Why Cortana doesn’t work at work

Microsoft is betting that Cortana will bring AI to the workplace. Here’s why that won’t happen.

Cortana is an intelligent agent  that is supposed to act as a personal assistant. You can interact with her (notice I said “her”? More on that in a minute) via voice or text, on mobile devices or on desktop computers. Given that Microsoft’s mobile market share has fallen below 1%, it’s pretty much a certainty that most people would interact with Cortana in their offices.

We know that most Windows 10 computers are in workplaces, so there’s a very strong likelihood that people will talk to Cortana in an office. This is very different place than where people might interact with Siri on their phones, or Alexa in their homes. Siri and Alexa t are called upon in private, controlled places (in fact, just 3% of iOS users report using Siri in public).

Let’s walk through that interaction of Cortana as a member of a workplace.

Microsoft encourages you to command Cortana by saying, “Hey Cortana…” and then giving her a command. A typical office scenario might be, “I wonder if I should book a vacation for the first week of August. Hmm. I’ll ask Cortana.”

This is how Cortana is supposed to work:

User: Hey Cortana, should I book a vacation for the first week of August?

Cortana: Let me check your calendar. Looks like you have a meeting on Monday, August 1st. Should I move it for you?

User: Yes, that’d be great.

Cortana: Okay, I’ve moved that meeting to Monday August 8th. Would you like to see some vacation suggestions?

User: Yes, please!

This is exactly how it plays out on a demo video one Microsoft’s site.

But let’s face it: there are a lot of contextually dependent reasons why this is completely unrealistic. Leaving aside Cortana’s technical limitations for the moment (and there are many), let’s take a look at what a real office and real user might look like.

Most offices are either open concept without even the suggestion of walls. As many as 70% of us work in open concept offices. As anyone who’s worked in such an office can tell you, hearing a neighbor on the phone can be excruciatingly annoying or excruciatingly awkward, depending on your neighbor’s TMI quotient.

cortana

So there’s a good chance that everyone in the user’s office will hear this idealized scenario.  There are two clear disincentives against this happening. First, Cortana will make more “boundary work” for office workers. The mere act of trying to keep your private life private at work is turns out to be, well, work. Recent research  has found that keeping work and life private actually causes cognitive overload. If people use Cortana as intended, she is poised to make that much worse.

Second, Cortana demands office workers treat their workplaces as if they were kings and queens, instead of pawns and rooks. Voice interactions require workers to own their workspace, something that we know they do not do. Typical workers share their workspaces with others, and because we are apt social animals, we tend to comply with unwritten rules of workplace etiquette. Bosses’ calendars take precedence over workers’ calendars. Bosses talk more than workers. Men talk more than women. In other words, people with power talk out loud more than people with less power.

Which brings me to the fact that Cortana is a woman. Is it any coincidence that most intelligent agents today are anthropomorphized as women? One of the most striking changes in the twentieth century workplace was the almost total elimination of support staff, which were typically women. Only the most senior executives have assistants nowadays, and other mid-level white collar workers are on their own for scheduling  and administrative work.

cortana 02

Let’s not forget that Cortana is actually based on a supportive AI character in a video game. Cortana provides these workers with a sense that they can indeed recoup the times of Mad Men and have a compliant, supportive, and self-abnegating assistant who has no needs of her own. Practically, this promises white-collar workers with a huge productivity boost, but the symbolic nature of this is even more interesting. When white-collar workers have a virtual assistant, they have re-claimed a sense of hierarchy, of control, and power (even if it is completely imaginary).

And this is why Cortana will not work in the workplace. Today’s typical office worker does not have power enough to command the space around her, and bark orders to anyone out loud, even if just to an intelligent agent. This office worker has been stripped of her ability to occupy a rung on the ladder higher than admin or support staff, because there is no admin or support staff. This typical office worker is embedded in a physical space that reflects this lack of hierarchical position — she has no command over it.

Scholars of gender and technology have described some ill-advised approaches to gender equality as “add women and stir.” The same applies to Cortana and other intelligent agents. You cannot “add Cortana and stir” and expect to see productivity improvements that somehow negate the existing organizational and physical structures of contemporary workplaces.

 

Microsoft’s Future Productivity Vision

At long last, I am able to share our work on the future of productivity. Video storytelling is a way of envisioning the future without the constraints of actually building all the prototypes. These conceptual prototypes cover a few important themes. Look for:

  • The end of the full-time job
  • Inter-generational care work, via distance
  • Online reputation management
  • Networked production of several enterprises and individuals
  • Just-in-time work spaces and places
  • Mobile productivity and seamless integration with traditional computing systems
  • Visualizing production through social network analysi

 

Mobile productivity: it ain’t about doing more

The primary unmet need for mobile productivity is managing the torrential onslaught of constant communication. Apps and tools that aim to help users “do more” are likely to be self-defeating. On the contrary, we need tools to help us do less.

