My phone beeps on Saturday morning. Then my iPad, then my wife’s phone. All telling me that I need to leave now if I want to get to yoga on time. My phone has successfully worked out that I have an event in my calendar, and that I’m 70 miles away from where it’s taking place, which it calculates that it will take me an hour and a half to get there. This is very clever technology. It feels like we are really living in the future promised to us in the sci-fi films through the decades. Except…
I’ve got no intention of going to yoga this morning. This got me thinking. Wouldn't it be more clever to ask me if I’m still planning on going? Wouldn’t true AI be able to learn that I never do anything in response to this alert and stop it?
December and January has been full of technology predictions, foreseeing that 2018 will be full of advances in AI, VR, AR and Blockchain, which will see them becoming fundamental to our lives. I’ve seen very little on how the design and user experience (UX) of these products, is going to keep up and make sure that this new technology delivers the type of beautiful, intuitive user experience that consumers expect nowadays - although Prospect has published an interesting blog on this.
It feels like the big tech companies are once again very much dominated by engineering and hard science, at the expense of the design led thinking, that led to such dramatic advances at the start of the century (Amazon, the early, truly groundbreaking iPhones and so on). Are we doing enough to make sure all this amazing technology stays user-focused, enjoyable, and doesn’t become something we feel is forced upon us, by increasingly big and unpopular corporations?
Rant #2 - display advertising
Another area which could do with rediscovering the principles of user experience is, display advertising. Now, I understand that companies don’t want to spend their advertising budget displaying the same advert to everyone. It is also very clever that technology has evolved, so that you can drop a cookie on my laptop when I visit a website, and use that to build a history of my behaviour. Then, combine this with my activity on Facebook, YouTube etc - although I’m not sure that any of us realised that we were signing up to this when we joined these services.
So it’s useful for advertisers and it’s useful for sites selling the advertising space. But is it useful for me? Well maybe for content I’m really interested in. But if I’ve been thinking about buying something, it might be useful to give me a reminder a week later. But not every day, or even after I’ve bought it. And what if I was never really interested in that site in the first place? Maybe I was just looking at something at work and really don’t want to be reminded about it when at home at the weekend?
Maybe it would be better for advertisers to show some restraint with this very powerful technology, until targeting gets really clever, and can show consumers some real benefits. Maybe target me with guitar adverts in the evenings when I’ve got time to look at them, and leave me alone during working hours for example.
Maybe then, the advertisers might improve the 0.04% click through rate they receive at the moment.
One more example which I keep coming back to where UX really hasn’t kept up with technology is, BT Sport. Again, it’s great that we live in an era where technology means I can watch football on my laptop or iPad, but does it really have to be so difficult? Should I really have to login twice with the same details and click through four pages, all with different branding before I can actually watch anything? BT spent £960m buying the rights to broadcast Premier League matches. Is it too much to ask for them to invest just a little bit more on UX?
Signs of hope?
Having said all of that, there are some signs that things might be moving in the right direction. Firstly in consumer banking. When online banking first became a thing, the idea that you could make transactions online and check your balance without going to a branch or a cash machine, was both convenient and pretty futuristic, but the experience was rarely any good.
After all, you were already a customer of the bank and unlikely to move elsewhere any time soon, so why bother spending money on design. That attitude has changed to a degree. The big banks are starting to improve, and the industry is changing with the rise of the so called challenger banks like Monzo, Starling and Atom who set out to do things differently. For these companies, mobile banking apps aren’t just an add on, they’re an integral part of their DNA and are genuinely designed from a user perspective both from the interface design, to the features they offer. Monzo’s features for example, include spending breakdowns, API integrations and zero foreign exchange rates.
The tech giants are also spending money in this area. For example, Google’s AI programme includes their PAIR (People + AI Research) initiative which focuses on understanding how humans interact with machine learning, and developing best practice principles for designing experiences that involves machine learning.
In a similar vein, Accenture’s report "AI is the New UI" commends Amazon for bringing down the time it takes Alexa to respond to questions from three seconds in the early Echo prototype, to one and a half by the time they brought it to market, so it felt natural having a conversation with it (her?). Which is the right approach. Although as an aside, I work in technology and most of my friends are reasonably tech savvy and I don’t know anyone who’s got an Amazon Echo. And I’ve certainly never heard anyone talk about how easy they are to use or how they’ve made their lives so much easier.
Despite the cynicism, all those examples make things sound a bit more promising. I would love to see reviews of 2018, be full of plaudits for how the latest Echo is so much more useful, or how the most recent Apple products are a sign that their design department is back in control. Because these challenges are only going to get harder in the future. For example, if Blockchain - an engineering led technology initiative (if ever there was one) - finds a commercial use in the next few years, and begins to really take off, then there will be an enormous UX challenge to make something that complicated intuitive to everyday consumers.