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.

The Future of Agencies


I'm currently conducting a major research project focusing on the future of agencies, working with Econsultancy. It's a revamp of the report I did three years ago on the same subject. As part of it I've been interviewing a large number of senior agency-side personnel from around the world working in all types of agency from the big management consultancies to traditional above the line creative agencies, from digital and technology focused agencies to major media agencies to newer content marketing focused outfits. Some truly compelling and (dareisayit) potentially transformative stuff has already come out of it. It seems as though a LOT has changed over the past two years. 

I'll be giving a first take on our findings in a webinar on 22nd of July. If you'd like to sign up for that, and get an early preview of the key findings you can do so here:

22nd July 9.00AM London time
22nd July 5.00PM London time

Organisational Structures from Scratch


Ashley Freidlein, CEO and Co-Founder of Econsultancy wrote a recent post on the Econsultancy blog as a first take answer to the question: 'With a blank sheet, what organisational structure would you choose for marketing and digital?'. It's an interesting question, and the answer he came up with incorporated a structure that brought improved customer focus to the organisation, and integrated marketing and digital to a far greater extent with other other customer facing and support functions and roles.

I think that there are some big questions around how we design our organisations in response to the ever changing environment in which we find ourselves, and so I built on Ashley's post with a response of my own which you can read here. As you'll hopefully see, asking ourselves what it would look like if we started with a blank sheet leads to some interesting possibilities, but also the question of whether it isn't time to have a more challenging debate about how we structure organisations (particularly functions like marketing, customer experience and digital) for a digitally-empowered world. I'm interested to know what you think.

Google Firestarters Austin - Engineering Strategy - The Event


Saturday saw our first ever Firestarters event in Austin, held in the Google Fiber space during SXSWi. We'd themed the event around the intersection of user experience design and strategy which, judging from the audience feedback and debate on the night is rich territory for discussion right now. Perhaps unsurprising given the growth in importance of UX within both clients and agencies, and more generally how tech-savvy design resourcing, expertise and practice is in ever increasing demand (as encapsulated nicely by John Maeda's Design in Tech Report that was launched at SXSW).

Our first speaker was the brilliant Oonie Chase, Director of Experience at Wieden & Kennedy, who talked about how UX was influencing briefs in interesting and sometimes uncomfortable ways at W & K, but also how the two disciplines will likely start start from a different place - planning from the lens of the brand, UX from the customer perspective, and what they can teach each other. She used a quote by Dave Terry at W & K ("It's entirely wrong, but it's golden in its wrongness.") about UX:


User Experience practice challenges the idea that you need scale immediately - you might start small to acquire learnings, whilst advertising has a ‘need for glory’. UX is something that is co-created over time so not necessarily perfect. It doesn't worship creative and 'doneness' in the same way as planners do. But whilst UX can be overly focused on getting from A to B, planning can teach UX about not losing sight of the ‘soul’ and emotion of what you do. Rather than aiming for a Minimum Viable Product, perhaps it's more about achieving a 'Minimum Lovable Product'.

Chloe Gottlieb, SVP Exec Creative Director, R/GA, complimented that nicely by focusing on where planning and UX (or rather Experience Design, which is the term they prefer at R/GA) overlap. Great planners, said Chloe, are inherently creative and great Experience Designers are inherently strategic, but it's how they work together (as opposed to working in parallel) inside the agency that is becoming increasingly important. Both planners and experience designers are pattern seekers, consumed by consumers, and obsessed with culture and behaviour, but:

"While UX folk might veer more toward architecture, engineering and design - closely observing customer needs and how to add value to them over time - planners are more like poets, anthropologists, psychicians – finding tensions in culture and bringing them to light."

UX insights might lead to products, services and platforms (systems), planning insights lead to brand stories, content, comms. R/GA's own progression has amplified the overlap, growing into making more branded interactions and systems for campaigns, becoming more strategic (e.g. thinking about functionally integrated services that tied products and services together), just as planning comes from brand and storytelling towards having to create strategies that could lead to products, services or communications, and is evolving to find ways to stay involved as work is made, tested, evolved over time. 


