Software as material

I’m so glad that the Enterprise User Experience Conference blog posts that I’ve written so far have gotten some good visibility.  It was a great event!

But for those that actually attended, they may be wondering why I haven’t blogged the keynote addresses.  I will confess that I had intended to sketchnote them!  I did, indeed, sit in the very front row (UX nerd alert!) and take good notes while Greg Petroff was presenting the opening keynote.  But there were too many ideas and not enough paper, and very quickly the whole thing became frantic, disorganized chicken-scratch … and not anything I’d post here.

But that gives me the opportunity to commend the amazing official sketchnoter, MJ Broadbent.  Once I figured out that there were tables (and, thankfully, charging stations) in the back of the meeting space, I moved out of the front row.  I had the chance to sit near her and see her set up:

OriginalPhoto-487185875.396882.jpgHere is her summary of Greg Petroff’s opening keynote, entitled Everything is about to Change: Software as Material:

Greg Petroff GE Digital Opening Keynote.jpg

Hopefully this will provide a nice reference as I summarize what I heard, below.

Greg Petroff was initially trained as an architect, and from there found his way to UX.  He helped to found the IXDA, and he currently serves as the Chief Experience Officer at GE.  He was at SAP for a number of years prior to that.

Petroff told us that it’s an exciting time to be in Enterprise UX – there is an ascendant community, and it something to celebrate!  However, we are embedded in a fast-moving environment, where technology and business conversations will change the way we work. If we want to contribute to our full potential, we need to be attuned to those changes.

He started by providing a backdrop on some of the big changes emerging in the technology that will affect us and our work in the years to come:

  • Machine learning.  There was a tipping point in the Artificial Intelligence (AI) space not that long ago, where the Google AI beat a Go (strategy board game) master.  What’s fascinating about Go is that there is no way to win by brute computational force.  On a more humble scale, the Amazon Echo is learning extremely fast from it’s community of users.  It’s critical to not lose sight of the fact that things may be complex, but they can still be automated.
  • Internet of Things (IOT).  Cisco predicts that by 2020 there will be 50 billion devices with IP addresses talking to one another.  Given the growing sophistication of those devices, they will be able to describe potential futures based on scenario analysis.
  • Security.  The reality is that, under these conditions, the chances of something really bad happening grows.  Not necessarily “nefarious behavior, just dumb behavior”.  This context will require appropriate interfaces and experiences so people can feel comfortable.  And, of course, our lives will also become more transparent.
  • Edge computing.  In lay terms edge computing means that “applications, data and computing power (services) [move] away from centralized points to the logical extremes of a network”.  Today, the Edison Intel chip has the computing capability of a personal computer – in something the size of an SD card.  What happens when we can interact with machines that are so much more capable?
  • Block Chain.  Services such as BitCoin leverage block chain, which is “is a distributed database that maintains a continuously-growing list of data records hardened against tampering and revision”.  It allows for secure, peer-to-peer transactions (which includes devices).  This is a further accelerator along the trajectories outlined above.

There are also some trends that we need to be mindful of – and much of this is already here:

  • Disruptive platforms.  These allow increased speed to market.
  • The new tech stack.  It is increasingly componentized, and each contributing member of a team (e.g. product management, engineering, UX) is affected by these changes:


This has implications for how everyone works.  The work that many of us are doing on design systems fits well into this way of working.

  • Dev Ops culture.  The Dev Ops culture moves engineering further away from requirements documents; it encourages small, incremental changes and hypothesis-driven design.
  • Systems inversion.  We have moved from the idea of Systems of Record (e.g. on premise HR and Finance systems) to Systems of Engagement (e.g. means for connecting people such as CRM or Facebook), to Systems of Assets which are made possible by AI, IOT, and other conditions described earlier.  These assets are also relationship-based, but they are time and location (e.g. context) aware as well.  This asset-based approach is a recent one, as not all the necessary building blocks were even available five years ago …


All of these changes have implication for our work in UX; we must understand context first before we can begin work:

  • Algorithms will have a significant role in shaping experience
  • Future solutions will integrate disparate systems and data
  • We should leverage location and temporal services in our work
  • We must have a clear behavioral model of the users we’re designing for

The reality today is that no-one understands these new ingredients yet – not even he and his team at GE.  There is ambiguity and uncertainty, and our typical prediction frameworks don’t work any more.  petroff

What Petroff said is that a time is coming when how to build is solved.  At that point, what to build and why will become much more important.  Although we’ve been moving away from technology for technology’s sake since the dot-com crash, I would still like to hope that he is right.  He believes that of our abductive thinking skills, we are skilled at asking the “what if” questions, and that a result User Experience, will become increasingly core to strategy.

Greg closed with a series of three slides which depicted how he believes the role of User Experience professionals will evolve in this new context:


In reflecting on the curation of the Enterprise UX event as a whole, I thought the opening keynote presentation was a superb backdrop for the presentations that followed.  In particular, the progression from a session on Design Systems to one on Innovation beautifully reflected the trajectory Petroff articulated for us.

Additionally, for me, it was interesting to think about this framework as a maturity model both for the field, and for the teams I currently manage.  In fact – even though the technology backdrop Petroff describes is still emergent for us – over the past few years we have made some conscious decisions about where we’re spending our time in order to move to the right.

While we value our role as craftsmen within the organization, we have had some concerns about people focusing on wireframes and mock-ups as our primary value proposition to project teams and clients.  That is, in part, what prompted my earlier post entitled UX as Art & Science.  With our more mature clients (or in areas of the business where we’re better established), we are seen as a business partner.  And that is possible, in part, because we’ve committed the time and effort to establish UX patterns that accelerate our drawing work, leaving us bandwidth for dialogue with our clients, stakeholders, and project teams.  Finally, as we gain a deeper understanding both of the industry we work in, and of the users enabled by our solutions, we are able to contribute to a stream of innovation by providing ideas and inspiration that were not possible when we were mired in the day-to-day design work.

For me the most compelling part of Petroff’s presentation were the ideas that in the future, (1) our ability to consider and contribute to thinking about complex contexts will be critical, and (2) as the path to build in a component-based way becomes more clear, what to build and why will be of foremost concern.  And UX, fortunately, is well placed to support answering those questions.  In principle, that will enable us to play an increasingly strategic role, and finally give us that seat at the table that we’ve been clamoring for.

Let’s hope he’s right!

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