Smart usage: Two productivity application trends to get you thinking

In recent years more and more people have been succumbing to smart-device procrastination. eMarketer found that on average US mobile users now spend as many as 4 hours on their phones every day, with other studies substantiating their findings. In the last few years a host of productivity applications have set their sites on this mobile culture. Developers such as ShaoKan Pi have enjoyed success filling a gap in the market that has grown out of this mobile culture, not only seeking to curtail usage, but to harness it to encourage self-improvement. These kinds of productivity app are nothing new: to-do lists, notepads, and synced calendars have been in circulation since the App and Play stores’ inception, as have social media platforms and games for people to while away the hours, but this latest generation ups the stakes in terms of both design and functionality. Just as people are increasingly killing time scrolling through news feeds or tapping their way to glory on *insert the name of this week’s fad app*, tools that encourage certain behavioural patterns or stop people overusing their devices are being developed as the natural progression of productivity solutions.

Going Cold Turkey

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So-called ‘digital addiction’ has become a recognised phenomenon. Many users of smart devices find themselves habitually checking and re-checking Instagram, Twitter, Clash of Clans, Boom Beach – the list goes on. Enter the likes of Forest and Detox. The irony of an app that condemns digital usage seemingly lost on their developers, these are nonetheless commendable tools created to help people break compulsive cycles. You give them free reign to manage your usage and they regulate undesirable habits. Forest boasts the most aesthetic design of these procrastination busters. Planting a tree limits device usage until a timer runs out, giving up before this point causes the budding plant to wither and die. They’ve also taken a leaf from Ecosia’s book and started planting trees based on user interaction – 164,531 so far. Services like Detox enforces a stricter cold turkey approach: once you set a timer you are commited and unable to resume regular use. You’ll be hallucinating babies crawling along the ceiling in no time!

Life’s a (video) game

Another notable trend is the emergence of apps that quantify the merits of daily tasks and equate them to experience points, creating real-world role playing game character sheets for users. The likes of LifeRPG, Habitica, and Do it Now allow the user to assign tasks that serve as metaphorical ‘quests’ for which they acquire experience and even gold that can be exchanged for a reward. The experience yielded is often governed by parameters such as difficulty and is attributed to various skills. Learning Spanish? You’ll be building towards that skill with each related task completed and buffing your intelligence stat to boot. Using the format of classic RPG’s to encourage someone to floss is a truly twenty-first century phenomenon, and a whimsical spin on the usual self-improvement app format.

So…

Whether you’re desperate to cut down on how much you use your smartphone, or keen to push yourself to become the seasoned linguist / coder / pastry chef you were always destined to become, there are a plethora of options on offer. Both camps offer productivity solutions that effectively streamline your digital experience. It’s well worth scrutinising the ways in which you consume content, and  if you find that your usage patterns leave something to be desired then why not do something about it?

iWay or the highway – has Apple gone stale?

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A simple message that has done Nintendo a lot of favours in the past year. So why does it fall short of the mark as the cornerstone of Apple’s new ad campaign for the iPhone?

We are faced with an image split in two. On one side there is “your phone”, the other “iPhone”. People are bouncing from the former over to the latter with ease – why haven’t you switched? There are a number of variants on this theme, highlighting everything from security to the ease with which you can shift your music and photo libraries over to a new iPhone. My problem here is that it sets a precedent that doesn’t necessarily work in Apple’s favour: you (the consumer) currently have an Android. You’re probably quite happy with it. But look how easy it is to make the change. Look, it’s even easy to shift your contacts! I’m sorry but in what world is the ability to shift over your address book a headline selling point? A good number of people, myself included, have their contacts saved directly to their SIM card anyway! I’m sure this focus on the ease of transfer between phones is based on market research that showed that it was a key reason individuals were unwilling to make this change, but really. The response to the campaign on social media at the time of writing is pretty damning – the fact its 20k views garnered only 8 reactions on a Facebook sponsored post shows that the call for action is hardly well received (and you should see the comments!)

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Clicking through to Apple’s site presents you with a long list of the iPhone’s merits: a great camera, customer support, messenger, all that good stuff. However, very little of this was conveyed in the video ads. Their message was simple (and admittedly effective) – it’s easy to switch. This idea is for the most part cast aside, replaced by a shopping list of the merits of iPhone and iOS. There’s nothing wrong with this per se, but it doesn’t make for a cohesive, let alone convincing, overall story for the campaign. Simplicity swiftly gives way to a heavy sales pitch with its only charm coming from a smattering of emojis.

