Anthony Baker, co-founder of the R/GA Tokyo office, is the antidote to tech-fatigue. Where some people have the skill of making complexity look simple, Baker has the skill of making our complex world feel exciting. Unlike the rest of us who tend to get bogged down in today's problems, Baker sees potential. He offers a bigger vision of what technology can offer the world. It's exciting and imaginative and fearless. It's enough to make you forget your phone crashed twice today.
While we spoke about the regular stuff –– tech stack architectures, machine learning and the rollercoaster of VR/AR adoption –– Baker couldn't help but interject with his ideas on what's coming. And according to Baker, virtual brand influencers, the marriage of technology and renewable energy, and an online collaboration platform where musicians can jam together are all on the horizon. "Just for fun," he says, throwing out these ideas, but not before reminding me: "It's not about the technology, it's about what can do with it."
Baker's long list of credentials gives him a unique vantage point on the space between human creativity and the practical applications of technology. He started as an actor for theater, T.V. and radio before moving on to his nearly 20-year career in the tech industry. A big proponent of education –– he believes everyone from graphic designers to developers should be trained in Google Analytics –– Baker has studied everything from machine learning engineering to Alexa voice apps. Now, he's executive technology director at R/GA Japan and the creator of the "lean experience innovation" approach. At R/GA, he's worked on the digital transformation of some of the world's biggest brands, including Shiseido, Google and Disney.
More value, fewer gimmicks
If one thing stands out from our interview, it's Baker's insistence that providing value to consumers is what's important both now and increasingly in the future. Whereas releasing fun PR stories or advertising campaigns were enough in the past, now consumers want digital experiences that give them value, and something that is beyond one-off content. "Customers are less and less attracted to marketing gimmicks and advertising for the sake of advertising and campaigns that don't make any impact in actual consumer lives," he says. "I believe that the focus is changing a lot from the desired experience to must-have experiences. I think that's the key pivot for me. Convenience and utility have become priorities in consumer mindsets."
This pivot is something that you can probably see in your own digital habits. Banking, wellness, home management, entertainment, connection with loved ones –– all these experiences have been made digital. More and more, we're asking of our digital experiences: "What is the value I'm taking out of this?" Baker puts forward Nike as a good example of a brand that is doing this right. While Nike sells apparel and sporting goods, they've also made themselves invaluable by providing digital products like the suite of Nike apps, live stream workouts and the podcast Trained. To use Baker's own words, they've succeeded in moving past advertising; they're providing a must-have experience.
The lean experience stack
What technology will power these new, highly valuable customer experiences? Over his years working in technology, Baker has developed an approach to building digital products called the lean experience stack. Monolithic or legacy suites are out, and systems where you can mix and match tools and services are in. Suites, Baker says, offer one solution that is trying to solve every single problem. They're inflexible, lock you into expensive long-term contracts and leave you unable to experiment with any other business models.
The solution, according to Baker, is breaking dependencies between all the different layers of the digital experience. The lean experience stack assembles only the tools and services that are necessary and cuts everything else. Furthermore, there are no dependencies, so everything can be removed or rearranged to adapt. Baker describes it as Lego: "You want every single piece to be interchangeable, you want to make sure that all the pieces have a standard, so they all work the same way. You want to be able to say, 'Hey, I want to build an extra room.'"
New tools empower underdog teams to make a big impact
A positive prediction for next year is that building power experiences will become more do-able and accessible than ever. While tech giants have been early adopters of powerful tools like machine learning and recommendation engines, Baker forecasts that this technology is going to be increasingly available for everybody. And it's not necessarily going to be in big, flashy applications. Instead, he expects to see technology like machine learning used in smart and adaptive ways.
TikTok and Netflix, while arguably giants in their industry, are an interesting case. Baker says they're using machine learning and recommendation engines to keep users glued to their screens. He predicts more and more companies are going to follow suit and start looking at more ways to sell products and relay experiences.
Holistic experience design and a new generation of talent
Not every team is set up to mastermind and build these new experiences. The word 'holistic' tends to pop up in health and wellness, but throughout our interview, Baker uses it several times in regard to experience design and teams. "[We need a] holistic and integrated approach to experience design that embraces strategy and behavioral economics and progressive prototyping and technology architecture," he says. It's essential to understand all sides of a digital experience. For Baker, this means understanding the business strategy, consumer behavior, the psychology of the customers, the different touchpoints and interactions, and importantly, how technology enables, limits and converts.
If it seems like a lot, it is. But for Baker, this holistic mindset, where technical and non-technical folks understand all different aspects of business, strategy, behavior and technology, will be crucial in the next few years. The days of hyper-specialization are over, and now what's important is that, to some degree, everybody understands all the moving parts that go into building customer experiences. Though Baker is quick to call out that new talent has nothing to do with age and everything to do with a flexible mindset, he’s convinced that our ingrained ways of working won’t cut it in the coming era. "We need to build the new generation of talent, to build the new generation of digital experiences and platforms," he says. Organizational transformation is a daunting but necessary prospect, according to Baker, the keys to unlocking value for customers in the future are a willingness to learn, be flexible, and adopt an "entrepreneurial spirit." For these teams to reach their full potential, they need more freedom and dramatically less structure — so get ready to break down some silos or get left behind.
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