Storytelling about the Past and Predicting the Future: On People, Computers and Research in 2014 and Beyond

My Grandma was a force to be reckoned with. My grandfather was a writer, and he described her driving down the street amidst symphonies. She was beautiful and stubborn, strong willed and sharp. Once a young woman with the good looks of a model, she wore high heels and took daily trips to the gym well into her 90’s. At the age of 94 she managed to run across her house, turn off the water and stand with her hand on her hip in front of the shower before I returned from the next room over with the shampoo I forgot (lest I waste water).

My Grandma, looking amazing

My Grandma, looking amazing

A few years ago I visited her in Florida. She collected work for all of her visitors to do, and we were busy from the moment I arrived. To my surprise, many of the tasks she had gathered involved dealing with customer service and discovering the truth in advertisements. At one point she led me into the local pharmacy with a stack of papers and asked to see the manager. Once she found the manager she began to go through the papers one by one and ask about them. The first paper on the stack was about the Magic Jack. He showed her the package, and she questioned him in depth about how it worked. I was shocked. I’d never thought of a store manager in this role before.

After that trip I began to pay closer attention to the ways in which the people around me dealt with customer service, and I became a kind of customer service liaison for my family. My older family members had an expectation that any customer service agent be both extensively knowledgeable and dependably respectful, but the problems of customer service seemed to have grown beyond this small, personable level to a point where a large network of people with structurally different areas of knowledge act together to form a question answering system. The amount and structure of knowledge necessary has become the focus of the customer service problem, and people everywhere complain about the lack of knowledge, ability and pleasant attitude of the customer service agents they encounter.

This is a problem with many layers and levels to it, and it is a problem that reflects the developing data science industry well. In order to deliver good customer service a great deal of information has to be organized and structured in a meaningful way to allow for optimal extraction. But this layer cannot be everything. The customer service interaction itself needs to be set-up in such a way to allow customers to feel satisfied. People expect personalized, accurate interactions that are structured in a way that is intuitive to them. The customer service experience cannot be the domain of the data scientists. If it is automated, it requires usability experts to develop and test systems that are intuitive and easy to use. If it is done by people, the people need to have access to the expertise necessary for them to do their job and be trained in successful interpersonal interaction. I believe that this whole system could be integrated well under a single goal: to provide timely and direct answers to customer inquiries in 3 steps or less.

The past few years have brought a rapid increase in customization. We have learned to expect the information around us to be customized, curated and preprocessed. We expect customer service to know intuitively what our problems are and answer them with ease. We expect Facebook to know what we want to see and customize our streams appropriately. We expect news sites to be structured to reflect the way we use them. This increase in demand and expectations is the drive behind our hunger for data science, and it will fuel a boom in data and information science positions until we have a ubiquitous underlayer of organized information across all necessary domains.

But data and information science are new fields and not well understood. Our expectations as users exceed the abilities of this fast-evolving field. We attract pioneers who are willing to step into a field that is changing shape beneath their feet as they work. But we ask for too much of a result and expect too much of a result, because these pioneers can’t be everything across all fields. They are an important structural layer of our newly unfolding economy, but in each case, another layer of people are needed in order to achieve the end result.

Usability is an important step above the data and information science layer. Through usability studies, Facebook will eventually learn that people and goals are not constant across all visits. Sometimes I look at Facebook simply to see if I’ve missed any big developments in the lives of my friends and loved ones. Sometimes I want to catch news. Sometimes I’m bored and looking for ridiculous stuff to entertain me. Sometimes I have my daughter next to me and want to show her funny pet pictures that I normally wouldn’t look twice at. Through usability studies, Facebook will eventually learn that users need some control over the information presented to them when they visit.

Through usability studies newspapers will better understand the important practice of headline scanning and develop pay models that work with peoples reading habits. Through qualitative research newspapers will understand their importance as the originators of news about big events with few witnesses, like peace treaties and celebrity births and deaths and the real value of social media for events with large numbers of witnesses and points of view. News media sources are deep in a period of transition where they are learning to better understand dissemination, virality, clicks, page views, reader behavior and reader expectations, and the strengths and weaknesses of social media news sources.

There have been many blog posts (like this one) about Isaac Asimov’s predictions for the future, because he was so right about so many things. At this point we’re at a unique vantage point where his notions of machine programmers and machine tenders are taking deeper shape. This year we will continue to see these changes form and reform around us.

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