Note: An abbreviated version of this post will be published on the QuantumBlack blog soon.
Once I had signed up to South by Southwest Interactive - the event of the year for many with an interest in design, technology, and business - I was keen to use the provided planning tools and put together my schedule of keynotes and panels to attend. My (foolish) expectation was that the main value of signing up would lie in taking away and sharing the content of a few of those events with my team back home; and yes, there was a wealth of presentations and conversations worthy propagating again and again, in fact, too many to recite. However, this did not turn out to be the key benefit of attending.
Being part of the 80.000 strong “smart-watch wearing elite, descending on Austin”, I attended up to six events per day over a ten day period, in between of which I had the most inspiring conversations with my fellow badge wearers. It really was a marathon, as many joked. After a few of those interactions, it became clear that the true value lay in finding the signal in the noise and take note of the common themes that ran through conversations on areas as diverse as healthcare, mobility, climate change, data science, policy, space exploration, and daily life.
In this list, I have summarised some of these themes; it only contains arguments that were made in at least three or more entirely disconnected events. It is also worth noting that they originate from people whose backgrounds are as diverse as the topics covered by the conference. I listened to leaders in design, advocates of blockchain technology, policy makers, social science students, self-help book authors, and a tertiary healthcare centre manager from rural Alaska. It is this, that I believe makes their shared views so powerful. I hope, you will think so too.
1. Make the most of what you have
With so many technological developments happening around us all the time, it sure can be tempting to run after every shiny new thing, driven by a deep fear of missing out. However, the greatest impact can often be created by leveraging existing science and technology in comparably simple ways. It is those low hanging fruits that get overlooked all too often. This is why this year, many leaders in technology spoke out for taking a more sober, but potentially more impactful approach. Asked about what developments Kapil Parakh (Google Fit) finds most exciting, he commented: “I find talking what’s known and applying it in clever ways most exciting; not running after everything that’s new. Such solutions may sound mundane but are actually incredibly powerful. (For example) Just showing how much a user has exercised can be very effective to help them work towards their goals.”
While AI and the potential behind it was a thread that ran through conversations across many industries, the technology itself almost seemed to be taken as a natural step. However, it was the human problems and experience around its implementation that was on many people’s minds, even in unexpected fields. I asked the panel at an event on tech in the oceans what their greatest challenge was going forward. The answer from Dawn Wright (ESRI): “[…]to make the data useful for the general public so they can take advantage of our work and inform their own decisions, thinking about how our data affects them. Where should we build a school? How will changes in fish populations change our community? … We create insights that can be used to drive such discussions, but often fail to make them useful to others.”
2. Focus on context and systems to solve a problem
If we don’t throw advanced technology at every problem, how do we keep on top of our game? Many speakers and panellists agree that the solution to this problem is systems thinking. When we look at a problem as a part of a much larger context, and we work to understand it holistically, we can generate powerful results with minimal technical effort.
Joanna Strober of Kurbo Health, a platform with the aim to help children with weight loss, argues: “We have no need for advanced AI at the moment. We get kids to understand ‘What should I eat’ by educating them in the context that they’re native to: their smartphone used in the school canteen. We call ourselves a platform because it’s not just about the child. It’s about the family system. […] When we coached a child, 55% of parents also lost weight. If we focussed on the kids alone and didn’t consider their environment, we would not succeed.”
The argument that tech and products no longer presented the greatest challenge ran through many discussions, but a point was also made that considering the entire system wasn’t just a way of making the most of what you have, but that it is vital to choose the right problem to fix. One great example came from Thomas Goetz of GoodRx, who surprised by sharing examples of how Kaizen and asking ‘five whys’ led to positive change in California’s public transportation system.
Further, once new technology comes into play, it often raises an entirely new set of questions that need to be answered on a societal level. Speaking on the topic of self-driving cars, author and popular NPR host Malcolm Gladwell pointed out that “… when technology appears, it forces a whole chain of downstream adjustments.” Focussing on technology alone, even if well intended, may end up causing more harm than good.
Lastly, with different technologies present in different parts of a system, the key challenge becomes their interface. Another example from the healthcare space comes from Kapil Parakh: “A patient walks into a practice, excited to share their activity app data with their doctor. We are currently not set up for that. Here we have someone who is proactive about and interested in their health, and we don’t make use of it.”
