Author Archives: Josh Kinal

The Disruption Fallacy

It may engender a whole new stream of book reviewing, but I doubt it, because people are more interested in writing self-published books than in reading them. And if old media is so passé, why do they care so much about what we think?

Roger Sutton, editor in chief of Horn Book magazine, from
‘No, I don’t want to read your self-published book’ by Ron CharlesThe Washington Post, October 1, 2014.

We’ve been speaking a lot about the idea of "disruption" in the office recently. Of course, being urbane designers whose job it is to solve problems, we often regard the concept as nothing more than a buzzword surrounding or obfuscating a difficult truth: The world moved beyond the capabilities of a particular business model.

But it’s also within our bailiwick to look at the issue of disruption with empathy for both sides and to try to help our clients, whichever side of the disruption line they fall on.

The above quote from Sutton identifies one of the unspoken problems of disruption culture. Survivorship bias pushes us to look at the industries which were damaged by new competition. The newspaper industry is an obvious example. People never paid for news directly. The news was subsidised by the classified ads. Craigslist started and the classified ads dried up.

Nigel Dalton, CIO of REA Group recently gave a talk at General Assembly in Melbourne about his time at Lonely Planet and how they failed to preempt Trip Advisor et al.

That put a really interesting spin on the concept of disruption. Is it the act of the new business models pushing out older forms, or is it failure on the part of the older forms to react with appropriate innovation when the landscape shifts?

We never really hear about the start-ups that failed because the industries they were trying to undermine acted quickly and well to reinforce their position.

And then, in this quote from Sutton, we see an interesting in-between stage. Self-publishing is easy and many people do it. There are parts of that industry where self-publishing succeeds, to an extent. Science fiction and fantasy audiences are much more willing to take risks on reading and discover new authors. Children’s books, however, require an element of authority behind them to recommend them and let parents know they are making a wise investment for their children’s education and entertainment.

If we look at the microscopic level we see disruption or thwarting, depending on the victor. But if pull out to a more macroscopic level we observe business as an ecosystem, producing wins and losses all over the place. We see evolution as it should be: Businesses succeed or fail based on how well they can live in a changing environment.

There will always be something new coming around the corner. A business in stasis is never going to survive, but a business in panic is only slightly better off. Sometimes what a business needs is a third party to show what’s really important and its value as the environment changes.

That’s where we come in as designers. Our job is often to be the calming influence, to stop the panic and to develop strategies for showing value to customers, shareholders, staff or anyone else who might need a refreshing vision of the part your business plays in what’s important to them.

To paraphrase Yoda: There is no disruption, only do or do not.

To paraphrase Sigourney Weaver: There is no disruption, only Zuul.

We only want to be answerable to our audience

Hookturn Launches with a Ding

Josh Kinal and Michael Williams engage in pre-show shenanigans by interacting with a stuffed pheasant

Josh and Michael Williams engage in pre-show shenanigans

Last week we launched our brand new media label, Hookturn.

It was a joyous affair with drinks and food and people meeting each other, talking about ideas and the future of media.

Ross Floate, in his address to launch the label, spoke about the business’s plan to expand Hookturn into producing publications in addition to its current stable of podcasts.

“We wanted to develop a platform for experts to express ideas and engage in discourse,” said Ross, “so that we further produce our own style and respect our thought leaders.”

The goal, though, is to earn money from Hookturn’s audience and avoid advertising for as long as possible. As Ross said on the night: “The only people we want to be answerable to is our audience.”

We’ve had amazing feedback from the community and we’re turning to the audience for financial support. It’s like Kickstarter but even more independent.

On the evening, Ross revealed a goal of 200 financial members by the end of the year. Reaching that goal would open up the opportunities to move Hookturn from a largely volunteer concern to a professional one.

“We understand that the best way to encourage the best out of people is to pay them,” he said.

Audience members watching the Nudge, live.

A very engaged audience.

After the ceremonial ribbon cutting, I had the chance to interview The Wheeler Centre’s Michael Williams about their #discuss campaign. That interview was recorded as proof that the crowd enjoyed it and also to be released as a future episode of The Nudge podcast.

More information about Hookturn memberships.

More photos from the night are available to view on the Hookturn Facebook page.

