The Soda Academy
"...the hype and promise of an emerging technology can often outpace the technology itself."
--Josh Goldblum, Bluecadet
"balance the desire to use the newest and shiniest technology with the need to rely on tools that are reliable, proven and that will work within the schedule allotted."
--Joel Pryde, Stimulant
"Success is defined by the story that your technology is able to deliver to the widest array of people and what they take away from that experience."
--Joel Pryde, Stimulant
"Get good at your craft and never be too impressed with yourself to stop pushing for something new and better."
--Josh Goldblum, Bluecadet
"Go to bat for both sides. Stand up for your client’s needs and desires, but also stand up for your own artists, designers and technical people as well."
--Don Richards, Foghorn Communications

Nathan Moody, Stimulant

Mission Possible: Process, Flexibility and Next Big Things

  • Josh Goldblum
  • Joel Pryde
  • Don Richards

(from left to right)

  • Josh Goldblum, Founding Principal & CEO, Bluecadet
  • Joel Pryde, Lead Developer, Stimulant
  • Don Richards, Executive Creative Director, Foghorn Communications

We all want clients with vision, who can imagine (and accept the risks and costs associated with) the “Next Big Thing,” the experience no one has seen before, and which no studio or agency has ever attempted. But once you land such projects, you may quickly find yourself with a whole new set of challenges. You can almost be guaranteed the client has seen those cutting-edge experiments and hacks that your own team draws inspiration from. The bar is set higher than is comfortable. Outcomes are uncertain. And yet your team needs to still design, develop and deploy a solution that’s on brand, business-right and user-centric.

We’ve built a strong business on projects of this nature for over six years, and have found great success with a highly plastic process, by stealing workflows from other disciplines, maintaining an org chart without creative directors, and holding mandatory cocktail classes. But just as one ‘Next Big Thing’ is launched, there are a handful of others already queued up. We wanted to check in with others leading the charge in our industry – colleagues, clients and peers – about process and organizational lessons in the world of emergent interaction and place-based digital experiences.

Josh Goldblum and his team over at Bluecadet have launched some pretty incredible projects. We’ve had the pleasure of working with Don Richards of Foghorn Communications and have long been impressed with his approach to emerging technology and creative collaboration. And we checked in with our very own Joel Pryde for his perspective.

Q1: From grappling with new technology to managing client expectations, what has been your greatest challenge when tackling projects heavy in emerging tech?

DON RICHARDS: Feature-itis. These projects are by definition R&D. To focus our research and ensure a successful outcome, we try to develop clear use cases up front with tangible, measurable objectives. As the work progresses, it’s common for excited clients to want to see the projects do more. Can’t you just add this thing or make it do that, or wouldn’t this be cool? There is the obligation to say “we’ll look at that,” but it’s foolhardy to let it take your eye off the prize.

JOSH GOLDBLUM: We’ve found that the hype and promise of an emerging technology can often outpace the technology itself. What might seem to be even a basic implementation of a new technology can often be buggy, unreliable or simply not possible. More often, the technology might require a very controlled set of circumstances to function properly. Sometimes there is a way around the obstacles to using a technology, but whether that solution actually matches the production schedule or the budgeted hours can be an entirely different challenge. This is especially the case when the client is convinced that the technology should be as simple as plug-and-play.

JOEL PRYDE: It can be difficult to balance the desire to use the newest and shiniest technology with the need to rely on tools that are reliable, proven and that will work within the schedule allotted. In general, our strategy has been to spend time outside of normal projects working on lab experiments. This allows us to play around with new tech and test out viability so that we can make educated decisions on hardware before we deploy that technology on a client-facing project where the time constraints are more rigid.

Q2: We’ve all been there when a project doesn’t go according to plan. Can you share a “failure” or a sticky moment where a project or idea didn’t go so smoothly and how you managed it?

