On wellbeing in a smart city: when I hear the word dashboard…

On Friday, a group of us spent a couple of hours chewing over the question of wellbeing; specifically wellbeing in a smart city; more specifically still wellbeing in a smart city that happens to be coterminous with the Metropolitan Borough of Leeds.

We were talking about this stuff thanks to Tim Straughan and the “Smart Cities – Health and Wellbeing Leeds Task and Finish Group” whose draft report bears a lofty ambition to (deep breath!)…

make every asset count, remove certain existing legal barriers and commercial obstacles and develop new financially sustainable business models using a range of possible new institutions engaging a workforce with enhanced skills and empower our citizens and work with our local communities to deliver a shared goals.

Let’s not go into the overall definition of a smart city. I take it as read that most of us prefer some messy, inclusive, people-centred flavour, over the proprietary techno-utopias pushed by naïve systems integrator business development teams.

Let’s also not dwell here on the health side of the report, which if anything is too dominant. Jon Beech made a shrewd point about the root causes of frustration with our fragmented health service – and questioned whether more data, better understood and shared, would really address them.

Some fantastic wellbeing ideas came up in our discussion, especially the little oddball things that nevertheless speak of bigger integration challenges – special hat tip to Paul Simkins, what if a GP really could prescribe her patient a tree?

But the session wasn’t easy. As a Brackenist, I found the level of abstraction in the published draft report frustrating. Some of the solutions it contained didn’t seem very well adapted to the questions that were posed.

My hunch, expounded below, is that the response should be made of lots of small, practical experiments, plus a set of qualities, habits and behaviours that would make our city emergently smart. There are no dirigiste, politician-pleasing big ticket prizes to be won on this stall.

I felt we edged forwards, and afterwards I jotted down some thoughts in a personal manifesto. I numbered the points. It goes up to 11.

Manifesto for wellbeing in our smart city

1. Wellbeing is subjective. There is some fascinating work among statisticians in this area but the actual definitions remain more art than science. In the words of National Statistician Jil Matheson, “We must measure what matters – the key elements of national well-being. We want to develop measures based on what people tell us matters most.”

2. Wellbeing is socially constructed. It cannot be sustained in solitude. When two people meet, the first question is invariably “How are you?” More often than not, the answer comes, “I’m fine.” And yet both parties are acutely tuned to minute delays and inflections to know when “I’m fine” does not mean “I’m fine.” Cities – consciously smart or not – are settings where wellbeing is co-created every day.

3. Wellbeing is a moving target. It weaves in and out of work, play, learning and health. It tumbles up and down Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. It follows economic cycles and the fortunes of football teams. Wellbeing is a complex system. As W. Edwards Deming revealed, you cannot optimise a system merely by optimising its individual parts. We need a holistic view, but…

4. The word “holistic” begs the question of unit. A whole nation? A whole city region? A whole neighbourhood? A whole family? A whole person? A whole lifetime? A whole lunch-hour? I’m inclined to think we should start with individuals here and now, then work our way outwards, not the other way around.

5. A smart city would broaden its options. Its people would think beyond obvious wellbeing measures and narratives. It would draw in a larger number of actors and create more spaces for them to try new things. The high degree of uncertainty demands collective thinking and action research to better understand the territory.

6. Dashboards don’t do this. In fact they’re a design pattern for narrowing options down. In a car this is great – literally a lifesaver. We know where we’re going and need just a few well-understood metrics – miles per hour, revolutions per minute – to be sure things are working as they should. More than this would be a distraction, and most of the time we want to keep our eyes on the road, not on the dashboard.

7. An asset map is a much better metaphor. On a map, new information can be plotted. Multiple destinations and routes can be considered. There’s a big difference between a map and a dashboard. An asset map would increase the number of actors – so long as it could reach out beyond the usual suspects. The conversations inherent in creating the map would themselves change the territory.

8. New institutions are no sort of solution (though they may be an outcome). Organisational boundaries are what got us into this mess in the first place! If they constrain new approaches, we should set people free to do their best work regardless. New institutions may later emerge, to formalise working practises developed by empowered people. But creating new institutions to make up for the failings of old ones would be putting the cart before the horse.

9. Let’s take a user centred, agile approach. Let’s start with needs* (* – user needs, not government needs!). User needs for wellbeing will be many and varied. Some will be in conflict with others. If they’re not, we’re doing it wrong. Create a multi-disciplinary team (not a steering committee). Give them time and space. Let them try some things. Tell everyone. Iterate wildly.

10. If this is our devolution moment, we are woefully under-prepared. But that’s OK. Taking control of your destiny is not something for which one can plan a great deal. We’ll just have to do it, feel the weight of responsibility, fail fast, raise our game, start to improve. We can’t do much worse that the vacuum of ideas we’re replacing.

11. Cut us some slack. Learning to be a smart city demands that we put diversity ahead of efficiency. People can’t learn unless they can take some risks. There has to be slack in the system. Without that, the stakes will be too high for the iterative process that leads to new learning. One day we may get to a dashboard, but first we need to make the map.

