What’s setting social alight in 2017?

It’s a year since I got out my crystal ball and made some predictions for social media in 2016. Was I right? Partially.

It was indeed a steady-as-she-goes kind of year on social, with brands focusing their resources on a smaller number of channels rather than experimenting with new ones. Meanwhile, the platforms themselves have evolved, driven particularly by a desire to compete with upstart mega-unicorn Snapchat. Chat and real-time interaction grew. But the financial services sector has been slower to move than I predicted, so my suggestion that banks would finally embrace Instagram and move mobile wallets to social wasn’t as accurate.

You don’t need to be Mystic Meg to see where social media is going; it’s becoming more visual, more creative, more interactive – and more commercial. But that’s balanced by growing demands for quality and veracity. So what’s going to set the social world alight in 2017?

Going live

The biggest new trend this year was live video, which burst on the scene in 2015, but really took off this year with Facebook Live, YouTube Live and Instagram Stories all trying to copy Snapchat. Live social video was at the centre of several big news events, and it quickly became a key tool in the news producer’s armoury.

Forward-thinking brands such as the FT are already on board with this. My guess is that the ‘mass market’ will follow suit soon, as a means of giving audiences a view behind the scenes while delivering engaging content quickly and cheaply. The platforms themselves are starting to roll out support for pro users (such as Periscope Producer) and by the end of 2017 brands should have live video as a central plank of their social media strategy.

Twitter: turn it off or turn it up

It’s been a tough year for Twitter with its share price dropping following failed takeover talks. But it’s responded to rumours of its demise by pivoting from a social network to a real-time news and entertainment company and embracing its place as a second screen in an attempt to regain lost audiences.

As a result brands will question the value of Twitter as a delivery mechanism for content and links to websites. Some will close their channels, but more switched-on communicators will up their Twitter game to capitalise on the strong relationship between Twitter and TV.

Twitter audiences are smaller but highly influential compared to those on other channels. 35% of Twitter users regularly share their opinions on people and brands; these people are a third more likely to actually convince people of their opinions. They have a discovery mindset and seek content that is live, open and shareable so they can influence and engage others in an informed way.

Top-performing social brands can leverage this by using their feeds to provide the “pub argument ammo” this influential group want. That means shareable visuals which inform and educate, plus key facts that help them back up an argument.

Twitter’s not dead, but it’s a very different beast to 2008 so brands need to revise how they use it to make the most of its current strengths.

Enabling self-expression

In this year’s Internet Trends Report Mary Meeker charted the evolution of social tools that enable people to express themselves by creating an artefact – beginning with simple emojis through to Bitstrips and, more recently, Snapchat, with its simple-to-use lenses.

This trend shows no sign of slowing down, with apps like playground phenomenon musical.ly  taking off this year. In 2017 brands will need to find new ways to enable their customers to be creative if they want to win the battle for eyeballs.

Hybrid public-enterprise social

Facebook’s now well established as a customer service channel, but the long-anticipated launch of Workplace, Facebook’s first foray into the enterprise market, creates new possibilities for conversation to flow in and out of organisations seamlessly.

So for example a customer could raise a query on the brand’s public Facebook page, a customer care team could pick it up and use Workplace to investigate and discuss it, before responding to the customer via Messenger. Workplace’s app platform could make it easy to track conversations flowing between public and closed social spaces in order to deliver better customer experiences.

Quality filters

With the rise of fake news, inaccurate polls and political attacks on experts, 2016 has been a challenging year for the concept of truth – and nowhere more so than on social media. The tech firms have already announced drives to clean up their newsfeed, but this is likely to be a race to stay ahead of the spammers.

The desire for quality could push users to seek out trusted names to help them filter, using humans rather than algorithms. So while some have declared the reign of the celebrity influencer to be over, the demand for content quality could create a new generation of influential ‘quality filterers’.

Facebook have released Signal for journalists to help them with the task of curating content to improve content quality, and I expect further moves from all the main platforms to rebuild trust in shared content.

Inside-out advocacy

The dawn of the post-truth era brings new challenges for organisations and brands, who need to find more creative ways of getting their messages through to an increasingly cynical public. This year’s Ipsos-Mori Veracity Index highlighted how little faith the public have in business leaders, politicians, economists and civil servants – yet trust in ‘the ordinary man in the street’ remains strong. Brands can take advantage of that trust by equipping and encouraging ordinary employees to share on their behalf.

There are a host of social amplification apps on the market which allow comms teams to upload content for their employees to share. But this has to be a voluntary process – the employee needs to choose to open the app, choose content and share it on.

Faced with the need to make content appealing enough to be both read and shared, companies who want to leverage their employees’ networks will be forced to up their content game. 2017 could be the year companies start giving employees content as compelling and engaging as that given to customers.

Chatbots take off

Customers increasingly expect prompt service via social channels, placing pressure on companies to resource real-time social customer care. Artificial Intelligence (AI) can help manage that demand, in the form of chatbots – computer programs that you interact with by “chatting”, for example in threads in messaging apps. These are an important new human/machine interface, simulating intelligent conversation, answering queries and managing simple workflows, increasing the speed of engagement with customers.

Mark Zuckerberg opened the Facebook Messenger Platform to third party chatbots in April, and in the months since more than 30,000 have been built.

2017 will be a year of conversation, with customers talking to brands on Messenger, WhatsApp or Slack. Bots will enable that growth as they become more realistic and more human.

Chatbots are able to bridge the gap between services designed for humans (like text message) and those designed for machines, by breaking complex transactions into conversations. And these conversational interfaces will open up digital engagement to groups who have previously struggled to use online services, by making them more human in design.

Conclusion: convergence creating complexity

The most notable trend for 2016 has been the race for each of the main platforms to ape one another. Snapchat copied Facebook by adding Memories. Instagram encouraged users to share Snapchat-like content by adding Stories. Facebook is testing Snapchat-like disappearing messages and added Twitter-like trending topics.

This creates more complexity for users – and for brands, who now have to plan for multiple different content types within each of their channels. In the short term this gives communicators the option to experiment with different, visual content types to see what works. But by the end of 2017 I expect most will have worked out where they get the most bang for their buck and will settle into a more regular publishing pattern that’s more focused in order to reach the right audience with the right content.

