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

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?

 

Reaching a new audience through gaming

Below is a paper by Danny Birchall and I that we wrote in 2012 about our work with games at Wellcome, and what we’d learned along the way. It was written just before I left, and so it felt like a nice wrapping up of what was a long and interesting process. It was only published in print, though, and I asked permission to post it online, which they granted as long as I waited 6 months. It’s been more like 18 months, but anyway, here goes. I hope it’s interesting and useful to anyone thinking about how they could use games as an engagement or learning tool, or to reach millions of people.

Reaching a new audience through gaming

Martha Henson and Danny Birchall

This article first appeared in Henry Stewart Publications 2047-1300 (2013) Vol. 1, 4 351–356 Journal of Digital Media Management 351

Wellcome Collection is an unusual public venue, based on the Euston Road in London. It is part of the Wellcome Trust, which was founded in 1936 according to the wishes of Sir Henry Wellcome, a biomedical entrepreneur and fanatical collector, as expressed in his will. The aims of the trust are to improve animal and human health, largely through funding biomedical research, but they also have an interest in public engagement with science. This is where Wellcome Collection comes in.

Together with a very fine medical library, the building houses two permanent exhibitions. One displays a small fraction of Henry Wellcome’s original collection of artefacts loosely connected in some way to health, but with this remit interpreted in such a broad way as to include items such as Charles Darwin’s walking stick, a chastity belt, prosthetics, surgical instruments and a Peruvian mummified corpse. The other looks at more modern medical concerns such as genetics and obesity through art and objects such as sequencing machines and diet books. There are also temporary exhibitions and events that deal with a wide range of topics related to life, medicine and science. The most recent, Superhuman, challenged ideas about what constitutes human enhancement, while the next one, Death, will tackle the emotive but endlessly fascinating subject after which it has been named.

The tone of all of this is very much non-didactic: the aim is to engage visitors with ideas, ethics, history and science in a thought-provoking way rather than merely to convey factual information. This approach also underpinned our thinking when it came to games: they had to be genuinely fun and engaging, and the factual content had to be embedded in a meaningful way. The idea was that people should have their curiosity and interest piqued by playing, not feel like they had received a thinly disguised lecture with a game mechanic crudely stuck on to it. It was also felt that the diverse subject matter that Wellcome Collection covers, combined with resources such as the image library and archives, had the potential to form the basis of really great original games.

But why games? First, a well-constructed game can be an incredibly engaging experience. Even those who do not consider themselves gamers will likely recognise the feeling of losing hours to playing Solitaire or Tetris on their computer, or perhaps Angry Birds on their phone. This state of ‘flow’, as it is known, is deep engagement and it is hard to think of many other activities that create this.

In addition, play is, in and of itself, all about learning. One must learn to progress in any game and there is no reason why this learning cannot also be factual. Furthermore, ‘people who play games’ constitute a huge audience, spread all over the world and yet using the same platforms and devices, all brought together by their desire to play. Reaching this audience, one that probably would not otherwise be aware of or be able to come to Wellcome Collection, was a significant reason for choosing this particular route — not because the aim was to convert those players into visitors, but to widen the reach of Wellcome’s activities.

THE GAMES AND THE PROCESS

We started relatively simply. The first couple of games were based on existing successful and enduring game mechanics that it was thought tallied particularly well with the museum’s content. We worked with an agency called Smile Your Eyes Off to create an online Flash game called Memory, which used the old game of Pelmanism as a basis. In this game, the player must turn over two matching cards to clear them away, the aim being to clear all the cards presented (1). The difference in this game is that all the card faces have pictures from Wellcome Images, a vast and varied picture library that contains both historical and contemporary images (2)

Having different themed levels made it possible to convey the breadth of the collection, with around 30 themes available for ten levels, such as masks, skeletons, cells and advertising. The levels also get increasingly difficult as the images get more numerous and more similar. For example, at the end of the game, the player might be unlucky enough to get the forceps level, which is not only very difficult but also very representative of Henry Wellcome’s habit of collecting a large amount of the same type of object.

