Weeknotes #260

What I did this week (and didn’t do):

What do I require?

I spent a lot of time working on (and even more time thinking about) what some people might call requirements. I regularly get my thoughts tied up in knots trying to understand what we mean by ‘requirements’, ‘goals’, ‘objectives’, etc., but using ‘This is what we want to achieve’ and ‘These are the things we’re going to try’ seems much less ambiguous, so I tried . The problem I have, especially with ambiguous jargon but in general when defining or explaining anything, is the coastline problem. That is, how the problem looks depends on your measure. A circle drawn with only four big straight lines looks a lot like a square, but a circle drawn with a thousand small lines looks pretty circular. So, a requirement or goal specified at one level looks very different from another level. And then levels of what? My bottom-up answer would be, ‘levels of abstraction from the user behaviour’, but that opens up a whole load of other questions.

Why do charities use the innovation processes that they do?

I submitted my draft literature review and research methodology. I had originally thought that my research should be able how charities are using innovation processes, but I’ve realised I’m much more interested in why they are using them the ways they are. This creates more of a challenge as it requires qualitative interviews, but I just need to get out of my comfort zone and get on with it.

Embedding a theory of change in your learning

I signed-up for NPC Labs user research session on theory of change (which I’m interested in) and learning (which I’m really interested in). I’m not sure why, but I’m really looking forward to it.

Swimming with seals

I’ve went swimming in the sea almost every day this week. The best one was around sunset and I was alone on the beach. As I lay floating in the water a seal surfaced, looked at me for a few seconds, I looked at it, and then it swam away.

Didn’t get feedback

Listening to One Knight In Product with Teresa Torres made me realise that I haven’t done any of the discovery work I set myself for July. So, if anyone reads this and wants to do me a favour: sign-up for my charity product management emails and tell me what you think about them.

What I read this week:

Mobile traffic to charity websites is rising…

…but only a third of charities pass Google’s ‘Core Web Vitals’Mobile traffic to charity websites is rising, but only a third of charities pass Google’s ‘Core Web Vitals’

Why? Because it depends how you measure. And if you’re in the business of measuring and judging websites in order to rank them in search results then maybe you want some level of influence over how websites send you signals that you can judge them by.

Why? Because it’s easier to focus on frontend/visible aspects of technology and think that if the website is responsive then it must be optimised for mobile, which isn’t the case but many website platforms don’t get that stuff right by default.

Why? Because not all ‘Jobs To Be Done’ can or should be done on mobile devices (and with mobile behaviours). Sometimes, friction, intentional or unintentional, is good for getting people to stop and think. Convenience isn’t everything.

Why not? If your user research shows that the people that need your services find you through organic search results, need a highly-performant online experience, and only have mobile phones. The points is; do what your users need you to do, not what a search engine says.

Digital adoption within the NHS

Shock treatment: can the pandemic turn the NHS digital?, asks whether the NHS can maintain the level and pace of digital transformation that came about as a result of the pandemic, and also raises the ‘fix the plumbing or fund the future’ investment question, which I think is very closely connected. These are the questions facing every sector and organisation. Charities included. I feel like the answer is obvious; yes and no. Do organisations realise how important digital transformation is for them? Yes, at least a bit more than they did. Will organisations maintain the pace of change we saw from the pandemic? No, not without the huge external pressure making digital an existential question.

Decoupling time spent from value produced

James Plunkett’s article on the four-day week was shared around Twitter this week. It talks about the Iceland experiment and how it resulted in increased productivity, and more interestingly, predicts that, based on the historical data trend of reducing working hours, the four day working week will be generally adopted in the early 2030’s. If that’s the case, we might have a few more decades to go before society is ready to make the shift to decoupling the value we produce from the time we spend doing it. Stuart said it best, “Being at work never equated to doing work“.

What I thought about:

A diamond and a tree

Speaking of how we judge value, I had an interesting conversion about why different jobs are paid different amounts and how the job market values uniqueness of skill over what the role achieves. My analogy was ‘a diamond and a tree’. A diamond is considered to have high value because of how rare it is. Trees aren’t considered all that valuable but have an important impact on the environment and life (being able to breath, mostly). Maybe we’ve got our values round the wrong way.

