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.

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.

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.

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).

In praise of web anonymity

The Twitter rape threat row shows no signs of abating, as many users pledge to take a one-day break from the site this Sunday, August 4th. Author and columnist Caitlin Moran says she’s taking a 24-hour ‘trolliday’ from the site “because it will focus minds at Twitter to come up with their own solution to the abuses  of their private company”.

Twitter have already caved in to demands for a ‘report abuse’ button – which, as I argued earlier this week, is likely to cause as many problems as it solves. But many commentators claim this doesn’t go far enough, and are calling for an end to anonymous accounts on social network sites like Twitter.

Writing in the Guardian, Simon Jenkins claims that the internet has become a masked ball, “whose concealed dancers may be corporations or governments, paedophiles or rapists, weirdos or fools”, demanding that “it must be regulated”.

Jenkins echoes the online disinhibition effect, “a loosening (or complete abandonment) of social restrictions and inhibitions that would otherwise be present in normal face-to-face interaction during interactions with others on the Internet”. Anonymity, it’s suggested, is itself the cause of so much anti-social behaviour online.

Although I would certainly never condone the type of abuse that Moran describes, we need to be wary of losing the enormous benefits that anonymity on the web brings all of us.

Anonymity can be a wonderful thing. Many of those commenting on blogs and forums are doing so from beneath a pseudonym, so they can speak freely on the issues that concern them without it being part of their Google footprint, drawing scorn from real-life friends and family.

internet-anonymity

Anonymity can be a powerful force for good online

Anonymity allows us to practice having different points of view; we can be a more conservative or liberal version of ourselves in online discussions, which helps us to form our own opinions and arguments.

And it’s there where the spectrum of trolling begins. At one end you have someone taking a contrary opinion in order to get a rise out of someone. This kind of anonymous trolling can be a noble art, and we saw a fine example of such this week, when Pukkah Punjabi trolled the ‘racist van’.

At the other end of the spectrum you have people shouting vile abuse at strangers. This is clearly wrong, and rightly illegal. What one woman might be willing to ignore, or consider a joke, another might find scary and threatening, especially when received as frequently as some high-profile women do.

Where trolling ends and abuse begins is difficult to define, but we should exercise caution so we don’t lose the benefits of anonymity in our rush to rid the web of abuse.

MIT academic Sherry Turkle has written extensively about the value of the anonymous web in allowing people to experiment with different facets of their personality and opinions, in order to develop our sense of self and identity. In Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet, Turkle talks about how the internet allows us to engage in new ways of thinking about evolution, relationships, politics, sex, and the self.

As an example, someone who is coming to terms with their sexuality might participate in online discussions in LGBT forums. Being able to do so without risk of disapproval from friends or families can prove a vital lifeline for a young person to develop their identity and sexuality.

Anonymity can bring benefits in everyday situations. For example, when I was last looking for advice on finding a new job, I was much more comfortable doing so in the knowledge that my boss at the time couldn’t look it up.

But anonymity can equally be an issue of personal safety. I have one friend who will only comment online under a pseudonym as they have been a victim of real-life stalking.

For others, anonymity is a matter of life and death. Twitter is widely thought to have played a key role in galvanising the Arab Spring, but that was only possible because people felt they could use it anonymously, without fear of reprisals.  We should be very mindful of the implications of ending web anonymity in those parts of the world where speaking publicly can have serious consequences.

Padraig Reidy, blogging in response to Caitlin Moran, hit the nail squarely on the head:

“The web is wonderful, and possibly the greatest manifestation of the free speech space we’ve ever had, but it’s also susceptible to control. Governments such as those in China and Iran spend massive resources on controlling the web, and do quite a good job of it. Other states simply slow the connection, making the web a frustrating rather than liberating experience. Some governments simply pull the plug. The whole of YouTube has been blocked in Pakistan for almost a year now, because something had to be done about blasphemous videos.”

The web is far less anonymous than it used to be. When I first started using it, everyone was anonymous, all the time. Then, as now, there were a handful of idiots who would abuse that anonymity in order to get attention.

