Thursday, September 29, 2016

Cognitive Evaluation of Experience Design

The difference between art and design is that the artist focuses on aesthetics and creates an object to be gazed upon with fascination and wonder but serves no practical purpose, whereas the designer focuses on functionality and creates an object that is well-suited to a purpose and aesthetic concerns are secondary at best.   The artist focuses upon the object, the designer upon the person using the object – ideally, the user’s ability and desire to complete a task using the object is the designer’s primary concern.  For this reason, the work of the designer is less concerned with the principles of art and more concerned with the principles of psychology.

The user of an object must understand its value and be motivated to extract the benefit of using the object.   This clearly has to do with cognitive and behavioral psychology, yet most evaluations of experience design focus on the object and its technical and aesthetic qualities – and as such designers are often encouraged in the wrong direction, or at least a less productive direction than would be taken if they carefully and systematically considered the behavior of the user who will interact with it.

For this reason, experience designers might benefit from a systematic method of planning and evaluating their work according to the processes defined by cognitive psychology.  And so, this article presents a brief overview of the mental processes involved in taking a purposeful action, correlating them to the major steps in the cognitive process: perception, attention, identification, evaluation (before action), motivation, action, and evaluation (after action).

Granted, “cognitive psychology” is an immense and detailed field of knowledge, so what is presented here is a quick overview with some basic suggestions – it is entirely possible, and entirely advisable, to delve deeper into each of the steps and consider them in greater detail – but for the present, an overview should do much to enable designers to systematically evaluate and plan design tasks to ensure they more thoroughly consider the mental processes of their users.

1: Perception

The first step in the cognitive process, perception, questions whether an object makes information about itself available to the mind.   If something cannot be seen, heard, felt, or perceived by any of the human senses, then for all concerns it does not exist to the mind.  Information can also be conveyed using language, written or spoken, but this perception depends on prior experience – to say the word “horse” does not give someone the perception of a horse, but causes them to remember horses they have encountered, or to imagine what a horse might be if they lack any experience.

In terms of experience design, perception asks the question “do they notice it at all?”   The designer cannot assume his audience perceives what is intended, but must consider the human sensory capacities to detect and distinguish the sensory qualities of the object that has been presented.

Defects in perception are best understood in terms of accessibility: a color-blind person cannot perceive the difference between red and green, such that a red shape on a green background would be imperceptible.   Even people whose vision is normal may have difficulty perceiving  dark shapes on a dark field, or light shapes on a light field.

To identify and correct design problems related to perception, consider each element of design to determine whether it is noticeable, or whether there is a need to make adjustments: perception is best supported by highly contrasting colors, loud sounds, strong aromas and tastes, more pronounced differences in texture.

2: Attention

The second step in the cognitive process, attention, questions whether the mind recognizes the information received from an object as worthy of consideration.   The human senses are constantly bombarded by data about objects in their environment, and the mind cannot possibly deal with it all, so anything unimportant is discarded almost immediately.

For example, consider the experience of walking down a crowded sidewalk.  In the course of a minute, it is entirely possible to pass by 100 people.   A person perceives each passer-by – their clothing, their faces, their movements, and everything perceptible – but for the most part, they would not be able to recall a single person whom they had passed (and the exceptions are the result of processes that come later).

For experience design, attention asks the question “do they focus their attention upon it?”   The designer must consider the environment in which the design is presented to determine whether the user might be paying attention to something else entirely.  And within a design, the visual clutter must be considered – when many things are attempting to demand attention, the user may not be able to focus on anything at all.

To identify and correct design problems related to perception, first consider the channel: if the design is encountered in a bustling and noisy environment where the user’s attention is limited, it may be wise to choose a different channel entirely.  Then, consider the object: what elements are most prominent, likely to be noticed by a user who is in various states of mind.

