Face to face and anonymous – Sli.do and sliding

On Thursday I was lucky to be invited to speak at the Chief Digital Office Forum.  Many interesting stories were told from a genuinely broad range of organisations grappling with digital transformation.Whilst, as expected, the orbit was set around best practice we passed many tales of errors, bloopers and the unexpected. It was really refreshing in that respect. In a area of endeavour which is genuinely new and proven approaches are mythical, sharing mistakes is even more instructive. Take not conference producers; these are the lessons we really want to hear about.

The conference producers chose to use Sli.do to offer an app for delegates with the schedule, speaker bios and venue information. It was also used to mange audience interaction during the sessions, its principle purpose. The polling function was sued a little but the interesting application was the Q&A function. I’m sure this is nothing new to many of you but it struck me in few ways that I had not really considered before.

One of the great benefits was to the introverted amongst us. We could type in a question as it formed in our minds whilst listening to a talk. No need to raise your hand in the auditorium, wait for the microphone, check it is on and then offer your query. The option to question speakers anonymously further emboldened attendees. It also encouraged more controversial questions than we might have heard I suspect. Whilst hard to judge, I think there were more questions overall as well. A better return on our investment for attendees and speaker alike.

A record of questions is automatically gathered in the app which could be valuable to speakers and producers in researching and honing events.

There were some odd results as well though. The experience of reading the questions from the screen and trying to answer them felt somewhat remote to me, as a speaker. Like a live performance webinar, inferring and interpreting the meaning of a question from text rather than from the tone and inflection of the enquirer. Very few of us write as we speak. (Some of use write with greater purpose and consideration, I know. Some don’t, however, and meaning was missed somewhere).

As an audience member the dynamic of the Q&A sessions was different too. It felt like more watching and slightly less like taking part or being part of the crowd.

The value of an event is the presence of us all in the room together. Introducing the digital component in this way may not have made the most of that. Flipping the classroom (or the speech) is a powerful idea and care needs to be taken to retain the value of face to face dialogue in the room.

I do like Sli.do and hope to continue to see it and use it. It made me think though about what we might miss when we draw more effort towards the supercomputer in our hand.



Big data? Little data is tricky too.

Big data is a hardy perennial of scary topics. We gaze in wonder at sophisticated organisations who have mastered the beast and stride off into the future as we peer at the mountains of our own data – or what we think are mountains of data.

Over many years and many data sets I have joined the struggle of analysts trying to master the art of insight. This blog post from last week reminded me of the problem. It has been my most popular so far on this site and I don’t really know why. I can tell you exactly how popular, where in the world it is most and least popular, which search terms were most effective etc. etc. Can’t tell you why though. I have some theories – it was personal and timely – but I would have to ask you why I suspect. And that is the navigation challenge of the user data ocean.

At Ask Jeeves, even all those years ago, we had multiple millions of queries to understand. We could count them, see where they came from, measure their $ value, see how common they were, categorise them and then and then… All of these measures could then be compared against a forecast (that was an interesting struggle too) and against the previous day, week, quarter and year. Data gave the business its rhythm. There were four measures of the health of the period: search volumes (how much), search share (how much more/less than the market), revenue (worth how much), profit (how much was the business worth). These measures made the happy days happy and the sad days sad. Of course, there were a multitude of other measures to colour in the triangle beneath this point (yield, marketing spend, seasonal data, distribution fees etc.), but they were the ones that counted.

What we struggled to do was answer the why question.  Why more last week? Why less revenue than last year? Many hours were spent in much debate. Not always conclusive debate either.

Similarly, at the BBC, traffic data is a common currency (or almost common, some of the elders cling to ratings, of course). Reach, users, visits, referrals, frequency and depth of visits paint the picture of a healthy or an ailing product. In the case of Bitesize, the numbers describing this health are really quite large.

Again, the hard part was discerning the cause. Why was that game less popular than that one or one podcast downloaded three times as much as average? We all had good theories and experience counted in weighing our guesses. We never really knew though. Or, when we did know it was because we asked. We survey or focused grouped to find out. We created another data set to explain the first one.

