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Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

Shorten the distance or increase the speed

One of the first questions that I ask organisations when we’re beginning a consulting engagement is this: “How fast does information move from your customer, to your CEO, and back again?”

It’s a somewhat imprecise question that needs a little refining for each different client, but it gets people thinking. How fast does evidence of changing market conditions reach decision-makers who can do something about them? And how fast can they respond?

The answer is often measured in weeks, even months.

This is too slow. In a slow-moving market you might get by like this for years. In a fast-moving market this behaviour is an existential threat.

The solution can come in many forms. People’s natural instinct is to speed the flow of information. Invest in new technologies. This is often part of the answer. Working on the future finance function recently I saw stories of just how dramatic the effect can be for organisations when they can see their true financial position with a latency of just hours rather than weeks.

Managers also tend to look at the people involved in the communications chain. Long-established companies and public sector bodies often have information flow through multi-tiered committees before it is rubber-stamped and presented to managers to act on. Sometimes this improves the quality of the information, but often it is over-polished by people covering their own behinds. It loses some of its raw value the more it is cooked. The information flow is often speeded when these committees (and often the people who sit on them) are stripped away in cost-cutting exercises.

Perhaps the most effective way to improve responsiveness though is to shorten the distance the data has to travel before it reaches someone who can act on it. This makes many managers uncomfortable, delegating power out to the edges of the organisation. But done right, as it is for example by some e-commerce companies with their merchandisers, it is incredibly powerful. Merchandisers can pick up on social trends and news events and create rapid, responsive promotional campaigns for goods on their site, piggybacking on memes that would be un-catchable if they had to pass information up the chain and get authority back down it.

Ask your clients or colleagues: how fast does it take information to reach those with authority in your organisation? And how can you speed the response?

Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

Home Intelligence Needs Discretion and Design

I spent Monday afternoon kitting out someone else’s home with automation technologies in the company of TV’s Phil Spencer and a film crew. Not all of it will make it into the episode, due on digital channels later this year, but we played with smart security systems, remote lighting and power sockets, and connected appliances including a washing machine, microwave and kettle.

Some of it was very cool and functional. Some of it was a little bit frivolous. But the home owners were blown away by what is already possible. This wasn’t a great surprise: on the way down to the shoot someone sent me some research from Context, showing that nearly two thirds of the UK (and French and German) public have never heard of smart home technology, and of the minority that have, roughly two thirds of them don’t feel they know enough to make a purchase.

This is a segment in the early days of its lifespan.

It also happens to be home security month at the moment, so I’ve been testing some additional smart home security tech for The Loadout and BBC Radio Manchester.

Testing all this gear has reinforced some lessons I’ve learned in the past while playing with smart home gear.

1. Smart Home Technology Needs to be Discreet

The first lesson is that smart home technology needs to be unobtrusive and discreet. This has a number of implications.

Firstly, those in the house who don’t want to use the technology shouldn’t have to. So smart lightbulbs still have to work off the normal switches. Smart sockets still need to be accessible — easily and intuitively — without the non-techie user having to unplug them.

Secondly, the technology can’t make you feel like you’re being studied in your own home. Some people are uncomfortable enough with the passive IR sensors of a traditional burglar alarm. Start putting cameras around the house and people get naturally quite self-conscious*.

MyFox, one of the brands I’ve been testing, has a neat and simple solution for this. Its camera has a motorised shutter than flips down over the camera lens when people are home, but opens up when the alarm is armed. All the benefits of CCTV, none of the disadvantages. The camera doesn’t even look like a camera with the lens covered.

Thirdly, it has to work as reliably as dumb technology. Lots of the products I have tested in recent years have had short lifespans or intermittent problems that rapidly become very irritating for technies and non-techies alike.

2. Smart Home Technology is The Most Design-Sensitive

The success of technology in the home is also extremely design-sensitive. While this might sound obvious, it clearly isn’t to some manufacturers.

We all want our personal technology to look good, but its design only has to satisfy the owner. Smart home technology has to satisfy all the occupants of the home, both aesthetically, and also functionally.

I think this means that the design rules are different. While we’ve put up with shiny black and silver boxes in the corner of our living rooms for years, increasingly home entertainment technology is being designed to blend in: frameless TVs and tiny streaming boxes that can be tucked out of sight.

Somehow these lessons seem to have been lost on the makers of a lot of smart home tech. I don’t think it should look like technology in the same way that a phone or a tablet might. It should look like a part of the home: furniture or decoration.

This is where the ability to design away the user interface is hugely valuable. The fewer screens, buttons and lights a device needs, the more discreet it can be, the easier it is to blend in. This isn’t about putting a wood veneer on a surface, it’s about minimising the surface area.

Even having achieved this some companies go on to finish their products in shiny plastics that look like something out of Star Trek not your average family home.

The caveat to this is wholly app-driven devices, of which I am not a fan. Apps are fine for configuration and monitoring, but they’re trumped by simple switches for universal access, easy reach and intuitive use. Unless you can design the user interface away altogether, a device should always have a chunky manual control, either mounted on the device or remotely.

Barriers to Adoption

It’s a certainty that we will be adding layers of intelligence to our homes. There are hard drivers like increasing safety and security, and cutting energy bills. And there are soft ones like increasing comfort. Exactly when we start to adopt these technologies en masse will depend very strongly on the ability of the manufacturers to adapt their approach, in order to deliver more discreet devices with more universally appealing design.