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Whisk yourself back to 2006 and the well-regarded run of “Get a Mac” ads. These videos had a lot in common with this new campaign: both convey why Apple’s product is preferable to their main competitor by comparing the two in some way. The difference is in how they approach it. The takeaway message of the 2006 campaign was that PC’s were slow and incompetent (shown as a bumbling dimwit, superbly played by John Hodgman) while Macs were shown to be intelligent and charismatic (the wonderful Justin Long, fresh out of his starring role in hit-film Dodgeball). Just like the hilarious polarity between Globo Gym and Average Joe’s Gymnasium in the 2004 comedy, Apple were portraying themselves as the good guy, the plucky innovator who could stand up to their big-headed competitor. This is a narrative that people can engage with.

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So assessing value in relation to a market competitor makes a lot of sense and has worked well in the past. It must be how they handled it this time round, right? Not quite. This new campaign’s issues are not merely with its implementation. It goes without saying that Apple make beautiful, innovative products and maybe that’s the problem. People now take the iPhone for granted and without any game changing alterations to their formula on the horizon (sorry iPhone 8, wireless charging and an OLED display might not cut it), the product has become just another viable option in an increasingly saturated smartphone market.

I’ll leave you with the comment section of the aforementioned Facebook ad…

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Google’s Digital Garage – a beginner’s toolkit for marketing success

I recently ended my time working as a social media marketing manager for a Nottingham based estate agent. To facilitate the handover I had a number of meetings with my successor and they got me thinking – what’s the best way to get started with digital marketing? My colleague was a beginner in the field, which meant I needed explain the essential components of a successful campaign without overloading her with jargon. This started with the perhaps obvious question of “why bother?” Why should an already successful business spend hours every week creating content and targeting potential customers with ads when this process is both expensive and time consuming? In practice these aren’t hard questions to answer. A well managed campaign tweaked to perform better using analytics should lead to a comfortable return on investment. Customers are guided through a metaphorical conversion funnel and you achieved your desired result, be it a purchase, someone signing up to your mailing list, or in this case renting a property. However, I wasn’t going to be able to convey all the practical nuances involved in a few meetings and therefore recommended what I think is the best introduction to all things digital – Google’s Digital Garage.

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The award-winning site offers a host of free educational videos divided into a number of sections. These cover everything from SEO to remarketing, and most importantly are approachable for those just starting out. They work through the topics in question slowly and use a number of real world testimonials to illustrate the ways in which each area benefits real people. You get to hear how a woman running a cake business benefited from a mother’s day competition that was promoted across social media and the ways a speech writer gets his website to show up on relevant browser searches across the globe. It also offers impressive flexibility. You can pick and choose individual lessons, all the while earning badges towards an accredited certification. Not every section is relevant to every business: a local estate agent doesn’t need to dwell on the “take a business global” topic, whilst this would be essential for an online retailer looking to widen their customer base. On the other hand, if you’re looking to get yourself certified but are already a dab-hand in a certain area you can immediately skip ahead to the topic assessment, just be sure to get the questions right!

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ROI isn’t everything and the importance of communicating a coherent, trustworthy brand across digital platforms does also come across in a number of these topics. The problem is that the sheer variety of businesses that stand to benefit from digital marketing makes it difficult to teach these principles effectively. As a result they often fall by the wayside in favour of Google’s tool driven ‘Garage’ shtick. For example, Digital Garage shows how social media can be used to nurture a relationship with your customers, but doesn’t quite hit the nail on the head when it comes to the values that should be underpinning this process. This isn’t a shortcoming as such – Google set out their goals when it came to the Digital Garage and achieved them. By their own admission the suite of videos are best used in conjunction with a good think about what your business stands for and what you want to achieve.

Show don’t tell – Dark Souls and the value of content marketing 

Whether a consumer is presented with a masked figure with a penchant for existential dread or an incisive piece of analysis on the current real estate market, you can be sure that thought and conviction were requisite components in the creation of their experience. “Show don’t tell” has become something of a mantra for game designers and marketing specialists alike, and with good reason: if the creative behind any form of content can effectively communicate a message in a way that demands real engagement they have achieved what many fail to do – interest their target audience. Two examples of note in this regard are Hidetaka Miyazaki, president of FromSoftware and the director behind the lauded Souls series of video games, and Rightmove, a UK based real estate site. This comparison may seem a strange one, yet the methodology of the two can be aligned with relative ease, and doing so will hopefully illustrate the importance of demonstrative communication: showing, not telling.

