90% archaeology: my notes and reflections on Service Design in Government 2015

Some rights reserved - Jess McMullin

Some rights reserved – Jess McMullin

There’s never been a more exciting time to be designing services in the public sector. But it can still be a lonely existence – in any organisation, a small number of advocates may find themselves trying to shift a large mass with plenty of inertia. The Service Design in Government conference that I attended last week has an important role to play. It’s a place where people can share their triumphs and frustrations, and form a common view of what we should be aiming for in the design and redesign of public service.

Thanks again to all the speakers, the other participants, and the organisers at Software Acumen. I was delighted to be part of the programme committee. These are my notes and reflections…

Everyone’s a designer.

Jess McMullin and Alex MacLennan have been building service design practice in the government of British Columbia since 2010. Along the way they’ve developed an awe-inspiring array of interventions across the government’s many services, intensively training cross-disciplinary, cross-department teams and moving up the design maturity ladder – from no conscious design, through a focus on style, function and form, up to using design to solve already-identified problems and frame new ones. Recognising that their own team is small (“we are not the official designers for the BC government”) they focus on getting other people to think like designers. Now they have a UX library that all ministries can use.

Those Hogwarts Moments – I love those too…

Anna Whicher and Adrian O’Donoghue carried on the “public servant as designer” theme with the story of the trans-national SPIDER project, and its application in Ireland’s Northern and Western Regional Assembly. An ambitious peer learning platform between local governments across North-western Europe, it covered public service co-ordination, youth unemployment, ageing populations and culture change within authorities. The scale of the capacity building is impressive: 1478 people attending local workshops, working on issues where people will benefit. Stand-out quotes: “Co-production works. It scares the public sector” and “Hero designer is not suitable in this way of working.”

Several other talks picked up the same themes:

  • Housing manager Amanda Pujol worked with designer Kathryn Woolf under the Design Council’s leadership programme to prevent life-threatening trips and falls among older people in Teignbridge (and together they bubble wrapped a whole GP’s reception to dramatise the issue!)
  • Transport for London, with Ben Reason‘s Live|Work, seconded 20 station staff to facilitate workshops, bringing an honesty and credibility that could only come from frontline workers
  • Gavin Bell of the Ministry of Justice told how they seconded a deputy prison governor to work with digital specialists on the Prison Visit Booking exemplar
  • Jean Mutton, an “inside-out service designer” at Derby University, brings students into her team on 12-month paid internships because “we get a much richer picture from students talking to students”
  • The Satori Lab‘s Jo Carter and Esko Reinikainen got housing association staff across Wales into conversation with the world cafe method
  • For sexual health community interest company SH:24, Glyn Parry and Unboxed Consulting‘s Martyn Evans had to create a core team including clinicians, public health professionals, agile project managers, designers and developers.

It’s 90% archaeology.

Louise Downe, service design lead at the Government Digital Service, outlined how  service failure is still one of the biggest costs in government. Time is taken up with unnecessary processing – roughly 40% of people declaring medical conditions to DVLA have a condition they didn’t need to report – user contact, casework, and manual handling of exceptions in policy. Change needs to happen “in hearts and minds of everyone who works in government. It’s not sitting in a room and ideating, it’s finding out why we’re doing what we’re doing.”

  • On the SPIDER project, this became a kind of “double ethnography on the end users and the system to understand how you can make an impact”.
  • Gavin detailed his own learning curve at MoJ – all that paper, printing and cabling! “It’s not done until you follow the transaction all way through the court process… It’s not done until the user has finished paying their fine… Understand the context in which you’re operating, understand how to get all the way to the end.”
  • Jean told us the story of the bicycle books, dutifully filled out and filed for decades even though their purpose in administering wartime rationing was long since redundant.
  • Jess and Alex “unearthing the decisions of the people that came before us”, connecting with the experience and legislation cultures, norms, values and power structures: “There is no more powerful tool than the road trip.”
  • Glyn and Martyn working with NHS trust information governance boards to devise a better way of keeping personal information by anonymising it instead of sending it around the system in the mail.

For TfL, it was about how to improve the customer journey (literally!) in creaking, crowded stations on a 152-year-old network that last saw a full day of good service on all lines in April 2010. (and in heritage buildings to boot – Earl’s Court Station, “beautiful escalator!”)

Change is hard.

TfL used the inspiration of the 2012 Olympics to prove that things were possible. But to put this into practice, they used a design approach to engage staff, build readiness for further change and reduce potential conflict (avert just half a day of Tube strike and the initiative would pay for itself.) Covent Garden station supervisor Pele Bapere told a powerful story about his own role in the “reachback” communications to colleagues at the station: “I’ve worked for the Underground 16 years and I’ve seen many things brought in… This was the first time they’ve gone out in a systematic way and engaged staff.” Sure enough, staff repayed that investment by highlighting priorities and changes that could be put into action quickly, such as modernising the approach to lost property.

And there were loads of other great change tips from presenters:

  • “Make sure you have ‘Do-ers’, not strategists” – Amanda Pujol
  • “Design language to some is really not helpful” – Andrea Siodmok, Cabinet Office Policy Lab
  • “The Gov Whisperer: not a change manager, more empathetic and focused on the needs of government” – Jess and Alex
  • “Intelligent challenge: Can you help us understand?” – Gavin
  • “Epic failure: Using empathy tools with psychopathic organisations” – Jo and Esko

Design is often first to join the dots.

