Learning lunch: A whole new digital world
At 10 feet tall we have regular “Learning Lunches”, which is a half-hour slot dedicated to one person giving a presentation to the rest of the team based on what they think is interesting to share. For this particular learning lunch I wanted to give a brief overview of technology’s role in today’s communications; to wax lyrical about some factors on the new realm of digital doing and thinking and how we can best posit our advertising and marketing strategies for now and the future. Everyone has experience with tech — Internet primarily — in some form, however my aim with my talk was to expand the awareness of the current state of technology’s breadth to encourage further understanding and potential futures.
For some the digital realm is dark and full of terrors, however there is a light that can never go out. That particular light being that technology was always created with the intentions to serve humanity (or at least humans) — to improve our lives in ways that help us share knowledge, enhance productivity and strengthen bonds between our inner and outer communities. As we continue to progress with our innovations and research into technology and human understanding, the two worlds start to merge and meld, creating a new and deeper symbiotic “organic” relationship.
Today’s digital communications
With technology’s prevalence upon our modern day society, we interact and absorb communications through a myriad of platforms, technologies and experiences. The World Wide Web being the primary information network of tubes that collect and transmit our human consciousness in the form of written word, images and sound, has become the dominant platform over the previous forms of television, radio and print and expanded upon it in a richer, more integrated way.
In the last 5 years our interaction with the Internet has increased ten-fold with the advent of smartphones, tablets and integrated apps and services that all connect to the “Cloud”. Smartphones and tablets also brought the tangible sensitivity of touch, making that intrinsic connection between information and experience more tantalising and “real” through the usage of gestures and allowing people to see immediate results appear from our fingertips, as if like magic.
It’s no wonder too that with this more human-centric style of thinking and interaction new schools of design thought have emerged, in the guise of “User Experience” and “Service Design”. Where once technology was for technology’s sake, now that most people have become accustomed to human-centric methods of technological interaction that it is natural that we start to think about technology from a human needs mindset, as opposed to a previously more technology-focused mindset. Our collective knowledge and experience of technology has surpassed a point in which most people have a capable vocabulary when dealing with devices, apps and systems, and yet there are still plenty of advancements continuing to close the gap between human experience and technological prowess.
Key areas of technology usage
Broadly speaking, we utilise technology for information/education and entertainment purposes. We share and absorb knowledge; we communicate to loved ones — and strangers — our experiences and feelings, all through websites and services like Facebook, Twitter, Google+, Tumblr and many many more.
Entertainment-wise, we’re streaming digital video and audio from the likes of YouTube, Vimeo, SoundCloud and other free and paid video services; we’re playing games in the browser, on handhelds, on consoles, and even in augmented and virtual reality situations. A lot of them have been designed for social purposes, to pit one against another, or to have many people collaborate in cooperative play.
In order for humans to best utilise all these resources, we need to adequately interact with them and also have the means to navigate them, to find that which is relevant to our wants and needs. The concept of accessibility through utilisation and information is paramount. In order to have any impact in the digital world we need to ensure that our crafted products and platforms are usable and visible, to even those who cannot touch or see.
Accessibility via utilisation means that people can use whatever you’ve made. This can also mean those who are blind can still interact with your information (using screen readers), those who are deaf can still hear (via subtitles), and those who are motion-impaired can still interact (such as setting consideration for the order of elements and how one can move between). It can even mean the order and hierarchy of information presented.
In terms of accessibility through information, an example is that Google built their empire from a search service. They programmed machines to scrape all the information from as many pages as the Internet would show were connected through the technology of hyperlinks, and they then put all that information through their processing algorithms to best assess which of these sites and information could be most relevant to a user’s search query — the frequency and context of the information influencing its relevancy.
The interesting thing about Google is that there were plenty of search services before them (Hotbot, Dogpile, Altavista, Yahoo, etc.), however they managed to strip back the unnecessary “junk” that these other sites would display and honed their algorithms to best return results that would have more relevance to a human, than just any standard result matching a literal term. This is a very simplified account of the intricacies at play (other things such as developing and marketing technologies that best provide deeper semantic/contextual information), but it is a pivotal point in technology’s history in which a human-centric technological design had proved a huge success above lesser, more inhuman ones. Google’s empire still continues to reign as they continue to focus on designing and developing technologies to augment and improve our digitised human experiences.
