I launched Big Radical today. Big Radical is a new digital product development agency.
Really exciting, bit scary. I’ve put this off for a long time, if only because there was always someone great to work with and help out who already had an agency. I’ve worked with some fantastic people doing that — my buddies at Fjord, my family at ustwo, my friends from Vodafone and Egg days. But I’ve always had a driving feeling that I needed to get my own thing out there and Assemble the Avengers because I’ve always had a burning desire to do this agency thing a little differently.
For me, doing it differently is about being less jaded about the realities of product design (“let’s just get this thing OUT”) and more about getting stuck in to the possibilities instead (let’s get something AWESOME out”). It’s very easy to be compressed into compromise, and with the mass uptake of lean and agile approaches it’s ironically become just as easy to make ill-considered judgement calls and launch “unintended products” to the world. Despite what your Lean and Agile bibles tell you.
With Big Radical, we are purposefully returning to a more positive and considered approach to designing products and services — helping our clients and partners get to the point of the product fast, make good decisions for their users and customers, help them be as informed as possible, and aim for positive and intended outcomes.
We want to launch products that people LOVE, that make things better, and break barriers. We want to be brave. That requires a radical stance…
We feel strongly that designers and developers (and coaches, and strategists, and business development people, and founders, and venture people, and CEOs and CMOs etc etc) have a responsibility — a duty — to make deliberately positive and considered design decisions, to think through the potential outcomes of those decisions, and to stand up when those principles are being compromised. Call that stuff out. Say ‘no’ more frequently. Challenge that rationale that makes you uneasy. That’s a big part of helping people break through for us and is the fundamental driver for designing more purposeful and meaningful products. More on that later.
Big Radical launches as a studio with 45 great, talented people. People with rent to pay, kids to feed, good lives to live. That costs money, so the bottom of our Maslow Pyramid will always be “Keep the lights on, pay the bills, pay our team” — we’re not crazy. Of course, we also want to be a profitable company, because profit brings some very specific results that mean something for us. Longevity, a longer road, permission to play, the ability to reinvest, to hire more cool people, the opportunity to be more selective in the work we to do, to spend time on things we want to spend time on more often than not, to be proud of what we do, most of the time, and to share the rewards of a job well done together.
So, it’s our intention to be as considered and deliberate about the kind of work we’d like to do as we are in the way we design products. We want to have a real conversation with the people who want to engage with us — about designing better, more purposeful products that have some impact we can measure, that improve things, and that we can be proud of together. We think it’s really simple to qualify interesting work at the first chat: will it hinder people or help people? It’s not rocket science.
Before this gets too evangelical though, it would be wrong to only want to work on things that seem to overtly qualify as having a strong social outcome. We think that’s too tight a focus, and too constraining, and like anything in our world, it’s really not that simple.
For us, it doesn’t always have to be about saving the world (although if we can we’ll have a damn good go at it). It’s also exciting for us to make something with you to improve an experience, or solve multiple headaches in a system, or help you experiment, or learn things. We get jollies and pride out of that stuff, because there will be a positive outcome for humans in it. Launch a new bank that’s actually helpful and has some heart in it? We’ll be right there. Make that telecom engineer’s one-hour site visit more productive, making him happier because his customer is happier? On it.
We’d like to begin with a good, solid, authentic conversation with you about what this thing is really about, and what you are trying to achieve. That’s why we like to talk at the earliest stages — because by the time you get to that RFP it might be a bit late.
If there’s real heart in the idea, we’ll be excited. The key is to get to the point — by fleshing out a tangible sense of the potential product, supported by enough information and validation to reinforce decision-making. We’re pretty sure that we can help you get to the point really fast; usually within weeks. The point can vary, but most often the point we are trying to reach is “are we excited enough and informed enough to make the decision to launch this?”. Other times just getting approval to move to a next iteration or experiment is enough to keep momentum and excitement up. Sometimes it might be a clearer concept of scope or why one feature over another. Just as valid and valuable, the point might be “let’s definitely NOT launch this thing now we know what we know”. That’s worth millions in saved cash and broken hearts.
Company or Network?
We want Big Radical to be a network. The fallacy that our industry perpetuates is that of the full-service agency/consultancy/integrator — “we do everything”. “Yes! We can do that”. Unfortunately, those are “alternative facts”.
State of the nation right now is that things are moving too fast and are too complex for any one entity to know it all, be able to build it all, or lead it all. Agencies and consultancies and integrators and strategy firms talk a good talk about working together, but when it gets down to commercial relationships and business development it tends to fall apart and we stop playing nice. Who “owns the client”? Who “gets paid the most”?
Who cares? In an age where it’s easy to feel a sense of scarcity, excellence is still in abundance and ideas are in infinite supply. If collaboration and working together and playing to our mutual strengths helps to deliver a great, impactful product then shouldn’t we be doing that? And, by the way, working in this way usually delivers positive results for everyone involved too.
We are rooting for a return to generosity — with shared ideas, spirit, intellect. Big Radical teams are autonomous and decide things for themselves, as well as understanding completely the product or service that they’re immersed in. Autonomous people, encouraged to be helpful and share, have the very best to offer when it comes to strikingly successful collaboration.
Launching great products might need an army of collaborators, or it might need four people. What we know it needs for certain is complementary skills, and the ability to work together as a team. Oh, and support each other with therapy!
So that’s why we are building a network of collaborators to help us build a sandpit to develop shared IP, product concepts and work on good things. A network of talented people with specific skills, other companies that do specific things really well, venture people, angels, clients.
