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?