So we think we’re a user-centred, agile team…


Yeah, we’re user-centred!

  1. Who are the people most present when our service is delivered?
  2. Where are they, physically and emotionally, at that moment?
  3. What could each of them put into our service, and what could they get out of it?
  4. What are we doing to better answer questions 1 to 3 this week?
  5. How are those people taking part in the design and development of our service this week?
  6. How is our service changing because of their participation?

Yeah, we’re an agile team!

  1. Who decides what our team should work on next?
  2. Who chooses how our team should do our work?
  3. What competencies does it take to do our work? Do we have them all?
  4. How are we accountable as a single team for the work we do?
  5. How are we making our work visible to ourselves and others this week?
  6. How are we inspecting progress and making things better this week?

(Because solutions don’t scale, questions do.)

Design principles for an enterprising city

The Government Digital Service’s Design Principles have been widely praised, translated and reused. But there is a form of flattery higher than mere imitation. That’s adaptation: the way other governments around the world have iterated the GDS principles to fit their local contexts.

I’ve been wondering how my own city, with its unique blend of opportunities and talents, might pick up and run with a people-centred, agile ethos. So far I have the following…

Start with needs assets*

(*people’s assets not organisations’ assets)

Leeds coal, mined in this century, at St Aidan’s Walking Dragline Swillington

For all its power, the notion of “needs” casts users as dependent and deficient, service designers and providers as beneficent heroes riding to the rescue. There is another way: the humble optimism of an asset-based mindset.

The Big Lottery-funded West Yorkshire—Finding Independence (WY-FI) project supports a small number of people with the most complex mix of needs – homelessness, addiction, re-offending and mental health problems. But its mentors and navigators start with what people have and can do, not what they lack.

Yes, all people have needs, some of which, left unmet lead to disastrous consequences. But they also have aspirations, abilities, narratives and networks. How might we build on those things to help everyone find autonomy and mastery whatever their situations?

Do less, aim higher

“Do less” has been a double-edged sword. On the plus side it licenses service design radicals to cut loose deadweight legacy IT and processes. It forces a focus on the essentials, on what really matters to users and cannot be done by someone else. But it can also give cover to a mean-spirited shrinking of ambition, in which transactional efficiency trumps nobility of purpose.

Screenshot 2015-11-17 21.59.51.png
Tour de France Grand Départ, Leeds, 5 July 2014

When Leeds City Council Chief Executive Tom Riordan talks about devolved control over transport, he’s not thinking of shaving a few minutes off a commuter’s journey times. He tells a story that spans housing, access to work and skills shortages in our healthcare system. How might we make it possible for someone from one of the city region’s most isolated districts to train and work as a nurse in one of Leeds’ great teaching hospitals?

We have to couple “do less” with a positive vision of public service. One that imagines seemingly trivial things in novel combinations to make a big difference for individuals, families and communities. One that surprises us and exceeds our expectations. Perhaps even one that can use the words “joyfully” and “counter terrorism” in the same breath…

Design Tell stories with data

A couple of years ago, I despaired at the “big data” community’s underpants gnome attitude to the stuff that makes us human. (1. Collect data; 2. ?; 3. Profit!) The sterile, context-free service dashboards and control rooms they pushed as solutions never seemed to suit our messy city.

But in Leeds at least the data community has proved me wrong. Both ODI Leeds and the Leeds Data Mill host much more nuanced, storytelling approaches to our city’s data. Others would do well to emulate them.

For a masterclass in this new art, see the work of Tom Forth on, for example, land use for city centre car parking and transport connectivity.

Screenshot 2015-11-17 13.08.12

This is for with everyone

“Nothing About Us Without Us!” was the cry of disability activists sick and tired of years of being done to and for. While Sir Tim Berners-Lee’s act of generosity, as lit up across the Olympic stadium, may be a sufficient gesture for the creation of the World Wide Web, it falls short as a guiding principle in the design of service for our city.

Of all the industries I’ve worked with, I believe a handful of radicals in healthcare understand this best of all. We are fortunate in Leeds to have mHealthHabitat as leading practitioners of co-creation, unafraid to do the hard work to actively involve users in the design of digitally-enabled health services.

Are we serious about having users in the room? If so this room’s going to have to change. So are the people in it. We might need to move to a different room altogether.

