Technology / 04.09.19
Failure Is Not an Option
When Rob Williams, Vice President of Technology at AudienceView, took to the stage at INTIX 2019, he admitted he didn’t know whether his talk would be viewed as a success or a failure. But in foreshadowing what was to come, he reminded the audience that “we define what success is ourselves and we define what failure is ourselves.” It all depends, he said, on our perspective.
Failure is defined in the dictionary as a lack of success. Looking up success, it’s the accomplishment of an aim or a purpose. “Therefore,” says Williams, “failure is just not accomplishing your aim.”
He continues, “To understand if this talk will fail, I need to understand what the aim of this talk is — what my aim is in standing in front of you. If I don’t want it to fail, or I’m concerned the talk might not be great, maybe my aim shouldn’t be to give a great talk. Maybe that’s not the purpose and the reason I’m standing here. In fact, the reason I’m here today and the reason I’m standing in front of you is to learn. Already I’m learning. I’m learning which jokes land and which don’t. I’m learning what might translate to an international audience…because the last time I gave this talk was in Birmingham, England, and I haven’t removed all the English humor. So that’s what I’ve defined as my definition of success for this talk. I want to understand whether I can deliver it in the United States, whether it’s useful for people. Are my ideas valid, are people engaged? I want to understand whether ending this talk with a prediction of every person in this room losing their jobs within five years is a good idea or not.”
Whoa! What? Williams certainly knows how to get the attention of his audience. By illustrating his presentation with a series of vignettes about both real and perceived technological failures and successes, the point of it all soon became obvious: Sometimes we are too quick to judge that something has failed, and we do so at our own peril.
“For me, this talk is quite a big deal,” says Williams. “This is my second appearance at an INTIX event and like a difficult second album, this needs to be just as good as the first one,” an approach which, he almost immediately concedes, could be setting himself up for that very thing he is hoping to avoid. “It wouldn’t take a lot to turn this into a failure itself,” he says, adding that he’s not worried because of his ability to define both success and failure.
Define What You Mean By Failure
“It’s really important in business that we understand what we mean by failure. The only way to do that is to first define our criteria for success for any particular project. It’s not always about whether it hits its budget. Failure can actually be a really great way to learn,” says Williams.
He illustrates this point by referencing two companies. Company A is a runaway success, hitting its targets and everything is great. Company B appears to be failing and misses targets three or four months in a row. Backed into a corner, Company B starts to talk about how it can improve. People start working together. Efficiencies are found. Suddenly, Company B is outperforming Company A. “Failure causes something innate within us to try and find ways around a problem and solve it,” says Williams. Or as German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche said, “That which does not kill us, makes us stronger.”
Failure is Critical to Success
Perhaps, nowhere is this adage more appropriate than in technology. Williams gave the example of a big company that wanted to change the words on a website button from “Buy Tickets” to “Find Tickets,” figuring the latter was more customer-friendly language. They were told that extensive research shows “Buy Tickets” is more effective. Still, they insisted on a change, but at least agreed to test it out first. After two weeks of multi-variant testing, they had lost 50,000 pounds ($65,000) in revenue. A miserable failure. Or was it?
“The client came to me and was absolutely over the moon, she thought it was fantastic,” recalls Williams. “She said, ‘That’s a dreadful result, but thank goodness we didn’t just change that button. Thank goodness you persuaded us to do some testing there. From those failures, we’ve figured out that if we had run [the change] on the whole site [instead of doing the multi-variant testing], we would have lost 115,000 pounds ($150,000) in revenue. We probably would have been [evaluating sales] and wondering why we were trending down from last year. We may not have picked this up for four or five weeks,’ which could have meant 1 million pounds ($1.30 million) lost.”
Indeed, instead of focusing on the obvious failure, she highlighted the success that came out of it. Had they just gone ahead and made the original change, they would have lost far more money before they figured out what was wrong. Now they knew for certain that sticking with “Buy Tickets” was their best option.
Perception is Everything
Remember Google Glass? Williams certainly does, having been one of those who paid several thousand dollars to be on the cusp of what promised to be a revolution in interface technology, only to see it drop out of sight as quickly as it appeared.
Another miserable failure? Ah, no.
According to Williams, Google Glass was an experiment with a limited test market designed to discover the world’s attitude towards the technology, privacy and wearability among other things. All the data they gathered over several years is helping refine Google Glass for the future.
