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Death of the Rectangle: Part One

Matt Farrar

Founder of Great Fridays, now an EPAM company

The rectangle is my least favourite shape

I am going to put my neck on the line. It might be the start of a revolution; then again, I might be ridiculed for my crazy thinking and thrown in the Clive Sinclair school of C5 human wrongdoings.

Maybe it is my age that influences my absolute frustration and boredom with the rectangular device paradigm, which the human race has seemingly embraced for the long term.

In 1992 I embarked on my BA Hons Degree in Industrial and Interaction Design, a time when CD Roms ruled the interaction world, and the Internet was a newborn concept. It was a time when the Photoshop application was only 4MB in size, and used to fit onto three 1.4MB floppy disks. It is now one hundred times bigger at a whopping 400MB!

Back then we predicted a world where humans would carry around a single device, which we would use as our phone, our storage, media player and payment system. At the time humans felt compelled to make things smaller (micro) with the addition of more and more pointless features. This vision set every student on course towards a predicted future. The world became obsessed with technology and forgot about the human.

I have made my feelings known about the straight-sided device led world in which we live. The age of the written language (30,000 years ago) gave way to the mass production of words with the printing press. This ultimately led to the creation of printed books, then newspapers, magazines, moving images, the television, home computers, and more recently the mobile phone, smartphone, and tablet devices. Rectangle, rectangle and guess what…rectangle!

I am fascinated by our inability as intellectual humans to move beyond this unnatural form factor. Of course the rectangle has some amazing benefits, for instance it is easy to transport, it fits neatly into a rectangular satchel, or on a perfectly flat surface. My Industrial Design background also means I know enough about manufacturing challenges and limitations to see that the rectangle is a much easier and less expensive form to mass produce.

This ongoing series of blogs will focus specifically on how we can drive innovation, by throwing away the concept of the rectangle, by moving to a place, which is more ubiquitous and sympathetic to our physiological makeup as human beings. Even if I manage to convince a small minority with my ramblings, it will be worth it. Death to the rectangle, long live humankind.


Humans, trust, and global climate change

I am writing this at 37,000 ft over the Atlantic, on my way to a series of meetings in New York in a 48-hour marathon. This sounds like, and is, a crazy way to do international business, but I can justify the decision (I think).

Face-to-face meetings are the best way to build business and personal relationships, so humans will continue to pursue business connections this way. Face-to-face meetings engage more human senses than a distant phone call or a videoconference. Humans have been programmed over millions of years to interact with others humans, as tribes, teams and groups in order to survive and evolve.

I would wager that the single most important foundation of any human relationship is trust. Human-to-Human trust can be established quickly in a new relationship based on some very simple criteria, and then reinforced over time. I am not a psychologist, but I would suggest that the following human traits provide the foundation of trust-building criteria:

Primary trust building traits

  • Appearance
  • Confidence
  • Clarity
  • Eye contact
  • Patience
  • Ability to listen

Secondary trust building traits

  • Experience
  • Firm handshake
  • Life anecdotes
  • Openness about failures
  • Empathy
  • Other business connections and relationships


To fly or not to fly? That is the question

So, do I fly to New York to see these potential new clients, or do I chance it, by engaging with them using the current flock of conferencing tools? Well I obviously chose the former, and I am now undertaking a 14-hour, 6,000+ mile journey at significant cost to my company just so that I can expose enough of my personal integrity, and experience to woo my new human connection.

Consider a billion humans on the planet with the same need, drive, and challenge. Plane, train, and automobile journeys all contributing to global climate change, and trillions of hour’ lost in productivity inefficiencies. This sounds like an industry that could really do with some innovative thinking! The paradigm is further exacerbated when attempting to do business across foreign nations, and continents where cultural differences play subtle, but hugely important psychological challenges.

Last year I agreed to take part in a five-way conference call with teams in Hong Kong, the UK, Beijing and Boston using Skype. Wow, talk about a painful experience, it was so difficult to orchestrate, that after failing to even get everybody on the call at the same time, we had to give up.

The call was already a challenge, and interpreting distant Mandarin, English and Malaysian tones, compounded the limiting technology backdrop and created one of the most frustrating 30 minutes of my career. It ended with all parties throwing in the towel and returning to our more comfortable surroundings by communicating with people in the same room and then sending notes via email.

Even the most robust video conference capability can fall well short of the impact and human connection a face-to-face meeting often facilitates. In October last year I sat in a technologically advanced conference room at one end of a board room table about to join a Telepresence video conference with three engineers in Shenzhen.

My client marvelled at the three high definition screens in front of us with life size, real-time images of our counterparts sitting in their conference room. Our environment was strangely cold, with the regulated air-conditioned temperature stuck at 17 degrees.