And while we have everyone here, let’s be open to all their talents. Some of our users may turn out to be natural designers; service providers by day may be service users by night. Research is a team sport, but it can pay to play out of position, to swap sides even.

So I offer these 4 for starters, design principles for an enterprising city…

  • Start with assets
  • Do less, aim higher
  • Tell stories with data
  • This is with everyone

I’m sure others will emerge. What would you add?


Gotta catch ‘em all, or, a story about digital transformation in four movements

Over the past month I’ve been fortunate to work with some very capable senior leaders in organisations facing the amorphous challenge of “digital transformation”. At first I struggled to nail this jelly to the wall. I had to account for why, if the change is driven by computers and the internet, the solutions so often involve people and Post It notes. The story below has emerged through the telling as I’ve attempted to herd those human and non-human actors together…

1. The water in which we all swim

Rochester High Street - Nov 2010 - Candid Leopardskin Dress Mature

Walk down any street in the land and see how quickly you can spot the following:

  • A person walking while using a smartphone (give yourself 2 points)
  • Free public wifi (3 points)
  • A digital display screen (5 points)
  • A telco’s fibre broadband street cabinet (8 points)
  • A hashtag on a poster (10 points)

A decade ago these thing hardly existed. Now they are so unremarkable that we hardly notice their ubiquity.

“Wired is NOT a magazine about computers or the internet — which is now the water in which we all swim.” — Wired magazine contributor guidelines

With this ubiquity come new user needs and increased expectations: to be able to do everyday things digitally with ease – always on, in the context I choose, wherever I happen to be at the time. The “Martini proposition” has come to pass more completely than the cheesy futurists of the mid-Noughties ever imagined.

How quickly has our wonder at being able to get online without wires given way to indignation that there are still places where this is not possible! Once wifi hotspots were a “value added service”. Today “notspots” are a public policy issue. 

But there’s more: a whole new way of relating to the world.

  • Less forward planning: “Text me when you get there” not “Meet at noon under the station clock”
  • More ambient awareness: “I liked your status update” not “Thank you for your letter”
  • The levelling effect of information abundance: “If you liked this video, subscribe to my Youtube channel” not “Coming next on BBC1”

To older generations the new blitheness may seem misplaced, gauche, disrespectful even. The history graduate in me prefers a longer view. These changes mark a natural reversion to human norms, a long overdue riposte to the machine-age tyrannies of clocking in and clerical work and one-size-fits-all mass media.

Old or new, this culture shapes our expectations of all organisations, whether they be businesses, charities, governments, political parties, whatever. As users, we expect digital service to respond with productive informality – spontaneous, personal, collaborating as our equal – just like our real Facebook friends do.

Where am I going with all this? Believe me, it has big implications for organisations’ IT strategies.

2. Sharks Must Swim Constantly or They Die!

With this rising tide of expectations and changing social norms, people demand that organisations of all kinds be always-on and spontaneous, personal and collaborative. In service design and delivery we need to put users at the centre – often diverse, complex, contradictory users. No two days will be the same because the mix of users and their specific needs is constantly changing.

I’m no accelerationist. The direction of social change matters more to me than the perceived advance of technology. But we’ll never be responsive enough if every change has to be made manually or mediated by the cumbersome apparatus of 20th century programme offices and project management.

It is said that if a great white shark stops swimming it’ll die from lack of oxygen. Big organisations that can’t respond at their customers’ pace deserve to meet an analogous fate.

So it’s just as well that the pesky computers and networks that caused this headache in the first place can also help us to cure it.

  • The cloud is just a commercial model, a more flexible way of buying access to computing power and storage: “Give me 5 minutes, I’ll spin up a new production environment” not “We’ve raised a purchase order for the new servers to be installed in the data centre next month”
  • Continuous integration is a fancy way of saying we run services with rapidly evolving software: “All the automated tests are passing this afternoon” not “we’ve booked 2 weeks of testing just ahead of the go-live milestone”
  • Open source software and open standards make it easier than ever to stand on the shoulders of giants: “I’ve fixed your code and raised a pull request” not “We’ll do an impact assessment if you file a change request”

Together these technology patterns form a powerful, automated and efficient platform for more responsive business. By standing on this platform, we’ll be better placed to meet our customers’ demands in the moment, and to shift with them when they change.

