July 21-22, 2021 / Online

An interview with Wendy Johannson

Written by Steve Fisher

June 14, 2020


Wendy and Steve chat about CX or computational experience and ethical design. Machines and algorithms aren’t inherently biased but the decisions we make about how they’re used have major impacts on who we amplify and who we silence. Wendy talks about the human experience in CX and how machines can do the work we often overlook and design for the greater good.


Steve: Well, welcome to the Design and Content Conference podcast and I'm pleased to welcome Wendy Johansson to the podcast. Wendy is global VP experience at Publicis Sapient where she works closely with John Maeda. Wendy is part of a team forging an engineering and design partnership to establish a deeply technologically grounded future where creativity is fully integrated into Publicis Sapient Client Services. Welcome, Wendy.

Wendy: Thanks a lot, Steve. Great to be here and have me. I guess I just welcomed myself.

Steve: Yeah. No, no, that's good. So you do a lot of really interesting work. And I think in some areas that people maybe aren't quite as familiar with you talk about the Fourth Industrial Revolution. What is that?

Wendy: Well, we've gone through a couple of industrial revolutions and as we're looking at kind of this era and age of not only internet, but mobile technology, we followed Moore's law, which basically says, every couple of years semiconductors are gonna double in speed and die half in size. And as we continue to look at that, we're in this Fourth Industrial Revolution, where everything just continues on this kind of infinite scale. Computers are processing and they never tire and they continue to process faster and faster and get more and more intelligent.

And so what are we doing with that technology? How are we actually integrating that into our daily lives? Honestly, the last biggest invention was 2008 the iPhones, and then we got a whole generation of smartphones, but there hasn't been that much innovation since then. Right? Sure, we got faster internet speeds, we've got 3G, 4G and going up to 5G now but there's not been great leaps since then. And, you know, when I first started talking to you, I think it was last year around Q4, right?

Steve: Yeah.

Wendy: And we're talking about this conference. That was kind of my thesis about this. And when we now look at it, we're in COVID era, where we're talking a lot more loudly about systemic racism and injustice in the world, not just in the United States and North America. What are we actually gonna do to move this forward? How are we gonna change? You know, not only our ways of work and technology, but what life looks like.

I know everybody's talking about the future of work, but I'm thinking, what is future of life? In all of this, when we don't have an answer to COVID? We don't have an answer or any kind of obvious change, moving forward to injustice and racism. How are we gonna continue to build this because the rich are just getting richer and quite frankly, we live in homogeny where everything is ruled by design for the rich folks who are in power.

That's kind of how I look at this kind of Fourth Industrial Revolution is. You know, is just one way of fooling we as the people, the regular working class people in this way. Are we gonna take that power back and start designing for each other, designing for our lesser, I guess, circumstance, folks around the world. And how are we gonna actually start moving that forward and rather than continue to make Amazon richer and give Facebook more of our personal information.

So that thesis has changed a little since Q4. Is what I'm saying.

Steve: I think a lot of things for a lot of people have changed in many ways, or it's highlighted things that aren't changing enough. And design is powerful, and I can get a hit on something just so powerful within that is to say that systems are designed to benefit certain people, and what we do with that matters a great deal. And so I'm really interested, like your talk is around computational experience, or we're talking about like the new CX. Let's say that.

Wendy: Yeah.

Steve: And I'd love to hear like what kind of impact you feel this will have on companies, governments, like the people that we're talking about here.

Wendy: So I guess we'll start first with computational experience. This is something that John Maeda, who 's our chief experience officer at Publicis Sapient and a dear friend and mentor for me as well. He started with a design and tech report, I think six or seven years ago, and really has kind of established the sudden tone of the industry through the design and tech report. And he has kind of advanced his thinking into this, it's heading towards CX. And a lot of people kept thinking he was talking about consumer experience, but he's talking about computational experience, as kind of this hybrid engineer design business guy.

And when we're thinking of computational experiences, it's exactly kind of back to that Fourth Industrial Revolution of, you know we're living in a very digital age and how are we leveraging the power of computation to create more fair and balanced and, you know, ethical design?

And these are things that to some degree, with the machines, they can actually help us compute and better understand, like a more fair unjust world, because there isn't. And I'm gonna give a big star on this one. There isn't injustice in machines, of course, you can create injustice within the system. You can create those biases as you're coding machines and algorithms, but in general, machines are not biased themselves. Right? And so that's where we can choose some of this kind of fairness in what we're creating.

I think a lot of this today when people think about big data algorithms, all of this kind of computing power out there, they're still looking at, how are we going to profit of this? You took a look at Facebook, I have a lot of good friends who work there, but lately in the last couple of weeks, there's been deep conversation about is it ethical for you to be any kind of employee at Facebook, no matter what you do there, especially in design, because you are creating the systems that are allowing, voices to be silenced or amplified and to actually count to my point earlier. If an algorithm is built poorly, you're actually seeing compounded effects of that, versus this kind of human nature of badness that doesn't get compounded as quickly as it does within computation.

