The future of digital is quite human…

Trying to further collect my thoughts on a presentation I gave about my experiences designing smart applications. The kind that use lots of math and lots of data to make recommendations to humans. The kind that learns from our behavior and adjusts those recommendations. The kind that can serve as a companion.

In my several years worth of designing big-data-driven projects I have consistently seen people treating the machines like humans. There is a dynamic between users and these systems that cannot be ignored or denied. Well, it could, but I’ve seen strong evidence that as digital experiences get smarter they become more human. This has a very large impact on the trust we place in these systems and that trust is tantamount to their adoption.

We treat machines like they are humans. Our devices are a social actors in our lives. The research performed by Clifford Nass has been influential in forming the presentation of my observations. My working hypothesis is that we treat machines as humans by default and adjust our expectations from there. Our human interactions set the bar for our expectations with digital experiences and if we think through capabilities as if they were taking place between two humans we can solve a lot of the design problems we are, and will be facing as systems get smarter.

I also always have a presentation given by Chris Fahey in the back of my mind. It was one of those “yeah, that’s what i was saying – but you said it so much more clearly!” kind of moments. I have actually implemented the approach and have lots of stories to tell and conversations to explore.

As a start I have explored seven human traits of a successful digital companion that can serve as guidance for designing these systems. If it were indeed a person, these are some traits of that person I have seen in successful systems.

  1. Observant/Smart
  2. Confident
  3. Transparent
  4. Humble
  5. Reliable
  6. Personable
  7. and a dash of awkward (a trait that truly endears me to these systems)

From a design perspective, there are many examples where having this “human” bar for the behavior of the system has helped come up with solutions. I’ve seen tactical examples, like the best way to implement a “please wait” spinner interaction. I’ve also seen strategic examples where we’ve set the bar for an entire experience on interactions and conversations between an advisor and a client.

10 ways reading a newspaper is not reading a mobile article

I am a big fan of the mobile web strategy at ESPN. I have a home page icon that takes me straight to their mobile optimized site. It’s got a lot of stuff going on, but was clearly thought out for the medium on which it is being consumed.

I’ve grown very accustomed to using the site and haven’t bought a physical newspaper in maybe 2 months. The inspiration for this post was the relative calm I felt while taking in an entire page of NY Giants training camp updates. There was a main article as well as several smaller snippets and relavent info that filled the entire rectangular page. It was the first time i actively thought about the differences in the two methods of sports content consumption.

One is not necessarily better than the other, they are just distinct experiences with the content. It was the calmness I felt that led me to recognize the unease I tend to feel while reading some… most mobile web content. The following may be some of the factors that contributed to my sense of calm.

  1. It’s completely predictable. Every action and move has the risk of being so costly on a mobile experience. My stresses range from clicking a wayward link to wondering if the screen i am looking at will scroll or flip.
  2. It’s big… like bigger-than-an-iPad big.
  3. I don’t have to move my hands to see the whole article. my eyes and brain do all the work to move around the content.
  4. There are no buttons to grok. There was also no chrome to compete with the content. This is a definite improvement the mobile web can make.
  5. There’s contextual stuff – I read a whole page with a full article and relevant snippets without scrolling or changing pages.
  6. it’s black-and-white and low fidelity as far as print goes and i hardly really thought about that fact.
  7. it’s paper… i think it was a tree once or something
  8. the fonts show up properly
  9. i can completely predict what the page when do when i hold it. There was a definite lack of jumping around that articles do on the web as their elements come into the screen. The image suddenly pushing down the article as i am reading the first line and such.
  10. nothing is blinking…
  11. bonus thingm – There was zero load time or latency

Hello epiphany. how ya doin? The joys of chaos

Holy heck. It just dawned on me. The presentation i’ve wanted to pull together for years has just found me. I am not an orator by nature, but i work very hard to hold my own. One of the things that holds me back at times is wondering if I truly have something to say. I have realistic expectations about the power of my words, but I never want to crank out  a presentation that doesn’t add some value to the conversation at large.

