Dirk Knemeyer

A Gentler Future for Knowledge Work, January 5, 2017

The French law really struck a personal note for me. The reason for that is when I was younger, it’s less over the last few years, but when I was younger I was basically working 17 hours a day.

I would be spending a little bit of the time with family, but even when I’m there the email’s going and if something important comes in I’m going to respond to it. There’s someone who I worked with for a long time, worked very closely, and certainly email was a big part of our communication. Probably more so for me, I’ve always been a heavy email-er, I’m introverted, it just email as a medium suits me pretty well. There came a point his wife wrote me and said, “Dirk, you can’t send emails on the weekend anymore.” She said, “All weekend emails flow in from you with all these big initiatives, requests, things to do, and my husband gets more and more stressed. More and more anxious. More and more unhappy, because your emails keep coming in.” She said, “You just, you just can’t do it anymore.”

I was in my 30s at that point and so you know I had been emailing my way, which is 24/7 essentially for many years. Just oblivious to the possibility that for another person, that flow of communication in certain times, in certain volumes, would be a negative. Would be something that had a deleterious effect on them, because at that phase of my life I was just sort of wired to be always working, always going, it wasn’t, it may have been subconsciously and internally stressful for me in ways I wasn’t in touch with. Consciously when emails would come in I didn’t feel stress, I just attacked them, I just took them, I just went right to them. The metaphor I’ve used for email is tennis. It’s like playing tennis. I would run around the court making sure the balls were always in the other people’s court, basically.

Fast forward now to today, and France is identifying the fact that email, receiving email, feeling the compulsion to respond to email, the requests that email may contain that spur someone to other action at certain times, in certain proportions, isn’t good for you. It’s unhealthy in ways large or small. I think that’s an important recognition. I don’t think that the French law, you know, you said the sort of- we don’t know yet, is it just one little thing, is it visionary. It’s probably one little thing. France has been a trailblazer in affecting labor law that basically no-one else adopts, right? France famously did the 30 hour work week I don’t know how many years ago, but sometime this decade. You know, nobody else is doing that, or maybe there’s a few small countries. But, the main pillars of the economy certainly are not. They’re going by the old rules, and the old modes.

I’m happy that this law is sort of making us think more about the impacts of modern technology on human life. First world life to make it more specific. But, I don’t think that this law in and of itself is going to amount to a sea-change of any sort.

I think things are going to get on differently now then in the earlier industrial revolution and there’s a few reasons why. Number one is at that time, the worst part of your life was work. You would go in, you’d lose fingers, you wouldn’t be able to sleep, it was human slavery, human torture, human- I mean it was really, the worst part of your life was the work experience. Now, the worst part of your life is not the work experience. So yeah I know, using email as the example, it can be stressful to get email at night. It can be stressful to get email on vacation, on the weekend, yadda, yadda, yadda. But, that’s not the worst part of our lives. The worst part of our lives is not the work part, it’s the life part. It’s the fact that we’re addicted to sugar. It’s the fact that we’re addicted to salt. It’s the fact that we are addicted to the call of the new. It’s the fact that we are in this broken capitalist paradigm that makes us fat, that makes us inattentive, that makes us feel unfulfilled.

There were enormous reasons why the industrial revolution needed to be reformed, and the inhumanity of work needed to be brought more in line with what’s appropriate. But, it’s so much farther down the list now. The issues we have, or rather some of the personal things that I said, or some of the more systemic things around global warming. Like, the fact that email stresses us out is just not a big deal on the list, whereas child labor laws and some of the things that didn’t exist over a 100 years ago, like the absence of those, were more sort of at the fulcrum of what was wrong with civilization.

The things that are wrong with civilization now are really far removed from the plight of the digital worker. Which, is not to say that those aren’t negative things, but it’s going to be a lot harder to coalesce around that as the rallying cry in this environment of plenty, and where the real issues and the real things that are killing us are happening at a very different level.

When I walk into a store, they have a sensor that records the person walked into the store; is that inclusive in my data? When I’m out on the street there are cameras filming, and some of them can make out my face and could come in tight on my face, and that’s data out there. Is that my data? To me that’s the trickiest, because it requires a crisp definition of what, quote unquote, your data is. I haven’t seen a good thesis for what that should be, and I think getting to the bottom of it is going to be tricky.