In the two decades since, the web has opened up communication and ideas in ways few dreamed possible. As a tool which enables people to speak freely with others all over the world, putting thousands of information sources at our fingertips, the web has fueled revolutions and overthrown governments.  But through providing anonymity, it’s also been revolutionary for individuals, allowing people to discover their sense of self, to find a partner, to form and change opinions, and much else besides.

While more can be done to streamline the process of reporting and preventing abuse, we should all be very wary of losing the real and valuable benefits anonymity can bring in a knee-jerk reaction to a small but vocal group of idiots.

(Photo credit: Stian Eikeland on Flickr)

Breaking the echo chamber: diversity (or the lack of it) at tech events

Late last year the thorny topic of diversity (or lack of it) at technology events was in the spotlight again after the British Ruby Conference (BritRuby) was cancelled following outcry about its all-male, all-white speaker line-up. Following the controversy many men pledged to boycott all-male panels at tech conferences. The idea proved controversial, with bloggers making impassioned arguments for doing so, and as many putting the case against.

A month ago, I popped along to altUKGovCamp (with UKGovcamp postponed due to snow, the brilliant Lloyd Davis and James Cattell swung into action and swiftly convened an impromptu geek meetup event. An un-unconference, if you will.) where this quickly became a hot topic for conversation. Our discussion covered the full gamut of issues, like:

  • Is the lack of diversity an issue?
  • Is it merely a symptom of the makeup of the industry?
  • If it is a problem, what can be done about it?

This proved a lively discussion which generated a range of practical ideas, particularly from the rather brilliant tech entrepreneur Mary McKenna, who noted many of the issues which make women reluctant to put themselves forward to speak – nervousness, undervaluing your own skills – are also those which make women less likely to negotiate a pay rise. She’s already blogged her tips for successfully negotiating a better pay deal, and I said I’d follow up with a post on diversity at tech events. So here we are.

all male panel

A typical panel at a tech conference

Diversity in tech is important

And not just because I’m a sandal-wearing, Guardian-reading leftie. This is a knowledge economy which increasingly relies on digital skills to create products and deliver services. We need more skilled tech people. The world particularly needs skilled creative tech people who can focus on the needs of the customer and find creative solutions. So we need diversity in skills, experience, knowledge and thought, at all levels. Diversity makes tech better.

But the tech industry is male dominated – aren’t conference speakers just a reflection of the audience?

Women are a minority in the tech world, it’s true, particularly at senior levels. But is that chicken or egg? The lack of visible, high-profile women at these events only serves to reinforce the idea that tech is a male preserve.

All-male panels aren’t just the preserve of the tech field either; following the BritRuby conference bloggers took aim at conference organisers in all manner of industries. It’s clear conferences have a problem, and not just in male-dominated industries.

Diversity isn’t just about women

The current debates focus on women, but the fact is panels are overwhelmingly white, and very rarely include people with disabilities.>

So diversity shouldn’t be seen as a ‘women’s issue’; it’s about ensuring conference panels reflect the audiences they’re talking to. Inviting speakers from a wide range of backgrounds might bring a different point of view to the conference, which helps making talks and panels a lot more interesting. It’s been long known that diverse teams in the workplace are more successful– is there any reason the same wouldn’t be true for conferences?

As Mary McKenna pointed out, promoting diversity isn’t just about doing the right thing; it’s also something which makes commercial sense.

So if it makes so much sense, why are there so few women speakers at tech conferences?

Good question. Here’s some of the reasons which have been suggested:

  • because of a lack of confidence
  • because they lack experience and are unsure how to write a good proposal
  • because they don’t see other people like them speaking, and feel uncomfortable being the only woman there
  • because they don’t think their work will support sending them to the conference
  • because they have childcare or other commitments that limit their ability to travel
  • “we’d love to have more women on the panel, but we haven’t had any submit proposals”
  • Because conference organisers – consciously or otherwise – seek out male speakers more actively than female ones
  • Selection committees may be biased against female speakers when selecting papers
  • There are fewer women in the field in the first place, so the lack of women speakers just reflects this

So what can be done about it?

