Friday, 30 May 2008

10 Mobile Trends for 2008

  1. Mobile expansion – Yes, it's stating the obvious!
  2. Open source platforms and applications - Google Android
  3. WiMax, Wifi services inflight (broadband inflight, on trains etc)
  4. Mcdonalds recent provision of free wireless could start a high street trend. Once mobile internet becomes fast and free, the mobile as a browsing and commerce medium is seriously going to kick off and Touch Screen phones will become ubiquitous
  5. Continued uptake of smart phones particularly in offices
  6. Mobile Marketing
  7. Mobile Payments - This gap is itching to be filled with a secure cost-effective payments provider. This is happening already with companies like LUUP and mCommerce will become a more serious prospect. Other more direct options like Obopay are also becoming available.
  8. (Live) videocasting from mobiles to the web
  9. Mobile social networking - Mobiluck, Migg33, Meetmoi, Loopt, SoonR, Aki-Aki are already some examples, with the standard twitter, tumblr, facebook status updaters already tapping into mobile mania
  10. Mobile Spam - Surprised it hasn't happened yet! Major security implications.

Thursday, 29 May 2008

10 Web Trends for 2008

  1. Local and Hyperlocal social networks - My Street type thing – neighbourhoods, apartments, clubs, companies etc
  2. Private social networks - More privacy in social networks
  3. Opensource social networking - OpenSocial, OpenID, OpenAds, FOAF (Friend of a Friend networks)
  4. SocialSoftware - White label social networking applications like KickApps
  5. More Virtual reality - Second Life,, Kaneva, Gaia, Habbo Hotel etc
  6. DRM free music download from major players - This is pretty much done now
  7. Internet TV and Video - IPTV, Video streaming & Online Cinema
  8. Make it yourself media – Pictures, blogs, music, video
  9. eReaders and eBooks - Kindle, Sony Reader
  10. Videoblogging

Tuesday, 27 May 2008

Virtual High Street - Part 3 - Who is your actual competition online and what do you do about it?

Unless you fall into the form and function categories, for the most part, users are going to explicitly visit your particular online offering primarily as a prelude to visiting your physical store. Your website therefore must be supplementary with product listing, in-store collection and return, information about location, store opening times, and return policies, but doesn’t need to be particularly clever.

Chances are that the quality of your website will only mildly affect your online return on investment, and have little real impact on your offline market share. This is unless of course you really want to make money off the web, and are looking to compete as a true online retailer; in which case you’re better off using Tesco’s model of creating a separate and independent decision making subsidiary ( that will create and manage your web presence unlimited by the inertia of your existing business model.

Google and shopping bots like Kelkoo have already made the web convenient to search and bargains easy to find. This is the real virtual high street where users go to browse and look for the things they want to compare and buy. If you want to compete on here you can forget about the other real world high street retailers and start recognising that your real competition is shadowy and different and not limited to the brands you normally compete against.

In terms of targeting users that are really looking to buy online, your competition is the pure plays – the companies that specialise in online channels; and you should look to benchmark against these rather than other high street brands with online presences. If you really want your web offerings to be successful, they have to become entities in their own right; un-reliant on virtual malls, and unlimited by offline branding, market labelling or real world ways of working.

Monday, 26 May 2008

Virtual High Street - Part 2 - Should you worry about it?

High street retailers generally have strong brand recognition due to their ubiquity, but little brand loyalty and/or social kudos attached to their branding. As users, we don’t use the high street because we particularly care which brands are available to us, but simply because it is convenient to have a bunch of retailers all within close walking distance to each other. I don’t really care whether my PC comes from PC World, or Currys, or Dixons, or John Lewis.

If I’m happy with the prices on offer, and if any one of them is not on my particular high street, there’s no chance at all that I’ll explicitly find another high street with that particular brand. In other words, once off the physical high street and into the world of online ordering and postal delivery, most users couldn’t care less who sells them the product they want, as long as the price and service are acceptable, and the item on arrival does what it’s supposed to do.

Products are different too. The majority are about the experience, like luxury items, fashion, jewellery, sports goods and clothing; while others are about form and functionality only like electronics or toys; or more about differentiated content like financial products, holidays, books and music; or finally, homogenously consistent like daily food stuffs.

In the offline retail world, the latter three categories form only a small part of the high street, but these are really the ones that successfully transfer online, because web browsing and delivery increases convenience without increasing risk of dissatisfaction. I wouldn’t browse for and buy clothes online – how do I know what they’re going to look like on me? I wouldn’t browse for and buy shoes online – how do I know if they’re going to fit or be comfortable? I wouldn't even browse for and buy a tennis racket online – how do I know if it will feel right in my hand? For products like this, I might like to see what’s available through online channels before heading out to visit the relevant shops, but only as a way of minimising the amount of time I spend shopping. Conversely I might identify the product offline and then look for a bargain online, but that wouldn't be limited to high street retailers and is thus another story unrelated to this post.

Of course people do use the internet to buy things, and a significant enough proportion use the web to buy luxury retail goods to make it cost-beneficial for brands to supplement their offline offering with a virtual store. But here’s the caveat. While the term is clearly here to stay, in reality I believe there is no virtual high street where web users conveniently congregate. It is actually faster for most people to simply head down to and walk around the shops, than to browse through the same number of stores online, because the online browsing experience is significantly more linear and time consuming than stepping into a store and glancing around for items of interest.

