10 Fundamental Insights about the Tech-Driven Future for Humanity*

*and why women, POC, and other underrepresented people in tech should lead it

Today I spoke at the Irish Business Organization of New York’s women’s networking luncheon and addressed them on the tech-driven future for humanity, and why women should be leading it.

Tech Humanist front cover

Here are those insights in brief; if you’d like to hear more of this, of course, I elaborate on all of these points within my keynote presentations and my books.

  1. The tech-driven future will be neither dystopia nor utopia. It will be what we make it.
    We tend to tell a story about technology that pits the worst case scenario against the best case scenario — and conveniently leaves our actions and responsibilities out of the equation. But the truth is we are very much responsible for shaping the future of technology.
    Is it possible that tech can even help us be better humans? As I repeatedly asserted in Tech Humanist, with the emergence of automation, artificial intelligence, and other capacity-expanding tech, we will have the opportunity to create the best futures for the most people.
  2. Humans crave meaning.
    We just do. We seek meaning, we’re compelled by meaning; when you offer meaning to us, we can’t resist it. To bridge the gap between what makes tech better for business and better for humans, business needs to create more meaningful human experiences at scale.
    Moreover, the shape meaning takes in business is purpose, and the amazing thing about purpose is that when you can be clear about what you are trying to do at scale, it helps both humans and machines function more effectively. Humans thrive on a sense of meaning, common goals, and a sense of fulfilling something bigger. Machines thrive on succinct instructions. A clearly articulated sense of strategic purpose helps achieve both of these.
  3. Robots aren’t “coming.” They’re here.
    Everyone talks about robots coming 
like they’re some far-off future 
as if millions of homes don’t already have Roomba and Alexa.
  4. What tech does well vs. what humans do well will continuously evolve.
    What does tech do well, for now? Productivity: 
speed up laborious tasks, improve reliability of variable tasks, automate repetitive tasks, archive, index. Certain types of predictive insights: 
track data, expose patterns. Security: 
impose rules and limits, regulate access.
    What doesn’t tech do as well? Tech isn’t so hot at: 
Managing people. Making judgment calls. Fostering relationships. Discerning contextual nuance. (Yet.)
    Also, humans can’t leave meaning up to machines. That’s value humans add to the equation.
  5. Machines are what we encode of ourselves.
    And since that’s true, why not encode our best selves? Our most enlightened selves?
  6. Data-rich experiences tend to be better experiences. Just remember that analytics are people.
    Everyone loves the oft-quoted statistics about data: every 2 days we create as much information as we did from the beginning of time until 2003, and over 90% of all the data in the world was created in the past 2 years.
    And there are huge opportunities to use this data to make amazing, delightful, fulfilling, enriching human experiences possible.
    But what’s important in all of this is remembering that most of this data comes from humans, and represents human identity, preferences, motivations, desires, and so on. Most business data is about people. Analytics, in other words, are people. And while relevance is a form of respect, discretion is, too. So we need to treat human data with respect and protect it excessively, even as we use it to inform the design of more meaningful experiences.
  7. If you don’t align human experiences with meaning, you risk building absurdity at scale.
    There’s a story I tell (and it’s in the book) about a big retailer encoding a behavior change that, at some point, could put a cultural norm in jeopardy. And the upshot is: experience at scale changes culture. Because experience at scale is culture.
  8. “Online” and “offline” are blurrier than you may think.
    This is basically the whole premise of my previous book Pixels and Place, but the short version of this insight is: just about everywhere 
the physical world 
and the digital world converge, 
the connective layer is 
the data captured through 
human experience.
    And to create more meaningful human experiences, 
we need to design more 
integrated human experiences.
  9. Everything is in flux. Embrace change.
    70-80% of CEOs say the next three years are more critical than the past 50 years. The coming years, for example, are likely to see massive shifts in the scope and types of jobs humans do. Some companies will gain tremendous efficiencies from the use of automation; I propose that companies reinvest some of those gains 
into humanity in various ways: better customer experiences, job training, basic income experiments, etc. And that where possible, companies look to repurpose 
human skills and qualities toward higher value roles.
  10. Diversity in tech is a strategic asset. Scratch that: it’s an absolute imperative.
    We need women — 
and diversity of all kinds — 
in tech, 
leadership, and entrepreneurship for myriad reasons: because algorithms contain our biases, because it makes the space better for everyone, because we need diverse representations of the problems tech can solve, and on and on.