3: Identification

The third step in the cognitive process, identification, leverages existing memory to recognize things for what they are.   Sense-data is raw and unidentified: people hear a rumbling sound, but unless they prior experience, they do not know what it is.  Those who have experienced the sound in the past, directly or vicariously, and learned its cause identify it as being the noise of a subway train passing underneath the sidewalk.   Those lacking that experience cannot identify the sound, and may choose to take their attention away from it.

It’s also worth noting that identification is not always accurate: a person doesn’t know what something actually is, but what they think it might be, and as such they may fail to identify objects properly – whether from lack of knowledge or lack of sense-data to evaluate.

For experience design, identification asks the question “What is this?”  The designer must consider whether the user can recognize at a glance what it is that he sees.  A “clever” coffeemaker that looks like a solid black cylinder is not going to be identifiable, and few users will invest the time to try to figure out what it is and will quickly move along to competing products that are more recognizable as what they are.

To identify and correct problems related to identification, consider the user’s experience of similar items in the past.  It’s acceptable to make things a little bit different for the sake of novelty and wonder, but if the user cannot tell what it is, the novelty gets in the way of identification.   This is where adhering to standard design conventions, as dull and uninspired as that may seem, support the success of a given design – if they can’t tell what it is, they won’t consider using it, and the design is a work of art but fails as a design.

4: Evaluation (Before Action)

The next step in the cognitive process, evaluation, asks: what is the relevance of this object that has been identified?  Whereas identification determines what an object is, evaluation determines whether it is of interest – is action necessary to take advantage of an opportunity or avoid a threat?   Unless it is relevant to an individual’s interest, an object is dropped from attention once it has been evaluated.

Evaluation, identification, and attention are somewhat interactive: sense-data must come to attention before it can be identified and evaluated, but past experience may also attune attention to certain sensory information.  In the latter case, it is more accurate to say that evaluation causes a person to stop paying attention to something – it is ignored after it is identified and evaluated rather than before.  In other instances, sense-data is ignored before it is evaluated at all (a person hears the rumble of an underground train, does not know what it is, and does not care enough to try to identify it).

For experience design, evaluation asks the question “What does this do?”  Where the user has experience with similar items, this is often answered in their identification of the object (a coffee maker makes coffee) but when they are unfamiliar with the object, they may be willing to devote time to figuring out the function of the object from the sensory information it transmits.

To identify and correct problems related to evaluation, consider whether the  object is intuitive, such that its function is self-evident.   Labeling and instructions are also useful in informing the user of how it works and what it does if it cannot be made obvious from its physical attributes.  And perhaps most importantly, this is where usability testing can provide helpful direction: a person who already knows what an item does is tainted and cannot evaluate how easily a person who doesn’t have the same knowledge can discover it.

5: Motivation

The fifth step of the cognitive process is critical to persuading a person to take an action: it is here that the notion of “want” is evaluated.  Something has come to attention, been identified and evaluated, and the person senses that there is some benefit from taking an action – but do they want to gain that benefit by acting immediately?   Is the effort required worth the reward that can be gained, or are there other opportunities that may arise that are more worthy?  A person must want something, and must want it right away, to become motivated.

For experience design, motivation asks two questions “What are the benefits to me?” and “Is it worth the effort to get those benefits?”  The design must not only be functional in providing a benefit, but the benefit it provides must be of sufficient interest to the user to be worth the cost (including time and effort).   In some instances, an object’s benefits are of no interest at all.  In others, they are perceived as being too difficult to obtain.

As a result, there are two areas in which problems related to evaluation can be identified and corrected.  The first is in they way in which a user will be directed to the object: if you are marketing to the wrong crowd, it will attract a lot of attention and then fail upon evaluation as the audience realizes that it is not relevant to their needs.  The second is in giving the appearance of ease of use – and at this point it is merely the appearance, as the actual ease of use is evaluated in the next step (action) – but an appearance that suggests ease of use is critical to motivation.

6: Action

The sixth step in the process is action, which is where the designer wants their user to arrive.   To get this far in the process, all of the preceding processes must have executed successfully – though the previous step of motivation is most critical because a person may understand that taking an action will have a result, but if they do not want the result they do not undertake the action.

