Watching someone do something can make you experience it as if you are doing it yourself… hard to believe?

Sounds far-fetched! But, believe me it’s not a figment drawn from science fiction but grounded in neuroscience studies…

mirror neurons

I recently came across a reference to mirror neurons in neuroscience studies and the more I read about them the more I got intrigued…

A simple explanation suggests that there are specialised neurons (named the mirror neurons) that are seen to fire both when a person acts and when the person observes the same action performed by another – thus mirroring the behaviour of the actor, as though the observer was himself performing the action.

If this is true, then its almost as if the mirror neuron is performing a virtual reality simulation of the other person’s action… just think about the possibilities – it can start to explain simple behavioural and complex social responses… I have often wondered why most of us get so engaged and emotionally charged when we watch our favourite sports… it’s almost as if we are playing ourselves! Could it be the mirror neurons in play?

As with any new discovery it’s a subject of speculation and intense debate and while its premature for us to draw conclusions, I am personally biased by my passion for understanding how our brain adapts and using that to simplify every day activities.

The potential of the discovery in itself is enough motivation (for me) to delve deeper into the subject and the initial opinions that I have found have not yet disappointed me. (Ref. A good introduction to the subject is a TED talk  by neuroscientist Vilayanur Ramachandran where he describes his research on mirror neurons).

Most of the discussions talk about the potential role and importance of mirror neurons in two different areas – from understanding the actions of other people or empathy (where we could literally experience what others are experiencing and adopt the other’s point of view) to learning new skills by imitation (where the mirror systems simulate observed actions). The experiments show that while we can empathise and imitate other person’s action, we are still able to distinguish, eventually, that the action is not done by us since we do not get the same feedback from the sensory receptors in the skin (touch, pain etc.)

The importance of empathy and imitation is not hard to imagine in any context – from broad social and cultural contexts to dynamic business environments. As our environments become more global and we work in geographically distributed teams, our primary business interactions are centered on email, conference calls, social and collaboration tools, etc. As the opportunity to watch someone in action has notably gone down, it has inadvertently restricted the use of our natural ability of imitation and empathy in everyday interactions.

It is believed that video can fill this void – it provides an opportunity for people to observe and watch others as they speak and act… it is becoming increasingly apparent that embedding video in our interactions and work-flows in product design not just drives simplicity of action, but influences user behaviour through an increased ability to understand and empathise with others and to co-relate more effectively by imitating behaviour and skills.

I genuinely believe that by understanding what makes people act the way they do, we can design more intuitive and engaging products and interactions that match their natural way…

ps. Of-course I cannot deny that my excitement extends beyond every day social and behavioural application and I am equally fascinated by the possibility of a scientific explanation to the Indian philosophy (that I have grown up with,) that is based on the belief that there is no real independent self and we are all part of the same consciousness)… after all who knows we are all connected by neurons and we just need to dissolve the barrier of the physical self to communicate and interact – far more effectively than the current digital plane of the internet!

This article was first published @LinkedIn on May 07, 2016. 

 

When products are designed to fall apart…?

DisassembleCar

A couple of days back, the home button of my iPhone stopped responding… this is the second iPhone I have owned that has ended up in this state in the last 3 years… and it got me to think…

As I started to reflect on it, I started to become more and more convinced that this is by design – a clear strategy to deliberately restrict the lifespan of a product… clearly to drive the replacement cycle.

But what intrigued me the most is that this is not a new radical approach conceived by Apple, but has been successfully deployed by product manufacturers and producers for decades.

I came across an interesting story from the 1920’s where it is said that Henry Ford started to buy back scrapped Ford cars and asked his engineering team to disassemble them. Almost everyone believed that the goal was to find the parts that had failed and identify ways of making them better. On the contrary, Henry Ford asked the team to identify the parts that were still working and explore ways of re-designing these parts to cut down their life and have them fail at the same time as the others – a smart business intent to cut down the cost of design and manufacturing and avoid over-designing!

Its an out-of-the-box way of looking at things… and seems to make perfect strategy. Introducing the product lifespan as product parameter adds flexibility to the product development cycle by opening up options for exploring other constraints – not just time, cost or quality, but also technology selection, material properties, user experience, performance, processes, regulations etc.

I got so fascinated with the idea that I continued to look further and found a term planned obsolescence, that has indeed been used in the context of product design and economics… it talks of the approach that attempts to design a product with an artificially limited useful life such that it becomes obsolete or no longer functional after a certain period of time, where the driver is primarily to reduce the repeat purchase time interval i.e. shorten the replacement cycle. It appears that the light bulb was an early target for planned obsolescence when the companies standardised the life of a light bulb to 1000 hours and even went to the extent of fining producers if the light bulbs lasted longer! The strategy has found support from governments in the past and it has been used to stimulate consumption and fuel economy… but over the years it has resulted in divided camps, and in recent times there have been movements against this strategy with some countries now requiring manufacturers to declare the intended product lifespans.

