John: Andre Kakos studied nutrition in Lebanon, became a science teacher, and then a journalist. Then he landed on his feet in Sydney when he was appointed an online producer just as the digital age was dawning. He’s been designing and delivering cutting edge digital experiences ever since, both agency side for clients, and in-house at places like Microsoft during that company’s positive pivot to engage the internet age. Since 2013, Andre’s led Komosion’s Digital Experience team, helping clients meet the challenges of another new era, the age of the customer. Andre, welcome to Customers’ Matter.
John: What was the first digital project that you were involved in and can you tell us a bit about it because for a lot of people listening to this podcast, it might seem inconceivable that there was something happening even two decades or more ago.
Andre: Well I can’t remember, I don’t know if I can remember that far. It’s been a long time ago, but I’ll tell you about what I’ve done in my first job, and this is working at AOL here in Australia when they first branched out and set up shop here in Australia. This is remember, the age of the time when the online space, where AOL saw it, was a walled garden of curated content and sponsored information that led into the whole network of AOL information and content and functionality.
John: It’s almost like they’d created an online Westfield . . .
John: . . . and to get the information, you had to go past all the different shops, no ifs or buts.
Andre: And you had to use them to get onto the internet, you’d get your CD, you’d plug it in, you’d get in the mail, plug it in, and hear that modem whizz before you’d get online, and that’s your window to the world. So I joined back in, I’m not going to say the year, it was back in 96 I think, no, sorry, 98, and that’s when I started working with them on the Lifestyle channel and creating content, entertainment guides and guides to the city, and even helped be part of a duo that delivered relationship advice to people, bit of an agony aunt.
John: Now you mentioned the modem, for a lot of probably listeners, viewers, they would have little understanding of what it was like in the early days of the internet to actually access the internet, so you mentioned you had to use, for AOL, you had to be a subscriber to American Online, but what was the modem experience, can you just [inaudible]?
Andre: Well, for the people that don’t know this, you had to have this little device which now is replaced by the router, but then you had to use your phone line and dial up this screeching sound, more like the fax machine, and it took you about a minute or two before you were connected, and then it was a slow, slow connection compared to what we’ve got today.
John: And probably pretty crude designs compared with what we’ve got today?
Andre: Yeah, absolutely, and back then, the way that AOL operated was to confound you with layers and layers of what they called the windows, so you popped up in a little window and on top of that, another window, and that allowed you to go through this rabbit warren of information and access to clean(?) ?? where you started to chat to people.
John: So that was then, and this is now, what do you think have been the most profound changes over the 20 years since those early days when you were first learning how to be a digital producer in the dawn of the internet age?
Andre: Well, the web just grew exponentially really, really quickly, and just opened up a whole world of different, not just content, but also a number of different channels, that opened up and diversified the media, so the whole media diversification is the whole profound change that’s happened over those years. So when you get Facebook or Twitter and the social media platforms, the democratisation of publishing also happened and this is where everybody had a voice, and everybody had a voice to say publicly, to express opinion, share thoughts, share their lives in a much open space.
If I compare that to the time I worked at AOL, of course there were things like, I don’t know if anybody remembers this, but IIC Chat, you’d still have that chat capability from the early days of the internet, but that was so private, and within specific groups, and you had forums and they’re still existing of course, but again, you get quite deep into a particular topic, but not now, Twitter is a whole different world, and so is Instagram and Facebook.
John: So it’s interesting in a way I guess the early world of the web was also very much about htpp, a web address whereas now you’re really describing an ecosystem.
Andre: Absolutely, it’s just a lot wider and a lot more options for you to find people and find people that can help you join a tribe or a develop an online identity, and I think that’s another part of it, where you’re developing another level of identity that you probably didn’t have before.
John: What do you mean by that?
Andre: Well, looking at the negative part of it is that you’re allowed with the social platforms, to have a persona that is probably not the true representative of who you are.
John: So you can have better abs?