What the 2016 Meeker report means for the digital workplace

Each spring analyst Mary Meeker releases one of the most hotly anticipated slide decks of the year (arguably, the only hotly-anticipated slide deck…). Packed with stats on adoption and use of internet technologies, over the past decade it’s become the most comprehensive analysis of the State of the Internet around.

Her 2016 report was released a few days ago (1 June), and I’ve had a chance to pick out some trends which I think may create demands on digital workplace professionals in the coming years.

Arise, the Snapchat generation

In last year’s report Meeker noted Millennials were no longer an opportunity or threat to prepare for, but now the majority in the workplace.

This year she talks for the first time about Generation Z – a group she describes as “tech innate”, using five screens at once. While Gen Z aren’t yet making themselves known in the workplace, they’re only a few short years away from doing so.

Gen Z, Meeker notes, have a notable preference for image-based platforms such as Snapchat over text-based ones. In my last blog post I warned against lazy generational generalisations – and that’s borne out by the report too.  While Snapchat use has ballooned amongst younger people, use of it and similar image-based tools is growing (albeit not as fast) among all age groups.

That’s because images work; they impact us both cognitively and emotionally, which makes them able to tell a story in the blink of an eye. By embracing the power of images and design we can make digital internal communication more effective. But at the same time this creates challenges; image-based communication is difficult (often impossible) to index for search, and problematic for accessibility. Proceed with care.

Messaging is massive

There are now an astounding three billion messages sent daily on Snapchat, Facebook (inc FB Messenger), Instagram and WhatsApp.

And a significant proportion of messenger-based conversation will be about work. Most DW practitioners will admit that WhatsApp has become the Swiss Army Knife of enterprise collaboration. With employees now carrying more advanced and more usable technology in their pockets than they’re given by corporate IT, they’ve voted with their feet and opted for shadow IT on an unprecedented scale, particularly tools like WhatsApp and Slack.

Too many corporate IT teams have their heads still firmly in the sand on this one. It’s particularly challenging for those in regulated industries to admit their employees are eschewing corporate channels for untrackable personal tools – but it’s now far too widespread to ignore.

Beyond conversation

With Facebook now over a decade old, people have become more sophisticated in their use of social tools, which they now see as delivering far more than simply messaging with friends. The growth of business-focused conversation is driven in particular by Asian IM2.0 apps WeChat, Line and Kakao.

People aren’t content to be passive consumers of information anymore; SnapChat is simply the latest in a long line of tools which enable self-expression and creativity.

Corporate communicators need to consider ways to embed and leverage this innate need to create and converse in their communication processes and tools. Lengthy news stories haven’t cut it for a long time, and they’re unlikely to win in a battle for attention with a sponsored Snapchat filter.

Messaging apps are fast becoming platforms for commerce, and it follows they will soon expect to be able to transact in a similar way using their enterprise tools. Smart companies need to start thinking now how they can use things like Slack integrations to deliver this.

People have become adept at filtering out unnecessary information, demonstrated by the explosion in use of adblockers that Meeker notes. 81% of people will mute video ads – and chances are they’ll do the same with your dull corporate internal comms video too.

But good content still works, if it’s relevant. People have come to expect hyper-targeting, and they expect something of value in exchange for their attention. This requires corporate communicators to have a radical rethink of the way they create and share information – an app or mobile intranet isn’t likely to do the job.

You talkin’ to me?

One of the most talked-about stats in this year’s report was a prediction, from Baidu’s chief scientist Andrew Ng, that 50% of searches would be via voice or image search by 2020

Voice recognition accuracy has come on leaps and bounds, averaging around 90% accuracy – a fact that hasn’t gone unnoticed by users. Already 65% of American smartphone owners use voice commands.

The growth of voice interfaces has a huge commercial and productivity benefits; the average human speaks at 150 words per minute, but can only type at 40 words a minute. Moreover, freeing people from keyboards makes connectivity vastly more convenient when on the move, and opens up greater possibilities for information to be more targeted and contextual.

If voice interfaces and voice search goes mainstream as predicted, people will quickly expect the same from their enterprise tools and systems. How can your digital workplace adapt to a switch in primary interface from keyboard to microphone?

Have you read this year’s Meeker report? (If you haven’t, here’s the slideshare). What were they most interesting – or controversial – points for you?

What Mondo taught me about the future of banking

Mondo are one of the most talked-about new players on the consumer/retail banking block (just this month they reached a $1m crowdfunding target in 96 seconds), so I was delighted to get a place on their Alpha. Here’s a few early thoughts and observations on my experience and what it might signal for the future of FinTech.

It didn’t start well, for me. Specifically, I managed to destroy a coat rack within moments of arriving in their offices, sending a pile of jackets and scarves to the floor. But within half an hour I was up and running with an app and a fluorescent pre-paid Mastercard, ready to take a look at the future of banking.

As a nerdy consumer I’ve been looking at the future of banking for a long time now — I think I got my first online bank account around the turn of the century, which was roughly the time I started earning money. For most part from an experience point of view the future of banking tends to look a lot like other online user experiences did five years previously*.

* Except my bank account in Asia. That’s more like every other user experience in 2001.

So I’d agree this is a market ripe for disruption, and that customer needs are probably better served by attempting to build a new bank from the bottom-up, based around user need, than building marginally nicer front ends for terrible legacy infrastructure.

Mondo is one of a number of UK startups attempting to do that. Fellow challenger Atom has a banking licence, unlike Mondo, but is yet to have a releasable product. Mondo is taking the reverse tack, developing its app-based bank in public, offering a pre-paid card to several thousand Alpha users and asking for feedback, while working with regulators behind the scenes on getting their banking licence.

I’ve seen the future. It’s pink with a liberal sprinkling of emoji.

Mondo is, in short, a card and an app, with ambitions to turn this into a full service retail bank in time. The app itself is neat; every time I use the card, I get an alert on Mondo, replete with carefully-chosen emoji, before the sales assistant has printed the receipt. These guys must spend a scary amount of time choosing emoji.