It was a good starting point — the game was not too complicated and we got to know the process for making games. We found that collaboration was particularly important, it could not have been done without the involvement of image researchers in Wellcome Images and we worked closely with the developers. This spirit of collaboration was to inform the process for future games as well. The game was placed on the Wellcome Collection website, and continues to attract players, with around 60,000 views since launch.

The next project was a quiz engine that allowed the creation of multiple choice quizzes that could bring in images, audio and video in both question and answer (3). This was not particularly original, but was very useful and perhaps most notable for being our first collaboration with Preloaded, an award-winning games agency who focus on ‘games with purpose’ (4). Soon after the quiz engine project, an opportunity came up to do something a bit different and we turned again to Preloaded to help realise the idea.

In the winter of 2010–2011, Wellcome Collection held an exhibition called High Society, which looked at the history of drug use. One small part of the exhibition dealt with the Opium Wars, a shameful episode in the history of the British Empire in which opium was smuggled into China by the British, in order to raise funds to buy tea. It is a fascinatingly murky and under-discussed period of history, but it also has at its heart a central trading mechanic: buy opium; sell opium; buy tea. It was this mechanic that became the basis for High Tea.

In High Tea, one plays as a British trader, attempting to buy and sell opium at a good price and make enough money to keep the people back in Britain in tea (5). The player must avoid getting their ship impounded by the Chinese authorities, who are very much against this trade. The game starts in 1830 and ends in 1839, if the player survives that long, at which point they are informed how many Chinese people are now addicted to opium because of their actions and also that the result of this trade was the First Opium War, which ended rather badly for the Chinese.

Again, collaboration was very important to making High Tea work. It is a controversial subject and it was important to make sure that it was factually accurate. Fortunately, one of the curators of the High Society exhibition, author Mike Jay, was involved from the start. He helped make sure that the facts and names were right, but more than that, he worked with US and Preloaded to develop the fundamental concept, which came out of a brainstorming discussion about the subject matter.

THE SUCCESS OF HIGH TEA AND EVALUATING IT

Preloaded’s distribution strategy for online casual games is to build the game to be self-contained and therefore easy to download and ‘rip’ to other sites (6). At the same time, the company also makes it easily trackable. This means that the game can be placed anywhere and one can still see the play statistics and information, in this case using Google Analytics. The game is then seeded to major portals such as Kongregate, Newgrounds and Armor games, from which, if it shows any promise, it will be immediately ripped to tens if not hundreds of other games sites around the world. On occasion they will ask permission, but usually not. This is what happened to High Tea when it was launched in at the beginning of February 2011.

Initially, a goal was set of around 100,000 plays in the first few months, but this was exceeded in just one day. The game got high star ratings, was featured on the front pages of all the big portals to which it had been, was ripped to around 70 more on the first day and hundreds of comments were left by players. This ‘opening weekend’ was beyond all expectations. After a few days the game left the front pages and plays dropped off, although still to a consistent few thousand plays per day, which continues to this day. To date, it has had over 4 million plays (7).

Why was it so successful? What did the players make of it and the unusual subject matter? Some clues could be found from the analytics. We could see that the distribution strategy had worked and that over 50 per cent of plays were on sites that had ripped the game. Around 47 per cent of plays were on the officially seeded portals and only 3 per cent were on the Wellcome Collection site.

We also saw that social media had driven very little traffic, although share links were placed for Twitter and Facebook in the game. It was therefore fortunate that we had not relied on putting it on its own site and hoping it would ‘go viral’ over social media. We also looked at the Google Trends results for searches for ‘opium wars’ over several months before and after the game was launched. There is indeed a spike that corresponds with the game, but does not appear to have any other news event associated.

Although this is all very circumstantial, a survey that was put up with the game suggested that the game was inspiring people to do more of their own research on the topic. While the analytics are interesting, they often raise more questions than they answer and a more qualitative approach is necessary to find out more. Collaborating again with another department within the Wellcome Trust that specialises in evaluation, a plan was formulated to do this.

First, players were asked to answer a series of questions not only about the gameplay and about themselves, but also about their learning from the game and how they felt about the British Empire after playing it. Based on the answers from this, an interview script was devised and was followed up with seven players in depth over the phone and in a small focus group.

