Varian: Say what to do, not what it is

This weekend I decided to clean my paper files. Tucked in between my notes on refining your research questions, or writing a PhD thesis, I came across this 2001 article by Hal Varian with writing advice.

The article has various useful tips, both general advice about writing, and specific advice about writing three different types of outputs: textbooks, business books, and newspaper columns. Alas, nothing on blogging ;-) But there is one piece of advice in particular that I wanted to share with you, and it is this: Don’t say what is, say what to do. 


Here is how Varian explains it:

“As scientists, we naturally like to describe things; our goal, after all, is to develop a better understanding of the world. But the readers (…) don’t necessarily share this goal. Their focus is on deciding what to do. So instead of saying “price discrimination can increase profits” you should say “charge users according to their value, not according to your costs.”

I know that this is one of my weaknesses, when it comes to writing. It is not just the ‘being a scholar’ factor, mentioned by Varian, and the associated tendency to summarise what is known about topic x, or the debates around topic y. It is also the ‘being an educator’ factor as the role of a teacher is to enable learning not to give solutions.

But writing is different from researching or teaching. And writing blog posts is different to writing a conference paper. I definitely need to improve my ability to write about what to do with some piece of information.

What about you? What is your writing weakness?

Protecting the rights of children as consumers of digital technology

There is a new initiative in the UK, the iRights, proposing guiding principles for the design and operation of digital spaces used by children, so that these young users of digital technology can fully benefit from the opportunities presented by digital technologies. I think that these principles are really helpful in moving the debate away from the ‘privacy vs. service’ perspective, and helping identify opportunities to improve the playing field for all consumers, not just children. Here, I propose an organising structure for the iRights, and think about some of the issues to consider when implementing them.

The five principles

The principles are inspired by the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. They aim to give ‘children clear rights so that they can flourish in a safe and supportive environment’ (page 1), and are summarised this way in the iRights website:


I think that these principles refer to three different aspects of interacting with digital technology. So, I propose the following organising structure for the 5 iRights principles:


As a customer-profiling researcher, I am particularly interested in the last category (principles 1 and 2) and I have been thinking about the issues likely to arise from, or affect, the implementation of these principles:

First order data vs. metadata and combination of datasets – My own experience, is that some people worry very much about aspects such as whether to post their children’s real names, or photos of their faces, but give little thought about geo-location and other valuable metadata, and even less to how different ‘low value’ datasets may be combined to produce valuable insight;

Who is collecting what data – If I am completing a quiz, on a social network application, installed on my mobile phone, data are being collected by at least three different parties. In order to fully exercise my rights to know and remove, I need to know who is collecting what data, what us happening to the data, who is it being shared with. As this article discusses, by and large, we ‘don’t appreciate the extent of the information we may be handing over and what happens to it‘;

Varying interpretations and implementations of the principles in different jurisdictions – These principles are likely to be interpreted very differently in different jurisdictions. We just need to look at data protection legislation within the EU, for an example. Besides, there are always gaps between designing a law and forcing companies to comply with that law… and in the digital world, that gap can mean that embarrassing photos, posts and information will go viral and produce wide damage, as discussed here;

Socio-economic differences – It is one thing to have these rights, but another one to know how to act on them and, of course, have the energy, ability, and capacity to pursue them;

Data being shared about the child by third parties – These principles refer, only, to the data shared by the children. But what about the data shared by third parties? The sharenting phenomenon means that huge amounts of data are being shared about the child and, effectively, building this child’s story on their behalf, without them being able to influence that story.

What am I missing?

Our surveillance book has been featured on TV programme ‘Going Underground’

The Russia Today TV programme, Going Underground, has covered the book “The Private Security State – Surveillance, Consumer Data and the War on Terror”, in some depth. As you may remember, this book is the product of a large research project sponsored by The Leverhulme Trust, and led by Professor Kirstie Ball at the Open University, and which I was very privileged to join given my previous work on customer profiling technologies and practices.

