Category Archives: Strategy

Should sacking Clarkson mean the BBC lose their charter?

With over one million people signing a petition for Jeremy Clarkson to be reinstated by the BBC, representing two thirds of the amount of people who watch an average show, and a 25th of the entire license paying public, should the BBC lose its charter for not therefore renewing his contract? Well the answer is obviously no. The BBC should not lose their Royal Charter and publicly funded status because of sacking a man who assaulted his co-worker. But the subject raises some interesting considerations in terms of the corporation and its responsibility to the public at large.

After the incident of the alleged assault, the BBC had to take action. There is no denying that Clarkson seems to lack self control and, after so many incidents with the presenter over a prolonged period, they had to stamp on his behaviour. He left them in an untenable position, but that a million people very quickly signed a petition to reinstate him clearly shows that the public thought he shouldn’t have been sacked because of it. What that actually means is that one million people couldn’t imagine a worthwhile Top Gear without him involved. They are right to think that, the idea of a Top Gear without Clarkson, and therefore without May and Hammond as well, would clearly mean that the show will have to undergo a reinvention. But the main consideration this raises here is, when should a publicly funded organisation, with responsibilities to the public at large, listen to a public outcry and when should they feel that they can go against the public opinion and act on their own beliefs?

The BBC’s Royal Charter details under what conditions it should be allowed to be publicly funded and the debate has raged for quite sometime about whether or not it still meets the requirements handed to it. The basic premise is that the corporation should produce a range of content to meet the large majority of the interests of the general public, catering for minorities, niche audiences and the general populous. This should be delivered under the three principles of educating, informing and entertaining. It is this foundation which means they operate multiple channels, with multiple focuses and run specialist radio stations that cater for Pop, Classical, News, Alternative Music, etc. It is also the reason why regional news used to be a key and substantial part of the news delivery on the BBC. For many decades the main reason for the Royal Charter was to make sure that the limited television service available to the public, limited to only a couple of channels, provided a variety of content that everyone could enjoy (at least parts of), rather than producing content that would only ever appeal to a small proportion of the population.

Whether or not the BBC should remain publicly funded is a debate that has raged on for quite some time. Since commercial television became a power, and freeview means that hundreds of channels are available and specialist content across these channels caters for almost everyone, there have been questions asked about whether the BBC continues to fulfil a vital roll. What is clear is that the corporation is no longer required to provide varied content simply because it would otherwise not be available. In fact, the reality is that people now get the vast majority of their specific needs from other networks and specialist channels that far better meet our taste needs. With this in mind, the BBC should be more focused than ever at producing content that meets their requirements under the charter. But are they? Do they meet the needs of the general public and are they even listening to the public? Are they even asking the public for their opinion? In my opinion the answer is no.

The nature of the BBC is that in so many ways it is an outdated institution that needs to be reformed. Many would argue they have kept current but that would be in their output, but in the way the institution operates it is still very archaic. At the end of the day they need to make sure they are meeting their objectives and they need to put the public first. That means listening, and not just to the one or two people who are writing in to points of view, but to every one of the 25 million license payers.They should be required to undertake a census style research program, which is a rolling project that aims to have feedback from the majority of their license payers. This would be the only way to guarantee they are on the right track.

A good example of this is the BBC news output, which in many ways you could argue is industry leading. But as I mentioned before, one of the major benefits for people in the past has been the regional coverage. This used to be a substantial part of the news broadcasts but recently has been reduced to a five minute bulletin like segment, which barely scratches the surface of local needs. To replace it they have increased coverage on things like major sports. It is a clear example of where the public have been put behind the pandering of executives to higher profile stories. It is also an example of where they are clearly not meeting their requirements under the charter.

The BBC needs to become a more agile institution rather than an old fashioned corporation. This means listening to the people it serves and having people in positions of authority who are new thinkers rather than old hands. This means reform and a change in culture. It is imperative that they become more independent, driven by opinion and less wasteful. And that means actually understanding what people want and what they need. It needs to be more regional and more on demand.

