Book review: Digital Adaptation by Paul Boag

Almighty God, our heavenly Father,
we have sinned against you and against our fellow men,
in thought and word and deed,
through negligence, through weakness,
through our own deliberate fault.

It’s no secret to web design and development professionals that many organisations just don’t “get” the web. This shouldn’t be a surprise: I expect that chefs would say that many organisations don’t “get” cuisine, or newspaper editors would say that many organisations don’t “get” the media industry. That’s not necessarily a problem – we can’t expect everyone to know HTML and CSS.

Chefs are expected to know the nuances of many ingredients, but a restaurant manager only needs to know whether customers like the food and are willing to pay for it. Newspaper editors must understand the process of finding, investigating and writing stories, printing and distributing their publications, but a paper shop only needs to know what newspapers they need to stock. In the same way most organisations don’t need to know the technical aspects of building websites, but they do need to know how they can adapt themselves to get the best from the digital world we now inhabit.

At the risk of being accused of hyperbole I’m going to stress that “adapt” is the right word here. It’s about a constant evolution to enable growth and long-term survival.

For many years Paul Boag has been one of the leading voices in the web industry (my cheque is in the post, right, Paul?) through his website and podcast, not to mention the great work he and his colleagues at Headscape have done for a wide range of clients. So it’s great news that those years of insight have been poured into his latest book: Digital Adaptation.

It’s a great read; full of nuggets of wisdom gleaned from countless meetings with organisations of all shapes and sizes. When it comes to clients who want websites, Paul has seen it all. Which brings me onto the quote above. Yes, there is a point to it.

You see, people – and that who we have to deal with; real, human people – are a complicated bunch. We have a huge range of attitudes and thoughts, all shaped by the vast array of experiences we each travel through. We’re not always perfect, and we certainly don’t always make the right decisions. We fail in a number of ways: in thought, in word, in deed.

Sometimes we think something is true when it’s not – for example thinking carousels are a good idea. Sometimes we think something is false when the reality is different.

More often that we care to admit we say things that aren’t right, either. We speak without thinking; we tear down rather than build up.

And, if we’re honest, our actions rarely live up to what our best selves would do. We react badly, act thoughtlessly, ignore opportunities to do good.

And the reasons why are as varied as our failures. We fail through negligence, through weakness, and sometimes through our own deliberate fault.

But I’m not here to be a tree-hugging motivational speaker, I’m reviewing Paul’s book! Which is about … people. People who misunderstand the web, who don’t know what is possible, who sometimes (it has to be said) want their own way or the high way.

Organisations are just groups of people. And whatever the reasons why organisations don’t “get” the web, and irrespective of how those reasons take form, those people can be challenged and educated to start to “get” it. That’s what Paul’s book is about at it’s heart; kick-starting the changes in attitudes that are required for organisations to adapt to the digital landscape.

I’ve already said it’s a great book, but I do have a central problem with it. Paul repeatedly uses the word “digital” as a noun, but most people are used to it being used as an adjective. This might be a barrier to some people. Here’s an example:

Similar trends are occurring in the newspaper industry and among cable TV companies, as digital changes how consumers read the news and watch TV.

Wrapped up in that word “digital” is a whole set of other more definite nouns; the Internet and web, digital downloading, email and SMS, smartphones, tablets and much more. But while we in the digital industry understand that “digital” as a noun encompasses these things, and much more yet to be invented, my hunch is that those outside the industry (shall we call them “Muggles“?) may not get this.

Paul also uses digital in its more traditional form as an adjective; ‘digital team’, ‘digital strategy’ etc. This, I feel, will be more understandable to those we’re trying to educate. But on the whole this is a small nit-pick.

At 176 pages the book is brief enough to read in a couple of sittings, and it feels great. Printed on thick paper, with Veerle Pieters gorgeous illustrations. Even the main title on the front cover has a subtle texture to it. It’s a quality product.

Paul starts with an honest appraisal of the problem we face as digital professionals; that organisations can be ignorant, scared or indifferent to the changing world. His insight into the thought processes of the management in these organisations is enlightening and thought-provoking.

One thing I must particularly highlight is Paul stressing that the management attitudes digital professionals often struggle with may not be all deliberate (remember that “through ignorance, through weakness, through our own deliberate fault” thing?). This is timely and often needed; understanding and good communication must work both ways.

The bulk of the book consists of practical and well-reasoned arguments why organisations should not just embrace the digital revolution but fully engage with it – to the extent that it informs their entire strategy. This is “digital by default”, a motif which runs throughout the book and the premise of which I fully agree with.

This, however, is my second bug-bear with Digital Adaptation. I know from experience that design teams are sometimes perceived by outsiders as unapproachable, uninterested in the wider aims of the organisation, and unwilling to be pragmatic about design. Of course that is rarely the truth. But we have to face facts: the offices of professionals in most other industries don’t contain beer fridges, games consoles or loud music. Perhaps those things are necessary for a creative environment. I’m no designer, so I can’t really comment.