Here are some highlights from the interview:

  • Even though surveillance is an increasingly ubiquitous phenomenon, this was the first empirical study to look at what happens inside commercial organisations, when they implement mandatory blanket surveillance programmes, as is the case with financial services, travel industry, telecommunications and even health. The interview focuses on the case of the travel industry;
  • In the travel industry, commercial organisations had to spend an absolute fortune to implement very complex technological solutions, and design very complex processes, that enabled them to collect and process the customer data required by the government – namely, passport information for every journey made into and out of the UK;
  • The initiative was challenged on legal grounds (e.g., the European Union’s Freedom of Movement principle, and certain countries’ privacy and data protection legislation), forcing travel companies to introduce (and fund) ‘opt out’ options that not only are very expensive, but are also complex and, essentially, undermine how the programme is meant to work;
  • Mass surveillance initiatives like this one in the travel industry cement industry imbalances and corporate power. This is because large companies have more capacity and resources than smaller ones to meet the regulatory burden, as well as influence the technical solution adopted and shape what effectively become industry standards;
  • The real winners of large surveillance programmes are the companies that get these big contracts to actually build the infrastructure to collect and process the data.

And here is the interview. It starts from minute 20:

As usual, I would love to hear your thoughts.

Young children’s use of tablets and mobile apps

The University of Sheffield has released the early findings from an ongoing study looking at the use of tablets and apps by children aged up to 5 years old. You can learn more about the project, and download the report, here.

Some aspects of the study are debatable (e.g., the classification of the apps mixes different types of attributes like theme and functionality), and others not that surprising (e.g., parents’ main motivations for downloading apps are to support the child’s learning, and to encourage play and creativity). Nonetheless, other findings are novel and very interesting… at least to me. Two things caught my attention.

How behaviour and motivations change throughout the day

The study shows not only how usage and motivation changes by age of the child, but also how it changes by day of the week, and even by time of the day.

For instance, we find out that colouring apps are not only more popular among the 0-2 years old age group than among the 3-5 ones, but also that these apps are mostly used in the mid to late afternoon, with an adult.

Likewise, we learn that while watching videos on YouTube is a popular activity across the age groups, the type of video changes by age group, and the motivation changes by time of day and by day of week. For instance, on a Saturday morning, parents of 0-2 years old will be looking at music videos on YouTube, with their children, as a way of encouraging creativity and play; but the same parents will be using music videos as a way of winding down in the evening.

These insights are useful, for instance, if you are planning to advertise to this target market on YouTube.

Pre-school children as co-producers

The study also looks at children’s competence in tablet use (see Figures 2 and 3 below), and what aspects they favour (Figure 6). For instance, we learn that as many as 40% of children aged 0-2 years old and 69% of children aged 3-5 can exit one app and enter another one. So, if children can change between apps independently, developers need to produce apps that are engaging, and which hold the children’s interest and attention. And, from Figure 6, we learn that this means apps that allow for audio and visual play. That is, developers need to go for multimedia apps, offering various layers of interaction to sustain interest.

tech and play fig 2 tech and play fig 3 tech and play fig 6

Source: all images here

Moreover, since 60% of children aged 3-5 years old can take photos independently, and 22% can make videos (Figure 3), these young consumers can be engaged as co-producers in their use of the apps.

This insight makes sense when we think about the success of products like Minecraft, or even Lego for previous generations. But also raises some deeper questions such as how these early online experiences shape these young users’ future expectations of digital (and non digital) products.

It also raises questions around the involuntary generation of metadata about the children and their parents, and, of course, questions about online safety.

What are your thoughts about young children’s use of tablets and mobile apps? Do you worry about your child’s digital footprint?

July 2015 round-up

IMG_7752July was a strange month, and yet very typical of this time of the year. I returned to my teaching and managerial responsibilities following the end of the sabbatical (including an office move), attended the Academy of Marketing Conference in Ireland, and had annual leave.



My #5pm pictures tell a great story about this month, too.


These are my highlights from July.


This month’s research highlight has to be the Academy of Marketing conference, where I got to meet colleagues old and new, see interesting presentations on recent research developments and hear a keynote by RyanAir’s CMO. I also got to present my own work – three co-authored papers, of which two got best paper in track awards. Yay.



