S3e15 The Human Tech Edition with Kate O’Neill
James chats with Kate O’Neill, who known as the tech humanist and is helping humanity prepare for an increasingly tech driven future by teaching businesses how to make technology that’s better for humans.
She’s led innovations across technology marketing operations for more than 20 years in companies from startups to Fortune 500s. Among her prior movements, we created the first content management role at Netflix, developed Toshiba America’s first intranet, led cutting edge online optimization work at Magazines.com and was the founder and CEO of Meta Marketer, a first of its kind analytics and digital strategy agency.
Her insights have been featured in outlets like Wired, and she’s appeared as an expert commentator on NPR, BBC World News, and many, many others. Companies like Google and Etsy and Cisco, and many more look to her for optimism about the role of technology in the world around us. And for a firm reality check.
Kate’s recent book “The Tech Humanist: how to make technology better for business and better for humans” is out now.
They discuss the impact of emerging technologies, making life better, data and AI, human connection, chatbots, and the impact of tech on customer experience.
KO Insights website: www.koinsights.com/
Amazon author page: amazon.com/author/kateo
James Nathan 0:55 Hello and welcome to The Only One Business Show with me your host James Nathan and today I’ve got great guest for you coming all the way from New York City. She is known as the tech humanist and is helping humanity prepare for an increasingly tech driven future by teaching businesses how to make technology that’s better for humans. She’s led innovations across technology marketing operations for more than 20 years in companies from startups to Fortune 500s. Among her prior movements, we created the first content management role at Netflix, developed Toshiba America’s first intranet, led cutting edge online optimization work at Magazines.com and was the founder and CEO of Meta Marketer, a first of its kind analytics and digital strategy agency. Her insights have been featured in outlets like Wired, and she’s appeared as an expert commentator on NPR, BBC World News, and many, many others. Companies like Google and Etsy and Cisco, and many more look to her for optimism about the role of technology in the world around us. And for a firm reality check. Her recent book “The Tech Humanist: how to make technology better for business and better for humans” is out now. And delighted to welcome Kate O’Neill. Kate, hi, how are you?
Kate O’Neill 2:16 Oh, good, James. Thank you so much for the kind intro.
James Nathan 2:20 You’re very welcome and, and technology at the moment as we’re all quarantined is must be….. and you, you bored now talking about tech? I guess you love talking about it anyway.
Kate O’Neill 2:32 I do, I think you have to love the area you’re in right? It has to be, it has to come from a really genuine place. And I think a moment like this really gets me in some ways excited about there’s, there’s so much potential for technology. There’s always so much potential for technology to enrich human lives and right now it’s kind of all we’ve got to enrich.
James Nathan 2:57 I was looking at your bio earlier thinking right now. I’m sat at home Netflix, I’ve got this is this is you know, but there is, there are great ways of using tech to…. in much more human ways are there?
Kate O’Neill 3:12 Yeah, yeah. So, you know so much of what I do is around thinking about and talking about and writing about the impact of emerging technologies on the future of meaningful human experiences. And what that means in practice is often about, when it takes the shape of how businesses engage with it, it’s digital transformation. It’s thinking about how what businesses offer into the market in products or services can be you know, kind of up to speed with customer expectations and, and what the market is needing. So, you know, Netflix is a great example of a type of product that had a very different shape and modality you know, kind of early on of course, we all knew it, as DVD rental company prior to it becoming a streaming company. And then now of course, it’s also a content development company, very much so. So very interesting sort of shape that that Netflix as a company and a brand has taken. But it also speaks to the opportunity to use the data that they collect to make better decisions about what can be the most engaging content that they create, and dig in more deeply into offering something that is a more engaging and enriching experience for people. Obviously, it’s a little bit of a frivolous offering, compared to, you know, solving more urgent problems of the human experience, but I think it still speaks to what the opportunities are.
