Note to self: voice commands are getting interesting

I may have mentioned (quite a few times) that I just purchased a Nexus 4. Perhaps seduced by its shininess, and definitely provoked by a novel operating system, I’ve found myself exploring its features like a… well, like a nerd. And against my expectations, it’s the voice command that has got me most* excited.

The killer feature, for me, is the ability to tap the mic icon (it’s right there on the home screen!), say “note to self” and have an email sent to yourself with your subsequent note. I email myself maybe four times a day with reminders. Now I can do it with one tap. It also attaches a sound file of your dictation to the email. Is this a gimmick? Maybe. But I have been genuinely using it. And to be honest, it’s a silly over-simplification to call this the ‘killer feature’. It’s more symbolic of the joyful interactions that are peppered throughout the Nexus 4 experience.

*There are other features I love too, but this one needed a blog post. I know, because I had a reminder to write one ;)

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Google, I succumb

I just bought a Nexus 4. Look, there it is, in a box, in my hand. But that was yesterday — today we are locked in a nerdy skin-on-screen embrace.

The Nexus is a wonderful thing. It is also tipping me over the edge of the privacy-personalisation quandary. The moment I booted the thing up [Booted up? Is it 1997 again?] all my *shit* was there. My calendars and mail, my browsing history — even my holiday photos. It works. Beautifully.

I succumb! Google, you can have all the data you want, just keep giving me fluid, connected experiences like this. Screw privacy. I’ll tell you the colour of my underpants if it will help you make my day a little better. (Black).

I have only one niggle about the otherwise glorious handset: The volume buttons are opposite the power button, which means it’s difficult to turn it on/off without changing the volume with your opposing digits. Not the end of the world though. Let’s not let a bit of volume trouble get in the way of making a noise.

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Murky water

Uncharacteristically, I recently texted a number on a TV advert to make a charitable donation. It was Water Aid, a very worthwhile charity that aims to provide clean drinking water to the world’s poorest people. Lots of children drink water the colour of that block above this paragraph. So, in an otherwise eventless moment, I decided that, absolutely, I would give some money. The nerd in me was also interested in the process and user flow when texting a number like this.

I was sort of hoping that I could make my donation without speaking to a human. Partly because I’m lazy, partly because providing a mobile-phone-skewed CTA leads you towards that kind of process and partly because I’m very familiar (and uncomfortable) with charity ‘up-sell’.

I’ve long been interested in how charities promote themselves. They are, of course, organisations like any other: they need to make money, so inevitably they try to get what they can out of you. Which is both necessary and a shame. And the call with Water Aid was as expected.

“I’d just like to make a one-off donation.” Those were my first words — nice and clear and  polite. But despite their endless (to the point of patronising) thanks, they still asked me if I would sign up to monthly donations. The shame of this is that from a position of feeling good and generous, I was pushed back into a defensive, negative position, where I was saying “no”. This is not a unique issue with Water Aid – ALL charities do it. And it leaves the donor putting down the phone and feeling horrible.

I believe there are ways to make people feel positive and good about donating to charity.  In fact, I have a side project coming out very soon that aims to achieve this. I understand that donors are the ‘lowest hanging fruit’ when it comes to recruiting monthly members, but there is a fine line between encouraging a bigger donation and making people that support you feel rubbish. Charity marketing needs a refresh. Let’s make people feel good about giving.

(If you haven’t seen it, you should read this presentation on the right way to create social change.)

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Saying it simply

This may have whizzed past you on Twitter this week. A great tool that forces you to write only with the 1,000 most used words in the English language.

If you can’t say it simply, you don’t know it well enough. This is not only fun, but a great exercise to see how well you understand a subject. You need to know something intimately to be able to find ways around this restriction.

The results are hilarious and the results inevitably end up feeling a little juvenile, which just adds to the amusement.

I recommend you read this one.
I had a go at procreation, love and chess.

Made me think of the brilliant one-syllable version of this pitch (scroll down).

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On Buzzwords

This is partly in response to a comment by Asi in my last post, about Lean being a buzzword. Here’s my view on ‘buzzwords’:

A word becomes a ‘buzzword’ only in the context of being abused. I.e. Some people use words they don’t fully understand in the hope that whatever meaning they carry for other people might somehow present itself and mask their own ignorance. When enough people do this, and enough people nod when others do this, the more empty the word becomes. Until its original meaning becomes less palpable than its emptiness.

[It’s worth saying that all ‘meaning’ is man-made, so this makes total, frustrating sense]

But despite this flourishing emptiness, the word can remain meaningful for people that use it correctly and earnestly. Its integrity, though, is compromised. The word becomes damaged goods.

Should we stop using words that others abuse? I would suggest not. I think we owe it to ourselves to battle the emptiness and work harder to put meaning back into abused words.

