Sensing context

Sensors are a real mega-trend. Modern smart phones are packed with sensors including cameras, compasses, GPS, accelerometers, ambient light sensors, gyroscopes and proximity sensors. The latest S4 phone from Samsung pushes the boundaries even more with the inclusion of temperature and humidity sensors, according to this article from The Verge. Samsung are using these sensors to power their new S Health app:

 The phone features a built-in pedometer for tracking the number of steps you take — or run — during the day, much like Fitbit’s line of devices. However, sensors in the phone also allow it to measure the ambient temperature and humidity of the room you’re, all of which feeds into the S Health app itself.

In fact health apps powered by sensors are an extremely hot category with the aforementioned Fitbit, Nike’s Fuelband  and the Jawbone Up competing to help us all get healthy by measuring everything we do and encouraging us to do more of the good stuff.

But the sensor mega-trend doesn’t stop there: it will usher in a new age of context, says Robert Scoble, who, together with Shel Israel, is writing a book on the subject (he describes it here.)  He has been doing research for this book for some time and has numerous video interviews with companies he believe are in the vanguard of this trend, including, for example, Plantronics, whose headsets now come packed with sensors.  A good example of the context trend can be seen with the way Google Now is trying to anticipate your needs by understanding the time of day and location, coupled with your calendar and providing useful information (such as weather for flight status) before you need to search for it.

The growing commercial relevance of context will guarantee the explosion in sensors and the data they produce continue at speed.

Data comes into its own

It is axiomatic that we are now drowning in data. Google’s chairman Eric Schmidt famously said we now create as much data is two days as we did from the dawn of humanity to 2003.  And there is now a big business in providing tools to help us deal with this avalanche.

But it turns out there is a big prize for companies that master their own data and put it at the heart of their decision-making. +Steve Lohr The New York Times recently reported on new research setting out to quantify the effect:

The data explosion is also an enormous opportunity. In a modern economy, information should be the prime asset — the raw material of new products and services, smarter decisions, competitive advantage for companies, and greater growth and productivity.

The central distinction, says the WSJ piece, is between decisions based mainly on “data and analysis” and on the traditional management arts of “experience and intuition.”

Those that adopted “data-driven decision making” achieved productivity that was 5 to 6 percent higher than could be explained by other factors, including how much the companies invested in technology.

But becoming a data-driven company is hard. Many organisations are built on the belief in the wisdom of the senior team and their “experts”. Experience and gut-instinct still hold a lot of sway. Take Apple – Steve Jobs’ profound intuition and almost supernatural sense of what makes a good product produced legendary results. Now he’s no longer there the risk is that the vacuum will be filled by people with less than superpowers and poor decisions will be taken (the maps fiasco may have been the first).

Contrast that with Google – the epitome of a data-driven company, perhaps. My favour supporting anecdote, which I have blogged about in the past,  is the story that the company doesn’t put down any paths until the grass between new campus buildings is worn down, thus ensuring the tarmac gets laid where the Googlers actually do walk. A great example of data-driven decision making in action.

The Lean Startup’s powerful idea

Like the rest of the world I have been reading the Lean Startup, the new book from serial entrepreneur Eric Ries. There is a lot of good advice in the book, which focuses on developing products which solve real problems and doing it in the most efficient way.

But one idea really stood out for me: cohort analysis.

This is one if the most important tools of startup analytics. Although it sounds complex it’s based on a simple premise. Instead of looking at cumulative totals or gross numbers such as total revenue or total number of customers, one looks at the performance of each group of customers that comes into contact with the product independently.

This is a powerful idea. Often there is a lag in the behaviour you would like to see (such as signing up for a free trial) and this is very hard to detect in a mass of other numbers, which may all be going up. By concentrating on one group at a time, Ries argues, you can really tell if the key behaviours you need to see are really happening – and if you are getting better or worse over time.

If you are interested the key section starts on page 123 of the book, or you can find out more from his site. More on cohort analysis here.

Our technological future: dystopia or utopia?