The problem with the BBC is that is sits in a system that has allowed it to stay stagnant and pretend it is evolving when below the surface it is not. It suffers from the same thing as the NHS, the rail network and the power network, where profits drive decisions rather than customer needs. All of these institutions need to be reformed. The public need to be put at the heart of their delivery rather than relying on the opinion of those who are out of touch, or have never been in touch. If a strategy of understanding actual needs was at the heart of all of these organisations then there wouldn’t be any debates about profit-mongering in the NHS or power suppliers not passing on cuts in prices. Perhaps one of the parties vying for government at the moment should focus on that, instead of arguing with each other over things that don’t really matter. But then, if there was ever an example of an institution that doesn’t actually listen to the general public, then government is it!

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App-lying a digital strategy

Like many people, I’m a self confessed shark geek, particularly Great White sharks. They are a passion of mine, be it watching the hilarious spoof films like Sharknado, Double Headed Shark Attack and Shark Swarm (yes, these are all real films!), following the shark week documentaries that come around annually and show ever more detailed insights into the life of these misunderstood animals, or admiring some of the amazing photography of Great White sharks clearing the water off seal island in South Africa. One of the things all shark lovers are aware of is the stigma they have, particularly due to the adverse media coverage after shark attacks on people or because of films like Jaws – a masterpiece but possibly the worst thing to have happened for the reputations of sharks world wide.

But in recent years the general perception of these animals has begun to change, largely due to the work of many organisations, scientists and television program makers who are determined to show the real side to sharks. This is particularly important in the light of the current threat to many species of shark due to over fishing and of course the barbaric shark fin market. One particular organisation I follow is Ocearch, who have a great website that allows you to track sharks from around the world, to see their movements and all sorts of great information about them. Shark geek heaven!

But despite this, a lot of the time I tend to find that when I start to get animated about sharks most people don’t really know what I am on about. Which is why it came as a bit of a surprise when my wife and I were in Ireland the other day seeing some friends of ours that when the subject of sharks came up, our friends immediately started to talking about Lydia without any sort of prompt.

For those of you who aren’t up with the latest shark news, Lydia is a fairly large Great White shark who in February had been making her way across the Atlantic in the direction of the UK. As you can imagine, for layman shark geeks like myself the potential of a Great White coming to UK waters was rather exciting, but it also caused a bit of a stir in the scientific community as questions began to be asked about why the shark would be going so far ‘off course’.

The fact that two relatively non-shark geek people knew about Lydia was both a surprise and an encouragement for me. It shows that people are beginning to learn more about these fantastic creatures and rely less on the rather inaccurate reputations they have. It prompted me to look closer at this and particularly Ocearch, who are doing a huge amount to allow this discovery for normal people.

One of the things Ocearch do is that they bring their activities into the social world in a great way. The Lydia activity is, of course, a godsend in terms of getting the general public excited, but what Ocearch do is so much more important than that. For a start Ocearch have a very active Twitter and Facebook community. Their tracking of sharks of perfect content for regularly updates and the continuously changing situation means that users have a reason to check back a lot. They also have a YouTube and Instagram presence, which is prefect for sharing the incredible footage and shots that they get on their voyages, and a regular blog scene to offer opinion about the work they are doing.

Recently they also launched the Ocearch Shark Tracker app, enabling me to see where Lydia and a whole host of other sharks are, whenever I have a minute spare. It becomes addictive I can tell you.

Ocearch Shark Tracker App

 

Now I’m not going to review the app specifically in this post. Yes, like most new apps there are things that could be improved, and no doubt will be, as is true of the website. Or indeed any website. What I am going to do though is to look at what they have achieved, why that is important and what we can all learn from them.

Ocearch is a non-profit organisation who are undertaking research on sharks and other apex predators. They make all their research available open source to anyone who wants it, with the view that this is the most effective way to help understand these animals. But what they are doing with their content is possibly more important because they are getting the public involved and allowing them to feel a part of it. And this is what people can learn from what Ocearch are doing. Getting funding for this sort of thing is hard enough, so getting public interest up is a great way to help. Ocearch have managed to not only lift the public interest but at the same time turn it into a kind of entertainment and a great educational tool at the same time.

