February 08, 2014

Episode Twelve: Attention, Star Trek and Cars

1. Oh, Attention

So Upworthy's in the news for talking about a new 'attention metric'[1] instead of pageviews/impressions/eyeballs/brain implants.  Essentially, what it looks like they're trying to do is capitalise upon the fact that people spend a lot of time on Upworthy's site and that their content performs quite well. An engaged audience is, of course, better value for an advertiser than an unengaged audience, no?

Ha! Let this be another part in the continuing series of "Let me tell you the things I have learned from my journey in advertising!"

Dirty secret: advertisers (read: brands, not agencies) might not want attention in the first place. Or, at least, not the kind of attention that Upworthy is selling. When I first moved over to agency side nearly four years ago, gamification was but the twinkle in a huckster's eye and nothing near the multi-billion dollar world-powering capitalism engine that it is now in 2014, as promised by the huckster's twinkle. And the thing that I was (and still am) excited about was the whole notion of Games as a Creative Medium and battling the stereotypical view that games were for 15 year old boys in their parents' basements who liked to shoot things in the face. And that, at the time, Zynga looked like they were going to take over the world (ha!) and everyone who was anyone was busy building farms in Farmville. And we all know how that turned out: now we're all impressing each other with our Flappy Bird scores. 

Anyway. As an outsider, I had thought that the thing advertisers (read: brands) would care about would be engagement - the amount of time that people spend doing something, which means you have longer time for your message to get across and to sink in. Turns out engagement? Not so much. Reach and frequency (which games do, kind of) are instead the kinds of things that traditional advertisers care about more (and bear in mind that I'm grossly generalising here). 

Nowhere is this more apparent in the land of advertising that is comfortable with buying television advertising to achieve its goal, where I learned about things like TRPs[2] in terms of firing your message out into the literal electromagnetic ether to have it land on your ideal audience's retina. The thing about this is that - and all this is caveated from my point of view - the mechanism of advertising is still more or less predicated upon that formula of reach and frequency, and not further down the stack of effectiveness. If all I care about is reach (how many people might see my message or 30 second spot) and frequency (how often people will see my 30 second spot), I really, really don't care about buying "engagement". Because, let's face it: if engagement really was what clients (read: brands) wanted, then, well, the ecosytem of ads that we see would probably look a bit different and more like, well, Upworthy headlines.

I rapidly learned that what I thought would be a great thing to sell (check out how much engagement I can generate for you using this game! Look how effectively I can convey your complex message!) wasn't actually always what a client wanted in the first place, or, even, was a sufficiently alien way of achieving a client's goal that I just unlocked a whole Pandora's box (one example: so, how do we get people to engage in this method of higher engagement? We have to advertise it to them? Well why don't we just advertise the thing that we want to advertise in the first place?)

Upworthy are going to have an interesting job ahead of them in terms of what they're trying to prove with their engagement metric, and whether it actually matters to the people they think it matters to: those buying their ad inventory. 

[1] http://www.adweek.com/news/advertising-branding/upworthy-touts-new-metric-155516
[2] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Target_rating_point

2. Star Trek's Computing Infrastructure
One of my friends tweeted the phrase "Nationalise Twitter" the other day and in an example of what I would previously describe as the *embarrassing* way that my brain works, caused me to start thinking aloud about who, exactly, runs all the computing infrastructure in the Next Generation universe of Star Trek. I mean, pretty much *all* the Federation computers that we see, civilian or Starfleet, all run LCARS[1] operating system which on reflection is some sort of horrible dystopic flat design future where everything likes to be orange and the voice interface has about as much personality as an extremely focussed and un-chatty Google voice search. In fact, the computing infrastructure of the 24th century is so bizarre and alien (and backward looking, compared to the current day) that I really would pay someone money to show me something that's genuinely new. 

I mean: do Ferengis sell ships that come with in-app purchases to upgrade the warp core efficiency? What is it with members of Starfleet that they don't title their personal Holonovels as Riker Risa Fantasy Scenario BDSM Final Final This One Really, but instead Riker Scenario One? And does Riker make Riker Scenario One publicly available, and is there a five star rating system? When you want to fly a ship from a PADD, do you download an app? Does Starfleet have a centrally provisioned app store? If a Federation citizen on the Manzar colony writes a piece of fiction, is there even a place where someone on Caldik Prime can download it? 

