Can the hardware hacker’s creative methods bring new insight to designers?
Generally, there is a negative stigma associated with the term ‘hacking’ due to black hat hackers hacking into private or Government servers. However, there are many forms of hacking, such as the ‘Ikea hacks ’which are the manipulation of Ikea products to adapt their functionality and ‘life hacks’ which are tasks or actions to reduce frustration of life. (Dictionary, 2016) Nevertheless, the term hacking remains a difficult concept to define as it can refer to many different practices.
One of the increasingly common trends is ‘hardware hacking’. This refers to any method of hardware modification through its electronics or by its behaviour. The physical modification of a device is generally straightforward i.e. disassembling or cutting into the device. However, when hacking electronics or when changing product behaviour or primary function, it can become complex due to ethical, legal reasons and violation of a company’s intellectual property rights.
“Hardware hacking – modifying a product to do something it was never intended to do by its original designer” (Grand, 2006)
In late 2015 Amazon introduced a more convenient way to purchase products from their store using the Amazon Dash Button. The button is designed to enable users to quickly repeat orders of products they regularly purchase. (Burgess, 2016) The device works by clicking a button which wakes up the device, connects to the Wi-Fi, orders the product from the Amazon Store and then turns off. The process is very simple and convenient for Amazon customers. But shortly after the device was introduced, other functions for this product were found. The device became instantly appealing to hardware hackers as this tiny adhesive physical trigger could be easily altered to change its function.
There are many ideas of how to change the functionality of the dash from controlling power outlets in homes to data tracking. However, every new idea for the dash is built from the same fundamental code irrespective of the function. As a result of the ‘Amazon Dash hacking,’ awareness of the hardware hacking trend increased worldwide from veteran programmers and casual hobbyist.
Hardware hackers begin by analysing existing products to find hardware exploitations. For example, a hardware hacker examined baby-tracker apps and found that they generally served a single purpose. However, as his baby’s needs kept changing, he hacked the dash and made alterations to track his baby’s data to discover patterns that would not normally be noticed. “I want a simple button that I can stick to the wall and push to records poops today but wake ups tomorrow.” (Benson, 2016) When creating the dash, the designers only concentrated on a solution to reorder products and did not consider any other use. Therefore, analysis by hardware hackers can lead to the discovery of new creative solutions to problems that the original designers did not consider or did not know existed.
As someone who has knowledge of programming and an interest in altering hardware, I purchased a dash when it became available in the UK. The motivation for my purchase was specifically to modify the dash’s primary function. After discovering and researching the Philips light ‘hack’, I repurposed my dash to turn my computer on remotely. (Dudes, 2016) Although, this modification was not as complex or innovative as some tweaks done, my dash served a function which was personal to me. I achieved the primary function alteration by using a python script and changes to the computer bios. After completing the adjustments, I realised that other ‘hardware hack’ modifications could benefit different areas of my life. I considered purchasing two devices in order to produce a stop and start or an execute and cancel functionality. I considered other functions the dash could perform to help the community e.g. a low-cost button to control multiple automated functions to open blinds and turn on lights for the physically impaired.
I believe that the concept of changing a product to solve a different problem to be interesting. When a product is disassembled, and rebuilt there is great potential for better design. Although this process may not be regarded as a typical design process, it could benefit designers as it can provide unique solutions. However, the real question should be whether designers should embrace the thought processes of hardware hackers in their design cycles?
There are various benefits of a hacker’s creative process. It encourages a free-spirited and unconventional form of thinking and proves that the repeated analysis of product exploits often reveals unexpected solutions. (Grand,2006) There are many examples of how hacker’s use their alternative thinking to find creative solutions to problems. For example, hackers created jackhammer hearing protection earmuffs which played noisy environment audio books. This solution offered better noise reduction than the commercial noise cancelling headphones and was significantly cheaper. (Hartmann, B., Doorley, S. and Klemmer, S, 2008) However, there are often negatives to the hacker’s methods and these can include ethical, legal and patent issues. Furthermore, their process only works when coupled with other creative processes, such as Double Diamond, as the hacker’s model focuses primarily on discovery, insight, opportunity and ideation. (Design Council,2016) Nevertheless, I believe hardware hackers can play an important part in the design process as they can offer a different insight into products which traditional product and software designers may not discover.
As an industrial designer, I have knowledge of various creative processes from IDEO’s HCD to the Design Council’s Double Diamond. Typically, these processes use a combination of divergent and convergent thinking. During the divergent thinking, I feel that the models do not focus sufficiently on
the existing product but rather on the investigation to find a possible solution, unlike hardware hackers whose core principal is the existing product investigation. The hardware hacker’s principle of finding and analysing product exploits often leads to the development of new functions and alternative solutions to problems. I feel designers often focus on the premise that a new product must be designed to solve a particular problem only. By comparison, hardware hackers frequently find their solutions through the alteration of an existing product.
As increasing numbers of product designers become skilled in the programming elements of design, knowledge can be gained by this method of innovation and iterative thinking to alter products in order to discover other functions and uses. I believe that designers could benefit from this different creative process, coupled with a more structured approach, that hardware hacking has to offer.
“The designer should try to break the security mechanism of those product, then fix them and try to break them again. Time should be scheduled for this iterative process during the design cycle. “(Grand, 2006)
Written by Robert Gittus (LinkedIn/Email/Medium)


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