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ILP Institute Insider

October 6, 2014

Creating User-Friendlier Environments

Federico Casalegno designs technology environments that keep human experience at the center of user experience.

Steve Calechman

Technology is kind of two-headed monster. It can instantly bring information to the most remote locations. But it can also create a coffee shop full of people, starting at screens without acknowledging anything or anybody else. Federico Casalegno aims to avoid that dynamic.

Federico Casalegno
MIT Mobile Experience Lab Director
The director of the MIT Mobile Experience Lab looks to innovate with technology, but only in support of the user. This approach results in less impersonal hotel lobbies, smarter gas stations, more intuitive homes, and a conference that examines creativity with a decidedly bottom-up approach. “We want to design technologies around people, not people around technologies,” Casalegno says.

The Warmer Reception Area
The hotel lobby is a well-established place — check-in desk, free newspapers, restaurant — and it’s not wholly impersonal, but it’s not always inviting. Casalegno has partnered with Marriott to take embedded media and create a lobby as a social space. Business travelers are the testing target audience, so Casalegno has used LinkedIn accounts as source material. Once a guest checks into the hotel and unlocks their network from a phone or laptop, Casalegno’s application would match people based on various components, such as industry, college, and shared connections.

But more than just picking out common words, the app is able to rank the strength of potential matches. Before it would put together people who have worked in the same city, it would introduce people who have worked at two of the same companies. Along with the app, Casalegno has designed an interactive lobby table that works in the same respect. When someone places their mobile device on it, the device would glow, alerting the person of possible connections, along with providing a scrolling text of events of interest in both the hotel and the area. Moreover, the hotel’s concierge can further customize events for guests.

As Casalegno says, this new lobby isn’t necessarily doing anything that a person couldn’t do on their own. But the technology, now in the prototype-stage and ready for expanded testing, is an example of how location-based media and ubiquitous computing can further social interactions for both the hotel and guest. “It brings hospitality to a new era and makes for a richer experience,” Casalegno says. “And when there are many hotels in a market, this tailoring is the kind of thing that can make you stand out.”

More Than Filling Up Your Tank
Much like with the lobby, the gas station has been a consistent entity. But Casalegno says that it’s also been stagnant in its design and unfulfilled in its potential as a multi-use urban space. Before he made any changes, he had students travel around his native Italy, stopping at hundreds of stations and observing how people use them and how they could use them. From that ethnographic research, he’s partnered with ENI and created a full-scale, future-looking prototype.

The changes first start with the essential service of providing fuel. Some simple technologies can make that transaction smoother, Casalegno says. In his model, the station would immediately recognize a driver’s car, direct it to an available pump and know what kind of fuel the car uses. The pump and nozzle would use robotics to eliminate the need for human interaction. Payment would become seamless, he says, and also eliminate human assistance, since the station would recognize the driver and be able to access the person’s bank account.

But that’s just one aspect of the design. The station is also greener, with solar roof panels that could be opened, closed and collect rainwater. And while the intent is to remove unnecessary human intervention, it’s not to eliminate it. The station would disseminate transportation-related information and also serve as a shared workspace, providing high connectivity and access to video conferencing and the latest communication devices. Rather than having to drive somewhere or do business from the car, the person can remain in one place. “We expand the gas station, which is sustainable in terms of energy use and architectural design, into a hub, which provides mobility-on-demand for users,” Casalegno says.

Bringing Together Ideas
More than designing elaborate solutions, Casalegno’s work often involves injecting a new way of thinking into a process. To that end, he’s organized the Design Driven Innovation and Its New Frontiers conference at MIT. While it will bring together engineers, creators, builders and students from strategic design, digital experiences, fabrication and prototyping, the starting point for all the conversations, regardless of product or clientele, is understanding behavior. “We design for humans,” he says. “And even if we design robots, they will help humans to have better experiences and richer life.”

Along with generating ideas, the conference will explore a sometimes overlooked necessity in product development — how to develop quick prototypes and test designs in real-world settings. An example, which Casalegno has been working on, is the smart, connected home. Casalegno says he wanted something that was both environmentally friendly and responsive to conditions. The house envelope is made out of easy-to-assemble, sustainable wood. The inside is wired, and temperature is controlled in order to optimize energy usage. Along with internal monitoring, the windows can respond to the weather and needs of the house by changing from tinted to opaque.

Another project involves Google Glass. Casalegno’s lab has been working with Avea Telcom on a new app that would add to eating out. But like with his other works, before any technology was conceived, he had students go into restaurants to understand the diner’s experience. The research was done in Istanbul, so one of the prevailing issues was understanding a menu and talking to a waiter when it’s in a foreign language.

More than develop a translation app — a relatively easy and accessible fix, Casalegno says — the intention was to encourage social interaction. The app that was developed provides real-time information about food items, such as how they’re grown and eaten, and then connects the user with locals. That kind of enhancement and fostering connections are central to Casalegno’s work, balancing innovation with responsiveness. “Technology doesn’t have to be simple,” he says. “It just has to be user-friendly, efficient, and help the customer utilize their power more. If you offer that, that’s what people will probably choose.”