Sunday, 25 May 2008

Virtual High Street - Part 1 - What is it?

With high street brands finally looking to leverage online marketing and ecommerce channels, someone somewhere looking for a neat little blanket phrase for retail on the web, and unable to stop thinking in terms of the tangible and familiar, seems to have coined the term “Virtual High Street”. So here we have it - the next big topic for discussion.

This label is great for readers of business news everywhere, and of course for all those big retail brands that are keen to think of the web like some kind of well defined, tangible place, where shoppers will conveniently head to on a Saturday to do their browsing and shopping like they always used to. The “Virtual High Street” is a clever phrase because it inherently suggests a simple transference of existing market share and branding onto the web in line with current offline positioning, but in fact has no explicit definition.

The web has a vast number of companies marketing and selling their products, from tiny, niche players to vast websites selling everything imaginable. There are companies like Amazon that exist only in the virtual world, with brand recognition that would make an offline retailer sweat; others that combine online selling with offline catalogue marketing like; little niche players that do something unique, or market some specific product in detail; and now finally traditional real world retailers that are dipping their toes in the virtual world. This last shift is suddenly making the offline business world sit up and start analysing and categorising the online retail space, and the most convenient way to do this is to imagine that there is some kind of virtual high street – a regularly walked path that users take while browsing the web.

The reality of course is that your average web user, who is just about getting comfortable with broadband and online security, and whose experience of the web has always been driven by search engines, would be very surprised to be told that the web isn’t in fact an open, limitless, product-oriented front; but simply another branded avenue designed for visiting the shops.

Friday, 23 May 2008

Facebook unique traffic declines and Global Ad-Spend goes with it

The latest stats from Nielsen Online show a significant decline in month-over-month unique visitors to Facebook in the US. Year-over-year traffic growth decelerated from 98% to a much more modest 56%. MySpace also saw a slight decline (from 60.3M to 58.7M).

While this might be worrying to an observer, I'd suggest that this is because the majority of the audience that is likely to have joined Facebook or MySpace already have done so over the last two years... the most rapid growth was always likely to happen soon after social networking and these sites hit critical mass. There just aren't that many new users around except in the younger demographic coming of age. Personally I don't think these slow downs are worth worrying about. The audience size is the important factor from an engagement, advertising, marketing and monetisation perspective - and the size is phenomenal!

Last week, eMarketer also lowered their estimates for advertiser spending on social networks worldwide. eMarketer now sees social networking ad spend in 2011 at $3.4 billion, versus the previous estimate of $4.1 billion. Clearly this is supposed to cause business worry, but look at the size of the figures being discussed. So we can't increase the size of the market? Doesn't mean we can't reposition for market share. It's a massive market!

In any event, ad spending on social networks is still projected to outstrip online advertising on the whole by 65% to 23% in 2008; and with the speed of change in the digital space, I really wouldn't put much stock in the projections anyway.

6 Keys to Measuring Word of Mouth Online

Some recent research from ForeSee Results shows that nearly 1/5th of all visitors to the 100 top-grossing retail Web sites came by way of recommendation, and those that came from 'word of mouth' were more likely to buy, recommend, return to the site and remain loyal.

Foresee argue that there are 6 truths about word of mouth you should consider

  1. The first is that WOM can't be bought. Com­panies should focus on “earned recommen­dations” — recommendations that follow a satisfying interaction with the company.
  2. Second, more questions are better. It isn't enough to ask a single question like “Would you recommend us to a friend or colleague?” Marketers should also ask how likely one is to communicate about their experiences.
  3. Third, measure good and bad comments. Differentiate customers spreading the “good word” from those spread­ing negative opinions.
  4. Next, use a precise measurement scale like a 10-point scale.
  5. The fifth key is to use a holistic approach. If you also ask about what is and isn't satisfying them, you'll be able to act on that data because you'll know what's driving your customers.
  6. Finally, always remember that satisfaction drives WOM every time, and measuring satisfaction can help you better predict WOM behavior.

Monday, 19 May 2008

Future Web Trends & Innovation

Presentation on future web trends, presented at the iCommons "Innovation Series" with Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales

Saturday, 17 May 2008

Leveraging Natural Networks for Business

Following on from my previous post, the first step in leveraging natural networks for your business to set up mechanisms to identify your ideal 'hubs'. Second is to focus on these individuals and try and get them evangelising about your enterprise. In the bricks and mortar arena there is little hope of exploiting member networks because you have no easy way of getting people talking to each other. The online channel however, presents the perfect opportunity.

The framework you will need in order to leverage the power of your customer network is to make sure your website provides easy user friendly opportunities for your customers to comment and review, possibly with profiles that display the sort of things they buy along with incentives for them to share this information. You will also need to procure and implement web analytics software to capture data and track customer behaviour and interaction. Finally if you’re a real future thinker you’ll probably want to invest in or develop network analytics software, employ some intelligent analysts who can both model your audience and help shift it from a random to a scale-free network, and of course build a forward thinking marketing department that can engage and increase the number of ‘hubs’ and turn them into your own personal evangelists.

Social network analysis

What’s relevant about Gladwell’s tipping point theory for networks and business intelligence, is that he identifies not only the importance of word of mouth and social interaction in the take-up of ideas, products and services, but also three key types of individual that are needed to achieve this - Connectors, Mavens and Salespersons.

