Over the past few years, as a founder of a product design and development company, I’ve been thinking a lot about a little question. What is the impact of technology on humanity?
Among startups and traditional companies, I hear an onslaught of terms about the user. But the user is one person. What about the impact on all people? That’s what led me to humanics.
Merriam-Webster defines humanics as “the subject or study of human nature or human affairs.” But I think there’s a lot more to humanics than that, and we’re only getting started.
Consider this: Only 29.4% of the global population has a smartphone. Just 2.1 billion people, while the global population is at 7.4 billion.* With that in mind, we have to realize a lot of what’s being made today is going to be adopted by people who won’t necessarily understand why a floppy disk icon means “to save”. Or why you need to swipe to unlock. Or what the hell Yelp is, or why it matters.
While these new markets are being on-boarded to a pre-existing infrastructure, the existing smartphone market will be throwing away their year-old devices and getting shiny new ones. What happens to these old devices? The technology within them is not useless, but software upgrades often cripple them to a point that renders them unusable.
What you’ll read next, if you’re willing to follow me on this journey, are questions asking why we design and build for business models and existing infrastructure first, and human needs second. A proposal for change. And questions about the feasibility of this idea itself.
Rethink about it
Take what you think of as an operating system is and light it on fire. Burn it to the ground. Now let’s clean up the ashes, and ask ourselves, “What’s the point of this technology we carry with us everywhere we go?” Think about why we’re glued to these tiny rectangular objects that travel with us more than our significant others — more than our loved ones — more than our friends. In more places than we carry cash, we carry our phones.
In more places than we carry cash, we carry our phones.
This wasn’t the case two decades ago. Two decades ago I remember going to a friend’s house and knocking on the door to find out if they wanted to hang out. A decade ago I was using a Sony w810i to text my friends to find out if they could hang out. I browsed text menus with roughly 20 keys. 10 of them were numbers. Now I have 20 different apps that do the exact same thing. How should I contact them today? Should I text them? Message them on WhatsApp? Google Hangouts? Facebook Messenger? Twitter? We’ve really been solving the same problems a thousand different ways, while adding the burden of maintaining each product we now use.
I’m talking about you, Widgets on Android. I’m talking about you, folder systems on iOS. I’m talking about you Windows Phone app store. This paragraph isn’t to rag on applications, most of them have a point. They have an economy. They solve a problem. They do something. But at the end of the day, 99% of these applications do the exact same thing as something else, just slightly different. Everyone is a snowflake.
Given that technology has improved so dramatically in the last ten years, we should be looking at the way things could be, rather than the way things are due to the technological environments we’ve constructed. Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is a useful tool in determining human needs, but we don’t really have an equivalent set of rules for a technology settings.
Shouldn’t we start to look at the way we use our phones? Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs might not be the worst place to start. But that pyramid graphic I’ve seen a million times, and can vaguely recall from my anthropology class in college, should be questioned as well. The majority of applications out there solve for one of two things. Wants, or needs.
Companies today are building applications to solve problems at scale in order to generate revenue at scale. There’s only so far that you can scale now before you have Earth as your target demographic. Companies of tomorrow will be about creating invaluable assets and services that contribute to the users and ecosystems of the future. In order to be competitive, and gain the business of users, companies will need to consolidate and dismember the very applications they created to hone in on the elements their customers find most valuable. When users have the option to obtain anything they want within a matter of taps, why will they choose you over your competitor? It’s going to be because of the assets you have, the services you offer, or the experience you provide–at a cost that makes sense. Most companies today try to synthesize all three of these things into one full package, but few are actually good at it. Not only that, but because these experiences are not ubiquitous, it means every experience will inevitably be different, which means further experience atrophy for everyone.
