Actually, one answer to the question is known: Steve Jobs generally did what his instinct, intuition and insight told him to do. And the results were pretty impressive. This thought crossed my mind when reading a review a few days ago of one of the plethora of tablet computers now available in stores. The review pointed out the various reasons the new tablet should be considered a worthy competitor for the iPad, indicating a number of areas in which it even surpassed the market leader.
The reviewer pointed to all the excellent market research done by the competitor company. What do people really want from a tablet computer? How big should it be? How could the home screen be improved to give people all the essentials up front? How many variants and options should there be? How best to pitch price against performance?
Excellent questions all, allowing the company better to tailor its products to its customers’ needs, and perhaps even deliver a product ahead of the field on any objective assessment. Except that, as we know, the iPad continues to outsell them all, and Steve Jobs was never too hung up on asking what people want. He worked on the basis that they would realise what they wanted after he gave it to them.
But we know all that. Why restate the content of a thousand Jobs hagiographies here?
Getting it right
Perhaps because the two models, Jobs-esque inspiration versus solid market research, apply in our small world too, especially as we progress with our strategy to renew the entire web presence of the European Parliament.
There is a baseline job to be done, and done well
From the outset, I have always felt a twinge of guilt when comparing notes with colleagues in the Commission, colleagues who are sometimes intimidatingly good. They, like us, face great challenges in keeping the web presence of a large, complex, bureaucratic institution up to contemporary standards, and in responding to the demands of an online environment which evolves much more quickly than an administrative committee deliberates. Their environment is in fact probably far more difficult than ours, not least because of the sheer, sprawling size and diversity of the Commission.
Our Commission colleagues have responded admirably, above all equipping themselves with an armoury of really solid research results. Benchmarks, satisfaction surveys, user testing, persona-based profiling, focus groups, analytical tools, top-flight consultants. Frankly, when they tell us about this – or when some consultant asks us whether we have used personas in our market testing – we tend to look a bit sheepish. Ummm :-/
Don’t get me wrong, we have done user testing, we have used satisfaction surveys, we do monitor and analyse our traffic, but in terms of scale, we aren’t even in the same ballpark as our Commission friends. Compared with them, we’re on a wing and a prayer.
And truth be told, kind of sneakily – and a bit guiltily – that's how we like it.
Fantasies and realities
It’s no secret that there is a strong Mac fan-boy leaning in the team, worthily pre-iPad – pre-iPod even! – in its origins, so does this mean we are fondly casting ourselves as the (once) upstart Steve Jobs against the Commission’s Bill Gates? A little chutzpah and fantasy is perhaps no bad thing, too often lacking in our institutional world, so only half-hearted apologies for acknowledging that the answer is, to a suitably humble and self-ironic degree, yes.
We’re on a wing and a prayer. Truth be told, kind of sneakily – and a bit guiltily – that's how we like it
But there is a more serious question here; which model should we be adopting? Is it incremental, research-based, solid, or is it trying to come up with something people didn’t realise they wanted from a Parliament online? Following or leading? The answer is not clear-cut, for all that heart and instinct pull clearly in one direction.
After all, we are talking about a public institution, catering for myriad stakeholders, providing a public service. Clearly we can’t (and don’t) pursue every creative whim like some improbable publicly-funded Silicon Valley start up. There is a baseline job to be done, and done well. Moreover, we are structured as an administration: it takes time to negotiate and mobilise resources, we have authorities to convince, our people are not a priori the hottest geeks and hottest creatives on the labour market (though, dammit, we are not bad either!). We are, sad to relate, collectively most decidedly not Apple, nor, with the greatest respect, is our boss Steve Jobs.
And yet, and yet…
Parliament has a mountain to climb when it comes to connecting with the public, we all know that. So much is implicit in the investment the institution makes in communication, proportionately unmatched in the parliamentary world. There are many deep-rooted reasons for this, most implicit in being a complex, multi-lingual, supranational legislative body in search of a body politic. The challenge of fostering the emergence of a genuine European public sphere, where the politics and policies of Europe will be discussed and fought over, just as are national politics and policies around the continent, remains immense, but is crucial to the long-term health of democracy in the EU. Call me an idealist, but it might be that the first real glimmerings of that long sought after public space are starting to appear thanks to the potential of web 2.0 communication.
So, though we cannot ignore best practice and good online housekeeping, for example making sure that our site is as usable, intuitive and accessible as possible, can we afford to be satisfied with just giving people what they want?
Since we were talking about small starts, I wonder whether, if we had asked, people would have wanted a European Parliament Facebook page. And yet this platform, launched when we were told to “do web 2.0” ahead of the 2009 elections, and essentially the product of a hunch, some well-directed energy, a lot of learning-by-doing, and having people around who got the internet, is now the source of contact with the European Parliament for more people, more widely and more constantly, than any other medium we manage. Today it seems obvious that EU institutions should be on Facebook. In 2009 it was not.
Can we afford to be satisfied with just giving people what they want?
The lesson for me is that we do need to keep asking ourselves the Steve Jobs question, however constrained we may be by what we are. If we are to play our part in helping Parliament to make that leap it needs, we must ask what it is that people don’t yet know they want from us online.