Welcome to Episode 136 of The Digital Life, a show about our adventures in the world of design and technology. I’m your host, Jon Follett, and with me is founder and co-host, Dirk Knemeyer.
Dirk, are you ready for our last episode of the year?
In this episode we’re going to talk about some of the big themes that we encountered on the podcast in 2015 as we wrap up the year and consider all of the great topics and guests that we got to experience. I wanted to start off with one of the big themes that I noticed. By the way, I went through all the episodes and all the guests and all the transcripts, and it was interesting because we don’t really … We start off the year with a general sense of where we’re going, but we don’t have an editorial map that’s established out more than, say, a couple of weeks in advance. I actually learned a lot about what the things were that we were focusing on because some major themes emerged that I was aware of but just not cognizant of just how important they were. The first one we’re going to start off with was 2015 enterprise UX became a bigger deal.
Yes. It became a bigger deal than it was. It’s still not enough of a big deal, because enterprise UX has a long way to go and just there’s so much enterprise software from having just one user to a thousand users to ten thousand users. There’s so much specialty software that it will be a long time before enterprise UX approximates what we have on the consumer side. Nonetheless, that was a topic that we spoke of quite a bit.
In Episode 104, we had the pleasure of Kelly Goto joining us for that episode, and she was fresh from the Enterprise UX Conference put on by Rosenfeld Media. She talked a little bit about how she was incorporating user experience research into just working with the enterprise in general and about how that’s a culture shift for a lot of these big organizations that are focused on doing one thing very well, but usually that thing is not user experience.
That’s how we started out on this theme. Then a few episodes later in 113 we talked to your friend Suzanne Livingston who is over at IBM working with their social software division. She’s a product manager there. IBM is really responding to the bring-your-own device trend and the consumerization of the enterprise. It’s notable, when IBM is starting to pay attention to user experience and the consumerization of all this, you know that there’s a lot of money to be made there. Then our third episode that falls under this theme was Episode 127 that I did recently with Uday Gajendar, who was —
Ga-jen-dar. I apologize, Uday. Anyway, we had a good chat about the wicked craft of designing for the enterprise. As you can see, there’s three notable shows that were focused on different aspects, whether it’s the research side of things, the social side of things, or, in Uday’s case, designing the software specifically for enterprise users. Of course, Uday did some of that work here at Involution in previous years. I thought it was a great arc for the year. Listeners, incidentally, we’ll be collecting each of these themes into a playlist on our SoundCloud instantiation, so you’ll be able to see the main themes and revisit them with us if you care to. Dirk, you’ve been in enterprise user experience for a decade plus.
Are you surprised that people are paying attention to this, that there are conferences now that people care about enterprise UX?
As usual, Jon, I’m just surprised it took so long. Yeah, I’ve been working in enterprise UX for a quite a long time now, and it’s critically important. You have people using enterprise software. A number of the softwares that I’ve worked on, they are software that certain operators are using eight hours a day every single day. When the interface is garbage, when it’s hard to use, when it’s unpleasant, that’s really deteriorating the quality of life for a tremendous number of people.
It’s really essential to have good enterprise UX, both from the bottom line productivity standpoint the bean counters would point to, but also from just the standpoint of humanity and the folks who are forced to toil away on this stuff. I’m glad to see that finally the world is turning towards that. Jon, as you well know, one of the reasons that clients cite for working with Involution is that we do enterprise software that feels and acts like consumer software, which is code for easy-to-use, pleasant, and enjoyable. It’s really how all enterprise software should be. I’d go so far as to say it’s criminal that it’s so bad.
Yeah. Is it a sign that the user experience industry is maturing, that there’s so much more attention being paid to this now? Is that a sign that our industry is starting to specialize maybe a little bit?
Specialize, maybe a little bit. Yeah, maybe. There’s more awareness of working in context of UX instead of UX as this big amorphous blob. Yeah, I think that’s true.
Yeah. It’s just an interesting thing to watch happen, and there’s still a tremendous amount of return on investment that you can get from an initial pass at good user experience in the enterprise. As we well know, you can save users tens of clicks by just having a good interface.
