I finished and presented the “Fanfare for the Common Brand” presentation yesterday, about 150 yards out from the train station. I presented it 45 minutes later. Afterwards, Fraser and I talked about it, what needed to build on, what more should be in there. More examples, suggested Fraser, wisely.
Brad similarly challenged me this morning… “the one question I have — and I suspect that you talk about it in the narration — is how companies can do what you want them to do with their products, brands and their customers at scale?”. It echoed something the audience yesterday at Squared asked to… “but, how…?”. And Peter on Twitter asked similar.
So, with that in mind, and without taking an age, here’s a brain dump on how you can start being a Common Brand, using the three working principles from the end of the presentation:
– Invite three customers in once a week for lunch with your team – Find the earliest customer you can, talk to them about why they believed in you then – Find three simple questions about your thing – ask them to everyone – Hang out where customers hang out, just watch people using your thing – Make everyone in the company meet a customer once a month. Minimum. – Solve tricky customer questions face to face. Go and see them. Understand what went wrong.
– Write the story of your thing, as reflection. Share with the team. Then make it public. – Show things early. Make pictures of your process public. – If you can’t do that in your publics comms stream, make up another one. – Be interested in other people working in similar space. Say hello. Be nice. – Show your working. Some people are interested in how you got there. – Show your mistakes. Some people are interested in how you got there too.
Make It Together
– Watch people using your thing. Hands tell more stories than mouths. – Don’t show them ‘how’. They didn’t use it wrong, you made it wrong. – Bring people together to play with your things. Ask them to improve them. Record it publicly. – Give credit where credit’s due. More people will come and play. – Let people steer your choices, not your existing processes. – Prototype the thing that people say “well, you probably wouldn’t do that…” about.
*Bear in mind, this is a first version of a list written in 20 minutes. I don’t think it’s particularly new or ground-breaking stuff in terms of suggestions, but if you’re asking the question you may not be doing any of it.
**Some people asked yesterday “have you got any examples of people doing it well?“. Which sometimes annoys me as a question, because it means organisations are making people too afraid to try anything without a precedent. Well, there are loads of easy, quick stuff on the list above that you can try really quickly. Pick one, and do it. Then the example of someone doing this stuff is you.
***Here’s the full presentation again, if you want a flick through and the chance to discover the answer to what the true weight of the internet is… (it’s not what you expect…)
I’m fresh out of presenting the below for the first time at the latest intake of Squared. For the last two years, I’ve presented various iterations of ‘Are Brands Fracking The Social Web?’, but over the last month or so, I realised that there’s something in the water around the relationship between the brand idea, the execution of it in practice, and what’s happening to the social web.
Over the past few days, after John first introduced the topic to me last week, I have been looking in to Froebel’s Gifts. For those of you who are unaware of Froebel’s gifts, they are a series of playthings for kids that are widely considered to be the world’s first educational toys.
The gifts, created by Friedrich Froebel, were introduced in 1838 at a similar time to when Froebel coined the term and opened the first Kindergarten. They appear deceptively simple but represent a sophisticated approach to child development. The six original gifts were accompanied by a series of “Occupations” such as sewing, gardening, singing and the modelling with clay, which were designed to help children mimic their experiences through play.
The idea of these gifts and occupations did spark a thought with us over here at Smithery. What would Froebel’s gifts be if you were designing them today, to help people grasp the idea of the Internet? Can you easily translate the physical lessons from 1838 over to the digital age? This translation is something I have struggled with in the past, as my brain works towards predominantly physical solutions for things.
Some of the lessons Froebel was trying to introduce included:
i) The idea of learning through “focused play”
ii) Seeing the interconnectedness of all creation.
iii) The importance of knowing how information fits together, rather than memorising facts themselves.
The last two lessons really stand out to really lending themselves to understanding the internet. Obviously the world is becoming more and more interconnected, and more recently the emergence of the Internet of Things will accelerate this. But also I like the idea of helping people develop a powerful skill; to be able to use the internet well without needing to be an expert in any of its particular disciplines. A way of closing the gap between amateurs and experts perhaps, or at the very least create common ground for dialogue between the two.
So we’re setting ourselves a task; what would Froebel’s gifts and occupations be for a digital world? We’ll have a little play around, with the Artefact Cards which exist already, and some other ideas we’ve been playing with.
