Helping Your Team Imagine the Possibility of New Technology.

Changing the way your company thinks—and talks—about tech to trigger innovation.

Luke Stiles
May 17, 2017

As more and more industries undergo digital transformations, they will need to look to technology not just to enable the business, but also as a source of innovation. This can be difficult for business that are not already engineering led or technology driven, as technology is often treated as a commodity. To stay competitive, businesses need to seize every opportunity to innovate and disrupt their industries.

Old technologies will need to drive new experiences, and new technologies will only matter if they can be used to create applications that are relevant for users. Furthermore, as computing becomes ubiquitous and invisible, it will only become harder to think about technologies and the user experiences they could enable. How will users discover and ask for information as screens go away? How will brands find and talk to users if they aren’t planted in front of a desktop or laptop, or burying their nose in their mobile device? 

By focusing on the specific and unique user benefit or benefits a technology offers, and expressing it in human terms, technology can become a source of opportunities and capabilities, not constraints. Three strategies for shifting the focus of a technology from a constraints or a matrix of capabilities and metrics to user experiences are:

  1. Anthropomorphize the technology 
  2. Provide a unique or peculiar user benefit 
  3. Embrace the user 

Anthropomorphize the technology. 

Sometimes a technology is so new there aren’t many examples of it being used, or it’s so similar to another technology it’s difficult to imagine what is possible. At other times the technology is too complex, but it’s important for more than just the technology team to understand. 

When working with home automation and the Internet of Things, it’s easy to get lost talking about smart lights, home hubs, mesh networking protocols, and the boundless potential that we are about to realize and lose sight of the fact that unless there’s a good user experience not much is going to happen. 

The Amazon Alexa was revolutionary for being a computing device that listened to us without us telling it to. Stated anthropomorphically, Alexa has ears. Other aspects of the experience, such as how unique it is to create an app for the device, how limited the set of commands is, or how it integrates with other Amazon devices, can distract. Another example is the iPhone 7. Instead of saying it has a second forward-facing camera, we say that it has perfect vision, and now, depth perception. 

The power of the Internet of Things lies in the ecosystem created. However, just as with personal computers in the '90s, there isn’t just one standard way of connecting. Wireless networking protocols and their standardization are not sexy, but are incredibly important for the success of IoT devices, applications, and experiences. 

It would be easy to get stuck in the weeds of endless analysis of the competing specifications, and build a huge matrix to compare capabilities. Instead, ask what sort of personality the protocols have, and compare them this way. 

One of the most important constraints for IoT devices is power. Here, ask if the protocol tends to be gluttonous. WiFi is most gluttonous, and ZigBee is the least. Bluetooth depends, and is less gluttonous the less it's asked to do. 

Instead of talking about mesh, master-slave, or star networks, ask how collaborative the network protocol is. Zigbee and Thread are collaborative, and devices talk to each other. Moving through other common comparison points, we can use loudness instead of signal strength and distance, sociability or friendliness for interoperability, trustworthiness for security, and so on. 

Now, instead of examining a matrix and mapping user requirements line item by line item to decide between WiFi direct and Zigbee, we are discussing what a loud, gluttonous uncollaborative device might do or need as compared to a quiet, collaborative device that only nibbles. 

Consider the unique user benefit. 

As technologists we are often first to know about new technologies —platforms, techniques, tool, services, languages, hardware, and more. However, raw technology is only interesting to the broader public when it shows up in new and innovative products and experiences. 

To avoid technology for technology’s sake, and to prevent turning everything into a nail for the new hammer, we must focus on what is unique about the new technology. Is there a new feature that wasn’t available before? Is an increase in a spec line item so significant that an entire new class of activity is available? 

For example, when Bluetooth 4.0 was announced, Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) was an exciting aspect of the new specification, and received the most attention. The potential for connected devices with greatly reduced power consumption and high bandwidth was exciting. However, the ecosystem of hardware and software wasn’t there yet, so a lot of imagination was required to get to where we are today. 

By translating the dramatic drop in power consumption to a user benefit, innovative thinking is enabled. Going beyond simple interpretations of longer battery life to seeing that dramatically smaller devices are possible is an example of this sort of bottom-up, technology-led thinking. 

To drive technology-led generative thinking, we must consider new technology capabilities narrowly to identify the user benefit or benefits. We can then use those to seed brainstorming sessions. For example, imagine a tablet that knows when an adult is using it and when a child is using it. An accelerometer that detected the movement style of a child using a machine learning algorithm trained on data from actual usage isn’t that far fetched. 

Embrace the user. 

Huge is a user-centered agency, and everything comes back to the user. And any good business puts its customer at the center of everything it does. Technologists must embrace the personas designers create, and not rely exclusively on the matrix of requirements and backlog of user stories to guide solutions. If there's a user need identified, everyone, including technologists, must be sure to understand it deeply. Only by completely understanding the entire context will we get to the best solution.

Last year, Huge DC embarked on a connected office journey. One desired feature was a means of seeing if someone was in the office even if they weren’t at their desk. An engineer or even a designer might take this as permission to design and to build a custom native mobile application. Maybe we’d throw in a some beacons or another similar sensor technology. 

However, the real need is simply to know when if someone is physically present in the office. For an app to work, the user’s phone would need to be present. Assuming a phone, and a small number of already-identified users, the shift was made to maintain a registry of devices and not ask employees to install yet another app. Presence in the Huge DC office is determined by whether or not your mobile device is connected to the local WiFi network. This subtle reimagining of technology plays on the fact that mobile devices are never far from us. Now, every member of the DC office has a custom ­fabricated plastic “H” on their desk with an LED light that glows red, green, or yellow, depending on whether you’re physically present and available in the office. 

Adding much more technology would have required more effort from the user, which is rarely a good thing. By maintaining the context of the user or business need and not assuming a solution at any level of granularity, it’s easier to avoid an over-engineered solution that might be more generic than it needs to be. 

Get started. 

Technology must become user centric. This isn’t always easy to do, and technologists are often focused on the newest and sexiest technology. Technologists must find the best solution, and remember that they are probably the only people who care what technology powers the solution. Progress can be measured in megapixels and clock speeds, but once performance needs are met, technology can fade into the background. 

Hire the right talent. 

As businesses add a digital component, technology starts to look more like a core business function, and must be staffed with talent that reflects that. To help lead this technology-driven innovation, “T-shaped” technology professionals—those with deep expertise in their core capability, plus the ability to perform other functions—will be needed. 

Involve members of the technology team early. 

As the right kind of talent is identified within the existing organization or hired from the outside, they must be involved earlier in business initiatives and projects with digital components. Technology leads must be enabled to preserve the original context of the user problem, and not forced to rely entirely on user stories or design comps. This also limits the risk of overgeneralization and over-engineering, and ensure that the least intrusive, best technology solution is found.

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