Saturday, 23 September 2017

Simplicity lessons from Apple

I’ve just finished the immensely readable and idea-rich  Insanely Simple by Ken Segall. Ken, as the cover proclaims, coined the phrase iMac as part of his work for Apple in the agency Chiat/Day, and used his insights from working with Steve Jobs to distil its essence to one principle: simplicity.

Not being a tech titan with $120B in the bank myself, I was wondering on how to apply the principle to my own rather more limited sphere of interactions. This is what I’ve come up with, written in the form of advice to myself. Let me know what you think in the comments.

Simplicity is universal.
Whereas complexity requires specialised technical knowledge and even language to convey, simplicity is understood by all. People prefer simplicity. Even professionals who tolerate complexity as a price of doing business, even encourage learning curves as a barrier to their profession, prefer simplicity.

Simplicity is effective.
Direct and unadorned communications is unambiguous and therefore efficient. But being blunt without empathy is brutal and nasty. Steve Jobs had a reputation for being a tyrant because of his communications style. However, being unambiguous and unyielding on what success looked like was a key to his success.

Even if tyranny isn’t your thing, you should still think about simple communications. Your ideas will only be heard if they land and are internalised by your recipients. Get your ideas out quickly, simply, without adornment. There’s a difference between leading people to a conclusion, and doing the thinking for them, and people usually resent the latter.

So focus your communications. Deliver ideas with honesty, sympathy and simplicity. Encourage a conversation in order to get to a decision. Connect.

Simplicity is hard.
Complexity is easy. Complexity naturally arises when lots of people try to work together. Before you know it, there are processes to help navigate the complexity. These navigation skills become essential in order to get things done, and having good ideas becomes secondary. Simplicity requires placing trust in a small team of smart people, and empowering them to make decisions.

Because complexity is easy, complex answers are often the first answers. Simple answers will require more thought, more effort, and more focus. Focus is not just concentrating on one thing, but also not doing all the other important things that need to get done.

Simplicity is more than good enough. Stick to your vision, and you’ll go from good to great.

Simplicity is ongoing.
A simple idea is not a goal. Making every idea simple doesn’t necessarily make turn them into good ideas. There are plenty of simple bad ideas out there (sharks with lasers?). It’s better to start from a good idea, apply the principles of simplicity, and end up with a great idea.

It will take ongoing investment of time and resource to continue to live with the problem, peel back layers of complexity, to get to an elegant simple solution. It will also bravery to trust that you’ll be given, or give yourself, the space to go from minimum viable to the best answer.

Getting to simple requires having enough good will in the bank to survive living with the problem for a while. If you’re not Apple with a devout fanbase willing to forgive every iPhone 8 as long as there’s an upcoming iPhone X, then you’re going to need to work hard investing in your network and relationships.

You’re going to also need to work hard investing in yourself. Simplicity needs to be authentic to your own personal values, so spend time understanding them. Having everything come from the same place will give the outcomes coherence.

So simplicity is more than a single attribute. You’ll have to hit everything with the simple stick, and keep doing it, to achieve simplicity. The end is worthwhile, because simplicity is powerful.

Monday, 5 June 2017

Justification for the EPG grid.

No-one watches linear TV any more, so why have an EPG? This post looks at why they still exist in an on-demand world.

I hate Electronic Programme Guides. The spreadsheet representation is more suited to accountants than to people wanting to be entertained. Understanding one requires too much learning to be useful. You have to know which channel your programme is on, and when, before you can find it. And if you don’t know what you want to watch, you have to scroll around aimlessly until happy coincidence highlights a programme of interest. So I’m starting a campaign to get rid of them. Except I might be wrong.

The EPG only exists because the broadcast schedule exists. So to do away with the former, we need to look more closely at the latter. A recent presentation at the DTG Summit gave me a perspective of why the broadcast schedule is still important.

The assertion made by Adam MacDonald, Director of Sky 1, was that broadcast schedule (and by extension the EPG) gives context and therefore meaning to on-demand content. His analogy was: you only know you’re going off road, if there’s a road in the first place. To illustrate his point, let’s look more closely at how the schedule is influences and is influenced by viewing behaviours for on-demand.

The majority of pre-peak viewing is live. It may well be true that the post-peak viewers are the most valuable, but there’s still a sizeable audience for whom the EPG is the most relevant content discovery point.

Even for the most heavily non-linearly-viewed content on Sky 1, significant numbers still view non-linearly in relation to the schedule. In other words, they will watch the programme on demand, after its transmission date. Is this because the transmission is the expiry of the spoiler embargo? This seems to be the case for reviewers and social media.

There is an emerging content consumption behaviour of the mini binge, especially relevant for content not available in box sets. Viewers wait 3 transmission weeks, store up 3-4 episodes, then watch them all in one go. This too is only made possible by the broadcast schedule.

In acknowledgement of these insights, Sky 1 now markets to the mini binge, and schedules a “gap” on Saturday evenings – because this is peak on-demand viewing time. The schedule shapes behaviour which shapes the schedule.

