Mobile Devices Have Become 'Prosthetic Brains,' Web Guru Says

Julie Bort

Alistair Croll

Mobile app developers should not be thinking “disruption,” they should be thinking “interruption,” contends Web guru Alistair Croll.


He means mobile apps should be interupting us, just like a phone call rings, and an e-mail or text beeps.

Croll is an author and expert on how to measure success on the Web, with a string of startups under his belt (Coradiant, Rednod, CloudOps, Bitcurrent, and accelerator Year One Labs). He’s got an upcoming book, too, “Lean Analytics” co-authored with Ben Yoskovitz (also with Year One Labs).

And after 20 years of running startups, he’s got some interesting ideas of what most mobile app developers do wrong.

The biggest mistake in mobile these days, is buying into the “Mobile First” myth. That just means “make this web page work on a tablet,” he recently argued on his blog, “Solve For Interesting.”

Instead, a mobile app should know what we want and give it us … automatically.

Business Insider recently caught up with Croll and asked him to explain himself.

BI: You wrote: “Mobile devices aren’t consumption devices, they’re prosthetic brains.” The Common thought is that they are consumption devices, so, what do you mean by that?

Alistair Croll: If you need to check your phone to find out about a meeting, you’ve failed. If your phone understands that you need to know about a meeting, and tells you about it, then you’ve won. In the former case, the burden was on you (to check) and the phone was simply a reference.

I’m talking about the human/machine hybrid of us-and-our-digital-lives. The best interface is one that’s invisible until it’s needed, and then completely intuitive. That requires that the machine itself understand how to tailor its interface to the human.

It’s important to remember that the idea of “design” is accomplishing a goal or an objective. For many functions, the human is the weakest link: we get distracted, misremember things, make mistakes. Smartphones, and their successors, can fix this, but to do so we need them to own the interface (rather than us to own it.)

BI: Why is interrupting people a good thing in mobile design? Besides email or SMS, can you point to examples of mobile apps that do this well?

Alistair Croll: [One example] is Google Now, which says things like, “you need to leave for your meeting now because traffic on the way is heavy.” But there are plenty of others that approach this: CBC News has an app that sends you alerts based on your region. United Airlines’ mobile app tells you when your gate has changed, and so on.

I’m arguing that this is the interface of the future.

BI: How can you tell if your “interupting” mobile app is effective?

Alistair Croll: At a high level: are the interruptions useful, or annoying? I got a message from United telling me to check in; then another saying my gate had changed. That helped me get a good seat, and not miss my flight. That was beneficial. On the other hand, I got a notification from LinkedIn telling me someone with whom I had no shared connections wanted to reach me, a PR person. That wasn’t useful; LinkedIn could have suppressed it.

If you’re trying to quantify things, then it’s easy to build analytics. If I get a list of stories that [social news feed app] Prismatic thinks I’ll find useful, when I click on some of them, I’m teaching Prismatic how accurate its predictions were. With every click, I teach the machine; every interruption it sends me is an experiment. This mentality of “everything is an experiment” is core to the concept of Lean Analytics.

BI:  If the average user has a bunch of apps on a mobile device, say 50 apps, and they are all interrupting us to tell us stuff, doesn’t that create chaos for the user?

Alistair Croll: No. I have one notification center. BlackBerry 10 has this notion of a “hub”; on an iPhone, there’s a notification panel that pulls down across the screen. It collects all the information, all the interruptions I’ve got. I don’t use 50 apps. I use one interface (the notification centre) to access 50 information sources. That’s why designing for interruption is so important. That wasn’t my idea; that was thinking by Brad Feld and Fred Wilson.

BI: What other aspects of “mobile first design” do people not understand?

Alistair Croll: Interruptions have a Goldilocks problem: If an app is too spammy, or if it overloads a notification center, it’ll get muted. If it isn’t there often enough, it’ll get forgotten, and the app won’t get user engagement.

There’s a “virtuous loop” of learning and feedback, a constant cycle of optimization and data mining, that needs to happen. Interruption is anticipating what the user will find useful. And anticipation is predicting the future—for which we need machine learning and Big Data.

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13 Scary Statistics On Employee Engagement [INFOGRAPHIC]

Jacob Shriar

There is a serious problem with the way we work.

Most employees are disengaged and not passionate about the work they do. This is costing companies a ton of money in lost productivity, absenteeism, and turnover. It’s also harmful to employees, because they’re more stressed out than ever.