So why Dark Souls? For those unfamiliar with Miyazaki’s work, it’s a smash-hit series with a focus on open-world gameplay featuring intersecting paths and a gothic visual style replete with fallen monarchs and corrupted cities. Oh, and it’s considered to boast some of the hardest challenges in modern video games. What’s particularly special about the Souls titles is the way they present the player with information; aside from an initial cutscene detailing some basic context, very little is spoon-fed. This leaves the player with the task of not only overcoming fantastical knights and monsters, but also the opportunity to unpick the rich and often ambiguous narratives that make these entities so engaging. To get to grips with the forces at play in these worlds they must look for small details in the environments and read the descriptions of the various weapons and items they come across – a process that is (perhaps surprisingly) incredibly immersive. This show don’t tell approach to story has resulted in both snowballing sales driven by positive critical reviews and word of mouth and the development of a sizeable online community centred around the sharing of theories about the game’s lore. Here, brand loyalty is instilled in a consumer by treating them as an intelligent agent who can engage with complex ideas and subtle messages.

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This same principle can be applied to content marketing. The internet has offered marketers a host of new channels to illustrate their worth to consumers. Companies have increasingly made use of blogs, vlogs, podcasts, etc. to express values and ideas. A great example of this is Rightmove, a site that has crafted a multifaceted blog that appeals to those looking to rent or buy properties in the UK. They address everything from celebrity homes and dream properties to housing and rental trends. This shows that they have their fingers on the pulse of the real estate market, on both a national and global level; they’re the first to know that Muse’s Matt Bellamy’s Lake Como home is for sale and they want you to know it. Full breakdowns of regional market changes, a handy school checker function, and informative posts on what dictates property value cement their role as a capable guide through the process of becoming a homeowner. They’ve also racked up a respectable following on social media sharing photos of properties, often with whimsical captions, and consistently create engaging video content. In short, they’ve successfully characterised their business as a simultaneously charming and experienced outfit through the effective use of these tools.

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Regardless of the target audience, people should be given something to sink their teeth into. If your company prides itself on its years of experience in a certain field, then show people that you have this experience – unsubstantiated claims and slogans can only go so far.  The best content marketers can demonstrate a business’s culture and expertise through the use of a blog or series of videos, just as an adept storyteller and designer like Miyazaki can enthral a gamer by immersing them in a rich world that doesn’t dump chunks of clunky exposition on them every five minutes.

Web Design for Everybody

Web design is something that almost everyone interacts with on a daily basis, but it seems that surprisingly few people get to grips with what goes into a fully functional site. It’s something that I’ve grown increasingly interested in, both on the SEO / PPC side of things (what makes your website crop up when someone enters a search term in a browser) and the building blocks that make up a site. There’s something strangely satisfying about right clicking a web-page, hitting ‘inspect’, and having a good ol’ rummage around.

I’m in no way adept in the mystic art of coding. Last year I had a crack at the University of Michigan’s online Web Design for Everybody specialisation on Coursera and had a blast doing so. The workload and course structure were well devised and in no time I was tapping away; changing the colours of fonts, crafting my first navbar, and getting my head round the wonders of Javascript. As I traipsed my way through each individual course I found that the use of frameworks and templates was being referenced more and more. This surely must be the way forward for a pragmatic / lazy coder? The opportunities offered by the likes of Bootstrap when compared to writing all your own code came to the fore when I reached my final capstone project. We were presented with three options: code a site from scratch, use a template, or use a framework. The catch was that your code had to validate and feature a number of key elements and optional frills. I chose to go from scratch. The more complex systems of code that I could borrow or emulate offered beautiful finished products, but I wanted to be sure that I understood the role of every line on this first site.

The result was the groundbreakingly named ‘Contour Media’, an amalgamation of my various interests presented in such a way that I could tick all of UoM’s boxes. This wasn’t a thing of beauty by any stretch of the imagination, but it was empowering to have written an entire site by myself. It had a slideshow gallery that displayed a number of photos I’d taken (with some transition animations that I was particularly proud of), a music section where I banged on about some of the songs I’ve recorded over the years, and a blog section. I don’t regret choosing this option for a second, yet the frameworks or ready to go templates available online offer up a host of advantages.

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A few months later this lead me to giving a template site a whirl. My work for a local estate agent and a walking website allowed me to develop my skills in the realm of digital marketing and I decided to create a (purely speculative) site for a marketing company that offered services in social media marketing, PPC, analytics work to support these two channels, and some SEO tweaking. Now all I needed was a spunky name. Eventually I decided on ‘Greed Digital’, a brazen choice that I thought would get people’s attention. This digital marketing outfit would be lean, with a tight focus on strategy and ROI for the client – why shouldn’t they be greedy? This idea stuck and I went about looking for an appropriate template. I wanted to make use of large banner style image and title to introduce each page and then provide a more fleshed out breakdown of the company’s culture, focus, pricing, etc. I found a cracking CSS template on www.w3schools.com and tweaked it to my liking. Their example site was all on a single page, with the navbar using internal links to the different sections. I wanted separate pages, so sliced up the code on offer and began compartmentalising it into manageable chunks that I would link together as individual pages. I then had a dig through w3’s custom styling and started picking out my favourite logos, colours, etc., and inserted a number of my own photos. It’s in no way a finished product, I’m not happy with the padding and it requires some more content, but it came out looking far more professional than Contour and coding a contact page with a map widget was an interesting exercise.

