Pixels to Pronouncements

Quick Read: Pixels – the building blocks of our digital edifices – could be assuming an influence of mammoth proportions across verticals. For e.g., an interesting wave of ‘virtual dressers’ is catching the fashion world by storm.

30 Rock..

..or 30 Rockefeller Plaza is a skyscraper that forms the centrepiece of Rockefeller Center in Midtown Manhattan, New York City. When walking by its Sixth Avenue entrance one might find something curious. It has four sculptures – bas reliefs, carved in stone by Gaston Lachaise, an American sculptor  – placed all the way up on the third floor.

One might ask, “What are they doing all the way up there?”

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Sixth Avenue Entrance of 30 RCA Building. Source

The answer is that when Rockefeller Center was built, the elevated train still ran up Sixth Avenue. The Lachaise reliefs were placed so these ‘El riders’ passing through the station could see them.

This happens all around us. 

When real estate is at a premium – from facades of iconic buildings to the shelf space in our neighbourhood grocery stores – one can make an entire career out of optimising the design/layout of the underlying physical space for our attention, so it delivers on its intended ‘return on placement’.

These days it could almost be trite to state that it is actually the ‘digital real estate space’ that arguably commands a greater premium vs that of any physical space. And the job of the UX/UI designer thereby becomes one of the most influential (and in my opinion – one of most fulfilling) roles in Product Dev/ Management. In fact, the ‘pixels that they design’ essentially become the gateways to digital products/services shaping the user experience for millions of us around the world. No wonder great UX/UI designers are in great demand.

ux-design-book-combined

And never is the product designer’s* significance more evident than in the current Covid times when the design/layout of an app could be a true window into its product’s soul. (*’product designer’ as a catch all phrase for all design functions in the service of a product) 

For e.g,. given these unprecedented times, how does a product balance its rational (product/services) promise with that of its emotional (empathy/sensitivity) narrative? What are its core values and beliefs and how does the product reconcile it with its commercial underpinnings – its core reason for existence?

Check out a highly recommended read here on this very topic. Post reading it, one could even be tempted to take a walk down one’s playground of pixels (a.k.a one’s apps on their phone) to try and infer those subtle truths that govern their design.

These days, pixels don’t just make for subtle commentary, but also influential pronouncements impacting the zeitgeist of the times.

When pixels become fashion pronouncements

In what now feels like a different meta verse, human beings used to gawk at outfits on the streets or ogle at chic strangers’ coats to see what new brands/designs/designers people are into while designers used to organise their new expositions through coveted fashion shows and had hordes of fans waiting in lines for their exclusive pop up sales. Well now (or rather here in this current meta verse of social distancing) some designers have still been able to do this and more.

For e.g., on a recent weekend, the fashion designer Sandy Liang held an extremely exclusive pop-up sale. Only six people were allowed in at a time, with attendees (the list that swelled to almost 100 people at one point) waiting in line for over two hours.

Before you panic about the potential social distancing violations involved, know that this sale took place on a completely virtual plane: an island in the video game Animal Crossing.

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Enter a captionScene from Sandy Liang’s Animal Crossing pop-up. Source

For the uninitiated, a quick crash course on Animal Crossing below:

With the Nintendo game Animal Crossing: New Horizons, players can customize their looks to show off outfits that reflect their personal style, something that piqued the interests of fashion enthusiasts playing the game, who quickly began designing custom looks that riffed on the trendy designers of the moment. Coupled with social distancing and less opportunities to show off fits in-person, it’s created an unorthodox, but amazing opportunity for Animal Crossing users to show off their outfits — so much so that many real-life fashion designers are creating official clothing codes so users can cop designs from their latest collections.

–Time

Today there are entire Instagram communities centered around Animal Crossing fashion. Marc Jacobs even created his virtual fashion line available for gamers through codes.

And if I’ve run out of style codes or ideas, there are even virtual stores like nookazon (a fan built enterprise) where I can buy clothing for in-game characters. And we have not even scratched the surface of this trend of fashion-conscious people using the game as a platform for style expression by dressing their avatars in pixelated versions of clothes by Gucci, Celine, Supreme and more.

For many, it could even look like Animal Crossing is the only place where people seem to get dressed up for now. Clearly ‘pixels’ seem to have become our canvas for self expression like never before.

Could this change the way fashion works forever?

[Featured Image: Animal Crossing illustration on The Washington Post]

The New Marketing Mindset

Invention and Innovation could sometimes be polar opposites.