“Google Glass was a roaring success for Google, yet we're really quick to pin that as a failure,” says Williams.
He then went on to list all kinds of other perceived failures that are, in reality, great successes. This includes everything from digital music — which is perceived to be failing because of a minor resurgence in vinyl — to e-books — allegedly failing because of screen fatigue when in fact sales are at an all-time high.
“So, you end up again in a situation where people are perceiving something as having failed when really it hasn’t,” observes Williams. “That’s really interesting to consider in our own industry. There are perceptions of failure we see because we don't know the criteria for success for those initiatives and those companies.”
Seeing Past the Hype
Just as hype can turn something unknown into an overnight success, so can it make success look like a failure. Williams points to blockchain as an example.
Blockchain was created as the underlying technology for the transfer of Bitcoin. There was no other apparent use for it. But then someone gets another idea for how it might be used, the media gets wind of it, and then everyone is talking about it as if it’s the one thing that will solve every problem. In ticketing for example, you’ll have no touts and you’ll know where every ticket is every single day.
Yet it’s not the actual use of the technology that is causing the excitement, notes Williams, it’s only the potential of the technology. So the story dies down, everything goes quiet and there is a perception that blockchain was an idea before its time or maybe even a dud.
Meanwhile, behind the scenes, lots of people are beginning to figure out how to use the technology and before you know it, it’s a roaring success. Williams says this is all part of Gartner’s "hype cycle" in which new technology pops up, reaches a peak of expectation, then falls back into a trough of disillusionment, before rising again along a slope of enlightenment until it becomes part of the mainstream. Remember when cloud computing was just an idea not even a decade ago?
When it comes to ticketing, Williams has created his own hype cycle. And blockchain is front and center.
Williams, recognizing that some still don’t quite get it, gives a quick, easy-to-understand description of how it could streamline the entire ticketing process, with no actual ticket anywhere in sight.
“Gartner currently has blockchain curving over and coming down into the trough of disillusionment,” notes Williams. “It was everywhere a couple of years ago. It’s now a bit less. It’s still going to be a while before blockchain really hits the mainstream and is usable. So, I think we’re still at that point where a lot of people have heard of it, didn’t really understand what it was in the first place and now [they’re thinking] I don’t really know what it’s all about because it doesn’t impact me.”
By now, everyone has at least heard of dynamic pricing — and many organizations are already using it to boost revenue. But there is something else waiting in the wings, according to Williams, and that’s personalized pricing.
“Dynamic pricing and personalized pricing are kind of linked. Dynamic pricing looks at the venue and the physical seats. What it’s doing is saying, this seat here, what should the price of this seat be? It can use all sorts of factors to figure that out — the location of the seat, the history of the sales of the seat, the section and row the seat is in, the weather outside at the time of the performance, the performance itself and all sorts of things. It allows you to change the price of that seat based on historical data pertaining to that seat. Personalized pricing is kind of different. It’s about the person buying the seat, it has no bearing on the seat itself. It’s tailoring pricing to that specific person. So, 200 people view one seat, they’ll get 200 different prices.”
Right now, Williams believes personalized pricing hasn’t even hit the hype cycle yet.
And then there’s biometrics, which still isn’t quite at the top of the hype cycle, but it is moving up very quickly, says Williams.
Biometrics is the concept of not using a ticket or even a phone to access an event. It’s the concept of using a fingerprint or a faceprint. Williams says the technology is now cheap and secure enough to go mainstream.
“Several organizations already are selling biometric ticketing entry systems. Major League Baseball is bringing biometric ticketing into many of its ballparks now, using facial recognition and fingerprints to access, no paper tickets, no need to keep your mobile phone on you. It kind of eliminates that whole concern we have about a demographic that doesn’t carry around a smartphone because they don’t really understand the technology. They come to the box office, when they buy the ticket they look in a facial scanner or small camera, we snap their face and they walk up to the turnstile or entrance and just walk straight through.”
Williams says he wouldn’t be surprised to see the number of exhibitors and attendees talking about biometrics grow substantially at INTIX 2020.
Beacons and Other Technologies
Williams goes on to talk briefly about various other technological advancements such as QR codes and beacons, which you stick on things so that phones and apps can react to them. An example would be that you walk into the Apple store with the Apple app open, and it would welcome you to the store, then give you information about a specific Mac when you are looking at it.
