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This is going to be a rant, because I’m cross, so, fair warning. First I’m going to tell an illustrative story, and then I’m going to make the case that a really large proportion of digital projects are TOTALLY WASTING THEIR TIME AND MONEY. Here goes.

ITV drop the ball (aka the money, the talent, and the joke)

In my pre-museum days, before I joined the Wellcome Trust, I worked on digital projects for TV at Kudos for the best part of 2007. You may or may not recall an ITV show from the following year with an interesting concept: it was a rather cheesy soap opera set in Cornwall with Jason Donovan and Martine McCutcheon called Echo Beach, which was followed in the schedules by a fictional comedy about the making of Echo Beach, called Moving Wallpaper and starring Ben Miller. The whole thing was the brainchild of the great Eastenders lead writer Tony Jordan.

Alongside the main show a third online element had been commissioned, which is what I was working on. I still really like the idea, which was that a mole was operating on set, filming secret behind the scenes footage on Echo Beach. Before the TV show launched, and each week during it, these videos would be “leaked” into the public domain, showing the stars behaving badly, being divas and drunks, riffing off of their public personas and TV characters.

The aim was comedy and shock. A crack team of writers (from the Thick of It and other notable shows) was assembled to write the video skits, of which there were 12. An experienced comedy director was brought on board, and a small team of top filmmaking pros assembled. We got Jason Donovan (an absolute hoot to work with) supposedly filmed alone in his dressing room putting on a dress that Martine McCutcheon had worn on the show to mime along to her Perfect Moment hit. We also filmed him involved in vodka fueled fist fighting and fights with his agent, McCutcheon herself having tabloid-baiting practice snogs with female co-stars, secret thieving, incompetence, actors being ridiculously demanding and all sorts.

It’s been a long time since I’ve seen any of those clips, but I seem to remember we were all pretty proud of them when we handed them over to ITV. And either way, a lot of effort and talent and a not insubstantial (albeit not quite sufficient, it never is) budget went into making them. Which made ITV’s subsequent bungling of the next stage all the more galling.

Our concept was that these videos would be released to a poorly executed website (Geocities style) by the “mole” and then the press and public would be pointed at them. These days, they would be leaked to YouTube from the mole’s account, ideally, but the main thing was to maintain the fiction that Moving Wallpaper was the real world and the behaviour captured was genuine, and thereby preserve the joke. Instead, ITV did this: they created a page on the official ITV site for the videos, using the official ITV player to play them, and then they used the punchline as the title for every single video, giving away the gag before anyone had even started watching them.

The jokes were thereby rendered stone cold dead.

They then sent out, as far as I can tell, one press release which sparked two small articles from the Sun and “Celebs Now”, and that was the extent of the marketing effort. I haven’t seen the viewing stats, but I’m 100% certain they were feeble. And that was the end of that project. All that hard work, months of preparation, script writing, production and editing. All that money, pretty much entirely wasted by a failure to understanding digital marketing, and a failure to invest any serious time and effort in promotion.

I wish I could say that was the last time I saw this happen.

A familiar pattern

I’m using this example because it’s far enough in the past that I can be brutally honest about it, but it stands in for probably a good 60-70% of digital projects I’ve worked on, to some degree. This includes projects for museums and galleries, for publishers, and for other broadcasters. It includes my projects and the projects of others: I did a straw poll amongst other digital producers, and my goodness! The outpouring of anguish and recognition that followed.

And I’m writing this now because despite all my best efforts, I recently watched exactly the same thing happen again, and I’m fed up. I want to say this:

Stop wasting money on digital projects if you aren’t prepared to promote them properly.

I’m serious. Do NOT embark on any digital project if you aren’t going to at least make a decent effort to tell people about it or otherwise figure out how people are going to see it.

If you are going to make an in-gallery app but only have room for a small piece of signage and no budget or space for print promotion, do not bother. If you are going to create a game and put it on your website and think maybe your organisation might be able to muster up a single tweet and facebook post about it, give up now. If you are creating an amazing interactive video experience but the entire budget is going on production and you’ve run out of money to market it, stop.

Furthermore, if you think that a digital experience, be it mobile or online, game, video, or guide, is going to sell itself, and thereby itself be marketing for your TV show or exhibition, you are going to be sorely disappointed. Actually, I suspect this attitude is partly to blame for some of the failures in this area. There seems to be some confusion over whether these digital add-ons are marketing themselves but, by and large, it doesn’t work this way, things just don’t magically “go viral”.

