When you're designing a new piece of kit, a platform for the web or a nifty widget for Bebo, it's vital that you have an audience in mind, an understanding of what might be possible, and the ability to change your plans frequently without sacrificing the integrity of your project. That was the main message at my lecture to the BScs and BEngs at Napier University, Edinburgh, today.
Why the 'users' are different
The generation of 21st Century 'users' would not appreciate the title. They are contributors, creators, co-creators, participants... 90% of 15-25 year olds have visited their social network in the past month, vast numbers of these Bebo Boomers using the platform in ways the platform engineers hadn't dreamt of.
Expertise comes in different forms from before. It won't be long before PhDs will be submitted on YouTube. Wine buffs don't need to wear particular clothes and visit stuffy vineyards; you can be an expert on your own blog, or have your passion facilitated and encouraged by the platform itself. You don't have to visit a pub to feel like you're a regular. You can join its Facebook group or take a peek at what's going on through its Flickr photo pool.
The main global shifts affecting innovation
With technology providing a means for consumers, users, participators to take part in the co-creation of products, services and knowledge (think Dell's community, Seesmic's relationship around product development with its users (as many follow it as it follows; its users are fanatical) and educationalists around the world, or Wikipedia, even), it means that competition in the space to have your voice heard and your service used has never been greater.
Daniel Pink notices what technology has allowed to happen, and sums it up with the three 'A's.
What happens in Asia won't take long to happen elsewhere. At the moment if it's mobile, it's happening, yet so few software engineers start out by thinking how they'll make a mobile app usable on the web. Instead, we see companies struggle to make mobile products from the web. The one exception to this: Twitter. Asia's not only a growing market but a global one: China will soon be the number one English-speaking country in the world, its top 5% of graduates numbering more than the whole population of the UK. They have more gifted and talented students than we have students. Change is on the cards, with tomorrow's teens facing over 29 jobs in their lifetime, which means long-term planning and big budget developments risk more failure for software engineers than small-scale, agile, flexible development.
The need for being mobile has never been greater. What's this? Or this? Try this then. With 426,000 mobiles being chucked out every year in the States alone, the signal is this: mobile telephony and internet access is not only burgeoning, but consumers are becoming fans, and want to engage with the latest, most powerful kit. They need apps that push their devices and they will be ready to chuck the device before they chuck the web service that makes their mobile tick (think iPhone).
Automation of search has probably been the one most important automation to have taken place since the net was born. Everyone has become a cataloguer, but people still need help understanding the stories large amounts of data can tell. To prevent information overload, we need computer designers and engineers to come up with ever more ingenius ways to find and present information to the 'user'/co-creator. Jonathan Harris is getting there, showing us some degree of geography in the way we feel (the web's never been great at location or time) or time and pace in a photograph.
Automation of copy and paste has also meant that we have the potential to be more creative - or a lot less creative. It might be down to software engineers to design interfaces that make it more fun to be original than to be a copy cat. Adidas seem to be having some success on Jumpcut with their sneaker remizes.
We also talked about the role of the engineer in adoption strategy, especially when such a strategy feeds back into the development of further fuctionality, and how privacy issues, which can sometimes be the death of a project, can lend itself to structuring social media projects for particular groups of potential participants. Case in point: ARGs and Voluntary Computing.
Ultimately, as we started, we saw that the potent power of the net is not in code, but in people. If we can code to bring people together, the right people at just the right time, then we release the potential. It's hard to do this, with most software engineers working in groups where the ideas and direction may come from mere mortals like myself ;-) Communication, therefore, remains a key skill, and one that is often underdeveloped until the engineer is summoned to Demo and given a course by Shel. I love the way some developers express themselves in presentations at the likes of Demo or BarCamp, or in YouTube videos: this SecondLife development is more beautiful in its development than in the final product, I'd argue.
The easiest way to communicate with potential clients, employers or programming peers? A blog. In this case, if you're developing software for the web, for the social web at that, there's no excuse to be towards the end of a university career with no means to market yourself and build contacts in the slightly less cossetted world out there.
Software developers need to jump on every bandwagon going, to see if it's headed anywhere (thanks, Mike). They need to make sure that, using the tools of the ambiently intimate, they are at the front of the minds of everyone who matters to them now and into the future.