Digital Adaptation nods towards these attitudes and tries to cut through the frippery to the real heart of the matter; that designers are serious professionals who are crucial to the ongoing success of an organisation in the changing culture we inhabit. The problem for me is that I don’t think enough is said to distance the design industry from the perceptions I’ve encountered in more traditional industries.

There are excellent and strong examples of a modern digital strategy doing wonders for organisations, notably in the discussion of the work done by Martha Lane Fox, Mike Bracken and the team. And there are plenty of stories from a range of modern businesses – Twitter, Google, Mailchimp and others – to further strengthen Paul’s central message that digital (yes, as a noun) matters.

All in all this is a great book which I believe will further and enhance the conversations happening in boardrooms, design studios and development offices in organisations all over the world.

Take two, twice a day

I’ve now had a BlackBerry Playbook for a little over four weeks, and it’s been an interesting ride. This is my first tablet and, to be honest, I wasn’t sure how much I’d use it. Like many geeks and their toys it was the getting that motivated me, not necessarily the having. Selfish, I know.

OK, so what have I used it for? Instant access to GMail and Twitter has enabled me to be more wired than before, although I’m not sure I (or my wife) would consider that a good thing. I’ve also been able to check the weather easily, and with the snow we’ve had recently that is definitely a good thing.

It’s kept my young son entertained, a big scratch on the screen is proof of that. My wife and I have also had our very own Book At Bedtime as we listened to a downloaded audiobook. And, of course, I’ve been able to test and research responsive websites. All in all I love it.

There are downsides. Battery life isn’t amazing, and the keyboard is difficult to use for anything more than a few sentences, especially as accessing special characters requires flipping to a different keyboard view. This slows me down as I’m a stickler for correct spelling and punctuation; l33t-speak gr8s on me. I’ve also found no decent development apps, but that’s not surprising and certainly isn’t a deal-breaker.

The real power of tablets is instant access to a decent sized screen, almost zero start-up times and very quick loading for apps. That means the technology gets out of the way and you get to the content you want quicker. Interestingly a friend said this week that he’s using his iPad less since he upgraded his PC with a solid state drive, and boot-up takes 4 seconds. Laptops aren’t as handy as tablets, but they do benefit from a proper keyboard and bigger screen. I guess that’s the niche netbooks are trying to fill.

Using a touch-screen device a lot has also given me a greater appreciation for how apps need to be written to cope with touch inputs. It’s also shown me that a whole new breed of apps is possible, and challeged me to think about how to respond to this new world in my own software development.

So, it’s been an interesting experience. I doubt I’ll ever do without a tablet again, at least until the next device revolution comes along.

P.S. This post was written partly in the car, partly in a cafe, on my Playbook. Who knows, I might even start blogging more often.

Review: Radiohead – In Rainbows (Part 2)

Radiohead – In Rainbows

A few days ago I wrote a review of Radiohead’s new album In Rainbows. Since then I’ve listened to it at least half a dozen times, and much though it pains me to say it:

I was wrong.

This is a great album; a soothing, joyous, mellow-tinged collection of wondrousness. I’d stand by my initial diagnosis that it isn’t up there with OK Computer or The Bends, but it is in my opinion streets ahead of Kid A, which was far to esoteric for it’s own good.

On In Rainbows Radiohead seem to have come full circle, melding the solid straight-up rock of their earlier stuff (Bodysnatchers is such a tune) with their weird and wonderful noise-influenced recent period. Tracks such as Nude and Weird Fishes/Arpeggi wash over you in waves of melancholy the like we’ve not heard since the heady days of OK Computer.

In my previous review I was a little disparaging about Faust Arp, which I compared to Turin Brakes gone wrong. Well, I’m the one who is wrong (and it’s not often I say that). On repeated listenings I hear Bob Dylan, even echoes of Simon and Garfunkel. This is a modern folk song done in a way only Radiohead can.

The wonderful guitar on the opener 15 Step (would you believe, music buffs, it’s just 1-4-5 in Dorian mode? How come they make it sound so good?). The plaintive longing of All I Need. The rhythmic guitar counterpoint of Weird Fishes/Arpeggi. I could go on, but there’s no need.

This is a great album, in my opinion their best after the Big Two mentioned above. If you listened once and wrote it off, force yourself to listen again a few times (even just to Weird Fishes/Arpeggi and Bodysnatchers) to let it get into your head. You may find, like me, you’ll become addicted to the new Radiohead.

Reviewed by Chris Taylor, October 13th, 2007. This review is marked up using hReview, because I’m all Web 2.0, baby.

Review: Radiohead – In Rainbows

Radiohead – In Rainbows

Update: I’ve written a second review here that makes much of what I’ve written below null and void.

The latest album from legendary group (I would say “rock group” but they go way beyond mere rock) Radiohead has been released in MP3 download today. I’ll come on to the why’s and wherefore’s of the way they released it later, first a look at a few tracks:

15 Steps

The opener is exactly what you’d expect from Radiohead – angular and driven. But the overall effect, as so often happens in their music, is one of coherence and fluidity. The time signature of 5/4 unsettles, but the dreamy guitar lulls you back to safety.

