Branding Utility is the answer. Seriously.

“An extraordinary, almost unimaginable sequence of events” says Mervyn King, Governor of the Bank of England commenting on the past weeks’ goings on in the global financial markets. Which do you prefer – the culture of blame, or the culture of coping? Weaker managers immediately point the finger at others, stronger managers move on and work out how to make things work, develop products people want, and build genuine underlying performance in their businesses.

In the FT today, the question is asked – is the MBA culture responsible? From the country that has chosen Sarah Palin as a legitimate candidate for president in waiting, one might question the decision making processes that got her there, and it’s too easy to look at the overt complexity built into the debt instruments that have brought the world’s capital markets to a state of chaos. A common characteristic of disaster management is taking things at face value. By ‘branding’ toxic assets as ‘debt instruments’ it’s easy not to look under the skin, do the due diligence, and frankly bullshit past the next quarter’s earnings to worry about the next crisis.

What can we learn from all this?  One point of view about branding is that it is only meaningful if supported by a set of values that a brand is credible in, performs to, stands for and stands by. For lots of products and services, this is hard to achieve, if the product doesn’t work, for example, or the service promise isn’t delivered. One enormous impact of the internet is enabling consumers to share issues about brands. These can be both negative and positive vibes. Brand owners now have to develop strategy and process internally and externally to manage this. And they are challenging their support networks (of branding consultants, PR people, agencies and technology partners) to help.

Ad people talk about campaigns, hitting the message home and how to unravel the narrative in linear way. Consumers don’t think about this at all. They tend to see ads in passing, remember some of them, and if the ad is strong enough, may even remember the name of the brand. This works well enough, but if the brand doesn’t have a set of values to stand for, by and for consumers to believe in, they won’t necessarily hand over cash for the stuff.

Everyone now likes the idea of branded utilities – virtual test driving, travel advice, holiday planners, Christmas planners and so on – as the necessary adjunct for consumers to build everyday experience of a brand in some way (beyond running in the shoes or actually eating the chocolate.)  If you’ve worked in the world of the web for a while, creating interactive experience and regular customer interaction, you might say – hang on, that’s what we’ve been doing for years, but suddenly it’s become branded.
That’s what happens when the ad people get involved. If we give it a name it’s easier to believe in. I sympathise with both sides, if sides is the right term to use. Having run both ad agency and web agency organisations, one gets privileged insight. The fact remains though, that unless there is genuine usefulness (either from entertainment value or information value) the measurement of such things will remain in the world of wooly. In the old world, if the brand doesn’t stand for anything, (or indeed, as much more likely in the regulatory environment we now operate in, can’t), the advertising itself had to deliver the substantiation. Think glamorous cigarette ads from the 80s. Ads for Fags on YouTube

In the branded utility world, you can’t just make it up. There has to be genuine interaction and exchange for consumers to see a benefit of spending, rather than wasting, time with the brand. This is where our creative and tech brains should be focused. If we get it right, and know how to get it done, there’s a new participation marketing nirvana to be had.

Future of Web Apps

I recently attend the Future of Web Apps (FOWA) expo in London and came away quite inspired by some of ‘the’ entrepreneurs in the industry including FaceBook’s Mark Zuckerberg and Diggnation’s Kevin Rose. It’s difficult to sum up all the interesting things from the two days so I’ll just have a stab at what I recall as being of particular interest. Video highlights from FOWA can be viewed here:

Much of the focus for many of the sessions was on social networking apps, but also on making your apps more social by turning users into contributors. Ben Huh of (lolcats for those in the know – I didn’t know!) spoke of how to ease users from being just an occasional browser to a contributor.

On the technology front I found Objective-J and Capuccino interesting as a new framework for developing apps without html and CSS and the new frameworks from Yahoo for making your web apps mobile, simply and efficiently. Also the new Adobe AIR runtime for making web apps for your desktop was fairly highly promoted. A ‘Dragons Den’ style competition was added to the line up for day two, whereby the top three entries from the previous day were given 60 seconds to sell their idea for an Adobe AIR app. The winner received 5k from Adobe to produce their app.

An issue that was mentioned by most speakers was the Global Financial Crisis (GFC as it was penned by one), but it isn’t all doom and gloom, some of the speakers were old enough to have been through a recession before and reminded us that technology has kept moving forward and in order to keep our jobs now we need to keep innovating, working hard and trying to be a little more efficient and streamlined. However, with the GFC in mind, many speakers spoke of the improvements in open source technologies and how this will be a way to cut costs, even for enterprise organisations.

But I think the most inspiring part of the FOWA was that as a developer if you build apps you love then there is a good chance others will love them too, no matter how skint they are!

Uplifting design

I’ve seen a few pictures of lift buttons recently. They often crop up in presentations on good design – usually as examples of bad design. It’s an every day interface and great to highlight why good interaction design makes such a difference.

I present the lift here at MRM which I think stands well amongst the worst of them.

It’s a touch sensitive panel with no moving parts – you just press the floor number you want to go to.

But there is no tactile feedback! – nothing moves to indicate you are pressing a button. When you press a button, something should move! (By default, web browsers will render a button with this behaviour – obviously you can’t feel it but you will see the button depress when you click – don’t change this, it is saying ‘button’)

You do get a beep and the floor number is displayed – I’m not saying it’s unusable, although what a minus sign and decimal point are doing there is a mystery.

However, it is very difficult for blind people to use. Each number does have corresponding brail underneath it (you might just be able to make them out in the picture), so that’s all OK then, however think about it for a second. There is no tactile feedback – and its touch sensitive. I’ve tried using it with my eyes closed and before you’ve even worked out the shape of the panel you’ve selected every floor and hit the alarm a few times.

A brief mention of the ‘lift call’ button on each floor. Touch sensitive, no sound and only a small, red light to indicate the lift knows to come and get you. There’s absolutely nothing else to indicate the lift is on its way and it’s a pain to use for everyone, impossible to use for some.

It doesn’t have to be like that, and for web design it’s our job to make sure it’s not like that.

Think about one of those dials above the lift entrance with an arrow pointing to the floor that the lift is on, a push button to call it and a ‘ding’ to say it’s on its way and another to say it has arrived. That would be better wouldn’t it?

We’ve all learnt to put up with the lift here and if it does anything well it’s to remind us of why good design is so important and how bad design sucks. We can’t change the lift buttons, but we can design good interaction with the things we do build – otherwise we’ll annoy all the people who use them every day.