James Nathan 4:46 But they’re the kind of things that just makes little bits of your life so much better. I mean, you finish your box set and you go right watch my watch next, let me give you an idea of the kind of thing you might like. I mean, I’m ridiculous I listened to so many audio books and I’m forever looking for the next listen. And you know, it’s great when when Audible tells me these ones you might like, based on my previous experience, I like that. What I don’t love is going on to Facebook and we suddenly thrashed with different advertising around it.
Kate O’Neill 5:15 Yeah, that’s, that’s the pros and cons of the whole thing, right. And I think there’s even even when we think about the world we live in, and the data that’s collected about all of our actions, and movements and preferences, and the indicators that we make by the things that we say online, and the things that we click, and then the relationships we have, and so on, all of those things, generate data, and increasingly, all of our experiences are shaped by that data in terms of algorithmic optimization. And that I think when most people think about that, it can kind of go two ways they can think positively like, Hey, I really enjoy Netflix making recommendations to me or Audible, or Spotify or whatever. I really like that. I get to discover Our new content. And that’s it that is truly one of the upsides of having this kind of data rich algorithmically optimised set of experiences. The flip side is, of course, the overreach of data and algorithms into aspects of human life that it’s not really ready for, like criminal justice, for example, and the algorithmic bias that comes into play in how those algorithms play out in making decisions about law enforcement, things like that, that show clear bias along lines that are our human bias. It’s our own human bias that we have encoded into the data models and into the data sets and into the algorithms that plays out at scale. So you know, both of those things are true at the same time, it’s a good experience and a bad experience. And then even to that sort of thing that you’re talking about where we don’t like the creepiness of feeling like we’re being followed by advertising online. All of that is true at the same time. And so the opportunity, I think, is to really accept and integrate the truth of all that and optimise the world, you know, kind of focus on making the best experiences happen within what’s possible with the data that we’re collecting and the algorithms that we’re developing, and make sure that we’re catching ourselves as we encode biases into datasets and algorithms, make sure we’re pulling that out. And so many great scholars are out there, you know, doing the work of recognising harmful algorithmic bias that’s happening across, you know, systemic and justices that already exist, and we’re just amplifying them through algorithms and through AI. So I think you know, that work is incredibly important, but I think what we have the opportunity to do is pull that back and say, you know, what, what can we do that actually looks forward to creating more meaningful human experiences and adjust the work that’s been done, move us forward in a positive way. So that’s a lot of the work that I do is always focused on trying to find the optimistic future in all of this and not allow ourselves to fall into the dystopian nightmare.
James Nathan 8:14 Well, I guess with with anything like this, it’s, you know, you started you talk there about your biases and law enforcement and you start to drop down massive wormholes. And it starts…. it does, it does freak you but you think, goodness, you know, you know, if we get this wrong at the beginning, where does it end up? But also this technology isn’t that old? I mean, this stuff is you talked about Netflix moving from disk to stream, well, you know, it couldn’t straight merge because the streaming just wasn’t, you know, unless you wanted to sit there and watch the little wheel spin. It wasn’t gonna work. You know, technology moves. I guess the businesses are able to do what they do based on the technology. But this AI stuff is only few years old….
Kate O’Neill 8:52 Well, in some ways, some ways. Artificial Intelligence as a discipline has been around for decades, and there have been computer scientists who have been working in that space for a long time. But of course, as you say, you know, if you think about the the capacity of the technology to be able to support what’s being developed, to your point, you couldn’t have, you know, Netflix streaming all this content in 1999, when they were renting DVDs by mail, it just wasn’t that the infrastructure wasn’t there. So in the same way, the infrastructure wasn’t really there to support the kinds of AI speculation that was happening in say, the 1980s. But now we’re getting to the point where the technology infrastructure does better support what’s speculative, and we can begin to put some of that in place. But it is preliminary. A lot of the thinking has gone on about it, but a lot of the practice hasn’t really been applied and when we get to a place where that’s uneven. I think we start to see you know, some things play out in some creaky ways that that we have to go back and adjust. So we do have this problem of, you know, encoding our own selves into the data we model and the algorithms we develop, in the programmes we develop. And that’s for good or bad. You know, I think a lot of our, like I said, our biases get encoded, but our values get encoded to, you know, for better or worse. And I think that’s the real opportunity is for us to be very intentional about encoding values, that are very human centric, that are all about, you know, optimising for the best of what humanity is up for, is capable of and giving us more meaningful experiences to engage with.
