“Break on through the other side…” – The Designer meets The Engineer

Have you tried to lock one designer and an engineer into a room to create something together? It’s not pretty. At times it can be violent, bloody and there’s surely a lot of cursing.

Now add the Internet of Things to the mix, a tough deadline, lots of technical uncertainty and you have the perfect battlefield.

I’m a Service and UX Designer, and without knowing I was sent to a battle that would permanently change my mind. From the moment I entered the room I started to hear things like Raspberry-Pi, Beacon Frequencies, Mesh Networks, “something-something”protocols, and some other lingo that I can’t even process. The engineer was there throwing at me what it felt like some dark tech voodoo, sending me into a vortex of frustration and loneliness.

That was my introduction to IoT.

Me and Paul, who shall henceforth be known as “The Engineer”, had a project that consisted of developing a hyperlocal contextually aware service for a conference. It would deliver information and provide service access on a very short physical range, at the precise moment and location. Sounds good right? But until we got to the point that I was able to explain what we were supposed to do, I had to dive deep into the technology to understand what could be done beyond the technological dreams of The Engineer.

This is a very common scenario nowadays – especially with technologies like IoT. It’s very tech-driven, since it’s the tech that opens the doors for new service and product possibilities. But if not thought through properly from a user perspective, through a design lens, even the best technology will add very little value to anyone.

It is sometimes challenging enough to develop something for a screen, but adding the physical layer and a real world environment it starts to become even more complex.

During the process of working with Paul, we both had to learn how to work with each other, how to overcome our respective pure design and tech mindsets and to, get out of our comfort zones, kill our egos (still working on that). We had to learn to see beyond our own practice.

At a certain point my lack of tech know-how became obvious, as did Paul’s design blindspot. .Like two people in a dysfunctional relationship, we needed to work it out and find new ways to communicate and teach each other, but above all to talk at the same level.

This is how the IoT Service Kit was born. We created a tool that would allow me (The Designer) to express my concepts and ideas and Paul (The Engineer) explain what kind of technology we would need, as well as point out the limitations and opportunities. But it turned out to be much more than that. In the end, Paul started to understand the nature of ideation, concept creation and exploration, and technology became a new material for me to work with.

The Kit started to facilitate communication between us and we realised that the problem we were facing many other people face daily, too. What’s more, these problems are becoming more common as technology develops. We developed the Kit further, passing through a couple of iterations and testing. As soon we were satisfied with the result we shared the Kit with the world.

The Kit has already taken us to a couple of countries to run workshops at conferences and meetups. No matter where we went, from South America to Europe, our assumptions were right: it’s all about communication. Designers working closely with engineers, dealing with hard tech and lots of uncertainty; engineers having a hard time working with designers and trying to understand their cryptic concepts. The missing link was a facilitator for the conversation. This is where the Kit shines.

As per our philosophy, we released the IoT Service Kit under Creative Commons. Why do this when we could have it mass produced and make a couple of extra bucks? Well, because we believe that Open Source is the future, specially in IoT.

In a world of connected devices and services, there’s a tendency to create closed systems to hook people into, alienating them from other touchpoints in the network. This is an ironic view of a “connected world”. The same goes for knowledge, why lock it in and just make it accessible to the ones who can afford it?

Making the Kit Open Source was a conscious decision, allowing people to use it no matter where they are, taking full advantage of the idea of self and local production, using 3D printing and regular paper prints to build your own kit. Another factor that contributed twas the fact that Open Source culture is nowhere near as widespread in the design world as in software, where developers are much more keen and motivated to contribute to the Open Source software community. Designers are starting to slowly wake up to the movement. We wanted to be part of it.

And the results are in! People are using the Kit all over the world, giving us feedback on the tool and developing their own Kit flavours. has been a tremendously rewarding experience for us. From Brazil to Shanghai, we’ve received messages of support and big smiles from people who have embraced the Kit.

In conclusion, it’s been an amazing ride. We’ve learned that the future relies on a deep collaboration between different practices (design + tech), that communication is the cornerstone of a successful project and that opening up brings much more joy and fulfilment than keeping it to yourself.


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