UX and Emerging Technologies

Every week on The UX Blog Podcast, Nicholas Tenhue interviews user experience professionals about current trends, hot topics, and their careers. Subscribe on your favorite podcast player!

designing for emerging technologies

In this episode, Jonathan Follett, Principal at Involution Studios, talks about his book; Designing for Emerging Technologies. We talk about topics such as genomics, nanobots, and artificial intelligence.


Nicholas Tenhue: Hello everyone and welcome to another episode of the ux blog podcast. Today I’m joined by Jon Follett, who’s a principal at Involution Studios, where he’s the leader of the firm’s emerging technologies practice, working with clients like Partners Healthcare, Personal Genome Project and Walgreens. His work has been featured in The Atlantic, Forbes, Huffington Post and Wyatt.

He’s also the author of four books including Designing for Emerging Technologies which we’ll be talking about in this episode which offers a glimpse of what feature interactions of user experiences may look like for rapidly changing and developing technologies, from genomics to nanoprinters to workforce robots. His articles in UX and information design has also been translated into many languages including Russian, Chinese, Spanish, Polish and Portuguese.

In addition to his technology writing, Jon has also co-authored a series of alt culture books of UFOs and millennial madness. His forthcoming science fiction novel Marvin and the Moths will be published by Scholastic in 2016.

So, Jon, we’re talking about emerging technologies in this episode, how would you like to play a quick game?

Jon Follett: Certainly, I love games.

Nicholas Tenhue: Alright, so we’re going through a couple of terms and I’d like you to explain these terms to the listeners in one sentence. Does that work?

Jon Follett: Oh no, it sounds like a hard game.

Nicholas Tenhue: I think it should be pretty easy for you because they’re all terms from your book. The first term is tangible interfaces.

Jon Follett: In this case, we’re talking about an interface that may not be on screen but is part of an object.

Nicholas Tenhue: So an example of this might be an object that I pick up and it conforms to my body or gives me some kind of tactile feedback when I us it?

Jon Follett: Sure or using, say the sense of touch to convey a feedback loop or in the example that Steven Gibson in his chapter for education. Using objects that are somehow connected to a computing device, so for instance, connected blocks for a building.

Nicholas Tenhue: Right. I think I’ve seen quite a few examples of these modular or sometimes self-organizing robots. That game functionality is that they kind of change and give feedback because they change. So next stop is collaborative robotics.

Jon Follett: Ah, yes. So in one sentence, okay interesting, when you’re working for example in a factory, scenario and rather than have robotics beings in a separate part of the production line, they may work directly with human beings in the production line. As part of their programming, safety initiatives that allow them to be around human beings and frankly not hurt people.

The other part of collaborative robotics is the learning mechanism that are part of the robots’ programming so they can quickly be shown in quotes by the production line worker on how to do a new task and they can learn new tasks relatively really quickly.

Nicholas Tenhue: Interesting. That was more than one sentence though I’d have to say.

Jon Follett: Yeah, this is not a game I’m going to be very good at I’m afraid. I tried with the first one.

Nicholas Tenhue: You did. The next topic is Human-Robot relationship.

Jon Follett: Let me preface this by saying that, if you want a real, more in-depth explanation of this, check out the chapter by Scott Strapkay and Bill Hartman on this in the book.

But it’s the core interactions between an artificially intelligent robot and the people that it serves. We don’t have these right now, your Roomba doesn’t have much of a relationship with you but in the future you can see how things like chatbots are evolving to develop these HRI or Human-Robot Interactions that are on an emotional level in addition to a physical one.

Nicholas Tenhue: Right. I see a lot of marketing chatbots and a lot of personal assistant chatbots but for me it hasn’t crossed that line yet. They’re not flexible enough and they don’t learn what I want from them.

Jon Follet: Right. Yeah, they are certainly nowhere near what we’d expect from having a chat with a knowledgeable human but they are beginning to get to the point where there’s more nuance than say, simply turning on and off a switch. So there are multiple threads, multiple outcomes from a chat with these chatbots and that will continue to improve overtime as programmers figure out the right algorithms and the right text recognition and the right contextual information for making these chats usable for humans not just functional.

Nicholas Tenhue: I’d like to hear your thoughts on the need for physical element as well, we just talked about the need for bot software. What about our need for bot hardware, humanoid or otherwise?

Jon Follett: Well I think it ties the physical aspects of something like healthcare to the relational aspect. So in the book, my friends from Essential Design, we’re talking about a healthcare robot that would help monitor a patient once they get out of a surgery or something like that.

