I’ve recently found myself purchasing eBooks when I need reference material for work and hard copy books for personal reading. I started thinking about why I was making this choice. Although there are obvious advantages to digital material, there is also something appealing about the prospect of paging through the pages of a freshly printed book.
Similarly, the virtues of listening to vinyl is a popular analogue vs digital debate. Even though you have to be a sound engineer to hear the difference, there is something special about thumbing through your LP collection, inspecting album art, carefully removing the record from its sleeve, placing it on the turntable and positioning the needle with surgical precision. It's a visceral, thoughtful experience that engages most of your senses, evokes memories and often emotions. It's hard to replicate.
In a similar vein, there has been a surge in articles about people re-discovering and reclaiming a life without Facebook. Again, while there are definitely advantages to being on Facebook, there is also something nice about a phone call, a handwritten postcard or a knock at the door spontaneous invite to a dinner party.
Another trend I’ve noticed is photographers shooting on film rather than digital. Shooting on film makes you more aware, more conscious of what you’re snapping. There is less room for error on film and more at stake, and consequently you become more deliberate.
So, is each of these non-digital trends simply a desire to return to simpler times, or is analogue and physical better in some way? It’s a different experience in every case, even though the outcome might be similar. What’s important is that you consider the different intellectual, emotional, sensory and behavioural aspects that make up an experience.
In many ways, the rise of digital has heightened the the value of physical and analogue.
When something involves a physical component it typically demands more from us than its digital equivalent. And this is a good thing. Having to deal with the intricacies of film or record players, phones, conversation and paper books are all experiences that act to heighten our experience of the present moment.
There is something deeper here. While it’s tempting to think that we are a brain with a body attached, a contemporary view of what it is to be human encompasses the brain and body as whole interdependent ecosystem (see The 21st Century Brain by Steven Rose, and studies on the effect of gut bacteria on mood). Clearly, any discussion of human experience needs to be undertaken within the backdrop of this wider context.
It was Steve Jobs that said: “you’ve got to start with the customer experience and work back towards the technology – not the other way around”.
We are witnessing a shift that acknowledges that we are adjusting to live in a digital world. Mobile phone features are being designed to make us conscious of how we use (overuse) our phone, more conscious of personal data and more sensitive to our biology (blue light filters).
As design luminary Don Norman continues to remind us; we are meant to be designing technology to enable humans, not asking humans to conform to the demands of technology or worse – seduced to use it.
And yet it is the technology or the ‘app’ that is still so often the focus of start-ups and tech companies – rather than choreographing the experience that the app delivers. In many ways, the experience IS the product, it delivers more than just functional value, it promotes engagement and loyalty, and it is what customers will talk about.
THE NEXT WAVE
If we create a world in which everything is automated and done for us and we succeed in making ourselves largely superfluous to the business of the world - what will we have ultimately achieved? Unless technologies like Artificial Intelligence provide us with an ability to enhance our quality of life, sustainability of our planet and longevity of our species – we will have really missed the point in a very significant way.
I’m not so sure that superhuman AI or Internet of Things by themselves will constitute our future. These technologies are obviously important, however, if we are to learn from our mistakes, the next digital wave will need to be a finely crafted seamless integration of both digital and analogue solution components - where the human experience takes centre stage and is deliberately honoured.