Envision On!

To predict the future, understand the past

The Rise of the Humans

May 20th, 2014

Book cover for The Rise of the Humans

I can’t believe it’s been a year since the launch of Business Re-imagined. Helped by the incredible conversations about our future world of work that the book has led to, the last 12 months have flown by. I know that some of you have been wondering about me, this blog and the dearth of content within it, but I hope by now, you’re beginning to see the pattern – a year of very little new posts can only mean one thing – a new book (all that content has to go somewhere!).

And on that note, I’m really pleased to announce my new book “The Rise of the Humans: How to outsmart the digital deluge” which launches today. As with Business Reimagined, electronic versions of the new book will be available for free (you can download one here) and for a small fee for the paper version (available from Amazon and all good book stores).  But until I can get the download links for you, I thought you might be interested in the story behind it:

A few years ago, I was with some colleagues and we were lamenting about how, as an industry, increasingly we seemed to have been missing the point of technology. It wasn’t through anybody’s fault but I now realise that what we had discovered was simply the fact that technology was no longer anything special. It was neither new to the world of work, nor to our personal lives and as such, telling people more stories about the technology itself just seemed to be wrong. Not to mention a bit dull.

In my first book (Business Reimagined), I set out to get organisations and individuals to look up not down to the potential of technology and to recognise the constraints our past experiences place upon how we perceive our ability to do things differently. We called for businesses and individuals to reimagine their own businesses and the way that they work to become much more reflective of the opportunity that our digital society offers.

However, the more we got into that conversation, the more I realised that whichever way you look at it, it is what my Dad calls the “interface between the keyboard and the chair”, the human being, that holds the keys to our success or our failure. We cannot solve the problems we face through technology alone and given we are now supplied with more technology and data than ever before (the digital deluge) our future lies in our ability to harness, not hate it.

Hate is maybe a bit strong, but I don’t know anybody that doesn’t increasingly despair at the volume of information coming at them, nor at the inescapable nature of our digital world. Don’t get me wrong, this is not about bad technology, but is instead about bad usage.

The incredible transformative devices and services that now populate our world have changed many things for the better, but our ability to really see and reach out for the full potential these things offer (or even sometimes just use them appropriately) is often overwhelmed by the pace of our lives and the rate of change that surrounds us.

So, I felt like I had some unfinished business in this space and so the idea for “The Rise of the Humans” was born. Essentially, this book continues the conversation we started in Business Reimagined and is my call to action, for both individuals and organisations to become more familiar with the opportunity that the digital deluge places at their feet every single day.   As we begin to understand it more, this opportunity will change what it means to be a customer, to be an employee or an employer and, as you will find out, will even change what it means to be human. We can no longer afford the luxury of either ignorance or fear of this potential. We must understand that the digital deluge is not a threat but a gift to our society, but it will be up to us to rise up to the challenge to make it work.

The revolution starts now…

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Behind the scenes of the RSA Animate

October 7th, 2013

Over the past couple of years, I’ve been a huge fan of the RSA Animate series, which entails them bringing together really insightful ideas and combining them with compelling visual storytelling.

CartoonDave250 While we were working on the Business Reimagined book, we were incredibly lucky to be able to take our story to the RSA and subsequently to work with the incredibly talented folks at Cognitive Media to create an RSA Animate for our story about the future of work.

The experience was nothing short of inspirational, and there are some great lessons here, not just for compelling story telling but in how organisations (and individuals) can work together to create incredible outcomes.

While the process is pretty simple: someone gives a (hopefully interesting) talk on an important topic.  The folks at Cognitive Media take a recording of the talk and sketch out a story and film it in a creative way. Simple right?  Well, yes, but that simplicity belittles the incredible creative energy, focus and insight that goes into the creation of this material.

Andrew Park, (the owner of the “hairy arm”) obviously takes a lot of pride in his work, but more importantly, invests a lot of effort in order to get the right outcome.  What I found really incredible is how much reading he did around the subject, ensuring that the view was both well informed, but equally inclusive of other discussions in this space.

My favourite though was just how much he tried to understand the character behind the story – I know I fulfil many stereotypes, but he managed to take both a complex story and a bunch of cultural cues from listening to me, and turned them into something wonderful, humorous and insightful. As a result, the experience was just phenomenal, it reminded me of just how important it is to understand the “client” in order to deliver an outcome that both exceeds the expectations of the potential outcome and takes both the client and the audience beyond engagement into that wonderful world of “Enchantment”.

