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Katerina's Blog

  • Demystifying the cloud

    Maybe google just knows me too well, but searching for “cloud” points me to answers about “cloud computing” before the fluffy stuff in the sky. Does this order apply to how our clients think as well?

     

    I don’t expect so, though I’ll be glad enough to stand corrected. Some definitions of “Cloud” that may prevail for many include:

    ·       n. A visible body of very fine water droplets or ice particles suspended in the atmosphere at altitudes ranging up to several miles above sea level.

    ·       n. Something that darkens or fills with gloom

    ·       v.tr. To obscure: cloud the issues

    ·       idiom: in the clouds

    o  Imaginary; unreal; fanciful.

    o  Impractical.

    As an aside, when I wrote “sky” above I thought of the TV channel. And as I reach for an apple (to eat) I start to wonder if words that describe nature won’t eventually all double up to stand for something in technology.

     

    Thankfully I am not alone in asking how a technology concept (practical, clarifying, fills with hope) came to have such an esoteric name (“impractical, obscuring, fills with gloom”). “Why is it called ‘Cloud Computing’?” delivers on its title’s promise and tells the story. Apparently in “the early days of network design” engineers drew clouds to illustrate connections in their network that were not part of their remit to describe. These “unknown domains” were hooked to other networks, or the internet.

     

    The Fantastic Tavern on Thursday succeeded in something that was previously difficult to fathom – demystifying the (technology concept) “cloud”. Amidst the familiar EMC Consulting personalities, clients, pizza, beer and proper evening summer sun peeking in through the windows, we took in five impressively accessible and intriguing business ideas that involved virtualised computing systems.

     

    The five ideas were pitched in the BBC’s Dragon’s Den model, where“entrepreneurs pitch for investment from some of Britain’s top business brains”, to three make-believe investor “dragons” – in this case, EMC Consulting’s VP and UK & Ireland General Manager, Adrian McDonald; our client at Close Brothers Asset Management, Ralf Jeffery; and founding partner of Carter Wong Design, Phil Carter.

     

    The impressive quality of the pitches, by Lee Provoost, Headshift; Simon Munroe, EMC Consulting; Jamie Thomson, Blink Tank Consulting; Matt Mould, EMC Consulting; and Simon Gallagher, ioko, was widely commended. What struck me most was the care taken to describe the benefit of each idea to people’s lives – positioning the Cloud as a powerful means to various valuable ends, the breadth and depth of which we will continue to discover. 

     

    For excellent detailed views into the event, people involved and concepts pitched, Microsoft’s Ubelly and our host Matt Bagwell’s blog are the places to go.

     

    Cloud Computing and virtualized information means that information, thanks to the internet, doesn’t just live and depend on one physical location. At EMC Consulting we talk about revolutionising the market place by enabling enterprise IT infrastructure to tap into “virtualized data centres” or “internal clouds” to efficiently pool resources (servers, network, storage), instead of relying on separate disconnected system streams (one application to one server).

    To relate to big scale changes, I like to see how they scale down to my life. My contacts are on a cloud. If all my devices were to fail me tomorrow, I feel secure in that they live in the ethereal "cloud" on gmail, facebook and linkedin. My files could be virtualized too (lessening my mourning when my computer gives out its last blue screen and my external hard-drive makes good on those clinking noises it makes) through google docs, mobile me, flickr and many other options. I just took a look at our Microsoft Surface here at the office and found a folder called “Videos Cloud”. We don’t like to be tied to one location, and hedging our bets seems like the wise thing to do. The "cloud" is a short form for a lofty concept with very real applications. It may just stand up well to the fluffy stuff in the sky after all. 

  • Edward Tufte and the principles of “silo-free” design

    A few weeks ago I went to a talk by Edward Tufte hosted by Intelligence Squared. Described as the “Galileo of graphics” (Business Week), Tufte shared ideas from his book Beautiful Evidence, and painted a compelling case for doing whatever it takes to present information in ways that support cognitive process, without bias towards the use of one medium over another.

