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…

It can be these, but…

Our economy will not grow bigger in scale, but we will see it become more specific, more diverse, more adapted to individual needs and desires. The economy that served us well is giving way to what I call the informative economy.

According to my dictionary, “to inform” means to “imbue or inspire with some specific quality or value.” Practically speaking, information is not merely data, telecommunications, or a computer network. It can be these, but it is also the knowledge added to resources to make them valuable. It is design, craft, utility and durability — everything that makes a product more useful, longer lasting, easier to repair, lighter, stronger, and less energy-consuming. Information is nothing more (or less) than how to make or accomplish something the best way.

A Chevrolet requires ten to twelve times more expense on warranty repairs than an American-built Honda does. The difference is information in the form of design, workmanship and quality. Twenty-five years ago Honda was a “small” business. It became a big business not by building bigger cars, or cars with more gadgets, but by building a car with more information…

– Paul Hawken‘Growing a business’ (1987)

Thanks to Andy Bell for the recommendation.

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

Ad agencies are discovering products like Columbus discovered America

SPOILER ALERT: It might not end well for the natives.

Having spent more than a decade with job titles alternately containing the words “product strategy” and “customer experience,” I’m all for the sentiment behind John Willshire’s slogan: “Make Things People Want > Make People Want Things”. And when I hear this thought presented as some kind of revelation, I usually bite my tongue and smile at the zeal of the new converts to the cause.

But over the past year or two, I’ve sensed a growing momentum behind the trend for marketing agencies to engage deeply with the world of products and services, and I’ve come to the conclusion that they could actually get quite good at it.

Like the first Europeans arriving in America, agency people meet with natives, the product management community, who have a rich and complex culture but lack the fire-power or expansionary mindset to meet the challenge of the newcomers.

First the fire-power. Despite the lip-service paid to innovation and new product development, many consumer organisations routinely devote far bigger budgets to the Make People Want Things side of the equation than to Making Things People Want. There’s a reason for this – making things people want is hard, it takes time, and it depends on listening to the voice of customer, not just to the loudest voice in the boardroom.

Moreover, marketing budgets tend to be more liquid, to flow more rapidly, than budgets for product and service development. The marcomms team can blow millions on an above-the-line rocket launcher in the time it takes product development to make the business case to take a better pea-shooter to market.

So it’s little wonder that some of the most innovative things I saw in my time in telecoms came from advertising campaigns and sponsorship deals that succeeded and grew. Top of the bill would be Orange Wednesdays, a tie-up with the Cinema Exhibitors Association which brought real value to mobile customers, involving text messaging, point of sale integration and mobile app fulfilment mechanisms. By sticking at it through the tenures of multiple marketing directors, Orange UK bought itself unrivalled brand recognition in film.

Which brings us to those expansionary tendencies. The product tribe often gets tied up in knots over its “right to play” in a new or changing category. Think of all the people who sagely declared that Apple would fail if it tried to move from music players into mobile telephony. If you limit your core competences to the flat earth of your existing category, it becomes difficult to respond to customer needs just over the horizon. Not so the agencies, who tack happily from client to client and sector to sector. They can see opportunities where in-house teams may not dare to reach.

What’s more, advertising people understand, more than any other tribe, that needs do not have to be rational. In the pursuit of Making People Want Things, any fragment of culture, art or fashion is fair game. They understand that sometimes fast and different beats slow and better. While the product tribe labour methodically towards feature-based superiority, their counterparts in advertising throw so much mud at the wall that sooner or later some of it must stick.

Superior access to rapid funding, boldness in exploiting adjacencies, a willingness to try lots of stuff – all of these are supremely transferrable to the iterative, customer-centred practice of Making Things People Want.

But before they send in the smallpox-ridden blankets, the newcomers to the products world might find they need the natives to help them through the first few winters.

Making things is hard, especially things to last, things that people will find useful in their everyday lives. And often people used to marketing things underestimate this. Take the story of the Ford Key Free Login App. Ogilvy Paris thought it would be cool to accompany the launch of bluetooth vehicle unlocking with an app that stores your social networking passwords. Except that, instead of encrypting the passwords the way Lastpass or 1password do, the Ford app stored everything in an easily accessible plain text file. The app was hastily pulled.

And even when they do get the basics right, agencies soon learn that while a campaign may be just for Christmas, a product or service is for life. Only the best of them are set up to handle the on-going issues of release management, customer support and so on. If a product is created unexpectedly out of a campaign, sooner or later it needs to make the tricky transition into long-term in-life support, either in-house in the client organisation or staying within the agency but on a footing very different from the usual campaign-centric ways or working.

Product and service managers know this territory, and they know where the traps are hidden. If the newcomers from marketing-land are prepared to befriend the product natives in the new world of agile service development, they could, together, make a winning combination.

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

And te tide and te time þat tu iboren were, schal beon iblescet

The depths of winter, two weeks off to take stock of where we are and where we’re going, a chance to catch up with family and friends. We travelled through blizzards, cooked and ate good food, lit fires, drank wine, fiddled with MP3 play-lists, time-shifted TV, and made one (thankfully minor) visit to Accident and Emergency. We – friends, family, all – talked about our lives in early Twenteenage Britain: public sector insecurity, the choice of good schools, distant relatives, our new phones and other devices. The confection that follows is made from the left-overs.