Also, motivation must be sustained through the action process.  This cannot be overstressed, because the great failure of many user experiences is that the motivation of the user becomes dampened during the course of action – they decide to do something, but become discouraged along the way and revisit their decision to act.   That is, they start the action but quit before completing it.

For experience design, action asks questions such as “Am I doing this right?” and “When will I be finished?”  The user who undertakes a task seldom does so for the joy of doing the task itself, but because he is interested in achieving the result.  The users must feel some motivation to take action, but are prone to quitting before the task is finished because they do not have a sense of making progress, or begin to doubt that they will achieve the desired outcome, or reevaluate whether it is worth the effort.

To identify and correct problems related to action, consider the feedback that the user receives as the task progresses.   If a device has a button and pressing it seems to do nothing, the user begins to experience doubt – but feedback such as a light that comes on when the button is pressed, or a countdown to when the operation will be finished, do much to retain their engagement.   Usability testing can also be helpful in evaluating action and identifying moments in which the user’s motivation wavers.

7: Evaluation (After Action)

The final step in the process, evaluation, is very often ignored.  The designer wanted the user to take an action, but once they completed the action the designer is no longer concerned with their behavior.  This is a serious mistake, because the evaluation process determines how the same object will be acted upon in the future – if the evaluation is negative, the user will ignore it, evaluate it as “nor worthwhile,” and have no motivation ever to interact with it again.

Evaluation revisits the question of motivation.  Before an action is taken, a person asks “what will happen?”  After the action is taken, they then ask “what actually happened?”   And if the answer is “no” then dissonance occurs: disappointment, regret, and discouragement and ultimately disinterest in any future encounter.

For experience design, evaluation asks the question “How did that work out?”  Ideally, they have the sense that their action had the expected effect and that the result of the action provided them with the benefits they expected to achieve by undertaking it.   If they quit along the way, or if they are not happy with the results, users are going to be resistant to the idea of using the object ever again.

To identify and correct problems related to evaluation, considers whether the information communicated to the user during the before-action evaluation phase was at all accurate and adjust as necessary.   It may also be worthwhile to survey users about their expectations, because in some instances the expectations they had – even if you didn’t mention them or attempted to communicate the exact opposite – will take precedence over the information the designer provides.


Evaluating the way in which a design supports each of the seven steps in the cognitive process (perception, attention, identification, evaluation before action, motivation, action and evaluation after action) is a procedure that can be very helpful in accurately diagnosing and correcting problems in experience design – and while it seems a bit tedious, it’s certainly more likely to be successful than attempting to evaluate design by vague and holistic means or applying design theory that is derived from these principles in an indirect manner.

In closing, it’s important to reiterate that this article has provided a general overview of the cognitive processes that has been broad but superficial.  There are many textbooks and trade books devoted to just one of the steps, so the evaluations can go beyond the basic questions and delve into very detailed analyses to fine-tune the design – but taking a broad approach and systematically evaluating designs for their potential success, should be done before diving into any specific area.  Ultimately, all must be addressed for the user experience to be successful.

Friday, September 23, 2016

Three Sources of Innovation

One of the most common questions asked of a person who has presented an innovation is “where did you get that idea?”    It is, perhaps, an obvious question to ask because every act of innovation is based upon the application of an unusual idea, as usual ideas can be applied by the usual methods, and generally effect no substantial changes or improvements to business as usual.   And it is precisely because the ideas are unusual that makes innovation so difficult to comprehend and so difficult to practice.

There is no defined process that can be reliably applied to produce innovative ideas, so studying innovation often involves inspecting instances in which someone has been innovative and attempting to reverse-engineer the process to determine the source.    Having studied the topic for some time, I don’t have a clear answer – but I do think I have gained a perspective worth sharing, which points to where the answer may be found, or perhaps at least divined.

