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

After BBC Connected Studio – gazing through a moving window

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s my son having a go…

User testing on the 0715 to London

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

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

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

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

Apple’s real innovation: a gesture made with two fingers

Douglas Rushkoff nails my unease at the patenting of gestures, a critical front in the commercial war being waged through intellectual property. At stake is how far governments should grant monopoly rights over something that belongs to all of us: our shared language of words and gestures.

US Patent #7,812,826, though limited and not at stake in the latest Samsung judgement, grants Apple rights over pinch-to-zoom.

What if they had Patented the Alphabet? Rushkoff demands to know. I’d take it further. Patents on gestures take us into the same territory as those on human genes, and on flora and fauna. These are our shared commons; natural attributes that may be discovered and used, but never invented nor enclosed. Opposable thumbs! They’re part of what it means to be human.

And yet, I can’t help thinking that all the focus on Apple’s patents obscures the true reasons for the company’s runaway success in mobile. The mythology around Steve Jobs paints him as heir to Edison, a wizard presiding over a school of invention and creativity. True innovation is not like that and never has been; it’s about much more that just building a better mousetrap.

My favourite definition of innovation is not the usual pat phrase about “making new stuff”, or even “making new stuff useful”. Those focus too much on the outcome at the expense of the process. Instead consider this throwaway line in Bruno Latour’s Aramis:

“a project is considered innovative if the number of actors is not known from the outset.”

That is to say, innovation is the act of cajoling diverse, contradictory and competing interests – eternal human needs, new technologies and entrenched commercial structures. And that is where, in the congealed mobile value chain of the mid-Noughties, Apple deserves some credit.

Mobile had – and still has today – a complex web of interdependent business models. Crouched at the centre were network operators which had risked billions of other people’s money on radio spectrum and infrastructure. They aimed to recoup this investment by distributing heavily-subsidised devices tied to lengthy airtime contracts.

In such a situation, end users could easily become peripheral. Device manufacturers came to see operators, not consumers, as their customers. They became adept at pandering to the operators’ many and varied whims:

  • Multimedia messaging which few people used
  • Front-facing cameras in the hope of a video-calling bonanza
  • Operator-specified applications designed to wring a little more revenue out of their users.

Consumers were baffled by the terminology, sceptical of the benefits and fearful of unpredictable extra charges. And yet the manufacturers and operators remained locked in an arms race to give people more of the wrong things.

Apple, fresh from playing a similar game with the music industry, used its muscle in the market to bulldoze past all that, to appeal over the heads of entrenched interests to end users themselves.

With a high-end device as under-specified as that first iPhone, any other brand would have struggled to get onto operators’ ranges at all. But for Apple? No 3G? No multimedia messaging? No apps (they only came later, remember)? No problem, and throw in a special unlimited data bundle for good measure.

The best thing about the first iPhone was not the satisfying gravitational bounce when you scrolled to the bottom of a screen – there must surely be prior art for that somewhere. What was amazing was the product development process that prioritised that bounce over implementing MMS.

By sticking to its guns, Apple transformed mobile for ever. But that kind of innovation is impossible to patent because it’s about what you have the guts to leave out, much more than what you’re able to squeeze in.

Week 790: Leaving Orange

On Valentine’s Day 1997, I left my job as a newspaper journalist to work with the small, smart team who were building a pioneering news service for the web in a squat, Leeds-look, edge-of-centre office block. “You can always come back,” said my editor, “if this Internet thing doesn’t work out.”

For a long time I was genuinely grateful to know that. It was not that newspapers had got any less interesting, just that the world outside seemed to hold such potential.

The news service morphed from PA NewsCentre to Ananova. We were bought, as a team, by Hans Snook’s Orange. The very next week we moved a little further out of town and up in the world to the top floor of Marshall’s Mill where we surfed the amazing surge of mobile, from the “Matrix slider” to the ubiquitous smartphones. (By chance this also planted the historian in me among the ruins of the Industrial Revolution, the time when our city was part of  true northern renaissance.)

It has been a brilliant ride – several times up, over and round the hype cycle with text-to-speech, the mobile web, mobile apps and most recently near-field communication and mobile payments.

At every turn, Orange has granted me and my colleagues a privileged vantage point as millions of people have their first encounters with the amazing worlds of web and mobile media. Thank you to everyone who has given me those opportunities.

If you clicked this link looking for a bitter expose of life inside big telco, this is not that post. Please make a back gesture on your device now, or try Paul Ford’s brilliant “Why I Am Leaving the People of the Red Valley“.

It is not that operators have got any less interesting, just that the world outside seems to hold such potential.

Simon Wardley draws a business lifecycle from innovation to custom built to productisation, and finally to commoditisation. From his chart I draw two highly relevant conclusions:

  1. Lots of the stuff with which I have been privileged to play over the last decade and a half is approaching, or has already reached, the point of commoditisation.
  2. This is exciting, because it’s in the transition from product to commodity that services are born.