James Nathan 10:42 But then we start talking about value judgments, don’t we? And then there’s a whole world of, of difference there as well as and cultural difference, I guess, as well.
Kate O’Neill 10:51 True, that is true. So you know, I think that that’s going to come down to you know, some ethicists need to be involved in that discussion. And fortunately, there are a number of people who are stepping up who have great backgrounds for that discussion and, you know, sort of guiding us in the right directions around thinking holistically about ethics as it applies to technology and to AI specifically, and data privacy and things like that. So we need to have that rigorous discussion, and it needs to be represented in the regulations that get put in place within localities within government, you know, country governments and so on. But I think, you know, in general, the kind of unifying principle is that what is good for the for humanity as a whole is what we need to kind of agree on, at a baseline. Like there’s, I think of, I come back to the United Nations sustainable development goals as the baseline roadmap for how we can let technology be led in the future, that those 17 goals that the United Nations identified as improving life on on Earth, leading up to the year 2030 include things like you know, gender equality and reduction of poverty and improvement of planet qualities like life on land life and below sea. And lots of other characteristics that kind of universally improve the quality of life for every human on the planet. And I think if you, if you have something that’s so…. in a way, apolitically addresses what the human experience is, and gives a roadmap to how to improve the human experience, then we have the beginnings of something we can all hopefully agree on. How you play that out in different ways, sure, then we come down to, you know, values, interpretations, and local differences, cultural differences and so on. But there’s, there’s a, there’s a kind of universality to the human experience when it comes to how we each you know, kind of live in reality and in the tangible characteristics of human life, and those are the things that we need to make sure we’re making better.
James Nathan 13:08 Absolutely. I mean, if you look at those UN Development Goals, and you’d be hard pressed to say, no, I don’t want that.
Kate O’Neill 13:14 Right. Yeah. What kind of nonsense is that?
James Nathan 13:19 Yeah. How do you you know, I don’t know go back to Star Trek days as a child watching that. Where does this lead us, because the technology is good. We were talking earlier about, you know, Coronavirus and the world we’re living in right now. And, you know, I can’t help but thinking to two important things. One is thank goodness it’s the summer here and the kids you know, can go outside, it’s not lashing with rain all the time. But secondly, the tech is good enough that, you know, people can work from home even businesses who said they could never work, you know, never work remotely obviously can. Stuff like Zoom and Skype and all those things make that better. Google classrooms, all these thing. The tech is, is good enough to allow To work remotely and to live a little bit more remotely than we’d like to. Where does it shift to next? Where we are now is great, but how do we go…. Where do where do we end up with all of this?
Kate O’Neill 14:10 Well, I think that you’re right, that this is playing out very differently in very practical ways than I would imagine the human experience of the Spanish Flu in 1918 was for example, you know. It is true that for many, many people the option to work at home and, you know, be connected visually through Zoom and other, you know, visual platforms is there and that pivot has happened for many types of companies. And I don’t think that it will be fully going back, right. I think we can expect that more companies will have embraced at least some hybrid of work from home programme and what it’s going to look like to support a remote workforce and to manage teams that are distributed. Like those are really important things to understand. And they were already important things to understand. But I think this has forced the hand of a lot of leaders and gotten them into that game a lot more. So that’s good news, I think because it levels the playing field a bit more. And it means that people can have more opportunity in a more equally distributed way, which is, which is good. And it also means that access to talent is better you can get the talent that you need, no matter where they are in the world. It’s just fantastic.
James Nathan 15:30 I think you know, that that’s a remarkable change. And I think that that, well it’s gonna force people I think, to be better leaders, because, you know, you will have to lead in a different way to think more broadly about how you look after people and how you work with people. And you can’t have that kind of oversee control that you could perhaps have if someone was in a room with you.