Specifically, I have come to the sense that innovation may be classified according to its source – i.e., the domain of knowledge in which an innovative idea takes root – and while information about the creative process is scant and often secretive, I’ve come to recognize that innovations tend to be rooted in one of three basic sources: engineering, marketing, and design.

Engineering Innovation

In the present age of scientific progress, many of the innovative ideas that impact the life of the average person are based on engineering.   I say “engineering” rather than “technology” because there are few instances in which a company invents a new technology and far more instances in which a company applies a technology that someone else has invented.  It is only when technology is applied through a process of engineering that it renders an innovation.

Engineering innovation considers the capabilities of technology and then seeks to identify needs to which these capabilities might be applied.   It is fairly easy to do, because the capabilities can be objectively observed: one can see that a thing has certain properties and merely needs to make a list of those properties and consider the way in which each might render some useful benefit.   This is not to say that engineering innovation is of little value and does not require hard work – because it is of considerable value and requires a lot of meticulous and deliberate analysis to arrive at an innovative conclusion.

However, it can also be observed that engineering innovation very rarely leads to radical or substantial innovations.  Instead, it tends to lead to technical or efficiency improvements that make existing solutions faster, cheaper, more efficient, more durable, etc.    Engineering generally does not result in a new device, but an improvement to a device that is already in use.   Its product is an innovative mousetrap, not an innovative solution to the problem of mice.  Engineering innovation is the most common form of innovation in the present day.  Witness that new devices are very rare, but better devices are very common.

Another distinctive quality of engineering innovation is that it is an entirely internal process, which can and must take place in a laboratory where specialists analyze solutions to problems (or discover problems for solutions).   This is not something that the average person can do because highly specialized domain knowledge is required to do it.   A person may recognize the desire for a more fuel-efficient automobile, but his desire does not give him knowledge of physics necessary to conceive of an efficient engine.

The drawback to engineering innovation is that it does not produce a unique or sustainable competitive advantage.  The qualities of a thing can be easily observed by anyone, and the “innovator” is simply the first to recognize the application of those qualities and bring them to market.   Any other firm that investigates the same phenomena will inevitably stumble across the same solution.

Marketing Innovation

An alternate approach to innovation begins with the customer rather than the product, on the plausible premise that people know what they want and would gladly embrace it if it were offered to them.   And so, customers are observed and studied, sometimes even included in product development exercises, so that the firm can find unique ways to provide the value that customers want of them.

The obvious problem is that the premise, while plausible, is quite flawed: customers do not know what they want – they know what problem they are trying to solve, but do not know what would solve them, and often speak in terms of their experience with existing products.  So the outcome is often an improvement to one of those familiar and existing products rather than a radically innovative product that is much better at solving their problems.

Take for example the phrase “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said ‘faster horses.’” While Henry Ford never actually said this, there is some truth to that: people are rooted in the known and can’t conceive of the unknown. While no-one believes that customers have the expertise to know how to breed a faster horse, it seems to be accepted that they have the problem-solving skills to know that a faster horses is what they need, when they clearly do not tend to consider other possible solutions to the problem of speed in travel.

This is not to say that market research is at all a bad thing, simply that the results of market research are too often taken at face value, with too little thinking about what desires or frustrations cause customers to say the things they do about existing solutions.   So a company that considers what the customer says he wants rather than trying to understand what he really needs will not be radically innovative as a result of this approach – they will simply uncover opportunities for minor improvements and adjustments.

Oh, and the distinctive quality of a firm that engages in marketing innovation is the involvement of the customer, through market research and participatory exercises – though attention must be paid to whether the customer was actually involved.   There are many who speak of “what customers want” while never actually having listened to the customer, and others who outright lie about having done market research when they are speaking from their own imaginations.

Design Innovation

A third approach to innovation employs a process of design, and as the word “design” is often misused, it’s worth pausing a moment to define it:  design is the process of creating or improving a practice by which a goal can be achieved. It is often misunderstood that design is about an object (a good) rather than the practice that is facilitated by the thing, and recognizing that the practice is the aim of design enables design thinking to be applied to all products (services as well as goods).

