When it comes to the future of the economy, I’m with Umair Haque on this one. He believes that the economy is moving from an ‘aspirational’ one to a ‘meaningful’ one. In his own words:
“In a hyper connected world, what we have to do is move from differiation, to actually making a difference, to people, communities and societies. Mattering in human terms. And I think the key words when it comes to making a difference are human potential.”
He gives the example of NIKE+ and remarks that this is not only differentiating, but it is also amplifying human potential. The old promise was that ‘maybe you can be better’ but the new promise is that ‘this will make you better.’ It is very much indeed a more meaningful way.
And I couldn’t agree more. For a long time, I have believed companies should contribute more. More to society and more to the people. I didn’t just think it was good for the people in need, but I also thought it would be good business practise too – in the future most definitely. I think being charitable will be a future advantage, but I’ll get back to that point.
I remember fondly, an article I highly regard, which gets might agree with Umair’s point. It was a brave critique of Steve Jobs and Apple following Job’s death. Below is a passage which stood out to me.
“If we view him unsparingly, without nostalgia, we would see a great man whose genius in design, showmanship and stewardship of the tech world will not be seen again in our lifetime. We would also see a man who in the end failed to “think different,” in the deepest way, about the human needs of both his users and his workers.”
“Failed to think different in the deepest way.”
With Apple sitting on so much cash ($150 billion) and the best thing it does with it is spend a mere few percent on it’s bizarre headquarters, which is famed for proposing to use curved glass, I do think Apple failed to think differently. And they are not alone. Umair indeed points this out in one other talk of his, ‘Achieving Behavioral Innovation’ at around 06.30, that when companies are in the peak, then fall. They just stop. even when the cash as abundant, they never invested in tomorrow. The reason is because the focus is in stragetic, management, but not behavioural innovation. And I believe this is precisely where companies could be meaningful. Instead they do not do anything differently and sit comfortably. Richard Branson says in nicely in one of his interviews.
“The kind of wealth that goes with being a successful entrepreneur, you could argue is obscene. And therefore, an enormous responsibility goes with that wealth. So you have the responsibility to not leave that wealth sitting in a bank account, but to get out there and invest in new ventures, create new jobs. But I think you also have the responsibility to help governments and social organisations worldwide tackle some of the seemingly intractable in problems of this world and use your entrepreneurial skills and financial resources to tackle these problems.”
Meaning is next, there is no other choice
This is where I will come back to the point of ‘meaning’ being a competitive advantage. This is where it might progress to. It is unlikely we will just stop at an aspirational economy and it is interesting when Haque mentions in a hyperconnected world this will happen. I believe this is true. Jan Chipchase, widely considered to be the authority on applying human-centered insights to the development process, also says something similar at the end of his talk given at Activate 2010. He says that we are in a truly global market and increasingly the products and services that the poor have are connected:
“So if you go into a market and you are offering something that’s substandard, they’ll know it and they’ll talk about it and your reputation will be owned by them.”
Furthermore, this is happening in reverse. I remember when I first saw this article. Photos of people and the clothing labels in the Bangladesh factory which caught fire and killed over 100 people. For the first time ever, people in the west could see who makes the clothes so easily. With traceable products, the internet of things, and people having the technology to document this, awareness will only increase. So, companies really have to think about designing with meaning, and adding value to the lives of people.
What could this be like?
Umair points to look at the average man in the world, what can you do for him. I think this is very hard, but I guess that’s why some companies have done very well and have scaled. Google, Skype and Twitter might be such products which offer something that does better him with more knowledge and communication. But this is in the software world where access to computer and internet is necessary. It is interesting to think about this and in the hardware world. In the bigger picture, it seems we are moving into an era of constructive companies and constructive capitalism. This change from aspiration to meaning will hopefully be progressive. I’m happy to live at a time where we could see this happen.
There has been an on-going chat app war in Asia that we do not know much about in the west, but it is certainly interesting and I felt I should share more about it.