Finally, if you want further evidence of the dedication and passion that goes into one of these incredibly engaging pieces of content, then take a look at the photo below, it hit my inbox around 4am with a note from Andrew saying “nearly there now…” (Click on the image below to see the detail behind Andrew, it’s just wonderful).

RSAAnimate

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RSA Animate: Reimagining Work

September 26th, 2013

After months of painstaking work (not by me I might add!). The RSA have launched their own animated version of a talk I gave there recently on re-imagining the way we could work.

It’s 9 minutes of your time, but I think you’ll find it more than worthwhile:

YouTube Preview Image

I’ll post a bit of background on this later, but for now, sit back and enjoy!

 

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Accounting for a "Freemium" world

September 13th, 2013

So, we reached a key milestone in the Coplin household over the summer, my son has taken his first steps down his own path towards financial independence. Yes, much to the pain of my reluctant wallet, it is finally pocket money time.

I’ll spare you all the details of the endless wrangling around how much (£2) and what we felt he needs to do in order to earn it (make his own “contribution” to the family). The point is, we decided it was time he started to learn the consequences of being responsible for his own spending.

The thing is though, teaching financial independence in a freemium, digital world is an incredibly different proposition to anything we have previously experienced (either as kids or even as parents even just a few years ago). In a world of tangible physical products which have a price point as a point of entry, it’s easy to teach the lessons of “save for what you want and you’ll enjoy it all the more” but in the friction free freemium world, this lesson is presented with a few problems.

kidsshutterstock_115520779Like any other 8 year old, my son loves apps, and there are a few really good freemium games that he really enjoys. You know the sort, these are often brilliant and compelling games that are free to download and let you acquire points within the game to buy attributes, power ups or just plain old items to bestow on your avatars or whatever. Typically a good freemium game will let you earn these points whilst also providing you with a short cut that means you can just buy the points and it’s the proximity of this choice combined with the threshold of how much effort you need to put in to earning in order get the additional content you need that seems to be causing some cracks to start to appear in the whole freemium approach. Some freemium games providers seem to push it a bit too far, bringing the in-game upgrades consistently (and increasingly intrusively) closer while pushing the “free” part further and further out of reach.

Of course the key lesson I’m trying to impart to my son is that you have finite resources in your piggy bank and you want to buy a bunch of different items, and it’s up to you to prioritise finite resources accordingly. This is tough for any kid (bloody hell it’s still tough for me) but the freemium model lowers the friction of any purchase – in that it’s really easy to buy what I want, I don’t have to go anywhere, I don’t have to exert any effort, I just click on a button and hey presto! Instant gratification. It’s like locking the kid in a sweet shop, taking the lids of all the jars and just saying “Help yourself! Go nuts!, just remember you’ve only got a finite amount of money” I don’t know many kids that would come out of that situation with any cash left (or even without over spending), regardless of how much they wanted anything else outside the sweetshop.

It’s the combination of the proximity of the purchase and the lack of friction of the purchase that causes the problem. Kids are pretty instantaneous, occasionally impetuous and have yet to learn the long, hard boring lessons about patience and value. (And I admit that as an adult there are times when I am really jealous of that).

There’s another related issue here about the value of “effort” – I had this conversation with my son which was basically, “look Dad, why would I spend all my free time earning 1,000 points when I can just buy them for 70p? After all, I’m getting pocket money now”. 70p? I can’t even buy a bag of crisps for that, it’s a trivial amount of money but it’s the principle that is infinitely more important. Ultimately it’s an argument that I have a tough time responding to without resorting to that worst excuse of parenting “just because”.

Ultimately I can cope with the latter argument, as a parent I’m used to the fact that I have to work hard to get my messages across, and that all I’m doing is to try not recreate the same “mistakes” my parents my made, (while acknowledging in the process that I’ll be making plenty of new ones that my son will rail against with his kids) but it’s the (lack of) transparency of the freemium model that worries me most and it is something that app providers (and platform providers) really need to give some thought to.

Of course, this year, there’s been plenty of news coverage of kids racking up thousands of pounds of bills on their parent’s credit card without anyone really being aware it was happening. Our own research showed that on average kids spend around £31m a month on apps or in app purchases without asking for permission! Thankfully people and organisations are evolving in how they both deal with that situation (give you the money back) and building systems and education that help parents manage and control spending, but I think there’s another level of detail that we’ve not yet reached and it’s one of individual app accountability and transparency of reporting that will help address the issues I’ve outlined here.

