180° Shift: Furnishing the Technological Experience


  • (All photos by Asa Mathat)

    (All photos by Asa Mathat)

  • 20121112_untitled_AT1T4341

Ryan Anderson
Director of Future Technology, Herman Miller, Inc.

Anderson: Well, good afternoon. How are the chairs working out? You figured out how to adjust them? Again, my name is Ryan. I’m the director of future technology at Herman Miller. You might wonder what does a furniture company have to do with the future of technology? Well, there’s a couple of answers. One is that we, of course, aspire to help people use technology at work. But the other relates to a fundamental shift that’s happened in corporate real estate that I want to tell you a little bit about.

And it boils down to this. For 30 years or 40 years, when a company went to go build an office building, they could pretty well be sure that their employees were going to come into that building and do their work. They had a desktop computer and a desktop phone and they had to sit at that desktop. But with the rise of mobility in the cloud, there’s been this fundamental shift in the economics of real estate because those buildings that organizations are building for their people to work in are at least in theory in competition with any other place where somebody might want to go do work. And so that’s begun to change the ROI and what it even means to create a space.

And different companies are kind of handling this in different ways. Some are shedding some of their real estate portfolios, but others are recognizing that just in the same way we’re behaving in more social ways online, work itself is becoming more social. The activities that happen within the built environment are social as well.

And so those that are more cutting-edge are beginning to really think about how do you create an experience in the workplace using technology that rivals or is even better than your experience using technology anywhere else you might want to work?

And so it’s my team’s job at Herman Miller to essentially conceive of what might be considered a spatial UXD, you know, a user experience within the built environment that really supports the use of technology in much better ways.

So, to make this real and not just pay lip service to the term “experience,” we brought on a whole group of fantastic advisors into a project that we have nicknamed Digital Ergonomics. And this group of thinkers represent UXD and EV Consulting, and Interior Architecture, Human Factors, Cognitive Science, and a whole host of other disciplines.

And their job is to help us identify these emergent behavioral patterns and then begin to think about a set of principles to create a great experience. They have done a great job, but I want to tell you, they have challenged me in a way that represents my own personal 180 that I wanted to share with you.

One of the topics that they have wanted to talk about and I initially considered out of scope were some of the more harmful or concerning or deleterious effects of using technology at work. So things like attention scarcity, this notion that we can’t seem to be present with each other because we’re all staring at our devices, or the way that all of these streams of information around us are beginning to kind of increase our cognitive load in a way that knowledge workers sometimes can’t focus.

And I have to tell you that when the group started talking about some of these things, I acknowledged this as a real concern, but I thought this is totally out of scope. Our job is to support the use of technology at work, not to moderate the use of technology. That’s up to the user, right?

Well, in the interest of time, I can’t tell you about the whole journey that I’ve been on, but ultimately what I realized is we can dream amazing things about what technology can do, but it’s up to the user to actually integrate those technologies into their personal and their team work process. They have to moderate that.

The work process is ultimately what enables the use of technology or not. So while we can dream grand things, the rate of technological change for a lot of people that are doing work today, people that work for you or work with you, in many cases their work process hasn’t really caught up with the incredible growth in technology.

So the answer is we have to honor that choice. And even though I, like many of you, as a technology lover, I also have learned that really a more holistic view of user experience design and what we’re trying to create is to provide people the choice that acknowledges that technology can help us do amazing things and it can be at the forefront of what we do, but that other times it can get in the way and providing, in this case, a space where we can beautifully support the use of technology or providing a different space where we can just focus and think that’s not anathema to creating a great technological experience.  It’s actually a very meaningful component of it. Thanks.

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