So it is far from binary, there is plenty of overlap, and planning and UX need each other more than ever. The intersection is where the magic happens, particularly now that most brands are primarily experienced through interfaces (in fact 'Brand is Interface'), product and message are integrated more than ever, and experiences are not separated into silos. Strategy becomes 'truth over time', requiring more system thinking, experimentation, tweaking, QA than ever before. At R/GA, getting to insights involves multidisciplinary teams working together on the problem, looking for patterns and collisions, and briefs are the crystallisation after the ideas are baked. The way they know they have a great insight is when it enables creatives to take giant leaps.

Ian Spalter, UX Lead at YouTube, added a third unique perspective. Moving to a tech company from an agency background, said Ian, meant coming to a place where big ideas are not as important as big releases, where impact is more important than inspiration, and from an environment run on creative disciplines, to one dominated by engineering. His tool set and collaborators have also changed (he counts algorithms amongst his new set of collaborators). Planners dig for insights, and uncover or manufacture a truth, and creatives make fictions (through stories and designs). So the flow of the process is that from an insight you get a big idea, and from that big idea you tell or make a story, and in software especially you create an experience for the customer. But in software the distance between creating a story and creating an experience can be a long and winding road. But increasingly both marketing and product now focus on the essentials of the experience they are trying to create at the end. This may be in a story like form, but stories illustrate a promise, and all promises are lies until we keep them. So 'planners tell awesome lies', lies we can believe in.


And whilst software companies understand their customer’s behaviour, they rarely understand their customer.

Russell Davies (Creative Director, UK Government Digital Service) built on his Firestarters UK talk by focusing in on how usability increasingly trumps persuasion. In a pleasingly controversial talk, he talked about how the product is the service is the marketing, and why this meant that experience design was the future. A brilliant product will always be better than a parity product with marketing. It was once hard to produce brilliant products, but as everything becomes increasingly digitised it's easier than ever. So companies that are still set up around persuasion need to design around the needs of the user, and be set up to deliver the best experience possible. This means no new ideas until everything works ('fix the basics'). And that user experience is killing marketing since if the product is good enough there is no need to over sell it. And about how everyone should be concerned about making user experience better.


The questions and debate afterwards picked up on just how topical a subject this is right now for strategists and agencies, and we had no lack of interesting (and sometimes controversial) opinion on the night. You can see a Storify of some of the feedback and conversation here

My thanks as always to Ben Malbon and Google for hosting, to our amazing speakers who made our first Google Firestarters in Austin such a success.

Thanks to DDB Worldwide and ImageThink for images used in this post.

Mullet Strategy

The following is a notated version of a talk I gave last night at the APG Noisy Thinking event on 21st Century Strategy.

When the APG asked me talk about '21st Century Strategy' I’d not long before read Emily Bell’s brilliant Hugh Cudlipp lecture about the future of journalism. Emily talks in that lecture about the growing ‘tabloidisation’ (and not in an entirely negative way) of news output and specifically about (like the new breed of ‘digitally-native’ news organisation) news rooms that now feature optimisation desks, insight, analytics and data specialists, and even aggregation desks. A kind of journalism that is fully integrated with the social web:

‘Tabloid  or popular journalism is being done by the same outlets that produce the most serious chin-stroking think-pieces. In 2005 the Huffington Post pioneered this ‘mullet strategy’ for journalism, which looked neat and respectable at the front, wild and hairy at the back.’

I think there are many parallels that can be drawn between the challenges faced in the practice of journalism, and those in the craft of strategy. But I think you can’t really talk about the future of strategy or planning without talking about the future of agencies. And the context in which agencies are now operating is of-course shifting dramatically. It’s a context that threatens the very lifeblood of our clients. Work done by Professor Richard Foster at Yale University showed that the average lifespan of a company in the S & P 500 had declined from 61 years in 1958 to 18 years today.

