Yates Buckley is co-founder of UNIT9 and has been its technical director for over 16 years. UNIT9 is a production company specializing in digital media experiences that combine with content management. They currently focus on work for advertising agencies and some direct clients developing tactical marketing online content.
This renowned British company, based in London, has an extensive track record in the digital world. At the time of its founding in January 1997, the world of web we know today had not yet exploded, it was still barely on the threshold. Along the way they have won such prestigious awards as the Webbys, Cannes Cyber Lions, The One Show, Clios and, of course, at the time of publication they have 9 Awwwards in their trophy cabinet! (4 SOTD, 3 SOTM, 2 SOTY)
Yates gave us this interview late last year about his company UNIT9, its present and future, and how they got here. Our colleague Martha was with him.
Awwwards Team: How would you describe what UNIT9 does?
We do digital production for ad agencies: they come to us with a concept, a big idea, and a brief and we come back with a treatment that describes how and what we propose to create. People often get confused and call UNIT9 an agency, but we aren’t really acting as an agent on behalf of a client, we see ourselves more acting on behalf of users, working to make sure what we create actually works, is fun, is shareable. And we might not always get our name on an award even though we might have done all the actual production work: but its perfectly natural even if a bit confusing to people outside the business.
So you'd be the collaborators on the award, as it were?
There are two sides to the coin, once the core idea is accepted then someone needs to actually create the website, app, installation which is where we come in. It’s a bit like the agency represents the client’s interest through a strategic concept while we defend the user experience, making sure the final product does what it is supposed to. But we never forget the huge amount of work an advertising agency needs to do for a job: win a client, create a strategy, and plan the promotion, come-up with a central idea that can hold the project together.
Our place in the ecosystem is also one of the reasons we’ve had so many exciting opportunities as the specialists to tackle tricky campaign projects. And it’s led us to try to bring flexibility into our structure and transparency at every level we can. Which leads me to another particularity about how we work: our representation model.
UNIT9 is particular compared to other production companies because we are inspired by the way TV production companies work: being transparent about the people that make a difference to a job. If you talk to us you will see that we put a lot of focus on the people that are doing the work, we even hope our clients decide which interactive director they would like to work with before they call us.
In TV ad productions an agency has a script and then the production company interprets the script, bringing forward a certain director to do that job. Then there are countless experts that join together to complete all the parts of the production, from the crew on set to the post-production pipeline. We thought we'd fit in with what we know has been the tried and tested model in the last 60 years or so of advertising, and adapt it to production of digital content. We have many different projects covering a broad range of technology and platform, but also very focused around particular key people who have the right expertise and creative vision.UNIT9 Showreel
Is it usually pretty obvious who's the right director for the job?
Sometimes it’s completely obvious, and sometimes not at all. Senior partners, certain key management, are involved in talking to the agency to understand who is best. You have directors who want to do their own projects and need time working on different things in between advertising jobs to keep inspired. You have directors with a technical specialty and others with a special style or tone. And there are clients that want to work with a particular kind of director. So matching the director to the job is a bit of an art, especially because at the moment ad agencies are still not used to thinking in terms of directors: in many cases they are still very focused on the platform or technology rather than the creative execution.
So maybe we’re pushing something a bit too early for our business, but we do really believe this is the right way. Without exceptions if you look around at some of the most interesting produced content at different scales there is always a person or a few people that are the key guarantors for the job. Look at the big names in gaming, authors of books, directors of films: in the end there are people there who put their name on the line, and in doing so they become a guarantee of quality, which has more integrity than a brand.
But at the moment there aren’t enough companies working like UNIT9 is so as an advertising agency they are forced to think in an old-fashioned way: “this is a digital production, what's the technology involved, what's the timeline, who can deliver this technology and timeline?” They forget to think about who is the key creative that is going to guarantee that the final outcome is enjoyable, and works, and that people like it.
So you think that's something that will change across the board?
Yes, I do. We've thought a lot about it and keep coming to the same conclusions. The film business is a complicated business relying on huge teams. Many pieces make up a good film and are interdependent and any one part could easily ruin the whole. But one thing that hasn't changed in many years is this idea of there being a small team of people that have their name on it, and take responsibility for the final outcome.
