400 words #005: Many types of live

Last night I, and a few of my Substrakt pals, watched the ‘live’ broadcast of the Bridge Theatre’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream (which is available to watch, until the 2nd of July).

This was the first time I’d tuned in for one of the ‘live’ broadcasts. With other recordings they’ve put out I’ve usually caught up after the initial premiere.

And I was surprised, and moved, by just how communal and live it felt.

At points I was quadruple screening (with an eye on Twitter comments, the live chat on YouTube and the Substrakt Slack channel which had a steady stream of conversation about the show, as well as watching the play).

I’m sure there are many people who will roll their eyes at this.

And indeed over recent months I’ve read, and heard directly, from leaders in the cultural sector who feel that this sort of experience is a ‘pale imitation’ of ‘the real thing’.

Which, in my opinion, couldn’t be more wrong.

There was a lot of nonsense in the live chat on YouTube, as there often is, but there were also lovely examples of people helping to explain to Shakespeare first-timers (or for people who didn’t speak English as their first language) what was happening and why certain choices in the production had been made.

A similar type and tone of conversation formed on Twitter around the #BridgeDream hashtag, which also included the (now regular) sight of the inimitable Lyn Gardener live tweeting her commentary alongside the broadcast

As I watched all of this unfurl around me I thought about a conversation I had with Dr Kirsty Sedgman for the Digital Works podcast (which will be released soon) where she talked about ‘different types of live-ness’.

We discussed the need to move away from dogmatically clinging to the ‘in-person, in-venue’ experience as the ‘purest’ form, of which everything else is just an echo.

The complex, multi-layered ‘live-ness’ that I witnessed, and was a part of, last night was as enthralling, as joyous, and as meaningful as any experience I’ve had in a theatre.

Even though we were watching a recording of a play that happened a year ago we were enjoying a shared experience which spanned the globe (I saw comments in the chat from people tuning in from the Philippines, USA, India, French Guiana, and Croatia).

Surely that is something to embrace enthusiastically.

400 words #004: No news is good news

I’ve been at home for almost 4 months now.

About a month ago we decided to turn the news off.

And wow, I can’t recommend it enough.

I used to be a bit of a news junkie, I’d watch the breakfast news, listen to the radio, read the paper(s) via apps on my phone on the way to work, check Twitter throughout the day, more app consumption on the way home and then an evening unconsciously somewhat structured around the various news programmes before bed.

I hadn’t realised, in particular, what an absolutely terrible way to start the day it was. Even moreso recently given that 2020 seems to be the year we enter the seven circles of hell.

Am I less informed? About “current affairs”, almost certainly. Although I’m not sure there’s often any news that is so essential that it requires you to be kept up to date on a daily basis.

Not only have a noticed a significant improvement on my mood I also feel like I have far more capacity left over to intentionally engage with things.

Rather than, almost without noticing, ‘spending’ all of my attention consuming an endlessly refreshing cycle of depressing information I am reading more, books (currently I’m on Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow) and research reports mostly, which feels like I’m becoming more informed, about a broader range of topics, in a deeper and more meaningful way than the news ever made me.

Simply I’m getting more done that I value.

Is this all because I’ve stopped watching and reading the news? At least in part. Lockdown probably has something to do with it too.

Thinking more about this has made me realise just how freely I was spending my attention. I’ve realised I probably only have a finite amount of attention on any given day, and I was wasting it, on news, on social media, on any number of tiny distractions that didn’t really give me anything back.

If the product is free then you are product has always been true, in my mind always related to the data companies are gathering about you.

But recently I’ve realised I value my attention as much if not more so than my data. And I’ve taken control of that.

I’d recommend it.

Running to escape the city: Kent – vineyards and long barrows

Most weekends I head out of London to somewhere in the surrounding countryside to go for a run.

Courtesy of an OS Maps digital subscription and too much time spent plotting (and replotting) routes I’ve managed to create a few really nice routes.

I thought I’d start to share the better ones that I concoct because I’ve found it’s difficult to easily find trail running routes in particular.

Most of the routes were run pretty early in the morning (I normally try and leave the house before 7am) so, whilst they were quiet when I ran them I can’t promise that’ll be the case at a more normal time of day.

Some of them also require a car to get to, although that’s still a new thing for me in London so quite a lot start and finish at a train station as well.

Anyway, enough preamble. I ran this first route whilst the UK was still very much still partially in lockdown which was at least partly responsible for how quiet it was.

Start/finishe: a (small, free) National Trust car park near Coldrum long barrow. If you wanted to get the train you could go to Cuxton and join the route from there without too much hassle or additional distance
Distance: 20km (ish)
Ascent/Descent: 428m
Highest point: 198m
Lowest point: 23m

Download route GPX file.

I hadn’t chosen the starting point for any particular reason other than it was a conveniently located car park, I hadn’t clocked that it was nominally a visitors’ car park for Coldrum long barrow.

Not that this would’ve meant anything to me (you can read lots more about it on the National Trust’s website).

But as I parked, early on a sunny Sunday morning at the end of May I spotted the signs and figured I’d take the (minuscule) detour to have a look at the long barrow.

I didn’t really know what to expect, from the track it didn’t look like much; a grassy bank, with a sign pointing out a partially overgrown footpath which disappeared around the side of the bank.

I stopped to read the sign, which told me, among other things, that the long barrow was the resting place of at least 22 neolithic people, was reckoned to be at least 5,000 years old (possibly even older) and that it bore a resemblance to other even older tombs found in northern Denmark.

I’m sure all of this was on my mind as I walked up the footpath, around and up onto the top of what was left of the long barrow.

The view stretched away down the valley in the early morning sunshine and some bells tinkled in the branches of a nearby oak tree (when I looked more closely I noticed loads of ribbons, bells and other things had been tied in the branches of the tree).

Apart from that it was totally silent, and completely peaceful.

I can’t quite accurately describe just how profoundly calm it felt.

The view down the valley from the top of coldrum long barrow

Oak tree next to coldrum long barrow

I don’t really know how long I was stood there, soaking in the silence, maybe no more than 10 minutes, but it was wonderful.

From there I started the route properly, heading uphill up the Wealdway (a well-signposted, clearly marked trail).

Along a path where the trees met and formed a canopy overhead (the shade was very welcome even this early in the morning).

All throughout this first uphill section the quietness was the thing that I kept noticing. Not the near total silence that I’d experienced at the long barrow, there was by now plenty of insect and bird noise, but the total lack of any sort of ‘people sounds’. It was great.

Anyway, the uphill was pretty steep but didn’t last too long and soon I reached the top of the ridge.

From there it was an easy jog, downhill through a mix of woodland and along the edge of corn fields.

At points it felt like I was in another country, it definitely didn’t feel like the UK, just a few miles from the M20.

