The Feminist Tech Company: Ways and Reasons to Build a Culture of Equality and Inclusion

by Julian Scaff / edited by Crystal Scaff

This article is based on my keynote talk at the Wonder Women Tech Conference in Long Beach, California on July 17, 2016.

The tech industry has a problem. For all its progressive leanings and inherent coolness, the industry has a big problem with diversity. This problem is multi-faceted, with sexism affecting women, racism affecting people of non-white and non-Asian ethnicities, and ageism affecting people over the age of thirty. For this article, I want to specifically focus on the issue of sexism.

Women represent nearly 60 percent of the labor force in the United States, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. But according to a study by CNET that polled some of the largest tech companies in the world, women only make up a very disproportionate 30 percent of the tech industry labor force. And if you look specifically at technical positions like programmers, engineers and data scientists, the numbers get even more abysmal. The industry giants have some of the worst numbers: at Apple Computer, 20 percent of technical positions are held by women; at Google it’s 17 percent, and at Twitter it’s only 10 percent.

women_in_tech_positions

Why is this the case? Are men innately better suited to technical jobs? Let’s look at the evidence.

Computer programming was invented in 1842 by a woman named Ada Lovelace, who was highly skilled in mathematical thinking and developed the analytical engine that was the basis for all electronic computing in the 20th and 21st centuries. In the 1960’s, Margaret Hamilton was one of the world’s first software engineers. In addition to helping develop the essential principles of modern computer programming, Hamilton wrote the software that made the Apollo 11 moon landing possible. Recent data on women in tech includes a study by Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and North Carolina University that found that women coders made fewer mistakes than their male counterparts.

Ada Lovelace and Margaret Hamilton
Ada Lovelace (left) and Margaret Hamilton (right), inventors and pioneers of computer programming.

So isn’t it odd that a field that was invented by women and where women seem to outperform men is so male-dominated? Well, that study of women coders points to the reason for this disparity. The study specifically looked acceptance rates of code on the popular developers’ site GitHub. A low-acceptance rate indicated that code was not accepted due to errors, and the study found that women’s acceptance rates were higher than men’s, but only if the women’s gender was not known. If you take the same female coders and reveal their gender, then the acceptance rates of their code plummets. So there’s a strong and prevalent perception in the tech community that women are worse coders than men, even though the exact opposite is true.

These attitudes indicate that the problem in the tech industry is one of culture. There is a prevalent culture that sees women as inferior, and that culture is so prevalent that it discourages and prevents women from participating in this employment sector.

A study by the American Association of University Women showed that the number of women in computer-related fields has dropped in recent years, even though we know that women excel in these fields and there are jobs available.

Women have gotten the message that the tech industry is not friendly to them. This is a real problem for companies, especially in an economy where innovation is a driving force and access to talent is critical for success. Companies are losing out on critical talent and the attendant opportunities for greater innovation. Multiple studies directly link diversity with innovation, so tech companies are leaving a lot on the table by not hiring more women and minorities, particularly in roles of leadership, ideation, design and engineering.

All of this information is public knowledge. It’s published in sources like Wired, CNET, Fast Company, and the other publications tech insiders read. But entrenched culture doesn’t change unless direct and intentional action is taken to change it.

There are three things companies can do to fix this problem.

1. Change the internal culture.

Most people familiar with the tech industry know the terms “bro culture” and “brogrammer.” All-male technical teams tend to become self-perpetuating bro culture machines, so that even when a woman is hired, she has to either tolerate the hyper masculine, sexist culture or leave. We know from low retention rates of women in these jobs that many women choose the latter.

Companies need to talk about gender issues and gender-discrimination patterns with their employees. Frank and open communication is key to changing the culture. Every employee should be asked to show responsibility and leadership in affecting that change.

Over the course of my 22-year career, I’ve witnessed overt and subtle forms of sexism and discrimination in various forms. Overt sexism and sexual harassment are easy-to-spot legal issues, and while these are serious problems in some organizations, subtle sexism is much more widespread. Many men don’t realize they’re engaging in subtle sexism, so conversations about what it is and how to not do it need to happen.

I’ll give an example. I used to have a male colleague who spoke in markedly different ways to male and female colleagues. He might say to a female colleague in a higher-pitched voice “Good morning, Sally. That’s a very nice dress!” and then turn to me and say in a lower-pitched voice “Hey, Julian, how is that project going?” The more he did it, the more glaring it became. It was clear that on some level he clearly did not respect female colleagues on the same level as male colleagues. At a certain point, I brought this up to him and asked if he was aware of it, and he completely denied that this was the case. He also didn’t change his behavior. It was so ingrained that he didn’t see it, and nobody wanted to talk about it publicly because it was uncomfortable. This is the culture we are up against.

2. Promote women.

Organizations should aim for a gender balance (and diversity in general, defined in terms of ethnicity, sexual orientation and gender identity) in positions of management and leadership.

Some people will criticize this as a form of affirmative action that goes against the meritocracy model championed in Silicon Valley. But we know from studies like the gender bias against women coders that this “meritocracy” doesn’t apply to women and minorities.

