Canvas Conference is over, but the learnings are worth your time

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Last month, I had the opportunity to attend Canvas Conference in Birmingham. Canvas is a very product and consumer-focussed conference, and it was a breath of fresh air to listen to the things that are the basis of good marketing: good products, thoughtful design and a focus on the customer. I think anyone building a brand would do well to pay attention to how you do that – first and foremost by making products that matter, and that people want.

Julien de Preaumont, Chief Marketing Officer of my favourite watch manufacturers Withings (yes I own one), spoke about how it was important to them that their products are designed well and looked good; it needed to be something people would be proud to wear. The progression that he referred to was that good Design leads to Emotion which leads to Adoption and finally Impact. I can vouch for this – I used a Nike Fuelband for years (which tracked activity but looked like I was part of a cult, the same problem that affects the Fitbit and Jawbone) and other watches that looked good but routinely needed new batteries. The other important point that Mr. de Preaumont made was that impact can only be achieved when a habit becomes regular, and design plays a big part in Withings’ products because they want to achieve impact. As he said the Withings Activite family of watches is ‘a watch that happens to be a tracker, not a tracker that happens to be a watch’ – which is probably what distinguishes it from most of the other devices that do the same thing in the market.

Joe Polastre, Product Lead at Medium, gave an excellent talk on the power of the network and how Medium is building for content distribution. He spoke about not feeding the trolls and how the design of the site ensures that comments that are not engaged with aren’t really seen over time. It’s also built to be an intuitive reading experience, which users of Medium will be familiar with: if you click one word while reading on the iPhone, the entire sentence is automatically highlighted, and so on. There was also an interesting story about tags, and how spammers started posting torrents of videos on Medium, tagging them ‘uhd’ (or Ultra HD), which then gave a clue to Medium what was going on. That wasn’t all of it of course – tags are really surfacing interesting content for readers on the site. For those who are Medium fans, keep an eye on their blog The Story, and for the developers, they released their API last month. Plus, their new logo is one of the best *new* logos I’ve seen for a software company lately. The 3D look is particularly cool. Here are their latest new features; I particularly recommend How We Get To Next, which Storythings built on Medium once Medium introduced customisable domains.

Liz Crawford, the Chief Technical Officer of Birchbox, spoke about the challenges of customisation for content discovery, especially for an online retail subscription business like theirs. The technical challenges of having to personalise content for every single person who visits a site are huge – but the upside is equally big, if you are able to get it right. Any business that sells online should be doing this – and I’m not talking about Amazon’s recommendation engines, but an algorithm that is much more detailed, which Liz spoke about.

I was fascinated to hear about what Travelex’s Tech team has been upto lately, as explained by Dave Wascha, Global Director of Digital Products. Mainly because Travelex isn’t one of those brands that has been over-exposed in media in my sphere of influence, but also because the way he spoke about it, they have an excellent grip on the challenges of working in fintech, which is being disrupted acutely even as we speak.  It was good to hear him admit, as someone working in the field, that ‘most banks thrive on obfuscating’. Check out their Supercard product (currently in pilot testing with 25,000 customers), and also the beautiful and practical look of the Travelex Money App, which was released this summer.

Jaime Delanghe, Senior Product Manager at Etsy, gave us an insight into product at the company, saying that ‘shipping the right thing was necessarily slow’ for them because of the community they work with; tags are another important feature for them too. Also, if you’re a developer in this space, check out Code As Craft.

Edd Read, Chief Technology Officer at Graze, was very engaging as he spoke about the challenges of building a subscription food company. Small things mattered: they started off wanting to ship fruit as one of their snacks, for example, but when there was a postal strike one day and deliveries were delayed, the product got spoilt and they had to re-think that strategy. There was also a fascinating story about postal bunnies (yes!), where they sent their excess supply of Easter bunnies to customers in the US using the US Postal Service, to see how long it would take, because – get this – the USPS did not have a tool to track how long it would take for mail to be delivered to various parts of the US from abroad!

The coolest job title of the conference (and maybe ever) went to Catharine Conley, Planetary Protection Officer at NASA. She does what her job description says, as unusual as it sounds – she works to ensure that extraterrestrial and outer space-facing exploration projects take ethical factors into consideration. For example, once we get to Mars, what are the health hazards we need to be aware of that may affect people both there and on Earth? I took away from her talk this point: that not only is it important how information is made, it is important how it is distributed.

There were more talks: Aaron Weyenberg from TED and Tom Petty from Go Cardless both had some useful design considerations to talk about, and Tom Guy, the Product & Commercial Director for British Gas’ Hive had a unique look at the challenges of creating a beautiful hardware product that has the potential to be used by millions of homes.

I just noticed that 383, the studio that produced Canvas, have recently released the talks online. It’s worth your time, folks – go watch them. And next year, when Canvas is back in the beautiful surroundings of Birmingham, consider going along if you’re in the UK.

Thank you to 383 for having me there.

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