SXSW 2016: Get the Message! The Rise of Conversational UI.

When a huge room at a busy conference is packed full way before the session starts, the subject matter, or at least the title of the panel, is obviously resonating with a bunch of people. This was the case with ‘Get the Message! The Rise of Conversational UI’. Designers, developers, strategists and entrepreneurs piled in to hear about the next wave of interface that’s redefining the relationships they have  with their customers.

This discussion of ‘Conversational UI’ featured some of the rockstars of this emerging field. Jeff Xiong (former CTO of Tencent, the makers of WhatsApp), Julia Hu (CEO of Lark, you should try it) and Chris Messina: a former Googler who recently became Design Experience Lead at Uber. And who invented the hashtag.

Conversational UI comes in many different forms but in general, it stems from developments in artificial intelligence, chat environments, chat bots (like those often integrated into Slack) and voice (where increasingly computers talk to you and vice versa).

These experiences typically offer a convenient, consistent and familiar way to interact with brands and services. They’re easy to share and install, because generally there’s no additional app. Often you just add a contact in your text or messenger app. And there’s no new interface to learn – you simply interact with a business, brand or organisation as you would a friend.

Lark is an interesting (and very well funded) startup in this space. It aims to clone the methods of the top doctors and behavioural scientists. The platform creates moments of conversation in healthcare that recognise what you’re going through and recognise your efforts, in this instance, in eating better and losing weight.

Jeff Xiong recounted the astonishing success of WeChat in China and, potentially, impending charge at Western markets. If you’ve never used or read about WeChat, it’s worth looking it up. More than an app, it’s more like a chat based operating system. You can transfer money, buy products and services, make bookings and heaps and heaps more. Xiong said that in China, if you didn’t have WeChat , you’re probably not Chinese. In China there are more than 10 million businesses on WeChat. Broadcast news and people interact with the business. People love talking to their banks, utility providers, schools… the kinds of companies that you have some form of relationship anyway. And for many the quality of these interaction are vastly better.

And now these services are emerging everywhere. From Uber ordering being deftly integrated into Facebook Messenger to the New York Times bot developed for Slack, or the bot made for students applying to Stanford (many people are more comfortable dealing with a bot than a human). You can have the kind of two-way relationship with an entity that suits you.

The final point made by the panel was that the kinds of people who are developing these experiences are not necessarily interface or app designers. More often than not they’re experience strategists and service designers – and occasionally, an improv comedian to help with creating natural, heartfelt responses.

So next time you wonder in a research or strategy session, “If this brand was a person, who would it be?”. The answer could well be “itself”.


SXSW 2016: Rooster Teeth and its 5.5 billion video views.

On the plane to Austin I was reading an article on how so many companies have sunk billions of dollars into producing content online, hoping to build audiences around their brands. The problem is, the audience didn’t come. The article talked about how the Internet has transformed how culture works in that digital crowds have become powerful cultural innovators – a phenomenon that the author coined ‘crowdculture’.

And, a phenomenon that I was reminded of during one of the most unexpectedly memorable presentations I saw in Austin, made by one of the biggest Internet celebrities I’d never heard of, Burnie Burns, the Chief Creative Officer of Rooster Teeth.

Why unexpected?  Well I hadn’t heard much about Rooster Teeth (named after a play on the American insult, “cock-bite”) prior to the session and went along without expecting much from these sci-fi loving gamers turned filmmakers.  Turns out that  the company’s potent combination of massive reach, unique creative voice and insanely powerful community has resulted in them building one of the most influential media brands on the Internet.   Such is the strength of the Rooster Teeth community that the company has even produced a feature-length film, “Lazer Team,” funded entirely by their fans.

So what is it about Rooster Teeth that the community loves? Well, the company are known to be pioneers of the machinima art form – that unique film style made using scenes composited together out of video games.  The company’s flagship property, Red vs. Blue (created using the Halo game engine) is one of the longest running video series on the Internet and their latest animation platform, RWBY, has already garnered almost 100M views.

Still thinking that kooky sci-fi stuff’s only for the basement dwelling fringes?  Here are some more numbers on the power of the Rooster Teeth media platform:

  • 150 Million Views Per month
  • 5.5 Billion lifetime views
  • 19 Million Youtube subscribers in network
  • 2 million registered users on
  • 3 million likes on rooster teeth facebook page

    The Rooster Teeth empire now encompasses sales of music, merchandise and videogames as well as live events, including Rooster Teeth Expo (RTX), an annual gaming and Internet culture convention that attracted more than 30,000 attendees last July in Austin, Texas.

    Asked what he put the success of the company down to, Burns talked about three core principles:

  • Engage with people that share your values and culture
  • Build a brand that stays true to these values
  • Build a community, with an emphasis on owning your database (vs. leasing from someone else such as Facebook)

    Cultural entrepreneurs such as Rooster Teeth epitomize the types of businesses making life so difficult for brands competing for attention online.  But they all have one thing in common in that they’ve succeeded in part because they tapped into a cultural truth that resonated with their intended audience. To outsiders, the resulting ideologies, practices and art worlds might be seen to be as strange as Rooster Teeth.  But to their fans, these subcultures are part of what makes the Internet – and beyond that, life – so interesting.