It’s a pre-paid, luminous pink Mastercard, and while topping up is simple this does limit its usefulness as there’s no auto top-up option. I was about to pay for a few things at the weekend but only had £20 left on the card; as Hammersmith is a weird mobile phone coverage blackspot I couldn’t add money to it, and had to fall back on my regular debit card. It doesn’t yet work with ApplePay, but the team have said this is on its way.

As it’s linked to your phone, it’s smart enough to work out where you are and how this might impact your spending. If you’re in Singapore and but your card’s being used in Swansea, it can let you know immediately. Which is refreshing change from ham-fistededly blocking your card every time you travel.

The app makes it easy to see what I’ve spent by vendor and category, and gives me the option of adding tags, notes, receipt images and so on to each transaction. It’s easy to see my balance and spending at a glance. A particularly nice feature is the ability to freeze the card when you can’t find it, and unfreeze again when found — rather than the big banks’ standard option of cancelling the card and waiting a long, cashless, cardless week to have a new one sent through the post.

And these are all great features. In fact, if I were my flaky 21-year-old self — on a tight budget and prone to losing my cards — the features offered by Mondo would easily tempt me to switch to it as my main vehicle for day-to-day spending.

But I am not 21. While Mondo does give me a vague sense of guilt over my cumulative spend in sandwich chains, I’m at a point in my life where I’m lucky enough not to be too concerned about £10 spent on wine or nail polish. My digital banking needs are different now I’m a proper grown-up.

I have savings. I’d like to have more savings, and I’d like my bank to help me to make saving a habit rather than an afterthought. Knowing I spent £6.38 on juice and yoghurt is all well and good, but if my bank could tell me, at the right time, that if I bought fewer cakes I could pay my mortgage off two months earlier, that’s useful to me.

I like data, but for my accounts data to work for me I need to be able to see it in one place, and I need it to be interoperable. Spend-specific emojis make me smile, but I can’t use them to reconcile transactions in my freelancer accounting software. My regular bank account has an API and allows me to download transaction data so I can interrogate it.

I also like free stuff. I chose my bank account when I began university, because they gave me a hefty fee-free overdraft and a student railcard. Like most people I have never bothered to change my bank account since. These days I have a reasonable credit rating and a taste for far-flung destinations, so I do all my spending via my credit card in order to build up airline points. A year’s worth of hotel bills, work expenses and pub visits were enough to get me two free flights via my credit card’s reward scheme. I’m willing to put up with some seriously bad UX in return for a free holiday.

Banks for brogrammers, by brogrammers

I like Mondo, and I like what they’re trying to do. What they do, they doreally well. For payments and day-to-day usage, its UI, UX and FX is streets ahead of my high street bank.

But right now it isn’t enough to make it my everyday bank, because it doesn’t (yet) meet my needs as a solvent thirty-something woman.

In that respect, it’s not so different from other startups, very many of which have cropped up to solve the problems of the unrepresentative sample of people who build apps. From Uber to Airbnb to laundry pick-up and gas delivery services, Silicon Valley et al are focused on solving problems faced by people like themselves.

To be fair to Mondo, they have at least recognised this and sought to get more women on their Alpha in order to get a wider range of feedback. But if any company truly wants to transform its sector, it needs to solve the problems of a full cross-sector of consumers. Elderly ones with rubbish phones and failing eyesight. Poor, underbanked ones. Even boring ones like me with low-risk investment needs and unsexy pension arrangements.

As my 300 Seconds co-founder Hadley Beeman said at our opening event three years ago, if we want to change the world, we need a good cross-section of humanity to be involved at every stage — to articulate their user needs, and develop products to meet those needs.

If you want to change banking, you need to solve for more than coffee budgeting.

Banking is a fully digitisable business. In a business which doesn’t deal in tangible things trust is critical. This gives traditional banks a major advantage; most people prefer to entrust their money to an FSCS-backed institution than a startup.

My short experiment with Mondo has shown how quickly a challenger bank can win the user experience battle. While my high street bank has the edge in terms of both functionality and trust for now, challengers are engaging with regulators and fast catching up.

Where traditional banks can maintain an edge is their knowledge of and relationships with a much broader range of customers, recognising that customers don’t just need an app, but a range of products and services to meet their diverse needs at different life stages. Banks have access to a wealth of data on customer behaviour and needs that they could use to develop smarter, easier solutions for customers.

Yet right now neither side seems to be getting it quite right. Startups are focused on solving too narrow a set of user needs to serve the mass market, while traditional banks are attempting to make old systems and structures deliver better digital experiences and coming up short, and resting on their laurels in the hope customers are too lazy or untrusting to try the competition.

Trust in banking and finance continues to lag far behind that of technology firms. Startups are rapidly breaking down regulatory obstacles, gaining consumer trust and building brand recognition. While what Mondo et al haven’t yet got a strong enough product to make me ditch my bank, if they can beef up their offering and combine this with quality user experience, they’ll get my money soon.

Digital tools for digital people

Forget how people do things while they’re at work, constrained by corporate policies and culture. If you want to see someone’s true working style, you need to see how they work on their own terms. Like when they organise their own holiday.

That was a nugget taught to me on a leadership course I went to at work, and one I’ve subsequently seen to be absolutely spot-on.

You can tell a lot about a digital professional from how they digitise themselves.

After discussing this on Twitter with Luis Suarez (famously The Man Who Stopped Doing Email) and digital fluency coach Jamie Good, we got together on Blab to discuss our own personal digital workplaces. You can watch a replay here.

I kicked off things by talking about Trello. For the uninitiated, Trello is a project management tool, but it’s so feature-rich and customisable that it’s scrum board on steroids. Here’s a post on all the myriad ways you can use Trello from Lifehacker.

I love Trello. I’m inherently a very disorganised person, but over the years I’ve developed the self-awareness to know this and developed a system to organise myself.

That means I have scrum boards for all the various parts of my life. I even had one to plan my wedding.

Here’s a screenshot of my personal tasks board; this is how I manage my projects outside of my day job. My to-do list starts on the left, moving over to ‘doing’ as I start to work through jobs. I add detail, links or updates on each card, then move to done once tasks are completed.

personal-trello-board

I work in weekly personal sprints, reviewing the board every week or so and archiving tasks that are done or dead to keep it all manageable.

