SXSW Special: Designing for humans – why hackers and marketers need each other

March 11, 2014

There’s no doubt that technology provides us with truly remarkable possibilities both individually and collectively. Whether it be biotechnology that is leading to the consumerisation of healthcare (think technology that gives you constant feedback on everything from your blood sugar through to emotional states) or robotics such as Lit Motors’ sleek electric cars and scooters (designed to not only be greener, but also to tackle urban density issues), there’s plenty going on. Yet  despite being awestruck at the possibilities that exist, there’s no doubt that technology also provokes some anxiety in all of us.

During The New Digital Age – a session at the SXSW interactive conference with Eric Schmidt (Executive Chairman at Google) and Jared Cohen (Director of Google Ideas) - it was suggested that most technical white-collar jobs will disappear in the near future with the continual evolution of technology. The Googlers believe that it is creativity that will be key in giving people utility as labor, and it’s certainly not a difficult proposition to accept. Even those who have historically been our most esteemed professionals appear at risk. For instance, if I were to ask you if you’d prefer a human surgeon or robot to do major surgery on you in ten years time … well, it’s hard not to think that the robot would be more accurate, reliable and expedient.

What can marketers do in the age of the hacker?

So in this brave new creative economy – this age of the hacker - what is it that marketers will be able to bring to the table? It was during a session called Beyond Technology: Designing for People (a session run by Microsoft Advertising VP Stephen Kim) that my thoughts on this truly calcified. Basically, in my mind, the most vital role of the marketing function is going to be set in innovating technology to address human needs.

There’s no doubt that Microsoft are doing brilliant work in this space (down at The Lab we were actually fortunate enough to be involved in a major global study that Microsoft did on the 2nd screen back in 2012 - not to mention that they have a hero of mine in Danah Boyd as a Principal Researcher). Microsoft is a company that seems genuinely committed to putting the needs of people at the heart of the technology they’re creating today. They are a company that realizes understanding how people experience the world – understanding the influence that culture coupled with the influence of technology - is central to innovating products in meaningful ways.

Looking forward

One imagines that it will be the analytical yet divergent thinking marketers across the industry that will thrive, as not all technologists and hackers necessarily have the perspective – the guardrails so to speak – to ensure their passion and creativity is channeled into products that address legitimate needs in the lives of the people they hope to engage. And it’s not hard to see how this function will add true value to the creative process given that many of these brilliant hackers are concerned with functional dimensions of their creations as well as the financial concerns, which leaves little room to focus on how to innovate their offering and effectively communicate it for their consumer targets.

So it’s business as usual for marketers as brand strategists – put consumers at the heart of your business. But be acutely aware that the world of your business is going to evolve in unimaginable ways.

What will the world look like in 15 years time?

Well, there’s currently children in primary schools throughout the U.S. and UK who are beginning to learn how to code (it is after all, just another language that has been introduced to the curriculum). When these kids begin to hit the labor force … only time will tell how things will play out then. It also would suggest that in light of the 2012 Gonski Report, we’ve really got to get moving on this stuff if as a nation we want to be a genuine contributor to this new creative economy.

Finally, as an aside, I did get the opportunity to meet one of my heroes in Danah Boyd at SXSW, and I kind of feel compelled to give her recently released book It’s Complicated: the social lives of networked teens a bit of a plug despite having only just commenced reading it amidst the chaos over here!


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