The age of un-empathy

“My Spotify drains my phone battery”, she said.

“Do you listen to it on streaming or offline?”, I asked.

“Why, yes I do listen to it on streaming!”

“So you see both the 3G access you are using and the app itself use battery. You can see battery use by app and make choices accordingly especially when you are outside and worried you couldn’t recharge your phone.”

“How do I do that?”, she immediately wanted to know.

Cue, search through settings and battery use data on her 4 year old Samsung Android phone.

“The guys at the Samsung store didn’t help me”, she lamented.

So we opened the settings to check battery use and she was horrified.

“Where did all these apps come from? I am not using them”, she said.

“Not right now, perhaps, but they may be running in the background or operating on a pull mechanism”, I said, weakly. And clearly, unhelpfully.

We then discussed what “pull” means, what other common uses may be battery-draining, how it may be necessary to behave differently to conserve battery, how some apps more than others drain battery, and other things she now needs to know, just so she can use the technology she deems essential to her work and her outside-work life.

There were several such moments, as I helped this 65 year old friend of mine. She needs to get to grips with some essential technology tools and social media as she works on taking her business global.

The detail about her age and her business are material here lest the rest of this reflection should get drowned in the assumptions that just because she is older, she is not “smart enough” or “compos mentis”.

She isn’t the first among my over-55 friends whom I have recently helped with their technology and social media needs. Phones and social networks all play a key role.

It is soon clear that much of the technology design has forgotten technology also serves our ageing population at hand.

IMF depiction of our ageing populations

Mobile phones have several non-obvious hidden access features, sometimes resistive touch screens, complicated pathways to switching off default settings on various apps and in case of Android phones, a fragmented ecosystem that confuses older users who did not cut their teeth on technology.

Social networks have arcane and complex privacy settings, light coloured buttons, light grey ellipses to access extra features, drop-down menus hidden behind little arrows, and of course, their own lingo for features.

It may even seem the ageing user is misbehaving i.e. not behaving in accordance with the designers’ expectations of their ability to make use of features they should be able to see (never mind almost universally weakening eye sight with age) or discover. Because, hey, it is so intuitive, you know!

What is wrong with this picture?

Is technology meant to exist for its own sake? Or is it meant to serve someone?

What are the design assumptions at work here? Do we care whom we are including — and whom we are excluding — by our design choices?

Can the growing numbers of ageing people be this invisible?

Post script

As she started to gather her things and prepare to leave, I said, trying to be helpful, “Of course, you could just buy a portable battery pack so you are never out of battery when you leave home.”

She put her things down and looked at me sternly, “That is now for another day, Shefaly. I cannot cope with this any more.”

Related reading:

Why I think “digital native” and “digital immigrant” typology is short-sighted and unhelpful

Brands and the coattails of success

TAG Heuer congratulates its beautiful rebel – MC Mary Kom into the Semi Finals of the 2012 London Olympics.

The glamorous TAG Heuer Woman shares Mary’s restless and rebellious nature. Like her, she excels at her game, knows how to win, and how to celebrate. Creative, confident, always plugged in, she never stops building on her achievements and pushing herself to be better, but she also knows how to relax and have fun.”

Says the TAG Heuer brand page on Facebook.

This is Mary Kom, who now needs no introduction. Do click on the link to see Ms Kom looking beautiful and resplendent indeed.

Did you do a double take on seeing that photo? If so, join the very large club. To feature as a TAG Heuer ambassador, Mary Kom has to be airbrushed to look like someone she is not. Yes, being adorned and looking gorgeous is a woman’s right and privilege. But when that adornment makes Ms Kom’s appearance and not her performance or character the centre piece, one has to wonder about the O word in brand marketing. Objectification.

Objectification is central to “celebrity endorsement” in brand marketing. Picking a person to represent a brand’s abstract, often fuzzy, promise is the purest form of objectification. It also happens to be, in my view, the epitome of laziness and paucity of creativity in brand marketing. That is how TAG Heuer, that uses film actor Shahrukh Khan as a brand ambassador in India, now thinks Mary Kom is a fit for their brand. Yes, it is ok to take a few moments to get one’s head around what Shahrukh Khan has in common with Mary Kom.

Nor is the post-Olympics upsurge in luxury brands rushing to sign up medal winners – particularly in emerging markets – a compliment to brand managers.

In a mature market, brands sponsor and support promising athletes. When a sponsored athlete succeeds, the brand can stake a legitimate claim to associating with that success. In the UK for instance, RBS has sponsored Andy Murray since he was 13, when he was a relative unknown playing junior level. Like athletes, brand building isn’t an overnight success of TAGging along to someone else’s, but actually investing in it. But is that what is happening in the emerging markets (emphasis on markets)?

