Bull Session

Celebrating 200

March 30, 2017          

Episode Summary

On The Digital Life this week, we celebrate our 200th episode with a look back at some of the themes and guests that shaped the show over the past 7 years, including those at the top of their game in design, science, and technology like Kelly Goto, Phillip Hunter, and George Church. From episode 24, Kelly Goto talks about her pioneering research on emotional design. From episode 51, Phillip Hunter delves into “making things people want, not making people want things”. And from episode 169, geneticist and molecular engineer George Church discusses brain augmentation to fight cognitive decline.

Episode 24: Emotion and Design
Episode 51: Making Things People Want, Not Making People Want Things
Episode 169: Genomics and Life Extension
An Interview with George Church of the Personal Genome Project

Welcome to episode 200 of The Digital Life, a show about our insights into the future of design and technology. I’m your host, Jon Follett, and with me is founder and co-host Dirk Knemeyer.

Greetings listeners.

We’ve had numerous guests over the years on The Digital Life including those at the top of their game in design and user experience, science and technology. As we reach our 200th episode and we’re about halfway through our 7th year of podcasting the show, we’re going to take a little bit of a look back today at some of the exciting guests that we’ve had over the many years. We’re going to have some guests from the beginnings of the show, some from the sort of the mid-show, and then finally some from the end and pull some clips from each of those.

What I wanted to focus on was some of the interesting design trends and science and technology trends that we’ve highlighted on the show that have gone on to be pretty important in the industry. We’re going to jump in The Digital Life Way Back machine and go back to Episode 24, which originally aired on March 3rd of 2011, and that was an interview, Dirk, that you conducted with Kelly Goto of gotomedia, which is a design research firm.

You guys were talked about what you termed at the time, “emotional design,” which is sort of better known today as “design for empathy” and is pretty important in service design and UX design generally speaking. So I’m going to queue up this clip from your interview with Kelly from 2011 and we’ll see what you think.

So lately you’ve been interested in something that I’ve also been interested in for a long time, which is emotion. Talk about what you’re doing and thinking there.

Okay, so emotional research. Everyone was been calling it something different … I think the words “empathy” have been used a lot lately, and what really interests me is understanding the connections that people have at a deeper level. People have a lot that they are aware of and if you ask them questions in a survey or even in a focus groups, they’ll tell you things that they are aware of that they know.

But what we’re interested in and what I think is really the future of interface design and user experience as a whole is understanding what’s underneath, and those are things that people aren’t always aware of and things that they can’t quite convey if asked. We’ve been playing with this notion of understanding this underneath the known, so what people may not always be aware of, and you can think of it as explicit and implicit information.

We’ve developed techniques to contextually interview them and coax out thoughts and feelings that they have and then we have a way of analyzing it in sort of a word cloud and ending up to be a visual format that allows us to see what are the real emotional ties that people have with these particular types of products and services.

At one level, it sounds great to be able in a short time frame coax out these findings, but it really has taken us time to understand the different ways that you use mixed methods of research to kind of get down to the deeper level. So we’re working with a couple different clients right now, very big clients, on utilizing this type of emotional connection and emotional research to create better products and services that will connect with our customers.

So that was from Kelly from 2011. Dirk, what’s your take on that now as “design for empathy” sort of taken a more prominent role on the stage for design and UX.

It’s interesting because in 2011, Kelly was packaging it as “designing for emotion,” “emotional design,” and that was sort of a tentative framework for her then. Kelly and I go way back. We worked very closely together in 2005 and 2006 on some of these same things. I don’t remember what we were calling it at the time, but it was around that time in 2006 when I had my applied empathy framework that I developed too. So Kel, Kel just goes way back on this stuff.

There weren’t books on designing for empathy in 2011, much less 2005, so it’s interesting to be taken back to Kelly, really one of the pioneers of the field talking about A, that framing from a more macro perspective, but also talking a little bit about her specific methods and tools for research and building into design sort of from the perspective of that framework.

Yeah, I find it interesting that there’s a lot of development around what I’d call sort of the edges of the field where it’s not really an outlier per se, but because user experience draws from so many different fields, there’s always interesting stuff going on at the edges that doesn’t sort of push into the mainstream for a while, so I did appreciate that interview with Kelly. Once again, that was from Episode 24, so we’ll have a playlist up on our SoundCloud with the full interviews there.

The next clip I wanted to highlight during our 200th episode celebration was from Episode 51 and that’s when myself and our friend Eric Dahl were running the show. That was from April 30th of 2013, and we had on, as a guest, Phillip Hunter, who at the time I believe was at Microsoft but is now at Amazon working on the design of Alexa skills, so skills for the Internet of Things, for voice recognition, voice UI, etc. Phillip has I think become pretty influential in terms of sort of the next set of emerging technologies that are coming.

We had him on the show to talk about a theme of a blog post he wrote, and the theme was, “Making things people want, not making people want things.” This really speaks to the burgeoning movement in user experience which is to spend time on problem finding and identifying sort of the correct things to work on rather than purely creating digital products that might have potentially high economic value but low social or moral value, let’s say.


This is the clip from Phillip Hunter discussing that topic.

We have had our eyes open to the fact that there’s an opportunity to not take product ideas that are invented by a bunch of smart people in a room, removed from society and make them better, but rather to go out into the world and say, “What does the world need? What does the world want? And how can we start to design things based on that foundation?” Good ideas of course come into play and good engineering comes into play and all these things that we’ve learned over time are still part of the equation, but the way we’re starting is going to become different.

It’s tapped into a number of things around what does it really mean to need or want something? How do people indicate to us that they need or want something? And ultimately how they are fulfilled or that need or want is fulfilled by what we are designing.