It is generally recognized that design innovations results in the most radical and substantial improvements to products because the process of design is parthenogenic and idiosyncratic.  Two engineers who look at the same technology are likely to come to the same conclusion as to how it can be applied, two marketers who use the same survey to study the same market segment are also likely to come to the same conclusion, but two designers who look at the same problem very seldom have identical ideas about how it can most efficiently and effectively be solved – hence their conceptions are often unique.

The distinctive characteristic of design innovation is the designer himself, a person who has the insight to formulate a wild and unusual idea and the charisma or power to get others to collaborate with him to bring it to  fruition.   Firms that leverage design innovation are often led by visionary figures such as Thomas Edison or Steve Jobs, who champion unpopular ideas and score dramatic victories when they succeed where critics were adamant that they would fail.

Unfortunately, that is also the chief drawback to design innovation, in that a “wild and unusual idea” is not necessarily a very good idea, and a designer who completely ignores the culture of his market, the capabilities of technology, the necessity of sustainability, and often the basic principles of reality, comes up with very impractical solutions that result in disaster rather than triumph.

Design innovation is extremely rare in the present culture, which clings to the tried-and-true and fears the new-and-unproven ideas that a design innovator suggests.  Skepticism is healthy when it causes wild ideas to be considered carefully, but quite deadly to innovation when it causes wild ideas to be dismissed without consideration – and the latter describes the function of most organizations: the larger the firm, the more defenses it has against radical innovation.

Classifying and Adjusting Innovation Efforts

People tend to be creatures of habit: they find that something produces good results and repeat that activity to get the same results, even in instances where another approach might be more fruitful.   This is what causes firms to settle into a routine and to fail to be innovative – but it is also the same quality that causes firms to gravitate toward a specific kind of innovation.   To determine how a firm innovates, consider how it approaches innovation:

  • Technical – New ideas are discovered in a research laboratory that focuses on the capabilities of the product itself.
  • Marketing – New ideas are discovered by surveying, interviewing, observing, or involving the customer, focusing on their preferences.
  • Design – New ideas come from insiders, whether subject-matter experts or executives, by reconsidering how the customers’ needs can be met.

Then, consider what kind of innovations are the most advantageous.   Technical and marketing innovations tend to result in minor changes to the product that create a temporary advantage – but in some instances that is quite enough to sustain a firm.   Design innovations require major changes, which are not always desirable: the existing product may be selling profitably, the firm may not be able to absorb the effort and expense to make major changes, or the design innovation may be rejected by the market.  

With this in mind, the firm’s usual, familiar, and comfortable method of innovation may be entirely inappropriate (and ultimately ineffective) in a given situation, and the best approach is to keep all three tools handy so that the right approach can be applied to a given problem.   Often, multiple stratagems must be employed in tandem to achieve the best possible outcome.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Four Reasons Internal Social Fails

I presently work for a very conservative firm that has a tradition of being hostile toward the Internet in general, and social media specifically.  Speaking to others, this is not at all unique, and the same sense of hostility exists in many organizations, from large corporations to small startup companies.   Even where policies are fairly liberal, there is a distinct sense that a company may sternly react against any employee who uses social media at all, even in their personal lives.

There are legitimate fears of negative publicity when employees say less-than-positive things about the organization and its brand, as well as fears about security leaks when employees share information that they have gained in the workplace (private information about customers, sensitive information about strategic initiatives, etc.) – so corporate hostility toward social media is understandable, though quite overblown in many instances.

But even while corporations fear social media, they covet its power and want to leverage it to their advantage, providing internal tools that mimic the capabilities of social media in hopes of having a more collaborative workforce and exposing institutional knowledge that is currently bottled up in the heads of employees.   And to their dismay, these tools are almost universally disused: “corporate social” is generally an empty playground in which very few employees participate.   Why should this be?

