Silicon Beach

In the first week of September, I’m going to be speaking at the wonderful Silicon Beach conference in (hopefully still) sunny Bournemouth. The following article isn’t my talk, but sets up what I will be talking about – the importance of empathy in design (and ways to achieve it). If you are interested in coming along to the event, I do have a limited number of discount vouchers available so just drop me a line. In the meantime…

The recent “world is flat” debate that seemed to be sparked by the launch of Apple’s iOS 7 deeply saddened me. It seems that Steve Job’s vision of technology delivered at the intersection of science and the liberal arts has actually turned into products built by computer geeks and design geeks.

This isn’t a dig particularly at Apple – it’s a trend happening across the world of consumer technology. Rather than design being the humanising influence on the output of engineering, the two domains seem to be competing with each other in a dance to the death of nerdy purism.

I’ve a confession to make. I like modernism. But I also like the concrete brutalist school of architecture from the 1950s and 1960s.I like Victorian Gothic. And Roman architecture. And a stack of other styles in between. Variety is the spice of life.

Why has the world of tech become so obsessive about Bauhaus (a movement which celebrates its centenary in 6 years time) and sans serif fonts that date back to the late 1890s? In terms of time elapsed, it would be no more outlandish for the world of consumer electronics to base itself around the Arts and Crafts movement, with all visual imagery a pastiche of the work of William Morris.

But why is all this troubling me so?

Well because I fear for the purism of it all in the effectiveness of the products and services that we produce. The world of science and engineering is littered with examples of where the best technical solution doesn’t end up providing a workable real world outcome. Whether it be Betamax, the unified NHS computer system, or those dispiriting automated self checkouts in Sainsburys and Tesco, it’s not too hard to find technical solutions that have failed because of not taking account of those awkward “people” things. (Yeah, I know self checkouts haven’t technically failed as yet – I’m just hoping to hasten their demise in my own little ways…)

If design continues to take a narrow path towards defining things that are right and wrong in terms of schools of aesthetics we’ll just end up with two groups battling with each other to move more quickly to things that people just don’t really want. Or like. Or care about. Or use.

If engineering is the discipline of removing ambiguity from the world around us, then the job of design, surely, should be to inject some empathy for the end recipient of a product or service, rather than just trying to fit things into another set of arbitrary rules? Empathy is the thing that makes us human above all other of our traits (apart, perhaps, from our inclination to get out of our boxes on intoxicants at any given opportunity). Here’s a secret: not many software engineers score that highly on the empathy scale. If the folk involved in the design of user experiences and user interfaces don’t either, we’ve got a whole stack of troubles on our hands.

What does empathetic design look like? Well, as a very micro example, the functionality that RBS/NatWest have built into their smartphone apps that allows customers to get money from a cash point when they don’t have their card to hand. At its core it’s a real issue (“Crap! I’ve left my wallet in my other trousers!”) that they’ve developed a practical tool to address and the clever thinking is in the background and the user experience (it’s nowt to look at). And I can only begin to imagine the fun and games that they’ll have had with information security folk in the bank to get that one off the ground.

45%* of all smartphone users place their mini modernist monoliths into faux leather cases. That’s how much the average Jo(e) on the street cares about contemporary homages to Mies Van Der Rohe. But great design isn’t merely about chrome and glass. Or no-chrome and no glass effects. It’s as much about getting into the minds of the potential customer to understand what they are trying to get done and how technology might make their lives easier as a result.
* a completely made up statistic based on my observations and the need for some pseudo-scientific numbers to make this more believable.

3 thoughts on “Silicon Beach 2013 – The World Isn’t Flat

  1. Interesting article, Matt. My two penneth for all it’s worth.

    Like the concrete brutalism or Victorian gothic you admire, the current design ‘fashion’ is towards a flat, minimalist ‘Bauhaus’ design but like those architectures, we’ll evolve again shortly into something else. Today’s design likes, will be tomorrows unlikes. Like architecture, digital design does seem to sneer at it’s predecessors and we all quickly move to apply the latest themes for fear of looking so last year.

    I worry about that slightly. Victorian gothic buildings were not all demolished and with the benefit of a decade of two’s distance, many are learning to admire if not love 60s buildings but we can only do so because those buildings and their designs still exist. Should we not maintain a digital design archive and ensure design ideals are not lost for ever?

    Design, like music, architecture and literature should never be about right and wrong, but like or dislike. It’s fad we’re going through.

    1. The digital realm does seem to be somewhat Orwellian in comparison to the physical world – my first thought was maybe because of the relatively low cost of investment in digital in comparison to constructing a building. But there’s a heck of a lot of investment going into digital…

      That archive is probably to be lost (or at least severely depleted) – and that’s been a trend throughout the digital era. Just look at how the BBC *almost* completely lost the ground breaking innovation of the Domesday Project from the 1980s because no-one could find the tools to read the data from. I know that it’s a subject that, amongst others, the National Archive have been looking at.

      It would be a tragedy if digital artefacts get lost; if you peruse old magazines and newspapers, whilst the content is of some historical value, the advertising is the stuff that reveals the real social history. Magazines and newspapers up until as late as the 60s used to put the ads on the outside pages, and those would often be thrown away before archiving the content thought important at the time of archival.

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