Insight Author
Garrett Sheridan
Principal UX and Product Designer

From weak glue to sticky products - How to make the most of emerging technologies

Emerging technologies have given us a palette of new tools to work with. These can make your customer’s experience with your brand more streamlined, satisfying, even delightful. They can also have a serious impact on customer engagement and your bottom line.

February 13, 2018
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In the 1960s Dr Spencer Silver invented Sticky Notes. He was a chemist working at 3M, trying to invent a super-strong adhesive. Instead, he came up with a super-weak adhesive. It could stick to things but could also be repeatedly repositioned. His discovery was ignored by the company. It took six years to realise that there was a practical use for this adhesive when by chance a colleague of Dr Silver applied it to paper to keep bookmarks in place. The rest is history.

It’s not always clear how emerging technologies can be useful or bring value to customers. It can take a long time for businesses to harness their potential. The now ubiquitous myTaxi app (previously Halo) only launched in Ireland in 2012, five years after the launch of the first iPhone in 2007. The app would have been feasible when the app store launched in 2008 but for some reason, it took almost half a decade to make it to market.

Technologies like machine learning, voice assistants, conversational interfaces, augmented reality, beacons and blockchain are like Dr Spencer’s glue. What are our metaphorical sticky-notes? What will the killer apps for these emerging technologies be? How will we leverage them to help us to achieve our business goals?

Tim O’Reilly says;

“The map we follow into the future is like a picture puzzle with many of the pieces missing. You can see the rough outline of one pattern over here, and another there, but there are great gaps and you can’t quite make the connections. And then one day someone pours out another set of pieces on the table, and suddenly the pattern pops into focus.”

Who would have thought a few years ago that;

This list could go on and on.

New patterns are beginning to pop into focus for those paying close attention but without an understanding of their potential and limitations, it is unclear how emerging technologies can be useful.

We think about our current challenges based on how we have solved similar ones in the past. We copy competitors and those from adjacent industries. This is human nature. It is difficult to imagine what to cook if we don’t know what ingredients we have. Similarly, it is difficult to innovate if we don’t know what technological tools are available to us.

New mental models

A mental model is an explanation of someone’s thought process about how something works in the real world. When a new technology appears we often lack a real-world reference or a mental model to imagine its potential. To understand something new it is helpful to equate it with something familiar. Many innovations need to reference something from the past to make sense in the present. Early cars or “horseless carriages” were sometimes fitted with a fake horse head at the front.

Spacecraft in science-fiction look as aerodynamic as a 1950’s Cadillac. There is no air resistance in space so this is purely for aesthetic reasons. The Apple Watch’s digital crown resembles the traditional crown of an analogue watch. It has no moving parts and certainly doesn’t need to be wound up. This design decision is a nod to the past, placing the digital device in the lineage of high-end analogue watches.

Skeuomorphic Buttons

In UI design, Skeuomorphism was used to help people who grew up in a world of physical devices to understand digital interfaces. Before Microsoft Metro Design it was common for a digital interface to mimic physical objects and materials such as metal, wood and paper. Anchoring new developments with established mental models helps users to comprehend their functionality. This helps to ease their transition into use. No wonder voice assistants are endowed with names and personalities. This positions them as a helpful friend rather than a soulless machine.

Basic ingredients for successful innovation

Familiarity and useful mental models can only go so far. For a new concept to become adopted it needs to fulfil several other criteria. It is useful to examine potential solutions through these three lenses;

  • Feasibility — We have the technology
  • Viability — It makes economic sense
  • Desirability — People actually want it

Only concepts that meet at the intersection of these three stand a chance of success.

We now have advanced technologies at our disposal. Up until recently these were closer to science fiction than reality. Now they are within our grasp. Companies like Google have open-sourced frameworks built on advanced research and development. We can leverage these to enable us to create experiences that would have been impossible a few years ago.

In the past, costs prohibited many businesses from investing in these technologies. They would not have been viable. Now many are available to developers for free.

Feasibility and viability issues are becoming easier to solve so we are now left with the desirability question. How do we uncover the unmet needs of our internal stakeholders and our customers? How can these tools bring value to our lives and to the lives of those we serve?

Keep the user at the centre

There is a simple way to find new opportunities to leverage emerging technologies and that’s to focus on our users. Observe their behaviour. Listen to their feedback. Build a detailed model of their highs and lows as they strive to complete their tasks and achieve their goals.

Their pains and frustrations are our opportunities to innovate. Their experience can and must always improve. We can’t afford to be complacent. Users expectations are increasing all the time. What may seem innovative today will soon be the norm. If we don’t provide it then our competitors will.

The Kano Model states that an attribute will drift over time from Exciting to performance and then to essential. The drift is driven by customer expectations and by the level of performance from competing products.

The key is not to initially focus on the technology but focus on our users’ needs. Our users don’t care how we solve their problems. They may never know how we go about it. Some of the best solutions will be invisible to the end user. They don’t care what tech stack we use or what design process we follow. They don’t want our product, they want what our product can do for them. Dr Silver’s glue only became useful when it found a real user need. The colleague who first found a use for it wasn’t looking for a weak glue. He was looking for a way to keep his bookmarks in place. When thinking about this I always go back to this Theodore Levitt quote.

“People don’t want to buy a quarter-inch drill. They want a quarter-inch hole.”

Rapid prototyping and testing allow us to quickly learn if our ideas are likely to have an impact. We use the Google Design Sprint process to quickly gauge desirability with real customers. This can be a great first step in exploring ideas without large, long-term commitment.

We have a palette of new tools to work with. These new tools can make your customer’s experience with your brand more streamlined, satisfying and dare I say, delightful? They can also have a serious impact on customer engagement and your bottom line.

  • IBM estimate that a successful chatbot implementation can reduce customer support costs by up to 30%.
  • The number of daily voice searches is increasing exponentially. ComScore predicts that 50% of all searches will be voice searches by 2020.
  • Banking industry disruptor, Revolut, use machine learning to help with automating document scanning and identity checking. They have already signed up over 50,000 Irish users through their mobile app.

The team at Marino Software bring impactful digital experiences to life. We do this by focusing on where your business goals and your customers’ needs intersect. Your customers expect a seamless omni-channel experience. It needs to be secure, effective and efficient as well as being a pleasure to use. Our team of specialists are your partners in achieving this.

Interested in learning more about what emerging technologies can do for your business? You should talk to us.

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