The view over fields near lower luddesdown

The ‘not UK’ vibes were probably strengthened by the vineyards that I found myself running through. Peppered with loads of field poppies and other wildflowers it was an absolutely beautiful landscape to find myself running through.

Field poppies running up the middle of the path through a vineyard

The first half of the route follows the Wealdway, however at about 10km (at Luddesdown) the route departs to head east to join up with the North Downs Way.

This ‘joining’ section has the only real bit of ‘on road’ running, the lane was very very quiet (there were 2 cars when I did it) but do pay attention and make sure any vehicles have a chance of seeing you.

When you rejoin the North Downs Way the route starts to head uphill again, and keep an eye out for the mountain bikers who share the trail (the day I was running they mostly seemed to be heading the opposite direction to me so were easy to spot).

The North Downs Way is wide, well signposted and well maintained. As a result the surroundings were a bit less interesting than they had been for the first half of the route, but there were still plenty of beautiful woodlands and wildflower meadows to enjoy.

A wildflower meadow on the North Downs Way in Kent

Towards the end, the North Downs Way briefly merges with the Pilgrim’s Way (the historic route taken by pilgrim’s from Winchester to Canterbury) and its a straight shot back to the car park at Coldrum.

I took my customary tumble (you’ll hear lots more about these) on this final stretch and got back to the car slightly bloody and very dusty but beaming from ear to ear. It is an absolutely beautiful route, run in beautiful weather, I think I encountered fewer than 20 people all morning which is a good thing in my book.

There are a couple of pubs en route but nothing in the way of shops or toilets so bear that in mind.

Anyway, highly recommended.

400 words #003: Shopping without a clue

I bought some face masks recently.

It was one of the most overwhelming and baffling shopping experiences of my life.

Obviously there are some extenuating circumstances that help to explain this. The external pressure of an ongoing, global pandemic for one.

But when I tried to unpick just why it had felt so difficult, it became clear that I hadn’t really had any meaningful context within which to frame any of the decisions I was trying to make, or the information that was available.

Do you have an actual, pre-existing opinion about ear loops? Or how many layers of fabric your mask should have (I seem to remember seeing something about 3 being good)? Or whether it’s reusable?

Do you need something that’s medical-grade (“N95″ hovered at the edge of my memory briefly) or is anything better than nothing? What should you pay for a mask? Do you want to buy one from a specialist supplier? Or does Amazon suffice?

And the only reason I had to engage with any of this was that my partner had already had a go and given up.

Then I realised, to a certain extent, this is what it might be like if you’re trying to buy a ticket to the theatre for the first time. Or to the opera. Or to the ballet.

A billion options, jargon that makes almost no sense but that the person who wrote the text clearly thinks you care about, things that you had never previously even had an inkling were a thing anyone had opinions about, and you’re expected to make a bunch of choices and part with some cash.

You might’ve started really wanting to buy your face mask (ticket) but quickly just not leaving the house seems like a much better option.

You’re not dumbing down by using clear language and removing assumption of expertise when you produce your content.

I certainly wished the face mask merchants of the world had realised this.

I eventually bought a box of 10 face masks, I’ve no real idea of their particular properties. I’m not leaving the house.

400 words #002: 80/20, run slow to run fast

Maybe at some point not every post will mention me running, but I run almost every day, so possibly not.

A few years ago, after yet another injury had forced me to stop running for an extended period (a ruptured achilles tendon), I realised I had to think about running differently.

My approach up to then had been ‘more is more’.

I was running further and further and faster and faster.

But I was also getting injured more and more frequently, and each injury was proving to be more serious than the last, and the enforced time off was getting longer and longer.

My body was getting burnt out by the ever-increasing demands, it was telling me to slow down, and when I didn’t listen it was forcing me to take a break.

I had to confront the fact that if I wanted to be able to run consistently then I would have to relax my expectations of myself.

Around this time I read a book which entirely changed the way I thought about running, 80/20 Running: Run Stronger and Race Faster By Training Slower.

It makes the case that for runners to be able to train and race effectively around 80% of your training should be dedicated to slow, ‘easy’ running, and around 20% to more intensive workouts. This is backed up by piles of academic studies and real-life examples.

By reducing the overall intensity of training you give yourself the chance to make the ‘harder’ 20% really impactful, and give yourself a chance to recover properly.

In the 3 years since reading that book I haven’t had any serious injuries. Do I stick religiously to an 80/20 rule? Absolutely not. But the way I think about running has changed entirely, I’m far less interested in always pushing myself and as a result I am able to run consistently and consistently injury-free.

I wonder how applicable this is to other areas of our lives?

All too often we see people in all areas of life pushing, and pushing, and pushing, often with diminishing returns or with them ending up burnt out and miserable.

How much more effective would we all be if we decided to do less, to focus on what really matters, to give ourselves time to recover, to ensure that when we ‘go hard’ it has a real impact, rather than becoming an unsustainable default mode, until we can’t go any more.

400 Words #001: A problem shared

I run a lot, one of the reasons is that I find it’s a good way for brain to shuffle my thoughts into some sort of order.

When I used to blog more regularly I found that writing had a similar effect.

I’m one of those people who works out what I think by trying to articulate it, whether that’s through discussion with someone else, or by writing my thoughts down.

There’s nothing quite as useful as seeing what you think you think staring back at you in black and white from a page (or, more likely, a screen).

I’ve always been intrigued by people who blog every day (I’ve long been signed up to Seth Godin’s daily ruminations), in the same way as I’ve always looked at the idea of keeping a daily diary.

It feels like a good way of ordering your thoughts and forcing yourself to understand what your perspective actually is on a particular topic.

In reality I don’t think I have the discipline to sit down every day and do this.

On the two occasions I tried, during a 2-week bike ride back in 2013 and about 6 years before that immediately after finishing university, I quickly became frustrated and let the habit slide.

However recently it feels like more and more often I have half-thoughts, or snatches of ideas, whilst running, whilst in the shower, or when I wake up in the middle of the night.

More often than not (in fact, almost all the time) these thoughts don’t go anywhere further than a note on my phone or a scribble in a notebook. But I think I want to give myself the chance to try and expand them out into something a bit more fully formed, to force myself to understand what I think and to try and articulate it.

So I’m going to start doing at least 1 blog post a week. I’m prone to wanging on at great length so I’m also going to restrict myself to no more than 400 words.

I think I’ll mostly write about work, digital things and whatnot, because that’s what I spend a great deal of time thinking about, but let’s see.

John O’Groats to (almost) Land’s End

We’re setting off from our hotel in Thurso into 40mph headwinds. The ‘proper’ start of our ride, at John O’Groats, is still 20 miles away. This corner of north-east Scotland, the tip of mainland Britain, is a strange place. There are very few trees (I guess because it’s blasted by storms from the North Sea) and most of the land seems to be used as grazing for a few bedraggled looking sheep. The road signs and place names are all written in what I think is Scots Gaelic, as well as English, and the few buildings that we do see seem hunkered down into the landscape. We don’t really see any people and the whole journey to the start feels a bit like riding through a windswept ghost town.

