It’s me, your digital ego

10 years ago, we founded NEXT Conference to spread the gospel about the digital revolution, a revolution that transforms marketing by shifting power to the consumer at an ever-increasing speed. Ten years later, we’re convinced that this transformation is far from finished — in fact it hasn’t even begun.

Part of the reason is that we still tend to reduce human beings to their roles as consumers (as in marketing) or even users (as in Internet user, or drug user). With artificial intelligence (AI) on the brink of transforming the consumer internet, it’s time to rethink everything — e.g. behaviour, product design, platforms, or business as a whole — from a deeply human point of view. AI forces us to think deeper about our human nature, about what it is that makes us human and differentiates us from machines.

At NEXT16, we’ll be putting the human being at the centre. Consumer first. User first. Human first. We’ll strive to

  • understand human behaviour,
  • design products that create value or change behaviour,
  • know which platforms to turn to, to get in touch with your customers,
  • understand how man and machine will work together.

This quest has a highly subjective side as well as relevance for your business and society as a whole. It’s me, your digital ego.

Analysing Information

Behaviour Analysis: What are people doing and why the hell are they doing it?

To approach human beings, the first step is to understand them. Why do human beings behave as they do? And how do they behave in the first place? Anthropologists, neuroscientists, psychologists, trendwatchers, product designers and data analysts approach human behaviour from different angles. Their insights provide the groundwork for behaviour-transforming technologies that really help users to organise their everyday life differently, or simply better.

Understanding human behaviour in a digital world has at least three major dimensions: psychology, trends, and data. Some kind of framework is needed to make sense out of this. Nathalie Nahai coined the term ‘web psychology’, and defined it as “the empirical study of how our online environments influence our attitudes and behaviours”. This has a practical side, as well, providing a psychological toolkit that will help us design more persuasive user experiences. Here is a link to the world of product design we’ll also be exploring:

On the one hand, as people’s lives become increasingly digital, we have more data available than ever before. But does this mean we understand people better than we did in the past? Matt LeMay calls this thinking a myth:

One of the most damaging and persistent myths of the ‘big data’ era is that, by looking at numbers and dashboards, we can know people ‘better than they know themselves.’ This mindset betrays not only fundamental misunderstandings about ‘data,’ but also about humanity itself. The idea that we can understand people without listening to them is hubristic, narrow-minded and, frankly, sad. Talking to actual humans can be confusing, awkward, and even downright discouraging. But if we really want to understand customers, we need to accept and embrace that people are not fully predictable and quantifiable.

On the other hand, there are ‘data optimists’, as I would call them, like Christian Rudder, the founder of OKcupid and author of ‘Dataclysm’. He uses the vast amount of data available from sites like Facebook and Google to reveal who we truly are. And that’s sometimes sobering to see.

Art Invisible — Art Irresistible

Design: How to design the perfect experience for digital egos

Consumer first. User first. Human first. Design defines way more than a product’s look. The idea of how something works and how it brings value to the world is already design. It’s design to think about how a digital product touches our lives. To follow the market and to open up new markets: design. On top of that, design also plays a key role in communication between a service and its user.

It helps to have a well-designed interface that draws attention, because it fascinates and simply delights its users. But at the end of an intensive design process it might as well be the case to have not much left of a visible interface. As Golden Krishna puts it: The best interface is no interface. Since screens have taken over our lives, and many people spend most of their waking hours staring at a screen, it’s time to rethink all the addictive distractions that come with digital interfaces. Think beyond screens — innovation can be more meaningful than that, if we follow Golden Krishna’s train of thought.

In a digital world, brands are no longer designed in a classical manner, says Brian Solis: “Where everyone is connected to information and also to one another, customer experience is your brand.” What people feel and share online defines your brand. Brian advocates experimenting in order to learn how to create and cultivate desired, meaningful and uniform experiences. Often, our own experience gets in the way of designing for people not like us.

Brian Solis calls for human-centred design and emphasises the humanity in it. Human-centred design is an approach made popular by IDEO and the school of design thinking. While it’s certainly in line with user–centred design and customer-centred design, we think the focus on humans and humanity is an important shift of perspective, overcoming the reduction of human beings to their respective roles as consumer or user.

Almighty Internet

Platforms: How to build platforms and places that people love

When Amazon celebrated its 20th birthday last year, Founder Jeff Bezos reiterated his famous line about it being “Day One” for his company: “In fact, I believe that the alarm clock hasn’t even gone off yet,” he said. “We’re still asleep in our beds, far from having even pressed the snooze button.”

