The future of digital, terrible metrics everyone seems to love, and why businesses should care about microservices, with Wells Stringham
Here at Contentful, we pride ourselves on having some really smart people on staff; however, we believe that our partners have an important perspective on digital building and, of course, Contentful. I spoke with Wells Stringham, head of experience at Apply Digital about everything from microservices and business practices that pay off the future digital trends.
Head of experience, explained
Who are you, where are you from, and what do you do?
I’m Wells Stringham, head of experience at Apply Digital. My background is in UX and design, but these days I'm responsible for ensuring our projects have a viewpoint on UX, CX and Service Design. In a nutshell, I make sure that what we create provides value to the user (utility, entertainment, education, etc.), and that the company behind it is ready with the services needed to create a successful experience (customer support, design and development production processes, the ability to intake feature requests or bug reports and prioritize them, etc.).
How do you explain that to your family?
Most of the time, I stick to something along the lines of “I help companies generate, validate, and plan for apps, websites, and other digital products.”
What is Apply Digital?
Apply is a digital product studio, meaning we both make and market smart digital products. We've been lucky enough to work with a range of clients, platforms and audiences. Our projects have ranged from tools for agriculture, rewards programs for B2C companies, proof of concept fitness apps, P2P video game streaming and betting, democratizing wealth management, and overhauling web experiences to help sales teams.
Our view is that every business has some digital components, and those experiences are compared to the best that people interact with; we help ensure that our clients meet and exceed that bar.
Microservices enable the future of digital experiences
Why do microservices matter?
Since the start of my career, everyone's talked about creating truly compelling experiences and keeping them up to date, personalized and dynamic. At the start, most companies couldn't afford the time and effort to keep updating complex, monolithic projects.
Microservices have broken up these previously densely woven platforms, enabling the future. Creating cross-platform use cases going from a watch, to a voice assistant, to a website is now a real use case that can be connected through microservices.
Using microservices, you also get to see huge benefits in the flexibility of your technology development. It allows teams to split up and run in parallel tracks, or have them diverge over time as new problem areas are uncovered.
How do you help CXOs think about microservices?
If I'm talking to a non-technical person, CXO or otherwise, about microservices, I try to focus on the benefits they'll get from them — the biggest being flexibility. By breaking down your data and business functionality into microservices, you gain the ability to mix and match, upgrade and edit, or remove and deactivate parts without having to spin up a multiyear initiative. Pivoting and changing to adapt to customer needs can focus on what UX/UI would best fit, rather than what the tech team can support.
If you could give headless CMSes a new name, what would it be?
I've thought about this a lot over the years, and my biggest issue with “headless” is that it describes an implementation detail of the technology and not the benefit that the CMS users will get. So in my head, I always think of Contentful as the “data portable” CMS. Sometimes I express it as flexible, modular, or adaptable, depending on what the context is.
Metrics that actually help a product improve and business grow
What is one metric that business leaders love but you hate?
NPS! It's become a standard metric amongst business leaders and, while I appreciate what it's trying to measure, it's horribly inadequate for the job. The only positive thing I can say about it is that it's short and sweet.
As a part of our customer research process, I regularly get to talk to prospects, customers and lapsed customers to dig into insights. I've had a significant number of people say they would never recommend a product because it's their secret weapon, or that they don't know anyone who needs that product. Not to mention the irrationality of a 10-point scale where only the top two numbers are positive indicators.
What is one metric that you think all business leaders need to pay more attention to?
I'm a big fan of Exposure Hours, which Jared Spool (Center Centre) started talking about in 2011. His team found — and we've seen similar results — that continual improvement in your customer experience is best achieved with an ongoing program.
By having everyone in your organization spend two hours every six weeks watching real users interact with your product, website or other touchpoints, you'll have regular feedback on where the problems are and alignment across your company on what initiatives are important. Compared to NPS, a successful Exposure Hours program will generate a roadmap of pain points to solve and ways to improve.
Looking toward the future and what’s next for experiences
What’s one trend that you think is going to be big that people haven’t started talking about?
Mobile and social have been clear trends for years, but we're starting to see an intersection with ecommerce this year. Just as Contentful enabled the portability of CMS content, we're going to see the rise of headless ecommerce to enable sales on owned experiences, as well as Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, Snapchat, etc.
Which will be bigger in five years, artificial reality or virtual reality?
I still bet on AR. I think VR is a fantastic medium for entertainment, but AR has uses across everything. Once we have glasses that can contain enough computing power while staying small, everyone will see how impactful it can be to have an overlay on your work instead of bouncing between multiple apps. You'll have more compelling movie or TV experiences, as the AR interacts with the media you consume.
What is one thing CXOs need to understand, and how do you help?
I think most CXOs today don't need to understand anything new; they need support across their ever-growing remit. Experiences matter for the customer and for your internal stakeholders. Improving internal tools helps your teams handle the mundane efficiently so that they can focus on the complex. This helps the business and wins you supporters.
At Apply, we bring in the typical research and data approach to uncover opportunities. We also try to find places to use AI/ML to supercharge teams. For example, we let ML create thousands of audience segments for promo-offer personalization. Let your human team dig into how the rest of the experience can improve the conversion rate of the most valuable segments.
Contentful, from the outside
How did you hear about Contentful, and why do you partner with us?
I remember hearing about Contentful in 2014 as it kept coming up in conversations with the tech team at Blast Radius, where I worked at that point. When Apply started in 2016, I remember we made a conscious decision to go deep on headless CMSes, of which Contentful was the most mature. It just made sense to embrace a technology that could help us more efficiently tackle projects where there was a complex set of experiences needing similar content. In retrospect, it seems inevitable that we'd end up partnering with Contentful!
Coolest thing you have seen people build on Contentful?
I've been following the vitamin and supplement space for a while, and have been using Care/of for years. Their whole experience is pretty incredible, making something overwhelming easy enough to set up on my phone. From tweaking my personalized packs and taking the quiz, to seeing updated recommendations, to getting streaks for consistently doing something, that's good for me! It's an ambitious task, and they've done it so well.
What is one thing you would like Contentful to change from a product perspective?
There's been so much improvement here already, but I'm a big advocate for anything to make content authors' lives easier. Helping those teams experiment, draft, preview, test, personalize and regionalize is always a good idea.
Why is Canada leading the way in digital? What's in the water up there?
I’m not sure if we spike the water with anything, but Canada, Vancouver and Toronto in particular, have been talent centers for digital companies and pulling in amazing people from all over the world. From the start of my career to today, I’ve had colleagues and teammates from Australia, New Zealand, Brazil, Japan, Czech Republic, France, South Africa, India, Brussels, Colombia, Nigeria and many more. When you expand your pool that widely, and pull together smart people from across that many varied backgrounds, you end up with solutions no single person would’ve come up with.
If you want to speak with Wells about any of these topics, you can find him at Apply Digital and get an in-depth view into their digital factory.