So what’s stopping us? Maybe it’s our tools.

3. The Jean-Wearing Post It Note Wranglers

“We become what we behold. We shape our tools and then our tools shape us” — John Culkin on Marshall McLuhan

In other news, Microsoft Office turned 25 years old last August. Let that sink in for a bit. Big, serious organisations have spent the past quarter century re-creating themselves in the image of PowerPoint, Excel, Project and Outlook. Tragically these tools were forged for a culture that no longer exists – a business world that reached its apogee just a few minutes before the birth of the World Wide Web. No wonder so many workplaces now feel like Life on Mars.

That’s where the sticky notes come in.

Haters gonna hate, but those “jean-wearing Post It note wranglers” have it right. They feel the urgency to harness change for their customers’ advantage. They understand that change means lots of small pieces loosely joined, scribbled, sorted, peeled off and repositioned every minute of the working day.

There’s more to it of course:

  • laptops that boot in seconds not minutes
  • wall-to-wall wifi for lag-free online collaboration
  • big screens to make performance visible in real time

Those things all help too, but by now they should really be hygiene factors. “Technology at least as good as people have at home” was the target when the Cabinet Office chose new kit for thousands of civil servants.

Often we find that sticky notes, whiteboard walls and Sharpie markers are the perfectly adapted tools for this way of working.

They are also an essential common currency within multidisciplinary teams. Business people may struggle to understand a technology architecture diagram; developers’ eyes may glaze over at a P&L statement. But they can all gather round and have a face-to-face conversation about a simple thought captured in felt tip pen on an index card.


4. Dress For the Job You Want

… we have come to value individuals and interactions over processes and tools — Manifesto for Agile Software Development

And so we come full circle: it turns out that the productive informality we increasingly expect of service providers is also a killer attitude for getting things done in teams.

  • Planning is best done a little and often: “What’s the next most important thing for us to do?” not “What dependences will impact our Gantt chart in 18 months’ time?”
  • Ambient awareness forms a greater part of governance: “I can see from your wall” not “I’m waiting for your monthly report”
  • Deference born of information scarcity is dead: “We worked it out together on the Slack channel” not “We saw the CEO’s strategy announcement on the Intranet”

The new culture is a work in progress, and it is far from perfect. The original Agile Manifesto authors were notoriously male and white. We need many more balanced teams in which diverse voices are welcome.

This matters because members of high-performing teams bring more of themselves to their work. Suits must mix with t-shirts, uniforms of all kinds considered harmful.

The broader its collective perspectives, the more empathy a team can build with all its users. What if users were in the room with us? Would they feel at home? Would they understand the words we use? Would they feel valued and respected?

Because workers are users too. And if the way we live our lives is changing, then so must the way we do our work. We can’t truly deliver one without the other.


This is the water in which we all swim.

  • The customer expectations
  • The automation and efficiency
  • The new (old) tools
  • The working culture of productive informality

If our organisations are to succeed, we can’t pick just one or two of them. Like Pokémon, we’ve gotta catch ‘em all.

Flickr Photo credits: Gareth Williams and Elen Nivrae. Thank you!

Teaching to the test: weak signals from the emissions scandal


Who’d have thought it?

Since the late 18th Century, moral panics have centred on the propensity for industrialisation and financialisation to turn people into machines.

‘You must either make a tool of the creature, or a man of him. You cannot make both. If you will have that precision out of them, and make their fingers measure degrees like cog-wheels, and their arms strike curves like compasses, you must unhumanise them.’ — John Ruskin

But now the Volkswagen emissions scandal lays bare that we stand on the cusp of the opposite peril.

We have trusted machines to perform repeat operations without fear or favour. We could count on them to do the same thing over and over and always render the same results.

Volkswagen’s cars didn’t have a fault in their diesel motors — they were designed to lie to regulators, and that matters, because regulation is based on the idea that people lie, but things tell the truth. — Cory Doctorow

Likewise, corporate brands have been defined by their superhuman consistency and unnatural longevity. Large teams of people with weighty manuals have been devoted to the maintenance of corporate “values”, “tone of voice” and “brand personality”.

That must be why it comes as such a shock to discover that both can exhibit the hitherto exclusively human characteristics of inconsistency, fallibility and mendacity. They think nothing of behaving one way on the emissions test treadmill and another on the open road.

