Not All Mammals! In defence of designing for “people”

I’ve been thinking about this exchange with Roberta…

@mattedgar Lots of people _talk_ about getting users in the room. This weekend @mHealthLeeds is actually doing it. #mhleeds

@RobertaWedge @mattedgar Users of what? In a health-care context, the term covers layers of euphemism.

@mattedgar @RobertaWedge fair point. Alternatives to the word ‘user’ gratefully received. (Often but not always “people” works just fine)

@RobertaWedge @mattedgar I am anti “people”. Citizen, student, resident, account-holder, patient, passenger, woman, employee – precision aids discourse.

@mattedgar @RobertaWedge indeed. Though may also reinforce rigid role definitions and allocations. People wear many hats, sometimes simultaneously.

Also this post by Russell…

I’m old enough that I’ve seen the same debates go round and round a few times.

One is the (always well-intentioned) cry – let’s stop saying customers/consumers/users, let’s remember they’re people! This always snags an emotional latch but I think it’s worth resisting.

Firstly, let’s remember that they’re also mammals – does that help? No. Moving up to the next biggest category isn’t especially useful.(*1)

Secondly, if you need reminding that your customers/consumers/users are people you have bigger problems. Changing what you write on your briefs/stories isn’t going to help.

I know where they’re coming from. I get the need for precision. I think we all agree that whatever you call them, we make stuff for and with messy, multi-faceted actors. But, as a people-centred service designer, I reckon the P word is worth defending.

While there is a place for “user” and other words of precision, it should not be at the expense of open-ended human-centred inquiry. A more interesting question might be, what are the right words for where we are now, in our digital culture as a whole? I for one think “people’s” time has come.

cat and mouse

For starters, the point about designing for humans as opposed to animals is not as facile as Russell makes out. At risk of being hauled before a gavel-toting, wig-wearing dolphin in the post-speciesist court of the future, Not All Mammals! My cats have evolved to simulate affection, but I’m certain that if I lay dead at the foot of the stairs for a couple of days they would eat me.

We are not cats. We can and should accord our human users a human level of tolerance and curiosity. Overuse of reductionist language is a tell-tale sign when we forget to do so. “Customer” or “claimant”, “passenger” or “potentate”, “servant” or “CEO” – they’re all different flavours of the same remouillage.

Moving up to the next biggest category – at least for a while – is what designers do. An iterative process zooms from the big picture to the tiny details and back again. The words we use as we zoom signal where we are in the focal range. Worrying about whether the next link is obvious, or the service accessible with a screen reader? “User” may be the best word to deploy. Helping someone unpick complex medical and social factors that impact their mental health? They probably need you to see the whole person. Over the course of any design process, it pays to mix it up, to vary the vocabulary.

Shoes - Some rights reserved paul-w-locke

We set ourselves too easy a task if all we do is satisfy the needs that present themselves at face value; often things that matter are hiding in plain sight. In my work I’ve found myself pointing out…

  • to a footwear brand that teenagers’ feet are still growing
  • to a retailer that shop floor workers turn to family members for help with the intranet
  • to a utility company that couples argue about who spends too long in the shower.

Banal insights like these make a direct difference to the service we offer. They can only be had by breaking free from blinkered caricatures of “runner”, “employee” or “resident”.

Every time we boldly launch our little boat by asking “what is the user need?” two further questions lurk implicitly upstream: which users, which needs? Ignore these and we will be forever tethered to our preconceptions about the nature of service we aim to deliver. Maybe some people call a contact centre to rapidly resolve a service problem. Maybe some call for reassurance that there are real people behind a digital service. Maybe others just call because they’re lonely. People-centricity reveals dimensions here that focusing only on the caller as user would miss.

We should also consider the number of actors. Service dominant logic dictates that service is always co-created by multiple parties – as a minimum, the one demanding it, and the one delivering it. Service design and innovation processes look at how those parties work together. Sometimes the best way to unlock greater value for end users is to set free those who serve them to do their best work. Want to improve the experience of online news? You’ll need to change the way news is gathered and edited as much as the way it is accessed and explored.

When we follow all the actors and understand their capabilities, we find that the boundary between “consumer” and “producer” is more malleable than the reductionists assume. Mobile, social media turns public transport “passengers” into providers of powerful real-time information service. US supermarket “employees” donate food so their colleagues in need can enjoy a Thanksgiving dinner. The complex and variable geometry of service only emerges when we accept the people involved for everything they are.

Texting in the park - some rights reserved - duncanh1

One of the delights of the new GOV.UK (in which – Disclosure! – I play a bit part, but for whom I certainly do not claim to speak here) is the way it demonstrates that many of the debates of Noughties web design are now pretty much solved problems. Form follows function. Text and hypertext dominate the flashy, non-standard carapaces on which millions were wasted by private and public sectors alike. High levels of accessibility, responsive design, open source frameworks, web-native APIs – they’re all just manifest good sense things that make user experiences better.

This good news is not yet evenly distributed. Many organisations would do well to take their lead from the Government Service Design Manual. Like learner drivers they might need to go through the consciously competent stage of focusing on their users. But when they’ve internalised that then what?

The settlement of those user-level questions should free them up to direct their attention to more positive visions of digital service, and to people’s higher-order, higher-value issues. They can focus on making explicit those questions that so often go begging: which users, which needs? They can create systems with continuous improvement built in. They can ensure there is empathy and the possibility of change every time service is delivered.

Users may well be the place to start. But people must surely be the end-game.

How I learned to stop worrying and love the jam

A lightning talk at Service Design in Government

IMG_20140308_133137

There’s a growing interest in hacks and jam events in the public sector. Over the past months in Leeds alone, we’ve seen events around open government data, mental health, cycling and public transport.

Great stuff can happen at these events, yet they can also be unfulfilling for participants and organisers alike. After all the pizza-fuelled excitement of the weekend, everyone gets back to their day jobs and wonders what, if anything, has changed?

I’ve felt that sense of disappointment myself. As co-organiser of events under the Service Design Leeds banner, I’ve tried to fix it in various ways. I want to share the conclusion I’ve come to about what hacks and jams are for, and how to make them work.

It’s easy to see the reasons why these events are so popular – but I think they’re often the wrong reasons.