Fast forward almost two weeks and I’m sat in a bus shelter in Devon and it’s raining. I’m on the phone to my girlfriend and I feel like I might cry because she’s just told me she’s proud of me. I’m also in the process of abandoning the bike ride I’ve been on for the past 12 days because my knee has told me in no uncertain terms that it isn’t going to do any more cycling.

But even this disheartening turn of events can’t, really, ruin the experience of the past two weeks. It’s the smallest details and moments which stand out (most of everything else has already faded into a blur of fields, roads and heavy skies). Alex’s endless happy whistling (he is without doubt the most cheerful person I know), even when speeding down the side of a mountain at 60kph; a red squirrel spotted on a misty morning at the Highland games showground in Braemar; the ride out of Braemar, on a crisp, clear morning, across the golf course, without anyone else in sight; colourful butterflies sunning themselves on the cycle path as we wind down towards Perth; cycling through a weird, seemingly-abandoned farm (it was like something out os 28 Days Later) just outside Carlisle; listening to Patrick Wolf as we travelled down past the edge of the Lake District in the sunshine; getting the ferry across the Mersey in Liverpool; cycling down a ‘cycle path’ that was like something out of Paris-Roubaix, and then through an actual field, just outside Wrexham; meeting an eccentric woman who was out walking her dogs in the terrible weather in Devon, and her telling us about how the wind had ‘blown all the crows upside down’. There are already a thousand other things I’ve forgotten the details of.

The ride was far more challenging than I’d expected (the last time I did it, in 2011, I think the fact I’d never done anything like it before was actually a blessing, I was also younger and fitter which probably helped too), but it was far more fun as well.

A few people have asked me about the logistics, I’ll do a separate thing about that, but I just wanted to get these thoughts down before I forgot them.

Running in the Alps (redux)

 

Last month I went for a week of running in the Alps (on my own). I based myself in a basic hotel room in Chamonix, got up early each morning, went running before the weather turned (which it did with clockwork regularity at about 2pm each day) and then took a nap most afternoons before heading out for a wander and some food each evening.

That might not sound like your idea of fun but for me it was absolute heaven and I returned feeling properly refreshed and rested.

Anyway, it was fucking great, and here are some photos

scafell-clouds-01

Running the 3 Peaks

The path petered out ahead of me, I’d been following footprints in the snow with the odd check of the route on my watch for the past 15 minutes. In an ideal world a map would’ve been involved but the howling wind made any attempt to get anything out of my bag, let alone something that was a potential sail, almost impossible.

We were heading to the top of Ben Nevis, the first of the three summits that make up the UK 3 Peaks, from about 400m up we’d been firmly surrounded by cloud and the visibility had become increasingly rubbish as we got nearer the top. By now I could see about 5-10 metres in front of me and beyond that everything was enveloped in in edgeless whiteness.

ben-nevis-ashTaken about 15 mins before I decided to turn back…whilst taking a photo was still a viable task

I’d spent most of the previous few days reading about the hills we were running up and it had been difficult to avoid the warnings that kept cropping up about the top of Ben Nevis, with the summit of the mountain enjoying close proximity to some pretty serious gullies and cliffs. The presence of late-winter snow would make it difficult to spot the edges of these hazards, and the terrible visibility further exacerbated this heady mix.

As I stopped to check my compass and was nearly knocked sideways by the wind I decided to turn back, I didn’t want to be one of those people who had pressed on regardless of the elements and for no real reason other than ‘to get to the top’. I’d reached (my watch later told me) 3,862ft, which was more than enough for the day.

About 10 minutes after I’d turned back I caught up with Stu who agreed with the decision, the slippy, wet, windy conditions weren’t enjoyable in any way and the prospect of 2 more hills over the next 20 hours (along with a significant amount of time sitting in the car) didn’t make either of us any more determined to get any wetter than we were.

I clenched my fist as tightly as I could to try and wring some of the water out of my drenched gloves. Then Stu pointed out my lace was undone. Trying to do wet laces up with gloves on is impossible so I took them off; my wet, cold, stiff fingers were almost useless but I eventually managed to fasten them with a sort of cackhanded triple knot.

As we made our way back down the mountain we passed a few other bedraggled groups of walkers heading towards the top. A few of them were woefully underdressed for the conditions (shorts, tshirt and gym shoes) but didn’t really pay any attention to us trying to describe how difficult the conditions were nearer the top. One group seemed to be blasting Jerusalem out of a small, tinny speaker strapped to one of their backpacks. I don’t know if it helped, we didn’t see them again.

ben-nevis-murk

We drove through the night to the Lake District and our next hill, Scafell Pike. Stu and I dozed as much as we could whilst Alex drove non-stop.

We arrived at Seathwaite at about 2am, it was total darkness and as I got out of the car to stretch my already-tired legs I looked up to see a sky spattered with stars, it was beautiful, and silent.

Our plan was to start out for Scafell at dawn which gave us the chance for a few hours sleep. Sleeping in a car is never the most comfortable experience but almost immediately I fell into a deep, dreamless sleep only waking when my alarm went off at 4.45.

I clambered into my running gear feeling strangely awake and energised, given we’d had about 3 hours sleep, and had a breakfast of a slightly squished banana and an energy bar.

It was a clear, still morning and as we looked around us at the sheep and silent fields we stood under mostly cloudless skies. It looked like we had left the terrible weather behind us in Scotland and as dawn began to break over the surrounding hills it looked like it could be an absolutely beautiful day. The only potential problem was that the hill we were heading towards was still wreathed in cloud, the only summit that was. Hoping that the cloud might lift as the sun rose we trotted along the slowly rising path from Seathwaite Farm towards Great End, with Glaramara on our left.

scafell-path-clouds

We were soon run-walking through a cloud (again) and I began to worry that we weren’t going to enjoy any good weather. Much as I love running in the hills it’s far more enjoyable when you’re a bit dry and can see some of the surrounding scenery!

Fortunately it was pretty warm and there wasn’t much of a breeze but going uphill in a cloud means that everything quickly gets totally soaked.

However as we started through the edge of the boulder field at Ill Crag the sun began to stream through the cloud and we were soon striding across the top of the fell, above the clouds under a bright blue sky. It was glorious and there wasn’t another soul in sight (the fact that it was about 6.30am probably helped).

scafell-clouds-01Above the clouds

As we began to clamber the final section towards the top of Scafell Pike a few blokes passed us having come from the opposite direction but as we reached the top we were completely on our own.