  • Connectors are people with huge numbers of network links,
  • Mavens are people who research everything before they buy, compare and search out all the best deals, and
  • Salespersons are the persuaders i.e. the ones who find a good or deal and have the drive and power to convince others and sell their ideas.

In the real world, Connectors need charm and personality, but I’d argue that online it is different. Connectedness is much easier and more democratic online as people are already well connected through search engines. The really connected ones then are those who not only share their views, but those whose content or opinion is considered valuable by others and visited frequently, added to favourites and followed through RSS. These then, are our hubs. The ideal version are a personality combination of Maven and Salesperson, and if you are an enterprise, your dream hub is someone is also well connected offline too.

Scale Free Networks

Historically, and even now, service design has been all about understanding the motivations of the individual. Social network analysis on the other hand is based on the view that the attributes of individuals are less important than their relationships and ties with other actors within the network, and it is by exploiting these that you can really begin to focus on who's really important in your user network.

As an enterprise, social or otherwise, our users are most likely to belong to a random/exponential social network, but we want it to be a scale free network with hubs that positively reinforce our service. Now that we’re talking specifically about networks of people, this is where Tipping Point theory comes in. The tipping point is a concept related to collective behaviour and the fact that any behaviour pattern has a threshold at which point there is a sudden, marked and significant change. Tipping points are what makes marketing go viral; turning products into the epidemic type fads that companies dream about, but that’s a concept for another post.

Real world networks

Real world natural networks do not work as simplistically as theoretical complex or small world networks. They have another property that’s even more crucial, known as preferential attachment. Preferential attachment is an example of a positive feedback cycle where initially random variations are automatically reinforced, thus greatly magnifying differences. In popular speak this is the 'Matthew effect' i.e. the rich get richer.

What this means is that the more connected something is, the more likely it is to gain new connections. In a social network this means that any new unconnected member is more likely to become acquainted with more visible members than with relative unknowns. These ‘visible’ elements are effectively hubs with lots of connections and therefore influence, and these networks show a pattern called the ‘Power law’, which basically means that doubling the number of hubs reduces the degrees of separation between elements in the network by a constant; in this case, our users.

In other words all our potential users are connected to one other, and although we all know this, so far I’ve not heard of anyone that’s really modelling this connectivity for the specific goal of building and improving online networks. Personally I'm fascinated by this area and believe it’s part of the future of the web; hence this series of posts.

Natural Networks - It's a small world!

To start with, here are three books you should read

  1. Small World - Mark Buchanan
  2. Linked: How Everything Is Connected to Everything Else and What It Means for Business, Science, and Everyday Life - Albert-Laszlo Barabasi
  3. Tipping Point – Malcolm Gladwell
Why? Apart from the fact that they're interesting and easy to read... because they are essentially about natural networks, degrees of separation, hubs, randomness and the importance of weak ties between elements in these networks. All jargon you say? Well maybe, but society is a natural network and both we and our target audience belong to it.

Why now? Because with the improvements in business intelligence and analytics modelling, we can now really begin to understand and map online networks, and identify the ‘hubs’ or key people that we should be engaging with to turn them into advocates in order to drive take-up through word of mouth. With the ubiquity and popularity of blogs, reviews and the web, this area is turning into a marketing tool that should be taken extremely seriously. It might also help us figure out how a volunteer network might function and where we need to focus within it.

Complex networks like those involving people, although seemingly random, surprisingly do actually follow patterns that can be mapped, and essentially fall into two categories – small-world networks and scale free networks. If networks were linear i.e. A knows B, and B knows C, and so on... the link between A and Z would involve 26 steps; and any knowledge, opinion or influence Z might have would be pretty much inaccessible to A.

Small world networks however essentially describe a pattern of interconnectedness that involves a degree of randomness, i.e. maybe B also knows M and X, and maybe X knows Z, which dramatically improves the connectedness between A and Z. The originally studies in this area were carried out by Stanley Milgram who was responsible for identifying the phenomenon we now know as “6 degrees of separation”. Yes, it’s not a myth!

If any of this interests you, check out what the specialists have to say on the network weaving blog online.

Thursday, 15 May 2008

Personalisation vs Customisation - Part 3 - ROI

In terms of customisation, from an online retailing perspective, I don't really see the benefits against cost of development. You could provide a 'Windows Live' type page where users can customise what they see and how they see it, but frankly with mature retailers I don't see who would really use it. Shared personal profiles that users can customise similarly don't really make sense for this type of business, or at least not until social networking in the mature brand shopping context becomes significantly more embedded, if it ever does.

However, simpler customisation linked to personalisation, could be very useful; for e.g. possibly like a variation on the Amazon recommendations model, where the user could be presented with an option alongside product displays allowing them to select items into a 'not interested' and 'I like' category that can then not only automatically build them their own page they can refer to and edit later, but also feeds into the intelligent browsing stuff I was talking about in the previous paragraph - i.e. this information is used to understand what the user is looking for and preferentially feed them those products as they browse or search, thus enhancing the targeted browsing experience.

This could help retailers improve their offering to customers online, increasing not just browse to sale conversions, but also brand loyalty because the customer feels understood.