Seems counter intuitive, right? But when you read this brilliant piece on Segway, it would seem almost commonsensical. Segway, the article posits, failed because it was focused solely on inventionbelieving that it alone has come up with the perfect idea for a great product. The company didn’t spend as much time or effort on innovation the ongoing iterative process of going back and forth with the consumers to test and understand what the market wants and ensuring that the product meet their needs.   

This on going iterative process with the consumer to test and understand what market wants and applying these learnings to make your product meet their needs has a specialised name today.

Growth Hacking.

Depending upon who you are / what you’ve been smoking / or what you’ve been reading recently, this could possibly be the first time you hear this term or probably even the zillionth! Whichever be the case, Growth Hacking as a term is topping the charts in popularity, appeal and relevance to describe a must have mindset in the world of product design and marketing.

Coined by Sean Ellis in this legendary article, Growth Hacking is essentially marketing albeit repurposed to the evolving dynamics of consumer, product and consumption today. Chances are that most of us would have been witness to, experienced, and were target consumers of live Growth Hacking experiments. Don’t believe me?

  • Did you yearn for an invite for a Gmail account back when Gmail was introduced? That was neat Growth Hack from Google!
  • Did you refer your friends to try out Dropbox to get free storage space in return? You were being Growth Hacked!
  • Do you remember those end lines in mails that said something like Sent from my Blackberry/iPad/iPhone..? Growth Hack, it was!

Read about the 10 of the best growth hacks of all time here. Aaron Ginn’s page is a great place to start on a journey to explore more resources on Growth Hacking and Ryan Holiday’s book Growth Hacker Marketing could make for a great primer on this topic over an afternoon meal.

Today ‘Growth Hacker’ as a term has gone mainstream even in the jobs’ lexicon. For it is not unusual to run into marketing job postings that come labelled as “Wanted Growth Hackers”!

While case studies of how Growth Hacking has worked out for (now) big brands like Instagram, Pinterest or Airbnb make for a fascinating read, lesser known examples can give an equally compelling perspective and an insight on how Growth Hacking can actually move the needle. The story of Bilingual Child – an iOS App to teach Spanish for kids – is a recent example. Not content with how their sales were panning out, the team at Bilingual Child went on to delve a bit deeper into the data and discovered a Growth Hack. The result:  they tripled their revenue by adding one button! Read the story here.

Bilingual Child

(Source, Medium. Click on the picture to read the story)

Well, if you have come this far you could be forgiven for thinking that Growth Hacking is majorly applicable to software products or startups. But nothing could be farther from the truth.

Amy Webb was having no luck with online dating. So she figured out the system, monitored and measured the impact of her  ‘hacks’ and went about achieving what she set out to do – finding her match. Hear this story of how she went on to hack her online dating life — with frustrating, funny and life-changing results.

Is this Growth Hacking? You bet it is – Amy’s bold and calculated attempt to drive growth in the quantity and the quality of potential matches for her. The core essence of her approach is equally (if not more so) applicable to something like say updating my LinkedIn profile. And that for me is a compelling takeaway from her TED talk.

So the bottom line is clear, irrespective of the field of application – a company, a product or even a person, the ability to delve into data, bring in curiosity and operate with a mix of creativity and an analytical ability has huge implications in driving growth. No wonder then, Growth Hacking is said to be redefining the very mindset of marketing as we know it.

After all, when was the last time you had a name for a discipline that neatly encapsulated the objective and the enabler of the activity in a single breath?  

(Featured Image, Medium’s collection on Growth Hacking, Another great resource on this subject)

Soundscapes And Sonic Tapestries: Part 2/2

What do Cyborg Artists, Automobile Engineers, Game Designers and Branding Specialists have in common?

At least those featured in this blog post, that is. Surprise, surprise… all these have sound at the core of what they do!

See the part 1 of this thread here. In part 2, let me share some fascinating examples whereby sound and our ability to decode sound waves is complementing and supplementing our perceptual experience in truly astounding ways!

Sound As A Complement To Our Perceptual Experience

Sound (and its design) can be deployed in a very strategic manner to compliment our perceptual experience. Two compelling examples:

(1) Soundscaping In Product design: We know that there are armies of designers and engineers that work towards designing and developing  a car – it’s mechanics, electronics, aesthetics, thermodynamics, fluid dynamics etc. But did  you know that car companies  also employ sound experts to design the noise of a car? Read here a fascinating account of how GM makes a car sound like what a car is supposed to sound like. On that note meet Kara Gordon  – GM Noise & Vibration Performance Development Engineer who has designed the quietest Chevy.