Our current preoccupations seem to boil down to two resources, both of which are unequally distributed within families, communities, our nation and world at large. To understand these resources is to see where opportunities and conflicts lie, to look for unlikely allies and unexpected lines of agreement.

The first of the two resources is disposable time – the uncommitted minutes and hours in which we make our own choices.

The clichéd “cash rich, time poor” professional classes are not alone in their want of this resource. The pressure on the “squeezed middle” is as much a temporal crunch as a financial one. As Ed Miliband said: “If you are holding down two jobs, working fourteen hour days, worrying about childcare, anxious about elderly relatives, how can you find the time for anything else? … Until we address the conditions that mean that people’s lives are dominated by long hours, then the big society will always remain a fiction.”

Time wealth ebbs and flows as we move through life-stages, and is at least partially subjective – there are huge variations in people’s estimations of their own and others’ busy-ness. But, whether acknowledged or not, the debate over fairness and equality – over social security, pensions and the division of unpaid labour within families – must be as much about time and energy as it is about money.

The second resource, sometimes a skill, but as often a learned attitude, is tech mastery, a belief that computers, the internet and mobile phones exist to help us achieve our goals, not to enslave or bewilder us.

Tech mastery is the toolkit to take control in the modern world, to “program or be programmed.” Good technology products and services increase the mastery of their users; poor ones sap it. That tech mastery tends to rise and fall with age, and to be more concentrated among men than women, says more about the biases of tech implementation than about the innate abilities or preferences of those demographic groups.

I believe 2011 will be a year when people get angry about bad usability and the failure of the new media to meet the needs of all but a narrow section of society. As the web becomes more mobile and more, genuinely, worldwide, it has to do better at empowering all its users, young and old, rich and poor, not all of whom have the latest device designed in California.

The interactions between disposable time and tech mastery reveal (via sweeping generalisations, I know) some interesting gulfs in understanding to be overcome…

When free tech culture meets the law it’s more than a matter of understanding the “what.” There’s also the “why”.

One person’s innocent checking of their mobile phone is another’s gross intrusion into quality time.

We also find some opportunities…

What services could bridge the gaps between the generations and social groups by drawing on what they have in common?

How could two groups of people make the most of their complementary resources?

To square this circle, we need to pay attention to the different characteristics demanded at each point, and find ways to spread the wealth more equally. Something like…

Right now, at the start of 2011, I have many more questions than answers about disposable time and tech mastery inequalities. But I reckon we’ll see a lot more of these themes before the year is out.

Who wants to be a story millionaire? Some thoughts on the value of Patient Opinion

So, narrative capital. The social scientist has it like this…

… the power [research participants] have to tell the stories of their lives. This ‘narrative capital’ is then located in the ‘field’ of social science research and Sen’s capability approach is introduced to prompt the question: What real opportunities do research participants have to tell the stories they value and have reason to value? It is argued that ‘narrative capital’ can be too easily squandered by the failure to recognise individual values. -Research Abstract, Michael Watts

… and the novelist like this…

What the writer accrues by setting up situations, tensions, threats and other build-ups. If the author decides on a shocking climax that blows everything wide open, they will be spending the Narrative Capital they’ve saved – having the warring couple suddenly acknowledge their love, for instance. The more capital saved, the better the climax – but you can’t spend the same capital twice, and if you try to have a climax bigger than your capital can buy, the audience feels robbed. – author Kit Whitfield’s lexicon

I invoked the idea of narrative capital on this blog when I wrote about the wanton destruction of Leeds’ historic Clarence Dock: You wouldn’t burn a book, so why destroy a place with so many stories?

And last week at our first ever Service Design Thinks in Leeds I was struck once again by the power of stories, thanks to James Munro of 4IP and Screen Yorkshire-supported Patient Opinion.

Patient Opinion is a simple idea: you can write your account of being a patient in the UK’s National Health Service, read other people’s experiences and, crucially, see what NHS staff and managers are doing to make things better.

Making things better is at the core of the service: it’s founded on the insight that the NHS is well-equipped to deal with adversarial “complaints” demanding specific redress, but less so for “feedback” – negative and positive comments freely given by people who simply want to help improve the service for future patients, some with very specific suggestions, others just to say thank you.

With the help of this social enterprise, health service managers and practitioners can hear their patients’ authentic and surprising voices more clearly, and deliver better care as a result.

And at the centre of their operating model are stories. Lots of stories. Stories that have value, donated like blood:

100,000 stories per year. After 10 years, you could be a story millionaire!

It would be tempting to throw the Patient Opinion corpus into some kind of massive algorithmic natural language grinder, to present yummy infographics and Chernoff faces showing the relative happiness of different institutions, like Patient Opinion’s 4IP stablemate Schooloscope.

But that would miss the point. Yes, the Patient Opinion stories are cumulatively impressive – 25,017 and counting - but, as James explained, their power is in their uniqueness. Each story is different, nonfungible. Each narrative is differently shaped and demands a personal response from specific people.

Story, narrative capital, content, call it what you will. The value is not in the words themselves, but in the minds and actions of the “audience”: the right people in the right place hearing the right stuff at the right time, and doing something about it.

You can watch James Munro’s talk on the SD Leeds Vimeo channel.