Personalisation vs Customisation - Part 2 - Implementation

User Experience experts can help with audience segmentation analysis, identifying key audience groups and defining an experience that best fits/targets them. Similar to personas, but a bit more generic and more automated; with some business logic that leverages the user's profile data and preference information along with their browsing habits to present them with the scenario that fits them.

From a technology and business intelligence perspective you could implement real time tracking and analysis of user behaviour, underpinning the automated tailoring of content presented as the user progresses through their experience. Sort of an extension of what I was talking about in an earlier post on the targeted channel experience.

Personalisation vs Customisation - Part 1 - Definition

The issue of differentiating between personalisation and customisation online is one I've experienced in discussion with a number of organisations.

The first problem lies with semantics - i.e. the definition of personalisation vs customisation with respect to the use and design of websites. I see one as automatic audience targeting (personalisation) and the other as the ability for the customer to manipulate the website to fit their needs (customisation).

As a business your first priority is to define your understanding of what each one means so that all parties are working from the same standpoint.

In terms of personalisation as per the above definition then, I believe this is the future of customer focused business intelligence. It is about understanding the customer, either as part of a larger group or as an individual and then presenting them with their own unique customer experience. In the next posts I'll explore how you can implement these and some possible avenues of ROI.

Tuesday, 13 May 2008

Flint and Spieler’s 4 stage Multi-Channel process

A good place to start on your multi-channel journey is by considering Flint and Spieler’s 4 stage process (Source - IBM white paper on Multi-Channel Customer Management: The Benefits and Challenges)

  • Create a multichannel strategy.
  • Determine the relative priority for the channels.
  • Reorganise for multichannel operation by reconciling central brand, experience and service standards control with the need for local autonomy in managing individual channels.
  • Adopt and implement best practices for integrating new with old technology.

Finally, here's a reiteration of the old adage: Particularly when making early stage investment and ROI decisions, aim to focus on long-term value and competitive advantage rather than short-term profit. Embedding real multi-channel practices will take time as it involves both a cultural and technological shift for any organisation.

Shifting towards Multi-Channel - Changes to expect

A successful shift to multi-channel retailing requires a number of changes to the way any traditional retail business functions, primarily in the areas of commercial capability, technical capability, and organization and processes.

Commercial Capability

  • Retailers must develop the ability to differentiate between offering attributes across different channels because they vary in effectiveness and efficiency.
  • Modelling capability will be crucial in enabling a deep understanding of the target audience’s channel preferences and their perceptions of service
  • Pricing, brand impact and route to market will have to evolve to ensure a seamless customer experience.
  • The organisation will have to shift towards developing multi-channel value propositions and commercial strategies.

Technical Capability

  • The core capability needed is a single customer information view, ideally via a single platform for enterprise wide customer relationship management and proposition development.
  • This requires full integration of database and management systems across channels and also with supply chain activities.
  • Multi-channel IT architecture requires a channel independent, service oriented and scalable integration of different front-end and back-end legacy systems and 3rd party services. The front-end should support open industry standards like XML and web-services.
  • Measurement capability will be vital for monitoring and review channel integration

Organisation and Process

  • There may be need for a culture change programme to shift from a product or function focused approach to a customer focused approach
  • Where separate channels have their own objectives, management, staff and systems, these may need to be synchronised or even merged if necessary
  • Organisational restructure may require a new model that adapts people, processes and technology to meet the coordinated approach to channel management. Strong support from CEO and Management will be required.
  • Multi-channel trend analysis on the industry in question will need to play a larger role in the corporate strategy formulation process
  • Channel strategy and associated business propositions must be embedded into the basic processes of the organization

Multi-Channel Challenges for Retailers

I'd argue that the underlying success factor in multi-channel retail from an external perspective is a seamless customer experience, and from an internal perspective is a single customer view - different sides of the same coin. Most of the challenges to any retailer appear to stem from attempting to achieve this.

The two key areas of impact here are technological and organizational dependent on retailer age and size. The older the organization, the more likely they are to have legacy systems, and the larger they are, they more likely they are to face resistance to change. Multi-channel may therefore require integration of disparate technologies, while also needing a complete review of structure, skills, staff incentivisation, and a host of other business and marketing processes.

The 5 main issues faced by large retailers entering the multi-channel space are as follows:

  1. Evaluating cost of investment in development of cost effective, secure, scalable environments and systems integration against probable short term impact on bottom line
  2. Pricing across different channels - Store channels have higher cost structures than web channels for example, and price competition is higher on web, but consumers can be put off by different pricing for the same product
  3. Channel synchronisation i.e. ensuring brand, customer experience and customer information consistency across channels while avoiding the 3E trap i.e. trying to provide ‘everything to everyone everywhere’
  4. Problems in merging and standardising customer data i.e. unifying different systems which may have very different data models
  5. Difficulties in reducing or abolishing organisational boundaries to cope with new channels

In summary, customers for whom a multi-channel approach will yield the most benefits are often those for whom achieving it the most problematic – they have the largest customer bases, most complex lines, and longest histories of systems development, with many business critical systems that supply old CRM processes.

