The Digital August 2017 Program: A detailed look

What you can learn from a product designer at Google, an expert from Twitter’s Trust and Safety department, a UX designer at Red Antler, and the developer of the popular game Dots.

Liya Safina, Digital August program curator, head of UX division at Red Antler brand building agency, Strelka Institute graduate

This August Strelka will look into trends that nobody can afford to ignore. Instead of discussing popular tech innovations featured in Wired and TechCrunch lists like VR/AR, virtual assistants, bots, big data, and machine learning, this year Strelka will take a closer look at the specifics of interface design and digital product strategies.

TREND ONE: DIGITAL FRANCHISES

Strelka will examine franchising, a subject that brings together entrepreneurship, marketing and innovation. Sequels and prequels, spinoffs of popular TV series (Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul), complementary and sister apps (Foursquare and Swarm, the Chinese triplets Wish, Cute and Home, weight loss assistants StepBet and DietBet), and apps published to provide marketing support for popular TV series (Mr. Robot has released a namesake game, Kim Kardashian and her sisters have been topping popular mobile game lists) – franchises are spreading everywhere.

What drives the popularity of franchises? On the one hand, large companies tend to use recognizable symbols and principles (this could be a favourite character or a familiar interface) to minimize the risk of large investments underperforming. On the other hand, public figures like Kim Kardashian and Kanye West use their names to jump-start new projects, allowing them to achieve a larger market presence.

With games and apps, the importance of correct audience segmentation cannot be understated. In order to be able to develop on the market, Foursquare had to abandon its check-in function in favour of rating places and comparing them with each other. Aiming to preserve its niche, tightly-knit community of those who actively check in, the company decided to create the sister app Swarm. This move allowed them to increase the active user base and improve all the other success indicators of both apps. Franchising expands beyond the digital sphere: ‘analog’ companies such as pizzerias, clothing stores, and barbershops are starting to realize that their unwillingness to establish at least a minimal online presence will leave online delivery services free to steal away their entire customer base. This transition is often accompanied by significant changes in their business model.

Patrick Moberg, the developer of the popular game Dots, will talk about the potential applications of this phenomenon and the importance it holds for digital entrepreneurs. The first three games developed in the Dots franchise gained an insane level of popularity: for instance, Dots&Co achieved the #1 position in number of downloads in 71 countries within 24 hours after its release. The franchise principle worked very well for every instalment of the Dots series until the studio made the decision to break away from the mold with Wilds, its fourth project. Patrick will share his insight into why the future of the series-based approach extends far beyond linear sequels and how to utilize existing brands as a platform for launching new projects.

TREND TWO: THE BALANCE BETWEEN FREE SPEECH AND CENSORSHIP IN SOCIAL NETWORKS

Any internet user has probably encountered trolls and toxicity in a comment section at least once. In a recent study of digital culture performed in 14 countries, Microsoft tried to estimate the risks and problems internet users may face online. For each country, a number was calculated revealing the percentage of users who had encountered malicious behavior on the internet. Russia placed 12th out of 14 countries, with only Mexican and South African users admitting to having an even worse time online.

Russia, along with the rest of the world, is currently in the midst of a global informational conflict. Every single online community, be it Twitter, Reddit, Telegram, or VC.ru, attempts to provide a better experience for their users, but no universal solution is yet in sight. Does this trend mean that social networks and media companies are starting to value quality over quantity? Will it be possible for one company to manage to lure audiences away from the others by offering them safer communication and quality comments?

Designing communication platforms is a process full of difficult decisions and disappointing compromises. The traditional functions of UX represent just a small part of a larger political issue: in a world where anyone can communicate with anyone in real time, how do you make communication safe while respecting freedom of speech? What role does censorship play? Why are intimidation, propaganda, and shameless promotion allowed to rule over comment sections, and are these things different from each other?

Twitter has been fighting trolls for many years. One of the most important battles in this ongoing war was the large-scale abuse of Leslie Jones, a Hollywood actress and comedian who starred in Ghostbusters Reboot. Following the incident, Twitter’s Trust and Safety division introduced radical changes. Product designer John Bell will share how he and his team were able to develop and integrate new solutions. John will also host a workshop where he will demonstrate methods for ensuring safety within a social network.

