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.

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

 

Unflattered by imitation

Luxury marques trade partly on the tangible benefits of craftsmanship, provenance and history, and partly on exclusivity (i.e. some can only aspire to them not afford them) and the brand name’s signalling value.

While discussing the face-off between the democratic web and the exclusive nature of luxury, in an earlier post, I wrote that the democracy-exclusivity divide may belong in a debate about sales targets but it certainly does not belong in a discussion about building a brand’s long-term value.

Luxury brands like to connect with the fans of their brands on social media but they draw the line at being flattered by imitation such as offered by counterfeit, fake or knockoff goods that some “fans” of the brand may purchase. There may be uncertain brand building gains but there is potentially certain revenue loss. While in most cases, it is expensive and time-consuming to go after sellers of counterfeit or knockoff goods, in other cases, such as the litigation LVMH brought against eBay, it is possible to make a concerted effort to suffocate the trade in fakes.

Museum_of_Counterfeit_Goods_Wikimedia_CC3.0Who buys these counterfeit or knockoff goods, with intent, anyway?

Some are bought by people, who aspire to but cannot afford the brand, yet nonetheless wish to signal their worth to others. In that sense, one could argue, that knockoffs do not really devalue the original brand. They serve a different market. They serve aspirers. These aspirers may or may not have real social influencer status, so their purchases may not matter either way.

A knowing few (hipsters?) often deliberately choose fakes. Someone I know socially, who can afford to buy the real thing, wears a fake Patek Phillipe Calatrava. It is a topic of gossip amongst those, who don’t know him well. On the other hand, a person, who knows Patek Phillipe craftsmanship well can tell immediately and won’t be impressed with his fake watch. His defence was, “I wear the fake ironically.” That makes it alright then.

Amongst those, who knowingly choose to buy fakes, some find social embarrassment mortifying. If you carry a fake Birkin, but move in circles where many have the real thing, that embarrassment will find you sooner than later.

Some others I know socially first bought counterfeit goods because of the aspiration value of the counterfeited brand, and because they coveted the brand’s beautifully made products. But then they found the quality satisfactory for their purposes and have continued buying those counterfeit products.

This is where it gets tricky for luxury brands.

How do luxury brands then stand out so that they can bring these people seeking quality into the fold or at the very least make the genuine article stand out so dramatically that the aspirers move away from fake goods altogether?

I see three flavours of a new kind of exclusivity emerging.

The first kind, that has been running for a few years now, is to make the brand aura accessible via collaboration with a high street brand, as Alexander Wang, Isabel Marant and others have done with fast fashion H&M. Such collaborations create a kind of desire and exclusivity within the mass market milieu, satisfying some aspirers while probably nudging others into exploring the real thing.

Then there is the use of technology to create and enable an inclusive form of exclusivity, such as Burberry enabling customers to buy off the catwalk and have goods personalised for a limited period after a fashion show.

But above all, luxury turns to its roots in craftsmanship, the exclusivity of custom-made novel fabrics and materials, such as practised by Mary Katrantzou, who is having a special kind of lace and embroidered jacquards specially made in Swiss mills. This is near-impossible to knock-off and the goods are certainly far from anything the mass market can access.

Luxury will always have an uncomfortable relationship with the democratising effect of the web and emergent technologies. In exclusivity lies its allure.

What will emerge is innovation in ways of keeping that exclusivity alive. And in ways of influencing the intent of fans and potential customers towards the real thing and away from fakes.

Craftsmanship is the reliable foundation luxury can always turn to.

But will that suffice?

Wearable tech’s luxury and fashion challenge

“Here’s the only thing you need to know about wearable punditry: No one knows anything. Zip. This is a market that barely exists.”, said technology columnist Christopher Mims recently.

Google Glass, a high profile early avatar of wearable tech, had made an appearance in New York Fashion Week in 2012’s showing of Diane von Furstenberg’s SS ’13 collection. More recently it debuted in London at Selfridges’s YSL makeup counters. Neatly making progress with fashion and luxury brands.

Yet it was withdrawn, retired from public view last week.

Cue, much discussion about its tech wizardry, privacy challenges and use cases.

To test wearability, Google Glass flirted with fashion and luxury. Yet, it has to be said it was ugly as sin. Aesthetically unacceptable. There is no disagreement on that.

Historians and scholars of luxury have argued that early human clothing was not about the need for protection against the elements or about emergent norms of decency, but about the need for ornamentation, adornment of the self.

As far back as 850BC, Homer describes in The Iliad, how Paris or Alexandros, as he steps forward to combat, bears a panther skin on his shoulders.

“When they were close up with one another, Alexandrus came forward as champion on the Trojan side. On his shoulders he bore the skin of a panther, his bow, and his sword, and he brandished two spears shod with bronze as a challenge to the bravest of the Achaeans to meet him in single fight.” – from Samuel Butler’s translation of The Iliad, Book III.

Historian François Boucher, author of 20,000 Years of Fashion: The History of Costume and Personal Adornment, suggests wearing such ornamentation “identified the wearer with animals, gods, heroes, or other men”.

In other words, “wearability” has always been about more than utility.

Wearable tech, as it exists now, is failing this very first test of “wearable as adornment”.

Utility can not be divorced from the beauty that well-crafted objets embody, and expect wide success.

Consider this early example of wearable tech — a Qing dynasty era (1644-1912) abacus ring.

Miniature Abacus Ring, Qing Dynasty

The beads could be moved using a hairpin a woman would pull out of her hairdo, enabling some rapid day-to-day arithmetic. But boy, is it an hommage to beauty in miniature!

Yes, I know women don’t use hairpins any more. But to fixate on that is to miss the point.

Unless the aesthetic and craftsmanship game is raised, and unless it fits in with the aesthetic and craftsmanship discourse of these industries, wearable tech will just flirt around the the edges of luxury and fashion.

Without getting the patronage of those who seek excellence in making and craftsmanship, that effortlessly combines beauty with utility.

Here’s hoping Google Glass is not broken and they are just polishing it.