So I think that there's a lot of questions out there right now for us to think about, but we're not yet addressing how to utilize technology and design to fight against it. We keep using them as band aids and band aids for our entertainment band aids for, being able to identify a plant through AI by taking a photo of it. And they are all band aids but we're not actually doing anything that's actually changing societal values, I would say.

Steve: Those are lots of really deep and powerful thoughts within there. And so another one of our speakers in the past was at the event just talk about sometimes the toxic nature of tech, just to summarize it, and how our biases make their way into it like to resonate with the comment he made about how machines themselves can and are neutral, but the people who create the algorithms and the things that power those have their own conscious and unconscious bias. And so do you have like ideas or things that you'll be talking about around how we can move into this computational experience and to counter those bias or to make a more diverse experience? One that benefits everyone not just this particular group.

Wendy: I'll start with something actually, that was posted this morning by Anna Jean Baptiste and she is the head of Product Inclusion at Google probably both, I think. And she wrote a really great article on medium. And one of the quotes from there is identify where you're asking who else and make your circle wider for potential customers and where you aren't. And basically, her article was about how to design with equity in mind.

And I thought that was a really powerful statement, design and identify where you're asking who else? Because especially in UX, we tend to start with, well, who is the user? So just who? And I like to challenge that with this question that she brought up before? Who else should be using this? Who else is going to be using this? And who else should we be designing for in mind.

I think that's where computation can help us is, we do have all these customer data platforms out there. They're calling CDP where it's connected to the whole lifecycle of your user data. And typically, people have seen CDP's as just kind of the marketing data side, how do I get somebody to cross that conversion with. But I think the power of a true CDP is when you cross that conversion loop. And the same data platforms are also following through the product analytics, the product loop.

So kind of as John put it in a talk a couple of months ago, at the Forrester conference, he said, we're oftentimes as designers just designing for the wow, which is, wow, I wanna go buy that thing. Wow, I wanna go sign up. But we're not thinking about it after a while hard enough. Yeah, that's usually kind of back in design systems work and whatnot. So I think with computation, what we can do is we can kind of automate a lot more of that design work. And that was probably the most unpopular statement I'm gonna make about the whole group of designers is, hey we can automate your jobs.

But I mean, those more tedious pieces of our work, if we think of something like accessibility, how am I gonna ensure that the design of this application I just created or SaaS platform I created, how I'm gonna ensure that it is completely color accessible for all sorts of colorblindness. And typically, it's kind of a tedious work that a designer gets at the end of the sprint right before delivery. And right before the final product goes out, where oh, wait, we forgot to check on the colors. Okay, let's go in and check on that versus actually having designed with that in mind in the first place. We can automate a lot of those with computational experiences.

And I have a great colleague, Adam Morris, who has created a lot of these kind of computational experience platforms to help basically take away the tedious parts of work and be able to have designers focus on what their specialty is and utilizing their brain and strategizing and understanding kind of that product loop and after a while.

Steve: Yeah it really sounds like what you're talking about would help teams do more to scale and to do that work with higher quality too especially like, I work at a giant telco in Canada, and we have lots of different people working on lots of different things. And we're constantly trying to automate some of the work that we can so that those checks and balances and other things are just there. They're just happening. I could see that as being very powerful.

Wendy: Yeah, and a lot of it is left by the fact that we look at our engineering peers, they're writing test cases ahead of finishing their code, and why aren't we thinking about kind of those those edge cases and accessibility and inclusivity in our designs ahead of it, usually, it's that afterthought, it's usually compliance at the end, versus, the who asked question in the beginning. So I think there's a lot of power and helping kind of generate all of this so that it moves faster and it becomes more of a tool that we can help us with within design and not just that kind of checkbox because we have to.

Steve: I love that like, rather than it being a carrot and stick like the compliance, it's the who else. It's this more intrinsic motivation at the start of the process. That's wonderful. So you also hinted at something at the start and talked about it a little bit, the CX report that has come out. Can you tell us a bit about that?

Wendy: So the CX report that has come out is a little different this year, I mentioned that in the previous years. John has focused on just design and tech report, because for years, that was the conversation, in the era of early Airbnb days. Wow there's a company with design founders and they're making design matter in tech and wow, this is the end product when you put design in partnership with engineering and technology. We've never really had a company that's design led.

Most people might think a little IDEO did it, but it's still very much a fringe expensive activity like a luxury to indulge in, when you can start with design, right? Nobody ever calls us first, nobody invites us to the first brief or the kickoff of a project or an idea before it's actually even a concept. Right? So I think that's a challenge that a lot of organizations have.

