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“Elite Design Agencies” and “Web 2.0”

A few weeks ago (I’ve been behind in my feedreading), Niti posted an email she got that from Douglass Turner, where he marvels at how the “elite design agencies” don’t seem to get “Internet 2.0.” Take a moment to read it, and her responses.

Okay. You back? So, I feel obliged to join this discussion, because it revealed to me a lack of awareness of some of the basic issues. The primary fallacy that Niti makes is to equate “blogging” with “Web 2.0.” The second fallacy is to state that it’s okay for design agencies to remain ignorant of such Web 2.0 things, because it’s only for the online engagements. If design agencies behaved that way, they’d be doing their clients a huge disservice.

Douglass was right to wonder, “How can companies so talented in other domains so completely miss the fundamental transformative and disruptive power of Internet 2.0?” A blog or a podcast does not Web 2.0 make. Web 2.0 is fundamentally about relinquishing control, putting creative power in the hands of your users, and developing systems that benefit from such communal use. Such concepts are anathema to the thought, philosophy, and practice of “elite design agencies.”

Such design agencies, and the folks that work there, tend to believe their role is to *control* the user’s experience. They have no greater fear than other, non-designers, contributing to the design of the product. I don’t mean “user-centered” design here — the elite agencies have by and large come around to that. I mean, going many steps further, placing the control of the product in the hands and minds of the users.

The people and firms that Niti lists as “Web 2.0” designers don’t ring true to me. Pretty much the only one that I buy is the Management Innovation Group (and that’s because I know them, and I know they get it, and they publish stuff like this).

I don’t know what “Interface Innovation” is, but Web 2.0 has actually very little to do with interface, and everything to do with the systems underlying them, and how best to take advantage of those systems.

Niti then makes the claim that it isn’t a problem if these design agencies don’t embrace these tenets because they are “creating customer experiences and enabling users around products and processes that reach far beyond the web.” This doesn’t make sense to me, because there’s hardly a business on earth for whom their online strategy isn’t a key component. Because, and this is the thing a lot of people still don’t get, “Web 2.0” isn’t about the web. The web is where it most obviously plays out, but web 2.0 is about relinquishing control, embracing openness and transparency, demonstrating actual authenticity, and empowering your customers to create, and leveraging that creativity to make better experiences for everyone. As the LEGO Mindstorms article in Wired discussed, this isn’t simply about web sites — it’s about introducing new paradigms to improve businesses’ chance of success.

In short, I agree with Douglass that it’s something of a travesty that “elite design agencies” remain so ignorant of the social, cultural, economic, and business shifts at play that they aren’t engaging with what is *really* happening when we say “web 2.0.”

  1. I work at a traditional advertising agency – 18 staff and 17 years in business – and deal with this sort of attitude all the time. Senior partners just don’t “get it”.

    I hear murmurs of, “we heard the same thing about this and that 10 years ago…this has all been done before…nothing is new”. But it is, this time around, it’s vastly different. Very frustrating. I am glad to know I’m not the only one out there dealing with the issue.

  2. I’m not sure I’m with Douglass in that exchange. He seems to be arguing that the lack of podcasts or weblogs is a sure sign that IDEO doesn’t Get It. Why must Doing It necessarily follow Getting It?

  3. Michal,

    Because it is simply impossible for a partner in a firm to look over a junior staffers shoulder and “get” Web 2.0. You have to blog to understand it. You have to blog to understand where it can be taken. Remember, these are very early days, with much of the early geeky trappings still in place.


  4. Doug, you’re saying that Getting It must follow Doing It (which I’m not entirely sure is true, both because a lot of people who do it don’t get it, and some people who get it don’t do it). I’m asking whether Doing It must follow Getting It – once you understand how podcasts work or why blogs are captivating, is it necessary to go off and start your own? I’m not convinced.

  5. I think you really do have to Get It before you can Do It. That is unless a senior partner actually empowers their management team (or others who understand) to take the lead where it’s required. I run into this brick wall all the time – some partners get it, others just live in the same old patterns. The latter group can be a real show-stopper.

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