The uncanniness of seeing human beings where human beings are not supposed to be

Somewhere on my computer, I keep a collection of images of humans showing up in non-human contexts. These are contexts that are supposed to be sterile and devoid of humanity. If you’ve just wandered into my site on a search, that may sound like a rather odd hobby; if you’ve been here a while you’ve known for a long time that this is par for the course.

Anyway, it goes like this: I’m a lifelong devotee of secondhand shopping. Naturally, I’m a huge fan of the website thredUP. (Disclosure: that link is a referral link that’s worth $10 to us both if you’re a new customer). It’s a fantastic site for buying used women’s (and children’s) clothes, with lots of great features like saved searches and such. They’ve even featured me as one of the most fashionable women in the US, if you can believe that. They’re a fast-growing, tech-enabled company that went public earlier this year (more disclosure: I definitely bought some of those shares). And their efficient process for photographing the roughly 100K items that get merchandised to their storefront every day generally results in very high-quality photos of their items. In fact, they have a patent on that photography process.

But every now and then, when you’re not expecting to, you’ll see a human sneak into the photo. Just an arm, or a torso. It’s vaguely disconcerting but also kind of warm and humbling, a peek behind the curtain and a reminder that there are people behind so many processes we take for granted. (Note that the topic of “ghost workers” has come up repeatedly on The Tech Humanist Show.)

human torso with clothes on thredup
Hello, human!

Digital Weirdness

It’s also an example of what I like to call Digital Weirdness. And this one below strikes me as extra-weird in that they actually included it in their Instagram ad carousel.

human arm with blazer on thredup
Advertising the weirdness

I am, of course, not alone in having this hobby: Andrew Norman Wilson has a 2019 piece at WIRED about his collection of human hands showing up in Google Books scanned images. Enjoy.

Scale as Priority

“In most of our cities and our nation, we don’t prioritize human life [….] We’re prioritizing traffic and the movement of vehicles.”

Source: Zero bikers or pedestrians were killed by cars in Oslo last year
photo I took pre-pandemic in the NoLIta area of lower Manhattan

What scale you build at and what has your focus shows your priority. If you want to prioritize human safety and human experiences, you have to build at the human scale.

In contemporary business, influenced as it is by big tech, we often talk about our aspirations “at scale.” When we do, we mean large scale. Enterprise scale. We mean 10x returns on investments, if not more. We mean accelerating workflow through automation. We mean optimizing for the 3rd or 4th decimal point in super-computing systems that analyze four-dimensional data.

These are not human-scale impacts. But the market forces compelling us to strive for them are not imagined, and most leaders have to operate from the realistic constraints of the world shaped by these demands.

That’s why the KO Insights mission has long been to “make human experiences more meaningful at scale.” This is a recognition of the business drivers that build experiences at accelerating rates and exponential growth, while centering one of the most fundamentally human-scale concepts: meaning. The tension inherent in that challenge keeps us honest, and keeps our clients improving their user experiences and customer interactions.

What can you examine in your work that will bring you face to face with the human scale?

Cannibalizing Your Own Experiences

The way strategists and designers theorize about human experience — and specifically customer experience, which is humans in the contextual role of “customer” — is often disconnected from the way business leaders think about strategy and business models. But in practice, for substantive and sustainable results, the efforts must be aligned.

For example, I’ve been vegan for nearly 23 years. The plant-based food revolution of the past few years is thrilling to see. But I see brands executing poorly against it. Dunkin’ and Starbucks, for example, both have introduced breakfast sandwiches with Beyond Meat vegan sausages or with Just Egg, but the sandwiches themselves, as merchandised, are not vegan. So vegan-minded customers who are drawn in by the new products have to know to order them with a whole set of modifications and off-menu tricks. How much more welcoming would it have been for the brands to simply add vegan sandwiches to their menu? People transitioning to eating more plant-based foods wouldn’t object that the bread is vegan, and it would be a far better experience for the actual vegan customers. (And by the way, the number of vegans in the U.S. grew by 600% from 2014 to 2017 while 500,000 people have pledged to eat vegan for the first time for the whole month of January 2021, so we’re talking about non-trivial market share that’s shown no signs of slowing down.) Moreover, it would encourage vegans who weren’t already fans of Dunkin’ and Starbucks to come and buy those sandwiches, meaning incremental purchases the brands never had before. And the kicker? People who aren’t vegan-inclined already had meal options at these brands, so making the vegan-ish sandwich not vegan may actually be cannibalizing (sorry) the sales of the other meal options.