Kate O’Neill 15:52 Absolutely. The catch is though I just want to I’m sorry to cut you off, but I want to make sure that to point out that I think there is a catch that there has been more of a tendency toward surveillance that has accompanied that. So there’s there’s quite a few stories that my colleagues and I are sharing on Twitter and elsewhere about tools that sort of work as a third party to Zoom and other platforms that are tracking the productivity of employees in ways that are pretty creepy I think, actually. So, you know, that side of things, is not the best. So I think I’ve seen a couple of companies that have done a really good job of laying out their values as it applies to this moment and what they’re working from home policies are going to be going forward. And a lot of them have to do with a very balanced approach to an understanding of mental health and readiness to engage with this. We’re living first of all, through a pandemic that has a lot of people in a very anxious and stressed state, not to mention if they’re actually sick, or if someone in their family is sick. So there’s a lot od understanding within some of these companies platforms to be able to say, hey look, if you need to check out of meetings for the rest of the day and you need to, you know, if you need to take a nap midday, if you need to stop having Zoom calls for the rest of the day, you have to make that call, like we need to trust you to be the responsible functioning adult who’s going to decide for yourself, you know, what your level of engagement needs to be. And that’s the nice counterpart. That’s the good counterpart to this, you know, overzealous surveillance piece that’s come up,
James Nathan 17:32 You know Kate, I think I must just be an optimist in life. I mean, I look at it and go wow, that’s great because in my head flexibility’s what’s important. And I love the fact that you know, I’ve worked for myself for a long time. I’ve worked from an office in my garden, which is pretty cool. You know, I haven’t missed a play at school. I haven’t missed a sports day. I’ve been able to pick them up from when I….. you know, these sort of things have been important to me in my life, and I kind of think well, if I, you know, I’ve been able to do that, but I had to move to my own business to achieve those things. For others, maybe now there’s opportunity and for businesses to attract different styles of people and perhaps a more diverse range of people based on their ability to give some flexibility. The bit I don’t like and and, in fact, you know, someone asked me what I thought of it yesterday and I used the word hate, is that I love…. I need people. And lots of people need that to be around people. I think the team’s system working with people being engaged across desks. That’s important stuff, too. And we mustn’t lose sight that just because we don’t have to have it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have it.
Kate O’Neill 18:39 Right. And we’re not I think, you know, that’s going to be a really interesting experiment over the next let’s call it year, right? Like, what does it look like to try to bring small groups of people back together? Because there is nothing that substitutes for the proximity of people. I think for all of our big talk about how we’re, you know, ready to work in a virtual world. It’s like, we come back to this, you know, very human need for our senses to be engaged. And if we’re only connecting over Zoom or the equivalent, it’s only engaging a few of our senses. And there’s, a there’s a whole kinesthetic aspect of it, you know, everything that we sort of sense around us physically, is disengaged from the people that we would otherwise be in proximity with. And I think that’s a more powerful thing than we’ve tended to give credit to. So I think there’s also going to be some very important innovations that come out of this and one of those is, I look forward to seeing what kind of additional sensory work is going to be done toward, you know, thinking about virtual experiences. How do we replicate or recreate or at least approximate, you know, some of the additional senses and the engagement that we would get. You and I are both speakers, we know what it feels like to stand on a stage and kind of feel the energy of the room, of the audience they know that are gathered in place. And that you just can’t substitute for that. There are wonderful tricks and techniques that we’re all starting to learn as we speak in more virtual events in this limited context, for kind of quasi feeling the energy of the crowd that’s gathered on your virtual event, but it’s not the same that it will never be the same. So I think so, yeah, go ahead.
James Nathan 20:31 I was talking about that yesterday with with a friend of mine who’s been speaking in the States for a long time. And he was saying that is exactly the same thing, which is, I can do it. I don’t want to do it. I know I can. And if I have to, I will. But it’s not me at my best. You know, and when we work, for most of us, the passion we have for what we do means that we want to be and always strive to be the best of what we can be. And sometimes this sort of thing limits that and I think for me, it limits it massively I don’t enjoy it in any way, the same way. And work has to be fun, doesn’t it?
