Episode Thirty Nine: On Creativity; But What Is The User Need; Universal Service

by danhon

And now, back to your regularly scheduled programming after the good Robin Sloan’s intervention. Let’s dive straight in.

1.0 On Creativity

This particular reckon is based upon my last four-ish years of experience inside an advertising agency, but at the same time also drawing on the admittedly weird tentacles I have into other creative industries.

There’s a lot of groups talking past each other about creativity and what it means, how you do it, how you preserve it, is there a particular kind of office environment that fosters it (at the absolute lowest end of the spectrum: foosball tables, at the highest end of the spectrum: full-service employee benefits, never having to think about what you’re going to have for lunch and essentially some sort of childlike pampered existence where every whim is catered for apart from, say, having enough meeting rooms because who ever has enough meeting rooms?) and have you read Fast Company lately because they’ve probably got some reckons about creative environments.


As I was saying, I work on the fifth floor – the creative floor – of a pretty well-respected advertising agency. Sometimes it calls itself an advertising agency, sometimes it calls itself a communications agency, but all the time it definitely does not call itself a consultancy. And where the rubber hits the road is in the application of this weird thing called “digital” which really shouldn’t be called “digital” anymore because once a thing has a label you can point at it and say it’s over there but not over here, when instead, what we really should be taking away from what the word “digital” means in this context is “holy shitballs, this is just how we do things these days can we just get over it.”

Anyway, again.

Clearly, if you are a reasonable person – the kind who spends all day riding back and forth on the Clapham Omnibus – there are lots of ways you can be creative. In an ad agency, you can be creative in a traditional two-person formation, art director and copywriter, wherein your copywriter is traditionally assumed to be more “conceptually” creative, i.e. she comes up with, I suppose, ideas and more abstract concepts, and your art director is more traditionally assumed to be: please make this thing aesthetically pleasing and worthy of diverting attention purely from the point of visual input. That is what creative has historically meant, and is broadly taken to mean, in the latest industry I appear to have accidentally found myself in.

And thus we had print advertising and then radio advertising and outdoor and television and so on.

And then “digital” came along and spoiled the party because: hey! It turns out that there are suddenly other “ways” you can be creative, like, oh, I don’t know, “coding” something. And digital, as a medium, is a bit confusing because it’s not just a communications or broadcast medium like television or radio or print because it’s got this pesky two way channel (no matter how hard communications utilities attempt to foist things like the asymmetric part in ADSL upon us), which means you can actually *transact* in that medium.

And then everything got a bit more confused because, well, if coding could be creative (which, let’s be clear: it is), then planning and strategy could be creative too, and if you opened that door just a little crack it wouldn’t be too long until everyone and their monkey would start reckoning that they had ideas about things because, as Gusteau reminds us, Anyone Can Cook.

Because really, what a lot of people mean when they mean creative is, amusingly, creative *in that box*.

This might seem somewhat facetious (if you have read more than three of my newsletter episodes, Robin Sloan’s challenges notwithstanding, by now, you should have recognised that much, if not the vast majority, of what I say is somewhat facetious), but everything is so much easier when people who have spent a long time being creative *in a particular domain* actually mean being creative *in that domain* when they say “creative*”.

Alternatively, you can just say the word “creative” lots in a paragraph and the word does that thing that words do when you repeat them a little too much and they appear to lose all meaning. I may as be writing “smock” at this point.

Anyway, again.

This sort of institutional excellence or focus in a particular domain is what leads to outwardly bizarre statements like the head of TV content for the BBC’s iPlayer heralding its lack of fixed programme scheduling and ability to support arbitrary lengths of programming as a genuine creativity opportunity which, I guess, if you’re from the world of television *is* a genuine creative opportunity, but if you come from anywhere in the rest of the world that’s been exposed to this little site like YouTube is a bit like this one horse telling this other horse that’s still in the barn about this awesome new opportunity that’s being introduced by exciting barn door openings, while this other horse is going “Holy shit I’m outside and there’s this whole post-barn universe and honestly it’s disrupting everything you guys should come see this,” and the other horses are all “Oh, I don’t know, this barn seems pretty good, we have a good thing going with wooden structures and a roof over our heads.”

I think this is where frustration can set in, and if I may, I’d like to put forward a massively generalised reckon: the rhetoric in asking people to solve problems and asking them to be creative, but then demanding a siloed approach is damaging. If the promise is: “we want you to be creative in achieving this goal” whether that goal be artistic or business or whatever, and then constraints are put on in a sort of “oh well actually there was an asterisk and if you see the asterisk means that we’d prefer you solve the problem in broadly the manner associated with a particular domain” then that can be frustrating. It’s as if one is being told: “There are no rules! Unleash creativity! But then solve problems in a particular manner!”

