Analytics: The New Normal

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Recently, I had a conversation with a client about adopting the habit of regularly tracking their analytics, to see what level of traction their messages have. They’ve begun to do so regularly, but they’ve arrived at a concern about a drop-off in audience engagement from one week to the next. I told them not to be:

Them: “Soooooo are you saying don’t worry about (analytics) and wait until the end of the year when we can see the impact over a period of time?”
Me: “Is there ever a simple answer? … Yes.”

The long answer …

Performance analysis has to have perspective:

Translation: Don’t work out in the mirror!

“(Analysis) is the new normal—everything can be tracked. In the process, though, we can’t ask (ourselves) “Am I improving?” every ten minutes because we’re not giving enough time to let an individual strategy become a part of a strategic process. But after giving something a certain amount of time, we can begin to know the ROI on effort or at least feel comfortable we’re not just shooting in the dark.

I’ve become a bit of a Strava hound: I use a GPS-tracker to track my (cycling) and over the course of about two years, now, I can see the long-term trend of improved cycling. On a week-to-week basis, it’s difficult to see–much less know–when to rest, lose some weight or something or compare historical data of how often I rode this time last year, etc. To bore you enough with all that, it’s intriguing how data can help us, as a society, understand trends in performance and how that can lead to better performance over time by reducing waste and improving outcomes.”

If one is focused on continuously improving methods and messages, the blips on the radar, that need improving become challenges that can be met and trained to overcome, not feared. I just read an article in the New Yorker that discussed the issue of continuous improvement by focusing on relating to one’s data. In it, James Surowiecki mentions the Japanese term, “kaizen” The article continues: “In a kaizen world, skill is not a static, fixed quality but the subject of ceaseless labor.”

While analysis may be the new normal, unprocessed data isn’t very good at helping in the short term. If one works out for ten minutes and then wonder “Am I better than I was twenty minutes ago?” he or she runs the risk of driving him or herself crazy, throwing the prospects of a solid feedback loop into a frenzy of checking your form in the proverbial mirror after each push-up.

In the short term, yes, put out the fire do what needs to get done to get through. But long term: focus on honing and perfecting that message, using data to understand your audience and connect with them.

Meeting Length Regret Quotient

Meeting Length Regret Quotient

Obviously, not all meetings should be two hours max. I mean someone is trying to solve Middle East Peace, but I was in a meeting where, after a certain time, I just felt there’s no reason this meeting should be THIS long. I think every person has this quotient (at different lengths) ticking in their heads. Keep the info utility front-loaded, you know!

Building By Committee

“It is sad that so many creations today are just like the rest. It is why Porsche must remain independent. Without independence, without the freedom to try new ideas, the world will not move ahead, but live in fear of its own potential. … Committees lead to creations that have no soul, no identity. This is why no Porsche will ever be created by a committee, but a handful of people inside these walls who know what a Porsche is.”
— Dr. F. Porsche

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I was in a meeting where a CEO lamented that getting things through her board is difficult—can’t remember the exact characterization. Suffice to say, allowing a board to be a board is a tricky thing. Clearly there are times when a board helps vet an organization’s process, but there are other times when in the process of creation a board is best poised to allow the process to happen in the hands of the creators. A book I read called The Visionary’s Handbook suggests that even in the big company, certain divisions should be treated as if they were very small, giving entrepreneurial power to this force of creation. This type of independence is rare, even in the automotive world.

Unless you’re Porsche.

And with that I thought back to one of my most cherished quotations from what has become somewhat of a design hero for me, the patron of Porsche. I don’t know when exactly this was said, but one things for sure, anytime through the end of World War II, the amalgamation of car companies was rampant. This process saw the end of many storied brands. But for some there was the time to double down and work to come up with that next big thing.

The 356 was one such number. A roadster prelude to my favorite car, the 911, this car had the simplicity of design and a sheer level of enjoyment to see. And if driving a Karmann Ghia is half the experience—probably half the engine—then it must have really been something.

iThoughts

I listened to a TED podcast with IDEO’s Tim Brown talking about how design can get big again and it stuck when I witnessed the new iPhone 5. He discussed design’s ability to discuss and solve the big picture, in addition to the innovation of products and services.

For me, it’s not so much about throwing stones at the iPhone 5 — I mean life is good at Apple and we all love the products: the phone is selling better than ever. It’s just that at this point, the real thing that needs redesigning is the commodity phone service market and Apple’s place in it. And, I’ve spoken about my desire to not have a phone that costs over $250 or so, just because it doesn’t seem practical… I’ll call that the “anti-downpour rule” — nothing that would upset me too badly if it I was caught in a downpour.

