What if Technology is Actually Making Us More Human?

We spend a lot of time at Innovatemap thinking through how companies can use technological innovations to power new business models or gain new insights to improve efficiencies. As much excitement and opportunity as there is in data and insights, there’s one aspect of innovation that I’ve been thinking about lately that is less celebrated but more exciting: the potential to help us feel more human. I have a personal example to explain what I mean…

Confession is good for the soul, so I’ll start by admitting that I have a problem – I fill almost every silent second of my free time with a podcast. I don’t know if it’s a need to be entertained or a restless brain, but if there’s time when I’m alone and driving, cleaning, working out, or even brushing my teeth, I fill it with a podcast. I feel even worse about the time it takes to enable my habit: looking for podcasts, rearranging a playlist, messing with speakers and Bluetooth and chargers, or just getting on my phone to start and stop it. All in all, not a great use of time…not to mention I should probably be more comfortable with some silence.

I recently had a revelation. For Christmas, I received a Google Home and a couple of Minis, and promptly set them up around the house. You won’t be surprised when I say that one of the early tests was playing podcasts. Imagine the palpable relief when, instead of going through the above rigamarole, I could just say aloud, “Ok Google, play the podcast, ‘Washington Week’,” and the podcast started to play. Instead of scrambling and looking down at my phone, I was looking up and around. The simple task of turning something on to listen to was done, and I was on my way. I felt something unexpected yet incredibly welcome: I felt more human.

With that experience as inspiration, I’m challenging myself to look for innovations that help users feel more human, which I’ll define in three ways:

  • Interacting less with a screen and more with the world
  • Spending less time in non-value-add activities
  • Communicating in more genuine ways

Interacting less with a screen and more with the world

A byproduct of technologies introduced over the last few decades, looking at a screen has fully invaded almost every job and every consumer activity. Some professions are decidedly performed better when NOT looking at a screen. Doctors should be working with their patients and staff, teachers should be nurturing students, and retail managers should be working with employees and customers. Although visual interfaces have given us enormous capabilities, the advances in wearables, sensors, voice recognition technologies, and others provide us with new opportunities to think differently about how we accomplish certain tasks.

For activities that tie a user to a device or a computer screen to log information, record activity, receive notifications, or view reports, is there a solution that allows them to accomplish those jobs without typing or looking at a screen?

Some examples we’ve seen that allow people to do more of what they enjoy include:

Google Glass + Augmedix lets doctors take notes while they interact with patients by utilizing a remote scribe, therefore allowing them to spend more time with more patients and less time sitting at a desk transcribing.

DAQRI is developing an augmented reality for smart helmets that allows maintenance technicians to access manuals, guides, diagnostic tools, and then also communicate and collaborate with other technicians about what they’re seeing, all hands-free.

These innovations don’t have to involve IoT or wearables: Retail Zipline is a retail communication software that takes store communication out of the realm of email and texts to make sure everyone, from regional directors to store managers to floor staff, is aligned on goals, promotions, and initiatives. While they still have to look at a screen to get information, the interface and workflow they’ve developed allows users to do so in a much more streamlined way.

The Takeaway: Look to technologies like voice-recognition, wearables, and sensors as a way to not just gather more data, but to untether people in deskless or people-centered professions from the screens that require their full attention.

Spending less time in non-value-add activities

I have become decidedly more cranky and less patient about activities that feel like a waste of my time, like the HR vendor that requires a form be printed out, signed, and emailed in. In a process that was fully electronic and paperless, to be stopped and asked to print a form that I would then submit electronically seemed like a misuse of time (and a piece of paper!).

Where can we deploy technologies to automate or eliminate the activities that don’t improve the quality of our customers’ lives? These could be as small as the Delta Faucet innovation presented at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show, allowing people to control their faucet by voice. I’ve spent the equivalent of hours of my life with my hand under a faucet gauging the temperature for a little one’s bath, and I love the idea of automating that small task.

As technology slowly eliminates tasks that used to require a phone call, some industries are stubbornly hanging on to phone conversations as the way to engage. One company working to ease that burden is Amino, an online service that uses algorithms and a deep data set to suggest medical providers and then act as a concierge, booking your appointment for you with that provider. Having an assistant-like experience to take care of appointments and then text about their progress gives Amino’s users a huge gift: their own time.

Takeaway: As you think about how to deploy new technologies like IoT and automation, use research and customer behavior to identify where those technologies can take over a non-value-add activity for someone. Chances are that the user won’t even recognize those activities on their own, so be on the lookout for interruptive activities or instances when the user expresses uncertainty. In ideation as you look at a workflow, think, “What would it look like if the user didn’t have to perform this step?”

Communicating in more genuine ways

There’s a lot of well-placed concern that the internet is making us terrible communicators. However, there are also ways in which technology is helping us communicate more effectively and with more purpose. Now that we have texting, notifications, messaging, and video capabilities like never before, how can we use them to re-examine the processes that were built prior to those technologies?

An example: Communications in the early stages of the job interview process are complicated and fraught with anxiety. On the candidate side, you feel the need to constantly be available via phone in case someone calls, and on the recruiting side, you need to screen candidates quickly but also accurately to lead to further conversations with the right people. Canvas is using text to make that process an asynchronous one, with a platform for recruiters to screen candidates via text. On the candidate side, no more missed phone calls, and on the recruiter side, you’re documenting and building profiles as you and the candidate text back and forth.

As an opposite example: Screening interviews via video has become increasingly popular. They’re the opposite of “human” on the candidate side and a perfect example of using technology for efficiency to the detriment of genuine interaction. The candidate is talking to a machine that gives zero feedback, and isn’t communicating as they would on the job…which is what the interview is for in the first place.

Innovations in communication should allow us to do our jobs not just more efficiently but also more effectively, with less anxiety, less chaos, and more compassion. Where are there opportunities to:

  • Hold a user’s hand through a complicated domain (telemedicine, taxes, car repair)
  • Handle non-urgent conversations asynchronously (Slack)
  • Allow a user to use their own words for something rather than forcing them to figure out your jargon (deciphering health insurance options, searching for college majors)

Takeaway: Communicating in a more human way means incorporating transparency, ease-of-use, and empathy into your solutions. It’s an incredible, yet extremely risky, opportunity. Use prototypes and well-planned beta tests to challenge assumptions, not just on the efficiency of your innovations, but also the efficacy – are they good for all sides of the transaction? How do people feel using the solution?

Innovation for innovation’s sake is theater. Innovation to bring value to customers is good business. But innovation that helps users better perform their jobs, control their time, communicate in a more genuine way, or do more of what they love? Those innovations can change the world. The question is: How can we harness technology and our collective creativity to become more human?