The only exception to this philosophy occurs in product development (and some games can fall in this category) because in this context what you need to do is co-create your work with the target audience. But again frequently the main guarantee that this mechanism is working comes from a key person who has a good sense of what their audience will enjoy and is open to continual testing to maintain the insight.
What other types of project do you work on?
We've never really thought of ourselves as focused on a particular technology, which has been good in a way but a disadvantage in another, because it can get confusing. We do a lot of different things: apps, websites, mobile sites, installations, TV ads, etc. We cover different things, but the thread that connects them is more the particular approach we have and the key creative people involved. Even between the apps, some are more like software; some are more like a game. In general, overall, our work tends to be more about experiences.
Does that also apply to the websites you build?
The bulk of the work we've done is websites, probably 50-60%, and then there are 30-40% of other kinds of work. But the idea of a website is complicated, it changes. A Facebook game is sort of a website but it's not, a video stream to a live event is a website but it’s not, a fancy questionnaire about modern slavery on an iPad is a website but it’s not. So a lot of what we do is in this strange space where it's not really a game, but it's sort of a game, it's in Facebook, but you don't need Facebook, it might work on a tablet or on mobile - It's confusing.
There are a few really clear examples of that, like this year we did a game show online where people can use Skype to dial in to a live audience and answer questions, and you can win a prize. It's small 15-minute segments throughout the day. So for most users this was just a video stream, there wasn't really much there, but then there was all this technology behind the scenes, of trying to run a game show and run it through Skype etc. A lot of users were watching and even participating on their mobile phones, even though the main site was a website.
Where does the user experience come in?
We see it as the means. It's the fork and knife to eat the food, but the most important thing is the memory of the food afterwards. That's where we felt we needed to promote directors, because they're the ones that want to build a reel of their work, so at least from a business point of view, they're directly motivated to make something memorable. They can sit there and focus on what the end user is actually going to feel. That's the kind of problem that we see as the most tricky to solve when you have a team of maybe 20 people working on something, using all sorts of different technologies, working for 6 months or a year on an iPhone app, say, or a big website build. It can get complicated. How do you keep one focus and make sure it will work?
Do you find that clients come to you already understanding the importance of that?
I think the old-fashioned advertising world gets it immediately, because if you go to a TV advertiser they know there's a certain specific art; there's magic to that particular moment. They've built up an optimized process that's focused on this problem: the tension between what the person is going to think right after they see the advertisement, and whether the product is featured clearly enough. Which is a classic tension, it makes perfect sense.
Those guys get it - the people that we have more difficulty with are the newer digital agencies. They're a little bit in between the two models: they are advertising companies but they also do all the work - in general. They're so busy doing such a volume of digital production that actually they are maybe a little less concerned. They've already built a plan, they have a structure in place, so they're just taking the same idea and putting it in lots of different situations, where they've already worried about this problem. So when they call us they don't understand why we're trying to reinvent something, why we care so much about whether the experience is memorable. They often tell us to just do what’s been done, do the execution and keep it in line, safe with the overall campaign. Maybe I'm exaggerating, but we have had problems of that kind.
How do the directors come to you? Do you seek them out?
In general there's a mix. There are some people that we might have worked with in other roles for years that make a switch and start winning jobs with their creative treatments. Another route is where they are directors or creatives working already coming from a broad spectrum of background specialties from film directing, script writing, 3D, design etc.
In terms of technologies, what new things do you want to move into or use more of?
One thing that's bizarre that's happened in the last few years is that we're sort of going back in time: we're now rediscovering technologies that we could have executed in the past, but we can do now on slightly different technological platforms. If you had no broadband problems three or four years ago, and you were looking at a Flash site, there were few limits to what you could actually deliver to a user in terms of content. Now, because of the different pads and smart-phones and different tools we've got out there, the technology stress has been heavy, and we need to look at delivering content with other technologies.
So in many cases we're sort of reinventing. For example, the rich video site is something that came, went and is going to come back as soon as HTML5 catches up with the video technology. It's a bit paradoxical. Mobile has really been a game changer in a way, because we just use it without thinking about a big difference between using mobile versus using the computer. So we have the expectation that things will work roughly the same between mobile and site, and there's a slight frustration when you realize that isn't possible. Mobile has to catch up both in terms of the technology side and delivering content, but also, importantly, it has to catch up in terms of bandwidth, where the cost of bandwidth has to go back down.