Don’t mistake any of this for either a rant against the freemium model or worse, some miserable old git hankering after simpler times. I actually love the freemium model, I think it’s a really important development in the software industry, but I just think we need to help our society evolve to understand how to make best use of it.

Frankly, I really don’t care if my son wants to blow his “lavish” allowance on virtual cabbages that he can feed to his virtual pets, or on that gold laser powered jump suit that will look “A-W-E-some!” but I do want him to be able to make decisions easily. He should be able to look at his individual apps and see how much he has spent on each of them, not for me to have to trawl through credit card statements and app store emails to piece together the picture. It’s the same kind of transparency and “business intelligence” we try to create for our enterprise customers to help them make “informed, business decisions” so why the hell wouldn’t we want to do this for our consumers as well?

I get that app developers don’t make much on a free or even a 69p game, but the freemium model will break if it forces the developers to drive monetisation harder by pushing the consumer further and further towards having to spend money in order to enjoy the game and then doesn’t give them the capability to account for their spending. Ultimately, if that plays out, consumers (or their parents) will vote with their feet and just walk away and at that point, just what is the point of the freemium approach other than to obscure and, to an extent, trick the consumer around their spending?

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Business Re-imagined

June 7th, 2013

BusinessReimagined-mediumI realise that it’s been a long time since my last post, fortunately for me it’s for a great reason. I’ve been saving up a whole raft of content that has been collated into a new book, called Business Re-imagined: Why work isn’t working and what you can do about it.

It is simply a view of the potential that technology could bring the modern work environment and some recognition of the barriers that will prevent us from being successful.

If you’ve been following the journey here at the Envisioners over the past few years, you will recognise many of the key themes and topics, but in this new light, I think the need for a dramatic re-think about the way we work is undisputable.

The book is available in both digital and analogue version from all good book sellers from June 10th.

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Hockey Night in Banbury – How global, granular choice changes everything

January 23rd, 2013

Those of you that know me will, at some point in the past, have been bored witless by me regaling stories that are essentially thinly veiled excuses for me to brag about the fact that a long time ago, I managed to wangle living in Canada for a few years.  One of the cultural highlights of my time out there was ice hockey, a sport I’ve always been intrigued by and one that is obviously pretty much right at the heart of Canadian culture much in the same way as football and rugby is here.

When you’re in Canada, there really is no escape from hockey, it’s on in every bar, played in every back yard and driveway and is a celebrated part of the national psyche.  However, outside of Canada, (a few US states and several Nordic countries) it barely exists.  If you’re lucky, you might catch a brief write up in a UK newspaper, watch a grainy highlight clip on the web or if you’re really sad, read Canadian newspapers on your favourite tablet device just to keep your hand in.  I developed a love of the sport that has long lay unrequited thanks to the dearth of coverage that exists outside of Canada, but in the last few days, everything has changed.

Last Friday, Microsoft launched NHL GameCentre on the Xbox (access is also available on other platforms and for other sports), a hub for all of the NHL activity, a single destination for every team and every game.  I’m not here to talk to you about the technology of this implementation (although it’s very impressive) but what I want you to think about is the mechanics and the principle at work.

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For an annual subscription of just $50 US dollars, I can enjoy HD broadcasts both live (albeit at stupid o’clock in the morning) and replays at a much more sensible time, so I can host my own “Hockey Night in Banbury”.  Take a step back and just think about what’s happened here.  I haven’t signed up to a local broadcast provider, I’m not selecting a package of channels, I’m picking a single, specific sport, from another continent and I’m having it curated and delivered in HD to my living room in the North Oxfordshire wilderness.

This is not just the future of entertainment, but it is also the future of pretty much every service we’ll consume and what’s crucial to understand is not just the shrinking of the globe, but also the increasingly granular nature of the choice I have.  Keeping with the entertainment theme, in the future, I’ll be able to pay for access to specific channels from _anywhere in the world_, or even just make micro payments just for the shows I want to see.  Imagine if your license fee (or cable/satellite subscription) was just an account balance that you agree to pay, but you then have the choice to use it as a pay as you go basis.  You only pay for the programmes you watch.  I’m not saying this is exactly the answer, but why shouldn’t I have this level of choice?  Even as a consumer of free TV, I still end up with a bunch of channels I’ll never watch.  It’s also pretty incredible for the content providers too.  Think about what’s just happened to the NHL, they’ve opened up their market from North America and a few Nordic countries, to the world.  That’s not a bad approach to scale.