What those masters of big data probably do better is use the data to inform smaller, closer decisions in iterative development. One insight into user need is tested live as a new product, feature or piece of content is created. Then the data from usage is used to tweak and adjust the next step of development. And so on. The size of the data is made smaller by using it as evidence in the test of a clear hypothesis. There is less need to worry about all the data all the time in this approach. You still need to ask users why and what they think but the steering along the way is probably more accurate. Social tools make those questions easier to answer now as well and have become vital to any investigation (more data too, however).

Maybe one response to big data anxiety is to ask smaller questions of smaller data sets and leave the ocean alone. Maybe. But I would need to check.

(If you ever feel like telling me why a post is better or worse, please do. It will save me at least that one struggle).

Making a museum of your content – my problem with curation (and a possible solution)

For various reasons, I have spent a fair amount of time in the British Museum in the last couple of weeks. It is a remarkable and popular place to spend time. Thousands of people come here to wander and wonder at the exhibits every day. For curators, this must be close to the top of the tree if not on the highest branch itself. It is an environment for the curious to satisfy their curiosity. I suspect it is also the birthplace of a lot of coffee table books.

That meeting of curiosity and curation is rich yet fraught territory I think. Media companies and publishers have spent many years musing on the value of curation. It is a seductive idea on the supply side of the content equation; overcoming the need to produce anew for every need by arranging existing content in a fresh context for (re)discovery. This frees up resources (or saves them) for the next big new thing. (In the content business, there is always the next big thing). All of these curatorial exhibitions rest on the assumption that there is an abiding interest and utility in the content. A great deal of curated content satisfies a curious interest rather than a practical need or utility. For a learning curation this is a huge flaw. Learning content needs to be more than interesting it needs to be useful. Useful for something. For action.

Here is a classic case: The History of the World in 100 Objects. A rightly famous and lauded project using the museum’s exhibits as the steps in an ambitious narrative history. A highly successful radio how and popular book. And a very unhelpful gathering of digital content objects? Outside of the programme it is hard to answer the “what’s it for” question. It also has the producer hallmarks of the “By Theme” and “By Gallery” categories – the hand of the institution lies heavily on the navigation. Aesthetic and narrative scores are high, the curious are happy. Utility value is very low.

By way of contrast I would offer the BBC Food website (or cookery learning service?). This is immediately purposeful and speaks quickly and clearly to the user need. Making food. It is smart enough (in an editorially lead business) to place search in the heart of the product (although not quite across the home page where it belongs – editors always obsess about promo space on the home page). There is no better curation tool than an accurate search engine.

The site is all about recipes – all about the method of making food. Learning the method is supported by information on cookery techniques and ingredients. Even the programme and chef related content is in support of that “how do I?” goal. They offer a navigational prompt, nudging the memory and as content provenance. This is good quality food learning from recognised experts.

The recipe format is simple and straightforward. No need to figure out how to use each one when you find it. A few useful contextual navigational cues if the one you are reading is not quite right are to hand – related recipes and others with the main ingredients.

This site works (and the traffic data supports this claim), I believe, because it is not a curated set of content but a content product designed to meet a clear need – making food. It looks and feels like curation because it makes finding the instructions simple and intuitive. It is a well-designed too and for a clear purpose.

If it were a well-crafted collection for an exhibit, to satisfy the curious, it would be better off as a set of search results. Google is a great curator.

The first of the new days

A brief update bulletin today.

As of yesterday, I ceased an eight year period of employment with the BBC. The BBC Academy, of which I was Head of Digital, has moved to its new home in Birmingham and for a variety of reasons, I am not able to join my colleagues there. For the record (and despite what much of the less independent media will have you believe) the BBC is a remarkable place. It is full of extremely bright people with an unusual dedication to the mission of the institution. Somehow, it manages to balance the competing priorities of all the constituent parts and produce some truly excellent services.  It also manages to balance creativity, individualism, and a real sense of quality with the demands of an always on service whose audience are, rightly, highly demanding of it.

So…a new story starts today as I undertake my first steps as an independent consultant in digital learning matters (those interested in my services can apply here). I have some new clients to work with and some very interesting projects in the mix. More of these as they take shape and I am in a position to share how they are going and what I am learning from them.

In the meantime though, I am grateful to Auntie (honestly). Like any large corporation with a long history, the BBC can be infuriating to grapple with at times. In those grapplings I have learned a great deal however and met some fine grapplers along the way. I am hopeful that the fascination with new endeavours and an expectation to learn from and to teach other continues to meet me.

And yes, I am fully aware of the date…