S2E4: Anthony Baker – Using AI and machine learning to reduce uncertainty

Design and the technology used to implement it, have always been two sides of the same coin. Anthony Baker talks to us about how these two disciplines can come together and utilise new technological tools like artificial intelligence, language processing and machine learning to deliver better experiences.

Design Untangled | A UX & design podcast in plain English
S2E4: Anthony Baker - Using AI and machine learning to reduce uncertainty
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We’ve partnered with ProtoPie, the future of interactive product design, to help you navigate through uncertainty and overcome the challenges today’s unprecedented conditions have brought to the industry. Join us for Season 2 – Designing for a new level of uncertainty.

Design and the technology used to implement it, have always been two sides of the same coin. How can these two disciplines come together and utilise new technological tools like artificial intelligence, language processing and machine learning to deliver better experiences? Can these technologies help Designers make more informed decisions and mitigate risk? 

Different cultures can also impact the challenges Designers and Technologists face. How is the Japanese digital landscape different to the UK and what opportunities does it bring for creativity?

About our guest

From Costa Rica in South America to Japan, Anthony Baker has a very interesting and international trajectory. Currently, he is Executive Technology Director at R/GA. He was based in London and then moved to Japan, learnt the language and now manages teams and clients in the region. 

What you’ll learn

  • How does the design and business culture differ in Japan and what are the challenges?
  • How can you overcome a culture of consensus and lack of risk taking to push boundaries?
  • How can technology and design work together to create digital experiences that meet user needs?
  • How can you get clients and stakeholders involved in prototyping?
  • How can artificial intelligence and machine learning enhance the experiences we can build for customers?
  • How does technology allow you to make better design decisions?
  • Should design and user needs drive the technology we use or vice versa?  
  • What changes have there been around the digitisation of internal platforms in Japan to help ways of working during the pandemic? 

Show notes

Transcript

Chris M.: [00:00:02.11] I’m Chris Mears.

Carla L.: [00:00:03.15] And I’m Carla Lindarte.

Chris M.: [00:00:04.21] We’re two UX designers.

Carla L.: [00:00:06.05] And we hate jargon. So we’re here to help you untangle the world of design.

Chris M.: [00:00:11.00] Cut through the crap and talk about what really matters.

Carla L.: [00:00:13.17] Yes, solving people’s problems.

Chris M.: [00:00:16.04] Welcome to design untangled. Hello everyone, and welcome to Design Untangled with me, Chris Mears, and Carla Lindarte. And we’ve another special guest today, which is Anthony Baker, who’s the executive technology director at R/GA. How are you doing, Anthony?

Anthony B.: [00:00:36.20] Hey Chris, hey Carla, I’m doing really well; thank you joining you guys from Tokyo, Japan. It’s a pleasure to be part of the show, and thank you so much for having me. I’m really keen to have a good chat.

Chris M.: [00:00:53.17] Yes, awesome. And I think probably a good place to start with that is just a bit about your background, really. So you weren’t originally in Japan, starting in Costa Rica. So it’d be good to hear about just how you ended up there, really.

Anthony B.: [00:01:07.10] Yes. So I’m half Costa Rican, half British. My dad is British, my mom is Costa Rican, but I was born and raised in Costa Rica. And interestingly enough, my background or my original background is actually in arts. So I went to an arts conservatory. I study painting and literature, and dramatic arts.

And then, towards my graduation, I focused more on literature and dramatic arts, which led me to start my career in acting. So in Costa Rica, I made a career of acting in theaters and TV and documentaries and radio and all that kind of stuff for about ten years, which is probably not what you would expect from a technology guy. And then the thing was that my dad was self-taught in electronics.

So I always had this curiosity about technology. I didn’t own a computer throughout all my primary and secondary education. But I had this idea that I wanted to be an inventor. So when I got to the point of choosing the university, and try to choose my academic kind of like path. I realized that being an inventor was a really hard thing to do. I went for the second-best option, which was computer sciences.

And basically, be an inventor in the virtual world. I studied computer sciences, which was really funny, because all the people, all the colleagues or the classmates that I had at the point were like why is this guy from the TV like coming to study computer science? That’s not normal.