Kate O’Neill 21:05 Yeah. And I even, I even feel when I’m speaking to smaller groups, sometimes I’m not as kind of engaged with the energy as when I have a larger audience. So I mean, even that the difference between a gathering of 30 people versus a gathering of 300 or 3000, you know, there’s such a difference in the sort of electrical jolt that I feel from that gathering of people. So yeah, so I mean, that the, then try trying to translate that to how do you sit in front of your computer screen or maybe even stand in front of your computer screen and try to connect with the virtual people, the people who are connected to you virtually, that you can sometimes not even see, that you only see maybe, you know, a list of attendees at best, and then you’re trying to reproduce that kind of energy, I think is just going to be very, it’s going to be an ongoing challenge.
James Nathan 22:00 It takes me back in time for when I used to, I used to do quite a lot of webcast and webinars, you know, in, in my early days, and I, you know, you think the first time talking to the ether and hoping there was someone listening. You could see, you can see that they were there, but you couldn’t say when they’re engaged or not, that’s a different thing altogether. Talking about engagement and next human experience. How was technology enhancing our experience in business now? Or how are businesses using tech to improve the customer experience with them?
Kate O’Neill 22:35 Well, I think here again, it comes back to you know, this kind of both end of what’s good and bad at the same time about the data that’s being collected about the human experience, right. So businesses are, are collecting an awful lot of data about every move that people make literally and figuratively, right? If you’re in a physical retail space, or a restaurant or something that there’s just as often as not you have sensors and trackers that are keeping watch over, you know, where people move within the store or that sort of thing. And then that data, you know, is kind of the parallel of what’s happening in terms of website analytics and, pathing through different social platforms and where are people going from one channel to the next. And I think, you know, the big picture of trying to connect the dots there on the customer experience side, and be able to make a more seamless experience that addresses problems that customers might have and gets them solutions faster. Like that’s really good news. I think we’re seeing business being able to anticipate more clearly you know, what people are coming to them for and be able to deliver it more readily and with less kind of frustration and less difficulty for the customer. The flip side of that, of course, is that that’s a lot trust that the customer has to place in the business to do the right thing with that data. And for the most part, I hope that companies are doing that. And there are indeed, of course, cases of overreach and, you know, company’s not doing the right thing with that data and not to mention that it puts the company in a very difficult situation of protecting that data, as well and making sure that doesn’t get breached or leaked and become a liability to the company. So it’s a big mix of good and bad happening at the same time. But, I think what’s really exciting about it is you know, you think about things like chat bots, for example. And think about like maybe a bank, and about how if you are someone who’s just trying to do what might be a very basic thing like open a new account on a banking website. It may have been difficult in the past, like if you if you were starting to hit any kind of difficulty with the setup process, you might have had to call an 800 number and wait on hold and you know, all this thing. And a lot of the chat bot functionality now can address the most basic of problems, you know, this kind of that kind of 90% or 80% of the wide swath of customer problems that they encounter in these, you know, kind of foundational experiences, and hit those right away. So people get their problem solved much faster and can get back on track, which is great for the business and great for the customer. And then what I think is really cool is the ability then if the chat bot isn’t sophisticated enough to be able to handle the nuances of what’s happening in that experience, that that can transition to a human operator that can then take on the more nuanced question and help provide more specific guidance. And you know, of course, that chat bot needs to be, able to be to hand over the the history of that engagement to the human operator so that there’s not kind of this whole I have to say it all again. Now.
James Nathan 25:56 I was just about to sigh….
Kate O’Neill 26:00 But I think when it’s done really well, we’re seeing that those kinds of intelligent automations can really be good for the person as well as the business.
