Tag Archives: General Opinion

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Amazon Echo

I’ll be the first to admit that I’m generally quite cynical about new technology launches.

As someone with years of being in roles where it’s my job to get people excited about the future – I’ve always had to temper people’s excitement about new technology, and get them thinking about what it means for people and our lives, rather than the hardware itself – but with the most recent product launch from the commerce giant, I’m genuinely excited. I want an Amazon Echo – the sleek cylindrical love child of Siri (Apple’s voice controlled assistant) and Sonos (the wireless music player).

At it’s heart, Amazon Echo is a device which sits on your shelf in the corner of your living room, office or kitchen, and then listens and reacts. You shout ‘Hey Alexa, play some classical music’, and the device fetches from music and fires up some tunes. You call ‘Hey Alexa, buy more Ambrosia Custard’, and it adds previously purchased items back into your shopping basket. You holler ‘Hey Alexa, what time is the next Eurostar to Paris’ and it’ll tell you how long you’ve got to dash to the station. You whisper ‘Hey Alexa, turn the lights on please’, and your house illuminates. Or at least, that’s the picture being painted by Amazon and its consumers in the US, as the device isn’t yet available to us in the UK. I’ve had a brief play with one of the few units over here at a recent demonstration by the Amazon team, and I’ve been reading through some of the toolkits which Amazon are releasing to help developers and businesses add support for voice interfaces, and I’m still excited.

As I’ve written before, Amazon realised a long time ago that ecommerce is an incredibly hard design challenge – you’ll never be able to mimick or match real-world retail environments, so they’ve stopped trying, and instead are adding layers of shoppability to the real-world. Amazon Firefly, their object recognition app, allows you to shoot a photo of anything, have it recognised, and add it to your basket. Amazon Dash Buttons are branded physical buttons which sit on your washing machine or fridge to reorder goods at the touch of a button. And Amazon Echo builds on that thought, to make purchase frictionless, effortless, nothing more than a passing comment.

It heightens the importance of brand recall and preference – as you’ll shout out the name of a brand you remember, rather than having a shelf of products competing for your attention with discounts and POS techniques which they can rely upon. This potentially also cements the role of Amazon Echo in partnership with other media, especially TV – the ability to prompt purchase even if the audience isn’t second screening.

Retailers will need to actively think the role that this more passive interaction with services that voice and in-home IOT interfaces offer them. Amazon celebrated their 20th anniversary this month – and as an organisation they’re sitting on decades of insight and knowledge about shopping habits and behaviours. What additional insights they’ll gather through having a new foothold in the front-room with the ability to capture more passing comments from consumers, rather active ‘sit and search’ type behaviours, will be of great interest to advertisers and brands.

But whilst yes, it’s a direct opportunity to add products to baskets, thinking of voice as just another way of clicking ‘buy now’ is short-sighted. In the same way Google search data shows the interests and questions that audiences have around certain key words, and perhaps the content which could be developed to answer that search – voice opens a new space in which to offer true value to consumers in their home. Will Vanish offer the answer of how to remove a stain within seconds of spilling a glass of red wine on the carpet? Can British Airways keep a wishlist of places that the family are mulling over for their next holiday? Can Lurpak make a suggestion of a meal for tonight based upon the contents of the fridge? – and that’s just playing with the idea of voice based search, the most obvious first step using the platform.

I’m also excited because we’re starting to pass into the next generation of interface and internet of things, where devices become more hidden and flow into a more natural way of interacting, helping us lift our heads from our screens, and the integration of many more IOT devices together, Amazon Echo, for instance, already connects to Philips and Belkin home automation technology, like lighting systems.

This constant overwatch from our technology doesn’t come without its concerns. Whilst Echo doesn’t listen to what you say until you prompt with her wake-word ‘Alexa’, your voice is still being transmitted to third parties, and as we saw in a recent advertising innovation, voice is potentially easy to abuse – with Toyota running a radio ad prompting in-car iPhones to switch to Airplane mode via Siri. Also, the type of data being collected would be far more passive than ever before, every little search, every little thought, every comment you make through the Echo system would and could be aggregated to build a very rich picture of what a person is doing and ‘offline’, rather than when actively engaging with a device. Each small interaction, the specific time when someone adds an item to their basket, or asks for the time, or switches music on, or turns off their lights, builds up a unique view of someone in a more offline state at home, which isn’t yet captured accurately – a huge potential wealth of data for advertisers and brands. In addition, what impact does this ‘on-demand’ capability have on our planet? Being able to order a single item with a passing mention, and have it shipped to you within an hour by connecting Amazon Echo and Amazon Prime Now (the recent immediate shipping functionality launched in London) doesn’t help reduction of packaging waste or carbon emissions, and points towards a worrying culture of impatience.