Real work only begins when we break out of our bubble

David Vetter's space suit - Wikimedia Commons

“Boy in the bubble” David Vetter passed his life in a sterile enclosure breathing purified air and touched only with plastic gloves. While his parents and doctors attempted to make his life as normal as possible, they lived in fear of the tiniest exposure to common impurities and infections. He died aged 12 in 1984, after a bone marrow transplant given in the hope of building up his immune system.

Most of us can be thankful that we don’t live with a severe combined immunodeficiency like David’s, a condition so rare that his life inspired a John Travolta movie.

Peggy Noonan later brought the image into political parlance when she spoke about Ronald Reagan’s isolation in the White House…

“Do you ever feel like the boy in the bubble?” Ms. Noonan asked.

“Who was that?” Mr. Reagan replied.

“The boy who had no immune system,” said his speech writer, “so he had to live in a plastic bubble where he could see everyone and they could see him, but there was something between him and the people, the plastic. He couldn’t touch them.”

“Well, no,” Mr. Reagan said.

Then he thought it over: “No, but there are times when you stand upstairs and look out at Pennsylvania Avenue and see the people there walking by. And if I wanted to run out and get a newspaper or magazine, or just to walk down to the park and back . . . you miss that, of course.”

– William Safire, ‘ON LANGUAGE; The Man in the Big White Jail’

In medicine and politics, we pity people with this condition. Why then do we so often go to work as if in a bubble ourselves, cut off from human contact with users and the people who deliver everyday service?

  • Days and weeks of work are put into consultation documents, leaving only a narrow window for citizen feedback on a limited range of pre-defined questions.
  • Executives employ management consultancies to spend months putting together process models and business cases unchecked by exposure to the realities up on the shop floor.
  • Some organisations become so afraid of their customers that unmediated face-to-face engagement with the public requires a risk assessment, as if it were primarily a health and safety issue.

Let’s call this mode of operation “bubble work”. Like failure demand it’s a major source of waste and poor service in our society.

Bubble work is a waste of our own time. We think we’re being clever, applying our past experience, creating a good framework for activity. But until our guesses meet the real world, that’s all they are, guesses – when we can so easily go and find out for sure.

Bubble work is a waste of other people’s time. Every time we create a “straw man” or a “starter for 10″ we shuffle the burden of understanding onto other people, who are then obliged to unpick our web of assumptions before they can share their own realities.

Bubble work depresses quality. The more we elaborate and decompose our untested reckons, the more they crowd out the new ideas and innovation that we would discover from interacting with users and frontline workers. As designer Mike Laurie says, untested ideas are excess inventory.

Bubble work comes back to bite us. It can only ever defer the moment at which our cherished ideas meet the messy complexity of the real world. But the encounter is all the more painful when it comes. Not only are we more invested in the bubble work, we have less time to deal with the consequences.

I know all these things because over the years, I have lost months of valuable project time to bubble work. I have made complex multi-year business cases built on the tottering edifices of “expert” assumptions. I once worked on a project so super-sensitive that we were forbidden by lawyers from researching it with potential customers. Neither of those things worked out well.

We see this damaging pattern equally in the private and public sectors, and while it’s often a big organisation malaise, so-called “stealth start-ups” can easily fall victim to the same fallacies. The world is awash with bubble work, and it has to stop.

Here’s how…

Every time we’re tasked with a new mission, let’s start the clock. Let’s see how fast we can get to users. At Leeds GovJam every team achieved this within 24 hours. They surprised themselves by drawing up questions and making prototypes to get meaningful insights from people on the street – and came back with their ideas re-shaped by potential users.

While working even briefly in the bubble, let’s be single-minded about bursting it. We should stamp all our assumptions as such, and always be thinking of ways to test them with actual users. Every statement we write at this point is a hypothesis to be accompanied by the questions we’ll ask to check whether it’s true.

When we spot others doing bubble work, we must call them out. Let’s ask how they know what they know, when they last spoke to users, and what took them by surprise. If their answers are unconvincing, we should not be enablers. We should spend not a moment more of our days engaged with their assumptions.

Doing these things may feel like a risk. It may feel like we’re slowing things down, but the payoff later will be consistency of pace. It may feel like we’re undervaluing our experience, but the reward comes when we keep on learning and deepening our expertise in an ever-changing world.

We are not David Vetter; we are not Ronald Reagan. Getting out of the building has never been easier. It’s time for zero tolerance of bubble work.

Get out of the building

Sink or swim: a short story about failure demand and first world problems

swimming lesson direct debit terms

My local council wants me to set up a direct debit to pay for my children’s weekly swimming lessons.

When I arrive at the leisure centre one Saturday morning, I’m handed a paper form asking for bank details, plus the names and details of my children.

Paying by direct debit sounds like a good idea to me, and I’m happy to sort it out there and then. So I start to fill out the form.

But there’s a problem: I have 3 children, and the form only has spaces to list 2 of them. I go back to the reception desk and ask what to do.

This is failure demand, a concept defined by systems thinker John Seddon as ‘demand caused by a failure to do something or do something right for the customer’.

