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…

Technology enables variation

Technology enables variation

HT to Emma Bearman for tweeting me this Imperica article on Cedric Price.

It’s so important to see change as a thing people demand of technology, not, as often framed, the other way round.

“Technology enables variation” – that’s basically what I meant in appropriating John Ruskin’s term “changeful.”

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.

Facts Not Opinions – a talk at Bettakultcha’s ‘Importance of Failure’

On the evening of Sunday 28 December 1879, a newly built bridge over the River Tay collapsed as a train passed over it in a storm. All 70 passengers perished. William Topaz McGonagall commemorated the disaster in possibly the most comical poem ever earnestly composed. And ironwork recovered from the river estuary was sent for testing on an extraordinary machine made in Leeds.

Leeds made many machines – machines for spinning and weaving, machines for moving and hauling, machines for making other machines. This one, however, was made for learning. Learning the way a toddler does. Learning by breaking things.

Meet its creator, David Kirkaldy. In the 1861 Census we find him in Glasgow where he gave his occupation as “mechanical engineer and artist.” Are there any artists in the house? Any engineers? Anyone who is both an engineer and an artist?

For 18 years Kirkaldy rose through the ranks of Napier’s engineering works, where his specialism was testing. He tested the stuff used in ships and high-pressure boilers, big bits of metal. You would not wish to be near them when they failed. He learned a lot about these materials,and how they stood up under massive stresses and strains.

Finally he left his job to construct a patented machine of his own design – the Universal Testing Machine.

Some rights reserved by IanVisits

The machine is massive – 14.5 metres long, 116 tons, capable of testing columns and girders from buildings and bridges. It can pull, thrust, bend, twist, shear, punch and bulge iron beams to breaking point. And critically, it records just how much hydraulic pressure each takes before the point of failure.

David Kirkaldy signed a deal with Greenwood and Batley of Leeds, to make the machine at their Albion Foundry in Armley. He was not an easy customer. He spent 272 days here to supervise every stage of the construction personally.

Progress was slow and Kirkakdy lost patience. He was paying for time and materials out of his own pocket. Eventually he had the unfinished machine sent by rail to London, where it was installed on reinforced foundations a block in from the south bank of the Thames on Southwark Street.

The machine was the centrepiece of the world’s first independent commercial testing service. It tested materials for the new Blackfriars Bridge, for steamships from Germany, and for guns from Belgium.

After the Tay Bridge disaster,  David Kirkaldy tested iron rods and columns to pinpoint where they had failed so that no engineer need make the same mistake again.

Above the door of his Testing and Experimenting Works, he had his motto carved in stone: Facts Not Opinions. Any data geeks here tonight? 99 Southwark Street should be a site of pilgrimage for you.

Some rights reserved by Lars Plougmann

He displayed the broken materials on the upper levels of the building, in what became known as the Museum of Fractures. By the 1920s the collection was so heavy that it threatened to fall through the floors and was gradually sold off for scrap.

The machine and the business passed to his son, his son’s widow and eventually his grandson. Three generations and two world wars. Come the 1950s they were testing wreckage from a crashed Comet jet airliner and parts for the Festival of Britain Skylon.

And how’s this for showing the courage of your convictions? In 99 years, the Kirkaldys never incorporated as a limited company. As sole proprietors, they retained unlimited, personal liability if they, or their workers, were ever found to be negligent.

They finally sold to a larger testing company, and the works closed for business in 1974. But the story of the machine made in Leeds goes on. It became the first machine ever to be listed as integral part of the building in which it stood.

Now volunteers run the works as the Kirkaldy Testing Museum. One Sunday a month they will bend, stretch and snap stuff for your entertainment and edification. This coming weekend is one of those Sundays. You should go.

It’s a beautiful, atmospheric museum still dominated by the spirit of David Kirkaldy and the smell of Victorian engineering. I urge you to visit soon because commercial pressures mean that the museum’s future is uncertain.

I really hope it survives because there is no better place to learn the importance of failure than the Kirkaldy Testing Museum.

Andrew Thompson made this lovely video of artist James Capper’s work in progress (i.e. breaking) at the museum. Thanks for permission to show clips of the video during my talk. You can watch the director’s cut here:

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.

The definite article, or lines written on the opening of a former brewery headquarters as contemporary art gallery

These past few years have been tough on Tetley’s disembodied headquarters.

First came the loss of the purpose for which it was built in the depths of 1930s depression – a human-scale head office for a family firm. The directors’ boardroom was relegated to an outpost of the Carlsberg empire. Lutheran rectitude became the order of the day in the by-all-accounts once riotous in-house bar.

In time the booze stopped flowing altogether. They closed the brewery and levelled the surrounding buildings, which had cosseted the headquarters from the elements and perfumed it with their distinctive whiff. Whether you loved or loathed it, South Leeds will never smell the same again.

Standing alone, lacking a flashy boom-time facade, the headquarters building was denied heritage status by English Heritage on myopic grounds, apparently based only on photographs:

“Technological innovation and machinery: it has no special interest in terms of technological innovation or machinery.

Wider industrial context, regional factors and an integrated site: these are linked and can be dealt with together. While the brewing industry was of importance in Yorkshire, and Tetley’s a major brewer, the region was not pre-eminent nationally. More significantly, the headquarters building is a small part of a much larger complex, and one that has already been judged not to be of special interest in a national context and not recommended for designation. In terms of industrial process, those parts of the site that were involved in the physical brewing would potentially have been of greater interest than the offices.