But for every concern, there are bright stars of positivity too. Nest’s connected smoke alarm alerting you at work that there’s a problem. Microsoft Research Lab’s work on mood tracking to help children with Autism and Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder prompting ways of calming the wearer down. Amazon’s Echo could even be used to alert family or friends at the calls for help from an elderly relative.

This is the first outing for Amazon Echo – it may well be that we see a number of variations on its form, its use and its best place in our lives. Early comments from the beta release in the US have already started shifting how it is designed and thought about, and now it has gone on mainstream release, we’ll start to see many more uses of its technology that haven’t yet been thought about.

A modified version of this article was first published in The Grocer.

Used under a CC licence from https://www.flickr.com/photos/87913776@N00/2540266946/

The future of price tags

Imagine a world without price tags.

This world already exists in the high-priced, high-end markets: crazy 24 bedroom houses with their own cinemas, moats and swimming pools list ‘Price on Application’; fancy jewellery stores or performance motor cars choose not to be as vulgar as to talk about price, reminding shoppers of the saying ‘If you have to ask, you can’t afford it’.

But ignore the wealth-gap for a moment, and think about what prices are – they’re offers to a consumer of what the retailer is willing to exchange the object for, made up of the current value of the product along with a mark-up which includes profit and overheads, translated in to your local currency, at a snapshot in time.

The reality is that the actual cost of a product varies, in real time. The cost of cotton rises and falls. Inflation is constantly eating away at the value of the pound. Fuel prices change. Currency markets fluctuate every microsecond. The value of a product is not fixed, but the offer to sell the product to a consumer rarely does. Once the tag is printed, it is static until manually intervened with a sharpie or a sale.

However, with the advent of volatile cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin, the massive penetration of mobile devices, and the speed of real-time data – fixed price tags are set to be a thing of the past.

Imagine an internet connected price tag, which sources real-time information about commodity prices, currency rates and stock performance, to present an offer to the consumer based upon these inputs. Visit the store in the morning, and your latte could be 39p cheaper than the afternoon where milk prices have soared after a collapse in the dairy farming industry. Rehabstudio has built such a device which takes the real-time value of Bitcoin to show the price of an object in that currency.

Go further, and allow individuals to see their own price on an object. Use mobile devices to read a product, perhaps with an NFC or QR code, and retailers can use personally tailored information to vary the price to help increase the likelihood of a sale. Perhaps you know they’ve scanned the same product in three other stores, and you don’t want to lose them to the next merchant. Perhaps the shopper is a loyal customer, and you want to give them 20% off. Perhaps they’re such a loyal customer so you know you don’t need to give them a discount because they’ll buy it anyway.

Pricing becomes as fluid in physical stores as it can be online, and the concept of showrooming (visiting stores to test products and then buying them cheaper online) erodes, because the price they’re getting in store right now might be better than they’ll get later today somewhere else.

It’s not a too-distant future.

Online travel service Orbitz already started tailoring its pricing based upon a user’s choice of computing platform, after discovering that Apple users generally will pay $20-$30 more for hotels than PC users, and modified their pricing accordingly and physical retailers in the US are trialling personalised pricing through online, and clearly offers and discounts through programmes like Boots Advantage Card, Nectar Card and Clubcard are all based upon huge amounts of personal behavioural data from not only shopping but a range of product lines in the case of Tesco.

In the main, consumers benefit from the use of personalisation. Better targeted advertising, discounts on products which are relevant to you, and retailers find it easy to discount products through data, but as we move to a more blended world where online and offline become one, where price-tags are electronic, and shopping online becomes the norm, the opportunity to increase pricing based upon knowledge of what a consumer is willing to accept, or market demands putting pressure on the profit margin becomes more and more likely, and again transparency becomes key.

Retailers will have to be clear and transparent about pricing, and how it is driven, else there is likely to be regulatory intervention. The Office of Fair Trading is already considering how these practises could have an impact, and what their role is.

In any respect, things which we’ve expected to be relatively static are becoming increasingly fluid, and both consumers and retailers are likely to have some interesting challenges and changes on their hands in the next three years.

Article originally posted in Retail Week

I don’t get Branch, but that’s okay

I’ve been playing with Branch, one of the several new platforms from Obvious Corp, the team of people behind Twitter (and Medium, and Karma, and Lift).

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Branch is a conversation platform. Each branch is a conversation. An invited group of individuals discussing a specific topic. Not the troll-heavy, signal-to-noise-ratio light world of Youtube (and increasingly Facebook), but a quieter (perhaps more informed) place where intelligent conversation and debate sparkles.