Another example is the trend of high-quality non-alcoholic mixers like Seedlip along with a growing population of people who, whether over short spans of time or long periods, choose not to drink alcohol. (Another non-trivial market segment. Pre-packaged mocktails and other non-alcoholic beverages have been on the rise and are expected to continue growing, while an estimated 15% of Americans planned to participate this year in “Dry January.” How many have stuck to it in the wake of the past week’s political turmoil is worth wondering, but the intent was there.) This experience and strategy disconnect would be like a cocktail bar owner bringing Seedlip in only to offer it mixed it into alcoholic beverages. Meanwhile there’s a group of would-be customers who have not been catered to who might otherwise patronize the establishment, and they’re not being accommodated. That’s incremental business, and the bar in this example would be turning up its nose at it — in this economy?!

I witnessed this pattern up-close myself, when I was heading customer experience and product at Magazines.com. The company had historically pushed hard in every channel to sell cheap People magazine subscriptions because they were viewed as loss leaders that would get customers in the door, but something wasn’t working out right in the equation. There were too many cancellations as the first terms were coming up for renewal.

Eventually a colleague and I crunched enough numbers to work out what was happening: customers were buying the cheap first-term subscriptions in lieu of a steeper-priced renewal (where the company hoped to make its money back). We also saw why. When the subscribers to People magazine were getting their renewal notices by email, those emails often had cross-sell promotions — including, sometimes, for People magazine. We were doing nothing to exclude those promotions for first-term rates from the renewal emails. Once we added programming logic to the renewal emails to exclude promotions for the title being renewed, cancellations went down, and renewals went up. If I remember correctly, it meant gaining about a million dollars a year across channels. It sounds pretty easy to recognize in retrospect, but it is this holistic way of thinking about the entire business model and how it is presented to every customer, one by one, that makes it work in the details.

These three examples have in common that they are relevant to the customers — in other words, the humans you do business with. When I talk about meaningful human experiences, relevance is a form of meaningfulness. Showing that you have a sense about what is suitable, appropriate, and timely for customers helps them feel understood. And being understood is tantamount to being seen as human beings.

Leaders, don’t cannibalize your business success. Think it through, experience by experience. It could be costing you a lot of money to ignore providing better experiences, while it’s also costing you the goodwill and loyalty you might have enjoyed from customers who would appreciate having a relevant experience provided for them.

The Future of Trust and Truth

One of the themes shaping my work this year is “the future of trust and truth.” In an era characterized by disagreement over basic facts, where algorithmically-optimized social media platforms show us the truths we most want to see, the roles of truth and trust in ethics, in systems design, and in human experience strategy are crucial for us to understand. I’m examining questions such as: What does truth mean to us as humans; how does truth relate to belief, to science, to law; how does truth relate to trust; and so on.

And of course:
How do divisive politics figure into our trust in institutions, and how does our sense of truth suffer from exposure to misinformation and disinformation?

And then, the big question as it relates to my work and the work of many of my clients:
What does it mean to bring machines into this dynamic? To cross-pollinate these very human concerns with data, with algorithms, with machine learning? For algorithms optimized for platform-specific engagement and retention to shape our exposure to news and opinions?