In our technological world — and you may have already detected the emphasis that I’ve communicated so far — is that we’re crafting and delivering experiences aimed at humans. It makes clear business sense; people are more likely to continually interact with resources that are easy and accessible compared to alternatives that appear more complicated or require a user to step outside of their comfort zones or provide steep learning curves. Apple always described their products as magical — it’s this magic that people enjoy using. They don’t always want to know what or why, for the most part people want to do what they want/need to do. Technology needs to be the medium, not the subject nor a hurdle.
It’s an imperative focal point to provide for the target market in a way that is conducive to their experience and expectations, much in the same way one would craft and target their audience through language and imagery. It’s why design-centric technology firms focusing on sustaining and improving the user experience are achieving great results these days.
The likes of Apple and Google continue to make new innovations targeting people’s existing knowledge and assisting them to build upon and expand that knowledge. Where the audience goes is often where they feel most comfortable, so it’s important to nurture people through these interactive journeys and avoid moments that may make them question or doubt functionality or their expectations.
Tracking, analytics and accountability
Fortunately there exist many tools to record data about how people interact with new technologies. By recording and analysing this data we can find ways to improve the digital experience to encourage conversions (the state in which a user/visitor turns into a paying customer) or to better facilitate deeper connections and understanding.
Analytics provide us information to assess the market’s behaviours (behaviourally and technologically), to ascertain whether they’re adequately engaging with the experience, and much more. Even further than that, there is a subset called predictive analytics, which can potentially allow us to see beyond what is currently or previously happened to best guess as to where things may rise and fall, and to best inform how to deal with such fluctuations.
A current trend called “big data” involves large-scale data capture to facilitate both understanding existing behaviours and to help predict future ones (as mentioned above). Even better is where big data from multiple sources can converge — we can make correlations between the various points to unlock new meaning and material, and who knows what potentials can be born from that. The counter to that though is arbitrary connections can still seemingly correlate.
The digital market is also rife with some legalities — I guess that’s the nature of human behaviour, though. While the advent of digital communications and analysis allows us to better share and understand, a whole 10-ton sticky date pudding’s worth of legal concerns arise from intellectual property rights to privacy issues. Firms not operating kosher means of respecting their users’ privacy and other firms’ IP can fall prey to lawsuits and damaged brand recognition. It pays to be careful and respect the communities.
And then… ?
The smartphone/tablet computing boom is still rising, and in the developing world regular mobile phone usage is experiencing huge growth. Internet usage on portable devices is set to overtake traditional desktop computing. This means that websites and services providing curated experiences for these smaller touch-based devices are more effective capturing the market. What’s interesting too is that a new form of wearable computing — smart watches, Google Glass, etc. — is changing our devices to be even smaller, more portable, and even screen-less as technology enters a closer state of symbiosis with our own bodies and minds.
We’re almost entering an age of absolute instant 24-7 connectivity (if we’re not there already). Our digital world is like a meta-mesh (a “net”, of course) enshrining the physical world as a huge technological web of information whizzing about at insane speeds all around us, ripe for the plucking and partaking. The improvements in storage space, CPU processing power and Internet speeds allow us to do more, faster, which means we can potentially have more time to do less, but somehow that doesn’t always quite work out. Maybe it’s because it’s human nature to continually be active and involved, and once we solve some problems we’re not entirely satisfied to sit on our laurels and seek new challenges.
The digital sphere continually adds more complexity, and while it does allow us to achieve more richer experiences and expand our potential as a collective, there is still resourcing issues that need to be addressed: finding knowledgeable people to create, maintain and expand such technological resources is hard work and significant investment in itself, as is sustaining knowledge and awareness in our ever-changing times of the ever-expanding technological climate.
It’s an exciting world to be involved in and like any other field of human endeavour it has the potential to duck, dive and pivot in ways that even we can’t predict. Ray Kurzweil, a gifted thinker, inventor and futurist, has predicted that at some point a technological singularity will occur in which artificial intelligence will progress to the point of a greater-than-human intelligence (the recent movies Her and Transcendence also touch upon this concept, albeit in Hollywood-esque overtones).
If/when we hit that point, who knows what will be paramount/redundant in our world then — technologically or not.
-Written by: Matt Scheurich, our freelance creative technologist. This post also appeared on Matt’s blog.