This week on ‘This Australian Life’

I grew up in Australia in the late seventies and early eighties, so it was natural for me to think that someone else’s culture was more valid than mine: The TV shows we saw were mostly imported; The local content was news or soap or procedural cop dramas; Australian children’s television was always solid, but as kids we were already given the sense that things that were made for us were of less consequence than things created for adults; And shows for adults that had a sense of quality came from the US and UK.

Is that how you remember it? It’s definitely the way we, as a culture, talk about it—especially when we have the inevitable "Why can’t we produce good comedies" discussion we love to have.

To believe that requires excluding the comedies like Auntie Jack, which led to Norman Gunston, without which we would have never had Let the Blood Run Free or The Games.

There were also the Kennedy-Miller mini-series, the way for which was paved by Crawfords productions, which eventually led to Simpson-Le Mesurier productions and the excellent Good Guys Bad Guys in the early nineties.

Australia is a giant country with a relatively small population. Our two most populous cities (only the second smallest distance between two capital cities in Australia), are almost as far apart as Paris and Berlin. We feel isolated from each other as well as the rest of the world, and as a result there is an insecurity in our actions.

Recently a friend told me he wanted to start a podcast festival in Melbourne. His intention was to invite Marc Maron and John Hodgman, and their presence would encourage other big names to come.

He never mentioned an Australian podcast he would like to invite.

So, why do we look externally for validation?

When I went to my first Webstock conference (realistically one of the best-run events I’ve ever had the pleasure of attending), I was disappointed that a New Zealand-run event didn’t have any antipodean speakers.

I thought about this for a bit. Should we blame the organisers? (They are lovely people and work very hard.) Maybe they had evidence to show that local people weren’t a big enough draw card. That’s definitely what other attendees had suggested to me.

If this is what attendees think, based on just attendee-to-attendee discussions, then it’s probably true enough market research.

But this problem doesn’t happen with other countries or cultures. The aforementioned US and UK both host plenty of web-design conferences that draw huge crowds.

Do we just accept out cultural cringe and live with it, or do we fight against it?

This is a design problem. This is a problem of getting people to accept something they unconsciously reject. Its a problem of changing minds and behaviour.

But is it a problem worth solving? What are the costs associated with building antipodean pride?

There is a very real possibility that we fear realising our already perceived irrelevance—that, despite everything we have already given the world (wifi, bionic ear, ova freezing techniques), we still never think we’ll be listened to when we talk. And there’s nothing worse than an irrelevant body pretending it has validity. How embarrassing!

There is, however, the contrary position. If we are supportive of our own work and push ourselves to produce better products, then maybe it won’t matter what others think. Maybe we will develop a confidence to be content with our own attention.

This is not about local design for local people. It’s about holding our own work to an international standard, supporting it when it reaches that level and encouraging efforts to surpass it.

We can only do that one step at a time. It’s going to be tough, too, but relevance is demanded, not requested, and that takes grit.

Raising the conversation

Or, how we gave birth to Hookturn

A couple of years ago, a few months after I started working with Ross, we were talking business over a gentle beverage. We agreed about a lot, particularly the state of the conversation in our part of the world.

At the time we specified our part of the world as Melbourne, Australia, but also as Design.

We had noted:

  • a deficit of nuance in argument and people not being able to defend their work or position
  • too much reliance on affirmation, attention or examples from colleagues in the Northern Hemisphere
  • a lack of pride or exploration of the quality of work being produced here
  • a general reluctance by people to do the extra work it takes to make something really good instead of just getting the job done.

These were implicit issues in our society and it would take a lot of work to make any difference. We started by keeping the goal of improving the way local people spoke about their work in mind when making all business decisions.

This led to us starting The Nudge: an evening in which we interview someone else’s client to find out why they made the decisions they did about a certain design.

Soon we started releasing the events as a podcast so more people could enjoy the conversations we were having.

Then we realised that we needed more conversations.

That’s how Hookturn was born.

We created a label under which we could release podcasts and publications that would help lift the tone of conversation. We had some simple rules:

  • Everything released must be planned.
  • Recordings must have all main voices in the same room.
  • Everything released must be edited.

In addition, we wanted to curate a feeling for the product under the label. All the shows force us to look at the world in a way we haven’t before.

We’re really proud of the work with Hookturn. We encourage you to take a look and download some of the shows. Have a listen and let us know what you think.

It’s part of our desire to be better designers and make our part of the world a better place.