What will the world of the future be like given the inevitable march of technology? This is a question which pops up, unsurprisingly, quite a lot. Last Sunday the Observer became exercised enough about the question to devote a lengthy op-ed piece about it. And their take was decidedly pessimistic.

The outline that’s emerging is a troubling one. Computing and its associated technologies are becoming so powerful that we are having to rethink decades-old assumptions about what machines can and cannot do. Ten years ago, the idea of self-driving cars would have been regarded as fanciful. Ten years from now, they might be on our roads – and insurance companies may rate them as lower risk than human-controlled vehicles. The advantages of the technology are obvious: fewer deaths and injuries, more efficient use of roads and junctions, less time wasted driving to work and so on.
Less obvious – but just as real – are the potential downsides. In particular, what happens to the millions of people who currently earn a living from driving? The prevailing narrative regards them as the casualties of progress, the victims of the destructive side of Schumpeter’s wave.

However, there is another more optimistic take on the possibilities of automation. Father and son writing team Robert and Edward Skidelsky argue in their book that leisure time should increase with automation and wealth creation.

“In the 1930s Keynes asked the question: what will life be like in 100 years time. Given the march of technology and the economy he predicted that we would be four or five times as rich as we were then. And because that amount of production would be obtainable as a very small fraction of the effort which was then being employed, because of automation and things, he thought that we wouldn’t have to work more than 15 hours a week.” 

Edward Skidelsky says in a Royal Society of Arts talk on the subject that Keynes was almost exactly right about growth. But he was entirely wrong about working hours. Why is this? Firstly, wants are not finite. Wants are insatiable and the reason they are insatiable is because they are relative. Secondly pressure to consume, largely because of advertising, has become overwhelming.

Capitalism is failing, he says, because it is not supporting the Aristolean notion of the “good life” – basically stopping the continual drive to have more once a comfortable state has been attained. If we could overcome the urge to continue increasing consumption indefinitely then things such as job sharing to reduce hours worked and increase the quality of our rapidly automating  life could become a reality, he says.

The Observer isn’t convinced.

Delicious omelettes cannot be made without the breaking of eggs. Anxieties about the impact of automation are not new and, in the past, automation has often led to economic growth and increases in employment. But there are worrying signs that this time things might be different. The new capabilities of machines enable them to replace not just human muscle and dexterity, but even some aspects of human cognition. Jobs that were hitherto not at risk, including many white-collar occupations, are now becoming vulnerable to computing. Or as the economist Paul Krugman puts it: “Smart machines will end up devaluing the contribution of workers, including highly skilled workers whose skills suddenly become redundant.”

But does it need to be that way? What about spending our time in other ways? Take the development of MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses).  Perhaps people with more time on their hands could spend it in continuous education – for the sake of it, rather than for specific career enhancement, for instance?

It is incredibly difficult to predict the outcome of technologies we can’t even anticipate. As Ben Hammersley illustrated perfectly in another recent RSA lecture Moore’s Law makes it impossible to understand the technology that is coming. It is popular to say that there is more computing power in the phone in your pocket than in the computers that took the Apollo mission to the moon. In fact, he says, there is more computing power in your washing machine!

He recounts how he has been advising Ministry of Defence planners looking at the implications of the technology which will be around in 2045 – a hopeless task.  “The computing power you will have in your pocket will be 2.42bn times as powerful as the phone you have in your pocket today.” This will lead inevitably for the first time in history to “a future where we will be surrounded by technology which we cannot imagine.”

Perhaps the dystopian vision of the future outlined by the Observer will instead by replaced by one more like the Culture, as described by Iain M Banks where superintelligent “minds” do all the hard stuff, leaving human(oid)s to get on with whatever takes their fancy? Let’s hope so.

The brave new world of gestures

We’ve had phones you pinch and poke for years and it is now commonplace to wave at your games console to make it do things, but we may be about to enter a world where gestures are going too far. Mashable reports today that LG are to launch a phone where the video stops if you look away.

