Designing Software for Humans — Interview with Amber Case

Ben Newton
Mar 11 · 6 min read

In this episode of the Masters of Data podcast, I speak with a special guest who is another personification of the intersection of the human and technology. A common theme on the Masters of Data podcast is how bringing humanities and science together makes for wonderful results. Amber Case is an American, a user-experience (UX) designer, author, and public speaker. She has combined a deep understanding of anthropology and human behavior with a focus on user experience — making technology work us instead of annoying. In particular, she is the author of two great books, Calm Technology and more recently Designing with Sound. Amber sits down with me to talk about the tendencies (and limitations) of traditional technological programs, the current trends in the industry and the need for design initiatives that will enable technology to be more of an asset to the owner.

Amber kicks off the conversation by offering a little insight into her background and how she found herself to become so passionate about design and technology. As Amber explains, she grew up in a home where she was surrounded by a family of mathematicians, engineers, and scientists with a more technical background and had a natural draw to those disciplines from a very young age. But as she was growing up she felt disconnected from her peers because she did not share the same interests as them and often connected with people who were older than she was. When the time for college came she knew she had the sciences and thinking aspects down and felt it would be good to become more invested in people and human sciences. She received a scholarship to Lewis & Clark College where she was able to begin studying cyborg anthropology a discipline focused on how technology impacts culture. She soon began to see that she genuinely cared about humans and interfaces and started her entrance into the world of UX design to make technology more impactful and enjoyable for people.

https://www.electrochem.org

A major talking point in the conversation is the trending limitation of most technology tracks in US colleges. As Amber identifies, the reality is once you’re in the STEM field, it’s all focused on STEM and technology and there is little exposure and emphasis on human experience or practical design. From her experience though, often times a different perspective and new view is what actually brings technology to life. As she and I discuss, people at reputable programs like MIT have little engagement with society and culture yet you have a lot of people making decisions about building technology for a world they are not engaged in. The result is often technology that is not user-friendly, unserviceable by the owner and quickly becomes outdated and needs to be replaced.

Another discussion the two focus on is the changing tide around design as it seems a new mindset is emerging. There is undoubtedly a driving force that technology changes the world but now there is a mounting pushback and realization that technology is not always seen as undeniably good. As Amber notes, this is no surprise as things are cyclical. Just like post-Industrial Revolution, there is becoming a transition where people are no longer wanting technology to be the focus and they are no longer tolerating failure and problems with their technology, especially when we are getting more personally invested with our technology. There is now a more intentional focus on people, human interaction and the mindset that technology should be serviceable by the people who use it.

And with all of the stunning advancements, we see with our technology the truth is there is a tremendous loss of personalization and personal ownership. People are not able to work on their own technology and the very things that promise us an easier and more carefree life are the things that are taking us out of human interaction. But as Amber and I discuss, the answer is not to remove technology but to enable people to operate more like a craftsman who is able to own and service the tools they have to change their life in a more positive way, a mindset Amber believes will continue to gain real traction in the months and years ahead.

Outbound Links & Resources Mentioned

Masters of Data Episode:

https://www.sumologic.com/masters-of-data/designing-software-amber-case/

Learn more about Amber:

http://caseorganic.com/about/

Learn more about Amber’s work:

http://caseorganic.com/

Watch her TED Talk:

https://www.ted.com/speakers/amber_case

Email Amber: case@caseorganic.com

Follow Amber on Twitter @caseorganic

Connect with Amber on LinkedIn:

https://www.linkedin.com/in/caseorganic/

Check out her books Calm Technology and Designing with Sound:

Takeaways

  • Cyborg Anthropology is all about human and computer interaction and how technology affects culture.
  • User experience (UX) design is ideal if you really care about interfaces, where buttons are and humans and human/computer interaction.
  • In the book Sensemaking, we see that you bring sociology, the philosophy, the human side of the world together with the more the art of sciences, computer sciences
  • That downfall of most technology programs today is that once you’re in the STEM field, it’s all STEM and you are 100% focused on tech and you can absorb into it really quickly.
  • There’s this idea that to be in tech you need to be 100% in tech, but then you research some of the people who have really changed tech, and they’ve had a no technology background.
  • You kind of get this one-dimensionality if you just do tech, where you can get so good at whatever’s cool right now and then you forget that there’s more to world because you get deep down into this hole so then you miss out on applying it to the people that you’re actually making this for.
  • In most technology programs there’s no aesthetics, there’s no music, there’s no culture.
  • There is a growing inclusivity idea which says that if you’re gonna make stuff for a lot people, you should have a representative group of those people that are going to use it building it, so that you’re not harming people.
  • The changing mindset is now “let’s make technology that works and is serviceable and can last for a while so that we aren’t having a phone that we have to replace every year.”
  • Technology should use the least amount of attention and only when necessary and, tech should be serviceable by the people that use it.
  • There’s no long-term employment with technology, it’s just contract work. We don’t know anyone who’s driving us in a car, we don’t know anybody at the hotel, we randomly go to an Airbnb but we’re not really connecting with people. We’re looking up Yelp to see what a good place is instead of discovering it or asking people around us.
  • We now know our ideas of efficiency aren’t that great. Efficiency involves sometimes being very slow and sometimes sinking into things and sometimes just having more human time so that we can do things better from the beginning
  • We’re given a little bit more responsibility so that we can be more attached to the stuff that we do.

Newtonian Nuggets

Thoughts on what's going on in technology, data, analytics, culture and other nerdy topics

Ben Newton

Written by

Proud Father, Avid Reader, Musician, Host of the Masters of Data Podcast, Product Evangelist @Sumologic

Newtonian Nuggets

Thoughts on what's going on in technology, data, analytics, culture and other nerdy topics