People in the public sector are hungry for ideas – they’ve always wanted to make things better for the people they serve, but now they have to do so with diminished resources and less central support.

These diminished resources make shortcuts and quick fixes very tempting. One of my collaborators jokes about the magical thinking surrounding startup pixies – mythical creatures who just appear and solve problems overnight in return for beer and pizza.

The pixies don’t exist. And even if they did, they couldn’t solve anything overnight because that’s just not long enough to engage with real users, to gain their trust and understand their concerns. Co-creating service with users is a long-term relationship not a one-night stand.

Yes there may be rare examples of hack day projects that go on to greater things – projects like Snook’s MyPolice. But the strike rate is far too low to justify the enormous amount of time and effort that everyone else puts in, often for free.

The true value in hacks and jams doesn’t come from the ideas and projects they generate. It comes down to the social capital we create, and new ways of doing things that we practice by working together for the first time.

My favourite definition of innovation is a throwaway line by Bruno Latour that “a project is considered innovative when the number of actors is not known from the outset.”

Much of life in large organisations (in the private sector too) consists of doing the same things we did yesterday, with the same people in the same building. We can improve those things incrementally with six sigma and process improvement, but to be truly innovative we need to join forces with others from outside our bubble.

The best hacks and jams foster innovation by pressing together groups of people who wouldn’t otherwise get the chance to collaborate. Even if that exact group never works together again, they all gain from the exposure to different perspectives and priorities in an egalitarian setting. So it matters who takes part in the event. 90 percent of the effort goes into getting the right people in the room.

Group forming and negotiation takes time and emotional energy. It’s not uncommon to see furrowed brows and tense discussions in jams. But this is all part of the important work of forging new understandings between strangers. The jam should be a safe space for that to happen.

IMG_20140308_115717

Meanwhile, the artificial time constraint in a jam forces people to work at a pace that they may not be used to. If you care greatly about the quality and reliability of the insights from your event, this will always be a source of pain.

But I prefer to turn that on its head (again in a safe, low-stakes environment). I urge jammers to start making a prototype before they know what it is, and to take it out of the building and test it with users before they think it’s finished. They’re invariable surprised by how much they could make in so little time, and by how little they needed to show users to get a good reaction. I want them to bottle that feeling and take it back to the office.

So when I look at the attendee list we have for the Leeds GovJam in a couple of weeks’ time, I’m excited by the possibilities.

We’re not going to solve the problems of the public sector overnight.

But we are going to see people working creatively together from our local authorities, central government departments, the NHS and third sector – a luxury they rarely have.

And we’re going to see what happens if, for just 48 hours, we focus on making something happen and involving users at a radically earlier stage than has been the habit in the public sector for so many years.

outrage

One last thing: we’re doing it midweek. The unspoken message behind weekend hack events is that this stuff is an optional extra. If we really believe in innovation as part of an organisation’s core purpose then people deserve to do it during their normal working week.

Leeds GovJam is on Tuesday 3 and Wednesday 4 June. Find out more at leedsgovjam.wordpress.com

Annual Report Number Two

Discovery Centre

A couple of Fridays ago, 14 of my favourite people gathered down at the Leeds Museums Discovery Centre for a bit of a get-together. Besides being responsible for some pretty amazing projects of their own, they’d all been involved in some way in my first two years of independent service design and innovation consulting. I wanted them to help me celebrate and do some un-conference-style thinking about what might come next.

After a quick canter round the museum service’s stash of more than a million undisplayed objects, my group of customers, collaborators and confidantes shared the stuff they’d like to talk about – stuff like “the connected city”, “digital leadership”, “does Leeds have a value proposition (or do we need one?)”, “fun”, “curiosity”, “finding the right projects” and “what does open mean anyway?”

We left with more questions than answers, but they were good questions, we enjoyed lunch together, and we agreed to meet again.

***

When I wrote my Annual Report Number One I was just starting out with the Government Digital Service, scoping what became the alpha, then the beta, then the live version of the Service Manager Induction and Development Programme.

A year later I’m still privileged to be involved with GDS, with the small team that has sprung up around the service manager programme, and with the smart, committed civil servants who come on the programme from departments and agencies.

GDS people really mean it when they say “Trust. Users. Delivery.” They’ve achieved so much in such a short space of time, yet it feels as if the transformation of Britain’s digital public services has only just begun.

***

While working with service the size of a G8 nation, it’s also nice to do something at neighbourhood scale.

Last summer I was funded by a Technology Strategy Board innovation voucher to review how actionable open data, delivered in the right way at the right time, could help residents in sustainable homes save energy, water and money.

I’m now part of a small team developing the resulting insights as Actuate, a digital service for homeowners and tenants to control and monitor their homes. We’re building the internet of things one neighbourhood at a time, and delighting in the way situated software delivers for users by the dozens not the millions.

Actuated Futures, the partnership behind this project, is also setting up the ODI-Node for Leeds, which promises to be a fantastic resource for open data-related projects in our city region.

***

As co-organisers of Service Design Leeds, Kathryn Grace and I had all but decided we wouldn’t have time to put on a fourth Leeds Service Jam this year. But with new volunteers on board we relented and were delighted to be able to link up with Rewired State’s National Hack the Government event that happened over the same weekend.

Inspired by this, we’ve put our hands up to make Leeds part of Global GovJam in June. Say hello to @LeedsGovJam if you’d like to be part of it.

In other news, I joined a panel of “game changers” for a top brand and innovation firm, got Leeds Met students designing services disguised as robots, ran a walkshop, and indulged my love of Leeds’ industrial heritage in a lightning talk on the Importance of Failure. Please keep asking me to do those kind of things. I’ll always say yes if I can.

***

So I find myself at the end of a two-year plan.

My gamble when I left Orange was that if it took me a few months to bring in the first consulting work I could make it back to cash positive by the end of the second year. I modelled the best and worst that could happen, plus something in the middle. (The three scenarios are named after coffee cup sizes; testing mobile contactless payments involved buying a lot of Americanos.) The blue line is what happened.

Chart

The variability is a function of the fluctuating consultancy income, overlaid with the uneven way we’ve drawn down money  to live on as a family – smooth it out and the gradient pretty much follows my “medio” estimate.

But the bottom line after my two-year experiment is that this is sustainable and there’s no going back. From here on it’s about fine-tuning the financials, teaming up with associates to work on bigger projects, and staying valuable to my clients.