The Gig Economy & Experience Design, September 15, 2016

The first concept I had for a “business” that was down the path of the gig economy or the sharing economy was in 2003. It was focused on a very mundane thing, which is cleaning up after a party. Where I came from with this is that when you have a party, and it makes a giant mess, right, it’s a shit show. You have a great time at the party, and the cleaning up is fricking horrible. You don’t want to do it, because you’ve got all this good energy that’s so much fun, and then when you’re done, you’re tired or you’re drunk, or it’s the next day and more things are going on, yada, yada, yada. But, if you had to clean up that same thing when you were sort of at the peak of your abilities. If you were just ready to do some cleaning, it would be no problem. You would just kill it.

My concept in 2003 was we need to use the internet so that I can sign up, and I go and I clean up after somebody else’s party, and it’s no problem, because like, I’m hanging out. I just feel like doing it, and then after my party, when I don’t want to clean up, I just want to like bask in the awesomeness that was this giant blowout, this crew’s going to come in and clean my shit up. I just get to be happy, and it was really good.

We can debate the merits of that idea all we want, but the point being what I was focused on, and what I think the future of the gig and sharing and human economy need to be focused on is the experience of life, and looking at the rhythms of the things that we do, how we do them, and how can we accommodate for each other. How can I come in to something that is a weakness for you, or something that, just in terms of your energy level in the moment isn’t the right thing for you to be doing, and it’s no shit for me to do it. I’m happy to do it. It’s easy for me. I just come in and do it clip clip, and I’m done. Other people come in clip clip for me and doing it as well, right?

I would like to see instead of like the problems being solved now are really around technology. We can come in, and now this technology has reached the point we can do these things with cars, let’s do these things with cars. I’d like us to think about where are the opportunities to provide for and service one another to make all of our lives better. I think, in terms of the benefit to the human condition and the human experience, that’s where the more interesting product strategies lie.

Basic Income & The Future of Society,

People who have been listening to me for a number of years, and for me this goes back to 1993, know that I think the core problem is capitalism. We’re having all of this churn and angst around worker rights and the conflicts of the gig economy, yada, yada, yada. That’s not the problem. The problem is that we have a very lightly regulated free market that incentivizes people to act selfishly and allows the creation of these sociopathic corporations that act destructively, and those are the underpinnings of the system. We shouldn’t be at all surprised that there’s all kinds of waste and human pain and loss coming out of that.

Every citizen in the country should be provided some baseline existence that they don’t have to be part of an ongoing 40 hour, 60 hour week cycle to have, right? I wrote about this a number of years ago, but the idea for the model is, if you’re a citizen and we’re in the United States, let’s call it the United States, if you’re a citizen in the United States there’s a minimum baseline that you should have, and you should need to work for it. That minimum baseline would be something like a certain level of modest housing, a certain level of modest food and beverage. I would have electricity and internet access be part of that baseline. To create all of the things needed in the baseline, that’s quantifiable, like the amount of human effort and human capital required to provide for everyone can be tracked. We should be tracking that, and we should have people having to work their fair share of providing for everyone.

Now, that might sound like just a different type of capitalism, but the trick is to provide this modest baseline for everyone wouldn’t have people working 40 hours a week. It would have people working 8 hours a week or 12 hours a week, right, in order to work their fair share. They would have the rest of their lives to decide for themselves. The example I like to use is the truffles example. If you really want truffles go ahead out there and gather truffles. Start a “business” around gathering truffles. Then other people who want truffles, you can work with them to get other things in a free market structure, but that free market structure needs to be put on top of the baseline, right? So, bring that back into the conversation we’re having now, the problem is right now there’s no baseline. It’s like if you don’t scrape and claw within this capitalist, largely unregulated free market, find some job for you to do, you’re going to be on the street. You’re going to be eating shit, and we have abundance.

We have the ability that if people are contributing a fair share to it, to provide a baseline for everyone. If we did that, all of these problems go away. They all go away, because people don’t need it. It’s not live or die. It’s not on the street or in something that’s comfortable and humane. It’s humane for all, and then building on top of that. I mean, that’s a very specific and prescribed solution for the problem, but I roll it out to really put the spotlight on the issue. Like, it’s just rubbish that we’re talking about, oh, Uber is this service that it makes sense from a convenience perspective, it makes sense from an environmental perspective, it is making the system of transportation smarter. It may not still be perfect, but it represents improvement. Now there’s all this teeth gnashing about it, because it’s costing humans jobs. There’s now the fear of with all of the AI and robotic solutions coming in, the fear of what are going to happen to more and more human jobs. It really shouldn’t matter. Like, these should be conversations about can you have truffles or not. They shouldn’t be conversations about can I have food and shelter or not. Food and shelter should be givens, assuming you’re contributing your modest fair share to your country as a citizen, as a participant in that entity.