At the corporate level, some of the debate about Volkswagen has focused on governance, on the relationship between innovation and regulation. Can those acting in the public interest ever enforce moral behaviour on private enterprise with systems of numerical targets and controlled-environment tests? No. Given big enough financial incentive and small enough risk of detection, corporations will game those systems. Every last one of them, all of the time.

The novel feature exposed by Volkswagen is that corporations are increasingly playing the game through the medium of software.

VW’s “defeat device” is not a physical device but a programme in the engine software that lets the car perceive if is being driven under test conditions – and only then pull out all the anti-pollution stops. — The Guardian

How will we respond when such potentially malign ingenuity is embedded in every vehicle and household object? An arms race of more targets, tests and regulations will be futile.

Opening the data will get us somewhat further. The wonder of connecting all the things to the internet is that we can see how they are performing day in, day out, in the wild, not just under test conditions. How long before a continuous stream of emissions and mechanical safety data replaces the annual MOT test?

But that will not be enough. The quantitative data will only ever capture an incomplete picture of the many externalities that such machines belch out.

Publishing the code will allow sufficiently skilled and committed auditors to understand behaviour at an atomic level. Surely we must legislate all black box software out of safety critical systems.

But can software really encode the most difficult trade-offs that people make in the moment? Trolley problems have been a stock in trade for philosophers since the 1960s. They won’t be settled by a C++ function.

My Honda's a consequentialist

The parallel social constructs of corporation and computer have long sheltered behind a convenient fiction: of being neutral technologies, forces of nature, a domain apart from the messy, contested world of the human politics. Volkswagen reveals this to be a false division.

Meanwhile we humans have been trained for two centuries in machine-age educational institutions for careers in command-and-control organisations. But we urgently need to make a break for it, back to the exposed flank of behaving like people at work. And we need to get there before our unaccountable creations form an unholy alliance to pull it off better than we do.

We’ll need new kinds of transparency and accountability, ones that recognise the responsibilities of directors, designers and developers as indivisible from those of the companies and code they create.

To the people who run big organisations: we expect you to be explicit about your business models and service blueprints. We need to know whether you see us as your customer, or as just another product in a multi-sided marketplace. We need to be sure that you treat the society in which you operate with respect, not contempt.

To the people exploring new opportunities and refining service through customer development or lean start-up methodologies: a reminder not merely to optimise for the easy metrics. Your success depends on your ability to design for the full diversity of people in this most complicated of worlds.

Think about that Spotify “how to build a Minimum Viable Product” graphic that did the rounds on Twitter a while back…

Basically it’s lean saying screw the externalities. How else could you end up with a road-hogging, obesity-making, fossil fuel guzzling car as superior to a bicycle?

And to the people who develop the software: you bear a special responsibility. With each line of code you commit, you pour a little of your soul inside the machine. You cannot do this anonymously; you can never wholly shuffle off this responsibility, even when someone else writes the specification or pays the bill.

Increasing storage capacity will soon make it feasible for even the most deeply embedded system to carry a copy of its entire version history. Maybe the Volkswagen engineers would have paused for thought if they’d known that their names would be openly entwined for eternity in the defeat device’s mitochondrial DNA.

Updated 3/10/2015 to add that brilliant Cory Doctorow quote on regulation

Solutions don’t scale, questions do.

Soon after I joined Orange, in the dotcom dog days of 2000, I found myself in a series of meetings about “multimedia marketing” or somesuch. Looking back, those meetings were a fascinating front in the struggle between the free-as-in-speech-and-beer vision of the Internet and the fat margin, consumer protection nightmare of premium rate phone lines and SMS subscriptions. At the time, we naively believed those two world views might coexist.

We were chewing over the gnarly details of some billing system integration when a keen young marketing director ventured a suggestion that, even by the loose standards of the day, would have taken us to the more hucksterish end of the spectrum.

A hitherto silent software engineer looked up from his laptop and asked, “is that an Orange thing to do?”

Orange was then only 6 years old. It had already become the youngest company ever to enter the FTSE100, and twice been the subject of multi-billion pound takeovers. Next to its near contemporary New Labour, it must have a claim to have been the last great British brand of the 20th Century.

Staff numbers were increasing rapidly, customer numbers and revenues even faster. And the only way Hans Snook and his management team could handle such explosive growth was to trust their people, every last one of us.