Instead it seems that bandwidth in the United States is seems to be getting more expensive! This will have a big negative effect on the kind of content we'll be creating in the future and it’s very difficult to predict. So that's one odd thing, going back in time and rediscovering stuff we already did.
One other story is that this moment in humanity's development is really interesting, not really for the fact of the technology, but because suddenly there are enough people out there who all have access to the technology. Something we're struggling to understand is, in a world where everybody has a smart-phone that is basically a little computer, what does everybody dream that they want to do with it? The classic discussion you have with everybody is something like "Wouldn't it be cool if I could just flick a picture onto that billboard there." Most people I talk to, that's the kind of fantasy you get, to be able to use your mobile phone to affect the world around you. Change the TV channel, open a door, draw on something: like a remote control. But it's a little bit different from that because it could be context-sensitive, where you are, or who you are...
The thing that's interesting to me is the fact that now everybody has that desire, and everybody has the means to make it happen, so that's a driver for a new class of ideas that actually work because everybody has a mobile phone, and wouldn't have worked before. It's a mix of technologies and it's almost like a different medium in way. We made this display on Hoxton Square where anybody who came by could draw something on our screen using their phone and it would stay there for a few seconds and then explode, and become fireworks. You just connected to a website from your phone, we had Wi-Fi that you could jump on and you would get an interface where you could draw something. Obviously, we mostly got obscenities, but that does give you an idea. They loved it, they were giggling like mad. That kind of work is partly technological, but partly it's about trying to understand what it means to a society that has this new situation, what is the latent desire in terms of putting these technologies together?
So it's what to do with them more than which ones to use?
Yes, or how to combine them. Right now you have certain classes of technologies that have been there, they're established, but they haven't met often because the assumption was that one would never need to talk to another. So you're creating something new just by putting pieces together. We released a game, called Shield Attack, that was popular, where two or more people could play on one TV screen that went to a website, and it's an app you can download. It's up and running, and people really loved it. It's quite a different kind of play, because it's using a mobile and TV, it's a very different setup. I think that's a direction that's quite interesting, other than going back to interactive film and some of the stuff we've already explored but are going to explore again.
Do you think web on TV is going to be a trend in the future?
I think that's more a business question. Do people want to pay to have web on TV? They have web everywhere else, so I don't know. It might be yes, it might be no. And do TV and content creators want to allow for the possibility of people using a TV to watch re-encoded streams? I think it's a political and business decision rather than a technology issue or even an audience issue. But I think there are TVs out there that are web-enabled, it's just whether everybody does that. The TV assumes that you're sitting there, as a group of people, viewing one thing, but then there's also a lot of technology that's more personal, just for you. How are these going to relate? Are you going to need the TV because that's the only moment you can share with your girlfriend? You know, I don't really understand that, the long story of that is not clear. If you can put goggles on and look around you 360 or even just 180 and see the film, why would you need to have it outside of you? I'm talking about three, four, five years from now. Maybe it'll be more generic, surfaces that show stuff and let you click on them and you'll just stick them wherever you want, decide how big you want it...That could be the final scenario in that area. But I think at the moment it's more of a legal or business issue.
Which disciplines will you be focusing on in the coming months and years?
The disciplines I am interested in for the coming years are those parts of the infrastructure in which you have capability in hardware that is not being used. For example the whole world of accelerated graphics: this is still a huge, largely untapped computational resource we can use for our content as it becomes more standard. Similarly there are services based on cloud that can enhance a user experience in surprising ways while effectively offloading processing to a third party, frequently with little cost overheads.
What proportion of your business is currently related to mobile environments?
About 40% of our business is now mobile focused, and about 50% of the audiences we reach are on mobile! So even the desktop and tablet projects now need to take mobile into account.
What proportion of your work uses Flash?
It’s decreased as the main technology to about 20% of our jobs. There is still a good use case for Flash when you look to produce cross platform and need to work with video. Also cross platform with 3D arguably will be a bit more resilient than the WebGL approach both with a unity export and in Stage3D. The layer of the virtual machine can take care of some (only some) of the limitations that are coming from the hardware. The big weird issue is how badly supported video is in HTML5, you have to deal with this explosion of formats and have limited reliable control over the play-head across platforms.