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And this brings us to the most recent site I rustled up – this one. I wanted to try something that would be clean and simple, whilst simultaneously being able to handle a good number of posts, comments, etc. I’d already acquired a good working knowledge of the WordPress platform running a music magazine / website and personally found it infinitely preferable to Squarespace. I used the latter for a community based website called The Lenton Wire, but disliked its lack of flexibility and tendency to hide features behind a paywall. Don’t get me wrong, it’s great for creating fantastic sites quickly without any background in coding – it just wasn’t what I was after. I figured that if a WordPress site could make managing the hundreds of articles posted on The Mic (the aforementioned music mag) a breeze at a remarkably low cost it would suit my purposes just fine. I’ve done very little to jazz Currant up. I designed a logo and that was that. It’s a clean, responsive site that I can add features and visuals to as it develops.

It goes without saying that every method of approaching web design has innumerable merits and its fair share of shortcomings, of which I’ve barely scratched the surface. Whether you opt for a paid service such as WordPress or Squarespace, or code and host your own site, you can get great results and share your business and/or passion with the world – and that’s pretty neat.

“The ironic voice”

In an essay critiquing the cynicism, self-reference, and black humour that had gained prominence in America David Foster Wallace famously wrote that irony was “ruining our culture”. In his eyes there was a time and a place for postmodernist irony, and it was the fifties and sixties. He appreciated that this ironic voice has always been great at highlighting the farcical and hypocritical nature of things. Where he thought irony and cynicism fell short was in their inability to provide a solution to the problems that they so effectively drew attention to. You may have debunked the illusion of ‘x’, (if in doubt probably the American Dream), but we’re left in a state of entertained apathy. It’s “an end in itself”. This admittedly makes a whole lot of sense – the problem is that the alternative is sincerity. Americans being sincere.

There’s been extensive discourse around this subject and it’s important to tie down what I mean by “the ironic voice”. When I’m using it I’m doing so as an umbrella term for this collection of irony, self-reference, cynicism, sarcasm, etc. I’m not referring to rain on your wedding day. Additionally, much of this debate has been focused on America; I’m from England and I think that this significantly plays into my viewpoint. To me, this ironic voice can be considered almost as fundamental to ‘English’ identity as manners or talking about the weather. We say sorry a lot, we inexplicably find entirely expected clouds noteworthy, and we deprecate with the best of them.

What I find particularly interesting is how media plays into this discussion – after all it’s the easiest gauge of popular culture. Where contemporary entertainment falls on the scale of cynicism to sincerity has fluctuated enormously. We’re supposedly in a unironic golden age at the moment, with the likes of How I Met Your Mother deriving clear morals from the narratives they present. This isn’t to say that they aren’t funny. They are often self-referential and are all too willing to draw attention to the shortcomings of characters. However, they then address the root causes of these shortcomings and how they can be remedied. Such shows are perhaps more a hybridisation of the earnest nature of traditional programming and some of the ironic voice that was introduced with postmodernism. Although it’s impossible to generalise about the sheer variety of media we’re saturated in, the general cultural consensus seems to have moved towards this compromise. To me it all ends up feeling too much like a Shakespearean comedy; as much as a subversion of convention may occur, at the end there’s a wedding and that’s that. To go back to Foster Wallace, he’d probably have taken less issue with this approach because the ways to resolve a problem are addressed rather than them simply being satirised, whether these resolutions prove platitudinal or not.

This return of sincerity, or more realistically an ‘earnest’ narrative with postmodern elements, has been viewed by many as an unambiguously good thing. I’m not going to argue that children’s  programs should be made rife with irony and meta-narrative, I just don’t think that we always need an earnest message to proceed a crisis. The ironic voice is the thing I love most about programs like Peep Show, a sitcom that concludes with the two main characters sitting in their flat, their lives in tatters and no clear solutions in sight. There’s no moral. No earnest soliloquy. It’s great. Programs like this are an end in themselves, but that’s fine. I don’t think that we need TV to be dripping in redemptive sentimentality. In fact the very attempt to derive meaning from such content is in itself highly problematic. You shouldn’t be finding your answers in television or advertising anyway so why should they need to be earnest?