If these ideas and insights resonate with you, check out my book Tech Humanist: How You Can Make Technology Better for Business and Better for Humans. Or inquire about booking me to speak at your company or organization.

Here’s to a more meaningful future for all of us.

Experience Timeline by Technology Era

To understand what constitutes experience and what has constituted experience throughout different eras of technology, I offer this timeline of what characterized and will characterize experiences throughout the major eras of recent and forthcoming technology. We are somewhere around the social-enabled and “smart” era, with elements of the “intelligent” era beginning to show up and legacy remnants of the previous eras still left behind.

To understand what constitutes experience and what has constituted experience throughout different eras of technology, I offer this timeline of what characterized and will characterize experiences throughout the major eras of recent and forthcoming technology. We are somewhere around the social-enabled and “smart” era, with elements of the “intelligent” era beginning to show up and legacy remnants of the previous eras still left behind.

Experience Timeline by Technology Era

platform? context? (not eras, because many overlap)

analog (industrial/pre-industrial?)

digital

web-enabled

social-enabled

“smart”/connected data sources

“intelligent”/AI

fully virtual / ambient virtual

characterized by

solid state, tangible

electronic, power-operated

interlinked, global knowledge, global village

social sharing, FOMO, FONS, selfie culture

data tracking, anticipatory based on past behavior, algorithmic

anticipatory based on externalities, secondary behaviors, cognitive cues, emotional indicators

dominant eras

??-?? (ongoing)

19th century – ?? (ongoing)

1990s – ?? (ongoing)

2000s – ?? (ongoing)

2010s – ?? (ongoing)

2010/20s – ?? (ongoing)

automation

mechanical

electronic

interlinked

social triggers

algorithmic

anticipatory

dominant interface

tactile

tactile, impulse?, text

desktop screen, text, images

mobile screen, text, videos

voice

voice, gesture, ambient

sensory interactions

buttons, dials, levers, etc

typing, mouse, visual cues

typing, mouse, visual cues

typing, touch, visual interactions

buttons, keypads, visual displays, voice

visual

y

y

y

y

y

y

tactile

y

y

y

audio

indicators

indicators

content

content

interactions

Interactions, triggers

ambient cues

kinesthetic

motion-powered

gestures to trigger sensors

gestures to interact

olfactory

detect gas leaks, detect coffee smell

simulate aromas?

taste

simulate taste?

What does placemaking look like in each context?

What does business need to do to innovate in each?

What do meaningful human experiences look like in each context?

What is the future of meaningful human experience?

The future of meaningful human experience is multi-sensory, contextual, dimensional, integrated, intelligent, responsive, anticipatory, adaptive, and inclusive.

 

Make It Fun

The “selfie emoji”/bitmoji feature in Google’s new chat app #Allo is well integrated and should drive adoption. The app also features AI in the form of its machine learning capability, encouraging users to interact with a chatbot assistant that learns and adapts. But to do that at scale requires widespread adoption, so they turned to Addictive Product 101: make it fun. :)

(Think it really looks like me or nah?)

Beyond Customer Experience

Businesses are finally starting to catch on that a disciplined approach to improving the customer experience leads to profit. That’s the starting point, and it’s fantastic.

But what’s the next step? What’s beyond improving the customer experience?

Well, we can think about the customer not merely as a customer, but as a well-rounded human being, who takes on many roles throughout the course of a day: patient, student, user, guest, citizen, not to mention friend, employee, parent, and so on. We can improve the human experience.

How can we improve human experience? How can we think about those many roles we all have in a business context, and why should we?

Those additional roles become dimensions of the person you’re trying to do business with. The more dimensional that person is to you, the more likely you’ll be able to offer them value. When you offer them value, you establish the basis of a meaningful relationship.

We always have to look for the human nuances if we want to build meaning.

