Can we live tech-ier ever after?

3 minute read

Empathy – there’s an app for that. Well, a technology at least.

Thanks to Apple’s acquisition of artificial intelligence start-up Emotient at the beginning of this year, your iPhone may soon be able to respond to your emotions as well as your requests.

Your partner, friends or family might not understand how you feel when you’ve had a bad day or have good news to share, but your devices will. In fact it looks like analysing facial expressions is set to be the next big thing in the tech world right now. With brands and retailers using this kind of software to identify everything from how we feel about their products to whether we look like potential shoplifters.

As our ability to harvest and interpret different forms of visual and verbal data improves, so does our power to effect personal changes; big and small, personal and societal.

At one end of the spectrum we have the kind of Fitbit style products and apps that nudge us into upping our exercise quota, as well as eating or drinking more healthily. With lots of gamification thrown in to help us reach our goals, while competing with or encouraging others. At the other end we’re moving into seriously non-trivial issues.


Smart phones, give us feedback

Take mental health. It’s a sad truth that suicide is a leading cause of death in men under 35 in the UK and a difficult issue to tackle. The Samaritans (a leading UK charity) launched Samaritans Radar in response as a simple web tool monitoring Twitter feeds for trigger indications that someone may be at risk. Concerned friends and family could sign up for alerts relating to those they worried about.

It was shut down fairly quickly, not because it wasn’t a useful tool or for privacy reasons, but because its two audiences (those at risk and those concerned) and the user experience required for each around such sensitive issues just couldn’t be easily squared. Those concerned felt reassured, while those affected potentially felt more exposed and vulnerable.

Meanwhile, an app such as Operation Reach Out in the US has faired better. Set up with the same goal (suicide prevention) but with a more singular target audience (military personnel and veterans) and a user experience geared around their specific needs (developed by prevention experts). Making the point that if you get the experience as well as the tech right, you can literally save lives.


How does this make me feel?

As AI improves so will the relevancy and applicability of these types of tools. Making how they are targeted, how they are joined up and how we interact with them very interesting and a critical design job. Especially when they’re combined in multiple ecosystems.

In essence we’re talking about Big Data that’s turned into very smart aggregated behaviour insights, turned into actions and haptics as part of an integrated user interface built with emotion. It’s not hard to see why Apple has bought Emotient and what they could do with the Apple Watch next given the possibilities.

So what can we learn from this as business leaders, branding and marketing experts? Well if it wasn’t clear already, data and behaviour analytics is our new best friend, as is using what we learn in the way that retailers have done historically (avoiding stories like that old Target one about the pregnant teenager).

Combining this kind of approach with beautifully designed and empathetic user experiences has the power to transform both our actions and our lives. Making us all happier and healthier.

Want to explore this topic more? Email us

Richard Houston makes experiences meaningful

1 minute read

Richard Houston is a Wolff Olins veteran of over eight years. He comes with a strong background in strategy and service design. A Global Principal and part of the leadership team, Richard leads projects across different sectors in experience design. Most recently for Virgin Active, as well as Skype, EE, and Dixons Carphone.

Beyond the studio, Richard gets fresh inspiration as an investor and advisor to Technology Will Save Us, a start up that designs make-it-yourself kits that get kids coding and inventing, making technology accessible to everyone.


Richard pictured outside Wolff Olins, London

“Finding a simple truth is critical to the work I do, especially in experience design. For example, what I loved about our work with Virgin Active was delving deep into understanding different types of cyclists – both members and instructors. What became clear was riders were cycling next to each other, but not together. This was invaluable for us to carve out an opportunity for how teamwork could really work in a group cycle class. Pulling together lots of complex inputs and moving parts into something meaningful that cuts through all the corporate noise is easy to say, tough to do. The opportunity to work on projects in which the end result are lasting experiences for people to have fun, get fit and enjoy time with their friends is really motivating.

What really excites me is, that in a creative consultancy I can quickly help clients make a leap in their thinking and accelerate those ideas into meaningful products, services and experiences. Designing them for people and keeping them human, but distinguishing them using creativity.”

Want to chat with Richard? Connect @RichHouston

Experience counts

20 minute read

With the rapid adoption of technology in every industry, it is becoming increasingly important to design for the digital world ahead of the physical. In such an age, when both design and tech are booming, it’s simply not enough to create something beautiful, or futuristic; we need to create experiences that users want and find fundamentally useful.

It seems more and more executives are ready to prioritise customer needs. According to Gartner research, 89% of companies rightly predicted that customer experience would be their primary ground for competition by 2016. Accenture, too, have found that 81% of executives place customer experience among their top three priorities for their organisation – of which 39% say it’s their top priority. While 90% of executives agree that customer experience and engagement are the core objectives of their digital strategies (MIT Sloan/ Deloitte).

Design and tech are now joining forces. With 9 of the 25 top Venture Capital funded startups co-founded by a designer, it’s clear these kinds of hybrid companies are here to stay. What will differentiate them is the experience they can provide.

We found this Design in Tech Report by John Maeda of Kleiner Perkins Caufeld and Byer particularly interesting – we think you might too. Be sure to check out pages 13 and 14 for predictions of the future and what the new-age tech designer might look like.

You can read the report here


A view inside: Virgin Active

4 minute read

Last month Virgin Active launched The Pack; a new group cycle product created and built in collaboration with Wolff Olins. Caroline Goodwin, Delivery Director at Wolff Olins and member of The Pack team, had a chat with Andy Caddy, Group CIO and Dael Williamson, Enterprise Architect about their experience of working on the project.

