Fjord’s Lorna Ross: ‘You can’t just digitise for digital’s sake’

5 Jan 2018

Lorna Ross, group director, Fjord. Image: Accenture

Fjord group director Lorna Ross believes the future isn’t about businesses simply being more digital, it’s about embracing data and design in a clever way to be more dynamic and responsive.

After 27 years working in the US, Fjord group director Lorna Ross has come home to Ireland and is leading the Fjord design group at The Dock, Accenture’s modular building at Silicon Docks that sits at the heart of the digital transformation revolution.

Prior to taking up the role at Fjord’s studio, Ross ran the design group at the prestigious Mayo Clinic Center for Innovation and, before that, she taught industrial design at the Rhode Island School of Design.

‘Many people today spend more time in a digital space than physical. Our attention is more digital than physical’

Her career has brought her from Dublin to London and to Palo Alto in Silicon Valley as well as the east coast tech scene, and she worked at MIT Media Lab in Boston, looking at the intersection of design, technology and human health.

Her career has also led her to envisioning the future at Motorola and she even worked at DARPA, the US Department of Defense’s R&D group, where she helped to design wearable tech and clothing as part of an elite soldier programme.

According to Accenture’s recent Fjord Trends 2018 report, rapid technological advancements are altering the world we live in today, provoking both wonder and angst about the possibilities. Whether it’s artificial intelligence, computer vision or blockchain, emerging technologies are uprooting the digital and physical experiences of our everyday lives. These joint forces are simultaneously creating optimism and concern about the unprecedented wave of change that is unfolding.

At the heart of this wave of change is Ross, whose journey began at NCAD in Dublin.

When you were studying art and design at NCAD in Dublin, had you any intention of ending up in Silicon Valley, DARPA or MIT?

No, never. In hindsight, it all sounds neat and tidy rather than the reality of stumbling forward. I studied fashion and textiles, and actually started a company straight out of college selling clothing in the late 1980s. I went to a bank and asked for a start-up loan to get my business up and running and cope with manufacturing, and was told: “We don’t give money to designers.”

I looked for a way of getting more business skills and found a programme that was being run in London at the Royal College of Art in design management and, after that, I intended to come back and run my design company.

I applied, and they were about to cancel it because no one else applied, but they said: “We are running this really experimental programme in the industrial design department, bringing traditional designers in to explore what’s happening with emerging technologies and think about the implications back to their craft.” Apple was actually sponsoring the programme and it was going to be six people. They offered me a full scholarship and, in terms of pivoting, it was a big change in direction for me.

The first year was grim. I tried to leave a couple of times and found it hard to connect with emerging technologies. At the time, no one was using computers and they were really hard to use and understand.

We were given a brief to redesign the telephone and everyone went off to do that. People who knew how to design phones went off and designed phones. But I created a glove that would be the telephone, and it was getting into this idea of wearable technology – and, bear in mind, this was 1991.

People were intrigued and my whole thesis became around smart materials and wearable technology. I got a job before I graduated and went to work in a research lab in Palo Alto and I worked in wearables for 15 years.

From your initial reticence toward technology to working in the industry, how did your perspective change in terms of your appreciation of what could be done when design meets technology?

It was more about the people I got to work with than the technology. If you get to work with a really great group of engineers who are really passionate about something, it is really contagious. And so, it just afforded me an opportunity to be in these rich environments where people were asking really compelling questions, but also had a real respect for design, which I found remarkable.

Fjord Studio’s Lorna Ross: ‘You can’t just digitise for digital’s sake’

Lorna Ross, group director, Fjord. Image: Accenture

‘We need to come up with a universal design language for data and how we talk about data as a raw material’

I feel spoilt having worked in places where people are passionate; when you encounter people who aren’t passionate, it’s a bit of a shock.

When I was hired by the Department of Defense, I had done a presentation at a conference on wearable technology and it impressed a person running a huge part of DARPA in terms of future soldier equipment and robotics, and I was offered a job.

They hired me to think about the soldier and not just the engineering; to think about the experience that the end-user will have and empathise with their needs.

I used to joke it was like them hiring a florist but, in reality, design impacts everything and the consequences are far-reaching.

Today, digital and data are materials that are becoming increasingly blended into our lifestyles. When you started working on wearables in the 1990s, did you think people had already envisioned this?