I’ve been retelling an anecdote from IBM’s speech-to-text experiments recently, and couldn’t remember where I’d got it… and indeed, I couldn’t remember if it was even true, as happens when you retell teh same story again and again…
Searching for combinations of things like “speech-recognition”, “IBM”, “faked test” and so on wasn’t getting me anywhere. But I’ve finally found a source: Jeremy Clark’s Pretotyping@Work eBook.
I’m posting the main bit of the anecdote here for two reasons. Firstly, I think you might find it interesting, and perhaps useful. Secondly, now that I’ve put it on my own site, using the aforementioned search terms which are the ones I clearly use to look for it, I’ll find it easier to find in future, hopefully…
“In the 1980’s, IBM was in discussions with several important customers about a radical product idea: hardware and software that could turn spoken words into a text on a screen. The fundamentals of the technology were still years away, yet customers seemed very enthusiastic: many declared they would pay generously for such a solution.
Traditionally, IBM would have launched an R&D effort to develop the algorithms and electronics necessary to demonstrate a prototype. In the case of the Speech-To-Text idea, however, a team member had an intriguing alternative suggestion: they should pretend to have the solution, to see how customers actually reacted to the capability.
What the team did was to create a movie-set like testing lab, in the form of a typical office space of the day. Customer subjects would be briefed on the Speech-to-Text solution, then seated in the space. The subject would speak into a microphone, dictating a variety of office correspondence, and would almost immediately see their words appear on the screen on the desk in front of them. What the subjects didn’t know was that the electronic output was being produced by a typist in a nearby room, listening to the dictation through headphones.
What the IBM team learned was that, in practice, customers didn’t like the solution, not because of flaws in the product (the transcribed text) but because of a host of hitherto-unseen environmental challenges: speaking taxed the subject’s throat, there was concern for privacy surrounding confidential material that the speaker would not
wish to be overhead, and so on.
Actual exposure to the essence of the proposed solution completely reversed the earlier customer enthusiasm.”
I saw this video about “the evolution of the desk” the other day, via the Harvard Innovation Lab (it’s from Best Reviews here). It takes you through how all the things that used to sit on a desk now sit on the laptop in the middle of the desk, and the rest of the desk is clear. Something bothered me about it at the time, and I couldn’t work out what it was. But talking about it today, I realised that it’s because I’ve never seen a desk that someone is using that has nothing but the laptop on it. The perfect endpoint they describe isn’t actually true, which I think undermines the point they’re trying to make about work today versus work in 1981.
What I see much more of is how people use a blend of working methods, across physical and digital workspaces, to hack together systems that work for them. Sure, they devolve some of the responsibility to computer-based systems, but not all. It makes me wonder how much the hot-desking revolution, where you can sit anywhere with just your computer, actually robs organisations who implement it of some useful forms of working.
As part of the preparation for running the third lab of the Stirling Crucible at the University of Stirling, I spoke to Beth Kolko, Professor of Human Centered Design & Engineering at the University of Washington, about an Experiment called Hackademia, which is “an attempt to infect academic pursuits with a hacker ethos and challenge non-experts to see themselves as potentially significant contributors to innovative technologies.”
It’s not just great as an example of creating new conditions for learning in an academic setting, but also offers some great inspiration for other types of organisation where there’s a need to break down the barriers of ‘expertise’. Here’s what Beth said:
Hackademia had two starting points. The first was my own personal journey as an academic who stumbled into hacker communities around 2005/06, the early days of the maker community. I did that work solely as a non-professional activity, it was what I did in my off-hours. I would think “wow, this is really interesting, it’s an alternative research community”. It was like a third place, not academic or corporate, with its own emergent social and organisational practices.
Part of my interest was that people didn’t have formal expertise or credentials. My PHD is from an English department, but I’m a professor in an Engineering department; this means that all of my technical knowledge has been gained through informal means. Essentially, I studied the internet before it had pictures, and as the technology changed I kept up.
So I was an academic within hacker communities, really interested in how non-experts were gaining technical expertise. It is uncommon for someone at my stage of career to be a novice learner. There was something quite magical about that.