What I will say, is that the more complex the world gets, the more important it is to avoid minimalist phrases and statements that, by their brevity alone, cannot describe the subject intimately enough. Maybe ‘buzzword’ itself is a buzzword: an unhelpfully miniscule, over-used word, attempting to describe a far more complex matter. Perhaps the real crime is valuing soundbytes over conversations. We seem increasingly obsessed with soundbytes, just as the world gets too messy for them to be helpful. Another reason for us all to blog more and perhaps tweet less. ;)

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Vision and Validation

I’ve always been fascinated and afraid of how easily people can get ‘stuck in their ways’, by which I mean: do and believe things based on past experiences, despite the rapidly changing present.

But the longer we’re alive, the more pressure there is to be increasingly sure about things. If life- and work-experience didn’t increase how sure we were then what they hell have we been doing all this time? Personally, it’s a matter of pride. Professionally, it’s an expectation. You can’t climb the career ladder and not become more certain, can you? No. We’re all really good at pretending this is the case.

I’d argue that even a generation ago, this wasn’t as much of a problem, because the world changed more slowly, so by the time people were completely out of touch, they were close to retirement anyway.
These days, change is so fast and complex that being stuck in our ways becomes a plague much, much earlier. It’s now a problem for 30 year-olds, not 50 year-olds. A new present arrives with horifying abruptness and before we’re even half way into our careers, we can be faced with a dilemma: stick with what we’re good at (even if it’s no longer the best way) or be willing to relearn, as our field of ‘expertise’ melts into the connected world.

This is definitely true in the intersection between the marketing and product/service design industries. Lots of people who are ‘good at marketing’ now want to be ‘good at developing services and products’.
But mutating crudely from one mindset to the other is a gross disrespect to what is unmistakably a very different beast. But we want to do that stuff, right? So is it okay to gently bend our understanding until new wisdom can be hammered in convincingly?

I faced a version of this dilemma after leaving my role as Strategy Director at Poke. I left Poke being ‘pretty good’ at what I did, so there was some temptation to find somewhere ‘similar-ish’  where, by definition, I could fit in immediately and continue to be ‘pretty good’ at things; to feed my ego by continuing to be someone who knows what to do.

But ‘knowing’ is an oxymoronic concept when nothing stands still. And although I had helped to develop products and services at Poke, we inevitably approached those challenges through a lens designed for very different types of project. That’s not a dig at Poke – they are supremely talented and have some great success stories in this area – but you can’t re-build your company and processes overnight because a different kind of opportunity arises.
When I left, I decided to admit that I didn’t ‘know’ how to do that stuff — not properly. So instead of knowing, I decided to learn. And that decision brought me to Made by Many.

At Made by Many, I have no title. And all the things I used to ‘know’ are challenged on an hourly basis. Reassuringly though, it turns out that Made by Many are learning too. Something they have blogged proudly about:

“The hardest lesson we’ve learnt so far is how to learn. We are still learning, but I think the difference now is that we see rapid learning as being a core part of the offer.”

This excellent post, by Tim Malbon, exposes some raw truths about Made by Many’s belief system:

“It sure is hard to see your ideas as hypotheses to be tested, instead of the utterly genius solutions that you’re so certain they are. But, unless you can learn to be less sure of your own individual ability to come up with the right answer then you’ll struggle to make things that other people actually want.”

That realisation is as refreshing and exciting as it is unsettling. And it’s quite a change from the usual culture of a creative company. Lean is not just a buzzword, it’s a philsophy that impacts everything you do. [great little example here]
In Tim’s words, it’s helped MxM to “remove ego from teamwork and replace it with evidence.” And that’s something makes bucket loads of sense to me.

In fact, what I’m tackling on a personal level mimics what Made by Many try to do as a business: find the balance between vision and validation. Between what our experience assures us and what we are yet to learn.

Vision means seeing things that others don’t (yet). Leaping to ideas built on fragments of experiences that are sometimes too abstract to pinpoint. It’s not magical — it’s just hard to explain, so we use words like ‘creativity’ to make sense of it. This is what lots of creative companies are built on. When the thing you’re creating needs to excite people for a very short amount of time, that’s great. But not if you want to make something millions of people *use* every day.

Validation is the part where you see if anyone gives a crap. And I don’t mean mean showing consumers some slides and asking them if they like what they see (that only works if their ultimate interaction will be similarly passive). Validation – in terms of products and services – means putting an actual prototype into people’s hands to see what they do with it. Something that is only achievable (and affordable) by rethinking the way your company works and how long it spends getting to that point. Ego is a toxic presence in this process.

As the dust settles on my first few months at MxM, the conclusion I’ve come to is that the holy grail (process-wise) is to find harmony between vision and validation. Taking either of these as an absolute view would be dangerous.
A world forged only by sensible validation will get boring quickly – even though its efficiency is appealing. (And of course, you need ideas to validate!) I am a passionate supporter of removing ego and validating early and iteratively. But I also believe in leaving room for some vision-injections. The best (most interesting, effecting and long-lasting) work will come from people that get this balance right.

And that’s exactly the balance we have to find personally too.