But I don’t get it.

First of all, I don’t understand how this is any different to a commenting platform, beyond the invite-only mechanic. One has to ask to join in a conversation rather than just posting. If you’ve started a branch, you can either invite others to join in, or accept requests to join in (basing that acceptance upon either knowing the individual, or if their ‘pitch’ to get involved has merit. Whilst I’m no fan of trolling, this seems to immediately reduce the opportunity to have valuably open debate. Serendipity seems to be firmly designed out. As a conversation moderator – if I don’t like the sound of someone’s opinion, refusing them entry to the debate seems at odds with what the web is great at doing – allowing everyone a voice. Perhaps it will teach us to be better moderators, to welcome opposing thought.

Secondly, it isn’t real-time, yet conversations kinda are. If you’ve asked to join a conversation, it could take some time before you’re invited, after which time, your thoughts have been posted by another, leaving your invite unused, perhaps leading to an odd “every time I invite him, he never posts” feeling, or worse “now I feel I have to say something” leading just less valuable input. The conversation feels stilted, and notifications are either thick and fast for every post or non-existent.

Finally, I’m not really sure what it offers beyond a platform like Quora – which seems to have far richer and intriguing conversation than Branch right now. Many branches seem to start with a blogpost which is then discussed (like, er… disqus). Quora starts with an open question – enforced as a question. Perhaps this is the differentiation – a recent branch by Libby Brittain (one of the platform’s team) called Iteratative GIF Branch shows a varying use, like Photoshop Tennis – but this is not a new model either. Just look at most forums for similar ideas.

This might read like I don’t like Branch. I actually love it.

I love the conversations which are forming, I love the selection of interesting discussions. I like they can be ended. I like the structures around ‘branching’ a conversation into another thread (which is of course the eponymous action, and could in time be the most interesting aspect, in attempting to map divergence of thought).

But I just don’t get it yet. I don’t think I’ve found its applicable use for me.

And that’s okay.

I’ve long been confused by people’s frustration (often anger) at platforms or devices which they don’t have a need for. That’s okay! You’re not obligated to use this!

It happened recently with Little Printer, I heard several people say ‘Pfft.. £200?! What’s the point? Why would I want that?’. That’s okay, don’t buy one. No-one will think any less or more of you.

You don’t hear this same sort of hufflepuff about films – “Pfft! The Avengers?! Why did they make that? I don’t read comics…”.

It was the same with Twitter. Many people said “I don’t get it” or “Why?” – and actually, that isn’t a valuable question. Not every platform needs a purpose, and not every platform finds its true purpose in first months of life. Twitter now has a real and valuable place in the world, (it has many in fact), it has changed the face of journalism, citizen action and put both ‘real time’ and ‘the stream’ firmly in to the mainstream. If Twitter had drowned in people saying “Why bother”, the world would be a very different place.

It is the same for many technologies, they’re re-appropriated for other uses which are more valuable. SMS the often cited example of a technology which was adopted for uses far beyond its original intention, everything from group messaging to mobile banking.

Use of platforms can be a very personal and individual thing. The best platforms offer you an insight or a mechanism which scratches an itch you have (and to be successful, that many others have too).

I hope the same is true for Branch – it is too early to tell what its true purpose or value to me is yet, but that’s okay, and it is just worth keeping an eye on, and playing around with it as it develops, until its audience project on to it the true value of the platform.

Long live not having a clue what something is for.

Update: I’ve been actively playing with Branch over the past week to try and see what content and use cases work best. I posited a question, I started a work discussion thread, I started a co-authored story, and the most fun yet – I formed a hive mind (which got featured on the homepage). Interestingly, they all feel like they need curation and ‘hosting’ to keep the conversation alive.

Creating something new is exciting, but don’t get carried away.

This post originally appeared on the Community Knowledge Transfer website.

Creating something new is exciting.

Hopefully, you’ll be so excited by your idea that dopamine will be rushing through your body, and you’ll be falling over yourself with energy and eagerness to get stuck in, hire a developer, and get making the thing.

Before we do anything, however, let’s take a deep breath, count to 10 (don’t worry, that’s only two in binary), and look at some of the techniques which help make sure that your new project runs smoothly.

First of all, do you actually know what you want making?

You might be able to pitch the idea in a lift to raise funding, or sell the concept to someone with wavy hands and waggling eyebrows, but do you know what the thing you’re making will actually do, screen by screen, click by click?

If not, you probably need to spend some time developing the ‘User Experience’ – as in “what will the user experience when they use my application”. What do they see when they first arrive? How many articles appear on the homepage? How do they register a new account? What happens if they’ve already got an account and try to register again?

