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Empathy Drives Technology Innovation

. PeteW

Joe McCarthy's recent blog posting reviews two new books on the impact of technology on society:

Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other, by Sherry Turkle, and Reality is Broken: How Games Can Make Us Better and How They Are Changing the World, by Jane McGonigal.

Joe writes: Alone Together expresses concern that our increasing focus on virtual interactions is draining, depleting and distracting us from our real-world interactions, whereas Reality is Broken espouses the belief that the time we spend playing online games can renew and revitalize us and perhaps even lead us to redirect our energies toward solving real world problems.

I usually try to wave the Switzerland flag when it comes to technology--neutral to the utopian/dystopian spins that media tends to make. It's people that make technology --things-- serve particular intentions, or, as William Gibson so aptly put it back in the 90's "The street finds its own uses for things."

That said, what I think is still sorely lacking are technologies that actually connect people in meaningful and lasting ways: things (products, services, applications) that truly serve as a bridge or scaffolding that connect relationships between people.

I think that's definitely coming...but right now it feels like a big grab for time and attention with just enough convenience thrown in to make people want to spend a little time with something. Not because these offerings are compelling or meaningful, but rather because they're somewhat unique and tend to suck less than most. When convenience is the driving force for technology, it's simply a race toward commoditization. When the next shiny object comes along, people simply move on to the next "great" thing.

It doesn't have to be that way. In most cases, it shouldn't be that way. Innovation isn't simply about convenience* --it's about creating meaningful experiences.

This vision of technology innovation isn't even about technology in and of itself. It's about using technology to enable deeper relationships between people-- and this idea's certainly not new. It's been around since Vannevar Bush published As We May Think in the Atlantic back in 1945. Many attribute it to inspiring the creation of the internet. However, it's more than just a technology. He described a (mechanical) system that would connect one user to another person's life--all their notes, ideas, creations, everything they've shared with others--such that you could truly know what that person was like. Though he didn't describe it this way, he was envisioning an empathy machine.

I believe the core of his proposal is that this system ought to be purpose-driven. That connecting people through machines over time and space serves two human-centered purposes: to affect the person who creates with this technology and to affect the person who consumes with this technology.

Ultimately, this interpretation of purpose-driven technology leads us to consider the role designers of products and services have. When we design we affect the way people think about and relate to one another through invention. Inventions, including the design of products and services, are really arguments for how we ought to live our lives.

McCarthy indicates Sherry Turkle writes:

These days, insecure in our relationships and anxious about our intimacy, we look to technology for ways to be in relationships and protect ourselves from them at the same time ... Sociable robots and online life both suggest the possibility of relationships the way we want them ... But when technology engineers intimacy, relationships can be reduced to mere connections.

McCarthy continues: As technology increasingly co-inhabits more of our physical spaces - and inhabits increasingly human-like or animal-like robots in our midsts - we need to develop a more disciplined approach in balancing our online and offline interactions. During her January 17, 2011 interview with Stephen Colbert, Turkle summed this up by saying "we have to put technology in its place".

As a designer, putting technology in its place starts with defining the purpose for which a technology should serve. The focus for technology innovation isn't a destination nor a new way to repackage convenience. Technology innovation is connecting people to the people, places and things that give their life meaning, help them achieve goals (i.e. they're transformative in nature) and provide an experience people consider priceless.

At Sears Holdings, we're defining new roles that retail may play in the lives of people. At UX Sears, we're defining systems of networked touchpoints that address and connect with the lives of people in deeper and sustainably disruptive* ways. What's next? In short, it's time to hit the streets, understand people in a fundamentally different ways than we have in the past, and reframe the relationships we have with customers and with employees.

Sound interesting? Like the idea of defining new experiences? If you think you've got what it takes, let us know: www.searsholdings.com

* Just in case you're thinking disruptive technologies (via Clayton Christensen), is all about cheaper tech solutions that disrupt established players, think again. Christensen's argument is about finding and designing for the "jobs" that people unknowingly "hire" technologies to do for them: Functional Jobs. Emotional Jobs. Social Jobs. Want to know more? Email me at peter.wendel@searshc.com


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