Meet John Anderson: Executive Technology Director
Delivering innovative products and experiences that create valuable IP and build consumer loyalty doesn’t happen in a vacuum.
Smart Design combines cutting edge technology frameworks with a software-inspired, agile approach rooted in the principals of human-centered design. Our digital reach is vast, integrated and flexible, with each project highly customized to our client needs—whether it’s a pilot program or an enterprise-level software implementation. John leads a multidisciplinary tech team that brings together bleeding edge technology—including ML, AI, and augmented reality—with our heritage of physical product design, ensuring that Smart is well-positioned to build the next generation of connected products and services.
We sat down with John Anderson, Executive Technology Director, to learn about the new frontiers of technology, what design challenges he finds the most exciting, and how cooking and snowboarding influence his approach to design.
Tell us about a particularly intimidating design challenge—and how you solved it.
It’s always tricky building technology into the innovation process. Right now we’re working on a smart home product that’s quite challenging, as it involves computer vision technology to both identify and track activities. Each step of the way leads to new and increasingly difficult things to develop and test. Rather than scale the model in a linear fashion, we’ve developed an approach that creates very specific and complex scenarios for each. Then we use machine learning (hyperparameter) tuning, different model types, unique datasets, and training techniques to solve them. At each level, we combine what we’ve learned and then move on, building incrementally rather than all at once. Each slice is like a microcosm of the entire complex problem—and helps us understand the tech capabilities that inform design decisions.
What are the new frontiers of technology?
We’ve seen lots of new technology enter the market lately, from machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI) to augmented and virtual reality and voice UI—not to mention a whole range of cameras and sensors. Technology is so integrated into the many things we do, whether it’s digital banking or ordering food with a QR code. But looking ahead, are we ready for computers to make decisions for us? Today, they can warn us when we’re getting too close to another car, but do we want them to also take control of the wheel and steer the vehicle to safety? Or fly the plane? Or perform surgery? We’re currently at a fundamental crossroads between human interaction and AI. In some instances, technology has become too complex for people to understand and therefore we dumb it down to allow human control. In the near future there will come a moment we have to let go and allow technology to evolve beyond human control.
What kinds of tech and design problems do you find exciting?
That’s easy: the unknown. Problems that can’t be easily solved or searched online (sometimes Smart designers post their solution online, such as this one on hand detection in multi-sensor robotic systems). I like problems that don’t follow a straight line, lead to contentious conversations, and require a multidisciplinary team to solve. I prefer inventing something more than the process, and making things that haven’t been made before and therefore don’t come with a ready-made tutorial to guide you. A good example is Project Susan, where we collaborated with the BBC to design a voice-assisted device that helps an individual with multiple sclerosis to be more self-sufficient. The project demonstrates how we can deploy technology and engineering in a new way—and in this case, change someone’s life. Another example: developing the Gx Sweat Patch and app for Gatorade, which gathers data on an athlete’s sweat—not an easy thing to do—and analyzes it to create a personalized hydration plan. Our design seamlessly brings together the analog and digital worlds (the wearable software platform and the service) and makes it all part of a unique value proposition.
Talk about what leadership means to you.
Leadership means being in the weeds where the work is being done and getting your hands dirty. That’s what gains respect. At Smart Design, everyone—including senior management—is deeply involved in every aspect of a project. Leadership is about being a good partner to clients—and also bringing people together, building rapport, and encouraging them to do their best. I first learned that lesson when I was 22 and living in a house with eight of my closest friends. We were all from different backgrounds, and personality types, struggling to pay bills and the rent. But we made it work by understanding each other’s strengths (and weaknesses) and how to talk to one another. We figured out how to get the best out of everyone and collaborating to get things done, and that’s how we run projects here.
What qualities do you look for in a designer at Smart Design?
Intelligence, of course, but also curiosity and a hunger to continually push the envelope and love what you do—these are the attributes of the people I want on my team. They should also be opinionated and speak their mind. And stubborn, as so much of our work is hard and we have to keep pushing to find a solution. They should also understand that the team is democratic and the organization is flat; we’re a collaborative entity.
How would you describe the culture at Smart Design?
No matter what discipline you work in at Smart, we’re all essentially makers—and if you make things, it can get messy, and I mean that both literally and figuratively. We take pride in not being so buttoned up. You could say that we each have a nugget of Smart Design in our DNA. While we’re the tech team, it’s not about technology for its own sake or winning awards; we care about the product and the experience and what we are building and making, and that is core to our work here.
On a personal note, what influences your approach to design?
Skateboarding and snowboarding remains a lifelong passion. And right now cooking is a big creative outlet. You can cook something every day that is unique and different—like poaching a fish—and try to get the flavor profile just right. And then you see whether it will either work or fail miserably, just like in engineering and technology. I get inspired by different cuisines and chefs and new recipes. My latest favorite dish is seafood pasta, which reminds me of being back home where I grew up on Cape Cod.
About John Anderson, Executive Technology Director
John’s background is in software development, hardware engineering, data science, and product design. Besides his recent work on the Gatorade Gx Sweat Patch, he oversees a product and engineering team building an IoT platform using machine learning, sensing, and computer vision. John is also a technical advisor at NYU Stern School of Business where he is frequently asked to speak about how designers and engineers can create experiences for people with accessibility needs.