Post-Cannes Ruminations: Bill Buxton on putting people first


One of the most interesting talks for me at Cannes was one by Bill Buxton from Microsoft Research who took us through how devices have changed how we think: from being happy when things just work (the Altair; back in 1975), to getting accustomed to seeing them work to the point that it flows (the iPhone; 2007), to the next generation of communication when we’ll see multiple devices work together seamlessly (predicted to be around 2015). Right now, for example, devices don’t recognize currently what functionality needs to be given prominence depending on our use of the device but we’re heading to a scenario where that will no longer be a stumbling block. As he said, devices need to operate with the ‘appropriate level of complexity for the task at hand’.

People as mobile technology

We’re all so used to referring to the mobile as a device but it is really a behaviour (this is a sentiment that is being increasingly echoed by anyone with over a decade of experience  researching, developing and designing digital devices) – Forrester Research discussed this in their recent white paper as well. As Mr. Buxton said

‘People are the mobile technology, not computing devices’.

For example, a car is a mobile device when it’s got a phone plugged in to a dock. People are the technology that powers that car; it behaves how you want it to.

All this is great, but what does it mean for us as communicators and marketers? I really like what Bill Buxton said in response: advertisers need to work with product creators so we can minimize disruption to people’s experience right from the outset. The advertising experiences and product experience do not need to be at odds with each other. Stephen Kim, Vice President for Global Agencies and Accounts at Microsoft also added that innovation can only be achieved by putting people first anyway; so if we’re looking to do marketing that works then thinking of people first should be a given; including as Bill Buxton said when creating your product.

Ultimately what we want as a society is a situation when technology is not even noticeable. As marketers and manufacturers we should therefore be working to design experiences that let technology disappear through what we do.

Technology research as sales

I’ve long admired the work of Bill Buxton, so I felt a profound sense of truth in his words when he, who I’d always considered primarily an accomplished academic and researcher, stood up and said that he was a salesman too: he just sold science and scientific discoveries rather than products.

There’s always been a sense of disdain about marketers and salespeople. I’ve had it, you’ve probably had it too at some point in your lives. However that research is sales is an opinion I hadn’t heard before. I felt rather relieved to sit and listen to it, that too from someone like Bill Buxton. As long as what you’re selling is in the interest of people first and foremost, what you’re selling, whether research or product, shouldn’t matter.

In aid of this goal of being a better salesperson so that the discoveries and research he helms reaches a wider audience and the right audience at that, Mr. Buxton in fact mentioned he has committed to writing a few academic papers LESS a year so he can spend that time on becoming a better presenter. If you can do this fast enough – i.e learn to sell your thoughts better faster, then you can become a market leader very quickly, in his words.

He mentioned how it is so simplistic, this philosophy of putting people first, but people today are so enamoured of technology that they forget it. As someone working in media, this rang so true: how many times has an app or a technology been flogged as an innovation instead of why that product benefits people? To all you entrepreneurs out there, and I see quite a few of them now as part of my daily job now: don’t sell what you have, sell why you’re doing it.

Social and emotional skills as the foundation for an education in design and technology

Someone from the audience asked a wonderful question about how children could be educated to become literate in the kind of thinking Bill Buxton was referring to.

His answer, as well as that of Stephen Kim’s, was that curiosity, honesty, cultural adaptability and social skills would engender the kind of creativity that we need now and in the future. With this rush to place technology above the arts at the moment (Code Club,, arguing for a greater take-up of STEM in schools and universities in general), we are currently placing hard skills over art and culture. While no one is arguing that is bad per se, if kids are to think people first, then what we need is for parents and teachers to give them a broad set of experiences so that they gain cultural and emotional skills.

For example, Microsoft Research has someone with a Ph.D in Sociology managing the technology researchers; there is always an eye on what works for people rather than product for product’s sake. Learning to be culturally sensitive will mean you adjust for levels of complexity in product to the point he mentioned in the beginning – namely achieving a state of seamless communication because you actually understand why certain things should just be done.

All in all one of the best talks I saw at Cannes.

Posted by Anjali Ramachandran, Head of Innovation


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