So I had to convince them that I was good enough. So I started my technical career in FinTech, I joined a bank. And I was part of an experimental program to bring young talent or young graduates to work with very old technologies. So I was working with software that was older than me in a bank, trying to modernize the way that banks did all their kind like account management and opening accounts and transactions and all that kind of stuff.

And the culture is just like super weird, right? It’s very tight, and it’s a lot of hierarchy. And you know the whole point is like you have to spend your entire career to get to the top positions. And I was lucky enough that I had some friends that joined this kind of like crazy digital agency outpost in Costa Rica, working with an American company called Schematic. So it’s now called possible, they join other companies and stuff like that. But at the time, schematic was the company that made the visual effects for minority reports.

And all the guys that were writing the flash bible books, they were working at schematic. And talking with my friends, they were like oh yes, we play all the time; we play hacky. And we have a gaming room, and then we work and play all the time, and the culture is super cool and super relaxed.

And I was like, oh, that sounds like my dream job. So I try hard, I went through a few interviews, and I landed a job with them, and it was all on emerging experimental technologies. This was like I don’t know, let me see, like 15 years ago or something like that, more than that.

And it was all about like interactive TV and interactive applications, and all the new technologies for web and apps and multi-touch technologies and connecting with sensors back when IOT was not a thing, back when it was really hard to do this kind of stuff. And that kind of like gave me a taste of what it would be to have an international career. Now the really cool thing about this is that from day one, I worked really closely with designers, UX, and overall just creative people.

Even the technology guys, although they were like super dedicated engineers and really pro, it was all about the creativity, right? It was all about how do you use your skills or your tools to actually create something that is unexpected, that is delightful.

Carla L.: [00:05:20.23] Going back to your background then, you then moved to the UK, and then you moved to Japan after that. So how was that transition from obviously Costa Rica, working with a lot of American clients, and UK, which is different but slightly similar culture? To move to Japan, which is completely different, how was that transition?

Anthony B.: [00:05:44.16] Yes, you’re spot on. I mean we moved, I moved with my wife to UK, and we really wanted to live in UK. And literally, I landed on a Wednesday and Thursday I was already working for RGA. So I joined RGA London when I moved there, and this was back in 2011. And the really cool thing is that RGA London was just starting. So there was a bunch of really amazing people, and we were kind of like the underdog. So there was a lot of opportunities just like take UX and design and technology craft into the next stage.

And we were doing a lot of like really experimental kind of like experiences. But to your point, the culture wasn’t that different, right? We were already quite used to working with American clients and international clients. So when we landed in UK, it felt like oh yes, of course, London, big city, the tube.

Tons of like amazing clients did a ton of work for Nike and Google, over there the BBC. Really experimental, really big scale projects. I think that was the main thing, the scale of the projects was quite different, and we were at the forefront of creating digital experiences, right? A lot for retail, but also for the web.

But the culture itself, although a lot more cosmopolitan, I would say like Europe has that thing where you’re working with people from so many different countries from Europe or from the world itself. It felt a lot more diverse. But at the same time, it didn’t felt that different, right? So long story short, fast forward six years or five years more around that, I did a trip to Japan just for holidays, and I travel all around Japan.

And it was super weird because we really loved London, we were like kind of like itching to move to a new place, but we couldn’t find anything that was or any city that was as exciting or as big as London. But as soon as we landed in Tokyo, three days in and I look back to my wife, and we’re kind of like we could live here, right?

Because it’s different enough that feels like a different planet, but it’s at the same time very comfortable, very safe. Yes, and we kind of like felt that we could live in japan for sure. Now at that time, that was kind of like a little bit of a dream. But I went back to London, and two months later, I was back in Japan working for a few clients here with RGA. So I kind of like realized that dream was actually quite possible.

So yes, a year later, it took me a year and a bit to find the opportunity. We opened the RGA Tokyo office, and then we came here. And yes, the culture is very different. The business culture, in particular, it’s quite different. Japan is a country that is super advanced in infrastructure in transportation, customer service is one of the best in the world, but digitally they’re not that advanced.