Dozens, dozens. We did for Oracle dozens on one use case.
That’s all just sort of the low-hanging fruit that may not be there as much in a consumer software, but in the enterprise the click stream is so important because you have these complex workflows, yada yada. You know the drill. There’s so much opportunity there now, and I’m very pleased to see that it’s becoming a more intensive area of practice for the industry.
The only thing I will say about this, the sort of thumb rise of enterprise UX is it’s similar to … People say if you hear a stock being talked about at the hairdresser, don’t go buy that stock because it’s way too late. I think it’s similar here. Enterprise UX, now that it’s this big thing, now that there’s conferences and everyone paying attention, the really choice front-forward opportunities are gone. Now it’s just mass. It’s similar to when UX classes and front-end engineering classes became a big deal a few years ago and with Codecademy and all those different schools that popped up all around the same time, only a few years later now people with those degrees, they’re near worthless. It’s been proven that that approach is just not the right one to really train people who are able to come in and perform with the right level of experience and execution.
I think this is similar. This is the masses getting into enterprise UX. A lot of the more interesting things have already been talked about and moved on from. Now it’s to the point where it’s all pretty generic, pretty straightforward, so now it’s getting the mass appeal because more people can understand it and get their heads around it. It is the rise of enterprise UX on one hand, but on the other hand, it’s also a sign that the more interesting things are behind us, and for people who are more inventors instead of optimizers, it might be a time to put your head into a new space.
Right. The second big theme on The Digital Life for 2015 was one that is very near and dear to my heart, which is creative class work, how you go about it, what the influences are and how it’s changing the American economy. Lots of things to dig into there. We started off the year with Episode 84 with the question, “Is Leisure Dead? Exploring Time Poverty in the Digital Age.” It wasn’t a throwaway episode, but it wasn’t something that I thought was going to be a huge deal.
For me, that’s one of the episodes where I feel like it really hit the nail on the head in terms of just the struggle that people have with an always-on working environment and finding a new culture that embraces both time at home with your family, with your friends, but also this always having the sineyus connected to the business and always being able to be drawn in at a moment’s notice. One minute you’re with your family eating, and the next moment you’re on a conference call for some fire to put out. Time poverty, right? That’s the other side of productivity, and I thought that was a great theme.
Then, of course, in March every year there’s the annual creative class pilgrimage to Austin known as South by Southwest. That has just grown by leaps and bounds over the year. One of the questions we asked in that episode was whether or not that was the big tent revival of the religion, the place you go to get baptized, as it were, in creative class stuff for the year. You can check out that episode and see whether you think that’s the evangelical high point of creative class stuff.
I think it might be more tramp stamp and less baptism, but amen.
Episode 103, we talked about creative routines, which is actually something that I explore just as something of interest, which is how do you engineer creativity? How do you construct your days, your hours, your minutes so you extract the maximum creative flow out of it? When do you work best? What are the methods for doing that? That was a rich episode and certainly one that bears further exploration. I think that’s a big deal going forward.
In Episode 112, we talked about maybe the darker side of all this creative class work, especially in the software industry, which is you’re automating away some jobs for people, right? We talked about automating America and some of the problems that that causes and how it forces everyone to up-level their skill sets as computers and robots start to do more of the commodified work.
Then in Episode 121, we touched a little bit on the idea of the open organization, which is fuel for the new, what do you call it, the new way work is structured. We talked about how there are certain companies where ostensibly you can see the salaries of everybody on staff and it’s a flat hierarchy and all ideas are valued as, no matter where they come from, to encourage innovation. I think we both took a slightly simple viewpoint on that.
That’s certainly a growing movement in creative work, the open organization. Then the last episode, 129, that fits into that theme, we talked about innovation and crowd funding. The idea is that if you have a good idea, you have so much leverage now as a creator that if you have something in a far-flung niche, you can get that funded because you will find all those other people who are interested in that, and then go and receive a little bit of money from each person and all of a sudden you’ve got a way to earn a living while you explore this innovative area.
