Do we have to sacrifice humanity for technology?

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Do we have to sacrifice humanity for technology?

So, today I want to talk to you a little bit about the marriage of humanity and technology, or indeed the lack thereof. This is a thing we hear a lot about in the news at the moment.

Uber is a great example of a company that is constantly failing to marry technology and humanity. The humanity element of their business seems to very much serve the technology element of their business. And I think there’s always a bit of tension there, so I just wanted to talk about that for a while. I don’t actually have any answers in this presentation but I just think it’s something that’s worth throwing out there and it’s something that we can all think about when we’re doing our work every day.

We optimise for the quantifiable

So, when we’re doing our work in whatever thing we’re doing our work, we tend to focus on things that are quantifiable and then we optimise for those. Sessions to a website is a very quantifiable metric. Cost per click is a very quantifiable metric. Organic ranking, site speed – these are all numbers that we can count and we know what we need to do to improve them, so that’s what we do.

But if you optimise only for numbers that’s to the detriment of a lot of other things, because people aren’t as simple as numbers. And I think that often gets lost if you spend all day staring at Google analytics. We do lots of stupid things that have nothing to do with numbers.

Human behaviour can’t be explained with numbers

Does anybody, when you shop for oranges, do you go around and squeeze the oranges? Yeah? Why?

When you get a car, you go and you kick the tyres? Why?

Anybody ever bought a book because it smells nice? So these are all stupid things, but things that people do nonetheless and things that we could never hope to pick up in any sort of quantifiable, measurable way.

So, to give you an example from my life. Obviously I have family in America, we visit them quite a lot. Every time we fly over the ocean to visit them, basically we’re spending a lot of money to do the exact same journey again and it kind of means we miss out on a holiday every year when we go there. So what we’ve started doing is tacking on little extra journeys too when we fly to the states, so that we can have a little holiday when we go to visit family as well.

So last time we did it we went sort of east and west and we did a little 24-hour stopover at Istanbul before we flew over to Ohio and it was a really fantastic trip. It’s a place I’ve never been before. It’s a place I’d highly recommend. That’s the Blue Mosque, which is one of the largest mosques in the world. It’s absolutely beautiful. We saw a tourist jump over the barricade to try and get a good photo and get tackled to the ground by a bunch of people that were praying which was really entertaining. They’ve got some really, really great taxidermy in Istanbul as well. If you’re a taxidermy fan I can heartily recommend it. That’s us in front of the Blue Mosque and we got really well photo bombed by that bloke. He’s a very, very serious man.

Also spent a fantastic evening getting drunk with all these Turkish guys. Went to like a hamam and drank Manhattans and smoked a cigar. And it was a really, really excellent night and it was a fantastic experience. But by any quantifiable measure that holiday was terrible.

The problem with optimising for numbers

The flights were about 15% more expensive than we would have paid if we’d flown direct. So, you know, for two people I think that was about 400 quid. The travel time was four times as long as direct flights and the layover was 1600 times longer than it would have been if we’d flown through Chicago, where we usually go. So, there’s no way that flight would have ever got surfaced by a travel search engine because by every metric they measure, it was God awful. But for us, as people, it was amazing.

So that trip is the thing you would only get if you have some sort of humanity involved in the decision-making process. A travel agent, for example, could give you a trip like that but a search engine might not. Just to stay on the travel theme for a while, travel search engines tend to focus on numbers they know. So, the BA website is really good at highlighting the cheapest price for you – they’re the ones in yellow. Hipmunk, which is another really good flight search engine, is really good at telling you the length of flights and when they leave and when they are during the day.

And a lot of other flight search engines, like Kayak, are doing some quite clever things with the data they have. So, they have this thing they call hacker fares, which is basically where they combine different itineraries to come up with cheaper prices. Like combining two single tickets rather than one single return. They also look at the price trends over time to tell you when the best time to book is, which is a handy little tool. Hipmunk also have this agony measure which is kind of a weighted average of several things to tell you generally how terrible a flight’s going to be.

But these are all basically still tinkering with data they have available. They’re just different ways of slicing the data and I think we can do better than that as creative people and marketers, I think we should always have that in mind when we’re doing new activity and working on clients. Not just saying: “Well, we have this data, what can we do with this data?” Let’s think like people and let’s actually create things for people.

So, as I said in the beginning, I don’t have any answers – unfortunately – but I just think it’s something that we can all be aware of and that we should all take forward in our work. So, fundamentally, I’m asking you how do we get from this, to that?

Thank you.