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Extracted from an interesting short piece by Christian Madsbjerg is the author of SENSEMAKING: The Power of the Humanities in the Age of the Algorithm:

Silicon Valley needs to get schooled

Silicon Valley is getting antsy. It’s been awhile since we were collectively wowed by the next big thing. The iPhone is ten years old. Uber is eight. The problem isn’t a lack of ideas. As engineers keep breaking new ground, it seems like anything will be possible soon. Why aren’t more of these technologies breaking through to our everyday lives?

What Silicon Valley is missing is an understanding of people—what is meaningful to them, the way they live their day to day lives, what would make a difference for them on an ordinary Tuesday in Phoenix or Shanghai. There is a dearth of deep, nuanced cultural knowledge

From my experience working with major corporations, I would say that technological advancements are only half of the picture. Knowing how to build things is great, but if you have no idea for whom you’re building them—how these inventions will connect with people’s aspirations and challenges—you will fail, no matter how many coding geniuses and data scientists you employ.

If you, like me, are a reader of great novels, you know that almost visceral sensation when you come to understand the world of someone else – the suffering of an Afghan woman, enduring abuse and horrendous conditions to spear her loved ones, or the drab misery of life as an IRS clerk in middle America, someone who had always imagined his life would turn out differently. Literatures—like in-depth journalism, plays, music, art, and even activities like cooking—can put you in the shoes of people unlike you in profound, empathetic way. But the importance of these activities is under attack from the big data-mindset that has invaded both Silicon Valley and many of the world’s biggest corporations.

Spend a few days immersed in a great novel by Tolstoy or with the work of Greek scientist and poet Ptolemy and one is forced to acknowledge that nothing is ever entirely disrupted nor is anything ever completely new. Learning does not function independently of what has come before, but rather in dialogue with it. If executives at Google had taken some time to contemplate this fact, they might have avoided the disastrous rollout to their Google Glass product in 2014. The technology itself functioned just fine. In a narrow Silicon Valley perspective, Google Glass might be considered a successful technology. But when does a piece of technology ever exist independent of a world, a societal structure and culture? Yes, the glasses “worked” but did they belong? Google Glass wearers were dubbed “Glassholes” and people shunned Google Glass wearers at social events. Silicon Valley may have new technology, but in this instance it failed at the much larger challenge of understanding how people relate to one another.

When we use a skill set based in the humanities to understand the world, we gain insight into these deeper issues. And these are the factors that actually drive business forward. Let’s return to China: one by one, the world’s biggest and most cutting edge Silicon Valley companies—Yahoo, eBay, MySpace, Facebook, Twitter, Groupon, and, finally Google—have attempted to develop a meaningful market there. They have come armed with all of the best technical knowledge along with plenty of cash and intellectual property. And yet, today, Internet market leaders in China are still local: Alibaba, Baidu and TenCent.

Technical superiority is a very small part of this story. Limited by their “Silicon Valley” state of mind, American companies simply had no feel for the nuances that made the Chinese marketplace different. With a deeper immersion into the lives of Chinese consumers as well as into their literature, history and religion, technologists might have grasped the more subtle differences between professional and personal network building in Chinese society

When we stop valuing culture, we become blind to the very opportunities that drive “world changing” technology to mass adoption. The greatest challenges and opportunities of the twenty-first century are cultural, not algorithmic. And the greatest tools for the study and understanding of culture exist within the wealth of theories and methodologies that make up the humanities.

To those of you with a liberal arts degree, I say this: your skills are essential in today’s world, and more companies need to recognize that. To those of you with a STEM degree (or who never bothered with college in the first place), I would say: pick up a book or two every month. Go to plays. Travel and immerse yourself in a culture unlike your own.

Without a deep, empathetic understanding of other people, turning that good idea into the next big thing may prove elusive.

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The original article may be read here.

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Daimler AG’s Smart brand came up with the playful concept of replacing the static “don’t walk” image on street corners with a red stick figure that dances its way through every red light. Idea is that an engaging moving image will keep pedestrians entertained, and more importantly, curbside, and cut down on jaywalking in bustling urban environments.

