Category Archives: Technology

Technological disruption and authenticity in service design

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This is a really great piece from the New Yorker on the modern-day Kodak. It documents their new (yes, new) super-8 camera. Old-school film fitted in a shiny-new case and digital controls. It looks beautiful, and by all accounts stole the show at CES (although let’s be honest, stealing the show from 540 internet-connected fridges wouldn’t be hard).

Kodak are an interesting case study, because they were one of the companies hit hardest by technological disruption, a supposed forerunner to Blockbuster in “companies that just didn’t get it and now no longer exist”. But exist they do, and they’re creating products that bridge the divide between old and new, between pre- and post-disruption. Products that, according to the New Yorker at least, are gaining popularity.

We’re at the point where a number of different industries have, if you’ll excuse the term, “been disrupted” – music and film foremost amongst them. What you’re seeing in the wake of the original disruption however, is a growth of people reacting against this, embracing older technologies. Vinyl records are selling at their highest levels in forever, film directors like Quentin Tarantino continue to use and popularise the use of old film. People have had time to view what the new and shiny has to offer and come to the conclusion that they still see value in what came before.

That a certain cult of authenticity exists is without dispute. In an era of cheap production costs and affordable modern products, what grants the western middle classes more distinction than authenticity? When you’re capable of buying a brand new version of almost anything, owning the original – the authentic – carries cultural cachet in whole new ways.

Digital can bring a certain clinical efficiency that actually holds little mass appeal. ‘Efficient’ isn’t sexy. It’s not friendly nor warm. It might save you money or time, but it can also be cold and clinical and devoid of personality. And what is true for products can be true for services as well. Left unchecked, the new digital world could deliver nothing but clinical, white, emotionless experiences.

But there is something interesting where these two worlds – the authentic past and the efficient future – overlap. The new Kodak camera isn’t just a return to the past. It includes an LCD viewfinder and computerised menus. It’s a hybrid, using digital technology to enhance and improve whilst keeping elements of the authentic original.

I own a BlueTube valve amplifier. It’s a beautiful vacuum tube amplifier, looks like it was made sometime in the early 60s. But it’s also fitted with a bluetooth receiver, meaning I can stream Spotify directly to it.  The luxury watch market has reacted to smart watches by bringing out versions of their own that contain technology whilst also retaining authentic mechanical movememnt. They’re hybrids – capturing the feel of the original whilst offering the convenience that modern tech provides.

Online services have yet to really find this hybrid position, because in most cases the service simply didn’t exist beforehand, or if it did it just totally sucked. However, it’s interesting to imagine how you might take the best parts of pre-distruption services and bring them online. Whatever you may think, digital has a hard time replacing the pleasant sensation when a real human being at the end of the phone actually helps you solve a problem. In truth, the issue was never with the potential quality of the solution, just with the likelihood of that potential being hit each time. Human beings unfortunately are rarely consistent.

Good digital services offer you that consistency, and the sheer convenience of not needing to speak to a human being. But the very efficiency it offers can be a cold and joyless experience.

So the next trick with digital service design is to work out how to bring in the best elements of pre-disruption services to augment this. Adding a little authenticity if you like. Early examples of this are human-sounding error messages on forms, amusing 404 pages, things that make the service feel more human (moo.com has always done a fantasic job of this).

Live chat is an extension of this, but at the moment the success feels varied to me. There’s so many different factors to get right – when in the process you initiate live chat, who is it initiated by, how do we cope with that annoying flashing button saying, “IT LOOKS LIKE YOU NEED SOME HELP”, like some terrible clippy-esque nightmare.

But improvements are being made. More and more people are understanding the way to differentiate their online service is by adding an element of humanity back into it. By adding authenticity back into an efficient service, we’re helping to make it feel more human and therefore more desirable. A hybrid solution indeed.