Now, I have been part of some very successful game projects in which we did pretty much no marketing whatsoever (High Tea and Axon, for Wellcome Collection). However, we were working to a very specific distribution model that relies on making a cracking game, seeding it to casual gaming portals, making it easy to rip and waiting for it to catch on. It worked, the mechanics of those portals make this possible, but it has its flaws (not least reaching a relatively narrow demographic).

For mobile games, in gallery apps, online interactive fiction etc etc, this is not an option. You are competing in a very crowded market for audience attention. Even if your content is amazing, you are going to have to work very hard to make people aware of it, and do so in a way that sells it effectively to draw them in. Let me be clear: I’m not saying this is easy, and it can involve a bit of luck (the right person picking it up on twitter, for example), but it cannot just be ignored.

Why does this keep happening? I have a guess

So why is it, so often? Apart from the reason above, I feel like a major factor is that these digital projects *are* just seen as add-ons. They get neglected by marketing teams who are focussed on promoting the big exhibition or show, which is where the real accountability lies for their actions with the higher-ups (and the funders too, perhaps?). I’ve been there in meetings with comms teams who make it clear that our digital project is just never going to be a priority when they are being scrutinised instead for their role in increasing actual ticket sales or getting press for the main exhibition.

If that’s the case, the project probably shouldn’t even go ahead. Whatever the size or type of audience you are seeking, someone absolutely has to make some sort of plan and put time and resource into communicating with them. So often this seems to fall to the production team themselves in this situation, but without organisational buy in, this is never going to be as effective as it needs to be.

For my own part, I try to have a discussion about communications around a digital project as early as possible once it’s kicked off, but I’m beginning to realise that this is too late. These conversations need to happen before, and at a higher level. There needs to be a commitment before any major work starts that the project will be fully supported by the organisation.

It’s also clear that some comms and marketing teams feel out of their depth with digital projects. Some of this is a problem of perception: digital projects can be promoted in precisely the same way as books and exhibitions – with signage, adverts, flyers, social media posts, targeted press releases, building relationships with bloggers and newspapers and so on –  and the principles about what makes an appealing message are not necessarily different.

I fear the problem is more about understanding the digital product and its potential audience, and therefore knowing *who* to build relationships with and where to send a press release. But surely, this is no different than looking for subject specialist avenues to market to for other products? Also, there are various online-only routes (your Reddits and the like) that comms departments seem wary of but need to understand. It’s not hard, you do it by using these sites and getting to know them. If this is all too much, hire a digital marketing agency to take the weight.

The outcome of this sorry situation

Aside from the wasted time and money (sometimes public money too, which is particularly infuriating), what I find very dispiriting is organisations using the failure of digital projects as a reason to stop doing them; writing them off as inherently risky instead of examining what went wrong and trying to learn from mistakes. It’s also dispiriting to see the level of frustration from digital producers and agencies, many of whom have told me that they are avoiding work of this kind from now on because they are sick of seeing it fail due to a lack of promotion. It was part of the reason I started moving away from digital production work too.

Of course, it’s possible that some of these projects were just rubbish, that the content or concept was just unappealing. But it’s really clear that users and viewers aren’t even getting to the point of finding that out and these digital projects aren’t really being given a chance.

I don’t think it’s that complicated: projects of this nature just need the budget, commitment and a plan as to how people are going to hear about it. If this isn’t in place from the beginning, ask why, and don’t start until it is.

Whilst writing this I heard so many stories of this happening, but few that people were willing to put names to (although blimey but the BBC comes up a lot, Channel 4 too). I understand. But if you have an example, even if just anonymously, please do share in the comments. Or have you got any other thoughts on this, do you disagree?

 

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I spent Monday and Tuesday of this week at EVA, the Electronic Visualisation and the Arts conference for which I was lucky enough to get a bursary to attend. It’s a multidisciplinary event, which describes itself as being about “electronic visualisation technologies in art, music, dance, theatre, the sciences and more…” It was certainly diverse. Some presentations were technical or academic, others were more practical, and they were on a range of subjects from a wide variety of institutions and individuals. “Electronic visualisation” covers an lot. I left quite inspired, if wondering on earth to do with all the ideas now whirling around my brain. I highly recommend it.

Here are some of my highlights from the two days I spent there. For the full proceedings go to http://ewic.bcs.org/category/17656#.