There’s two problems with basic income. One is people don’t have to contribute to make it happen. It’s just money from heaven, right? Part of being healthy humans as well as being healthy societies is participation. It’s participating and having some reciprocity there going both ways. The second thing with the basic income is at the end of the day, people can spend it on whatever the hell that they want, and we know enough about the human animal to know that some non-significant percentage of those people are going to spend it on things that result in their, again, being on the outside without proper food and shelter. To have a healthy society, to build a productive civilization, we need to have people with food and shelter and some other basic things, I think, bottom line, brass tacks, no matter what. I think the basic income misses on a few key implementation points, although I do applaud it philosophically.



AI & Creativity, July 7, 2016

I think the creativity is the special human things, just it’s a myth. I mean creativity is just sort of the manifestation of something unexpected, something less straightforward. That’s accomplished by some combination, of need that just forces spontaneous innovation, or just by people’s processor’s people’s mind and problem solving machines. Our internal machines operating differently or unless unnecessarily better where the creativity comes from people who are operating differently either due to the wiring and the piping that we have, and/or due to the way that they’re solving problems or the contact store, or a lot of different factors.

None of that to me is special or unique and it’s just a matter of time before the most creative pursuits that humans are able to express will be matched and exceeded by machines. There’s a lot I don’t know on the engineering side, so I hesitate to put specific dates on it. I know for a fact, like there are some things creatively, I’m really good at. I know exactly how I could communicate to an engineer, what the process is, what’s going on that gets me from zero to really cool funky, unexpected solution.

If I can do that, other people can do that. Once we’re able to translate that into commands for the machine it’s game-set-match, and I don’t mean that from like a scary, “Oh my god we are irrelevant” perspective, even though that’s one possible long term outcome. Just from the perspective that this creativity isn’t special, it’s not protected, it’s not safe. It might be further out before the machines are able to get there. It is going to inevitably come and so rather than fear it or rail against it we just have to think about what’s next for us.

Future of UX, June 23, 2016

The reality is that we’re reaching a point of terminal velocity on software as the media for which user experience primarily exerts itself. UX as a field has aspirationally said, “Well, we’re not just about software. We’re about creating in anything,” and it’s just nonsense. Show me ten people who have jobs that are called user experience, that are considered user experience, that aren’t related to software in some way large or small. It just ain’t out there, and so UX is software and software is UX in a certain way.

Now with all of these emerging technologies, that’s going to start flipping a little bit, and there’s going to need to be design professionals who are digital natives and who are solving digital design problems that are going to need to move into them. UX people are the obvious people to make that move, but the asterisk is it’s going to require meaningful knowledge in science and engineering, and we’ve seen over the last ten to fifteen years how difficult it’s been for UX professionals to evolve from the standpoint of just understanding code, learning to code, and incorporate that into the things that they’re creating, at least from a design perspective within the world of UX.

One thing I think we’ve done very poorly in user experience is understand people. We’ve gotten very good at knowing what a usability test should look like, what an AB test should look like, what some upfront user research random interview should look like, but we know very little, I’ll say almost nothing, as a field. There’s some individuals within it who have much deeper knowledge, but as a field, we have virtually no body of knowledge that gets into the science of the self, whether that be from a more hard biology perspective, a neuroscience perspective, psychology, sociology, endocrinology, whatever vector you want to take.

We’ve got to know ourselves. We’ve got to know this animal really, really well.

On the Past and Future of Agencies, August 27, 2015

Yeah, just another market cycle. Go back 50 years, go back to the time of “Mad Men” and the agency business waxes and wanes in different ways and the thing that’s most noticeable about it, is that while agencies work, outside services work continues to be required and there continue to be a lot of firms, they are changing over time. What services they’re offering, how they position themselves. Certainly agencies that are staying in place and not changing, adapting to the market and the needs of customers, they might be in trouble.