This has been a terrible month, as far as writing is concerned. Though a paper that I have been working on for a loooong time, with three colleagues, has finally been accepted for publication.



While there was no teaching this month, there was some marking. There was also plenty of planning for the next semester, as it looks like I will be teaching in three modules.



This month, learning came mostly through the sessions that I attended at the Academy of Marketing conference. I particularly enjoyed papers on service co-creation, service encounters, and complaining on social media.


What were July’s highlights for you?

RyanAir CMO says: It’s not cheap. It’s smart.

What do RyanAir, Aldi, Ikea, H&M and Amazon have in common?


According to Kenny Jacobs, Chief Marketing Officer (CMO) at RyanAir, these are all brands that appeal to customers because they allow them to spend money smartly.


It is less about “The brand is cheap. The customers are skint”. More about “The brand is low lost. The customers are smart about how they spend their money”.


This was the message that RyanAir’s CMO had for the audience of his keynote talk, at the Academy of Marketing conference, which took place in Limerick, Ireland, earlier this month. He went on to say that it is absolutely crucial for brands to know (and stick with) its core advantage, and not to stray away from that when looking for ways to add value to the customer.


For instance, flying to new destinations adds value to customers in the form of choice. But those destinations are carefully selected based on criteria such as the existence of economies of scale, which allow RyanAir to offer the lowest fares for that particular destination, while maintaining their target profit margin. Likewise, certain changes in the service, such as being able to book your seat, or carrying a second bag, add value by improving the customer experience, but did not result in increases in the fares.


Kenny Jacobs added that, when looking at ways to add value, companies need to remain anchored in what they are good at, and be as clear about that as about who you are not trying to be.


I confess that I am no RyanAir fan. But I liked its CMO’s message about the need to have a clear and consisting positioning, which sets the brand apart and resonates with the customers. What about you?

June 2015 round-up

All good things come to an end, and the sabbatical was no exception. As of July 1st, sabbatical consummatum est.

As I entered the final month of my sabbatical, I told myself that I ought to not stop being on sabbatical before it was over. And, that was exactly what I did: June was a full-on month, with talks, training, meetings and writing.

My #5pm pictures tell me that there were a lot of paperwork and music practice this month. And rain… though, rain is the last thing on my mind, today, which is the hottest day of the year, so far, in England.


This month’s highlights are captured below. I look forward to hearing yours.


The second survey that I mentioned last month has now been piloted. Changes were made, and the survey is now live.

I have been commissioned to do some work on the use of social media by business to business (B2B) organisations. And, after presenting at Britmums Live 2015 about the consequences of sharenting*, I have been sketching an empirical study on this topic.


* This talk looked at how data and metadata shared online by parents creates a digital legacy for their children and contributes to the development of profiles of their children as consumers


I submitted one paper on the implications of digital technology for strategy development in small and medium organisations, and worked on another one on customer screening. I had one paper on sentiment analysis published, and one on customer management accepted. And the Surveillance book has been featured in Oxford Brookes University Faculty of Business Research Newsletter.


Still, no teaching, as I am on sabbatical. Though, I have been planning the module that I will be teaching next semester, and someone gave me a very interesting idea for an assignment.


Lots! I surely made the most of my last month of sabbatical, on this front.

The month actually started on a negative note when I had to cancel stage 2 of my statistical course to attend some meetings. But, then, I caught up on training, with the following:

  • IMG_7393Staff development week at Oxford Brookes University, where I attended a session on resilience and came back with a handful of ideas to implement at course and module level. I also attended a session on using mobile data to develop customer insight;
  • A session on research impact – both designing impact into the research, and communicating it to project sponsors;
  • Research presentation and one to one chat with Professor Vicki Morwitz, at Said Business School;
  • IMG_7369Academic writing workshop at Loughborough University;
  • ERSC workshop at Nottingham University on the implications of technological developments for the Financial Services Industry – e.g. how it creates new competitors, and how it changes customer perceptions of fairness. I also gave a talk at this seminar, on the uses of social media data to segment customers.

What were June’s highlights for you?