I also know that many large applications still rely on Flash for their interfaces because it is the most reliable cross platform option, if you are working on an interface for a bank, for example. But overall in the future it seems likely that the idea of a separate layer, a virtual machine running inside a virtual machine (the browser) is not the best architecture.
Someone was saying to me that Flash's reputation has suffered from having been used badly. Do you think that's true?
I think that's true, but it's missing an important point. Flash has its own engine at its heart – technically, a virtual machine. It’s something like a mini computer in itself, but the browser you are running also has a virtual machine and frequently so does the computer itself. So we're creating machines inside of machines with the sole purpose of being able to run them in lots of different places. It’s a bit crazy: so the end-game question is who will pull harder, the guys that make platforms or the ones that make browsers? How hard are they going to pull? Let's say tomorrow Mozilla, Chrome, IE and whatever other browsers, and all the different laptops, all went separate ways, suddenly Flash would rise to the top again and be the hot flavor of the month. So the reason Flash is now suffering is people are saying, "Wait a minute, HTML5 kind of works, it does a lot of the stuff that Flash has done, and it doesn't have an intermediate virtual machine that slows things down - it can run straight on the browser." And so you remove a layer of complexity and run on many devices.
The reason, I think, is basically rights management. Every time you go to a video player in a system, there's a big black box. It's like this mysterious black box, and all you can do is tell it to play, rewind or fast-forward or sometimes go to a frame: which Flash does much better than HTML5. That black box is there because someone is expecting to make money from delivering the video content, and they want this black box to protect their content. We'll see what will happen: it may well be that technological wars create a mess out of these standards and Flash may become relevant again. At the moment, it seems to be that there has been a big step forward in HTML5 in terms of creating consensus and creating the base technology to cover a lot of the things that Flash was used for.
So would you say HTML5 has got quite a way to go when it comes to developing projects with advanced interactive and visual requirements?
I think it really depends on what the industry does. The harder they tug and the more they create technical barriers, walled gardens, the more complicated they make it to overcome them, the more the users will realize this and the more Flash may be relevant. On the other hand, the more they try to find common standards and common ground, and enable shared technologies, “open” standards: that will push HTML5. The issue right now is that the commercial war has moved across the apps divide versus websites, so I think a lot of the things you want to do in terms of making money on software which were before focused on Flash-based interactive content have now moved to apps. So it may well be that HTML5 is possible, or interesting as a standard for everybody because there is this apps market. If there weren’t, maybe it wouldn't work.
I would say it's not HTML5 that's not mature enough. It’s the browsers - HTML5 is just a standard, a good idea. The problem is that browsers implement these standards in their own way. So developers, instead of putting all their effort into creative development, need to constantly think of tweaks and workarounds for the content to display and work identically across platforms. Things that could be done in Flash in minutes (due to its platform-independent nature) are now being done in hours. It's like having to ask for a coffee in 5 different languages to get just one. It can be frustrating, and it takes time.
Do you think apps are here to stay?
Apps are here to stay, but they will have to be reinvented because I think they have some big problems. They don't talk to each other very well, you can't really search for them, the model of publish and update is a little bit odd, and it’s not so clear what we guarantee to a user. There are apps out there that are almost like viruses, you install them and can't shut them up. There are a lot of big issues we need to solve but they are here to stay. There is too much of an advantage to create a market like Apple has done, and Android is doing as well, and leverage that market for a device. I think it's just too much of an advantage. So they're definitely here to stay.
To some extent it's good, and to some extent it's bad. The bad side of it is that we end up breaking up all our knowledge and functional demands into little modules that are slightly arbitrary. Usually you end up wishing two or three of the apps you own could mush into one, but you can't do that, you have to jump between. But I do think that idea of market creation simplifies the job of a consumer of software. If you compare buying an app to going to a physical store three or four years ago to buy the next Office suite or whatever, it was much more of a tricky thing. Do you buy iWork or Microsoft Office? Pros and cons... And they were very expensive, costing £300 or so. This is so much easier, more direct and cheaper, and a much wider audience, as well, because it's just a click of a button.
Which technologies do you mainly use for mobile app development? (e.g. web, flash, unity3d or native development iOS, SDK, Android etc.)
We actually use all of them: it really depends on the production, what fits best. For example a native app working with video doesn’t run so differently from a web based app. While Flash with video might have some advantages in terms of flexibility of video compression, format etc..