Having more women and minorities in positions of management and leadership helps to change the bro culture in the tech industry, and it’s good for business. As we discussed before, diversity is a critical contributor to a culture of innovation. Therefore, aiming for gender parity and diversity in management and leadership roles isn’t just a nice thing to do; it should be an integral component of an organization’s business strategy.

Industries should also consider changing their policies to support work-life balance. The Harvard Business Review identified work-life balance as one of a number of major obstacles to women advancing in leadership positions. (There are other significant barriers, as well, so I encourage you to read the study linked above.) Organizations need to remove this obstacle and explicitly support employees—both women and men—in not having to choose between personal/family life and work life.

Because the truth is that working more hours per week does not equal more work getting done. A study at Stanford University found that employees working 60 hours per week achieved two thirds of the work completed compared to employees working 40 hours per week. Another study, by the Microsoft Personal Productivity Challenge, found that employees are only really productive about 29 hours per week. Incidentally, that same study found that women were slightly more productive than men.

So promoting work-life balance, and specifically limiting the number of hours employees are allowed to work per week, can not only help boost diversity in leadership positions but also boost productivity for the entire organization.

3. Recruit and communicate externally.

A common complaint from organizations is that they just don’t get enough job applicants who are women and minorities. As a hiring manager I’ve seen this happen: you advertise a job opening, and most or all of the applicants are white men. So what do you do?

If diversity is a key component of your business strategy, this has to be communicated externally. Companies need to communicate not just that they are an “equal opportunity employer” but that they have a gender-equal work environment. This should be front and center on the public employment page of the organization’s website, with an explanation of HOW they are gender inclusive.

Further, companies can demonstrate this dedication by sponsoring organizations that are working for change in the industry. Organizations like Wonder Women Tech, Girls Who Code, Black Girls Code, Girl Develop It, Tech Girlz, and many others.

No, this is not my boyfriend's computer.
Source: http://www.mcrockcapital.com/blog/tickle-girls-with-tech

Conclusion

It should be part of a company’s business strategy and strategic vision to cultivate an internal culture of inclusion and equality both because it’s the right thing to do and because it gives companies a competitive advantage. A lack of diversity has a trickle up negative effect that spreads from individual organizations to the entire industry to the world economy. The Harvard Business Review put it in blunt terms: having more women in the workforce could boost the GDP of the entire economy by 5 percent, which equals almost a trillion dollars. The tech industry needs to become truly progressive by getting serious about creating diversity. The feminist organization is more effective and more innovative than what we currently see in the tech marketplace, and our collective path toward the workplace of the future is stilted until the feminist company is the norm.

julianscaff_tedxcrenshaw_web2

Designing Change for Good

The following is the original text from my talk at TEDx Crenshaw that took place in Los Angeles on Saturday, October 24, 2015. The video of the talk is included below. Special thanks to my editor Crystal Clayter for helping me write this piece and prepare for the talk.

 

I want to share with you a couple of things about my way of thinking. I have always viewed the world as one large interconnected system, and I’ve always wanted to use that understanding to make a real difference. John Muir once said “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe” and Ice Cube once said “The worst thing you can do about a situation is nothing.” And you know what’s really cool? I think I might be the first TEDx speaker in history to quote John Muir and Ice Cube in the same sentence! So now that we’ve gotten that milestone out of the way, I want to tell you about something happening right here in South L.A. that illustrates these two ideas.

A few months ago I heard a story on NPR news about a project called “Green Alleys” in the neighborhood surrounding Avalon and 52nd Street. Alleys are important for pedestrian traffic in this neighborhood, but they’re ugly, full of trash, and unsafe. When it rains, they flood with water and people can’t use them. The Green Alleys Project is addressing all of these problems with a unified solution. Solar recharging lights are going to allow people to safely use the alleys at night. A new type of pavement will let water seep into the ground, preventing floods and naturally filtering out pollution. Drought tolerant plants will beautify the alleys and help control dust, and public art projects will foster appreciation of culture. Promoting safe use of the alleys helps people get to and from work, helps kids move between school and home, and is good for both the environment and economy.

This project is important because it doesn’t treat all of these problems as separate issues. It recognizes that they’re all connected. We can’t effectively deal with one problem without addressing all of them.

I believe that the challenges we face in our community, and the world, are so big and complex, that we can’t fix them without a holistic approach. I present to you a solution that has the power to bring about vast changes: something called Design Thinking.

Design Thinking is a collaborative method for problem-solving. You start by identifying the problem. You come up with and test many divergent ideas on how to address all facets of the problem. You bring together the ideas that work, and discard the ones that don’t. You repeat these steps, as necessary, refining your ideas on each go around. And finally, you execute a solution.

The three most important aspects of design thinking are:

  1. Empathy. That’s why it’s often called human-centered design.
  2. Collaboration. You don’t have to be a designer to take part, and diverse viewpoints are highly valuable.
  3. Empowerment. Design thinking is about enabling people to become active participants in their own destiny.

Design is not just the domain of the creative class sealed in their little bubble. I teach user experience design at a postgraduate college called General Assembly, and I believe that teaching people design is teaching people empowerment. My students come from a vast range of backgrounds, and I really believe that anyone can take part in design. We cannot predict the future, but together we can invent it.

