Kids own too many gadgets

I’ve been resisting writing this, as I know it’ll get up some people’s noses. I know there’s a danger I’ll come across as fairly sanctimonious – and definitely an Old Victorian Arse. But you know, along with getting a bit older is a certain dontgiveashitness, so here goes.

My contention is this: things have gone badly awry in a world in which our kids (and by “kids” I’m focusing on 7-15 year olds) own their own gadgets, expect their own gadgets and spend most of their time glued to gadgets. As parents we should be thinking harder about this, and not resting on our arses quite so much.

Why (apart from the fact I’m a grumpy old git who thought the world used to be a better place when we were kids) do I think this..? Funny you should ask..

#1: adults are spreading their addiction

We have a problem. All of us. Me, you, that bloke over there. We go to the pub with our friends, and sit there looking at our phones. We walk down the street bumping into people because we’ve just seen another narcissistic fuckpump posting a picture of how beautiful they look in their carefully curated, manicured, beautiful Facebook world. We feel more naked leaving the house without our phone than we do leaving it without a key. We “don’t work in the evenings” but, sure, we read our work emails.

Our relationship with mobile devices is badly, badly skewed. And we’re passing it on blindly to our kids.

#2: the money is really badly fucked up.

I see kids, and we have friends, who own an iPad, an iPhone and maybe also a laptop as well. This is, what, £1500 worth of kit? And £600 of it they’re carrying around in their pocket. To school. To town. To the beach.

Stop and consider. And, unfashionable though it is, think about what things used to be like: what you had in your pocket when you were 10. For me it was all about spark plugs and springs and unidentifiable gadgets I’d pulled out of the back of radios.

The idea of a 10 or 11 year old kid owning something – anything – worth this much is, frankly, utterly insane. Not only do kids break shit all the time but they lose it too. And, to be honest (and much as it pains me to say it, as I run screaming from the room as my boys lose another shoe/Lego model/book/bit of homework/etc) – losing and breaking stuff is a kind of childhood right of passage. It’s that losing, breaking thing which teaches you not to, well, lose and break things. But, FFS, learn that stuff with a bit of broken radio and not the latest iPhone..

#3: kids owning gadgets = totally unnecessary.

Just to take an example from an – albeit slightly geeky – household: our two kids have access to the following: a PC, a laptop, a Macbook Pro, an old Macbook, an iPhone, an android phone, an iPad mini and a Hudl. Oh, not forgetting a few Raspberry Pi’s for good measure. They seriously aren’t wanting for gadgets.

The difference is these gadgets aren’t theirs, and so they have to ask to use them – and their time is limited when they are allowed. (Hint: sometimes they aren’t allowed. I know, crazy, huh?).

Also (really heading into “In my day…” territory now..) – we didn’t have phones when we were kids and we didn’t get murdered / lost / in trouble (alright, maybe a bit), so I’m really not sure that the “they need a phone for safety” reason washes. We all accept (with the exception of SHOUTY DAILY EXPRESS HEADLINES) that life isn’t any more dangerous now than it was then. So why do our kids suddenly need phones? And if they really do need to get in touch then why not a £4.99 Nokia dumbphone rather than a £600 iPhone?

#4: owning gadgets almost always means “unrestricted web access”

Most of our friends with kids aged 7-15 have totally unrestricted access to the web. Yes, you might foolishly believe that your ISP can provide complete protection from All The Bad Stuff, but we hopefully all know (we do, right..?) that this is total fiction.

The problem gets worse when kids have gadgets that they own: they install stuff, they go online whenever and wherever they want – and you as a parent lose visibility of what account they’re creating, what apps they’re using, who they’re talking to and when.

I have a problem with this. It’s great that kids get to go on the web. Is it great that they get to see the whole, unfiltered, crazy-assed tangle that’s out there without their parents having a scoobie what they’re doing? No, I don’t think it is. This isn’t about spying on our kids – it’s about slowly introducing them to the world out there so that they can cope with some of the subtleties we adults live with all the time. How do we know that source X is to be trusted? Should I click that link? Can I install this app safely?

#5: “….but my daughter has to have an iPhone because all her friends have iPhones“.

Peer pressure isn’t going to kill anyone. It didn’t kill us as kids when we wanted that Grifter and our mum couldn’t afford it, and bought us a home-painted racing bike instead, and it won’t kill our kids now.

The thing is, Life is this place where some people have things and some people don’t have things – and actually: this is ok. And – more importantly – the sooner kids get used to this and realise there are other paths to happiness than rampant materialism, the better.

