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Designing a Future We Want to Live In - UX STRAT USA 2017
So y’all, before we get to the talk here I want to point out that
we’re standing on holy ground.
This is where Mork & Mindy lived! Their house is just right
around the corner, in fact. Google it — take a little
Let’s wake up together some — everybody stand up ….
(nanoo nano greeting)
Anyway…moving on to the topic at hand…
Have you heard of this thing they’re calling Artificial
I hear it’s a big deal.
My talk today is sort of centered on AI and related stuff but
there’s ideas here that have been touched on brilliantly by
the speakers before me that really apply beyond any specific
But AI though. Dang. It’s everywhere. Gartner’s hype cycle
has a lot of little dots and things on it, with labels, and you
can’t read this slide from where you’re sitting, but I’ll just go
ahead and give you the spoiler that most of these things are
related to AI in some way.
(I’ve often wondered where Gartner’s Hype Cycle would fit
on Gartner’s Hype Cycle, but I digress…)
Whether you’ve been asked to design for AI or not, you will
be. And we need to get ahead of this curve, because these
technologies aren’t reducing the need for user experience
strategy — they’re making it more important, and more
So my talk is in three parts, in keeping with the purpose of
our event here. I’m going to share some thoughts on what
these things mean now that we’re looking at this new future
of smart things.
I’ve been thinking for a while that this new technology is
something we need to frame differently than the more
passive sorts of technology we all grew up around.
Philosopher and technology commentator Ian Bogost’s book
Alien Phenomenology is about what the experience of things
might be. And I like that framing — that the things we’re
putting into the world that can perceive and act on their own
need to be considered not only as infrastructure but as users
themselves, of a sort. But what sort?
One problem we have is that we tend to assume smart
machines can perceive the world the way we do — that they
can understand all the contextual information we take for
granted. But they don’t. Even the smartest neural networked
technologies struggle with some of the simplest bits of even
physical context, never mind the nuances cultural of
So Alexa doesn’t necessarily know that a TV commercial
saying “Alexa” isn’t directed at Alexa. It doesn’t know how to
ignore what looks to us like clutter on a road sign, but it
takes to mean it’s a different sign. Or that a picture of a face
isn’t a face, or that stealth audio frequencies maybe aren’t
meant to be listened to.
Jakob Johann von Uexküll’s concept of “umwelt” is a useful
lens for this idea. Creatures can inhabit the same
environment from a gods-eye-view, but be in very different
environments in terms of how they perceive and act.
A frog and a spider may traverse the same foliage, and may
even eat the same food, but the frog acts based on different
structures and affordances than the spider. For instance
frog only pays attention to the twigs, but the spider is
interested in the space between them. Even their sensory
and cognitive experience is different, due to the way they
A fun thing about smart things is that, unlike people, we can
look inside their brains and actually see the information they
use to compute what they think about the world. And they
don’t perceive things necessarily the way we do.
What would it mean for us to bring the same rigor we use for
understanding human users to understanding artificial ones?
We have two Boston Terriers, Sigmund and Edgar.
We’ve had to learn that if we anthropomorphize them and
treat them like little humans, it ends up making everyone
unhappy, including them.
Just because dogs have been bred over time to be very
human-centric — such as the behavior of looking humans in
the eye — they’re still very different creatures.
We have to establish a clear communication framework of
signals and rewards, and we also have to arrange our
environment to be dog-friendly as much as human-friendly.
If you think of a Nest thermostat, or a telematics device in a
car, or even your smartphone — these are all things that are
perceiving our behaviors mostly invisibly, and using that as
information for making decisions on what actions they
should take. I’m just walking down my hallway, but the
thermostat takes that as language telling it to change the
temperature upstairs. And that’s not a bug but a feature —
it’s what we supposedly want.
But so-called ‘invisible’ interface is still an interface. It still
needs clarity and it still needs design. This doesn’t make our
jobs easier, it makes our jobs way harder, but even more
Because we’re no longer even only dealing with one thing at
a time, but an environment full of this stuff, and it’s not
slowing down. So a crucial question for UX is how are we
making frameworks and even maybe standards around
making sure these environments are legible, understandable,
controllable by people.
That goes far beyond screen-specific, or even product-
specific UX. It requires us to get involved in defining what the
user is, what the data construct are, what the technical
architecture is, in order to make all this work together in a
So that brings us to the next topic — Experience. It’s a term
we use a lot, but it isn’t very well defined. But now that all
this technology is infiltrating our surroundings and creating
vast new interconnected ecosystems, I think we need to get
more rigorous about what we mean by experience.
Organizations have had the power to use mass media to
change fundamentals of human culture for a very long time.
Whether it’s government, or religion, or raw commerce. An
example I like telling people about is this article that was in
the Atlantic way back in 1982. It details how the de Beers
cartel realized in the 40s that they were about to have a glut
of diamonds, so they manipulated the marketplace with
advertising, news stories, picking glamorous spokespeople,
and all the rest, and convinced millions of people that
diamond engagement rings were the only engagement rings
that mattered. This was an artificially engineered shift in
culture, that was so effective, for many people anything but a
big diamond engagement ring is considered a failure.
The internet exponentially increases the potential of these
To paraphrase an old saw attributed to Churchill, just as we
shape our environment, our environment shapes us.
Prior to Churchill’s aphorism, in 1926, psychologist Kurt
Lewin (Le-veen) created what is now called (Le-veen’s)
Lewin’s Equation. It’s a heuristic formula (rather than a
mathematical equation) that states, “Behavior is a function of
the person and his or her environment.” It was controversial
at the time, because it raised environment to the same level
of influence as the person’s own behavior, perception,
cognition, and memory.
