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March 17 2011

7 emergent themes from Webstock reveal a framework

WebstockAt this year's Webstock in Wellington, New Zealand, there were no reports of bad acid or rainstorms to muck things up, just a few sore tummies from newcomers (like me) eating too many Pineapple Lumps.

Webstock wasn't a rock concert, but a gathering of the geek tribes that lived up to its reputation with accomplished speakers, an interesting mix of topics, and a scenic venue on the harbor.

The conference organizers sat the speakers together and they developed a nice camaraderie — unusual for a tech conference — that had them referencing and building on each others' presentations. While the presenters came from a variety of backgrounds — engineering, design and the arts — the talks were anchored in how how their topics related to web and mobile business processes.

A few useful and instructive themes emerged over the course of the conference (besides presenters using metaphors from Pixar's "Wall-E"). Sessions by Doug Bowman, Marco Arment, Karen Halvorson, Steve Souders, Frank Chimero, Christine Perfetti, Josh Clark and Michael Lopp most informed the following.

Deliver value early and build fast with a purpose

Best results come from agile-like processes and cultures that start small and iterate fast. Not surprisingly, this common theme was echoed most often by those with startup backgrounds. By limiting features, releasing fast, and learning, products and services can quickly become aligned to user needs. Resisting feature bloat is important to staying fast, especially after initial success and getting exposed to what may be a large number of users.

The agile approach also lets organization stay tuned into serendipity — uses and features that users exploit that were not part of planned use scenarios (Twitter becoming a communications tool for activism is one example). Corollaries to building fast include failing fast, i.e., quickly acknowledging what doesn't work, and using the scientific method to test and learn.

Scientific method

Elements of the scientific method — hypothesis setting, testing, learning and adjusting — are just as valid for web performance tuning as for user interfaces and understanding comprehension. Embracing the scientific method can help an organization establish a learning culture. It's not trivial. To gain the most from testing you need familiarity with using data and quantitative analysis, including visualization (charts), statistics, and machine learning.

Web 2.0 Expo San Francisco 2011, being held March 28-31, will examine key pieces of the digital economy and the ways you can use important ideas for your own success.

Save 20% on registration with the code WEBSF11RAD

Keep everything human-scaled

Acknowledge that the builders and users of products and services are people whose needs should be understood and accommodated. For user interfaces, human scale means keeping operations and processes simple, functionally consistent, cognitively easy, and intuitive. For engineers and managers that means developing strategies that help align efforts, listening to users and making fast build cycles possible. Communicating on a human scale is best done through narrative processes and storytelling, and establishing a communications strategy. Apple products were often offered as examples of simple-to-use, human-scaled designs that delight users.

Communicating with stories

To effectively communicate with users — to share, to guide and convince, to engage — use storytelling processes like narration and cause-and-effect processes. Stories are a way to cut through and make sense of the increasing volumes and ubiquity of data and noise we experience via the web and mobile devices. Humans are wired to understand and remember stories — they make content and interfaces visceral, memorable and viral (i.e., worth repeating). Different speakers evoked storytelling as a way to develop content strategies, to stay connected with others, as an interface metaphor, e.g., using scrolling to represent the passage of time, and, as a way to put data to use.

My background in data and analysis kept me keenly interested in David McCandless' "Information is Beautiful" session, with its mix of analytics, visually rendered data and storytelling. David does beautiful, playful and insightful infographics that focus on expressing the relative magnitude/scale of large numbers — especially numbers so large they are abstractions to most people — and on telling the stories in the data. His Debtris visualizations show the size of the US and UK deficits using a visual metaphor from the game Tetris to explains the size of the US and UK debt. David's work is always designed to tell a story, keeping users compelled to drill further and stay engaged. It's worth noting that David shared some failures and what he learned from them — the scientific method in action. David, who has a journalism background, calls his mix of charts and narration a "charticle" — a concept worth remembering when teasing a story out of data.

Users expect multi-touch and gestural interfaces

Multi-touch and gestural functions should be treated as the primary user interface, not functionality tacked onto conventional interfaces. If touch and gestures can do the job, there's no reason to keep a keyboard or mouse. Users see multi-touch and gestures as intuitive and the "right" interface for many tasks, expecting them on many devices, not just mobile phones and tablets. Vendors who fail to fully embrace multi-touch and gestures as the primary interface to devices and services do so at their own peril.

Simple is hard

It's hard work building the right amount of functionality, providing the optimal amount and frequency of content, creating devices that feel right, and designing user interfaces that are natural and "disappear." Making a simple experience for users, one that takes the cognitive load of how to use a device so they can focus on why they are using the device, takes effort, sweating the details, thinking, testing, and creativity. To succeed at simple, build fast and use scientific learning processes to refine and improve interfaces. Spend as much time taking out what does not work as building on what does.

Find inspiration everywhere

The presenters commonly described creative flashes inspired by their own needs and from their curiosity about topics outside their primary expertise. Creativity often gets sparked by making non-obvious connections.

Build fast, learn, simplify, tell stories, stay curious — taken together, these themes provide a useful framework for quickly building the next generation of services, applications and devices that become the warp and woof of our increasingly digital and mobile lives.


