Saba Shaukat is managing director of Sentient Design Lab, a creative design and innovation agency that works with companies to scale, rethink and redesign digital products and services, as well as finding new growth opportunities. Firmly believing that empathy connects brands to people, she works at the intersection of customer brand experience design, technology, insights and creativity to craft solutions for retail, health, fintech, media and advertising, mobile telecoms and smart cities. Saba was named on the Innovate Finance Women in Fintech 2016 Powerlist as a thought leader and in 2017 she was named as a leading woman in #Fintech by Finovate.
“…Developing an organisation requires the ability and skills to continuously learn, unlearn and relearn…”
The need to be fearless when embracing technology
I have worked in the technology and digital industries for over 20 years, working in both start-ups and global enterprises. I grew up with data networking, the Internet and mobile industries. I started off working with a start-up that brought data networking to the UK. It was an exciting time and very quickly we gained 70% market share against Microsoft and IBM.
I have always loved emerging technologies and the application of those technologies to innovate and create new solutions that are ground-breaking. Over 20 years later, the rate of change and development has accelerated.
You almost have to be fearless in embracing emerging technologies and thinking through, what gap in the market could be better served using these emerging technologies to create new innovations? How will they add value to people’s lives? Make businesses more efficient, faster to market, tap into a totally new market, or just help people live their lives better by connecting, engaging and meeting as communities.
Through the absence of women I do feel like one of the first few women in technology. After being only one of seven women, out of a class of 80 studying computing, I launched into a career in data networks, using technology to solve problems for business. I had spent a bit of time coding in the programming languages at the time but what I loved was getting out there in front of clients, so very quickly I moved into commercial roles working with BT, Deloitte Consulting, the BBC and Vodafone.
Much of my work was in the early trials of video-on-demand, data services and mobile money. I was lucky to work with the boards of these companies and loved my time working internationally as a management consultant with Deloitte on some complex technology based projects.
My role on a day to day basis
The day will start early with 40 minutes of planning for the day ahead and key people to talk to. I will speak to the design team on brand experience projects that we are working on. Often, I will have workshops lined up with clients to help get a creative idea off the ground. Or they will ask us to help design a new service or new digital products.
I will engage with heads and chiefs of strategy and innovation, as well as the marketers and the digital thinkers for banks, fintech, mobile telecoms, branding agencies and retail or purpose driven organisations. Technology is the enabler, and we help businesses bring bold visions into impactful existence. Essentially the route to creative design is about the multi-disciplinary teams bringing ideas, filtering and using insights to achieve clarity and distil down to what is true.
Devil’s advocates are not allowed because they can kill a germ of an idea where the roots could germinate into new, exciting possibilities. We will challenge without breaking. Workshops mean that we look inward into an organisation, look outward, seek insights and challenge our clients without breaking and always with the utmost integrity.
A typical day that I spend with my clients will involve going through a creative process to help them solve a business problem, whether it is to create new products or services, sell more, generate a creative culture or help with a business change or transformation. We always seek proof points from the market and the end customers behaviour.
For innovation to result in a purposeful outcome you really have to calm down the devil’s advocates because they can kill a germ of an idea where the roots could germinate into new, exciting possibilities. Our process of targeted workshops means that we can look inward into an organisation, look outward, seek insights and challenge our clients without breaking and always with the utmost integrity.
I leave the end of the day for catching up on emails, undertaking client testing on prototypes as part of the design process or talking to customers to understand their lives and world and the trigger points that determines many of the decisions they make.
After my official working day has finished I often represent Sentient by facilitating workshops and giving talks on leadership for non-profits and mentoring organisations with which I am involved.
Harnessing innovation and tech to create better brand experiences
We are in an environment where being innovative means putting your own world view, unconscious biases and assumptions aside. Thinking your brand is great because your company says so or the CEO says so is becoming less relevant. What went before and ways of strategic forecasting looking back to forecast forward no longer works.
In the age of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, where every single industry is up for disruption, we almost need to rewire the DNA of companies to create a fluid culture of teams that embrace creativity and new ideas that can be implemented. We must develop a culture of experimentation, failing often and failing fast, but embracing the perceived failures as a way to learn, grow and enhance the team, skills and ultimately the market offerings. By this, I mean having adaptable organisations that allow experimentation and rapid iteration. Shape shifting to pivot towards new opportunities.
It is very costly for businesses to create a 100% perfect product and service, take it to market and find that it flops because the users don’t want it. A fluid organisation listens to its customers, collaborates with them to improve a product or service experience through iteration and engagement. It is a less risky and lower cost way of bringing new products to market. In addition, the issue large corporations have is that, with a functional silos approach, employees find it tough to collaborate, so it takes much longer to bring new products and services to market.
