The White Agency's Sam Court + Grant Flannery reveal 'seven things we've exported from Austin'

Sam Court (l) & Grant Flannery (r).jpgBy Sam Court (left), UX director and Grant Flannery (right), associate strategy director, The White Agency
In 2007 Twitter did it, and then in 2009 Foursquare did it. This year, the buzz at SXSW was all about Meerkat. But SXSW buzz doesn't guarantee success! I'll be astounded if many people reading this have heard of (let alone used) the apps that have previously won the hearts of SXSW conferences. These include:
  • Secret or Whisper: Covert oversharing. Existing without broad usage.
  • Highlight: Publicly Oversharing. Went from "next big thing" to "flash in the pan".
  • Glancee: Meeting people nearby (but not necessarily for hook-ups). Bought by Facebook.
  • Sonar: Meta information about who's in the room. Shut down.
  • Banjo: Pivoted into a "TiVO for social media", with 6 million users & $21m investment.
This year a few folk from White went to SXSW, determined to look beyond the buzz and bring back a swag of useful ideas to improve the way our clients connect with their customers. Here's seven of our favourites...
1. Challenging briefs by developing deeper insights
The first step in going deeper with a brief is often to challenge what was written by an account manager that "captured" the requirements in a meeting. Typically, there are marketing challenges which are great for the marketer but don't help the consumer and are never very insightful. Then there are business challenges which are closer to where we need to be but still based on observations and not insights. So let's focus on something more useful: the consumer problem. From this we can work out pain-points and gain creation opportunities that allow us to develop stories of how the consumer could connect with the brand. This is where we usually find the most golden insights.
2. Escaping "agile-fall" processes within departments
As Eric Ries (author of The Lean Startup) described, agile-fall is typically when agencies combine a design phase (often where the UX is "designed") with an Agile approach to development. As a result, inefficient iterative processes happen in department silos forming a waterfall. The process creates an illusion that iterations are helping, however the process still assumes that perfect planning was done up-front, leading to even more divergent and costly outcomes. The fix is to take a holistic view to project approach, and ensure that assumptions and ideas are validated early and often.
3. Preparing clients for opportunities for the "push" web
The first phase of the web was about making pages openly findable via a search engine. The second phase, which is coming to a close now, has been about mobility. The currently emerging third phase is about facilitating the experience web. Driven by internet-connected-everything, the new web is all around us. Somewhat ironically, given the web's initial phase, this new and pervasive web thrives on a fewer intermediaries having broader control -- particularly companies that can own the entire experience, like the Four Horsemen - Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google. However, significant opportunities exist for brands that can master context and deliver personalised content to meet consumers where they are.
4. Less planning, more testing with Design Sprints
A Design Sprint engages a cross-functional team of 5-8 people and happens over the course of an intense week, with the goal of providing validated results. Google's designers have evolved the process that's based on what's taught at Stamford's dSchool, and it involves the following five steps:
·       Understand: A series of lightning talks covering business goals, technology and user research. User interviews are conducted, including field visits where the product is used. To summarise the learnings, a stakeholder map and competitive overview are produced.
·       Define: Based on the understanding gained, define user journeys, design principles and draft the first tweet. Finally the challenge (or brief) can be written.
·       Diverge & Decide: With the brief shared, the team begin an iterative sketching process - eight individual ideas in five minutes, then one collaborative idea in eight minutes, and finally one storyboard in five minutes. With each iteration, feedback is shared and ideas progress. To analyse the ideas, thinking hats technique (Idea Generator, Optimist, Pessimist, Technical feasibility, User Advocate) is used. Finally, a decision is made on what to prototype.
·       Prototype: Depending on the plan, a prototype is built to suitable fidelity: Mock-ups, Demos, Videos, Physical prototype, etc.
·       Validate: With the prototype in hand, user tests (booked during planning) are conducted, stakeholder feedback is gathered, and a technical feasibility check is performed.
Although the heading may distract, these Design Sprints need an appropriate amount of planning. The Sprint Master needs to take the time to define the business challenge, plan the sprint, define the deliverables, schedule all the relevant stakeholders and recruit the representative customers.
5. New focus techniques for collaborative ideation
Tests on twins separated at birth show that one-third of our creative capacity is genetic. This means that two-thirds is learnable. Here's five techniques that innovative CEOs spend 50% more time doing:
·       Associating: Connect seemingly unrelated questions, problems or ideas. Otherwise known as The Medici Effect - bringing sculptors, scientists, poets together (or even technologists & marketers!).
·       Questioning: Messing with the status quo. Ask why? What would happen if we did this? Michael Dell started Dell Computer by asking why $600 of parts cost $3000. Also try playing Devil's Advocate, or embracing & adding constraints. The bottom line is to be brave!
·       Observing: Scrutinise behaviours & phenomena. Tata Cars started because the founder saw a family of four on a motorbike.
·       Experimenting: Just like a good scientist - Hypothesis, Synthesis, Test, Learn. Remember Edison's famous quote: "I haven't failed. I've simply found 10,000 ways that do not work." Smart brands are doing this already with techniques like smoke tests on live sites. Expect to see more of this, and faster.
·       Networking: Meet people with different perspectives, and avoid selling yourself. Kent Bowen from CPS Technologies says, "The insights required to solve many of our most challenging problems come from outside our industry."
6. Ensure our clients' projects have a purpose beyond profit
If you want people to be invested in your brand and to care if it survives on, you need it to have a meaning that runs deeper than "shareholder value". This is especially true with millennials who expect brands to have a meaningful social voice.  Open-source your innovations. Companies like Patagonia are exceeding in this manner. Some techniques to consider and up-weight include: Funding activists and those doing interesting things within your space; Analysing and optimising the supply chain, not just the product's marketing efforts; Ensuring sustainability and environmental impacts are minmised.
7. Implementing an innovation program leveraging Adobe's Kickbox
Adobe wanted to make more innovators from their staff: More ideas from more people, with less false negatives. The key, they said, is to try a lot of things without being decisive, and then decisively kill them when required. Innovation requires scale. You can't assume that something useful can be created from 10 ideas. You need volume. They realised they had about 1000 staff that could potentially provide ideas. So when they "did the math" they determined that if they gave these staff $1,000 each to develop their ideas, they would just need one ship in order for the program to pay for itself.
As such, Adobe launched a program called Kickbox, which they've since open-sourced ( Each red Kickbox includes: A Starbucks card, some chocolate, $1000 on a pre-paid credit card and instructions. For those that complete the red box, a subsequent bespoke blue box is given. This box is all about getting the idea to market - 23 blue boxes have been given so far, and one red went straight to being a shipped product.
Don't forget, there's no such thing as zero risk. If you leave programs like Kickbox to legal & finance, they'll make sure nothing happens. You need to push through worst case scenarios, and ensure to give the worried few full credit for any successes, and offer to personally wear any negative outcomes.

With 1,200 sessions over five days at SXSW, obviously it's difficult to keep all 34,000 attendees happy. But as you can see from the techniques above, we left Austin feeling energised with some new ideas to share with our clients, and opportunities to optimise our ways of working.

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