Thanks to the many people who have made this possible.

***

One of my ambitions for the next 12 months is to spend less time on the train. Back of an envelope, I lived a full nine days of the last 365 on the East Coast Mainline.

I love working in London (and thanks to my mother-in-law for putting me up there on numerous overnight stays) but as a place to build a service design practice Leeds has never felt more alive with possibilities. Six out of seven workers here are in the service industries: they care for the sick and elderly, raise and teach the next generation, perform in the arts, clean the streets, drive the buses, staff the checkouts, and help customers online and over the phone.

I sense a real will among the people in charge of those services to be more agile and user-driven, and to do so at a human scale. I believe our fellow citizens should participate in, and benefit from, a stream of radical service improvements and innovations; and I want Leeds to earn a unique reputation as city of ever-changing, people-centred, service know-how.

Want to be part of year three? I’m at http://mattedgar.com

The Lost Robot Manoeuvre

The lovely thing about designing for service is the intangibility. You can prototype it in conversations. You can act it out. No tin required – the virtual is so much more pliable.

Then again, the maddening thing about designing for service is the intangibility. People have trouble getting their heads round it. How will service interact with users? How will it meet their needs? The solid is so much more familiar.

To re-tie the frayed ends of this creative tension, I’ve found myself using a technique that deliberately introduces a physical actor into the process, a service avatar to stand in for the stuff we can’t see.

Useful robots workshop

The Lost Robot Manoeuvre emerged by accident when Marc Fabri asked me to run a service design workshop for students as part of Leeds Met’s Futures Fest. The ever-inspiring Emma Bearman suggested that we link it with her March of the Robots series.

At first the robot felt like a cuckoo in the nest; I still wanted to talk about intangibles. But as I developed the workshop plan I realised it could be a powerful thought experiment.

robot by Ludo

Put simply, the method goes like this…

  1. Quick, draw a robot, a robot to help people. Work out what problems it solves. Maybe write some user stories.
  2. Take your robot out of the building. It’s a great conversation starter for some guerilla research. Re-write the user stories based on what you learned. Re-draw the robot.
  3. Now pivot. Lose the robot. It never existed anyway. But what if you met those needs with service instead?

THERE IS NO ROBOT. (SORRY.)

My guinea pig participants rose admirably to the challenge. One group created a robot to help their fellow students de-stress at exam times, The other focused on exercise and encouraging people to be active. In both cases the robot was the starting point, but not the end.

I put the workshop outline up on Speakerdeck. I’d love to run it again some time if anyone will let me…

Some things I wrote down today

  • “Managed by her nine-year-old niece.” – Bryony Kimmings
  • “We should create and imagine and lie. It’s good for us.” – Jane Pollard
  • “Being creative is sometimes about connecting the dots and taking two things and combining them.” – Kyle Bean
  • “What file formats want…” – Kenyatta Cheese

Stella Duffy at The Story

  • “‘Unfortunately the Arts Council is interested in something Miss Littlewood isn’t. Art.'” – Stella Duffy
  • “Going viral felt like something that happened too me.” – Bill Wasik
  • “A life-long suspicion of media funded by advertising” – Tony Ageh
  • “Put four words down on paper and have resonance to shatter glass.” – Meg Rosoff
  • “Accidentally annexed a third of North America” – Gruff Rhys
  • “The ideas that I come up with when distracted are better.” – Philip Larkin
  • “Everyone had the same story even though the details of their lives were different.” – Lisa Salem
  • “There’s a box of completely destroyed machines in the Guardian office at the moment.” – Alan Rusbridger

Lovely time at The Story. Thanks as ever to Matt Locke and the crew. More follows.

It can be these, but…

Our economy will not grow bigger in scale, but we will see it become more specific, more diverse, more adapted to individual needs and desires. The economy that served us well is giving way to what I call the informative economy.

According to my dictionary, “to inform” means to “imbue or inspire with some specific quality or value.” Practically speaking, information is not merely data, telecommunications, or a computer network. It can be these, but it is also the knowledge added to resources to make them valuable. It is design, craft, utility and durability — everything that makes a product more useful, longer lasting, easier to repair, lighter, stronger, and less energy-consuming. Information is nothing more (or less) than how to make or accomplish something the best way.

A Chevrolet requires ten to twelve times more expense on warranty repairs than an American-built Honda does. The difference is information in the form of design, workmanship and quality. Twenty-five years ago Honda was a “small” business. It became a big business not by building bigger cars, or cars with more gadgets, but by building a car with more information…

– Paul Hawken‘Growing a business’ (1987)

Thanks to Andy Bell for the recommendation.

Which part of “the customer is always a co-producer” don’t these people understand?

For the third time in the past few months I’m assailed by a survey so shockingly poor that I wonder why the service provider in question has bothered at all.

First it was East Coast trains with a lengthy paper questionnaire about my journey, conducted entirely in mind-boggling forced-choice price/quality trade-offs.

Then came a letter from an Ofsted inspector slipped into my child’s book bag at primary school. “Your views about the school are important to us,” said the letter. The less-than-24-hours’ notice to go online and complete a survey suggested otherwise.

This time, as I log out of my online account, my bank butts in with an entreaty to help them develop new features. Like this one…

Imagine you could search and sort through transactions...

Let’s leave aside the dubious value of any question in user research starting “imagine if…” We’ll also charitably disregard the fact that all the bright ideas my bank is asking about have been standard features of their competitors since the days when the Internet sounded like a fax machine.

What really winds me up about this – and the examples before it – is the complete absence of a space to explain or qualify my choices in free text.

The East Coast one went on for 14 A4 pages without so much as a simple text box for me to have my say.

And when Ofsted states

By sharing your views, you’ll be helping your child’s school to improve. You will also be able to see what other parents have said about your child’s school.

… they don’t actually mean said the way you or I, or a child in Key Stage 1, would understand the word. What they mean is clicked. Only strengths of agreement/disagreement and yes/no answers are permitted.

I’m not suggesting that large-scale, structured surveys are bad in themselves. But I do believe that asking any question without listening properly to the rich, human voice of the respondent does a disservice to surveyor and surveyed alike.

