Taking the shine off the silver screen

Back in the day (‘the day’ being circa 2000), I wanted a Cineworld Unlimited card. Badly. Well, I say that – at the point I wanted that shiny little ticket to a bottomless cup of celluloid goodness, it was a Virgin Cinemas card, and I was too young to get one. Realistically, it wasn’t worth the cash for the number of Saturday afternoon cinema trips I made, but the notion of being able to see as many films as I could cram into my spare time was so effortlessly cool. I swore that one day, I would have one.

By the time I got my wish, I was about 18, and it had all begun to make a bit more sense. I had free time, but most importantly – I had a car. My card, adorned with the only ID photograph I’ve seen in my life that features a man in a hat, became one of my most prized possessions. Through university, it totally shone – I blasted through more films than I knew what to do with, saw films I liked two or more times, and often ended up seeing a random movie if there was nothing on TV. My friends caught onto how much of a good deal it was, and signed up with me. We began to go to late-night showings on the weekend, seeing films whenever we had a spare bit of time – truly, it was great. And it was a complete steal, because we rinsed our cards for all they were worth.

Thing is, after a while, I began to feel that Cineworld didn’t really give a crap about us Unlimited Card holders. The price went up and up, and despite relentlessly promising unique deals and great offers on things outside of the cinema foyer, all I remember is an odd cheap popcorn voucher, and some truly lackluster local deals. Even they’ve dried up completely of late, and all the correspondence I’ve had is the regular letter informing me that I’m going to pay more for my card. While the core service is undeniably good, there is a feeling that you aren’t being rewarded for your loyalty, so much as paying the price for it.

Firstly – you can’t book. This is the single biggest problem with the card. Despite the fact that you have unlimited access to films, you’re stuffed if you want to make sure you get a seat. Whilst every other paying customer gets the opportunity to book a pew for the next blockbuster, those most loyal to the company can only turn up in person and use their card to ‘buy’ the ticket, there and then. Want to go with your friends who don’t have a card? Well, if they’ve booked, then you better get there early in the day to make sure you get a ticket for the same screening – if it’s a popular film, you’re going to be queuing with everyone else, as at both the Scottish Cineworlds I used, they did away with the Unlimited Priority line a long time ago. When Inception came out, it was near enough impossible for me to go and see the damn film with my card-carrying mates.

Secondly – Cineworld now seem more interested in rewarding those happy enough to sign up for their new MyCineworld service. Fill in some details online, and you’ll be rewarded by not paying a penny in booking fees and get cheaper tickets in Scotland. It’s pitched as a more personalised approach to the company, but just smells like a grotty little data collection project on their part, where the customer is being given a straight-off discount for handing over their personal details. MyCineworld and Unlimited seem completely at odds with each other, almost to the point where it’s like the company doesn’t realise they’re both running.

Honestly, it wouldn’t take much for me to be a completely happy Unlimited customer – I have been in the past, and it still represents great value. However, given the well-documented rise in online video traffic, and the introduction of to-TV film streaming from companies like Sky and LoveFilm, Cineworld should be looking at their service a little more closely. It’s not hard to imagine a great online Unlimited offering, where cinema lovers can track the films they’ve seen, build up reward points for concession purchases, and above all, BOOK A DAMN TICKET.

In a climate where the customer is becoming less and less loyal, your company must rise to the occasion. Don’t assume your customers will take crap just because it’s cheap, because someone – in this case, any of the other big chain cinema operators – could come along and very easily offer your customers exactly what they want. And then, just like that, they won’t be your customers any more.

Photo courtesy of Cian Ginty

The bare freemium

As I’ve mentioned before, I have a background in journalism from my time in student media – I spent three years with the Glasgow University Guardian, working my way up to the position of editor. I’ve experienced a microcosm of the issues that newspapers in the mainstream press face, and due to the timing of my involvement, I know what it’s like to fight to keep a publication alive during the economic downturn. For reference – bloody hard. As a result, I’ve always had a huge interest in the way the big guns of the newspaper industry are trying to figure out how they can make money from their online offerings, and ultimately, in a world becoming dominated by digital content, how they can make money as an organisation.