Accepting responsibility

There’s lots said about blame culture and how toxic it is but I hardly ever see anything about the flip side; responsibility culture (if it’s even a thing). I think taking responsibility is one of those underlying amorphous parts of a product managers job. Obviously, everyone should take responsibility for their actions, but product managers are often the ones to be most aware of the trade-offs that exist when decisions are made (even if not actually making the decision), and that knowledge comes with responsibility. Taking responsibility for knowledge, not just actions, is an interesting responsibility to take.

Do charities need innovation?

Does any organisation, in fact? An amalgamation of ideas from a conversation on Twitter, Ann Mei Chang, and some of the stuff I’ve been thinking about for my dissertation takes my thinking towards this: If the problem is unknown and the solution is unknown, then innovation is an approach, a mindset, a skillset, a method that can help to make both known. If the problem is known and/or the solution is known, then innovation isn’t needed.

Why do people have personal websites?

I wondered, why do people have personal websites? With so many other places to build an online presence, why have a website, and how to use it?

I follow 3700-or-so Twitter accounts. Some of them are companies, but most are people. So I looked through all their profiles to see who had a link to their personal website. I was only interested in the personal websites, domain names their they own, not company websites, LinkedIn profiles, their Substack, etc. So, why do people have personal websites?

Eleanor Mollet

Eleanor’s website is mostly a blog about software development and delivery, and also has links to social media.

Ann Handley

Ann’s website is a marketing site. It promotes her books, speaking, training, and newsletter. The site has a blog but more as a means of framing articles on the site. Perhaps the regular content is through the newsletter.

Amber Kearney

As a product manager, speaker and creator, Amber’s very polished and professional website is definitely a portfolio site. Her blog only has two posts from August 2020,

Martin Kleppmann

Martin’s site is an index of links to his writing on other sites. The last blog post was in January 2020 and the last conference talk in July.

Emma George

Emma’s website promote’s her web design business, showing her portfolio of work and a contact form for potential clients.

Sharon O’Dea

Sharon’s website promotes her consultancy business. It provides links to her speaking, appearances on podcasts and videos, and blog about digital transformation.

Justin Jackson

Justin’s website has links to things he’s working on and his social media accounts but unusually also has lots of articles he’s written.

Anna Gát

Anna’s website is a one-page with some info about her and links to other platforms like Twitter and Medium.

Jeremy Reis

Jeremy’s website is a one-pager with that is mostly directing visitors to another site to sign up for training.

Balaji S. Srinivasan

Balaji’s website is a blog with posts about things he’s interested in and perhaps invests in.

Tamara Sredojevic

Tamara’s website has beautiful animation, pretty gradients of colour, and a custom cursor to help communicate what she does, which is build websites. The site also has links to her social media and a newsletter sign-up.

Tobi Ogunsina

Tobi’s website has an about page, a portfolio with a very full history of work, and a blog with weeknotes.

I wonder if there are two types of websites; finished and regularly updated.

Most the websites I looked would fall into the ‘finished’ group. They serve as portfolios of previous work and lead generation for future business. I wonder if social media, newsletters, and other not-owned platforms are the reason why these sites are not updated more regularly. Or is it just because the owners of these websites view websites as things that can be finished, that they just don’t need to be updated regularly.

The websites that are thought of as digital gardens, places to record and explore ideas, somewhere to publish where we feel we own the content and so own our personal brand, are much more rare.

On personal websites you have to handle production and distribution (if you want anyone to read what you write), whereas if you write on Medium or SubStack or some other platform the distribution is handled for you. So, perhaps what we can see from the websites we looked at is a trend of having a website as a static, enduring, ‘home’ for your ‘personal brand’, something that will show up in search results for your name for those that don’t already follow you on social media, something that communicates your USP and gives potential clients a means to contact you, but not a place to write or regularly update.

Should I build a microsite?

Talk to most people in Digital about microsites and they’ll pull a face of disgust. Why, what’s wrong with microsites?

The answer, really, is nothing. There is nothing wrong with using microsites to solve particular problems. The issues arise when microsites are used to solve the wrong problems. Let’s see if we can figure when to and not use a microsite.