So, what’s the big epiphany?
For many years I have been saying that what I do is “not about making order out of chaos, it is about finding the order within it.” After giving a presentation last week to a group of students I finally made that point the thread that tied my presentation together. It was a passable draft, but the key was – that was the first time I had made that mantra the focal point of my discussion.

With that statement in mind I have been doing a lot of looking into (read – ‘performing google searches regarding’) people who are comfortable with chaos, and or ‘finding the order within it’. The resources range from self-help books to Navy SEAL culture – that one is really quite fascinating.

User Experience has virtually nothing in common with the job of a Navy Seal for sure. The interesting point was how they promote a culture the thrives on chaos and pushes through no matter what obstacle gets in their way. So often I feel like projects aim to create order out of chaos and plan every detail. The most successful projects I’ve worked on have been with teams who could adapt and roll with the punches.

Every deliverable we create is in an effort to find that order and to communicate with others that we can see it. somewhere amid the myriad choices and options, there is a digital experience, product, or solution that will be successful.

I am postulating that unique experiences are created by those who are comfortable with chaos and who are able to stand back and let the solutions emerge. This could either go really well, or become a Malcolm Gladwell knock-off.

So… That’s it. That’s my perspective to share… i am going to work on that now. i’ll keep both of you posted.

Collecting resources (just a collection at this point):

What i think about stuff… As of today

– communication is the only reliable process
– if you are not using real content you are just fucking around.
– becoming a user is humbling. It’s amazing what happens when you rely on something you designed to get info. I’ve tested the app, but i never actually used it until today.
– curation is like the sucker fishes: the ecosystem depends on it.
– if you don’t have a network, whatever you build will be useless. No matter how fancy or state of the art. The biggest and worst assumption that gets made is that there will be a critical mass of people to participate in the community.
– questions are so much better than answers sometimes. The Socratic method is underutilized (except by those who overutilize it and are annoying).

People I’ve met at meetings

Every meeting i’ve called or attended in the last 12 years has been different. Following are some of the archetypical cast of characters I have observed (and at some time been myself)…

Single agenda lobbyist: the ‘sal’ comes to the meeting with the intent of driving one particular agenda item for which he is passionate. Sal will say his peace and may bring it up again if not satisfied with the response, but generally moves on. Unlike…

Pitbull: does not enter the meeting with an agenda item, but is constantly sniffing one out. He latches onto one somewhere mid-meeting and gets all asbergers on his issue. Then, during the recap of the meeting, adds the cherry on top by making his point one of the takeaway items… Yup. Gotcha.

Stranger: the guy sitting at the end of the table who has never attended any previous meetings on the topic. Usually spends the meeting just listening though he privately realized 3 minutes in that he does not need to attend.

Sponge: the one who does not say a thing but seems to be listening very intently. Maybe even taking diligent notes. I’ve benefited from those notes at times.

Non-sequitor: sometimes disguised as the sponge then suddenly brings up a point he clearly thinks is related, but the rest of the room silently agrees is not. Staring and blinking ensues… Everyone moves on.

The friendly: just when you run of gas trying to fend off the non-seq and pitbull – the friendly speaks in support of the point you are trying to get across. Yes! Go friendly person. That’s exactly what i am trying to say.

The egghead: bordering on obsessive compulsive, this detail-oriented chap is the one everyone turns to when a discussion leads to the question ‘is x possible?’

Worker bee: attends the meeting simply as an excuse to sit down and catch up on emails. When the conversation is directed toward him, he will likely respond with ‘what was the question again?’

The final word: this is a rare sighting indeed, but a critical one in the life of a project. You’ve heard the name mentioned throughout the project, but now you finally meet the fw with a couple of weeks left. She will decide in the first moment of the meeting whether the project will live, die or be drastically altered.

I could easily follow up this post with people i’ve met on the train.