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Post #1375

Week 247

I’m at home with a glass of red wine at my new desk. I’m writing these notes late. It’s already week 248.

Jack and Matt J were in Berlin briefly last week, on a media design consultancy gig. I’ll quote from The Medium is the Massage, Marshall McLuhan/Quentin Fiore (1967) for a second:

The wheel is an extension of the foot. The book is an extension of the eye. Clothing, an extension of the skin. Electronic circuitry, an extension of the central nervous system. Media, by altering the environment, evoke in us unique ratios of sense perceptions. … When these ratios change, men change.

Media is both our environments and that which mediates us. Our cinema and our glasses.

Cinema… books, television, radio, circus, salons, telegraph and telephone: our media used to be hard to invent. They came along once a generation. But now what we call “new media” is really ten thousand new media. The question for a newspaper moving to new media, I mean really moving to new media, is not how to build a CMS blah blah delivery platform blah blah for the whatever. It’s what you want the equaliser settings to be, for social interaction, for immersion, for gameplay, highbrow/lowbrow, predilection to truth, emotional resonance, etc. We don’t just publish, we get to invent the medium into which we publish.

Super fun.

Also this time last week I got a pretty down-to-earth reminder about product innovation. Product innovation has its own path.

We’ve been having a tough time with Ashdown. That’s not fair. It has been a perfect response to the brief (our own brief) to present and contextualise information well. But it hasn’t become a product. I felt that most keenly when I presented the current private version to a Very Important Person about three weeks ago. And in that presentation, I had to do most of the talking. If you need to narrate a thing, it’s not a product.

A product tells you what to do. It fills you with motivation — you want to use it, and you know what you’ll get. And when you don’t get exactly that, you’ll be tickled and delighted. (If it’s a good product; frustrated otherwise.) A product markets itself. It can be described so people can tell other people about it. It has a voice, and an opinion about how the world should be. You know where its value is… and what the value exchange is. Inside an organisation, teams can rally behind a product. A product has meaning, and goals. Products can succeed. Or fail. Products tell you, the designer, how they should grow.

So with Ashdown we’ve had data and an area and a design direction… but no product (we’re intending to make a suite of products). And Matt Brown, who is leading the project day to day, has now found the product. It’s taken all kinds of approaches to get there. Tom Loosemore has been part of crits. Tom A has been making experiments with generative journalism. We’ve tried big wireframes and little sketches.

But on Monday last week Matt managed to crack it. We now have a single line motto for the product. We have a tone. And we have a map of the site where we can see what the user motivation is at every page. Clicking through will feel like a good joke being told. It has rhythm. And everything unfolds from there.

If you looked at the sketches, who knows whether you’d be able to tell that something’s changed. But I can tell you now that the week before I wasn’t sure what we were making, and in week 237 – with Matt’s page of post-it notes and pen drawings – I feel totally confident that it’s cracked. It’s a product now, it’ll tell us what it wants to be.

But it’s humbling, to get there only now, and to be honest none of this “product innovation” chatter counts until we also execute and get to market. So let’s see what happens this week, and I want for us to work much better at cracking the product thing (and continuing to crack it — product focus in a project has to be maintained every week, every week) in future work.

Oh there’s a bunch more to say.

Kendrick is making its way to launch. I wrote a short teaser blog post about it a few days ago, based on one of Matt B’s icons.

El Morro is halfway through. It’s the biggest project we’ve done, and it lasts only a little under two months. I can sketch out seven distinct parts. They meet like dominos. It’s like building a bridge from the middle. Last week and this week the various components started linking up.

Most of what I do now is have 20 minute chats with people designing and building various parts of El Morro. The chats are easy because the team is incredible. People want to know how to build their particular bit, so they grab the relevant other people and make decisions. If there’s a need for clarification or knowledge of the ultimate client ambitions, that’s when I get pulled in for one of those 20 minute chats.

What else.

Kari is producing, weekly, summaries of what everyone is up to this week and next, and a per-project status, in a sentence or three. These are invaluable. Also she’s moving to two days a week, and spending the extra day project managing some new product development. We’re terrible at letting NPD slip, and my hope is that it’ll really happen with some of our established client process applied to it.

I’m learning a lot about my own process, talking Kari through what I believe is needed. Project initiation docs, briefing packs, milestones… all of this sounded like so much hot air until I saw I bumped up against what it was all helping with. I mean, when you know what you have to write down at the beginning of a project to help a team work together and keep on time and on budget and to allow room for the design to blossom and find the way, what else do you call it but a project initiation document?

I’m talking about process, which is a sure sign that I should wrap up and head to bed.

What I noted down to talk about in week 247 were a few old lessons I’d been relearning. What products are, how I use project management. I wanted also to say a few words about tuning and about documentation. I haven’t got t those.

But really when I think back over last week I think about how strange everything feels. I’m not used to the scale. I’m not used to the systems in these sketches. I mean roughly, but not fully. I’m watching a team of 8 bring a thing to life and I’ve no idea how it works, the path from individual action, I mean the tap of the finger that types the curly bracket, that somehow manifests and becomes the breathtaking beauty and correctness that I want to see, I mean how does that even occur; do you need to be dreaming of heaven while you type a subroutine because I doubt it, yet if not that, if that’s not the way beauty happens in software, then what? We plan projects we have full confidence in but there’s a moment because we’ve never done this project before at 3am where you wake up and go, Hang on, really? (And if we all didn’t do that, I’d be worried, so ok.)

So there’s an opposite of deja vu which is in action all the time, a feeling that, whatever it is, it should be familiar, but it’s not at all, and for me this strangeness creates both a risk aversion and then an overcompensating overconfidence, and I alternate between then, ultimately averaging out but only after talking and sketching a lot with Jack and Matt, and what’s left is a residual strangeness to the whole world. Gosh the walls are white. Gosh the sky is blue. Gosh it’s 2010 and here we are, this is the studio we create and this is the work we do, and aren’t we lucky, we work hard and the work is good, and maybe those adjectives are a good a way as any to sum up week 247: Strange. Lucky. Hard. Good.

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