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SXSW: Designing for the Fringe

Posted by Cameron Friedlander on March 20th, 2014 at 7:55 am

The majority of discussions at SXSW Interactive 2014 focus on concepts, ideas and apps for the everyman. But what if true innovation and game change could come by focusing on fringe groups? For instance, if we look at the concepts being created around the disabled and the elderly, can we add greater value to the overall conversation within digital?

Evan Carroll from The Digital Beyond and Virginia Ingram of Virginia Ingram and Associates hinted at this question in the open-conversation SXSWi topic Fringe Design: Tackling Disability and Death. They brought together the realities of death and disability, acknowledging that we will all need help at some point in our lives, either in our physical environment or via technology, and we all face the inevitability of death. So how does one design for the inevitable?

Carroll and Ingram outlined three tenets of “Fringe Design.”

  1. Focus on the people, not the disability.
  2. Focus on togetherness, not the individuals.
  3. Focus on the continuum, not the moment.

While at first blush these principles appear to fall inherently within mainstream design, I would argue otherwise. Typically, mainstream marketing is about the product, targeted to a specific individual at a particular time. And while we need to sell something, I fear that most digital becomes little more than noise because it ignores our most human and basic instinct to build relationships.

So, what if we design for the masses using the Fringe Design fundamentals instead of focusing so vehemently on the largest use-case? What would happen if we looked at each brief or client ask through a relationship lens — understanding the product’s relationship with ourselves, other people and time? Could this shift help bring about radical innovation, the kind Malcolm Gladwell was alluding to in How David Beats Goliath?

Carroll and Ingram shared some examples that highlight the benefits of Fringe Design and its potential impact on the masses:

  1. Hogewey, a small town at the edge of Amsterdam, is a fully functional village for people with dementia, offering specially designed housing, grocery stores, parks and shops. Staff members dress as civilians, so people with dementia can do as they normally would in an environment that tries to accommodate their needs and allows them to enjoy more freedom. This is an entirely new model of care and could become the norm in the future for not only people with dementia but the elderly.
  2. Straphanger clothing is targeted to transit riders to help stop the spread of germs, but offers large implications for the masses.
  3. Recollect.com is a digital warehouse that brings together all of your social network data. It allows for algorithms to help streamline all of it into key moments and highlights. Initially designed to be passed off after death, this could be leveraged for people with dementia to help trigger memories around moments, people, music, passions. But, it could also be applied as a lens over your friends social accounts, which typically focus on the now, but never highlight the whole in a curated fashion.

While these are only a fraction of concepts designed towards the fringe that could benefit others the conversation moved on to a simple question:

How can we make SXSW better for people who are deaf? And make it scale? I mentioned Live-Notes, even though I have never been a big fan, but it could be used to bring together topics of conversation, forming larger concepts so that people who are hearing impaired don’t necessarily need to read everything via closed-captioning. The group then combined the live-notes with social aggregators from various networks, so people could quickly scan quips and quotes, as they relate to time across the visual live notes. Lastly looking at a better use case for Google Glass, by taking voice-recognition software and layering it over wearable tech so hearing-impaired people can focus on the talk, live-notes, tweets, etc., without having to glance away to look at a closed-captioning screen or a sign-language interpreter. What’s interesting is that the potential solutions focused on a fringe group, but the value-add of this concept could enhance SXSW for everyone.

The topic of Google Glass, and its Glasshole, had me thinking. Should they have focused on the fringe as their initial target? We are all trying to add more meaning into our lives with wearable tech, and while it’s clear there is potential, we still struggle to find the value. If Google had focused the initial product toward a fringe group, particularly those with hearing or visual impairments, could it have found a broader use outside of that group in the future? Doing so might have given the device, and the apps that come with it, more meaning.

So, if we focus on people, togetherness and time, can we give more value to the types of concepts we produce? Can we develop an idea for fringe groups and create better solutions for everyone? By looking at fringe needs instead of mainstream needs, we may find that the effectiveness, versatility and scalability of what we create is more impactful, more inclusive and more innovative. Walking away from the Fringe Design session, one might say that designing around fringe needs and use-cases creates more impact and is more beneficial for all.

One Response to “SXSW: Designing for the Fringe”

  1. "Walking away from the Fringe Design session, one might say that designing around fringe needs and use-cases creates more impact and is more beneficial for all."

    Hear, hear, Cameron!! This is what I believe.

    Thanks for the write-up of the talk.

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