Let’s be comfortable with uncertainty, says IxD founder Greg Petroff

This is a summary of a talk by Greg Petroff, founder of IxD and CXO (Chief Experience Officer) at GE Digital. He spoke as the Keynote at the June 2016 Enterprise UX conference in San Antonio, TX. I wanted to mention a few points from the talk, titled ‘software as material’

Greg Petroff speaks at Enterprise UX 2016. Shown is his list of emerging technologies with the power to change user experience in the next 1-20 years.

Link to Greg Petroff’s Slide Deck

Thematically, Greg’s talk touched on emerging technologies that have the potential to radically change customer experiences and businesses. He listed 5 emerging technologies in particular:

  • Machine Learning
  • Internet of Things
  • Security, from a human-behavior standpoint
  • Edge compute
  • Blockchain technology

Machine learning

Greg mentioned Amazon’s Echo as a successful example of a consumer product that uses machine learning. He also gave an example of Microsoft’s racist chatbot ‘Tay’ as an example of machine learning run amok. To this point, he felt that UX professionals needed to be AI gatekeepers. He felt that UX would guide AI towards beneficial patterns and help steer machine learning away from so-called anti-patterns.

Internet of things (IoT) and Security

He had these as separate, but in my mind they are closely related. I thought his speech on IoT and security was a little problematic. A consumer company like GE is thrilled about the market for IoT (50 billion connected devices by 2020)]. GE and other companies also traditionally underspend on security for IoT devices. In my opinion, he undersold the potential for IoT to become a security nightmare. Already we’re seeing that security researchers are able to hack into automobile’s drivetrains and climate-control systems via the car’s connect entertainment or mapping system. IoT devices are small computers open to the internet, available to hackers. With dangers from the annoying to the life-threatening, I thought his focus was correct but that his talk represented the optimism of a company that would both benefit from consumer spending AND contribute to a growing security problem in the IoT space.

Edge compute

He thought computing would essentially be free. I dispute this, but it’s true that computational power, especially in the cloud, is growing exponentially more powerful.  Some processes have gotten so fast that companies like Facebook are having to mimic slowness to help their users better understand the UI.

Blockchain technologies

Better understood (I think) as a distributed database – blockchain allows for databases to be distributed to individual users, while remaining hardened against tampering and unauthorized revision. If the technology proves secure on a large scale, it could help systems be much more resilient in the face of natural disasters, hacking attempts and fraud. From the talk, the impact for user experience professionals remains unclear, in my opinion.

The ocean we swim in

My read on Greg’s talk was that user experience design finds expression using technology. We can mistakenly focus on deliverables as a way of communicating this vision – and this can make us blind to the fact that our deliverables go through many layers of translation. They go through CSS, HTML, Angular. They are translated from a machine algorithm into a human language and spoken (as is the case with Amazon’s Echo).

Machines similarly translate speech and respond according to their instructions and ability to adapt. Information is stored in databases that are built with the UI and user requirements in mind, and run fast or slow depending on the information that users require. Our experiences flow over invisible wires, through the air, are translated into protocols, colors and languages.

To deliver excellent experiences we don’t have to be experts in every technology that our work passes through, but we must understand that translation warps our work. We need to be aware that the end experience is consumed and parts may be outside of our control. His speech highlighted that new technologies may enable people to interact with computers in ways never before experienced. It’s a confusing and exciting world.

If Greg Petroff started his talk at the 20-year vision, then he winnowed it down to the ‘now’ for the last part of his talk. This is the part that I appreciated, where he broke his vision down into emerging tactical realities for user experience professionals.

Stop writing so many requirements

We need to break product requirements down. Instead of  starting a project with a massive requirement documents, we only need a rough outline. We can move into detail only when we’re tackling the ‘next thing.’ This saves us from trying to predict a future, and a just-in-time delivery model for requirements that are more relevant to what’s actually happening on the ground. At Rackspace we’re already using this model to great effect – starting with requirements that are at a high level, then writing detailed requirements on a deadline so that developers can start work on the next ‘block’ of smaller work.

We need to be comfortable in uncertainty

It’s a cliche; the world is changing. With changing business models, consumer behavior and the rapid pace of technological change, no one has ever worked in the world that we’re designing for (which is necessarily future, whether that’s measured in months or years). We design for an unknown future. We need to get comfortable in ambiguity and uncertainty. That means inventing forms, deliverables and models for new problems that we’ve never before encountered. In order to work on these problems, we need to understand that we won’t get it right the first time. Or even the 5th, 6th, 10th. We need to keep moving over the same territory, refining our knowledge, testing our mockups and models against reality.

Technology moves into the background

In Petroff’s future, technology becomes background. We ask a device for something, and it has the processing and AI compute power to understand our ask and deliver the information or products that we want. In the same way, the future of design will be less and less about technological constraints. The future of design is human conversation, human understanding. We direct technology to solve problems. We have this model already. We’re trying to make this a reality.

UX needs to learn to speak the language of business

In conversations after the talk, the mood was split on this. For top-level strategists, this makes sense. Learning the business side will help cement important relationships. It will help us understand priorities and pitch our projects with the audience desire in mind. On the other hand, designers often need to work directly with developers. Understanding the technology is key to helping this all-important relationship. Perhaps as technological constraints become less of a risk, designers can increasingly focus on the business goals.

Make to think over think to make

Amazon has the action imperative down cold – the idea that it’s OK to iterate into good experiences (and great business models). Greg said that we need to keep process to a minimum in order to move fast and build things to get reactions from customers. Making forces thought. He argued that more pre-thought before making does not necessarily add to the value or ‘rightness’ of a project. There’s a balance, and it’s important to get it right.

Politics, not experience

This is my own opinion, after thinking through Greg Petroff’s speech: user experience designers need to be excellent politicians. I don’t mean that in the pejorative. I mean that in the sense that we need to build excellent relationships with the end of delivering wins for our co-workers, our customers and ourselves. Listening to Petroff speak, I was struck that the future isn’t technology, it’s relationships. His model is for UX professionals to be craftspeople, business partners, technologists and innovators. In order to be effective in all parts of business, we need to have great relationships with the other people we work with. To paraphrase Harry Max, another speaker at the conference: ‘Anything worth doing cannot be alone. All the cool things in the world were accomplished by teams, even those that appear to be individual efforts.’

As we worry less about technology, we can focus more on building trust and moving in the same direction at the same time as a team.

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