And then, in fairness, solving problems in a new way inside a particular domain *is* creative: theaters streaming productions for the first time over the internet *is* creative if you’re a theater professional and something that you’ve never done before, even if it’s not new news in a bunch of other domains. So perhaps where the really interesting stuff is, as ever, in the edges and in the mixing and semi-permeable membranes of collaboration: for me, what’s been interesting about an industry about television or book publishing has been stripping away and getting to what’s at the *core* of creativity in that medium and then seeing what you can do with it when you radically remove constraints. Removing the constraint of fixed scheduling and programme length *does* unleash some creativity but perhaps not as much, or as quickly, as I might prefer.

In other words, and less charitably, less helpfully and altogether less excitingly: that’s the wrong kind of creative thinking for these parts. Not because it’s not creative, but because it doesn’t fit inside the particular institution (publishing, software, game design, business consultancy, advertising) and the way that institution solves problems.

Or, even more bluntly: yes, that’s the problem that we’ve been asked to solve, and yes, we can all agree that that’s a particularly novel solution to that problem that may well solve it, but what you’ve done there is that you’ve been, how shall we put it, a little bit too creative and now we don’t know how to go about executing that particular solution because, well, we expected you to be creative in box A, not to wander outside of that box.

2.0 But What Is The User Need?

There is a window, at the offices of the Government Digital Service, in London, where someone has taped a form of caption to the glass – a cut out in a piece of paper – so that when you look through the window the effect with the caption (which reads to the effect of “These are our users”) reminds you, in a simultaneously subtle and provocative way, of who exactly you’re working for.

Now, the GDS is a special case: it’s part of the civil service, the part of government in the United Kingdom that remains constant across changes of governing party, and one literally dedicated to public service. It is one of those rare organisations that by sheer virtue of existence is able to simply point out the window and say: those are the people we work for, those are the people we service.

It is hard, I think, to foster the sort of business or corporate culture, especially at scale, and harder in general, I think, for large-scale pre-internet companies, to be so clear as GDS is in fulfilling user need.

Zappos, I think, is an interesting example. Their application of answering the “But what is the user need?” question is one that anecdotally inclues them happily pointing you to a competitor if that competitor stocks the footwear solution (ie: shoes) that you want if Zappos does not stock them. If that’s not a bloody-minded, stubborn application of answering the user need, I don’t know what is. There is no upselling. There is no “well, this is kind of the shoe you want, and we have it.” There is instead, it appears, a respectful consideration of the fact that the user knows what they want.

Comcast, I feel, does not know what the user need is. Google Plus, I feel, does not know what the user need is. Or at the very least, is not articulate enough in representing that it understands what that user need might be.

This is all part of the thinking that I’ve been doing in the background during my time at Wieden+Kennedy. At work, there’s a tremendous amount of respect placed upon the right strategic insight that leads to the right brief that produces the right work: and that work is creative work that resonates with people as people. That doesn’t mean that it’s schmaltzy work, because “good” things are as true insights about people as “bad” things are.

But to even get at those insights that prepare the strategy that inform the brief that inspire the work requires, I think, a dedication to one thing: which is empathy.

There is the anecdote about users not knowing what they want, in which case Ford would have built them a faster horse (are you kidding – a gasoline powered horse would be pretty awesome) and that you don’t necessarily uncover latent needs by just *asking*. And I wouldn’t want to be fluffy and talk about some sort of intuition and purely touchy-feely stuff. But, if you want to be all science-y and empirical about it, I suppose it’s this: there’s a degree of understanding, of theory of mind, of perhaps over-indexing on those good old mirror neurons that I think helps when you’re designing products, services or communications for people.

Contrast that empathy and that almost painfully hard to acquire understanding of what a user or audience’s true need is with the startup and business ideology of almost needing to be clinically insane in not accepting the world as it is and having the fervent, religious, unshakeable faith that this, this thing, this product service design new Nest-esque a/v receiver that finally works properly, this thing: this is what user’s need.

Asking what the user need might just be that one, simple, hard to ignore, pernicious needling equivalent to a small child asking: but why? Why do we do things this way? Why is this system set up this way? And when the answer illustrates something other than user need, “well, you see, we need to do things because accounting does things this way” or “because it implements our strategy for growth into the consumer robotics armed security market that we’ve identified in middle America” you get a little peek into a glimpse of: who does this benefit. And if you’re a consumer-focussed organisation or attempting, in any way, to garner some sort of attention from people, then it feels like you’d better have the answer to those questions figured out. It feels almost like instead of taking the Five Whys of root cause analysis, a classic example of some parent suddenly having the insight that perhaps their kids were on to something when asking why something that happened, happened, you take the Five Whys of Why The Fuck A User Would Want This and then bludgeon everyone into submission with it.

