Get this stuff out of my head.

It's Not Just About Apps

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This is a presentation that I gave at the Local by Social North East Edition on Friday the 4th of March.

As I hope you can tell from the speaker note/script below.  I am trying to highlight that there is much that can be done without the aid of technical people and that that work will tell us a great deal.


Good morning.

My name is Saul Cozens and I am the Technical Director of a Web Application Development company in Sheffield, but today I’d don’t want to talk about me and what I do.  I like to talk about us.

When I listen to some of the conversations within this wonderfully creative and innovative community I sometimes worry that we are missing a trick.  I worry that we have too narrow a focus, that we are not taking advantage of some of the knowledge, skills and potential that exists around us.
I keep wanting to shout:  “It’ s not just about Apps”

First, let me be clear what I mean by the word ‘App’.  When someone says App, I think of a little square icon on the touch screen of the mobile device I’ve just paid a small fortune for (or that I will do for the next 24 months).
I know it can mean other things as well, but that’s how I mean it today.

I think that Apps are great.


They are easy to find,
they usually have some kind of user rating on so I can tell the good ones from the really bad ones,
I can install them with a couple of taps and
they update automatically whenever the author adds a feature or fixes a bug.

They are child’s play.

They are also very often, brilliantly focused to solve a single problem.


So good Apps are designed very specifically for the circumstances of the user, their situation, their mode.  
They recognise that because they are mobile, they are going to be used when the user is also doing something else and so they have to be incredibly simple to use.  

But there are a couple of things that bother me with our focus on Apps.
We tend to think of their success in terms of the numbers of users not in the value that they deliver.  There are many very popular Apps that are immensely fun


and generate huge revenues for their authors, but our objectives are not really about fun or revenue generation,

so should we use the same measures?

There are exceptions. Some Apps are designed for very niche user groups and deliver huge amounts of value to them and through them.  An example is the Nursing Constellation App.  


It combines numerous nursing practice references and allows them to be carried around in a pocket.  At a cost of about £100, this App is pretty expensive, and has relatively few users but it has the potential to save lives.

I guess I’m trying to say that the mass production model that is dominant in the App marketplace


is not always the most appropriate one to deliver the most value.  

Perhaps when thinking of the people who we can deliver value to, we should not limit ourselves to those with a smart phone in their pocket, but instead think of the improving the effectiveness of those fewer people who deliver value to a wider group.

We can use technology to improve the lives of people even if they do not use that technology directly.

This is particularly true when the people we are trying to deliver to, our ‘market’, are not just the digitally connected and technology literate few, but are a wider community of people with more basic needs than to remember where they parked their car.

The second concern I have about our obsession with Apps is the fact that there are relatively few people who can create them.  


It takes specialist skills, knowledge and tools.  

Don’t get me wrong, there are people out there like that and if you find one willing to help you develop an App, befriend, cherish and nurture them, they are precious, but there are so very many more people out their with knowledge, skills and experience that can be used to harness technology to deliver value and help make others more effective in delivering value.

As a very simple example, I frequently see people people filling in online forms by typing then clicking on the next field, then typing and clicking, typing and clicking.  Often, these are people who fill in the same form several times a day, but still they type and click, type and click.
By introducing them to the concept of the TAB key (and the shift TAB) I give them the potential to spend less time filling in forms.  They can spend less time thinking about the mechanics of the form and more about the information they have providing.

Everyone of us has the ability to have this impact, the knowledge and the skills to use technology to improve the lives of users and the effectiveness of others in doing the same.

So if it’s not Apps that will allow us to do this what will?  



What do I mean by Platforms?  
Stuff like Wordpress, Twitter, Google Docs, Yahoo! Groups, Flickr, Netvibes.  
Aren’t these just web apps?

I think some web apps deserve to be called platforms because they are generative, they allow us create solutions to many different problems by configuring them.  


Yahoo! Groups is configured in a specific way to make Freecycle, Flickr is configured with a some conventions and processes to run the Visit Dublin photo competition, the introduction of a simple hashtag makes Twitter useful as a conference Q&A tool or turns a TV show into a shared experience.  

And Wordpress… let’s not try and list the different ways that Wordpress has been configured to solve different problems.

These platforms get applied in ways that the original designer of the platform never anticipated.  


In many instances, the problem never existed when the platform was designed or maybe the problem affects so few people that it was just not visible to the platform designers.

Platforms become even more powerful when we connect them together,


when we can link the RSS output of one into the API of another.  
When we use Posterous to allow people to submit photos and videos to an group managed approval process and then publish them on a Flickr group, Youtube channel and a Wordpress blog, all without writing a line of code.

This stuff is simple to do.


Relatively. Like learning to tie our shoe laces, we still need to be shown by others and practice but it more about gaining an understanding than developing skill.  You don’t need a degree in it!

Using and configuring platforms also introduces new things that we need to learn about.  Things that are not technical in nature.


The way that we put solutions together, the configurations we use, changes how people use them.  

An anonymous commenting system will have a very different atmosphere than one where you must login with your Facebook identity.

Making a poll result visible without having to vote first can skew the outcome.  

Allowing comments only at a page level rather than on each paragraph ends up with very different conversations.

We don’t yet understand all of the impact of all of the available configurations.  This knowledge is either not yet gained or just not very well distributed.  


We need to gather this understanding from every project and every experiment that we run and we must share it.


We should add structure to help us remember what information is important to allow others to re-use including who the target users are, what skills and knowledge they posses, what tools were utilised, what manual or administrative process were required and what policies had to be produced or applied.

But this structure should not constrain how the things we learn are expressed,


but instead to add to them so that it is easy for others to find, to filter, to rate and comment on, to amend, update and re-use.  

We need an App Store for our configurations.  

One that helps us with the mechanics of configuration (how do I link Posterous to Wordpress?) as well as the impact of those configurations.

This structure will help us distribute the understanding we have of our toolset, it will help US become more effective.

But the important thing is that we share our experiences, our stories


This stories should be told in the medium that suits them and us best.  Sharing through video, screencasts, user interviews, all of those things and others.

We need stories of our triumphs.


How we got it right, what the successful outcomes were, where we delivered value and how we helped other be more effective at delivering value.

and also the failures.  


What went wrong and why.  As individuals we don’t often get to try again, but as a group we can we can iterate, adapt and amend.


To summarise:

It’s not all about Apps, but we can learn from them.
We should not judge value by number of users.
We should seek out smaller groups of users who need out help.
We can configure as well as make.
We must share in order to learn.


Thank you for listening.