Also, having an iPad has me desiring a variance in the suite of products where price and functionality don’t really overlap: i.e. the phone and the iPad can do most of the same things …

But there is a bigger picture with a communication model (the phone market, with its archaic plans and services) whose surface has only barely been scratched.

Apple reinvented the landscape with the iPod, and as it turned out its signature program, iTunes became as big a draw, if any, to people’s desire to get/keep an Apple computer in the early naughts. The wide-open mp3 market at the time was corralled in way that really helped Apple gain a foothold as a true consumer company. In so doing, much was said about the reinvention of the music market into a more democratic, accessible landscape. (Of course, much of that was to the chagrin of music companies). That sounds like classic Steve Jobs.

With phones, I think early on, one may have had to play the game of the telecom giants by not bucking their business model. And the push into the phone market by Apple was no guarantee. But now, years in, Apple has the weight to do whatever they want … to build a phone and a communications model as high-end as the objet d’art.

Speaking of an objet d’art, the Formula 1 fans know that one can spend millions building a supercar, but all that means nothing if the tire companies cannot match the innovation. I argue that by comparison, the initial development of Google Voice is quite ground-breaking in the regard of challenging the status quo of big telecom. Building a superphone around that or, like Google’s trying to do with the payment technology, is truly the next big thing.

The Day Before …

With all the snow and cold, I was recently treated to about 1 hour of channel surfing. On the Sundance Channel I saw a segment in a documentary series called <em>The Day Before</em>. through all the self-importance and posturing, I thought about how often and similar the process of cramming is for design practitioners of the graphic kinds as well as fashion. I saw the end of one on Fendi and (Karl Lagerfeld) and the beginning of another (Jean Paul Gaultier). The self-importance of the Fendi documentary was about as much as I could stand with my fingers ready to turn the channel, but the Gaultier documentary was interesting in its ability to capture the craziness in front of a fashion show. What struck me is how little was actually done ahead of the day before!!! Gaultier’s whole collection was rounded together in the last 24 hours.

What is it about the zen of the deadline? This has been on my mind for about a quarter since I’ve been working with a MICA flex class on assignments that—while modified—were an assignment that I received and was given 24 hours to complete. When I got the assignment I was happy of course to be paid, but then as soon as I got off the phone with the client, the first thing that happens is I begin hearing that ’24’ tick-down, knowing that the clock is ticking…. And how for the first five hours I dinked around testing various compositions, then eating and then thinking: “I’ve got to have something definitive going into the next day”… I didn’t.

But, we’ve heard this story before: a little head-clearing and voila comps which went to the client just slightly after time. Flashback to the present. What remains of that story is some decent work and the buzz of the deadline. When communicating all this to the students, I’ve focused on their creating the internal process of milestone completions that allow one to revisit and rebuild—making the design better and better as one goes along. All that works out on paper, but the “fog of war” happens and the process gets muddled. For instance, the snow interfered with six-hour class that was the working time that gave the students deadlines BEFORE the deadline. For some this was a help, for others it was a hindrance. More time to ponder became more time wasted. I saw a documentary where a design firm developed thirty-five prototypes of a chair design before presenting it to the client and wanted to impart this level of preparation to the students, if only to prove to them that, everything doesn’t have to be a <em>seat-of-the-pants</em> design process.

On the other hand sometimes those iterations become the inspiration that comes together in the end. It’s all down to varying experiences and varying processes. The key is to know your process. An example of that is the difference between the way Apple releases products and Google releases products. Apple’s emphasis is built on hyper-preparation and testing, perhaps fueled by their failures of the late nineties (think Newton pad). On the other hand Google often can’t release something fast enough to get it to a beta stage that can then be reworked and made better. Apple rarely does this. And anytime Apple had to revisit something, it was under the prospect of negative reaction—think back to the switch to OS X or the switch to USB and firewire and the blowback that Apple received.

Google’s not found the same level of objection, often releasing products at beta (Gmail is a prime example) which then was slowly introduced to the masses. In an article on innovation in Fast Company, Doug Merrill, a Google executive said, “The marvel of Google is its ability to instill creative fearlessness”… A book I have on creativity called Fearless Creating says that we should “understand the difference between working and working deeply.” The bottom line is no matter what approach we use, it ultimately has to be about our ability to tap into that stored creativity reserve, preserve and cultivate some of that and make it useful for someone to digest.