All of those, you can see the threads of creative class work, and it’s a fascinating time because we still are really transforming from an industrialized society. Those were maybe the four or five themes of the year, but they certainly don’t end with year’s end. Dirk, I know that you have all kinds of creative pursuits and each one informs the other. What was your take on creative class work in 2015 or any other themes I just mentioned?
Yeah. The thing that is really sticking with me about the evolution of the creative class is the fact that, despite the fact that there’s so much attention given to it, despite the fact that there’s very progressive, smart people doubling down on healthy, creative class workplaces, that we’re still kind of in the dark ages. I say that from the standpoint that we continue to design for the faceless masses as opposed to design for the individual.
The example I’ll use is something I read this year. I don’t think I talked about it on the show. Maybe I did. There’s a profile on Zappos and founder Tony Hsieh, and it was talking about his philosophy. I’m going to screw up the details, so I won’t get too detailed with it to avoid making errors. At the end of the day, it’s using this particular philosophy of evolving to the better workplace, and the optimal type of workplace is called teal. They’re all colors. Teal is what Zappos is aspiring to. As I’ve researched it more, teal is this very interesting, progressive, liberal-minded, open, all these good things, system. However, it’s not good for many personality types. It’s good for very specific personality types who deal well with ambiguity, who don’t need a lot of structure, who are cool with things changing in different ways, who are happy with throwing out all of the old metaphors and coming up new terms for the sake of new terms, among others.
To me, it’s the best example of how work towards wonderful, creative workplaces today is still in the stone age, because even the most progressive of companies, even the most lauded of the superstar, rock star CEOs trying to push this better agenda continue to whittle people down this little gauntlet that’s great for some, okay for others, and shit for a whole bunch. The open workplace is another example of that. Scott Barry Kaufman, who I follow on Twitter … I’d recommend all of you do as well, sbkaufman at twitter. He recently was talking about … I don’t know if it was on his podcast or on Twitter … about how now there’s good science around the open workplace crushing the productivity of introverts. Open workplace is the signifier of modern, progressive, liberal, right way to do it, but it’s completely shutting down and screwing up a key portion of your workforce.
Maybe this could have been one of my predictions last week. I think we’re going to see good science this year really starting to push us toward a more holistic workplace, not one that’s taking a certain dogma that’s good for some and not for others, but something that really is thoughtful and balanced to help a large majority instead of just different fiefdoms.
Yeah, that’s terrific, Dirk. I think that’s going to be something that we explore in 2016, for sure. The last major theme I’m going to touch on today with these summaries, and this is not to exclude all the other great themes that we talked about, but these are just three that really pop out to me. Once again, our discussions about emerging technologies were pretty significant throughout the year.
We started out with Episode 89 talking about smart cities and the Internet of Things, just as an example of one technology that is starting to come to the fore. In Episode 92, which was one of my favorites of the year, we talked about designing bio-inspired technology. For instance, coatings that represent the sharkskin to repel water that can be put in any hydrophobic area to keep water off is one example. We discussed inventions like that, pulling from nature and how biology really is starting to be the tech area that’s exploding with both ideas and funding, so designing bio-inspired technology.
In Episode 114, we ruminated about how freaking scary it would be if someone was hacking our connected vehicles, hacking cars. There is that video of a hacker group that worked with WIRED magazine to demonstrate how that could be done. If that’s the future, I am slightly worried about that.
That was a little scary. Episode 115, another good one, the future of food. How do we feed an ever-growing world population, especially when folks have a taste for meat products. There are companies like Impossible Foods who are working on making vegetable-based protein seem more like meat. I had the pleasure of meeting their CEO at TEDMED, and he gave a demo. There have been rave reviews of their product, and I really can’t wait to check it out myself. There’s another area, the future of food.
In Episode 119, I talked with Scott Stropkay and Bill Hartman of Essential Design on user experience for robotics. Then in Episode 124, our friends at the Personal Genome Project, Madeleine Ball came on the show to talk about Open Humans, which, as you know, is that database for scientific research that is open to research scientists so long as they return data to the people who are participating and to the main Open Humans database.