On our way back down a Mountain Rescue helicopter buzzed overhead, taking off and landing at the top of Great End. We passed the Rescue team, who looked like they were out on a training exercise, before we left the sunshine and back into the cloud which still wrapped the lower slopes of the mountain in a damp blanket of fog.

I was feeling pretty good as we came down so had a nice, mostly unbroken, run back to the car passing a growing number of people heading up the hill we’d just been at the top of. Alex was waiting for us still wearing his slightly ridiculous outfit of fleece everything that he’d slept in.

scafell-alexFleece trousers, fleece fleece (possibly another fleece under his fleece). It’s the fleeceman

2 Peaks down. 1 Peak to go.

As we drove out of the Lake District we passed an endless stream of vehicles, cyclists, walkers and runners heading the other way. It was shaping up to be a beautiful, hot, sunny weekend.

We drove down towards Snowdon, we were going to do the Snowdon Ranger route up from ‘behind’ the mountain (in comparison with most of the more popular routes) which I had hoped would be a little quieter in case it was a nice day (as it turned out to be). It’s also supposed to be one of the easier routes, and after 2 hills in under a day and lots of sitting around in the car an easy route seemed like a really, really good idea.

En route I realised I hadn’t brought enough dry socks with me (pair #1 had become sodden on Nevis and pair #2 hadn’t really stayed dry in the clouds on Scafell). Alex suggested hanging them out of the window and letting the sun and the wind do their thing. If you ever need to dry some socks whilst driving down the motorway I can report that this method is very effective.

IMG_4011

We drove along the north Wales coast with everything looking so green, the countryside seemed to have exploded into Spring. To our right the sea stretched into the distance, flat and waveless. As we passed Llandudno a weird fog enveloped the horizon, it was so thick and localised that we thought it must be smoke but there was no obvious source. It was strange, with the beautiful weather all around us, to stare at this thick smudge on the horizon.

We turned into northern Snowdonia and the landscape changed again, the hills all got bigger and bigger but at the same time seemed softer and more rounded than those in the Highlands and Lake District.

We parked up by Llyn Cwellyn, Alex made plans to go and dip his feet in the water whilst we went to slog up the final hill.

The path zig-zagged up the steep sloper behind the Snowdon Ranger Hostel, it was ace to see so many families out enjoying the good weather. Much like the route we’d taken up Scafell the initial couple of miles (after the first steep bit) of the path was a pretty gradual, forgiving incline and was quite runnable.

However once we hit the slopes of Snowdon proper we slowed to a crawl, partly because of the streams of people coming in the opposite direction but mainly because, by now, our legs had turned to lead and no amount of gels, jelly babies and energy bars could coax our bodies into anything faster than a trudge. In the distance you could see the Snowdon train slowly winching its way up the side of the mountain to the top .

But the views were incredible. You could see for miles, across the rooftop of Wales, in the distance a pointed peak was poking through a nest of clouds, a plane flew overhead, the sun glinted off lakes in every direction. Despite the fact my body felt like it was weighed down and moving through treacle I was grinning to myself, grinning as much as I had as we run up above the clouds on Scafell, grinning in the way that only running up a very big hill on a very nice day can make you grin.

IMG_4032

As we neared the top, the Rangers Path (the route we’d been following) joined the other (much more popular) paths for the last section up to the summit. Suddenly we were surrounded by loads more people, it was noisy, it was crowded, and the glorious isolation we’d been enjoying evaporated as we became just another part of the bank holiday traffic.

It was difficult to feel any real sense of achievement amongst all these people. Although, I’ve often felt this weird…nothing feeling at the end of a big challenge (maybe this says something deeply troubling about me). I guess it’s because I enjoy the planning and the doing more than the finishing and the completing. Maybe it’s a sort of sadness that the thing is finished.

We headed back down the mountain and once we’d left the summit behind us we were once again, more-or-less, on our own.

As we rejoined the flatter, final stretch I tripped over and took a fairly heavy tumble (directly in front of a group of walkers). I hit the dirt, and skidded along on my front. Without thinking too much about it I tried to bounce back onto my feet and carry on running. Fortunately there didn’t be too much complaining from my legs but my hands and forearms (which had taken the brunt of the fall) were really sore. I looked down to see a brown crust of blood and direct smeared across the knuckles of my left hand and my right palm was pink and raw. I’d also chosen this run to wear my white vest which was now similarly filthy and, on closer inspection, my legs hadn’t survived unscathed and there was blood dribbling down my shin.

As I ran past a family a small boy turned, pointed and said “eurgh, what has that man done!? he’s all dirty”. And it’s true, I was all dirty.

I arrived back at the car slightly ahead of Stu, Alex was sat there basking in the sun. Whilst we had been running he’d been a good samaritan and had shuttled a father and son who had come down the ‘wrong’ side of the mountain back to Llanberis, he’s nice like that.

alex-stu-ash

So that was it, 3 Peaks, in a little over 24 hours. The weather, after a horrendous start, couldn’t have been better. It was really good fun, I’d totally recommend it. We couldn’t have done it without Alex agreeing to do the driving. And I’m not sure it would’ve been much fun on my own, so you need a good running buddy – thanks to Stu for filling that role.

So, what next? I’ve always fancied giving the Yorkshire 3 Peaks a go, and I’m off to the French Alps at the end of May.

If you’d like to donate some money, I was raising cash for Cancer Research: https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/ashmann 

Reduced visibility

I run without my glasses, this makes people ask “but how do you see!?” and the answer is I don’t really, and it’s great – an intrinsic part of my running experience.

I’m very short-sighted (very). However I can rarely be bothered with contact lenses. What this means is that when I go running, and I run without my glasses (because when you run with your glasses on they eventually bounce down your sweaty nose and fall off your face, which isn’t that great), I can’t really see much of what’s going on around me.

Due to the fact I can’t really see any detail the whole world softens into a pleasing blur, and that just seems to heighten the ‘lose yourself’ feeling that you get when running.

I can see enough that curbs and pedestrians and lamposts and whatnot don’t cause too much of a hazard (although overhanging branches sometimes catch me unawares – I’ve got a few rips in some of my running tops thanks to brambles and rose bushes that I didn’t see in time).

But by reducing my ability to see in any detail what’s going on around me I give myself an excuse to relegate everything around me to the status of obstacles to be navigated. And this allows me to just get on with enjoying the sheer physical joy of running.

Of course if I’m running somewhere very beautiful then I’ll ‘put my eyes in’. But most of the time I’m running around north London, at nighttime. And I know I’m really not missing anything.

Am I alone in this? Would be interested to hear from fellow four-eyes.

 

Work smarter not harder (aka send in the robots)

Everyone I know who works in-house at a cultural organisation is ridiculously, demonstrably, upsettingly time-poor.

