For once, I was lucky on a Friday the 13th. I had the fortune of attending the PSFK Conference: Ideas that Transform. PSFK is an insight and innovation think-tank whose conference brings together creative professionals across industry to share trends and ideas to spark inspiration.
The speakers were varied—from Uber’s Director of Product Experience to the Co-Founders of sweetgreen and Casper to the Chief Storyteller at Microsoft. But by happy accident or genius curation (or both!), the themes were highly consistent and relevant to the challenges we are solving for our clients and ourselves.
Here are my 5 personal takeaways from the day, through the words of some of the most memorable presenters:
1. “We must bring humanity back to technology.” –Dennis Mortensen, Founder & CEO, x.ai
The great irony of a prolific tech explosion is that, while technology is designed to connect, it can be incredibly alienating (as the great Sherry Turkle has written and spoken about). Luckily, many speakers talked about the fact that in a tech-driven environment, we are increasingly appreciating the quirks and the warmth of human interaction.
One of the innovations I was most excited about was a meeting-scheduling agent developed by x.ai. Here’s how it works: you cc: a virtual assistant, named Amy, on emails where you know someone is going to provide availability; “she” knows how to interpret the information in the email to narrow and schedule a time that works. I ran into a friend who is using it in beta who said Amy is remarkably able to sift through content and accurately create calendar invites. Notably, this isn’t a Calendly-type app solution; it humanizes an algorithm and its interactions, “intelligent technology that can recognize an objective and turn it into a task,” says founder Dennis Mortensen, which is a nice incremental step towards providing warmth in an inherently cold domain.
Another variation is Jibo. Similar in some ways to Amazon’s Alexa, Jibo is a robot who “lives” in your home and helps out with tasks: taking photos, telling the weather, alerting you to appointments, etc. What struck me was Blade Kotelly’s emphasis on the lengths they are going to ensure the interactions with Jibo feel human; they’ve programmed humor into Jibo’s responses, and the visual and interaction design looks very natural. The interactions themselves aren’t the only way a robot like Jibo encourages more humanity. They allow you to outsource all of the tasks that you don’twant or really need to do in favor of freeing up more time to engage with others.
The bottom line: As we create digitally-powered experiences, we need to continue finding a balance between the efficiency that tech provides and the desire for human connection. We are seeing this happen as the aesthetic of digital design has continued to evolve from a commoditized “slick” feeling to more varied and friendlier one, and is increasingly reflecting a better understanding of it’s place in human interactions. Digital design is getting more sophisticated at getting out of the way when it needs to, and injecting helpful interruptions when it needs to.
2. “Data is not the answer; it’s raw material for storytelling.” Kodi Foster, VP Data Strategy for Viacom
As you can imagine, data was a big underlying theme at the event, but as much for what it can’t do as for what it can. This was personally heartening; I’ve been highly suspect of it being OMGTHEHOLYGRAILOFMARKETING that it’s been touted as for the last few years.
Instead, the emphasis was on data’s value as storytelling inspiration—another take on human connection. A few different sub-themes also arose.
- Georgia Lupi, a data artist, talked about data-gathering as a form of personal documentary, and the power of design to connect numbers to what they really represent: people and behavior. This is an extension of projects like WeFeelFine andFeltron.com that have been exploring this idea for years, but are increasingly important to keep reminding us of the “why” of data at a time where “Big Data” has confused a lot of people about where, why, and how to employ data and has obfuscated its power as storytelling art.
- The danger of data is that it can lead to broad and therefore useless generalizations. One of my favorite moments was Kodi Foster’s declaration that anyone who proclaims to be an expert on the Millennial generation is full of crap, given that “Millennials” is way too broad a category to be meaningful in terms of marketing. Amen. It’s why we are so adamant about developing more meaningful and specific personas to drive our clients’ marketing efforts.
- I loved what Laith Murad, CMO of Pirch, had to say about storytelling: “Have the confidence that inspiring human curiosity is enough to drive sales.”
The bottom line: Marketing success relies on a combination of rational and emotional factors. Ultimately, though, maybe it’s not an equal partnership: rational data analysis provides the knowledge to build an emotional connection, which is ultimately what wins hearts, minds, and wallets, as we use data to not only inform the stories we tell, but evaluate which stories people are connecting to and why.
3. “We want to achieve intimacy at scale.” Nathanial Ru, Co-Founder of Sweetgreen
Achieving intimacy at scale is a key objective for marketers today. Our era of marketing has very quickly evolved from 1:many to 1:1 to 1:moment. Again, this idea is about balancing the need and desire to encourage intimate connection with the business realities of operating in a scalable way.
Sweetgreen and Gatorade are both working on ways to do this effectively. Sweetgreen’s mission is to turn food into a social experience, and they look at the ways to do that in the environment, from seating to art to music that evolves for the location and time of day.
Gatorade and Smart Design are making amazing strides in personalizing athlete hydration based on an athlete’s electrolyte balance, sweat levels, and flavor and style preferences. They are facing the ultimate challenge: finding ways to deliver individually-prepared drinks at huge scale. Beyond the science of the individualized drink profiles, they’re exploring innovation in packaging design to make it happen.
The bottom line: Intimacy at scale is the ultimate demonstration of how data can go from simply being an input to crafting a bespoke output. The key to achieving intimacy at scale is having a clear plan for which product and experience elements should be replicable, and which should be modular to account for people’s preferences. The replicable elements should stem from the core of your brand; the modular elements should be about the fit between your brand and your customer’s lifestyle.
4. “To be a game-changing company, you have to create a 10x better experience.” Neil Parikh, Co-Founder of Casper
People who shake up long-established industries, where innovation has been stymied by an unwillingness to revisit long-established practices, always fascinate me.
Neil Parikh did not disappoint. In case you don’t know him, he’s making mattresses great again. His point of view is that if you are looking to really be an innovator, you can’t just take things at face value, and you can’t just make something incrementally better. You have to create an experience that dramatically shifts someone’s perspective.
- How parents send kids to bed as punishment, which creates a psychological view that has to be changed.
- The fact that we’ve grown to think about our bedrooms through the lens of décor and not optimal environment for sleep.
- The materials used in mattresses, and their pros and cons (e.g., Tempur-Pedics are great for your back, but they trap heat.)
- The distribution and delivery model, and how to cut costs for quality products by cutting out middlemen.
The bottom line: How often do we question fundamental qualities of the way our businesses run, the way our products are created, and what our customers truly need? Imagine what would happen if more us built a customer experience from the ground up without taking long-held assumptions at face value.
5. “Strategy is not a plan. It’s a decision-making framework.” Noah Brier, Co-Founder of Percolate
I left my absolute favorite point for last. Noah had a lot of great sound bites, but this one was a true kindred statement. Beyond PSFK, I read a lot of articles and attend events where everyone is talking about how hard it is to maintain a true North Star amid constant change.
Neil from Casper talked about this as well. Casper is wrestling with decisions about product expansion based on customer demand—everything from pillows to alarm clocks to sound machines—but ultimately they always go back to the same question: Is what we’re working on part of our mission to create an optimal environment for sleep?
The bottom line: Mission dictates strategy, and strategy manifests in brand. Your strategy is the set of principles that guide you in making your day-to-day decisions, and your brand is the creative expression of that strategy. If those two things together aren’t guiding everything—your communications, your product design and development, your hiring decisions, and more—then you’re not using either to their full potential, and your business is suffering for it.
The real bottom line? It was a fantastically inspiring conference, and I firmly believe in the principles behind each of these takeaways. If you do too and feel like you need some outside inspiration, maybe we can do some great work together. Feel free to reach out.