Andre: Better abs, you know, the whole face bragging as opposed to Facebooking, everybody’s got an amazing life until you find out somebody’s committed suicide, and you go what just happened then? And that is the whole dichotomy between what is the real life and what’s your persona online?
John: So when you think about the process of designing digital experiences, what do you think is the difference between the digital experience today and how it was in the early days of the internet, when you’re thinking professionally about what you can do and how you can guide the creation of a digital experience now versus then?
Andre: Well back then was a lot simpler of course, so you build a site and that’s your window to the world, or it represents who you are and you can publish the information on it, but now we’ve got to think of a wider ecosystem of how people find you, on which channel and what platform of(?) advertising for instance they can find you on, and because of what I mentioned before about the democratisation of the media channels, then a customer or a user can be in multiple different channels and different places, different times, makes getting the information out there to people a little bit of a challenge because you’ve got to be where they are and try and find out where that space is.
John: So you’re really designing around a whole digital journey, not just a kind of individual website, is that the thrust of it?
Andre: Yeah, that’s exactly it, you’ve got to think about the whole ecosystem, so it’s a much wider number of different channels and then work out what that experience is, if somebody has known about you or found about you on Facebook, how did you represent yourself there, and then once they learnt if you’re driving them to your site, what’s that expectation there as well?
John: Obviously back in the day, there was no talk of agile, no talk of stand-ups, no talk of backlogs, the actually mechanics of the way people go about doing things have changed and in some ways, the great platforms and the way they were engineered have changed the way everyone works.
Andre: Absolutely right because once the cloud opened up and delivering services, online started to happen and started to grow quickly. That’s when agile started to have a bit of traction. I think agile started back in the early 80s when the manifesto for agile development was put together, but everybody knows about it now because the online cloud surfaces space has matured and to be able to deliver on a competitive experience online, you have to deliver that in chunks, and you have to deliver it iteratively, you have to always test and learn and do better, and you can only do that if you are going to do it in bite sizes and smaller chunks and be quite quick to market.
John: And I guess bandwidth has changed a lot as well, I think in the early days of the web, there was a real debate over how rich a design could be and whether to use Flash and what’s happened in the world of design, what’s possible now and what wasn’t possible then, and how do you still understand where the constraints lie versus where the opportunity could be for presenting yourself to the world?
Andre: That’s a really good question because back then when we were publishing video, it was quite alright for people to sit and wait for it to buffer over and over again before you watched the two minute video clip, whereas now, that is inconceivably frustrating for anybody for any kind of video to buffer.
I had worked on a few projects where the whole online experience was built in Flash, and it was quite alright at that point in time to allow for the whole site to lower, it takes two minutes before the experience is built. I built something like that for Coca Cola, and that was the norm then, but now that’s just impossible because you’ve got to think about three seconds or less. If a page does not load in three seconds, if the experience doesn’t load in three seconds, the user, the customer, gets frustrated and not that just, they don’t have to get frustrated because they know there’s somebody like you who offers a very similar service out there, and they can get to it.
To add to that of course, you’ve got to think about how Google search also penalises people for having a slow experience. So you’re not ranked as well if you’ve got a very slow site compared to your competitors, and then if you’re not ranked, you do not exist.
John: I mentioned you were involved in a pretty interesting time at Microsoft as the Company really did quite a remarkable job of pivoting, and you mentioned the cloud opening up and I think the thing that would be most surprising to people who knew Microsoft in the past and looked at it today, is how successfully it’s managed to pivot both new product with gaming, but also it’s now got its Azure cloud surface. How did that change happen in such a massive business?
Andre: It’s that whole, like you said, the whole drive to cloud. It went from we’re going to deliver your software on a CD or a DVD, to how do we deliver it to you faster? It goes back to the whole let’s get to market faster and be more agile. It opened up subscription based setups where you’re not only just buying perpetual licence for a piece of software, you are now buying into a subscription to for instance an office, because now there’s Office 365, well you know, a few years back, and that allowed for the iterative delivery of new features, as opposed to you sitting on a CD of product that was published and created in 2006, and you’re still using it, whereas now you’ve got features that are delivered to you through a subscription basis.