Finally: “No” is a thing.

You’re a parent. And as such, you have the power to say “no”. You have the absolute right to say – “no, I’m not buying you that tablet for Christmas” or “not in your room” or “not now, you have homework to do” or “I’ve turned off the WiFi, read a book”. It’s your house, your rules, and you’re a responsible adult with the means to absolutely define how some things are going to be done.

Your kid may cry or stomp their feet or shout at you or run screaming from the room. But that’s OK. You’re a parent. They don’t have to like you all the time. That’s part of the journey, too.

I know. I’m a sanctimonious Victorian twat.

Strategic digital marketing: don’t be dis(integrated)

I was asked to speak at At-Bristol recently at a gathering of marketing people from the UK Association for Science and Discovery Centres.

The topic of choice was strategic marketing. Now, as I made it clear on the day, I’m not – officially, at least – a “marketing person”. Nonetheless, I’ve spent more than a decade working with content-rich organisations on the web, and a core part of my role has been about getting people to stuff. And if that isn’t – at some level at least – about “marketing”, then I don’t know what is.

Rather than doing anything too fluffy and high-level, I thought I’d focus on ten practical activities which ultimately help pull together strategic ways of thinking about digital marketing. The list certainly isn’t definitive, by the way, but it should help…

#1: Develop a Shared Vision

This sounds obvious, but it is actually one of the hardest things to do. When you’re working with cross-departmental teams such as IT, web, marketing, a clearly defined strategy is a difficult thing to agree on. One of the best tricks I’ve found for doing this is to map (visually, if you can!) your high-level organisational strategy to your web and marketing strategies and look for common ground. It helps keep you and your team heading in the same direction, but is also useful for “justifying” digital activity.

#2: Decide What “Success” Is

Too often, organisations have badly-thought-out notions of “success”. Measuring success is easy in a profit-making organisation: leads, conversions, sales – etc. For everyone else, it’s often much harder. Strangely, our organisations often then fall back on “virtual visits” as the metric of choice, ignoring things which can be better indicators of engagement and success.

#3: Use Google Analytics

There’s italics on “use” on this one for a reason. L0ts of organisations have installed GA and use it a bit – but few actually use it properly to try to understand how users are engaging with their content. This is hardly surprising given the huge and sometimes baffling amount of information the system offers you, but nonetheless something to focus on.

#4: Have a Social Media Strategy, Not Just A Presence

In the particular context of this conference, almost all of the organisations represented had a fairly strong presence on sites like Facebook, Twitter and so on. But few of them (and this is very common) had a sense of why. Social Media needs thinking about strategically in order for it to succeed in the longer term – and it needs to fit with your strategy and purpose. Sometimes this means not doing it!

#5: Be Aware Of How Your Organisation Fits

This one covers a whole range of stuff, from user testing to things like keyword monitoring and feed-reading. You can’t hope to market your content if you don’t understand the trends, people and technologies of your environment.

#6: Use A Dashboard

This one is for all the “I’m too busy to do all this stuff” people out there. Using a dashboard (for me, it’s a combination of Netvibes and Google Reader) saves a huge amount of time when it comes to monitoring all this activity. The Google Analytics dashboard is the same – use these tools to radically reduce the noise and replace it with signal.

#7: Build Internal Knowledge

Building knowledge within your organisation is often forgotten. Let people know what you’re doing – whether you’re talking about marketing activities, ways of measuring success or wider strategic goals. Send a monthly “KPI” emailing, have a “lunch and learn” session – do whatever it takes to keep people in the loop and break down those organisational silos. If you do this regularly you’ll start to understand what the barriers are and how to remove them – and you’ll probably get some interesting ideas from others about how to improve what you do as well.

#8: Fail Quickly: Be Iterative

It’s as true in marketing as in anything else: try stuff, see what works – build on what does work, kill off what doesn’t. Use things like multivariate testing to rapidly tweak on the fly and then use this knowledge the next time you launch a campaign, send a mail shot or whatever.

#9: Understand Search

Search is a powerful web traffic driver, but it needs to be understood in the context of SEO, “Search Intention” and other factors. Do what you can to get up to speed with how content and links can improve your search engine rankings, and what this means to your traffic and auciences.

#10: Share!

Talk to people at other similar organisations and ask them what they’re doing. Find out what works, what doesn’t, and why. Set up a monthly meeting to discuss your web stats and campaigns, or put together a discussion mailing list. Your peers are probably going to be the single best source of information – use them!