Mary Kom wasn’t entirely an unknown before the Olympics. Even if women’s boxing isn’t your thing, heck, the Intelligent Magazine did a superb piece on her stardom before the Olympics. Did the five-times World Champion Mery Kom not strike TAG as a woman who “excels at her game, knows how to win“? Or was her life story not an example of her “pushing herself to be better“? Her close shave with poverty can’t have been much about how to “have fun” but TAG could have eased all that by promising her support before she became famous. Instead of sponsoring her when she needed help, the brand now wants to ride on the coattails of her success.

Of course, emerging markets are less about brand building and all about reaping the rewards from the “markets” overnight. Aren’t they? Investment? What investment?

“Women in tech”: what gives?

(Long post alert!)

The meme is old but the current phase may well have started with Tereza’s idea of starting an XX Combinator, an incubator for women entrepreneurs. New York based VC, Fred Wilson gave the idea wings on his blog. He was then quoted in a now-widely discussed Wall Street Journal article, in which Rachel Sklar criticised TechCrunch. That riled TechCrunch’s Michael Arrington who wrote a post arguing why women mustn’t blame men for their relatively scarce numbers in the tech entrepreneurs community. In my view, Arrington highlights a key point about women not putting themselves forward enough. It is borne out by many people’s experience, including people like Robert Scoble’s, who invite women and are open to approaches, but have seen few women turn up or promote themselves. A more specific – and actionable – point was made by Alan Patrick, who says that at the moment the low numbers of women may be a flowrate problem. Spoken like a true engineer, I say. Now before you point out that I have overwhelmingly quoted men’s point of view on the issue so far, here are some other views. From women. Cindy Gallop says nobody is blaming men, and that systemic solutions are needed. Jamelle Bouie writes “try harder” is not the answer, adding another voice to the chorus calling for systemic solutions.

So far so motherhood-and-apple-pie. Don’t we all know that systemic solutions are needed? We do. Don’t we all know that women are different from men – no implied normative labelling there – and therefore different approaches may be needed? We do. In all the widely read and most shared posts I cite above, we hear only three creative ideas: Scoble and Arrington asking women to come forward, and Tereza proposing an investment fund for women. I like Tereza’s idea, but as a minority myself, I am no fan of ghetto solutions or “specialist” offerings. I do not believe that positive discrimination of any kind helps women. Nor does positive discrimination or special dispensation of any kind help promote the cause of inclusiveness, going beyond gender segregation.

I also believe that “systemic solutions” have their place but can we really afford to sit around for another 25-30 years for these solutions to take effect? Calling for systemic solutions is also a get-out-of-jail-free card of sorts. Like the trolley problem, it makes it possible for us to distance ourselves from the myriad of moral dilemmas and the choices we make in our daily lives. What is needed is for us to take steps – in our families, in our neighbourhoods, in our communities – to ensure we capture the attention of young girls and attract them to science and maths for careers in science and technology.

Here’s my take on the issue. Most of it is borne out of my own experience as an engineer who diversified and has run her own business focusing on technology-led businesses for a decade now. All of the following requires us – who are upset by the state of “women in tech” – to make different decisions in our lives.

Agree on Definitions. And avoid self-limiting boundaries.

“The beginning of wisdom is the definition of terms”, said Socrates. Yes, another man, I note. One of the egregious things about this debate bubbling at the moment is that “women in tech” is mostly being narrowly interpreted as “women entrepreneurs who start companies, typically in the USA, and seek venture funding”. Isn’t that too limiting?

There are, for instance, numerous women biologists and with much innovation happening at the cusp of disciplines, physicists and engineers will find themselves working with these biologists with their special expertise. Are these not “women in tech”? An estimated 30% of engineers employed in India’s private sector are women. Granted not all of them start companies, but are they not “women in tech”? What about women leaders of science and technology driven businesses? Some, it may surprise you, did not have degrees in science at all. Are they not “women in tech”?

While the lament of women being relatively fewer in science and technology is not misplaced, the dimensions of that lament can be put in perspective, if we define “women in tech” more broadly. The broader perspective will also lend itself to more creative and wide-ranging possibilities for addressing the issue.

Oh, by way of some data, here are Fierce Biotech’s top 10 women in biotechnology – a “tech industry” that needs a solid grasp of science as well as of business cycles. The list does not include one of my picks for most inspiring women in tech: Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw, founder CEO of Biocon, an Indian biotech behemoth.