“In 2010, people were saying beacons were the future, me included,” says Williams. “They weren’t only supposed to transform the nature of location-based marketing but also give birth to a new wave of smart cities.”
So, what happened? After the initial hype, beacons fell into that trough of disillusionment.
“And so, some people say beacons have died, they’ve failed, not happening. Yet you look at the data and Apple has just recently patented a new version of their beacon technology, so they’re still perceiving this very much as the future. A report also just came out saying beacons are going to see massive growth between now and 2025. There were quite a lot of papers saying beacons just weren’t ready and had to mature. It’s not uncommon for new technologies to emerge and then quietly disappear for a few years. Beacons are one such technology that are spending some time away from the limelight.”
What Does All of This Tell Us?
Williams says there are two ways to look at how you can embrace failure — one is when you are looking internally at your organization and one is when you are looking externally at technologies used in your industry. When you are looking internally, he says, it’s really important to embrace failure, to admit your mistakes and learn from them.
“I think it’s really important to embrace failure…in the same way we embrace success. Make sure you learn from every failure. Every time something goes wrong, just think to yourself, what have I learned here, not what would I do differently. It’s different than trying to fix the problem. Where can I use that experience in the future? Be smart about your definition of failure and your definition of success,” he says.
And externally? When you are looking externally, at the great big world out there and our industry, Williams says you shouldn’t be too quick to presume failure. Look past the failure. Was this really just about hype? Has it really failed or is it just that we now have lots of people working behind the scenes, trying to iron out the kinks before something truly does become the next big thing?
Time to come full-circle. Do you recall how Williams’ presentation began? It had something to do with everyone in the audience being out of a job in five years. A startling prediction for sure, but one which Williams sees us all waking up to one day, depending on how we learn to handle failure.
“I have a vision. And my vision has four pieces of technology that we have talked about today,” says Williams. “I want to explain first how that vision would look to a customer, and then what the technology underneath is doing. So, I wake up, I would say in five years or so. When I wake up my phone recognizes that I have done so. We’ve moved away at this point from reactive assistance where I have to talk to my phone first, it’s now proactive. My phone starts the conversation.”
After saying good morning to him, Williams’ phone tells him that one of his favorite bands is playing tonight and asks if he’d like to go.
Williams says yes, that would be great. His phone asks if he wants to invite his wife. He says sure and then goes off to work without giving it another thought. When he’s finished for the day, Williams meets his wife at the venue and they enjoy the performance. So, what just happened?
Siri was searching the Internet while Williams was sleeping. She knows what bands he likes because it’s all tied in with Apple Music.
“She’s doing a Google search that’s pinging as soon as a band announces a tour. That night, it picked up that my favorite band had a tour. It checked the ticketing system to see whether or not there were tickets available and there were. It put two tickets on hold, or maybe it just bought them at the time. Then, when I woke up in the morning, it asked me about it. At that point it checked my wife’s calendar because we share our calendars, so it knows that my wife is free and I’m free. At the point when I said yes, it understands my voiceprint and bought the tickets for me. The tickets were then stored in blockchain and complete. I have access to the ticket and the venue has access to the ticket. It then took an encrypted faceprint or other biometric data from my phone…and attached that to my ticket. When my wife and I arrived at the venue, my phone, acting as a beacon, flagged that I had arrived. That unlocked my tickets and, for a short amount of time, the venue is able to access my biometric data. As I walk up to the turnstile, it sees that it’s me and just let me into the venue.”
That, says Williams, is the future of ticketing — a seamless technological experience with no human involvement. This means that most of today’s jobs as we know them would no longer exist.
“But it’s all good because there’s a lot more to our industry than just the technology,” says Williams. “We in ticketing are the magic that we bring to this industry. I think our customers rely on that, they like those personal moments. You know what it’s like when you’re in the venue, when you’re speaking to people at the ticket office. They create that emotional connection. You have customers and patrons who just feel like they own your venue. They know everything about you, about it, and they want to see those people.”
Indeed, as INTIX President and CEO Maureen Andersen has said many times before, we are the magic behind the button.
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Tags: Security , Blockchain , Mobile , Artificial Intelligence , AudienceView