots become increasingly more human-like and social.
He argues that the Enchanted Objects World is the best interaction model that both respects humans and enhances our lives. Staring at screens disconnects us from each other. Embedding tools into humans and wearables can contribute to a hyper-personalized and filtered view of reality. And interacting with semi-realistic robots just feels creepy to us, not enchanting.
Rose acknowledges that screens are taking over and that companies who are investing heavily in them have a hard time envisioning an alternative future, much less pivoting their business model to create it.
Which future does your company currently contribute to? Which type of world do you want to help build? How will you shift your portfolio to realize that new vision?
Connect to core human drives
We’ve been sharing stories about enchanted objects throughout human history. Rose outlines six human drives that these objects tend to address.
Fundamental human drives:
- Omniscience: To have great knowledge, be able to predict the future, and have the information we need when we need it and filter out the rest.
- Telepathy: To understand the thoughts and feelings of others and communicate with ease when needed.
- Safekeeping: To be protected from harm and feel safe.
- Immortality: To be healthy, strong, and capable.
- Teleportation: To be unconstrained by physical boundaries, to move swiftly and joyfully.
- Expression: To fully express ourselves, to experience skill mastery faster.
How does your brand map to these fundamental human desires? Your existing products and services? The projects in your portfolio backlog?
Design enchanted objects
An object can be smart without being enchanting. Rose outlines seven abilities that make an object “enchanted.”
- Glanceability: We can understand the important information it shares with minimal cognitive effort.
- Gestureability: We naturally know how to interact with the object.
- Affordability: The object is relatively cheap or the behavior change it encourages ends up paying for itself.
- Wearability: Smaller wearable objects expand the possible use cases.
- Indestructibility: Unlike brittle screens, enchanted objects last longer and age well.
- Usability: The use is obvious and the object doesn’t require a lot of maintenance or care.
- Loveability: It includes some human, child, or animal-like aspects that we bond with.
One key component of designing for enchantment is to consider all five senses. Screens are often designed to require your full attention. But what about the other ways that we sense information? Our peripheral vision and hearing? The use of color, shape, location, and different noises? Information could be shared in our environment through objects, instead of pressing an icon and waiting for an app to load.
“Enchanted objects help us make decisions, almost subconsciously, and bring information into focus at the most opportune time and place. When well designed, they lighten our cognitive load by giving us just the amount of information required to make the best choice without unneeded detail.”
– David Rose
He outlines a hierarchy of information processing, from fast to slow, and the tools you would use for each:
- Is the data worthy of attention now? Ambient displays
- What’s the trend of the information? Is it getting better or worse? Dashboards
- What is the information in the summary? What’s the headline? Headlines and tweets
- Finally, what are the details of the data itself? Data
Consider the products in your portfolio. The interaction points customers have with your brand via technology. Do the current designs share the information customers need in an unobtrusive way?
Climb the ladder of enchantment
Incorporating some of the design elements from above can make objects more enchanting, but they can also fall along a spectrum, which Rose calls the “ladder of enchantment.” The higher the object is on the ladder, the more enchanting it will be.
- Connection: Adding sensing/sensor capabilities and connecting to the cloud.
- Personalization: Leveraging personal info to enhance the experience.
- Socialization: Encouraging connections to friends.
- Gamification: Elements that make it feel more like a video game.
- Story-ification: Embedding the object into a broader human narrative, where the object helps your customer fulfill a greater goal.
You can combine elements from different stages of the ladder to make the object more enchanting. Which rungs on the ladder of enchantment do your products and services focus on?
Go beyond enchanted objects with enchanted systems
Beyond a collection of “things” connected to the internet, Rose envisions enchanted objects creating an adaptive ecosystem, like the world Pandora in the movie Avatar. Objects and humans can “talk” and react to each other, shifting relationships and functions over time.
According to him, systems need to include these components to be enchanting:
- Ubiquitous and constant connectivity
- A focus on fulfilling fundamental human drives
- Natural interactions between humans and their tools and services
- Technology that recedes into the background fabric of life
That means homes and workspaces where technology morphs to serve our shifting needs or encourages better behavior. It means objects in cities that collect data and help us rethink how space is used.
To build these enchanted systems, systems engineers will join already multi-disciplinary enchanted object teams to help orchestrate new systems and experiences.
“For people in the enchantment business- knowledge of systems science will eclipse even computer science in importance. We must recruit experts in systems dynamics to augment the already diverse enchanted-object teams at universities and companies- people who understand feedback loops, positive and negative, and who can successfully operate in an environment that can be unpredictable and changes constantly.”
– David Rose
Which system would your enchanted objects fit in? How might your business look different if you were working with enchanted objects?
“If you are in a tangible-product business, you need an enchanted-objects strategy.”
– David Rose
Enchantment doesn’t need to be a seasonal trend. How will you make your product portfolio more enchanting?