     

    The talk was extremely eye opening, and one of Tufte’s strongest points was the idea of being able to convey as much information as possible on one page. To illustrate this Tufte, who famously shuns PowerPoint, used a handout with Charles Joseph Minard’s anti-war “Napoleon’s March to Moscow” to complement his slides. The graph combines the following variables to give a stark view of the consequences of war: the size of Napoleon’s army, a map of the geographic areas they passed through, their direction, a chronology of the march and the temperature during the retreat.

     

    In the web context, Tufte felt that designers often underestimate their audience by stripping down content in the name of simplification, in contrast to newspaper websites, which he praised for displaying a lot of information while remaining clear and easy to read.

     

    For more on the talk, Mia Ridge provides thorough notes, while Evalottchen’s (see below) and LucySpence’s excellent sketch notes show how much creative talent there was present among his fans, who sold-out the event.

     

     Evalottchen Sketch Notes

     

    Tufte’s design principles are elemental and timeless but also timely considering the underused flexibility made possible by the digital landscape today.

     

    In a world where roles and disciplines within business are defined by medium-specific production and consumption – for example, Kodak defining itself narrowly within film-based photography, or any kind of specialized company from interior design, video publishing, or makers of smartphone apps – how well positioned are we to do “whatever it takes” in response to problems?

     

    An unexpected highlight for me was seeing the significant overlaps between Tufte’s principles and our way of working at EMC Consulting.

     

    People don’t segregate information based on medium in order to understand it. For example, they will juggle both words and images, and any other pertinent means of taking in a story. So, decisions about how to convey information should be based on people’s experience – meaning the goal is for different kinds of inputs to be combined to support one cohesive goal.

     

    Across disciplines, decisions have two potential starting points: considering what’s possible within a medium, or widening the question to purpose (business goals and customer needs). Medium-led decisions have resulted in siloed industry organization and responses that rarely account for the full customer experience.

     

    With customer experience expanding and diversifying, it is now clear that brand-sponsored experiences have to be integrated and choreographed within a larger landscape. Taking responsibility for the entire landscape means giving information meaning – a philosophy we call Total Experience Planning and Design.  

  • iPad: The Experience

    Having speculated about the iPad twice, sight unseen, I was thrilled when Matt Bagwell brought one back from the US and opened the experience out on an IM team sign out list. Last weekend (a long bank holiday, as it turns out) was my time with the imported star. So did the absence of the iPad factor make this weekend pale in comparison to last? Not really. A week later I can’t say I miss its shiny screen.

     

    Why?

    ·      Let’s be frank first: I think a large part of it has to do with the fact that I didn’t personalize the settings as much as I would have if it were mine to keep. (Also I recognize that there is probably a psychological rule about people getting attached to what’s theirs to keep.)

    ·      Contextual design let down: As it might be clear from my previous posts about the iPad, I am a big believer in the medium and context changing the design rules and execution. The iPad’s centre reset button is the same size as on the iPhone, and in this larger setting it feels dwarfed and misrepresented. The ibook application includes a paper book view of pages past and coming along the left and right of the book spread. But, to move through the pages, one needs to counter-intuitively touch-scroll the bottom of the spread where there are some dots representing pages. This felt like a building’s fake wooden façade, which tries to behave like wood but only succeeds in compromising the design’s integrity.

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

    ·    It is not that light. Everyone I shared the experience with (maybe about 12 people in total) remarked that the iPad is heavier than they expected. For my part, I was too dazzled to care about the weight. And I somehow expected it to big bigger than it is.  

    ·      The shiny screen needs regular cleaning to be bright and shiny.

    ·      It didn’t connect to the internet as easily as my iPhone, and without internet the experience was limited. The Wi-Fi connection was not equally good everywhere, and I wasn’t used to having to think of Wi-Fi connectivity. On this point, the UK price list was revealed on Friday and the Wi-Fi and 3G-enabled versions of each of the three versions is £100 extra plus an as-of-yet unknown data carrier fee. I would not want to rely on Wi-Fi. An internet-less iPad (especially a new one without all the movies, photos, ebooks etc that you want preloaded), is like a great dancer who isn’t allowed to move.

    On the plus side, it made quite a stir at my little dinner party, so I am glad that I had friends over when the iPad was in my possession. Hits included the Guardian’s Eyewitness app – the iPad is a great format for viewing digital photos – and other apps that have specifically designed for the bigger screen, like Time magazine and the NYT Editors’ Choice.

