Right now, I’m holed up in a lovely little AirBnB in Gràcia in Barcelona, a self-proclaimed ‘writers apartment’, which to be honest does live up to its claim. It’s a perfect spot for sitting and working on a few things, as the sounds of the streets bubble up through the wide bay windows, whilst hidden at the back of the flat is an oasis of air-conditioning in which to sleep.
I’m not here just to hang out, though.
Scott Smith invited me over to teach on the Innovation and Future Thinking summer course that he runs here at the IED. Thirty-one students are coming to learn about how to spot things in the world, and use them to start building up versions of the future from the fragments of the present.
Barcelona as a city is a perfect environment to do this; complex different types of economy and social behaviour, combined with an independent streak a mile wide, means that the city just tries to talk to you at every turn.
To make the most of this, we’re giving each of the students an Artefact Field Kit, which they can prowl the streets spotting and collecting the clues about what might happen in the future.
Then we’ll be teaching them how to use these clues together in exploratory mapping using the cards, and recombine them in speculative acts of creation. As Scott put it last night when we were prepping, it means we could run this course sitting on the pavement somewhere, in the event of a sudden and seismic collapse in the infrastructure that takes the power grid down… I’m hoping it won’t come to that though.
We’ll try to post as much as we can up from the course, and share it on twitter using the #IEDFutures hashtag.
More as we have it, as they say…
PS Thanks to the guys at Flamingo in London for doing some game testing last week as part of the preparation for today
Yep, of course it is. And no, I’m not just trolling maths geeks.
Last week I delivered an updated version of my new talk for this year on the Google Squared talent accelerator programme. The train of thought is still called “Fanfare For The Common Brand”, but the lead principle is now that Many > One.
Have a read of it here, and thanks to Brad Berens and David Wilding for their invaluable input on version 1. And as always, all thoughts welcome…
One sentence in Matt’s piece made me sit up though… “You’re a loyal Tide customer, but you’ve run out“…
Loyalty does seem to be the presumption in the launch campaign for Dash; that people have a firm favourite (not even just a fixed repertoire) amongst the countless toilet rolls, washing up liquids, soaps and cereals they stock their homes with.
Loyalty. A big word, with an ironically fickle fan base.
What I perceive to be the general wind direction in the realms of best brand practice is that ‘loyalty’ might just be a largely fictitious beast, especially in the realms of FMCG.
A quick blast through the main points of Byron Sharp’s excellent How Brands Grow will give you an idea of why…
And there’s a longer list of other brilliant viewpoints on it (read Martin Weigel on it, perhaps, over here).
Yet the launch of Amazon Dash seems predicated on the existence of brand loyalty.
So here’s an open question:
How many brands are you certain enough about to stick a button to your wall for? Think about the last shopping basket you filled, or Ocado order you received. What in there is a permanent fixture? What will you always buy to the exclusion of anything else?
What brand would you nail to a wall with the same conviction that you’d put up a picture in your house?
Dash makes a lot of sense from Amazon’s point of view, clearly. Whooo, go supply-chain monopoly!
And it may even make sense to FMCG marketers who believe they have a hard-core of “brand loyalists” out there, somewhere, who’ll choose their Dash button over a rivals.
(There’s actually a whole other conversation to have on whether you need an Ariel button by the washing machine, or a P&G button, but that’s for another day).
But with what the evidence and understanding of how it seems now that brands have worked, that doesn’t seem like the Amazon Dash idea of ‘loyalty’ is all they make it out to be.
It does give rise to an interesting set of questions though.
If we suppose for a minute that brand loyalty isn’t a thing, could we also argue that it’s because the infrastructure hasn’t existed to make it a thing.
After all, building loyalty in supermarket aisles by running TV ads and putting up posters is doomed to failure becuase of all the stoopid consumers who always forget what craft and joy you put into your ad, right?
Loyalty would probably be a brilliant strategy if everyone used shopping algorithms.
However, is it possible that things like Amazon Dash will create a world where brand loyalty actually means something, because the infrastructure connecting people to needs is so different?
Or, alternatively, are we going to see a short-term future in which people stick three Dash buttons on the washing machine, and use the website to check prices on the cheapest before pressing?
Oh, and those brand stickers – they’re crying out to be screens in two years time. Which could mean adverts, and competition for space, and doom for FMCG brands.
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.