So far, it’s been a bit of a farce to watch. Paywall is a dull idea that relies on a key fact – that people are willing to pay for the quality offered by organisations such as The Times, over the huge volume of other news sources that exist online. This is a hard sell – even as a journalist and a photographer, I’m really not interested in paying to see news content produced by The Times, if I can get something roughly similar, for free. News is news – a lot of content comes from the wires (press agency feeds of generically-written news content, which the major papers subscribe to), and is re-written into the style of an individual newspaper by the staff writers who work there. Sure, you’ll always have exclusives, but even then, the web is still crashing in on the party – The Guardian published a huge amount of Wikileaks content directly to their website, where it was viewable for free, across the world. And of course, the sheer velocity of The Internet means that as soon as an exclusive is out there, it takes much less time for the competition to rush out something of their own. In this digital age, an exclusive is only exclusive for the blink of an eye.

However, consider The Financial Times – a newspaper that’s absolutely nailing the paywall concept, to the point that it’s even attracting more subscribers whilst increasing subscription costs by around 20% (source). From the same sourced article, you’ll notice that the NY Times has been so impressed that it has adopted a similar model for its own paywall, which is utterly bizarre. Why? Well, consider what the FT offers, and why people subscribe. It’s a highly specialised publication, that’s as much a trade journal as it is a daily newspaper – its readership is based around a very specific demographic, and provides unique content, provided by writers with a huge knowledge of an incredibly intricate, complicated niche. The NY Times, as much as it may have a reputation for quality journalism in the US, is starkly similar to other newspapers across the world. Add in the fact that it’s already tried (and failed) to use a paywall in the past and you begin to see why I’m not convinced about it being a viable option.

I read this article, by Oliver Reichenstein with interest – it’s the main reason I’ve finally dragged myself to the computer to write this blog, to be honest. It’s interesting to hear him talk about the idea of freemium news, but at the same time, I wonder how much consideration of the potential user is going on when proposing this approach. Freemium newspaper content already exists in print form, in a way – consider the raft of free papers that we’re now accosted by, and what they provide. I can get a free paper on the train in the morning, and a different one in the evening – the quality of the journalism is below the quality that I’d pay to read, but not so much that I’ve ever felt the need to go and buy a proper paper to read a better quality version of that story. So despite the annoyance of the slightly sub-par copy I’m faced with, I’m not really encouraged to go out and spend more on a premium product. It also proposes that customers would want to buy content from a news outlet, based on the fact that they’re not satisfied with what the quality that same outlet has managed to provide already – I remain to be convinced that people wouldn’t just immediately look elsewhere for a better quality of free content, and that’s considering the actual quality of the articles in the publication, not just the page formatting of article – I don’t think Reichenstein is going anywhere near far enough with the changes he suggests to make this into a business class experience.

So, what’s the solution? Well, all I can offer is a similar discussion that I’ve had in the pub with a couple of different people – one, a staff writer at a prestigious newspaper, the other, a designer whose opinion I respect (and it takes a lot for a designer to achieve that). It’s quite a bold idea, but bare with me a bit.

Newspapers need to stop trying to figure out how to make money out of online news, and view it as a loss-leader. 

With online news, the genie hasn’t so much been let out of the bottle, as much as he has been dragged out, and had his lamp smashed to pieces. There will always be free news on the web, and discussing this, my opinion is that individual newspapers need to look at what they can offer that nobody else can. Again, look at the FT – a publication that thrives on offering quality in a specific area of journalism. So how can a generic newspaper make money in the same way? Where is the unique content in a paper that covers the same events as all its rivals? My writer friend and I talked about this, and his feeling is that the answer lies in the strength of features, and using basic news content like supermarkets use cases of Stella.

Reichenstein is onto something with the quality aspect, but it’s more in-depth than just the beauty of the page. It’s about supporting free content with follow-up content that enhances and augments – if you accept that anyone can access news for free, then what a newspaper wants is for their readers to access the basic news on their site (which should be offered to everyone at the business class level that’s suggested, as that will help single out the site amongst others) and stick around for the added value. With a basic news report, there’s comment and news features that can be produced unique to that publication; with a standard sports report, there’s analysis, interviews and pundit response – every newspaper has the potential to make the features content different from the base news story, which itself has essentially become worthless when people can read all about it on for nothing via the BBC. All this is before you even consider features content like we’re used to in Sunday supplements, where the beautification aspect Reichenstein has shown can really make it all sing.