(2) Sonic Logos In Branding/AdvertisingSonic Branding is big today. Think about the sound of ‘Intel Inside’, a call on Skype, the default ring/message tones on your phones and you’d get the idea. In fact Audi’s heart beat logo is said to be one of the most recognized sonic logos in the world today.  By the way did you know that after 14 years of using this sonic logo, BMW in March 2013, has changed it to this? This change didn’t get many fans by the way.

Sound As A Supplement To Our Perceptual Experience

Sound (and our ability to decode sound) can potentially also supplement our perceptual experience in new and interesting ways. Two examples again:

(1) Audio Games: What would happen if someone wanted to take the “video” out of video games and make users rely solely on their other senses?

At first the idea of Audio only games might sound like just another lateral marketing -isque variant (of video game formats).  But when you read about Deep Sea,  or about  Vanished you’d see that we are at the cusp of another revolution in game design and experience. These games are some of the best (if not the first) of its kind that explore the frontiers of what sound  (and our ability to decode sound) are truly capable of.

For e.g., Vanished – an iOS game as of Oct 2013 –  uses the iPhone’s internal compass and accelerometer to recreate a person’s movement. Players hold their phone in the direction they want to travel and touch the screen to walk. When in danger, they shake the phone to attack. All exploration is done with the help of audio only cues; as players move, the world “rotates” and provides different sounds.

Vanished

(iPhone Screenshot of Vanished – The Audio Game, Source)

(2) Hearing Colors: They say that you can see sound, but can you hear a color? Apparently Neil Harbisson can!  His profile on TED says this.

Artist Neil Harbisson was born completely color blind, but these days a device attached to his head turns color into audible frequencies. Instead of seeing a world in grayscale, Harbisson can hear a symphony of color — and yes, even listen to faces and paintings.

So there we have – some truly  fascinating examples from the recent past on how sound (and our ability to make sense of sound waves) is being leveraged in some truly exciting ways.

The next time you remind yourself to pause for a moment to appreciate the scenery and to ‘smell the flowers’, don’t forget that you could also take in the richness of the surrounding soundscapes in all their aural splendor.

All you need to do is incredibly simple. Listen.

(Featured image source)

Toothbrush, Vitamins And Pain Killers

Starting from 2001, Google has made 127 mergers and acquisitions till date.

Which makes it nearly 6 acquisitions for every 7 months over the last 12.5 years. It is expected now that this M&A rate is further going to accelerate with Google – for the first time –  considering forging alliances with private-equity firms to help it structure deals.

During the recent Bloomberg Next Big Thing Summit, speaking about how Google evaluates a potential M&A target, Don Harrison –  Google’s mergers and acquisitions chief said

“We apply something called the toothbrush test, which is we ask ourselves, ‘Is this something people use once or twice a day and does it solve a problem?’”

Thanks to its immensely sticky nature (and aided by the current  rock star status of Google), this toothbrush analogy has seemed to have gained an instant global popularity and is shooting to newer heights in terms of recorded “interest over time” as we speak. I did a quick sense check myself  by entering  “the toothbrush test”  as the search term and this is what I see on Google Trends:

ToothBrush Test

(Click to see larger image)

While this sounded to me like a fascinating analogy that brings a powerful idea to life, the concept of The Toothbrush Test somehow didn’t quite fit in within the schema of what I had in my mind regarding so many things that Google does today.  For e.g., I began to wonder –  Is Google+ a ‘toothbrush’? i.e., does it solve a problem and is it something that people use once of twice a day? Or is Sparrow (acquired by Google in July ’12) a ‘toothbrush’?

May be it  is. Or  may be it isn’t. But probably for me there’s a missing piece to the jigsaw here.

That’s when I hit upon this very useful question that VCs are known to ask entrepreneurs. (source)

Is your product like candy, vitamins, or pain-killers for your market?

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(Image Source)

To elaborate:

  • Candy = a product that is a nice-to-have, that people enjoy and can be wildly successful if it becomes a fad (like Beanie Babies)
  • Vitamins = a product that is a nice-to-have and serves an emotional need, used to augment and improve things but sometimes harder to quantify and has an unknown market
  • Pain Killers = a product that is a need-to-have and serves an obvious need, or solves critical problems that need to be alleviated and has a quantifiable market and thereby immediately monetizable

While it might probably take a ‘marketing master stroke on steroids’ to sustain a successful company based on ‘candies’ alone, many product ideas can probably be placed in the continuum between ‘vitamins’ and ‘pain killers’.