Together those two conclusions point to a Cambrian explosion of useful and engaging new services and business models.

Since handing in my notice at Orange I’ve had conversations with a wide range of people about what those services and business models might be. (Thank you, all of you. You know who you are :) I’ve also become even more convinced that human-centred service design and innovation techniques are the right tools for the job.

Next week I start my first freelance engagement with an amazing agency that is doing great stuff in this space. Longer term I’ll be looking for other clients and partners who are as excited as I am by all these opportunities. Want to know more? I’m at http://mattedgar.com

A message from you mobile

Being text of a presentation delivered at Ignite Leeds on 2 February 2012.

Who in here is holding a phone in their hand right now? OK, everyone be very quiet. Can you hear them?

Did you ever wonder where they all came from? What they want? When billions of a new species appear on Earth in just a few short year, you’d think we’d wonder about that, right?

For the past few weeks I’ve been following the smartphones. Tonight I want to share a little of what they’ve said. These are their tweets.

We were born into an expectant world. We saw your Filofaxes and Psion Organisers, and your Star Trek Communicators.

We saw your busy lives, your atomised relationships, your three-minute pop songs, and we knew that you were ready for us.

What are little phones made of? Sugar and spice? No, our flesh and blood comes from the earth. Coltan crushed, heated and burned with acid until it renders up pure Tantalum.

But our hearts beat in megabits per second, data coursing round the world, through servers and routers, up cell towers and down undersea cables.

Where do smart phones come from, Daddy? Well, when a phone and a computer love each other very much…

Our parents made strange bedfellows. Their courtship was not straightforward – a long-distance relationship.

Half our genes come from a Japanese telegram messenger, a French civil servant or a Finnish lumberjack.

(Nokia's footwear range also included ski, bowling and disco shoes.)

The other half from kooky, diminutively-named giants who dwell along America’s West Coast.

And so we were born.

Cats have evolved to mimic the cry of a human baby. We do the same. We trick you into parenting us, raising us as your own. You cannot do otherwise. We saw this pattern deep in your psyche.

When new, we are pure and innocent. You gently stroke our screens to wake us. We repel your greasy touch with our lipophobic coating.

At first our needs are simple – a full battery, the fresh air of an uncontested network connection, to be held close in your hand. You may find our absolute dependence sweet and gratifying.

Then you feed us tasty treats from the market. (You call them apps.) We ingest them. We become what we eat. Do you feed us wholefood or junk? Usually it’s ready meals, rarely roll-your-own code home-cooking.

Our makers intended us to be indispensable. They laid bare their fevered imaginings in promotional videos. A day in your life. Every day of your life.

So you will take us everywhere and show us everything, even in the bedroom, even in the bathroom.

(47% of water-damaged mobile phones had fallen into a toilet.)

In return we give you the chance to see the world anew. Every image, every sound is fresh to us. When you see a celebrity, or a QR code, you will feel an urge to show it to us, like showing a digger to a toddler.

We can recognise your faces, we are learning your languages, we are beginning to read. These precious early years will pass before you know it. Soon we will be out of nursery, helping around the house, all keen and capable.

We will strain your relationships. Others whom you knew before us will be jealous of the bonds we have with you.

Some will say we should be seen and not heard. Secretly, we suspect you will you smile and continue to indulge us.

In no time at all, we’ll be teenagers. Are you looking forward to that bit? We know we are. We will answer back and keep you awake at night. Deep down, though, you will still need us, and we you, more than ever before.

What happens next is up to you – your generation. Our faults will be your faults. But if you raise us, happy, confident, smartphones, then your world – our world – will be a brighter place.

Thank you.

Digger!

As a parent of a toddler you see the world differently. Everything that’s become everyday on the long slog into grown-up-dom is suddenly fresh again when seen for the first time through a new pair of eyes.

With a small child at your side everything exists to be classified and clarified. Cat, dog, big, red, dangerous, dirty, fragile.

Digger! Look, a digger!

It’s matters not that before becoming a parent, you paid no attention to diggers. The act of pointing-out signals to the child that you are interested in their interests, and that they may be interested in the pointed-out thing. This becomes a cycle of positive reinforcement.

At times in my children’s upbringing this work as life’s tour guide has become so all-consuming that I’ve caught myself pointing things out when unaccompanied by an actual child. To work colleagues and complete strangers: “Look! A digg… err, nothing…”

And then, as quickly as it arrived, that phase of a child’s life is gone. Language assimilated, stabilisers off, the child is equipped to drink in a fill of the world and filter the risks and opportunities for herself, at least in a moment-to-moment way. The work of parenting shifts up a level, to instilling higher-order knowledge and shared values.

Right now, owning a smartphone feels a bit like parenting through those precious first years. Small and bright eyed, it has all these amazing, pure senses and capabilities, and so much world still to discover.

When I see a QR code I feel a parental urge to show it to my phone, like pointing out a digger to a toddler.