Then finally, in Episode 125, we talked to our old friend Scott Sullivan, who is doing an awful lot of work in the wearables department. In particular, he’s working on his own smart watch and writing a book on wearables for O’Reilly Media. Scott’s really killing it in the wearables area. Just another example of an emerging technology interview on the show.
I got to say, we’re watching the water recede on emerging technologies and waiting for the wave to come in, I think. All of these, from robotics to food, from genomics to wearables, they’re all still in their early adopter phases and it’s a lot of fun to watch these things start to take shape, because I was in college when the Internet was really beginning to form. I had it from that academic perspective and I didn’t really have the industry perspective the way I do currently.
While it was interesting to see the emerging tech of the time, the Internet come to fruition while I was at Boston University and sitting at my X terminal looking at the Mosaic browser and wondering what the potential was of this information that you could suck down from the Internet, now we’re as a studio involved in various areas like genomics and really starting to see the amount of effort it takes just to get the stuff off the ground. Even though it’s in the early adopter stage, I’d say the amount of time and effort and money that goes into this is astounding. Dirk, I’m sure we’re going to talk about emerging technologies for many years to come.
Any thoughts on this early adopter phase, this sort of nascent …? It’s popping up on the radar, but that’s about it.
Yeah. I’m not sure exactly where we are. What I mean by that is let’s look at smart phones as an analog. Smart phones, let’s take it back to the Newton, the old Apple personal assistant from the early ’90s. There was this one gadget that a small number of people were wild about, but it didn’t go anywhere commercially and it just kind of sunk. Then you have some years later, the BlackBerry comes out, which is sort of the first sign of something that really was like the modern smart phone that we really like. That was something that was just used by a minority of people, by business people. There was a time in the early 2000s where most business executives were running around with a BlackBerry. It was an essential piece of equipment for that minority of the population.
Now, ever since the iPhone came out basically, now everybody has a smart phone. It’s become this integrated part of our lives. What I’m not clear on is are we in the Newton phase of robotics, genomics, or are we in the early BlackBerry phase. I don’t know.
Yeah. That’s a great way of putting it. Don’t forget the Palm PDA, too. That was BlackBerry’s competitor and they didn’t do so well.
Yeah, I think they didn’t make calls, right? At least in the early days they didn’t.
No. They did have the stylus and the funky gestures to get your letters into the Palm, which was basically like learning hieroglyphs in order to–
… to get a single letter in there. I loved it anyway, but it wasn’t very useful.
No, it wasn’t. I never took to it. My boss got me one once, and it probably wasn’t used enough to justify the cost. I do think it’s an interesting question to say what stage are we really in, and I suspect we’re in the Newton stage, I got to tell you. I think that certainly at the consumer level, the power and utility of the things that we have access to down the path of emerging tech is, I think, relatively trivial. I think for the equivalent to the iPhone, what does that look like? I don’t know enough about the science to maybe articulate it properly, but I think it looks way different than what we’re dealing with today.
Yeah, definitely a first iteration kind of environment. Listeners, you can check out all of these different themes, the emerging technologies, creative class work, and enterprise UX as individual playlists which we’ll post to SoundCloud and to thedigitalife.com. Remember, if you’re interested in anything we’re talking about here today, you can go to thedigitalife, that’s just one “l” in thedigitalife, check out the page for this episode. We’ve included links to pretty much everything mentioned by everybody, so it’s a rich information resource to take advantage of while you’re listening or afterward if you’re trying to remember something that you liked.
If you want to follow us outside of the show, you can follow me on Twitter @jonfollett. That’s J-O-N-F-O-L-L-E-T-T, and, of course, the whole show is brought to you by Involution Studios, which you can check out at goinvo.com. That’s G-O-I-N-V-O.com. Dirk?
You can follow me on Twitter @dknemeyer, that’s @D-K-N-E-M-E-Y-E-R, or e-mail me, firstname.lastname@example.org.
That’s it for Episode 136 of The Digital Life and for our episodes in 2015. For Dirk Knemeyer, I’m Jon Follett, and we’ll see you next year.