In my last post, I pointed out that the real problem in productivity technology today is that users need ways to seamlessly share information across their cross-discipline teams.I noted that our collaboration tools ironically create more work. Likewise, many mobile productivity tools actually amplify this problem, by reaching users with the most useless notifications from the most tangential acquaintances, at any time of the day. We need to get smarter about what we deliver to mobile users, by properly managing push notifications, intelligently reading user priorities, and helping mobile workers stay focused on what’s important.

First a little context.

Smartphones are ubiquitous and deeply disruptive

Smartphones are now the majority of cell phones in the developed world. 58% of Americans , 55% of Canadians, and over 50% of people in Norway, Sweden, Denmark, the UK, and the Netherlands have smartphones. At first glance, we might be tempted to see this shift as just another type of phone. This shift from feature phones to smartphones represents a qualitatively different business landscape and a different set of behaviors.

The transition from cellphones to smartphones is not trivial; today’s smartphone has the same computing power as a laptop manufactured as recently as 2006.[*]  Smartphones are little computers, while feature phones are simply communication devices. This has clear business implications — as Mary Meeker’s famous operating systems chart shows us.

Mary-Meeker-slide-006

Smartphone Behavior Change

Smartphone growth also has deep implications for everyday behavior. We have rapidly become a society in which the majority of people have tiny computers with them at all times. The majority of people are now constantly receiving email, social media notifications, in addition to phone calls and texts. This means the average smartphone user is now reachable not just to his intimate friends and family, but to even the most casual acquaintance. With feature phones, a typical user could expect to be reachable by her partner, and potentially her boss, or her babysitter. Now she is reachable by an old work colleague, a high school friend, or even someone she has never met but who shares her interest in golf. Having dinner, driving home, or working out at the gym were once private affairs. They are now all susceptible to interruptions.

To see how far our communication practices have changed, consider the eeriness of BlackBerry messages emerging, just as the Twin Towers fell. The New York Times interviewed corporate lawyer Lynn Federman, as she recalled sending frantic messages to her husband as she escaped from the World Trade Center:

“I had my cellphone in one hand, and it was useless, and my BlackBerry in the other, and it was my lifeline that day,” Ms. Federman recalled.

At the time, only about 1 million BlackBerrys were in use, worldwide.

Imagine if the same event were to happen today. Millions of tweets would emerge within moments. By way of comparison, the 2014 World Cup final game alone generated 280 million Facebook interactions, and 618,725 tweet PER MINUTE during the game. Clearly mobile technology has already arrived in the workplace — what is this shift doing to productivity?

Granted, smartphone users can turn off notifications, but we have good evidence to suggest they don’t. 4 out of 5 smartphone users check their phones within 15 minutes of waking. The average person checks their smartphone 150 times a day. Researchers have found all that checking is usually related to “information rewards.” 

The transformation at work

Many of these people use their smartphones for work, regardless of where they are. Technology research company IDC estimates that 900 million workers, 35% of the global workforce, is a “mobile worker,” meaning that they use mobile technologies such as laptops, tablets, or smartphones, for work purposes at least occasionally. In the U.S., at least 72% of workers are mobile.  An estimated 174 million people use their smartphones for work purposes. 43% of executives report that they allow employees to work anywhere, on any device they choose and 44% are actively investing in mobile collaborative tools for their employees.

These new streams of information are shifting existing productivity practices. Consider the changes to email alone, which is now 40 years old. In 1997, a prominent scientist told famed “flow” researcher Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi that email was getting in the way of her productivity:

“On bad days, I have seventeen or twenty-four email messages.”

See how much has changed, looking at email alone. Users are clearly overwhelmed:

  • Morgan Stanley’s average employee receives 625 emails a week. Intel employees spend 20 hours per week just managing email [1]
  • Part of the problem with email is “waiting to hear back” [2]
  • Email doesn’t help people organize across multiple social “streams” [3]
  • Email has increased the size of the network of people that can communicate with a user, but to a point where ordinary users have a hard time keeping up [4]
  • Email may be “addicting” [5]
  • Email usage dropped by 5% from 69% of all users to 64% from 2007 to 2011 [6]

Clearly, productivity is changing, but we have very little insight into how and in what ways.

What is mobile productivity?

Mobile technology makes workers available, wherever and whenever. Researchers have found consistently that mobile technology makes people more available to workplace demands. Research on managers found that they are available to work demands on average 72 hours per week.   My own research has shown repeatedly that when workplaces have no policies around expected availability, “always available” becomes the norm. I found that among design workers, 44% reported being available to work demands, during the night while they slept!

Rethinking mobile productivity needs

So is “being available” really the most unmet need for mobile workers? Clearly, mobile productivity today means being able to manage the constant torrent of workplace, personal, and news information. Mixing all these streams together onto a single device makes it difficult for users to discern the importance of any one news item. It also trains workers to expect a constant flow of information, instead of taking regular breaks from the news vortex and actually spending time thinking.

