Saturday, September 17, 2016

On Being Shellfish

Social Skills?
Engineers, artists and actors are usually thought of as being very different and somewhat mutually exclusive. Although there are exceptions, like Boston's guitarist Tom Scholz, NFL Coach Tom Landry, President Jimmy Carter, Jazz Musician Herbie Hancock and Scott Adams, creator of Dilbert. Inventive engineers are usually known for their persistence and multidisciplinary thinking rather than their social skills. Exceptions are few and far between. It seems that for every Walt Disney there are ten Tomas Edison's.

When you think about it, that shouldn't be so surprising. Engineers prefer to interact with things, artists and actors prefer to interact with people. The primary difference between people and things has historically been that people are alive, dynamic, emotional and somewhat unpredictable. Things are static and predictable, at least when their structure is open and observable. But it wasn't always this way. Many of the big names in the history of invention were decidedly trans-disciplinary and even social creatures;  Eratosthenes, Benjamin Franklin, Galileo, Leonardo daVinci and James Lovelock were all polymaths. 

The other very recent change has to do with the nature of the things we design and engineer. With the invention of the programmable micro-controller and the software which runs them, we began to create things with personalities. Not emotions, but personalities. Repeatable, but not always responsive.

We used to complain about not being able to set the digital clocks on our VCRs. Over time that grew into complaints about user interfaces on other devices and into a whole new area of specialty we now call usability. The importance of UX, user experience, has similarly grown to become the foundation of its own college major and job descriptions at companies around the world and impacts from toothbrushes to themed entertainment.

But, what is it? What is the significance of User Experience? Let's go back to the penguins and take a closer look.

Leap of Faith

There are dozens of penguin videos on YouTube with good reason. They are funny, cute, clumsy and entertaining creatures. They are soft and fuzzy outside and remind us of ourselves.

Scallop Seashell

I know what you are thinking. I'm not playing fair. That's just an ordinary scallop shell. Nobody expects it to do Vaudeville. It does what shells do; sit there, don't talk and don't move.

O.K. Here's another image.

Sundial Shell
Yes, it has a beautiful exponential spiral and has a lovely, warm glow, but when it comes to making us laugh or cry or want to pick it up and hug it, its a no-show. That's the problem with being shellfish; they are hard on the outside and aren't very responsive. (By the way, that image is backlit and posed.)

For many years our technology was the same. Hard, emotionless boxes with minds of their own. Then came Apple's iRevolution and the user moved into the driver's seat. With that shift, the balance of power changed for the first time since the start of the Industrial Revolution.

More recently some interesting social changes have happened.  According to a study by the University of Michigan over 140,000 students who entered college since 2000 have empathy levels 40% lower than previous years.

Research by psychologist Jean Twenge found what she called a"narcissism epidemic," with more students showing increases in traits associated with narcissistic personality disorder - a condition in which people are so self-absorbed that others are simply objects to reflect their glory.

One explanation is that children's free with others declined by at least a third between 1981 and 2003, right when the students who entered college in 2000 were growing up. Without unstructured play time children don't learn to know each other very well. And connecting and caring takes practice.

In addition, time that used to be spent playing outdoors is now being spent in front of screens. Television - a one way medium - doesn't teach empathy, let alone reflect reality. Even "nonviolent" children’s TV is filled with indirect aggression which has been linked to real-world bullying, which has been reported in other studies as already being experienced by 1/3 of the workforce.

It's a difficult squeeze. At the same time that empathy is declining, customer service and user experience expectations are rising, leaving greater and greater numbers of dissatisfied customers with unmet expectations.

In this midst of all this, how do you want to appear to your clients? Shellfish or penguin?  

No comments:

Post a Comment