Making things (happen)

I’ve come to decide that, in our* industry, there are really only two types of useful person: People who make things and people who make things happen.

Of course, a talented few can achieve both. So maybe modes, rather than people.

My personal mission is to always be contributing to one of those two things. And yes, I consider planning and strategy to contribute to making things happen. Otherwise you’re doing it wrong.

 

*I’m assuming anyone reading this broadly works in either marketing, product development or has a general interest in making things that make a difference.

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How To Make the Right Product

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How to create an iPad dock for your garden

A shiny packet of Sugru has been sitting in my toolbox for almost a year. FINALLY, I’ve found a nice use for it:

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On being tap-friendly

If you’ve spent any time designing – or using! – mobile apps then you’ll have noticed that some functionality can be achieved two different ways: the straightforward way and the ‘expert’ way.

For example. On the Facebook mobile app, you can swipe left and right between friend requests, messages and notifications – or you can tap the icons at the top.
Or on Google maps, where you can zoom in and out by tapping the zoom buttons, or stroke your finger up/down on the second tap to achieve the same.

Both methods are important, because:
i. Without ‘expert’ gestures, the pleasure of using an app is restricted. We want tools to be as fluid and dexterous as our lives and fingers — especially as we become more familiar with them.
ii. You can’t *only* have the swipe gestures, because you’d have to tell people they exist, which isn’t good — you have to cater for the less tech fluent too.

Taps for novices; swipes and pinches for the experts.

There’s a good lesson in there for anything you make for a large number of people. Both literally and metaphorically, always be tap-friendly.

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Dumb Ways To Describe

Use of the word ‘digital’ continues to bother people, me included. Last week, I winced when someone referred to the fantastic Dumb Ways To Die campaign as a ‘digital idea’.

Despite our advancing tech fluency, it still feels as though anything you can ‘put online’ is given the digital label by someone. It’s not only lazy and unhelpful, I believe it stunts progress.

Rather than perish in a semantic shit-storm, or kid myself that people will stop saying ‘digital’ any time soon, I’m going to work with the word. If we’re going to mis-use it, I’d like to at least suggest a more helpful way to mis-use it!

Fortunately, my first disgruntled tweet resulted in a useful reference: Katy Lindemann sent me “Fuck Yeah Internet Fridge” and although it was lighthearted banter, I looked at that fridge and it did seem… kinda ‘digital’! I realised that it was because the technology involved was the object’s ‘brain’, not its distribution channel. So here’s my afore-caveated definition:

Things are digital when the Internet is in them, not when they’re in the internet.

That’s a bit more helpful. Imperfect, but helpful. Because it reminds us that ‘digital’ is more empowering as a mindset than as a medium.

Impressionists weren’t just artists that wanted to make lower fidelity brush marks. They were people that shared a mindset and whose mindset manifested in those marks. Similarly, there are people with a ‘digital mindset’ — the web, and everything it represents – drives their thinking. The Internet is ‘in their work’, rather than the other way around. And it’s the soul of that work that makes it ‘digital’, not just its final form.

What was all that about stunting progress?

If a young ‘creative’ person develops in an environment where ‘digital’ means sticking content online, then she’s being prevented from developing a truly ‘digital mentality’, and the world is denied the work she might have created. It’s our duty to help people like her to think thoughts that we are unable to.

That doesn’t mean she should stop thinking about content, messages, videos or linear ideas. Dumb Ways To Die shows that they’re sometimes the best answer of all. But she should at least know the difference between modes of thinking. Both digital and advertising mindsets are powerful and valuable, and if she’s smart enough, she’ll even learn to combine them.

I don’t want anyone to misunderstand this post and think I’m saying a digital mentality is superior. Or that I’m belittling Dumb Ways To Die. I love it. And in some ways its simplicity and smart seeding are evidence of understanding the web very well. I’m simply questioning the effect of applying blunt labels to things, masking their real value – and clouding important differences, the comprehension of which could lead to even more exciting work.

