By Chris Griggs
Director of Technology, Keko London
Who doesn’t love new stuff? It promises so much – especially when it comes to technology. New tech can make you look cool. It can make you and your business more successful. In comparison to new stuff, everything else seems stale, boring and, well, old.
In particular, many who work in agencies tend to go all dewy-eyed about new tech – however fanciful its promise might be. This can occur for a number of reasons, including:
- Wanting to deliver a competitive advantage on behalf of clients – a noble aim, though not one that can be achieved exclusively through new technology.
- Wanting to win awards – a less noble aim. A major culprit as to why I feel the agency world has lost its way with technology. Why? Look at any award book from the last 20 years and ask yourself how many of the digital campaigns are truly great ideas, and how many are average ideas coupled with the first application of a now-dated technology.
- Wanting to be seen as innovators; as fast-moving pioneers rather than conservative, risk-averse Luddites. Because, well, who doesn’t?
- Being afraid we’ll be left behind forever.
Guess what? New is not always best.
If we look at the really big changes to our lifestyles that the internet has ushered in, many of them are really just repairs or improvements – either fixing things we already had or enabling us to do something we already did more effectively.
eBay made it easier to buy and sell second hand items. PayPal made paying for it easier, especially when you don’t know the seller. The iPod let us listen to music from our entire music collections, rather than just the tapes, CDs or Minidiscs (remember them?) we were prepared to lug around. The iPhone bridged the gap between a computer and a mobile phone, enabling us to use the internet on the move – before the iPad bridged the gap between an iPhone and a computer, for those of us who needed bigger screens. More recently, Uber fixed many of the problems with taxis, while Air B’n’B made it a doddle to let our flats for short periods, while giving us all an alternative to hotels at the same time. Spotify and Netflix, meanwhile, resolved the file storage limitations of our various devices by giving us streaming access to everything.
What all these innovations had in common is that there was either a known problem there to be solved or, if not, an opportunity – a genuine consumer need – to be exploited. The knife and fork were not invented because it would look cool to hold a different-looking implement in each hand. They were built to make life better and they succeeded because they did exactly that. They were not created as part of an arms race, with the simple goal of being first. In fact, every example above was based on technology that already existed; technology that, if it hadn’t been commercially deployed already, it had at least been publicly demonstrated. As Steve Jobs told a room full of Apple developers back in 1997, “You‘ve got to start with the customer experience and work backwards to the technology.”
Back in the real world…
Many of the world’s most successful new technologies are the work of start-ups. And usually, their ideas have arisen from problems the inventors experienced first-hand (if you work in an agency, you’re probably more familiar with the term ‘insights’).
In agencyland, however, we have remained preoccupied by the empty promise of the new and the next. We’ve become so dazzled by new tech that we’ve lost sight of these real-world problems. As a consequence, we’ll often rush towards a new technology with no true appreciation of the problems it is ready to solve. Which in turn, results in solutions that are really just demonstrations – proof of our ‘innovative capabilities’ but nothing more. Predictably, the customer experience usually leaves a lot to be desired.
For me, the time has come to refocus on real-life problems. Which means getting out of our offices, where we languish at a safe distance from the people who experience the fruits and failure of our labour. A time to apply true empathy to our clients’ current and future customers, by experiencing the real, physical world, first-hand.
Let’s get physical.
Today’s most successful digital applications are often mashups of the physical and virtual worlds. Uber is predominantly a physical experience – only the hailing and payment of the taxi happens digitally. Amazon still requires the physical act of packing and shipping an item. Booking process aside, AirB’n’B is also a physical experience.
This suggests that rather than being entirely screen-centric, we can add value to people’s lives by enabling technology to augment our physical experiences. But to do so successfully, we need to think differently. We need to identify real opportunities to improve the minutiae of our physical lives – and that means considering context and experience. It means undertaking physical, real-world research and creating usage scenarios. And only then, when we know we’re looking in the right place, can we start to look at the technology itself: Location, iBeacons, Projection, Audio Watermarking, IoT – all can help us connect the digital and the physical, but only if we have found the right problem to solve. Let’s not develop an all-singing, all-dancing, big data-driven AI bot if all we need to do is put up a sign.
Join the resistance.
In an agency context, this will mean being prepared to challenge briefs that stipulate a particular technology at the outset. On receipt of briefs like this, we need to step all the way back to the high-level objective (e.g. increase awareness of product X) and then look at what consumer or business problem we can solve to achieve it. Only then can we examine the technologies available, with an aim to enhancing or improving a real-life experience.
Crucially, we need to remain disciplined throughout. Which means not rushing to the newest technologies available to us, or the ones we think will win us awards. And we need to keep things simple. Which means resisting the temptation to add features, extra tabs, content and more calls to action. In fact, it means resisting everything – unless it will help improve the life of the end user – because that’s how you create a great app. Instead of rushing to be early adopters, we should all be early resistors. Let’s define the future not by FOMO, but by JOMO – the joy of missing out.