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Meet ADP's 'business anthropologist,' putting human thought behind chatbots

Mary K. Pratt | May 30, 2017
Martha Bird's specialty is designing technologies that work for people, creating conversational user interfaces and chatbots that can serve different professional audiences across different geographies and different cultures.

Why are people's relationships with technology so important? Any technology development and deployment happening today not informed by systems-level thinking is going to create issues upstream. What do I mean by this? I mean that in order to solve for the challenges of any particular step in a process, you need to have an understanding of the entire ecosystem in which that process lives. You need an understanding of the technical infrastructure, compliance particularities, company culture, geographic and cultural considerations, etc.

Short of understanding how each informs and influences the other, you will end up deploying systems that are brittle and linear, poorly integrated as well as poorly aligned to both the practices and the people, and ultimately, the place where they are implemented.

What design flaws can doom a technology? It strikes me that we're in a period that's exponentially turbocharged, and new and emerging technologies are coming fast and furious. The technology itself has outpaced our imagination on how to use it. People tend to embrace these new technologies just for the sake of embracing them. So you have a reimagination of older tools dressed up like they're new, and they're not serving any practical utility. So using the latest and greatest technology to build something that people won't use is a major design flaw.

Can you give me an example? If I could order a pizza in three clicks, I'm not sure why I'd want a chatbot to come on asking me seven questions. It's that sort of bloating for the sake of the new.

What surprising observation or insight have you made in your work? I find it interesting how practitioners learn to navigate tools that may not be serving them well, how over time they develop their own grassroots workarounds and local shortcuts. These homegrown solutions become a kind of personal accomplishment and a source of pride, so much so that making a system easier to use and more intuitive may not immediately be welcomed despite requests for such streamlining.

You've talked about how to work on cross-functional development teams efficiently. What's the recipe for that? It has been my experience that adding variety of background and expertise to the mix really helps open up new perspectives. Greater team diversity tends to introduce new ways of thinking, which in turn can have a very positive impact on product.

It's bringing someone like me, a social scientist, onto a team heavy with developers. It's about creating a team where people respect each other's opinions and are open to that creative friction. We live in an increasingly global world and we're building our tools for a global audience, and we have to expand our teams to build products that are more representative of the people who are in the world.


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