The reason why this is working so well is that Ocearch have engaged with social media in a faultless manner. They have all of the key ingredients to be successful; regular and interesting content, suitable content for each stream, they engage with their users and they offer something that is not very available anywhere else. It is compelling reading and watching and it brings enthusiasts like myself together in one place. There is a lot that other scientific institutions could learn from the great PR and marketing that is being done here.

So what is my point? Having a digital strategy, no matter what your business is, is incredibly important. Whether we like it or not the world is digital now and if your business isn’t their then you will be being left behind. This is true for almost all organisations, but for non-profit organisations, charities and foundations this is especially true as budgets are small. But unlike businesses, these other organisations will have a regular stream of compelling, interesting and engaging content at their heart. Ocearch have made and continue to make the most of what they have, which is no doubt not done on a shoe string, in order to get the maximum impact. Their digital presence is consistent and draws you in but more importantly it means that they get a large amount of coverage of the work they are doing…and that is the most important thing.

Intelligent use of digital means that your message can be spread far and wide. It would be great if other organisations could do the same as Ocearch, as this is the best way to educate the world and hopefully to get more support for the great work that organisations like this are doing.

Budget – the crux in practical UX

In a perfect world our clients all have vast budgets and the appetite to spend that money on UX design. Analytics, persona planning, journey design, A/B user testing, eye tracking, multiple design approaches, user interviews, card sorting…and that is just the prep before any thing has been sketched and any ideas have been posed. I have been lucky enough to manage projects in previous jobs where the clients have very deep pockets and teams of IAs and UX Designer could go mad with post-its and white walls, watching eye tracking heat maps and interviewing every man and his dog about the practicalities of layout A over the functionality of layout B. But the problem is that these clients are few and far between and the pressures of timescales often preclude the opportunity to do this level of planning. I don’t think any UX designer worth their salt would choose not to do this stuff, but the majority of the time the choice simply isn’t their.

The practical aspect to UX design, and increasingly design in general, is that the client budget buys agency time and that time ultimately needs to pay for a finished website (or other asset). Even if a client has a £25k budget, that isn’t going to buy a lot of UX time if the site itself is going to be functionally heavy, with multiple layouts to be put together and plenty of user journey variety. If it is a responsive site, which really it should be, then that further eats into the already stretched budget. If we all accept that we want UX planning to be in all of our projects then what options are left?

  1. Add in extra time Pro Bono in order to include the UX?
  2. Simply don’t do UX design and hope it comes out alright in the end?
  3. Tell the client they have to find more money if they want a better solution that includes robust UX thought?
  4. Find a happy medium? What is that happy medium?

It is a difficult line to find, and as someone who has previously run projects but now runs a business I can see how commercial consideration and project quality / pride are completely at odds with each other. Let me explain further;

From a business point of view the be all and end all of the matter is that revenue is what is required to pay employees and keep the business afloat. Therefore if you aren’t being paid for the time then strictly speaking you don’t do the work. The counter to this is that a business relies on case studies of previous work and so you want to produce the best product possible, keep the client happy, over deliver and get good referrals and a reputation for quality.

So in the situation where there isn’t the budget for nice periods of UX, which option do we take? I think the answer isn’t black or white. If the project is going to be a stellar one that is going to make noise, get lots of attention and potentially new business then adding in some Pro Bono time is definitely a good option, to a point. You are effectively investing in the future and so a logical decision is to monitor the time used and invest some extra to try and get the best solution possible.

But what if it isn’t something unique and therefore you can’t justify spending your time on it for no income? After all, those one off projects don’t come along that often. Well, option 2 isn’t really an option in my opinion. If you put no thought into the project from a UX perspective it is likely to fail. But you could apply UX lessons from other projects and hope for the best (I don’t recommend this).