They had to pivot quite a lot like that to be able to be more competitive in the market. I think a lot was to be said around how Amazon pushed the cloud agenda quite hard, and I think Microsoft at that point in time picked up on that and knew that with both the challenge from the Apple hardware, because Apple of course do the beautiful hardware and they could not compete so much and they had to carve out their space and focus more about how to deliver software faster to people, and focus not just the software but also had packages all(?) into solutions.
John: Super interesting. How do you think about digital in relation now to designing digital experiences around the customer and when and how did that become a thing?
Andre: If we’re talking about where digital experience or even user experience or customer experience has come into the fold, the early days of designing for the customer is not something absolutely new, go back through history into industrial design and even the design of the very first touchpad on a phone, the old style phone you had to, the home phone you had to pick up and dial, and then the very first touchpad, and where the numbers sat on that touchpad. That needed some user experience design to work out what’s the easiest pathway to get someone to use this device. So it’s not a new thing, but where I think it’s become such an important piece of an art but also a science is that now there’s an ultra-competitive market where there’s brands have got to compete and demonstrate a value proposition over and above their peers, and the only way they could do it is to how to demonstrate value to our customer. So if we don’t design and demonstrate that value or that whole value proposition for each brand, then they don’t stand a chance really in that competitive market place.
John: Now what’s this buzz word atomic design, what’s that all about, we hear all this jargon that pops up into the industry and a lot of people would be going what on earth is that?
Andre: Atomic design is if we think about it from a scientific perspective is that an atom is made up of particles and then you combine atoms, you get a molecule, and from a molecule you get a compound and then an organism, so if you think about it that way. The reason for taking that approach is to help with a number of things, especially around delivering services through the cloud. When you have to design and build services say for instance, prime example sales(?) force(?) complete service built and delivered over the cloud. When they release a new piece of service or an interaction that has to already fit into an existing scheme up(?) and its existing designs, they cannot and cannot afford to create something new and push it in because that will throw everybody out and they will never find that feature.
To be able to do that properly, you have to have a design language that’s thought through really well from the beginning and also evolved over time, so for instance, Google have got their own flat design material language design that they apply to all of their apps and online space. You build it for things like a button is really an atom, a button in a form becomes your compound and if you think about the form sitting within a bigger page, you might think of that as the organism, and that’s how the metaphor goes.
John: So it’s essentially about creating design standards in some respect, is that right?
Andre: Absolutely, yeah, so once you’ve got those design standards and you say that these are the online page or interactive elements that you will need, and they are really standard on the web, and you design them to represent your brand the best way.
John: So we’ve gone to atoms and particles, but then of course, if we chop(?) a backup, what about the relationship between digital and the physical world, how do you grapple with that in the work that you do with customers, you’re thinking about the digital experience, but what’s the relationship between the digital experience and the physical world and how do you wrestle that one to the ground?
Andre: I tend to think that digital is always an enabler of our physical experiences, you’ve got to think about that also as it augments also your physical experience, and also one more thing, I think it also, especially with how many different channels that we operate on, it also helps designate your attention span. So when we think of the role of digital along those lines, that is exactly what we consider as part of the design experience is how is that digital experience enabling your physical experience? So if I go into wanting to, I’ve found something in a shop that I really like, say a pair of shoes, how do I find this in this store online, what is the connection between driving the user to go I’ll easily find this online in any way . . .
John: I mean I’m probably wanting to comparison shop if I’m looking at a good pair of shoes in the store I’m guessing?
Andre: Yeah, that’s exactly it, yep. And then if we understand how people shop for shoes and how they go about looking up, do you go looking at boots for instance before you go into looking at ?? slippers and so on, it helps us also understand how we design the online space to help people focus their search, so that they know how to find stuff based on categories and then helps them find it really quickly so that they don’t get frustrated by their short attention span.