As I thought about it further, it dawned on me that I was practically guilty of following the same strategy… and hence had lost the moral right to be judgemental … I realised that it can easily be argued that we (software providers) are no different and have enforced users to upgrade to new products by stopping support for older technologies, using incompatible interfaces, restricting hardware or OS support and building vendor lock-in… the intellectual production has fallen prey to the same pattern (as industrial and consumer production) of generating constant (renewed) demand for their products… creating a society that lives under the illusion of perpetually new.

In this state of mixed emotions, my view got biased by my own experience and actions… while many people argue that this belief that products are designed to fall apart is a fallacy, I have (albeit reluctantly) to disagree.

My experience of product design and development has taught me that every product design cycle involves a complex interplay between many business, technology and operational factors – from time-to-market, price points and product positioning to technology readiness, user experience, performance or resources, processes etc… and it is a reality that I have designed products with a clear view of a restricted life-span – simply using them as first generation products for early adoption and then replacing them (over time) with new product releases… which is an example in itself of designing products to fall apart (after a time)… or maybe it begins to sound more reasonable when we rephrase it and say that products are designed to work successfully for the defined lifespan and specified business goals…

Of-course, the answer is not what I wanted to hear as it means that I have to start looking for a new phone – even when I did not have the need for any new functionality… but then maybe I do not know what I am missing and may be pleasantly surprised by the ‘new’ product…

Arti is the co-founder of humanLearning (www.humanlearning.com) – a fast growing UK-based technology startup – setup with an earnest desire to make the life of busy professionals simpler and more effective. hL is disrupting business workflows thru WinSight – a mobile-video based platform – that is changing the way businesses drive innovation and quality in sales and service. Arti can be reached at arti@humanlearning.com.

[This article was first published on @LinkedIn on April 16, 2016]

 

If only my interaction with a machine could be Collaborative…?

I realised that most Error Messages frustrate me, some even scare me and only a very few actually guide me through the error scenario…

error scares me

Just last week, I was exploring a new software service – and incredible as it sounds – despite being a native user (and developer) of software, and having survived generations of software applications, I still panicked at the sight of a ‘big red X’ (a typical ‘ERROR’ alert) – so much so – that before I knew, I had instinctively killed the application!

That got me thinking. A simple response by a system to one of my ‘natural’ actions managed to induce a feeling of helplessness and despair, even a degree of frustration and anger – enough for me to give up. And, if I am honest then I know that I have no intention of retrying anytime soon.

I am sure that I am not an exception – many of you will have a similar experience to share – at least at some point in your interaction, with one or another system or application.

I looked further – I found research that said that there is a tendency in all of us to blame ourselves for our failure with everyday objects and systems. Surprised? Well I certainly was. Isn’t it a contradiction to our natural inclination to blame everything that goes wrong in our lives on others or our environment?

But, the underlying question that continued to bother me is simple – if I reflect on my ‘natural’ action, it was nothing but a typical ‘user behaviour’. How can user behaviours be ‘Errors’? So what are we missing?

I guess, it comes down to the product design and user experience. I know, that when I design a product, no matter how I expect users to use the product, it is a reality that, there will always be a few users who will find different and unexpected ways to use it. And a good design can neither ignore that (and hence needs to handle the unexpected), nor be restrictive to force all users to comply with a single flow (which would inherently conflict with their natural behaviour).

I started to look at the error messages that we issue under different error scenarios in our own mobile video application. We had invested a lot of time in humanising all our application messages and notifications, and were even inspired by NLP (Neuro-Linguistic Programming) – so while most had a human touch (and hence were not as scary as the big X), I realised that they still were fairly limited in guiding the user through to the next stage.

I started to look at error messages from different applications under different scenarios. I noticed that even when actual errors encountered were similar, my experience (and hence response) as a user was very different – and the difference was in the small details of how the message was communicated.

And then I remembered an old reference from the book ‘Design of Everyday Objects’, where Don Norman interestingly uses a standard interaction between two people as an example to demonstrate that effective interactions are mostly built on collaboration – where a person tries to understand and respond to the other party, and when something is not understood or is inappropriate, then it is seamlessly questioned, clarified and the collaboration continues naturally.

I guess, as a user, I am tuned to expect my interactions to be collaborative – and hence struggle when my interactions are with a machine (and not another person)… of-course they inevitably fall short! Any expectation that the user behaviour will/should change when interacting with a machine is suspect – we all know how un-adaptable we all are as a species! There is no doubt that the goal for us – as product designers – should be to build in intelligence into the machine interaction and aspire to develop a collaborative interaction between the user and the machine – i.e. when the user does something wrong, the machine should respond by providing clarification, helping the user to understand, guiding the user to continue through to the next stage – ensuring that the communication illustrates how to rectify the inappropriate action and recommend the next actions.

I know it sounds onerous. But it is not. Technology is a powerful tool and we have enough capability and building blocks now to easily build us simple collaborations and design good feedback and interaction models.

I am fascinated with this new challenge. Our goal will now be to eliminate all error messages and instead replace them with messages that aid and continually guide the user…

This article was first published on LinkedIn on January 23, 2016.