Designing for ubiquity

When I first heard the term “ubiquitous computing” almost 25 years ago, it sounded magical. Computers then, I admit, didn’t make it easy to imagine such a world. I frequently found myself daydreaming of the films ET and Escape To Witch Mountain (I did say it sounded magical, didn’t I?)

ET_Wikimedia image

It evoked a vision of being able to do anything, absolutely anything, anywhere using a device connected to all humanity, well, of sorts.

We are close to that utopian vision.

Except one thing.

That vision didn’t warn us of the whining, attention-seeking brat that ubiquitous computing will become.

Just to balance the argument out, I spent a few days noting how much time and attention I divert to other ubiquitous technologies in my life.

Such as the trusty old wall clock in the kitchen which is how I know what time it is when I arrive downstairs bleary-eyed early in the morning, or the radio I listen to while I work, or the land-line telephone that rings, or the 10-12 year old blazer I might pick out for the day.

You are wondering, aren’t you, why I am referring to these things in the context of ubiquitous technologies.

Think about it.

My wall clock needs one battery change a year. The numbers are large and can be easily read by a just-awake person to assess if a leisurely cup of coffee is possible or if one must rush on with the day.

I need a land-line telephone because where I live the line-of-sight technology called mobile or cellular access does not work.

As for clothes, let’s try and count the ubiquitous but invisible technologies therein including cutting, stitching, buttons to name a few. Without even going into the material, the weaving, the suitability to the day’s weather etc.

I contrast this now with the devices that do mean ubiquitous computing to everyone.

My laptop, my tablet and my mobile phone.

They need charging twice a day at least. I have turned off most notifications but it takes a while to work out why Viber notifications need to buzz, even when the phone is silent or indeed why the phone, left face down, needs to vibrate each time a new email pops in.

Yes, I know everything can be personalised and fixed just as I like it.

I am asking a different question.

Why does one have to spend all this effort on ubiquitous technologies/ computing tailoring them, charging them, tweaking & twisting them, blah blah?

Was this Weiser and Seely Brown’s vision when they coined the term ubiquitous computing?

Or did we get here all on our own — in our rush to ship beta versions, MVP and pick-your-term-of-choice — without adequately thinking just how much energy and time we will expend just to make these things work seamlessly, easily?

When did ubiquitous computing become ubiquitously painful, annoying and draining?

But more importantly, why did it become so?

And what does it say about our attention to design?

Respectful design, contemptuous design

Conversations with many friends, who are building communities for social businesses or are in other customer-facing roles, reveal a shared frustration. It appears that community builders and customer facing persons, and designers in a business are singing from different hymn sheets. Often, once the beta or whatever the business deems a shippable version of the product (web, mobile, app or a physical product) has shipped, some sit back thinking the job is done.

Customer feedback, that then comes in, is often sidelined to make good of the already existing technology infrastructure. Worse, it is sometimes disregarded altogether.

As the face of the business, community builders find themselves in a tough spot.

“It is as if we not only fail to care, but that we are actually contemptuous of the customer,” one said to me.

The contempt for the customer shows in the design of the customer experience with the business. From web design, to the product, to packaging and in all other ways the business and the customer interact.

Often the customer cannot find the information she wants, or she cannot find the product she intends to get to know a bit more, or the worst, she cannot really buy your product. And as seen in the case of frustrating clamshell packaging, sometimes she just cannot get to the product!

Why does this happen?

Because not enough attention is paid to understanding the customer’s journey or her desire behind engaging with the business. Insufficient work goes into testing how the customer might feel while trying to do business with the company. Efforts are made to defend the costs already incurred, not to acknowledge that that investment was not producing any returns.

In other words, not nearly enough respect is accorded to the thought that the business wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for the customer.

This is what I call contemptuous design.

Contemptuous design privileges technology and sunk cost over customer journey, experience and engagement. Respectful design, on the other hand, privileges the customer’s desires and experience over everything else, so the business can continue to exist and possibly thrive.

No checklists are required to distinguish contemptuous design from respectful design. As customers, we know how we are being treated when we make first contact with a business.

As business owners, we need to be honest about the conversations we are having or enabling or hearing about our customers. If the customer is seen as an encumbrance, we are squarely in the realm of contemptuous design.

But if we feel the customer’s pain and want to deliver a good experience to her, we are making strides towards respectful design.

It really is that simple.

Customer service stories from America

I just got back from a few days in the Mecca of start-ups. They do things differently over there. Well they used to, till globalisation made us all the same.