The Most Interesting Things About Pokemon Go Have Nothing to do With the Game. (CEOs, I’m talking to you.)

Rather, the most interesting things about Pokemon Go have to do with connected experiences, and the sweeping changes these are bringing: new marketing models, opportunities with augmented reality, location-based marketing, and all the assorted issues with data privacy and security. The most interesting things about the Pokemon Go phenomenon have nothing to do with the game itself and everything to do with how different things are starting to be and are going to continue to be.

(These, by the way, are all part of what I examine in my forthcoming book Pixels and Place: Designing Human Experience Across Physical and Digital Spaces. Available in print and Kindle versions on September 1st, but you can pre-order a Kindle copy now.)

Connected Experiences Bring New Marketing Models

Marketing models are poised to be overhauled now that an online interaction can be credibly and consistently traced to offline visits in stores. See McDonald’s deal with Pokemon Go to make all 3,000 of its Japanese stores “gyms” in the game. The full details of their deal haven’t been disclosed, but one option this presents is an incredible opportunity for cost per visit modeling.

Connected Experiences and Social Interaction

The social experiences are different with augmented reality, when interacting with a digital experience doesn’t automatically mean being oblivious to the world around you (although obviously it still can – see, for example, the guys who fell off a cliff while playing, or the person who drove into a cop car).

But since you can engage with the game through a camera view of what’s ahead of you, it’s actually possible to walk and play and still be at least somewhat connected to your surroundings.

Connected Experiences… and Your Business Strategy?

This is only the beginning of what’s to come.

On social media, people have been laughing at the businesses who are developing Pokemon Go strategies (and well, it does sound absurd), but honestly if they’re starting now even these are a little late to the biggest opportunity. The gold rush was this past two weeks, when everything was novel and players were entertained by the outreach. Even if the game’s popularity continues to grow, players will likely begin to be put off by overt attempts to capitalize on the game from late entrants. And if your business is still laughing, you’re missing out on time to think about how augmented reality and connected experiences stand to change the status quo.

Of course then there’s this:

So I’m not saying to rush out and do something specific to Pokemon Go that has no alignment with your customers’ motivations or your brand. (Although if you have an idea for an experience that aligns and integrates your customers’ experience with the game in an organic, authentic, and/or memorable way, by all means do it, measure it, and publish a case study about it.) This is a call for strategic action about a macro trend, not mindless reaction to a micro trend. Trying to capitalize on the trend without strategy will probably come across to people like an attempt to manipulate the moment.

You need strategic planning (and do please note: I offer strategy workshops) that sets you up for success as the physical and digital worlds increasingly converge. There’s enough transformation taking place that there will be a relevant, meaningful way to make these opportunities align with your brand and your customers. Your job is to try to catch it.

The Thing About the Internet of Things is the Humanity in the Data

The thing about the Internet of Things is it isn’t about the things; it’s about the people.

The “things,” for the most part, are designed to create more connected experiences for humans. And the data layer that connects the digital experiences to the physical world through our gestures and actions is our data.

The transactional data that connects the online and offline world happens largely through us, through our transactions and purchases, through our speech, through our attention, through everything we do.

In the course of analyzing, optimizing, and targeting, we can’t let ourselves forget about the humanity in the data.

(This, by the way, is part of what I examine in my forthcoming book Pixels and Place: Designing Human Experience Across Physical and Digital Spaces. Available in print and Kindle versions on September 1st, but you can pre-order a Kindle copy now.)

Is Your Business Based on an Outdated Model of Customer Interaction?

You probably know, as most people do, that Netflix was all about renting unlimited DVDs before pivoting into streaming, but what you may not know is that before launching that DVD subscription program, they started out as a service to rent DVDs a la carte, just like Blockbuster, except online and through the mail. When they hit upon the idea of a DVD subscription model, they discovered that they had been working with a rapidly-aging notion of how customers wanted to interact with the physical world, and their new model simplified it. Of course their even newer model, of streaming video, simplified it even more. What are the wide-open opportunities to rethink the interactions with your customers and in your market?