The brand gave us permission to ask ourselves, and each other, that question: Is it Orange? Is it optimistic? Is it straightforward, honest, friendly, dynamic and refreshing? Frequently our answers fell short, but regardless of rank we all had the licence to ask and to answer. We knew intuitively what was and was not an Orange thing to do. The question forced us to imagine anew so many of the things that older, more ossified organisations tended to do unthinkingly.

Recently I’ve had conversations with several senior managers about their organisations’ nascent experiences with service design and design thinking. They’ve seen promising pilots and pockets of success around individual projects. In  these pockets, staff have been more engaged than ever before, formed new more collaborative relationships with groups of customers, and come up with new solutions to previously intractable problems. But what worries the bosses, they tell me, is how this stuff will scale.

I’m coming round to the view that many of the most effective solutions should never scale – because the moment we start prescribing policies and freezing repeatable business processes, we limit the capacity of those involved to add the human value that comes from being, well, people-centred in the first place.

We’ve trusted our alpha users and pilot project staff to think on their feet, to question everything, to learn by doing. Why wouldn’t we extend the same trust to all users, all service workers? Just think how many more, even better things all the other teams will be able to achieve when they’re given the same critical tools and permission to be curious.

In my experience, there’s much truth in the Hawthorne Effect:

The term was coined in 1950 by Henry A. Landsberger when analysing earlier experiments from 1924–32 at the Hawthorne Works (a Western Electric factory outside Chicago). The Hawthorne Works had commissioned a study to see if their workers would become more productive in higher or lower levels of light. The workers’ productivity seemed to improve when changes were made, and slumped when the study ended. It was suggested that the productivity gain occurred as a result of the motivational effect on the workers of the interest being shown in them.

It’s time we came to accept the Hawthorne Effect as a feature, not a bug in the social scientific method.

Solutions don’t scale, questions do. The trick is in inculcating the right questions.

I’ve been making an inventory of the powerful questions that form the bricolage of my service design practice:

My advice to leaders of organisations in early stage service design adoption: worry less about making the results of your pilots repeatable, and more about making those questions second nature. More people, asking more of those questions more often than before. That’s when we’ll know we’re really scaling up.

“I’m sorry, but we are a big company” – a fragment about scale

Recently I’ve been thinking a lot about scale…

Trello blog post backlog

… but I struggle to get it all out as a single coherent narrative…

… so instead I want to tell a short story. It goes like this…

In order to supply my services to a large public organisation, I find my little company as a sub-sub-contractor in a Byzantine procurement framework. Anyone who believes the dogma that the private sector is inherently more efficient than public enterprise need only look at the outsourcing giants that squat in this space for empirical evidence that it is just as often the exact opposite.

A few weeks into my new contract, it becomes clear that the bureaucracy is incapable of paying the correct amount for work done. They ignore my suggestion that their timesheet system is treating half days as whole ones – until months later I get an email out of the blue from an administrator whose sole role in life is to recover erroneous overpayments (Note to managers: if your Exchange server has an email inbox called something like “”, that’s a clue that you have a problem with failure demand).

The overpayments administrator and I become allies. We exchange spreadsheets back and forth until we have reconciled all the discrepancies. In a final twist, she reveals that to straighten things out, they have to knowingly overpay my company even more money, which I must then return to them.

And that’s when the overpayments administrator speaks the words that should strike fear into every “C-suite” executive (because let’s face it, executives, if your organisation is big enough to have a “C-suite” then it’s big enough to have this problem).

“I’m sorry about this, but we are a big company.”

And I wonder. When exactly did “big company” stop being a byword for trust and solidity, and become sufficient excuse – no further explanation required – for systematic, terminal ineptitude?

Up the school! Or, a passive-aggressive letter to the headteacher on the occasion of the unveiling of a new logo

school logo on inside of jumper

Dear headteacher,

Welcome to your new role! As a parent of two children at the school with another still in primary school, I’m delighted to see your commitment to making ours an outstanding school in line with your new motto and values.

The problem is the new logo.