The company carried out the experiment in public safety this summer in Lisbon. They first erected a mini-theater in a public square that allowed one person in at a time. Once inside, people were blasted with music and encouraged to cut their best rug. Motion-capturing cameras then translated their frenetic dancing in real-time to the crosswalk signal, bringing amusement to many.

Early reports claim the installation has brought about 81% more people stopping at the light instead of jaywalking.

A cheaper substitute by way of an ordinary animation in place of a real-time studio may not be as effective, but would certainly be better than static words of admonition.

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Credits: silive.com/news/index.ssf/2014/09/traffic_safety_concept_replace.html, citylab.com/tech/2014/09/how-about-a-crosswalk-light-that-dances/380414/ and fastcocreate.com/3035929/gif-of-the-day/jaywalking-is-unsafe-so-this-interactive-campaign-offers-dance-breaks-instead

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About eight weeks ago I subscribed to Direct-To-Home services from a leading provider solely for reliable service free of annoying breakdowns that were plaguing my cable service provider.

It was sold to me by a couple of trainees out campaigning door-to-door offering special deals. The facile answers from these guys to my queries about Tamil channels for my Mom’s viewing didn’t alert me on a day I was not at my best. Not knowing Tamil from Telugu or from Kannada or Malayalam, they were no way going to be right in their clarifications just as I found out later. I’m also going to forget the contradictory information given out by two Help-Line operators when I tried to add an option that was said to be included in the ordered package.

Fast forward to the present.

Over the last 2 to 3 weeks, we saw this problem recurring often – the picture would suddenly freeze on the TV and at other times we would lose the sound completely. When this happened the recovery was painful – we had to switch off and on and set the channel again. The ‘Remote’ was ineffective. Sometimes the MTBI (Mean time Between Incidents) was as low as 15 minutes. When this happened often on a rain-free day like today – we were cautioned right at the outset to expect short-lived disturbances during rains – I decided to ask for service.

Promptly I went to the site, did a month’s recharge that was becoming due and now looked for telephone numbers. There was no tab/link for Customer Service- obviously the thinking was their services would be flawless. After much panning and scrolling I clicked only tab that hinted to be of some use – the ‘Help-Desk’. I was offered a simple generic form that carried ‘Unable to View Services’ as the last option of a long alphabetically ordered drop-down list of subject types. And, closest to describe what I had on my hands. Didn’t look very encouraging. There were some documents available on the site for download – perhaps they contained DIY tips on how to fix? But I was not inclined to read docs. It was then I chanced on a Help-Line number helpfully included somewhere there.

Now to the next stage of the saga.

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After encountering several ‘All Lines Are Busy On This Route, Please Try Later’ on the MTNL network, finally I managed to reach the service provider. Their IVR (Interactive Voice Response) kicked in. Subject to intense questioning by the IVR and wearing out the keys on the phone, I was thrilled to be informed of the option ‘Unable to View Services’. I seized it with great alacrity of a treasure-hunter finding gold and was told my call would be transferred to an associate. Only seconds away from success I gloated like a climber within a step of cresting a peak. My keen ears waited for the promotional message to end and a human voice to be heard. Well, I continued to wait and wait. The message just repeated endlessly. One more attempt starting from the beginning. Same results. Didn’t feel like trying any more.

The associate obviously had not recovered yet from the strain of his duties during the Ganesh Festival. He had not bothered to leave an appropriate response to the caller.

Went back to the web-site to see if the Help-Line had any time/day qualifiers – there were none. Sundays were not excluded.

So I wait for Monday to dawn hoping the associate had a restful weekend.

This is one service provider who never minded their customers saying ‘tata’ to them! If you get what I mean!

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Credits: openclipart (Help_Desk gsagri04)

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In my treasure hunt for stories on customer service/experience, I reached out to who else than Rajanga Sivakumar, a revered Guru on Hewlett-Packard’s vast range of testing and measuring instruments/solutions, and now practicing as a Business Excellence Advisor.