Eschew early gender stereotyping.

In the 18 years since I graduated from engineering, many of my friends have had children. I have had the chance to observe the children closely. With some stellar exceptions – and I have a working hypothesis for that, which I may write about another time  – most of my well-educated, professional friends have proceeded to imbue gender stereotypes in their children pretty early on. Girls are co-opted into baking, while boys are given errands including things like fixing their sisters’ bikes or polishing shoes. What’s wrong with baking? Well, nothing – I bake most weekends – since baking is a highly controlled chemistry experiment. But also one, where one pays a heavy price for tinkering and taking risks with the recipe. What has that got to do with girls in science? Well, research suggests that girls not being encouraged to tinker is directly linked to their not choosing science, maths and engineering subjects.

Now think of all the activities that are stereotypically considered “girlie” and “boy stuff”. Baking, cooking, sewing, knitting and most care duties, while allowing for some creativity, are not about tinkering. But computer games, opening and mending things, fixing bicycles, repairing fuses etc all require a lot of tinkering. Early gender stereotyping in bringing up girls does them no favours, if we are to address the “flowrate” problem of girls in science and technology.

What about my own experience? I didn’t tinker much as a child, but I was always allowed to be an apprentice to my father, who did tinker an awful lot. I learnt much by observing and then much more when I started living away from home at age 17. I have learnt to curb some of my desire to open things up but I can confidently say that I know intimately the insides of my car as well as my piano thanks to my fiddling and tinkering. I tinker with complex problems and issues in my mind longer than most people which may explain why I do not churn out posts on “hot topics” while they are hot!

Do we need role models? If yes, think laterally.

I started studying engineering in 1988. In India. About 18% of my class was made up of girls. Barring 3, who then proceeded to read for an MBA, all have remained in the workforce in “tech” careers in engineering, and in research and teaching. Most are in Silicon Valley, some are in India. Most studied for second and third degrees, many after their marriages, some while bringing up their children and managing their careers. Nearly all have children. On first glance, all odds were stacked against the emergence of this longitudinal pattern. But it is there for us to see.

I have never sought or cared for role models but if I had to pick, these women would be my role models. They remain committed to science and technology not only in their careers, but also take an open-minded approach to other pursuits they have undertaken in their lives. These, to me, are “women in tech”. Because they show how it is possible to be one. They can, and I have no doubt, do influence young girls around them positively.

For my part, I decided I wanted to be an engineer when I was about 8. I had, of course, been tinkering as an apprentice to my father. But more to the point, I followed the example of an older male cousin. He is everything I wanted, and still want, to be: an engineer, a sharp brain-box, a gifted cook, a whiz with a sewing machine (!), a talented musician. He now has two girls of his own – both are “women in tech” via engineering and medicine. One has recently started her own business in Canada. I find them inspiring and consider myself fortunate that I can mentor them and participate in their journeys.

Role models needn’t be far-away exotic characters about whom we read in magazines. They need to be picked from our lives. For their ability to show what is possible, and for their ability to mentor and guide young girls. The gender of the role model, I believe, is less important than what a young girl can learn from the role model.

Negotiate better to remove barriers in adult life, aka men and women need to cooperate.

I am not making this up. Women scientists do more housework than male scientists. But it is also true that male scientists regret limiting their parenthood choices than women scientists do. Sylvia Ann Hewlett’s research has found that at 40, 31% of men are childless. Her earlier research had found that 40% of successful women at 40 were childless. “So what?, I hear you ask. Well, perhaps women need to understand and respect that life for men in science and technology – and business – isn’t a bed of roses either. They make sacrifices too. In other words, there are some common pain points for men and women, and sustainable change can be better effected if solutions to these pain points are sought jointly.

For women already in the workplace, it is important to recognise that before we can negotiate harder and better deals for ourselves at work and outside our homes, we first need to negotiate better and fairer deals for ourselves at home. With the men in our lives. If we are lucky, we already have relationships and friendships based on common values. These relationships give us advice on and insight into complexities and motivations of people we meet in work situations.

In other words, women need to cooperate. With men. Women need sponsors and champions. To invest their time, money and social capital into our ideas. And to avoid the negative vibes that sometimes dominate women-only groups.

Accept that men and women are different. Life is better for it. Now let’s enable the choices these differences foster.