In service of this idea, I recently organized a Design Hackathon at General Assembly in South LA. With teams of students and alumni from General Assembly and USC, we spent a day applying design thinking to the challenges facing our local community. The teams came up with amazing, inspirational ideas. Unfortunately I don’t have time to share all of them with you today, but I want to show you a couple of them so it’s clear what people can do in just a matter of hours, working together and using Design Thinking.

screenshots.001

 

This is a smart phone app called “Urban Green”. As many of you know, South LA has over 3,000 empty lots, many of them used for nothing more than dumping trash. An organization called LA Open Acres has mapped all these sites, but the Urban Green App goes further. Using geolocation on your phone, you can see all the empty lots in your vicinity, who owns them and if they’re available to be reclaimed. You can also connect with others in your community to organize and work together. This app empowers people to turn trash dumps into parks, playgrounds, and public gardens, with positive impacts for the local economy, culture, public safety, and the environment.

This is Design Thinking.

screenshots.002

Here is another smart phone app called “100 & Rising”. One of the challenges of local business is how to draw investments, in order to grow and withstand the pressures of gentrification. This app is designed to empower local minority-owned businesses to seek micro-investment from the community. It also helps local entrepreneurs to raise funds for starting new businesses. The benefits include sustainable job growth, community pride, and profits from locally-owned businesses stay in the community, rather than being exported to another state or off shore bank account. 100 & Rising allows local minority-owned businesses and entrepreneurs to be participants rather than spectators in the economy.

This is Design Thinking.

Earlier this year, in Ohio, an educator ran an experiment called Prototype Design Camp with students from both public and private high schools. In the camp the high schoolers were taught methods of design thinking, organized into teams, and then allowed to work on projects.

Now, you’d probably expect high schoolers to be interested in designing new smart phone games or meme generators. But that’s not what they did.

Instead, they designed new schools with better learning environments. They designed better classrooms. And they designed new ways to build social movements.

In other words, they wanted to think BIG. Just by teaching a new approach to thinking about and solving problems, high schoolers were more engaged, more proactive in their learning process, and they were thinking in systems. This potential exists in the young people in this community as well. It’s time we harness it.

The challenges facing our community and the world are big, complex, interconnected, and urgent. We need a new way of thinking to meet these challenges. We need to be teaching design thinking to young people, at least at the high school level, if not earlier.

In the words of Dr. King, we must embrace “the fierce urgency of Now…Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy.”

Now is the time to design our own future.

SOLA/HACK! A Design Hackathon for Change in South LA

“The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don’t have any.” ~Alice Walker

sola_hack_graphic_web

SOLA/HACK was a design hackathon I organized, hosted by General Assembly’s downtown L.A. campus. Participants included current students and alumni from General Assembly and USC. The objective of the hackathon was to apply design thinking and UX design principles to issues specific to the South L.A. community, with an eye toward how appropriate uses of technology could be used to help address social, economic, and environmental problems. While technology can be a powerful tool for change (think of the crucial role of cell phones during the Arab Spring uprising) it was stressed that there is not an easy techno-fix to every social problem. So participants were encouraged to look beyond just apps or websites and employ systems-based thinking on their solutions.

Some of the problems and challenges facing South L.A. include:

  • The area is a food desert, with half the number of grocery stores as other parts of the city.
  • It has the worst pollution levels in L.A. county.
  • South L.A. has an 8.4% unemployment rate, compared to 7.6% for the rest of the city, and per capita income  is half of what it is for the rest of the city.
  • South L.A. is starting to gentrify, which will push  out lower income residents. Risk factors for gentrification in the area include a a high proportion of renters, access to transportation via major freeways and expansion of public transit affords easy access to job centers, and housing values are low while architectural merit is high. Further, the affluent neighborhoods in L.A. have skyrocketing real estate prices for both buyers and renters, and in some cases are depopulating due to restrictive zoning laws. Recent studies have identified this as the real engine behind gentrification.

Zaneta Smith, a social worker and community leader in South L.A. who is also the organizer of the TEDxCrenshaw event, was a guest speaker and mentor for the hackathon. She opened the hackathon with invaluable information on the myriad challenges facing the local community, and mentored the teams on their projects.

Zaneta Smith talks with participants at SOLA/HACK.
Zaneta Smith talks with participants at SOLA/HACK.

Sofia Khan, a UX designer with Iteration Group and instructor at General Assembly, provided invaluable support and mentorship to the participants. Sofia and General Assembly alumn Alan Ortiz also taught a workshop on rapid prototyping, a critical tool for UX designers to empirically test ideas.

Participants were encouraged to think outside the box, think in systems, and draw connections between seemingly disparate ideas. The primary objective is innovation through collective brainstorming and rapid prototyping.

“The most innovative designers consciously reject the standard option box and cultivate an appetite for thinking wrong.” ~Marty Neumeier

At the conclusion of the hackathon, the participants voted on a winner. The vote was very close as all of the proposals were extremely strong and innovative. But in the end an app called Urban Green took the top prize. Below is a synopsis of this app, followed by the proposals from the other teams.


 

Winner: Urban Green by Karen Murphy, Bryan James, Natalie Sacks, and Kelsey Klemme

Winner: Urban Green by Karen Murphy, Bryan James, Natalie Sacks, and Kelsey Klemme.
Winner: Urban Green by Karen Murphy, Bryan James, Natalie Sacks, and Kelsey Klemme.