James Nathan 26:11 There’s some of them, you know, just while you’re talking there, I was thinking, you know, who in my mind have I worked well, I’ve had interaction with recently. He’s been great. And you know, I go on about Amazon, Amazon is great for lots of things. Obviously, we’d love them to pay a bit more tax in our country but or tax in country. But apart from that big bugbear, you know, anywhere actually. But you know, if you have a problem, their chat system is seamless. Apple’s I used yesterday, I had a problem with a product, amazing. You know, these businesses do it very, very well indeed. They can also spend a hell of a lot of money getting that right. And you know, chatbots can be pretty average, can’t they if they’re poorly executed, have you seen recently when the companies you’re working with who, well big or small it doesn’t really matter but who who are using technology in the experience area? Really, really well, who would you highlight?
Kate O’Neill 27:08 Oh, you know, I think there have been, there have been quite a few examples of companies, especially during the pandemic, who have made very basic adjustments to their customer experience that aren’t even very high tech, but are just more in line with, hey, we know that you have some problems that are very urgent right now. And here’s how we’re going to solve them. We’re going to make sure that you don’t have to pay for this service that you might not be using right now. Or we’re going to make sure that we get you in and using the platform and then worry about billing you later. Or we make sure you know, like there’s there’s just a number of ways that I think for example, my gym, that I use, sent an email early on, in this, this pandemic that was saying look, we know that you’re not going to be coming back to the gym. Don’t worry about cancelling, we don’t want you to cancel. But what we were going to do is make sure that we retroactively credit everybody’s accounts for the months that they couldn’t use the gym. And so that they made it clear, we haven’t figured out how to do this yet.
James Nathan 28:19 What we intend to do, we’re gonna do it.
Kate O’Neill 28:22 You’ll probably see this show up on your credit card statement. But don’t worry, we actually were saying right now we’re going to go back and credit that. And I thought that was even as a low tech, kind of customer service, customer experience type of thing. Like, it was so brilliant because it was like, you know, get ahead of a problem, you’re gonna have cancellations. So, if you can get ahead of it and say, we don’t know how we’re going to do this, but this is our intention. And we’d love it.
James Nathan 28:48 Yeah, I love it. And you’re gonna remember it. I mean people….. there’s a lot of good and a lot of bad going on at the moment. There’s businesses who are absolutely doing the right thing and there are other businesses who have been very slow to be kicked into having to do the right thing. And I guess we remember the good ones and we will remember for a long time. I hope that the ones who haven’t looked after people, I don’t hope you know, for the people who work there that becomes a problem for them but I do hope that they have to reinvent themselves in a more positive way. And think about you know, how you do really look after people and think about people rather than just try to make a buck out of them as quickly as you can. You know, that gym thing is… if you know, I talk about gym memberships as things that I would occasionally pay Kate and then and visit now and then to see whether I’m actually getting anything for the money there are there are some some very, very good things going on. We could you know, we could talk about tech forever and so I’m a bit of a geek for this stuff anyway. But what would you, if I was to ask you for your one big thing, your golden nugget, something that people could do today in their businesses to make their businesses benefit today, but also better for the years to come. What would that be?
Kate O’Neill 30:06 Well, I believe that what we’re all trying to do is solve human problems in some way or another. So focusing on solving those human problems at a really individual level right now is really core. But then what happens as we, as we get past the urgency of this crisis, of the pandemic that we’re in, as this I believe, I hope that this episode will still be relevant, you know, in 2024, in the sense that if you solve human problems today, what you’re actually trying to do in the future is solve human problems at scale. Right? So just getting clear on what is the problem for a human that you’re solving? And then how can you bring that up a level of abstraction to more humans solving human problems at a larger scale, and then focusing on making making the human experience of that problem solving more meaningful in the process. I think if those two lenses on how to engage through business and through to the people that you interact with, if those two lenses are what you bring to it, I believe you’re going to be in in good shape for a long time to come.
James Nathan 31:21 Kate, fantastic. Thank you. And thank you so much taking the time today. It’s been lovely speaking with you.
Kate O’Neill 31:26 Lovely speaking with you, too. Thank you and stay well and healthy.
James Nathan 31:29 And you, and you.