1. Never choose the wrong seat at a restaurant again

    Posted March 13, 2013 in ephemera, strategy  |  No Comments so far

    You and a group of colleagues or friends arrive at a restaurant and are shown to your table. You now have a split second to make a decision that could make or break your evening: which seat position do you grab?

    Thankfully Alex Cornell has written a handy visual guide to help you make the right choice, thereby avoiding the need to spend the whole meal sat next to the dullest conversationalist or in a place where you can barely hear what your fellow diners are discussing.

    Here’s an excerpt:

    6 Person Circle: How loud the restaurant is determines how important it is that you claim a middle seat. A quiet space allows for cross-table diagnoal talking, and generally one conversation. A loud space however forces multiple conversations and less diagonal.

    Now go over to Alex’s site and read the whole thing.

  2. The new iPad might not be very impressive on paper. But who cares?

    Posted March 8, 2012 in mobile, strategy  |  No Comments so far

    Yesterday Apple revealed the new iPad. You can read all about it elsewhere or go right to the source if you want to buy one.

    As usual the announcement was preceded by feverish speculation. Would the new device come with iOS 6? Was it going to allow users to ‘touch’ pixels (or tixels) through advanced haptic feedback technology? And what about Siri?

    The answer to all these questions turned out to be “no”, but some new features did make it in. First and foremost was the Retina display, which doubles the screen resolution. It’s easy to underestimate the importance of this – talk about display resolution never really captivates ‘normal’ people – but it does matter.

    The other enhancements possibly fall into the “so what” category. Take the support for 4G and LTE connections. If you’re in the UK you might well ask, support for what? These are new standards for mobile networks that are becoming common in north America, but they’re still some way off here. So that enhancement isn’t really relevant to British users.

    And then there’s the new quad-core processor. The less said about that the better. It’s not that it isn’t important – it’s just that it really doesn’t excite consumers. Remember in the early 2000s when Windows devotees would mock the lower clock speeds of PowerPC CPUs, believing this proved the inferiority of Apple machines? You probably don’t: it turned out that no-one cared. Apple refused to join a CPU arms race and it turns out that they were right.

    So this leaves Apple with a new product announcement that is evolutionary rather than evolutionary. No freaky futuristic stuff, no “one more thing”. But does it matter?

    I don’t think it matters at all really. The iPad dominates the tablet market and there’s nothing on the immediate horizon that’s going to change that. When Windows 8 launches it’ll be in a battle against Android for second place, but that could end up being a pretty small prize to fight for. There’s a more tangible threat to the iPad from the Kindle Fire but Amazon has work to do if it’s going to convince people that these products belong in the same device category. Apple’s dominance of the tablet market is ensured for the foreseeable future.

    Given all this, throwing new features at the dominant product in an attempt to revolutionise it would be a bad move. When you’re behind, the “hail mary pass” – a single recklessly ambitious scheme to stave off disaster – is a good strategy. But when you’re ahead that’s the last thing you want to do. It’s what Microsoft did with Vista, and it ended up spending millions giving the world a product it didn’t need. Apple isn’t going to be “doing a Vista” with the iPad any time soon.

  3. No place for money in the brave new world of the Apple Store

    Posted January 13, 2011 in strategy  |  No Comments so far

    The Apple Store on Regent Street has been open for a while, but my first visit was just before Christmas. I went to get some things for my work laptop, and had a slightly confusing time.

    The Apple Store on Regent Street

    Once I’d found the stuff I needed, I spent an awkward few minutes hopelessly looking for somewhere to pay. Mild panic gripped me when I realised that it wasn’t going to happen – because there were no tills. No tills! And not only were there no tills, there were no signs saying “Pay Here”, no queues of patient shoppers, no beeping scanners. I simply could not figure out how to purchase the stuff I was carrying – a strange feeling to have in a retail environment.

    Luckily a passing staff member noticed my confusion and asked if I was OK. I asked about paying for my things and he said, “that’s fine, we can do that right here”. Using an iPod Touch to scan my things, he then processed my card using equipment tucked away discreetly behind a bench. I was finally free to leave the store.