Poor Tools

The most common complaint is that the social media tools that companies provide their employees are several steps behind similar tools that are available to the general public.   The internal blogging tool is not as good as WordPress, the internal social directory is not as good as Facebook, the internal image-sharing tool is not quite as good as Pinterest, and so on.  Every internal tool is a poor imitation of a better tool that people are accustomed to using in their personal lives – less features, less functionality, and more difficult to use.

But while this is a common complaint, I do not believe it to be the root cause.  A few individuals may find the internal tools frustrating and useful in comparison to the current capabilities of public tools, but those public tools were very popular in their “Version 1.0” releases when they had far less capability than they presently do.   Social media is about the people, who will make use of whatever capabilities a tool provides and abide its limitations if their urge to communicate with one another is strong enough.

So my sense is that “poor tools” is a discouragement to a few, but not a discouragement to the many, and that upgrading to more feature-rich tools will not solve the problem.

Small Population

Another problem with internal social media is a very small population.  It’s obvious in a small company with less than fifty employees that the most effective way to communicate an idea (or anything) is simply to email it to those who might be interested, which is significantly less than the entire population of the firm, or even of a given department.  

But even in large organizations, the population of active social users is still quite small.   If you look at the general public, there are estimated to be about 2.1 billion users of the Internet, only about half of whom participate in social media.   Of those who participate in social media, 90% are passive listeners, 10% share content created by someone else, and 1% actually produce original content (the numbers add to 101%, but that’s because the 1% who publish original content also share content created by others).

Apply those same proportions to a company of 50,000 employees and here’s what you get:  the total audience is 25,000 (likely smaller because using social media at work is seen as “goofing off” even if it’s internal social media).   Only 2,500 of the employees post content from other sources (links to articles and the like) and only 250 of them contribute original content.

That’s a very small audience compared to the public internet, where there are an estimated 1.4 billion social media users (140 million distributers, 14 million content creators).  And because social media pays nothing, those who contribute are rewarded by being read – no readers equals no incentive to write.  This is a significant discouragement.

Cultural Inhibition

By far, the greatest inhibition to internal social media is the discouragement of participation by the corporate culture.   Companies were traditionally hostile to social media, and hostile to the employees who use it: every time you post a comment, you are jeopardizing your job and career.   While companies trawl the public forums in search of errant employees, there is still safety in the masses, as it is unlikely that the internet-scanning algorithms will recognize an employee’s post about their own firm unless they name the firm, name themselves, and declare their status as an employee.

So what is found on internal social media is generally cheerleading by sycophants who are attempting to curry favor from management by making positive comments about ideas that are already endorsed by the culture.  “Way to go, boss, that’s a great point you just made there,” is the substance of most of the commentary – which is to say that most of the content is insubstantial and the corporate intranet is not a safe place to propose new ideas that challenge the culture.   Criticizing or contradicting the canon is certain to draw negative attention to the messenger, while the message itself will largely be ignored.

With little to gain and much to loose, employees see internal social media as a threat to their continued employment rather than an opportunity to be heard and recognized for their good ideas … unless their idea is to agree with their superiors.   Those who are serious about ideas, which are the ones who feed social media in the general public, are skeptical and (justifiably) fearful of internal social tools.

Knowledge is Power

Finally, there is the notion that knowledge is power and that sharing knowledge means abdicating power.   This was commonly seen when “knowledge management” systems attempted to get employees to share their success stories and secrets with others – and flatly refused to participate.

The motivation is obvious where there is direct competition among employees: successful salesmen who are rewarded for their success do not want to share their secrets with other salesmen because it would jeopardize their status as the top performer.   If everyone knew their tricks and got better sales, then the quota would be raised and they’d have to work all the harder to pull ahead again.

