Experience Design Chapter 2: Paradise Lost

Our weekly Monday-9am-with-buns department meetings usually consists of discussions about projects people are working on, techniques we have applied or are thinking of applying, department housekeeping issues etc. All good inward-looking stuff. But last week was a little different.

We had a presentation by the head of the new Client Services division. For me this was a reminder that for an agency such as ours, no matter how far we get into information foraging theory, contextual inquiry, Fitts’s Law or UCD, it will always be marketing in some form or other that keeps the paychecks rolling in. Until now, working at Oyster has been luxuriously free of planners and account managers, but that is to change. As if to emphasise the point, we were also introduced to a new member of our department, described as a “marketing experience designer.” Perhaps the term “account exec” would have been a little too alien for us. Hmm.

We started with a summary of recent trends in the online universe. Advertising spend is now on a level with that of radio in the UK, and it’s growing at a much faster rate than other media; online revenues are getting serious and SEO specialists are worth their weight in gold (so Mike Rogers will now be putting down payments on a yacht pretty soon I should think), etc. It’s all deja vue of course, but this time I feel it’s got its reality goggles tied on. I admit that sometimes dead-tree media can be good, and this article in The Sunday Murdoch is a decent summary of what’s going on right now.

The reason why I love the Internet (and spend roughly 10-12 hours a day consuming it) is that it’s nothing if not a boiling cauldron of possibilities. Now some of those seem to be turning into what might be certainties, and in some ways I feel vindication coming on. Time to digress into a self-serving anecdote…

In 1997, shortly after I joined IPC Magazines to work on their yachting and boating web properties, I attended one of the then IT director’s quarterly company presentations. This was traditionally populated by loyal geeks and IS&T beanpole climbers while being utterly ignored by the rest of the organisation who were mainly journalists or graphic designers by trade. IPC was (and still is?) the largest Quark site in Europe and the largest single AppleTalk network. It was also a famously early adopter of desktop publishing at the expense of typesetting jobs in the 1980’s. So it was for exactly this reason that I was quite giddy with excitement about the company’s future and the Internet. IPC had content – mountains of it, and content was king. IPC was therefore the sleeping giant of the UK new media revolution and I was perched on its shoulders ready to fly to the moooon!

So it was with utter disappointment that Il Duce made no significant mention of the Internet or the company’s plans in that area. If you’ve ever attended a talk by the head of the Global Leadership Village you’ll know that he leaves little room for questions from the floor. Nevertheless I broke with tradition and put my hand up to tell him that I’d just joined to ride the rocket to the stars and what did he think about that. I don’t recall his exact response but it started with the words “Well I’m sorry to disappoint you…” and went downhill from there. IPC wasn’t a software house; Argos’s website had sold nothing; the net was a probably just a fad and while IPC did have websites it was a purely defensive measure against teenagers, the house bound and their modems.

Two years later, the dot.com boom was in full swing, IPC had bought out from Reed Elsevier and the company was up for sale. Websites were all the IT department could talk about. But by that time I had them down as the muppets they turned out to be. And particularly after they axed Melody Maker.

Whu? Sorry… where was I? Oh yes, marketing.

So now I feel it’s going full circle. The end of the dot.com era seems to have given us time to get back to first principles of web user experience as the broadband connections stepped up and our parents got their email accounts. We were designing websites for users not consumers, and didn’t have to worry any more about the damn banner ads, targets, measurements and KPIs. But that was on time borrowed from disappointed VCs. Today I read about Marc Andreessen’s latest wheeze. Two weeks ago I would have treated this with the unvarnished enthusiasm it deserves were it not that Marc was Netscape, Netscape was IPO, and the web was born to us from the fires of public offerings. That history is repeating itself but in slow motion, at a deeper level, and now experience design is going to change.