    At first I thought Apple just wanted to use technology to look clever while streamlining the buying process. But maybe there was a deeper motive. After all, Apple doesn’t mess around when it comes to design – they execute well, but they also plan well (let’s leave Ping aside for the moment). So what’s the thinking behind the oddly invisible Apple Store purchase process? Here’s my take on it.

    Show money the door

    The central principle, stated simply, is this: get rid of money. Remove money from the space. Go as far as possible to extract money, the signs of money, the sights and sounds of money, from the Apple Store environment.

    Putting this into practise means that there should be no tills, no barriers, no staff members sitting behind desks holding barcode scanners. No “Pay Here” signs dangling from the roof. No obvious places for shoppers to form queues. By taking these steps, the space can be wiped clean of the idea of money.

    But why do this? Why take these steps when they’ll cost money while confusing customers, who are extremely accustomed to how normal shops work?

    There has to be a good reason for doing it, and there is: to remove money as a mediating presence between the shopper and the product.

    Money gets in the way (click for full size)

    Money muddies our thinking. When we’re reminded that it exists, we can’t forget about it. When it’s on our minds, every decision we make is influenced by it. It becomes a kind of lens through which we process the world.

    For most retailers this isn’t a big problem because it can be exploited. Think of the discount trick – you see a pair of OK-but-nothing-special shoes, then notice a sticker saying “20% off” and suddenly you want the shoes. So-so products can be enhanced by a money message; introducing money into the dynamic can make people more likely to buy. But while this is all very well for the likes of Tesco, Apple is playing a different game.

    iThing, you complete me

    Apple really doesn’t want us thinking about money when we encounter Apple products. It wants us to engage directly with them, without money intervening. The connection should be emotional, not functional or financial. Thoughts like “that’s cheap” or “is this discounted?” undermine this connection.

    Instead, Apple want us to imagine our lives having been enriched and transformed by the snazzy new iThing that looks so glorious in this pristine store. Without money getting in the way, with no visible reminder of its influence, it’s easier to conceive of the iThing as being in our grasp. Without things like checkout queues subconsciously reminding us of money, our desire for the iThing can take more easily root in our minds.

    Apple is creating a kind of post-money environment where decisions are based on emotion, not utility value, and that this is why they’ve erased manifestations of money from their store. It fits in with Apple’s broader strategy of being more like a luxury brand than a technology company. And it works – at least if my experience is anything to go by.

    When I got back to the office I realised I hadn’t even checked how much my stuff cost, and was amazed to find that I’d paid £25 for a USB network dongle without batting an eyelid. If I ever visit the Apple Store again, I’ll have to be on my guard.

  4. What UX can learn from product strategy, and vice versa

    Posted August 9, 2010 in strategy, user centred design  |  1 Comment so far

    Dirk Kneymeyer of Involution Studios writes on his blog about how he’s losing faith in UX. He’s reacting primarily to an article by Whitney Hess characterising start-ups as being focused on the what rather than the who, why or how.

    One of Kneymeyer’s central points is that product strategy and user experience are ultimately different domains, and that user experience professionals aren’t typically the most qualified people to define product strategy.

    I’m inclined to agree with that point. Because user experience, as an emerging discipline, is still consolidating many of its techniques and methodologies, there’s an exuberant tendency that often sees UX extending its dominion into other areas. This can sometimes be appropriate – it’s a good thing, for example, that user experience practitioners increasingly concern themselves with content strategy –  but in other cases it blurs the definition of what user experience is, and it can sometimes come across as disrespectful towards professionals in other fields.

    There is an obvious overlap between user experience and product strategy, centred around scenario planning. But even this exercise works very differently in a user experience context than it does in a strategy & planning one. Scenario planning in a strategic context involves having to discard or gloss over some issues that are central to ‘traditional’ UX, while becoming obsessed with details that a typical UX project would leave to one side.

    My experience of working with people who specialise in product strategy is that it’s a well developed field in its own right. Yes, it can learn from experienced UX professionals (and it knows it can – I’ve noticed increasing interest in UX from product & business strategy teams in the last two years), but the opportunities for learning are reciprocal and not just one-way.