Together with Google, Apple and Facebook, Amazon makes up the Four Horsemen of Tech, also known under the acronym GAFA. These companies have created powerful platforms that users flock to in droves. Such platforms are used by, and enable, lots of other businesses — and even provide building blocks for another breed of tech giants called Unicorns. The fastest growing superpowers in the network economy today are not Google, Apple, Facebook, and Amazon, but rather Netflix, Airbnb, Tesla, and Uber — the latter built on top of the former.

Think of Uber. How does it distribute its products (its app)? Through the AppStore, the Play Store and most recently Facebook Messenger. How does it store and manage data? Through Amazon Web Services. Most importantly, how does it geolocate travelers and cars? And how does it provide navigation services? Through Google Maps of course! Do the same exercise with any Unicorn you can think of, and you’ll see they’re all relying on GAFA’s infrastructures to run their businesses. Like foster-mothers, GAFA have spawned and nurtured an ever expanding digital playground.

The Four Horsemen have done for the 21st century what the railroad corporations did in the 19th century — they’ve built an infrastructure for new kinds of businesses. Eventually, this infrastructure will be commoditised (that process has already started) — value creation and most of the value share captured will move from Google, Apple, Facebook and Amazon to other players, just like it happened to the railway companies after airlines and interstate highways arrived.

Recently, powerful platforms like the blockchain technology emerged, with tremendous potential: Don and Alex Tapscott consider blockchain the single technology likely to have the greatest impact on the future of the world economy. Blockchain stands in the tradition of the distributed, protocol-based platforms like the internet itself, the world wide web and BitTorrent. None of them are under the control of a single company, and are more decentralised networks than monoliths.

With WeChat in China, we already see more than a prototype for what a powerful mobile, chat-centered app platform can do. “WeChat reveals what’s possible when we take a mobile-first approach to platforms, portals, social networks, and brands”, writes Connie Chan of Andreessen Horowitz, in her analysis. The recent launch of Facebook’s strongly anticipated “Bots for Messenger” may soon bring a similar model to the Western Hemisphere.

Conversational interfaces may well cause the next great shift for the user experience, like the shifts we’ve witnessed from the web to mobile apps in the years since Apple launched the App Store back in 2008. Chat and messaging apps are already widely in use, and the simple text-based interface also allows for an easy integration of sophisticated artificial intelligence functionality.

Photo by Marko Ahtisaari

Already Implemented

How Artificial Intelligence finds its way into products, and its impact on humans

Artificial intelligence. That sounds like pie in the sky and science fiction. Nevertheless, AI is already implemented in lots of products. But what’s the benefit of intelligent, self-learning, or even emotional machines for the human being? How can machine learning be used for all dimensions of marketing in a meaningful way? Where are the possible dangers, and how must we as enterprises deal with them in a responsible way?

In March 2016, for the first time, a computer conquered one of the world’s best go-players. That was widely viewed as another milestone on the long journey towards artificial intelligence. Most experts agree that there is still a long way to go until AI reaches human level or even superintelligence, i.e. above-human level. But how long this will be is a controversial topic, as is whether we’ll see an exponential development, a hypothesis formulated by Tim Urban in his influential Wait but Why posting on AI. In 2014, Philosopher Nick Bostrom reasoned that AI will supersede human beings as the highest form of life on earth as soon as AI becomes intellectually superior.

What currently happens is the drawing of connections between lots of single dots. Like the internet, through the connection of single machines, and web 2.0, via the connection of single human beings, we now see new connections between AI and technologies like machine learning, virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR). Ultimately, this creates new interfaces between man and machine. The role allocation between man and machine is being redefined, and there are also new mashups like human-assisted AI and the AI-augmented human.

The more human abilities are learned by machines and robots, the more urgent is the question of: What constitutes a human being? Is it only those skills that cannot be automated? And what if nothing remains of it?

Since the very beginnings of AI there has been a strange paradox: As soon as a new AI function or ability has been successfully implemented, it is immediately taken for granted and no longer considered to be AI at all. Speech recognition, for example, has long been a textbook example of AI — yet today it is seen as nothing remarkable.

Photo by Shutterstock CC

What’s NEXT?

We are currently working on these four main topics, that will be the major subjects covered at the 2016 jubilee edition of NEXT Conference. Back in 2006, we focused on the next 10 years. Those years are over now. Last year, we restarted NEXT Conference, renewing and sharpening our focus on consumers and their needs. Now it’s time for a fresh look at the old question: What’s NEXT? We believe it’s a much greater and clearer focus on people, on the human being. On being human. The shifts we see in user behaviour, product design, platforms and artificial intelligence all point in the same direction.

Join us: Apply now!


Originally published at nextconf.eu on April 27, 2016.