We are talking about near exponential growth and more users than Instagram. The main key players in this war are LINE, WECHAT and KAKAO TALK, from Japan, China and Korea respectively. Note: it is very hard to compare metrics, as some of these companies quote users as ‘active users’ and some as ‘registered users’ and they tend to quoting profits using quarters and halves. However a general trend can be seen.
An introduction to each app:
Line is a chat app owned by Naver Japan, apparently started internally as a response to the Tōhoku earthquake in 2011. This damaged telecommunications infrastructure nationwide, obliging employees at NHN Japan, to rely on the internet to communicate. It has one interesting source of revenue in particular: stickers. LINE has over 5,000 stickers and emoticons in its own app store for customers to send to friends. Line has proved itself as a successful infrastructure to push its other apps such as games or shopping.
Wechat is a chat and voice messaging app developed by Tencent in China. WeChat is a bit more complex as it supports social networking via shared streaming content feeds and it’s interesting features include location-based social plug-ins (“Shake”, “Look Around”, and “Drift Bottle”) to chat with and connect with local and international WeChat users. Like Line, it has been successful in pushing other apps, for example Taxi-booking App Didi Dache which brought in over 100,000 taxi rides in it’s first nine days.
Kakao talk is another large competitor chat app, by Kakao Corp (started by a previous co-chief executive of NHN before LINE). Its unique features include chat across different devices and employs a slightly more pop related approach employing K-Pop star to spread the brand. Again, it has been successful in pushing other businesses, in particular gaming, advertising and emoticons.
Why it’s interesting
I think there are several reasons as to why these apps should be interesting. They all offer a useful service first and foremost and they all use the freemium model in some sort of way. But they all include unique features and qualities which are different to Western apps which I’ll go though in a little detail below:
Feature and process innovation
Stickers may seem like a novelty, but they are central to the experience of these chat apps. I’ve previously worked on project that interviewed Japanese workers about the use of social networking in the office and many said that LINE were an efficient way of communication and a successful way of sending what would otherwise be awkward messages, with the use of expressive stickers. Furthermore, it is not a novelty since they bring in serious income for the apps. LINE recently stated they make $10 million per month from selling stickers. Not to be outdone by Asian stickers, Facebook collaborated with a Pixar artist and a psychologist to redesign the emoticon set which is another interesting innovation. Culturally, it seems like a good move to include a Pixar artist. However, it is also important to consider if it ‘fit’s’ the service or brand. I find Viber’s move to include stickers a little forced, while I admire Whatsapp’s decision to have no stickers, no games and just pure communication for a one time purchase of the app.
(Viber pushing their ‘new’ stickers feature)
Culture as features
This leads onto my next point. Line, WeChat and Kakao have been embraced throughout Asia. As this article on American centered design points out, these products are based on very different design assumptions than those behind the “golden age of design” featured in Wired: that strangers speaking different dialects might want to strike up an image-rich conversation just because they’re in close proximity for example. I was surprised when animations appear in WeChat when a user types ‘miss you’ or ‘kisses’ as another example. For all of the discussions about innovation and design and start-ups in Silicon Valley, I find it interesting how little we know in the West about innovation in Asia. I came across this interview with Hugo Barra (if you don’t have time, check out this summary by Business Insider) and found it fascinating how different some of the tech apps are there!
The business model of these chat apps are freeminum, and very flexible as they they the ability to push other products and services, for example Wechat pushing it’s taxi ordering app. Line saw revenue of $132 million for Q2 2013, 80 percent of which was driven from stickers and in-game purchases collectively. These stickers are so popular LINE was able release a special addition sticker set to raise over $US500,000 for hurricane relief in the Philippines this year. Kakao Talk claims that it earned $311 million in revenue in H1 2013 from its gaming platform alone. I think, it’s quite clear that this really trumps Whatsapp revenue, (although they do have 400 million active users), which will charge 99cents if they want to continue to use it, but its not clear how sustainable and flexible this will be.