I’m not convinced by all this. It strikes me that the broadcast schedule is an organisation paradigm that sits very comfortably with the current generation of bill-paying viewers. I’ve lived with schedules and EPGs for so long that I can work around their limitations. I also accept that behaviours like mini binges and spoiler-free water cooler moments only exist because of the context of the schedule. However, I think these behaviours are short-lived, and won’t be the behaviours of the future bill-paying viewer. The schedule isn’t relevant my children.

The EPG is simply the most efficient way of presenting left-to-right schedule information. Nonetheless, a spreadsheet is not the most efficient way of discovering content, nor even making judgement about content. The poster image is still the best signal for a content watching judgement.

So let’s do away with the broadcast schedule, and the EPG – but perhaps after I’ve set my series recordings.

Monday, 15 May 2017

Content concepts.

My favourite part of attending a conference is learning all the new buzzwords. These are from last week’s DTG Summit.

Every industry has its own peculiar patois, but it seems to me that the content industry tries harder than most to come up with pithy phrases. At first glance, they elicit a reaction of ‘groan – that’s doublespeak nonsense’. But sometimes – only sometimes – a closer examination yields interesting insights. Let me try some out on you.

Content Infidelity: In 2013 Netflix released a survey that said, “51% of those in a relationship would “cheat” on their spouse/partner/significant other by streaming a TV program(s) they agreed to watch together before their partner had a chance to watch it”. (Its survey of 2017 went on to find that 14% think content infidelity is worse than having an actual affair.)  
So what? Such a high percentage tells me that watching TV is a fiercely social activity, and still a centrepiece in our everyday lives. It feels comforting work in such an impactful industry.

Work, Sleep, Stream: A survey by Rovi in 2015 found that watching TV was the third biggest daily time commitment, after working then sleeping. (Actually, it found that there was some overlap between working and watching TV, but that’s a different point entirely.) 
So what? TV is so important that some chose to prioritise it over all other activities. TV continues to take the lion share of leisure attention and therefore spend.

Show Dumping: This is a relatively new phenomenon, identified by Tivo in 2016 where viewers disengage from a show because it becomes too difficult to watch. This might be because it moves from one streaming service to another, especially if it goes from free (iPlayer) to subscription (Netflix). Or if it goes from a subscription you already have to one that you don’t. 
So what? It seems that content isn’t king, but economics is.

Path to Pay: As we’ve seen, the only growth area in Pay TV is in low-spending households. These are the ones who normally enjoy Freeview or iPlayer or shows recorded on their hard drive. All broadcasters are looking for a way to encourage these free viewers to become pay viewers. 
So what? The innovation in the UK market over the last year has been in this low ARPU end of the market, and focus will continue to be here. Existing products like Now TV, Amazon Fire TV, Netflix, Freeview Play will get better. But as a direct consequence, products like Sky Q and Virgin Media VIP will become more expensive and irrelevant. This is all good news for the viewer.

Skinny Bundles: Presumably due to the restrictive rights negotiated by Google, YouTube TV is launching with a mere 42 channels. This looks waifishly skinny when compared with the “over 260 channels” as boasted by the likes of Comcast
So what? These 42 channels are the ones that viewers actually want to watch. In other words, 85% of Comcast’s channel line-up is of no interest to a viewer. It should be acknowledged that there are significant issues with the rights that Google negotiated, particularly the reluctance of broadcasters to relinquish control over which ads to show to Google. Nevertheless, to misquote Andrew Neil's keynote, I hope we’ll look back on 2017 as the last time we got away with forcing viewers to buy 85% more stuff than they actually wanted.

Net Neutrality by Necessity: The growth of online video continues to be explosive. ISPs are struggling to maintain the infrastructure investment to keep up. But just as it’s ludicrous to expect to pay different electricity bills for usage by a laptop versus usage by a microwave, it’s equally illogical to have anything other than net neutrality.
So what? Viewers are moving away from delivery of TV through aerials on the roof, to delivery of TV through home Wi-Fi. The industry is having to welcome a new entrant to the TV value chain: the Internet Service Provider. The ISP has a key role in providing the broadband connectivity into the home, and usually the Wi-Fi router that flings the Internet around the home. As they did with the owners of the DTT transmitter network or satellite fleets, it’s in the broadcaster’s interest to strike a commercial relationship with ISPs. However, it’s not in the ISP’s interest to strike individual commercial relationships, not least in Europe due to legal obligations not to discriminate service based on content. ISPs will realise this once they accept that they’re nothing more or less than a fundamental utility. Which will leave broadcasters floundering to find their place in the new value chain. 

Prop-Up Programming: Even in this age of multi-channel multi-format multi-delivery fragmented viewing, some programmes still get over 10M viewers. These hugely popular programmes prop up the channel, the brand, the technology platform, and the broadcaster as a whole. However, these programmes are becoming fewer. 
So what?  If ITV didn’t have to serve 10.4M viewers with Britain’s Got Talent simultaneously, they could abandon the expensive DTT and DSAT carriage agreements, and deliver directly over the Internet. However, if ITV didn’t have any programming that reached 10.4M viewers simultaneously, it wouldn’t command the same ad revenue, and wouldn’t be able to afford to deliver its services. A neat little circle that props up the status quo, but looks more fragile as the number of prop-up programmes decrease.

(Full disclosure – I made the last two up myself and added them to the list, hoping that they’ll gain credibility by association.)