  • "Free" debate: The Future of News

    Last Wednesday Intelligence Squared hosted “The Future of News”, a panel debate that was £25 to attend, and is now free via this streaming video. I expected furious disagreement. (Probably I was influenced by Malcolm Gladwell’s New Yorker retort to Chris Anderson’s book Free, back in the summer of 2009). Instead, the 7 panelists surprised me by agreeing that free doesn’t involve viable economics, and “Free and paying have to learn to live together” (David Elstein). Starting points varied from “free is the future and must be embraced” to “free is leading to the demise of quality news”. But, all landed on sizable common ground:

     

    First, the free content debate often confuses what is essentially a free customer experience with an economic model. “Slate is free and employs a lot of journalists” (Jacob Weisberg). Turi Munthe describes the origin of Free as the fruit of paid-for academics working to a utopian model where private property is obsolete. The debate is not an ideological one anymore, though. Instead the discussion now needs to turn practical and answer questions like: what is the balance of paid and free, what does the ecosystem look like, and how does it function?

     

    Second, there is acceptance that at least some people will continue to enjoy at least some of the content for free. Free is not a new price – it is one part of a paying business model. Digital technology drives costs low enough to make free more viably available.

     

    Third, free information aggregators rely on paid for informative stories: “Let’s not confuse information with journalism” (David Elstein). Really informative stories take investigation (time, experience, and dedicated effort), all of which point to the enduring need for money. The fact that aggregators, as opposed to newspapers, are currently enjoying the bulk of advertising revenue, means that publishers need to find new sources of revenue. If this revenue is not coming from the bulk of readers or from advertising, then what are new sources?

     

    While technology is seen as the perpetrator of “free”, it is also quite possibly the answer to a “Golden Age of journalism” (Jocob Weisberg) – providing new ways to tell a story and “transforming what we do”. Weisberg  goes on to point out: “ambitious journalists see tremendous creative opportunities”. He tells the compelling global reach case study: Today The Guardian is the second most read English language newspaper in the world after the NY Times, compared to a few hundred readers outside the UK in the ’50s. He goes on to tell that with $200 million newsroom costs and revenues of the same amount, The New York Times is in trouble because of poor decisions made (for example skimping on their investigative reporting in the case of the Iraq weapons of mass destruction question), not the victim of free content. While Andrew Neil emphasizes the opportunities that newspapers can tap into with 26 e-readers on the way to the market place. And Turi Munthe tells of Spot.us  which gives citizens the ability to vote and contribute towards journalists covering the stories that interest them. This might be a micro-sponsorship model to watch.

     

  • Is Google a principled hero for leaving China?

    Some applaud Google for standing up to China. Choosing principle over profit is a valid decision, and Google’s wish to use their power for “good” leaves little room for complaint. Even as a fluent half-Chinese I had first hand experience with the huge temptation to face China’s rules with incomprehension, while living and working in Beijing the 2.5 years leading up to the Olympic games. Also, I knew the isolating effect that government bans on the likes of Facebook, Twitter, Google, YouTube, Blogger, Flickr and the BBC can have on people and businesses.

     

    So does Brin’s plea for Obama’s backing against “regulations in China [that] effectively prevent us from being competitive” make Google a principled hero?

     

    Praising Google’s decision to “stand up to the censors” a San Francisco Chronicle editorial concludes that “Google can't dodge a challenge to one of its fundamental principles. Free flow of information is its business.

     

    Google is revolutionary because it has shown us how various types of information served in various ways can make life better for us the people. By threatening to leave China, Google sends the message it’s willing to turn away not just from profit, but from people too. Does engaging the world’s largest online market symbolize condoning its government? Or, is it simply a decision to keep going on a difficult but worthwhile mission to add value to the lives of a particularly large number of people? That means looking beyond politics to the service provided.

     

    Back in 2006, when Google was still starting out in China and it was one of my first clients at Saatchi & Saatchi Beijing, I was astonished to find that its Chinese map service gave driving directions for downtown Beijing. Most people in Chinese cities got around by taxi, or by driver, walking, biking, or public transport. It was Baidu that gave Chinese people public transport results and the most location-specific business information.