Most of what is coming out in the trends now are ideas that have been around a long time, it just took a long time to mature.

I think people’s tolerance of technology in their lives, allowing them to do what they do and the intimacy of it and how dominant it is and how much we trust and depend on it … people themselves may not have predicted it would become so pervasive in their lives.

Many people today spend more time in a digital space than in physical. Our attention is more digital than physical.

When I was at MIT Media Lab in Boston, there was a ton of research into technology embedded in objects and into intelligent objects and spaces, particularly AI systems, smart machines and robotics.

Now, with the degree to which it is maturing, there is a constellation of different technologies and we are starting to create unprecedented levels of opportunity. It is like AI has matured, cloud has matured, things are getting cheaper, computers are getting faster – it is all accelerating and creating anxiety, too.

What are your thoughts on Accenture’s evolution from traditional management consultancy to a data and design-driven creative business?

I came straight to The Dock and have a different lens on the traditional business itself, and see things through the eyes of The Dock. But I think what is happening more generally in design, is that many agencies are being bought by consulting firms, especially in the US, and there are almost no independent design agencies left.

It is really about getting organisations to think about the end-to-end perspective – your customer, your client – and helping them to develop expertise around tech and create an understanding that so much of their markets are being shaped by customers. It is about how to avoid any blind spots, helping them invest in technology, help them to be really strategic thinkers, but to help to see aspects of the future that are invisible.

The role of consumers, the unpredictability of consumers, would be a blind spot for any organisation.

When you look at an organisation and its market, you are looking at what can I do from a technology, strategy and organisational perspective, but also understanding how customers are behaving a certain way and why, by looking at behaviours but also by shaping markets.

Digitalisation and digital disruption are becoming the new watchwords. But, at the end of the day, isn’t it about businesses meeting customers at the point where the customers expect to see them or need them?

Completely. So many organisations are even late to digitising and thinking about it. They know they need to do it and often think about it in terms of being a more data-driven, living business. There’s two things: you need to be accessible in a virtual and digital way as well as through bricks and mortar – but then, if you do go digital, you can’t just be digital, you have to be more dynamic.

This requires not only a strategy around digitising services and products, but making sure that when we make that investment, we consider the role of data and analytics in that investment.

It used to be a case of just making a website or an app, checking some boxes and saying you had a digital footprint. Now, you need to have a much more dynamic, constantly updated dashboard where you are using your digital footprint to capture data back from customers and then use that information to drive decisions. This requires a level of complexity that is driven by digital, and a lot of organisations are really struggling.

What does an organisation that is data-driven look like and behave like?

I think every organisation has to have its own, differentiated response.

Some have a standard response around services or products they will invest in, and I think there is some uniformity to that but it depends on understanding that you can’t just digitise for digital’s sake. You have to understand who are you as a brand and what is the role of digital in your brand.

What if you end up spending so much money digitising without realising that what people really valued was your physical presence?

You have to really pause and, as a brand, think about digital as opposed to a one-size-fits-all, because it can be a whitewash where people race to a level of implementation, and that can end up meaningless to the end customer.

It requires carefully thinking about what digital gives you in advance, and where it gives you an advantage.

As a designer at the spearhead of digital, what are your thoughts on how we can cultivate young designers and technologists of the future?

We have migrated from visual design to digital, going from a print background, but the visual language of design matters more than ever.

You can see this through the creation of big-data design teams at Accenture to the widespread appreciation of user interfaces and user experience (UX) as a discipline and career choice.

We need to come up with a universal design language for data and how we talk about data as a raw material.

If you go to college and study industrial design, in most cases you will find yourself working with wood for two months – a material that has the potential to be beautiful and functional but, once you get to know it, you understand what to do with it.

I see data as being a raw material. I acknowledge it can be clunky but, once you understand it, you can craft it into something useful.

With data, we need to start out learning how to create form out of it and understand how to shape it and how it behaves.

Design schools need to get better at exposing kids really early on to technology versus waiting until they enter the workforce.

The education world should be a safe place to get it wrong but, once you get into the workplace, people are less likely to experiment. The best place to make mistakes and learn is in school, and I would love if the design schools were embracing technology early on. It’s the place where people can play with it and understand it better.

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John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years