    All this begs the question, what’s the cultural truth your brand taps into that makes it so interesting?


  • SXSW 2016: Kevin Plank, CEO of Under Armour

    A titter runs through the packed SXSW ballroom. There are few in the brand world that would claim that their brand has a better chance of surviving the future than Nike, and yet the arrogant man on stage just did so with a sideways grin.

    Kevin Plank, founder of Under Armour, is holding the crowd raptured. Barely drawing breath as he answers questions about how he got to where he is today. Through a Baltimore drawl, the passion he has for sport – and the business built from this passion, is clear.

    He takes us on quite the journey, from crying at a toll-booth because he didn’t have the $2 needed to drive through, to starting the company in his grandmother’s basement, to proudly proclaiming “if our logo shows up on something it better be the best”. It’s the perfect rags-to-riches story, it inspires awe and yet unlike your usual ‘battler-done-good’, Plank still doesn’t seem terribly likeable.

    But somehow, I don’t think that bothers him.

    Under Armour is often touted as an ‘overnight success story’ but he reminds us that 20 years is hardly overnight. With over 160 million users, 14,000 employees and 23 consecutive quarters of over 20% growth, overnight story or not, he’s doing something right.

    What does he put Under Armour’s success down to?


    He believes that the culture of the business is the brand and vice versa. This culture must be carefully curated to protect the brand at all costs. For Under Armour this means defining and nurturing a voice that informs everything from the products it makes, to the people it hires and the athletes it dresses.

    “Any great brand is an aggregator. We’re trusting we have the best people, doing the best possible work.”

    He calls everyone he works and collaborates with a team-mate, and his company vision reads something like a quarterbacks half-time play scrawled on a white board. It’s clear that this former college footballer is running his billion dollar company much like a college football team.

    He let’s us in on few of the defining features of Under Armour culture.

    • Over promise and deliver.
    • Dictate and deliver.
    • Always find a way.

    If brands are a series of chapters, this next chapter of Under Armour is all about connected fitness. The latest iteration a 24/7 real-time barometer of fitness and health, Record was built from the insight that humans know more about what is happening inside our cars than we do our own bodies.

    Plank tells us “Data is the new oil” which is why the company’s engineering staff has gone from 20 to more than 500, including 350 app developers, in less than three years.

    But crucially, he doesn’t believe culture is something you set and forget. “We’re still defining the company we want to be.”

    Bob Safian, editor in chief of Fast Company, who is interviewing Plank on stage, asks him what kind of company he wants Under Armour to be.

    Just like a well-versed quarterback, Plank replies, “I like being defined as a performance company because I think it is completely unlimiting”.

    The question is now, is this limitless definition enough to take on sportswear giant Nike, and win.


    SXSW 2016: Hidden in Plain View: Discovering Lo-Fi Magic.

    What lies beneath the surface of a format? When is an object’s ambitions so obscured that its possibilities are almost completely hidden? When is paper more than paper?

    Kelli Anderson, Creative Resident at Adobe, identifies as a professional tinkerer. Her residency supports her work in a range of fascinating projects that all explore the hidden abilities of paper in design. She has found that when audiences see work that depicts paper (not just paper in form, but as paper-like imagery in a design), the way we think and reason and comprehend calls on our unconscious memory of touching paper. Even though we’re not using our skin to touch, our mind’s understanding of what touch would be like, is a huge part of our design is experienced.

    Anderson explores what can paper be. And by that, she’s deeply interested in utility and service, not just appearance. So she uses both to craft cool, intricate, functional tactile products and experiences.

    The best way to show you what it’s all about is to link to a few of her amazing works. Enjoy, and marvel, at the below:

    Books as function
    Single ‘purpose’ books. A piece of utility as a book. Books that when unfolded and constructed, become something other.

    For example: This Book is a Camera:

    The Existential Calculator
    Uses a paper wheel metaphor to explore career opportunities. Example outcomes include: ”You’re not making any money and you’re giving kids cancer”.

    Paper as record player
    Rolled up paper into funnel with a needle in it = record player. Lo-fi exposes the infrastructure behind objects that is normally invisible. In the record player, the weight of the fold helps keep the needle down.

    SXSW 2016: Do brands need to start thinking like the New York Times?

    As a former journalist who’s pretty concerned about the future of traditional media publishing, I certainly didn’t expect to be as impressed as I was by New York Times CEO Mark Thompson and NYT new media columnist Jim Rutenberg at SXSW. They weren’t dragging their heels and bitching about the future of journalism. They were excited by its prospects.

    I’d go as far as saying Thompson is a media unicorn. He’s prepared to spend money that he doesn’t have on incredibly risky ventures in order to leap ahead of his competitors. In 2015, Thompson worked with editorial teams and technologists to produce their first piece of immersive virtual reality journalism. “If we don’t take risks, we won’t exist,” he says.