We struggled with the wall-mounted thermostat for ten minutes before eventually giving up as time was precious, and our guests in China grew more and more impatient. It was 9am in the UK and 5pm in Shenzhen. The beginning of my day, normally means that I have a caffeine-fuelled spring in my step, compared to a very different version of myself at 5pm when I have clocked up a day’s worth of challenges, and would be looking forward to my glass of Amarone to take the edge off my day. An important part of any meeting is a sense and empathy to the time of day.

Don’t get me wrong, telepresence is indeed a great piece of kit, but on this occasion it was the master of our downfall, rather than an enabler to success. All parties on the UK end of the videoconference shuffled uncomfortably in the cold room for ninety minutes.

Our Chinese counterparts, listened calmly, in a room with a perfect temperature of 21 degrees and watched, what could have been seen as a nervous presentation of our ideas. Had they been in the same room as us they would have empathised with our chilly environment, instead of thinking we were unconfident in our content.

Creating the perfect human environment for this conference should be more important than the technology that enables it, and yet for some reason we feel the need to focus on the engineering, rather than the design.

If we take a service design approach to the videoconference call process, we would start by studying a number of the most successful environments for completing a business meeting. Environments, which could be subtly enhanced, tailored and fine-tuned to meet the specific requirements of that business, cultural, budget or time focused event.

After all, some of my best business discussions have been over a dining table, not a conference one. There is a time and a place for a conference room discussion, and my human instinct kicks in to steer my decision-making process to choose the environment that is right for the engagement.


Build human relationships, not better screen resolutions

Current technology assumes that we are all clones, with a technology driven psychology. Skype, Citrix, Google Hangout, Facetime, and WebEx, are all different flavours of the same rectangular video experience.

This is fundamentally the wrong approach to a successful interaction and will only ever take international communication so far. I see a human centered revolution over the next ten years, driven by the need to build meaningful multicultural global relationships.

In addition the crisis of global climate reduction and the need to lower CO2 gases will drive new economies worth billions of dollars, and ultimately change the way we travel for business beyond 2014.

The question is; who will own this space? It is more than conceivable that the saviour will come from a leftfield disruptive business with a very different model. Not a business model driven by the need to connect global business people, but a more emotive need to create lasting human relationships.

One such disrupter could be a global private members club like the Soho House Group. I have been a member for almost three years now, and mainly use the clubs and bars to meet new clients and influential people. Of course SH is not an environment that fits the need of every business interaction, but I would suggest that it represents enough of the market to warrant a business opportunity.

I have been to Soho House in Berlin, New York, London in in the last three months, and I am very comfortable working in the familiar surroundings and tastefully recreated in each city. Walking into a Soho House immediately triggers and emotional state, which makes me, feel at ease, relaxed and at home. This is a great informal business environment for lunch or dinner with a client.

The Soho House Group could become pioneers of international communication, human relationships and as an after-effect, they could help save the planet. Spending research and development budget to create an area in their restaurant where a dining table, regulated temperature, a ubiquitous environment and a seamless technology window to the same environment in New York and London, could have just saved my company a lot of time and money.

If Soho House put deeper service design thought into logistics, the food and drink could even be delivered at exactly the same time on each side of the pond. OK, New Yorkers could be enjoying Eggs Benedict for breakfast, while the London entrepreneur tucks into a beetroot salad or Mac and Cheese for his lunch, but experimenting with service design rather than further enhancing technology would really innovate the space. Oh, and replace the rectangular screen with a round one which provides the same peripheral experience I get when sitting at a table within a real dining room environment.

One industry that will suffer considerable losses unless it invests in this area is the airline industry. In the same way that the music industry should have reacted to change back in the 1990s, before Apple changed the landscape of music downloads and destroyed their ageing business model, the airline industry is in danger of going the same way.

Ignoring the problem could ultimately have a huge impact on their short-term revenues and long-term strategy. I doubt whether they currently see this as a threat, but how quickly can a new disruptive business enter the market and offer the ultimate business-meeting environment? It could literally take a few years for a disruptive entrant to completely change the landscape of business travel.

In the words of Henry T Ford: ‘If I asked people what they wanted before I designed the Model T, they would have asked for more horses’. Airlines are too obsessed and focused on fuel efficiency, rather than focusing on disrupting their own model and owning the alternative industry themselves. Henry has a very valid point, and I think it is time we stopped asking for more rectangles.


Designing for humans

The discipline of Service and Product Design puts humans at the centre of innovative thinking, and throws away preconceptions, which often block thinking and change.

At Great Fridays we challenge these preconceptions and paradigms, by focusing on human experience, psychology, aspiration, inspiration and emotion. The rectangle has pushed humankind into the 21st century; however, we must now explore beyond its vice-like technology grip, and remember the basic human principles our species is built upon.

Next week. Rectangular Banking – Cards, Wallets, Apps and Square.

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