“Urban Green” is a smart phone app that addresses the issue of empty lots in South LA— over 3,000, many of which are used for nothing more than dumping trash. An organization called LA Open Acres has mapped all these sites, but the Urban Green App goes further. Using geolocation on your phone, you can see all the empty lots in your vicinity, who owns them and if they’re available to be reclaimed. You can also connect with others in your community to organize and work together. This app empowers people to turn trash dumps into parks, playgrounds, and public gardens, with positive impacts for the local economy, culture, public safety, and the environment.


100 & Rising by Rachel McLeod, Leon Baham, and Evangeline Hsiao

100 & Rising by Rachel McLeod, Leon Baham, and Evangeline Hsiao.
100 & Rising by Rachel McLeod, Leon Baham, and Evangeline Hsiao.

“100 & Rising” is a smart phone app designed to empower minority-owned businesses and entrepreneurs. One of the challenges of local business is how to draw investments, in order to grow, expand capacity and withstand the pressures of gentrification. This app provides a tool for local minority-owned businesses to seek micro-investment from the community. It also helps local entrepreneurs to raise funds for starting new businesses. The benefits include sustainable job growth, community pride, and profits from locally-owned businesses stay in the community, rather than being exported to another state or off shore bank account. 100 & Rising empowers local minority-owned businesses and entrepreneurs to be participants rather than spectators in the economy.


Help a Family Grow by Bianca Byfield, Viannka Lopez, Min Ryu, and Marvin Monserrat Jr.

Help a Family Grow by Bianca Byfield, Viannka Lopez, Min Ryu, and Marvin Monserrat Jr.
Help a Family Grow by Bianca Byfield, Viannka Lopez, Min Ryu, and Marvin Monserrat Jr.

“Help a Family Grow” takes an innovative approach to the challenge of foster care youth at the transitional age range of 16-24 known as “Transitional Age of Youth” or TAY. South L.A. has the highest number of foster care children in L.A. County, and many Transitional Age of Youth (TAY) do not have access to good schools, or good support and mentorship for transitioning to adulthood and independence. Help a Family Grow matches these youth at the ages of 18-24 with businesses who can provide not only on-the-job training but also housing, by utilizing existing state foster care subsidies.

The program goes well beyond a website and app, helping to build relationships between youth and business owners. The subsidies allow businesses to increase staffing levels, and provides youth invaluable job skills and experience. This systems-based approach is built on a forward-thinking model of partnering county and state governments with local business in a solution that benefits all.

Concept sketches for the "Help a Family Grow" app design.
Concept sketches for the “Help a Family Grow” app design.

 


Voice of South L.A. by Ellie Hoshizaki, Philipe Navarro, Kendrick Parks, and Poy Yeung

Voice of South L.A. by Ellie Hoshizaki, Philipe Navarro, Kendrick Parks, and Poy Yeung.
Voice of South L.A. by Ellie Hoshizaki, Philipe Navarro, Kendrick Parks, and Poy Yeung.

“Voice of South L.A.” is an app that gives people a voice to their representatives in government. People often feel powerless and far removed from their political representatives, and this powerlessness contributes to South L.A. having the lowest voter turnout and civic involvement in the county. “Voice of South L.A.” provides pre-populated forms for sending messages directly to local government officials, and also allows you to share your message with others to organize and inspire. It is a tool that empowers any individual person to participate in the democratic process and hold their representatives accountable. Greater civic involvement has vast positive direct and indirect effects on a broad range of social and economic issues.


SoLocal by Hassan Latif, Brooke Newberry, Tiffany Koh, and Melissa Jeffries

SoLocal by Hassan Latif, Brooke Newberry, Tiffany Koh, and Melissa Jeffries.
SoLocal by Hassan Latif, Brooke Newberry, Tiffany Koh, and Melissa Jeffries.

Small minority-owned businesses in South L.A. are feeling the early pressures of gentrification which include rising rental prices and shifting demographics. SoLocal is an app for consumers to find and support local minority-owned businesses using geolocation. Going even further than finding business, the app cross-lists items for sale and services in multiple businesses, allowing users to create shopping lists and do virtual window shopping by searching across different genres of retailers. Based on user’s shopping preferences the app would also make suggestions for stores that carry similar goods. SoLocal is a hub for creating a community that is both an online community and physical community for local minority-owned businesses and consumers.


Conclusion

The problems facing the local community in South L.A. are complex, interconnected, and in many cases long-standing and deeply-rooted. Technology alone cannot solve these issues. What will work is a systems-based approach that recognizes that socieity, theeconomy, and the environment are part of an interconnected eco-system. The participants in SOLA/HACK demonstrated that by taking a systems-based approach and employing design thinking, innovative and forward-thinking solutions are in our grasp. Indeed, the most innovative advances in UX design in the next decade will be in design for social good. I intend to use design thinking to be the change I want to see and to teach others to do the same.

UX Project Review: UXSC 2015 Designathon

The winning UX team, from left to right: Sarah Dzida (mentor), Alison Omon, Nikita Dhesikan, Kenia Duque, and Lowrie Fu.
The winning UX team, from left to right: Sarah Dzida (mentor), Alison Omon, Nikita Dhesikan, Kenia Duque, and Lowrie Fu.