I also use Trello to work with distributed teams I’m a member of, in particular my intranet blog, Intranetizen, where we use Trello to manage the content pipeline. We can assign tasks to people, add due dates, attach documents and discuss what we’re doing. Posts move from left to right as they evolve from idea to fully-formed text.

Intranetizen-trello.png

Luis commented that this is similar to how many people use Evernote. But I much prefer Trello as it’s highly visual, has brilliant UX and integrates so well with everything else I use to work in teams.

What’s interesting, Luis noted, is the extent to which our personal productivity becomes hampered when we get to work and don’t have the choice of tools that we’d like.

Back in the 90s the computing you had at work was streets ahead of anything you might be able to buy yourself. But the consumerisation of technology over the past 15 years has shifted the balance a long way in the other direction, and now surveys regularly show people are largely dissatisfied with the tools they’re given in the workplace.

This leads to a boom in guerilla or shadow IT within organisations, as people who can’t access the tools they need to feel productive via their work desktop simply switch to using personal phones and tools like WhatsApp – beyond both the control and visibility of corporate IT or compliance.

Corporates are still struggling with BYOD, but until that is cracked the gulf between employee expectation and reality will continue to grow. That has impacts on retention as employees who can’t be as productive as they’d like leave to work in firms where they have more agency over their preferred toolset.

The onboarding process and timeline in enterprise IT doesn’t keep up with the rate at which people want to evolve their ways of working. Unless enterprise IT offers a tool that offers the same functionality and usability as WhatsApp, people will vote with their feet – or their phone – and use non-approved alternatives from the consumer space, with all the risk attached to that.

Pioneers within organisations can identify tools that can help to build productivity – they quickly become evangelists for its use amongst their friends and colleagues. Enterprise IT needs to make friends with these influencers and pioneers and figure out how to square that circle – or risk becoming irrelevant. This group can identify use cases and help work through issues with emergent tools.

The big enterprise social platforms have been improving their offering in recent years, in part in response to smaller and newer players like Slack, which all three of us are big fans of.

For example, I use Slack to work with the Parliament User Group. We have a public channel as well as a closed one for us organisers. We share notes and links through this all the time, then every couple of weeks some of us will get together on a Google Hangout to discuss plans and updates, and often from there we’ll switch straight to collaboratively editing a Google Doc. In this way we can collectively draft and agree a post in half an hour, rather than days or weeks of back-and-forth emailing, then finally share this doc with the Slack for everyone to give the OK for publication.

What sets Slack apart is the degree to which it’s integrated with others tools, bringing multiple tools together into a unified experience.

I asked Luis if, having long kissed goodbye to email, he still used documents. The answer, unsurprisingly, is no, not if he can help it. He uses IBM Connections Docs and generally uses wikis rather than documents, commenting that “the moment you put a piece of knowledge in a document, that’s the moment that you lock it in”.

Documents exist to replicate an age where information was paper-based and linear – a means of creating things that were designed to be printed in order to be shared. Documents introduce a lot of friction to the process of collaboration, requiring 3rd party apps to open and email to share.

I also prefer hypertextuality and non-linearity to capture information, as this enables it to change over time in a way that reduces friction but where previous iterations can still be referenced. For personal projects I use Google Docs, while at work I use Documents within Jive, which are actually more like wikis but with a more user friendly interface.

This kind of approach privileges people over documents, focusing on the interaction and information rather than the tool. Manny Wilson produced this powerful graphic which illustrates how using wikis (or similar) to share information rather than documents reduces complexity and friction.

wiki_collaboration2

We wrapped up with Luis making a call to arms for more of us to be brave and call out practices that simply aren’t productive – and have the courage to find and use alternatives that can make work better.

Digital professionals are at the forefront of that change; it’s down to us to keep challenging our colleagues, and our IT departments, to deliver a better and more productive digital workplace.

What tools do you swear by to manage your work? Join the conversation in the comments below. We’ll arrange a follow-up Blab session if there’s enough interest.

The email-free future is here. It’s just not evenly distributed yet.

It’s over five years since Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg predicted email is probably going away, and yet I returned from holiday this week to a bulging inbox. So what went wrong?

Here I explain why email alternatives haven’t yet made the breakthrough – and what needs to happen to really see an end to inefficient email culture.

3893900302_50ce67f110_o

Underestimated the need for culture change

Cultural barriers in moving from email to enterprise social have been wildly underestimated. Email has had a long (20 year +) period of dominance, and has found its way into a vast range of tasks (many of which it’s inappropriate for, but nonetheless). Old habits die hard, and email is quite some habit – taking up 28% of employee time. Intranet expert Sam Marshall once commented that only two things will survive a nuclear winter – cockroaches, and email.

Email, for all its faults, offers privacy, preservation of silos and hierarchy, and the hoarding of knowledge – all things which fit with traditional ways of managing business. For enterprise social networks to really make a difference they need to form part of a massive change management programme – one that sees the ESN as a small part of a change to make the organisation fit for the future.

If an organisation is serious about embracing openness, meritocracy, flexibility and collaborative working, as a means of making itself more agile and innovative, and engaging its people, then an ESN will enable that. But the organisation needs to lead that change – the tool is merely a means of delivery, and can’t be seen as the culture change itself.

Few organisations have done this successfully yet. Most have barely started. But as hardly a day now passes without another news story about how traditional industries and business models are being disrupted by smaller, newer players – firms who are already embracing those values and working in open, collaborative and innovative ways – big business has to adapt or die. That culture change isn’t a nice to have: it’s existential.

The tools sucked

Back in 2010, the tools to go email-free just weren’t widespread enough; few enterprises had rolled them out, and where they had they were found wanting. Let’s be blunt here: they sucked compared to what was available on the web.

Enterprise social tools lacked powerful enough functionality to make people ditch their long-held habits. They were typically rolled out organically, which meant they relied heavily on enthusiasts and failed to gain critical mass.

All that has changed, though. Social intranet products such as Sharepoint, Jive and IBM Connections have continued to grow and evolve their functionality. At the same time, products like Salesforce, Oracle and SAP have moved on from token inclusion of social functionality to offering fully social systems. And a host of new entrants like Slack have come along to shake the whole enterprise collaboration market up, forcing everyone to raise their game.

