The app goldrush is over – it's time to apply some business sense | April 20, 2011

The rise of smart devices like the iPhone and iPad has led to an application goldrush, with companies racing to stake their claims. In the early days we saw a few lucky pioneers strike gold with novelty apps. There were also a handful of independent developers and well-known brands that invested in user experience and captured the high end of the market.

However, as with most goldrushes, the obvious targets were depleted very quickly. Digital prospectors are arriving to find a very different market, one rife with competition and few obvious deposits to mine. Furthermore, our appetite for apps seems to be dwindling as we fall back on a few must-have staples.

Recent studies have shown that we tend to limit our use to a few core apps and the bulk of others are never opened. Also, smartphone use is still fairly low in the UK, making it difficult to gain scale. So despite newspapers and magazines hailing the iPad as the saviour of the publishing industry, and blue-chip companies rushing to create trophy offerings, does it really make business sense to jump on the app bandwagon?

For a lot of companies the answer is no. Good app design takes a level of time and investment that’s hard to justify commercially. Only the international brands have the mindshare and level of traffic they need to guarantee scale. Even then, most rush out poorly designed and undifferentiated products with no real user need. Who, for example, loves a particular generic high street brand enough to download its dedicated store finder when you can get the information from Google?

One common trend is to create near-carbon copies of your website. These apps are often paid-for in an attempt to claw back some revenue from previously free content. However, this is rarely successful because consumers are savvy and mobile usage patterns are quite specific. If you’re thinking of creating an app that’s almost identical to your web experience, why create it at all? Mobile browsers have come a long way and recent advances in HTML and CSS mean you can now create a mobile-optimised version of your site, which is likely to reach more people anyway, for a fraction of the price.

I’m not suggesting that companies shouldn’t commission apps, we just need to be careful about what we build and why. There’s still gold in them there hills, but it’s going to be a lot more difficult to find and a lot more expensive to extract. We need to view apps as a business rather than a faddish get-rich-quick scheme.

This article was originally published in New Media Age.

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Selling Design | April 12, 2011

As the managing director of a design agency, it’s my job to bring in the business. That means talking to prospective clients, writing proposals and running pitches.

I’m lucky to work with some amazingly talented people and together we’ve developed a strong reputation in the industry. I’ve got a huge amount of faith in our team and really believe in what we can achieve. This makes meetings prospective clients for the first time really easy. I simply channel our passion and expertise in the hope that they’ll be convinced by our experience, buy into our vision and be infected by our love of good design. This isn’t a particularly sophisticated sales approach, but then again I’m not a particularly sophisticated salesman, being first and foremost a designer.

I have a good understanding of where our strengths lie, the kind of clients we work best with and the type of projects we excel at. I’m also aware of our limitations and know the type of projects and clients we should avoid. This is partly though intuition and partly though experience. We’ve resisted the urge to grow, so aren’t forced to take on every project that comes our way simply to pay the bills. We’re proud to be a lifestyle business, so it’s as much about doing good work as it is making money.

This puts us in the enviable position of being able to be selective about the work we take on. So when I meet prospective clients it’s as much about assessing the appropriateness of the project and the cultural fit as it is about selling our services. This may sound a little arrogant, but it’s a sellers market at the moment and we want to lend our services where it’s going to find most value and deliver the biggest reward. Too often have we taken on the first project that came along, only to have to turn down our ideal project two weeks later because we no longer have capacity. So one of my biggest recommendations is to be selective about the work you do and don’t be afraid of turning things down. If anything we’ve gained more respect and referrals by turning inappropriate work down than by taking it on and doing a half hearted job.

For a long time I assumed that all design agencies took a similar approach to sales, outlining their abilities in an open and honest manner and letting their clients choose the right company for the job. However the more clients and agencies I speak to, the more naive I realise this assumption has been.

For many people the sales process is seen as a game, and like most games the ultimate goal is to win, irrespective of whether you’re the right person for the job. So I’ve seen lots of projects won by inappropriate companies because they’ve come in with a convincing presentation and a hard to beat budget.

I’ve talked with large London agencies who apportion up to 20% of a projects potential earning to the pitch. One agency head proudly explained how they researched every person at the pitch meeting in order to find their weaknesses. For example in one instance they found that the MD of a company to which they were pitching was a fan of a particularly expensive watch, so they went out and bought the same watch for their MD so they could bond during the break. I spoke to a client handler at another big agency whose sole value seemed to be the fact that she was a member of the exclusive Ivy club where she would wine and dine prospective customers.

If you think this sounds a little “Mad Men” you’d be right. However cunning sales techniques aren’t the preserve of the big guys. I’ve come across numerous small agencies with equally cunning strategies, like the company who insists on pitching first so they can lay “traps” for the agencies that follow. Plenty of agencies will overstate their experience or promise things they know they can’t deliver, just to win the work. It would seem that game mechanics are in full force. Whenever people are pitched in competition against each other the desire to win will often take over.