Increasingly, this level of global and granular choice is going to come to us across all aspects of our lives, on a local, national and global level.  We’re seeing it begin to happen in education with institutions offering access to their courses regardless of the student’s location, citizens are increasingly comparing the services they receive from local governments – what happens when I can choose which local authority provides which services I consume?  For those that are less reliant on location it could make a lot of sense (both financial and common).  Equally, what does it mean for employers and employees?  For some jobs, it means I should be able to live in another country and still do the work I need to do – I know that feels like a bit of a stretch today, but I’m telling you now it’s already starting to happen – “snowbirds” have been living between Florida and Canada for years and now, we’re beginning to see “inter-annual migration” where, unlike my 5 year stay as an ex-pat in Canada, it’s just for a few months of the year, every year.  Just yesterday I was talking to someone who has decided to live throughout the year in whichever place is the most appropriate for the work he is doing at that point in time.  So just as I, on a micro level, choose to work in the library to complete a report or work in the office so I can meet colleagues, he, at a macro level chooses to live in London for the summer and LA for the Winter – understand this is a fluid arrangement, it’s not about a permanent migration.

We will continue to see more and more of this happen, everyone really needs to understand how it can work for everyone’s advantage.  But locked up in all of this is a really interesting paradox where location is becoming less relevant in one sense, and in another it’s becoming crucial.    Getting the balance right for this is going to challenge brands, advertisers and service providers (not to mention governments) for some time to come.

As for me, the wings are ready for the BBQ, the beers are in the fridge, its game on tonight!

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Big Data, the Machines and You

September 14th, 2012

Ah, Big Data, the old IT bandwagon rides again eh?  Who’s with me?  Yeah, you and every other IT consultancy in town.

The thing is, beyond the hyperbole (and of course the ridiculous notion that data can be big or small or even mid-sized) incredible things are beginning to happen with data that affect the products and services we use, how we innovate and even how we understand the world around us.

More and more we are using big data services to help us in our personal lives, they recommend our purchases, answer our search queries, even translate our languages and every day, through the beauty and wonder that is machine learning, they get _better_.

Having access to more and more data, combined with technological advances like the cloud which provide seemingly limitless storage and compute power we are able, finally to start to harness the incredible power and potential it offers not just society at a broad level or just to huge organisations like Microsoft, Google and Facebook but we also start to get to a point where that power becomes accessible to every individual and every single business.

As with all such major advancements, we’ll face our fair share of challenges too; some will be technical – we’re still looking for the needle, but now it’s in a billion haystacks, some will be cultural – how do you ensure that data is accessible and of sufficient quality? And some will be just plain hard – like in a world of data and machine learning, what happens when the algorithms take over?

As it turns out, bandwagon or no, big data is crucial to our respective success.  Don’t believe me?  Well, why not waste 30 minutes of your life listening to me trying to convince you.  This is a presentation I gave at this year’s Turing Festival trying to make exactly that point.  (You can also download the slides here).

Like it or not, the world of big data is here – it is now up to us to figure out how to make best use of it.

(n.b. Thanks and appropriate respect go to both GetAmbition and Interactive Scotland for both organising the event and creating video and supporting collateral).

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Preparing Our Future – The Need for Critical Thinking

May 31st, 2012

thinkThere has been much discussion in the UK recently about the importance of getting the right approach to the role of technology in schools.  Many have used this as the opportunity to reinforce the need for greater emphasis on the STEM fields (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) with further focus being given to the need to create a new generation of “kids who code”.  Whilst this on its own is an incredibly important initiative, it is vitally important to continue to remind ourselves that it is still just a subset of the overall duty of care we have as technologists to ensure that every single aspect of society is empowered by technology.  Yes that means having great software, and as such brilliant computer scientists, but more importantly it means ensuring that every single member of society knows how to make the best use of technology whatever their societal role – this is our modern equivalent of a “PC on every desk”.

In order to achieve this it means that we need to get beyond teaching the “tools” and start teaching the “skills” that will make all the difference for the workforce of the future. In particular it requires that our children and every other member of our society are equipped with the cognitive capability and skills that enable them to harness the incredible potential that technology brings to us. It is no longer  just a case of “feeding” them with the basic tools that will become obsolete tomorrow, but instead teaching them to “fish” in a growing digital pool.