The results were illuminating. The most pleasing result from the survey was that over 50 per cent of players said they were likely to go on to find out more about the subject under their own steam. This was mostly via internet searches, but one player even said that they had read a book about Chinese history as a result. This was a huge success. As the aim had been for the games to engage rather than didactically educate, to generate interest rather than lecture, this measure seems to demonstrate that this had been achieved. Players were asked whether they knew much about the Opium Wars before playing and how the game had affected how they felt about the British Empire. Over 60 per cent were already aware of this history, but in the interviews most said they felt they had learnt something from playing.

Surprisingly, given how shocking it was felt that the actions of the British Empire were, around 57 per cent of surveyed players felt the same about it after playing and around 10 per cent even felt more positively. This indicated poor survey design as there was no baseline to judge any change in opinion from before the game. As such, this was explored further in the telephone interviews. It turned out that players who felt more positively towards the British Empire did so because the game allowed them to empathise with the traders involved by putting them in their shoes. They felt that their decision making was purely economic — they were just trying to put food on the table and were at enough of a remove from the trade’s impact to make ethical factors seem very distant. It was not that players were condoning their behaviour, but understanding it made them more sympathetic. This was very interesting, that even such a simple map-based game could engender feelings of empathy towards characters in it.

The final avenue for evaluation was the commentary left by players on the games portals — many hundreds not only across all the sites on which it was played, but also in blog posts about and reviews of the game (and even comments on those articles), on social media, in YouTube walkthroughs and sites like Metafilter and Reddit. What makes this particularly interesting (although harder to analyse) is that one has no control over it and it can make for unexpected reading. For example, some commentators discussed the maths or economics of the game, not something that had been particularly considered while developing it.

Many commented on the gameplay, which they largely enjoyed, but frequently had suggestions for improving (multiplayer or sandbox modes, ability to buy more boats and so on). A significant number discussed the content in some depth and the commentary was often quite thoughtful and measured. A tiny number, many less than had been thought, took issue with Wellcome Collection supposedly glorifying the actions of the British by making it fun to play.

It was a deliberate aim to try to keep the game fairly neutral in tone to let players make up their own mind, up until the slightly over-the-top results at the end showing the millions of Chinese people the player has caused to be addicted to opium. We had worried that this would be misinterpreted as a pro British Empire game, but most people understood that this was not what was going on here.

In terms of the player demographics, an international audience had indeed been reached, with a large proportion of players not only in North America, but also all over Europe and a large chunk in Brazil. The age range was wide, but more focused on 16–24 year olds than other age ranges, which is a younger audience than is usual for Wellcome Collection activities. One disappointment was a 90 per cent male skew, according to the survey, despite female players liking the game equally well. This is probably a disadvantage of targeting these online portals, which have a mostly male demographic. We are is looking at ways to rectify this for future games, perhaps by including mobile platforms, which have a more even gender split.

WHAT NEXT?

This year has seen production of two very different projects, Axon and Magic In Modern London. Following the success of High Tea, the winning formula was repeated for online casual Flash games with a game about neuroscience inspired by the exhibition Brains. As before, we collaborated with Preloaded, the exhibition curator, who this time was Marius Kwint from the University of Portsmouth, and another domain expert, neurobiologist Richard Wingate from Kings College London.

There was a fruitful day-long session of learning and discussion, during which Richard Wingate gave a crash course in neuroscience and Preloaded in game design. We were looking in particular for some rules within the brain science field that could be turned into the rules of a game. A key moment was when Richard showed a video he had created of neurons growing in a foetal chicken brain (this video can now be seen in the game itself). The neurons are growing towards protein targets and are also competing with other neurons to make the best connections and survive. This mechanic, along with the ‘brainbow’ style aesthetic of bright neurons on a dark background, became Axon (8).

The distribution strategy was more or less identical to that of High Tea and it again met with huge success. As before, we were keen to find out more about players reactions and surveyed them. Although the evaluation is not yet finished and the telephone interviews have not been started, it has been found that over 76 per cent of players learned something from playing the game and, again, a large proportion were moved to go and do their own research after playing.

