Connected door knobs are lying to us

This week’s podcast was all about security and how we can design things to tell us more about how connectivity changes them from mere appliances into networked computers — and all the risks that can bring. John Kestner, a principle with Supermechanical, a design firm that builds connected devices including the Range thermometer (pictured above) and the Twine sensor, was my guest for the show, and we chatted about how he designed those products with security in mind.

But it got far more interesting in the latter half of the interview (around 48:30) when he started talking about how to design products that convey their new status as a connected device.

“Consumer electronics are magic. There’s really no transparency. It’s really hard to gain any kind of mental model as to what’s happening, Kestner said. “At least when we used Ethernet, we knew when something was connected to the network or not. We could physically unplug it if we wanted.”

But now we don’t have any sense that a device is different with the exception of maybe an LED or that it runs out of batteries every now and then. Kestner wonders if that makes people less likely to wonder what makes the device different and makes them also less likely to want to educate themselves about those differences, such as the security implications. He then wondered how and if we should change the design to offer a sort of warning to consumers that the new, connected version of their old fixtures had different capabilities.

“Maybe there’s a bit of disconnect in making objects look exactly like the objects they are displacing. That’s of course, doing its job in making the customer feel comfortable with its replacement. ‘Oh it’s a familiar object,’ but you don’t want them to feel too comfortable because there are dangers that come with this,” he said.

As to what that is, though, he wasn’t sure. LEDs might make sense, or perhaps an entirely new form of design sensibility and vocabulary that we implement for connectivity that becomes synonymous with conveying the kind of information consumers should know about connected devices. If you guys think of it, please let Kestner know.

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