In that particular example, the physical-ness was related to a nursing capacity. Now, that’s nowhere near from what you’d get from a human nurse but it sort of enable the patient to be monitored by a non-human or a robot and also collects lots and lots of data about the patient’s situation as they’re recovering from surgery.

So I think there are physical aspects to robotics whether it be for care or manufacture or what have you that extends the parameters and possibilities that you would have. Otherwise it’s just chatbot, it can never affect the physical realm at all.

Nicholas Tenhue: Right. I think we see a lot of interesting examples especially in Japan and China with their sort of large population and sort of the Asian population as well. A lot of bots for elderly care but also for loneliness as well because it’s a huge societal issue.

Jon Follett: Yes, and you know that’s very true. The robots being manufactured in Japan are already a couple of steps ahead from the same functional robots in the States simply because they have this need as you refer to of an Asian population with no one to check in on them, to care for them, which is kind of a sad set of user requirements. I mean sad in that they were inserting technology where humanity used to be.

I don’t really know how to feel about that but that’s the lay of the land.

Nicholas Tenhue: That also brings up the question what has been replaced by technology today that we in the past would have been upset about?

Jon Follett: Sure. I can think of lots of different things. For instance, there are all kinds of technology that enables us to live more independently of our families so the family unit gets stretched in all kinds of different ways in our society. Precisely because we can do it, we can live in sort of smaller units rather than a big family in a house and together in multiple generations.

That may be sort of a myth of the extended family, I wasn’t there in the 1900s so I don’t know how well any of that worked. I certainly am appreciative of the time that I can spend with my family but I don’t know how well I’d function with an extended family household so maybe that’s for the better or worse.

It’s hard to say but I’d say that technology has definitely made it easier for people to live very far apart from one another whether you’re talking about travel, communication, or transportation. All of these technologies make it possible for us to be separated.

Nicholas Tenhue: I think we’ll see whether it’s a good or bad thing in the future but all we do know that it’s a natural progression of things and I guess there’s not a lot to do in terms of stopping it so just trying to build it the best way that we can, probably the best and most responsible approach?

Jon Follett: Yeah, that’s an interesting question because I think designers have an interesting opportunity to ask what the purpose is of these technologies and how they’re truly benefitting people. I don’t know whether that question may or may not have been asked as much during the industrial revolution when we did all sorts of horrible things to our planet and our natural resources whether you’re talking about pollution or global warming, right?

So those are sort of the direct effects of us not asking a ton of questions of how technology’s being implemented. I do think it’s important for us to consider what the consequences might be of launching a particular new emerging technologies from a human perspective.

There are countless examples across all of those technologies that we have already touched on whether it’s robotics or genomics, interactive things etc.

Nicholas Tenhue: Indeed, it’s super important to think ethically and act responsibly. Genomics and synthetic biology, that’s your next phrase by the way.

Jon Follett: Okay, so genomics, wow, I don’t even know if I could come close to a single sentence for that but…

Nicholas Tenhue: Right. I work in this field and I feel your pain right now Jon.

Jon Follett:  Right. So Genomics is the code of life. The way we’re talking about it specifically in the book is in relation to precision medicine and sort of the core code of a human being and how their genotype may manifest in their phenotype.  

Nicholas Tenhue: And synthetic biology?

Jon Follett: For synthetic biology, that is the manipulation of that code, changing whether it be organisms or just the code itself for a man-made purpose. You could probably give me a background on that…

Nicholas Tenhue: I think that’s good, we just want to give the listeners a little bit of a background on those things before we talk about specific examples I think.

Jon Follett: Sure.

Nicholas Tenhue: So if we could just blast through these last couple really quickly so we can get to the main talking points around all of these things. Let’s have a quick sentence about fashion with function and embeddable.

Jon Follett: Fashion with function is really the connected materials and material science that allows for a feedback in interaction and embeddables refers to concepts that whether there’s technology that’s being surgically inserted into human beings and/or ingested temporarily for use in a medical procedure.

Nicholas Tenhue: So here we’re talking about things like smart pills and cameras and other things that we can put into our systems to kind of see what’s going on.

Jon Follett: Sure. Exactly.

Nicholas Tenhue:  Great and Additive Fabrication and intelligent materials.

Jon Follett: Additive Fabrication is in contrast with the way we manufacture things today where you’re removing materials to create an object. With addictive fabrication also known as 3D printing, you’re building up an object one layer at a time.  Im sorry what was the last one Nick?

Nicholas Tenhue: and intelligent materials…

Jon Follett: Intelligent materials are materials that are capable of changing a specific factor or function based on an input from the environment. An example of that would be a coding that could be slippery when/or hydrophobic when it’s wet and then have some kind of grip to it when it’s not wet.