That allows Big Radical to concentrate on our core thing — helping clients (startups, corporates, governments, communities, individuals) break through the approval blockades, get things moving and iterating towards launch and designing for intended outcomes.
Why is that important?
Designing for intended outcomes
It’s important because humans are flawed. To quote the late, great Bill Hicks, we are “a virus with shoes”. We break things. We’re good at it. We have form; history. Despite our wonderful striving, we create noise, generate waste, make a mess.
Look at Mount Everest. From a distance, majestic and spectacular. Close up, covered in human crap and litter. Literally. To humans, big mountains represent achievement; something to conquer. The legendary mountaineer George Mallory was once asked why he wanted to climb Mount Everest. He answered “Because it’s there. Its existence is a challenge. The answer is instinctive, a part, I suppose, of man’s desire to conquer the universe”.
That’s part of what makes us what we are — never satisfied, one step forward, two steps back, finding the way around, always looking over the horizon, always wanting more, bigger, better, happier, sexier. Exploring, pioneering, achieving, building. But the by-products of the pioneering — the pollution, the mess, the ruining what was there, the smudging or destroying the thing we liked about it in the first place — we haven’t quite cracked what to do about all that yet.
We do the same with technology. We are so delighted with ourselves and the wonders that we’re creating that we’re not stopping to reflect, to contemplate the knock-on effects of the decisions that we are making, the ripples in the beautiful lake we threw that brick into.
We have made so many of these things simply because we could (because it’s there). More than ever, supply is directing demand and we are having to fit in with invented technology and adapt. Even though the goal of technological innovation is to make something better, easier, faster, more convenient, progress is often remarkably technology first, people second.
“Because we can” can have disconcerting results that we’re only beginning to understand. For every engaging app, you’ll find an addict; for every alert, an interrupted moment with a loved one; for every connected community, an echo chamber; for every accessible piece of news, an alternative fact; for every Facebook chat, a lost opportunity to spend more time with your kids. We could go on.
Thomas Midgley Jr was a highly- decorated chemist. Challenged to find a solution to “knocking” in automobile engines, Midgley discovered that adding tetraethyl lead, or TEL, to gasoline would successfully eliminate the problem. He was highly praised in his lifetime for this invention. He once poured leaded gasoline all over his hands and sniffed from a flask of it for 60 seconds during a press conference to prove that the fuel was safe. One might assume that Midgley died of lead poisoning, like millions of others, but he was actually killed by another one of his inventions — the rope and pulley system that he built to support his body while he was in bed suffering from polio. He became entangled in the ropes on Nov. 2, 1944, and suffocated. So ended the tale of a man who J.R. McNeill, an environmental historian, described as having “more impact on the atmosphere than any other single organism in Earth’s history.”
Unintended outcomes will get you every time!
The result of this effect is there are a lot of meaningless or even dangerous digital products and services out there. Hopefully not on the same scale of unintended consequence as Midgley’s lead-infused petrol, but there are an awful lot of products designed to be just like sugar rush-inducing candy: applications deliberately designed to give us hits of dopamine and make us “users”, addicted to our new habits. Many products and services have no purpose, bar “engagement”, or generating clicks, or locking us into content or branding, or building a profile on us so that we can be more effectively sold to. While technology so often saves us time, it also helps us to lose it, and eventually to wonder where it went.
Also we need to acknowledge that many of these “bad outcomes” are not unintended outcomes after all, but intended ones. Some products and services have been deliberately designed to do things that are not so positive for the end user. Spam those users, make those privacy settings really hard to find, switch things on without telling people, opt people in to features before asking them. These are deliberate, considered design decisions by product teams. If we recognise that these applications are deliberately designed, then it’s easy to understand how fundamentally technology and design can be used for good or for evil. How human that is.
The challenge with wanting to design for good outcomes, to be more considered and deliberate, is that our own industries are quite often in the way.
Lots of people make lots of money from launching crap to the world, feeding the addiction, or enslaving punters to the algorithm. Plenty of product owners in client organisations are actively encouraged by their bosses to sell rubbish. If it drives those KPIs, who cares, right? How many of us have been in a situation where we’ve had to compromise things to “keep up sprint velocity” or hit some milestone that may have been spurious to start with? We’ve all been there. That’s life.
But those kinds of products aren’t usually in anyone’s definition of “doing great work” (client-side or agency-side). Few people started out meaning to work this way. And of course, in the end we are all complicit in this stuff — the generator of the idea, the approver of the business case, the writer of the brief, the agency, the consultancy, the designer, the developer, the marketer, the business developer, the customer. It’s hard to say ‘Stop’, or ‘Wait,’ or even, ‘We’re better than this.’ We know the stakes are high and that compromise is always required to work around problems.
But at Big Radical we absolutely believe it’s worth the effort in the early stages of product design to make good decisions so that these compromises happen less often as you iterate towards launch. That’s why this whole agency is geared to helping clients do exactly that.
Big Radical is about helping people and technology form a more sympathetic relationship and help our clients and partners bring more purposeful and meaningful products to the world.
We’d like those products and services to have a positive impact rather than an unintentionally negative one. We’d like that impact to be measurable and recognised; so that we all know we have the results that we set out to make happen. And we’d like to be able to live up to our name!
We know we can’t always be good, or do good all the time. But we do believe that we can do better, be more selective, be braver, take a radical stance to problem-solving, and create products and services for people that really break through.
We just need to start talking and collaborating and playing for the right outcomes. Because we don’t think we’re alone in thinking the way we do.
I’m really excited about it, and not a little freaked out.
If you feel the same, then we’d like to talk with you.