Why the Smart Revolution Needs UX More Than Technology

Every now and then, we need a change of perspective to move forward in the world, especially when our circumstances change dramatically.

We’re on the cusp of something huge. Our lives are becoming increasingly networked. More of our devices understand what we say, and some even think (on a basic level) for themselves. Estimates for the number of connected devices by 2020 range from 50 billion to 200 billion. That’s around 25 connected devices per person on the planet. The smart-home industry, which was non-existent a few years ago, will be worth nearly $60 billion by the same year. With hundreds of millions of wearables, connected cars and the like, we’re stepping into a sci-fi reality of Oculus Rift, Microsoft Hololens, Google’s autonomous cars and IBM’s Watson.

In this new digital frontier, where the physical and digital collide, brands and developers have to change the way they think about reaching their audiences. So how do we explore this new frontier? User Experience offers an answer to that problem, and Nebo is already ahead of the game. As a human-centered agency, we're accustomed to aiming past surface concepts of what's right or trending to genuinely satisfy the people on the other end of our efforts, whether we're launching a new website or paid media campaign, or we’re delivering an analytics report.

To explore this pending reality—and really reap the rewards of our efforts—we'll have to double down and thoroughly apply the tried and true methods of Research, Design and Iteration to get us where we want to go with new technology and all the possibilities and opportunities it promises. Simply put: what has worked for marketing in the past just won’t keep working, much as the previously-heralded ideas of “mass marketing” have fallen by the wayside with the advent of the internet and all of its unique marketing possibilities. Except that now, we have entirely new interfaces and interactions with users that go well beyond the difference between a screen and a touchscreen. We’re talking about technology that more genuinely engages—that listens when you speak, that interprets and learns from you and that provides entirely new physical or virtual possibilities.

Research

All off this new technology provides the opportunity for really amazing experiences. But what kind of experiences work best for which company to connect with what type of person? That's the question that User Research really gives us an answer to, whether through more persona-focused analytics review or actual interviews. No doubt about it: getting to know the person we're connecting with on the other end of the screen is key. And more often than not, the best path forward from that understanding isn't a straight line solution of "different keywords" or "adjusting budget allocation"; it's about perceiving and solving for a mismatch between products and needs, or audience and brand. Looking to the future, that same research also gives us insight as to how quickly audiences will adopt technologies, how they'll use them and what opportunities exist to create delightful experiences.

One great example is the potential for traditional e-commerce experiences to be upended by the use of AI. The North Face has launched an early collaboration with IBM that lets users shop conversationally, as through a personal valet. It’s smart enough to skip questions depending on your answers and pull in geographic trends such as weather and temperature to provide input on what would be a great fit for your next adventure, whether you are heading to an Icelandic winter wonderland or the balmy rainy season of the Amazon.

All of this is possible because the North Face understands that their customers have very diverse needs; they are all adventurers, wanderers and explorers, and of everywhere on Earth. That diversity leads to pain points in the existing shopping experience; narrowing fields and filtering checkboxes is a chore and stands in the way of seeing the products themselves. With Watson, that process has been replaced with a much more pleasant experience that effortlessly filters products before offering the ability to explore on your own or bring in Watson’s help to narrow further.

Design

The nature of design in marketing will change, too, as marketing channels break the mold of “traditional” or “digital” and become something more emergent and experiential. The physical world and the digital world are merging quickly, so marketing is primed to become a bigger part of the very nature of things about us, rather than things put on things around us: ads on TV, on billboards, on websites and so on. This type of ‘concierge marketing’ is already on (virtual) shelves and in homes, for instance the Amazon Echo.

Is the industrial design of the Echo, from the attractive yet unobtrusive tower to the selection of a friendly, trustworthy voice, not a huge effort in marketing? They’ve simply made an attractive product that would have been a viable product if all it did was play music and give weather updates on demand. Instead, customers now have direct access to ordering items from Amazon without going anywhere near a screen. This is a product that—by design—places a Permission Marketing totem right in the midst of home life, whether in the kitchen or living room, with which both needs and wants can be ordered on a whim. There’s no need to “use” a device; just talk to it.

And other brands are joining the show through the Echo. Do you want to order a pizza after you’ve already settled into your movie? Assuming you are a fan of Dominos, it can be taken care of in just a few short sentences. Late for the morning commute? Don’t bother with your phone; order an Uber hands-free while you get dressed. Amazon has brilliantly designed a way for its entire warehouse (and the products or services of partner brands) to sit quietly on your side table in a format you want to buy and bring into your home. That’s a unique marketing accomplishment.

Iteration

A critical part of User Experience is testing and evaluating; even assuming your best work is imperfect the first time around, there is always room for improvement. This follows from some of the Lean methodologies employed by startups but applies to the understanding of new technologies as well. By starting small, a huge investment of neither time nor capital is required to explore nascent innovations. All that’s needed is an idea and a prototype before you see your proof of concept working in the real world and begin to understand how and why people interact with it the way they do.

There are a number of enterprises currently experimenting with virtual reality, from real estate tours and vacation packages to interactive fashion shows and product demos, and they all took a similar approach. Start small, and keep it simple. See how people react, and learn how to avoid any problems that may crop up. Further, and perhaps most importantly, learn what creates those moments of delight for people. After all, while no one likes a bad product, no one loves a mediocre one either.

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Over one hundred years ago, the engineer, inventor and futurist Nikola Tesla thought of a time not unlike our own and wrote, “The day science begins to study non-physical phenomena, it will make more progress in one decade than in all the previous centuries of its existence.” The statistics don’t lie; we have stepped off the precipice. The next decade will bring incredible disruption to our industry on a level never seen before. Rather than cling to the rocky outcropping of our current strategies and paradigms only to be overwhelmed by a tidal wave of innovation, let’s relinquish our grip and learn to swim.

Written by Cael Olsen on April 13, 2016

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Written by
Cael Olsen
Director, User Experience