At the organisational level, asking only closed questions runs risks in two directions – gaining false reassurance or prematurely discounting profitable opportunities. In the bank example above, I do indeed value searching and sorting through my transactions, but much prefer to do so in an Excel spreadsheet or separate online personal finance service rather than on my bank’s own website. How am I meant to convey this subtlety in the survey? And how are the bank’s service managers to know this is what I want?

Maybe you think I’m only seeing half of the picture. Perhaps these three organisations also have sophisticated qualitative programmes wide open to unstructured feedback. Statistically speaking, I’m much more likely to be tapped up for ten minutes doing a quick online survey than for participation in an in-depth interview or ethnographic study.

Actually this make things worse, not better.

Consider the disempowering message sent to the thousands of travellers, parents and bank account holders on the blunt end of closed choice questionnaires. In signing off those questions, managers have assumed the sole right to structure the terms of conversation with the customers who are surveyed. “We want to know what you think,” they say, “but only so long as it fits within the narrow confines of our pre-existing plans and prejudices.” It’s as if they’ve rolled out the welcome mat to invite you into the conversation, only to snatch it away from under your feet.

Service dominant logic demands a dialogue, a collaborative learning effort between customers and service providers. In their essay ‘Co-creating the voice of the customer’, Bernie Jaworski and Ajay K. Kohli list the following features of a co-creating dialogue:

  • Is the conversation end point clear or unclear?
  • Do the comments build on those that came before them?
  • Is there a willingness to explore assumptions that underlie the dialogue?
  • Is the conversation exploratory: no topic is “off-limits?”
  • Is there an eagerness for new ideas?
  • Do the firm and the customer each shape the structure and content of the conversation?

It’s hard to do any of these things in a smash-and-grab raid to snatch a few data points on a five-point scale.

In 2014, organisations have no excuse for behaving so oafishly.

  • If you really need to ask closed choice questions, add an optional space where people can explain or clarify their answers. It shows you might be genuinely listening, not just engaged in a box-ticking exercise.
  • Worried you’ll be overwhelmed with more answers than you can read? What a great problem to have. Throw all the answers into a tool like Wordle so you can at least see common terms that crop up time and again.
  • Instead of a big survey upfront, try to gather user input a little and often. Ask for micro-feedback at relevant points in the user journey. That way you can adapt your questioning to context and find precisely the users who are grappling with the issues you want to know more about.
  • Spread the conversation out through your service design process. Think of every survey as a chance to recruit and screen users for deeper collaboration at the next stage. You may be surprised how many are prepared to give contact details for follow-up discussion on interesting findings.
  • Above all, keep an open mind – which is much easier to do when you ask an open question.

A found Leeds litany, raw notes from an afternoon walk

Red brick, air con units and recycling bins

Way back in June, as part of Andrew Wilson’s wonderful HannaH Festival, a group of citizens fanned out from Wharf Street Chambers into the summer drizzle clutching maps to four quarters of our city. We briefed participants to look for evidence of Leeds’ past, present and future. On returning to base we shared what everyone had found as photos and sticky notes spread out in a giant timeline on the wall.

As organiser, I committed to take the collective findings and weave them together into some kind of essay, as part of the Stories in their place series that emerges sporadically from this blog. Now it is winter, nearly six months to the day since our walk, and all I have are these damned PostIts. The promised essay will follow, with grand sweeping themes. But not yet.

Sticky notes on wall at Wharf Street

So by way of a down payment I offer you the raw notes, transcribed from the PostIts and ordered roughly as we stuck them on the wall at Wharf Street.

Like a medieval bestiary, ontography can take the form of a compendium, a record of things juxtaposed to demonstrate their overlap and imply interaction through collocation. The simplest approach to such recording is the list, a group of items loosely joined not by logic or power or use but by the gentle knot of the comma. Ontography is an aesthetic set theory, in which a particular configuration is celebrated merely on the basis of its existence. — Ian Bogost, Alien Phenomenology, or What It’s Like to Be a Thing

Here is the list, a found Leeds litany. Make of it what you will.

  • East Bar stone outside the Minster
  • Kirkgate oldest street in Leeds
  • Failing since Briggate was built
  • Black Prince statue – political message
  • Public art – Victorian and Current
  • First White Cloth Hall
  • Railway through the end of the 2nd White Cloth Hall
  • Hunslet industrial history
  • Victorian attention to detail
  • Doors big for big cargo
  • Foundation of Leeds United
  • Bricked up windows and doors
  • Leeds brick
  • Bricks made locally
  • Old Dock
  • Printworks
  • 1990s riverside development
  • Back alleys
  • Narrow lanes
  • Clarence Dock
  • The Armouries
  • A long way from anywhere
  • Failed shopping centre
  • How many people actually live here
  • Crown Hotel and blue building
  • Development Corporation
  • De-industrialisation
  • Shiny buildings with social problems
  • Hotel with unexpected consequences
  • Market – Traditional shopping vs Trinity
  • A city of shopping
  • Poundland, Poundworld, Poundstretcher
  • Pile of bricks that was Tetley’s
  • Tetley’s now a car park
  • Green spaces
  • Parasitic balconies in the canal
  • Stagnant lagoon
  • Seedy places of innovation
  • Modern sheds in compounds
  • Locks on Millenium Bridge
  • Asda grocery collection point
  • Plans for a park
  • Digital agency in an old industrial building
  • The new college
  • Salem Church of big data
  • Cheap spaces – Berlinification
  • Bins and recycling
  • Hipster urban regeneration
  • Corn Exchange and building next door – tiling
  • Retro – what is old
  • Trinity Church – arts centre
  • Basinghall Street – service street

Thanks to all the walkshoppers, whose names can be found on the Eventbrite page.

dConstruct 2013: “It’s the Future. Take it.”

It puzzles me that technology so easily becomes the dominant metaphor for explaining society, and not the other way round. “Self-organise like nanobots into the middle,” exhorts dConstruct host Jeremy Keith as we assemble for the afternoon session at the Brighton Dome. We shuffle obligingly to make room for the latecomers, because everyone here accepts without question that nanobots really do self-organise, even if they’re so tiny we can’t see them with our puny, unaugmented eyes.