The second piece of the genesis of Hackademia was an undergraduate student I was working with, who was changing her major from social work to our department in Engineering. She said she’d never really thought of herself as someone who’d major in a technological discipline, and then we started talking about gender and technical fields. I said to her “well, I don’t know what makes women, or anyone, who is non-technical feel that they can enter a technical field… but let’s figure it out”.
I advertised for a group of students as an independent study, something they could take and get extra credit for it. You didn’t have to have a technical background to apply. We bought a first generation Makerbot, and I said “We’re going to build it. I don’t know how to do this, but you guys are going to have to figure it out, and you’re going to keep track of how you learn. You will be your own object of study”.
(Hackademia class of Winter 2010 – with honorary member Bre Pettis)
So that was the first ten weeks, and I did it again, and again, and again. Every quarter for the first two years, keeping track of the failures and the successes… there were many more project/experiment failures than successes, but the programme has been very successful.
People had to learn the vocabulary of a new area. We had a room, and we had tools, and at the end of each quarter the room would be a mess. So what I would do is start each new cohort and say “we’re going to clean up, and we’re going to put things away”. It gave everyone the chance to learn the names of things, as we labelled the shelves and the bins that they would go in.
Instead of giving people the vocabulary on a list, it was a functional activity; they were creating the space that they were going to work in so that they would have ownership of that space. The conversation around the activity emerges to introduce vocabulary, which is really important; if you don’t even know the name of something, you can’t go and look it up online.
There was then a series of activities that were designed for success, but also to make people curious. I would always start people out with making an LED blink, by writing a few lines of Arduino code. Then you learn about copying; you can copy other peoples’ code, then refine it yourself. Usually there would be people who knew how to do that, and they would show people who didn’t know how to do it, which showed co-operative learning. Then they moved on to gradually more sophisticated tasks, then they’d finally do their own task.
I’d make them go off-campus, and see what was available in the real world, activities that took them outside their momentary learning community. Everything we did also leveraged online resources. I didn’t teach them anything; I wanted them to get into the habit of navigating the knowledge universe.
We created some data collection sheets, and started a blog about the technical aspects, they wrote reflective autoethnographies of their learning process; we produced a lot of documents. We then did exit interviews at the end of each quarter, with retrospectives of peoples’ experiences. Eventually, we’d put on our academic hats and analyse the data available to us (the autoethnographies, individual journals, and a bunch of other artefacts) and extracted six dimensions of technical learning, around which the Hackademia curriculum is built:
Identity, Motivation, Self-efficacy, Social Capital, Material Technical Practice, and Conception.
They’re built on top of what we know about informal science learning, but tweaked for engineers.
In the university community, we value expertise, and that is the death knell of innovation. If you really want interdisciplinary, transformative inquiry, professors like myself who are ‘experts’ have to learn to talk to people who have different expertise, and overlap these vocabularies and come to some sort of shared understanding.
It’s easier to get investment for a business built on rapid user growth. It’s easier to get rapid user growth if your product is free. It’s easier to make a product free if, when people ask “but how do you make money..?”, your answer is “advertising, my friend”.
We all know this, no news here.
What matters here, I think, is market perception of the potential revenue per user.
Nobody knows what the maximum revenue figure for a social network user is in the advertising model.
Yet potential revenue per user for a paid-for network model, is a relatively easy to guess at.
With good research, to establish how much people would be willing to pay for a social network. It might be £5 per month, it might be £10 a year, whatever. You can find out. You’d even get a good sense just by thinking ‘oh, I’d pay that’ or ‘oh, that’s too much’.
But if you’re working in an advertising revenue model, there’s much more potential.
The key point is that this figure isn’t static; it’s growing. People start thinking “if it can make an ARPU of $6 per year, then it can probably do $8. Then $10. Then…”
Nobody knows where that stops. We have a good feel for how much is too much to charge for a service, but not for how much can be potentially made through advertising… but when Google can make $45 ARPU, then people suppose that everyone else, if they find a secret sauce, can at least make half that, right?
Where does that leave us? What about Neil’s question? Will we see a paid-for social network as a service?
I wouldn’t have thought so, as long as most social networks are taking investment from people who want to turn their capital into more capital quickly.
To explain why, we started talking about Back To The Future III.
Quick plot reminder. The Doc and Marty are stuck in the ‘Old West’ in 1885, with a DeLorean time machine they must get up to 88mph in order for it to take them back to 1985. To do this, they steal a train to push the car on rails in front of the train past the necessary speed.