The thing that bothers me the most about it, is that it’s all so easy to fix. I can’t figure out why managers aren’t more proactive about this. Besides the human element of caring for our employees, it’s costing them money, so they should care more about fixing it. Something as simple as saying thank you to your employees can have a huge effect on their engagement, not to mention it’s good for your level of happiness.

The infographic that we put together has some pretty shocking statistics in it, but there are a few common themes. Employees feel overworked, overwhelmed, and they don’t like what they do. Companies are noticing it, with 75% of them saying they can’t attract the right talent, and 83% of them feeling that their employer brand isn’t compelling. Companies that want to fix this need to be smart, and patient. This doesn’t happen overnight, but like I mentioned, it’s easy to do. Being patient might be the hardest thing for companies, and I understand how frustrating it can be not to see results right away, but it’s important that you invest in this, because the ROI of employee engagement is huge.

Here are 4 simple (and free) things you can do to get that passion back into employees. These are all based on research from Deloitte.

1.  Encourage side projects

Employees feel overworked and underappreciated, so as leaders, we need to stop overloading them to the point where they can’t handle the workload. Let them explore their own passions and interests, and work on side projects. Ideally, they wouldn’t have to be related to the company, but if you’re worried about them wasting time, you can set that boundary that it has to be related to the company. What this does, is give them autonomy, and let them improve on their skills (mastery), two of the biggest motivators for work.

Employees feel overworked and underappreciated, so as leaders, we need to stop overloading them to the point where they can’t handle the workload.

2.  Encourage workers to engage with customers

At Wistia, a video hosting company, they make everyone in the company do customer support during their onboarding, and they often rotate people into customer support. When I asked Chris, their CEO, why they do this, he mentioned to me that it’s so every single person in the company understands how their customers are using their product. What pains they’re having, what they like about it, it gets everyone on the same page. It keeps all employees in the loop, and can really motivate you to work when you’re talking directly with customers.

3.  Encourage workers to work cross-functionally

Both Apple and Google have created common areas in their offices, specifically and strategically located, so that different workers that don’t normally interact with each other can have a chance to chat.

This isn’t a coincidence. It’s meant for that collaborative learning, and building those relationships with your colleagues.

4.  Encourage networking in their industry

This is similar to number 2 on the list, but it’s important for employees to grow and learn more about what they do. It helps them build that passion for their industry. It’s important to go to networking events, and encourage your employees to participate in these things. Websites like Eventbrite or Meetup have lots of great resources, and most of the events on there are free.

13 Disturbing Facts About Employee Engagement [Infographic]

What do you do to increase employee engagement? Let me know your thoughts in the comments!

Did you like today’s post? If so you’ll love our frequent newsletter! Sign up here and receive The Switch and Shift Change Playbook, by Shawn Murphy, as our thanks to you!

This infographic was crafted with love by Officevibe, the employee survey tool that helps companies improve their corporate wellness, and have a better organizational culture.


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Supply Chain Fraud: The Threat from Within

Lindsey LaManna

Supply chain fraud – whether perpetrated by suppliers, subcontractors, employees, or some combination of those – can take many forms. Among the most common are:

  • Falsified labor
  • Inflated bills or expense accounts
  • Bribery and corruption
  • Phantom vendor accounts or invoices
  • Bid rigging
  • Grey markets (counterfeit or knockoff products)
  • Failure to meet specifications (resulting in substandard or dangerous goods)
  • Unauthorized disbursements

LSAP_Smart Supply Chains_graphics_briefook inside

Perhaps the most damaging sources of supply chain fraud are internal, especially collusion between an employee and a supplier. Such partnerships help fraudsters evade independent checks and other controls, enabling them to steal larger amounts. The median loss from fraud committed
by a single thief was US$80,000, according to the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners (ACFE).

Costs increase along with the number of perpetrators involved. Fraud involving two thieves had a median loss of US$200,000; fraud involving three people had a median loss of US$355,000; and fraud with four or more had a median loss of more than US$500,000, according to ACFE.

Build a culture to fight fraud

The most effective method to fight internal supply chain theft is to create a culture dedicated to fighting it. Here are a few ways to do it:

  • Make sure the board and C-level executives understand the critical nature of the supply chain and the risk of fraud throughout the procurement lifecycle.
  • Market the organization’s supply chain policies internally and among contractors.
  • Institute policies that prohibit conflicts of interest, and cross-check employee and supplier data to uncover potential conflicts.
  • Define the rules for accepting gifts from suppliers and insist that all gifts be documented.
  • Require two employees to sign off on any proposed changes to suppliers.
  • Watch for staff defections to suppliers, and pay close attention to any supplier that has recently poached an employee.