Option 3 is always a good one to try with the client if you construct the argument correctly. The client needs to understand the benefit to undertaking UX work. If they do then they may be able to find more budget. But often they simply won’t have the budget available. So what are you left with?

Well you have to find a happy medium. The project will have some design time allowed for it so the best way is to use the budget wisely. Taking a lean approach is the best start point. If you can get agreement to do ‘design in build’ then that is a good start. If, like my company, you are lucky enough to have a genuine designer and developer in one then this is ideal. You can put your designs together as you code it, screenshot them for the client and then once it is iterated then the code is already built. This reduces design overheads and opens up some spare time to be used for UX. So what next? Summarise the key things you want to know in your UX strategy and see how many the client can answer. Analytics is a great one to give them. Prioritise the rest and then have a single workshop with the client to hash out as much as you can, in the priority order. Apply this to quick sketches, using tools like Balsamiq, to visualise the approach. Use the sketches to test whether the user journeys and sitemap work, to see what other people think of the designs and if the key areas are coming across the way they should be.

Lastly, remember why you are doing the work. You are the agency and you have the background so don’t forget that you have the experience as well. Trust your gut on decisions and use experience of what works well. If you don’t have the luxury of user testing then grab 5 minutes with some of the people in the office and mix this with your own ability and experience to make the call.

Getting UX into the process when budgets are small and the client doesn’t appreciate the benefit straight away is always going to be a challenge. But the key thing is to trust in yourself and try not to over complicate things. There are always examples of sites doing things well so use those examples and the people in your team to make a lot of decisions. We are all web users so as long as we identify what makes us different users to the norm (e.g. our savvy approach for example) then we are starting in the right way. If the budgets are there then dial up the UX, but if they aren’t then go lean and trust that you know what you are doing. The rest, well the work will speak for itself. That is why the client chose you!

2013 – the year of the mobile

Recently E-Consultancy recently wrote about the ‘most exciting digital opportunity for marketers in the coming year’ being mobile optimisation. They are right, there is little doubt about that, and their stats are very compelling. They rightly mention that a wider mobile experience is necessary, considering the whole mobile strategy rather than simply creating a mobile site or making sure content works. But something I feel they don’t highlight enough is the need for a robust strategy that aims to understand the whole perspective, as every business is different and so are their customers.

Having run mobile strategies for large global brands, the importance of understanding the context, appetite and behaviour of their customers on mobile is paramount in approaching mobile optimisation of their digital assets. It isn’t just about making everything work well on mobile, although that is a big part of it, it is about understanding how your customers want to do things on mobile devices, because it is not the same for all customers across all businesses.

The first thing to understand about “mobile” is that it has more than one meaning. In the case of this article I am referring to mobile devices (i.e. the handsets) and also people being mobile (i.e. moving around). Understanding both of these in the context of your mobile strategy is extremely important because thinking about a user journey for your customer whilst they are in the queue at the station, whilst looking at their android phone, is going to be different to to your customer sat at home in the evening on their laptop or desktop computer.

Mindset and context are all important as it changes our expectations of a site and the behaviour we exhibit as users of devices is different because of this:

  • Mobile devices are what we call ‘sit forward’, in that you tend to be sat forward looking at them for a short period of time, whilst on the move. Your ideal user journey is therefore short, involves browsing by flicking quickly through things at pace and is often shallow. As a user you make a decision about whether the content is what you want very quickly and you expect the page to be visual rather than text based. The most important thing is that as a user they are often on the move so are time poor and want content quickly.
  • Tablet devices are what we call ‘sit back’, as usually we have a little more time to think about what we are doing and are also slightly more relaxed. Users therefore expect more on the page as they are more willing to spend a little time engaging with the content, but on touch screen devices it is important to make sure the experience is engaging, visual and information and intuitive otherwise it simply won’t fit the medium. Often these are ‘browsing’ journeys as people tend to ‘free wheel’ around content as their whim takes them.
  • Desktop (or laptop) computers are more ‘premeditated’ and often involve some amount of thought before engaging. For example, it might be a research task being undertaken and therefore a user is more targetted and focussed on what they are looking for. These journeys tend to require more information, more text (although still not too much) and longer periods of time on pages. Often multiple tabs would be open on the browser and users will keep pages open and flick between them. This is the detailed information journey that takes more time and really needs to make sense in terms of linking between content.