Creating Magic on Mobile

My paper kicked off the day, so let’s get that out of the way. I presented (with Alex Butterworth of Amblr) on “Creating Magic On Mobile”. You can read the full paper here, which discusses our experiences creating the Magic in Modern London app for Wellcome Collection (when I worked there as Multimedia Producer). It’s a geolocated treasure hunt set in Edwardian London so the paper covers the use of GPS, audio-visual content and a map based interface to create a historical semi-fictionalised narrative.

It also contains a call for more imaginative use of mobile in cultural organisations, and shows how we attempted to do this with Magic in Modern London, but also some of the challenges we faced along the way (such as trying to overlay a 1908 map onto google maps). It was a pretty experimental project, but also very ambitious, and we learnt a huge amount along the way. It played a large part in my drive to help set up ME:CA (Mobile Experiences: Cultural Audiences).

Keynote: Steve DiPaola “Future trends: Adding Computational Intelligence, Knowledge and Creativity to Interactive Exhibits and Visualization Systems”

Steve DiPaola (a “computer based cognitive scientist, artist and researcher”) gave a fascinating keynote that covered several of his projects. The notes from his talk are here http://dipaola.org/eva13/. These included.

  • A beluga whale pod interactive simulation at the Vancouver aquarium being used both in gallery and as oart of scientific research. This installation allows visitors to observe particular behaviours and test out scenarios.
  • Teaching evolution through art: using “evolved” artworks to help people really get what evolution means, particularly challenging in America, where 60% of people don’t believe in it (apparently). This was done as part of Darwins 200th birthday celebrations.
  • Analysis of Rembrandt’s works to understand his compositions and techniques and their affect on the eye path of the viewer. This work came to the conclusion that Rembrandt had an impressive understanding of vision science 200 years before anyone else.
  • A project to create life-like (ish) 3D avatars that people can speak through to address people remotely, and perhaps anonymously (e.g. scientists having a digital conversation with the public from another country).
  • An analysis of Picasso’s “Guernica” 40 day period of creativity. This mapped all the works created during this prolific period onto a timeline to try and understand the nature of his creative process, how ideas evolved, and how he was influenced by other works.

Timelines

Timelines were also feature of other talks, such as this about “representing uncertainty in historical time”, I didn’t see this presentation but did see the demo later, which looked at turning the works of a composer into a timeline that mapped them against their first performances. Can’t find a link for this, but I was impressed, as with the Guernica project above, at the way a putting data into a timeline can reveal new insight.

More museums and mobile (with added AR)

There were a couple of other museum mobile projects, both of which used augmented reality (AR) in different ways. Timeline Newcastle looked interesting, and quite similar to Streetmuseum in overlaying archive photos onto the modern city (if I understood it correctly). I was particularly interested to see that the Smithsonian Natural History Museum have a very ambitious app in the works called Skin and Bones. It will focus on 14 objects, giving different levels of engagement with each, based on their framework for visitor preferences called IPOP (ideas, people, objects and physical). So for visitors who want to hear about people, they have a meet the scientist option, for physical – an activity, for ideas – an exploration of a scientific concept, and for object – a detailed study of the skeleton some of which used AR to overlay the skeleton with an animation.

I was interested in their concept of using it to raise “visual literacy” ie, helping visitors to understand and interpret what they were seeing  and in doing so increase dwell time in the galleries. They had recognised that users were spending little time in this gallery, except for at a few “hero” skeletons, and surmised that people weren’t finding it interesting because they didn’t know how to make sense of what they were seeing. So in the app, for example, it will show you how a particular venomous snake’s jaws hinge back into their mouth and how you can see that in the skeleton.

They have an impressive (and expensive sounding?!) user testing plan. They are creating two apps,  one without AR and one with to see how that affects visitor interaction, and will be using a beta app path analyis tool called Look Back to help with this (although this feature is also apart of GA mobile analytics as well).

Keynote: Linda Candy “Creativity and Evaluation: Supporting Practice and Research in the Interactive Arts”

This was an impassioned call for making evaluation a key part of the creative process in a keynote from writer researcher Linda Candy. It’s not just about evaluating impact, but also creating new knowledge and new works, she said (but impact also still important, I would add!) and should be fully embedded in practice. For artists creating digital interactive works there are also usability issues they should be testing (do people understand how to interact with it, for example? Is it within reach of children/wheelchair users?).

Obviously, as a huge fan of evaluation, I am very much down with this. Evaluation isn’t just about fulfilling the tedious criteria of funding bodies, but is more about understanding and improving your own work. The evaluation work I’ve done on games has been some of those more interesting and thought provoking work I’ve done.

Other assorted interesting presentations: critical robots, doomsday clocks and more

There were several other interesting demos and presentations.