3. Drive adoption by building trust
No solution has use if it is not being used and the key to adoption was seen in increased empathy by many – both in the design research sense, as well as during implementation. In other words, did you show empathy to users to investigate their problems and find the right solution approach, and do they see that empathy reflected back when interacting with your solution? What comes as no surprise to designers has made it into the business mainstream through Design Thinking. As design legend John Maeda points out: “Even consultants now realise that they have to overtly push listening to customers.” However, empathy in business has fallen under criticism of making empathy into a box-ticking exercise, where teams include project phases where they are being ‘empathic’. Empathy must be deeply ingrained in a teams’ culture. What is not yet part of the mainstream product development process, is the understanding of how to get there, and that failing to do so comes with the very real risk of an entire project not coming to fruition at all.
4. Outthink your competition with R&D*
If I could point to two main barriers that prevent Design to be truly embraced by businesses everywhere today, it would be the difficulty in quantifying its value, and the perception of its often seemingly unstructured and unpredictable process. Recently, great progress has been made working towards the former: McKinsey’s Benjamin Sheppard’s presentation of the report on The Business Value of Design was so popular that 500 visitors had to be turned away at the door, according to a SXSW volunteer.
Regarding the second point, well, have you ever heard of the phrase “predictable actions lead to predictable outcomes”? Some organisations have been able to fully commit to that unpredictability of foundational Design work with the help of semantics, by calling it “R&D”. Whether you choose for that to stand for Research & Development or Research & Design is up to you. The point is that those companies have come to view Design as a powerful innovation machine and have allocated teams to conduct foundational Design work, just as a Research & Development team might: Without a clear route to capitalisation. Once businesses come on board with the non-linear design process used to drive gains as part of a traditional product development process, they realise that – in order to stay ahead of the curve - they need to stretch themselves even further and invest substantially in programmes without clear results and ROI estimates up front. Adobe’s Samantha Warren shared this view whilst talking about her ‘Design Stretches’, as well as an example of success: “This anti-design sprint that doesn’t aim to develop anything specific brought about web-apps three years before the technology was ready for them, and gave us our product suite of today”.
These research efforts have to happen in isolation from the day-to-day, points out Martin Ringlein ( Head of R&D, Eventbrite): “You have to build for the future so you can’t be distracted by today’s needs and problems.”
“Someone at Blockbuster might have said, we need to open more stores, instead of building Netflix.”, so Tom Giannattasio from Invision, who also made the point that R&D needn’t always be about re-inventing anything from scratch: “Don’t be ashamed of being ‘extremely inspired’ by someone else’s work.” Research can also mean to take something from ‘out there’ and try if it works for your organisation, then adapt it to your unique needs.
5. Kill the MVP, and test even faster
Have you read about and ‘implemented’ LEAN and AGILE and still feel like you’re wasting time and effort? You are not alone. One commonly cited pain point is the need to test and feedback on products even faster. Not by making your colleagues work harder, but by building a solid foundation with research, and then radically rethinking with just how little you can get away with to test your ideas. “Getting to an MVP still takes far too long!”, is another lesson from Invision’s Tom Giannattasio. “It will still take too much time, and in the end, you will have cut so many corners that your product won’t impress. Don’t even build an MVP, but a minimum viable user journey, flow, feature… What is the smallest possible unit you can build? [...] The biggest problem still is people thinking too long and not shipping.”
“Getting to an MVP still takes far too long! [...] What is the smallest possible unit we can build?”
- Tom Giannattasio, Invision
6. Build for the ordinary
The days in which customers can be wowed by building experiences that showcase flashy tech are over. In days where many strive to reduce their exposure to tech to a practical level using apps to measure their screen time, tech needs to move to the background as an enabler, not a showpiece. No talk exemplified this just like that by Ryan Powell of Waymo. Watching videos about the riding experience in their fully-automated vehicles, I could not help but notice how completely and utterly unremarkable it was from an experience perspective; and I mean this as a great compliment. Getting from A to B should be as simple as hailing a car, getting in, and getting out, giving a rider just the information necessary to, you guessed it, build trust in technology and system. Waymo achieves this by leveraging experiences many users are already familiar with and building on that with precision designed visual cues and – what impressed me most – sound. The subtlety in their auditory feedback mechanisms is spot-on and I look forward to re-discovering it in many ‘extremely inspired’ applications in the future.