December 14 2010

Publishers, don't pave that cow path

As new publishing processes and platforms hit the market at increasing rates, publishers face bewildering choices. Where should they invest their time and money? What are the best technologies?

Gus Balbontin (@gusbalbontin), global innovation manager at Lonely Planet and a speaker at TOC 2011, has a different take on adaptation. In the following interview, he explains why agility and a willingness to try everything are the keys to digital success.

Lonely Planet has been transforming into a multi-channel content producer for a couple of years now. What hasn't worked during that transition?

TOC 2011Gus Balbontin: One issue we had was that we focused first on what we were doing. We needed to get the product right and it needed to look like this, and it needed to fulfill the customer in this way.

What we realized was that the market and the industry are shifting so quickly that trying to focus on the product too much will get you into the "death wobbles," as we call them in Australia. In traditional publishing we tend to "concrete the cow path" -- if the cow is going from the paddock to the waterhole this way, let's concrete it so the cow goes faster. Then the cow decides there's actually another way that's quicker, and you realize that you've concreted the cow path for no reason whatsoever. Our instinct in publishing is to say: "What is your new pathway? I'll concrete that one."

The lesson is that you don't want to concrete your cow paths. It is all about how you do things. You need to remain incredibly flexible. You need to intuitively understand your industry and your customer. Focusing on how you do things rather than focusing on exactly what it is that you're doing is something we learned over the last few years.

What's been your biggest success thus far?

GB: The biggest success has been focusing on the absolute essence of Lonely Planet, which is our content. Customers are starting not to see the borders between an app, an ebook, and a book. They want to have the same experience across all of these things; not the same features, but definitely the same experience. Have we nailed it yet? Of course not. We're still on the journey.

What emerging technologies should publishers pay attention to?

GB: You have to poke your finger at everything that is coming out to actually understand it. It goes back again to how you do things. If you are nimble, you should be able to test everything quickly and cheaply. That's where Lonely Planet is now. We can quickly throw together a prototype, figure out how we're going to do it, and then test the market. That's where you need to be.

One of the things I always think about is the convergence of all of these technologies. An app is a great little product you can do; an ebook is a great product you can do; a book is a great product you can do; and a game is a great product you can do. But when you bring all of those platforms together, you provide a much richer product experience.

What would "Harry Potter" look like if you provided an experience that went far beyond the book itself or far beyond the movie? Something that was actually in between those two, plus the game, plus another thing. At the moment, they do put the game out, and they put out the movie, and they put out the book. But it's still not seamless enough for the customer. You can put out a product in each one of those channels, but you cannot seamlessly read the book on a plane, and as you walk off the plane, grab your phone and continue your experience there.

I look at how Apple focuses on the experience more than the channel. So, if you're sitting at home, and you've got your Mac open in your kitchen, and you've got an Apple TV sitting underneath your telly, all of a sudden, an extra device -- the TV -- has become a valuable part of the experience. Apple didn't publish a product for the TV, a product for your laptop, etc. They just gave you an experience with three or four different channels that allow you to enjoy your content in a different way.

Publishing across platforms will be discussed at the 2011 Tools of Change for Publishing Conference, Feb. 14-16. Save 15% on registration with the code TOC11RAD.

How should the structure of publishing organizations change to accomodate the digital shift?

GB: Most companies, as they evolve, say: "There's a new channel. We'll create a new part of the company." So, all of a sudden, you've got your print business, and then you've got this digital business, or a dot-com business, and then a mobile business. That's one of the key things that needs to change.

Also, you need to stop the book metaphor from permeating an organization. You need to erase it if you can and try to become horizontal rather than vertical in the way you operate. It is incredibly tricky to break those barriers.

The essence of what the print people have known for 500 years is still the same in the digital world: you still have to publish great content. Yes, the tone may change a little. Yes, the experience might be slightly different. But at the end of the day, the people creating the content are humans. The people consuming it are also humans. The same humans that consume print consume digital. It's not different.

Stephen Fry recently released his autobiography across multiple platforms. Is that the new publishing model?

GB: That's the first step toward experiencing each one of the channels that are valuable to us today. That's fine, but it still doesn't provide a cohesive product or experience to the consumer. There is still a very clear fragmentation between the ebook, the book, and the app. We're all struggling with that.

The next step is going to be much more cohesive. In the future, you'll actually pump out content in one way, and that content will be consumed in 12 different ways, but it's the same experience across all of those. Publishers won't have to prepare content each time for each of the platforms.

What will publishing look like in 10-20 years?

GB: For me, it's going to be about the customers. We have to fulfill needs rather than just push content out that we think is right. It's going to be a seamless world where customers pick a combo of information and platform.

In terms of technology, I have no idea what's going to happen. I'm hoping that eventually we'll be able to play with our brains a little bit and implant all of those different bits of information that we want, so I can take Spanish into my brain and go to Spain and enjoy it in a much richer way because I can actually speak Spanish. How cool would that be?

In terms of the next 10 or 20 years, the essence of what publishers are doing won't change at all. This is what should make publishers feel comfortable about the future. The reason why you're there and the problems that you can solve for customers won't change. That's what you need to keep focusing on.

This interview was edited and condensed.


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