The current crop of enterprise social tools now offer substantial and realistic alternatives to email with functionality and usability that are as good as anything offered to consumers.

The challenge, then, is ensuring the organisation has the right tool or set of tools. And that means focusing on user needs…

Lacked understanding of user needs

Too many intranet projects are conceived and designed from the corporate centre, designed without a detailed understanding of how, when and why people work – so that social fits the way people work, rather than expecting people to change the way they work to use social tools.

In this (old) blogpost, Andrew McAfee suggests that the continued use of email when superior alternatives are available is an example of the 9x problem. That is, that people are generally averse to change, so they overvalue what they have by a factor of three, and undervalue alternatives by 3x. So something needs to not just be better than the alternative for people to be convinced to change, but it needs to be 9x better.

The number one driver of adoption is utility. Intranet and digital workplace professionals need first to understand what people do and how they work – and why they use email – then select and configure tools so they provide a compelling alternative – one that users perceive as genuinely useful enough to be worth investing their time in learning.

Poor integration

All too often social intranets are yet another in the plethora of workplace portals, presenting users with a hot mess of interfaces and user experiences. It’s no surprise that people reached for the comfort blanket of Microsoft Outlook.

Email dominates because it’s familiar, and it’s made its way into almost everything we do at work. Email doesn’t force people to think about what tool to use – and nor should your digital workplace. The current generation of enterprise social tools are easy and cheap to integrate with each other, and with other systems. Crack that and present a coherent, integrated digital workplace that doesn’t require users to think, and you reduce the barriers to change.

Too inward looking

Finally, they didn’t extend beyond the firewall, forcing people to go back to email if they want to collaborate with anyone outside of the organisation. In this day and age collaboration can’t just be inward-looking; it will necessarily involve third parties like agencies – and ideally customers too.

With most vendors offering robust cloud-based solutions, there’s no longer a need to limit collaboration to inside the firewall, nor to force people to go back to email to collaborate externally.

The future

These five factors can explain why predictions about the imminent demise of email have failed to come true. While the tools have improved markedly, implementations must focus on user needs so that users feel social tools are substantial and realistic alternatives to email.

As William Gibson commented, the future is here… it’s just not evenly distributed yet. While the tools now exist to deliver on Sheryl Sandberg’s prediction of an email-free future, without significant investment in culture change email will persist.

Photo credit: Daniel Voyager

 

Will QR codes help consumers get cheaper energy?

man scanning qr code

Energy Secretary Ed Davey yesterday announced that in future all energy bills will carry QR codes, which will allow consumers to quickly see where they can get a cheaper deal.

Announcing the move, Davey added that forcing providers to add codes to bills would give people “quick, straightforward way to compare the best deal for them with a simple swipe of their phone”.

And in doing so, he revealed he’s probably never used a QR code. If he did, he’d realise that it isn’t simply a case of swiping one’s phone at all; they’re actually not that simple to use, which is why they’ve failed to take off with the general public, and why this move is unlikely to help many people switch provider.

Here’s how I can look up a QR code on my iPhone:

  • Put in pin code on phone
  • Open up QR app (which, like most people I don’t have on my phone, but let’s assume I did)
  • Scan code, usually more than once
  • Redirected to browser
  • Browser takes me to page

Which is at least two steps longer than just opening up a browser and going to a website using a clean URL. In that time, the user’s attention is lost – moved on to checking Facebook, or texting their mum.

QR codes have a reputation problem. They’ve been around for 18 years, and for about seven as the supposed saviour of conversion marketing, as a mechanism for getting people to click through from physical things to URLs. Problem is, the overwhelming majority of implementations have been woeful. So where people have used one to access content, they’ve been disappointed, and so been put off doing so again. As they experience more and more bad implementations, their patience for trying again has worn thin.

An even greater proportion of people haven’t even got that far. To less digitally-inclined smartphone users, the QR code itself, with its futuristic look, could be offputting – which makes them precisely the wrong mechanism to target a group who have already shown they’re not willing or able to use a comparison website or switch to paperless billing in order to get cheaper prices.

Emotion is important in communication, and an unfamiliar mass of black-and-white pixels can elicit fear and confusion rather than delight and engagement in people who already lack confidence online (and that’s before we even touch on the bigger issue of the 6.7m adults in the UK who have never been online at all – because IT literacy is so intimately bound up with social exclusion and reading literacy)

The most recent research I can find says that just 10.8% of UK smartphone owners have ever used a QR code. Other research shows that while smartphone ownership continues to grow, QR code usage has remained flat, suggesting use is limited to a small group of technophiles.

Technology, rather than user behaviour, is at the heart of the problem here. Neither Apple nor Android phones come with a native QR reader – meaning 94.5% of smartphone users need to download an app in order to use them, creating further barriers to usage. You can’t just wave a phone over it and go. The user has to recognise it’s a QR code, know what to do with it, be convinced to do so, and then take action.

I conducted an informal survey on Twitter, asking how many times people had scanned a QR code in the last month. Here are the results:

qr bar graph

Number of times people have used a QR code in past month.

Column 2 (once in the past month) includes one person who “only did it to prove how rubbish they are”. And bear in mind that regular Twitter users are already more likely to be a regular, confident smartphone user than someone who gets a paper gas bill.

As I’ve blogged about before, QR codes are all too often thought a simple solution for bridging the online-offline marketing divide, with littleconsideration given to the logistical and emotional barriers to successful usage. They do have some uses, and some commentators suggest their use in mobile payments may revive QR.

Efforts to signpost people toward information on better pricing are to be applauded. But I’d suggest QR codes on bills aren’t the answer here, because of the logistical, emotional and confidence barriers that prevent people using them, and because trust in QR codes has been eroded through years of marketing misuse.

tl;dr version: will QR codes help people get cheaper energy? No, I doubt it.

Photo credit: Tramell Hudson (Flickr, Creative Commons)

Edit: Terence Eden has responded to the challenge and come up with the argument for QR codes. His post is well worth reading.

Can we fix democracy? #ukvotecamp

Following the latest in a series of policy announcements which favour the old (who vote) over the young (who don’t), this morning I wondered: what we can do to engage non-voters? If the people who don’t currently vote turned out, how different would our policy choices be?

