Collusion 2019: Q&A with Tanaka Kungwengwe08 April 2019

Cambridge Consultants’ UX designer Tanaka Kungwengwe on his team’s role in designing the virtual assistant hosting Crowded Room’s house party of the future

Tonight you’re going to party like it’s 2030. Crowded Room’s live-action installation 2030 invites you into the futuristic home of a young Western professional, complete with a highly intelligent virtual assistant. Audiences engage with an unfolding story and affect its outcome – while being confronted with the potential risks and likely impact of artificial intelligence on our future.

2030 was made in collaboration with the UX team from Collusion partners Cambridge Consultants to develop the virtual assistant hosting the party. We had a chat with UX designer Tanaka Kungwengwe about what it was like to bring together a team of artists with a team of technologists, and the impact it made on his own thinking around emerging technologies.

What’s your role at Cambridge Consultants? 

Our team’s day-to-day responsibility is to work with clients and users to understand what they really need and create an experience that fulfils those needs. This means asking the right questions and gathering and synthesising results – an essential process that underpins every user experience (UX) project we undertake. This may include creating graphical user interfaces, facilitating workshops to support idea generation or explore different concepts, as well as conducting user testing to test the feasibility of concepts.

How did Cambridge Consultants advise the Crowded Room team?

The UX team worked with Crowded Room to help them explore the different possibilities of virtual assistants in 2030. We started by considering where virtual assistants are currently in present day, and how far they’ve come in the past decade. We also thought about what standards of living might be like in 2030, how people’s lifestyles might change in the future, and how virtual assistants might help resolve their problems. 

Analyzing current trends, we concluded that people are likely to become more reliant on technology, and perhaps even lazier, in the future as they look to new products to improve their standard of living. For example, people are already starting to rely on their phones to simplify basic needs such as social communication. Extrapolate that to 2030, when people may not necessarily leave their environment to get their needs met. We realised that they might not even need to go to hospital because virtual assistants might be used to attend to medical needs. This led to the virtual assistant idea you see in 2030. 

What was the process of working with Crowded Room like?

After conducting an initial brainstorm session together, we split into two groups. Before we met with Crowded Room for a workshop, they had advised us that the context for the exhibition was a house party. Bearing this in mind, we decided to conduct a short user needs study considering the needs of the host, the participants attending the party, and the host’s mother, who had Alzheimer’s.

For example, how would the host feel at a particular time? How much preparation would they need to do? We then opened it up for discussion and enabled the participants to jot down various ideas and stick them on the wall with Post-it notes. This helped us identify specific user needs which we then saw that virtual assistants could be used to resolve or improve on – for example awkward social interactions, or people not being able to communicate with each other, or people being bored.

Was this the first time you’d collaborated with writers and actors?

It was the first time I’d personally collaborated with actors and writers from a technology perspective. It was quite grounding, as they had a different viewpoint with regards to how technology could be used in the future.

It was eye-opening and refreshing for the UX team because our own immediate starting point had been, okay, how will things be manufactured in the future? Is it feasible? The artists’ and writers’ ideas, on the other hand, weren’t constrained by technical barriers. They just explored all the potential possibilities and then picked one that they could incorporate into their exhibition.

What did you learn from the experience on a personal level?

I realised it’s not a good idea to become overly reliant on technology, especially to conduct basic tasks. In the process of devising a virtual assistant for 2030, we didn’t only consider the positive effects of this technology in 2030 but also the potential adverse impacts, and how it may not always be there to rely upon.

I think a typical response to new technologies is to immediately be excited and think about all the potential benefits, without considering the wider social implications. This workshop allowed me to become more open-minded and consider that there may be another side to every positive gain. 

How did your experience of collaborating with Crowded Room change your perspective of your work?

A significant part of working for Cambridge Consultants involves creating world-changing technology that helps our clients transform their business and markets, or solve a high-risk, complicated problem. One of my biggest takeaways from this project was the necessity of creating technology that’s readily available for everyone. I realised how important it is to consider the needs of the whole of society rather than for one demographic or group of people.

To experience 2030, visit the Collusion 2019 showcase at Cambridge Junction from 12-22 April. Keep an eye our our Events page for live performance times.