    Thompson explains that to pull it off, they had to get over the historic tradition of separating advertising and editorial. GE and Google contributed more than $1 million to the project. While he says there’s been a traditional separation of newsroom activity and advertising, that’s not an option anymore. Journalists have to understand that they need ads to fund good work.  “You need a cohesive team. That didn’t exist at the New York Times three years ago,” he says. We shouldn’t underestimate the cultural complexity involved in making that happen.

    “We want to be at the frontier,” Thompson says. That means experimenting with data visualisation, augmented reality, podcasting and virtual reality. He says being “brave and experimental” is part of The NYT’s attempt to reposition itself as a media leader, not an old broadsheet that’s limping to its death.

    “The way people absorb stories is changing and we want to be part of that,” he says. When they released their first piece of VR content, they sent one million sets of Google Cardboard to subscribers and 500,000 people downloaded the app, watching for an average of 6.5 minutes. This is an amazing engagement result for a first outing in a highly risky editorial experiment. It proved to be commercially viable for NYT and its ad partners, and the learnings should only make the next experiment better.

    In 2016, the NYT plans to release several VR films. Of their subscribers, 80 per cent use digital tools to access their news. They know the future is no longer there in black and white on the page. And they’re not waiting around to see what happens. It’s not to say that there’s not a place for the written word, but the team must step up and diversify their content formats if they wish to stay relevant.

    It’s exciting to hear from a publisher that isn’t downing tools in an increasingly overwhelming environment. In fact, Thompson and his team seem to be invigorated by the challenge. They’re also working with brands like no one else – Google and GE don’t interfere with the content with pop-up adds or pre-rolls, they enable the content, making the experience better for everyone.


    SXSW 2016: Interview with Dan Rather, CBS News veteran

    ‘Americans love a big, strong leading man,’ veteran journalist, Dan Rather, who’s  covered 11 presidencies in his time as a reporter, tells a packed room at SXSW. Donald Trump’s political campaign is no love story, but his unexpected success in the quest to win the presidency has all the tension of a gripping work of fiction.

    Trump’s most important relationship is with the media, Rather explains, and says the journalists that are writing the narrative have buckled under the weight of celebrity appeal.

    ‘Media has a lot to answer for. Journalists aren’t asking the tough questions,’ Rather says. ‘No one has asked him about Afghanistan.’ Reporters don’t appear to be digging around to find out who is contributing funds to this election campaign and what the motivation is. The campaign is estimated to cost more than $5 billion and Rather suggests there are ‘lots of deep pockets filled with dark money’ going to candidates on both sides. Journalists love to ask hard questions and they’re not holding their tongues out of fear or inability. According to Rather: ‘Trump doesn’t come on your channel again if you ask the tough questions.’ This is what Rather calls ‘The Access trap’. It presents a challenge for media outlets because Trump is the ultimate ratings engine.

    In fact, he’s a visual clickbait dream.  ‘You get a bigger response for Trump than you do for Hilary,’ Rather points out. When networks and publishers use popular content and its potential virality as their primary motivation, they feed Trump’s campaign. If the general election becomes a two-horse race between Trump and Clinton the dual will be ‘nasty enough to gag a buzzard,’ Rather quips.

    Amanda Wills, deputy executive editor at Mashable, tells Rather that journalists and editors struggle with media models that prioritise popularity. Rather argues that if we loose the art of seeking out news that the public needs to hear, we fail to hold those in power to account. In the case of Trump, that could be dangerous. Rather pushes for the public to demand quality reporting. But the reality is that they vote with their fingers by withholding clicks to articles designed to drive traffic instead of informing.

    No one knows how the story will end, but there’s no doubt that when the media treats Trump as good content, it helps to steer the plot.

    Nicole Haddow

    SXSW 2016: Get Messy in the Library: Art, Making and Tinkering

    I love SXSW. It is an extraordinary concentration of fresh ideas, new concepts and levels of conversations rarely seen anywhere in the world, all hosted Austin, Texas. Austin, surprisingly a blue city in a red state, at first seems like an odd choice but its openness to creative thinking is palpable, and you cant help but fall in love with the rawness of opportunity here. What also makes this event event incredible is its sheer scale (easily over 1000 seperate speaking panels to attend) and with that scale comes the ability to get exposed to an extraordinary number of panels and discussions well beyond those of your core categories… and it is here that for me the really exciting stuff lies. This is what broadens your perspective and opens your mind to new opportunities.

    One of my favourite, left of centre, presentations was made by the Madison Public Library, an incredible story (well told) of innovation and creativity that turned a library from a place of content consumption into one of content creation.

    The abbreviated version, is that the Madison Public library was being extensively renovated and, as a result, was to be shut down for an extended period. One of the part time assistants at the library, also an artist, noticed the opportunity for using the chaotic pre renovated ‘bookless’ space as a gallery … and the Bookless exhibition was born –  A one day only exhibition featuring local artist’s contributions, often directly using trashed artifacts from the old library clear-out.

    It immediately resonated with the community attracting over 5000 people and inspired a whole new way of thinking about the library and its contribution to the community.

    Involved in a category in need of reivigoration? Enjoy this great story in more detail at