I love that quote from Phillip because it dovetails really with a lot of the questions that we’re asking around AI, which is: are we designing to solve real problems or are we just creating systems where the unintended consequences are going to overwhelm the good that we’re seeking to do? It certainly shows the maturity path that design is moving along and represents design as part of that challenge to, maybe not the status quo, but at least the challenge to represent humanity and be in position to raise the needs of people above or at least to equal value with that of the science, technology, and business aspects of any products.
Dirk, I know you could probably talk about this for quite a long time, but sort of any immediate reaction to that trend?

I don’t know if this is answering your question with regard to the trend, but when I hear Phillip talking about that, when I hear him outlining is what I might call, and this will be very unsexy, sort of modern, mainstream design strategy process which is about gathering data, responding to customer needs and wants, which is crucial at odds with genius design or what our friend Jim Leftwich who, wonderful, I’d love to have Jim back on the show … called Rapid Expert Design.

The most iconic example of course is Steve Jobs with the iPod. Jobs had a vision for the iPod. There were no focus groups. There were no people clamoring for the product but he understood as he himself being a consumer of that market intuitively understood what was necessary to be created to really go on to change computing frankly. The iPod was a step in that process towards mobile.

When I hear Phillip talking I hear him relating what the dogma is now for the easy process. I don’t mean easy in a negative way even though it might come across that way. Very few people have the vision of a Steve Jobs where they can grok the correct thing that’s needed and force that thing out. The prudent approach, albeit, the slower approach, albeit the more expensive approach, but the necessary approach for most companies is a process like that that Phil is advocating. It seems like good advice, and kind of putting the current trend, the current best practice out there in very plain terms.

I do think we maybe take for granted the current state of the industry insofar as design has really risen in prominence over I’d say like the past 4 to 5 years.
I’d say 15. It’s a ramp off, right?


But yeah.

It’s interesting because I recall at the time being very moved by Phillip’s description there just because it seemed very rebellious as opposed to now when it seems like it might be a more common-

When was he on the show?

That was 2013.

Okay, okay.

Right on the sort of tipping point of some of that. The last interview clip that I’m going to play for our walk down memory lane is from an interview that we conducted just recently. This was in August 18 of last year and this was an interview that you did with George Church who is the American geneticist and molecular engineer who’s really paving the way for a lot of great things in genomics and synthetic biology. George had some interesting thoughts on life extension and brain augmentation that I pulled this clip from that episode, which is definitely worth listening to.

I personally think that the most intelligent computer on the planet right now is the human, the human being, and even though computers can do pretty well at non-human things like chess and Go and Jeopardy, they really can’t do very well at say recognizing the side of somebody’s face moving in a crowd, which a three-year-old can do. They can’t do what Einstein and Marie Curie did on a good day.

I think if we continue to improve that, which I think we can and will, there’s going to be a lot of motivation to fight cognitive decline via cognitive enhancement, and that will be considered highly medically actionable. It’s very hard to develop preventative medicines or augmentation on a healthy individual because if the FDA sees it as you’re only going to hurt them. It’s all about safety, and I full agree, but developing things that help with someone who’s got the early stages of Alzheimer’s or maybe just pre-Alzheimer’s has very high risk factors. That’s easy to get.

That clip from George was from a broader discussion that we had around life extension and what he’s referring to there of course is the idea that we might be able to improve the human brain so that degenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s don’t have such a tragic effect. As we look at the future of design and user experience, I think without a doubt, design is intersecting right now with the sciences in a big way which is part of the reason why we have people like George Church on the show because it seems like over the course of 7 years we’ve talked a lot about the silicon and the bits and bytes part of technology that design intersects with and has been for decades.

The new technology revolution is cellular. It’s in genomics. It’s in synthetic biology. It’s in this new kind of software that of course is not new, but humans are sort of just discovering how to manipulate it. So when you hear George talk about the human brain as sort of the most important computer that we can be working on right now, what are you takeaways if you think about design and science?

What I liked about speaking with George and the comments you heard and some other things that we discussed was the level of realism and pragmatism. It’s very easy to get caught up in science fiction notions of the future and I like the clarity with which George emphasized that as much as weak AI or narrow AI can do certain single purpose things extremely well.

There are a multitude of things that the human brain can do naturally with no effort that AI is still unable to do despite best efforts, and there’s just a long way to go before the world that we live in now turns into a Utopia or Dystopia similar to which we’re seeing more and more presented in science fiction, popular culture, whether it be television shows, movies, books, or even things that you and I have wide-eyed talked about.

George is sort of reminding us that there’s a ways to go. The science, the gap from where science is and how it’s being commercialized and the future, bright or dark, there’s something missing there.

I hope listeners have enjoyed this walk down memory lane with us for our 200th episode celebration. At the end of the episode, we’re also going to include some of our many screw ups which maybe didn’t make it to air but we strung together in a “bloopers reel.” We originally released that bloopers reel at the end of the year in December of 2010.

2010. That seems so long ago to me.

This was sort of a collection of our recording screw ups which you know, you can listen to. If you’re interested it will come after the theme song at the end and you can check out some of the silliness that ensued as we put together those episodes. I guess I wanted to say thank you very much to our listeners for almost 7 years and certainly 200 episodes of The Digital Life. We hope you’ve enjoyed our clips episode and remember when you’re listening to the show, you can check out the things that we’re mentioning here in real time if you head over to thedigitalife.com. That’s just one “L” in The Digital Life and go to the page for this episode.
We’ve included links to pretty much everything mentioned by everybody so it’s rich information resource to take advantage of while you’re listening or afterword if you’re trying to remember something that you liked. You can find The Digital Life on iTunes, SoundCloud, Stitcher, PlayerFM, and Google Play. 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. 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. And thank you so much for listening.

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