(pray for the Philippines stickers)
What’s the status now
The chat apps are aggressively expanding, particularly in south east Asia and this is great because they are competing and out innovating each other. They are all only operating from their home countries, but despite that, they are able to expand abroad with clever marketing videos which aim at getting the attention of the audiences abroad. I find that LINE’s videos are really well produced, and although I don’t know for sure, they seem to really pick up on different cultural behaviours:
And here’s Kakao Talk’s video for the Philippines:
I really like how the ad for Japan has less of a focus on the features and is more narrative driven – since it’s already established in Japan so it does not need to convey it’s purpose. I also like how Kakao talk may have realised Philippines is a very emotional country and pushed stickers as a feature for conveying this. K-Pop is also increasingly popular so acknowledging themselves as an import and getting help from K-Pop celebrities is also clever.
In reality, these apps can and do co-exist. That makes it somewhat less of a war between them, but more of a war for attention. As we see the example of LINE offering donation stickers for sale worldwide as an effort to help people of the Philippines, we can see how this platform can be used for good causes. It also is an example of a win-win situation for all parties – the user feels good about helping and can also show this to other people, LINE look good as a company, and support is raised and spread through the use of the stickers so donations can be made. These apps can do this because of the strong platform it has. It reminds me of my some past thoughts I had about what might the future tech company be – they are essentially providing that infrastructure allowing people to easily communicate and since it has been so popular it is a formidable platform to push out other things such as games. With this baseline, they are able to spend a little energy on adapting this to the other countries. It’s certainly been interesting to watch.
I remember looking at sites like Gizmodo packed with updates of cool new MP3 players with different forms, weights, systems and interfaces. The featured image above shows the variety of audio players and phones from dozens of different manufacturers at the Consumer Electronics Show in Vegas in 2005.
Almost a decade later and the front page of Gizmodo features an intangible currency called Bitcoin and the Playstation Now – a Playstation where one doesn’t even need a Playstation to play, only a screen. Although new disciplines like Service Design approach the intangible; touch points, customer phone lines and may also see the product as part of the system, the product itself seems to be disappearing too. A great young designer I met in San Francisco said it well;
“What happens to us designers, when a designed radio is now just an app on a phone?”
In fact, I can think of examples where the Product Design is not just relegated to an app but examples where this happens in a physical sense too. New products like Tile and Square are fundamentally systems which require a physical technical component and therefore need an exterior case. With this situation, the product can be the logo and vice versa, with little or no other aesthetic.
And this is something I found in one of my own recent projects that looked at the internet of things and what that meant for us. I re-imagined the office as a distributed network of people and places, all linked together with the dynamic and location-aware capacities of ‘passport’ – a secure device to check into places and also objects. However, like Tile and Square, much of the designing is about the interactions and the systems, and this would be mainly built and designed by programming rather than anyone physically building or sketching. So I would like to ask a similar question as the great young designer I met.
What can this mean for us designers?
After thinking about technology companies and drawing from my own experiences of them, I found there are three main points to consider:
Working with engineers
A clear change is working with engineers much more. This is already the norm in many start-ups, but there needs to be more understanding from both sides. I’m finding design research is vital in today’s world for really understanding how people use things and how to position them, but also for achieving cultural fluency, which is what I think the next big thing is in design. But many start-ups employ designers as one title and may not see design research as an important part, let alone a separate position required in a start-up.
Showing the research
As a designer, I would like to know more about engineering and their processes, and also want to show them our processes. I do think design is perceived to be mostly visual, so I would like engineers to learn about what we do and why. Both are about how it works and this is very important. So I think it is up to us as designers to show the raw research and any cultural examples which are relevant to the end products or systems.
Sharing the vision and the work
To build these systems, decision making is vital and it’s easier to make those decisions when the vision is the same. Just like engineers can use analytics and data to present their arguments, designers need to use real research to argue theirs. We need to remember as designers, we can quickly get ideas and implement them, so we could think about how to share these ideas for buy in, which might mean working with every level and getting buy in from the middle. With all of this, it makes teams even more important. The vision needs to be aligned, every one must have cultural fluency and the same vision. It needs the same team.