As an agency we are often asked to provide creative solutions as part of the pitching process, if only to give our potential clients an understanding of our abilities. To this I refuse, explaining that good design comes from a deep understanding of the problem and close collaboration with the client. We’re not being difficult, we just don’t work that way. We’ll happily show off previous work and explain how it solved our client’s problems, but we hate turning design into a beauty contest. It can demonstrate craft, but shows none of the underlying thinking.

We even hesitate at giving out ideas. Not because we think ideas are precious, almost the opposite in fact. A myth abounds that good design is about creativity and there is nothing more creative than a unique idea. This may be true in the advertising industry where novelty is a key factor, but it could’t be further from the truth in digital product design. The best ideas are a product of insight and understanding rather than a flash of creativity. The most appropriate solutions come from evaluating and synthesising these ideas based on a deep knowledge of the problem. By providing ideas during the pitch process you run the risk of being judged on something you know to be shallow and inappropriate. Even worse if these ideas become accepted and form the basis of your whole approach. So we feel that it’s much better to resist the urge of premature ideation and focus on how we get these ideas instead. One method is explainable and repeatable, the other is magic.

The problem is that a lot of people are looking for magic and drama. The pitch is a performance after all, far removed from the skills and abilities you need to actually deliver the goods. So is it any wonder that clients prefer to see an agency creative in colourful trousers and designer glasses excite and enthuse their audience through the power of their ideas alone. That sounds a lot more exciting than an agency explaining that they don’t have the answer to your problems but know how to get it. The first process sounds effortless and fun while the second feels uncertain and potentially hard work. “How do we know if your ideas are going to be the right ones if we can’t see them in the pitch?” A perfectly valid question and one that can only be partially answered, thought our experience and track record.

Is this gradual realisation going to change the way I present our services? Probably not! I admit that our sales strategy is incredibly simplistic and naive. I also realise that we lose more work than we could by steadfastly refusing to play the sales game. However I think designers have an obligation to their craft and a duty of care towards their clients, which goes above and beyond their desire to win work. A sort of Hippocratic oath for design. By sticking to your principles from day one I believe you attract the right projects and the right clients, while maximising your chances of success. Let’s hope that I’m right os the salesmen will have won, and who wants to live in a world designed by salesmen? Not me, that’s for sure.

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Three talks touching on science fiction's view of the future | April 6, 2011

Chris Noessel & Nathan Shedroff from UX Week.

Toby Barnes from Interesting North.

Matt Webb from The Do Lectures.

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Redesign outrage | April 4, 2011

It’s surprisingly common for redesigns to cause outrage amongst their users. People complain that they weren’t consulted, criticise the quality and appropriateness of the new solution, and state that “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” However if you leave the site for a while, you often see the most critical detractors become the most vocal supporters. Why is this?

I think there are three fundamental cognitive biases at play here.

First off we have the concept of status-quo bias, the idea that people tend not to change existing behaviour unless the incentive to change is compelling. So you could argue that many people chose not to switch from DVD to Blu-ray because the benefits of higher definition viewing just weren’t attractive enough. In the context of a redesign, many people may not understand why it was even necessary as the existing site allowed them to do everything they needed and wanted to do.

Next up we have loss aversion, the idea that people prefer to avoid losses rather than acquire gains.So in the context of a redesign, people’s sense of loss may be overshadowing the benefits they have gained.

Lastly we have something called the endowment effect. This bias says that people often place a higher value on something they own than something they don’t. This may have something to do with the memories associated with that item. So in the context of a redesign, users will probably have bonded with the old site, while the new site has yet to create an emotional attachment.

Of course all of these cognitive biases are intertwined so it’s very difficult to tell which ones are having an effect and to what level. I’m also sure there are other factors at play here so I’d be interested to see if anybody has done any original research in this area.

This post was inspired by a recent interview in the Indipendant.

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Practical wisdom | April 4, 2011

A few evenings ago I watched a really interesting TED talk by Barry Schwartz on practical wisdom.

Although his examples were rooted in education and law, I couldn’t help but feel that practical wisdom was also the core of good design. After all, what is design except the ability to improvise novel solutions to new problems based on your knowledge of a set of rules and your ability to apply them with flexibility?

The talk also made me think about my own personal feelings towards project management. I believe that project management processes are often used as a series of inflexible rules (or sticks) intended to ensure average teams reach a minimum level of performance. However this will have the opposite effect on good people, constricting them and eventually demotivating them. I’ve seen this happen with numerous friends who have wanted to do good work but ended up being crushed by industrial age management and forced to leave in order to protect their own sanity.

Instead I think it’s important to hire good people and give them the flexibility to set their own agendas and apply their own rules. This is obviously one of the goals of the agile manifesto. Reduce bureaucracy and let the genuine good nature of designers and developers flourish. Sadly a lot of agile processes seem to be reinstating these rules in order to manage less experienced teams, starting the cycle all over again.

Barry Schwartz talked about two kinds of people who find themselves in this situation. One type of person tries to work within the constraints of the system and bend or subvert the rules in a way which allows them to do good work. Many of the best University educators I’ve met fall into this category. Then you have the change agents. The people who are so incensed by the rules that they want to create systematic change. These are the people who interest me the most. The people who can come into organisations, tear down the walls and build up new structures and new teams who are able to effect real progress.