Magic in Modern London is a very different and much more experimental project (9). It was inspired by a recent exhibition at Wellcome Collection in which an artist, Felicity Powell, took hundreds of amulets and incorporated them into her own work. The amulets, now in the Pitt Rivers collection, were originally collected by folklorist Edward Lovett in the early 20th century. Lovett wrote a book, Magic in Modern London, in which he told the stories that came with the amulets, which were bought or cajoled off ordinary Londoners (10).

This time, the subject matter suggested a different approach. As the amulets were collected around London, the idea of a treasure hunt around the city, where the player ‘collected’ the amulets themselves, seemed natural, and the obvious platform seemed to be mobile. As it happened, an agency called Amblr was building a platform that used GPS to trigger audiovisual content, which was used to great effect in an app called Hackey Hear (11).

In the Magic and Modern London app, the user navigates a 1908 map, overlaid on modern London, to find ‘areas of enchantment’ and collect the amulet at their centre. The aim is to assist an elderly and ailing Lovett to reassemble his collection and the stories that go with it. Once in an area of enchantment, music, imagery and voiceover lead the player to the amulet. Finding the amulet in question will unlock a reading from the book or inspired by the book related to each amulet.

The app has only just been released, although an evaluation will be carried out in the same manner as with the other games. As this is in many ways a more complicated and involved experience for the player, it will be very interesting to see how the platform affects distribution and what players make of it.

WHAT HAS BEEN LEARNED?

As we hope is clear, this has been journey of discovery, during which we have been both surprised and delighted by what has been found. The success with reaching and engaging a new audience could be put down to a number of key factors.

Collaboration has obviously been important, as has the distribution strategy. Picking subject matter that was both intriguing and also lent itself to a game was crucial, as was making sure that the factual content was fully embedded in the game mechanic. Working with people who know how to make fun games is hugely important, as is testing them throughout development to make sure they are well balanced. Evaluation is vital, there are many simple methods available to check what players are learning from a game or how they are reacting to it and it is perhaps the most interesting part of the process.

References

1. Wellcome Collection (undated) ‘Memory’, available at: http://www.wellcomecollection.org/interactives/memory/ (accessed 6th November, 2012).

2. Wellcome Images (undated) ‘Wellcome Images’, available at: http://images.wellcome.ac.uk/ (accessed 6th November, 2012).

3. Wellcome Collection (undated) ‘High Society Quiz’, available at: http://www.wellcome collection.org/whats-on/exhibitions/high-society/quiz.aspx (accessed 6th November, 2012),

4. Preloaded (2013) ‘Preloaded’, available at: http://preloaded.com/ (accessed 6th November, 2012).

5. Wellcome Collection (undated) ‘High Tea’, available at: http://hightea.wellcomeapps.com/ (accessed 6th November, 2012).

6. Stuart, P. (2010) ‘How we publish an online game’, available at: http://preloaded.com/blog/2010/08/16/how-we-publish-an-online-game/ (accessed 5th May, 2011).

7. Birchall, D. and Henson, M. (2011) ‘High Tea Evaluation Report’, available at: http://museumgames.pbworks.com/w/file/fetch/44614076/HighTeaEvaluationReport.pdf (accessed 15th January, 2013).

8. Wellcome Collection (undated) ‘Axon’, available at: http://axon.wellcomeapps.com/ (accessed 6th November, 2012).

9. Wellcome Collection (undated) ‘Magic in Modern London’, available at: http://www.wellcome collection.org/explore/play/magic-in-modern-london.aspx (accessed 6th November, 2012).

10. Lovett, E. (1925) ‘Magic in Modern London’, printed at the Advertiser offices.

11. Hackney Hear (undated) ‘Hackney Hear’, available at: http://www.hackneyhear.com/ (accessed 6th November, 2012).

Henson and Birchall

356 Journal of Digital Media Management Vol. 1, 4 351–356 [1] Henry Stewart Publications 2047-1300 (2013)

Why I’m fed up with digital projects (and why I’m not): a rant

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?