     

    Most people assume that because Google is the biggest search engine, it's the biggest search engine in China too. Outside China most people haven't even heard of Baidu. But 58.6% of the 384 million Chinese online choose local Baidu over Google’s 35.6% market share, according to last quarter’s results.

     

    It’s been a few years since I was in China, so it could be that Google eventually picked up Baidu’s insight into Chinese interest in mp3 and games searches. But its failure to understand that step by step driving directions were not what the Chinese person on the other end of its "free flow of information" actually wanted set the pattern for a failure to understand – and eventually adapt – to the world's most populous country.

     

    Google’s decision to shift focus away from being useful to people in China, to making a political stand could be seen as appropriate. Companies with power and influence like Google and Microsoft can make a difference. But, assuming Google’s stand is appropriate, it is premature given its market position.

     

    While it is supremely disturbing that Chinese universities may be behind a code hack that stole some of Google’s IP, it is very dangerous that in a world this open some of the best companies in the world choose not to persist in trying to understand and provide for the Chinese user journey.

     

    Google’s exit means increased isolation of people and businesses in China (though Microsoft’s Bing will be happy to step in).  It also means fewer opportunities for the rest of the world to understand China. It is easy to see China either as too big (a threat), or too far away (unfamiliar) to matter. Both extremes lose track of something important – putting people first.

     

    Google’s business should be about connecting humanity worldwide with information that is as useful as possible. Sure, censorship stands in the way, and it’s understandable that Google is fed up. But there is a lot Google can offer people besides results for “Tiananmen Square 1989” to be competitive. Why not focus on just doing the best they can for people? Not indulging in symbolic gestures that lead to tensions, isolating China more.

     

    As a graduate of idealistic and (wanna-still-be) radical UC Berkeley, I am at home with Silicon Valley’s digital “open information” ethos. In fact the “free flow of information” principle is one I happily evangelize in my daily life as a Digital Experience Planner. “Free speech” via digital – sounds good. And, by extension “democracy”– sure, I am for it.

     

    But when much of the developed world has decided that access to consumption is passé yet access to information is a human right, in China people go online less to seek hard and fast information, and more to explore new worlds (often imaginary rather than real) through games, alternate personalities on blogs, and music.

     

    With 527 million subscribers to China Mobile, Chinese are skipping steps in the technology uptake game. The fact is there are no set steps in much of what is happening in China. It’s a place of as many contradictions and surprises as any of the places each of us know deeply enough to notice.

     

    CNET reports: "Google trailed homegrown search engine Baidu by a significant margin in the country, but Google was a favorite of younger users and technology enthusiasts." Chinese youth, technology enthusiasts, and many others with an interest in using the global standard search engine have had faith in Google despite its “endearing” blind spots about local relevance. I remember my colleagues and friends in Beijing watching with interest how Google would improve in the years following launch. Four years on, they have been let down by the company that aims “not to be evil”. 

     

  • Specially made for the iPad

     

    Following my last post about the iPad, where I argued that it is up to the collective imagination of developers to shape the iPad revolution, a CNET News article on Monday points out some concrete considerations for coming to terms with more real estate: ‘The iPad developer’s challenge’.

     

    What’s different about the iPad design challenge? At the end of the day, the goal is still that users get a seamless and relevant experience. If done well, any translations onto the iPad will appear effortless and add more value.

     

    The onus is on content owners to deliver on assumptions that the new bigger screen will be better by default. Experienced designers and developers know that screen space is just one surface level consideration. Other changes in design context include: heavier weight, different use occasions and interaction possibilities with the human body, furniture, the train, etc.

     

    Edward Tufte (who is making a rare appearance in London in May) describes in this video just how the iPhone context redefined specific design considerations.

     

    Developers and designers are busy working out the specific rules of the iPad context. Nick Marsh shared this link with iPad templates and stencils today.

     

    The iPad is a new design challenge because it is a new context. And, as Paul Dawson pointed out yesterday, it’s a context that hasn’t been experienced by the vast majority of those designing for it. Without having held an iPad, designers and developers must rely on their well-honed imaginations to get started. But, ultimately, just as architects spend time on building sites to confirm their assumptions about how their building site's context smells, sounds, faces the elements and views, etc, designers and developers’s ideas will probably change and improve after the iPad goes to market.

