As their external pop-up team for digital innovation, we’ve worked with Schwung—a branch of WPG Uitgevers—over the past 2 years now. Time to talk to our main contact Gwena Jaouen to discover more about her role as Innovation Lead. We learn about Gwena’s love of design sprints and how our design thinking techniques are pushing digital innovation in the publishing world.
Hi Gwena, great to speak to you! Can you tell us a bit about your role as Innovation Lead?
My role as innovation lead is constantly changing, it’s not set in stone! When I started 2 and a half, almost 3 years ago, the role was pure innovation, going through the innovation process; testing a lot of concepts and experimenting with a lot of ideas that came from the business. So, it was a very quick iterative process. In a year we narrowed 150 business ideas down to around 62 concepts. Of these concepts, around 5 projects were realized and 4 of these have been given back to the business to move forward with. That was just the first year, we worked through all of those ideas and delivered at a quick pace. But in the second year, we realized that the business wasn’t used to the change and struggled with the way we worked. We realized we needed to reduce the pace and give the business time to catch up and action the innovative products coming through. We saw a real need to bring in multi-disciplinary teams, in-house, to be able to experiment further and optimize the products – not only the concepts, the existing websites and applications also needed to be optimized.
How did this affect your role as Innovation Lead?
I needed to step back and think about how we could help the business move forward. One of the pillars of WPG’s strategy is data drivenness. I decided to focus on that and move my attention towards data projects and my role changed from a pure innovation lead to having more of a data orientation. I started leading a data orientated team, including a data scientist and business analysts, where we started doing small things like dashboards and getting the data in and out of the platforms – which wasn’t necessarily the most innovative step but in the publishing industry still pretty new.
In the first year, you experimented a lot to push boundaries. What tools and techniques did you use?
All of it, we did 8 design sprints in the first year, a lot of A/B testing, we built 22 prototypes, landing pages but also helped define business propositions, filling in many value proposition canvases and LEAN canvases, etc. I think we’ve tried everything!
What kind of challenges did you face internally when taking projects to the next stage of development?
What I saw was that the business [WPG] was really keen to innovate, because it’s new and exciting but the deep understanding of what innovation is and why you do it wasn’t quite there. 90% of what people in publishing do has nothing to do with innovation, the mindset you need to innovate wasn’t there. Of course, people could see the long-term positives but it’s difficult to get them to change their way of working towards a more agile mindset. It was not easy to convince them to look through a prototype that was not completely working yet, for instance. Expectations are that it must be completely functioning before you go out to test, which is not the way we work. The understanding of why you don’t need the full-blast product to prove it is valuable wasn’t really there. But everyone involved in a design sprint or other workshops we organized enjoyed the process and moved a little bit toward our methods and approach of product development and service design.
How do you think innovation teams are changing business in a wider context?
The impact is the way of working. The mindset has obviously not changed overnight but it is slowly changing. Making people realize other methods are needed to innovate. Take growth hacking as an example, most marketeers working at WPG have been trained to experiment according to the growth hacking principles so they’re bringing an agile mentality to our marketing team and you really see it, they talk about a campaign by really wanting to test and prove that it’s working with data, rather than previously, where it was much less experimental.
“Design sprints are amazing! The amount of focus you bring, working on one concept gives amazing results.”
And how does data impact your role and products?
I believe that using data is a must in innovation. You can’t run a business without data. In our world [publishing] we lean a lot on experience and expertise, not so much on figures, and therefore for the innovation team it’s extremely important to help the business look more and more to the data they are presented. Data gives you the ability to prove assumptions you made instead of guessing, maybe not even prove but you ‘just know’ if something is working or not. I studied mathematics, so it’s pretty natural for me to lean on data to make the right decisions.
Were you also in data orientated, innovation roles previously?