When I worked in-house I watched with dismay as colleagues floundered under never-ending to-do lists (someone’s reached 7xA4 pages at one point, which seemed a bit silly). Now I work for an agency with a lot of cultural clients I’m often trying to work out solutions that’ll save people time and effort and free them up a bit to do some planning and *gasp* personal and professional development and generally feel a bit less beleaguered, noone likes feeling beleaguered.

I wrote an article for the AMA earlier this year looking at ‘future trends’ which is obviously a fool’s errand, however one of the things I touched on was automation and how it could be utilised to make your life a bit easier. Because frankly lots of people spend lots of time doing stuff that is very boring and could just as easily (and probably more efficiently) be done by someone else, especially if that someone else is a computer, computers are great at doing boring things.

But yeah, yeah, that all sounds great and a bit complicated and frankly you probably don’t have time to put any of it into practice, right? WRONG. Stopit, take 5 minutes, read this post, and do some of these things and save yourself some time. Jeez.

Not only will this save you the actual time it takes to do some of these things, it will also go some way to alleviating the constant nagging worry and stress that starts to build up when you know you’ve got a to-do list you’re never going to see the end of.

This is also NOT AN EXHAUSTIVE LIST, I’m just trying to outline some solutions to some of the most common problems I see. I think there are enough tools here to cobble together a fix for most situations. Never underestimate the power of a good bodge.

Social media activity

You’re probably already familiar with tools like Tweetdeck, Buffer and Hootsuite which allow you to schedule social media activity (also lots of platforms now have scheduled posting built in). Obviously this isn’t something you’d want to completely automate but there is likely to be some that you can, so do!

Digital marketing campaigns

Digital marketing used to be a bit of a dark art, now – with some many campaigns taking place predominantly across social media channels and adwords, you can automate much of the optimisation that you used to pay an agency for (or spent lots of time monitoring and doing).

Tools like Opteo and Adespresso (which is made by the same people as Hootsuite) seem to offer a pretty cost-effective solution (caveat: I’ve not used either personally but have heard positive things about both) so they must be worth a go.

Data analysis and reporting

Cultural organisations do slowly seem to be waking up to the value of reporting on all their activity, unfortunately this means that someone has to pull these reports. Often this will mean having to log into lots of different systems and extract lots of different reports in lots of different systems and then try to collate them all into a master report that may not even get read. Ugh, rank.

So, enter dashboards, dashboards are fun for lots of reasons but mostly they make reporting far more straight-forward and you can link them up to live data feeds. A tool like Google Data Studio is great and free and pretty easy to use for most types of reporting you’ll want to do (from fairly simple stuff to more complex bits and bobs), however it’s easiest to use if you’re linking together Google products, which means finding a way of getting data out of the various platforms you’re trying to report on and into Google Sheets, I’ve come across two tools that does this pretty well: Blockspring and Supermetrics, there’s an article comparing the two here.

You can also schedule reports in Google Analytics, which is helpful

Image processing

This isn’t, strictly-speaking, automation but everyone seems to spend an inordinate amount of time processing images, that’s silly. Especially when it’s simply editing around resizing and optimising for the web. We use ImageOptim (a lot) at Substrakt. And the ever-helpful Chris Unitt has pointed out that Cloudinary is good too.

Emails (specifically transactional emails and lists)

Most email platforms and CRM systems will enable you to set up automatic segmentation (to varying degrees of complexity) of your customers based on specific behaviours, or the origin of the customer, etc. This is probably a bit of a rabbithole and generally I’d recommend keeping to the KISS rule of thumb but if you’re not making use of these tools then you’re probably making your life harder than it needs to be.

Also lots of these email tools will enable you to set up activity that’s triggered by specific conditions being met e.g. a new customer signing up, or an anniversary of them signing up, or their birthday, or someone completing a purchase, etc. And if they don’t, or you don’t use a system like this then you might be able to put something together with Zapier (or something similar) – more info on that below.

General automation

Tools like IFTTT and Zapier allow you to connect various platforms and services together to trigger actions in one another.

Personally I have an IFTTT applet that puts all of my Discover Weekly tracks into one big playlist (cos I always forget to listen to them at the time) and at Substrakt we use Zapier to link together various services we have (e.g. linking our kanban boards and time tracking software so that we don’t have to manually set up tasks in both).

I’m not going to be too prescriptive about this one because the possibilities are pretty huge but basically if you do a task or action based on something happening in a particular system then that can probably be, to some extent, automated. Zapier have a bunch of case studies on their site that is a good starting point.

Outsourcing

Your time is limited, and valuable. People-per-hour sites like UpWork can be a great and cost-effective way to shift standalone pieces of work (which will often cover lots of the nice-to-have things you’d like to do but are never going to have time to do). Similarly there may be things you’re trying to achieve in-house that it’d make far more sense to shift onto someone else’s plate. You can’t do everything.

Too busy for automation?

I’m not going to pretend all of this stuff can be set up in 5 minutes (although some of it can be). However the time you spend setting up will more than pay for itself.

Once you start using a few of these tools stuff just starts getting done without you having to constantly worry about it. I bet half the things on your to-do list are actually relatively small or straightforward tasks that you just never get around to. Set up some simple systems and these tasks can be ticked off your list, never to return.

Of course it’s not a silver bullet, you’ll never automate everything, but if you can – you should.

In addition, automation will keep getting more sophisticated, especially around the delivery of marketing campaigns. So the sooner you can start making use of it the better chance you stand of being able to make full use of all the tools that’ll soon be available to you.

Conversion rates – cut the crap / eyes on the prize

Conversion rates are often thrown about as a useful metric. And they are (with the usual caveats). They can provide a helpful indication about whether or not the various bits of your website are doing what they should. Or where there are issues that you need to address.

However I often have conversations with people who are beating themselves up because they are suffering with what they perceive as very low conversion rates. And I’m not sure they’re being all that fair on themselves.

The way that Google Analytics works out your conversion rate is it takes all your traffic (sessions) unless you tell it otherwise. It then takes the number of completed goals (transactions, or whatever it is you’re getting the conversion rate for) and works out your conversion rate from that.

So, for example if you had 5,000 sessions and 100 transactions then your conversion rate would be 2%. But is this number useful, or accurate? I’d argue it potentially isn’t.

If those 5,000 sessions include visitors who aren’t your target market and were never going to buy anything then they shouldn’t be included in your calculations.

As with so many of the metrics in GA, top level numbers often aren’t that helpful or meaningful.

Going back to the example above, what if half of those sessions had come from visitors from overseas who had been following a link to a blog post that cropped up on social media (an unlikely scenario but bear with me). Those visitors are unlikely to ever buy, say, a ticket for a performance so they probably shouldn’t be included in your numbers when you’re looking to calculate whether your production pages are converting traffic. Because that traffic was never going to buy a ticket and didn’t even visit the production pages.