“It’s the Future. Take it.” Dan Williams mocks strident techno-determinism and refuses to take anything at face value: “I find the concept of wonder to be problematic.” Even Wenlock, the Olympic Mascot, conceals in plain sight a sinister surveillance camera eye, homage perhaps to London’s insouciant acceptance of closed-circuit television. Maybe we should “take it” like the CCTV filmmakers whose manifesto includes the use of subject access requests to wrest footage of themselves from surveillance authorities unaware of their role in an art phenomenon.

Other speakers also touched on this theme of acceptance – the ease with which we come to terms with new tools in the environment and extensions of the physical and mental self.

For cyborg anthropologist Amber Case “design completely counts.” Just contrast reactions to the in-your-face Google Glass and the “calm”, unobtrusive Memoto Lifelogging Camera. I love the history lesson too, starting with Steve Mann‘s 40lbs of hacked-together heads-up-display rig from 1981. This stuff is shape-shifting fast, from the 1950s mainframe to the “bigger on the inside”, Mary Poppins smartphones we’ve so readily come to rely on as extensions of the mental self.

Digital designer Luke Wroblewski seems more matter-of-factly interested in the quantity of change than in its qualitative implications. Designers who have struggled to cope with just one new interface, touch, now face up to 13 distinct input types. Luke’s our tour guide to a dizzying variety of input methods – each with its own quirks and affordances – from 9-axis motion orientation sensing to Samsung’s Smart Stay gaze detection to Siri’s role as a whole other “parallel interface layer”. No wonder, I reckon, that minimal “flat UI” is the order of day. What with all these new interactions to figure out, designers simply lack the time and energy to spend on surface decoration.

Simone Rebaudengo imaginatively plays out the internet of things. He’s against a utilitarian future, and for one in which objects tease their way into their users’ affections. “Rather than demonstrating their buying power, people have to prove their keeping power.” He imagines a world in which toasters experience anxiety and addiction. People apply to look after them (though they can never be owned, only hosted) by answering questions of interest to the toasters. Hosts throw parties with copious sliced bread to make their toasters feel wanted. No, really. Simone has a unique and playful take on the service-dominant world. (I just wish he would stop calling things “products”. It’s so last century.)

However, conflict and repression are always nearby.

Nicole Sullivan presents a taxonomy of internet trolls: the jealous, the grammar Nazi, the biased, and the scary. Women in tech experience trolling far more and far worse than men. And we all need to challenge our biases. Fortunately there’s a handy online tool for that.

After watching ‘Hackers’ and ‘Ghost in the Shell’ at a formative age, Keren Elazari makes a passionate defence of the hacker, tracing a line from Guy Fawkes through V for Vendetta to the masked legion of Anonymous. Quoting Oscar Wilde: “Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask and he will tell you the truth.”

Pinboard-founder Maciej Cegłowski (stand-out phrase “social is not syrup”) voices admiration for the often derided fan-fiction community. Fans fight censorship, defend privacy and improve our culture. They have also developed elaborate tagging systems, and when alienated, like so many of us, by a Delicious re-design, they created a 52-page-long Google Doc of Pinboard feature requests. “It was almost noon when Pinboard stumbled into the office, eyes bleary. His shirt, Delicious noted, was buttoned crooked.”

Visibility is a central concern of our optically-obsessed culture. Much conflict arises from our suspicion of hidden biases and agendas, and our struggle to reveal them. Dan: “Every time we put software into objects they behave in ways that aren’t visible.” People who neglect to read the press releases of bin manufacturers may have missed the appearance on City of London streets of MAC address-snooping litter bins. Fortunately we have James Bridle to war-chalk them and Tom Taylor to consider stuffing them with rapidly changing random MAC address junk.

Amber wants to render the visible invisible – like Steve Mann’s “diminished reality” billboard-cancelling eyewear – and to make the invisible visible, by exposing un-noticed behaviours of smart objects. There can be unintended consequences in the human world, such as a touching conversation between student and construction worker sparked by Amber’s inadvertent placing of a target for GPS game MapAttack in the middle of a building site.

Making the invisible visible is what Timo Arnall’s celebrated ‘Immaterials‘ films are all about. I’d seen them online, of course, but during the dConstruct lunch break I popped into the Lighthouse where they’re beautifully displayed in the gallery setting they deserve. Dan talks of Buckminster Fuller “creating solutions where the problem isn’t quite ready to be solved”. Which is exactly how I feel re-watching Timo’s 2009 work on RFID. Creatives and “critical engineers” see this stuff in many more dimensions than mainstream imagines possible.

Not just seeing but hearing. Robot musician and sound historian Sarah Angliss tells of instruments that died out – the Serpent, the Giraffe Piano, the castrato’s voice – and of the way we’ve become accustomed to things our ancestors would have considered uncanny, unheimliche. Feel the fear induced by massive infrasonic church organ pipes. Look at a photo of people hearing a phonogram for the first time. Listen to Florence Nightingale’s voice recorded, musing about mortality.

And yet, towards the end of the day, something unexpected happens that makes me optimistic about our present condition. Dan Williams shows ‘The Conjourer‘ by magician-turned-cinematographer Georges Méliès – he of Scorsese’s ‘Hugo’ – performing disappearing tricks on the silver screen. We all know exactly how they’re done. They’d be trivial to recreate in iMovie. In spite of this we delight and laugh together at the tricks, as if the film was only made yesterday. This stuff has been the future for a long time now, and we seem to be taking it quite well.

Thanks to all the speakers, organisers and volunteers. dConstruct was brilliant as ever.

In praise of the good enough

… what the designers and engineers see as “pain points” aren’t necessarily that painful for people. The term satisficing, coined by Herbert Simon in 1956 (combining satisfy and suffice), refers to people’s tolerance — if not overall embracing — of “good enough” solutions…

Frankly, I discover satisficing in every research project: the unfiled MP3s sitting on the desktop, ill-fitting food container lids, and tangled, too-short cables connecting products are all “good enough” examples of satisficing. In other words, people find the pain of the problem to be less annoying than the effort to solve it.

I’m about a third of the way into Steve Portigal’s Interviewing Users but this bit rings especially true.

So much of the buzz around “smart cities” seems to focus on subtle optimisations and efficiencies – catching a bus a couple of minutes sooner, or turning the thermostat down a degree or two. Big data focused on small problems.