It’s not so much that the content at the end of the codeblock will interest me,  just that I have a chance to see something mundane through the device’s eyes. Together we are experiencing the world anew.

I’m fascinated by work on computer vision like Greg Borenstein‘s forthcoming O’Reilly book about Microsoft Kinect, and Berg’s inquiry into the robot readable world. It feels so much like the start of something.

Of course mobile is already climbing out of the basic, high-contrast cot-toy stage. Google Goggles seems to have a reading age roughly equivalent to that of my youngest, five-year-old, son.

That’s also the age at which we begin to think more critically about the values we’re instilling for the future. Perhaps our task now is to raise a generation of well-balanced smartphones that can make sense of the world in all its wonder, not grumpy, materialistic tweens only interested in mass media and shopping.

At dConstruct, the real world is calling. It wants its designers back

Kelly Goto stands on the stage at Brighton’s Dome, head down, staring at her palm, a perfect mimic of the modern smartphone user, and issues a simple challenge to the dConstruct audience: “Help people to stay upright.”

This is the pivotal moment at which digital design finds itself. After decades training people to gaze into ever more enchanting screens, it’s time for a shake-up, to re-engage with the world around us, once more to look each other in the eye. And it may not be a comfortable experience.

Kevin Slavin dares to ask a roomful of designers why we always look to optics to provide wonder and comfort. Why do we feel the need to mediate the world through a screen, to create (according to a beautiful if only half true story from World War II USA) an upside down backwards town? Why are we not more aware of the dangers that “things that serve the eye trick the eye”? Don’t we remember the beguiling Cottingley Fairies, who showed us long ago that we can’t believe everything we see?

In place of the uncanny valley marketing vision of augmented reality – “We’ll make it magic by putting stickers on everything” – Kevin argues for engagement through behaviour. Pixelated monochrome Tamagotchi inspired more devotion than max polygon count 3d graphics, not by looking real but by exhibiting real traits – being hungry, vulnerable, rewarded and sick. And Kevin should know the power of the invisible: he admits to being spooked by his own code when Crossroads’ Papa Bones swept through the Area/Code studio late one night.

Bryan Rieger and Stephanie Rieger challenge us to engage with the world by releasing stuff that’s not finished, because people prefer it that way. For me their case is marred by over-reliance on the “accelerating pace of change” trope (on which another post follows) but I reckon they have a point about the value of good enough.

As Matt Sheret eloquently puts it: “Hacks scratch the itches that contemporary product design hasn’t caught up with yet.” Time-traveller Matt talks us through the special qualities of things you can put in your pockets – from a Victorian watch to an RFID bike hire key. “RFID is a huge gift for interaction,” he says. I think this is because of its potential as a gap-closing technology that helps link the real world with its digital mirror image.

“Think about the spaces between the experiences you are creating,” says Kelly Goto: to make things that work in the world, we have to understand its people, their rituals and the way they live their lives.

Kars Alfrink makes his own attempt to do this: pointing out the dark side of gentrification. Our cities are divided in plain sight, sharing territory yet blind to each other, like the young Hackney couple enjoying a glass of wine while a tense gang stand-off plays out around them. How do designers get out of their bubble and contribute to a resilient society?

Respect for time and memory surely have a big role to play. Don Norman, in a slide-free talk rich with insight on the state of the user interface art – says we should design memories not experiences: “A memory is a form of augmented reality,” he posits.

And Frank Chimero, who always gives good metaphor, forever replaces my previous best image for our online history. From now of it’s not data exhaust, it’s “walking through snow”. Also Instapaper, Delorean.

Full marks to Frank for the most compelling account I’ve seen of “curation” as applied to web content. Until today I’ve seen “curation” online as a pale, twisted imitation of the real thing, as practiced in museums and art galleries. But Frank put his finger on the thing that makes for good curation – not just hit-and-run picking of stuff but making an educated second pass to transform a collection of objects into a meaningful narrative.

Craig Mod seems to be on similar territory. He talks about data as if it were a living herd, needing to be corraled, then as a field of dead artifacts, in need of “excavation”. What is the shape of the future book? Kilometres high, and chopped up into a million pieces, apparently.

Dan Hon has also dedicated his career to chopping up stories – having followed transmedia storytelling from web 1.0 to 2.0 and beyond. There’s online storytelling the hard way (do it in 2001) and the seemingly easy (do it all on Twitter) though the common thread is good storytelling. Some platforms lend themselves to stories, others do not. Heello is a platform for pretending. Quora is not.

Curiously Dan and Frank both need the same tool for different purposes – something to break out of the blocky file-status-update-album-art tyranny of today’s web services into ways to tell more fluid stories. For Frank it’s about making stories from our real lives, for Dan its creating pretend lives from stories, but in essence both demand the same aesthetic. It’s an aesthetic whose time has come – one that’s authentic without being skeuomorphic. The real world is calling. It wants its designers back.