The key thing to remember is that the convergence of physical and digital happens around the human experience. It’s not a new phenomenon, but the opportunities to adapt and offer more contextually relevant experiences are evolving all the time.

There’s a whole lot more about this in my new book Pixels and Place, coming out September 1st, 2016. You can pre-order the Kindle version here. Check back over the next few weeks, too; I’ll be posting more excerpts and giving away copies.

The Rental Car Traffic Violation Scam Hypothesis and Personal Privacy

vintage photo of driver being ticketed by police officer
vintage photo of driver being ticketed by police officer (source: Wikimedia Commons)

I got a ticket in the mail yesterday for running a red light. Well, it wasn’t a ticket, exactly. It was a “notice of an administrative fee” for a red light violation that allegedly happened while I was driving a rented car in my mom’s town the day before her birthday. The ticket itself apparently hasn’t even arrived in the mail yet, but the rental car company has a whole operation to process the administrative fees from traffic violations incurred by their renters, and they’re not wasting any time collecting theirs.

I bring this up here because it’s actually happened to me quite a lot. Nearly every time I rent a car, I end up getting a traffic ticket in the mail a few months later (and as a consultant and speaker who often travels to clients and events, I rent a lot of cars). You may be tempted to joke that I’m a terrible driver, but these traffic violations by mail never showed up when I was driving my own car and the discrepancy has become enough of a pattern that my mind, not usually given to conspiracy theories, started to formulate a hypothesis about how this could be part of a program to make money off of car renters.

Anatomy of a Scam Hypothesis

How could this be happening? Well, the rental car agencies could be selling their driver rental information to the companies that operate the traffic cameras. The traffic cameras could be scanning license plates and matching them against a list from the rental agencies. They could be issuing tickets on violations or close-enough-to-be-violations only when there’s a match.

I also notice that I never get more than one traffic violation per rental. The system could be set to throttle the tickets to one per rental period. Casual renters wouldn’t think much about it. “Oh well,” they’d think, “I got a ticket. I’ll just pay.”

But frequent renters, like me, start to notice a pattern. Why is it I owned a car all my adult life until late last year, drove all over the country, frequently taking my car on road trips, and have never once been issued a traffic-camera-ticket for any of those trips, yet when I drive in some of these same towns in a rental car, I get tickets mailed to me?

“Maybe It’s Just You”

Perhaps you’re skeptical, as we discuss this over drinks, and you offer that maybe instead of this elaborate scam, there’s instead a behavioral science element to all this: suppose we all drive a little more recklessly when we’re in a rented car. That seems a reasonable counter-hypothesis, I’d concede with a tip of my beer mug, but without supporting data or a compelling argument to convince me that there might be truth to this, I maintain that, whether I own the car or borrow it, I drive as I drive. And pass the peanuts.

Anyway, What About Due Process?

Most of all, whether the intent to conspire is there or not, surely it brings up questions of due process. If a police officer had simply pulled me over in each of these places, there’d be far less question of legitimacy. You say I ran a red light? Pull me over right then. The action on which the claim is based will be fresh in my head and I can either challenge the officer (calmly and politely, of course) about the veracity of the claim or accept the ticket. (Or cry, and maybe get off with a warning. Oh, relax; I’m kidding.) But you say I ran a red light three months after the fact? I barely recall being at the intersection in question, let alone what the conditions of the intersection were, or the timing of the light, or the layout of the traffic around me. Even if you were to furnish me with photographic evidence of my rented car with me in it clearly violating a red light, I still don’t have the consideration of context, and I get no due process at all.

The Bigger Issue: Privacy, Personal Rights, and Public Data

I don’t necessarily believe my conspiracy hypothesis about the rental car traffic violation scam; I just think it’s possible, and at the rate I get these tickets, I admit I’m a tad suspicious. But I’m less concerned with that and more conscious of the the bigger issue: how vulnerable people are and increasingly will be to schemes that take advantage of ever-present tracking data, surveillance, and systems with default authority, such as rental car companies and traffic enforcement bureaus. Even if these entities aren’t trying to be exploitative, the more access they have to integrated data about our movements and behaviors, the greater the potential will be for them to overstep the authority we think we’ve granted them.