Winners of the UXSC 2015 Designathon design an innovative master planner for college students

On April 25th, 2015, UXSC (the student UX design group at the University of Southern California) staged a Designathon, a shorter version of hackathon tailored to user experience design. The Designathon, held at USC’s tech incubator facility The Blackstone Launchpad, was open not only to students but to anyone who wanted to participate. Teams were formed the morning of the event, and each team was mentored by UX design professionals who helped them with the design process.

The winning team of Nikita Dhesikan, Kenia Duque, Lowrie Fu, and Alison Omon (and mentored by UX designer Sarah Dzida) were charged with designing Koreplan: a master planner for college students. Kenya Duque explained how their design would address student’s needs:

“Koreplan would help users find an optimal work/school schedule based off of their lifestyle. Instead of trying to re-design Google Calendars or another popular calendar platform, we decided to concentrate on designing a better experience for USC students when they use Web-Reg to sign up for classes.”

Common frustrations that students face with current online tools include having to open multiple tabs to see what courses to take in one semester (OASIS, Ratemyprofessor, Google Calendar, etc.), the overhead in remembering the specific classes that are needed, and being forced to start over when there is an enrollment error, such as not meeting the prerequisites for a class. These frustrations require students to spend many hours of time at tasks that should be much simpler, and the causes of these frustrations may also lead to students making errors in their course selection and academic planning, negatively impacting their overall university experience.

The team’s solution was to have a student log into Koreplan where their dashboard would show their remaining classes and the progress they have made to their 4 year plan. The student clicks on a few classes from their Major, Minor, or GE course lists, and Koreplan makes a few schedules with the combination of classes. The class sections have a table of details where a student can see if any of their Facebook friends are also enrolled in the class, and the rating of the professor teaching the course. Once a student has chosen their desired school schedule, they can integrate it with their personal calendars such as Google Calendar, iCal, etc.

The team focused on three primary user personas, representing a freshman student, a junior student and a senior. Although they did not develop a persona for a sophomore, the personas they did have allowed them to analyze the problems from the point of view of students from the very beginning to the end of their university experiences. The personas also represented a college athlete, a med student, and a member of a fraternity, giving the designers a broad range of user perspectives.

The confusions and frustrations with course enrollment selection and management, and the current lack of a systems-based approach to managing one’s academic career, were clear and universal for students of all types. While there are lots of great digital tools available for students, the lack of a coherent ecosystem for making these tools work together is exactly the problem the team approached. The solution they came up with, Koreplan, is precisely the digital trend that is defining UX design now and will continue to do so over the next five years: not just innovation in a single product, but designing innovative synergies between products. In this way, the Koreplan team not only designed a product that would solve major pain points for their target users, but also leveraged the synergies between existing technologies in a way that was inventive and forward-thinking.


Below are images from the work that Nikita Dhesikan, Kenia Duque, Lowrie Fu, and Alison Omon did for the Designathon:

User personas
User personas
Koreplan screenflows 1-4
Koreplan screenflows 1-4
Koreplan screenflows 2
Koreplan screenflows 2

 

11 Scenarios of the Future of Experience Design

Julian Scaff

As a discipline, experience design is in its infancy. It is an interdisciplinary field operating with young technologies that are in flux. But experience design is also robust, built on the foundations of the scientific method of forming a hypothesis and conducting experiments to test that hypothesis. It is a field of design based inherently in research, user testing, and iterative refinements utilizing empirical data. The underlying methodologies of experience design work, and it seems clear the it will continue to grow and evolve. So what will experience design look like a decade or so from now?

First off, in this article I will not attempt to predict the future. To do so would be a fool’s errand. Specific predictions of the future are almost always inaccurate, and later seem at best quaint and anachronistic. Think of past predictions that by the 21st century we would all be driving flying cars and served by robots. The main problem with predicting the future is that progress is rarely linear. At certain points in history, progress takes a left turn, disruptions push us in a different direction, causing an unexpected leap forward or a devastating setback. Projecting current trends doesn’t take into account unexpected disruptions, or the fact that humans are unpredictable and sometimes (maybe often) irrational.

We cannot predict the future, but we can invent it. So instead of predictions, I will sketch some possible future scenarios. I have tried, in my research, to consider not only trends in the fields of design and technology, but also trends in politics and sociology, environmental and materials sciences, transportation, medicine, textiles, etc. The world is inherently interconnected, and so the future of any discipline and industry will be profoundly affected by a variety of influencers. Engaging in medium to long term scenario sketching is not just a fun exercise, but an important tool for designers and organizations. Scenarios enable us to envision wider possibilities, embrace uncertainty as a part of strategic planning, and think in terms of interconnected systems. For both designers and organizations, it allows us to get out in front of possible trends, to be proactive rather than reactive. Thus it’s a vital tool for innovation.

Scenario 1: Immersive Computing

Ubiquitous computing (the “internet of things”) will collide with mobile computing and AI. We will be immersed in data, not just from our phones but from our clothes, buildings, vehicles, etc. Inexpensive embedded chips and sensors will allow access to data from almost any urban environment. Already, the definition of a “phone” has inherently changed from a purely voice telephony system to a hand-held computer and wireless data node. With embedded chips and sensors, the concept of the data node will extend to the most mundane objects, from coffee makers to the walls of homes and offices.