With Smart Video, the phone will recognize the position of your eyes, and automatically play or stop a video based on whether or not you’re looking at the screen. So, if you get distracted while watching the latest “Harlem Shake” video, it will stop; when your eyes return to the monitor, however, it will pick up right where you left off.

This follows hard on the heels of rumours that the new Samsung Galaxy S4 (launching today) will have a feature which allows you to scroll the screen by tracking your eyes as you read.

I can’t help thinking that this may be a step too far. Effective technology recedes into the background letting you get on with the job in hand – reading, watching video, whatever. And this is clearly the motivation for these developments in the hyper-competitive smartphone space. But it is not hard to imagine consumers getting more and more frustrated with phone which scroll just because your eyes get distracted or by video which stops every time you momentarily look away. Time will tell, but these two developments may just be a step too far.

The power of collaboration

According to a WSJ article this morning firms are starting to use sensors to track what employees are doing to provide clues as to how they work and how they could work better. This isn’t simple old fashioned time and motion, however. The WSJ suggests what companies are really concerned about is that employees aren’t spending enough time together and this is impacting on productivity.  The article cites a Bank of Amercia study which showed productivity increased sharply when workers spent time together:

The data showed that the most productive workers belonged to close-knit teams and spoke frequently with their colleagues

Interestingly Marissa Meyer, the ex-Google ceo of Yahoo recently announced she was recalling homeworkers at Yahoo to the company’s offices to improve productivity and innovation. “Being a Yahoo isn’t just about your day-to-day job, it is about the interactions and experiences that are only possible in our offices” said the HR memo which announced that home working employees should relocate to a Yahoo office by June or look for another job.

This focus on collaboration and interaction as a source of competitive advantage was brought home to me recently when I visited Google’s offices near Centrepoint in London.

One of the collaboration spaces at Google’s office – picture: The Telegraph

The office was built around four types of space that I could see:

  1. Workspace – basically pretty functional bench-style desks similar to those you would find in most tech companies
  2. Collaboration space – quiky, comfortable rooms (see picture); meeting rooms of all shapes and sizes, each kitted out with large LCD screens; pods for smaller groups; single-person pods for employees to have video calls with remote colleagues
  3. Recreation space such as restaurants and gyms (free, of course) 
  4. Personal space – quiet areas like the library (pictured) which facilitate concentration 

Clearly a lot of thought has gone into optimising the building for different types of needs. But the prevailing impression is one of collaboration – lots and lots of face time, in person on by Google Hangout.

Google’s library – quiet space for lone concentration – picture: The Telegraph

The WSJ article cites other examples of studies which demonstrate a clear correlation with social interaction and productivity. Marissa Meyer came from Google, so perhaps no surprise that she places so much value on employee face time.

The mobile opportunity for b2b

I’ve been thinking a lot about mobile and its impact on b2b recently. There is a popular view that in a b2b setting the impact of mobile is relatively modest, with the exception of those people in very mobile jobs such as farmers perhaps. This is main reason why there have been very few examples of decent b2b apps beyond simple news sites. 
However, a key stat which emerged over the past week got me thinking. On Monday eConsultancy reported that 41% of email is now read on smart phones. Given the importance of email in the nurture programmes of all our key brands I got to wondering what happens to those emails that end up on our target customers’ smart phones. A reasonable hypothesis is not much. If the site to which the email is linking is not a mobile (or adaptively designed) site the experience is likely to be so poor my guess is the conversion rate is practically zero.
If we were to convert b2b sites to adaptive designs (and my guess is most are not) and then optimise the mobile landing pages for mobile conversion the effect could be dramatic. At the very least our conversion rate should nearly double (from the 41% of traffic currently not converting at all). But the story might be even better than that. Context matters. If I’m sitting at my desk busy with work you might argue that I would be less likely to click on a distracting link than when I’m checking emails on my phone during down-time on the train or in an airport.
Fortunately we now have some tools to help us test this all out.  Google AdWords have just launchedthe ability target ads specifically to different kinds of devices and at different times of days. And the analytics to help track this have been enhanced, too.
So, will we see a big jump in b2b conversion rates? I hope so.