     

    Considering context in design is half the work. For many apps, this means that going back to the drawing board with the goal of bringing to life broader propositions is the best starting point. Just as, surprisingly, refurbishing existing buildings can take equal or more investment as building a new structure from scratch, successfully adjusting existing apps that were designed with the iPhone context in mind may take as much work as ideating from scratch for the iPad.

     

    The iPad is leading to specially designed sites too. On Tuesday,The New York Times ran this piece ‘NPR and WSJ Building iPad-Only Websites’.

     

    As the CNET article suggests, content owners who don’t invest in proper redesign for the iPad, are likely to let people down in the automated iPad translation. This could present an opportunity for paid for content/tools to stand out and expand the micropayment model.

     

  • Who's still calling the iPad a tampon?

    It's just over a month since the iPad launched, and there's that much more till it's in stores. Already talk about the iPad has matured from huffing about feminine hygiene to a quieter realisation that maybe we should hold our breaths afterall.

     

    What's in a name? An iPad by any other name would smell just as much of evolution.

     

    Only, the iPad hasn't promised to make smell a mainstream part of the digital experience. In fact, the iPad neglected to demonstrate any of the revolutionary features we wanted to see at launch. Smell would have made me happy. Others lament the missing built-in projector, 3D interface, doubling up as furniture, the list goes on.

     

    So, it's not revolutionary. The name bashing seems a moot point suddenly. Maybe "pad" appropriately lowers expectations that were inflated by the Apple "i". During the iPad conversation climax(according to Google Trends, this was 28 January, the launch date), many opinion leaders got busy pointing out that Apple somehow forgot to include basic features too, not just dreamy ones: Built-in webcam (the MacBook has it),phone (the iPhone does it), flash support (outside Apple they still do it),digital ink (look at the Kindle), a cover (other things well-designed provide it), to name a few. For a view of what might be an example of our Schadenfreude tendencies, here's The Guardian's 28 January 2010 compilation in 'Apple iPad:bashed by bloggers around the web'.

     

    See the number of comments and linking out to social media? Bad news travels. And resenting whatever's on a pedestal is only natural too. The Guardian's caustic Charlie Brooker had fun dethroning the iPad in 'iPad therefore iWant? Probably. Why? iDunno'. Just two weeks later, though, Brooker sacrificed some of his characteristic sarcasm (reflected by a proportionate sacrifice in follower comment and outlinking volume), with the amicable 'Why I'm an ebook convert'.

     

    What turned the basher into convert?

     

    Apparently all it took was holding a Kindle in hand (reading his piece I think you'd agree that it could have been an iPad just as well). Was it just the "feel" of the thing though? Maybe. But, I think the real trick was that holding it actually took the focus away from gadget on a glittery pedestal. Instead, his own body and motivations took centre stage: "...the single biggest advantage to the ebook is this: no one can see what you're reading. You can mourn the loss of book covers all you want, but once again I say to you: no one can see what you're reading. This is a giant leap forward, one that frees you up to read whatever you want without being judged by the person sitting opposite you on the tube."

     

    Last Monday's NMA article 'Conde Nast prepares iPad version of top magazines' gives further shape to the iPad : "First out of the blocks will be GQ, which will have an iPad version ready for its April issue, the same month as the first models of the iPad go on sale."

     

    Tube reading might just get more exciting than we ever thought possible.

     

    And this is the type of insight into the potential value of the iPad that was missing from the launch event. The Guardian's 'Apple iPad launch: live coverage' real-time reports showed how the rising anticipation was met with Steve Jobs's demonstration of features. Yes, the iPad usability has some"magic". But it's no different from what we experienced with the iPhone. Here's what might have helped: 

     

    A recognition that the iPad is not a product, and should not be reviewed as such. It is a shell, a platform, a tool, and a white label service. Like the most up-to-date approaches to innovation and creativity, the result will be iterative, and will lean heavily on open source, transparency, accessibility, crowdsourcing, co-creation. The revolution latent in the iPad may not crystallize until future versions (similar to how the iPhone arguably came of age in its third iteration), but it'll be as far reaching as the aggregated breadth and depth of our collective imagination.

     

    Apple's strategy to launch fast and relinquish a big part of the answer is worth watching. Why? They are essentially inviting micro ownership of the platform, and creating a network effect unlike any other. The first mover advantage in such conditions is enormous.

