March 19, 2022•1,300 words
No matter when you came to be online, you've had the opportunity to encounter what I like to call digital craftsmanship. Building cool online experiences is not a lost art. You may have recently heard of Wordle, a simple web game made by a developer as a gift for a loved one. It has been a huge success and is therefore an easy example to reach for, but massive adoption is not what digital craftsmanship is about. The internet reaches almost everyone through massified channels and commodified content, but there's something else beyond the clickbaits, the memes and the content marketing. There's also a special sauce that's missing from most online experiences, but one that has never left the internet. There are still people that care for this medium and make great interactive content for other people to engage with.
I also like to think that the company I work for cultivates this craftsmanship by giving digital events a nice home and not just a place to stay. This article is therefore about having this level of care for your work when building live event platforms. At Shake It we make branded event apps for all screen sizes, web and mobile. "Branded" doesn't mean we take the same exact app and slap a few colors plus a logo on them. We do use a common base across all event apps, but that base is actively being worked on every week according to the feedback we receive from clients and our own ideas to make it better. On top of that, what other platforms call a "concierge service" is kind of the default for us. Our content managers can do a lot to customise each event to match exactly what it needs just-in-time before it starts. We take into consideration every time we may need to say no to a client because our platform supposedly won't solve for some issue. Furthermore, we believe that live streams and video-on-demand can be a centerpiece of well-crafted digital spaces in which people can also experience great events.
A level of craftsmanship is important to deliver a unique unifying context for online events, something that I've written about in a previous article. But it's also relevant for physical events, as the care you show for your mobile app motivates attendees to install it. And in the same way that people go to an event to move a bit from their comfort zone, finding a nice app that's not the same one you scroll through every day can be a delightful surprise. Events need special moments like this to become memorable and talked about. Also, in general, craftsmanship benefits the person who is working on making the thing because a greater understanding of the issue they're addressing bubbles up from having your hands on the thing. And this naturally improves the overall work done if that person has enough autonomy to leverage that understanding to improve on what is being delivered.
So why don't more events align themselves with this deeper connection? Why do companies consolidate around going in the opposite direction of what Shake It does? What are the challenges faced by this kind of digital craftsmanship? I would like to highlight three factors at play here: scale, stakeholders and specialisation.
The internet that most people know today was not carefully crafted by individuals with this or that special case in mind, but by automated platforms that increase their reach and growth speed by removing the human element from many decisions. By definition, craftsmanship doesn't scale and that's a good thing. Because one day AI will be able to build all these services for us, their utility will be assured, their cost will tend towards zero and many jobs will disappear. But there will always be a void that can only be filled by that quirky human touch. Ideally we need both kinds of services. One that optimises for everything to look pretty much the same and another that actually touches the screen they're working on and knows what exceptions to make and what needs to stay the same.
Only smaller events can be organised by a single person and maybe financed only by attendees. Almost by definition, events bring different visions together of what different people believe needs to take place. Organisation leaders have core messages they want to broadcast. Sponsors want to occupy as much mindshare as possible. Exhibitors want to generate leads they can follow-up on. Speakers want recognition, exclusive experiences and very little friction. Much like apps, events have a lot of space for many ideas and decisions to get into the mix. And anyone who has any say is tempted to get their word into what can become a vanity fair, specially if attendees are not paying for the experience. Craftsmanship is kind of the last bastion to fall when everyone wants yet another banner, link or weird self-serving change crammed into the screen. But an appreciation for the digital experience that's being created for attendees can be easily achieved by what is commonly called "eating your own dog food". Everyone who determines what goes into an app should also be actively using it and putting themselves in the shoes of event participants. Would you come back to this browser tab after opening the live stream? Would you find value in keeping this app on your phone? Would you miss having this tool in your next event? Craftsmanship is either allowed to shine or it can get snuffed out.
A consequence of caring for what you deliver is that you can never specialise so much that you lose sight of the bigger picture. More than that, by focusing on delivery you notice that a lot can be improved on the edges between different domains. Namely from different points of view such as communicating with stakeholders, designing user experiences or developing solutions for several platforms. Crafting good digital experiences demands that we don't see ourselves only as managers, designers or developers. Going hands-on even for a bit in two or more domains gives us that understanding that bubbles up from making things happen. In fact, the moment we start drawing lines in the sand is the moment we should consider stepping over them if it helps to solve the problem. Specialisation happens naturally as we find the time to make the best use of our talents. If we instead look for specialisation by raising walls around our work, we create blind spots where we should be seeing how bridging one skill with another would lead us to some unique surprising treasure. Craftsmanship perfects the craft but it's more about doing great work that speaks for itself.
So, given how ephemeral events are, we can choose to look at their dates on a calendar in two different ways. One is to think of it as only temporary and therefore few things really matter, throw a bunch of darts at the board and some are bound to hit. The other is to leverage this limited time to offer something unique that people will remember, pull that arrow with purpose and let it fly knowing it will hit the target. Both are valid ways if taken in tandem and some balance between them needs to be found. Hold your event as just another rectangle inside the screen of some social network and it easily becomes lost in the battlefield for people's attention. Worry about every pixel that you're going to display in your custom-made app and you'll miss the forest for the trees. Craftsmanship is an essential point for triangulating the right approach.