  5. Microsoft’s design strategy: open formats, proprietary interface?

    Posted June 1, 2010 in software, strategy  |  1 Comment so far

    This might not be a very advisable disclosure to make, but I’ll make it anyway: I actually like Microsoft Office 2007.

    Liking Office 2007 is not really the done thing – lots of people in my line of work turn their noses up at Microsoft in general and Office in particular. And I’m no different. Last year I spent about six months attempting to move away from Windows to use Linux instead, but ended up returning to Windows. Why? Because, for me, OpenOffice was simply no match for Office 2007.

    The thing with OpenOffice is that it looks and feels a lot like Office 2003. If I was a heavy Office 2003 user, OpenOffice might have worked out because its user interface (UI) is fundamentally similar. But Office 2007 has a radically different UI, with none of the old “File / Edit / View” menu groupings.

    Office UI screenshots

    Office 2007 replaced the conventional menu structure with the "Office Ribbon"

    Lots of people were confused by the Office 2007 UI when it launched, myself included. Today, however, I see it as a big improvement. The new interface makes features more discoverable and more immediately accessible, and I get far more out of the software today than I ever did before.

    But why did Microsoft carry out this redesign, which must have been costly? After all, they had a monopoly in the office software market so could get away with being a bit conservative. And people don’t like it when familiar things change – just look at the protests that erupt whenever Facebook changes its layout – so the redesign must have looked pretty risky too. How did the Office 2007 team convince Microsoft to fund a design project that was risky, expensive and potentially pointless?

    Microsoft, like all companies, would like us to think that it does these things out of altruism, to make our jobs easier and lives happier. But that’s not how things work in the corporate world. Instead, I think there might be a slightly more crafty and devious strategy at work here.

    Imagine you’re Microsoft. Your monopolistic behaviour during the browser wars of the 1990s cost you over $2 billion and led to you being forced to promote your competitors. The last thing you need is for something similar to happen to your Office package, your most lucrative product line after Windows.

    Being proactive, you wonder what line of attack the courts would take if they came for Office, and it hits you – proprietary file formats. Documents created in Microsoft Office can’t be opened by other packages because the files aren’t compatible, which inhibits competition and annoys the hell out of the open source community. So you decide to phase them out. You’ll set your file formats free, and will even start supporting open source file formats. This way you’re far less likely to be accused of monopolistic behaviour.

    But there’s a problem here. What if, by trying to look less like a monopoly, people move to OpenOffice and you actually become less like a monopoly? After all, proprietary file formats do encourage lots of people to stick with Office. What you need is a way to become less vulnerable to government lawsuits while retaining your product’s “stickiness”. And then it hits you – make the file formats open but, at the same time, make the user experience proprietary.

    When an Office 2007 user switches to OpenOffice, they’ll be able to open their existing documents easily. But using the interface will feel like stepping back in time, to the period of Office 2003. Ultimately, the user will go back to Office 2007 not because they’re locked in by proprietary file types, but because they’ve learnt and absorbed a proprietary interface. And no-one’s going to launch an antitrust lawsuit simply because Microsoft made some design changes.

    This line of thinking about why Microsoft changed the Office UI so radically may seem slightly paranoid, but there is such a thing as design strategy and companies like Microsoft certainly take it seriously (most of the time). It wouldn’t surprise me, and I wouldn’t see it as controversial, if this “proprietary UX” strategy helped convince Microsoft to invest so much in a risky design overhaul. Given that Office 2007 caused me to abandon Linux and move back to Windows, the strategy – whether it’s real or not – would seem to be working.

    EDIT: unlike me, lots of people really hate the Office 2007 interface. If you’re one of them, you might be interested in this freeware add-in that introduces an old school Office 2003-style menu system into Office 2007

  6. UK unemployment drops… unexpectedly?

    Posted January 21, 2010 in research, strategy  |  No Comments so far

    The UK Office for National Statistics announced yesterday that unemployment had dropped for the first time in 18 months. BBC News reported this as a “surprise”:

    The number of people unemployed in the UK has fallen unexpectedly for the first time in 18 months… George Buckley [of Deutsche Bank] admitted previous predictions of the unemployment rate reaching 10% now looked unrealistic… [The figures] came as a surprise to many analysts.

