Some things I wrote down at Laptops and Looms

Matlock Bath rock

Three days in the spectacular Derbyshire countryside with a bunch of clever, skillful doing and making people. Lots to digest, but for now here’s what I found in my notebook this morning…

  • “simple single purpose things”
  • learn > sell > make > record > learn >source > scale > repeat
  • the circus printer
  • Artefact cards + iPad + Gorillapod + projector
  • “do the first hundred of everything”
  • “a box of time and space”
  • 7 primary smells
  • perfumers as musicians
  • “a ghost version of you that’s trapped in the Internet”
  • “normcore”
  • archives as “explicit notes to the future”
  • “running on the smell of an oily rag”
  • museum of meta-data
  • loom bands :)
  • instructional YouTube videos
  • sharing friendship bracelets, sharing skills
  • spoons!
  • spoons for cooking easier than spoons for eating
  • we can recognise more logos than plants
  • “if you like how it sounds then you got it right for you”
  • “it’s exciting making things to make with”
  • “copying stops being copying”
  • “the firm, not the start-up”
  • things don’t have to be web scalable
  • “reclaim small business as something to be proud of”
  • “digital by default for everything else”
  • Transatlantic cables cut up and sold by Tiffany
  • “the cloud is a lie”
  • Internet of things of the network”
  • Earth return
  • “locus of confusion”
  • “bits of the world that were obstacles become part of the solution”
  • test-driven development as evolution
  • “start-ups don’t have to be evil”
  • activities that become nouns instead of verbs
  • “dealing with variance and difference”

Thanks to Russell, Greg and Matt for making it happen and to everyone there for making it brilliant.

More follows.

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.