The discussion at altUKGovCamp covered a wide range of ideas. Widespread threats to boycott all-male panels have certainly succeeded in drawing conference organisers’ attention to the issue. What’s clear is that conference organisers have a clear role to play in promoting diversity in their conference lineups.

Quotas provoked some fierce debate, with many suggesting this is tokenistic and ultimately devalues the contribution of women who are selected – suggesting perhaps that they weren’t selected on merit alone. Others felt a firm commitment to have, say, women make up a third of speakers signals a strong signal to those attending that diversity is a real issue. But it’s also bloody hard work.

Conferences are big business, and conference organisers are not charities. Those conference organisers who are making real efforts to recruit more diverse speakers are to be applauded for their efforts. But the fact is, it is a real effort – this blogpost from Courtney Stanton explaining how she got 50% female speakers at a video game conference illustrates it can be a real pain, and when you’ve got venues to book and tickets to sell, it’s a hassle one can easily do without.

If you’re organising a conference, here’s some advice:

  • Timing. if speaking at your conference is contingent on attending all three days (plus a half-day travel each way) you’re already making it more difficult for someone with caring responsibilities to attend.
  • Say it. Why not put a diversity statement in your call for submissions, making it clear your conference values diversity and actively welcomes papers from women and other under-represented groups. Let people know they are welcomed (here’s a great example from J Boye)
  • Be proactive. Check websites focusing on women speakers, get in touch with potential speakers who may be reluctant to put themselves forward, ask potential speakers to recommend others.

But making conferences more diverse takes both sides. Women need to put themselves forward, too. Here’s some tips for women who’d like to speak at a conference but aren’t sure about how:

  • JFDI. Speaking at a conference is a great way of boosting your professional profile.
  • Speaking in front of hundreds of people is a little scary. But you don’t have to start there. If you’re not sure, start by running a session at an unconference or doing a quick Ignite-style presentation to get a feel for it, and work up from there. Starting at a lower-key event gives you a chance to practice your material and get over your nerves
  • Don’t undersell yourself. It’s all too easy to fall prey to imposter syndrome and think you’re not good enough. Fight those negative feelings! What’s the worst that could happen?
  • Make some noise. If you’re asked to speak at a conference, don’t keep it to yourself; mention it on your blog, LinkedIn, Twitter, and so on. Once you have a track record as a speaker you’re more likely to be asked again.
  • Advocate for other women. If you’re asked to speak at a conference, ask the organisers if they’re interested in hearing from more women. Get them in touch with some of the brilliant and talented women you know.

Having a greater variety of voices, backgrounds and experiences represented makes conferences better. But for that to happen, organisers need to be more proactive about it, and more of us need to get over our nerves and put ourselves forward.

To that end, Mary McKenna and I will be holding a session at the rescheduled UKGovCamp next week for anyone who’d like to raise their professional profile by speaking at events but isn’t sure where to start. We’d love to see you there.If you’ve got any other thoughts or suggestions on diversity at tech conferences, let me know via the comments.

Creative Commons photo credit: miss604 on Flickr

Organisational communication 2020

This was the 50th meeting of the London Communicators and Engagement Group, an informal monthly meetup of (mostly internal) communicators. After 50 meetings you’d think organiser Matt O’Neill would be out of topics to cover – but you’d be wrong.

This time, Matt invited David Galipeau (from eighty20.org /United Nations/Academia) to deliver a mini exposition into the future of communications. In a futuristic spirit he delivered his talk – on where he sees communications of the future heading – using a Skype video link from Geneva.

David Galipeau off Red Dwarf

In practice, this gave him the disjoined, disbodied appearance of Holly from Red Dwarf. But it worked surprisingly well – so that’s another nail in the coffin for international business travel, perhaps.

As Matt said in his introduction to the event, communicators are focussing on how we can use social media tools to improve organisational communication now and in the immediate future. But are the implications for the future? ‘Is this just the start of an emerging pattern that will fundamentally change the way organisations talk internally and externally?’ asked Matt.