    But to regular readers of this blog, this news is anything but unexpected: in December 2009, my analysis of unemployment-related search trends clearly indicated that the unemployment rate was about to fall.

    So could this be an example of search trends providing early insight into economic data? Possibly, but it’s only one month’s figures we’re talking about. A sustained track record of successful projection is needed to demonstrate that search analysis can yield valuable insights.

    Over 2010 I’ll be keeping an eye on the data to see what happens. In the meantime, if you can think of other real-world metrics that might be suitable subjects for search trends analysis, get in touch.

  7. Can search predict the future?

    Posted December 23, 2009 in research, strategy  |  2 Comments so far

    Today, we often  search for information about upcoming major events in our lives – both good and bad – before we experience them. When facing financial difficulty or unemployment, many of us will go online at the earliest opportunity to look for help and guidance. And when we’re considering major financial decisions such as buying a house, search engines are usually consulted before estate agents are called.

    Traditional economic reports, on the other hand, look at events that have taken place. Unemployment figures tell us how many people are claiming benefits rather than how many people have been put at risk of redundancy. Average house prices are based on completed transactions, not how many people are currently looking to buy. So while we can be fairly confident of these reports, they don’t provide us with particularly current insights.

    This trade-off between confidence and currency was, in the past, largely academic as analysing current data was almost impossible. But in the age of the real-time web, this might be about to change: maybe patterns in search behaviour can give us a glimpse of future patterns in the economy.

    We first became interested in this topic back in spring 2009, so we analysed search patterns for two sets of keywords as the UK economy went into recession. We looked for relationships between these search patterns and related economic indicators, and listed some tentative predictions based on what we observed.

    House prices

    In April 2009, we looked at volumes for 23 keywords that homebuyers might use, including buying a home, cheap mortgage and mortgage providers. UK search volumes for these keywords were then compared to house prices.

    House prices charted against search volumes for 23 related keywords, from January 2004 to April 2009. Sources: Nationwide, Google Insights

    Searches typically decline as autumn ends before rebounding in January. But in 2008, the January rebound was lacklustre and the decline came in spring – much earlier than usual. This was in line with house prices, which peaked in late 2007 and dropped severely from spring 2008.

    In the first few months of 2009, however, search volumes enjoyed a far stronger January rebound than in the previous year – so we hypothesised that house prices would bottom out or even start to rise again in the middle of 2009. Let’s look at how accurate that hypothesis turned out to be.

    House price data to the present

    House prices charted against search volumes for 23 related keywords, from January 2004 to December 2009 Sources: Nationwide, Google Insights

    Sure enough, the search volume resurgence was accompanied by house price growth throughout 2009. But you’ll notice that search volumes soon tapered off, with a particularly steep fall after August. Our revised hypothesis, then, is that house prices will initially plateau and then drop again. We’ll revisit the statistics in spring 2010 to see how things turn out.

    Financial difficulties

    The second set of keywords we analysed was related to impending financial difficulties such as joblessness, debt and insolvency. They included signing on, mortgage arrears and debt problems, and were compared to the UK jobless rate.

    Financial problems searches versus unemployment

    UK unemployment rate charted against search volumes for 24 related keywords, from January 2004 to April 2009 Sources: Office for National Statistics, Google Insights

    These search volumes dip at the end of each year before rising in January – and the rise in early 2008 was more pronounced than in previous years. The jobless rate started climbing three months later, suggesting that in this case search patterns might anticipate economic statistics. We observed that search volumes had dropped significantly in the first few months of 2009, so our hypothesis was that the jobless rate would stabilise but not drop between April and July. The chart below shows what actually happened.

    Financial difficulties searches versus unemployment, until now

    UK unemployment rate charted against search volumes for 24 related keywords, from January 2004 to April 2009 Sources: Office for National Statistics, Google Insights

    The unemployment rate has indeed stabilised, wavering between 7.7% and 7.8% since early June, suggesting that our original hypothesis was valid. And search volumes have kept on dropping throughout 2009. If search trends do anticipate economic reports in this case, we should see the unemployment rate drop steadily between now and spring 2010. Again, we’ll revisit these figures in April to see if this happens.


