My talk at She Says SCAMP 2011

Re-posted from the Made by Many blog, my talk at She Says SCAMP 2011:

I recently spoke at the She Says annual SCAMP conference. The theme was ‘mashup’, so I decided to speak about the mashup of my online and offline worlds, or lessons that I’ve learnt as I work in the digital industry that I also consider offline

I started with a quote by Austin Kleon, a writer and artist from Texas, and then spoke about how things like Facebook and our mobile gadgets are used by pretty much all of us because of how simple they are.

I then went on to speak about the phrase ‘Keep it Simple Stupid‘, which was first used by Kelly Johnson, lead engineer at Lockheed Skunkworks. In the 1940’s and 50’s, Lockheed used to make spy planes for the US government. Johnson ran his unit with precision. At the heart of it was the philosophy that the aircraft they built had to be so simple that any engineer with a basic set of tools could repair it if they had to, if for example, the plane was shot down in the middle of a field. And I think that keeping things simple is a philosophy more of us should remember when we build digital things.

One service today which has taken this advice literally to heart is Instagram. People like it for various reasons: lots of people say that it makes them look like good photographers, one friend of mine said that it is like a visual diary of her friends and makes her feel closer to them when she is far away. And it is also extremely simple to use. Take a picture, apply a filter and share. Done. With Instagram, as the founder says, they knew that they had only 30 seconds to make an impact on users, because it is a mobile app. You can do a 100 things on the go and you do not want something that’s going to take ages to do.  One extra step could lose you your users. And they hit the jackpot – in less than 5 months, they hit 2 million users. That’s a lot.

Then of course there’s the iPad, which is now officially so simple to use that a school in the US has decided to get all their kindergarten students one. But it’s not just kids that seem to get it – grandparents are too.  As this research by the University of Reading indicates, the reason it’s such a great educational tool is that it is simple to use – it is designed to reflect the way real world physical objects work, which is a skill people already possess.

My next point was related to this, about how it is important to do stuff that feels right intuitively – in the digital world, for example, try to make stuff that bridges the gap between the physical and the digital. I mentioned Hollergram, and how though we designed it to be a physical messaging platform, people are finding their own uses for it.

I then mentioned the importance of looking at your products through the eyes of the user. We built Skype in the Classroom, a service for teachers to connect with each other over Skype, on the assumption that what they wanted was a place to share lesson planning tools and resources. But as we continued talking to the teachers after we launched in beta, we realized that what they wanted was to be able to collaborate with teachers on specific projects. So we built that functionality – and once we were out of beta, we went from 4000 to 10,000 teachers in just 2 weeks. And we continue to focus on the people who matter the most – the teachers using the service. I think that’s an important thing to remember too: you’ll never be able to satisfy everyone 100% of the time – focus on those who matter to you.

Another great example of a service that does that is Songkick, a community for music lovers and gig goers. In fact, I’ve been on the other side of the fence here – as a member of the community, I’ve actually answered questions that Songkick have asked me about the service, as they worked to improve it. They also work using Agile software principles like Made by Many, which is all about building and learning, and then doing that again and again as you refine your offering in keeping with the growth in technology and the needs of your audience.

In both these examples, focusing on what the user wants can avoid a situation where you pay too much attention to fads, like mystery meat navigation, a term coined by a web designer called Vincent Flanders in 1998 to describe sites that may be visually appealing but are simultaneously confusing and inefficient – something you want to avoid.

And all the things I mentioned are in some way related to human factors engineering: or optimizing the relationship between technology and people, by applying what we know about people and how they behave, to our work, whether we’re designing a product, a campaign, or a service.

An account of the day via Storify is at the link below:

[View the story “She Says SCAMP 2011” on Storify]

Thinking Like The Young


I went to the She Says Golden Stiletto Awards a couple of weeks ago. Most of the entries weren’t very inspiring, but thankfully the winning entry was quite interesting. It was a campaign by Lean Mean Fighting Machine for the Department of Schools, Children and Families. The idea was to encourage 13-14 year olds to study foreign languages in the 6-month run-up to their GCSE choices without sounding preachy. LMFM based their campaign on a phenomenon they observed in Flickr where teenagers take photographs of their rooms and tag the contents. They created 3 foreign teenagers’ rooms, which were decorated according to their different interests. The objects in their rooms were tagged in their respective native languages and linked to external blogs or videos in those languages. 

I’m increasingly tiring of microsites and am relieved this uses an existing service (Flickr) to speak to its audience. I was also quite impressed with the insight behind it all.

Feed the brain

One common refrain that I’ve been hearing of late is that it is important to feed the brain with many different ideas in order to drive creativity. Yesterday’s She Says speakers spoke about inspiring creativity, and all of them in one way or another mentioned this. This only bolsters my increasing confidence in the fact that knowing about many different issues or ideas is a good thing (versus specialised knowledge in one area), because only then can you draw something from one basket, mix it with another and come up with a creative solution to the problem at hand (which is the definition of a creative generalist). A great example of this mixing-and-matching that was mentioned yesterday was what happened when a writer met a chocolate-maker: they came up with the idea of making the word ‘chilli’ in chocolate – yes, chocolates that tasted like chilli, which sounds crazy but is definitely innovative!

Miranda Ross, Brand Planning Director at AMV BBDO gave some useful tips on how to drive inspiration, which clearly came from experience and made a lot of sense. They were simple and basic thoughts:

1. Listen to a fan (of the product/brand), because their enthusiasm could start your creative juices flowing.

2. Interrogate/experience the product, i.e wear it, eat it, use it, or even visit the manufacturing factory, to immerse yourself in it.

3. Think about what is NOT being talked about. If people are actually laughing at the brand, you should know why.

4. Take it away. Think of what would happen if the product/brand didn’t exist at all.

5. What latest inventions could apply? Think of technological advances that could be used to enhance the product’s experience, and the example she gave was Nike+ (yay!).

6. Let it fester. Take your time with it, don’t be in a hurry to come up with a solution.

7. Mind-map it.

8. Go browse. In a shoe store, music store, book store, toy store, whatever.

9. Don’t give up too early.