And then even things like this: who administers and runs all of this infrastructure? Is there someone in Starfleet Engineering who says "Computer, upgrade all PADDs to LCARS OS 9214.3810"? What if the end-users don't want their PADDs with a new operating system? What if I preferred the music player from LCARS OS 9214.3809? Is LCARS open source? It kind of feels like it should be. Can a Federation civilian upload a patch? Does the Federation administer infrastructure, and not Starfleet? Or, as one of my friends commented, does Star Fleet only have one mainframe (some cloud planet somewhere, inevitably)? And if LCARS is open source, does that mean the Klingons can just fork it on github? Is there even a github? 

None of this makes sense! It all falls down! 

[1] The Library Computer Access/Retrieval System, duh. And honestly, when you expand the acronym it just sounds like 24th century Gopher.

3. Cars
So, I got this DM on Twitter the other day: "Hey, interested in hitting the Portland Auto Show to mock/laugh/be appalled at new car UIs?" 

If that sounds like a geek date, then you're me and Matt Haughey and you did indeed go to the Portland Auto Show to mock, laugh and be appalled at new car UIs. And they were mostly appalling - and I mean really, really appalling - and there were a number of interesting things that jumped out at us. 

One was: man, the people who design D-pads in cars (especially on the steering wheel) really could do with taking inspiration from people who actually know how to make D-pads, namely Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo. Probably less Nintendo these days, though. 

Another was: car companies have all but given up. It feels like you could gather a bunch of designers (and if you really, really wanted to, a few people who knew how to build a car, or how cars are built), take a stroll down Sand Hill road and say "You know what? Cars are stuck in the 90s. The software is terrible. People have iPads. This is ripe for... disruption!", come out with a cheque for a few million dollars and then Inevitably Disrupt The Auto Industry. Or do what Tivo did and just kind of limp on and fail to disrupt anything because of entrenched interests. 

Let me put it this way. Every car had an LCD in it, but none of them - not even the few concept cars we saw - had retina class displays. And you're sitting even further away from the displays than when you're using a phone or probably even a tablet. Volkswagen had cars with a low-res dot matrix LCD display where you could actually see individual monochrome pixels. Most cars still had CD player slots for actual CDs for playing actual music. 

We learned a quick rule: a car is for Young People if, when you get in the driver or front passenger seat you can instantly see AUX IN or a USB charger port. A car is for Old People if, well, you can't.

Leather stitching, hilariously, seemed to be a trend, to the extent that at one point we thought we'd found Scott Forstall's car ("You should see back here! There's a backgammon set on some green felt!". There was one wonderful example of skeuomorphic design in a luxury Ram truck that had gorgeous leather and, in the back seats, a non-functioning buckle (the fastener used magnets) on a leather pocket. 

No cars had flat design.

Cars for Young People also looked like they were trying to have an iPad in the central dash, but obviously did not actually have iPads in the central dash. The most striking example of this was when we got to have a go in a BMW i3 (and by "have a go" I mean "be driven in a BMW i3 because of safety reasons) and the central not-an-iPad was just floating there on a stalk, and the rest of the dash was made of sustainable bamboo. 

The version of Sync by Microsoft (as conspicuous in its branding as an Intel Inside sticker) that we saw on some Ford cars felt, interestingly, to be practically not Microsoft-y at all. I mean, definitely not Metro-y, definitely not prehistoric Windows Phone and definitely, not, well, anything else.

It's interesting. Cars are a whole area of consumer electronics - just like A/V receivers - where the software still appears to be locked in the mid 90s. There was one particular display that we saw that, I swear, looked just like it had been laid out like a Windows 3.1 application. You could tell the manufacturers that had actually put in effort because they didn't just have giant screens in the central dash with buttons like NAV and TEL and >> and << and RESET bookending the screen on the left and right. They might as well have just used the HAL 9000 text and labelled the buttons COM, GDE, NAV and ATM.

Also: web browsers in cars. Because: why not?

One of the most refreshing conversations we had was with the dealer rep who drove us around in the BMW i3. He explained that people like us were a dying breed and that young people these days weren't interested in cars. Cars were, as Matt pointed out, just large iPhone docks. BMW rep said that the company that made Ultimate Driving Machines was on its way out, and it had created the i Division to solve the problem of providing mobility to urban young professionals who really like sustainable bamboo finishings and that, unlike something like the Nissan LEAF, the i3 had been created ground up as a new type of vehicle for a new type of market. It still used the same iDrive software as other BMW cars, though. 

So: things I would go down to Sand Hill Road and ask for millions of dollars now include a) humane quantified self devices, b) car software and c) a/v receivers.

--

It's Friday and it's snowing and the day job office is shut. My baby's snot has turned thanks to the wonders of antibiotics from green to mildly yellow and is well on its way to clear. And last night, my wife and I finally watched the first episode of the new series of Sherlock. With that, have a great weekend and I'll write to you again on Monday.

Dan