THE WILD WEST

In the early to mind-90s, no one started their career saying “I’m going to do…the Internet.” People’s talents, from a variety of disciplines, found a way into this space because the internet needed so many different perspectives in order to help define what it was going to be. It wasn’t just a phone book, or an abacus. It is now enmeshed with everything that we do.

We have tackled the easy stuff.

We figured out the phone book (directory/search). We built the address books (personal information management). We figured out how to reach out and communicate with another person (instant messaging). We learned how to distribute complex files across space so others could view it like they do on television (audio/video streaming).

What we haven’t tackled, or we tackled it early on and lost, is the storytelling aspect of why we are meeting these same basic needs through this different medium (meaning, connection, purpose).

All of the places I’ve worked in–from Seth Godin’s lab Yoyodyne (permission marketing), Yahoo (making web easier to navigate), RealNetworks (audio/video streaming), Microsoft’s Office and Windows (productivity of the individual and organization)–crafted the first generation of their respective stories. After a while, people in the organizations (and sometimes the leaders) developed an attitude of having figured out the internet. When that first flywheel to revenue was figured out, people stepped back with their hands in the air, they stopped tinkering. They stopped learning.

There’s was a sense that “we’ve all gone and done what we said we were going to do,” “we’ve figured out these patterns” and “we know pretty much how people behave.” Next.

It’s Been Done Before

It is interesting to think about where we were in another art form, such as film. In 1912 Nestor studios was founded. It is considered to be the first comprehensive, integrated movie studio in Hollywood. They started producing westerns and did them with such regularity that the genre turned into a business model. Twenty-one years later, we get films like King Kong. Compare this to the King Kong we have today…and there is no way we could presume where things were headed.

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EARLY EXPLORING

Contrast this with the early internet. Let’s look at 1994, and the invention of the <blink> tag. This was the time when online content publishing really getting started.

<blink>What an awesome invention.</blink>

That is a blink tag. It was invented in 1994. Lou Montulli, often credited as the inventor of the blink element, has said that he considers “the blink tag to be the worst thing I’ve ever done for the Internet.”

This is a very interesting statement, and an important one, for a few reasons. First, when it came out, the tag was used everywhere–it was very popular–helping industrial grey pages, to have something of interest on them. More importantly, the HTML protocol (the code enabling pages) was not meant to do half of what it was used to do. Complex layouts were not possible. For example, tables were not meant to be supported by HTML. All this was pre-CSS. JavaScript was new. ColdFusion had no documentation (I should know, I programmed the first database for the Kaufman Foundation.)

It’s hard to think that just twenty years ago, the web was built upon series of workarounds. It was frustrating, but it also left a lot of room for innovation and creativity. This was a time when there weren’t a lot of best practices. Beveled tables, a background color other than grey, and something compelling enough to click on were big deals. You were allowed to do crazy things just to see what would happen. When something is in its infancy, you are allowed to experiment–because no one, not even the big brands, knew what they were doing.

Remember the falling snowflakes and the whale that could follow your cursor?

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These things were neat (at the time). Today it is a distraction. But early on, this was the very simple layer added to sites to let the user know that the browser knew you were there. These were the first attempts at point to point connection with users–a kind of greeting.

Workarounds like this continued until Adobe Flash came out, enabling better design. There was a low barrier to entry and interopability with other tools–a virtual sandbox enabling designers to do things they couldn’t do in HTML. There was a time when all the sites winning design or brand awards were Flash sites.

When Flash was big, animation became more and more popular. Everyone had to had “something moving” on their site. A company called Icebox was formed to capitalize on the inherent “freedom of the medium” which the founders felt stifled creativity of writers due to the confining restrictions of the studio system and traditional media. People thought animation was solved. There was a belief that full length features would be possible using Flash.

With all these tools and experimentation, there was also a lot of garbage. Everyone had a web site, not all of them were good. Some were using 30% of the size of the screen. Some had piano music starting as soon as the page loaded. Some were full of rainbows.

The problem with Flash is that is allowed everything, by everyone–it became a kind of corral for people to gather and wallow in form (over function). The rest of the internet moved on. Soon, there were sites that could only be viewed with Flash. What had been a great enabler became a barrier. After the great party of connection and design, people needed more than a head counter to tell them what was going on these sites.

