Behind the launch of Windows 7 Phone Series

Windows Phone 7 Series – Touch Experience from Razorfish – Emerging Experiences on Vimeo.

How do you give tens of thousands of people a hands-on experience with a new phone when you have only a handful of prototypes to share?

That’s exactly what Microsoft did at the Mobile World Congress February 15 with the introduction of the Windows 7 Phone Series, the next generation of Windows Phones.  Through a major press conference featuring Steve Ballmer and a splashy demonstration, Microsoft impressed bloggers and media with one of “its most ambitious projects” in the words of Engadget.  And Microsoft pulled off the feat without having the finished product at event.  Here’s the inside scoop.

In December 2009, Microsoft approached my employer Razorfish with a challenge: could we create an interactive simulation for its new Windows Phone 7 Series?  There was one catch: the simulation needed to be done in time for the Mobile World Congress, only weeks away.  Only a few prototypes would be ready by then — but the event happens only once a year, and given its prominence and the need to generate market enthusiasm for the phone, waiting to share the finished product at the 2011 Congress was not an option.

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According to my Razorfish colleague Jonathan Hull, the Razorfish Emerging Experiences team in Atlanta collaborated with the Razorfish Microsoft account team in Seattle to build a touch-based phone experience that emulates the user interface of the new software.  The emulator would be the only way that Congress attendees visiting the show room floor could interact with the software (only a limited number of media would have access to the prototype devices), and the team needed to work in complete secrecy.  (The phone interface was kept under wraps until launch day.)

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The challenge for Razorfish was to reverse-engineer the design, animation, and interaction of an actual device.  “Accuracy was extremely important, and we had to ensure the design and motion in our experience was a perfect re-creation of what Microsoft believes is a game-changing mobile experience,” Jonathan said.

To ensure the job was done correctly under the tight deadline, Razorfish used the Razorfish Touch Framework (RTF), a software that makes it easier and faster for designers to create multi-touch experiences on a variety of surfaces such as in-store kiosks, interactive window displays, and mobile phone applications.  (RTF is based on Microsoft technologies such as Windows 7, .Net, and Windows Presentation Foundation.)  By using the RTF, Razorfish developed the application from scratch in less than four weeks.

While the team was working through the details of the technology and experience design, it received a new challenge: could Razorfish also build an online experience to support the official announcement?

“Our team took on the project with less than three weeks to build the web experience,” he said, with once again the Atlanta and Seattle offices combining their know-how to create an online advance look at the product (embedded with the ability to share content through email, Facebook, or Twitter).  Razorfish developed the website with Microsoft Silverlight.

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When Steve Ballmer went onstage February 15 to perform a live demonstration of the new phone, the simulator was ready, too, with huge crowds watching the demos.  As Jonathan reported from the Congress, “It’s been very gratifying to see conference attendees and members of the press experience Windows Phone 7 Series for the first time, flicking and gesturing through the 3D user interface and learning about the key features of the operating system on 40-inch monitors.”

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The engaging experience was crucial to the positive reaction that the launch received from the likes of The New York Times and Engadget.  The New York Times noted that the phone software has a “cleaner look than most of today’s smartphone software.”

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To me this story demonstrates the changing role of the agency-client relationship.  Agencies have an opportunity to help clients solve business problems like launching new products and services.  But assuming the role of business partner means the agency needs to do more than devise messages that say things more effectively.  The next-generation agency creates experiences that make brands come to life.  Only a strong blend of technology and experience design, coupled with a deep understanding of the client’s business needs and customers, makes this kind of relationship possible.

You can learn more about what happened at the Congress on the Razorfish Emerging Experiences blog.

Five lessons on creativity from the Eagles

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Album liner notes are a lost art — which is unfortunate because well-written liner notes leave insightful clues about how and why musicians develop their art.   For instance, here are five lessons I learned about the creative process after I read Cameron Crowe’s liner notes for The Very Best of the Eagles (released in 2003):

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1. The right setting can unlock an idea.  As a touring band, the Eagles lived in hotels.  Don Henley explains to Crowe that he drew upon the obvious — the band’s daily living space while touring — in developing the landmark song “Hotel California.”  He says, “The Beverly Hills Hotel had become something of a focal point — literally and symbolically.”  He discusses how the language of architecture spoke to him, and the mission style of early California contained a certain mystery and romance that informs the song.  To develop the song, he and Glenn Frey literally drove around looking for visual cues to stimulate their thinking, including trips into the desert.  They’d drive out to a house in the San Bernardino Mountains and sleep on the floor to clear their heads and let ideas settle in. Their reliance on physical location to inspire them helped produce one of the great songs in rock history.