In this guest post he pulls this story out of his jumbo bag of anecdotes – my first success in getting him to tip over his bag 

[This is a real incident, the names of players, organizations, car models etc. not specified]

This was year 1998. Prem was delighted when the company informed he had become eligible for a pricier company transport. He could now get for himself the car he fancied – the newly introduced model Z of a well known international manufacturer (Brand A), to be made locally in India. In the pre-liberalization times, cars were available from the three local manufactures, their models at least a decade old. Even better the company was allocating Prem from the first lot of model Z assembled from imported kits (SKD) with no locally sourced parts. Model Z living up to its reputation, Prem and his family were happy with their choice. .

The car came with a prized accessory for Prem and his family – an audio tape player. Though disc players were also available then, the family preferred the audio tape player to avail of the large collection of audio tapes of Carnatic music they had assiduously accumulated over years. They loved to hear the music especially when travelling long distance.

After functioning quite well in the first six months, the audio tape player began acting up. In the space of about year and half it had to be repaired over five times at the retail service centre of the well known auto agency from where the car was bought.

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Prem was very much irked with the frequent failures of the device and the inordinately long times taken to set it right. Now he asked the agency to replace the under-warranty unit for its erratic performance. And he wanted it done in time for his upcoming travel.

After many rounds of discussions and referring the matter to the principal’s (Brand A) HQ in Delhi – Prem himself participated in the talks with the principal – the agency came up with a solution: they would replace it with a new unit with the customer bearing 50% of its price. This was not acceptable to Prem and the matter ended there.

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In about 3 months Prem retired from his current employment and joined a newly formed software company as a consultant. His new employer offered him the facility of a new car. He promptly replaced his model Z with model U of Brand B.

Also, Prem was consulted by the company on the different brands and models available for many of the executives joining then. Needless to add he struck Brand A off the list, the latter immediately losing out on sale of two large and two small cars conservatively estimated to be about a whopping Rs 19 lacs+.. And of course, it didn’t end there.

Against this loss what did the agency and its principal save to their (dis)credit? Rs 4,250 they had asked their customer to fork out.

A clear case of an easy opportunity squandered away, to forge loyalty in a favorably disposed customer at so little cost, through inept handling that was neither prompt nor gracious. Altogether a forgettable experience he did not forget.

And more importantly not seeing a customer as more than a customer. Someone out there had not been astute enough to assess the potential of Prem – for future purchases for himself and more significantly as an influencer in his circles.

While on the subject, I recall:

“Diamonds are forever
They are all I need to please me
They can stimulate and tease me
They won’t leave in the night, I’ve no fear that they might desert me…”

That was Shirley Bassey in the eponymous James Bond’s movie of 1971.

Well, customers too could be forever – if their experiences are right+ and sustained.

Thanks, Rajanga for the elucidating story.

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PS: Rajanga may be contacted at: rajangasivakumar@gmail.com. The image is from openclipart (gsagri04).

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It is no longer User Experience and Design, but User Experience is Design – a view gaining currency.

I give my 80+ old mom Abott Laboratories’ Duphalac for smooth bowel movement. Happy to say it gives her relief.

It comes in an amber colored bottle with a label posted on it almost completely wrapping around the on the outside.

How does one know how close is one to running out on the liquid?

Yes, by the heft of the bottle? By the flow of the liquid when one pours out?

No need to depend on such indirect cues.

A long vertical slit is thoughtfully provided on the side to show the level of the liquid inside.

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Even with the problem is not easily solved. The trick is to hold it in front with the slit facing the light behind you and shaking the bottle gently to detect the level in the motion of the liquid. Note these days in homes light is not a focused beam, but diffused.

It would be a lot easier to hold it against the light and see the level if only, instead of one, a pair of diametrically opposite slits is provided for light to pass thru.

Simple isn’t it?

Incidentally there is good reason why the tops of bottles, tubes, etc. are conical in section.

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We’re very likely to drop them on the floor while uncapping or screwing them back. When a conically sectioned cap falls on the floor, it stays close to the point where it landed. A cylindrical cap will roll off according to Murphy’s law to some inaccessible corner or under the sofa.

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