We’ve seen this time and time again with any number of companies and applications, legitimate or not, trying to force a user to live in their own experience regardless of user demand. It’s as simple as this: People want access to stuff. And if you’re going to try to get in their way, they’re going to get around it. It doesn’t matter if you’re an industry that’s existed for 100 years, or a platform that’s existed for 5. Users have the power to make you powerful, and they have the power to destroy you. And if you’re not going to be on the side of the user, or you’re going to try to tell them how they should access their stuff, history points to a future for you that is largely unfavorable, and ripe for disruption.
There’s a reason Walmart hasn’t burned to the ground and why Comcast is still in business. It’s not because of their wonderful customer service. It’s because of consolidation.
“…there’s only two ways I know of to make money: bundling and unbundling.” — Jim Barksdale
There’s a rich and healthy environment we’ve discovered with the advent of mobile platforms that’s helped move the power and reach of consolidated behemoths to many startups who half the world hasn’t even heard of. But what’s been overlooked, and seemingly forgotten during the last decade of application development, is the human experience. I’m not talking about 44px tall buttons that Apple describes in their Human Interface Design guidelines, I’m talking about the mere existence of humanity. Remembering who we’ve been building businesses and applications for to begin with. Who are we solving these problems for?
It seems like a lot of this has been overlooked because operating systems and development environments today encourage application development. It’s not like it doesn’t make sense.
Think about what you spend the majority of your time doing on your phone. Nine times out of ten you’re looking for something. You’re checking your email, you’re getting directions, finding a place, searching for an answer, checking in with friends. Now think about the number of applications you use for this. Chances are it’s not three, it’s about a million. Or maybe less — but still quite a bit right? Now think about how many of those do the exact same thing, and they deal with the same thing. Content.
Content is king. But–content doesn’t need to be presented in a brand new way every time you pull your phone out of your pocket. Why do we need to design entirely novel ways of interacting to find out the same information? I’m not asking why we need to iterate or improve. I’m asking why we don’t share a common core. Some applications borrow from each other sure, but each experience is about as varied as can be. Current mobile operating system environments hide information by masking it in the form of applications. This forces users to learn new ways to navigate in order to acquire the same information they could find in competing applications.
Here are a few examples:
I need a place to stay, so I could check AirBnB, Hotels Tonight, Kayak, HipMunk, Bing…you get the idea. But I need the same information from all of these sources. I need prices, location, availability, and images of the location. Each of these applications has a completely different interface, and costs the user significant amounts of time and energy. They need to download each application, create an account, and follow that up with learning the interface for said application. Each application has its own set of terms, payment, checkout process. If you can imagine a step along the way, it’s different across the board.
Say I want to check up on friends or family: I could check Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Flickr…etc. The media is the same. It’s all going to be photos, video or text, yet the application traps all of the content. Why? To drive user behavior towards an end goal of more clicks, more ads, more…whatever. One could argue applications help push experience forward by creating competition. Tinder changed the online dating scene by reducing browsing to a swipe. The same could be done for many other contexts.
These examples are just a few of literally tens of thousands, but now is as good a time as any to step back think about why we’re actively building forward in this direction.
Why isn’t there an operating system that caters to the needs of humans first? Why aren’t we solving for the way humans function, and not the way the market or environment happens to be? As humans we’re solving for one of two things — wants or needs. I want knowledge, answers, services, or a wide array of other things. Wants gets very hairy, very quickly. Needs on the other hand are very rudimentary. I need food. I need water. I need shelter. If you’re with Maslow you’re also needing sex here, but I’m less interested in going down that rabbit-hole right this second, so let’s just go with food, water and shelter.
Whether or not this manifests as an operating system itself, or an all encompassing application like Finder in MacOS, what’s most important is what the resulting environment ends up accomplishing.
Continue to Part 2
The statistic depicts the total number of smartphone users worldwide from 2014 to 2020. For 2016, the number of smartphone users is forecast to reach 2.1 billion. The number of mobile phone users in the world is expected to pass the five billion mark by 2019.
In demographics, the world population is the total number of humans currently living. As of August 2016 , it was estimated at 7.4 billion. The United Nations estimates it will further increase to 11.2 billion in the year 2100.