In a conversation with Alan Patrick (whom I mentioned earlier), I said to him: “Women have lives, men have jobs. Fact.” While I readily admit to the shade of hyperbole in that statement, it does contain much truth. Most women I know – including those in science and technology – seem to have rich lives. They have fulfilling, if sometimes challenging, work lives; they have relationships and families; they have rich social lives; they have outside interests such as culture or sport. Most men however have relatively simplified lives where work and weekends feature heavily. It is not because men don’t try. But my working hypothesis is that it is because men are worse victims of gender stereotyping than women are. It must be tiring for men to live up to these negative stereotypes.

May be to enhance the numbers of “women in tech”, we need to show them the possibility of a rich tapestry of careers. And we need to work to create structures – investment funds, mentoring programmes, whatever it takes – to enable such possibilities. These possibilities may not necessarily follow a set pattern but must allow for women’s different priorities. As life goes, women’s fertile years coincide with their early career years too. It makes sense, where possible, if women wish to start companies or businesses later in their lives, perhaps in their 30s or 40s.

I recognise that not all of these ideas will prove popular. But as a person who sees possibilities in cusps, confluences and convergences, I believe sustainable solutions to the “women in tech” problem will require us to take conscious, mindful, sometimes difficult decisions every day. For a long time. Now would be a good time to start.

Late edit: some excellent articles by women – and men – I found after publishing (I don’t have to agree with all I list below/ disagreement sharpens thinking!):

Stubbornella on Women in technology

Aparna on Empowerment begins at home

Jezebel on What do “where are the women” shitstorms achieve?

Leah Culver on Is there a gender divide in start-ups?

Jon Pincus gives some actionable advice to Arrington

JP Rangaswamy muses about inclusion in technology and discusses anchoring-and-framing

Rachel Sklar’s post on the current wave of the meme

Suzanne Lucas on taking responsibility

Geoff Livingston on mindfulness to find female speakers

On classifications and typologies (3)

The second post in this series ended with the question: what use are these typologies to anyone? This post discusses some ideas to answer that question.

Organisations aim to find and reach their target ‘customer’ in the most cost-effective way, and to ensure that the customer makes the purchase decision with them, and not with their competitors. This applies to all kinds of organisations, whether for-profit businesses competing for the customer’s spend, non-profit organisations competing to get more people behind their cause, or politicians seeking to win votes. In this post, we discuss marketers and politicians as two broad groups of professionals who use typologies successfully.

Marketers aim to create awareness, to strengthen the favourable image or counter the unfavourable image of their products or brands, and to gently nudge and handhold the customer to a purchase decision. Politicians aim to find supporters for their campaigns and their positions, and then to translate this support into votes.

Both marketers and politicians use typologies to identify who their ‘customers’ are and where they are. This is essential information for reaching the customers. Typologies therefore also help understand customer behaviour and the best ways to reach them most cost-effectively. It is worth reiterating that typologies are about homogeneous masses that bind us with our ‘type’, not about individual quirks that distinguish us from them.

Typologies can be used to create awareness and interest through to the customer’s actual act of making the purchase decision. Specifically in the context of social network typologies, there is emerging evidence that social network links can directly affect customers’ adoption of a product or service. Marketing techniques that take advantage of such linkages are a nascent and rapidly developing area of interest.

However, it is not sufficient to understand the typologies. In order to build relationships, thinking marketers and politicians must engage and do so meaningfully with these categories or types.

Here are some examples.

Ofcom may wish to classify them as ‘attention seekers’, but marketers see ‘Mom Bloggers’ as a ripe audience for marketing. That said, marketers would do well to remember that it is not a monolithic group and includes ‘Alpha Moms’, ‘No Drama Mammas’ and ‘Granola Moms’ amongst others.  Even within these sub-types, marketers must recognise the ‘influencers’ and target them with meaningful pitches. Wrongly targetted or irrelevant pitches are not just wasted, they also create negative PR. Entire businesses now exist for specialist marketing to mom bloggers. Influencers can create awareness and influence purchase decisions within their community.

In some cases, marketers are participating in communities where the target customer can choose to engage with them. Amazon promotes it digital downloads and Friday deals on Twitter and at the time of writing has over 5700 ‘followers’. Twitter however is free to Amazon, save for the cost of updating these ‘tweets’. Such scatter gun approach is unlikely to be useful where larger sums of money are involved and where ROI must be demonstrated.

Politicians are increasingly aware of where their target voter is.

Millions of first-time voters, mostly young voters, will vote for the first time in the 2008 Presidential election. They are deemed the pollsters’ nightmare, a wild card, because their behaviour is not easy to predict. But Harvard’s Institute of Politics research suggests young voters concerned and engaged, they vote in large numbers, they are a great support for campaigns, and most importantly both their votes and their long term political loyalties are up for grabs.