This involves doing it on the ‘only piece of track suitable’, meaning they must reach the speed before hitting the as-yet-unbuilt rail bridge where the train will plunge into the canyon below.
This last bit is just a plot device to introduce a bit of jeopardy, obviously. You can tell when there’s jeapordy involved in films when they must build a small scale model of it beforehand, and write things like “Point Of No Return” on it…
The plan is to do whatever it takes to push the train faster and faster, so as to push the DeLorean past escape velocity out of grubby, dangerous, Real Cowboy America and into the bright, shiny future of Actor-Cowboy Ronald Reagan’s America.
In this analogy, there are two things that matter.
If you’re using the service, then you’re sitting in the train.
You’d be quite happy if it just pootled around various stations, doing train things, forever. Phenomenal, abnormal speed isn’t an issue. When you got on, the train was standing on a platform, heading to a place you wanted to go to, with some people on it who were a bit like you. You’d like the train to be a train,
If you’ve got shares you’d like to cash in, you’re sitting in the DeLorean.
You don’t really care about what happens to the engine behind, because you have a clearly defined point at which you want to get out (perhaps, even, at $88 dollars per share). It’s in your interest to push the engine as hard as you can, so that you get to that escape velocity.
You’re probably inventing all sorts of fancy coloured fuel-logs to make the engine run hotter. More ads, more formats, different sales approaches, research studies… anything that makes the business make more money more quickly, so the share price goes up, and people start thinking that the potential revenue per user might just keep growing and growing.
The trick is making the share price go as high as it can before the train tumbles down into the canyon.
The thing is, I’m not sure there’s a way to make the people in the train and the people in the DeLorean both benefit. As soon as you start going at a certain speed, and pushing the ad revenue model in a way that starts to annoy people, you pass the fabled point of no return.
Here, when you get past it, you can’t go back to the previous model. You know that the network you’ve created is heading down the canyon. So you just have to push it fast enough to hit 88mph.
I’m going to think a bit more about this, obviously, and so would welcome other perspectives. If anything, I think the digital-bubble fuss around the Ello signup T&Cs at least shows people are now considering carefully which trains they get on in the first place.
In 2007/2008, when I did the IPA Excellence Diploma, there was one section of the course that asked you to create five different pieces of creative. One of them was about building a place fit for creativity. It was my favourite exercise of that module, possibly because the task was far removed from what I did everyday; it asked you to think in terms of architectural permanence, rather than fleeting media experiences.
In hindsight, it may well have been be the thing that set me off thinking about how the space around us really does influence the things we create and the way we create them. We’re all just reacting to context, be it other people, or things other people have made.
Anyway, I submitted a piece at the time which helped me define a roaming, itinerant working method of being out and about as much as possible, and not trapped inside white-walled offices trying to crack problems.
Actually, thinking about it now, though the brief perhaps asked for something more consistent and solid, I contrived something which largely ignored the potential in static space in favour for a wandering and wondering approach, inspired by this piece on Creative Generalists.
It’s below, should you want to travel back in time. The piece only exists in separate strands now – a hosted audio track, and the slides over which it went. Slideshare used to offer that functionality, but have since stopped supporting it. Therein lies any lessons for things wot we store on the web; they change, or go away, when we’re not looking. I’m sure you can click along to the dulcet Scottish tones if you wish.
And yes, I’m highly embarrassed by the phone I chose to represent ‘camera phones’…
Why do I bring this up now though?
Well, many reasons, some of which I’ll expand in future posts about the three-year anniversary of Smithery (TL;DR – exciting times).
But one in particular, related to one of the companies that I’ve used since I wrote that piece, to help facilitate the working method by carting various bits of tech around; Crumpler.
I’ve been using Crumpler bags for the last six years, and before that housed laptops in their excellent neoprene cases. I have had various sizes and varieties of Crumpler that have served me very well indeed.
But I found myself after something in particular; a spacious, hand-luggage sized backpack that I could use for going on my wee European work hops.
Big enough to get the tools of the trade in (and spare undies and the like), but small enough to manhandle into one of the Easyjet’s Krypton Factor-esque baggage sizing devices.