That’s healthy. That’s the good part of free markets that work. Those who don’t adapt, are going to be left behind. Even some who do adapt will be left behind but in the long now, a decode from now, there’ll be approximately the same amount of outside providers as there are now, as there are always. It’s just a moment.

In the U.S. we look at things so short term. Financials are always quarterly. Other cultures primarily, and particularly eastern cultures, have a much longer time horizon. It’s much healthier, it’s much more correct and as usual we’re just panicking here as relates to short term stuff.

In the long now, things from the standpoint of outside, service providers being an augmentation to businesses and corporations, we’re going to be here. External creatives doing our thing as well as ever, just in different ways perhaps.

On Not Needing To Work, July 16, 2015

Once upon a time, it was necessary for people to work in order to create the things that they needed to subsist. If they didn’t work to create those things, they would be incapable of subsistence. We are today at a point where machines make it … If you throw out the capitalism part, and throw out the fact that the money and thus the power is not distributed evenly, so you’ve having to try to get more of it to pay for things, but the technology and the infrastructure exist so that we no longer need everyone to work for our subsistence. The combination of human capital and technology make it so that subsistence is less than everyone working.

Now we’re all working either to provide luxuries on top of subsistence, or just to keep this structure, the capitalist economic structure, going. This is a giant evolutionary arc, and where we’re heading, the things like Hillary Clinton’s talking about, the idea of people are going to contractors. It’s clear that the old model is breaking down and changing. Those are all steps toward our not needing to work for subsistence or luxuries. It’s getting to the point where it will be well less than a hundred percent of human capital on top of technology required to provide everything that we would want or need.

The result of that is that people literally don’t need to have jobs. They don’t need to work, other than to make money, other than to accumulate power and leverage within the society most locally, or civilization more broadly. We’re approaching a time where the world could shift in really massive ways, because it’s simply not required for people to work to create the things that are needed to keep life going. The question is: what then? One of the byproducts of work, and I’ve mentioned this I think in passing on other shows, but I don’t think we’ve gotten into it too deeply. One of the byproducts of work is a form of social control, so if I’m working, I can’t be getting drunk, because I don’t have anything to do. I can’t be sleeping with the neighbor’s wife. I can’t be doing things that are potentially destabilizing to social systems of people co-habitating in modern civilization.

The question is how is that going to shake out? As we reach a point, and it’s coming. It’s decades, not years, but it’s really coming, it’s close. It ain’t centuries, that’s for damn sure. As we reach the point that most of the work can be done by technology, that’s going to leave a lot of people without needing to work as a means of providing the things that the society is trying to provide. What are they going to do with their time? To me, that’s the big and interesting question that gets lost in the froth and churn over viewing it in the current economic system of upper class and middle class, and forty hour work weeks. I think a lot of those things are going to get completely blown out by the direction this takes, and the thing that’s just not totally clear is what direction it does take, because there’s a few different that it could.

UX Without Interfaces, March 5, 2015

Nature is the best technology of all. The more that we can learn from it, the more advanced the things that we’ll be able to build to extend ourselves will be. The other thing, I think, for listeners of this show that might be particularly relevant is having data storage in DNA is part of what’s going to be an increasingly growing trend which is basically interfaceless experiences.

If we assume that those path of data storage storing within our own genes basically is optimal, there’s no place for user experience in there. There will need to be a user interface, of course, but at that level it will be a system level of “here’s the physical interface between the being and the computing stuff that shoves the data in”.

This is a whole category for which there is no need for UX, there is no need for UI, at least in the ways that we think about them and at least in the ways that employ a whole bunch of people currently.

Data storage is just one really good example of something that’s going to be happening across a wide front, namely that we’re heading towards interfaceless experiences. That would be troubling perhaps for the many, many, many, many people who are training up and getting into what is currently a very vibrant user experience job marketplace.

Future Designers,

Well, I think that the designers of the future are largely going to be scientists and engineers. They’re not going to be designers. I think it’ll be very different. It’ll be like going back to … I guess I’m not familiar with the nitty-grittiness of computer history enough to really say this with authority, but it’ll be like going back to the 1950s through 1970s in the evolution of computing technologies where it really is the scientist, the engineer, the specialist who is creating something soup to nuts with no thought even of an independent outside designer.

Now, the notion of design will still be in the air and there will be a role but I think it will be much more common where it will be someone who really groks the tech, really groks the science, the hard stuff and is just able to bring something, at least initially to life, without the deep involvement of design or a designer or somebody whose role is more to transition what they do from an engineering perspective into something that’s more human friendly, more usable.

