Episode One Hundred and Seventy Four: Depth, Not Breadth 

by danhon

0.0 Sitrep

8:08pm on a Tuesday night and it’s still warm in Portland. There’s a giant moon outside. Thinking about Alien: Isolation and Shadow of Mordor, two “next generation” videogames that whilst not necessarily *looking* much better (traditionally the main benefit of a generational shift in videogame technology) nonetheless appear to be *playing* differently in terms of experience. Neither of these games feels like it’s doing anything particularly special with all of that new-fangled x86 architecture processing power and gobs of GPU compute being thrown about, but Shadow of Mordor at least has a game design that makes the gameplay feel significantly more personal – at least, that’s what the reviews are saying.

My son’s vocabulary has now expanded to two-word phrases. Tonight’s was “big moon” and “daddy working”. Not quite sure how I feel about that.

1.0 Depth, Not Breadth

Dan Saffer smartly tweeted the other day that “Going in-house does not usually make for variety. Instead, it means depth, not breadth. If you like variety, work for an agency.”[1], presumably in response to the news that superstar design agency Adaptive Path (responsible for, well, the AJAX in AJAX) has been acquired by Capital One, the financial services company[2].

So, a couple things here, other than a vigorous head-nodding and vague irritation and professional jealousy, admiration and so on at Mr. Saffer for being quite so astute in the medium of 140 characters.

This is part of the reason as to why organisations like GDS decide to implement internal design and build capability, because some things are strategic to the success of the organisation. It’s why, for example, I was confused that a company like Nike might have something that on the face of it is so strategic to its future success (digital products like Nike+ Running) in the hands of an external agency when we all know that yes, *in theory* you own the code, but in *practice* it’s being run by an outside company. It’s the kind of thing that leads to weird situations like Target deciding to outsource its website to Amazon[3], a decision that they made back in 2001 and if it didn’t look stupid then, looks exceedingly stupid now.

So there’s the short-term view, which is that right now, there’s not enough talent in organisations that need to have good digital capabilities and skills – which is why you get exceedingly good agencies like Siberia[4] and Teehan+Lax[5]. But it’s also why in conversations with the people who’re running those well-admired agencies, they know that their role in certain businesses is just at the beginning, and they need to be able to hand over well-designed services to their clients.

It feels like this is a good thing to think about in terms of what makes you happy: do you like being exposed to lots of different things? Or do you like working in one area, but only one area, and focussing on it? That’s the trade-off that I could start to see at a place like Wieden+Kennedy – and admittedly, it’s a very different place than a digitally focussed agency like Adaptive Path or Siberia or Teehan+Lax. But there was certainly the *variety* there as opposed to the depth. The depth for some people was a refreshing change, and potentially the thing that delineated more-digital people from less-digital people – in that digital, as ill-defined as it is in the advertising world, can mean so many things that you can, if you want, take it to mean *solving a problem* instead of *talking about a problem*.

I don’t want to make out that this is a binary situation – few things in life are. Merely that there’s a continuum, and on some ends it might be easier to get more breadth – in agency land, for example, when you’re the hired gun coming in – and on others you might get the opportunity to spend more time on solving a particular domain. Whether any of those are easy to *execute* is a different story.

What does feel like a sign is this, though: if this is the kind of acquisition that works (and hopefully it is), then it’s potentially the better kind than a superstar CEO who’s going to come in and fix your problems. The kind of CEO who can say that service design is a pretty big deal for a financial services company is probably the same kind of CEO who has a chance of allowing that design team the room to actually make usable products.

There’s a wonderful irony here in which last week I was trying to sign up to my new employer’s healthcare benefits (which, for some archaic American reason are not administered by the 501(c)(3) I work for, but a different company, and well… it’s complicated, but apparently also completely normal) and errored out with a Hibernate ORM error complaining about something funky in an Oracle database, whereupon I’m on the phone with a customer assistance agent and they say that the application on *really* works on Firefox, nevermind Safari or Chrome, and that *really* Windows is probably better, and once the issue has been escalated to IT, hopefully it’ll have a resolution within three business days.

And here I am at an organisation that’s trying to help governments make their services not just better, but usable in the first place. Mr. Customer Service agent, when he hears that that’s what Code for America is doing, says that he’s right there with me. I don’t know if he appreciates that his employer is part of the problem, too.

Already, though, what I’ve seen in the depth-not-breadth part of the equation having jumped over to the equivalent of client-side (when you’ve been working at an agency, anywhere that isn’t an agency is practically client side unless you’re in production), I’ve been struck by how much time and effort I can spend just thinking about what things *mean*.

And of course, whilst I’m doing all of that, Russell Davies puts up another barnstormer of a blog post about clarity as a business model[6] and it’s in some ways all I can do to not just give up and tell everyone to read his blog all the time, and then I spend a good few minutes trying to work out if the word we want to use is “residents” or “people” before plumping for the latter.

I’ve been in the new job for just over a week now, and you can probably count about a week’s worth of immersion prior that and I’m still trying to clarify – make clear, distill, describe, explain, communicate – some very complicated things into some easy to understand things. This clarity works both ways: it’s not just an external clarity, but an internal clarity, a sort of fractal, self-similar description where the act of figuring out what it is that you’re doing for other people helps you figure out what you’re doing *for yourself*.

It felt like I had a similar moment when I was chatting with a friend over XOXO and trying to get him to explain to me what the big deal about the blockchain – the specific mathematical/technological innovation behind the current crop of cryptocurrencies – that’s gotten everyone quite so excited, and it took a while for me to grok the concept of the public, self-consistent ledger. But I’m still not sure how you get from that all the way to Bitcoin Native Apps[7] that allow for automatic compute resource markets – is it just because the current financial system is too crufty? There’s too much friction? It feels like some of the deal with Bitcoin is that it’s just blowing away a whole bunch of legacy systems that are impeding innovation, but it’s not clear that you *need* to blow away a whole bunch of legacy systems or instead you just need to have payment providers that aren’t being dicks about the whole thing and actually try to invent new things.

[1] https://twitter.com/odannyboy/status/518432011036270592
[2] Adaptive Path and the Death Rattle of the Web 2.0 Era – Mat Honan, Wired
[3] Why Target Ditched Amazon – Rachel King, Wall Street Journal
[4] Siberia.io
[5] Teehan+Lax
[6] Clarity as a Business Model – Russell Davies
[7] Some ideas for native bitcoin apps – Chris Dixon

8:47pm. I wanted to find a red crayon and daub an X on our front door. This is a sick house, there is a sickness here. I have successfully passed on the cold I had to my wife and son.