Multi-Channel Benefits

There are a huge number of both organizational and customer related benefits to be gained from implementing a multi-channel strategy. Here’s a few:

Organisational Benefits

  • Increased revenue and growth opportunities – more touch-points into target market.
  • Better responsiveness and sensitivity to changing environments.
  • Competitive advantage over pure-plays particularly around immediacy, education opportunities for complex products and easy e-merchandise returns.
  • Organisational efficiency and effectiveness opportunities through sharing of processes, technology and information.

Customer Related Benefits

  • Better and wider customer interaction with a greater variety of information available for improved understanding of customers and identification of opportunities for increasing value per customer (business intelligence).
  • Increased customer loyalty through better understanding of their behaviour.
  • Better customer experience reducing churn and increasing loyalty.
  • Significant opportunity to leverage and improve brand impact and perception.

Customers themselves also benefit from increased choice in interaction opportunities and the ability to switch channels as convenient.

Multi-Channel Drivers

While emerging technology has been a key enabler,multi-channel growth is essentially driven by consumers.According to, 34% of consumers today use at least three channels when shopping. Research has found them to spend up to 10 times more, to generate 25 to 50% more profit and demonstrate greater loyalty than their single-channel counterparts. The core driver then is customer demand.

The other major driver is cost saving through efficiency and effectiveness. Managing channels separately may not only impair customer relationships but also result in cost increases resulting from running separate order-management and customer service operations, multiple warehouses and fulfilment systems,and buyers and merchandisers duplicating effort across the different channels.

Multi-channel is also driven by strategic competitive advantage and differentiation opportunities, and regulatory pressures around ensuring that all customers are able to access products and services on offer.

What is the Definition of Multi-Channel?

Retailers traditionally maintained a single department, offering sales and support via a single mode of customer interaction like the physical store. Over time this has expanded to include multiple ways of selling to, engaging, and interacting with the customer, primarily via mail, catalogue and telephone. Advancing technology however, has led to a number of new ways of inter-personal interaction like the internet, mobile phones, and interactive TV; and as these embed deeper into social culture, subsequently new channels for offering product and service.

Multi-Channel then refers to the delivery of customer propositions via multiple channels with at least some degree of cross channel integration in management, information and service, i.e. in a consistent and coordinated way across all channels.

Complete integration and sharing of information and experience across all channels is now being referred to as Merged-Channel retailing, but that's a story for another post. If you want to know more, have a look at my articles on The High Street 2.0, which are about merging online and offline customer experiences.

Some Further Reading on Multi-Channel Retailing

  • Multi-Channel Retailing (ACRS Secondary Research Report 2007)
  • Where is the true Multi-Channel Retailer (Aberdeen Group)
  • The Multi-Channel Challenge (ACI eSeries Initiative)
  • Multi-Channel Customer Management: The Benefits and Management (IBM)
  • Winning the Multi-Channel Challenge (Booz Allen Hamilton)
  • Meeting Multi-Channel Consumer Demands (Experian)

Women are not small men!

Developing the targeted channel experience

I was recently reading up on consumer trends and one that caught my eye was the trend towards businesses focusing on the female oriented experience. You've probably already come across taxi firms catering for female customers with female drivers like Lady Mini Cabs in Archway, and of course Sheila's Wheels with its cringeworthy adverts on TV, but it goes much deeper. Pink Ladies is a women only car hire company, Bud Light targets the female audience as does the Rosee version of Hoegarden, and there are any number of female focused sports and leisure businesses like Outdoor Divas with its excellent tagline that I've stolen for the title of this post.

Anyway, this post is not about listing businesses for women (you can read more on that at but about making the point that the online male v female experience is not only lagging behind, but once again following physical norms rather than thinking freely and outside the box. Standard Chartered Bank for example has a women only store in India, but has no variation in web exerience. Where stores cater for both men and women, the majority of sites use a one-size fits all design and user-experience approach just like the high street; or you sometimes get sub-sites or variations in design when you enter sections with content specific only to women. This is just like walking into a shop that is split down the middle. Men's clothes on the right and women's on the left with maybe a different colour scheme.

We think differently, browse differently, buy different things, and process information differently so why do we have to work through the same web experience? The whole point of customisation is that businesses understand that one-size never really fits all. It just forces the consumer to accommodate the environment. Unlike the physical store however, nothing limits us from developing user specific websites. With the shift to CSS2, not just presentation but also layout is split from content. It really isn't that difficult to identify and target audience groups and then automate the experience and interface presented for all content, especially for sites where users are logged-in. And even if they aren't, "Are you male or female?" is hardly a long questionnaire to present a user when they arrive at your website.

This is not about being simplistic and changing the colour of web-sites from blue to pink, but about researching and understanding real differences in presentation needs and then developing audience specific features to engage and interact with visitors on their own terms. We are still some way from real time evolution of websites based on the way the user journeys through them (although with improvements in business intelligence and web analytics this may change), and we know that allowing users to select their own preferences is just that little bit too much work for most browsers who will never really bother, so the onus falls on businesses and their user-experience experts to develop a deeper understanding of their user groups and build a dialogue with them on their own terms.

In summary then, gender preferences are clearer than any other demographical difference so instead of the one size fits all approach, why dont we look to tailor the web experience based on the way we browse? It's ok to have women only websites but so far I haven't seen any that allow users to choose a different browsing and information experience based on their age or sex categories. The fear factor here is probably political correctness, but as web technologies get more sophisticated in terms of audience targeting, I'm guessing that it is going to happen at some point so why not be brave and get a jump on the competition?