But even in situations where competition isn’t direct, there remains indirect competition: accounting clerks might not get commissions for their performance, but their performance ratings, pay increases, and opportunities for advancement are all linked to their performance in comparison to their peers.   And there are many instances in which one employee takes the credit (and the reward) for someone else’s good ideas – so it makes little sense to make idea-stealing easier by posting them to an internal; site.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Building a Network of Innovators

Traditional management is focused on improving the efficiency of a known process - and as such it has an affinity for procedures and processes that remain largely fixed.   Innovation, however, is about replacing these procedures and processes or rendering them obsolete.   To foster innovation, a firm needs to abandon traditional management and its corresponding system of restrictions and controls for a more open relationship with innovators.

It is no accident that innovation largely takes place in smaller firms, outside of the structure of the organization.  Nor is it accidental that to make any substantial change often requires the engagement of an external consultant who can reconsider the structure and function of the organization without favoring the maintenance of existing structures and relationships.   This is not to say that it must be so for all companies, but when a firm embraces the traditional restrict-and-control culture, it necessarily discourages and prevents innovation from occurring.

What is found in innovative firms are the assets (people and processes) to innovate - but more importantly, it is their relationship to the firm.   Innovative ideas are not squelched, but are considered and tried (and "tried" is significant here - swinging to the opposite extreme and implementing any novel idea, regardless of whether it has merit, is not at all a good practice).  The firms that are leaders in design have empowered innovative employees, and have had a history of doing so.

A first step is for firms to genuinely value their innovators.  A firm that constantly ignores or punishes innovative ideas will find that its people lose the will to innovate.  A firm that only superficially and temporarily values new ideas will find that its people lose the will to innovate and are very cautious when the opportunity to innovate is presented.   Only a firm that demonstrates in action that it values innovation will encourage and empower innovators.

External innovators are likewise discouraged or encouraged to interact with a firm.   Where exernal experts, scholars, designers, journalists, and the media are treated in a hostile and defensive manner, or where they are occasionally engaged with it is in the interest of the firm to use it for its own benefit (positive PR), then the innovative community shows disinterest in having an ongoing relationship with the firm.

A second step for a firm that means to be more innovative is to establish new relationships.  Even when existing relationships can be repaired and rejuvenated, there is a limit to what a firm can accomplish by interacting with the same minds.   To spark innovation and fuel it requires a constant inflow of new ideas, which largely come from outside the firm.   To innovate constantly, a firm must constantly expand its network of relationships.

These relationships do not occur automatically: a firm must invest in proactively searching for innovators and take steps to foster and maintain relationships with them.  A common belief among firms is that hiring innovative people give the firm immediate access to their personal network  - but this is not necessarily so.  It is similar to social interaction - making friends with one person doesn't automatically make you the friend of all of their friends, you must be introduced.  And to be introduced, you must be the kind of person that the other party doesn't mind introducing to their friends.   So when an innovation-hostile firm hires an innovative person, that person is reluctant to make those introductions.

However, this problem is addressed by the same solution: when a firm empowers and values its internal innovators, they develop a positive relationship with their employer and have no qualms about introducing the firm to other people they know to be innovative.   None of this is a revolutionary idea: it's long been known that a firm that treats its employees well finds that its employees connect the firm to others who are similar to themselves.   But what is different is the way in which a positive relationship is established with the innovative employee as opposed to the traditional employee.

Friday, September 9, 2016

The Nonage of Home Automation

There are many gimmicky ideas that seem appealing at first blush, but fail to take hold – in some cases they remain a topic of conversation until some breakthrough technology makes them feasible, and in others they simply fade away without ever getting traction.  The idea of the automated home has been around for decades and bubbles up every so often, but hasn’t become a part of everyday life, in spite of the fact that the technological infrastructure has been in place for at least the last two decades.  Periodically, we pause to wonder why.

What follows are some loose notes from a few coffee-break conversations that identifies some plausible reasons that we do not presently live in “the home of the future” that has been anticipated since the middle of the twentieth century.

Lack of a Common Platform

Given that most of my conversation is with designers and developers, the kind of people who leap to figuring out how to solve a problem before considering whether the problem is worth solving, the most common excuse for the failure of home automation is lack of a common platform for home automation devises.