Vitamin Painkiller

(Image Source)

In this context, as someone who blogs at the intersection of  psychology, technology, and business –  Nir Eyal at the Stanford Graduate School of Business posits that successful companies are known to be so good at embedding/implementing hooks in their products that they travel along the above continuum from being vitamins for ‘pleasure seeking’ consumers to becoming pain killers for their pain alleviation as they cement enduring habits in them.

In other words, a ‘cleverly designed vitamin product experience’ hooks the consumers and becomes so important in their lives that – because it becomes a habit, it becomes a pain relieving product.  Flip through the following presentation by Nir to get a more comprehensive view on his theory of  Hooked – The Psychology Of How Products Engage Us.

That’s when the insight stuck me:
For any well designed product/ experience the question is not IF it passes The Toothbrush Test.
The question is WHEN.
Don’t believe me? Ask the largest cigarette makers in the world who are currently making a gold rush to acquire/ develop e-cigarettes and they will tell you.

Interesting Times Ahead: Of Robots, Supply Chains & Economies

In its upcoming January cover story titled ‘Better than humans’, the Wired magazine provides a compelling sneak peek into the future of our workplace / economy / and our lives where robots or industrial scale automations replace 7 in every 10 of our current jobs.

Robots

Image Source: Wired (Photo: Peter Yang)

One of the most insightful observations in this article is by a MIT professor Rodney Brooks the designer of Baxter – a new class of industrial robots designed to work alongside humans. He says:

Right now we think of manufacturing as happening in China. But as manufacturing costs sink because of robots, the costs of transportation become a far greater factor than the cost of production. Nearby will be cheap. So we’ll get this network of locally franchised factories, where most things will be made within 5 miles of where they are needed.

The first thing that occurs to me is that soon enough Apple Inc., could finally do away with that painful euphemism of “Designed by Apple in California, Assembled in China” for a simple “Made in U.S.A” on its packs. Phew!

But it is only the tip of the ice berg. Some tectonic shifts seem to be underway at industrial scale – literally.

recent story on The Economist about Foxconn: The Taiwanese-Chinese contract manufacturer that notably makes most of the iProducts, Kindles, PlayStations, Wii Consoles and Xbox etc, hints at those very shifts that are rumored to be already underway.

It is well known that besides Product Design, one of Apple’s key strengths is its Supply Chain. In fact with each iteration it does on its product lines (for e.g., the iPhone versions 2,3,3s,4,4s,5..) when there is only so much it can innovate through product design and specs, the obvious place where it would seek recourse would be its processes and supply chain –  cut costs and drive margins. In other words, for every new iterative product version that Apple brings to market there is immense pressure on the company to optimize the basics ofits value chain. Now that’s when things start get interesting.

Tim Cook

Tim Cook at a Foxconn Factory in China (Image Source: HuffingtonPost)

As the largest contract manufacturer in the world, Foxconn gets nearly 45% of its revenue from Apple, so if it has to keep growing and sustaining its lead position, it simply cannot risk alienating its biggest customer. So where do Apple and Foxconn focus their energies upon now? Arguably, one of the biggest innovations that Apple is intently working on is NOT necessarily some uber sexy orgasm inducing tech interface. Rather it is the less glamorous gears and guts of its value chain –  these are innovations in:

  • Manufacturing Costs: Foxconn’s Chairman Terry Guo vowed to build 1 million robots and has hinted that the firm is just a year away from the big breakthrough – robotics that work at scale on commercial lines.
  • Transportation Costs: The article also acknowledges that there have been rumors about Foxconn planning to open a factory in the US.

Just come to think of the impact that these two changes in industrial production and transportation would have on Apple Inc, Foxconn in the short term as also on the economies of US and China in the long term.

Don’t miss the full Economist article (and don’t get misled by its title that seems to focus on Foxconn’s workers’ issues). The big picture is clear. It signals a dramatic yet a silent shift currently underway in the biggest manufacturing hubs around the world. A shift that can soon challenge the conception of developing markets as manufacturing hubs. A shift that can have a dramatic impact on assembly line jobs at the low end of the value chain. A shift that can eventually impact the very nature of economies around the world.

Interesting times. These are indeed.

High time then – the developing economies ought to seek more sustainable ‘business models’. Else let’s just say that things can only get even more interesting.