Accessibility vs Usability

Looking back to the time when the concept of web accessibility entered legislation and consequently the discursive arena, the primary issues surrounded retrospective reworking of corporate websites to make them accessible. This had two long lasting effects that still continue to define the way we view accessibility today.

  • It separated accessibility from usability, because ‘usable’ web content already existed for the majority audience, i.e. sighted users who had no trouble using human interface devices like mice.
  • It embedded the idea that accessibility is expensive and needs a business case, because it was expensive to redesign and change existing interfaces and/or to write conversion code for screen readers to allow user access.

The impact of this has been two-fold – I find that people generally think accessibility involves coding complexity that is beyond them; and then often where it is applied, accessibility is often implemented simply to pass validation, rather than with the aim of making the interface more usable.

An analogy I often use involves a maze. If I had a maze and put ramps at the entrance and exit, I could argue that the maze was accessible, and my argument would be supported in court. I could take someone in a wheelchair, blindfold them and get them into the maze with no trouble. What are the odds they would ever get out?

On the other hand, if I also built a path straight through the maze from entrance to exit, I could pretty much guarantee they would exit the other end with little trouble. In fact I would also be significantly reducing the amount of time that sighted, mobile people got through the maze too. That, in essence, is the difference between accessibility for accessibility’s sake, and accessibility to improve usability.

Now which one do you think would be more expensive and difficult to implement – designing the space from scratch with a direct path through it, or trying to go back and break down walls and structures to put the path in after the space has already been built?

In reality accessibility is therefore simply another way of describing usability for people with access inhibited by visual, cognitive or motor impairments. If you think the two are separate, you are missing the point altogether and can safely assume that whatever you are building will be an exercise in technicality, rather anything useful for your wider user base.

The key then is to think in terms of usability, and plan for the experience of a wider range of users and browsing technologies when designing your website or software interface, and you will find that you have built in accessibility without trying, and for no significant extra cost.

Adapting to the rapid evolution of the internet

As I'm sure you already know, the World Wide Web was invented by a guy called Tim Berners Lee, and I recently came across an interesting interview with him around the social web phenomenon. Here's a short snippet worth taking note of.

"The web has developed from a technological tool, based on technical protocols, to something that also combines social rules.

The internet is based on a series of microscopic rules that combine to affect social behaviour on a macroscopic level, though we do not yet understand how this works.

A site such as eBay is designed and built using protocols such as the mechanisms to identify its users, determine reputations and make payments. However, it is also based on a social system of buying, selling and reputation.

It was designed to work for two people, but because eBay got the microscopic design right, it created a new market that works on a large scale.

Web 2.0 initiatives such as social networking sites have also been technically designed to define the way people talk to each other, but have grown to form macroscopic communities..."

(Read the full article)

In effect what Berners Lee is saying is that the success of any online enterprise is going to be more and more dependent on understanding the social psychology of audiences on the web. I guess this means understanding the real life motivations and network interactions of the person behind the customer in your target group. For businesses looking to tap into the benefits of Web 2.0 and social networking, it probably means the need to start extending their Persona models to encompass group behaviour rather than just that of the individual.

Monday, 12 May 2008

Developing Successful Communities Online - Part 6 - Architecture

Based on some previous work I've done for a global technology firm here's a technical architecture that would probably allow you to do most of what I've suggested either out of the box or through some customisation - yes our solution was Microsoft based, and since I'm not very technical I can only share advice I was given. Feel free to suggest better options!

  • Microsoft Office SharePoint Server (MOSS)2007 – search, profiles, platform framework, content management

  • Office SharePoint Designer 2007 - Design development tool for layout and customisation

  • Microsoft Visual Studio 2005 Team System - In depth development tool for creating new webparts

  • Microsoft Live Communication Server - Corporate IM and presence information

Developing Successful Communities Online - Part 5 - Scaling

Apart from being prepared for large numbers of user, scaling community platforms for business has design and business implications across two key fronts - localisation and re-usability.

Local customisation – when deploying across different regions
  • Implement a fully customisable design based on CSS, Master(Template) and Content Pages

  • Ensure a 'White labelling' oriented design i.e. A design that can easily be separated from the formatting and visuals, and which can easily 're-skinned'.

  • Implement Flexible language packs (i.e. Ones where users can modify or add content to the language pack itself) and support for site variations i.e. Workflow that informs administrators of local sites when master content has been changed in the primary language.

  • Focus on Folksonomy rather than Taxonomy i.e. Colloquial references to content rather than corporate or technical referencing. This happens automatically when you enable personal tagging for inputted content, and when nil result search terms are incorporated into tags or content.

Re-usability – for solutions that need to be scalable and transferable
  • Use a Content Management System that can 'package' the database design without the content

  • White labelling oriented design – as above. Partners can then apply their own branding

  • Fully customisable corporate skins

  • Use a scalable architecture

  • Provide customisable language packs

  • Create best practice guidelines drawn from user testing

  • Package moderated FAQ's and glossaries to create a startpoint for new sets of users

Developing Successful Communities Online - Part 4 - Personalisation

Personalised experiences are key to making users feel like they belong and to help them take ownership of the spaces they're helping create.