Innovation is not the sole job of the chief executive or the board. For that reason you have to work beyond the functional silos and hierarchies, because ideas, creativity and ultimately those breakthrough innovations can come from anywhere inside or outside and organisation. I love it, because the underlying principle and philosophy is about inclusiveness, looking at extreme users and the outliers and gaining deep insights into behaviours and cultural nuances that determine decision making.
The importance of empathy
Fundamentally, empathy is about living in the lives of others, immersing yourself into their context and observing behaviours. This is very different to the number crunching way of defining targets and markets. This is where culture becomes critical. In the current environment, it is imperative for organisations to embrace and nurture creativity, that unleashes new ideas, through understanding the world view from your customers’ perspective.
In the current climate most organisations probably couldn’t tell you where a new competitor will come from. However, if you can give your customers a brilliant and integrated brand experience at every offline and online digital interface, it will draw you closer to your customers, they will engage more and more, amplify your brand to their communities and enable a company to reach a new group of customers.
What I am talking about here is about the emotion and feeling customers get when they touch your brand. Through understanding neural networks and pathways, we’re discovering that decision making and purchasing is not about logic, but about how customers feel. If the feeling is positive, every time they touch an organisation’s brand then the organisation will beat its competitors every time. A brand should be seen as an empty vessel, the perception of a brand is shaped by how that vessel is filled with positive and negative experiences and the emotions it generates. As someone said, people, customers, will forget what you said to them, but they will never forget how you, in this case a brand, made them feel.
Use of innovative tech across different sectors
The sort of technologies being used to innovate is around cloud networks and creating everything with a mobile first perspective. We have seen a decline in desktops and really any great user experience has to be mobile, simplified with interaction tools that enhance the users experience.
For example, more and more I am looking at voice recognition technology, chatbots and video to communicate or serve customers or serve an organisations workforce. Embedded in all of this is the use of IOT (Internet of things) technology, with iBeacon (a protocol developed by Apple) to create new ways to interact with and advertise to users in a very personalised and relevant way on billboards and at bus stops. The other day I was talking to an organisation using IOT and drone technologies, as well as using blockchain for a delivery service.
Of course, I am using marketing automation all the time across social networks and emails to help companies develop marketing funnels. The really interesting stuff is around data science and sentiment analysis. I am still getting my head around machine learning. The other week a robot played chess with a chess master. The robot taught itself new moves that have never been seen before, which is just astonishing.
I am very excited about digital currencies and blockchain and over the last couple of years I have been involved with fintech organisations creating inclusive economy solutions that help the underbanked. It is profound and has the potential to lift millions out of poverty, so I am very drawn to the sense of purpose and the social impact that it could have.
Overcoming fear of technology
They are saying that the current generation at school today will have job roles in the near future that have not even been invented yet. What people have to realise is that through robotics and artificial intelligence, new jobs will emerge that will require human touch and intervention. It is essential to keep it human.
During the last period of industrialisation, the much feared ‘death of jobs’ didn’t happen. This is why a workforce has to have the ability to continuously learn, unlearn and relearn. As individuals, we have to be open to it, so that over time when there is a market opportunity you pivot, renew and refresh.
We are seeing it now with the increase in freelancers and the gig economy. This poses challenges for governments, but providing you have great broadband you can work from essentially anywhere. 5G will bring in super-fast Wi-Fi and connectivity, in addition to even more data. The game will be about adaptation and embracing ever-accelerating change. Technology also enables us to realise the value of being small. I see the emergence of micro-multi-nationals appearing globally that are faster at deploying new products and services.
Gender balance is key to development of technology
No technology will work optimally if you exclude 50% of the people from the world, which primarily means women. That is why more women need to go into STEM subjects, learn to code, to become the design engineers of the future. Without it the solutions in artificial intelligence and robotics will be poor.
Gender balance is a problem in tech companies, in Silicon Valley and on boards. Men are part of the solution, as so often key appointments are made from a male unconscious or sometimes even conscious bias. We have already seen that when a workforce is equal companies perform better and deliver higher returns to their stakeholders.
For companies to grow and to understand new market gaps and niches, how else can they do it without having the skills to empathise with and understand the female perspective? When women get involved, and are proactively supported then great things happen!
On the horizon
The biggest thing on the horizon for me is a social impact venture using blockchain and digital tokens. Creating a new economic model for trade. I am excited about blockchain and tokenisation, together with the potential to use it across so many different vertical sectors. At the heart of blockchain lies decentralisation and democratisation. We should not fear disruption – the disruptors should inspire established organisations to think about innovation in new ways that applies creativity, design and deep behavioural and cultural insights.
I am also on the board of the Association of MBAs, once again with some of the world’s best brains. With over 30,000 members and top 250 Business Schools, we are moving into an exciting phase in emerging markets. 2018 is going to be a busy rollercoaster year.