The possibilities in the subtlety of sound could also be tried in a heavily featured consumer product: Bose AR. Many seemed excited about the sunglasses that promise “immersive audio experience unlike any other” as a platform for distraction-free interaction with technology in the future.
In many keynotes and hallway conversations when someone asked how to reinvent the experience of X, in most cases, the answer was: Don’t. Build on what customers are familiar with and be as subtle as possible when introducing anything additional. They will thank you for it.
7. Scale truly personal experiences
Where it is not possible to generalise context and systemic understanding, and individual factors play too big of a role to deliver a catch-all experience, such as in conversational experiences or chatbots, we may need to enter the realm of AI-powered hyper-personalisation. Here, users and technology negotiate their interaction between themselves. Rather than an algorithm taking in information about a customer and then assuming to act in the perfect way for everybody.
Sure, the topic of personalisation is one that comes and goes like the colours of the 70s. This year, one could hear of personal finance, nutrition, medicine, wellness, and assistants. As many agreed that we still find ourselves in an uncanny valley, panellists and keynote speakers offered a better understanding of how to compensate for the present downfalls of scalable personal experiences.
Anna Pickard, “the voice of Slack”, argued that the popularity of Slack and its friendly “decisively not AI-powered” chatbot rests on an understanding of their user’s context, and then considering what types of interactions are acceptable within it. “Our users are people, but they are also just trying to get their work done so our voice is friendly, but not overly chirpy. We are very deliberate about choosing the moments when injecting a bit more cheekiness and personality is okay.” Asked about when she thought technology should take the initiative, she said: “For us, it is never ok to interrupt our users. Only when they take the initiative does an interaction start.”
What happens if things go wrong? Josh Clark’s answer: AI should be BASAAP. “Be As Smart As A Puppy.” The logic behind this acronym is that, of course, puppies are adorable and even when we see them do silly things, we forgive them because they don’t pretend to be anything more than a puppy. Digital assistants of any kind will make mistakes. At the moment though, they act with false confidence, “Automated yet distracting, boastful yet mediocre, confident but wrong”. When AI starts to respond to our feedback, it is “... better to be vague than wrong. Sometimes, Siri should just tell me ‘I don’t know’. It would be much easier to trust in any statements made with actual and deserved confidence.”
8. Adapt AI to your work, and your work to AI
The past years have been a seemingly endless stream of opinion pieces on how AI will put us all out of work. I was thus surprised to hear arguably less-technical folks speak out against this line of thought. Rather, there seemed to be agreement, that Augmented Intelligence will change our work, but not take it away. Though this change will occur everywhere, even in design and technology.
Malcolm Gladwell, otherwise very concerned about some societal questions around the topic of automation, stated: “(Truck drivers losing their jobs to self-driving trucks) is the one thing I am not worried about”, noting that when we automate where it makes sense, roles will not even necessarily shift, but change to take better care of other aspects of a role. “You still need people to protect a vehicle, load and unload it, take responsibility for it.”
This change in roles will actually make our jobs more enjoyable too, and the people we serve when in service roles happier. On AI in the medical profession, Dr. Feinberg, Head of Health Efforts at Google, is confident: “…especially anything imaging related will be done by computers. […] This means that instead of interpreting X-rays, a doctor can spend time with the patient. And maybe you no longer need a medical degree for that, so instead of paying one expensive doctor to look at images, you can have ten less trained professionals talking to patients.”
Josh Clark summarises that AI won’t make important health decisions anytime soon, but flag to trained humans, what requires their attention. This will make their roles more interesting too: “Machines bring radiologists the interesting cases. […] We can automate the mundane to free up time for emotional engagement. That’s what humans are good at. Not the time consuming, error-prone, repetitive and joyless. […] Let’s use tech to amplify human potential.” He left us with four questions to help choose the right problems for AI: “How does AI help us
be smarter with questions already asked?
ask new types of questions (e.g. emotional ones)?
unlock new sources of data?
surface invisible patterns?”