Increasingly, UX designers will be designing environments and not just screens. For instance, kitchen appliances like stoves, ovens and refrigerators will be touch screens, allowing people to search for recipes based on the food items they have, send shopping lists to their phones, and set cooking times automatically. Software embedded in the kitchen will help people eat healthier and cut down on food waste. UX designers will design not just the screens, but the entire kitchen experience.

Scenario 2: Sensables, Not Wearables

Wearable tech like smart watches and fitness bands are a niche transitionary technology. Embedded chips and sensors will be everywhere, including our own bodies. Small, removable adhesive chips will be attached to our arms or torsos to sync our bodies to the cloud. Stick-on sensors will allow professional sports teams to monitor and track their athletes during training and during games.

We will be able to swallow capsules packed with sensors to wirelessly transmit information about vital signs, internal health, colonoscopies, etc. Instead of a trip to the doctor, just swallow a MedCapsule and a full medical examination report is wirelessly sent to your health provider.

UX designers will be designing how we interact with these technologies, how we access and use the data, and how these devices work within our data-rich immersive computing lives. Some of those experiences will be screen-based but many will be physical experiences.

Scenario 3: FashionTech

Nanotechnology and material science, combined with embedded computing, will cause a convergence between the fashion and tech industries. Smart fabrics will convert kinetic energy to low voltage electricity, so that just the act of walking around will automatically charge any devices (such as smart phones) that we have in our pockets. Nanotech fabrics will be able to adjust their breathability and insulation value to adapt to ambient temperature. Environmental filtration built into our clothing will protect us from pollution.

As our clothing syncs and integrates with our tech device ecosystem, UX designers will work as fashion designers. Increasingly high tech clothing will be an integral part of both our digital and physical experiences.

Scenario 4: Transportation As Digital Device

We will interact with our cars, public transit, and other modes of transportation through software. In this way, our cars and public transit will be more like digital devices than mechanical devices. A car will be more like a smart phone.

UX designers and software engineers will have major roles in transportation design. The technology for self-driving cars is almost ready now, and will be safer than most human drivers. As adoption rates for self-driving cars increases, car accidents will become a rarity. But for people to trust such technology, UX designers will have to figure out how to humanize the user experience, as several of my students (Brian Colby, Kat Wong and Jeff Fan) grappled with in a project on Tesla’s new autopilot system.

Scenario 5: The End of the GUI (as we know it)

The Graphical User Interface or GUI (pronounced “gooey”), the concept of interacting with computers using visual indicators rather than lines of code, has its roots in the work of Douglas Engelbart at the Stanford Research Institute and Alan Kay at Xerox PARC in the early 1970s. Since the mid-1980s the GUI and computer mouse have been the primary interface for personal computers. That era will come to an end.

The GUI will be replaced by Intuitive User Interfaces, combinations of touch, gesture, and voice commands. The computer mouse will be relegated to museums. Responsive design, the term we now use to mean screen-based website designs that change automatically dependent upon the user’s screen size and resolution (for example from desktop to mobile phone), will come to mean responsive interaction design across both digital and physical mediums. UX designers will design how we will interact with the same data through touch, gesture, and voice command, on different screen sizes as well as with mundane objects. How you do a Google search on your phone will be different than how you do it with your microwave oven.

Another revolution in human-computer interface stems from advancements in brain research. The NUI or Neural User Interface will allow us to control devices and interact with data directly with our brains. Already there are rudimentary prototypes that allow a person to move a mouse cursor with just their brain. UX designers will design how NUIs will work and where we will use them, across both digital and physical experiences.

Scenario 6: Sailing in a Sea of Data

Due to its inefficiency, email as we know it will die.

We are already overwhelmed by our access to enormous amounts of information. Continuing in this vein of constant data immersion would be paralyzing. To avoid drowning in information, we will have personal software avatars that will filter that data for us. Our software avatars will live in the cloud and not be bound to any physical device. They will learn our habits, have simulated personalities, and predict what information we want and when.

These software avatars will be designed by UX designers. Most will be “off the shelf,” pre-designed with particular personalities and abilities. But some people will choose to hire a UX designer to custom design their avatar, similar to hiring an interior designer to custom design their home.

Scenario 7: The Evolution of Artificial Intelligence

The avatars in the previous scenario will not be truly self-aware AIs with reason and imagination. The path towards artificial human-level intelligence will take longer than we think and will be a gradual process.

Computer scientists will need the help of brain researchers, social scientists, and UX designers to design a truly self-aware AI.

But we will have to decide if we want to create such an AI, as numerous dystopian scenarios in science fiction explore. There are risks involved. An AI could become more powerful than us, and it may not like us. But a super intelligence may also be of great benefit, solving enormous problems for us and advancing science faster than humans can.

Scenario 8: We Will Run Out of Resources (and not just oil)

Most people don’t realize the extent to which our advanced electronics rely upon rare earth metals that are far scarcer than gold. There are extremely limited amounts of materials like tellurium, lithium, platinum and neodymium in the world. Put very simply, there is not enough of these resources for everyone in the world to own a smart phone.