Stop, my brain is full

There was a whole other day of this that I missed, probably for the best, as by the end of it my head was spinning.

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I’ve felt a little rant bubbling up in me over the last few months: a sense of disquiet about digital, a jaded annoyance about wasted time and resources and opportunities squandered. Today I was reminded about an old project that was the epitome of digital idiocy, one of those thoughtless knee-jerk “we must have an app!” projects that make me want to throw a toddler tantrum, kicking and screaming “but who is it for?” until someone agrees to at least do a bit of audience research or string together a minimally viable set of objectives. And that reminder seems to have brought it all to the surface, so here goes.

I am fed up of seeing people and organisations produce digital rubbish: poor apps, clunky games, badly designed microsites and other half-arsed online, mobile and technological systems and whatnots. I am fed up of people who are smart about digital, who think about users, who ask the right questions at the start, who embrace technology without fear and understand how to apply it, being over-ruled by people who’ve just bought an iPad for their kids and now assume that everyone has them and that this is all the justification they need to insist upon spending £50k on a new app for their organisation (an app for who?! For what?!). Moreover, I am fed up of projects that fail being brushed under the carpet, with no evaluation or debrief that enables everyone involved to learn from mistakes and build something better the next time.

It makes me sad to see money and time being wasted, when it’s usually avoidable, and even more so if nothing is then learned from this. It makes me especially sad, because the technology we have available to us today is AMAZING. My phone is able to do astonishing things and the computers I use have incredible firepower (I still remember how exciting it was to get a floppy disc drive for my BBC micro, now look at them!).  It feels like there is so much potential and so much more that the technology we have could allow us to do.

It’s not like there aren’t enough examples of brilliant products, apps, games, and other applications of these technologies out there to learn from. Too many to list. But many many many more that have been an utter waste of everyone’s time from the beginning because they just didn’t ask some basic questions about who and what their product was for, and test it with that in mind along the way. Isn’t that a bit sad?

I know it’s not easy. That there is a degree of luck in rising above the huge amounts of competition online or on on the app store, that things beyond your control can go wrong during the development of a project, and that there are some times you need to go on your gut instinct, and that’s not infallible. Goodness knows I’ve made every kind of mistake creating digital things over the years, as have most people working in this constantly changing field. And I will continue to make mistakes, as will most people etc.

So I’m not claiming there is a perfect process, but there are better and worse ones, and there are definitely massive howling alarm-bell-ringing clangers that should be sending up the red flag right from the start. The “we need an app, never mind who for”, the “we’ve got all this content, let’s just stick it online, people will come to us”, “let’s create a whole new portal for something that already exists”, and so on. And sometimes it feels like we aren’t moving on from this, these whack-a-mole stupidities keep popping up over and over again and just will not die.

Why is that? In a recent conversation with a fellow person-who-works-somewhat-indeterminately-within-“digital” we discovered we’d both been feeling this slight ennui with the field. This sense that it wasn’t meeting its potential, that a lot of rubbish was being made, and that it was hard to see how to make things better. We wondered if it it might be that digital is constantly being driven by the hardware makers, by Apple and console or computer companies and that their vested interest in creating new stuff for us to buy means we’re always just playing catch up. Why do we let this dictate the pace? Where is the chance to take stock and develop best practice?

My experience as a freelancer over the last few months, applying for funding and responding to ITTs, has also been eye-opening. The systems and funding in place for making digital stuff are really broken. If you were trying to design a process that would result in crappy digital products, you’d make people (who may not be particularly digitally literate) scope everything out and pin it down before they’d ever been able to build anything or ask their audience about it, only then engage an agency who are the real experts but can’t change the scope, and then make the project team go through a month long change request process if they want to develop the project in a different direction from the scope based on the evidence as they start building and testing things. Which is exactly the process in place in a frighteningly high number of places. The old models for procuring new infrastructure etc just do not work for digital projects, and it’s hamstringing them from the very start.

Plus money, of course. Not enough money, or not tailoring the project to the actual budget available.  I’ve had this rant elsewhere. I seem to spend a lot more time these days telling people not to make a digital thing. Would it work just as well as a piece of text? As a printout? As a physical activity? Or a really simple website? Don’t overreach if you just can’t afford it, do something straightforward and proven.

But at the same time I love working on and seeing others working on brilliant digital projects. The reach you can get, the amazing response in terms of both scale and thoughtful quality, the sense of shared global experience, the playfulness and the utility, when done well. So, how do we do more of these?

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