On The End of Apps (as we know them)


A while back Tom Goodwin wrote a great Techcrunch piece (the one with that opening line about Uber, Facebook, Alibaba and AirBnB that has been so frequently copied/quoted ever since), talking about how our relationship is increasingly shifting from the creators of products and even services to software interfaces that have become the new mediators.  A new breed of rapidly growing company (like those mentioned above) that are 'indescribably thin layers that sit on top of vast supply systems (where the costs are) and interface with a huge number of people (where the money is)'.  This means, says Tom, a non-stop battle for the interface, for the best customer experience, to leap ahead as the gateway of choice, and to gain scale and breadth in this context.

I think a good example of the kind of shift that Tom is talking about is the change that is starting to happen in how we interact with mobile apps. As Android and iOS develop, more and more interaction is happening in the notifications layer rather than in the apps themselves, increasingly removing the need to open up apps at all. Paul Adams described this trend nicely in his post on the end of apps as we know them:

'How we experience content via connected devices – laptops, phones, tablets, wearables – is undergoing a dramatic change. The idea of an app as an independent destination is becoming less important, and the idea of an app as a publishing tool, with related notifications that contain content and actions, is becoming more important.'

The concept of apps sitting in the background pushing content into a central experience, says Paul, is making more and more sense. The growing popularity of cards, as an increasingly dominant design pattern, and as containers for content that can come from any app is facilitating this. It means designing for systems rather than destination, for content that might be broken down into atomic units that can work agnostic of device, platform or screen size.

Something else is happening here. The growing integration into operating systems of the capability to reach inside apps to extract relevant functionality or data. As Wired pointed out earlier this month“Our dumb, silo’d apps are slowly but steadily becoming smart, context-aware services that link, share, and talk to each other without us having to necessarily see or touch those little squares.”

Google recently debuted Now on Tap - effectively an update of Google Now that makes it smarter, meaning that it can be activated without leaving other apps, examine what's happening on your screen and surface other relevant content (e.g. from other apps), effectively fusing it into the Android OS. Similarly, with iOS9, Apple announced an upgrade to Siri and Spotlight called Proactive, that allows users to reach inside apps to surface their data and link their functionality without having to open them from their home screen.

The existing mobile experience, dominated by a bank of icons for apps that lead to separate destinations is changing. And as experiences become more frictionless they may have more points of contact but potentially fewer options for control. As Google Now and Siri become more active at mining apps for functionality and data, the interface shifts from one controlled by app creators to one controlled by the maker of the operating system.

This is not necessarily a bad thing (from a UX point of view it can make our interactions more seamless) but it is a big shift, the implications of which are pretty huge for how we design services.

Dots Conference 2015


Last year I curated Dots Conference - run by Antony Mayfield and the smart folk at Brilliant Noise, and a key part of the Brighton Digital Festival. It was lots of fun, and the feedback was great from the people that came along, so I was really happy when Antony asked me to curate it for them again this year.

This time, the theme for the conference is 'Transformation' and we've got an amazing line up of speakers coming at the topic from multiple angles including people who are leading real change and digital transformation within large organisations, a couple of great authors who have compelling points of view about change, inspiring people who have come up with transformational ideas and done something about it, and technologists who have fascinating angles on how technology will empower a transformational future. So far, the line up includes:

  • Tess Macleod Smith, Publishing Director at NET-A-PORTER
  • Tom Hopkins, Product Innovation Director at Experian
  • Steve Chapman, Author of Can Scorpions Smoke?
  • Eva Appelbaum, Digital Director at BBC Earth
  • Adam Morgan, Founder of EatBigFish
  • Christina Scott, CIO of the Financial Times
  • Sam Conniff, Co-founder of Livity
  • Ciara Judge, Founder of Purchasemate
  • Stuart Turner, Founder of Robots and cake!
  • Antony Mayfield, CEO, Brilliant Noise

It should be excellent. The early-bird discount for tickets ends Friday, and you can both read more about it and buy them here. See you there.

A Five Stage Model for Digital Maturity

‘Digital maturity’ is another one of those phrases that has lost some of its meaning through over-use but since so many companies are undergoing some form of digital transformation I do think it useful to have some kind of framework for development. So what might the progression in digital competence look like?

The four stages of competence model (or ‘conscious competence’ learning model) used in Psychology to describe the psychological states involved in various stages of learning might be a good place to start. The model is typically used in the context of positioning individual learning and attainment of skill, but I think it is just as applicable to how an organisation (for a company is but a group of people) might learn and improve capability. Applied in the context of digital transformation, it progresses from unconscious incompetence through to unconscious competence thus:

Unconscious incompetence

At this initial stage, the organisation (or in the original model the individual) is not only unaware of how to effectively deploy digital technologies, they are also blissfully unaware of what they don’t or should know. In order to move on to the next stage, the company needs to first recognise the value of digital transformation, and the degree of stimulus or impetus to learn determines the amount of time spent at this stage.