But wouldn’t the world be boring if everything was uniformly perfect? Maybe the capacity to work around life’s little frustrations is in itself a form of empowerment.

What if – for a while – we left alone all the stuff that’s good enough, and focused on delivering services that support people in making big decisions and enduring differences?

Annual Report Number One

work in progress

Exactly 365 days ago I set out on my independent consulting adventure, complete with the de rigueur intent to document my progress in weeknotes.

Week one was an intense blur of 5am flights, meetings and bratwurst; it went un-noted. Weeks two and three likewise. For a while, I told myself there’d be “monthnotes” instead. By the end of month three, this clearly was not happening either.

They’d have been pretty opaque anyway: “Planned research interviews for $undisclosed-client$; Updated the sales pipeline I made for myself in Trello; Word of the week is ‘vestibule’” – stuff like that.

So consider this a yearnote, my annual report to anyone who is interested. This is what I’ve learned so far.

The need for service design

A year ago, I believed the time was right for my particular flavour of people-centred service design. 12 months on, even more so.

Organisations of all sizes are looking to go beyond web and mobile marketing to offer genuinely useful multi-touchpoint services. They are hungry for new ways to understand what customers want, to reinvent the way we do everyday things, and to free frontline staff to do their best work.

This expresses itself differently according to context:

  • In our homes, shops and offices it’s often about people with computers in their hands that are more powerful and better connected than all the fixed infrastructure that weighs around them.
  • In our towns and cities, it’s about optimising for the cacophony of people’s aspirations and everyday objectives, not imposing a blinkered view of efficiency from above.
  • In our public life, it’s about reinventing simpler, clearer, faster services with citizens at the centre.

Thanks to my wonderful customers

Over the past year, I’ve had the chance to work with some great teams. There have been projects for a multi-national sportswear brand and a UK supermarket chain. I’m excited to be kicking off a thing right now with the Government Digital Service.

The lovely people at Made by Many have put some fascinating projects my way and are always a joy to work with.

Working direct for large organisations takes more time to line up, but has also proved to be time well spent. It helps me learn what customers really need and where my practice can add the greatest value.

I’m keen to keep that balance between different ways of engaging.

How long is a piece of string?

I’ve hit my targets for the year by doing fewer, larger engagements than I imagined.

Looking back, this is a good thing. I’ve finished every job feeling I delivered something of significant value to the client. I think they feel the same.

While I pride myself on being quick on the uptake, I reckon I add most value when a project gets down to a certain level of detail in terms of customer research and service design. Small, unexpected insights make a big difference, and those don’t always show themselves in the first few days.

Collaboration

Working with associates was always part of the plan. I had the chance to bring in a very talented service designer to work alongside me on one project, and pitched, ultimately unsuccessfully, with associates for another. Despite that miss, I believe this model is the future.

For the next year, I want to partner more with agencies and associates to tackle some big, worthwhile service challenges that none of us would be able to take on alone.

After experiencing the serendipity of co-working at Duke Studios, I wonder why anyone would be so dumb as to fill a big office block with people who all work for a single company.

Time to hear myself think

I promised myself that I’d make the time to keep thinking, blogging and speaking.

On this blog and in a series of talks, I’ve continued to circle around topics from service design to smart cities, with the odd diversion into local history. I gave lightning talks at Next Service Design in Berlin and Bettakultcha Leeds.

I’ve indulged myself with trips to London for The Story, Brighton for dConstruct and Manchester for Future Everything.

My search for a New Idea of the North remains a work in progress. And I’ve spent a little bit of time experimenting with print again, bundling some blog posts about places into a series of booklets over on Bookleteer.

You may notice this blog’s template is looking a bit long in the tooth – cobblers, children, shoes, etc..

Feeding the family

Those close to me at the time will know just how long I spent working up to the point where I could resign from my secure, well paid job at Orange to go it alone – so long in fact that by the time the moment came it didn’t feel scary at all.

I had some money put by to be sure that the kids wouldn’t starve if I went a few months without work. A year later, most of that money is still there, which is nice to know. Having that buffer allows me to smooth out the peaks and troughs that seem to be an inevitable feature of freelancing.

There’s a pleasing directness in the relationship between working and earning. But then I’ve been lucky that all my customers are prompt payers. Long may they continue to be so.

Xero makes wrangling receipts, invoices and VAT returns so much fun that I sometimes have to check myself from tumbling down a rabbit-hole of financial over-analysis and fantasy budgeting. I feel it’s important to keep this stuff simple and focus on doing good work.

Enduring values

Alongside my business plan, I wrote a manifesto. “Changeful” was the codename I used for my consulting practice and is now the name of my registered company.

At the time I wasn’t sure if these really were enduring values. They could so easily have been temporary hobby-horses born of my context at the time. But this evening I looked back over the list and thought, yeah, they’re enduring, so far.

I publish them here unaltered:

Changeful will be exciting and distinctive to work with because of some basic principles.

  1. It’s more profitable to make stuff that people already want than to make them want stuff that’s already made. That’s why Changeful will follow a user-centred design process. It will never put lipstick on a pig.

  2. Great products and services are grounded in a sense of place, and for Changeful that place is Leeds. It will work for clients and users all over the world, but where possible it will start with its fellow citizens.

  3. Changeful aims to be part of an open network of suppliers and customers where the presumption is in favour of sharing skills, knowledge and tasks. The most natural habitat for this behaviour is the Web.

  4. Sometimes Changeful’s work will be challenging, in order to be more rewarding – like John Ruskin’s six qualities of great Gothic stone-masonry: “Savageness, Changefulness, Naturalism, Grotesqueness, Rigidity and Redundance.”

  5. Wherever possible Changeful will use freely available tools and materials that are open to anyone. People should be able to look at Changeful’s offer, be inspired, and say, “I could do that too”.

  6. Changeful must enjoy keeping up stuff that already exists as much as making from scratch. Some days nobody will notice the difference Changeful makes, but we’ll all reap the benefits in the long run.

  7. Changeful will stay focused on the things that will make the biggest difference to customers and clients. When we see a bottle that says “drink me” we will check the label on the back and most likely leave well alone.

So that was year one. Thanks to all the people – too numerous to name – who have helped me on the way.