1. What are your roles at Virgin Active?
Andy: I look after our Technology and Digital strategy across the company. I am the sponsor for The Pack meaning that it’s my job to get everyone bought in across nine countries and ensure that there aren’t any major obstacles for Dael and the rest of the team.

Dael: I head up our Enterprise Architecture team and play a leadership role in the technology strategy and vision for the business globally. In terms of The Pack, I am the tech lead on the software design and programme management in the UK and I also coordinated the work of other territories involved, including South Africa, Iberia, Italy and APAC.

2. What makes The Pack interesting?
Andy: This is the first product that we have developed that has had a high technology component and a worldwide roll out capability. This has meant that we’ve needed to overcome a number of logistical challenges! Luckily, we are all united in trying to create a brilliantly innovative experience for our members and so everyone has been supportive in getting the product to launch.

Dael: We were innovators in group cycle 15 years ago and now, for the first time, we have created our own cycle product that is tech driven, and which we can bring to the mainstream. At an industry level, I think we’ve created something that is going to push data-driven, multi-sensory, group health experiences forward in a big way; it’s really exciting to be part of something so unique in such a busy space.

Through our test trials we’ve also found that the experience offered by The Pack has widened the appeal of going to a traditional group cycle class to many more people. We’ve already had great member feedback where people are saying things like, “I don’t normally like group cycle, but I would do this.” I think it’s the human connection with your team that means that The Pack appeals to so many more people. It’s no longer just a room full of solitary cyclists.

3. How does Virgin Active approach product innovation differently from others companies?
Andy: We are fortunate to be in a global company that can draw on different trends and cultures. Our product teams have the expertise to create bespoke products and programming for our members where we think there are gaps in the market. For example, last year we completely reinvented functional training through the creation of The Grid – designed to get people moving better, faster and more effectively. This focus on creating our own innovations means that our members get a genuinely unique experience.

4. How did you get your vision for The Pack off the ground?
Dael: We had a broad ambition for what we wanted to do around group cycle. Working with Wolff Olins was critical to help us consolidate our thinking and come up with a brand-led concept that fitted our product vision. Studio design was also a key focus for us and Wolf Olins helped us incorporate fantastic lighting into the experience, and also broaden our view on the longer term effects we could go on to build into the class.

From a personal perspective, I needed the glue that would hold this project together and Wolff Olins created the framework for the Experience Manager, which has worked really well. It meant my team could really focus on creating something technically feasible, while Wolff Olins translated the vision into a UX story and prototype that unified the teams and disciplines by showing them, very early on, what was possible.

5. What role did the prototype play in preparing you for the final build?
Dael: The real impact was on pace; it proved very quickly that we could create software that drove the experience by connecting multiple inputs like programming, music, biking data and put them together in a really smart way to drive outputs like lights, sound and visual display. In fact, it became our business case for the project because people could see what we wanted to do really clearly and they were excited by it.


The Pack class in action

6. What was your greatest challenge while working on The Pack?
Andy: I would say the biggest challenge has been the sheer scale of launching a global product into six different countries, across 30 studios, with 100+ instructors in a way that was consistent but still had room to have a local flavour. Like The Grid, we want The Pack to be a signature product for us so ensuring that it lands well is incredibly important to us.

7. How did you overcome this?
Andy: Lots of hard work by Dael! Using different music suppliers for different regions has helped to ensure that local tastes are catered for. Ensuring each country had control over their own studio builds, but within a central brand means you will always know you are in a Pack studio but it will have the essence of the country you are in as well.

Dael: By keeping the different workstreams focused on specific components of the product – such as music, studio design and training – so that everyone was focused on their area of expertise and could really own the delivery of each component. This created a great cross-functional team. We learnt very quickly how differently disciplines approached their work and it’s really interesting and useful to understand and cater for these different dynamics.

8. What are you most proud of having achieved on The Pack?
Andy: Bringing together so many different workstreams into a single coherent product that really works. In the first real member class that I participated in, there was a distinct buzz and lots of conversation between teams afterwards.

Dael: Being a tech guy, I’m blown away by the product we’ve created. There are many complicated elements, but they are so well done, that the ultimate experience is simple and really enjoyable.

9. How do you think creativity enhances technology, and vice versa?
Dael: I think that there are two parts to this, the first being that creativity challenges the boundaries of technology and forces tech teams to take it up a notch. The second is that technology is what brings the creativity to life and moves ideas beyond images into something interactive and experiential.

Andy: Without the creative input we had from Wolff Olins, we would have had a room full of bikes throwing out data. It would have been technically impressive, but as an experience it would be limited. What we have ended up with is an immersive group experience that brings all that technology to life.

10. Finally, how do you think technology will change the world of fitness over the next 5-10 years?
Andy: As the products mature, technology focus (devices and products) will give way to an insight focus. Today we don’t get excited by the smartphone anymore, it’s the apps that enable our lives; in the next five years the focus on wearables and watches will give way to data and insight. I think this is potentially the largest change that we will go through – smart apps and bots giving you actionable information about your health and fitness.

Dael: Although a lot of focus has been on wearables in the press, I think it’s actually the ingredients behind that tech - the data and biometric insights - that will transform the fitness industry. I think the current trend for what we call ‘blue-line fever’, where everyone is measuring and tracking their activity in devices and apps will spread, and enable smarter equipment in health clubs like our own.

Read the full case study