JOSH GOLDBLUM: When we first started working with the Kinect Sensor, we pitched an implementation that – while seemingly simple based on the available documentation – was actually incredibly complex. Based on our initial assumptions, the client completely bought into the idea and we proceeded to develop a project scope that was completely wrong. The implementation ended up being a nesting doll of complexity. Ultimately, we made it work and the client was thrilled, but we burned a ton of un-billable hours.

JOEL PRYDE: I feel fortunate to be able to say that we haven’t had any outright failures. We have, however, gotten into a few projects where our initial assessment of the development schedule and the complexity of the technology implementation were woefully underestimated.

Probably the most extreme example of that was the Reunion Tower installations in Dallas. We knew that we were building three different pieces, but we didn’t realize how hard it would be – and how much time it would take – to meet with so many external agencies focused on deployment and infrastructure issues over the course of the project. Fortunately, having a great pool of contractors to rely on and a scheduled staging of the project helped us stay on track and allowed us to uncover and resolve a lot of the issues that could have proved disastrous at deployment.

DON RICHARDS: We developed a traveling installation that demonstrated how large touchscreens could be used as ‘endless aisles’ in a retail environment. As the project progressed, so did retail sales technology, and the client wanted new technologies integrated that the project was not designed for and, more importantly, did not need. The result was a demo that was highly successful from a business standpoint (traveling to over 300 locations) but which lacked the crispness and ‘wow’ factor we would typically expect.

Q3: It seems like the constant hurdle is managing client expectations. In such a rapidly changing landscape, how do you align client expectations and strike a balance between your aspirations and the associated risks?

DON RICHARDS: We set realistic goals and we work with very, very good people. Each group evaluates its own risk and bears responsibility for it. And in actuality, each group ultimately bears responsibility for the entire project since every element is needed for success. There is no contract that can substitute for knowledge, integrity, attitude and relationships.

JOEL PRYDE: Ultimately, we do need to comp something for the client, so we do end up using such tools. However, we try to communicate that what they are looking at is a rendering (much like an architectural rendering) and not the final product. Fortunately, our skills with writing shaders and current GPU technology are progressing quickly so the gap does get smaller day by day.

JOSH GOLDBLUM: Whenever we take on a new technology, we set aside some time very early in the schedule to test and prototype. This allows us to determine the actual capabilities of the technology without committing ourselves to an idea that will take forever to implement or that won’t deliver on the promised experience. Outside of our client work, we also schedule time to play with a range of technologies. . This way, if we find something we think would be great for a client project, we can pitch it to that client knowing we’ll be able to deliver without exposing ourselves to the risk of failing or missing a deadline.

Q4: In the past few years, there have been so many first-of-their-kind projects launched in our industry and technologies developed that are considered “successes.” When everything goes according to plan, how do you ultimately measure the success of an experience that’s never been seen before?

DON RICHARDS: By whether people voraciously engage with it. If they play with it for a minute, smile and say they like it, we’ve failed. If there’s a beaming line of people who can’t wait to get their hands on it, we’ve succeeded. The Connect to Life creature creator we did with Stimulant at CES was such a project. Over the four days of the show, attendees created a new, unique creature on average every three seconds!

JOSH GOLDBLUM: How we measure success depends on the industry and the implementation. For example, when we work with museums, we work closely with their in-house evaluators. These teams will provide us with a wealth of qualitative and quantitative data on how visitors engage with the experience. This includes dwell time, but also other metrics like how many people smiled, who invited friends to join, etc. Ultimately, we like to observe real people interacting with our experiences. We’ll test the experience with users well before we launch and will iterate until we feel the product is ready for the public. 

JOEL PRYDE: The ultimate test is to watch people come into the space you have worked on and interact with what you have built. We have been lucky enough to work on a lot of playful projects and, in particular, it is a joy to watch children interact with a project we have worked on and experience it with open eyes. At the end of the day, success is defined by the story that your technology is able to deliver to the widest array of people and what they take away from that experience.

Q5: Creativity and innovation really need to be part of the culture and DNA of any company operating in this space. How do you maintain such a culture within your company? Are there any particular sources of inspiration?