And when we think about CX as, computational experience, and also customer experience, still, one of the things that we're thinking about deeply here is that the employee experience EX, we're making new acronyms, you know. EX is what makes your CX human. And that's really what we're focused on when we're thinking about that in the CX report. And john really takes that further and in touching on that employee experience, and for everybody in the audience, essentially think of it as an employee journey map. What does that experience day to day and, how do you get on new projects, how are new things put on a roadmap, how are things prioritized? How do you determine what team members you get to work with?

Of course, those are all just project things. But what about your performance? What about your feedback and, constructive feedback that helps you grow? What about your career plans? And how do we help you stretch and learn new tools and new methods, and frankly, be aware of what's happening in design, not just in your industry, in tech, but, in society, and not only within your regions, but what's happening in Southeast Asia? What's happening in Europe, how are things being approached differently?

And I would say now is probably the most global moment I can think of, in quite a bit in history, because, during COVID people were talking a lot more about what's happening in Italy, what's happening in Sweden, how have they done these things differently versus in Singapore or what happened in the center in Wuhan and how is Australia and New Zealand doing to open up their borders for each other so they can do some travel because they're both kind of contained? So I think there is a lot more global knowledge, I guess, global awareness happening during COVID.

And that might be to me one of the bright spots as people became more globally aware that there are real humans in Italy, not just in their minds, what caricature of Italians are, it's just like, no, there are real humans, and people who are hurting and suffering in the same way. And how do we help them? How do we empathize with them? And then also, how do we learn from them? So I think that that was a kind of a bright spot in the middle of all of that for me.

Steve: Yeah, well, definitely. Like there's these moments where we make a connection, and a true empathetic connection to where we go, Oh, I see my experience in your experience, or identify something and it has been really transformative, you know, good and bad I'd say too but you're right, like when we look at the global connectedness of the world, and how we're starting to maybe see some of that understanding through that. It's inspiring there also, of course, some dark spots within all that too. But to take away something positive, that would be it.

Wendy: Oh, I was gonna tie that just right back to what does that have to do with employee experiences as a human right? That's kind of our human employee experience with the world. COVID helped us realize that and if we take a look at why the real employee experience of your job applies to computational experience, the artifacts and environments and quite frankly the barriers or lack thereof, set up for you at your company and your environments and the inclusivity, the diversity, the openness and safe space of conversations that can be heard.

I think those are all things that impact how you design, and I think it's extremely important and it's about time we take back and also talk about that employee experience and not just look at it as kind of a HR or operational function. I have a huge interest in how we're continuing to design teams and grow teams, not only at Publicis Sapient, but at the startup I co-founded previously wiseline. And these are things I've taken with me through my career. And I could only learn those things through being a UX designer. So I think that's impacted how I view all this.

Steve: I'm gonna shift gears just a little bit here. And that, of course, the event has moved online because of the global pandemic. And we want to keep people healthy and safe and have as broad an impact through this event as we can to make it more inclusive. And I'm curious though, moving to an online event like this, and thinking about this event in particular, what are some things that you're looking forward to with this?

Wendy: So I'm actually super excited about this being an online event because I think it allows us to escape a little bit of fatigue. So a total introvert here doing as best as I can great while working from home, don't really know human interaction and person. So I'm not gonna miss that kind of stress and buzz, I feel when I'm at real life at a conference where, you're kind of hurting, back to back kind of like we're doing now, back to back into all our zoom meetings. But getting that break to kind of process and in the environment that kind of makes you most comfortable. So I'm looking forward to that, because I think I've also spoken at and attended a couple other virtual online conferences, probably most recently, the remote Design Week, held by your fellow comedians in Toronto.

Steve: Yeah, Design X. That's a great event.

Wendy: Yeah. And I thought it was really good because they use an interesting platform where people could connect in a way and socialize in a way where, frankly, again, as an introvert I find a little more difficult than in person at a conference. So I thought that was great because you could break out into safe spaces have conversations that you can think about and then come back to and there are kind of bigger topics and a group that you can think about and come back to which I'm gonna dig on it again, as an introvert, I like to think about things and then come back to them being put on the spot often, it's just like silence. So-

Steve: Yeah.

Wendy: I think that's been one of the bigger positives for me. So I look forward to that and seeing how and who I meet at content design to see. Who I can talk to in a different way that I don't think I would have engaged with as much probably in person.

Steve: Some of the interactions I've been having this way have been a lot better and easier for me and had been very positive. I do admit some of it has been a little bit difficult, but I'm very excited about the event this summer. And things like a chat like Slack becomes the front channel for people. And you can give each other a little bit of space or as much connectedness as you want. Well, we're really excited that you're part of the event this year, Wendy, and we can't wait for your talk this summer.

Wendy: All right, thanks a lot, Steve.

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