These young voters are also very active on the web; John Palfrey calls them ‘digital natives‘. Their ease with the web presents an opportunity for politicians to engage with them through channels not available before. Ergo, Barack Obama on Twitter (over 88000 ‘followers’), on MySpace (over 618000 ‘friends’) and on Facebook (nearly 1.95 Million ‘friends’). His opposite numbers, McCain-Palin also are on Twitter (under 1000 ‘followers’), on MySpace (just over 128000 ‘friends’) and on Facebook (under 550,000 supporters). The Technology Review magazine has had a recent cover story on How Obama really did it which illustrates beautifully, no matter what your politics, how the clever use of technology helped the Obama campaign.

Has your organisation identified the typologies most relevant to its business? What is your experience? What other stories have you seen or heard of, where marketers are successfully using typologies to advance their companies’ profits?

Related reading:

Birds of a feather shop together by Auren Hoffman, co-founder of Rapleaf

Pat Phelan asks the question ‘Are paid-for evangelists harming blogging?

HBR’s interactive case study ‘We Googled you‘ (requires registration)

MIT Tech Review on How Obama really did it (requires registration)

Harvard Institute of Politics’s Research on Young Voters (pdf)

Jeremiah Owyang on Social Network Stats

On classifications and typologies (2)

An earlier post on typologies ended with the question whether web user typologies have been identified.The answer was both ‘yes’, and ‘no’  because while many typologies have been proposed, there is no consensus. This post takes off where the last one left.

Naturally we start with bloggers. There are many possible ways to classify bloggers based authorship structure, blogger identity, blogging reasons and blog(ger) specialisation.

Some blog on single author blogs, some blog on multiple author blogs, some on both kinds. Guest blogging, usually on invitation from the blogger and sometimes on request, isn’t uncommon either. I have guest-blogged on the Indian Economy blog.

Some blog under their own name, and some blog pseudonymously. The latter in my experience has two sub-types: those, who stay pseudonymous in off-line correspondence and those, who reveal their real names in off-line interactions. I recognise that some blog pseudonymously for fear of persecution by employers or governments; however it is not as if our real identities cannot be revealed. Ask the MIT students subpoenad by the RIAA* or the young man in Tennessee who is being chased by the FBI for hacking into Sarah Palin’s email box.

Bloggers also have various reasons for blogging. Some blog for professional reasons; some blog to create a discussion and a community; some are working to create a living archive of their lives; some blog because they need the discipline of writing regularly; some blog because others are blogging. What might be the other reasons for blogging that I have missed? Please use the comments link to share your views.

By subject matter, there are hundreds of ways of slicing and dicing bloggers into political bloggers, mom bloggers, feminist bloggers, fashion bloggers, food bloggers, and so on. For more on the diversity of the blogosphere, see Technorati’s annually published data.

Likewise, social network users are also quite diverse. A recent Ofcom report classifies users of social networks as follows:

  • Alpha Socialisers are a minority and use sites in intense short bursts to flirt, meet new people, and for entertainment.
  • Attention Seekers are a minority who crave attention and comments from others, often by posting photos and customising their profiles. Mom bloggers, according to Ofcom, fall here.
  • Followers are a large bunch who join sites to keep up with what their peers were doing.
  • Faithfuls are also a large bunch who use social networking sites to find old friends, from school or university.
  • Functionals are a minority who are single-minded in using sites for their particular aims.

There is a longer categorisation created by SEO consultant Kyle Healey. He proposes 23 types of social media users from the ‘superuser’ to the ‘moron’. I imagine it is a bit tongue-in-cheek but click on the link to read this in detail. Which kind of social media user are you?

Of web users in general, there are two kinds, according to Professor John Palfrey of Harvard’s Berkman Centre: digital natives and digital immigrants. In an earlier post, I argued that this is an inadequate classification that would benefit from recognising the naturalised digital citizen. What do you think? Which kind of web user are you?

Typologies usually make people bristle with a “I don’t fit in any of these categories” kind of reaction. It helps us to remember that these are not discrete sets, but overlapping ones. We may belong in one or more, or none of these categories because of the way we use the web. It is worth remembering that typologies are not about exceptions; they are about the homogeneous masses.

Typologies are all fine and dandy but are they any use? That will be the next post in this series.

* MIT refused to reveal their identities and subsequently a Boston judge quashed the RIAA subpoena.

Related reading:

Rapleaf’s statistics on social network users

My earlier post on Digital origins and identities