John: So to some extent, really you’re saying you need to design digital experiences in context?
Andre: Yes, absolutely, yes.
John: The big trends in digital experience design, what opportunities do they present for organisations and their customers?
Andre: Let’s maybe talk about some of those trends and maybe walk through those. So some of the, especially the most recent trends of course is, we can talk about automation for instance, either from marketing automation to automating information on a page . . .
John: You mean like a chatbot or something or . . .
Andre: The marketing automation part of it is really about how to assess how many times you’ve landed on the site, and then build a profile for you as a user so that we can learn from your usage of the site, what you’re looking for and then present you with the best information relevant for you.
So that brings together into it elements of personalisation, so that your journey is a bit more focused, so that . . .
John: And in a way, the service is coming to you?
Andre: And the service is coming to you, absolutely . . .
John: And there’s some triggers that based on your behaviour, that are anticipating your needs I guess?
Andre: Yeah, that’s it, makes your journey a little easier and a little bit more pleasant, because it shows that we understand who you are and we are now suggesting things that meet your needs.
Artificial intelligence is another part, so when I talked about automation and personalisation, there’s a machine learning that’s already part of that because you’ve got to have a machine learning enabled system to be able to pick up on those behaviours and activities online, to build a profile of the customer, and then deliver on what is estimated to be relevant information. With artificial intelligence, chatbots are really the base level entry, entry level experience, and that is really to help with, or currently there’s a proliferation of these chatbots on a number of channels . . .
John: The way I think about it, tell me if I’m right about this, it’s like frequently asked questions on steroids?
Andre: That’s exactly it at this point. It’s about automating what is a menial, easily, logical set of tasks or a process that you can support your customer support people with, so that when your customers are coming to you with a question, or a help me with something, they’re guided along a path of very logical decision tree before they can find an answer. Think about for instance the automated voice recognition response on the phone when you call somebody like Telstra, and you’re calling about a problem, they funnel you through a different route based on where you’re going, chatbots can help with that as well.
John: So that’s where we are now, in terms of the way the digital experience is being designed for tomorrow, what do you think’s going to change, what’s going to happen?
Andre: What’s going to happen in the near future or something?
Andre: It’s going to go out of control, like if we’re thinking about chatbots at this base level here, but then let’s think about things like what Alexa can do.
John: So voice is going to be important?
Andre: Voice is important, and having a digital assistant that gets to be more and more intelligent, can understand conversation, pick up on language and nuances, they can be your assistant to make your life easier. I think that will open up the world to simplify the menial tasks that you have to perform, and then help you focus on building, it gives you more time to focus on building your creativity, and helping inventing new things, and this is where I think that’s going, it’s getting to be an exciting space there.
John: You touched on before as well the way in which your reality can be augmented, do you see voice and augmented reality coming together in some way, shape or form in future experiences?
Andre: Yeah, of course, because if you think about virtual reality, I know at this point in time it’s just sitting behind a set of goggles that make you go blind and unaware of your surroundings, and Microsoft and Google have played around with multiple different devices that open up the world, but imagine if in a few years’ time where it’s no longer about getting you blind and just focused within a set of heavy goggles, and expanding that to an assistant that can pick up and understand not only your spoken word, but also imagine if that picked up on your body language, your movement, to understand what you’re trying to do within that space? But also if that is also portable and you can go places with that, imagine what that’s going to be like especially with advertising.
John: I’ve just suddenly had a vision of myself as a better surfer aided by a pair of waterproof goggles that are correcting my take-off. Super interesting.
In terms of the projects you’re currently working on, how’s all this thinking that we’re discussing now informing the way in which you and your team is delivering for clients at the moment?