That’s it.

What do you think? How do you join up your digital activity in strategic ways in your organisations?

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Ten things a web designer would never tell you

Following the barcamp (BathCamp) that we ran last year, I was looking for a way of maintaining some momentum around the local tech scene, and decided to put together a monthly evening meetup. The first of these was on Wednesday 4th Feb.

Talking at the event were two pretty well known people from the web industry: Paul Boag (Boagworld and Headscape) and Ryan Carson (Carsonified).

Paul did an exceptional talk entitled “10 things a web designer would never tell you” – a tongue in cheek (but scarily accurate) parody of the approaches taken in many web projects. I particularly liked “4. Form a committee to provide feedback…(before you know it you will have a design everybody can tolerate)…” and “6. Enforce corporate style guides to the letter”. Actually, the entire list is pretty easy to check off if you’ve been involved in this kind of stuff before. Comment if this all seems horribly familiar!

Interestingly, Paul followed the talk up with a blog post taking the same tongue-in-cheek tone and got so many comments from people who thought it was actually straight advice that he first of all had to move the “THIS IS TONGUE IN CHEEK” message from the bottom of the post to the top and I see just now has even had to add a new post: “For those of you hard of humour“. Funny stuff.

Anyway. Here’s a video of the talk that I took on a friend’s Flip. Quality is slightly poor (not the Flips’ fault but my failure to get a bigger file up to Vimeo..)

[vimeo 3104512]

Ryan did a talk on the excellent Ubiquity plugin for Firefox. I’ll be posting the video of his talk just as soon as I can squeeze it through my limited home bandwidth.

Specification Hell

I just spent my afternoon working on a 50-page functional specification. 

Now that I’ve been on the agency side for more than a year, I’m confident in reporting that agencies hate reading specifications almost as much as clients hate writing them. 

The world is full of dry documents, and I try (probably like most people) to avoid them as much as I can. That’s why I spend as little time as possible on Mr. Nielsen’s site or over on the W3C. What always strikes me about specifications for websites, however, is the extreme contrast between the engaging, colourful, user-centric thing which is the intended end-result and the grim, stultifying 100-page dirge which is usually provided at the beginning of a web project.

Functional specs have emerged from a kind of pastiche of needs. On the one hand you have the client who is forking out tens or hundreds of thousands of pounds. Not only do they (obviously) want to know what they’re getting for their money, but specifications are impressive, aren’t they? Nothing like an enormous great fat wad of a document to really show the agency that you mean business. From the agency side, you have a bunch of project managers and web developers: the PM’s are desperate to assign days and the web developers are desperate to avoid those “ooh, you couldn’t just…” moments later on in the project.

Under the hood is also a kind of legal wrangling which everyone hopes they won’t ever need – what if it all goes to shit, relationships break down and all those “sure, I’ll just do X” or “they said they’d do Y” moments come back to haunt you?

The net result is grim, particularly when you take a step back and consider the impact on creativity, innovation or “moving things forward”. When developers and PM’s are working to the letter of a specification, it’s no wonder that those additional extras get left behind. When your document binds you so closely to a fixed output (“the dropdown on the right displays X, which when selected does Y to div Z”) you don’t have a hope of being flexible, let alone able to take on board user needs or requirements.

In my experience, the reality is far from the dotted “i” and crossed “t” scenario which forms the backdrop to specifications. Developers are terrible (as is everyone, IMO) at estimating effort, usually resorting to doubling their initial guess because they know someone somewhere is going to take the piss later on; PM’s are terrible at taking flexibility on board; clients are terrible at writing specifications (or reading documentation). 

People are, after all, human.

What actually happens in a successful web project is very different, very fluid, and relies on a series of largely undefinable communication strands between client and agency. Personality plays a huge role in this: I’ve worked, for example, with developers who are incapable of doing anything except working 100% to the letter (me: “this dropdown has 10,000 items in it” – them: “that’s what you asked for”), and I’ve worked with clients who are 100% happy for the agency to drive the entire process, just wanting “a website” and no further questions, thanks anyway. 

There is no golden bullet, but in my experience there are a few approaches that have proven themselves time and time again.