As a designer, examples of automating tasks in technology development had me very excited, with tools that leverage existing design systems to deliver finished and fully responsive code for interfaces, just by scanning a hand-drawn sketch of a wireframe. These had been around as prototypes for a while now, but seem to be coming ever closer to being part of our everyday.
9. Virtual Reality is here – really
Honestly, I was long sceptical of using VR for anything meaningful. For a long time, it just wasn’t quite there yet. This changed dramatically after visiting the Virtual Cinema at SXSW, a floor in the JW Marriot hotel packed with a range of VR experiences, as well as the Gaming convention, that is also part of the conference. Unfortunately, I am finding it impossible to describe the qualities of VR in the way it deserves. In fact, even while standing in line, waiting to try some of the showcased experiences, looking at videos and descriptions, I still struggled to see how I would enjoy what was to come. Within minutes, Intel’s and Reggie Watts’ “Runnin’” had me literally dancing on the walls in a virtual club. In the seven-minute story of Gloomy Eyes I became part of the love story between a little human girl, and a zombie boy, squatting, jumping, turning to take in all of the Tim Burtonesque beauty of the Colin Farrell narrated plot. Lastly, husband-and-wife produced “Radical Empathy” gave me vivid insights into the struggles of a teenage human trafficking victim. After the twenty-minute experience, I was devastated but went away with an understanding of that girls’ issues as I would never have obtained by just reading about them.
Clearly, the quality of VR experiences has reached new heights. The execution has become much more elegant too. While a few years ago, blinking arrows in my field of vision would have been used to make me turn, authors and producers had found much more elegant ways of using story elements themselves to do that trick. In the end, what struck me most was the breadth of the types of experiences seen, and it is now obvious (even to me) that VR is not just a type of game or entertainment. It is a new medium with boundless opportunities which are starting to be realised. I cannot wait until they reach the consumer mainstream.
10. Your diversity and inclusion strategy probably still sucks
This was the theme that ran through many conversations related to the workplace. For a late celebration of women’s day, I sought to get a better idea of why that was and joined Susan Fowler’s talk. The former Uber whistle-blower who was so instrumental to the #metoo movement and its impact on the tech industry gave her first-ever full account of her past two years and also shared her thoughts on how to do better.
Clearly, there is still lots of work left to do in many areas, she said, not only in gender discrimination. “There are still many other issues to address in the industry, such as anti-Semitism and also bullying against men. I hope that someday soon, the world will be ready to take on those issues too.”
A sobering message came for companies: Diversity and inclusion programmes were not enough. “It doesn’t matter how many women and people of colour work in your organisation if they are all harassed and bullied. […] On paper, Uber did all the right things to make women feel welcome there.” But it is not about ticking boxes on initiatives. It is about growing the right culture and putting the right support mechanisms in place for when someone does speak up.
For those affected, she shared: “You don’t have to be an activist: Speak up, share your story, then get back to work.” It is important to do so, but we shouldn’t generalise and think of the tech industry as a hotbed of evil: “The majority of people I meet are good people, trying to make the world a better place for everyone. […] Look for the love and not the bad.”
Coming home: Be patient and persevere
Leaving behind this epicentre of inspiration that Austin had become for those days of SXSW, it is tempting to apply all that was learned, fuelled by so many insights, so much passion and excitement, and sure, some FOMO too. However, many speakers had one final, very important message to share: Let’s refrain from kicking off the short-lived one-off initiatives we have seen many times before. Rather, let’s pick what’s important and grind away at it.
Tom Giannattasio was honest about this: “It took a year just to convince execs that we should build Invision Studio. If you want to develop a new product, you need to design the philosophy around it. That’s super valuable. Everyone should be able to recite that. Then you must convince others by showing them what will happen if it’s not done.”
In his extremely popular talk on how to build an in-house design powerhouse, Stephen Gates shared: “It takes time and patience to make change, but everyone has to be dedicated to it.”
Austin Kleon presented his new and beautifully designed book to remind us to just ‘Keep Going’, and Susan Fowler too took a longer-term view on the topic: “It took me a lifetime to become the right person in the right moment to share my story, and for the world to listen. […] You must keep talking about what’s important.” Concluding with her now famous five-word Webby Award acceptance speech: “Words can change the world.”