That is to say that there are gadgets that exist that enable you to control the thermostat from your mobile device, set the sprinklers to water the lawn,  turn lights on and off and control the stereo with voice commands, and all sorts of useful things – but each of them has an independent set of controls.   Many of the controls are still manual (you have to go to the garage and fiddle with a control panel to set the timer for the sprinklers), some are configurable, and others communicate with a mobile app – but there is no central “home directory” that controls them all.

So while it is possible to have an automated home, it requires the user to learn to use an array of controls in various channels and locations to manage each system separately.   Manufacturers stubbornly resist the notion of having a common platform into which each application can integrate to give the user a single method of controlling everything, so the “convenience” of automation is outweighed by the inconvenience of managing multiple systems.

This is an entirely plausible argument, with one counterpoint: it is possible to have a home built (or refitted) to have a central control panel with redundant controls through smart phone and voice commands.  I haven’t heard of many people doing this, and a few people I’ve spoken with who were having homes built remarked that it was a very expensive option.  So it isn’t a technical limitation so much as a financial one, which transitions neatly to the next topic …

Lack of Cost Benefit

While it is possible to build or refit a home with an automation system, it is very expensive to do so and customers do not consider it to be worth the expense.   This is a far more likely explanation than the lack of a technological infrastructure for the failure of home automation to take hold.

To my knowledge, there is only one automation device that has proven its worth: the “smart” thermostat that can be controlled via a smartphone application, and which also has some learning capabilities to recognize patterns and adjust itself accordingly.   While these devices are expensive relative to manual thermostats, those who purchase them say that it takes a few years to break even on the expense and start saving money.

This seems a reasonable claim, given that the heating and air conditioning units in existence today are power-hogs and that electricity remains one of the most significant utility bills.  In many areas, a 10% savings can mean $10 to $20 per month, a hundred or two dollars a year, so the claim that there is a two-year break-even seems valid.

However, the thermostat is likely the most expensive device in the home to operate: leaving a lamp or television set running 24/7 would not consume as much energy as the heating system (which can run round-the-clock during summer and winter months) and most appliances are used as-needed and switched off afterward as a matter of habit.   So it’s unlikely a device such as a lamp timer (which already exists) would have a financial benefit that would repay the cost of the device.

For this reason, the popularity of smart thermostats cannot be extended to other appliances – and given that appliances are being made more energy-efficient by means of engineering, the cost-benefit of an extrinsic means to managing their operation is becoming even less favorable as their intrinsic efficiency is improved.

It is also a mistake to take as premise that consumer behavior is motivated by cost-benefit analyses.   Where the cost is significant, people consider efficiency (a more fuel-efficient car, for example), but generally in a vague and general way, without a detailed analysis of the actual dollar amounts, and the result is a gut-feel reaction that something is thrifty or efficient. 

Even were someone to do the math, figuring out that a lamp timer would save them fifteen cents a month, an amount so paltry lacks the power to motivate them – few will consider that fifteen cents a month is about two dollars a year, and if they do this to eight lamps, the savings are $16 annually.  Even that seems to be a paltry amount for the cost of the timers, the effort of configuring them, and the inconvenience of overriding the controls and then resetting them when actual behavior does not match predicted behavior.

Lack of Consumer Demand

Of all explanations, a lack of consumer demand seems the most likely reason that home automation has not taken hold.   People are simply accustomed to the current technology and have developed habits (such as turning the lights on when entering a room and switching them off when leaving it) based on the current technology of independent devices that lack remote control or automation capabilities and therefore see no need for home automation at all.

Home automation seems to appeal to technophiles (who love gadgets so much that they will pay a high price and bear the inconvenience of using them) and narcissists (who believe that owning sophisticated things causes others to give them esteem, rather than be bored and offended by their constantly bragging about their possessions).  For most people, the idea of an automated home is an interesting concept, but not compelling enough to pursue or invest in having their home automated.  And this, ultimately, is the cause of the adoption or failure of any new technology: if people do not see it as worthwhile, most will not adopt it.