3.0 Universal Service Obligations

That Nick Sweeney prompted a background thread to spawn a week or so ago in my brain about a requirement for a persistent, globally available basic data service. We have universal service obligations for first-generation communication networks like the postal service and telephone service and it’s a surface level reckon that I have where the universal service obligations for wireless communication spectra are things like “be able to make an emergency call” but not much more than that.

So here’s a thought: what happens when universal data service is legislated for? Say, inside a particularly large enough nation state (America, China, India, All Of Europe – but I have issues with All Of Europe, so strike them from the record) public spectrum regulators put forward a requirement a bit like this:

– free, guaranteed trickle bandwidth of, say, two to six symmetrical kilobytes per second

What sort of bootstrapping of devices and services would proliferate based upon such a pervasive ether of data? Now, let’s be clear: this isn’t trickle bandwidth for humans. This is trickle bandwidth for *devices*. Human-level guaranteed bandwidth of the “connectivity is a human right” sense feels like it needs to be in greater-than-five-megabit symmetrical range, scaling over time as payloads increase much like some sort of petrol tax escalator or tied to (ha!) the concept of “data inflation”, increasing to keep up with, say, the current state of the art in full motion video distribution.

But this, this is interesting: because the excitement over the internet of things is a bit weird when you realise that the internet of things needs a) power and b) connectivity and that relying on private infrastructure and per-device contracts might be a little… constrictive.

On top of that, though, how about this for another universal service obligation: I’m in correspondence with a few readers about (and this point I’ll pull the ninja move of distancing myself from remarks) Barbrook and Cameron’s assertion of Jefferson’s property ownership as a direct root to the current Californian Ideology. Now, whether that’s fair or not is a side point for the one I want to make, which is this: Jefferson felt that people should have their own property to do their own thing, but if we *really* want a free and open web, maybe what we need is not just connectivity, but hosting.

“Learn to code,” they said, so I went to the library and learned to code, “break free of the centralisation of corporate entities like Facebook and Google that want to control the flow of information and become an information worker in the revolution of the free web and run your own server,” they said – and my options were a free Amazon Micro instance for a year?

No. Notwithstanding the irritation at having asymmetric bandwidth foisted upon us that naturally makes the internet at the edge a service for consumption instead of publishing thanks to all the entrenched interests who are quite happy with that consumption model thank you very much, how Californian Ideology is this! Not only do I want my 50 acres with which to forge my own destiny, but what if every citizen had access to a guaranteed basic right of computation and network connectivity? Welcome to the world, Baby Boy Hon, you get the right to education *and* a one megabit virtual private server!

I can’t tell if it’s a stupid crazy idea or if we’re just supposed to rely on the latent power and connectivity in the personal network terminals we carry around with us all day, but they’re certainly not designed, at the moment, for that kind of usage. Of course, the libertarians would argue that the government owes you nothing but I imagine that if one were to emigrate to Thiel-land, penniless as an asylum seeker from, oh, I don’t know, France, seeking protection from overly intrusive government regulation and a committee that, gosh, regulates *words*, the border guards at Thiel-land would say: you are now a free woman! And here are your AWS credentials! Go forth, code and disrupt!

Learning to code, then, isn’t worth a damn if you don’t have anything to deploy your code to. And I’d like to try to distinguish this from a bit of a weird “ooh, let’s give every kid a laptop” because a) stupid, b) reasons, but less facetiously giving every kid a laptop is giving them an opinionated bit of kit, a physical instantiation of an idea that begins losing value as soon as it’s cast into the universe whereas the idea of a universal service obligation of *availability of computing resource and network connectivity* feels like it actually gets to the root of the idea without being bogged down in a particularly bone-headed implementation. AND for absolute clarity, let me say that it’s not like I’m suggesting these universal service obligations as some sort of substitute for existing welfare like not starving or having a roof over your head or the right to education because, Christ, do you think I’m sort of libertarian or something, no, these are additional public services and obligations, potentially the ones that you get where we move into a post-work, basic income, not-enough-jobs-for-everyone society.

And if I may round off with a Star Trek analogy, no, they don’t pay for computing resource to deploy their new exciting cloud-based customer relationship management suite when dealing with Ferengi. Computing resource appears to not cost anything in the Federation.

Just lots of ramblings today, then. And no links or footnotes! That certainly feels like cheating.

I have a heavy week ahead – travel to Missouri to join with my wife and son to visit my mother-in-law – and then an exciting excursion to Australia wherein I get to Profesionally Reckon in front of people, which Profesional Reckoning in conversation with Alex Fleetwood felt supremely reasonable as it seems to come with an in-built shrug of shoulders and “well, it’s just my opinion, and I’m just this guy.”

Again. Notes. Love them the way Doctor Who loves humans. Send me all of them and I’ll eat them up and excrete them in the form of brain ideas. Which is perhaps not how Doctor Who treats humans.