At least one new app has found this need and is trying to solve for it. Appfluence attempts to help users separate the “important” from the merely urgent by keeping users focused on their self-defined priorities. Critically, Appfluence isn’t just an app, but integrates into the desktop and mobile spaces equally.

We need other tools that synthesize, minimize, and simplify our working lives. We need tools to help us adroitly opt out of availability demands. We need tools to surface only the  most significant, and to delete the useless. In short, mobile productivity is not about doing more, but consistently doing less.

[*] The BlackBerry Bold 9900, released in 2011, has a 1.2 gHz processor, which would have been the processor speed of the Dell Latitude D420, which was released in 2006. The iPhone 4S has an estimated speed of 800 mHz. Granted, processor speed is not the only measure of computing power. In particular, smartphones are hampered by a lack of reliable network access or slow network speeds. However, the BlackBerry Bold’s processor, given good network access and battery life, can perform as quickly as the Dell Latitude D420 on mundane tasks, such as checking one’s email – a central function we examine in this paper.

 

[1]       L. Conrow, “Developing a Taxonomy for Office Email : A Case Study,” Rochester Institute of Technology, 2010.

[2]       M. Dredze, J. Blitzer, and F. Pereira, “Reply Expectation Prediction for Email Management,” in 2nd Conference on Email and Anti-Spam, 2005, pp. 2–3.

[3]       F. K. Ozenc and S. D. Farnham, “Life ‘ Modes ’ in Social Media,” in CHI 2011, 2011, pp. 561–570.

[4]       M. Madden and S. Jones, “Networked Workers,” vol. 2008, no. 24 September. Pew Internet Project, Washington, DC, 2008.

[5]       O. Turel and A. Serenko, “Is mobile email addiction overlooked?,” Commun. ACM, vol. 53, no. 5, pp. 41–43, 2010.

[6]       Comscore Inc., “Emal Usage,” New York, N.Y., 2011.

Productivity: it ain’t about being faster

If you tell people you build productivity technology, they often think of assembly lines, conveyor belts, and stopwatches. Productivity means building things faster, right? Wrong. That view is so 20th century. Today, the real problem workers have is finding collaborative spaces to share information. Right now, our productivity tools often make even more work. Instead, we should build tools that emulate face-to-face interactions instead of assembly lines.

 

Ford_assembly_line_-_1913

 

Doing things faster was indeed a problem for early industrial times. Production was slow, inconsistent, and riddled with errors. Engineer F. W. Taylor’s “scientific management” emerged as a solution to this problem. Taylor, a probable obsessive compulsive, devoted his life to finding “one best way” to do everything. He also gave managers everywhere an excuse to control workers more tightly.

But today, we already have high-quality production. Systems like six sigma and lean production have standardized and stripped down production processes to the leanest, and most consistent elements. Innovation isn’t about “being faster,” but helping workers collaborate and share.

Why does collaboration matter more than ever?

Today’s products are complex. Rarely can only a single discipline design, build, and market a product. You need designers, engineers, and marketers to be truly successful. But this means they have to coordinate schedules, share information, and share their expertise. They need tools to store information, to build trust, to smooth cultural divides, and to protect heads-down time.

The Collaboration Penalty

Collaboration means working together, but also it ironically makes more work.

  1. Managing workflow: Who will do what, and when? This is especially difficult in heterogeneous, disparate, or physically distributed teams. Typical tasks include scheduling and task allocation.
  1. Creating shared information spaces: Creating, sharing, distributing, maintaining, and finding shared artifacts. Typical tasks include sharing via email or dropbox.
  1. Moving work products between collaborative spaces and individual spaces: Removing artifacts from shared spaces to complete an individual task, and replacing them into shared spaces. Typical tasks include checking in or out documents or code.

These three large buckets can overlap. For example, allocating tasks in a co-located team may mean simply writing down assignments on a white board. But in teams distributed by time or space will need to create a shared, digital artifact that summarizes these task allocations.

The irony is that as teams collaborate more, they create ever more shared digital artifacts, which increases the need for shared information spaces, and increases the cognitive load of evaluating whether a work product is ready to share.

collab

 

Strategies for the Collaboration Penalty

Our typical approaches for dealing with the collab penalty are no longer working. We have tried structured ontologies, or taxonomies. But it’s always so much faster to just talk with a person directly. That doesn’t scale. Informal ways are more powerful, and make less work.

Formal Ways to Pay Collaboration Penalty Informal Ways to Pay Collaboration Penalty
Standardization of procedures or inputsFormalized roles or responsibilitiesConceptual schema, such as taxonomies, ontologies, or other standard concepts “Bodywork” or physical proximityInformal communicationHigh-fidelity shared objects, like posters, prototypes, and whiteboardsIM, Skype, or real-time tech communication

Instead we should use things like handwritten notes — in digital form — to give more fidelity to our messages.

Human practices are far swifter and culturally adept than most technologies. This is the primary reason why work teams choose face-to-face strategies, even if they seem duplicative; informal strategies are higher in fidelity than structures or standardization.