Want to be part of year two? I’m at http://mattedgar.com

At Future Everything: nobody likes a smart arse, even when it’s a city

IMAG2101

“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” – Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina, opening line

Why did Glasgow win the right to host the Technology Strategy Board’s £24 million Future Cities Demonstrator? Project Leader Scott Cain reels off a set of doom-laden statistics: a looming crisis in affordable warmth; a high incidence of anti-social behaviour; a shocking 28-year life expectancy gap between rich and poor neighbourhoods. Oh, and good city leadership, the kind that’s up to hosting the 2014 Commonwealth Games.

Poverty, conflict and inequality rarely figure in the “smart city” visions of those who seek to sell infrastructure dressed as “technology”.

I’ve railed against these things before. At Future Everything in Manchester on Thursday the chorus was deafening.

From Dan Hill’s call for “active citizens” not “smart cities” – “if we want people to think about carbon, don’t make the lights go out automatically.”…

… through Martijn de Waal’s pitting of computer-rendered master-planned Songdo against the very real, spontaneous “Seoulutions” of Hongdae: “engage and empower publics to act on communally shared issues.”…

… to Usman Haque’s praise for the messy city of Grub Street after 200 years of Enlightenment dirigisme: “a backlash of messiness in which the great uncalibrated rise up.”…

… and the audience’s line of questioning of the panel in which Scott, Martijn and Usman took part…

… it was abundantly clear that nobody likes a smart arse, even when it’s a city.

To frame problems in terms of efficiency is to miss the point of what it means to be a city, a platform for people’s numerous, contradictory drives and dreams.

The hunt for economies of scale chases us inexorably to the lowest common denominator. (So London gets the Future Cities “Catapult” because it’s Britain’s only “World City” – you can guess how this revelation went down in Manchester :)

Worst of all is the abdication of responsibility. Usman: “What I see specifically in the open data movement is that someone else is going to find the solution because it resides in the data.”

We’ve been here before, warns Dan, and the result was not pretty. It was Richard Weller’s “city that cars built when we weren’t looking.”

But if not that, then what?

As Dan notes, the interventions that make us smile, that feel intuitively right, like Helsinki’s Restaurant Day or Silje Johansen’s lonely traffic light, are fleeting and leave no trace but memory.

Dan urges us to consider the power of engaging with the “dark matter” of local administrations and building codes.

Despite its unpromising name, I also found some answers in a session titled “Building Creative Ecologies for Smarter Cities”.

There, Claire Reddington of Bristol’s iShed talked about “keeping the money at the margins” and trusting “the unreasonable expectations of artists”: “Tech conferences often fetishise failure. If you are not predefining the outputs it’s hard to categorise something as a failure.”

I loved Claire’s suggestion that if you want to be part of a network it’s “best not to have all the bits” – for example not having an art gallery on-site at the Watershed had prompted collaborations with surrounding galleries and venues.

On the same panel was Doug Ward, co-founder of Tech Hub Manchester in a listed warehouse in the city’s Northern Quarter. Referencing Brad Feld’s “Boulder thesis”, he listed the reasons he chose to stay as an entrepreneur in his home city: its history, universities and culture.

My take-outs: Endurance is greater than scale; diversity more valuable than efficiency; and actors are what matter, the networks will follow.

Thinking about a service model: associate, participate and iterate

I recently had the privilege to front a pitch for a combined piece of service design and web development work that has helped sharpen my thinking about the way this stuff can be structured to make a difference.

The prospective client was a small, local, public sector organisation with a limited budget. We offered them a radical approach inspired by the new Government Digital Strategy. It was user-centred, agile and based on open source software. We aimed to deliver a radically simpler website than the one they have now, but one much closer to the needs of their users, and phenomenally better value for money.

ever deeper insights into user needs

To save the suspense, we didn’t get the business. I’m writing this because the reasons for the loss were instructive. We’ll learn from them and do some things differently next time. They also reinforce my belief that this approach will win out in the not-so-very-much-longer term.

Here are some things I heard from the potential client. I present them because they’re all legitimate responses, questions that stress-test the model I’m trying to build.

We proposed an associates model, a dream team of specialists wrapped around the client’s needs. I regarded that weightless flexibility as a strength, but in the client’s eyes it presented a risk: “Your company, there’s nothing to it,” said one of their panel. “How do we know you’ll still be here in 12 months’ time?”

We proposed a highly participative design process including user engagement through social media and a co-creation workshop with customers to conceive the first version of the website. The client felt this was abdicating our responsibility as designers. “Isn’t this just design by committee?” he asked.

We proposed an iterative process in which we research a little, start engaging through a minimum viable service and build up our knowledge of, and utility to, service users through insight and action hand-in-hand. Another of the client’s panel was a market research expert. How, she asked, can you be sure to represent users accurately with only a small slice of research upfront?

At the time, I felt I gave good answers to each of these objections. Only afterwards, with the wit of the staircase, did I come to understand that the three elements of our model – associate, participate, iterate – hang together as a single dominant strategy for solving the problems that organisations face today.

Teams that get good at delivering this, and clients who get good at tapping into it, can focus the most talented people on the most fruitful opportunities, and do so consistently, not just in the rosy afterglow of signing a new agency.

The power is in the way the elements interact.

participate + associate + iterate

Associates + iteration takes the risk and the compromise out of picking a team. By being well-connected and aware of our strengths and weaknesses, micro businesses can bring to bear expertise far beyond that offered by bigger entities with fixed salary bills to service. But more than that, the associates model can flex over the course of an engagement, bringing in the right skills for as long or as short a time as is needed. To the question “will you still be around in 12 months?” the best answer may be “only if we’re still the right people for the job.”

Associates + participation challenges the line between designers and users, service providers and recipients of service. If the project team itself is fluid, it can flow seamlessly into an expert group of users, users who are experts in their own needs, abilities and requirements. Contextual inquiry places the design researcher in the position of the “apprentice” learning from the user, or “master,” how they do what they do. By serving this apprenticeship, the researcher qualifies to add his or her own creative solutions to those already developed by the user. By engaging with service users and those who serve them we don’t abdicate responsibility to design, we earn it.

