Many of our books, films and TV series set in the future imagine a world in which robots are taking over.
But I’m here to tell you that the opposite is happening. It’s not the robots who are taking over, it’s the humans – and we need to adapt our design thinking to this reality.
In this article, I’ll explain why I believe that the advent of AI, big data, voice interfaces and other emerging technologies means that we are finally starting to use technology in a truly human way; what this means for brands; and how they can adapt their approach to design to a more human world.
1. How the humans are taking over (and why brands need to pay attention to this power shift)
This is a strange claim, I know. Haven’t humans always been the focus? Well, from an interface and business perspective, no. Our relationship with technology has so far always been on technology’s terms: We have had to adapt our behaviours to suit its limitations.
I’m not just talking about the digital age here, but technology stretching as far back as the advent of the printing press.
This is shown in the diagram below. It demonstrates that only in the last few years have we had the opportunity to design technology that suits a more human experience, resulting in an exponential increase in human-centric design.
I want to use the example of the typewriter to illustrate this – or more specifically, the QWERTY keyboard. Developed in the 1880s when typewriters were growing in popularity, it quickly became the most prevalent writing interface. However, its prevalence did not come about due to ease of use. It was because it significantly reduced jams in the machine.
So even though competing interfaces such as the Stenotype could produce words at a greater speed, it was the limits of the technology which won out. Then, due to its familiarity with the public, it found itself adopted into future technologies, all the way up to your smartphone today, despite that technological limitation no longer existing.
From this example you can see how, traditionally, it has been humans who have to adapt themselves to the requirements of machines, instead of the other way around. But in recent years, the tide has been turning in the other direction.
The source of my optimism for this paradigm shift is based on AI. The complexity of particularly neural networks is now so immense that even those who create them call them magic.
“No one really knows how the most advanced algorithms do what they do.”
Will Knight, Technology Review, April 2017
What this means is that technology is now capable of doing a lot more thinking and most importantly, learning and adapting. This is key for voice based interfaces that must interpret human language.
The extent to which we now expect technology to interact on a human level is perfectly summed up by the famous demonstration at Google I/O of Google Assistant making a phone call:
So how can brands without the immense resources and design capabilities of Google humanise their approach to product design? The first impulse might be to update an app to be voice controlled, or something similarly gimmicky. But I would argue it is easy to overlook the opportunities for innovation.
If we are able to speak to computers, it marks a major leap in what we must consider in the digital sector. Technology that allows us to use more human methods of communication and interaction makes click maps, wireframes and basic analytics obsolete.
We have to start being aware of how humans interact with each other. We must start researching individual behaviours over time and maybe even wider anthropological ones, rather than focus on ‘human to device’ or habitual daily rhythms in user journeys.
But if this is the case, what sort of human behaviours do new technologies need to plan for? Unpredictable ones.
2. Why brands need to design for unpredictable moments of human behaviour (not just predictable ones)
In short, because that is where success lies. This idea was floated by John Kay in his 2010 book Obliquity.
For Kay, the journey to success comes from exploratory and often messy routes. An excellent example he uses is Boeing. Its leaders were obsessed with aeronautics and ended up creating the 747. The rest is history. However, in 1998, the company shifted to focus on shareholder return. The result was a 1/3rd drop in value over the subsequent year.
The takeaway from this for a brand? If you only view your customers as consumers, you will ultimately stifle innovation and profits because you are only focusing on one dimension of the customer.
Similarly, the limitations of our ability to interact with technology means our current approach to user research boils down to investigating how people use the internet in order to understand potential touchpoints with a brands’ digital platforms. This demonstrates our one-way relationship with customers: requiring them to come to us.
This, of course, isn’t the whole story: strategies such as targeted marketing and SEO are examples of brands trying to meet customers where they are. But they are still only reaching ‘groups’ of people at times that are ‘estimated’ and with that technique, marketeers pat themselves on the back for anything above a 2% click-through rate.
If technology is now reaching a point where we can interact with it on a human level, however, then it will be the brands that embrace this that are the most powerful in the future.
They will understand that new technologies such as AI, big data and voice assistants have the potential to reach their customers on a very intimate level: offering them an unprecedented level of service at unpredictable moments in their lives. Brands can offer support, consumption and almost guarantee engagement because they are reaching customers on a very personal level.
Some brands are already beginning to do this. Spotify for example now offers advertising tailored to a person’s mood. Based on what you are listening to, and when, brands can now target their messaging to a fully receptive audience:
“Listening to “You can do it”? Here is Nike with their new training shoe or My Protein’s new whey supplement.”
Currently, of course, these marketing techniques are for the larger brands. However, if AI and voice interfacing becomes our primary method of accessing or searching the internet, then these sorts of approaches replace the SEO of today.
But how on earth do brands even begin to approach experience from this perspective? Well, as I alluded to earlier, user experience needs to shift focus.
3. How relying on a tiny group of customers can help us design experiences for new technologies
If you want to study a tiger, don’t go to the zoo, go to the jungle. This typifies how our approach to experience should change to realise the potential in these new technologies. We need to spend time with customers in their environment, not just watch them interact with computer screens.
The importance of talking to a handful of customers and spending a long time with them outside of a research lab helps us record the predictable and unpredictable moments in their lives. It gives us something valid and reliable (something that big data still struggles to get right).
Rather than the heatmaps and wireframes of today, we can make complex decision trees about human behaviour. These can map opportunities for brands to harness, so that if a certain branch is taken, you can step in and suggest a way to help or support your customer on a very personal level, specific to them.
If we can interact with computers in more human ways, designers and brands alike should too. We must stop thinking about marketing as nets being thrown out over segments to see what we are able to catch. The key to this new approach is to deal with the individual human, and stepping away from a focus on technology.
That’s how brands can design for a future when humans will take over and robots won’t. Maybe it’s time to re-write those science fiction films and be more optimistic.