Software with soul

Over the past few weeks I’ve had my mind blown by several teams, each pursuing very different ideas, but with fundamentally similar views about what a “magically good” software experience feels like.

I’ve been trying to come up with a good description for the ideas these teams are pursuing, and the title of this post — software with soul — is the best I’ve come up with so far.

The vision that these teams are pursing expands the definition of functional web “software” — the bounded universe of pixels on a screen, with forms, rules and datastores behind them — to embrace unplanned, user-scripted events, pseudo-AI rulesets, even participation by live human “coaches”, all within the software experience.

The explicit goal of the creative minds behind these projects is to develop an authentic, sustained, empathetic relationship with the end-user — to make their customers feel powerful, magical and cared for by their software.

It’s impossible not to see Steve Jobs’ intellectual fingerprints on these kinds of creative aspirations. No technology company has done more to inspire digital creatives than Jobs and his lead designer Jony Ive. As researchers in the UK demonstrated earlier this year, Apple fans experience feelings similar to those evoked by religious icons when in the presence of Apple brand imagery.

But as good as Apple is at device design and experience-layer software, they’ve never really delivered the kind of emergent software experience I’m seeing in its early stages today (and this assessment includes the remarkable voice interface that is Siri).

The difference I see in these new platforms is that they are designed not only to deliver an emotionally satisfying experience when in active use, but to actually *anticipate* needs and pro-actively re-engage the user (e.g., via email, text and mobile push messaging) to help address them.

Some of the patterning for these experiences comes from the story-driven digital gaming world, where roles and characters can evolve over time based on player choices and interactions. The most exciting of these new tools take full advantage of modern mobile devices, not only as vectors for user engagement and notification, but as sensor packages that bundle relevant meta-data (e.g., location, time of day, proximity to real-world places and people, even local weather) along with user-created inputs to create rich intelligence about the users’ needs — often without having to ask.

Some of these ideas border on the creepy (the image at top is of HAL 9000, the malevolent software intelligence from 2001: A Space Odyssey), and part of the creative magic is to stay on the right side of that line with intelligent disclosures, permissions and settings. But in the right hands — and with genuine empathy for the customer — the accelerating capacity for software to bring joy is inspiring to behold.

To all the digital creatives out there who aspire to beauty and magic in their creations, it’s a great time to be alive.