They didn’t have anything like this in the online shop. So I got chatting to Michael there at their German HQ, first via twitter, then Facebook. To cut a long story a little shorter, he said he’d send me over a couple of bags from the new range that wasn’t out, and I said I’d test them out and review them here.
But rather than a straight review of the bags, I thought it’d be more interesting (for you, me and hopefully Michael) if I tried to talk about them in the context of wider work stuff.
The first bag is called the Muli Backpack M, and it’s a small, super slim backpack. It’s basically the perfect bag for what I’ve come to think of as ThePick Up & Play Office, the bag that’d hold everything you need to do unexpected things on an expected job.
It’s most useful to look at what I have inside the bag. Ever since discovering it during a piece of research on a chewing gum brand, I’ve been in love with What’s In My Bag on Flickr… a better insight into global ‘carryable stuff’ trends you may never find.
So in keeping with that trope, here’s the plan view of the contents for a typical day (btw – most links go through Amazon Associates, other shops are available)…
– Steel Water Bottle, by Penguin – I’ve been carrying a water bottle for years, rather than buying endless plastic water bottles. Funnily enough, because of the slightly lame literary joke (“On The Road” by Jack Kerouac – geddit…?), it’s become a conversation starter with more people than I’d ever have imagined it would. It’s a water cooler moment you can carry with you. Anyway, you should all stop buying bottled water, or indeed helping to sell it. It’s stupid.
– Samson Meteor – a USB mic for interviewing, podcasts etc. I usually hook this up to the iPad mini, and use the Soundnote app for interviews or Audioboo to capture little audio-hunches.
– Apple Mac Air, 13″ mid-2011 & Apple iPad Mini 64Gb, 2012 – as often as I’ve tried to just take an iPad to work on, I find that on its own, it’s more of a time-shifting device – it helps you capture the things you need to do for work later, rather than do the work itself. So I travel with both the Air and the iPad Mini pretty much all the time.
– Joby Gorrilapod tripod – now, this is a really handy little tripod stand for the LX7 when I need it, but also it can turn an iPad into a hi-tech Overhead Projector for working with Artefact Cards (thanks to Mick Lock at Experian for the tip) – get your iPad mini, and add a Grifiti Nootle cover that takes a tripod screw on the base. Then connect a Lightning to VGA adapter, and you can plug the iPad in to any standard projector, open the camera app, and whatever the camera is looking down at appears on the screen behind you, like below.
It means that groups of people can work quickly on the Artefact Cards, and show their work to the group pretty easily. You should see people’s faces when they look back and realise how quickly they’re working (instead of going away from meetings to return with a PowerPoint presentation a few days later).
– Artefact Cards – naturally, of course, given I make them as well. I’ll try to carry around four blank packs, in a mix of colours, every day. Some of them will be for using on my own or with others, but inevitably some packs get given to people who become really curious.
– Sharpies – for using with the Artefact Cards. Wielding a Sharpie feels like wielding a weapon.
– Assorted wireage, connectables, and power supplies – I tend to carry a lot of little connecting things that’ll help bodge things together on the off-chance I need to. Whenever I don’t, it seems, there’s always something that crops up where I could have done with something. It can get messy unless you’ve got the right sort of storage… which is where the Muli bag comes into its own.
Let’s think in terms of the layers of working – how often am I going to need stuff, and how easy is it to access?
Firstly, the aforementioned wires are going to be an ‘every so often’ thing, they’re never going to be the first thing I reach for. So right in the heart of the bag, there’s a large mesh pocket over the laptop section into which we put all the wee wires, connectors, USB drives, clickers etc…
Behind this, then, is the laptop section, which I use for both the Air and the iPad Mini. It has plenty of space, and could probably take a Mac-book Pro and a full iPad combo. But what the bag seems to do is really shrink back to constrain whatever’s inside. It’s like it’s always trying to be as slim as possible. Anyway, that’s the next layer; whenever I’m sitting down to work somewhere (train, office, museum, coffee shop) the bigger devices are relatively quick to access when I open the bag.
Then in the main section, we’ve got the larger things that I might want to grab quickly; for instance, the water bottle for a drink, or the camera to shoot something. They naturally sink to the bottom of the bag, and nestle quite comfortably away from the other stuff.
