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Designing a Future We Want to Live In - UX STRAT USA 2017

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My closing talk for UXSTRAT 2017 in beautiful Boulder CO!

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Designing a Future We Want to Live In - UX STRAT USA 2017

  1. 1. So y’all, before we get to the talk here I want to point out that we’re standing on holy ground.
  2. 2. This is where Mork & Mindy lived! Their house is just right around the corner, in fact. Google it — take a little pilgrimage. Let’s wake up together some — everybody stand up …. (nanoo nano greeting) Anyway…moving on to the topic at hand…
  3. 3. Have you heard of this thing they’re calling Artificial Intelligence? 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 technology.
  4. 4. 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 challenging.
  5. 5. 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.
  6. 6. Let’s start with “user”.
  7. 7. 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?
  8. 8. 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 linguistic context. 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.
  9. 9. 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 evolved.
  10. 10. 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?
  11. 11. 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.
  12. 12. 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 necessary.
  13. 13. 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 human-centered way.
  14. 14. 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.
  15. 15. 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 methods.
  16. 16. 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.
  17. 17. This is a silly example, maybe… but it’s serious. I have to wonder how many people have been injured trying to walk on these. 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.
  18. 18. 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 heat. But smaller companies and start-ups have the same responsibilities, and can cause just as much damage.
  19. 19. 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 in?
  20. 20. 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 physical ecosystem.
  21. 21. 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.
  22. 22. 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.
  23. 23. 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.
  24. 24. 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 changes. 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.
  25. 25. 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 before.
  26. 26. In another recent study, two things stood out to me in particular: 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 nail.
  27. 27. 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.
  28. 28. 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
  29. 29. 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 Edition. This basic idea, zooming back and forth from matter to meta, and using each scale to refine the other, is core to strategic design. Hill, Dan. Dark Matter and Trojan Horses: A Strategic Design Vocabulary (Kindle Locations 462-463). Strelka Press. Kindle Edition.
  30. 30. 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.
  31. 31. 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 leaders.
  32. 32. 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.

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