Following on from this thinking, designers then assume a new approach. The ‘T-Shaped’ designer, one with skills and expertise in a single field and the ability to collaborate across disciplines is much desired. But I think it is okay for designers to have a slightly more generalist, leadership approach. This would be useful in start-ups but also in small teams within a company. Whether it is design led or not, the most important thing is the engineers and designers having the same vision and designers can contribute to this using the information from the ground and cultural insights. But this cannot be achieved by one person. I suspect that is why Google removed their engineer 20% time and went forward with their focused “more wood behind fewer arrows” approach. There might have been a misaligned vision and the inability to go towards the new vision. With Google now wanting to working on ‘moonshots’ and stopping projects like Google Reader while pouring money into Google’s self-driving car, as well as Google Glass and even robotics, Google many not be able to rely on individuals to create innovative ideas. These new projects are things not one person could do. What if there was 20% group time? which included working with a multifaceted team, including researchers, who all share one vision? I think this is more like the future for us designers.
Note: As an opener of my new blog, I have taken a post I wrote for Future Lenses entitled ‘The New Tech Company’. This blog aims to discuss design, technology and culture, with a focus on the future. I felt this post was a cornerstone for my own future thinking, where I am always thinking about the role of design and technology especially.
This post explores what a tech company means today and suggests what it might do in the future.
Tech Companies Today
I would like to start by a quote I read in an article titled ‘The era of tech companies is over.’ It states:
To stay competitive in today’s marketplaces, every company, by the current standard, could be called a tech company, which of course, is another way of saying that none of them should be.
Although a quite extreme view, it is one I agree with. Technology has become much more of a norm. This got me thinking about how or when this happened. With a large simplification, I see this transition (from the past to the future) to look something like this:
Marketing -> Technology -> Design -> What’s next?
My examples think about marketing as pushing a product to you that you may not necessarily want e.g. Marlboro Cigarettes, Technology as providing a product you may want to use e.g. AOL internet and finally, Design as making you really desire a product e.g. Apple. Of course, the design has played a role in all stages, but in quite different ways. Quoting John Maeda:
Design used to be the sauce you’d reach for in the cupboard; now it’s the flour you need at the start of the recipe.
Whilst I disagree with this quote as a designer for somewhat obvious reasons: design has always been the main ‘ingredient’ to me, I do agree that the industry has perceived design as something you apply and that their perception has changed. Excellent! But now that it has changed, what is next and what role should design play?
Discussions about Google’s role
As Google prepared to remove Google Reader out of service, recent discussions about Google’s role surfaced. One article mentioned that the most interesting discussion in their opinion came from Ryan Avent, who argues that:
Google has been providing crucial public infrastructure — but doesn’t seem to have an interest in maintaining that infrastructure
People are seeing Google’s services as vital. When this happens, it clearly has moved far beyond pushing a product to you, or even welcoming you to use it. On the backend of this, at Google, it seems like someone had to take an emotional risk: a decision to cut Google Reader. It must have been stressful but important.
If Twitter or Google were to be down for a day, people would be extremely agitated. The simple reason for this is that these companies have gone beyond providing a service (which people could get elsewhere). These companies are maintaining or facilitating a very well used public infrastructure. This will only continue to happen with such innovations as Google’s self-driving car.
I would argue that Apple have also gone more in this direction. Perhaps 10 years ago, Apple would have been seen to sell high-end products to the masses, but with the introduction of different product ranges, as well as services; apps and itunes, they are becoming more of a provider of an everyday infrastructure. Simply put, to me this is the difference between ‘tech’ companies and the real or new tech companies.
The New Tech Company
In conclusion, I put forward the idea of the new tech company as one that maintains or facilitates public infrastructure. With this, ideas we’ve had on this blog such as City API or shared car use make more sense to explore as designers. We can help build and provide the tools which change and shape culture. In my view it is the designer’s role (as other discipline’s roles) to help facilitate this to the best of our capabilities.