     

    Reviews about unfortunate naming and missing product features are missing the point. A competitor product to the iPad may be born with a multitude of superior features and be blessed with a better name. What it won't have, though, is having been there in a big open way first, with an interface simple and slick enough to become the single canvas for the bulk of co-creators who will do the real magic - meaning make the most of insights into human nature, and explore what to paint on the limitless space of the iPad canvas.

     

    The iPad is no product launch. It is a standing invitation to think with empathy, imagine, and create the useful things that will change us forever.

     

  • Are Microsites Dead?

    The NMA’s cover story yesterday 'Coke drops campaign site in favour of social media' has sparked the question: what will become of microsites, and the digital companies that have been earning their bread making them, now that the world’s biggest FMCG companies “Coca-Cola and Unilever are shifting their digital focus [investment] away from traditional campaign sites and towards community platforms…”.

     

    The campaign microsite is out-evolved, but not dead. We live in a world where new superior solutions (social media, mobile apps) don’t automatically result in the detriment of their ancestors (microsites). Instead, the new species take on new possibilities, while old ones settle back into their core reason for being. Why do we have microsites? The truth is, microsites never pretended to be able to sustain conversations. They are by nature short-lived, only part of the brand story. And, who needs another "interesting site" to click on? Directing customers to one and only main brand site is almost always the way to go. Almost. Because, as limited as microsites are in sustaining conversations, they are also nimble, compared with corporate sites, in spicing up a brand’s tune for a while. 

     

    Campaign microsites get around clunky, unsexy corporate sites whose structure, form, tone, and capabilities are over-protected by layers of restrictions.  In the most practical sense, the microsite exists to give some of the world’s largest brands space to wiggle out of the mothership. Once out (though still on a benevolent leash, of course), they can explore other aspects of their identities. A bit like a mid-life crisis splash (for brands), microsites give license for some indulgent experimentation. Agencies tend to love microsites, because they see the opportunity for relatively uninhibited creativity. At a time when brand stories are written by consumers, and marketers have wisely evolved from content czars to facilitators, traditional campaigns, not just microsites, are the potential dinosaurs. The microsite’s relevance is at risk, not because the form isn’t a needed break from main brand site’s restrictions, but because it is tied to campaigns that are by nature talking at consumers, as opposed to listening to and engaging in conversation with them. Microsites will live on as long as they are not ‘campaign’ microsites.


    In the world of digital, the question is not what is the next big thing, and what will die. The pie appears to be growing, not eating itself up. We need to focus on deeper bigger questions around the scope of this still forming ecosystem. What more is possible in the business of enablement? What is the role of the microsite, beyond the campaign? Could it turn into a repository for a task-specific wiki? How can it be customer-centred, add value to the conversation, fuel new concepts? Everything has its purpose. Who is to say that the garbage man adds less value than the grocery store?

     

    Usefulness over glamour will be the currency of 2010. This paper from Harvard Business School argues "As technology has simplified meeting basic needs, humans have cultivated increasingly psychological avenues for occupying their consumption energies, moving from consuming food to consuming concepts". For concepts to be consumable they must be accessible, relevant, responsive and able to change dynamically to meet people’s needs. Social media wins over microsites on most of these requirements, purely based on its form. But who is to say that microsites cannot redefine their essence? Sure, Coca-Cola and Unilever have moved investment to social media. Does this mean that digital agencies should drop microsite competence for social media, though? I don’t believe so. Digital agencies that solely focus on social media today, may go as hungry in the future as those offering only microsite (or banner or site) expertise today. What we understand as "digital" will keep expanding.

     

    While it is tempting for digital agencies to change their core competence to match the latest winning form, a more sustainable approach may involve growing the portfolio of expertise. It not just a matter of hedging our bets; it is about the web revolution being by nature inclusive, multi-dimensional, abundant. In a currency of limitless online space, it’s about strategic choices, simplification, degrees of emphasis, and appropriateness of menu choices, not necessarily replacement.

     

    As digital offerings grow, the key to success is a solid organisational core (leadership, systems, big picture thinking) that provides the structure needed for flexible problem-specific solutions, crucial for delivering on client ambitions.

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