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2. Sometimes ideas take time to develop.  The classic song “Desperado” existed for years as a fragment in Don Henley’s song book, never seeing the light of day as a full-blown song until the right set of circumstances unlocked its potential.   It wasn’t until the Eagles had released the band’s first album and Henley was learning how to write songs together with Glenn Frey that “Desperado” became a song ready for the public to hear.  Again Don Henley relates in the liner notes: “Glenn came over to write one day, and I showed him this unfinished tune that I had been holding for so many years.  I said, ‘When I play it and sing it, I think of Ray Charles — Ray Charles and Stephen Foster.  It’s really a Southern gothic thing, but we can easily make it more Western.’  Glenn leapt right on it — filled in the blanks and brought structure.  And that was the beginning of our songwriting partnership . . . that’s when we became a team.”  And Frey adds, “I think I brought him ideas and a lot of opinions; he brought me poetry — we were a good team.”  One wonders what would have happened to “Desperado” had Henley forced its creation before he had the right partner?  Fortunately, he had the patience to wait for the right circumstance — a complementary song writer.

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3. Ideas are everywhere.  It’s been said that great artists appropriate ideas wherever they can find them, and certainly the creation of “Witchy Woman” is a case in point.  According to the liner notes, the song fragment originated with guitarist Bernie Leadon playing a “strange, minor-key riff that sounded sort of like a Hollywood movie version of Indian music.”  Leadon and Henley recorded a rough version on a cassette.  But the song’s beguiling lyrics “Raven hair, ruby lips, sparks fly from her fingertips”) didn’t develop until Henley came down with a flu and high fever while he was reading a book about Zelda Fitzgerald.  “I think that figured into the mix somehow — along with amorphous images of girls I had met at the Whisky and the Troubadour,” he remembers.  I love it: one part Zelda Fitzgerald, a pinch of L.A. club life, a strange riff, and a high fever — all coming together to create a hit song.  And if you listen to the song lyrics, you can tell he created an archetype of many experiences as opposed to a literal interpretation (which would not have worked).

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4. Collaboration = creativity.  Too often we associate working in groups as a creativity killer.  But as Lesson #2 also shows, the right team can unleash creativity, too.  The song “Take It Easy” is another case in point.  “Take It Easy” came about after Jackson Browne started playing a fragment for Glenn Frey.  Browne had already written some of the lyrics based on an experience hanging out in Winslow, Arizona, waiting for a car to be repaired.  As Frey relates, “He started playing it for me and said, ‘Yeah, but I don’t know — I’m stuck.’  So he played the second unfinished verse, and I said, ‘It’s a girl, my lord, in a flatbed Ford, slowin’ down to take a look at me.'”  And that’s all it took for the song to suddenly blossom: one brief line nudged Browne to finish what became the first in a long line of Eagles classics.  Collaboration need not occur in the manner of side-by-side writing, though.  Sometimes you can collaborate with many thinkers far and wide through crowd-sourcing.  But just pick the right crowd.

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5. Creativity can be organic.  “Victim of Love” derives its power from the hardest rocking guitar sound the Eagles had ever unleashed — and it’s practically a live Eagles song with no overdubs, which is amazing for a band that was famously polished and obsessed with overdubs.  As Frey remembers, “We just said, ‘Look, let’s just cut this thing live and this will be it.  It’ll be what it is.”  I think it’s worth noting that by this time the band had released several albums.  The Eagles were confident enough in their sound to take a risk and record a song in a completely different way they were accustomed to playing.  They might have needed the break from tradition to jolt their creative juices.  They earned the moment.

Fortunately thanks to the continued publication of box set anthologies, you can still find thoughtful liner notes.  My favorite liner notes — intelligently written and insightful — include the 1991 Lynyrd Skynyrd box set (an excellent band biography), The Complete Stax-Volt Singles 1959-1968, released in 1991 also, and Neil Young’s Decade from 1977.  How about you?

Marketers must think like technologists

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At the recent Razorfish Technology Summit, CEO Bob Lord declared that “CMOs who do not understand technology will die.”  In that spirit, on February 10, my employer Razorfish published its first-ever Razorfish 5: Five Technologies That Will Change Your Business under the guidance of Razorfish Chief Technology Officer Ray Velez.  The audience for this report consists of C-level decision makers.  The report’s premise: technology has become so intertwined with a successful customer experience that CMOs need to think like technologists as well as business strategists.  Razorfish 5 assesses the importance of technologies ranging from cloud computing to multi-touch.  Among its predictions:

  • Cloud services will make it easier for businesses to tap into a consumer’s social profile, making brands more social than they are now.  Facebook Connect will become more powerful than Facebook.  More transactional business will be conducted through the cloud, perhaps even stock trading on Facebook and Twitter.
  • Multi-touch, already a mainstream phenomenon, will infiltrate retail environments so extensively that multi-touch will be the norm.  Soon a national retailer will have multi-touch in every store.
  • Agile software development methods will push businesses to think of software development as a solution to innovation.

I invite marketers to read more by downloading a PDF here.  Moreover, this blog post from the Razorfish Technology blog and this press release also contain summary findings.  Please let us know your reactions.