And there is a culture of consensus. So it’s less about taking bold risks and be the first, and it’s more about just like doing things that work, avoiding risk. Transforming things little by little, things are slow. Talent is a bit different also, because most people here the expectation is that you will study, you will graduate, and you will find a job right out of UNI.

And the whole point is that you don’t know how to do your job, you join a company so you can get trained. And then the expectation, a little bit like Costa Rica back in the day, is that you will spend most of your life or a very long time working for that company and learning everything about that company.

Chris M.: [00:09:36.14] I’m just interested to see how some of those cultural challenges or differences impact the design work you can do. So you mentioned it’s kind of consensus and not much risk-taking. Have you found any good ways to break that pattern and encourage companies and clients to take more risks?

Anthony B.: [00:09:53.26] Yes. I think that I mean there are so many things in variables. But one of the things that we have found is that this idea of progressing prototyping, right? The idea that instead of spending weeks or months talking about an idea and trying to find as much data to back up the idea.

But it’s all based on speculation, right? And they will kind of like do all this huge process to try to just to get to the perfect plan and then execute it. What I found that it’s not very spread out or it’s not as common here is prototyping practice. The idea that you will take a concept and actually make something that is real that people can experience, that people can get in their hands and actually see how it feels as soon as possible.

So you can actually validate the ideas and the concepts with prototypes that work, instead of using PowerPoint presentations, right? And I think that that’s a thing that happens worldwide, but in Japan, it’s quite new.

So for us, what we have been doing and what I have observed to work really well, it’s trying to get clients involved in the process of bringing a concept to life into a tangible experience as soon as you can, and then use that to validate with stakeholders and customers and do user testing. And then use that as a way to improve the idea to remove risk. Because as I was saying before, risk is the number one thing that they want to avoid.

Carla L.: [00:11:28.09] That’s really interesting because it’s basically how design is being used to kind of, as you said, speculate and come up with different options and before you actually develop something. 

You wrote on the guardian about artificial intelligence and machine learning and how this could help enable creativity. So obviously, apart from prototyping, etc. or how do you actually use IA and machine learning to help clients and obviously designers as well take advantage of this technology?

Anthony B.: [00:12:07.10] Yes, definitely. I think that it’s a super interesting topic. And there’s a lot of misconceptions, I think, and sometimes there’s a lot of overhype, I would say. The reality is that the way that I see it, it’s identifying the tools that are powered by machine learning or AI that can allow you to do your job in a better way.

Or to try many more variations, it’s a really good way to get close to AI. So, for example, we have seen a lot of GPT-3, right? The open AI kind of like natural language processor generator. And talking with my colleagues from copywriting, a lot of the times they are scared, and they are kind of like against it.

Because they feel that it’s a technology that is trying to take their jobs, or there is all these discourse about like AI not being able to be creative and all this kind of stuff. But for me, it’s more about like, well, if you have a tool that you can use to generate hundreds of variations of what is the brand identity, and what is the brand message in different contexts.

Even if those are not perfect, they should help you to create variation and inspire you and like find different ways of looking at messaging and communications, right? Same for design, right? Instead of seeing it as a threat to your profession, it’s more about like how can you use prototyping or design AI tools that allow you to create a lot more variations in different contexts or using different inputs. So you can use that as an inspiration to create better work, right? And I think that that’s the core thing that for me it’s interesting.

Carla L.: [00:13:26.07] Have you seen, like obviously going through a global pandemic and lockdowns, and clients changing likely slightly what they’re actually looking for. Have you seen that these technologies actually helped clients, or how actually get help AI and machine learning help clients with the uncertainty that these times are actually bringing?

Anthony B.: [00:13:49.24] Yes, definitely. I mean, AI has been applied in many different ways, right? From like predicting behavior and contact and social distancing and all this kind of stuff. To deep scientific research.

But it’s very important to just one acknowledge that COVID and the pandemic has been the catalyzer of digital transformation for a lot of Japanese companies, right? Before COVID, like doing remote work or doing teleworking as they call it here or like doing video calls and not being in the office, was not a common practice.