Within our brave new digital world, one of the most important skills we must learn is “critical thinking” a concept that rather incredibly, dates back to Socrates over 2000 years ago, but after being “recently” updated in the 20th century for a modern society by many great scholars it provides an powerful framework for our internet age.

findEvery single day, we are bombarded by millions of signals of data, information and content, and every single day the quantity of information we are exposed to grows exponentially.  These days we are still looking for the needle, it’s just that now it’s in a billion haystacks.

Critical thinking is about “reflective” rather than “routine” thought, it’s the process of “active, persistent and careful consideration” of the credibility and conclusions of supposed knowledge or information.

Most of us use critical thinking every day and for most of the time, we are barely aware of it.  Every time we read a newspaper article, watch a documentary or look something up on Wikipedia we are aware of a whole range of biases, influences and emotions that may interfere with the validity, accuracy and overall conclusion of the content and, if we’re doing our job properly, we take all of that into account as we parse the information, reflect on it drawing in a range of other context and ultimately use it to draw conclusions and make decisions.

Fortunately for us, we’ve had years of practice and experimentation to get this right but in this new digital age, where children and young people have so much access to an incredible world of information but have yet to develop the skills to know how to deal with it.

From an early age, we need to ensure that children using the internet are able draw upon critical thinking skills to:

Search efficiently and effectively – depending not solely on the search engine’s view of relevancy but able to navigate and adjust the query to ensure the most appropriate results.

Distinguish kinds of sources and analyse a source’s validity and reliability – from basic differentiation of primary vs secondary sources through to deconstructing domain names and URL’s to learn more context about the source.

Make a habit of cross checking facts, even from reliable sources – we know from experience that even “authorities” can mislead and experts make mistakes so wherever possible there must be independent confirmation of the facts.

Conscientiously and properly attribute the words and ideas of others – the internet has made plagiarism a lot easier, but thankfully, easier to spot. Students need to know the basic rules about when and how to quote others’ words and how to properly attribute the ideas that are not their own.

Stay safe on the internet – these are some of the most important skills of all, from not giving out personal information through to taking care about the kind of conversations they enter into on-line, staying safe is absolutely paramount. 

Interact with others online honestly, respectfully, fairly and clearly – the anonymity, immediacy and lack of proximity presented by the internet can lead to anti-social behaviour, sometimes with devastating consequences. Learning how to speak honestly, fairly, and with respect, clarity and brevity along with understanding why this is important in a society, especially a democracy, is crucial.

(Note: More detail on each of these areas, as well as lesson ideas for different ages of students can be found in the “Critical Thinking” white paper we published in 2010)

So, as we prepare to wind down this educational year and pause over the summer to think about the role of ICT in the new school year in September, please, let’s make sure we keep a firm focus on ensuring that as well as being brilliant at coding, our future citizens (and workforce) are equipped with all the necessary skills to make the very best of all that technology will have to offer them.

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Evolving Our Expectations of Privacy

May 4th, 2012

So I walk into my local pub, the landlord calls out “hey Dave! Your usual?” – I acknowledge him with a smile and nonchalantly walk up to the bar as he pours my drink; I am secretly overjoyed that I have finally achieved such status and recognition (although I barely spare a moment’s thought for the years of patronage and resulting family neglect that have afforded me such privilege.)

That kind of personalised service is something we as consumers strive to experience (come on, we all have a secret fantasy of playing Norm in your own local bar where “everyone knows your name”) and service providers have long chased the dream of creating that sense of “home”, where we know you, we know what you like and relax, you’re amongst friends here. (Don’t believe me? Watch any airline advert from the last 10 years and you’ll know exactly what I mean).

drinking manSo what if then, I walk into a different bar, in an unfamiliar town and the landlord does the same thing “hey Dave! Your usual?” do I offer him the same smile and nonchalance? Of course not, I turn around and run out of the bar, screaming in terror at the indignity of the invasion of my privacy.

But why should I be freaked out by that? After all, the landlord in the second bar has as much interest in offering me the personalised service as the landlord in the first pub. But what’s different is my _expectation_. If I had whiled away the hours on http://www.makeminemylocal.com availing landlords across the country with my photograph and drinking preferences so they can offer such a service, then I might reasonably expect such a friendly welcome, but the fact it is not expected is what freaks me out.