  1. Be prepared to be flexible, both as a client and as an agency. Rigidity is almost always going to go wrong. Start the process (as client) knowing what you want but be prepared to accept different approaches. If you’re on the agency side, be creative enough to think about (and suggest) approaches that you’ve seen out on the web – say AJAXy validation or particularly good ways of going through a sign-up process. Clients usually like nice things.  
  2. Put legal measures like contracts in place but remember that the chances are you won’t end up in court and it is usually better to devote more time to talking and meeting consistently and regularly during your project than to writing huge, hefty legal horrors. Use a standard contract, attach a design brief, get everyone to sign it. Then move on.
  3. Always (always!) have a single point of contact defined early on in the process. Never step outside of the golden rule – the contact is between these two people: one from the client, one from the agency; any other communication goes through you, with no exceptions. Make sure communications are logged (usually via email, but bug trackers, Basecamp, Google Docs etc etc ultimately do the same thing). 
  4. If you’re a client with a vision or an agency with a solution, create it as visually as you possibly can. Instead of writing vast documents, create the following (in increasing order of effort and usefulness):

    – hand-drawn sketches of the site map, key pages, user interactions, “pinch points”

    – wireframes, initially in Powerpoint but ultimately in something like Axure or Protoshare. You can also use wikis or tools like Google Sites to re-create key bits of the new site

    – if you have really hefty bits of functionality which can’t be explained easily with a wireframe, consider building a working prototype. I can hear the intake of breath here – yes, it’s a hell of a lot of effort, but if you have a friendly web dev who can knock out something in a day or two that explains functionality better than a 100 page document, it will pay for itself in no time at all.

The best web projects I’ve worked on have had a core document which clearly explains the overarching reason for the redevelopment, any constraints (either technical or otherwise), and then references a sitemap and a wireframe or prototype. Somewhere in the background is usually a contract, too.

That’s it. The rest is down to clear, open communication, flexibility and – perhaps most important of all – a shared committment to make the new site better rather than just “redesign” it.

Incidentally, if you hear (or use) the phrase “content migration”, the project has probably failed already 🙂

Assumptions, exactitudes, perfection and creativity

A while back, those wonderful fellas at Box UK asked me to take part in their Cardiff Web Scene Meet-up #4. I pondered for a long while what I was going to do. The obvious one was an overview of BathCamp: how we put it together, what tools we used to collaborate, and so-on. In the end I decided I’d use the slightly different format (an informal gathering in a bar) as an excuse for a slightly different kind of presentation (an informal gathering of thoughts and slides..), and not just do the obvious thing..

The slides are an expansion on my previous post, Newton vs Einstein, and form an underlying question which continues to be an itch I need to scratch. The question is really summed up in my third slide: When do we need perfection?

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The Newton / Einstein metaphor (for those who can’t be arsed to read my original post) stemmed from In Our Time on Radio 4: given that we manage to go about our daily lives (and even carry out a number of fairly stunning technical tasks, such as putting a man on the moon) without worrying about the complex rightness of Einstein, how much can we make do with simple approximations – how much do we actually need to worry about being “right” when we’re in an environment of wanting to get things done, where “rightness” actually hinders rather than helps?

This question isn’t as simple as it first appears. There is no binary position here, no right or wrong, and yet often in IT scenarios, we are asked to choose EITHER the easy, quick, risky, “lightweight” way OR the long, arduous,  “enterprise” one (this Dilbert cartoon, posted by @miaridge on Twitter about museum projects, may seem oddly familiar…). And yet this isn’t just about over-speccing or analysis paralysis. This goes deeper, asking questions about creativity and innovation and what these mean.

Here’s an example. For maybe 5 of my 7 years at the Science Museum, the entire website was published (not served – how stupid do you think I am 😉 ) from an Access database using a simple system I built in ASP during my first year at the museum. This system enabled maybe 20 authors to contribute to the site, whilst maintaining a simple templating system and look and feel. During this time, the site was run out of a single (and slightly battered) web server. Just before I left, we went through a long CMS project, and ended up installing the excellent Sitecore content management system across (if my memory serves me correctly) 7 servers, plus having a re-design which culminated in the current Science Museum website: it is beautiful, clean, well coded, and – frankly – the apple of my eye. 

It would be very, very easy to dismiss the old site and way of doing things in light of the “professional” approach that content management at “enterprise” level brings to the party, but the fact was for five years the old site performed nearly perfectly, both technically and in terms of responding to the content needs of the organisation. It was imperfect, hacked-together, “lightweight” – and did the job. Compare that to now (when I’m betting that 90% of the CMS functionality and 95% of the server capacity isn’t used..) and it’s not immediately obvious to me – and this is a quite open statement, without bias – which is the better solution. I think both bring benefits and disbenefits, and somewhere in the middle is a ground which more of us should be striving to inhabit, rather than hanging on to our notions of “lightweight vs enterprise”.