Although there is no 100% rule on how people use one device over another, the above is a good way of thinking about it as a start point and needs to be considered as part of planning a mobile strategy. It is important to understand what the key ‘must have’ points are and make sure they are facilitated in the mobile journey. But understanding that there is a different mindset to how we consume content depending on the device will ultimately lead to planning the content to be suitable for each channel.

Creating and understanding your personas is another key consideration. There are no hard and fast rules about how an audience behaves so one business cannot assume that their mobile website can work in the same way as another’s. In strategies I have managed we have spent a considerable amount of time understanding exactly how and when an expat would use his or her mobile and therefore what they would want to know at that time, versus when and where they would use a desktop or tablet. This was key in understanding the rapidity at which they not only want but need to access content and therefore how we make it available to them.

Another consideration that comes out of this understanding is the technical approach to take with optimising for mobile. Do you go for a mobile website, a responsive site or an app?

  • Mobile websites are separate sites, often with m.website.com as their URL. They exist as separate sites to the desktop site and they recognise that a fundamentally different experience is needed for mobile devices than for desktop sites. If your content needs to be detailed, in depth and very different on a desktop site to a mobile site then it is worth considering this approach, but remember that it requires additional maintenance, a whole different build and a different set of content.
  • Responsive websites are the new buzz word in digital, even though they have been around for a while. This is when you have a single website that dynamically changes itself to suit the resolution of the device being used to view it. A key consideration is ‘responsive experience’ rather than responsive design as it is both technically possible and often required (from a UX POV) to radically change the user experience depending on the device being used. The key thing about this approach is that it is one website for all and therefore the planning of this is quite key. Often starting from mobile first and building up is a good way to make sure that the mobile site has everything that is needed before working out how to pad out the desktop, rather than being left trying to work out how you would fit all the content from a desktop site onto a mobile screen.
  • Apps are the other main option. Everyone wants an app but there are key questions that you should ask yourself before building one; does the process I am building live by itself? do my users need to be able to do it offline? does it require features from a mobile device? does the app provide a solution for a genuine need? There are other questions as well, but if the answer to all of the above is ‘no’ then you shouldn’t have an app. Apps are designed to be ‘pockets’ of functionality, serving a specific need and allowing users to do this without needing regular connections to the internet or other resources.

Often a mobile strategy will include one or more of the above and I have excluded web apps from the list as they are arguably mobile websites. Understanding where your business sits and where it aims to sit in the future on the spectrum of the above is quite important. If your user-base is unlikely to use an app then focussing your effort on that area is really not the best course of action. However, if your research shows your future market will be interested and actively using apps then having it on the long-term plan is important.

Which leads me to my last major point; create a road-map. It is another one of the corporate buzz words but the concept is important. I like to think of a road-map as like looking down a lens. The stuff in the foreground (i.e. the next few months to a year) should be crisply in focus. You should know what you are doing in the next year and you should be planning in detail and working towards delivering it. The further away you look the less in focus it is, meaning that the further along your timeline you look the less defined your work is. This recognises that the further down the line you look the more uncertainty there is about what might change in the wider world. Setting an exact plan for the next five years would be silly as you are unable to respond to unforeseen changes, but also not having a general direction to work in would be equally silly because you can’t work towards anything and you can’t build the foundations for the bigger picture now.

And this brings us full circle, because without doing the robust planning and research for your strategy up front you can’t start to formulate short and long term goals, because you don’t know what your targets are. But with good planning and research you can predict, with reasonable certainty, what your future userbase is, how they will behave and in what way they will engage with your business across devices. Using this information you can plan your immediate actions and make sure they are working towards the long term picture, whilst making sure that the long term plan is clear but flexible in case things drastically change.