SCRIPTING FOR PRAISE

Last week, while making a cardholder-not-present transaction with an American business, my card was declined. Twice. I told the customer service person at the other end that I would call her back right after having a word with my credit card issuer.

Meanwhile I received a text and an email from my issuer, alerting me to possible fraud and asking me to call them back.

After identification, my call was put through straight to the fraud team of my issuer in America. The lady confirmed the transaction with me, then said the card was now being unblocked and I could go ahead and complete the transaction.

At this point, I said I was glad that their big data system actually worked and flagged things in real time; and that as a customer, I appreciated it so much that I have stayed with them across countries, for a very, very long time!

The lady was speechless.

I could hear her struggling with words that were appropriate to say to a customer, who actually just praised you.

In the end, she managed to say, “Well, we appreciate your loyalty.” and hung up.

This isn’t the first time I have found a company representative stumped by unexpected words of kindness or praise.

I once rang British Gas in the UK to say how good and patient a young engineer had been while at my house sorting a tough problem that required him to remove and wear frequently his protective socks, because, well no matter what, you aren’t bringing those shoes on to my pale carpet!

The CSA sheepishly told me she didn’t know where to direct my call. I finally ended up recording my message on their complaint system and then I got a letter back from them thanking me etc.

Both experiences have made me wonder about how we design organisations and how businesses see their customers. And indeed about how customers interact with businesses.

Pretty much every CSA has a script to deal with a customer, who calls in raging and angry about some inadequacy or another. Not just the CSA, I have written letters to the CxOs of businesses and got long letters thanking me, explaining the challenges, and offering me a solution. One of them still sends me updates based on a complaint I made in 2005!

So why is there no script for dealing with praise or gratitude?

Is the customer only expected to call in raging and never to call in with praise?

Is the business designed only for liability avoidance and damage protection, and not the possibility of building or strengthening a customer relationship?

Is there no scope for iterative redesign or tweaking in CSA scripts, or any degrees of freedom whatsoever for them to deal with a happy customer?

Is this the world we are designing and living in? One where we expect interaction only when something goes wrong, and nary a word of praise expected if we are doing things right?

Where is Pygmalion in all this?

CALL ME AL

For my sins, with far better choices available, I agreed to meet someone at Starbucks (although how 750 Castro is next door to 650 Castro in Mountain View, I am yet to figure out, but I digress).

“I’d like an iced Americano, please,” I said.

“What’s your name?,” she asked.

Loathe to have my name mangled into Shelley, Chefaly or the worst, Shirley, I said, “Just call me Al.”

The man behind me in the queue, probably my vintage, smiled broadly.

The barista called out, “Iced Americano for Al!”.

The joke died a painful death.

Paul Simon, I apologise. There must be fifty ways to avoid having coffee at a place that insists on being on first-name basis with me before I can get my caffeine dose.

Men in women’s fashion — the gender imbalance we don’t talk about

A few weeks ago, rumours abounded about Tom Ford possibly returning to Gucci, after Frida Giannini’s departure. While there is no doubting Mr Ford’s all-round creative nous, from couture to perfume and makeup, and film making, it would have been disappointing if he did return to the role. In the event, Ms Giannini was replaced by Alessandro Michele.

The technology industry isn’t the only gender-imbalanced industry in this world. Women’s fashion world redefines the imbalance between the customer base of women, who spend but where value appropriation is disproportionately made by men.

It is men, who overwhelmingly own stakes in, invest in, and lead companies that serve the women’s fashion market. For instance, Richemont, that owns Net-a-Porter, Chloé , Azzedine Alaïa, Van Cleef & Arpels and Cartier amongst others, fields, at the time of writing on March the 8th, 2015, a board consisting of 18 men and one woman! Doing better is Kering (formerly PPR) led by Francois-Henri Pinault with a board of 11 of which 4 are women. Kering owns, to varying degrees fashion brands such as Gucci, Saint Laurent Paris, Stella McCartney, Alexander McQueen, Bottega Veneta amongst others.

Men are also overwhelmingly the creative leads in many of women’s fashion brands. Here is a roll call for the uninitiated — Nicolas Ghesquière at LVMH, Karl Lagerfeld at Chanel and Fendi, Christopher Bailey at Burberry, Alexander Wang at Balenciaga, Hedi Slimane at St Laurent Paris, Jean-Paul Gaultier at the eponymous brand which is fair enough but he was at Hermès 2003-10, Rodolfo Paglialunga at Jil Sander, Alber Elbaz at Lanvin, John Anderson at Loewe, Olivier Rousteing at Balmain, and John Galliano having recently returned with Maison Margiela (he was earlier at Dior).