About Lindsey LaManna

Lindsey LaManna is Social and Reporting Manager for the Digitalist Magazine by SAP Global Marketing. Follow @LindseyLaManna on Twitter, on LinkedIn or Google+.


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Why New Technology Has An Adoption Problem

Danielle Beurteaux

When 3D printing became a practical reality, in the sense that the actual printers became more efficient, less expensive, and more accessible to the average consumer, there was an assumption that the consumer 3D printing market was going to take off. We’d all have printers at home printing…. what? Our clothes? Toys? Spare organs?

That has yet to happen. 3D printing company MakerBot just went through its second employee layoff this year, driven by a market that’s developing much slower than predicted.

That same thinking is in play with a somewhat more prosaic technology – digital wallets. Apple Pay was released this year, as was Samsung Pay. There’s also Google’s Android Pay. During an earnings call, Apple CEO Tim Cook said: “We are more confident than ever that 2015 will be the year of Apple Pay.” But that expectation has yet to be realized, at least vis-à-vis consumers.

Consumers aren’t using any of the digital wallets en masse. According to Bloomberg, payments made via mobile wallets – all of them – make up a mere 1% of retail purchases in the U.S. The reason is that consumers just don’t see a compelling reason to use them. There’s no real reward for them to change from SOP.

Both these instances highlight a problem with assumptions about mass adoption for new technology – just because it’s cool, interesting, and accessible doesn’t mean a market-worthy mass of people will use it.

Who is more likely to use mobile wallets? Emerging economies without a stable financial and banking systems. In those environments, digital payments present a more secure and quicker method for purchasing. These are the same areas where mobile adoption leapfrogged older technologies because there was a lack of telecommunications infrastructure, i.e. many never had a landline phone to begin with, and they went directly to mobile. The value-add already exists. (But there are also security issues, to which consumers are becoming more sensitive. A hack of Samsung’s U.S. subsidiary LoopPay network was uncovered five months post-hack. Although one was expert quoted as saying the hackers may not have been interested in selling consumer financial info but instead in tracking individuals.)

Here’s some interesting data and a good point made: mobile payments are most popular in situations where the buyer already has his or her phone in hand and the transaction is made even quicker than swiping plastic. For example, purchases made for London Transit rides are responsible for a good portion of the U.K.’s mobile payments.

Mass technology adoption is no longer driven simply by the release of a new product. There are too many products released constantly now, the market is too diverse, and the products often lack a true raison d’être.

Learn more about how creative and innovative companies are finding their customers. Read Compelling Shopping Moments: 4 Creative Ways Stores Connect With Their Customers.


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Ambient Intelligence: What's Next for The Internet of Things?

Dan Wellers

Imagine that your home security system lets you know when your kids get home from school. As they’re grabbing an afternoon snack, your kitchen takes inventory and sends a shopping list to your local supermarket. There, robots prepare the goods and pack them for home delivery into an autonomous vehicle – or a drone. Meanwhile, your smart watch, connected to a system that senses and analyzes real-time health indicators, alerts you to a suggested dinner menu it just created based on your family’s nutritional needs and ingredients available in your pantry. If you signal your approval, it offers to warm the oven before you get home from work.

This scenario isn’t as futuristic as you might think. In fact, what Gartner calls “the device mesh” is the logical evolution of the Internet of Things. All around us and always on, it will be both ubiquitous and subtle — ambient intelligence.

We’ll do truly different things, instead of just doing things differently. Today’s processes and problems are only a small subset of the many, many scenarios possible when practically everything is instrumented, interconnected, and intelligent.

We’re also going to need to come up with new ways of interacting with the technology and the infrastructure that supports it. Instead of typing on a keyboard or swiping a touchscreen, we’ll be surrounded by various interfaces that capture input automatically, almost incidentally. It will be a fundamental paradigm shift in the way we think of “computing,” and possibly whether we think about computing at all.

The Internet of not-things

The foundation will be a digital infrastructure that responds to its surroundings and the people in it, whether that means ubiquitous communications, ubiquitous entertainment, or ubiquitous opportunities for commerce. This infrastructure will be so seamless that rather than interacting with discrete objects, people will simply interact with their environment through deliberate voice and gesture — or cues like respiration and body temperature that will trigger the environment to respond.