So in order to become better designers we need to think flexibly, learn through doing and cultivate that sense of practical wisdom.

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Are SEO practitioners the digital equivalent of bankers? | April 1, 2011

This morning I’m going to be standing in front of a room full of SEO people to let them know how I feel about their industry. Here’s a rough outline on what I’m planning to say…

Capitalist society needs the banking institutions. It needs them to raise money, store money and move it around the world. Bankers provide the financial lubrication to grease the wheels of commerce and keep the market moving. However If I ask how many of you respect the banking institution or feel that it’s an honourable or worthy profession, I suspect few hands would be raised.

The recent banking crisis has exposed what many of us knew all along. That banking is a murky profession which skirts the edges of the regulatory bodies to probe for weaknesses in the system in order to seek out advantageous outcomes for their clients. As soon as one regulatory loophole is closed, the geniuses in Wall Street will discover another, more devious loophole to exploit.

I’m not saying that bankers are criminals, although some obviously are. The regulatory system has been constructed to prevent people from creating an unfair advantage and gaming the system, but game it they still do. And is it any wonder? The system is porous, the potential gains are high, and the bankers face constant pressure from their clients and peers to perform. So it’s easy to understand why so many of them work the system and why so few get found out.

I think one of the problems most people have with the banking industry is that they don’t really understand why these people are worth the fat bonuses they pull in. Sure they create monetary value for their clients, but the work their do is somewhat soulless and rarely adds much cultural or artistic value to the world. Their singular purpose seems to be gaming the system and reaping the rewards. Surely there is a more honourable way of making a living?

When I think about the banking industry, I’m reminded of the world of Search Engine Marketing. They too are trying to find weaknesses in a set of rules designed to level the playing field, in order to create a competitive advantage for their clients. It’s just that rather than these rules being laid down by central government, they have been developed in the labs at Google.

Google’s algorithm is explicitly designed to seek out high quality content while preventing external agents from manipulating the results for commercial gain. Back in the early days of SEO, bedroom hackers would gain a secret thrill in gaming the Page Rank algorithm and boosting their site to the top of the rankings. I know, I was one of them. Google quickly caught on and tried to damp down this effect, and the SEO arms race was born.

Agencies came up with all sorts of techniques to usurp the engines, from link building and keyword stuffing, through to doorway pages, cloaking and content farms. Out of this mire, the idea of “white hat” and “black hat” SEO emerged. The conceit being that “white hat” SEOs were honourable and law abiding while “black hat” SEOs tried to play the system. The truth, I believe, is slightly more nuanced.

The Search Engine industry is predicated on it’s practitioners ability to game a set of rules laid down by Google. As such, there can be no real “white hat” or “blank hat” practices, only varying shades of grey. Few SEO people would admit to dabbling in the black arts, but I suspect most of them do, behind closed doors and in the privacy of their own offices.

There are undoubtedly good people in the industry, just as there are good people in the banking world. In fact I’d say that the majority of practitioners fall into this category. I just struggle to accept an industry which exists in the same continuum as blog spammers and which is forced to label its members as “white hat” and “black hat”. After all we don’t talk about “black hat” doctors, “black hat” hairdressers or “black hat” designers. So by using these terms, the industry is knowingly complicit in the problem. In fact there exists an almost adolescent glee that they are involved in something slightly naughty.

I understand the need for SEO. After all, Google drives the engines of e-commerce and SEO companies are simply the grease on the wheels. However I find it a rather hollow and soulless world in which to work, buoyed by the thrill of beating Google rather than by creating truth or beauty.

A think a good barometer of the industry can be seen in the outrage many felt over the recent “farmer” update by Google, which downgraded sites it believed were using content farms to game the system. Like the indignant gambler ejected from a Vegas casino suspected of card-counting, many in the industry cried foul. However if you choose to play this game, you can’t really complain if you get ejected, even if this time you had nothing to hide. It’s Googles party and deception in the industry so rife, it’s one of the risks of the game.

Call me an idealist, but I believe that our ultimate goal should be to create user value, not just unqualified traffic. We can learn how to do this by studying user behaviour, uncovering user needs and satisfying these needs through relevant and appropriate content.

I realise that the search engine industry has been moving in this direction of late, but the drivers are somewhat different to mine. While I believe that good content attracts happy users, the SEO industry believes that one way to get users is to create good content. The ultimate result may now be the same, but the reasoning is more cynical and manipulatory. It is also a result of their less than pristine techniques slowly being cut off by Google, forcing them to focus on quality content over link building campaigns.

So Im going to make a request to any truly “white hat” practitioners out there. Please distance your self from the world of SEO, stop talking about search engine rankings and start helping your clients deliver real value to their users. Stop defining yourself by the discovery medium and focus on the content itself. I don’t mind what you call yourselves, be that digital marketers, content strategists or simply web designers. But whatever you do, remove the word “search” from your job title. It’s tainted and devalued and you’re much better than that.

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