Which makes it worth celebrating Miuccia Prada at Prada, Donatella Versace at Versace (with Anthony Vaccarello at Versus), the incomparable Vivienne Westwood, Jenna Lyons at J Crew, and Hermès’s 2014 appointee Nadège Vanhee-Cybulski.

The magazines that serve women’s fashion market, Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar to name but two, are owned by corporations – Condé Nast and Hearst respectively – where almost all board directors and senior executives are male. Hearst has one female board director, Condé Nast‘s imbalance is tipped by the presence of Anna Wintour, the well-known industry heavyweight.

In fact only a minuscule 3% of creative directors in advertising, that drives women’s spend, are women. A staggering minority no matter how one looks at it!

I should however point out that mainly British women are in charge of some of the most influential fashion magazines including Glenda Bailey and Justine Picardie at the Harper’s Bazaar respectively in the USA and the UK, and Anna Wintour and Alexandra Shulman at the Vogue respectively in the USA and the UK. Thank goodness also for Vanessa Friedman, Suzy Menkes, Jo Ellison, Christina Binkley who witness, document and report on the fashion industry from the front row and beyond!

So why is it that when we talk of gender imbalance, we get stuck at the technology industry and Silicon Valley?

Why not start at the obvious — where women are spending money but where the value appropriation is overwhelmingly not made by women?

It’s not the pipeline for sure. A good 71% or more of the graduates of Central St Martins, the alma mater of late Alexander McQueen, and a reported 74% of the graduates of London College of Fashion are women. The number is 77% for women students at Parsons The New School for Design.

The industry is also traditionally not seen as no place for women.

But the industry does keep up with the tradition of notable wage gap between men and women, so much that there are no women in the top-20 highest paid executives.

So while we sit in the middle of Paris Fashion Week and mark another International Women’s Day, we ask yet again — what gives?

And more importantly, as we seek that elusive goal of gender equality — can we make it happen?

The theme for #IWD2015

The theme for #IWD2015

 

Of subtractive creativity

In an earlier monograph, I wrote about transformation and emergence, the kind of inspiring creativity that everyone thinks leads to beautiful products.

But emergence isn’t intentional. It has a magic that is hard to understand and often replicate.

Intentional creativity and beauty however can come from removing things. But in any such intentional design process, we must begin by asking: what is our goal? What are we trying to achieve?

I have been contemplating subtractive creativity while I soak up some sunshine in the land of Tesla and self-driving cars. So naturally we are going to talk about cars! And since wall-to-wall sunshine makes me miss Britain and all things British, talking of a British car will be the perfect story to ponder.

Cars really just take us from A to B. We want them to do it fast. We want them to look pretty while doing that. And we want them to embody something magical in all that.

Colin Chapman, the founder of Lotus Cars said: “Adding power makes you faster on the straights, subtracting weight makes you faster everywhere.” There in a few words is the philosophy of design — subtractive creativity — at Lotus cars, who also power the Lotus F1 team.

Some high grade engineering and creativity goes into removing weight from a car to make it that noticeable bit faster. Some of that weight subtraction was made to serve a market for a two-seater car and some was powered by innovation in materials.

But as some of you may know, Lotus suffered financial difficulties which may raise the question I often ask about sustainable – which includes profitable – creativity.

Graham Nearn, the founder of Caterham Cars, bought the rights to Lotus Seven, which despite some regulatory challenges in the global markets, continues to be a popular — fast — car for the enthusiast. (Yes it is not for everyone. Just like any other luxury product!)

As environmental concerns become central to how we think about the transportation problem, subtractive creativity wins again. Lotus is a lead player in thinking about the environmental impact of their cars at every component level.

Indeed Tesla, which seems now to be everyone’s dream car, collaborated with Lotus in the creation of the Roadster. The relationship didn’t work out best for various reasons and now fewer than 7% of the components are common between the Tesla Roadster and Lotus’s EV. But as discussions abound about the weight of the Tesla S, mostly due to its battery, Tesla may yet have to rethink some of its design.

It isn’t, in the end, about Lotus or Tesla but about the homage they both pay to subtractive creativity. And by extension, to sustainability – of the creativity, of the environment, and of the human being’s quest for movement, speed and beauty all at the same time.

Best stated in the words of Colin Chapman, Lotus’s founder: “Simplify, then add lightness.”