So why do I share this half-baked conspiracy idea anyway? Because the premise is not mere science fiction; it’s certainly not impossible, and it’s important that we remind ourselves regularly of the powerful data about people that can be used by companies and government. That power is growing, and to a great degree, it’s already out of our hands as citizens, consumers, patients, and the public. So where and when we can, it’s important that we think critically about what the implications are, and it’s important for those of us who work in and around data systems that track human actions to be mindful of what that means.

Meanwhile, to finish on a lighter note, here’s how comedian Joe Lycett handled a mailed-in notice of a parking ticket. Enjoy.

The Why, When, and Who of Where: Place, Meaning, and Context

A coffee mug professing love for New York, in Nashville
Oddly, this NY-loving mug picture was taken at a coffee shop in Nashville. I love it when the places in my life collide in interesting ways. ☕️


I often work at coffee shops. A lot of other people do, too, of course. But since it’s my nature to think about meaning and what makes different human experiences meaningful in different ways, I sometimes find myself deconstructing the experience of what it means to work in a coffee shop. Overthinking it? OK, maybe. But I’m looking for what we can learn about designing experiences, both online and offline.

The “Why” of Place

The opening question is “why?” What is the value of working on my smallish laptop screen on a hard chair at a crowded coffee shop as opposed to sitting at my desk in my apartment, where I have a big display to dock my laptop into and access to a huge supply of teas, and where I can put on slippers and make myself as comfortable as I like? What possible explanation could there be for why I and so many others choose to pay and be inconvenienced for discomfort and fewer amenities?

You could propose “because there are no distractions,” and yes, for some people, including myself, that’s probably a piece of it. (After all, if you live with cats, you know they can get pretty insistent about getting attention. I can only imagine how insistent kids might be.) But then again, you’re adding a whole new set of distractions when you work in a coffee shop, or other “third place.” You’re introducing whole villages of people to have to tune out and ignore.

But ignore them you can. In general you’re likely to perceive less of a sense of obligation to acknowledge and respond to the distractions you encounter in a coffee shop like you would, say, at the office, when your colleague shows up at your desk asking for that TPS report. Beyond that, I don’t have to think about the small stack of paperwork on my desk — I’ve effectively eliminated it from my context and can concentrate on the work I’ve come to do.

Also, you’re trading in familiar distractions for more interesting distractions, and perhaps more stimulating distractions, in a sense. But for someone who thrives on creative inspiration, that can make a tremendous difference, whether tackling creative or mundane tasks.

The “When” of Place

The next question that occurs to me is “when?” How often is it productive and beneficial to work in a third place versus the usual place? What’s the ideal combination of familiar and new to inspire but not distract?

For example, I find that I do really powerful brainstorming and big, think-y, strategic work in airplanes. I always assume there’s a combination of factors in play: turning off internet connectivity, probably first and foremost, but also being in a constrained environment where it is literally a challenge to get up from the seat and do anything other than focus on the space right in front of me — all of that seems to come together to reward me with some of the clearest thinking work I ever do. But then I wonder: would I be able to rely on having such breakthrough thinking if I increased my frequency of travel? Maybe it’s the pacing of it that works. I travel far more than the average person, but not as much as many frequent business travelers do, and perhaps the relatively limited availability of the airplane context keeps it fresh. I’m looking to experiment with that a bit over the next year or two.

In any case, asking “when” in relation to changing the context of place is important in designing optimally meaningful experiences. At a certain level, it’s the heart of what work-life balance is about.

Meaningful Experience and the Third Place

You’re probably already ahead of me on thinking through the next questions: “where,” “what,” “how,” and “who.”

Well, “where” is already all about place, so we’re fundamentally examining it already, not to get too meta. But to frame it up in a way we can try to apply in designing experiences, the place you’re in is a significant part of the context of your interactions. And place creates opportunities for stories and interactions.