JOSH GOLDBLUM: As a studio, we’ve found that it’s important to constantly keep a good frame of reference for who is doing the best work in a variety of fields. This includes expected disciplines such as design, gaming, typography, photography, video and motion graphics, but also less expected fields such as theater, art, film and architecture to name a few. At the same time, we try to approach each project on its own terms and to solve the problem directly. It’s important to resist the temptation to replicate someone else’s solution to a similar challenge. Sometimes a tested solution is a good one, but we have to be sure to think it through methodically before deciding that is the best course of action. Also, while we are very process oriented, we also keep an open mind as to when to adapt our process to meet the challenges of each project.

JOEL PRYDE: We keep the normal internal mailing lists of cool things we see. However, I’d say the key thing that helps us maintain a culture of innovation and creativity is ensuring that we have employees with an incredibly wide range of outside interests and influences. Also, during brainstorming sessions, we’ve found that it’s crucial to keep an incredibly open mind to ideas. One thing I saw in the game industry was that when you have a lot of people who are into the same thing, you end up generating very similar ideas. At Stimulant, we have people who make noise music, make techno, play board games, play musical instruments, kayak, ski, photograph, build arduino projects…etc., etc., etc. I firmly believe that every one of those interests slightly colors the ideas we bring to the table and are as essential to what we do as designing interfaces and writing code.

DON RICHARDS: We build unique teams for each project where people of highly varied expertise and interests come together. Virtually no project team is ever fully replicated. It’s very much a film industry model. When you bring together the right “producer, director and actors,” you get a unique “film.” It’s the same for bespoke digital experiences. And every member of the “cast and crew” walks away energized.

Q6: Do you have any advice for others just starting in this space?

JOSH GOLDBLUM: I am a big fan of basic chops and grit. For example, when we look for a designer, we want them to know the basics of color, grid, motion and type. I believe these fundamentals are an important basis for creating anything new. Further, I like to see a bit of determination. A designer should be willing to keep pushing an idea and a design. I love seeing a portfolio in which a bunch of good concepts are tossed out for something great. My advice is to get good at your craft and never be too impressed with yourself to stop pushing for something new and better.

DON RICHARDS: Go to bat for both sides. Stand up for your client’s needs and desires, but also stand up for your own artists, designers and technical people as well. When they are doing amazing work, it’s my job not to let politics or poor communication compromise it. Good clients respect you for intelligently pushing back. The trust developed through that process is more than worth the risk. And the respect shown to your own people for their time and talent amplifies their enthusiasm and dedication.

JOEL PRYDE: Build projects. Lots of them. Don’t be afraid to make absolute crap as long as you are learning something new and can do better the next time (well, don’t build crap for your clients…). We build a lot of stuff that never sees the light of day and we design even more. Every one of these ideas or projects either evolves or at least influences something that does come to fruition.

Q7: What’s on the horizon that’s exciting you and your team?

JOSH GOLDBLUM: We are working on a number of large museum projects. This includes designing and developing mobile, touchscreens and projections, but also creating a series of interactive environments. I am especially excited to be using sensors, projection, lighting and spatial design in order to create experiences that are more theatrical, serendipitous and multi-sensory. We also have been playing with Oculus Rift, beacons and a bunch of different sensors and cameras.

JOEL PRYDE: We have lots of fun projects currently underway and a bunch more in the pipeline. In general, we are working hard on building our internal tools and methodologies so that we can have tighter integration between development and creative in order to iterate faster. A lot of what we do is very fine refinements and adjustments to get the look, motion and overall experience as magical as possible. Any roadblock cuts down on the number of ideas we can bring to the table and how refined those ideas will eventually become.

Nathan has designed award-winning interfaces, interactions, illustrations, motion and sound for two decades, in almost every digital delivery medium and communication channel, for some of the world’s best-known companies. His broad range of experience informs his cross-pollinated, holistic approach to the design, art and craft of experience design. Nathan is a published author, awards judge and frequent public speaker, and lives to explore what he doesn’t yet know.