The industry shouldn’t ask potential customers to upgrade because they think the free version is crap, and want to see virtually the same thing in a more attractive way – they need to get them to upgrade based on the fact that they’ve had their balls blown off with the quality of a tiny part of what a given newspaper can offer, and that for only a little more money, they can get so much more added value.

The long and short of it

My role as a service designer – albeit one that’s very fresh out of university – is consistently difficult to explain to others. Amongst those who have studied some form of design, it’s usually simple enough to explain, approximating what we do with services to what they might do with their chosen speciality. But try telling a friend or family member, and you’ll likely feel as if you’re giving confusing directions. In French. To a pet. I fully believe that initially, my dad had no idea what I do for a living, and I can’t help but feeling it’s was my fault for the clumsy way in which I attempted to explain myself.

The thing is, I started out studying product design engineering at GSA, which was remarkably easy to articulate – the product design aspect teaches you how to design things (at which point I would usually grab a phone, and brandish it like a game show prize), while the engineering side means you have the knowledge of mechanics, materials and production techniques to allow you to bring your concepts to market. In those days, I’d also throw in a couple of cheap shots at the product design students from the other studio, just to push home how good my course was, and how absurd not knowing how to finite element analysis was for a designer. This was, of course, before my defection to product design. Fate, it seems, has a very dry sense of humour.

Weirdly, I still describe my current job in the same manner as back then. Not by wielding someone’s Nokia like a Generation Game floozy, but still using the same method – telling a story. Not the one in the picture though. That’s a photo from Flickr, by a gentleman called Gene Wilburn, of one of his stories.

Service Designers love a good story, and we use them in frequently in so many ways – they’re a method of getting to the root of a problem, by asking people to take you through their everyday experiences; they’re used to make sure we’re sticking to the needs of stakeholders, through the use of detailed personas as a constant design reference, and they’re even a potential solution to problems, by helping others to understand the reality of a situation through detailed case studies.

If you let me run with this a bit – and given you’re reading my blog, I’ll assume your permission – then it makes sense to apply this logic to making someone familiar with an unfamiliar situation, like me, and the apparently unfathomable way in which I earn a crust. My role in the world is best explained through stories, and my ability as a designer is best defined by my capability to make them engaging and relevant, and to tell them in a clear, interesting way – and by paying careful attention to the tales that others tell me.

So, while before I’d be left holding the phone, nowadays, I’m more inclined to reach for an Oyster Card or the stub from a boarding pass… but hell, stories are best heard, not read. If you want to know what service design is, then give me a call, and we’ll have a blether. Mobiles are still good for some things.

Taking the Mickey

Anyone who knows me will tell you I’m a big kid at times. I make no apologies for this – I like having fun, and I think finding enjoyment in everything is an important part of being a designer too, especially in consideration of services and experience when good design should deliver an engaging, and ultimately entertaining solution.

I’m recently back from a family holiday to Walt Disney World in Florida, where my inner child is allowed to run rampant, and the rest of me can switch off, relax, and not think about work. Except, it’s hard to forget about design in a place like WDW, surrounded by the work of a company who essentially wrote the book on experience design. Determined to have my time off, I put my mind to remembering the things that struck me as being the best examples of their creativity in design, and partook in a selection of rollercoasters and relaxation. So what caught my eye? Well, it’s not the brightly coloured fibreglass, or even the main mouse himself, but a couple of things that many people will use, but not give much consideration to the thinking in their creation.

Losing the line


Queuing is boring, and everyone hates it. You can dress it up all you want, making the places where you have to stand look stunning, even drenching them with information, narrative or spectacle, but at the end of the day, you’re still just standing around, waiting for the thing that you came to do, regardless of whether you’re at the bank, or waiting for a rollercoaster.

To solve this friction point, or at least reduce its impact on user experience, Disney implemented a system called FastPass at their parks, which allows the user to pick up a free ‘queue-skip’ ticket instead of actually lining up for the ride. The guest is invited to return later in the day, within an hour-long designated period, where they will join a substantially reduced queue line, and usually only have to wait a few minutes to get on the ride. Of course, the user is limited to one FastPass at a time, and there are a limited number given out per time slot, and therfore, per day, meaning they do run out.