The leisure centre worker hands me a second copy of the same form and asks me to write the youngest child’s details on it. I do this and hand both forms back to reception.

Time passes.

Several weeks later I receive 2 identical letters, in separate envelopes, reminding me that the council is moving to direct debit and advising me that I need to fill in a form.

It’s not clear if this letter is a standard one being sent to all parents, or a specific chase-up for forms they haven’t got.

The next time I’m in the leisure centre I ask about the letters.

This is failure demand, so endemic in big organisations that we give it hardly a moment’s thought.

The worker at reception says I can ignore the letters. If I’ve handed in the forms they will be in “the system” – a nebulous and unseen edifice in which she and I must both place our trust.

Time passes.

I receive a third letter (this one addressed directly to my youngest child, who is 8) advising us that he will lose his place at swimming unless they receive a direct debit mandate.

Now he’s concerned that he won’t be able to go swimming any more. He likes swimming.

I’m also worried that the council may have lost a bit of paper containing the full names and details of my 3 children, along with my bank sort code and account number.

I email the leisure centre.

This is failure demand, and as citizens, consumers and workers, we shouldn’t put up with it any longer.

The leisure centre manager replies swiftly and comprehensively to my email, copying in several colleagues.

My youngest child is added to the direct debit details on the council system. The threat of being thrown off the learn to swim programme is lifted.

Life goes on.

Does this story read like a first world problem? It should do. In the USA, 3 out of every 4 jobs are now in the service industries. It’s nearly 4 out of 5 in the UK. With manufacturing outsourced to China and the developing world, the nations of the Global North have just one job – and we’re doing it terribly.

It’s time to turn our moaning about specific incidents into a movement to deal with the general causes of failure demand.

Delivering service is hard. It takes an orchestra of diverse talents to play the right notes at exactly the right moments – and to improvise each performance around widely varying users and contexts.

Service design has tools and techniques to make this process easier and better, if only more people knew to use them.

  • Did the person who designed that direct debit form wonder how it might work for users, for families like mine, the 1 in 7 with 3 or more dependent children?
  • Did they consider the form’s role in the wider service, it’s interaction with frontline workers on the sports centre reception desk?
  • Did they even realise that what they were doing was design?

Seeing over the next hill – a service design pattern

Over the years I’ve worked with digital services in different spaces, from sports performance to house buying to students on campus and training in the workplace. And there’s this one picture that resurfaces in service after service. I need to get it out of my head and into the world, where I hope others will help me develop it further.

image

It’s a picture of a pattern that goes something like this:

Seeing over the next hill

We meet much of the most valuable service when facing a change or challenge for the first time. But unless we know what to expect, it’s hard for us to make decisions in our best interests, or to trust others seeking to support us.

Sometimes the change is related to a life-stage – choosing a school or college, having a baby, retiring from work. Sometimes it’s simply something we may only do a few times in a lifetime – buying a car or home, opening a bank account or reporting a crime.

On one side, the person at the centre of these events has lots to think about, many (possibly conflicting) choices, short and long-term implications to consider.

On the other, the people delivering service are likely to see and do the same things time and time again. Their experience is valuable, but can easily give rise to jargon and preconceptions that obstruct communication and empathy with first-time users. Often the first step to improving service is to recognise and reduce this asymmetry of understanding.

Deliver service so that people can always see over the next hill, so they know what to expect, what good looks like, and who they can trust to help them along the journey. Specifically:

  • Cultivate empathy among people who deliver and design service day in day out. Find ways for them to see the service through the fresh eyes of a first-time user as frequently as possible.
  • Put first-time user personas at the centre of your work. Ask yourself what will shape their expectations and how might those differ from the way insiders perceive the service?
  • Test your service with people who have never seen it before. Over and over again. They can’t unsee what they’ve seen so it has to be new participants every time.
  • Follow up with service users before, during and after their experiences. See how their needs, wants and behaviours change as they go through their journey.
  • Record real-life experiences to share with future users. It’s much more compelling to hear from someone like you who has been there before.

As with all the reckons I post to this blog, I’d love to know what you think. Have you seen this pattern too? Who handles it well? What else could we do with it? Or am I making a mountain out of a molehill?

This more than that

Artefact cards

Inspired by Roo Reynolds’ post about technologies to focus on, I’ve been raiding my box of “things I mean to blog about some time” to work out what my own list would be. Less technology here, more attitudes to getting stuff done.

You know the deal – while I value the things on the right, I value the ones of the left more…

  • Service (singular) more than products (plural)
  • The minimum viable more than the grand projet
  • Humble historicism more than accelerationist exceptionalism
  • Execution more than ideation
  • Continuous improvement more than hit-and-run projects
  • Launching more than landing
  • Reflective iteration more than flashes of inspiration
  • Small stories more than big data
  • Variability more than scalability
  • Flood plains more than waterfalls
  • Agile more than PRINCE2
  • Opex more than capex
  • Teams more than resources
  • The training budget more than the R&D budget
  • The stationery cupboard more than the Intranet

What should I expand on? What did I miss?

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.