When not to build a microsite

If the microsite:

  • won’t have any specific functionality that the main website doesn’t have,
  • will have the same branding and identity as the main site,
  • takes visitors on a similar journey, and
  • is seen by stakeholders as a ‘shiny new thing’ that will allow the organisation to move faster because the existing infrastructure and technology used by the main site is out-of-date and not meeting organisational and user needs.

…then a microsite probably isn’t the right solution.

Sometimes a new microsite is seen as a way to paper over the cracks of existing technology, and if that’s all it’s doing then it’s making the situation worse. However, if introducing a microsite on a new tech stack is part of the plan to iteratively move towards replacing the existing website, then this can often be a better approach than a large single project to replace one big system with another. Building what is needed as those needs are identified is a much better approach.

When to build a microsite

If the microsite needs:

  • to meet a completely separate user need than the main site,
  • to have specific functionality that the main website doesn’t have, for example customer support and knowledge base functionality,
  • to have it’s own branding and identity but be closely associated with the branding and identity of the main site, e.g. for a specific marketing campaign,
  • to enable a user journey between to two sites, and/or
  • to (or at least wants to) make use of the domain authority of the main site,

…then a microsite could be the right solution.

There are other ways to achieve all of those things on the list, so it doesn’t mean that a microsite is always the right solution, but they can have additional advantages such as diversified infrastructure so that if one website goes down the other isn’t affected, and disadvantages if built by an agency using technology that no one in house has experience with and doesn’t know how to maintain.

When to question the decision to build a microsote

Always. Especially if stakeholders have already decided there needs to be a microsite before any discovery work or requirements gathering has happened.

Should I build a microsite?

If you need to. Keep an open mind, do the discovery work to understand the problem, and then build a microsite if its the right solution.

And take no notice of the looks of disgust from people who make decisions without knowing what problem is being solved.

The Cookiepocolypse will end privacy on the web

Cookies days are numbered. Ignored by users, blocked by browsers, disliked by regulators. How will websites track users once the cookie has crumbled?

Almost every website you visit drops cookies onto your device so that your behaviour on the website can be tracked and analysed. Cookies enable the website analytics software to identify you, not by name but by IP address which on the internet is as good (better, in fact) as a name. Which pages you visit, how long you were on them, the buttons you click, all of it is tracked. Those cookies remain on your device after you leave the website so that ads can be served to you on other sites in an attempt to get you to return. Many people consider the way cookies are used to be an invasion of privacy, and this is leading to cookies no longer being a viable option for website analytics.

Under the Privacy and Electronic Communications Regulations, which are enforced by the ICO, websites are supposed to allow users to choose whether they accept cookies or not, and adhere to that choice. In fact, the majority of websites completely ignore the cookie selection made by their users and drop tracking cookies regardless of users clicking the accept button. They do this for a combination of reasons including the ICO not enforcing the regulation, technology from before the law came into force that hasn’t been replaced, and knowing that it’s the only way to track sufficient numbers of visitors.

Website visitors ignore the cookie banner. Only 11% of website visitors accept cookies. This means that any organisation that wishes to comply with the regulations, or treat its visitors with some respect and give them the choice of whether to be tracked, is going to find it impossible to understand user behaviour using cookies. That doesn’t sound like it should be a tough choice; adhering to the regulations and treating users with respect versus being able to report of website metrics, but people have different priorities.

And browsers are blocking cookies. Firefox blocks third-party tracking cookies and cryptomining by default and Google is to ‘phase out’ third-party cookies in Chrome, but not for two years. This move by the browser companies is being talked about as about achieving privacy for users, which might be the case for Firefox, but it isn’t for Google.

Regulators don’t like cookies, website visitors don’t like cookies, tech giants don’t like cookies, and in a sense, I think all for the same reason; they don’t have any control over them. Anyway, all of this means that using cookies as a technology for tracking users on a website doesn’t have a future. If your business relies on cookie technology to serve ads and bring customers to your website, you might be worried. If you are a media buying agency that offers advertising services, you might be worried. If you are a major provider of online ads and make billions of dollars a year from advertising, you might be worried. No longer using cookies to track users is going to have considerable impact on businesses and how every user experiences the web. This is why it has been called the cookiepocolypse.