The lesson here for us as consumers (and for us as technology providers) is “no surprises” – if the consumer is (reasonably) surprised about the service or the usage of their data, then as a provider, you’ve probably got it wrong. You can tell me all you like that a specific bit of information about me is public information, but if it doesn’t feel like it to me then I’m going to have a hard time when somebody I wasn’t expecting uses it. It’s that expectation that’s almost as important as the permission to use the data, in the first bar, I’m OK with the data attribute “my favourite beer” being used. In the second bar, when it gets used I am unnerved not just because I never gave permission, but equally because I wasn’t expecting it.

I think this difference between the role of reasonable expectation and permission is often overlooked and will potentially catch us out as our culture (and expectations) about reasonable use evolve. We live in an increasingly personalised world, and our expectations and comfort with the mechanics of how that world is created are growing ever easier, we are freaked out initially by the “filter bubble” but then realise that actually, used properly (and transparently) it is a vital resource if we are to stand a chance of sorting the wheat from the chaff in a modern (big data) world.

I am reminded of a similar example from our recent past that shows how these evolutions can happen.  Do you remember when caller ID first appeared on our landline phones at home?  I do, mostly because I was incensed at the thought of _my_ number being displayed to whoever I called, even though I had requested to be “ex-directory”.  Fast forward a few years and you will find me refusing to answer the phone when the number is unknown or not recognised.  I no longer care about my number being displayed because my expectations have evolved to appreciate the value that the service provides.

But this is not just about always adapting or evolving to new developments and privacy boundaries.  Crucially, there needs to be some constructive tension to ensure that this evolution neither goes too far too quickly nor becomes unbalanced in terms of the value to the corporation versus the consumer. Given the complexity of the issue (and the difference context makes in the usage of the data in question) the law alone is not enough to do this, we need to ensure that a place exists where consumers, regulators, privacy advocates (like Privacy International, Big Brother Watch and others) and technology providers can come together to collectively and constructively debate the best way forward for all involved. I talked about this recently at an event on Location Privacy, and was reliably informed that there at least 5 different places (and counting) where this debate can and does happen. This is good but it needs to be better and more focused if we are to provide the best outcome for all of the stakeholders involved.

We all have a part to play in making sure this dialogue continues to happen – why don’t you join us?

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The You Centric Web (Personalisation 2.0)

February 1st, 2012

clip_image001We live in a world that is increasingly connected, with services that offer a degree of “personalisation” based on assumptions of our needs created on an extrapolation of our previous actions.  As our digital footprints become larger and more connected, we are offered the potential to move to a new level of services that place us, rather than the services we consume firmly at the centre, a web that is ultimately formed around the individual rather than the other way around.

Today, personalisation is an incredibly blunt tool. The services we use, the content we consume, the adverts we see are all provided based on the basis of some prediction as to what we might be trying to achieve based on our past behaviours.  However, it is not just that this prediction is currently extremely basic, it also does not yet fully take into account the rich, broad context that accompanies us wherever we are, whatever we are doing, a context that holds the key to creating services and experiences that offer us not just a precise reflection of the services we need but also positions us to make discoveries of incredible new content, products and truly human experiences.

As individuals, our actions are guided by a complex range of signals which we intuitively use both explicitly and implicitly.  These signals form the basis for the services and content we choose to consume and influence the decisions and discoveries we make in everything we do.  The You Centric Web is a place that is not just aware of this context, but brings it together and makes sense of it, delivering an overall experience that is truly reflective of us as unique individuals.

This context exists across four key dimensions that are real time, living states that change and shift as we go about our everyday lives.  The four dimensions that influence our behaviour are:

Emotional – my emotional state.  My current emotional level will influence the decisions I make and the services I’m looking for. For example the music I select when I’m happy may be different from that which I select when I’m less so.

Social – who is with me physically and my virtual social connections.  Watching a sports game or a movie with friends is a different experience to watching it alone or connected to others remotely for a shared viewing experience.  Equally, the context of what my friends do is also a powerful signal that provides a trusted source of influence that may be incorporated to help me make my decision.

Environmental – where I am, the device I’m using, the time of day, the temperature, my location, my direction of travel, the current weather and so on.  Each of these factors plays a role in influencing both my decision and equally inferring the intent of my actions.  Searching for “sushi” on my mobile device at lunchtime while walking down a street in the centre of town will likely be for a different purpose than if I were to search for it sat at home in the evening on my main home computer.