Take lithium, for example. Lithium is needed for the batteries in smart phones, portable computers, and electric cars. If you just look at the auto industry, it would require 42 megatons of lithium to replace every current fossil-fuel based car in the world with an electric car. It is estimated that there is only 27 megatons of extractable lithium in the world (source: tyler.blogware.com/lithium_shortage.pdf). So we are far short, not even accounting for electronic devices such as smart phones and portable computers.

An alternative battery for cars is the hydrogen fuel cell, but this requires platinum or palladium, which are also rare earth metals in short supply.

While there may be a technological fix that has yet to be invented, the more likely scenario is that cars will become a rarity and we will have to rely far more on public transportation such as solar powered light rail, while bullet trains will replace most air travel.

In the future we will mine resources not from holes dug in the earth, but from the garbage dumps of the 20th and early 21st century. UX designers will have to take into account the availability of resources, particularly recycled resources, when doing product design.

Scenario 9: The End of Hardware

We will still need hardware such as chips and sensors and devices, of course, to run our computing and networking systems. What I mean in the title of this scenario is that hardware will cease to be a fashion and trend based product, it will cease to be a consumer item. The tech industry cannot continue on the old paradigm of rapid obsolescence. Today devices such as smart phones are designed to only last 12 to 18 months before they become obsolete, both in terms of functionality as well as style, and there simply are not enough rare metals in the world for this model to continue. Therefore devices will have to be generic and long lasting. Physical devices will only be access nodes to the cloud, not fashion accessories as they are now.

Instead, new innovative and trendy design will be in the form of cloud-based software, not physical devices. I already mentioned designer AI avatars in Scenario 6, and it will be softwares like these that are the eagerly anticipated fashion-tech products of the future.

UX design will be not just about creating user friendly experiences, but about trend-setting.

Scenario 10: UCD + C2C

User Centered Design will have to integrate Cradle-to-Cradle (C2C) design principles. Pioneered by the firm McDonough Braungart Design Chemistry, C2C is also called regenerative design, the concept that human-made products should be designed within a whole system that is waste-free and efficient.

Since physical devices will have to have far greater longevity, they will have to be modular and recyclable. UX designers will design entire product lifespans, not just how a device is used by its first user but by subsequent users, how its parts will be recycled, and how those materials or parts will be reused in the future.

Scenario 11: UX Design Will Replace Product Design

In a broader sense, these disciplines will merge. There will be more specialization within the field of UX design, but the fundamental principles of UX design (particularly as it integrates with environmental and regenerative design) will be seen as a far more effective paradigm for designing everyday objects.

As such, UX designers will have to adopt new skills, such as 3D software design tools and 3D printers that continue to drop in price and improve in sophistication. Future 3D printers will not only use plant-based bioplastics but will be able to recycle old 3D printings that can be fed back into the printer where the materials will be melted down and reused.

The leading designers of the late 20th and early 21st centuries were in the fields of architecture, industrial design and graphic design. Designers like Frank Gehry and Zaha Hadid (architects), Dieter Rams and Jonathan Ive (industrial designers), and Stefan Sagmeister and Paula Scher (graphic designers) are iconic examples.

The Jonathan Ive of the 21st century will be a UX designer.

Epilogue

To reiterate the point, the above scenarios are sketches of possibilities, not predictions of the future. In all cases, the seeds of these possibilities are already planted and starting to grow. We already know of many of the technological wonders on the horizon, as well as the environmental and sociological perils. I am reminded of a quote by the cyberpunk novelist William Gibson, who said “The future is already here—it’s just unevenly distributed.”† The seeds of many possible futures, both positive and negative, are already here, and while we cannot predict the future, we can invent it.

This article is based on a talk I gave at the Smashing Conference Jam Session at General Assembly in Santa Monica, California on April 27, 2015.

William Gibson is reported to have first said this in an interview on Fresh Air, NPR (31 August 1993). He repeated it, prefacing it with “As I’ve said many times…” in “The Science in Science Fiction” on Talk of the Nation, NPR (30 November 1999, Timecode 11:55).

UX Design Thinking for Transmedia

“You cannot create experience. You must undergo it.” -Albert Camus

Before launching into the topic of this article, it’s necessary to lay out very clear definitions of what exactly UX and Transmedia are, as these terms get misused far too frequently.

UX is short for User Experience. Broadly speaking UX design is a process for designing positive interactions between people (users) and products (often software or websites) and/or other people. Taking a user-centric approach and drawing upon the disciplines of visual design, psychology, and human-computer interaction (HCI) research, UX aims to design not just the visuals and interface, but the entire user experience. While UX is most often applied to software and website design, UX designers are also designing physical experiences like in-store shopping experiences, airport lounges, classrooms for schools, museum and art exhibitions, etc.

Defiance is a transmedia tv show and computer game by the Scify Channel.
Defiance is a transmedia tv show and computer game by the Scify Channel.

Transmedia storytelling is an approach of developing characters and delivering narratives across multiple mediums using both analog and digital technologies. These can include but are not limited to books, electronic books, films, tv shows, computer games, webisodes, and social media narratives. The transmedia experience for the spectator is to experience and explore a single storyline and character or group of characters unfold across multiple mediums. A prime example is the 2013 transmedia project Defiance, a tv series on the Scify network and computer game. Character development and plot lines flow fluidly back and forth between the tv episodes and the computer game. One is not derived from the other, but rather the story line and characters are unfolding on both, meaning that the tv series and game are equal parts in the Defiance transmedia ecosystem.