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts (such as this one on funnel analysis and this one on ‘clarity of purpose‘) each part of your digital activity should have a clear purpose, and should be measured on that basis. It’s no use judging your contact page on whether or not it’s good at selling tickets.

This means using custom segments, setting up clear goals, and utilising things like custom dimensions and events if you need to, so that you can accurately measure the effectiveness of your site.

Going back to our example scenario, if your current marketing efforts are aimed at getting people from the city you’re located in, onto your production pages, to buy a ticket, then create a segment that allows you to identify a) if that’s happening, b) to what level that’s happening and how, and c) whether or not it’s meeting the objective you’ve set to the level you need (i.e. buying a ticket). If it is, then great (and you can begin to further optimise your campaign accordingly), if it isn’t then this will at least allow you to begin to identify where the issues may be. You might be getting the right sort of traffic but it’s not converting and through isolating and being able to analyse this traffic you will be able to begin to see where and how users are being tripped up.

Don’t use ‘all traffic’ to work out conversion rates as there will inevitably be ‘irrelevant’ traffic being swept up in this. If a session is landing on the site and hitting pages that play no purpose in the user journey for the goal that you’re analysing the conversion rate for then you’re including traffic that plays no role in the scenario you’re examining. Which isn’t helpful for anyone.

Relying on top level metrics means you’re never going to be able to identify actionable insights. Your website will likely have a number of goals whether that’s newsletter signups, enquiry submissions, donations, membership purchases, account setup, ticket purchases (you get the idea).

Each of those goals should have a clear user journey, ending in the goal being achieved. By properly measuring the goals you can work out if your various user journeys are working as they should be. And whether or not you’re actually enjoying any success.

So, to summarise (as ever, I’ve gone on a bit).

  1. If your conversion rates are looking a bit sad, are you actually being fair on yourself or are you setting your terms of reference to be far too wide?
  2. Use custom segments and goals to identify whether your digital platforms are working as they should be.

Thinking about running #1

20th July 2017 – on a train from Birmingham to London

I finally got around to reading Murakami’s ‘What I Talk About When I Talk About Running’ this week (whilst on another train to and from Leeds), it’s a really great read, an interesting insight into the man and also articulated a lot of the things I think and feel about running (it was also interesting just how much I didn’t really recognise around his motivations and frustrations, but he is in his 60s, and Japanese, and a different person, so maybe that is to be expected, afterall being ‘a runner’ is not a consistent, universal state of being).

Reading that book also made me think about how I feel about running, and writing. I’ve tried to write about running a bit in the past – some pieces have been more successful than others (this one tries and partly fails to capture a transcendental run I went on in Switzerland in 2012). But I liked the idea of a running-focused diary of sorts, so I’m going to try and do a bit of that. To what end I don’t really know but I think I’m someone who realises what they think and feel about something by talking or writing about it so, if nothing else, it’ll help me work out what my opinions are.

It also made me realise that, more than anything else, I define myself as ‘a runner’. I’m not a husband, or a father, or any of the things that people seem to define themselves as. But I am, most definitely (in my own head at least) a runner. Maybe this desire self-definition is a modern thing, the natural result of a thousand different channels all asking you to summarise yourself in a 100-word bio.

Anyway, last night when I got home from Leeds I went for a run with my brother. We’re both training for a marathon later in the year (the same marathon) but we do a lot of running together, running is the strongest thing we have in common. We own a flat together so we live together, but often the only real time we spend in each other’s company, is on a run. And it’s nice, it’s uncomplicated, we go out for a run, we chat a bit, but mostly we just run.

We’ve run lots of races together, in lots of different countries. It’s a weird unspoken thing that we never really seem to question too much, we both run – a lot –  we are runners, it is something we are both serious about, but not obsessive over. I couldn’t tell you why he runs, and I doubt he has much to say about my motivations. But I know he loves running as much as I do. So it’s nice that we’re once again training to run the same marathon (we’ve run marathons together in Edinburgh, Copenhagen, Berlin, we also went running in the French Alps last year) in York later this year.

Over these longer distances he is better than me, there’s no getting around that fact. I’m not a particularly competitive person but when it comes to running it’s difficult to say that’s still the case. But my brother, over anything longer than a half marathon, is quicker than me. His body just seems to work that way, he starts and can hold a pace for far longer than I can. He has run a few ultra marathons (distances over the 26.2 miles of a ‘traditional’ marathon) and this week finally convinced me to do one, so next January we will be running 48 miles from somewhere in Suffolk to the coast in Norfolk. I fully expect it to be very very difficult. But when I first started running I never imagined that I’d be able to run a marathon, and now I’ve run 5…I think, I can’t quite remember: London, Edinburgh, Chester, Copenhagen, Berlin. Plus some longer things like the time I ran from Salisbury to Southampton carrying a film canister in the cultural olympiad. So really it’s just a case of putting in the training and your body will probably be fine.

One of the great things about running a lot, in fact doing any endurance exercise that pushes you (I’ve also done some longer distance cycling like riding from John O’Groats to Lands End and cycling across Wales) is you discover a lot about your body and what it’s capable of. These adventures also teach you a lot about who you are, what you’ll tolerate, what your motivations are. I’ve learnt that my body is pretty resilient if I do something approaching the right training and I can be surprisingly bloody-minded – I never used to think of myself as particularly gritty but I’ve put myself in enough difficult situations to know that I will see something through to the bitter end if I can, no matter how much I might not be enjoying it at the time. I suspect the ultra marathon will be one of those times, horrible at the time but a good story to tell once you’ve finished it.

Putting the fun in funnel analysis

No, really.

Typically at Substrakt the primary aim for our sites is simple: sell tickets. What a customer sees as an organisation’s website is often comprised of two (or more) separate systems, this can make funnel analysis tricky, and may limit the amount of conversion optimisation you can do.

I have recently been doing some funnel analysis across all of our sites to look at the user journey that supports that primary goal (i.e. the purchase pathway) – initially just to see if there were any noticeable trends or patterns that stuck out. And two things did:

1. Mobile traffic wants to be booking traffic. The amount of mobile traffic that gets 50-75% of the way through the booking pathway and then drops out is staggering (there will be some valid research-related reasons for these drop-outs, but the volume of traffic starting but not completing this journey indicates a broader, underlying issue) on many of our sites mobile traffic accounted for the majority of entries into the booking pathway, but usually the smallest number of transactions (when traffic was split by device).