On that last point, the twin topics of misinformation and disinformation have been a big focus this past year because of the pandemic, the U.S. presidential election, and the widespread racial justice protests as well as the backlash against them. On seemingly every high-level topic, people had opposing views and cited opposing sources to back them up. And this went beyond the U.S.: I had a conversation a few months ago with a journalist from the leading business magazine in Brazil, for example, about misinformation and trust, and what regulations may be needed to address them. Our concerns about Trump’s outsized influence in shaping social media discourse mirror theirs about Bolsonaro. These challenges are simultaneously local and global.

translated excerpt from Brazilian Portuguese interview in Exame magazine

I’m not the first to think about trust, of course. Edelman has been producing their excellent Trust Barometer every year for 21 years. The work I’m doing is by no means meant to be a replacement of their important research, but rather incorporates their findings as part of a view on how trust and truth are fundamental to humanity, how they are important to understanding of technologies that we rely on.

I’ll be sharing ongoing insights in this blog and other outlets as I develop these ideas through my research and work them into my speaking and my forthcoming book, but for now I’ll toss another coin to Edelman, since their 2021 Trust Barometer just came out this week. One of the findings was that, of all the categories of institutions, business has the most public trust right now. Not government, not NGOs, not media, but business. That’s a tremendous responsibility and opportunity for business. It’s a call to purpose and action, a call for transparency, for principled leadership.

And for those businesses we define as “tech businesses” especially, not only is the public watching, but so are the eyes of history. As a crisis of democracy unfolds in the U.S. alongside a deadly pandemic, we come face to face with issues of misinformation and disinformation, of content moderation and platform access, and the consequences of the algorithmic blinders we all wear as we consume social media and our preferred news outlets. Each of these issues comes tangled in its own technical details around trust and truth, but in every case, there is one central truth: the need to frame these debates and their outcomes not around those individuals with the largest reach but around the rights and the future of humanity at large couldn’t be more urgent.

Universal Basic Meaning

Scratch the surface of any debate about the future of work and you’ll find there an argument for Universal Basic Income.

And certainly from a purely survivalist standpoint that’s an important consideration.

We need to know what it is going to look like for people not to have the financial resources from working. We also need to understand how this model might concentrate power and opportunity into fewer and fewer hands.

But we also need to think beyond this consideration of the future of work. Humans rely on work for more than income; we also rely on work for meaning.

Humans have historically derived associated work with what we do; we have historically derived associated work with who we are.

Our work is in so many cases our identities, as the long tradition of names, last names and family names, derived from professions demonstrates. Carpenter, Baker, Butcher, and so many others — and this happens across languages, not just English. Throughout the world and throughout human history, we have taken so much of who we are and what we are about from what we do for a living, and what our ancestors have done for a living.

As I have previously written:

We derive a tremendous amount of meaning from our work—the sense of accomplishment, of problems solved, of having provided for ourselves and for our families, of having made a contribution, of having value and self-worth.

We have to recognize the possibility of a post-human-work world, or at least a world where human work has fundamentally changed—so that as we look at automation, we see the impact on both the experiences automation creates and the experiences automation displaces. Because in the future scenario where all the human work has vanished, where do humans get the same sense of meaning? That meaning we have historically derived from work will have to come from something other than work. We need a better answer.

— from Tech Humanist: How You Can Make Technology Better for Business and Better for Humans

The Need for Universal Basic Meaning

My radical idea is that there needs to be some kind of replacement, or reinforcement, for the meaning we derive from work, like a “Universal Basic Meaning” that’s supplied around us.

Not to take the place of work; not to replace jobs. But to enhance jobs and everything else we do, every experience we have. What matters in all of this is that humans have the opportunity for meaningful experiences in the future, whether they derive from work or not.

Because while I do think about the financial implications of job displacement and replacement from automation, I’m nearly as concerned about people not having the resources of meaning and identity.

I wonder about what it’s going to do to us, as human jobs shift away from work we can develop identity around. What I think is going to be needed, even more than ever, are meaningful experiences in the world around us. Meaningful experiences at scale.

One concern I have is that as experiences become increasingly automated and are often selected for automation by how mundane and repetitive — and hence, how meaningless — they are, that we will be increasingly surrounded by meaningless experiences. It makes rational sense to automate the tedious tasks in our workflow and throughout our lives, but it’s easy to imagine this at scale where more and more of our everyday experiences and interactions are automated, and they’re all meaningless.

