Sex sells. (Yep, bring on the spambots.) And, well, you can’t avoid researching touch without at least giving a nod towards what touch is really all about (in a Freudian/biological kinda sense)….
I’ve been meaning to look into some of the research around sex toys for a while, until I found out that Northumbria affiliates Jeff and Shaoin Bardzell had in fact done it already.
It might be surprising to consider that human-computer interaction, once the province of engineers and experimental psychologists, would find itself on a trajectory that is converging with that of sex toys, once the province of sleazy urban sex shops and pornographers.
For those who can’t access their paper Pleasure is Your Birthright: Digitally Enabled Designer Sex Toys as a Case of Third-Wave HCI (or are just of the tl;dr attitude) can take a look at the MIT Technology Review Post that sums it up.
Constructed through an entirely user-focused process of iterative experimentation, [digitally augmented sex toys] are also significantly better designed than 99 percent of the human-computer interfaces on the market. They are some of the only existing successful examples of so-called “third-wave human-computer interaction,” which takes human interaction with machines into the realm of “experience, emotion, and embodiment.”
Or, in other words: if designers want to know why people love their iPads, they’d do well to understand why they are no less fiercely devoted to Nomi Tang’s Better than Chocolate, which has a “tangible user interface to control vibration patterns and intensity,” or Je Joue’s SaSi, which has a “user-programmable vibration design interface.”
All of the designers interviewed by the Bardzells used the sorts of tools you’d expect any high-end industrial designer to use—3-D prototyping, extensive user testing—but once they’d gotten beyond merely making something functional, they made the same leap that creators of all iconic devices do: They figured out how to tweak their product in order to sell an idea, for which their product is merely an embodiment.
[EDIT: Having got hold of the actual paper, I'm able to grab a bit more information what the Bardzells found. Continues below].
15 interviewees across a number of countries were interviewed with the following questions:
- Background: (Education/industry history, motivation, day-to-day responsibilities, etc.) Interestingly, the company owners did not have a long background with the sex toy industry, but instead were designers, engineers and technologists who entered the field through personal (even sometimes flippant) interest.
- Perceptions of existing toys: (Qualities of a good sex toys, market perspectives, what works and why, etc.) All of the interviewees had visceral negative reactions to existing products: that they were “cheap plastic toys”, “sounds like a washing machine … gross, sounds ugly”, ”scary looking, very unapproachable, often looked like severed anatomy [or figurative animals] …. They were noisy, they were smelly, and a whole host of materials…. made out of toxic material. They were packaged in packaging with porn stars…”
- Design process: (Inspirations, rationale, tools, materials, working with consumers, etc.) The designers reframed (ala Cross or Schön) the brief to be “consumer electronic”, “sexy thing”, or art object aesthetic + medical instrument quality.
- Integration with technology: (Their vision of the role technology plays in sex toy design in 5- and 10-years, how technology shapes the design process, etc.) This isn’t so much covered in the results, but what does come across is the focus on on sex toys as a sophisticated and high quality designed object rather than a novelty toy.
With the question of what makes a good sex toy, one interviewee suggested three qualities:
- Responsive to human desires (though this turned out to perhaps be an aspect of engineering as it mean durabilty, ease of use and the like)
- aesthetic, and
- well engineered.
and the Bardzells note the general importance of embodiment, not only in a technical sense (obviously the designers need a good understanding of anatomy and materials amongst other things), but also in terms of personal embodiment, both in how the prototypes were immensely important and in the highly evocative language that was often used to describe positive and negative qualities (as noted above).
So, in plain-England-speak, the designers came out as being really passionate about their work, and in a sensual (or even sensuous) rather than scary-porno way. To the designers, you could say their products are well and truly evocative objects.