Was actually frowned upon, right? So the whole point of like companies had to very rapidly start putting together all the infrastructure and the tools and the processes to allow people to work from their homes and remotely.

And change the way that the perception, the way of working was expected to be, has been a massive catalyzer of digital transformation in Japan, so if you take that into consideration, then, a lot of AI tools, a lot of collaborative designing tools. A lot of Chabot or natural language processing or recommendation engines and all these things that are based on machine learning algorithms, or use machine learning to a certain extent.

Are becoming the tools that allow scale, right? And this is very important because when you have to take a company that is not used to use collaborative online technologies or remote working or being able to give support to their customers at a large scale on digital technologies. That’s where machine learning and a lot of these AI platforms are really making the difference because they are enabling companies to jump quicker to an online digital kind of like way of working and business models, which wouldn’t be possible without tools like this.

Take, for example, simple things like the automated Chatbots for customer support, right? Take, for example, some of the collaborative design tools right like Figma and other tools and protopy that allow people to work collaboratively in real-time. Although they are not in the same place. These are the key things that are really pushing forward a lot of the transformation that we are seeing in Japan.

Chris M.: [00:16:14.03] I just had a quick question around technology. To what extent do you think in terms of design process that technology actually drives that? Or should design be kind of the driver for finding new technology to essentially create new designs?

So I suppose what I mean by that are you starting from the point of saying right, we can now do this stuff with machine learning that enables us to design these kinds of experiences. Or is it more the other way around, where we say we need to design this kind of experience, what kind of technology can help us do that, or do we even need to build that kind of technology.

Anthony B.: [00:16:57.19] Yes, that’s a very good question, and I think that people will have different opinions based on different contexts and scenarios. In my opinion, it’s a synergetic kind of like process, right? You might as well start with exactly what you pointed out, right? Like we want to design this kind of experience to tap into an existing behavior, and we want to elevate that behavior.

And therefore, we want to create this kind of new experience or new way of doing things. Therefore, what is the technology that can allow us to do that? And you might follow that path, but what you will realize is that as soon as you’re starting to try different technologies and connect different technologies to make that experience a reality, the way that the technology can be used and leveraged.

Either by using existing things or creating new technology will then start producing feedback to the experience itself and the design itself, right? So if you have a very, kind of like unflexible process, chances are that you’ll have problems when the experience that you intended to design is actually not feasible. Or it ends up being kind of like half-broken because the technology was not able to do that kind of experience. And the opposite is the same, if you start with, well we have this technology, we have these things that we can use, and then you design the experience around that.

You will be limited to a certain extent, and the imagination, the possibilities. What I find that is the best option is this idea of like it’s a symbiosis, it’s a synergy between design and technology where you are coming up with ideas of the possibilities from both sides. And then you’re trying to bring a design to life or bring a technology to life, that will then inform the next iteration of that design or that technology.

And I think that that’s why lean experience innovation, which is the idea of like cut the waste, bring that concept to life, try it out and learn from it. So you can improve it and pivot, right? And move into different directions is key. But that is impossible if you don’t have both design and technology being part of that process.

Carla L.: [00:19:11.06] That is so true. I mean, based on my experience as well, once you have only designers working on their own, obviously great ideas can come up, and a lot of the empathy and the kind of customer understanding or user understanding of the products will come. But once technology comes in, it’s so good to have the both horses together, as you said, so that’s really interesting.

Going back a little bit on the COVID topic, I wanted to ask you. I mean, I think you briefly mentioned it before. But how clients’ needs have actually changed? Because you’re saying obviously in Japan, it’s being like an accelerator for all different ways of working that it wouldn’t have happened before in Japan, or would have taken longer.

But in terms of like client needs and types of projects, have you seen any trends or any specific needs that you didn’t see before the pandemic?