These sites were not cheap. A full Flash site for a company was a serious investment. After a certain point, clients were wondering what they were paying for, and the now standard question of “It looks great, but what’s the ROI of this effort?”

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The shift went from interactivity to being data driven. Where are people from, what are their demographics? What do they buy? Data has revolutionized how we view and understand interactivity.

THE PROBLEM?

We use this data to make incredible numbers of creative decisions for us. We look at that data and don’t draw any other conclusion than “that worked, we should keep doing it”, or “looking at someone else’s data and saying that worked for them, it should work for us.”

An example of this is the notion of “page rank.” Once google came out with the notion of rank, companies were scrambling to be guaranteed a certain rank – they still throw chicken bones after SEO efforts over opting to have more face to face conversations (real interactivity) with their customers in order to strengthen their relationships the old fashioned way.

Looking at data and best practices are helpful – to a point – but they drive too much of our thinking and conversation. Good interactive design gets pushed further and further down in the conversation, rather than having a seat at the table.

Predictive analytics is now the hot topic. Tableau and other companies do wonderful things. Many of them have reduced workflow significantly, reducing work for the repetitive tasks we need to shorten.  Unfortunately, this mentality has been extended to such a degree that we apply frameworks such as rapid deployment to virtually all design decisions.

We should be making design and product decisions around content and experience, not around frameworks or quick deployment. This pattern give us thought shortcuts. Sometimes these are helpful–like when you deploy a virtual machine that has your whole environment on it. That saves time.

But it also means that that the “MV” in “MVP” goes from “most valuable” to “minimum viable.”

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The minimum viable product (MVP) approach has its place, particularly when building applications or performing actions where you want technology to be in the background (executing a search or moving money). But should these actions be so thoughtless that we stop thinking about story, and art? When we forget about the quest we are after, some else picks it up and does it better.

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Search
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Productivity Tools

Extending the minimum viable mindset to a wider array of thought processes and taking thought shortcuts where we should be innovating and taking risks…that is where we run into problems.

TO THINK ABOUT…

The photo below is of Stanley Kubrick speaking to an actor on the set of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Kubrick wanted everything shot by candlelight. This required a special lens. On top of his already huge budget, he went to Paramount and asked for a specialty lens. When they initially rejected him, he said: “I make the films, the films don’t make me.”

As with most experiments, the initial reception was mixed. One of the reasons for the harsh critical response toward 2001 upon release comes from the fact that several popular critics of the time approached this film with an aesthetic expectations stemming from classical Hollywood cinema. Their complaints were all about how the film did not follow Hollywood conventions, and it frustrated them.

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Kubrick shooting 2001

This example is an instructive way for us to think about how we work with the technology currently. We are allowing the restrictions and patterns to dictate how we should explore, to inform how we should do things.

We have to start exploring more.

Leaders have to provide the conditions for people to think.

We talk about the “sink or swim” or “dog eat dog” world we live in but fundamentally miss the point of evolutionary theory. It is not about there being two items, and one lives and one dies. It is that in this particular environment, this thing can thrive. In this other environment, another thing can thrive. They don’t cancel each other out.

When people do user testing and they look at A or B, what if C was the solution? The problem with most testing is that people never get to C because they either aren’t asking the right questions, or they aren’t looking past a very narrow patterns of operating in low risk.

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Taking creative risk, is anti-pattern. Taking risk is always going to look broken and be a bit clumsy at first — the end result is probably not the kind of thing that is going to get you promoted. Remember those falling snowflakes, and eyeballs that followed your mouse?

Swiping on Tinder, or clicking tiles on an iPad would not have been possible without that initial experimentation.

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We have it in us to ask the right questions. If we are not asking these questions of ourselves or our clients, we are not doing our job–we are being programmed by our patterns.

We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.

Albert Einstein

Never let the fear of striking out get in your way.

Babe Ruth

Christine Haskell, PhD is a principal consultant, working to help leaders and organizations build cultures with purpose. Follow her on LinkedIn or on her blog. To hear more about Purposeful Leadership and coaching, follow her on Twitter at @PurposefulCEO.