In your home, the opportunity for interactions is limited to a small and mostly repeating set. But home is where, in some respects, you probably have the most control over your environment and experiences.
In your office or fixed workplace, the opportunity for interactions is limited to a small and mostly repeating set. Depending on your position, you probably have some degree of control over your environment and experiences.
In a third place, though, like a coffee shop, a bar, an airport, a park, etc, the opportunities are pretty much unlimited and the opportunity for novelty is much higher. And although you have little control within the place itself, you have in some ways the most important kind of control: you get to choose to be in this place (“where”) for however long (“when”) for whatever purpose (“what and why”) and how much you acknowledge your surroundings (“who”).

It’s not that one is inherently better than the others; sometimes the interactions and novelty introduce too much of a distraction and annoyance.

Today, for example, an uncommonly beautiful woman was seated to my right at the window bench, and for a while (until I put headphones on and drowned it out) I was privy to overhearing her being constantly hit on by strange men. Some were one-and-done approaches; one in particular was a prolonged attempt to wear her down and get her interest. She was unfailingly polite, but I thought (and tweeted) if this is as tedious as it is for me, I can’t imagine how tedious it must be for her.

I digress. But that digression is more or less the point. In a coffee shop or other third place, you’re placed in proximity of these kinds of micro-happenings that don’t really add up to much and don’t change your life, really, but taken as a whole they add color and perspective and dimension to our lives. It’s an opportunity for empathy and framing up your perspective alongside countless other people you can observe.

In an upcoming post, I’ll take these ideas about the meaning of place and apply them to online experiences, and some of the nuances of how we can intentionally create meaningful experiences of place will start to become more evident. Until next time, I’m headed home to give some cats a little attention.

From Thinksgiving to Strategic New Year Planning

The fun thing about owning your own company is that every now and then you get to institutionalize ideas that inspire and excite you. Back when I owned a digital analytics agency, I instituted the practice of encouraging employees to spend the week of Thanksgiving engaged in big picture thinking, for themselves and the company. At the beginning of the week following, we’d all meet and review and if there were ideas we could try implementing to improve the company, we put them in place.

Someone — maybe it was me, maybe an employee — called it “Thinksgiving” and the name stuck.

Several years later and running a different company, I still practice Thinksgiving, only now at some level I carry it all the way through the end of the year. What starts during Thinksgiving incubates during December as I wind down my other work, and then luxuriate in spending the last week of the year immersed in deep strategic planning and big picture thinking for the next year. It feels decadent and liberating, and it really inspires me to enter the new year strong.

Let’s call it “Thinksgiving+.” I’ll tell you about it in case it inspires you to do your own version.

What’s different about Thinksgiving+ from traditional New Year’s resolution-making is that so often resolutions stem from arbitrary pressures we put on ourselves to be a more idealized version of ourselves. This process, instead, is intentionally about what will fulfill me, my business ambitions, and my personal ambitions, so the goals originate from aligning my intentions and efforts, and it becomes much easier to follow through on them. In practice, it might be the difference between an arbitrary resolution to do more exercise, versus observing that I always enjoy bike-riding and also want a little more exercise, so I’m going to try to remember to use bike share for short trips more often instead of, say, taking the bus.

Also, although the process overlaps with goal-setting for the year, as opposed to making resolutions, these aren’t necessarily commitments I’m trying to make with myself; they’re more like saying what I want out loud, so I can hear myself say it. It’s not at all about putting pressure on myself and trying to motivate myself to stick with it; it’s about being clear and honest with myself about what I want to see happen, and what kind of work I’ll need to do to get there. It’s a subtlety but it matters immensely in practice.

The other piece that makes a big difference is that once I have my plan and goals outlined, I rename and reconstruct the taxonomies of my life so that they align: my notebooks in Evernote, my lists in Remember the Milk, and my folders in Gmail, to name a few. I try to ensure that they reflect the verbiage and the spirit of the goals and the focus, so that I have contextual reminders of my big-picture direction.

Not everyone has the luxury to take the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day and invest it in planning, and perhaps not everyone would want to. But even if you only spend a few hours this week thinking about how you want 2016 to look and feel and sound and smell, even if you only write down a few thoughts about what you want in your heart of hearts, I’m betting it’ll be easier to make it happen. Good luck.