In the course of my annual visits to Jo Brand Plus of Harehills Lane (where I am always welcomed like an old friend) I have made a study of the state of the art in school insignia design. In this there appear to be three basic genres:

  • The first, preferred by primary schools, is the “Earth Child” trope: brightly coloured trees, linked hands, happy blob children or some combination thereof.
  • The second is the “Modernist Corporate” style, in the spirit of the late Paul Rand’s IBM, FedEx and Enron identities. The school’s current logo falls into this category. Here a thoughtful designer has considered the ascenders and descenders of the school name in lowercase, along with the relative lengths of the words to create a tightly locked up wordmark. It’s a little weak but is done with integrity.
  • The third – and by far the hardest genre to execute successfully – is the “Heraldic Achievement”. Some schools have this ready-made in the form of a local family coat of arms, or, if a church school, the crest of their sponsoring religious establishment. A few manage to combine local insignia and scholastic symbols – books, quills, etc. – to make their own convincing heraldic combinations.

The thought process that leads a school like ours to the Heraldic Achievement is easy to imagine. We inhabit an old country where aristocratic deference has deep roots. What better way for a mid-century secondary modern to announce its arrival at the top table of outstanding schools than to put on the clothes of elite institutions that pre-date it by centuries?

To achieve the desired effect, the heraldic design has to play by the rules. As the aspirant newcomer here, you do not make these rules. They are determined by the holders of archaic positions such as “Maltravers Herald Extraordinary” and “Rouge Dragon Pursuivant”. I Am Not Making These Up.

Our school’s new logo makes a brave start. A blue field with a white Yorkshire rose feels genuine, if a little generic. It could apply equally to hundreds of other schools in the county. Except that the rose used is the East Riding version, which has a sepal pointing upwards. Traditionally here in the West Riding the rose is the other way up with a petal at the top. Who knew? I do now because I have taken the trouble to Google for this important detail.

The credibility rating starts to go rapidly downhill when we add the motto to the shield. Heraldically, this should be on a scroll below the escutcheon, not plastered straight onto the field. Not only is this distinctly unheraldic, it is also ham-fistedly done. The geometric sans font worked well within the Modernist Corporate style but has no place in the traditional genre that this logo attempts to emulate. Then there’s the distribution of the words in a semicircle above the rose. Because “Aspire” is a shorter word than “Succeed” the whole arc ends up being lopsided. I fear I shall look at this and cringe every time I send my children off to school.

Finally, the name of the school perched like a black granite tombstone at the top of the shield adds nothing to the ensemble. The way the word “School” is orphaned on a line of its own raises the question of why it was needed in the first place. In many uses of the logo this wording will be redundant or duplicative, and its overall effect is to make the whole thing thoroughly pedestrian. This is such a missed opportunity to add a distinctive charge to the black band. Rouge Dragon Pursuivant would call this band a “chief”. It is commonly used to make a coat of arms unique – but never simply by slapping the name of the holder on as text.

All these points may in themselves appear to be nit-picking. But cumulatively they make our school’s new logo the exact opposite of its ethos. A school on course to being outstanding would have the creative sure-footedness and intellectual curiosity to get these details right. It would know from its careers department that design is a job, done with skill and care, with users engaged, contexts considered and alternatives sweated over.

How can the situation be saved? We could stick with the Modernist Corporate approach. The current design could be improved on but has a clarity and originality that is lacking in the new logo. We could even hark back to the noble spirit of the school’s foundation in the 1950s. The award-winning GOV.UK website, for example, successfully marries the genuine heraldic device of the Crown with the clarity of Margaret Calvert and Jock Kinnear’s road sign typography from that era.

But if you are determined to head the kind of school that has a coat of arms, I plead with you to do it properly. I myself attended a 450-year-old school that took its heraldic identity from a founder with a walk-on role in Wolf Hall. There I got to know the attitudes that still pervade the institutions your highest-achieving students must navigate if they are to realise their full potential.

Please ask yourself how our sons and daughters will be received when they arrive at the doors of an Oxford or Cambridge college that has a grant of arms from around the time of Magna Carta. Will they be taken seriously? Or will the new “aspirational” logo elicit a silent sneer? This should not matter but it does. The elite networks of this country are tilted against some of your students enough already. The last thing they need is for an unthinking act of cargo cult design to subtly undermine their life chances even further.


Matt Edgar


Eagle eyed readers have pointed out that I have published a 1000-word tirade without showing you the actual logo. This is mainly to protect the innocent. You can get a glimpse in this video of my lightning talk at Bettakultcha…