Anthony B.: [00:20:10.25] I would say that there is, let me think. I think that there is two or three different growing trends in the type of work that we have seen. One is definitely the optimization or digitalization of internal tools and platforms, right? That’s definitely a big one. For a lot of Japanese clients, a lot of the requests are how can we embrace technology to make us more effective, right? And that’s ways of working, collaboration. But it’s also optimizing the business model, optimizing how do you get data, how do you understand the consumer behavior.

And I think that it’s particularly centered around the customer behavior, and that might be internal or external. The second one, it’s obviously, social platforms are taking the world by storm. Now the interesting thing in Japan is that you have Line, which is kind of like the social platform for japan. It has, I think, like 90% penetration across all age groups, right?

So in Japan, it’s very homogeneous in the sense that you can bet that anyone from 12 years old to 60 years old will be using Line. But Line is a very different kind of like platform if you compare to Wechat or Tik-Tok or Instagram and Facebook and all this kind of stuff. And with a lot of globalization and a lot of like input from global economies and online communities, and probably has to do with language education and education in general.

People are being a lot more exposed to social behaviors on social platforms. So definitely, a lot of the requests and type of work from brands is how do we innovate in the social platforms space. Especially when you’re starting to see social ecommerce, when you’re starting to see real-time communities, when you’re starting to see kind of like loyalty services and programs being developed on social platforms, which is a perfect example of you pretty much can do anything that you can think of on Wechat, right?

That’s an SNS platform. So I think that definitely, that’s something that we’re seeing like Japanese clients are realizing the power of these social platforms, especially looking at examples from Wechat and Instagram. So that’s a big one that we are seeing. And it has to do with trends, with very lean can of like seamless experiences, because it’s kind of like an audience that has very limited attention span and is used to very seamless kind of like user journeys.

And the third one would be how brands can own their own kind of like digital wall garden, right? So I think that for a lot of brands, having a kind of like fair enough website was good enough. A lot of brands in japan have gone to marketplaces like Rakuten or Amazon or things like that. And what they are realizing is that in these platforms, they have very little control over their brand identity and their brand currency. So a lot of these companies are coming to us, and in general, they are starting to think how can they develop digital experiences that allow their brands to have a direct relationship with their customers, right?

So a lot of like DTC kind of like initiatives, right? And how to add value to those experiences. Which is really interesting because it’s moving away from traditional marketing and the one-off campaign and just activations, into how do we create services that add value in a constant kind of like way, right? To create loyalty and to own the information and the understanding of their customers.

Carla L.: [00:23:52.15] Well, that’s really interesting. Anthony, we’re going to wrap up now. Unfortunately, we don’t have much time now, but it’s been great talking to you.

And we always ask our guests to give us or to give our audience some indication of resources, books, podcasts, or something interesting that you think is going to help designers especially navigate these times of like high uncertainty. Are there any recommendations of resources that you can think of?

Anthony B.: [00:24:30.15] Yes, totally. So one podcast that I really like and that will give you a lot of insights from Japan, it’s called disrupting japan. And you will be able to get a lot of insights from Japanese startups, a lot of initiatives, really interesting people. The other one that I love it’s a podcast; it’s actually not from Japan, it’s actually from Dr. Laurie Santos, and it’s called the happiness lap.

And it’s a super cool podcast about the psychology of our brains and happiness in general, which I really recommend. In terms of technology and things that are really interesting in terms of like new business models, and it’s a reflection of the trends. I would say check out the platformit.info blog.

It’s a super good one about like platform business models and this idea that companies are not producing value anymore, but just connecting a lot of people, which is kind of like the business model for Airbnb and Uber and this kind of stuff, which is super interesting.

Chris M.: [00:25:41.16] Cool, awesome. Well, it’s been great talking to you today, very interesting background you got. It’s been great to hear about it, and we’ll be watching some of your TV shows after this, I think.

Anthony B.: [00:25:52.06] Thank you very much, Chris and Carla, for having me; it has been a pleasure. And yes, looking forward to hear the show and hear more about you guys in the future.

Outro: [00:26:05.25] Search and subscribe to Design Untangled using your favorite podcast app and leave us a review. Follow us on the web at Designuntangled.co.uk or on Twitter @Designuntangled.