It’s clear many of us care about democracy and the need for mass participation, yet too many of us feel it’s just not delivering in its current form. Too many of us think it’s not worth us taking part, or aren’t sure what we can do to engage people with politics. So I asked:

The reaction on Twitter was overwhelmingly positive. It’s always best to strike while the iron’s hot, so I briefly caught up with James Cattell and Alex Blandford after work, and together we came up with a vague plan for UK Vote Camp – an initiative aimed at increasing participation in the 2015 General Election.

The idea, in a nutshell: We believe that by bringing policymakers, geeks and citizens together, we can better understand why democratic participation is low, and find ways we can use technology, online engagement and other strategies to engage people with the democratic process.

We’re proposing a series of unconference-type sessions in the year leading up to the 2015 general election, with the end goal of increasing turnout amongst those groups who generally don’t normally come out and vote.

So how do we do that?

I don’t know. That’s kind of the point. I care so much about voting that I honestly skipped down to the polling station to vote for the first time in the European Elections 1999. Yeah, really. But I’ll concede I’m atypical, and I can totally understand the reasons why someone might not turn out. Some of them are structural; in a constituency based system someone might legitimately feel their vote doesn’t count. Short of reforming the voting system, there not much I can do about that. But there are plenty of people who simply feel the current system could somehow be better. Plenty of people who feel that if they had something to vote for, or better understood why their vote mattered, then maybe they would. That, I think, we can do something about.

Can we help people understand the power of their own vote? Can we improve democracy? I reckon we can.

polling station sign

So let’s talk

First, we need to understand what it is that makes people think it’s not worth turning out. Some issues are to do with our voting system. Others are to do with improving understanding of what we vote for, when  and why. Data could help; insight into voter turnout could help people see the potential impact that those who previously didn’t vote could potentially have. Voter engagement matters, too. There’s plenty we can learn from successful peer engagement campaigns like Obama’s.

I’m proposing we kick off with a day to discuss why participation is low, and what we can do about it.

Then let’s make some stuff

Once we know why people don’t vote, let’s use our collective talents to try and bridge some of those gaps so voting becomes a more worthwhile proposition for more people. Not with a lets-bring-the-tech-we-already-built-to-show-it-off hack day, but by defining some requirements and working together to make one or more things – apps, sites, engagement programmes, whatever – that help people to understand why voting matters.

Once we’ve made stuff, let’s iterate it. Let’s use what we know, and what we hear from others, to make democracy better, meeting every few months to improve what we’ve done. We have over a year until the general election – that’s enough time to make a real difference.

No, I don’t think it’s the answer to all the reasons why voter turnout is low, but we have to start somewhere. And if that somewhere is bringing together clever people who give a shit to come up with some decent ideas that we can iterate from, then imho that’s an excellent place to start.

Interested? Good. Come to the MySociety open hack this Wednesday, 8 January, at MOZldn at 5.30pm and let’s talk ideas. If you can’t come then, give me a shout – you can find me all over the internets.

Photo credit: secretlondon123

Social media, serendipity and the power of trivia

For most of us – and certainly anyone reading this blog – social media plays a significant role in our lives. We keep track of our friends’ lives through Facebook updates, message them on Twitter, see what they’re up to on Foursquare, and ‘like’ their photos on Instagram. I do this more than most, since social media is a big part of my job; my friend Richard commented that he doesn’t need to ring me anymore as he can find out exactly what I’m doing, thinking and feeling by looking at my various updates online.

A couple of weeks back my colleague Keith wrote an interesting blogpost, wondering if this stream of minutiae is bad for us, akin to obesity for the mind. He asked “is it possible that we have filled our brains with information, images, adverts, arguments, thoughts, news, features, blogs and opinions, to the extent that our brains aren’t functioning as they used to?”

The stream of updates about unimportant things, from lunchtime burritos to Daily Mail click-bait, are thought by many to be distracting us from the reading of improving books or forging of real-life relationships.

thinking man

Keith certainly isn’t the first person to ask if the sharing of trivia is affecting the way that we think. Plato argued the technology of writing would destroy humans’ ability to remember. 17th century lecturers complained that their students spent too much time in coffee shops catching up on news and gossip. Even the walls of Pompeii featured graffiti from Roman Jamie Olivers exclaiming ‘I baked bread today’.

As Tom Standage argues wonderfully, the sharing of tidbits of information in a peer-to-peer way is by no means a 21st century development, and nor either is the suggestion that this has a negative impact on wellbeing.

I’m an internet optimist. Sure, the internet gives us plenty to be worried about, from privacy worries to the impact on older industries and the economy. But in my lifetime the 20th century model –  in which mass-produced media were piped at us, to be passively consumed at a set time via a small number of TV or radio channels – has been completely transformed. The 21st century has seen a diversification in media in which has given us access to a wider array of information sources than we’ve ever had before.

While some may argue that this overwhelms people, I’d argue that on balance being informed via a wider range of sources is a good thing. The web gives us access to more information than we even knew existed, as well as the power to publish ourselves. Yet far from overwhelming us with a torrent of news, the amount of time younger people spend consuming news has gone down. It’s been suggested that we’re simply becoming more efficient, able to learn more in less time.

Yet it’s also wrong to say the web hasn’t had an impact on the way we think. When I’m talking to a friend or colleague and we’re not sure of a specific point, one or other of us will reach for our smartphone and settle the argument immediately. I don’t remember; I research.

On the one hand there’s a large body of evidence which suggests that the increasing complexity of the media we consume is leading to increased cognitive capacity and rising IQ scores. But there’s also a healthy academic debate taking place over how our behaviours are adapting to the changing information environment.

Just as printing put paid to the one-valued skill of memorising entire books, communications technology is changing what we choose to commit to memory.  For example, studies have shown that regular users of GPS devices begin to lose some of their innate sense of direction. It would seem we’re putting our faith in external storage, and reallocating our mental energy.

This is the same phenomenon Socrates described, in which writing will implant forgetfulness in their souls: they will cease to exercise memory because they rely on that which is written, calling things to remembrance no longer from within themselves, but by means of external marks.”