Nicholas Tenhue: That’s super interesting, and it’s almost as if we’re seeing our physical world turning into a living organism.

Jon Follett: Yeah, I mean that’s part of the reason, well, there are so many areas of crossover and cross pollination that I think are possible whether it be across technologies or across industries. Some of the limitations we’re going to face creating these new technologies are really only set by our own imaginations. I really do think that there are some miraculous things that will be possible. 

Nicholas Tenhue: Right. It’s almost like an amalgamation of these things rolled into one but we don’t know what form it is going to come out as.

Jon Follett: Yes, that’s exactly right.

Nicholas Tenhue: What’s your opinion on how sci-fi and writing influences what actually happens with these things?

Jon Follett: Well, what’s interesting to me is that science fiction writing have really provided some of the frameworks I think for the way that we’re looking at these new technologies. Asimov comes to mind with his laws on robotics. There’s writing by Neil Stephenson that’s pretty incredible and of course William Gibson is sort of the go-to example of science fiction, you know the whole cyber punk movement that’s a decade plus old now but more or less really outlined how online technologies would manifest themselves in human societies.

Almost to the point where it’s eerie to go back and read like Neuromancer now because you can really see some of these things happening and with all of the, for instance, cyber warfare and propaganda and things happening now online becoming an increasingly important area of militarization.

Frankly, it’s almost frightening to read how prescient Gibson was in those early cyberpunk novels. I think the product of visionaries are that driving some of these technologies, I’m sure that they have been influenced by science fiction and I’m sure in another time or even now there might science fiction hostages themselves.

I think the overlap, that’s always something I imagined of people especially those obsessed with technology or interested in.    

Nicholas Tenhue: I like that you gave yourself a little compliment there.

Jon Follett: That wasn’t meant to be that way.

Nicholas Tenhue: Gotcha, nah I’m just kidding. Now, as designers, how should we approach emerging technology?

Jon Follett: I think curiosity is really going to be an important trait for the designer. I mean it is already. User experience is all about being very interested in the human condition and how people interact with technologies, whether they’re emerging technologies or not.

So being interested in both the technical side of things and the human aspect, I honestly think that our generation is going to be required to be continuous learners. I don’t think it’s an option anymore whereas our parents’ generation maybe you could have one job and sort of go through that and have the same type of work for an entire career.

I do think that people involved in user experience and technology are going to have to continuously learn about new things and so one of the ways you can do that is seeing what technologies is coming out of the lab. I’d like to go to their tech development event which is called Tech Drugs and Rock and Roll. So I get to see cool stuff that comes from the, like their photonics labs.

So in terms of approach, willingness to learn and curiosity about technology I think is probably two driving factors at least for me.

Nicholas Tenhue: Absolutely, I couldn’t agree more, and I think that even being in the same field of user experience, just jumping from vertical industry to vertical industry is so much learning that needs to go on before you can be effective even if you’re applying the same UX principles.

You can’t apply them if you don’t know the problem that you’re trying to solve right? Especially in difficult areas such as genomics or embeddables or intelligent materials where the subject matter expertise is a requirement for being effective in the job which brings me to the next talking point in your book and that is becoming expert at becoming an expert.

Jon Follett: Right, so my colleague and friend Lisa wrote that, I think they’re actually from her experiences going in to highly technical organizations specifically around genomics but it really could apply to any technical area and some of the tips and tricks that she came up with for getting up to speed very quickly, so she has a sort of a laundry list of things that designers can do.

I mean one of the things she says is that you should have a glossary of terms and what’s interesting is, as you are putting together these resources for yourself while you’re on a technical project, you’ll often find that the people in the room who are part of that technical area may not have understood entirely what the other experts in the room were always referring to because you’re always bringing together a multidisciplinary team.

So it’s very interesting to see this willingness to ask questions and to decipher acronyms for instance, health care is filled with horrible acronyms.  

Nicholas Tenhue: Oh boy don’t I know it.

Jon Follett: Really just the willingness to put yourself out there and say “I don’t know what that means, could you explain it to me” really cuts through right to the core so you can move the project forward.

In terms of becoming an expert at becoming an expert, you also have to check your ego at the door because you started the ground floor every time.  

Nicholas Tenhue: Yeah, walk in the room being humble and wanting to learn and accepting that you are not the expert.

Jon Follett: Yeah that’s important and frankly, if you’re lucky enough to be in a room full of smart technical people, that’s a great place to be because you’re always learning something new, always gaining something. If you’re comfortable with that, then it’s a great way to learn quickly.

