Strategist, Speaker, Designer, Instigator

Monthly Archives: September 2012

Blinded by the light

This is the less selfish post that accompanies my previous one… and in many ways, the more important of the two. As I mentioned, I spoke at both Picnic and MEX last week. As a result, I came home with a head jam-packed full of awesome, and am only just now able to start sifting through the highlights.

The overarching theme is that both conferences succeeded in doing what we always hope conferences will but which they don’t always deliver – opening new ways of thinking about what’s important, to my work and myself; suggesting new directions for ideas and projects; bringing together new people to discuss it all with.

I was completely floored by some of the work going on in the open source community these days. Particularly mind-bending was Protei, the invention of Cesar Harada, which I’d never seen: in the quest to create more effective ways of cleaning up the BP oil spill, Cesar and his team invented a whole new kind of sailboat, with a flexible hull to maximally harness the power of the wind. I want to go sailing with him. Cesar, are you listening?

Most of all, I love the message this sends: whenever you embark on a new course (see what I did there?), you’ll run into difficulties along the way. If you can’t find the thing you need, if the technology doesn’t exist, don’t just sit there – invent it. No boundaries, nothing is impossible. We could all learn from that.

Speaking of people we could all learn from, I got to meet two of my absolute heroes at Picnic – Doc Searls and Tim O’Reilly. Both are continuing to push us forward in terms of what the internet and new technology can and should do. Doc is working on the VRM project, which aims to completely upend the traditional relationship between businesses and customers, to drive more value for both. In the face of a growing trend to emphasise traditional commercial mechanics over the needs and desires of the individual, Doc envisions an economy where we own ourselves and have control over who knows what, and how that information is used.

Tim O’Reilly is a publisher, among other things. His attitude toward his business, however, is anything but that of the traditional publishing house. His mantra of “Create more value than you capture” is a call to action for all businesses (and Business Designers) to think harder about what constitutes value for whom, and what’s truly sustainable in the long term. If you think this sounds counterproductive, look at O’Reilly Media, which has been flourishing under this credo for more than two decades. As he said: we all do better when we all do better.

MEX was far more intimate but no less exciting. FIrst of all, it’s really great to see non-designers attending a design conference because they think it’s important to their work, and I met a number of people who began conversations with, “this isn’t really my thing but…” and ended up contributing a great deal.

I could see the foothold that design thinking has gained in the past year or two made manifest in some of the talks – a few years ago, it would have been almost unheard of for a Head of Product to express their process in human-centric terms. Peter Whale of Qualcomm did exactly that, and it was a brilliant insight into the challenges immediately ahead of us.

Also near to my heart is the new skills and new ways of thinking about interaction that we will need to learn as technology continues to evolve, branch and grow. At MEX I was able to work with experts in sound and haptics, learning about the research, possibilities and limitations of these technologies, and I emerged with a better understanding of what we need to learn at Fjord in order to make effective use of them.

Plus, I got to see some radical new ways of sharing data and content – birdsong, anyone?

All in all, it was a pretty incredible week. And now, time to buckle down and see how I can apply some of this genius to our day-to-day work. Thanks to the organisers and the fantastic speakers at both Picnic and MEX. It was amazing. I’ll see you next time.

Me and my (data) shadow

I’ve been on a bit of a speaking tour the past couple of weeks, and I’ve been growing more vested in and impassioned by my current topic every time I talk about it. What I’ve been talking about is how we can become more human, better at being human, using all the richness of data and technology that we are and will be producing.

It might sound strange coming from a confirmed geek, but I really do think we – as designers, technologists, business people – need to shift our focus if what we create is to be sustainable and positive for us and the world.

You can see my talk at Picnic in Amsterdam here.

I was also at MEX in London, which is a small and intense conference focussed on Mobile User Experience. There, I focussed on avoiding the digital creep factor in service design – something that one of the designers at Fjord characterised as “the Uncanny Valley of services.”

The Uncanny Valley, for those who are unfamiliar with the term, refers to a robotics hypothesis from the 70s. The hypothesis was that the more robots resemble humans, the more positively humans will respond to them – up to a point where the positive reaction turns to revulsion. Once the robot gets a lot closer to human – so close as to be virtually indistinguishable, the reaction turns positive again.

As a Fjord designer pointed out a while back, a similar thing is happening in services these days. Initially, we are pleased when services get to know us and tailor our experiences according to our preferences (when they seem to be getting to know us like humans would). But then things go just a touch too far and trust and comfort plummet. Those of you who use Gmail, have you ever looked at the ads in the right column and thought, “how did they know?” Have you ever had a recommendation on Amazon or somewhere else and wondered where it came from? It gets downright creepy. And the more we dabble in things that are close to people’s hearts and pocketbooks, the greater the risk of a misstep that does serious damage. Once a relationship has dropped into the uncanny valley of distrust, it’s hugely difficult – perhaps even impossible – to pull it back out.

I feel strongly that the key to staying out of the uncanny valley is keeping our focus on the actual human rather than the artificial one – making sure that users of services understand what’s happening to them and have enough control over it to feel comfortable; making sure that businesses are (to quote Tim O’Reilly) creating more value for their users than they capture. Designing these kinds of businesses and experiences becomes more and more challenging the more data, interfaces, outputs and inputs technology opens to us. But challenging doesn’t mean we should give up – it means we should push ourselves to learn more, understand better, think more creatively about what we’re doing and why we’re doing it.

Because after all, if we’re not doing it for each other – for people – then what is the point?