The Stages of Web Design for a Client

An integral part of our job, as designers, is to communicate effectively. When we speak about our processes in front of a client, though, we often fail in this area.

We might not consider it jargon because these are names we use every day, but the client probably has no idea of the hidden meanings behind these.

I write ‘hidden meanings’ because although it’s obvious from their name that wireframes might just be outlines of what someone might see on a screen and comps (short for ‘composite layout’) are fully fleshed out designs in the final colours and fonts, those names don’t explain how these tools are used.

I realised this recently when speaking to a client: their questions and requests showed that, while they had signed off on the wireframe and information architecture, they weren’t really sure what they were signing off on.

We provide a phased approach to design so that the client can have input and sign-off at various stages during the process. This is supposed to be helpful and provide a sense of progress during what is the set of often unseen actions that it takes to make a website.

Perhaps we had failed in communicating the stages and their uses to the client because they started asking for functionality changes after we had moved past wireframes, they asked for menu items to be moved around on comps.

Many of these changes were barriers to progression on the project, as far as the client was concerned, but realistically had no bearing on the final product (which image was used on the comp in a placeholder section, for example), or required a return to a previous phase (changing the home page from a news matrix to three highlights in a carousel).

So I created this description for them. It runs through the phases of creating a website and what it means in terms of working with Floate. It identifies what is appropriate to alter at whichever stage of the process and what isn’t worth worrying about until later.

These are by no means the strict rules of creating a website. Everyone has their own process but we’ve found these phases (which all come after the research phase) are the best for walking a client at a large organisation through a complicated decision tree.

Information Architecture

This is often easy to produce after a solid research phase and it can help form the decisions in the rest of the process. We start with a dump of all the things we think need to be on the website as a result of interviews and competitor analysis. Then we categorise them based on behaviours we’ve seen in the research. Sometimes we’ve already started thinking about functionality.

IA can take a number of forms: a two dimensional tree is common although not realistic with a site that used a CMS with categories and tags. It can be a quick sketch of a page that shows how much of a screen needs to be dedicated to different pieces of information. It can be a diagram that shows how the different taxonomies of a site are defined.

The two things to remember here are that none of this is set in stone, it can all be changed right up to and including putting the content in the CMS, and that there is no right way to do it. Everybody understands the structure of information in different ways. There might need to be several treatments before all stakeholders understand where the project is headed.

Universal comprehension is the goal when producing IA.

Wireframes

These are used to show user interface concepts at a very rough level. Content placement on these pages is vaguely indicative of final versions only. The key with wireframes is that they contain everything that is expected on a page in roughly the right spot, but without any specifics around the names of sections, wording in captions or colours (if any are used).

Wireframes are general and low fidelity by definition. They are the skeleton that defines how the website works.

Composite Layouts (Comps)

These are high fidelity examples of what a page might look like. They can be used to get a good sense of font-sizes, how images appear with text, colours used etc. As part of creating the comps we try to create all the elements that we plan to use in the website: what will buttons actually look like in all their different states (active, hover, passive), for example.

The comps create the rules we use for how the website looks. Again, the content may not be correct. The names of menu items might be wrong (we can change them when we build the site) and images might be stock photography rather than final product.

We try to make it as accurate as possible but the nature of using a content management system is that it’s easier to make these changes once we have the colour and shape of everything confirmed.

Chances are, the number of pages that we have wireframed will equal the number of pages we have comped so you can see progress. Together, these will inform the functional and visual build of the website.

Staging Site

This is the phase to get to the nitty-gritty. Once we’ve built the website, changing the way something works or the shape of a button is time-consuming and inefficient. We should have changed those in the earlier phases.

But wait a minute. That paragraph should appear above the image with the happy man standing in a field and the graph needs a caption of “growth over time”. That’s a change we can make really easily in the content management system.

The carousel on the home page runs too slowly, let’s speed it up, and we’ve just tested that form internally and we need a couple more steps for people

Live Site

Seen a problem on the live site? Ready to go to your boss’s office and commit some horrific ancient ritual? Put the sword away. We can change that pretty easily. Some people may have seen the error but it doesn’t mean that it has to stay that way for all eternity. It might take a couple of hours to get the change through, though, because we have to change it on the staging site first, have it approved and then export the changed files, but it’s still possible.

Sometimes we are disappointed that we can’t do everything on the web that we can do in print. Other times we’re glad we can do so much more.