Yet it’s quickly accessible; the whole front opens and closes a little like the eggs in Aliens…
…zipping all the way up to the top…
…then the flap folds over on the zip, like a security jiffy bag, to make the bag waterproof. It’s a delightfully simple design, and even more secure method than I’ve seen before in Crumpler bags.
So, really well sealed up, all the stuff safe inside. What if I want to get something quickly though…?
Hiding under the flap at the sides are two pockets, one either side, which are perfectly sized to take 2-3 packs of Artefact Cards and three or four sharpies in each… so in seconds I can be working anywhere. In case of emergency, pull zip.
Over the last month or so, it’s proved to be the best bag I’ve owned for ThePick Up & Play Office idea. Those layers of accessibility have proven to be just what I needed, though as always, you never really know until you get your hands on something how it’s going to work out.
It also has the capacity to get enough stuff in for an overnight; I took it to Dublin for my IAPI talk last month, and breezed through the airport security malarkey with the least of fuss of course.
But wait; surely the idea was to get a bag that’d do longer than that? Well, here’s the thing; the other bag was the Track Jack Board Case. I can’t stop thinking of it as the bag Jason Bourne probably has packed at the back door at all times. It’s a holdall equipped with dozens of sections and pockets, and a few neat tricks.
What I like most about it though is the bag-within-a-bag thing I can do – essentially, I can just take the fully laden Muli backpack, and drop it inside the Board Case, and then pack anything else I need round about it.
Then, I can either carry it as a holdall (it easily fits into the overhead locker size constraints in airports, because it’s a soft case), or turn the Board Case into a backpack itself, by deploying the hidden straps…
It’s more Bond than Bourne, perhaps.
Anyway, both bags individually are brilliant (and as rugged and hard wearing as you’re expect from Crumpler), but together they’ve formed another layer, a nested variation on the theme of working and accessibility.
You can get see the Muli Backpack here, and the Track Jack Board Case here. I’d like to thank Michael for sending the over to test out too – I’m not sending them back, as I’ve bought them both 🙂
As promised before, I’ll be talking a lot more about layers, levels, and working practices as we head towards the Smithery third anniversary in August…
In reflecting on what had happened before, during and after the programme, we realised that so much of the project wasn’t a simple, straightforward interpretation of what we did at the time. When you look at it from distance, and the effect it’s had on other parts of the organisation, it’s something that had a set of a series of brilliant, if somewhat unintended, consequences.
It made us realise that innovation isn’t what you bring, it’s what you leave behind.
It’s the changes and differences you make to an organisation when you’re no longer there. The stuff that keeps creating value in your absence. The big things, yes, but also (and more importantly, perhaps) the little things. The things people will pick up and run with every day as they work on new things.
Our last point was that this makes innovation hard for traditional agency models to find a viable role for. If you’re there to deliver continued value over time (“we are here to do this for you”), as if it was an advertising campaign, then you’re not really leaving anything in the client organisation to make it stronger. Perhaps successful innovation demands a generousity of spirit, leaving as much as it can as continued catalyst, if it is to stick from the outside.
Anyway, here are our slides (with some added narration) if you want a little look. We had a tremendous time, thamks to Nadya Powell of Innovation Social for the invitation, and the rest of the brilliant speakers from whom we learned loads of things today too.
Without delving down into the whole post-Snowden world, I’d just like to think about the apathy that news like this is met with by the general public.
We don’t seem to be able to get worked up about it. Should we not be a bit more concerned, or ask a few better questions, or become a litttle more circumspect on what we share? Why don’t we react?
Here’s where the holiday reading comes in. I was reading Raymond William’s Keywords, an exploration of some of the most important words in the English language. It’s from 1976, the year before I was born, so a generation ago for me.
The first word in there is Aesthetic, which of course for me will be ever-welded to James Bridle’s New Aethestic work. Something in William’s definition of aesthetic grabbed me though, a connection I’d previously not made:
…from [the middle of the nineteenth century] onwards, with advances in medicine, anaesthetic – the negative form of the increasingly popular adjective – was widely used in the original broad sense to mean deprived of sensation or the agent of such deprivation.
Whenever I’d thought about the New Aesthetic before, I tried to think about how it made people feel. But maybe that’s wrong. Maybe what’s happening is that it doesn’t make us feel, it deprives us of feeling, it numbs us, so we don’t react. Is the New Aesthetic actually an Anaesthetic?