I was working in the music industry before, and I saw the whole digital transformation there. That’s when I switched to online sales, digital marketing and with that you need data, there is no way to be in those roles without using data. It was only in 2003 that Apple introduced iTunes. Before that we had to deal with Napster and torrent sites, all seriously disrupting the whole music industry and we thought, ‘wow, what’s going to happen, no one will buy CD’s any more’. At that time you could say that innovation overcame us, which is why I like to stay at the front of it now.
That must have been really interesting, to be part of the digital transformation of the music industry, what brought you to publishing?
iTunes came in and I was working for an American record label, specializing in world music it was very cultural, free-spirited and creative. There I tried to create online communities to bring value to customers, but our founder was still such a fan of physical products… Then my husband published his first book, and I saw the same thing starting to happen in the publishing industry. All book marketing efforts were offline, while the first e-books were being launched. I decided to switch to publishing and help set up the e-book production line and experiment with online campaigns. It’s funny, I heard all the same things that were said in music be said in publishing, that ‘it’s never going to happen’ and ‘everyone wants a physical book’ but, do they? Paper books will certainly stay, but there is also a visible shift towards digital products and subscription models.
Moving back to Schwung, we worked on a project called Thrill Seeker together, can you maybe put this in its wider business context?
I worked on Thrill Seeker in the second year of Schwung. We went through the whole innovation process and build an MVP in order to validate a number of assumptions. Which let us to the conclusion that the business case is missing and it became much more of a research and development project. The question was, ‘how can we use AI in our business?’ which was really huge, especially within publishing, and we went ahead with a recommendation system. This concept was a consumer-focused solution and forced us to get to know the reader better. For the rest, it was more like an experiment to prove that we could analyze the books in such a way that we could give good recommendations to users, and we did just that, we definitely can! The users of Thrill Seeker scored the recommendations they get for 83% spot on. That’s incredibly high, but the Dutch market doesn’t seem ready to adopt such tools yet and the business case is where it struggles.
Another project we worked together on recently was a design sprint, delivering a clickable prototype within just a couple of days! What kind of value do design sprints and working with external teams bring Schwung?
Design sprints are amazing! The amount of focus you bring, working on one concept gives amazing results. We could do this in 2 days because we all knew well what we wanted, I really got a lot of energy from the session. I like to work with external people or teams because when you discuss ideas with people within your company you become easily biased. When you all work in a company it’s easy to overlook a crucial assumption when there is no criticaster who has another view on things. We sometimes just think too much alike and bringing somebody from outside will break this. You have to step outside of your bubble, it could be a simple remark on something that just makes you go ‘oh yeah’. I wouldn’t want to do a project without external people involved because they are able to get you out of your comfort zone and help you look at a problem in a different light.
Have any other projects or processes surprised you at Schwung, products which have been successful or not?
I don’t think there was anything very surprising, other than some very simple presumptions that we all had, which were proven wrong! That’s also part of the bias, I believe. You think ‘everybody would want that’ but in the end, no one cares about your product! The process of validating ideas has been an eye-opener for many people in the business, people convinced of their ideas for years and years, which after testing were simply dropped because they didn’t add value at the end. That was interesting to see in a wider context.
One example of such an idea I really believed in was a concept called ‘Book Bites’. We were thinking about how new generations read and that they would want to get to read content in small pieces. We were sure about that, 100% convinced that this is what young readers would want. But no, well they didn’t want to pay for it, that was a bit of reality check. I was really surprised that this concept was not going to make it further.
It’s impressive how many ideas Schwung validated but, because of testing, you’ve proven it’s not worth taking forward. Are you convinced by the value of testing?
Testing is so important. You have to do it, otherwise you put effort into something that is not going to make it. In 95% of the cases, new concepts won’t succeed. Remember testing for Thrill Seeker during UX? That went really good for making small improvements and meant we could prove that it was providing valuable recommendations.
And finally, Gwena what’s your favorite part of your job?
My favorite part is actually talking to consumers and customers, the users. Showing your idea and getting feedback, that’s definitely my favorite moment in the process!