Just imagine for a moment that a strange spacecraft landed on Earth from another planet – where it had been designed by a superior alien intelligence. I have very little idea what this would look like but the odds are, almost certainly, that it would not be saucer-shaped, nor would it emit sparks or an eerie humming sound. In fact I can honestly make no predictions about the nature of this vessel at all.
But there are two things I can confidently predict.
First, I can certainly predict that within hours many engineers and scientists would be despatched from around the world to the landing site, and start by trying to reverse-engineer the workings of the spacecraft.
Secondly, and almost as confidently, I can predict that their attempts at reverse-engineering the spaceship would at first be hopelessly, almost comically, wrong.
The attempt to understand objects designed by different human cultures is often very difficult. The collection of The British Museum, famously, contains an item catalogued only as 'Object, wooden, possibly part of something'. When other cultures first encountered Europeans, they were often baffled by each others institutions, dress or technology. If the designer of a thing has a very different mindset to yours, it is often very difficult to understand the items they produce (as I once learned when I inadvertently pissed in an item of French enamelware intended for washing up cooking utensils).
But, here’s the interesting thing. We commonly forget it, but most of the things on our own planet are the product of an alien intelligence. Not only plants, trees, animals and humans, but businesses, institutions, even to a degree consumer products.
It doesn’t much matter to me whether you call this intelligence ‘Evolution’, ‘God’ or even ‘Luck’. All that matters is that we recognise that the continued survival of these things creates a process of design that is very different to the human idea of intentional design. They survive, flourish or die by a process of non-human selection, which has no specific human intent involved. That was the titanic realisation of Darwin – that something could have the appearance of intentional design without the need for any intent whatsoever. In many ways we are surrounded by things which are the product of an alien intelligence – as well as being the product of an alien intelligence ourselves. That spaceship is not as unusual as all that. The earth is full of unusual spaceships, ourselves included.
Amongst the most important things we can at least attempt better to understand is human psychology and behaviour. And here, I think, we have a possible Galapagos Islands in the fields of UX and experience design. The sudden possibility to perform thousands of well-funded, behavioural experiments on how people behave and what makes them happy offers the possibility of shining a little light into what drives human behaviour, contentment and happiness.
Those tiny quirks of human behaviour, which you will find so well documented on a site such as this ...why might they have arisen? What can they tell us about ourselves? Producing good UI is a wonderfully worthwhile exercise in itself. But applying what is learned in digital UI to the UI of the real world - that is a truly heroic exercise.
A few people (Five Guys, for instance) already do. To find out how, you’ll have to see my talk.
Rory Sutherland is vice-chairman of Ogilvy & Mather UK. He is talking at Digital Shoreditch on Thursday 14 May: ‘Blazing new trails, reinventing and pioneering the model of the agency’. Hear his talk at Digital Shoreditch, or live stream it here.
Follow @ogilvyUK and #OgilvyDS on Twitter for more on Ogilvy’s coverage of Digital Shoreditch 2015.