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Potent writing

Shorter sentences have sharper edges. And the greater the noise, the more important potency is.

I’m making a daily effort to say more with fewer words.“If you can’t say it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.” More importantly, others won’t understand, or even listen.

Longer reads remain valuable, for the right audience. And for the author, because “how do I know what I think until I see what I say?” But when your words exist to directly empower people, your goal is to make them impossible to forget or misinterpret.

Simple explanations are Trojan Horses; seductive nuggets of complex understanding.

Here’s an example:

1. Find an everyday problem
2. Map steps people take to solve it
3. Make a product that eliminates steps

That’s a 17-word instruction manual, edited by Nick Marsh, from a post by Nate Kontny.

I used Nate’s product, Draft, to write this post. Hoping its principles rub off on me.

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‘Lean Strategy’ – 3 things you should know

This is cross-posted from the Made by Many blog. It’s a post about strategy, written with these assumptions in mind:

Lots of marketing strategists are increasingly interested in product innovation.
More and more innovation companies will adopt Lean methodologies.
Migrating strategists will have a massive shock and appreciate some tips.

You’ll be relieved to note that this isn’t a philosophical post. It’s a practical one. Because after all, we’re interested in making things, which means less talking and more doing…

Everything that follows falls out of one simple belief: the less we know about the future, the less time we should spend guessing without trying. This doesn’t mean ‘not planning’. It means rapid, potent planning, woven into shorter development cycles with regular testing in the wild.

Here are the three things you should exercise as a strategist in this environment:

1. Holistic Involvement
Strategists and Planners have long championed the broadening of knowledge, but more often than not, it’s applied to generate better, more original guessing. When you’re exploring strategies through the act of making, you need a deeper, more practical appreciation of technology and design. You’re probably used to a process where technology is how you achieve something, but it is also why you achieve it.
Detach ‘can we do it?’ and ‘should we do it?’ conversations at your peril. Work intimately with technologists and designers, instead of ocassionally asking for their conclusions. You will not understand the implication of every nuance, so be there when they arise. The less you know, the less use you are.

2. Actionable Reasoning
One of the most toxic traps a strategist can fall into is becoming a good convincer: creating a persuasive, intellectual fog between reality and execution, and transforming bystanders into insecure, nodding fools. You’re not clever if you manage to sell the wrong idea, so beware of the power to convince — it should be results that convince and nothing else.
Divorcing strategists from the execution process has fuelled some of this negative behaviour. But with an emphasis on making and testing, combined with short development cycles, strategic input must not only be devoid of illusion, it must empower the team to act - with minimum friction and maximum value. Learn something from designers. Like them, your job is to quickly manifest collective thinking in a form others can recognise, understand and help to progress.

3. Responsive Guidance
With shorter cycles, you need to be less precious than you’ve been in the past. No locking yourself away until you ‘have the answer’. Use the straw man approach, move things forward faster, in smaller bursts. Retain malleability. Prototyping and testing can expose new problems and opportunities several times a day. You have to help the team and the client adapt constantly, and maintain purposeful shape as the edges of previous assumptions are frayed.

If you can demonstrate these three qualities then everything else will follow. The only other thing to say is that in this environment, you don’t own the strategy. I mean, you don’t own it even more than you currently don’t own it. The better the job you do, the more ownership the whole team will feel they have over it. It’s refreshing. I promise.

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Faking the Future: prototypes and hype

I’m cross-posting this from the Made by Many blog.

A couple of weeks ago, my brain was treated to a Pint of Science in the form of a talk by Dr Eileen Gentleman on making body parts. Dr Gentleman whooshed us through a brief history of genetic engineering, including how eye injuries to World War II pilots led to the invention of contact lenses and why golden plates sealed in an ancient skull proved that not all alien materials are rejected by human tissue. And we were, inevitably, shown a photo of a mouse with an ear on its back.