2. There is a huge discrepancy in how good ticketing web products are at converting mobile traffic. Arts websites are usually comprised of two main ‘bits’ the ‘content’ side of things (which is what Substrakt build) and the ticketing web product (which we can usually style and implement some basic UX tweaks in, but our options are very limited).

purchase funnel
(an example purchase pathway)

Our clients use a range of ticketing platforms including, but not limited to, Toptix’s eSRO, Tessitura’s TNEW, Spektrix, and Access’s Gamma. When looking at traffic going from clicking a booking button on the ‘content bit’ through to completing a transaction on the ‘ticketing bit’ I was staggered at the divergence in mobile conversion rates. The worst performing system had an average conversion rate of under 3% on mobile whereas the best was converting mobile traffic at an average rate of over 25%. This is a huge difference. For comparison desktop conversion rates ranged from ~19% to ~36%, and tablet from ~15% to ~35%.

What this does show is that some ticketing web products are actually quite successful at converting mobile traffic, and some are not very good at all. The reasons for this quickly become clear when you try to use the various products on a mobile – some aren’t responsive at all and others are but are lumbered with an almost completely baffling user experience.

Hopefully the next wave of updates to these products will see improvements in this area but what these numbers show is that some are failing to achieve their core purpose when it comes to the fastest growing area of web traffic, and that’s a worry.

I thought some supporting context may be helpful.

This shows the growth of mobile traffic (as a proportion of total web traffic), averaged across our clients (over the past 4 years) it also shows the growth of mobile transactions (as a proportion of total web transactions), averaged across our clients over the same time period.

This shows how the proportion of traffic from each device type is changing over time (tablet seems pretty static, whereas the growth of mobile – and the accompanying decline in desktop – is significant).

This last graph shows the split of sales by device, there is far less movement in these splits than we saw in the traffic data.

So what does this tell us?

This isn’t news, but the relentless uptick in mobile traffic looks to continue. Even if this rise begins to stagnate (as tablet traffic has), at current levels it is likely to be almost the largest proportion of traffic to your digital platforms.

I’m sure some people will say that this shows that people research on a mobile before buying on a desktop, which may indeed be the case (and probably is).

But if we accept that as true then that is a slightly precarious position to be in, the number of points of potential failure in your transaction process has just doubled if you’re expecting people to read about your product on one device before completing their transaction on another device.

I’m not convinced this is a particularly optimal user experience either, if this scenario is indeed the case then why aren’t people buying on mobile? I’d suggest it’s because the user experience is often not very good and it’s simply easier to abandon the purchase, or do it on a larger screen, where you have a mouse/trackpad and a keyboard (rather than a small touchscreen).

And lastly are we really willing to think that people ‘just don’t buy’ on mobiles? Because numerous other sectors show that this just isn’t the case.

How can we fix it?

There are likely to be many, many things you can optimise on your website (or at least the bits you have control over), alongside design and layout tweaks we often find that simple changes to language and microcopy can yield significant improvements.

Alongside this I would hope that the ticketing suppliers can begin to improve the web products they offer to the organisations they work with, because some of them are demonstrably underperforming – and that’s not good for anyone, supplier, organisation or customer.

If you’re interested in a free ticket funnel healthcheck then get in touch: team@substrakt.com. All I’d require is access to your analytics and tag manager accounts and I can let you know how you stack up against the benchmarks, and what can be done to improve things.

Food

Last August I decided to go vegetarian. In reality this didn’t really mean changing much, I hardly ever ate meat at home and half the time when I was eating out meat didn’t feature in any meaningful way in what I chose to eat.

The tipping point came when I was in America last summer and was slightly disgusted by the sheer volume of meat I’d consumed whilst there. I’d begun to notice more and more that any real dip in my energy levels or general sense of happiness usually coincided with either eating lots of meat, or eating badly (and usually those two things went hand in hand). Conversely I usually felt good and perky (annoyingly so) when I ate lots of fruit and veg. By labelling myself as a vegetarian I thought I might force myself consciously to do a lot more of the latter and a lot less (ideally none) of the former. It was never really an ‘ethical’ decision in any way, sure I like animals but also, for my whole life, had been basically okay with eating them.

So, how has it been? Absolutely fine. I sometimes feel like I’m being slightly awkward when I’m asked if I have ‘any dietary requirements’ but I suspect that’s simply because the answer to that question always used to be ‘of course not’ and now it’s ‘yes, a bit’. It has been interesting to learn new ways of cooking and thinking about food. It’s funny when people ask whether there’s anything I ‘miss’ because the honest answer is there really isn’t.

And has it had the hoped-for effect on my mood, energy and general sense of well-being? It seems so! I’m not going to entirely credit that to my diet but I used to suffer fairly regularly with almost chronic fatigue on a daily basis and that’s rarely ever the case (and if it does occur it’s usually obviously traced out to a late or boozy episode the night before).

The idea of eating meat is now fairly repellant to me, am I going to go vegan? Almost certainly not, I like butter too much. But the entire experiment has been interesting and, so far, a success. Which is nice.

Other things I have noticed:

  • Some people cannot comprehend of a meal without meat, which is weird in and of itself
  • Vegetarian options in restaurants are either great, interesting and numerous OR boring and limited. And when they’re boring and limited they’re really boring and limited. I’ve been surprised just how piss poor the veggie options have been in otherwise ‘decent’ restaurants.
  • You end up spending less on food (meat is expensive).
  • The fetishisation of meat is everywhere and it’s really weird. Maybe I just never noticed before but so much food advertising revolves around meat and so much advertising involving meat has an almost sexual approach to looking at and describing what is, in reality, a glistening chunk of dead animal. That is a strange thing, no?

Failure is real, but that’s ok. Agile is not a magic bullet. Your audience are customers

I was following the tweets at today’s #AMAiterate digital marketing event, all of the following is said with the fairly hefty caveat that following a conference via the tweets from attendees is reductive and unhelpful at best. However a few themes seemed to emerge and I thought I’d throw my thoughts into the mix as well.

1) failure is a good thing, or doesn’t exist, or is something you should seek out.

If I’m being kind I can see the sentiment behind this. However when taken at face-value (which is totally unfair as this particular person goes on to provide lots of useful context for this initial statement) my take on it is that; failure is not a good thing, failure does exist, and you should be trying to avoid it. Failure should not be your aspiration.

Learning from failure is essential, but that’s only possible if your acknowledge when failure has occurred, and that’s only possible if you acknowledge that it’s real in the first place, and know what it might look like.

Failure also shouldn’t be the only thing that triggers reflection and learning. Having an ongoing dialogue with your colleagues about what’s working well (do more of that) and what is working less well (try to do less of that) is essential to build a truly progressive, effective working culture.

I feel like I should emphasise that I actively endorse a working culture in which failure is recognised as an expected, and acceptable, inevitability of being a human who does stuff (show me someone who is 100% successful and I’ll show you a liar). Looking to apportion blame is a tedious waste of time and energy and does no-one any good. Rather than saying failure is good/aspirational/made-up would it not instead be more helpful to say that a culture of questioning, feedback and learning is something to strive for. Maybe that is what they said, but I guess that’s less tweetable.