Rebooting The Blog

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The last year or so has proven pretty barren from a blog point-of-view. So much so that I resorted to trying my hand at sports writing and wrote up some Oakland Raider games from this season’s NFL (I’m a big fan of good sports writing, although primarily American sports. Anyone with an hour or so spare could do a lot worse than reading this amazing archive of Hunter S Thompson’s old ESPN column). Whilst I enjoyed the sports writing – and may bring it back somewhere else – that was never really the purpose of this blog. It marked the fact that I couldn’t find anything about ‘digital’ that I felt inspired or interested enough to write about. There were, on reflection, a few reasons for that:

  1. Strategy for strategy’s sake. Most of the writing on here has been about strategy and planning of one sort or another. It’s what I’ve done for most of my career now. But I spent the last year or so being a creative director, which forces a slightly different point of view. It forces you to look at the end product, what you’re putting out the door. This may sound crazy to you if you don’t work in an agency, but most strategists aren’t connected to the actual end result, their work stops as implementation begins. It made me realise that strategy is only ever important if it positively impacts the end result. No user ever sees a carefully crafted PowerPoint presentation, a beautiful Excel chart. And yet, I’ve met so many planners and strategists that have had no interest whatsoever in the implementation. That’s bad, and it made me question the validity of strategy, of planning, in what we do. That’ll place quite the downer on wanting to write about it. However, all that said, I’ve realised I still believe planning is valuable within digital. Organisations get stuck. The sheer size and scale of the problem simply grinds will to change to a halt. Rapid simplification and outlining a direction as quickly as possible, strategy that helps organisations more somewhere – anyway other than stationary – can help to change that. That’s valuable and that’s interesting, the planner as agent of change.
  2. The belief that digital transformation is about getting new technologies to improve existing business models and ways of working. It’s not – it’s about finding new business models and ways of working. That may sound a little hyperbolic, so a quick explanation of my position: digital transformation is nothing more than the disruption to industry and society caused by technological development. The concept is not new. This has happened since before the invention of the aeroplane. However, the pace of change is so much faster than ever before (and only getting faster btw) that you’re seeing instances of disruption much more regularly than ever before. That makes it feel newer, because it’s more noticeable. It is not new, and to claim it as such is silly. But it is also inevitable, and to try and preserve the status quo, to just turn a blind eye to ‘inconvenient’ developments, or to suggest that new technology should be primarily used to improve existing models is also silly. Really silly. The future will not involve a world where they have made ad blockers illegal to allow for the banner ad to continue its existence. Sorry.
    I found this one particularly depressing because there are so many people who claim to be ‘digital gurus/ninjas/strategists/whatevers’ who in actual fact have no more interest in digital transformation than they do in selling some more digital adverts to some unwitting marketing exec. New technology creates a lot of new types of snake oil. I’m not slating advertising btw. I actually really like good advertising, and from a business perspective, for the right audience I would heartily recommend advertising. Just on television or radio or in print not on the internet, which grew up without the need for a commercial backbone and isn’t well suited for the ultimate aims of what advertising needs to do. That’s it, enough moaning about that. I’m going to try and not speak of advertising again.
  3. Futurism. As much as I hate the above, I equally dislike rampant futurism and claims that “[insert new technology x] will change everything”. I’ve realised I don’t have a tremendous interest in futurology. Partly because I’m bad at it (well, equally bad as everybody else in truth) and partly because if the job of strategy is help move you forward quickly then you don’t need to spend the time working out what the future will be. You’ll find out when you get there. And you’ll be right or you’ll be wrong and either way, you’ll have to change things anyway.
    What I have realised is that I have a real interest in technology in the mainstream, or entering the mainstream today. Not the really cutting edge stuff, but the stuff that you heard about a year or two ago, the stuff that is about to be embedded into everyone’s lives, or is already embedded into everyone’s lives. It’s the part where people meet technology that really interests me.
    I remember a really great talk from Matt Webb of BERG talking about how they were always really interested in the technologies everyone else had forgotten about. The technologies that – if you know Gartner’s Hype Cycle – would fit in the ‘trough of disillusionment’. It feels like if I’m interested in technology and people – on a mainstream level – then I’d want to look further beyond that, towards the slope of enlightenment. In the latest Hype Cycle, that gives me Virtual Reality (c’mon, close enough), Gesture Control and Enterprise 3D Printing. And I do find those sorts of things intersting. So perhaps there is something there.

So, the way forward. I’m going to try to write more. Much more. The goal is a piece every 2 weeks for the rest of the year. That seems doable whilst also ensuring enough new posts to be of interest. I’m going to try and write about interesting things that happen when people meet technology, what that means for organisations and business, and how strategy can help organisations move quicker. For the most part, I’m going to try and keep it positive and constructive, and steer clear of the snake oil. Wish me luck.