Of course, humans have ingenuity. They find ways around these kinds of problems. 

Visit the New York Times website in a desktop browser and you’ll be presented with a cookie acceptance banner. Visit the New York Times website in a mobile browser and you’ll be asked to login using your google account. Signing-in to a website replaces the need for anonymous tracking using cookies, now the website knows who you are and can track the usage associated to your account. The signin was so easy, just a click of a button, you barely even noticed doing it. You didn’t set up an account in an explicit and obvious way as you might on other websites, but you now have an account with this website. 

We’re seeing it now, but in the future we will see far more websites force users to sign-in before they can read content on the site. It offers them a solution to be able to track users more than they currently can and without the need for third-party tracking cookies. 

This will have two major impacts on the web as we know it: Google will get more data about what we do on the internet, and websites will have to get much better at providing value. 

Google already knows loads about what you do on the internet and on your mobile if you have an android phone. If you don’t believe me go to My Activity and login to your Google account (of course). The reason Google knows so much about you is because you’re logged into your Google account for so many of the activities you do on the web. As you go from Google search results into a website that isn’t owned by Google, Google hopes that they can continue to track you with Google Analytics, which uses cookies dropped on your device by that website. That’s an imperfect way to track users because cookies are non-proprietary technology, which means other companies can also use cookies to track users, and that’s a problem for Google, no market dominance. 

That’s why Chrome isn’t going to start blocking for cookies for two years (around 2022), to give Google time to build up its capabilities in social login and convince businesses to use it to power Google Analytics. Google is in the business of tracking and understanding users. They don’t want internet usage to be private, they want it only available to them. They are using the end of cookies to drive users to login to websites using their Google account so that they can track their usage in third-party websites on an individual level as they do with their own websites.

Once websites have got used to, and got their users used to, using social logins, those that want to monetise their site will turn that login into a paywall where payment is taken as via the users Google Pay account, which of course Google will take a cut of, creating a new revenue stream for them.

The other impact is going to be on the websites that implement login to their site, whether it is enabled by Google or any other provider. These websites will become subject to the economics of information goods. They’ll need to be able to communicate the value of the content before they reveal it to their users, just as you can’t read an ebook until after you’ve bought it. Once users have accessed the webpage that information will become non-excludable, meaning that even though it’s behind a login or paywall, we should expect that other businesses will offer better ways for users to access it. 

Take my website for example, the one you’re reading this on. If you had to create an account before you could read this, would you really have bothered? All that extra time and effort, and more of your data going who knows where, just so you can read the ramblings of someone who late one night convinced himself he’d reached a sufficiently insightful understanding of how websites will track users when they can’t use cookies that he decided to write a blog post about it. Let’s be honest, we’re both surprised you’ve got this far.

If you run a charity website (which is my particular area of interest) there are some things you could try (I say try because there are no tried-and-tested solutions so these need to be viewed as experiments) as the Cookiepocolyse takes away your ability to track users. 

  1. Stop tracking users – Visitors to your website will have a slightly nicer experience because they won’t have another cookie banner to click, and you might be able to get some good PR from taking a stance of putting your users privacy ahead of the organisations need to track and report. There are lots of other ways to understand the experience visitors have of a website, including user research groups and surveys, which will provide a much deeper understanding than some unreliable analytics data.
  2. Only track those that allow it – If you are still tied to using cookies, and you’re going to adhere to the choices your visitors make, but you want to try to increase the number of people that allow themselves to be tracked on your website, then try turning tracking into a way to support the charity. Change the messaging on the cookie banner to something like, ‘We’d like to track your visit to our website today because it helps us show our funders that people need the work we do” (good luck with the legal team). Push the message that user’s data has value and that they can do good things with it.
  3. Create such high value that users will want to login – Make the login super easy (not a lengthy sign-up form to try to collect lots of information) and have tough discussions about the ethics of using social logins vs a means within your control, and then make it worth their while. Decide whether there are some parts of the site that don’t really need to be tracked and so can be outside the login-wall, and then work really hard to make sure that everything behind the login, whether its content to read or a service to be accessed, is worth so much more to them than having to login (and it won’t be every time they visit because those essential cookies will be used for what they were intended for).