    Our hypotheses from April 2009 were largely borne out as the year progressed: the drop in house prices was reversed and unemployment rates stabilised. So maybe there is some truth to the notion that search patterns can shed some light on forthcoming economic change.

    But these hypotheses were in tune with the economic mood of the time. Many commentators were talking about green shoots and a V-shaped recession – there was a feeling that recovery was just around the corner. Today, we remain in what has become the longest-running recession in recorded history and there is considerable uncertainty about what 2010 will bring.

    Our new hypotheses are less likely to be tainted by current economic consensus, precisely because no real consensus seems to exist right now. For this reason, the idea of search predicting the future will be seriously tested as the year unfolds. Don’t forget to come back in April 2010 to see the results for yourself.

  8. An open assault on the walled garden

    Posted December 21, 2009 in strategy  |  No Comments so far

    Mobile telcos charge us for the texts, minutes and megabytes we use. They buy our loyalty by heavily subsidising our increasingly expensive phones. And they’re terrified of becoming like the people who supply our electricity or gas. They’re terrified that one day they’ll be nothing but interchangeable providers of a commodity, irrelevant logos printed on tedious, humdrum bills.

    This is why their marketing focuses so much on music, culture and lifestyle. It’s why O2 customers get priority tickets to concerts at the arenas bearing their name. It’s why Orange customers get half-price cinema tickets on Wednesdays. And it’s why T-Mobile runs that insufferable campaign about Josh and his ever-growing band.

    T-Mobile advert screenshot

    Join the b(r)and: T-Mobile want to be associated with music and lifestyle

    Customers are being encouraged to associate the brands of mobile operators with a certain type of lifestyle experience instead of just voice and data. This experience extends from the marketing to exclusive content services and even the interfaces and feature sets of the handsets themselves.

    In this sense, mobile telcos are offering their customers a walled garden, in which the mobile internet is presented as part of a convenient package branded Orange, AT&T, T-Mobile or O2. If your internet memory goes back as far as the mid-1990s this might sound slightly familiar. But in the next ten years this walled garden is due to come under direct assault.

    Charlie Stross has posted an excellent, thought-provoking piece looking at how the next ten years might pan out for the mobile industry – and making it sound in some ways like a technology rehash of the Great Game, with Apple and Google as the chief protagonists.

    As Stross sees it, Apple and Google both want to destroy the walled garden built by telcos but for different reasons and in different ways. As a premium marque, Apple wants to work with telcos while preventing their brands from adulterating the Apple experience:

    Apple don’t want to destroy the telcos; they just want to use them as a conduit to sell their user experience… [they] want to maintain the high quality Apple-centric user experience and sell stuff to their users through the walled garden of the App Store and the iTunes music/video store

    Google, on the other hand, wants people to view more of its ads. To make this happen, Google wants to fundamentally reshape the mobile industry:

    I think Google are pursuing a grand strategic vision of destroying the cellco’s entire business model… turning 3G data service into a commodity… getting consumers to buy unlocked SIM-free handsets [like the Nexus One]… and ultimately do the Google thing to all your voice messages [through Google Voice] as well as your email and web access.

    These distinct strategies both threaten the mobile telcos, who stand to lose any emotional connection they have with their customers either way. But this doesn’t mean that Apple and Google are going to be bedfellows:

    Apple’s iPhone has been good for Google: iPhone users do far more web surfing — and Google ad-eyeballing — than regular phone users. But Apple want to maintain…  the walled garden of the App Store and iTunes… [and] Google can’t slap their ads all over those media. So it’s going to end in handbags at dawn … eventually.

    The piece (here’s the link again by the way) has me thinking that the coming decade in mobile networks will be much like the previous decade was in land-line internet service provision.