What’s different is the ease of access to these external marks, such that it’s available to anyone with a smartphone in seconds. The question is whether this reliance on external storage and recall (‘exomemory’) is such a bad thing. What Socrates failed to see was the incredible opportunity created by access to knowledge greater than that our own heads can hold. As Amanda Palmer noted, we can only connect the dots we can collect. The out-housing of our collective intellectual capital has exponentially grown those collections of dots.

Having a network of information sources creates greater opportunities for serendipity. Some of the most useful things I’ve learned in recent years are bits of digital lint in my browser’s belly button.

Euan Semple made an interesting comment on Facebook today about location updates. Seen by many as a social media irritant, the ambient knowledge of knowing when someone’s in town also facilitates the arranging on real-life meetings. Similarly. the answering of questions about where to find lunch creates bridging capital, which helps us to establish trust in others.

The internet’s not going away; it’s speeding up, and growing at frightening speed. With the web being the gateway to our collective hive-mind, the ability to access and analyse information from the sources it provides has become an essential skill.

It’s said that in the West our environment is obesogenic – that food is so readily available that it encourages overeating. But just as you don’t have to eat everything, you don’t need to read everything you see either. The problem is not that we have too much information at our fingertips, but that we haven’t fully developed the tools and behaviours to help us manage it effectively.

Yet it’s the very technologies that cause the problem – search engines and social networks – that are also the solution.  Through knowing and using a wide range of sources, effective searchers are quickly able to sort the wheat from the chaff in our exomemory.  By establishing a network of trusted sources, I can quickly find a person or organisation who can give me the answer I need. By sharing and reading just the right amount of trivia, we create trusted connections – and learn what to scroll past.

Socrates argued that, exposed to writing, people would become “hearers of many things, and will have learned nothing; they will appear omniscient and will generally know nothing”.

The harsh light of history has shown this to be wrong. The human mind is a wonderful thing; by freeing up those synapic connections that might previously have been used to remember bus timetables or phone numbers, or discuss the 1989 first division football scores, we can put them to better use creating or connecting in ways that open up new possibilities for us all.

In the footsteps of Ada: Seven women who inspired me

Today is Ada Lovelace Day, an annual celebration of the achievements of women in science, technology, engineering and maths named after the first computer programmer. In honour of the occasion, here are seven women who inspired me to work in digital:

1) My grandmother

My grandmother Marguerite was born in 1923, just a few short years after her father returned from the trenches of WW1. She studied engineering at the Ecole Polytechnique in Paris, and not long after graduating met and married a young Scottish man. Sadly the marriage was short-lived. There were few engineering jobs for women in those days, still less a single mum with a young child, but her technical knowledge and perfect written English meant she found work as a technical translator.

Proving you really are never too old to learn, she took a computer course at 89, and took to it like a duck to water. She got a tablet for her 90th birthday back in January, which she uses every day. She’s not tweeting yet, but I wouldn’t write it off.

2) My mum

My mum Cathie is not a techie by trade, but a travel agent – one of the first industries to embrace computing from the back office right to the front line. She’s been using computers for work since the early 70s, and was quick to realise they’d go on to disrupt nearly every industry. She understood this would be a skill everyone will need, and so she bought us our first family computer, the Amstrad CPC464. I did my first programming on this; I never got much better at it.

She was completely right about digital disrupting the travel  trade; while the big high street chains are in decline, she now runs her own travel business from home, working with online tools and systems.

3) My year 9 IT teacher

She realised I had an interest in, and aptitude for, working with computers, and let me tinker away in the computer room whenever I liked. It was thanks to her that I got my first modem and got on the Internet for the first time, in 1993. I haven’t been offline since. She unknowingly changed my life and career. It’s a little embarrassing, then, that I’ve forgotten her name*.

* if any Maria Fidelis alumna are reading this and can remember her name, it would be great if you’d jog my memory

4) Mary McKenna

Mary was one of the first people off Twitter that I met in real life. She founded Learning Pool, an e-learning business based on open source. Female entrepreneurs are a rare breed in tech, but Mary’s ambition and no-nonsense attitude set her apart, and in a few short years she’s turned it into a successful global business.

Mary also proves that you don’t need an asymmetric haircut and skinny jeans to be a successful dotcom entrepreneur. She champions and supports other women in tech, with excellent blog posts like this one on negotiating your salary.

5) Sue Black

Dr Sue Black is an award-winning computer scientist, researcher, consultant and advocate of women in computing. She’s best known for her (successful) campaign to save Bletchley Park. In 2011 she set up the <goto> foundation, to to change public perception of, and increase participation in, computer science.

Sue had an atypical route into computer science, moving into it by studying as a mature student with two small children. Her story, which she’s written at length on her blog, is truly inspirational. Through tech education Sue was able to bring her family out of poverty, earn a decent living and create a better future for them all. She knows first hand what a difference education and confidence with technology can make and now wants to give that opportunity to other mums – so she founded SavvyTechMums, which delivers intensive,  hands-on workshops to help mums become tech savvy.

6 & 7) Hadley Beeman and Ann Kempster

Hadley and Ann are two of my firmest friends in the field. We got to know each other via the gov tech circuit, at events like Teacamp.

Frustrated by the lack of women we saw speaking at tech events, we talked about the reasons why this might be the case. Eventually we realised that we’d better stop talking and do something about it, and together we hit upon the idea of 300 Seconds, our series of lightning talks which aim to raise the profile of women in digital.

Hadley and Ann are both tremendously hard-working, clever, capable and endlessly curious. None of us would have got 300 Seconds off the ground alone, but they helped me realise that by working with brilliant people, and being creative and persistent, we can change the world.

This list could have been extended to 100 or more without much difficulty. On Ada Lovelace Day, people all over the world are celebrating those women in science and technology who have inspired them.

Who are the women who have inspired you?

Reflections on UX Camp London (#uxcl13)

I recently heard user experience described as the “joy of use”. But all too often, that’s tolerance at best – and more often, discontentment.

Marshall McLuhan famously wrote the medium is the message. In digital, the message – content – is inseparable from the full experience of using the site, the medium. However good the content, the end user’s impression is how both the content, and the medium that delivered it, made them feel. That means there’s a symbiotic relationship between content and the structure, design, information architecture, navigation, and anything that contributes to the joy – or otherwise – of interacting with a site.