He’d also suggested we take a look at some of Galipeau’s work ahead of the event. Alas, I was in a rush, and when I took a look at this, I thought ‘arrgh!’ and closed my browser tab.

Galipeau’s talk was almost as difficult to digest. I know he’s an academic, but I suspect I was one of the more geeky communicators in the room, and still quite a lot of what he said went right over my head. I’m not sure whether those who weren’t digital natives really knew what he was talking about for much of the time.

For example, Galipeau talked about the implementation of IPV6. For the lay reader – that’s most of you, I suspect – our IP addresses are currently based on IPV4, but we are fast running out of numbers. IPV6, Adrian Short told me via the Twitter back channel, will give us gives 6.5 x 1023 addresses for every square metre on Earth.

The arrival IPV6 will enable an ‘Internet of Things’ in which everything down to your slippers will have its own IP address. Your TV will speak to your fridge, and your supermarket trolley to your bank.

This, he contended, means the interweb is entering a new and much darker phase, quite different to the hippy free-for-all we’ve come to know. The internet is already slowing down thanks to tens of thousands of DOS attacks taking place daily. This, he said, is an early sign totalitarian nutjobs are engaged in cyber attacks and counter hacks, and the threat of industrial and political espionage is growing.

He gave groups that protested against Scientology as an example of this – yet didn’t really elaborate what was new about this threat other than giving people the ability to self-organise.

What was odd about the talk was that the speaker achieved the rare feat of going right over people’s heads while at the same time getting some real basics completely wrong. For instance, he talked about ‘crowdsourcing’, giving the example of “bringing people together to all dance in the station at the same time”.

This isn’t crowdsourcing, it’s flashmobbing. Crowdsourcing means drawing on the wisdom of the crowd in order to inform your own decision-making. It has a purpose, and increasingly it has real value for individuals and corporations. It can be as simple as putting a shout out on Twitter to gather some lazy reasearch, or as complex as wiki-style policy formation.

Simply framing it in terms of simply bringing people together for no discernable purpose really undermined Galipeau’s credibility, and this was reflected in the Twitter stream.

Galipeau went on to argue strongly what organisations are becoming more centralised, and in particular decision-making is becoming more centralised within organisations. But as he didn’t elaborate on why he believed this to be so, or what evidence pointed in this direction, I wasn’t convinced (particualrly as it doesn’t chime with what so many of us internal communicators are working towards).

I was glad, then, of the surprise appearance of engagement guru John Smythe. His excellent book – CEO: Chief Engagement Officer – focuses on how organisations can deliver increased engagement, and improved productivity, by opening up and moving towards a culture of co-creation.

When Smythe asked the speaker to give examples of research that proved the opposite, Galipeau muttered something about unpublished research commissioned by the US military, which didn’t convince me at all.

I am far more convinced by Smythe’s thesis than Galipeau’s, not least because the latter appears to run contrary to so much of what I see going on in government and business. There are already countless examples of companies successfully democratising decision making both with employees and customers.

Smythe has challenged Galipeau to a debate on this, which he very grudgingly accepted. I really hope this happens.

My objections to Galipeau’s thesis are, I admit, partly emotional. He presented a remarkably gloomy vision of the future, in which the individual is powerless and the corporate centre is an omniscient Orwellian beast.

Nonetheless, it provided an interesting counterbalance to the the highly positive future envisaged by theorists like Clay Shirky and Charles Leadbeater. Shirky, as I’ve blogged about before, sketches out future in which technology enables public participation on a scale never before seen. He says that ‘for the first time, we have the tools to make group action truly a reality. And they’re going to change our whole world.’

So there’s a concensus that techology will radically change our relationship with organisations and the state. For me, at least, the balance of evidence would suggest Smythe and Shirky’s culture of co-creation is on the rise.

If Galipeau’s talk got you reaching for the anti-depressants, check out Us Now, a film project about the power of mass collaboration, government and the internet. It’s a rather more cheerful view of the digital future.