Conscious incompetence

The company may not fully understand digital or how to deploy it but they are at least aware of their short-comings and of the value in developing new competencies to address the deficit. Experimentation and learning from failure becomes an important part of the learning process at this stage.

Conscious competence

By this stage, the company has developed competency in digital, but deployment or execution requires conscious effort, focused involvement, and likely planned, definitive steps.

Unconscious competence

A true ‘digitally-native’ organisation. Digital becomes second-nature, executed easily, intuitively, allowing for greater efficiency and capability in execution. 

What I like about this model is that it progresses from unconscious (we don’t know what we don’t know) to conscious (we know what we do know and what we don’t know) to innate (we know it so well it is intuitive). 

The Dreyfus Model for skills acquisition takes this a stage further, with five distinct stages of learning - novice, competence, proficiency, expertise, and mastery. From the Wikipedia entry:

“In the novice stage, a person follows rules as given, without context, with no sense of responsibility beyond following the rules exactly. Competence develops when the individual develops organizing principles to quickly access the particular rules that are relevant to the specific task at hand; hence, competence is characterized by active decision making in choosing a course of action. Proficiency is shown by individuals who develop intuition to guide their decisions and devise their own rules to formulate plans. The progression is thus from rigid adherence to rules to an intuitive mode of reasoning based on tacit knowledge.”

In this model, the same progression from unconscious incompetence to unconscious competence takes place, and as the company (or, in the original model, the student) becomes skilled, there is less dependency on abstract principles and more on real-world experience. So in the context of digital transformation, the stages of competence look like this: 

1. Novice 

The company follows established rules, including those that have been created for specific circumstances without any contextual adaptation, and feels no responsibility for outcomes

2. Advanced beginner

As experience grows, new 'situational' elements come into play meaning that rules can be applied to specific and related conditions. But decisions are still made through the application of rules, all aspects of work are treated separately, and with little prioritisation or responsibility taken.

3. Competence 

At this stage the numbers of rules increase, perhaps to the point where we need to adopt organising principles, or specific and particular perspectives. So relevance of information becomes more important, decision-making then becomes active, planning more deliberate, and so implying more responsibility for choices and decisions.

4. Proficiency

By now, the company is able to take a more holistic view of a situation, better understand contexts, prioritise the importance of particular aspects, note deviations from norms, employ guiding principles and adapt to the situation at hand. Diagnosis of situations is becoming more intuitive but conscious decision-making is used in the formulation of plans, and real-world previous experience can inform decisions. 

5. Mastery/Expertise

Digitally-centric approaches are second-nature, there is a strong vision of what is possible, there is an intuitive grasp of situations based on deep, tacit understanding but analytical approaches might be used in new situations or contexts. Decision-making is intuitive, with no need to deconstuct situations into discrete elements to understand them, the company does what works, pattern recognition might extend to the plan as well as the diagnosis.


Stubborn on Vision, Flexible on Details

Jeff Bezos once said:

“We are stubborn on vision. We are flexible on details…. We don’t give up on things easily. Our third-party seller business is an example of that. It took us three tries to get the third-party seller business to work. We didn’t give up.” 

If you’re not stubborn, you’ll give up on experiments too soon. And if you’re not flexible, you’ll pound your head against the wall and you won’t see a different solution to a problem you’re trying to solve.”

Many organisations are now recognising the value in more iterative, experimental, adaptive ways of working in response to rapidly changing competitive contexts, customer expectations and technologically-driven possibilities, but this can frequently raise questions around direction. If we spend all our time iterating our way towards our future (so the question goes), where is our strategic direction? And how can we make the kind of creatively-driven leaps forward that change the game and enable us to leap-frog the competition? 

The answer to this lies in the right balance between the directional guidance given by a compelling longer-term vision and the flexibility enabled through highly adaptive and responsive approaches and ways of fulfilling that mission. Iteration and experimentation without vision is chaotic. Rigidly pursuing a plan without adaptiveness leads to declining performance, missed opportunities, limited learning. Stubborn on vision, flexible on details. 

Creativity in Business

This, from The Book of Life:

"...business creativity is a little different from artistic creativity. A company is a group of individuals gathered together to solve a problem for other people. This helps to define what the true focus of business creativity should be: intense and lateral thinking about what could be missing from the lives of customers. Business creativity means skill at identifying and profitably meeting the needs (many of them unspoken and vague) of customers. Everything else – the factories, the technology, the logistics, the spreadsheets – is in a sense secondary to this aim; whatever efforts are subsequently lavished on execution, a business cannot succeed if it hasn’t zeroed in on a real, that is, sufficiently urgent, human requirement."