Architectural interest: the building is, as the applicants suggest, solid 1930s. The same architects were responsible for some of the buildings on the north side of Eastgate in Leeds, and there are similarities in both materials and style. The Eastgate buildings were based on designs earlier drawn up by Sir Reginald Blomfield and were already rather old-fashioned by the time they were executed. The surviving original internal features are attractive but not unusual, with the possible exception of the lift which has good contemporary styling including sun-burst motif decoration.”

Thus did the protectors of our heritage abandon a Leeds landmark, distinctive rooftop lettering and all. They left its fate to the whim of the self-same cold-blooded multi-national executives who had just ended 189 years of mass-scale brewing in our city. They might as well have ground every last brick to dust for a few more £3 a day parking bays.

But then it turned out those Danes had a soft side. They had been here before, as it were, with Carlsberg’s own factory turned cultural quarter on the edge of Copenhagen. Tetley’s headquarters had the fortune to fall into the hands of the persuasive, entrepreneurial artists who created and ran Project Space Leeds. Doubly lucky, this happened just as the impetus ran out on pointless, statement regeneration, new-build modernism. The artists could see things the bean counters and bureaucrats had missed.

That this building still stands, with much of its relatively understated interior intact, is testament to the place’s quiet strength of character, born of a solid sense of purpose and multi-generational commitment to the business. Despite all the indignities, it demanded a future as well as a past. That future begins today as The Tetley.

The Tetley. #thetetley. Roll that around for a bit and savour the de rigeur hashtag. For the first time in its four score years this place bears the mark of a lone survivor: its own definite article.

PSL and their architects have taken advantage of the site’s unlisted status to insert a massive new wall down the middle of the building. But they have also done the hard and unglamorous work required to open up the internal stairwell and the lift that even English Heritage had to grudgingly admit showed some merit. They have cleaned the place up, but not too much.

Stairwell and lift

At a bloggers’ preview last week I was heartened to hear director Pippa Hale talk about the way artists would be encouraged to engage with all the building’s rich heritage. The Joshua Tetley Association of former staff have been consulted and involved. Items left behind by the departing workforce will be incorporated into works of art. Among the most striking of these, giant letters from a lost rooftop lie scattered across a panelled former office.

Tetley interior with letters

There will be interventions outside The Tetley too. Mass industrialisation rendered the edges of many English cities impermeable. Gigantic works and goods yards cut off ancient rights of way. They enclosed the pre-industrial public realm and made new secret spaces that were only open to employees, and the occasional cheeky interloper. We post-industrials have a chance to reclaim that commons. The old Hunslet Lane – severed for years by Tetley’s security barriers – will re-open to pedestrians, with a little pocket of grass and promises of a bigger South Leeds park to come.

All of which will soon go to show just how wrong-headed it has been to evaluate industrial heritage like The Tetley in terms of machinery, manufacturing and stylistic merit. Like the chain of pubs administered from its offices, The Tetley was always a social place. I can’t wait to see those social qualities revived by the PSL crew and the artists they commission to work there.

Keep the campfire burning: a thread of whimsy from Baden-Powell to Berners-Lee

Cubs badges

As a child I hated Cubs. All that running around and shouting, the church parades, and camping on a damp field at the edge of Danbury Common.

But in a twist of fate I find myself parent to three boys far more enthusiastic than I ever was; my oldest recently got a badge marking seven years – more than half his lifetime – as a Beaver, Cub or Scout.

That’s seven years of walking him to and from the weekly meetings in the school hall, driving to the scout hut down dark country lanes, dropping off and picking up at obscure Dales campsites that satnav passed by. If the youngest one follows in his muddy footsteps I’ll be doing the same for the next seven years as well.

I remain both surprised and grateful that there are grown-ups who volunteer to take my children camping so I don’t have to.

And just recently I’ve come to wonder at the infrastructure that has grown up around the scouting movement in the 106 years since Robert Baden-Powell ran his first experimental camp at Brownsea Island, Dorset.

Within an hour’s drive of our home there are dozens of scout sites tucked away in valleys, down farm tracks, one on an unpromising gap between a canal and a railway line. The Wakefield District even has its own canal boat.

Then there’s the knowledge and social capital. My boys are fourth-generation scouts – at least four of their eight great-grandparents were active in the movement. Yet their campfires, penknives, funny handshake and woggles would be instantly recognisable to scouts who bob-a-jobbed in last Great Depression.

I like to think that our digital culture will develop like this.

When I reflect on its future, I’m not that interested in whether we’ll experience life through screens, or glasses or holograms or deep brain implants, or whatever. The scout hut now has flushing toilets, not a hole in the ground, but the boys would still pee against a tree if you let them.

What matters to me as a second-generation geek is the culture and shared set of values that emerges in a movement over multiple lifetimes.

I relish the thought of heritage servers and listed fibre optic cables.

How brilliant would it feel to comment on a 50-year-old Basecamp, or push to a 100-year-old Github repository?

Imagine watching the accelerated sights of a webcam that has lain forgotten on someone’s window sill for a century or more. Or sifting through an heirloom dataset.

How will the do-ocracies that power hackspaces and open source projects manage the passing of batons from generation to generation?

Will the elders entreat sceptical youths to eschew the home comforts of AI-generated code for the delights of hand-whittled trinkets in Python?

In 2093, will our great-grandchildren gather to mark 100 years since the first experimental website was put up by Tim Berners-Lee (like Baden-Powell a knight of Britain’s exclusive Order of Merit)? What greetings will they use? What songs will sing?

And how will the network bear the scars of countries that have come to blows, made peace and repaired the damage, as have many of the nations in the worldwide community of scouts?

I picture a world much more complex than ours, more resilient too, yet in some ways instantly recognisable.

The example of scouting makes me optimistic about the decades to come – not because of the things we’ll invent between now and then, but because of the experiences we’ll share; because the future will have more history behind it.

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