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Creating user-friendlier environments

Federico Casalegno designs technology environments that keep human experience at the center of user experience.
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Federico Casalegno
Federico Casalegno
Photo: David Sella

Technology is a kind of two-headed monster: It can instantly bring information to the most remote locations around the world. But it can also lead to a coffee shop full of people staring at digital screens without acknowledging anybody else. Federico Casalegno aims to help technology avoid that latter dynamic.

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 design and 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 physical place, with a check-in desk, free newspapers, and sometimes a restaurant. It's not wholly impersonal, but it’s not always inviting. Casalegno has partnered with a Boston Marriott Hotel to create a lobby as a social space with an app and embedded media. Business travelers are the target audience, so Casalegno has used LinkedIn accounts as source material. Once a guest checks into the hotel and unlocks his or her network from a phone or laptop, Casalegno’s app will suggest matches with others staying at the hotel based on various components, such as industry, college, and shared connections.

But more than just picking out common words, the app ranks the strength of potential matches. Before it puts together people who have worked in the same city, for instance, it introduces 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 will 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 a prototype 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 a hotel lobby, the gas station is also a familiar spot for many people. But Casalegno says that it’s mostly been stagnant in design, and unfulfilled in potential as a multiuse urban space. So he had students travel around his native Italy, stopping at hundreds of gas stations and observing how people use them today — and how they could potentially use them in the future.

From that ethnographic research, he’s partnered with the Italian oil and gas company ENI to design a full-scale, futuristic prototype for a smarter, greener station.

The changes 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 be automated. And payment would become seamless, he says, as the station could recognize the driver and access that person’s bank account.

But these are just a few aspects of the design. The station is also greener, with solar roof panels that could be opened and closed, and can also 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, a person could 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 the conference 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,” Casalegno 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 an app that would help people when eating out by providing real-time information about food at restaurants.

But as with his other works, before any technology was conceived, Casalegno 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 developing a language-translation app — a relatively easy and accessible fix, Casalegno says — the intention was to encourage social interaction. The app 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.”

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