External – This represents a broad range of external factors that offer further contextual signals that may influence my actions and decisions.  For example, a significant societal issue (like the recession) or a nationwide campaign on childhood poverty (or global warming etc) may make me consider different choices about the activity, actions and content I pursue.

These four domains are joined together and under-pinned by a rich pool of historical evidence about previous actions which can serve to highlight a likely (but not certain) outcome for any given decision or choice.

The connection of these different dimensions of context has been impossible in the past as not only did we lack the ability to accurately capture and interpret our current state in real time, we also lacked the ability to join them all together and analyse them as a collective.  In a world of socially connected experiences, big data, cloud computing and natural user interfaces this really starts to change.

Using natural interface technologies like Kinect, we are finally able to start to capture and use much richer information about the emotional, social and (some of) the environmental factors that will influence my activities. As they continue to evolve, devices like Kinect will help understand our emotional state, the environment we’re sitting in and who is with us. Early examples of this have already been shown, but we know it is still early days and the technology still has much further to go before this is pervasive and usable across a variety of services.

clip_image002In addition to the technological developments described above, the increasing capability to connect and analyse vast, disparate data sources starts to provide the opportunity to take a broader “systemic” view and a deeper level of insight that can be used to infer further elements of the context surrounding an individual.  In this area, the brave new world of “Big Data” and the cloud becomes an immensely powerful capability that offers the potential to provide incredible new context and insight that can be used to shape experiences even further. My favourite example of this was some recent research done in the US that analysed cellphone usage data from 50,000 individuals and was able to accurately predict the _future_ location of any given individual with 93% confidence. (And there I was thinking I was in control. )

By joining up and effectively understanding this broad, rich context, it becomes clear to see how basic today’s world of personalised services is and just how far we’ve yet to go.  Being told that  “people who have bought product A also bought product b” is no longer going to feel useful or even relevant.

However, beyond the further technological innovation that will be required to make this a reality, there are also several advances in how we as a modern society think about, use and trust the services that will be required if we are to get to a point where we can really maximise the potential of this world that is moulded around the individual.  In particular, there is a growing trend of a fear of “over personalisation”, a world full of filters and “popular content” which is devoid of discovery and one in which the power (and importance of) serendipity becomes increasingly hard to come by.

The common mistake being made that drives this fear is to think that personalisation by default excludes discovery, or that perfect personalisation means ultimate precision.  This is a world where I am precluded from finding new things which I am unaware of or from uncovering new items which may not be considered relevant to my interests.  In many ways, the You Centric Web must represent the slightly random, uncontrolled nature of our human world, injecting random and unrelated content in order to broaden and extend the overall experience and introduce new direction and insight.  In some ways, this is no different to the role a good news editor plays in ensuring that the audience receives a broad range of content that is of interest to the majority along with an essential range of content that is intended to interrupt and disrupt your established areas of interest – a process that not only broadens the mind, but equally expands the potential for new discovery and conclusions (and the adjacent possible).

clip_image003In a world drowning in data and information, personalisation provides the only way for an individual to not just find, but most importantly, to trust the information and services being provided.  Trust is key here, not only does the consumer need to trust the services, they increasingly need to be able to trust the service provider, to know that their data and information about themselves is respected, kept private unless the consumer has indicated otherwise.

We need to recognise that our society continues along a long established journey about privacy that is not new in the information age, it has in fact been an issue for discussion and debate for hundreds of years.  The information age accelerates the pace of change, but the basic principles remain the same for the individual.  I need control, I need transparency and increasingly, I need a tangible value proposition (i.e. what do I get in return).

These principles, offer us a way forward.  By putting the individual in control of their data, being transparent about how the data is being used and crucially being really explicit about the value that will be provided we can turn around some of the “trust issues” that we read about so frequently today. 

The You Centric Web offers an inversion of today’s web, placing the user at the centre and in full control of the overall experience. It promotes discovery, celebrates serendipity and offers a personalised path through the oceans of data, content and experiences that the modern digital society has to offer. The technology required to deliver the You Centric Web is beginning to appear now, but we have further to travel before it can reach its full potential.    As a society, we will have to shift our expectations of how the digital world can augment the physical world and service and content providers will need to plan for and deliver on the potential of this connected, intensely personalised world as well as work hard to win the trust of consumers by placing them at the centre and protecting and respecting their rights.   The You Centric Web is an inevitable part of our technological evolution; it is now down to all of us to ensure we are able to take up the promise of everything it has to offer.

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