I chaired a session at the Museums association conference in Liverpool yesterday called ‘From measurement to judgement in the digital world.
My two speakers were Matt Locke and Andy Budd. Matt is a commissioning editor at Channel 4 and their Head of Learning working principally on materials aimed at teenagers and younger audiences. He was previously Head of Innovation at the BBC and before that worked in the cultural sector as a curator. Andy is User Experience Director at Clearleft. His expertise lies in understanding user experience both in terms of building sites but also as consultants.
I asked both of them to talk about what digtial innovation is and to show us examples of things they thought were innovative.
The context for the session was the recent DCMS report by Brain McMasters. The report champions a move away from measurement to judgement. The idea is that arts funders and policy has become overly concerned with quantitative, bean counting type measures. McMasters suggests that it is time to refocus on strategies that embrace innovation, risk-taking and peer review.
However the McMasters report does not explicitly address the digital world and it is to address this gap in his report that my session sought to explore and ask questions.
Matt started by talking about his belief that if you are working creating online stuff now then the real issue is about attention. Where is your audience’s attention? How do you grab that attention and how do you keep it?
“It has never been so easy to be ignored” he said. A mindset away from the ‘build it and they will come’ mentality that often happens in the cultural sector.
His work at Channel 4 is focussed largely on a teenage audience, which means their attention is largely ‘within’ social networks. As a result a lot of Matt’s work is about delivery through these channels. What was interesting about how he described this work was not just what we can all learn about how museums might use social media. He also unpacked the processes he used through the build of a project and explored what lessons can be taken from that which are generic and can be applied to any audience.
His point was the need, before you begin, to define the user experience you are trying to engender and crucially, who you want to have this experience. When you have done this, you can then work backwards to find out how to lead people to this experience (marketing) and how to find out if they liked it (feedback).
A question from the audience unwittingly helped to clarity this approach by wondering if all of Matt’s examples, as they were for teenagers, were not relevant to an appreciation of fine art. The questioner wondered if all this online work was all just too fast and too teenager led and nothing to do with the people that he wanted to reach. He wanted to get people to study a painting, to reflect, dive into an intimacy and depth of consideration about a painting.
What struck me was that this was such a clear vision for an experience for a user and it would be a great place from which to define and build an online experience. How might you do this online? If you could do this, well maybe that would be an example of innovation or excellence? I have never seen an online project that succeeded in doing this (yet) but it is would be a great challenge to try.
Andy suggested that true innovation is a terrible strategy and rarely works outside a handful of companies. He looked the development of the iPod and the Diamond Rio. The Diamond Rio was the first consumer mp3 player in the western world and was hugely innovative. The iPod didn’t come out until 3 years later and it was already a saturated market. It had less storage capacity, less battery life and less features than the majority of its competition. So in reality there is nothing innovative about the iPod. What makes it great is the design, the simplicity and the over all user experience “Best to market almost always trumps first to market.”
Andy’s view is that innovation is a costly exercise and you will fail a lot more times than you’ll succeed, especially if you don’t have a culture of innovation, which few people actually do. So his advice to the museum sector is rather than being innovative, it’s much better (and more cost effective) to learn from others mistakes and aim to create the best experience possible.
Matt’s advice was to be decide to do one of two things: either try and tell a story – or – build a bit of the web. His example of telling a story was Yeardot – teenage narratives and shared experience. His example of trying to create a piece of the web was School of Everything – an architecture that is about connections and a service.
His advise to those without a lot of money was to understand your objects, try and tell a story using your date and make it easy to join and participate.
The epiphany moment for me came when I realised that when thinking about the cultural sector and digital stuff I mix up innovation and good practice and that they are really not the same. Innovation is not just doing something well. I think my confusion comes from the fact that so much of what I see being done digitally is ‘not good’ that when I find something that works well, it feels like innovation.
Time to redefine.