Andre: I’m working on a project for a government organisation and it’s mostly an information architecture project, but we’re pushing it beyond just structuring content on a site, that’s really at the base level of that, to structure content on a site based on a set of personas or profiles of the users and what their needs are and how to meet them, and to be able to anticipate what those are. But one part of it is to work out that structure and navigation of the information pathways through the site so that you can get them to the policy information they need as quick as possible.
John: Which sounds fairly standard and baseline stuff, yeah?
Andre: The design thinking of course goes into putting yourself in the end user’s shoes, your customer’s shoes and understanding and empathising with their needs, to not only just deliver them the right piece of information, but also give them a set of tools that will help them find their way through the information that you’ve got. So that is the approach and methodology we’re applying, and of course that’s just at the basic level of it. But we’re looking into some functional elements where it’s a search that is driven by artificial intelligence, so that when you go and hit the site, and everybody does this, if you can’t find information, you start doing a search, just(?) to learn from the different searches done and performed on the site, and pick up on the most recent or the most accessed pieces of information so they would feed you that information as you’re starting to search through it.
Building another part of the site that is a place that is your own dashboard and space for each persona, for each user, so that they gather the information they’ve been interested in and relating to the topics that relate to their function within local government, to find that information within their own dashboard or their own space.
John: And what about this idea of information coming to you rather than you having to go to information, is that something that’s starting to emerge in the world of digital experience and applications and so forth?
Andre: I think it’s getting to the point where people want to turn it off. Think about all of the notifications you get on number of apps that you’ve got, and now as the web progresses into things like progressive web apps for instance, where in a desktop browser or a computer browser, you’re starting to mimic and have functionality that was only available to you on the phone. One of them being the direction notifications of you’ve got a new, a friend of yours has just posted a photo. You can get those notifications pop up on your screen or on your browser . . .
John: Right, so we’re going to get spammed by some of these things . . .
Andre: You’re going to be spammed by these . . .
John: . . . I mean some of these things are really useful, you know, if I’ve got to get to an airport, I like to be reminded in plenty of time, so it’s all about utility by the sound of it rather than . . .
Andre: That’s exactly it.
John: . . . just uniqueness of being able to, it’s not just that you can do it, back to your point before, you’ve got to have a context for doing it that’s appropriate.
Andre: And just to give you a personal experience of mine, I’ve got a number of chat apps on my phone, a lot of them I use for work, so I’ve got between Slack and Skype and Hangout and email and SMS and messages on Linkedin and messages on Facebook, all of these I do receive things like work messages on these and I’ve got different clients on each one of those, and I’m being pinged all the time from different people on those. So at some point, it becomes a bit deafening . . .
John: You almost need a funnel down which everything can flow and be prioritised somehow.
Andre: That’s exactly it.
John: Last question. If we were to have this conversation again in another 20 years, what do you think the world will look like? Will we still be talking about the digital and physical worlds, or will they have become one and the same?
Andre: I can’t see that happening, to be one and the same will be I think I touched upon this before is about how digital becomes an augmenter or an enabler. I think we will tear through the noise that it’s just created and focus on how to have authentic experiences, and be a bit more creative in our output. If people blend the two together, I think they’ll start to lose a little bit of their humanity, but I don’t know, maybe AI can be trained to pick up on that humanity.
I don’t know if you’ve seen that movie Her, with Joaquin Phoenix who fell in love with a digital assistant, and that was telling wasn’t it that I don’t want to go and get to that point at all where I’m replacing someone with a digital assistant.
John: Even if she does sound remarkably like Scarlett Johansson?
Andre: For our clients, I suppose the focus goes back to the, I think I spoke about the shortening of the attention span, how everybody’s suffering that. I think going forward, the challenge I will always put our clients is for them to think about with this diminishing attention span, our clients need to think about if they are creating an experience for their customer, or are they delivering a service that is a stepping stone to an experience? And that also applies to the digital world, and with all this cacophony of all these things attacking you with information everywhere, which of it is functional and utilitarian, and which of it creates a delightful experience?
John: Andre, thanks very much.
Andre: Thank you.