But science, since this proposal, keeps finding that the
ability for our environment to shape our behavior and
thinking seems to have no limit.
This is a silly example, maybe… but it’s serious. I have to
wonder how many people have been injured trying to walk
Somebody designed some carpet, but didn’t know what
context it would be used in.
Small design decisions can have big consequences.
It's not just the fact that it was put on stairs — that’s
harmless in itself.
It’s the fact that people are going to be using the stairs. It’s
the coupling of environment and human where the
interactions happen, and where the problems arise. Humans
bring their own context of limitations to whatever we create.
Similarly, when our engineers and information scientists
create these thinking, acting digital creatures, it’s easy to
assume the thing itself is neutral.
Now, lately some of the larger companies doing this work
are the ones getting the heat, but that’s mainly because of
their scale. When your digital platform reaches the point of
being de-facto civic infrastructure, you’re gonna get more
But smaller companies and start-ups have the same
responsibilities, and can cause just as much damage.
Being human-centered means considering the context of
what we’re creating, not just the thing itself. What happens
when we change something or make something new and put
it into an environment? How does it change the context it's
I’ve become more and more reliant on the perspective and
methods of service design to achieve clarity around user
context. It’s a holistic approach that always pushes to
understand what each element in the environment
contributes to the whole service experience.
By the way we’ve heard this ‘ecosystem’ word a lot today —
we use that term as a sort of metaphor a lot, and that’s fine.
But when it comes to the embodied experience of humans,
we need to think about ecosystem in a more literal sense, of
a creature in an environment. The bigger the systems we’re
working with, the more we have to remind ourselves what it’s
like to be a person with a body trying to make do in a
Service design provides a vehicle for purposeful
environmental design strategies. I’m finding that it brings a
level of rigor to things like journey mapping, putting those
journeys into operational and technological context for
business and IT planning.
We need to be “full stack” experience strategists — because
the back end is infiltrating the front-end. Our interactions are
less and less mediated by people and increasingly mediated
by systems — and people being assisted by systems.
>> This means getting into operations design and enterprise
architecture of infrastructure and business processes.
I’ll just leave this up for a few seconds…
What our business and technology partners are finding is
that doing stuff with smart technology is actually hard.
Artificial Intelligence is one of a cluster of other
organizational patterns of change we’re seeing lately, and is
actually being counted on as a key capability as part of those
Digital transformation, IT modernization, process automation:
these are all important. I’m not saying they aren’t. It’s just
that there’s a tendency to put the wheels of these things in
motion and assume you have a strategy.
But these are not strategies. They’re tools, approaches, and
largely about catching up with the big digital leaders like
Amazon and Google.
This MIT Sloan report that just came out this month shows
how most organizations have high hopes for AI — lots of
aspirational dreaming about the magic it can do. But in fact
only a small minority are actually using it at much scale, and
most don’t have a strategy outlined for how to use it. I’d also
be surprised if the ones who said they had a strategy have
much more than the buzzword implementations I mentioned
In another recent study, two things stood out to me in
The biggest challenges with implementing AI are people and
processes — essentially the human side of the equation. But
as we know, AI is only as good as the people feeding it data,
tuning its algorithms, and using it effectively on the job.
There’s also a pattern of putting tech teams solely in charge
of AI initiatives, which ends up being a hammer looking for a
It’s not just AI but all these sweeping technological overhauls
that are struggling — and the common thread is that they
need to better understand human context. There’s a lot of
over-promise out there about what these transformations
and algorithms and everything else can do, largely due to not
understanding how it’s going to work when it hits the reality
of real humans.
Michael E. Porter HBR
What is Strategy?
FROM THE NOVEMBER–DECEMBER 1996 ISSUE
Michael Watkins HBR
Demystifying Strategy: The What, Who, How, and Why
Michael Watkins HBR - SEPTEMBER 10, 2007
Call the context “the meta” and call the artefact “the matter”.
Strategic design work swings from the meta to the matter
and back again, oscillating between these two states in order
to recalibrate each in response to the other.
Hill, Dan. Dark Matter and Trojan Horses: A Strategic Design
Vocabulary (Kindle Locations 410-412). Strelka Press. Kindle
This basic idea, zooming back and forth from matter to meta,
and using each scale to refine the other, is core to strategic
Hill, Dan. Dark Matter and Trojan Horses: A Strategic Design
Vocabulary (Kindle Locations 462-463). Strelka Press. Kindle
Organizations clearly need user experience strategy as a key
element toward making these technologies work for the
better. But we have to figure out how to make that case.
That means going an extra mile or two to design how we
engage the meta beyond the matter.
So we can’t wait to be invited or asked to think about the
end-solutions alone. We can’t get stuck at the level of one
product or another. We have to find ways to not just
participate but lead this kind of work. That means
understanding and speaking to the other layers of the
organization that aren’t traditionally the purview of “user
experience design” as it’s understood by most business
And my own personal belief is that being truly human-
centered means something is good for all of us, not just
some of us. What’s good for a technology company may not
be good for its employees or customers. Or it may be good
for a privileged few, at the expense of others. Taking a
holistic view of user experience strategy means advocating
for those who may otherwise be left out of the value this
work can bring.
Jun. 26, 2018
My closing talk for UXSTRAT 2017 in beautiful Boulder CO!