Do you find it easy to find experts in these technologies who can develop a product that meets your aesthetic and creative standards?
It is not easy to find experts, and there are parts of a project that can be extremely specialist-based. In general, though, we push to grow these skills in-house and encourage people to learn new things rather than reaching out for the next expert at each opportunity.
Do you have a team who work on spotting emerging trends?
We have a few teams but they are looking for tech in slightly different ways. We invest quite a bit in creating experimental projects to explore a technology before it is completely ripe for picking. Some teams are pushed to come up with an internal project regularly, for example the window on the square and the game I mentioned. So those teams are sent on an adventure to try to achieve something that we are not sure can be done with current technology. Sometimes they fail but we find out something from what they try to do.
Then there are individuals who are experts in a particular area, like 3D, and they will follow their interest in that field following up on updates in a specialist space. Others are looking for hot spots, fun new things we can do. Then there are other key people like myself or Gilles who runs the technical team upstairs, senior management, and we tend to try to spend time exploring more strategically, looking at what seems to be the strategic angle, and trying to bring that into a project in-house or a job so that we can learn about that. It's not so specialized in terms of having a specific R&D department; it's a bit more diffuse.
What do you think has been important this year, what has come to the fore?
The trend I noticed the most, at least in UX and design, is interfaces have moved more into the mindset of a touch screen type interaction. Which I think has actually put more attention on user experience, more attention on simplifying interfaces and making them obvious and natural. They've embodied a certain grammar of doing things; a welcome standard. Even when you take a touch interface and use a mouse with it, it's very clear. The older model was to have a selection of things you can click on that will lead you into more things you can click on. Now there's the idea of time, because there are things you can swipe and things you can drag that lead to more things you can swipe and drag, with the occasional click. So this opening up of these different tools; swipe, drag, click etc., have made for a streamlined experience. Things are easier to understand and more focused in terms of communication. The confusing thing with the click-view-click model was that there was no limit, so we had to have big discussions to try to defend having fewer, more relevant things to click on rather than a button for everything in the world. It took a long time to get people convinced that fewer clicks that are essential are better.
I think a swipe-drag kind of thing has done that just because of needing to run on different platforms and needing to fit an interaction grammar that is more obvious, more natural and for a broader target.
Has that presented any problems as well as the positive side?
The classic problem, in a very technical sense, is that in a click-view-click model you have pages. You click and go to another page, so your time is broken up into slices of moments spent on different pages. When you're swiping and dragging there's continuity in time, and the ideal swipe interaction is a big flowing dance through the interface, and this is much more complicated to develop, because at any point in time, while you're dragging or swiping, you could also click and do something else. You have to always be aware of multiple possible things that could be happening at the same time. So technically it's much more advanced.
Technologically what's happening, in terms of the trend, is that we’re moving from giving you lots of pieces of separate content to one more integrated view, like the difference between having a bookshelf with lots of books and having one sculpture that tells you the same story. It's much more difficult to tell that one story in that one view, that one perspective, but if you do it and you do it well, it feels more natural and flowing, and it's more obvious to a wider audience.
I think it is a general trend that's here to stay. I noticed there's even a certain graphic grammar that's become important, with clear, big buttons to swipe and drag, which was unheard of before: most of the designers I've worked with up to this point wanted tiny cute text and tiny buttons because they looked elegant, but they're now accepting the fact that a big, finger-shaped blob on the screen is ok, or even essential. It's a big change. A lot of content is using that grammar. For people who are really experts in the interfaces that had all the flexibility, it feels a bit frustrating because they're going back to interaction preschool, but for the broader audience of everybody in the world now using this stuff, this is a simpler interaction. I think it's generally a good thing.
Do you think the devices themselves need to up their game in terms of how they respond to touch?
Yeah, there's a lot to be done. While I am impressed with what has been done, I do think we are just at the beginning. For example typing on an iPad is painful; it's really difficult and it's not something I think you should have to learn, because even if you try learning it just doesn't work very well. That might just be implicit in the device, that it's not a typing device and you need a keyboard. But then from my limited experience of Microsoft’s Surface adding a keyboard to the tablet doesn’t revolutionize it. It reminds me of biological evolution: try growing a fin here, a leg there, an eyeball over here: does it work? No, ok lets try again…
What trends do you see coming in the near future in regard to visual design and UX and interaction design? What about content strategy?