*They might be even more so if they knew about the terrible security on many of them.

Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

The Smart Glider: Designed for Life?

I’ve been riding around on a Future Wheels Smart Glider, one of the many brands of balance board, for a couple of weeks now. One of the joys of my sideline on radio and with The Loadout is that I get to test gadgets like this. And with the Smart Glider it’s fair to say that my colleague Mason and I have put the effort in. It shows.

The Smart Glider is one of the higher-quality balance boards out there. It is equipped with a pair of strong motors and good quality batteries. If things go wrong you have a UK importer or retailer to turn to for support. But because it is encased in the same plastic case as cheaper models, it suffers some of the same design and cosmetic problems: a tumble here and a tumble there (and you will tumble — especially if you experiment with its top speed as I did) and it soon looks pretty scratched.

This doesn’t affect its function: apart from an occasionally over-sensitive safety cut-off throwing me off, it has been very reliable and good fun. And I believe the manufacturers when they say its batteries will be good for a few thousand cycles.

But this isn’t true of all of these boards. Many are made to a price more than a standard. Cheaper internal components means less-powerful motors, lower quality, and lower capacity batteries, and weaker structure. Some of them have their internals held together with masking tape. Search the forums and you’ll find all sorts of horror stories.

If the swegway/balance board/hoverboard/whatever you want to call it is the success I’m expecting this Christmas, there will be an awful lot of them junked by the end of January.

This will disappoint a lot of parents and children, but more importantly it suggests the extension of a depressing trend in consumer technology: design for rapid obsolescence.

This is not new of course: we have been designing goods to need replacing for a very long time, in order to maintain the consumer cycle. But there was some evidence that simple economics was driving a slight slowdown in the replacement cycle for many categories.
Laptops lasting longer because web-based applications simply didn’t need more grunt from old devices (and because in a downturn companies are glad to slow the churn of hardware). Phones lasting two years rather than 18 months because operators didn’t want to keep subsidising new devices at short intervals. Tablet and eReader sales falling because like the laptops, once bought they remained capable for a few years.

Now that the mass manufacturing capabilities of China can turn out mechatronic goods like the Smart Glider at a consumer-friendly price point we might see a new wave of carbon-intensive, short-lived kit bound for land-fill.

Or perhaps we might see something else.

Because the design of these devices is largely universal, all drawn from the same source, it’s possible that many of their parts will be interchangeable. They’re not designed to be easily maintained, but like a bike or a skateboard, perhaps the keen will find a way.

If the appeal of these devices sustains, maybe we’ll see skate shops or bike shops start to offer to service and upgrade them? Maybe there will be a market for customisation and performance components? Their lives might be extended in a way that isn’t possible for more tightly integrated consumer electronics.

This may well be a vain hope. Some of my initial optimism that these devices will go beyond a sci-fi novelty has worn off.

But you never know. Riding around the reaction I have had has been a mixture of wild excitement (usually from the under 12s), amused interest (most adults) and abuse (my friends). Will that translate into a more sustained user base?

Maybe.

Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

Time to Get Comfortable with Robot Citizens-and Workers

Technology in the third quarter of 2015 seems to have been dominated by robot stories of one form and another. Last week another study, this one by Boston Consulting group, suggesting that 25% of our jobs are up for grabs by robots in the next decade — in line with the previous figures from the Oxford Martin study that suggested 35% by 2025.

On the same day, two academics launched a campaign against ‘sex robots’, on the grounds that the concept perpetuates gender inequalities. And earlier Elon Musk, Stephen Hawking and others signed an open letter calling for a ban on autonomous weapons.

I’m tracking some technologies that seem to support the forecasts from Oxford Martin and Boston Consulting. I may disagree with precisely which jobs are at threat, but it’s clear that machines will soon be able to do many routine tasks that form the bulk of much paid employment.

Personally, I believe white collar jobs are the most at risk in the UK, as software robots become rapidly more capable, and improvements in usability allow fewer people to do more. The costly mechanics and materials of hardware robots, combined with weaknesses in their perception and contextual understanding mean they are a little further out — certainly in any ‘general purpose’ guise. Just look at the recent DARPA trials for evidence.

Lobbying and public squeamishness will slow the adoption of more specialist robots: for example, self-driving cars and trucks, and delivery drones.

But we may only be able to sustain any rejection for so long. Because almost without realising it, robots are becoming part of our lives and workplaces.

Often when we interact with call centres now, our initial interactions are with a — often frustrating — simple robot. Siri and Cortana are becoming increasingly integrated into our lives along with personal assistants like EasilyDo, and automation tools like Zapier.

Corporate social media accounts — even ours — is often handled in part by a robot, helping us to navigate the mass of content out there and identify potentially interesting interactions. As individuals we will increasingly use similar tools as the complexity of global media becomes nearly unnavigable without algorithmic assistance.

A company I’ve worked with has even developed a robot sales director, who impersonates the real one, sending out instructions to employees about who to contact and when. Imagine this extended to its natural conclusion: a company run by a robot but with human employees.

Sex robots, killer robots and robots that take our jobs might be grabbing the headlines but it’s always with an eye on the future. The reality is that this is happening today. I don’t think it has to be a bad thing for us as a society, but it will be if we walk blindly into an automated future without considering the consequences.

For companies, the need for internal debate is urgent. Robots aren’t a question for tomorrow, they are a challenge for today. And what you do about them will define your success over a much shorter term than you may think.

Tom Cheesewright