The Vacanti mouse was (is) famous, and not just in the scientific community. In 1997, it was splashed across front pages, causing the world to marvel at protest about the genetic modification of the poor rodent… wrongly. Gentleman corrected the story for us: the ear had not been ‘grown’ on the mouse. And it contained no human DNA – another public outrage – it was cow cartilage, grown on biodegradable scaffolding in a lab. The point of the experiment was to see if the cow cartilage would bond with the mouse’s tissue, a clarification delivered with visible satisfaction in the eyes of our speaker. She urged us to read the ‘real’ papers, not the newspapers and went on to dispel other myths propagated in the media. Which was a bit sad, really. Genetic modification is not as far forward as we might have thought.

I asked Gentleman if the hyperbole had any positive outcomes; whether a little hype might put more wind in the sails her peers. Her stories about the rise of genetic modification showed that each new glimpse at the future got people more excited and motivated to find out more, regardless to how close to the truth they were. She agreed. And even said that the funding she receives is largely thanks to the raised profile of her field in light of these media stories.

It didn’t take much of a leap to start thinking about our own field of innovation. And to be reminded of the same dual impact of prototyping anything: learning & selling, both of which are critical for success.

A purist could be tempted to see a prototype as simply a learning tool, to get fast feedback on a minimal product – or aspect of a product. But whether you like it or not, when people see an actual ‘thing’ it will have an emotional impact too. It will excite, or concern them. Despite any effort not to, stakeholders will imagine a more advanced version of that thing, based on their own biasses. And that’s not entirely a bad thing: it can be exactly what’s necessary to get suppot for the project, both operationally and financially.

On the other side, a salesperson might view a prototype as a pure selling tool: show the board something flashy; demonstrate capability — we can always change the product later! But that’s a dangerous route to go, undermining the process and skewing perceptions of the results by bowing to an unvalidated strategy. If you mis-educate people about the role of learning in favour of the sell, you’re going to hit more roadblocks in the future.

I think the mistake is to assume everyone is looking for the same signals. Some people want to make meaningful progress, others might want a mouse that can grow ears on its back.

 

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The tumbleweed slide that your Keynote deck needs

Like using Keynote?

Make terrible jokes?

Then you need this tumbleweed animation. Here’s what it looks like (although it’s much smoother in Keynote – I messed up the screen capture):

You can download the keynote file HERE to use at your leisure.

Bye!

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What makes a beautiful explanation?

This Explains Everything is a curation of essays that attempts to share ‘the most beautiful and elegant theories of how the world works’.

One of the contributors, a philosopher called Rebecca Newberger Goldstein examines the concept that ties the book together:

“Where do we get the idea that the beauty of an explanation has anything to do with the likelihood of its being true?”

An excellent question. We love pithy soundbites and neat sentences. But do these qualities unfairly give ideas greater weight? Goldstein reminds us of a genetic truth:

“As our lustful genes know, the achievement of symmetry is a sign of genetic robustness; we find lopsidedness a turnoff…we want to mate with them because our genes are betting on them as replicators.”

She offers a suggestion:

“is it just that any explanation that’s satisfactory will, for that very reason and no other, strike us as beautiful, beautifully explanatory. [...] explanations aren’t satisfactory because they’re beautiful, rather they’re beautiful because they’re satisfying.”

When I land on an idea that feels important, I try to share it in a way that’s satisfying. It helps people to remember it. It helps people to repeat and share it. The danger is that you might trick people into thinking an unhelpful idea is useful because you made it sound poetic. It becomes a sales tool, intoxicating, but misleading.

All this reminds me of another important quote, by Einstein:

“If you can’t say it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.”

Only when you strip an explanation right back, can you see whether it’s truly satisfying. Rather than an unformed thought hiding inside a poetic sentence. Oh, that brings me to a final quote, by Spiderman:

“With great power comes great responsibility”

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