TREND THREE: BRAND LOYALTY AND THE INDIVIDUAL APPROACH TOWARDS CUSTOMERS

The third area focuses on the one-two punch of brand and digital strategy as the main market promotion tool available to new start-ups. In past decades, powerful and recognizable brands were a luxury available only to the largest companies like Nike, Apple, Coca Cola, Lego, Bosch, Calvin Klein, etc. Today any new start-up can grow an army of loyal fans and use their help to increase sales by utilizing a well-designed digital strategy. While experts predict that this trend will not gain significant traction until after 2022, insightful entrepreneurs are already starting to think about nurturing a recognizable brand from the very first days of the life of their company. Building deep, personalized relationship with customers is becoming a necessity – a necessity that customers are willing to pay the extra dollar for.

This is especially relevant considering that the volume of investments in the Russian segment of the internet has been steadily recovering since the 2014 drop, and new markets like telemedicine have been drawing in customers. However, the contemporary competitive landscape no longer forgives foregoing brand development in favour of refining technology. The secret recipe of success might appear easy: find what makes the company and its product unique, define the value it adds to people’s lives, and stay focused and consistent in delivering this message. Yet remaining consistent expands far beyond sticking to a coherent visual style and setting the correct tone for marketing companies.

Product personalization (food supplement dosage, custom embroidery colour on a new shirt, the exact size of a dinner menu, the perfect combination of vitamins picked according to biochemical data), flawless customer service (tracking treatment progress, resolving difficult delivery cases, providing remote advice on revitalizing dying plants), and additional features (the purchase of a yoga studio membership granting access to a stress tracker app with meditation instructions) are becoming essential tools utilized by companies in their strategies.

I, Liya Safina, represent the New York agency Red Antler, which specializes in brand building. The list of our clients includes the MissionU experimental study program, the traveling hotel Cabin, and the Hinge relationship app. Each of these projects offers an innovative product and a fresh client approach. Our client Casper, a service helping users select and order a new mattress, managed to gain attention and investment from Leonardo Di Caprio. During my workshop, I will look into the key factors responsible for the success of new start-ups and brands. I will break down the methods used for gaining everlasting user love and loyalty. Anyone can find out how to select the right path and strategy for their own brand at my workshop in early September.

TREND FOUR: INTERFACE DESIGN FOR DEVELOPING MARKETS

Of the seven billion people living on our planet, 2.8 billion currently have internet access. Rural areas of India, China, Latin America, and Russia are becoming connected at an accelerating rate. According to the GfK market research agency, 70% of the Russian population over age of 16 has internet access. The ongoing crisis and market saturation are slowing down audience growth and the development of Russian online markets. Further growth is likely to happen through expansion to older population groups and potential users from remote areas, previously uninvolved in the internet economy.

In developing markets, the initial internet experience no longer takes place on a PC screen. More often than not, smartphones provide the first and only point of internet access for new users. What sort of online activities do these users choose to pursue? Usually they start their journey into the web with gaming, reading news, and transferring money. After the period of initial integration, this list may expand to ordering food and cleaning services, hiring a plumber, and renting various items. Does that mean that start-ups offering these services could soon experience an influx of customers? What does all this mean for designers? We need to reorient our design intuition. We have to stop idolizing Western design principles (hamburger menu, carousels, hover states) and start taking cultural preferences of new, unaccustomed users into account.

Poor technology literacy means that the new audience does not rely on their previous internet experience: instead, they use basic perception principles. New users will not attempt to reveal hidden text by selecting it, or try to swipe through an image gallery: they simply might not know that these functions exist. This means that designers now face the task of teaching these users to use interfaces while taking into account that connection speed and quality vary for different regions.

Google product designer Jess Myra will host a lecture and a workshop where she will discuss ways to anticipate the needs of the next billion internet users and how their unpredictable behaviour already influences the development of global products like YouTube and Gmail.

The Digital August program is available here and on the official Facebook page of the event.