  • Allow profile creation and customisation – avatars are another possibility, and might add a bit of fun

  • Profiles should include an option to create full searchable professional biographies

  • Use customisable Web Parts or Page Flakes

  • Allows users to set up alerts and RSS updates to their mail client or "My Sites"

  • Utilise features that allows content pre-filtered by user profile settings

Peer to peer community

  • Output Presence Information – i.e. Let users know who else is online

  • Instant Messaging – allow users to communicate with others who choose to make themselves available

  • Set up threaded discussion groups

  • Set up Forums

  • Create chat rooms for discussions and online seminars – maybe set up a weekly slot or lunch times where the chat room is open, and revolve the topic of discussion

  • Encourage users to set up wikis, and aim to generate the majority of inputted content in wiki form so it can continue to be improved rather than duplicated

  • Provide an option to “ask the experts” and create a workflow to divert these questions to users who volunteer as experts. Post responses so that everyone can see them.

  • Use moderators to ensure that user searches and question requests drive site content and evolution

  • Create contributor rankings / leader boards to incentivise users to participate and be recognised

Visual Differentiation

  • Extend organisational branding to the space, but ideally not corporate design or visuals

  • Use 'cool' and different graphics – the site is about people and community, not a corporate vehicle

  • Ensure clear differentiation from other intranets or websites – will make the space more memorable

Developing Successful Communities Online - Part 3 - Take Up

The goal of take-up features are to ensure adoption and excitement, and encourage return

  • Provide high functionality – users want utility i.e. make it easy to add and find content

  • Ensure high visibility through exploiting referral channels – if users can't find the space easily they will not use it

  • Distinctive branding – make the interface memorable, but not at the expense of utility

  • Effective/accessible layouts – aim to design interface usability for all literacies, ages and disabilities. Design to linearise gracefully with proper structural rather than visual formatting

  • Create Interactivity with the site – set up challenges e.g. Challenge users to create content that is popular by demand and provide recognition for winners; personality or subject quizzes; games, polls etc.

  • Personalised content and profile recognition – allow users to create their own personal profiles, and then output content to their screen based on settings in their profile. If possible allow them flexibility to select and arrange content(webparts / pageflakes) in their personal member area

  • Allow users to rate or comment on content

  • Provide facility for discussion threads and forums

  • Use fame as an incentive for participation rather than toys or gimmicks e.g. Provide recognition / highlighted profiles for daily or weekly most viewed or highest rated content

  • Allow anonymous posting – limits the big brother effect, and if content is moderated, abuse shouldn't be an issue

  • Create 'Knowledge Networks' to help identify peer leaders / experts, who can then be encouraged to contribute to the community knowledge base

  • Utilise smart phones and portable media – develop compressed mobile interfaces, or create content in the form of webcasts, podcasts etc. to allow users to access it on the move

Developing Successful Communities Online - Part 2 - Information Sharing

Information Sharing Features of successful Community Sites

  • Search Functionality

    • Mandatory metadata for user-inputted content - based on an initial logical classification. This is key to enabling effective results.

    • Personal tags / Keywords associated with user inputted content - very useful for enabling results specific to the community using the site

    • Free text search

    • Return a summary definition (using a glossary function) for recognised search terms, along with links to related non-user-generated content

    • Output result sets for both Documents and People who have posted content related to the search term

    • Categorise results by document/content types

    • Enable filtering by profile settings (eg. selected literacy level)

    • Provide a flexible Quick Search

    • Provide a fully customisable Advanced Search

    • Audit search results and feed back into content improvement cycle – for example, use workflow to alert search terms that repeatedly return nil results and input or tag content related to that term, so the information effectively restructures to fit local language as the site develops

  • Logical navigation hierarchy organised by knowledge area, scenario or role

  • Links to the different information types – blogs, webcasts, lists, discussions, summaries, wikis

  • Links to non-user generated content

  • Searchable FAQ lists

  • Comprehensive section on how to use the site, and what all the web 2.0 features can do for the user. The web and collaboration is evolving much faster than most people can keep up, so it is important to ensure that users can learn about the features available to them.

  • Set up tips as wikis so that they can continue to evolve, rather than duplicate each time someone improves the content. Also encourage users to transfer content from blogs to wikis, as wikis are more searchable and specific.

  • Design support for both logical users and free browsers

  • Site Map – very important for logical browsers i.e. Those that prefer to use navigation links (probably still a majority) rather than search or free browsing functions.

  • When providing blogging options, enforce input structures for the content so that users have to tag their content to help improve searchability

Developing Successful Communities Online - Part 1

This series of posts is about ways of facilitating user-centric collaboration and helping people engage and learn from each other over the web, through creating community spaces specifically to contain and develop peer-to-peer user-generated content.

The key high level goals you will need to consider are as follows

  • Information sharing
  • Take-up
  • Personalisation
  • Peer to Peer networking
  • Visual Differentiators

Finally if you're looking to create scalable and non-regional community spaces, you will need to consider

  • Local customisation
  • Repeatability / Re-use

From a design perspective your site should focus on the following:

  • User-centricity - simpler and easy to use interfaces
  • User-driven – better evolution
  • Findability
  • Relevant content and search
  • Folksonomy driving Taxonomy
  • Peer-to-peer communication
  • Rich interactivity
  • Personalisable content
  • Flexibility for Local Variation

The next few posts in this series will discuss how these fit into the goals above.