These questions begin with a bias even in the naming. “Lightweight” seems fickle, faddish, subject to change and risk. “Enterprise” is laden with visions of dull corporate lunches, sales people and multi-million pound pricetags.

The question I ask in the slides really outline the entire theme to this blog and the questions I have been asking over the past decade (eek!) working online. Brian Kelly suggests in this post that “it is time to get serious” – that strategic thinking somehow lives in a different place to the lightweight. He’s referencing the presentation we did together a couple of years ago (Web 2.0: Stop thinking, start doing) – but I can’t help thinking that now is the time to bring strategic and lightweight together rather than trying to drive them apart.

My time as Head of Web at the museum was almost all about strategy, about bringing together digital and real content and about getting things done. Ultimately, I’m way, way more on the strategic side of this stuff than anything else. But…getting creative things done requires making assumptions – inaccuracies and uncertainty are inherent and valuable. 

Ultimately, most of us work in enviroments that are at complete odds to creativity: we are forced to work to project plans, “plan” our time, “justify” our expense, “do” the actions. Web2.0 and “lightweightness” are never going to be comfortable – these approaches are deliberately disruptive. The question is – and always has been – how do we embrace this uncertainty and creativity and move forward but still maintain a clear view of the horizon..?

AIR coming of age

Now is a hugely exciting time to be involved in the web. I believe we’ll look back at the early 2000’s with a sense of awe at the rate and extent of technological change. Personally, I believe it’s faster and more engaging than it ever has been before. The 1990’s were exciting in a different kind of way – in a crazy, rollercoaster, unsustainable, first toe-dipping way. It was good for jobs, too – I remember a period of a few months where I literally – and I exaggerate not – got 2/3 offers a week; and I wasn’t really that much cop, either. That doesn’t happen any more. Or maybe Google lost my number 🙂

The good ‘ole days were fraught with tension and frustration, too. There was so, so much we couldn’t do – so many hacked together approaches, so many nastinesses in browser renderings, so much uncertainty about frames, browser-dependent tags and dialup speeds. Even saying that makes me chuckle now – hey, we used to worry about whether a page was 10Kb or 20Kb – imagine…

Today, things are markedly different. The challenges are – at least to someone like me – actually much more satisfying. They’re not generally about whether system A can talk to system B, they’re about the more human challenges: will person X understand what I mean when I say Z; will they use what I’m building, and how? How can I hit this niche? What’s the best marketing strategy? Can I ever, ever make money doing X?

More and more, we’re also asking “where will we use it?”.

Everyware – the notion that the internet is all around us – is, as you will probably know, a notion that I believe forms an absolutely central part to where this all goes from here. And core to Everyware are real questions about convergence and re-purposing (remember those phrases..?).

A while back, I took a quick look at the blurring line between desktop and web apps. Back then I commented that two major player were entering the “Rich Internet App” (RIA) space – Microsoft with Silverlight/WPF and Adobe with what had been Adobe Apollo and which became Adobe AIR.

Microsoft is – obviously – never a player to be underestimated. They’ve got the desktop sown up, an unfathonable quantity of cash, and some serious technologists who know their shit. On the other hand you’ve got Adobe, previously somewhat irritating to “serious” web developers who didn’t want to learn Flex or Flash, and considered them “something for them weird designer types”.

Microsoft have done some nice stuff with Silverlight and WPF. But…it seems terribly, horribly cumbersome – it’s all a bit .Net, a bit codey, a bit deep and impenetrable. Frankly, a bit ‘fn dull. Over on the other side, Adobe chose a lightweight “if you can do it in xhtml, know a bit of AJAX and can cope with expanding your javascript a smidgin” approach.

You know what? Adobe are winning, hands-down, with absolutely no doubt whatsoever: AIR is getting huge numbers of column inches from the major blog writers compared to Silverlight. The AIR applications being built are deep, beautiful and useful, even for the Enterprise. They install easily, they’re rich and quick and well designed. They make the transition from desktop to web seamless.

And as usual, it’s the easy, lightweight, familiar approach which is beating the heavy, technical and possibly “more feature rich” one. Once again, people like me – semi-serious web types – can play with technologies we understand; we can see results almost immediately; we can view source and copy what other people have done. And we are writing desktop apps which you can – pretty much as-is – also deploy to the web. From a reality perspective, this is an exciting way to think of applications: true develop once, deploy to many channels.

This is holy grail land. If you haven’t played with AIR, go do it now…