CXO Q&A: Why the Future of UX is Greater than the Internet of Things

CXO Peter Eckert
CXO Peter Eckert

In this conversation with the Co-Founder and Chief Experience Officer (CXO) of projekt202, Peter Eckert looks at his company's origins and what lies ahead for companies striving to deliver the best possible customer experiences:

When did you start projekt202 and what drove you to create your own company?

projekt202 started in 2003 and several things led up to the start of the company. At that time, the entire design-focused industry was really just looking at what the internet could deliver. No mobile devices were really around and everyone was just focusing on doing e-commerce or websites, which was really the internet 1.0 as we know it. However, the back offices of this world started seeing the writing on the wall that they needed support from a design perspective as well.

Founding flashback: projekt202 Co-Founders Peter Eckert and Jeff Steinberg add color to the Austin office in 2003.
Founding flashback: projekt202 Co-Founders Peter Eckert and Jeff Steinberg add color to the Austin office in 2003.

Through earlier work in my career, I got exposed to very complex enterprise-level challenges and design solutions. That was the spark to start projekt202 with a couple of others, as well as focus on the enterprise as a whole.

How has the industry changed since projekt202 started?

It's almost like a 180-degree flip. Initially, in the late 20th century and the beginning of the 21st century, a lot of business ideas were just trying to do a website or a web application. At that time, there was even the CD-ROM industry around.

Remember when theme parks spared no expense in delivering the very latest in interactive CD-ROM technology?
Remember when theme parks spared no expense in delivering the very latest in interactive CD-ROM technology?

Lots of marketing dollars were spent putting stuff on devices and websites without really thinking about the actual end users, the people that consume these things.

Furthermore, there was no real mobile platform or mobile proliferation that had taken place yet. We were still using flip phones, Blackberries and pagers, and there wasn't anything you could really design for these things other than icons, skins or ring tones. There was movement as design agencies started designing ring tones, which is kind of silly now, but generally speaking, that was the limit of most technologies at the time.

Once the iPhone started coming around, everything really started changing. The term “UX” was born. At that time, I started calling myself a Chief Experience Officer, something that is just now starting to penetrate most organizations as a valid role to lead large-scale design-thinking projects.

Today, the industry has fully embraced the mobile generation of users, as well as the personal devices that come with it that we bring into our work environments. The term "User Experience" is widely accepted now and people realize that you need to invest in these areas. Every touchpoint in the experiences we have with products and technology matters nowadays. Therefore, the investment dollars are not coming as much through the marketing channel anymore. They are coming mostly through product management, R&D and technology. CTOs and CIOs are now spending money on the experiences of things.

After 13 years in business, how has projekt202 itself changed?

From an idealistic perspective, we always wanted to help deliver products into the market that people really need and really like to use. People build an affinity toward these products. From that point-of-view, nothing has really changed. We still deeply care for what the end users or consumers can experience when we create these products.

However, what has drastically changed is how we do it by going out and really observing people in their natural environments and their natural behaviors, in their struggles, in their work-arounds. The detail, the methodology and the execution have gotten really sophisticated. How designers and technologists work together these days has become really smooth and elegant. In our business, our designers deeply care for the technology execution and our technologists deeply care for the user-experience side of things.

What sets projekt202 apart from the competitors?

It's the combination of multiple skills and the way we execute them. Most agencies are very good at coming up with things and dreaming up things, but they are not so good at building them. Then there is the other end of the spectrum, which is large technology companies or development companies that are just building things based on feature requirements. They think user experience is an add-on -- you know, sprinkle a little bit of magic on top of a product and it will be adopted in the marketplace.

projekt202 found a way to really integrate the true user needs throughout the entire design and development process. Furthermore, our design and technology group has found a way to closely collaborate on a day-to-day basis to help really bring a product to life, bring it into the market and have the right messaging behind it.

Where we are different from others is we don't just dream up things, we also help build things.

Where we think this is going is that projekt202 will mature into an organization that thinks about every single touchpoint of an experience: that can be spacial, that can be way-finding, that can be services design, that can be architecture, that is certainly technology and everything surrounding it.