2) Agile is totes the best ting evz and should be applied to everything

It seems there was a lot of talk about Agile (the capital A was intentional) and how it should be applied to…well, everything.

I’d argue there’s a big difference between Agile (I.e. A project management methodology that is absolutely not appropriate for every circumstance) and an agile (small a) influenced approach if that second term means a culture that aims to deliver things in smaller, more frequent chunks and then iterate through the project based on feedback. Agile (big A) can result in people getting bogged down in following a specific approach whereas agile is a cultural approach to project delivery.

It’s important to try and keep that difference in mind, agile shouldn’t be some sort of weird, cultish badge of honour, or sledgehammer approach that you attempt to apply to every aspect of what you do.

Appropriately applied it can yield great benefits, but it isn’t a panacea, it isn’t always appropriate and it requires more than simply stating you’re now agile and having a stand-up every few weeks.

In quite a software-specific way my lovely and handsome colleague Max wrote about this difference a few years ago.

This sums it up quite well:

https://twitter.com/pheebsgeebs/status/804684711750680576

However, as that tweet hopefully hints at, you can see this might not always be the most appropriate approach to take. Take an agile approach to your agile approach, or something.

3) everything is digital so nothing is digital

Yep, totally agree, which is why I wrote a fairly long rant about it…3 AND A HALF YEARS AGO, why is this still being presented as revelatory new information? Why hasn’t the sector started to respond to this reality, given that it has been the reality for getting on for half a decade now? That probably warrants being the subject of a separate post…

4) your audience are customers, they have expectations

https://twitter.com/spektrix/status/804718688762990592

Calling your audience customers may immediately get some people’s backs up, which is fair enough, it’s probably more nuanced than that.

However something we are always aware of at Substrakt is: people coming to buy a ticket on your site probably spend a lot of their time buying things on other sites, as such they have expectations about what their purchasing experience should be like. If your purchase pathway is 70x more complicated and difficult to navigate than Amazon’s, or Asos, or Sainsburys then they will notice. 

The fact that they’re willing to battle through that to buy a ticket should not be seen as an excuse to give this part of the ‘customer experience’ little/no attention, for many people your website (and buying a ticket there) may be their first interaction with you as an organisation, if it’s as easy and enjoyable as pulling a rotten tooth then surely that’s a bad thing?

tl;dr: judging a conference based solely on the tweets is unfair

Running in the Alps

2016-09-21 11.57.58

After a couple of years of thinking about it (and probably boring everyone within earshot), last week I finally went running in the Alps. And it was bloody great.

Armed with a few maps and this book, we rented a small “hut thing” (technical term) just outside Chamonix to use as our base for the week. We were blessed with totally great weather and inadvertently arrived just as the summer tourist season in Chamonix ended so everywhere was pretty quiet which added to the general sense of relaxation.

2016-09-22 11.52.39

A few observations:

  • Running up mountains involves almost as much walking as it does running, and that’s ok (everything is, inevitably, quite steep).
  • Running in the alps involves continuous uphill stretches longer than anything you can find in the UK (again, not a surprise but worth noting…living in London means it was almost impossible to do any really appropriate training ahead of the trip)
  • I noticed this last time I was in that part of the world but…all the food involves cheese and potatoes.
  • If you go just outside the summer season that means all of the lifts will be closed which will probably ruin some of your plans and make everything a little bit inconvenient.
  • The book I linked to above is mostly great however one of the routes in particular involved some fairly ridiculous scrambling (that the book made no mention of). It was all fine (/fun) in the end but worth bearing in mind.

2016-09-25 12.19.05

Clarity of purpose

I’ve written another article for Create Hub. This one focuses on things I think the arts sector could look at to try and have a better time when it comes to delivering digital projects.

One thing I debated including, but ultimately didn’t, was about purpose, and justification. Your project has to have a reason for existing. “Because everyone else is doing it” or “we’ve been given some money” are not really good reasons to do anything.

In the not so distant past I did the PRINCE2 Practitioner qualification, PRINCE2 is a project management methodology that is used relatively widely on large, complex projects. Public sector projects are frequently delivered through this methodology (and I believe the UK government actually has a stake in the company that delivers the PRINCE2 qualifications). Anyway, all of that is fairly irrelevant. What is relevant is that there is a stage within the PRINCE2 process called IP, or Initiating a Project. This stage, amongst other things, aims to “Agree whether or not there is sufficient justification to proceed with the project” and “Document and confirm that an acceptable Business Case exists for the project”. Once again I am not evangelising on behalf of a particular methodology but both of these points seem, to me, to be useful and vital discussions that should be had with all projects. I have seen so many digital projects in the arts for which there seems no sensible justification and no real business case.

What I’m trying to get at is that if your project doesn’t have a clear purpose it will be almost impossible to deliver successfully. Not only will you end up with frustrated stakeholders but it will be difficult to brief any 3rd parties you need to work with and, if things go wrong, it will be difficult to prioritise to solve whatever issues you run up against. Not only does it need a purpose but there has to be a clear justification for that purpose and, ideally, some sort of business case to support it. Not only will this make your life easier it’ll make it easier to manage the project because everyone will be clear on what you’re all trying to achieve, it’ll be easier to sell to colleagues, work out how it should be funded and generally make everything better.

The best projects I’ve worked on have came from a starting point of solving an actual need/problem and had a clear set of goals in a sensible order of priority. Everyone working on the project understood what the goals were and why they existed and as a result were all bought in and pulling in the same direction from the start. The worst projects I’ve worked on have started because someone was awarded some money for no clear reason, or wanted to copy a competitor – there were conflicting agendas from the outset, noone really understood what was going on and they descended into near-farce. Noone wants to be involved in the latter type of project, it’s rubbish.

Common sense is not so common

Earlier this year Substrakt launched a new site for ENO, econsultancy wrote a nice case study on the project which garnered this comment:

Screen Shot 2016-04-11 at 16.29.34

So far, so the-bottom-half-of-the-internet. However what Mr Francis touches on here is something that I believe is fundamental to the success of the new ENO site, and – more importantly – something that arts websites so often miss. Namely that your website should have a a clearly identified primary purpose or aim, and you should then proactively focus on achieving that purpose. Of course a website will often be trying to achieve multiple things, but you should be able to apply a hierarchy to that list.

The situation is certainly changing but in the recent past websites for arts organisations often seem to become a brochure for every single thing the company does. I empathise with the never-ending struggle to ‘be on the homepage’ or ‘have our own section’ but unfortunately your website visitors probably don’t understand (or want to understand) why your website’s structure mirrors that of the organisation’s staffing diagram or why there are 15 competing things on the homepage. Equally why is there such a battle for the homepage when the majority of the traffic to your site probably doesn’t even land there? (a conversation for another day).

So, yes Damien, common sense. It’s difficult to do, and not so common.