Once such an infrastructure is in place, the possibilities for innovation explode. The power of Moore’s Law is now amplified by Metcalfe’s Law, which says that a network’s value is equal to the square of the number of participants in it. All these Internet-connected “things” — the sensors, devices, actuators, drones, vehicles, products, etc.  — will be able to react automatically, seeing, analyzing, and combining to create value in as yet unimaginable ways.  The individual “things” themselves will meld into a background of ambient connectedness and responsiveness.

The path is clearly marked

Think of the trends we’ve seen emerge in recent years:

  • Sensors and actuators, including implantables and wearables, that let us capture more data and impressions from more objects in more places, and that affect the environment around them.
  • Ubiquitous computing and hyperconnectivity, which exponentially increase the flow of data between people and devices and among devices themselves.
  • Nanotechnology and nanomaterials, which let us build ever more complex devices at microscopic scale.
  • Artificial intelligence, in which algorithms become increasingly capable of making decisions based on past performance and desired results.
  • Vision as an interface to participate in and control augmented and virtual reality
  • Blockchain technology, which makes all kinds of digital transactions secure, verifiable, and potentially automatic.

As these emerging technologies become more powerful and sophisticated, they will increasingly overlap. For example, the distinctions between drones, autonomous vehicles, and robotics are already blurring. This convergence, which multiplies the strengths of each technology, makes ambient intelligence not just desirable but inevitable.

Early signposts on the way

We’re edging into the territory of ambient intelligence today. Increasingly complex sensors, systems architectures, and software can gather, store, manage, and analyze vastly more data in far less time with much greater sophistication.

Home automation is accelerating, allowing people to program lighting, air conditioning, audio and video, security systems, appliances, and other complex devices and then let them run more or less independently. Drones, robots, and autonomous vehicles can gather, generate, and navigate by data from locations human beings can’t or don’t access. Entire urban areas like Barcelona and Singapore are aiming to become “smart cities,” with initiatives already underway to automate the management of services like parking, trash collection, and traffic lights.

Our homes, vehicles, and communities may not be entirely self-maintaining yet, but it’s possible to set parameters within which significant systems operate more or less on their own. Eventually, these systems will become proficient enough at pattern matching that they’ll be able to learn from each other. That’s when we’ll hit the knee of the exponential growth curve.

Where are we heading?

Experts predict that, by 2022, 1 trillion networked sensors will be embedded in the world around us, with up to 45 trillion in 20 years. With this many sources of data for all manner of purposes, systems will be able to arrive at fast, accurate decisions about nearly everything. And they’ll be able to act on those things at the slightest prompting, or with little to no action on your part at all.

Ambient intelligence could transform cities through dynamic routing and signage for both drivers and pedestrians. It could manage mass transit for optimal efficiency based on real-time conditions. It could monitor environmental conditions and mitigate potential hotspots proactively, predict the need for government services and make sure those services are delivered efficiently, spot opportunities to streamline the supply chain and put them into effect automatically.

Nanotechnology in your clothing could send environmental data to your smart phone, or charge it from electricity generated as you walk. But why carry a phone when any glass surface, from your bathroom mirror to your kitchen window, could become an interactive interface for checking your calendar, answering email, watching videos, and anything else we do today on our phones and tablets? For that matter, why carry a phone when ambient connectivity will let us simply speak to each other across a distance without devices?

How to get there

In Tech Trends 2015, Deloitte Consulting outlines four capabilities required for ambient computing:

  1. Integrating information flow between varying types of devices from a wide range of global manufacturers with proprietary data and technologies
  2. Performing analytics and management of the physical objects and low-level events to detect signals and predict impact
  3. Orchestrating those signals and objects to fulfill complex events or end-to-end business processes
  4. Securing and monitoring the entire system of devices, connectivity, and information exchange

These technical challenges are daunting, but doable.

Of course, businesses and governments need to consider the ramifications of systems that can sense, reason, act, and interact for us. We need to solve the trust and security issues inherent in a future world where we’re constantly surrounded by connectivity and information. We need to consider what happens when tasks currently performed by humans can be automated into near invisibility. And we need to think about what it means to be human when ambient intelligence can satisfy our wants and needs before we express them, or before we even know that we have them.

There are incredible upsides to such a future, but there are also drawbacks. Let’s make sure we go there with our eyes wide open, and plan for the outcomes we want.

Download the Executive Brief: Enveloped by Ambient Intelligence

Ambient Intelligence thumb

To learn more about how exponential technology will affect business and life, see The Digitalist’s Digital Futures.


About Dan Wellers

Dan Wellers leads Digital Futures for SAP Marketing Strategy.

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