The term "Internet of Things" is hot right now, but is it explaining the right thing?

If you look at how that term emerged, I think it was born out of the landscape of emerging consumer products that use connectivity to talk to each other. Once all of our products that we live with can communicate amongst themselves, that will eliminate the need for us to manually interact with them. We're moving toward zero UI kind of methods, such as interacting with devices by voice or by gesture. All of this is going to eventually be really meaningful and elegant to us.

The term came from using Wi-Fi to connect these devices. Wi-Fi is closely associated with browsing the Internet and I think that's where someone somewhere in a group thought about it in that way and coined the term the “Internet of Things." It is misleading and it is not truly describing where we are heading.

So there’s that connectivity on the consumer level. On the other end of the spectrum, there is something heavily happening on the industrial level. Companies like GE are thinking about putting sensors in every single piece of machinery that they are building. They are creating a connected world on that level. Eventually, that industrial world as well as the consumer world will merge. When that happens, technically speaking, we create a mesh of connected entities across the globe, so essentially the planet will become a computing entity.

Will you choose the red pill or the blue pill?
Will you choose the red pill or the blue pill?

We will be living inside that computer and we will be a node, a data point that interacts with that computer.

I am fully aware this sounds extremely futuristic. Potentially, people are paranoid right away around what that all could mean, but that is really what's happening. Everything gets connected. Everything can interact with each other. Machines learn from machines and from people interacting with machines, so it is essentially a giant computer.

So the term "Internet of Things" is fine for what it is now, but it's not accurately describing what will happen in the future and probably we need a different term for it eventually.

You mentioned zero UI. Can you elaborate on that?

Yeah. We use the term “zero UI” to think about interacting with products without having to literally use a user interface. There won't be a screen. Potentially, there won't be anything that you can touch, so you use voice commands. The most rudimentary forms of voice commands are currently being used when you talk to Siri on an iPhone or you talk to the Amazon Echo by using just your voice. Those are all zero user interface set-ups.

In the future, this will get a whole lot better. There are already companies out there that focus on how voice can be more contextual, so entire conversations can be driving interactions with products and devices. Sensors can be built into walls, individual products or signage, and you can make them go on and off with gestures. You can wear sensors so that environments will know where you are, who you are and what you like. Basically, we are not forced to manually do things anymore.

Think about what you do day in and day out when you just go to work or come home or use your current computing devices. There's a lot of manual interaction with interfaces and a lot of them are cumbersome. Why we are UX designers and UX developers in the first place is helping these interfaces come to life and be meaningful, simple and intuitive. Ideally speaking, if we could interact with technology without having a device or without having an interface, that would be so much more meaningful.

Zero UI is something that will become a very hot expression, I think, over the next five to 10 years. A lot of people will be talking about it. I'm aware of several companies around the globe already that we are talking to that want to move into that direction, where literally business applications might be driven by just you talking or gesturing to them.

You also advocate a philosophy of "form follows empathy." What does that mean and how is it a shift from the typical "form follows function" idea?

That goes really way back early in my career during my design education.

Industrial designer Raymond Loewy
Industrial designer Raymond Loewy

We investigated a lot about early and mid-20th century design philosophies, product designers like Raymond Loewy, things like that. They followed this notion that "form follows function." While that is true to an extent, I think it's not holding up completely nowadays anymore.

In the early stages of my professional career, I was also very fortunate that I was exposed to Hartmut Esslinger, the founder of Frog Design. Early on, he coined the expression "form follows emotion," which is also an aspect of what needs to happen when we build products.

Designer Hartmut Esslinger
Designer Hartmut Esslinger

We need to be emotionally connected and the expression of that product needs to fulfill functions and features. Therefore, "form follow function" and "form follows emotion" are true statements. They're aspects of how products need to be built.

However, I believe that form also needs to follow empathy. We need to truly understand the things that people try to accomplish in their daily lives, how they do it, where they struggle and where they're doing things really well, and have that empathy on the deepest level for their situation. Once we understand what they truly need, then everything comes together, so "form follows empathy."

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