Because the interconnectedness of data and algorithms and emerging technologies are more and more part of our everyday environments, and they can create experiences that have outsized impact on who we are and how we live our lives. And it’s important that we appreciate the way these systems change us.

This is why I always say we should “automate the meaningful too.” It is important that we now, in the early stages of automating human experiences, encode them with all the enlightenment, all the equity, all the evolved thinking we can.

In the weeks and months to come, I’ll write more about Universal Basic Meaning, how this idea can inform our understanding of ethical and practical data-based experiences, and how we can build the most meaningful experiences at scale.

Human Experience = User Experience + Customer Experience + More

As we head into 2020, I’m still obsessed with the integration of human experience. My work over the last two decades in technology has often been centered on the user or the customer. What I began to realize was first of all that when we talk about the “user“ or the “customer“ that we are always talking about humans, and that it benefits us to think in a more holistic human context when we do that.

Now I find I’m not as interested in user or customer experience as I am in human experience: what does it mean to optimize for the human experience; what does it mean to be human at all; how can that apply to businesses, marketing, to schools, to hospitals, and well beyond.

But I also find that when business focuses on improving human experience in alignment with what the business objectives are, the chances for success increase. This is why in my books and keynotes and beyond I always talk about “human-centric digital transformation.” With emerging technology, because of the increased capacity and scale that it offers, it’s becoming increasingly important that that alignment is in place so that we don’t scale unintended consequences.

I believe some of the biggest opportunities right now for the future of human experience — and indeed the future of humanity in general — are in looking at the ways online meets offline, customer meets user, employee meets candidate, global meets local, how the gig economy is shaking up the work landscape, and on and on.

We’ll have to think about context, environment, culture, aesthetics, identity. We’ll have to think about the human journey instead of the customer journey.

We’ll have to think about metrics that measure the human experience. What will those be? How do you measure fulfillment? A life well lived?

This moment in history feels very chaotic, where automation, artificial intelligence, and other emerging technologies are rapidly changing our vision of even the near future. Meanwhile, 70-80% of CEOs think the next 3 years are more critical than the past 50. We’re clearly in a truly transformative time.

So there’s tremendous opportunity for UX and CX professionals to put a stake in the ground on behalf of a wider lens on humanity, and advocate for integrated human experiences in the midst of machine-driven interactions and transactions, to make them as meaningful as possible.

Augmenting Human Experiences for More Meaning: Lessons from the Arizona Canyons

I’m reminded by my memories on Facebook (yes, I still have Facebook for a variety of reasons — that’s a separate post) that it was two years ago that Robbie and I took a side trip to the Grand Canyon and Antelope Canyon after I delivered a keynote for the Arizona CIO/CTO Forum.

I’m so glad we took some extra time to make that road trip and explore the area. Because one thing it demonstrated is that for all of the hand-wringing out there about how people take photos instead of experiencing things, what Antelope Canyon especially demonstrates, if you let it, is that the process of framing a photo shows you something — a shape, a color pattern, a play of the light — that you might have missed otherwise.

That was also the trip where I discovered this low-tech form of “augmented reality” at the Yavapai Observation Station: a viewing tube with notches for points of interest and captions for each of the notched views.

There are all sorts of ways to augment human experience for more meaning, and technology has tremendous capacity to do so at scale — if we leverage it well and with intention.

What examples have you seen where human experiences were augmented and resulted in more meaning?

Not Beautiful

“The first question I ask myself when something doesn’t seem to be beautiful is why do I think it’s not beautiful. And very shortly you discover that there is no reason.”

— John Cage

I’ve been traveling a lot these last few years and it’s always an interesting temptation, everywhere I go, to judge the places I visit in terms of whether I could live there, whether it’s cool, whether it’s beautiful. But I find the most satisfying experiences are had when I can remind myself to appreciate the places on their own terms, on their own merits, for their own beauty.

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 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.