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Serendipity: it's more than just a ‘happy accident’

08 October 2012

Serendipity – that mysterious phenomenon often thought of as a ‘happy accident’ - is being investigated by a team at UCL.

The UCL researchers want to design interactive systems that can harness the power of serendipty. By collecting and analysing people’s ‘serendipity stories’, the researchers (based at UCL Interaction Centre) and their partners hope to design an interactive system that makes us more prepared for recognising serendipity when it happens and, crucially, supports us in acting upon it.

In order to understand serendipity better, the team asked 39 academics and creative professionals to tell them their memorable examples of serendipity, either from their work or everyday lives. 

The ‘serendipity stories’ told by their interviewees include a student being offered an internship at a journalism lab because someone from the lab noticed their enthusiastic journalism-related tweets; an experimental chef getting the idea to create a sea-salt-cured mackerel dish when watching his daughter collect stones on the beach, and an architecture student watching a BBC documentary on honey bees and getting the idea of using the hexagonal shape of honeycomb to create a novel building design.

Project researcher, Dr Stephann Makri said that by looking for patterns in peoples’ memorable examples of serendipity, his team has found that it is more than just a ‘happy accident' - it also involves insight, that ‘aha’ moment of realisation.

This led the team to propose a new definition of the phenomenon based on their findings: serendipity is when unexpected circumstances and an insightful ‘aha’ moment leads to a valuable and unanticipated outcome.

The researchers suggest that we can reflect on our potentially serendipitous experiences by asking ourselves three questions:

- How unexpected was the experience?
- How much insight was involved?
- How valuable was or do you expect the experience to be?

Dr Makri says the people interviewed benefited from their serendipitous experiences, not only by enhancing their knowledge, but also by saving time; serendipity propelled the interviewees forwards at a faster pace than they would have travelled otherwise. "Everybody can benefit from serendipity if they remain receptive to it and ready to act on it when it happens,” Dr Makri adds.

The team is now working on a mobile app aimed at creating opportunities for people to experience serendipity. The researchers highlight, however, that developing digital tools to support serendipity is not an easy task.

“The notion of ‘designing for serendipity’ is an oxymoron because once we try to ‘engineer’ it into a system, users may no longer perceive the experience as serendipitous,” says Dr Makri. “Designers of interactive systems shouldn’t try to offer ‘serendipity on a plate.’ Instead, they should design tools that create opportunities for users to have experiences they might perceive as serendipitous. This is what we’re aiming to do in this project.”

Some fascinating serendipity stories are available to read here.

Data security
New research by data recovery expert Kroll Ontrack, shows that one in eight (12 percent or 3.1 million) of the UK’s working population have unintentionally lost work data from their work device within the last 12 months, either through malfunction or corruption. 

The number of employees accessing work information from a remote device within UK businesses has soared in recent times, with 10.3 million employees now using personal laptops, tablets and handheld devices for carrying out or storing work data. However, according to Kroll Ontrack research, privacy and security should be major concerns for employers, with employees risking the loss of important work information by using personal devices which are not supplied by their company.  

According to the research, and despite the risks of losing confidential work data, one in five (21 percent or 5.7 million) UK employees admit that they save critical work information on removable media devices such as flash drives. This figure increases to 27 percent for those aged between 25-34. 

Kroll Ontrack chief engineer, Robert Winter says one of the biggest challenges for businesses today is to understand and manage the huge quantity of data they hold.  "Unfortunately, due to an increasingly mobile workforce, the risk of losing confidential data is heightened exponentially, unless the correct preventative action is taken," he warns. "As a result, businesses are not only jeopardised financially but also run the risk of damaging their reputation. 

“Worryingly, 7 percent of UK employees (1.9 million) are carrying around confidential work data on their own mobile or handheld device which has not been supplied by their employer. This research clearly shows that organisations need to do much more to help protect their data. Companies must implement thorough policies and procedures to help staff understand rules and security features surrounding BYOD [bring your own device]." 

Les Hunt

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