Designing for Human-Machine Consciousness

Conscious Experience Design

Designing for the evolving human+machine relationship

A column by Ken Olewiler
August 21, 2023

In today’s world, changes in humanity, technology, and culture have elevated User Experience to a state of rapid transformation. Unprecedented technological capabilities and heightened human sensitivities are reshaping the relationship between humans and machines, demanding new insights and expertise in product design. As UX designers, we must now shoulder the responsibility of shepherding this evolution, crafting product experiences that embody digital consciousness through more intelligent, immersive, systemic, and ethical interactions.

Each aspect of this transformation reflects a core trait that defines our humanity: thinking, feeling, relating, and valuing. These four areas of transformation constitute the guiding tenets of what I call conscious experience design, and they set the framework for my view of the future of User Experience.

Conscious experience design is a design practice that focuses on humanizing technology experiences in ways that drive positive value for humanity and society.

In this column, I’ll explore each of these four areas of conscious experience design, the technologies that fuel innovation within each of them, and some fundamental questions about their application to new and reimagined products that touch and serve people. Plus, I’ll explore how conscious experience design influences the tools, technologies, and methodologies that affect the professional craft of design.

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Designing for Human Realities

The last five years have seen the rapid introduction and adoption of pivotal, new technologies. Products have become unbound by digital and physical space, time, and even direct connectivity to the Internet. Users can now move fluidly from digital to physical spaces, almost subconsciously.

The rise of artificial intelligence (AI), spatial computing, Web 3.0, and other innovations has ushered in a transformative revolution. Historically, humans have adapted to technology, but now the tables are turning, and technology is adapting to people, mirroring human-like behaviors and dimensions. What were once inanimate machines are now evolving into conscious, living systems and intelligent agents. Technology, which we once viewed merely as a tool, is now transforming into a full-fledged partner and collaborator that is capable of predictive insights, relationship building, creativity, and emotional engagement. Technology and human life are converging in intricate ways.

This is, indeed, an exciting time that is full of new possibilities. However, amidst this excitement, people also have serious concerns because they are becoming more aware of potential risks. If we were to leave autonomous technologies unchecked, people would have legitimate fears surrounding their negative effects—such as implicit bias, privacy breaches, security breaches, misinformation, safety risks, and environmental impacts. In response, people are growing increasingly conscious of their choices, making product-purchasing decisions that are based on the values and behaviors of the companies with which they engage. The most successful companies are embracing new technologies consciously, building a bridge between consumer ideals and their products.

So, together, these two rising drivers of a new consciousness across humans and machines are becoming the motivators that can take us into the next decade. To succeed, organizations must consciously foster new skills, evolve their capabilities, and apply new principles across the four dimensions of conscious experience design. Embracing these advancements will undoubtedly shape a future in which technology and humanity work together harmoniously, fostering positive and responsible innovations for the betterment of society.

In this first edition of my new column, Conscious Experience Design, I’ll provide an introduction to the four areas of conscious experience design. In future columns, I’ll dive deeper into each of these four areas.

Intelligent Cooperation: Assistive, Affective, and Adaptive

AI-driven products are now capable of truly cooperative relationships with users. AI is the defining conscious technology of this decade, and it underpins intelligent services that engender trust, relatability, and connection. Intelligent systems, including neural networks that support generative AI, are inspiring an array of new, cooperative capabilities.

Conscious experience design applies human-centered design approaches to the creation of intelligent products and services, ensuring that AI effectively complements, simplifies, and enhances human experience. To balance AI-driven solutions, we must conduct new research into human expectations of autonomy. Data insights and advocacy frameworks are necessary to guide the ways in which intelligent systems process and contextually interpret data in making human-centric decisions.

In an optimal relationship between users and AI, products will evolve as people find new ways of leveraging them in their work and creative processes. AI can adapt and learn to cooperatively assist users in whatever ways are most valuable to them.