This is the future of entertainment media, the result of the trend of convergence between media in the first decade of the 21st century, driven by many factors including decreasing costs of CGI graphics for films and tv, the explosion of smart phones as primary tools for media consumption, and the electronic gaming industry surpassing the film/tv industry in revenue and popularity. As I outlined in an earlier article, we have moved past the decade of convergence and are now in a decade focused on synergies, and this is particularly the case with transmedia and UX design.

Transmedia opens the door to new kinds of storytelling, and new possibilities for creative expression for authors and media makers. But unlike a book, movie or tv series, software-based narratives such as websites, apps and electronic games need not only compelling stories and characters but also compelling interfaces and user experiences. Transmedia makers need to know good UX design.

To begin let’s consider some of the fundamental elements of UX design and how they apply to Transmedia storytelling.

The first and most important is that UX design is an iterative rather than linear process. There are different ways to describe and illustrate the iterative process, but here is a simplified version. First designers do research and brainstorm during a learning stage of the process; second they build prototypes during a building stage of the process; and third they test usability and effectiveness during a measuring stage of the process. The process then repeats, as ineffective ideas are jettisoned and the project moves closer and closer to a “finished” state with more and more refined iterations.

The iterative design methodology is based on a cyclic process of research, prototyping, testing. Refining the design each time the process is repeated results in improved functionality and effectiveness of the design.
The iterative design methodology is based on a cyclic process of research, prototyping, testing. Refining the design each time the process is repeated results in improved functionality and effectiveness of the design.

This iterative process and rapid prototyping model can also be effective with transmedia design, where story and character development is often collaborative, and the possibilities of how to develop narrative and character across different mediums requires input from writers and media makers with diverse ranges of expertise.

The often collaborative, cross-media writing for transmedia has parallels to information architecture in UX design. Writing and editing a story and developing characters, figuring out to best tell the narrative on which mediums, is similar to the process of organizing information and designing simple user interfaces. Again, this is an iterative process, and using a UX design approach to writing narratives in transmedia can lead to better, more effective storytelling by constantly taking a user-centric mindset. What elements of the story are best told via video, electronic game, social media, etc? Rather than thinking of this as screenwriting, it can be thought of as narrative design.

The production and testing phase of the UX design process is inherently interdisciplinary, requiring art direction and graphic design, software coding and database administration, and often user testing and metrics analysis, all the while maintaining a user-centric focus. Transmedia, too, would benefit from this approach. Film and tv production is already inherently interdisciplinary, which is why filmmaking is such an inherently collaborative art form. But add in the transmedia integration of games, apps and networked media and there are not just multiple disciplines working together but multiple industries, representing a conceptual merging of Hollywood with Silicon Valley. Transmedia projects would greatly benefit from the UX approach of user-centric design, and design-thinking as part of the creative process. Films tend to be produced, whereas software is designed. It’s time to merge these two sets of thinking, to approach film and tv production as well as software design from both filmmaker’s and designer’s perspectives. With a transmedia product, the moving picture part of the project isn’t separate from the other digital media parts. The Scify channel’s Defiance isn’t a tv show plus a game, it’s a transmedia ecosystem.

Transmedia is compelling because it immerses the audience in the story and characters. Rather than being limited to one tv episode per week, viewers can immerse themselves in their favorite stories and engage with its characters any time they like. Rather than being passive spectators, they are active, involved users of transmedia stories. The user-centric, iterative approach of UX design is tailor made for this new paradigm of entertainment media. To be successful, transmedia projects need great UX design.

Glitchography: the Aesthetics of Panoramic Malfunction

“It’s the glitches and twists, I thought, that make this universe unique and compelling. Without flaws, there would be no depth, no substance.” ~A.M. Jenkins, Reposessed

glitch_4web1

These panoramic glitchographs are created entirely in-camera, some by circuit-bending the panoramic stitching software in a digital point-and-shoot camera, and some by moving a mobile phone camera in a very particular motion. Move the camera too slowly and the panorama stitching works correctly; too quickly and it doesn’t work at all. By making more than 500 of these images over the past two years I have honed a particular technique to achieve the desired effect.

Julian_Scaff-web1

These images are not manipulated in any way. They appear here exactly as they come out of the camera. The images reflect both an aesthetic of digital failure–of software glitches–as well as a snapshot of a very particular technology at a very particular point in history. The next generation of digital cameras may indeed “fix” this glitch by speeding up processing power and software stiching, rendering this technique more difficult if not impossible to achieve. Like the Super-8 and Pixelvision cameras it will become an anachronism.

Julian_Scaff-web3

The specificity of the medium of the Glitchograph is distinct to the software embedded in the camera. Unlike an aberration of the lens or a mechanical malfunction of a shutter mechanism, the beauty of digital malfunction is solely in the ones and zeros of the firmware, and reflects the fractured digital world where physical failure is replaced by virtual failure.

Julian_Scaff-web2

This will be the subject of my next book, titled “Glitchography: the Aesthetics of Panoramic Malfunction” due out in 2015.