Other parks have implemented similar systems, although in a different manner – Universal’s Express Ticket costs money, and only allows one entry on each ride per day (and currently excludes their newest attraction), and their hotel guests receive unlimited front-of-line access, while Sea World’s pass costs $20 for unlimited use. Disney’s FastPass, however, is a free system – which makes you wonder why the other two charge. This creates an interesting situation – there are different hierarchies of guest at these Orlando parks, whereas at WDW, by and large, everyone is equal.

Although the system offers obvious benefit for the user, the park also benefits. Clients standing in line are not able to spend money on food, drink, or merchandise – they are essentially out of play for the duration of the time they are on the ride. Offering Fastpass means these clients are released into the park, where they are able to spend more money, and are then only recalled to the ride for a hugely reduced period of time. The client is happy because they aren’t queing as long, and the park operator is happy because their customer is more likely to be spending money. It is brilliant service design, and it also conveys a feeling of equality amongst guests – nobody can buy their way into a better queue position, but everyone can get to the front of the line quickly, if they so choose.

Road to nowhere


Like most things in Disney, the scale of the organisation’s transport operation is huge. Roughly 300 buses, 11 monorails and a fleet of various watercraft provide guests with free transport around WDW property, running between hotels and the theme parks all day. All of this adds up to one key fact – once on Disney property, you don’t really need a hire car.

The weak link in this has always been getting to and from the airport – getting two 20 mile cabs is expensive, a hire car even more so, especially if it’s going to sit unused for most of your trip. Disney have again stepped into the breach, creating a new service that not only transports you to your chosen WDW resort, but means that the last time you need to worry about your bags is when you check them in to the airport before you get on your flight – the next time you see them is waiting in the room of your hotel. And it’s all provided free of charge.

It’s another very clever service. The guest receives great customer care, and the concept removes the miserable wait for bags that everyone goes through when they’re at their most tired and irritable – indeed, on the way home, the client checks in at the hotel, and their bags aren’t seen again until their arrival at their home airport. In essence, it removes a number of friction points in the client’s journey, giving them a strong initial and final impression of the quality of service provided by Disney.

And for Disney? Well, if you’re getting a coach to and from WDW, you’re not going to be getting a hire car, and that’s good news for the company whose property you’re staying on. Given the cost of taxis to get to surrounding parks and amenities, providing guests with the Magical Express service means that they are less likely to leave Disney property, and therefore more likely to visit restaurants and shops on site, keeping their holiday dollars circulating inside WDW. Again, the user is receiving a great service, but the company providing it is also ensuring that they are getting more out of it than customer satisfaction alone. Crafty? Damn right it is.

Essentially, I’m writing this blog to suggest that Disney are fantastic at design of most types, and seem to be incredibly clued into my areas of interest – namely service and experience design. But for me, the true craft in what they do relates to their ability to balance the needs of their clients, which the innovations above all address, with the need to strive for the financial integrity of the company. Capitalism in relation to design seems to frequently be seen as a dirty word amongst some creatives, but it’s difficult to deny the quality of the thinking at work, and as such, hard to begrudge the company making money as a result of it. If both user and provider are seeing real benefits from the service – and in both these cases, it’s hard to argue that they’re not – then surely that’s the ideal balance?

At any rate… I’d have your hand off if you offered me a job working on any project like these with Disney, in a second. Oh, and they do awesome firework displays. So if you know anyone…

Thank you to Joe Penniston, Samantha Decker and Sam Fam for their photos (all used under a Creative Commons License).

Real world design

Thursday and Friday of last week saw me making the decision to get involved with an outside project, working as a designer at a co-design workshop put on in conjunction with the Long Term Conditions Alliance Scotland (LTCAS). The event was looking into the future of a project called ALISS – improving Access to Local Information to Support Self management – which aims to provide a platform for linking up individuals with long term health conditions, providing information and access to existing support mechanisms that are currently out there, but not too easy to find. This little video by the people behind the workshop gives you the run-down.

The workshop itself contained a hugely diverse mix of people – individuals with long-term conditions, designers, and lots of people from other organisations in the public and private sectors, all of whom were needed to contribute to the overall design process. From a personal perspective, the idea was quite daunting – I’ve no experience of co-design beyond group-work on previous projects, and the fact that I was expected to lead people with no design experience, through the design process, was a little nerve-racking at first. Each group was allocated a designer (all of whom were current or former students from the Glasgow School of Art Product Design course), with our role being to act as a facilitator for the rest of the people in our group; assisting them through the design process.