A Practical Approach to Stakeholder Analysis

What’s the issue?

In the hunt for a decent Stakeholder Analysis template, I’ve found that there are too many options available, written by too many clever people and adapted for too many different applications. Some are too simplistic, and some vastly complex. Every organisation and project seems to have a different template. I’ve come across all sorts of intelligent sounding but essentially pointless terminology for column headings including perceptions, emotions, constraints, influence, motivations, engagement, and commitment. Consequently too often stakeholder analyses fail to end up as the points of reference they ought to be. The way I see it, for delivering small to medium scale Information Systems projects, what we need is a broad, straightforward, filterable, and useful way of looking at stakeholders, particularly in cases where time/support/resource for due diligence is limited.

What’s the real point of the Analysis?

If you are doing this for more than just a formality or high level representation, the real point is to identify and manage the human goals and needs of the project. In other words figure out who’s involved, which group’s goals take precedence, who you need to worry about, and what you need to do about it. It is worth noting that sometimes completely contrary to user-centric ideals, the end-user is not always the primary concern in the short term, with delivery success more likely assured by ticking off the primary stakeholder’s key goals. However this is a highly short-termist view, because in the end if users don’t take to the system, it will eventually adversely affect the key stakeholder, who of course will pass the blame onto design failures for the change in fortune. Longer term credibility can therefore only be ensured through end-user satisfaction, so if you have to choose only one group to satisfy, try and pick them, or at least convince the key stakeholder of their importance.

What is a stakeholder?

From a practical perspective, a stakeholder is any group or individual that is related to the project, either because they impact on it, or are impacted by it. They represent the entire human interface along the route from kick-off, to delivery and end use.

Components in a practical Stakeholder Analysis template

The following covers the range of information that you will find useful to know about the stakeholders that comprise your project environment. Delete or adapt as applicable to your needs. You should be able to outline a lot of the content by just talking to the project owner. An initial draft will quickly throw up the holes in your understanding of the project environment.

  • Group: Depending on whether or not you are dealing with representatives of departments or users, or directly with individuals who represent themselves, this column should demonstrate high level context with titles like Business Group, Business owners, Marketing Managers etc

  • Key Representative: You can add this field if you are dealing with specific individuals and feel that it would be helpful to see how they fit in the overall environment. In this case multiple individuals may belong to the same group.

  • Type: Stakeholders fit into a range of types (sometimes multiple types) as follows: Reviewers, Providers, Related Projects, Output Deliverers, Outcome Accountable, Outcome Impacted, Output Utilisers. Building tick columns for these into your template will allow you to filter by stakeholder type, which is particularly useful when designing communications.

  • Internal or External: External stakeholders can be hard to manage, so it is particularly useful to be able to identify external stakeholders with high impact on the project.

  • Priority: High, medium, or low in terms of how important their goals and needs are as success criteria for the project.

  • Delivery Involvement: Direct or Indirect. Are they directly involved in the delivery of the project or peripheral players?

  • Relationship with / Interest in project: Their role in the project.

  • Goals / Success Criteria: At this stage you will not need to worry about specific metrics, so success can effectively be viewed as the achievement of their goals. You can separate this into another column when you being to understand the specific outcomes that result from these goals.

  • Impact on Project: Details on how they affect the project in terms of role, and responsibilities, or how the project needs to adapt to fit them.

  • What does the project need from this group?: In terms of inputs or support.

  • Impact of Project: How the delivery or end product of the project will affect the user group.

  • Potential Issues or Concerns: What are they concerned about in terms of project delivery and outcome?

  • Needs: What do they need from you and/or the project delivery team

  • Management Strategy / Method of Communication: How you plan to communicate with the stakeholder and satisfy their needs as above.

Here's a sample excel template you can use for stakeholder analysis and management.

Intro and Bio

I've been blogging professionally for the past couple of years on company blogs, so I thought it's about time I started one of my own!

I am currently a Senior Consultant at a management consultancy called Charteris with experience in developing and implementing strategy around multi-channel retail and customer experience. Right now I'm looking at customer-centricity and innovation for the retail and public sectors. My primary areas of interest are practical vision and strategy, brand, service differentiation, e-commerce, web 2.0, social networking and organisational change. Over the past few years I've worked primarily with the UK's Top 100 Retailers, a couple of Investment Banks while working as a business consultant for Conchango (now bought over by EMC).

I've previously worked worked in various Public Sector analyst and consulting roles, most recently as a Business Consultant for LogicaCMG’s (now Logica) Public Sector Consulting division, delivering large scale business transformation projects, including systems thinking, business cases, Business Process Re-engineering, benefits realisation, change management and performance improvement.

I'm also a qualified Agile 'Scrum Master' and have successfully set up and managed a number of technology projects with cross-functional teams including third-party and offshore developers. I like Agile because it's so practical due to it's fluid project management approach that's quite opposite to the traditional straight line, document and process heavy ways of working that most other methodologies employ. There is a lot of scope to use Agile in non-development situations and it's therefore an area worth exploring.

In my spare time I've been involved with a range of non-profit initiatives over the past 10 years and I've recently started getting heavily involved in social enterprise and disruptive innovation. You can find out more about this on my personal blog at

If you have any questions about anything on here, feel free to drop me a note and I'll get back to you with more info.

Best Regards