Immersive Connection: Spatial, Sensory, and Seamless

Immersive virtual worlds will play a role in our future, but mass adoption is likely to be somewhat further out. In the short term, immersive computing will focus on blended experiences that are spatial, sensory, and seamless. Apple’s Vision Pro and Vision OS mark a transformative shift, providing a more natural blending of our physical surroundings and digital information. These spatial computing technologies, along with similar advancements, will further blur barriers and enable more genuine experiences.

With machines gaining greater capabilities, they can now intuitively sense and forge connections in more authentic ways, empowering people to seamlessly interact and express emotions across both physical and digital spaces. Drawing on multisensory interactions, spatial contexts, and seamless ecosystems, UX designers will create immersive experiences that adapt to people's needs, transporting them to the next level of natural interactions and connections.

These new paradigms require deeper insights into sensory design and spatial computing. Conscious experience design applies immersive design approaches to the creation of natural user interfaces that engage multiple senses and the full range of human emotions to choreograph real-time, holistic, authentic, 360-degree experiences.

Systemic Relationships: Communal, Confident, and Continuous

Distributed, Web 3.0 networks, block-chain technology, and the sharing economy are giving rise to a new era of systemic relationships. As we weave conscious systems into the fabric of our everyday life, everything becomes a part of the system, turning products into services and services into systems. We are seeing a shift from closed, proprietary systems to open, decentralized networks of resources and collaboration spaces. To ensure balance and security, UX designers must think more systematically in defining the nature of and structuring relationships across these interdependent systems.

The promise of Web 3.0 and block-chain is the ultimate trust that a completely trustless system can deliver. This bold, but necessary promise assumes that a system of fail-safe computers secures users’ sensitive data, activities, and personal preferences—a system that no single entity or community can control. As we put more checks and balances in place and users become more savvy about what information they share and where they share it, people’s confidence in these digital systems will increase.

Conscious experience design applies human psychology and systemic thinking to motivate positive behaviors and achieve optimal flexibility and equilibrium across interdependent systems and social institutions. It considers the broad implications across all the interconnected parts, structuring systems to support evolution, sustainability, and balance.

Human Ethics: Essential, Enlightening, and Empowering

People are reevaluating their priorities and focusing on issues and activities that align with their values and preferences. Their desire for ethical services and products that are inclusive, enlightening, and empowering is defining what people deem to be essential.

To keep in step with users, UX designers must evaluate each interaction against its essential value. People want products and services that empower them, connect them to others, and let them prioritize the activities and relationships that they deem to be most valuable.

Ethical design practices ensure that the decisions that conscious systems make are inclusive, positive, and empowering. Human-ethics research and the creation of ethical frameworks are now fundamental means of capturing human insights and guiding the ways in which businesses make decisions about technologies that can support individual and collective human progress. To ensure that digital experiences support core human needs for the benefit of humanity and the world in which we live, ethical decision-making frameworks and resolutely prosocial principles are necessary.

The most successful companies are actively evaluating the impact of their solutions beyond the bottom line. When people find value, they return value to the companies that deliver the most value to them.

Looking Toward the Future of Design in a More Conscious Era

In the next decade, conscious experience design will be a guiding force for success in business and human life. I look forward to holding a discourse with you on this topic through this column. 

Managing Partner at Punchcut

San Francisco, California, USA

Ken OlewilerKen was a co-founder of Punchcut and has driven the company’s vision, strategy, and creative direction for over 20 years—from the company’s inception as the first mobile-design consultancy to its position today as a design accelerator for business growth and transformation. Punchcut works with many of the world’s top companies—including Samsung, LG, Disney, Nissan, and Google—to envision and design transformative product experiences in wearables, smart home Internet of Things (IoT), autonomous vehicles, and extended reality (XR). As a UX leader and entrepreneur, Ken is a passionate advocate for a human-centered approach to design and business. He believes that design is all about shaping human’s relationships with products in ways that create sustainable value for people and businesses. He studied communication design at Kutztown University of Pennsylvania.  Read More

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