By Dan Machen, Director of Innovation, and Neil Davidson, Managing Director, HeyHuman
When CES started 50 years ago, there were just three categories on display - TVs, Radios and Gramophones. Now there are 15 billion connected devices across hundreds of categories. In 4 years' time, 5 billion people will be internet connected via smartphone. We are reaching a technological saturation point.
The questions we ask of tech need to change fundamentally. Where we once asked 'could we do this?' we now ask 'should we do this?' In other words, how do we best guide the application of tech to create a future we want?
Kevin Kelly, Founding Editor of Wired, had the following to say when discussing his latest book, The Inevitable: Understanding the 12 Technological Forces That Will Shape Our Future:
"If we can see where we are moving, we will be able to better
embrace what's coming - as a way to steer it."
Though the title is unnerving, Kelly is right. Barring a planet-ending catastrophe, we will inevitably continue to technologise. He is also right about the need to understand the direction in which we're moving, we can think about how to build a future fit for humans. That is about applying tech, while retaining a human touch.
Recent HeyHuman research supports this. When we asked groups if they could see the likes of Google, Apple, Facebook and Amazon, (GAFA), taking over as their financial services providers over 50% said yes. Interestingly, when the same groups were asked if they would forgo human contact in favour of an app, over half gave an emphatic no.
This reflects our complex relationship with technology - perhaps because it can complicate as much as it simplifies our lives. We grab at the convenience and ease of technology, but the human touch is what really connects us with brands.
Keeping the human in the brand requires putting people first and finding genuinely meaningful connection points. Sony Mobile, for instance, focused less on functional differentiation and identified audience passion points: sport, music, photography. The marketing was not about what the device does, but what it can help a human do in their lives.
Counter to 'frictionless' thinking, it is appropriate to consider 'connective friction' and a more human experience design. AirBnB took away their corporate customer service - which was arguably quicker - and put real people in touch. By connecting guests and hosts directly over problems, they enriched overall brand satisfaction scores by putting the human touch back in the brand experience.
In terms of how we express the human touch, a major focus must be mobile. In his talk, Mobile is Eating the World, Benedict Evans highlights smartphones as the seismic shift. A futurist and venture capitalist, Evans points out that since the iPhone we have hurtled from the frenzy of creation into deployment. In a more commoditised tech world, the focus is less about smart devices and more about unbundling and the ecosystems to which they connect us in terms of products, platforms or partnerships.
All rights reserved Benedict Evans, Andreessen Horowitz. Source: ben-evans.com.
With the macro context clear, which tech brands got it right in 2016 - introducing new technology, but keeping the human in the machine and designing in connective friction?
With none of the hyperbole of Apple, Google have landed the pragmatic delivery for which search made them famous, much more appropriate to the application phase of tech in which we find ourselves. Along with the launch of its much-lauded 'Pixel' smartphone, Google created a complete smart device ecosystem, including Google Home, a voice-controlled assistant akin to Amazon's Echo. This hardware is a complete plug-'n'-play ecosystem perfect to help keep lives in flow. In addition, Google's communications capture a new, more human tone in which they communicate.
First Direct, Voice ID and RBS, Luvo
The UK's number one bank brand, First Direct, found that security was an issue for the majority of its customers. Remembering numerous passwords on and offline added too much complexity. In research, the majority of First Direct customers said they would be happy with biometric alternatives e.g. fingerprint for mobile and Voice ID. First Direct brought Voice ID technology - via Nuance - to the masses and communicated it in a typically human way - 'We'd know that voice anywhere'.
RBS recently introduced an AI chatbot 'LUVO', and programmed how it speaks based on their highest scoring customer service rep - Sarah. Brands getting tech right will increasingly blend of the human in the machine.
Amazon, Echo and 'Alexa'
In-home assistants such as Amazon Echo and their Siri-like assistant 'Alexa' are more human in the sense that they are mainly voice-controlled via a Natural Language Processing (NLP) interface. Also (like Google Home), Alexa is a Trojan horse to train Amazon's AI capability on a global scale and as an effortless channel to Amazon retail ordering. Amazon have an ecosystem proposition that could win through as it already connects to more - Amazon shopping, Uber, Just Eat - to name but a few.
VW, Moia & Tesla, Autopilot
Cars are a fascinating tech category that are showing significant evolution. First, VW's foray into the sharing economy is a seriously bold move - people's passion for Uber appropriately leading them into their development mobility service brand, Moia.
Finally, at the end of December 2016, the Autopilot radar of a Tesla Model S foresaw a collision two cars ahead that the driver could not possibly see. This kind of capability advance will drive massive value, especially if expressed in terms of keeping you and yours safe.
If we accept technology as inevitable, we must choose solutions based on the best blend of 'man and machine'.
This future is born out of the need to recognise that our relationship with technology is evolving out of the frenzied creation phase into real application where we will curate the tech to help keep us in flow.
For tech brands in 2017, this means less of 'what does this device do' and more of 'what can it do to help people live their lives and connect ecosystems meaningfully?' Amidst all this increasing complexity and abstraction, we must never forget the need for a little 'connective friction' and ultimately the human in the machine.