    If Charlie Stross is right, the idea of the telco as provider of an experience will not last the decade, meaning that flash mobsOrange Rock Corps and Josh Ward will become nothing but a dim and distant memory. And customers will hopefully have greater choice over how they use mobile networks, which would be nothing but a good thing in my opinion.

  9. Murdoch’s paid-content move

    Posted August 7, 2009 in media, strategy  |  No Comments so far

    I’m hoping that News International will end up looking back on their move to paid content as a serious blunder. Not because I’m irked at the idea of paying for the Sun or the Times (I don’t read either) or even because I’m a particularly ardent defender of free content. I just dislike News International in general and Rupert Murdoch in particular, and would rather live in a world in which their influence is greatly diminished. I also believe that Rupert Murdoch has a history of serious miscalculation when it comes to the internet and would like to see that belief borne out.

    If I’m wrong, it’ll at least be interesting to see what paid-content providers end up doing to differentiate their output from non-charging competitors. We might end up seeing a period of accelerated innovation in digital content as it becomes a product in its own right – as opposed to a vehicle for selling advertising.

    But to go back to my original point – I do hope that this all turns out to be a major cock-up on Murdoch’s part.

  10. Charging companies for Twitter – what could it involve?

    Posted February 17, 2009 in social media, strategy  |  No Comments so far

    You’re probably aware that Biz Stone, one of Twitter’s co-founders, told Marketing magazine on February 10th that:

    “We are noticing more companies using Twitter and individuals following them. We can identify ways to make this experience even more valuable and charge for commercial accounts”

    How to decode this quote? It’s fairly vague, but I can think of a few possible charging models that Twitter might adopt. I’ve listed three of them here:

    1) “Twitter tax”

    Twitter will try to identify accounts that are run by companies rather than individuals. It will then attempt to extract money from the owners of these accounts. Failure to pay will result in closure of the account.

    I don’t think this is very likely, however:

    • Distinguishing companies from individuals would be extremely difficult. A lot of anger come from those who felt they’d been unfairly classified (e.g. if you’re a consultant and you discuss professional topics on Twitter, are you a “company”?)
    • No value would be added for those who pay
    • A lot of genuinely handy and non-revenue-generating information services would vanish from Twitter, diminishing the value of Twitter as an information utility
    • This diminishing of Twitter’s usefulness would lead many people to desert the service.

    2) “Singling out the marketers”

    Like the first option, Twitter will identify accounts that are run by companies. However, it will draw a line between companies that use it for information services and those who use it as a sales channel. Companies who use it as a sales channel will be penalised while those who use it for information services will not.

    This is a bit more viable than option 1:

    • Distinguishing sales from servicing would be easier than distinguishing companies from individuals. Rules could be defined, e.g. if you are seen to link to product pages or talk about offers or sales then you’ll be penalised
    • It would allow services that people find useful to continue – e.g. getting news updates from the BBC
    • It would encourage companies to use the service in an “ethical” way while heavily penalising spammers
    • As a result, there would be a lower risk of people leaving the service.

    3) “The enhanced service”

    Twitter will not try to distinguish companies from individuals. However, it will create an “enhanced” account which will provide additional features at a cost. Companies will be free to keep using the “basic” service if they want to.

    This is the most likely option, I’d say:

    • The challenge would be to come up with features that would make a paid account compelling
    • These could include things like offering brand protection (the account is marked as ‘official’), ecommerce features (people being able to pay over Twitter), advanced analytics (see reports on your followers and their behaviour etc), tracking abilities (find out how many people clicked the link in the last message you sent, etc)…
    • This would add value for people who chose to pay
    • There would be no need on Twitter’s part to pay people to detect and penalise companies
    • Things like news feeds and so on would continue to operate, meaning that the usefulness of Twitter wouldn’t be too diminished.

    Most of the commentary I’ve read so far seems to assume that something akin to the first option, the “Twitter tax”, would be introduced. But Twitter surely realise that it would be costly to implement and would seriously impact their growth rate. An enhanced service for which companies or individuals could pay is far more likely.

    In particular, keep an eye out for commerce features. Pay-by-Twitter might seem far-fetched at the moment but as the service becomes ever more pervasive a compelling user need for that service will begin to emerge.