Depending on the size of your idea, this project could be relatively quick, or take a few days exploring all of the features and functionality. I often use post-it notes to quickly list out all of the features, and group them together per screen, perhaps using a large wall as a working space. It allows you to very quickly move features and functionality around, and encourages you to think quickly and sketchily, rather than focusing on detail. Drawing up each screen can come at a later date.

It is always best to involve your developer in this user experience design process (or UXD, if you want to impress others with abbreviations), so they understand the reasons behind each decision, and when they come to create each screen, they understand how things connect and why.

It is even better to involve the end users in this UXD process, as they’ll often provide many wonderful insights, suggestions and comments you might never have considered.

In fact, the more collaboration at this stage the better, as its easier to discuss around post-it notes than change designs and code.

Once you have this user experience piece, and everyone is roughly in agreement with what the application will do, your designer can go away and make it beautiful, and your developer can go away and write up a specification.

This specification doesn’t need to be hundreds of pages long, perhaps just annotated drawings if you created screen by screen drawings in the UXD phase, or short ‘user stories’ describing what the system will do, hopefully in plain and simple English.

If you don’t understand what the specification is saying, it’s a useless document. Don’t encourage someone to write something just to tick a box, as its waste of time for both parties; create something that acts as a living guide for making sure you’re creating what you need and want.

And now, the exciting part, the coding begins.

The most important thing to make sure that DOESN’T happen is that your developer just locks himself or herself away in a room for several months, ‘getting it done’, and presents you with your application in a ‘tada!’ moment.

If you were building a house, you’d want to be on site every week, talking with the foreman, checking the plans, making sure any necessary changes are included, or any unforeseen circumstances are dealt with suitably. Creating software is no different.

At the start of the project sit down together and work out the order in which things are done, and rough time-scales for how long each piece of functionality should take to build. Think back to the post-it notes, and work out which parts are the most important to see first (either because they’re more complex or because you need to start demonstrating it).

Again, the UXD will have defined most of the elements of your application, so you use that as a guideline. Your developer will be able to guide you on a sensible order (you can’t build a roof before the walls in a house, and software is similar to a certain extent).

Plan with your developer to have a weekly review, where you look at the functionality that was built that week, and discuss what will be built the following week, in case things have changed, or the developer has any questions. Ideally, in these reviews, everything should have been tested and working, so you see actual functionality, rather than half-completed code.

Sometimes, things won’t be exactly what you expected, or once you’ve seen it working, you might realise some elements need to change, but hopefully, they’ll be small things (as there was only one week of work that passed since you reviewed it last).

These weekly reviews will pass, and your software will continue to grow, in the order of priority that you agreed up front, and hopefully to schedule (or at the very worst, each week, you’ll know whether your deadlines are slipping or not!)

At some point, you’ll have a version of your application that you’re happy to share with others, and you can start testing.

Again, get the UXD documents out (see how useful they are??), and review what you originally agreed upon against what you what you’ve ended up with. Apart from where you’ve made decisions to change things along the way, you have a wonderful tool to check you haven’t forgotten anything, and your application works as it should.

And finally, once everything has been built and tested, your developer will be able to help you launch the application, and make it publicly accessible. Before this happens, it is really important to agree with your developer how support will work. If something breaks, how quickly will they react to fix it (and for how long will they do this for free?) If you need something changing, what is the process for asking that to happen? How long notice might they need for future updates?

You’ll see that the key to running a successful project is good and regular communication, and getting the original user experience agreed between you and your developer, and making sure that people are involved from early on in the project, not just when they need to be doing ‘their bit’.

And when you make a billion pounds from your application, don’t forget to buy your developer a beer or two.

From Turn Off, Tune On: Youtube Live!

This post is from my blog over at Turn Off, Tune On, which discusses innovation in the online video space, as part of my work for Endemol.

You can’t have failed to miss the Youtube Live event which is taking place today. If you read even one single tech blog, or use Youtube, you’ll have seen the chatter everywhere.

Celebrities, Web celebs and major artists, including the mad scientists from the Mythbusters crew, will.i.am, Lisa Nova, Michael Buckley, and Joe Satriani will be joining the celebrations, and YouTube will be offering three live streams direct from its Live channel.

Why blog this? Youtube moving into live streaming is an additional string to the monetisation bow, something they’ve yet struggled to really find models beyond simple adserving and partnership deals. It also puts Youtube into the broadcaster space, allowing them to compete with a wider range of other services. It will be interesting to see the next steps they take to push this service with commercial partners.