Participation + iteration means there is always the opportunity to learn more from users and their experience of the service. Knowing that learning never stops is liberating because it lowers the barrier to making a mark, getting the minimum viable service out there and into users’ hands. Will the first version be limited? Yes, of course. Will we be wrong about user needs? Almost certainly. But we’ll soon discover how limited, and how we’re wrong, and move quickly to improve in the next iteration. We’ll discover unmet user needs, and, if we remain open, maybe whole new groups of users too. With making and testing so easy, Big Research Up Front is no longer a risk we have to run.

Delivering this model is not without its pitfalls.

The associates model only works if each client sees the value in having a top notch team, and recognises the team assembled as a mirror to their unique set of needs. Practically, suppliers and customers alike must lower transaction costs that have made it prohibitively expensive for individuals and small team practices to play in vast swathes of business territory. But this is what the internet is made for. The comparative advantage of large organisations shrivels with every slick, cloud-based productivity tool that is launched.

When you’ve experienced true user participation, its advantages are obvious, but it also seems like a risky proposition from the outside. The trick is in the way target users are identified, engaged and brought on board as equal voices to insiders and vested interests. The process can look chaotic before the insights emerge, and making the time and place for this to happen takes rare skills and a leap of faith.

And iteration, though so obviously good sense to us when we are children, is a habit that big business beats out of grown-ups through interminable roadmaps, waterfall processes and excessive penalties for failure. People need space to learn and make mistakes in a low-risk, yet visible way. They need simple dashboards to measure and monitor progress. They need to know when to cut their losses on an experiment and when to throw everything at a model that’s starting to work.

But if I had that pitch again, this is what I’d say: Accept no imitations. Associate, participate and iterate to win.

If you or your organisation want to work like that, then please do say hello.

Room to grow^ – 48 hours of the Global Service Jam

Leeds Service Jam

SD Leeds co-organiser Kathryn Grace and I were joined by 15 jammers in Leeds as part of the biggest ever Global Service Jam, taking place simultaneously in more than 120 cities around the world.

Thanks to Simon Zimmerman of Hebe Media, Leeds Council’s Leeds Inspired programme and James and Laura of Duke Studios for making it an absolute pleasure.

The group I was in had a relaxed yet purposeful approach to the jam. We got out on the streets early to interview potential users, heard them shoot down our first idea, pivoted, then went out again, and ended up designing a local currency for people who aren’t local to the city.

Simon East and Cassandra Stocks out testing our ideas with potential users

Other groups looked at accessibility in Leeds Market and a playful way to get children cooking healthy meals with their families.

On the Planet Jam website you can see the stuff we made, and all the other cities too.

Alternatively you can read Jane Wood’s reflections on the jam over at &Co Cultural Marketing – thanks Jane!

And if you liked that, you may also like these:

Make’Owt #3 15-16 March – The next event in the Make’Owt series, of which the Leeds Service Jam was part. This one’s led by maker Stuart Childs with the theme ‘Make Light’

Service Design Thinks and Drinks in Leeds – Our next Service Design Drinks event will be on Tuesday 23 April. Follow us on Twitter at @SDLeeds to find out more.

Gov Jam 4-6 June – The sister jam to the Global Service Jam.  We are looking at supporting a GovJam in Leeds. If you are interested please let us know.

^ that carat thing. I have no idea either, but it was part of the theme.

After BBC Connected Studio – gazing through a moving window

Regular readers will know that I have a slow hunch about the value of stories in the place where they happened. So when I saw the brief for the latest BBC Connected Studio, focused on Knowledge and Learning, I packed my personal hobbyhorse and jumped on the train to Salford.

It was an ace day. Credit to the BBC for being so generous with their experts’ time and open about their exciting plans for the digital Knowledge and Learning product. The plan – going from a portfolio of bespoke programme sites and siloed services to a single product to fuel everyone’s curiosity – has a lot in common with the bigger transformation underway over at gov.uk.

Having shared my passion for situated stories and the narrative capital they engender in communities, I found myself in a team that wanted to put a “local lens” on the wealth of learning material that the BBC has amassed over the years.

I’m always surprised and humbled when I get the chance to explore early stage ideas with potential users, so the 15 minute audience we had with three regular BBC users was a particular highlight for me.

And on the tram back to Piccadilly I fell to thinking a bit further about a second strand that our team discussed but sadly didn’t pitch, which was centred around journeys and ways of cultivating curiosity while being a passenger.

There’s a piece of dead time, especially for children, when they’re going on a journey. It could be a short bus trip into town, hours in the car on the way to the seaside or going on a plane on holiday. Parents always struggle to keep their children entertained and settled, and if you look at families travelling together on trains it’s almost always the kids who have control of the family iPad. Often they’ll have headphones on, lost in a DVD, not paying attention to their surroundings at all. That seems a shame.

So this idea aims to give people information to enhance but not overwhelm the experience of being somewhere. It strings moments of learning together into a personalised journey, linking multiple Knowledge and Learning topics along the route. They could be places of interest, famous people from an area, or even time or season-specific things like looking out of the car window at the night sky or noticing cloud patters or migrating birds.

Augmented reality it’s not, quite. As Kevin Slavin noted at dConstruct a couple of years ago, Reality is Plenty. These judiciously timed nudges are intended to draw us back into the here and now, to rediscover the quaint old habit of gazing out of windows when travelling.

So I spent the rest of my journey home knocking up a Keynote prototype.

By a happy coincidence, the following morning, I happened to be booked on the 0715 from Leeds to London with my children (they for a day out with their grandparents, I to The Story, on which a post follows soon.)

Here’s my son having a go…

User testing on the 0715 to London

From this initial user test of one, I learned just how engrossing a glowing rectangle can be to a six-year-old. He played along for the first two or three stops, before becoming hooked on Angry Birds instead. To rouse the youth from their digital dreamspace, the next version of the app would need to pause play on whatever else they were doing, with the guarantee that they could come back to it after a few minutes looking out of the window.

The service would use location, but only lightly, knowing the nearest town would be good enough. And because the route gives us a predictable narrative spine, content could be packaged up and pre-loaded on users’ devices. (In feedback, users told us that they didn’t always have, or want to use, data while out and about.)

In terms of build, it could be developed iteratively, starting with a highly editorially curated version along a few major routes – say the West Coast Mainline and the M1 motorway, then scaled up by adding more routes and software to create personalised journeys on the fly according to the user’s travel plans and content interests.

Seen it before? What would make it better? All feedback gratefully received.