Data from IBM has shown that the majority of marketers believe that their roles will change in the short and mid-term, and a sizeable minority believe that they need to actually reinvent their roles (yet comparatively few know how). Small wonder when technology provision in just the marketing sector alone (let alone all the other vertical functions in a business) is exploding, marketers are increasing talking about the ‘marketing technology stack’, and the most exciting things for them in both the short and longer-term are creating joined-up customer experiences and this thing called content marketing.

Could we have imagined a few years ago that a consumer electronics manufacturer (GoPro) would have already garnered over three quarters of a billion views on YouTube, a soft drinks manufacturer would have 700 people (larger than many media owners) in a building in Austria devoted to nothing but content, or that Amazon could get so adept at customisation that it is serving up different content to every one of its 250 million odd monthly active users, or that a company (Facebook) could completely transform its revenue base from a standing start in little more than two years, or that a search engine gets so good at using data that it can understand the nuanced context of how we talk about something to give us a better answer to our question.

But as I said before, the future of strategy is closely intertwined with the future of agencies. Drawing on the work I did for The Progression of Agency Value project, repurposing Gilmore and Pine’s Economic Value model gives us a good model for understanding that the future of agencies, and therefore strategy, will be about progressing from providing services toward delivering value through experiences and ultimately about helping to affect transformations or changes in the client organisation itself. We seem to ask the ‘What is Strategy?’ question a lot, and I wonder if it’s because whilst the fundamentals of what strategy is remain the same, the context for how it is deployed is always shifting. Lawrence Freedman’s definition talks about strategy as a fluid, flexible, continuous thing that responds to unforeseen situations. Noah’s thought about strategy really being about building algorithms (rules) that help drive optimal outcomes in decisions is good because it takes account of the fact that humans are critical to designing those rules, and that algorithms are constantly being updated to take account of evolving environments. So clever ways of putting people together with technology will always win.

Columbia Business professor Rita Gunther McGrath (in ‘The End of Competitive Advantage’) talks about how organisational strategy is shifting from maintaining sustainable competitive advantage to building a series of transient advantages, which in turn has implications for the fluidity with which you allocate talent, organising resources around opportunity rather than existing structures, continuous innovation, continuous experimentation and a ‘fast and roughly right’ approach. This, and the increasing convergence of strategy, innovation and transformation creates opportunity for agencies and for strategy. And if strategy is increasingly starting to look like innovation which is starting to look like transformation, then the interesting places are in the overlap between planning, service and experience design, and organisational change.

The exemplar of GAFA and their ‘vertical stack’ approach shows the possibilities of creating user-centric systems that use data to join up customer experience, taking value from interaction at one touchpoint and using it to enhance the experience at another touchpoint. So opportunity exists at the centre (optimisation, automation or augmentation through creativity, of BAU or core services and functions), and at the edges where innovation happens (emerging understanding, set-up and design of the new). But all of this, as the Cap Gemini/MIT Sloan study shows, requires us not to pursue shiny new technology for the sake of it but to always remember the value of the skills, behaviours, culture and leadership that surrounds it.

My final thought was about Sturgeon’s revelation that 90% of everything is crap. There’s a lot of crap advertising around. There’s a lot of crap content marketing. When it’s so easy and cheap to create stuff and put it out there, more than ever the role of the planner/strategist is to stop stuff being crap.  

So 'Mullet Strategy' is about being neat and respectable at the front (creating exceptional joined-up experiences and good campaigns based on great insight, strong creative ideas - and not being crap). And it’s about being wild and hairy at the back (working with clients to create continuous, responsive interactions and experimentation that might generate new learning, improve capability, and ultimately change the organisation itself - and of-course, not being crap). In this way, and in reference to Oliver Burkeman’s wonderful piece in The Guardian about how 'Everyone is totally just winging it, all the time', perhaps we just need to join with our clients in winging it a bit more.