Strategist, Speaker, Designer, Instigator

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?