Thanks to everyone who came to The Fantastic Tavern last night. It’s great to see that the Taverniers community is steadily growing (200+ and counting) and I am committed to continuing (and improving) this event in 2010.
Follow me on twitter to see what we’ll debate in future @mattbagwell and #TFT
The theme of our evening was Optimisation of web experiences, using techniques like Multi-variant Testing, MVT. EMC Consulting work with a number of our clients to plan and manage this type of activity and the results are profound. However, as the practice becomes more pervasive, I wanted to explore the practice’s relationship to the traditions of design and question whether making changes to a ‘designed’ experience subtracts from the relevance of the designer’s purpose or craft?
Sometimes I should practise more of what I preach. Yes, I visited the venue before the event. But did I test it? Nope. So fifty of us squeezed into a room that was a bit noisy and rather warm. Fantastic Tavern? More like Swedish sauna! Never mind, at least EMC Consulting had provided adequate cold refreshments. I quite sure, in cooler and quieter circumstances our conversation might have continued for longer! I’ll take that learning and start earlier next time.
I was joined by a passionate panel and thanks to each of them for taking time to do this event and having the courage to stand up in front of an audience to face my questions. Without Jo Robb (B&Q), Matt Walton (Virgin Media), James Deeley (EMC Consulting) and David Ellis (EMC Consulting), the Fantastic Tavern and its themes would mean nothing. Feel free to contact me (email@example.com) if you’d like to take part.
I started the discussion with a point of view, or at least a question. As creatives we accept the practice of MVT etc. Take a Ferrari for example. There is rigorous process of refinement from the initial sketches to the final production vehicle, using all manner of process to improve of the original. But if analytical feedback was the only measure of success and effectiveness would VW add a flower holder to the reincarnation of the Beetle? Surely, the bean counters would have challenged the benefit over the cost of tooling it, the agronomists would have challenged its appropriateness and I guess NCAP might have marked it down as a distraction to safe driving, even losing VM half a point in an all important marketing figure. And yet, here it is. An emotional reference to flower power and the sixties that made the modern vehicle connect on an emotional level to the classic icon. And if adding a woman in a red dress to a home page encouraged engagement and interaction, say click through, does that make it right for a brand? Of course, this is way too simplistic but I used it as a springboard to our discussion.
What I heard was that while the practice of optimisation yields great potential value in the detail, it had to be balanced against other brand measures as well – it’s a very tactical tool. The point was made that brands have to ensure that while there may be the temptation do use an image or phrase to create value, it still has to be conceived within (dynamic) guidelines and brand conditions, so that every variant is ‘on-brand’. This does put a responsibility on brand teams (police?) and web teams to work harmoniously together and at increasing speed, to maintain the integrity of an experience while reaping incremental value.
So the web cannot be templated – a relief for all of us working in the industry! Thanks Yacob, but there isn’t a one size fits all solution to detailed design. Principles? Maybe but not the execution of them. Why? Because the brand experience has a specific context and makes (or should) a unique promise, to James’ point, before during and after the interaction. What’s really exciting is that what works for one brand may not for another. Indeed, both Matt and Jo suggested that might work for one process on a site might not elsewhere. So the learning from MVT etc cannot be arbitrarily applied.
Of course, there is a new overhead of digital experience management, and clients like B&Q and VM have to forge and relationships with their development partners and agencies. Conversations and turnaround times are having to accelerate – so that we can learn together. Designing is a complex science and taking MTV etc and overlaying it on behavioral analysis and brand measures requires a new tenacity. Similarly practitioners like David Ellis recognise a responsibility to be involved throughout the design process and provide a feedback loop to the design community.
So does the potential to improve live experiences mean that we can arbitrarily deliver lower quality experiences and then work to improve them later? The panel was unanimous in a resounding “No!” They are not in the business of delivering 80/20 services or product offerings on line. They still care passionately about having a very clear strategy and using classic testing techniques in development to deliver the very highest quality pre-launch and then using MVT etc to close an increasingly small gap to perfection, against detailed and very specific objectives.
What is certainly true is that there is another wave of fresh excitement about experience design, fuelled by these practices of optimisation. I believe they can be at the heart of closer working relationship across the teams (client and agency), working together to common purposes in increasingly dynamic ways. The web is moving from ‘open 24/7’ to evolving in real time and brands like those represented see this as a real opportunity to deliver increasingly appropriate experiences to individuals, not segments or demographics. Indeed, I had a spirited conversation with an online manager as the beer flowed afterwards and our excitement about experience design was palatable. This energy is the reason we do what we do and the reason why I enjoy bringing us together for The Fantastic Tavern.
Our conversation only just began. As James so clearly suggested, we’re all just at the start of this journey. If anyone would like to talk more about MVT etc again please get in touch (firstname.lastname@example.org) and I’ll invite you for another nosh up and discussion. Some of us might have liked to see some more detail – I appreciate that. However, sometimes the pub is a tough place to do case studies and PowerPoints. But feel free to get in touch and I’ll run a special event and we can learn more about how god (not the devil) can really be in the detail and help you realise your ambitions online.
So that’s it for 2009. A year where our community has faced some real challenges but remains dedicated to doing great work. Thanks for being a part of The Fantastic Tavern. Give me feedback about how to improve. I wish you all a very warm Christmas and look forward to sharing time and experiences again when we return in January. Now, about the woman in the red dress…
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