Tech Report: Context is Everything

A group of scientists have recently declared that we have entered a new geological age, the Anthropocene. I have often thought of Digital as an epoch rather than a channel or medium and this is a useful analogy when we are considering the real-world impacts of our Digital strategy. The eras of Digital since the birth of the World Wide Web might look something like this:

1994 — 2001: The web era

A technology which connects documents to one another explodes, ushering in the Digital Age. People are connecting to information in a world-changing manner.

2001 — 2007: The application web (2.0)

The web evolves to a platform for applications – commerce, communication, utility. People are connecting to services and transactions.

2007 — 2015: The Social web

People are connecting to people. Businesses have also had to learn how to have relationships directly with people again.

2015 — Now: HTTP everywhere

The basic unit of transaction within most Digital systems and the driving force of the web – a simple call for a request and response from a server – now connects us not just to information, services and people, but also to our lifestyles and environments.

When you think about Digital this way, you don’t consider individual technologies in the traditional “cool list” fashion, but one thinks more of how this new paradigm might change how people interact with brands and each other. Technology does drive paradigm shifts, but it’s far more valuable to look at what those shifts are, instead of the technologies themselves. Here are a few to consider:

1. The receding interface

There is a gradual shift away from sharing through social networks in favour of messaging. Whereas we might have been inclined to share an interesting article or video through our social networks, we are now tending to share through WhatsApp and the like. This behaviour is now also extending into transactional interactions and has given rise to technologies such as conversational applications and chatbots which act as agents.

Uber has been experimenting with booking cars directly within the chat interface and others will surely follow. The interesting thing about this is that the transaction is happening directly at the point of need, and in the natural flow of conversation. Technologies like Amazon’s Echo/Alexa will break this down even further, removing the need for a visual interface entirely. This creates new challenges in digital design and strategy as non-visual cues – inflection, natural language processing, haptics etc. – become more and more important.

2. Everything is a service

Whereas we might previously have built apps, channels and platforms (often on enterprise software) for specific uses (there’s an app for that!), we are now understanding the importance of having our business logic available in discreet micro-services which are accessible through any interface (your phone, a chatbot, the web, a physical interface). The new breed of digitally driven businesses (Uber, Airbnb etc) have, again, been incredibly successful in erasing the friction of interfaces, and focus purely on meeting the users needs through the exposure of their services directly at the point of need. This can be a huge architectural challenge, not to mention information security and user experience, but increasingly vital.

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Services need to be smarter and to understand our context better.

3. Machine understanding

We want our services to be smarter and to understand our context better. Personalisation has been a blunt tool up until recently. For example, recommendations engines make generalised suggestions based on previous browsing history to serve us relevant ads. They are rarely relevant, often giving us ads for things we’ve just bought. They don’t truly understand our needs because they don’t understand – or ask us for – the context that we are currently browsing in.

I was delighted on a recent trip to Slovenia when my Android phone’s interface automatically placed a translation window on my home screen with the Slovene for “good morning” pre-populated. It did this on the basis of my location, knowing that English was my native language and the time of day where I was, without my asking. The more that machine based processes can understand the data which I’m giving them about my environment, the more useful they can be.

4. Environment sensing

We will continue to be more and more connected to our environment. This comes with some utility. My smart home can be aware of my presence and be energy efficient. My wearables connect me to my lifestyle better – what are my patterns of movement, how much sleep am I getting? For example, my phone always gives me a traffic report for the A1 at 6pm every Friday, knowing that I frequently travel to my cello lesson in St Albans at that time. Sensors are becoming sophisticated to the point that they can now reliably control a self-driving car.

Lidar (a passive radar system) will be commonplace in the next 10 years, and tiny and cheap enough to place in many different devices. The consumers’ understanding of the Internet of Things has largely been confined to a fridge that orders milk when you run out, but actually this is really about our digital lives understanding our context more readily and providing better service. This utility will become so commonplace that we barely notice it.

5. Automation

The final paradigm shift really ties all of the above together. When we talk about automation, we are once again talking about passive service at the point of need through an understanding of a user’s needs. It’s the world of difference between ordering a cab after a party in 1995 and 2016. So much of that process is now dealt with by background digital processes, the upshot of which is that my needs get met far more quickly and easily. The automation of our cars, our homes, our cities and our lifestyles will, optimistically, provide us with great service and utility, and brands will continue to need to be radical in order to provide this service layer.

What began as a networking technology has evolved to become the underlying mechanism for how we live now, and it will continue to go in directions which we can barely imagine right now. This is ultimately what I mean when I say that technology itself isn’t the driver for change. Digital hasn’t just been about HTTP in the same way that VR itself (whilst undeniably ‘cool’) probably doesn’t have much application for, say, an insurance brand. But what these technologies do impact is how we experience the world and they do so broadly. Brands need to consider how they fit into these shifting paradigms and how their customers are living digitally.

Illustration by Alastair Jones

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