Friday, 10 September 2010

My time with TED (Part 1)

When I go to conferences and events, I’m always trying to find a learning point from what I’m listening to. The following are the learning points I picked up from TEDxSheffield. This is not a regurgitation of what I heard, but the elements I drew out from the talks – possibly reinterpreting them or linking them with my own thoughts and opinions.

TEDxSheffield started with Cennydd Bowles, a user experience specialist discussing beauty, design and how this hadn’t translated onto the web. He suggested there were no ‘design classics’ on the web to compare with the London tube map, or even the applemac. Webdesign was either highly functional or highly designed but rarely both.

I’d disagree with this stance for a couple of reasons. I think Google is a design classic but I think it is too commonplace to understand why. It was launched in a time when web pages were getting ever more complex because “they could”, losing usability by being clever. Along with usability comes accessibility.

Google was a white page with a single text box and a couple of buttons and remains largely the same, although, like Tate and Lyle golden syrup, you can see subtle variations over time making a big difference.

The other thought was that web design should be something linked to emotion. The experience of a website is a journey. Sometimes we want a quick solution, other times we may want to wander. But to make a journey memorable, it needs to be linked to emotion. The best designs and art summon up emotion and create an attachment, a loyalty and a desire to return.

Now I think there are deeper elements in web design than visual stimuli and that architecture plays a part and I also think the journey is important in making it personal to the user.

We shared a TEDx video from Chip Connley on measurement and defining what is important to a business.

To the world of business and accounting, his words might seem a bolt from the blue, but from an economists point of view its actually something they’ve been trying to grapple with for a long time. As I have a degree in the subject, I’d like to count myself as an economist. I understand the concept of ‘utility’ a cold word which actually describes your hopes, aspirations, dreams, enjoyment, love and passion.

Chip’s message is that all this stuff is ephemeral, but not immeasurable. You have to make assumptions and it’s not perfect, but you can survey to find out if people are secure or insecure, worried about certain things or looking forward to particular events. Just because TEDx is free it doesn’t make the event have no value – quite the opposite. He used Einstein’s quote “Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.”

So why does this strike a chord with me? It is because I’ve seen blinkered business decisions throughout my career based on accounting practice and with very limited vision of what is important to a company. Hard times tends to mean fewer people and more graft for no or little extra reward. The problem is that this view is dictated by looking at figures and ignores how people spend their time. Especially in a customer focussed business, making people do more admin and less time actually helping customers and solving their issues can have a negative effect. As you lose contact you can lose the ability to change to new circumstances, lose your mission statement and end up in a downward spiral of de-motivated staff producing less.

Newsrooms are prime examples. You can run a newsroom in August with a skeleton staff as there’s not much happening and as long as the story flow is OK, it can look after itself. In an accountant’s, mind, this suggests that the newsroom could cope like this at any time. It ignores the fact that the best stories, the ones that create the buzz with the audience of a media group, are created through hard work and digging and not from making the odd change to a press release. Equally, when a major incident happens, that’s when the strength of a news organisation can be tested. Without the manpower, you can’t cover the events. This is why the scaling down of so many newsrooms is so sad to see as an industry makes itself moribund by the greed of a few shareholders.

So in the downturn, create the conditions for happiness in your business. It’s more important than ever to have a mission that people buy in to, that’s genuine and that you can all strive to achieve. Cutting corners reduces your costs, but it doesn’t add value to your business and its important any savings don’t affect the ability of your staff to deliver the value your customers strive for. That’s why in a recession, high value products often do well – because there is a genuine quality and value in them.

The first half ended with a slick presentation on success from Richard St John. What I valued most was the slick production and visually strong presentation. This was a good example of how to present with the caveat that it was too visual.

The substance of the message would generally be common sense. To be successful you need to work hard, have a focus and a genuine passion for what you are doing, distinguishing workaholics from ‘workafrolics’ – people who work hard because they love what they are doing.

According to the presentation I’ll never be a success as I’m intelligent and have eclectic interests. I’m also keen to ensure my children see me occasionally. While I’ll never be Bill Gates, I hope most will still see me successful in my own way.

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