Once I got settled with my second group (I was ousted from the first in what can only be described as a coup… well, not really, another group had no designer, and we had two), I began to get a handle on things, and we began the design process, which proceeded over the two days. Working together, we dissected our allocated area of exploration and started to pull together all the information needed to justify the design proposal that the group was producing – it’s not a simple task to facilitate in this situation, as you essentially have to think through the whole design process yourself for the problem, and then try and encourage the group onto the next stage. However, I was pretty amazed at how well the group got a handle on it, and really started offering up solid parts of process work, such as user journeys and concise statements of what they wanted to achieve.

All in, the proposal (People Helping People) looked at how ALISS could offer a way of facilitating access to the extensive number of support opportunities that exist already, but are poorly connected, allowing people with similar conditions and experiences to help support each other. Additionally, it suggested that those most able to support those with LTCs are those who also live with them, and that the service should be able to empower them to help people use ALISS as a means of adjusting to life with their condition, by becoming ‘givers’ – people who use their role as support providers to help themselves.

Realistically though, my blog post isn’t about what we produced as a group, but about how it was achieved. I have nothing but praise for my group – they worked their arses off over the two days, and really got their head around the way of thinking that we take for granted as designers. Sarah and Lauren (Drummond and Currie, directors of Snook, and co-ordinators of the design side of the workshop) produced some great tools to help pull their thinking together, and it really helped structure the days, and allowed the group members to see just how much work they had actually done. I was sceptical, even at the end of the first day, that we were achieving much, but I think the validation provided by the participation of those with LTCs is incredibly valuable, and the quality of work produced by the end of the workshop speaks for itself.

From a personal perspective, it was an eye-opening experience. I learned a hell of a lot about co-design, as well as how to explain design process to people with no design history, and I enjoyed seeing people grasp the concepts I work with in my uni coursework, and the fact that they seemed to really get something out of it. On another level, it was incredibly validating to see that design process can work in real situations, with real people, who have real problems.

I spoke to the head of my course the other day about design as a career, and how I think it’s fairly unique in that you really have to believe in what you are designing to do a good job. I’ve heard designers badly justify it by saying they won’t work for fast food companies and the like (pish – the truly bold thing would be to take the job and affect change), but the truth is that I agree with the sentiment. This workshop made be believe in design, my career, and that given the opportunity, people can achieve change for the better.

David & Goliath MkII…

A while back, I posted comment on a legal battle between Hansen, makers of Monster Energy (the one in the big black can with the green claw marks on it) and a small brewery who were creating an ale, under the name “The Monster” – see my blog post here. Following a sustained social media campaign, the two companies eventually reached an agreement, and the whole debacle was hailed by some as an example of the power of social media.

Yesterday, I was made aware of a situation that’s developing around an initiative that was created last year by graduate designers, called MyPolice (MyPolice.org). Essentially, the problem lies in the fact that HMIC (Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabularies) are now about to launch My Police (MyPolice.org.uk). Confusing? You bet.

You can read more about the ins and outs of the argument on the Guardian blog, but in the same way I found it interesting to see how a large organisation with seeming naievity in social media (Hansen) dealt with a smaller company who embraced the problem to further their cause (Rock Art) in the example above, I’m looking forward to seeing how this works out.

At present, the smaller company has been on the media offensive, and has mentions on the Guardian website (as well as interest from other major media organisations), as well as a lot of traffic on their site – someone has also set up a parody site, levelled squarely at HMIC’s use of ‘My Police’ (MyMHIC.org), where individuals are expressing their displeasure at the current situation. On the other hand, the larger organisation has done little of note, apart from apparently removing the launch date from their holding page.

So, where will this end? At present, it’s hard to tell, although given the smaller organisation’s social media nouse, I wouldn’t bet against the little guy on this one.

Watch me…

I’ll admit that I’m feeling a bit flumoxed by this current project right now (don’t worry, it’ll pass…), but my Head of Course put this up on the VLE (Virtual Learning Environment – much less impressive than it sounds, think of it like an electronic cork board with really complicated pins). It’s an insight video from Microsoft, and following on from my being impressed about the Courier concept that was kicking around, they’re looking pretty clever as a company right now.