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.

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 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.

Boxing Day and Making Meaning Where There Is None

Old Calendar in a Break Room

We had a lot of calendars around the house when I was growing up. Probably one in every room. The kind that used to be given away by businesses with their name and address on the bottom, so they’d hang on the wall all year as a reminder of their service. They’d display a month at a time, and as a kid it was a big thrill to be allowed to be the one to turn the page on the first of each month.

Every calendar acknowledged pretty much the same pre-printed holidays: the usuals, like Easter and Christmas and Independence Day, and then the oddballs, like Arbor Day and Grandparents Day and Boxing Day.

I remember noticing Boxing Day every year and wondering about where and why it was significant. I only knew that in other countries, there were traditions and meanings associated with it, just as there are for Christmas where I grew up.

I also figured that it was more than what we did with it. The day after Christmas in my family was for standing in the returns lines at stores and getting money back so you could buy what you had really wanted all along.

By now it seems some in the U.S. have adopted Boxing Day and subsumed it into their own traditions. For some people there’s a sort of special relaxed pace about the day; for some it’s a big shopping day: many people go shopping in the after-Christmas sales hoping to score a deal for themselves or maybe for the friend or relative they’re planning to see after the holidays. A kind of purposeful procrastination.

It’s different from Christmas, yet dependent on Christmas as an extension of its meaning. But the difference between Christmas and Boxing Day is merely social contract; it’s just a matter of adoption, and critical mass.

It’s funny how tradition can seem absurd at first. Get enough people to agree that Boxing Day is a day when we wear boxes on our head to remind ourselves to think outside the box, and you might just have yourself a cultural movement.

That in any case would be an attempt to be intentional about the day and about what it signifies. And I think that’s worth consideration. It’s worth using the days we designate as somehow special in the most meaningful ways we can. By contrast, people often seem to find themselves stuck observing Christmas traditions they’re no longer excited about, that no longer resonate with them, because they either haven’t come to terms with how to adapt or they don’t want to risk disappointing others. But that can leave us stifled and suppressed, when we could instead be experiencing the fulfillment of a day of mindful focus on, say, the spirit of giving and togetherness, or whatever other values and significance you would want the holiday to hold for you.

The same is true for any other day, really. There’s no point following someone else’s idea of how your days should be lived. You get to decide what’s meaningful, and live according to that. Life’s too short for anything else.

I’m working on some offerings that can help you do just that, by the way: in 2016, I’ll be rolling out a series of workshops, webinars, books, talks, reports, and these blog posts and my emails. So I hope you’ll stay in touch if you want to find out more about that.

But however you do it, I hope that in 2016, you get closer to staying focused on what’s meaningful and make it align and connect throughout your life. You deserve it. We all do. And not for just one day a year. Even if you wear a box on your head to do it.

Caution: Your data may mislead

metadata

 

Ever wonder what you have in common with yourself? I didn’t really, either, but an app I was using for social analytics showed me my own account and presented me with a view of what I had in common with @kateo.

According to this metadata, here are some of the things I share an interest with myself about:

  • Big Data, Data Visualization And Infographics, Dataviz and Infographics. Well, OK, those were gimmes.
  • Parenting. I’m publicly on record (in TIME magazine, among other outlets) as being child-free by choice. So that’s actually an understandable semantic link; it’s just a misleading one.
  • Both Country Music and Classical Music. I live in Nashville, a.k.a. Music City, and yes, I have ties to country music and the industry, but this one serves more as proof that computer-led analysis can be imbued with the jumpy biases of its programmers, since “Nashville” = “country music” to many people who don’t know anything else about the city. And Classical Music, while I respect it, has less significance in my digital life than, say, bacon does, and that’s saying something since as you can probably infer from the Vegan, Vegetarian, and Raw Food tags above.
  • Pay Per Click Marketing, Ecommerce, Testing & Optimization Software, Advertising & Marketing, Email Marketing. Sort of, I guess. They’re all, like, fractional pieces. But I get that “digital behavioral strategy” is a pretty esoteric conceptual space. And I’ve certainly expressed interest in topics relating to each of these areas online. So those are forgivable oversimplifications.
  • Sports. Ha!
  • Horror. I can’t even. Maybe we should interpret that as part of a set with QR Codes. Or US Politics.

If you were trying to use this metadata across a user base to build targeted messaging and experiences, based on how my own authentic interests align and misalign with this data, I can tell you you’d miss more often than you’d hit. Which would maybe be OK if you’d built learning cycles into your process, so you could continually refine your understanding of your audience and what resonated with them.

Data is just dots. Analysis is trying to draw lines between or around those dots, but there’s no guarantee you’ll produce anything truly meaningful. It usually takes some understanding of context to make any sense, or meaning, out of data, and that’s more true the more abstract and open-ended the data is, such as social metadata.

A sound business data strategy involves both framing up data collection so that what you collect is most useful, and looking at the data collected in the context of business realities.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a virtual reality nature hike to plan gamification strategies for.

 

Column: “Marketers must be tactful with technology” at The Tennessean

An excerpt:

It’s a huge opportunity for hyper-personalized and contextualized content and experiences. It’s also potentially a massive trap for marketers because studies have shown that people want to be tailored to, but not so much that it creeps them out.

Read the rest at the link:

http://www.tennessean.com/story/money/2014/09/13/kate-oneill-marketers-must-tactful-technology/15513513/

Column: “How meaning builds value in business” at The Tennessean

An excerpt:

Value in business is inseparable from meaning. And yet we often talk about value as if it were simply a price point. As if you can take the jumbled landscape of sense memories, beauty, irrational fears, prized beliefs, aspirations, accomplishments, and everything else, roll it into a snowball of whatever size, and call it “price.” Only to watch it melt.

Meaning does not melt or shrink; meaning grows. When you start from an understanding of meaning, you can operate on wholly different dimensions. You can assess the value of a thing to someone based on what you understand of their desires. Based on they want and need, based on what they cherish, based on what they will fight for, walk away from, laugh at, cry at, share with strangers, and hide from friends. You can begin to see opportunities to add value to a thing based on how you deliver it, where you make it available, when you communicate about it, what you add in, what you leave out, what color you make it, what you call it, etc., etc.

Read the rest at the link:
http://www.tennessean.com/story/money/2014/06/21/meaning-builds-value-business/11173739/

Column: “Intentional risks can yield great rewards” at The Tennessean

An excerpt:

Dreams are our direction, but by nature they’re always distant. It’s what we’re doing along the way that makes the days worthwhile.

That’s why incremental progress is so important. Innovation requires urgency. Accomplishment requires action. To become what we hope someday to be, we have to start somewhere. And yes, every step is risky; anything can go wrong.

Every marketing campaign could be a dud. Every venture could be a bust. Every relationship could end in heartbreak.

Read the rest at the link:
http://www.tennessean.com/story/money/2014/05/10/kate-oneill-live-every-day-like-last/8919679/

Column: “Why ‘work-life balance’ doesn’t work” at The Tennessean

An excerpt:

Over the past years, my professional and personal experiences have presented me with opportunities of seismic magnitude for evaluating my purpose and my priorities. And what I have found is that the more aligned they are, the more depth and meaning I can bring to all of it. The more I can bring of myself, in a sense.

Read the rest at the link:

http://www.tennessean.com/story/money/2014/04/13/pursuit-unified-approach-business-life/7665341/