Weird Fishes/Arpeggi

The first thing I thought when I heard this was “chill-out drum and bass with added guitar”, and I suppose Radiohead have a good line in that kind of sound. With lines like “I’d be crazy not to fall, to follow where you lead” the longing wistfulness of Thom’s voice really comes out. The track builds then is stripped away to the counterpointed arpeggi of the title before breaking out into a more sinister version of the original feel. Yes, you might have guessed it, weird noises abound.

Faust Arp

I think someone has been listening to Turin Brakes, judging by the opening of Faust Arp. But of course they’ve subverted what would otherwise be a pretty standard pop-folk tune with extra beats and unexpected chord twists, even if the accompanying strings are pretty pedestrian. All in all it sounds like Radiohead Unplugged.


Thom’s falsetto on this track seems, to me, a bit weak compared to the soaring vocals on their classic album OK Computer, but the track bounces along in a jolly (OK, make that dark) fashion until the half-way mark. Following a string interlude you get the feeling of a very strange gospel song, again with cyclic guitars underpinning the disjointed drums.

House Of Cards

Probably the “happiest” song on the album, House Of Cards sounds like it could have been recorded by the Stone Roses in an extremely mellow mood. With weird noises, of course. This is one of those tracks you could fall to sleep to without (much) risk of nightmares.

Jigsaw Falling Into Place

Most people will never have Radiohead playing in their living room, but turn this track up and you’ll be nearly there. The dry treatment and guitars threatening to break out of the speakers makes them as close as they are likely to be on a recording. Once again they’ve employed the use of a zombie choir to good effect.

Overall this is a good album, just as you’d expect from Radiohead. However it’s not up there with their best, as there isn’t really any ground-breaking production. It could be described as an impressive disappointment – some gorgeous, comforting sections but overall it leaves you much the same. It’s not that it’s bad, it isn’t, but I made the mistake of listening to both The Bends and OK Computer the other day and this just doesn’t stand up to those albums. Maybe that will

Now, about the release. Radiohead, rather than charge a fixed price for the album, have freed themselves from the shackles of a record company and you can choose what you want to pay. Yes, it’s really up to you, as their website says. I chose to pay the princely sum of £0.00 for the DRM-free download, and I’m ashamed of that. This album is worth money, and when the boxset comes out I’ll be parting with some of my hard-earned moolah to get a physical copy.

Reviewed by Chris Taylor, October 10th, 2007. This review is marked up using hReview, because I’m all Web 2.0, baby.

Nick Harper, live at Leeds

In short: Insane guitar killer unleashes his fury with six strings. Must be seen to be believed.

Photo of Nick Harper, live at Leeds, 10th May 2007

★★★★★ It seems at the moment all I do is work, with occasional bits of sleep thrown in. However last night was A Night Out, and it truly deserves the capitals because I went to see Nick Harper, one of my favourite musicians, at the New Roscoe. For those that don’t know of Nick, he’s the son of the famous Roy Harper, but don’t think there’s any kind of reflected glory stuff going on, as Nick is one of the undiscovered musical geniuses of this country, if not the entire world. Big words, but he deserves them.

You see, Nick transcends the acoustic singer-songwriter label placed on him, not just with searching and emotionally-charged songs, nor awe-inspiring technique, nor even a stage presence that makes you feel as though you have a deep connection with his music. He has a raw, undiluted and passionate energy that unleashes itself when he stands on stage with his guitar. In essence there is a war being waged inside his head between the “guitar virtuoso” side of him and the “insane guitar killer” side. If last night is anything to go by, the insane side is winning.

One of his party tricks was performed twice last night. As often happens to guitarists, Nick had a couple of strings break. But rather than wait until the end of the song, make a joke about it and restring, he just keeps singing. A pack of strings came out of his back pocket and, still singing the song, he restrung his guitar, tuned the string and started playing accompanied by cheers and applause. The second time he had to go backstage to get a new one (it was a D, if you’re interested) but carried on playing thanks to the wonders of wireless. That got even louder acclamation when he’d restrung and started playing again.

He played a good selection of his songs, and a fair smattering of other peoples work as well. The ever-popular “Universe Song” by Monty Python went down a treat, as did his usual mash-up of “Whole Lotta Lovin'” and “Guitar Man”. During one of his extended guitar sequences he even touched on “Can’t Get You Out Of My Head” by Kylie Minogue, and got the crowd singing the “nar-nar-nar” bit while he improvised melodies over the top. Fantastic.

But it’s his stage presence, his warmth and engaging personality that makes a Nick Harper gig so special. Between reminiscences about his family, thoughts about his forthcoming trip up Everest, and potshots at politicians (his impromptu version of “Golden Brown” in honour of our new Prime Minister was hilarious) everyone in the audience felt they got to know him better. Maybe you wouldn’t have felt that you were the only person in the room, but you would definitely have felt you were in a special group of close friends having a private concert with Nick. And there are some pictures in a new Gigs category of the Gallery for you to enjoy.

The review of this event was created on May 11, 2007 by Chris Taylor and is marked up using hReview. Visit Nick Harpers website for more details of his touring schedule.