The dilemma of whether to keep believing things that you have built your confidence on, or admit you need to rethink some stuff, is one that millions of people face daily. And it’s when too many people indulge tired beliefs that entire industries get stuck in their ways. If you find yourself in this position, I urge you to acknowledge what you don’t yet know. It’s the fastest way to find out.

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Guardian owns smarminess

It’s very easy to mock other people’s work—I try not to make a habit of it. But this really annoyed me. And as a Guardian reader, I feel permitted to express my opinion on it. In fact, I’m going to express my opinion with the same low-level wit the ad itself displays:

New brief, guys. Get the Guardian and Observer ‘front of mind’ at the weekend. We need to be *synonymous* with the weekend.

Oh god, is this one of those ‘we need to OWN the weekend’ briefs?

Yeah, but of course we won’t do th… Hey. Hey! — What if we *did* do that. Because the Guardian would never do that, so if we act like we *are* doing it, then it will be funny.

Yes! By making fun of that ‘let’s own it’ attitude we will in turn differentiate ourselves from brands that think like that. It’s so knowing and clever. AND.. AND… by really over-doing it, it probably *will* make people think of the Guardian at the weekend. People will start saying it in a jokey way. But they’ll be being IRONIC, like us.

Which makes it OK!

My more sensible analysis would be this:

Humour is a great tool for increasing the watchability and transmission of an ad, but it does not automatically make it a good ad. I think it’s especially risky for a newspaper. This ad conjures up unlikable personalities behind the journalism that negatively affect my desire to read it. The tone it presents goes against everything I like about the Guardian, which is normally clever, grown-up, contemporary and subtle.

Of course that’s just my opinion. And why should a Guardian reader’s opinion matter?

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Why Google Plus will prevail

So begins a great article Fast Company article, courtesy of Glyn Britton.

You may know that I’m fairly supportive of metaphors and analogies. And remain so. But this FC post highlights one of their potential dangers:

“From its launch through today, everyone viewed Google Plus as “Google’s version of Facebook,” because that’s the only sticky, simple headline that we can wrap our brain around.”

The article goes on to colourfully spell out something that Neil Perkin has said before: That Google Plus is not simply trying to be a new Facebook – it is the

“the Borg-like hive-queen that connects all the other Google products like YouTube, Google Maps, Images, Offers, Books, and more. [...] —the new backbone of a company that does search better than anyone already.”

You can and should read the article in full here, but if your finger is too weak to click or tap, then here is a super simple breakdown of - according to Fast Company –  the three ways Google Plus is ensuring it will become integral… to all of us:


Step 1:
Google Authorship–bloggers can link their Google Plus profile to the content they create.

Step 2:
Google Plus Local Business pages. Reviews, hours, pics, videos, local search–all housed in one place.

Step 3:
All of those other things that you already love get better. When you have Google Plus, those communities and that video just appear when you search for your best guess.

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Rise of the uber app

This is a good, solid post about the growing need for solutions that address ‘app overload’.  I like the author’s quote in the comments below too:

“drawers/folders [...] are a function for forgetting.”

Amen. We’re working on something big and exciting in this area at Made by Many. I hope to share some details before you completely drown in your apps.

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Big brain, little brain

Matt Jones has written a great post about Berg’s research project for Google in 2011. There’s lots of juicy stuff about smart objects and a lovely experiment with ‘lamps that can see’, inspired by the idea of adding new smart layers to ubiquitous objects. But the sound byte which really struck a chord with me is a term Matt uses to describe the relationship between ‘companion species’ (“They see the world differently to us, picking up on things we miss”) and the cloud that feeds them: ‘big brain, little brain’:

“the Smart Light companion would be the Little Brain, on your side, that understood you and the world immediately around you, and talked on your behalf to the Big Brain in ‘the cloud’.”

This is a nice way to think about the connected object ecosystem. And has just the right level of humanity, for me, to give it some soul: a necessary ingredient for objects we might have an intimate relationship with.

It also reminded me of a bit from Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene. Dawkins describes the difference between evolution and behaviour: that evolution is super slow and influences an animal over long periods of time (e.g. thicker fur as a result of a cold climate). But that behaviour must of course be quick (e.g. Running behind a rock to avoid a predator). Hence why animals developed brains, to be able to handle things ‘on the ground’ as it were. This is a little ‘big brain, little brain’ too.

Forgive my crude paraphrasing - I’m afraid I can’t find the original text. But that was the gist of it. And it made me think that the ‘big brain’ (cloud) is maybe more ‘evolutionary’ in its application of intelligence, learning over a long time and from sources beyond the user or object in question. The ‘little brain’ companion object is perhaps closer to Dawkins’ description of behaviour. It navigates its immediate surroundings with greater nimbleness and contextual relevance. And it’s the combination of both that creates truly smart objects and experiences.

I won’t pretend there is an intelligent, neat conclusion to this. Just dipping my creaky brain back into the very important topic of connected objects and cloud computing. I recommend you read Matt’s post for more of the clever stuff.

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