So this weekend I took myself along to UXCampLondon, a one-day unconference for those interested in user experience.

UX Camp London

Here’s my highlights:

Bringing human emotions into habitual micro-interactions

The two brothers behind Brighton-based agency Ribot kicked off with an opening keynote on habitual micro-interactions – those regular online habits, which give some type of reward (such as Facebook or Foursquare checkins).

These are often of limited appeal, mostly to Quantified Self nerds like me, who see the data itself (and associated bragging rights) as reward enough. But for an app to gain traction, it needs to offer the user more – it needs to recognise the value of human emotion.

Antony Ribot began by talking about the Nike+ Fuel Band, a personal activity tracker that he’s clearly a big fan of. It rewards the user with praise and recognition when they achieve successive episodes of above-target activity. But as Ribot pointed out, when you need feedback from the app is not when you’re already doing well, but when you’re close to failing, and need a reminder to spur you on to meet your goal.

While Nike+ is a great app, by focusing only on success, it fails you when you need it most. Ribot noted that when he missed a day, the app didn’t remind him. It simply re-set, as if his successful streak had never happened. He was back to square one, sending him into a kind of Nike+ tantrum, disengaged with both the app and his exercise regime.

This was a funny (if long-winded) reminder that the focus of user experience design is not design, but users – real humans with real emotions and foibles.

So Ribot made human emotion central to the iOS app they’ve created for coffee chain Harris + Hoole. This loyalty app allows users create a profile, including uploading a photo and details of their favourite coffee (‘my usual’).

When the user checks in using their handset at a branch of H+H the server will identify them in the queue from their photo, be able to address them by their first name and ask  “your usual?”.  Users can collect loyalty points via the app, and there are plans afoot to add payment functionality.

Aside from the obvious concerns about this being creepy and overfriendly, what’s interesting about this app is that the technology supports – but takes a back seat to – customer experience. The app provides something more than the social currency of a Facebook checkin, by layering this in to real-life customer interaction that feels warmer and more personal.

Whatever your thoughts on sharing your name, photo, location and coffee preferences with an ‘independent’ chain that’s 49% owned by Tesco, the H+H app is an impressive example of how to inject better emotional design into apps and online experiences.

This set the tone for the rest of the day, a fascinating insight into the many and varied elements that contribute to the joy (or pain) of using a website.

Simplifying the UI to improve conversion

Paola began by describing a familiar problem; an e-commerce design that’s expanded rapidly finds they have a lack of consistency in page elements, like buttons and labelling. In fact, on this site half of the front page elements were for SEO purposes only, and they have multiple product managers and departments managing the page.

There followed a textbook example of how to do a UX redesign.

  • Had 40 multivariant tests running on the homepage at all times
  • Did an audit of the site. Printed screenshots of inconsistent elements and showed the sheet volume to stakeholders to highlight the extent of the problem
  • Created a persona. Lucy represented different customer ‘modes’, such as researching, price comparing, booking, etc. Lucy was frequently referred to in workshops (“what about Lucy? All she wants to do is book”)
  • Developed a plan setting out how create consistency on buttons, next steps, location of information, etc

Once Paola had scoped the problem and solution, she sold the need for simplification to the business by emphasising the benefits in simplifying updates as well as improving customer experience (in turn, increasing conversion).

…or rather, it would have been a textbook example, if hotels.com had implemented the changes. But they haven’t yet, because of the way the site is managed. And that, my friends, is why getting your site governance right is essential.

Redesigning the comic book for the digital native form

A chance corridor conversation led me to attend a session on comics next. To say this is an unlikely choice for me is an understatement; I just don’t get the appeal of comics.

I’m very glad I did. Katan led a a fascinating discussion on reinventing the comic book for the digital age. Comics are currently where sales catalogues were in 1999, with producers putting barely-changed versions of their print design online.

That, explained Katan, is a huge missed opportunity. Digital native display of sequential art should not mean animation of flat art. To truly embrace the potential of the online form, they need to move to a display which is multi-layered and non-linear, taking full advantage of hypertextuality to give a richer experience of going back and forth in time, or between elements of the story.

Katan is working on an ambitious project, called CAPOW, which creates both a workflow system for the various artists who contribute to a comic, and a content management system that will allow for a responsive reflow of panels across screen sizes, and enable better publication of non-linear visual stories (what Scott McCloud calls the “infinite canvas”)

While I’m still not likely to buy a comic, I found this a really inspiring session; it’s left me thinking about other publications which are trapped in a presentation form from a pre-digital age, and how they can be reinvented.

Sketchnoting workshop

Sketchnoting is a style of visual note-taking that has become hugely popular at tech conferences in the past few years. I first became aware of it when I spoke at Intranatverk earlier this year, where Francis Rowland did sketchnotes of each of the talks, including mine.

Sketchnoting

I’ve seen a bunch of other sketchnotes since, but not been tempted to begin using the technique myself as I cannot draw (At all. Really, I’m terrible at it). But when I spotted there was a workshop on it at UXCamp, I was keen to go along and find out more about it.

The session was led by Information Architect Boon Yew Chew, who uses sketchnoting as a regular technique in his work. He gave an overview of the key tools and techniques, including how to capture the key points and (usefully for me) why an inability to draw need be no barrier to taking sketchnotes.

He then challenged us to give it a go, taking notes on a short TED talk.  The photo above shows my efforts. It turned out better than I expected, and is a technique I’m going to practice a little. Boon gave me a copy of Mike Rohde’s Sketchnoting Handbook, which I’m already using to try and learn the techniques and structures.

Overall impressions

This was the first time I’ve been to UXCamp London, and overall found it worthwhile and useful event, with a good mix of talks on widely varying topics.

It could have done with more people running sessions, as at a couple of points there were only two or three to choose from, which were very overcrowded as a result. But it was very refreshing to see that women made up around half of those attending, and running sessions. And at only a tenner including lunch, it was remarkably good value too.

I’d encourage anyone with an interest in UX to attend in future years (or months – there’s a UX Camp Brighton coming up in November).