Nicholas Tenhue: Yeah absolutely and just going back to your previous point on healthcare and the awful acronyms, it’s funny because I was working with two separate physicians that work in different fields and they use the same exact word for different things which I as a non-expert became very confused with.

A lot of it comes down to the work I’m doing, some ontologies, recognizing context as well so for me that’s a super interesting topic too.

Jon Follett: It is.

Nicholas Tenhue: Okay so what do you think of some of the biggest challenges for the future of UX in terms of the impact that UX can make in emerging technologies?

Jon Follett:  Some of the challenges that I see are really the same across all creative class occupations whether it be user experience, you conclude science and technology all in that same sort of creative class occupations that are really driving the innovation economy.

Part of that, I think one challenge is learning how to work across disciplines is going to become increasingly important so you’re not necessarily going to be working with people where you have the same background or the same knowledge base.

Fast company had a nice piece recently on design jobs of the future which I really loved. It was a set of design experts who were postulating about what future design jobs might look like and for me, some of those might be the Human Robot Action Designer or the Bio-inspired Materials Designer or Healthcare Cultural Experience Designer right? But you can see these intersections where you’re getting sort of a mash up of different disciplines and UX has really always been a mash up.

You know we take architecture from ethnography from industrial design, those are all the things that come together in the User Experience field so in some ways we have an advantage there but I think that field and the field of design generally is now intersecting with science in very significant ways.

So how those come together to form the user experience jobs of the future we can’t even, we can guess at what some of the names might be for these positions but they’re going to be in far flung industries that maybe have not even started yet.

I see this cross-pollination as incredibly important as we sort of figure out what these forms of design are going to be.

Nicholas Tenhue: We do live in very exciting times right now and I’m super pumped to see where this whole thing goes. Even myself working in the field of precision medicine where that will go in the next couple of years is very interesting.

So just in closing, what tips would you give to designers out there that want to try their hand at once of these newer coming industries?

Jon Follett: Ah, so at its core there is a need for passionate interest. For me, sort of seeing where synthetic biology can go is very interesting to me. There’s these lab kits that you can get at for your home lab now that you can start to experiment what is synthetic biology in your dorm room or in your apartment or in your home, wherever.

So if you’re approaching a new area of technology, I’d say approach it as an amateur and as a passion interest first and become part of the professional groups that make up that industry and volunteer…     

Nicholas Tenhue: Start going to meet-ups.

Jon Follett: Exactly because designers I think take for granted sometimes that the human side of the equation is represented in the room or at least that’s something that we’re very familiar with. So it’s interesting to show up at places where you start asking questions about how humans are going to use this or what the effects are going to have or how is this going to change culture or how it’s going to change interaction or what the relationship is going to be like with this technology. Those are the questions that are being asked.      

So bringing the design perspective into these new technical areas is critical and it’s going to be much appreciated. So I think just in getting on board with the new technology, I think you’ll find that the people who are already established there are going to appreciate the design perspective that you bring to the table.

Nicholas Tenhue: That’s great advice and very inspiring for people to kind of get people and get their feet work. So let’s take this chance where we wrap up to talk a little bit about your writing. What’s the connection between your design work and your writing?

Jon Follett: Yeah, for me writing and design are inexorably intertwined especially when it comes from informational architecture and language. I think the two pieces or the two areas for me are very much overlapping and I will say that I very much started on the writing side of things and became attracted to the design side in college.

So for me, writing is a very natural output for me, a very natural expression. 

Nicholas Tenhue: Ok great, so why don’t you tell the readers one more time where they can get your new book and when it’s coming out?

Jon Follett: Right, so Marvin and the Moths is a Science-Fiction slash Horror-Adventure I wrote with Matthew Holm who’s a New York Best Seller for kids books like sunny Side Up and Baby Mouse and Squish, those are all Matt’s previous works and I’ve known Matt for years and our expression of weirdness is Marvin and the Moths which is all about mutated giant insects basically who befriend a middle school boy and the adventures in middle-school and just being around very strange cast of characters, sort of a thrust in the novel.

You can get that anywhere, that books are sold. You could get it online right now, you can pre-order it on Amazon.

Nicholas Tenhue: Ok great. We’ll see if we can get a hold of some of those coupon codes.

Jon Follett: Alright. I’ll check into that.

Nicholas Tenhue: Thank you so much again Jon for being such a wonderful guest on the show and teaching us a little bit about designing for emerging technologies, UX and genomics, robotics and the internet of things, super exciting fields and I’m sure will change the world in many different ways over coming years. Best of luck with your new book and I hope to speak to you very soon.

Jon Follett: Yeah thanks a lot and thanks for having me on the show Nick.