The buzzword responsive design is just the beginning of a process involving a more abstract design process for applications that span multiple platforms. Rather than thinking about a specific layout and target device, we will more and more have to devise design systems that allow the development teams to build for many different devices. Oddly, one important player in this area, I think, will be 3D interface design because it lends itself to being easier to inform an interface across different devices and use cases of the same device. In 3D you can just move the camera a bit and be able to see a different framing of the same interface for example.
And in regard to technological trends related to web development, video games, apps?
We mainly see strong consolidation around HTML5 and gaming for advertising. Apps are still less common to brands as this market is different: more comparable to the software market. In apps you need to provide more than a brochure or an experience to meet an audience. Two areas to keep an eye out for are video based projects without Flash, and Android/Chrome emerging as a dominant platform.
Who are the key figures in the sector? Which people, agencies or organizations are setting the trends right now and who should we look out for in the near future?
I can't list specifics right now; it would be too complex to answer. But the criteria to look out for, with respect to key figures are clarity of their offer and substance of their contribution to a process. The most difficult issue is that on one hand taking risk is the only way to create a trend; on the other hand it has become trendy to take risks. This makes for a very confusing scenario, bubbles everywhere, most of which are indeed taking risks but it is not clear if the risks are matched with a comparable benefit in terms of influence or effective innovation.
Do you think a lot about standards-based design and making things work on all platforms?
It depends on the job, really. Some jobs are very specific to web. For example certain Facebook enabled experiences don't make sense on mobile maybe on tablet. It is generally important, but I would say not every job demands being on every device.
How about in terms of browsers?
If it's possible we like to cover every browser we can, but it means limiting some of the the features sometimes. In general, especially with WebGL and some of the 3D content, you have not only browser problems, but also video card problems; some run it, some don't. So it's very important at the beginning of a job to specify what we're targeting it at, to make sure the client's expectations in terms of what it will actually run on are clear. Most of the frustrations over the years have been someone on a platform you didn't anticipate being used. It's funny, you think, "I don't care about IE7", only to discover at the end that the CEO has IE7. Something that seemed a logical decision at the beginning becomes a total impasse at the end because the CEO is being tough about not re-installing his browser. Then you're really stuck. Or if you want to get something into schools, for example, they tend to have fairly old browsers. You have to take that kind of scenario into account, if you're making educational games, for example. It's a pretty big downer if you've made a game to teach something to kids and you bring it into class and none of them can use it!
Are the teams working on a project often geographically distant from one another?
I think most of the time that's the case. In this building we're on two floors. On this floor there are the producers and creative directors, and on the top floor designers, developers and 3D game developers. In Poland there's a group who are specialized in a certain kind of specialist technical problems around detection, video and mobile: they did a lot of the work involving live streams of data. In Florence in Italy we have a team that's more focused on 3D, WebGL, Flash3D. They're all in different places. A lot of our interactive directors are not even here: they might be in Switzerland, Japan or Germany. So our teams are always run over Skype or Google hangouts, with people in different locations integrating each other's work. We've always been that way, so we don't have a real sense of being in one particular place. It's interesting: there are many people I've worked with for years who I've never met.
Where do you see UNIT9 in five years' time?
We've been growing a lot, so I think we'll still be growing. A lot of what we're doing is different territories. We have some presence in the US but we'll probably do more there, and we're doing some things in different parts of Europe.
I think the big question is whether we will be focusing as much as we are now, or more, on production of advertising, or whether it'll be content we're creating. In a way, I think everyone's dream is to make their own content, everyone dreams of making their own game, their own film...The tricky thing is that that side of the business has very different rules, and requires a very different commitment. And the team that's good at answering a production brief from advertising doesn't necessarily transfer over to creating your own content.
Five years from now I would hope we'll be creating 30-40% of our own stuff, but that's the gamble. I think the model we have is very, very flexible, because in the end you're just relying on three people on every job. A producer who understands the field, a creative director who understands what the emotive final outcome should be, and a technical lead on a job. They could do anything. There's no real limit in terms of what they could do. So I think that model will survive, because it's so flexible. The actual teams of people doing stuff will be updating their technologies all the time, designers will be changing etc. There'll probably be a lot more live action by then.