As the interface itself goes away and as these technologies get closer to just being essentially part of us, there just isn’t the same need for a design layer as we understand it today as this separate thing involving other people.

How AI Will Evolve UX, January 14, 2015

More frequent use of explicit design patterns, possibly expressed as open source software and libraries. Engineers often begin by using existing code that solves the problems they want to solve. It is taken for granted as the standard best practice, although once upon a time may have seemed threatening given all the time and jobs devoted to writing custom, one-off code. Remember when websites were all custom and unique? Today, few websites are truly custom, building instead upon templates, content management platforms, and e-commerce infrastructures. This practice will increasingly pervade the world of user experience, where we will agree on the best way to solve some of the easier problems and use those platforms to give us a leg-up in focusing on project-specific challenges.

Computers replacing people for completion of more incremental UX tasks and challenges. Recently a company called The Grid launched AI websites that design themselves. While their solution is unlikely to be the nemesis of the human-designed website, it is a shot across the bow to all digital designers that, yes, we, too can be replaced by machines. Realistically, the technology’s most likely impact on the domain of user experience is in automating the smaller-scale, incremental evolution of existing systems. A/B testing is now an accepted way of trying out small changes and design tweaks. There is no reason in much of that process for there to be any human involvement whatsoever. Sooner than we think, the human will be removed entirely. Perhaps a human designer will introduce an alternate design for the system to consider, but the machine can do the rest. Everything from preparation, to data collection and analysis, to deploying the winning design, to passing along metrics and explanation to stakeholders can and probably should be entirely automated. Soon this will be a reality.

UX skills becoming more core to the general toolbox of knowledge workers. Again, we can look to software engineering for the example here. The far-flung campaigns of “everyone should know how to code!” have led to an interest in computer programming that has become truly mainstream. While much of this is driven by perceptions around what the jobs of the future will look like, some of it relates to the idea that the ability to code is a potentially valuable life skill in the future wacky world of technology. Yet, I suspect both of these initiatives are poorly conceived. Computer programming will be more based in libraries and reusable code in the future, to say nothing of artificial intelligence increasingly generating its own code. There will not be a giant job market for all, and perceived benefits from having some light ability to code is unlikely to serve us any better than conveniences like, say, knowing how to change the oil in our car by ourselves. On the other hand, core UX skills will prove increasingly essential for knowledge workers, as crisp problem solving and creative thinking increasingly define the value-add that human participants contribute to the corporate system. Research skills are an obvious example, empowering anyone, from marketing flack to product manager to software engineer, to determine context with clarity. Then, problem-solving tools like cardsorting are particularly useful for product managers as well as engineers. Indeed, to this point, the need for dedicated UX people is largely the result of the skills required to provide UX not being widely understood, and/or taken care of by people with those titles. In the future, our knowledge and skills will be absorbed into the work of other actors in the system. For us to maintain a role in the process we will need to develop more and different skills. This might manifest as those with a true art and design background being the practitioners with a key ongoing role discrete from other product disciplines, or it might require our gaining much deeper and more scientific insights related to genetics, psychology, sociology, and neuroscience. The one thing that is certain is that being trained in things like contextual inquiry and information architecture won’t be nearly enough for UX to remain relevant in the future.

So, what does this mean for both companies and practitioners?

For companies, not much. These shifts are years if not a decade away. So long as you keep prioritizing and investing in the quality of your user experiences, as the broader environment evolves so will the way UX manifests within your organization.

For practitioners, the path ahead is a little more uncertain. If you are already mid- or late career there likely is not much for you to worry about. Keep on keeping on. For those who are more early-to-mid-career, now is a good time to think about your relevance in the years ahead. If you are a trained designer or artist and can create beautiful things, you will probably be just fine as you are. If you are more of the liberal-arts-trained interaction designer type, or a researcher and strategist, you should think about ways that you can evolve with a changing landscape. This generally boils down to either branching into other job roles related to UX such as product management, or getting educated in advanced sciences and technologies that relate to human behaviour. Given that UX people are generally curious and enjoy learning new things, exploring different ways to evolve your knowledge and skills should prove enjoyable. In any event, proactively exploring new frontiers will keep you relevant and ahead of the changes sure to come in the future.