The work of people-centred change frequently starts by helping those who do only a small part of the process to see the whole picture from the end-user’s point of view. Shockingly this often doesn’t happen until designers get involved. That’s what Jean Mutton did at Derby when she issued Flip cameras to new first year students – she helped the university to move from a component process review to the holistic student experience. Her team found departments tripping over each other to send letters, each of which “wanted to be the first” to welcome the student. And they developed a 40-point action plan that covered everything from signage to staff awareness.

Perhaps the most compelling story of joined up service – not just between organisations but across sectors – was the story Pele told from Covent Garden Station. With the opening of Britain’s largest Apple Store just across the road, there was an increase in the number of blind and partially sighted people coming through the station. So tube workers made an arrangement to call Apple, who now send a staff-member to meet people at ground level and escort them through the crowds.

Now shift from actual, physical underground railway platforms to the digital metaphor of the moment, “government as a platform”. Imagine, as Louise is starting to, how we could work when it is easier and quicker to make better, more user-focused public services: “When services are easier to make we’ll probably have more of them, not less.” But they’ll be “made of the internet”, “small pieces loosely joined”. Rather than having one monolithic piece of the benefit system, we can create a customised user journey that meets people’s individual needs. The potential is massive, but we’ll have to up our game. We’ll need a new clarity of thinking, not just “if we can’t fix it with a form, we create a portal.”

Needs are diverse, complex and quirky.

TfL’s Pele: “This is not Singapore, this is not New York, this in London, we’re quirky.”

Here’s a “best of discovering user needs” compilation I jotted down at the conference:

  • A GP decided to go through the front door of his surgery as if a customer – and re-worked his reception area based on what he learned – Amanda
  • Some prisoners have complex love lives – the prison visit booking system can end up being the forum where their rivalries play out – Gavin
  • If the admissions department puts its address on letters, that’s where students will show up on their first day – not the campus 20 miles away – Jean
  • There’s a new digital divide – between people online with basic skills and the “next gen” users for whom internet is interwoven with life – Liz Stevenson of Cambridgeshire County Council
  • Look for the verbs: “Bad services are nouns, good service are verbs.” – Louise

Everyone has tools, but prototyping is where it’s at.

I lost count of the number of toolkits, frameworks, canvases, cards, and variations on a process that showed up during the conference. (Top marks to Satori Labs for their “double diamond with knobs on”.) And there seemed to be general agreement that toolkits have their place.

But meeting up on the Thursday evening with a fifth column of Global Service Jam and Global GovJam hosts from around the world, I was reminded that for all the analysis we need to keep public service design real.

So it was great to hear references to prototyping – including one reportedly by Home Secretary Theresa May. Andrea: “If in a year people are talking about prototyping and they weren’t before, we’ve made an impact.”

  • In British Columbia, Alex runs a Public Services Dragon’s Den with a budget for creating prototypes and pilots
  • In Teignbridge, the bubble-wrapped reception was one of three alternatives tested for real in GP’s waiting rooms before settling on a single direction to raise older people’s awareness of trip and fall risks
  • Smeared and splattered iPhone screens made it bleeding obvious to the SH:24 team that video wasn’t the best way of showing people how to give a blood sample.

What did I miss?

Service Design in Government was a dual-track conference with a line-up so good that I inevitably didn’t get to see all the great presentations, like the one on design patterns by GDS colleagues Caroline Jarrett and Tim Pauland Lesley Thomson‘s reflections on design in the Scottish Government. I’m sure there was more that I missed!

See also:

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.

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.

dConstruct 2013: “It’s the Future. Take it.”

It puzzles me that technology so easily becomes the dominant metaphor for explaining society, and not the other way round. “Self-organise like nanobots into the middle,” exhorts dConstruct host Jeremy Keith as we assemble for the afternoon session at the Brighton Dome. We shuffle obligingly to make room for the latecomers, because everyone here accepts without question that nanobots really do self-organise, even if they’re so tiny we can’t see them with our puny, unaugmented eyes.

“It’s the Future. Take it.” Dan Williams mocks strident techno-determinism and refuses to take anything at face value: “I find the concept of wonder to be problematic.” Even Wenlock, the Olympic Mascot, conceals in plain sight a sinister surveillance camera eye, homage perhaps to London’s insouciant acceptance of closed-circuit television. Maybe we should “take it” like the CCTV filmmakers whose manifesto includes the use of subject access requests to wrest footage of themselves from surveillance authorities unaware of their role in an art phenomenon.

Other speakers also touched on this theme of acceptance – the ease with which we come to terms with new tools in the environment and extensions of the physical and mental self.

For cyborg anthropologist Amber Case “design completely counts.” Just contrast reactions to the in-your-face Google Glass and the “calm”, unobtrusive Memoto Lifelogging Camera. I love the history lesson too, starting with Steve Mann‘s 40lbs of hacked-together heads-up-display rig from 1981. This stuff is shape-shifting fast, from the 1950s mainframe to the “bigger on the inside”, Mary Poppins smartphones we’ve so readily come to rely on as extensions of the mental self.

Digital designer Luke Wroblewski seems more matter-of-factly interested in the quantity of change than in its qualitative implications. Designers who have struggled to cope with just one new interface, touch, now face up to 13 distinct input types. Luke’s our tour guide to a dizzying variety of input methods – each with its own quirks and affordances – from 9-axis motion orientation sensing to Samsung’s Smart Stay gaze detection to Siri’s role as a whole other “parallel interface layer”. No wonder, I reckon, that minimal “flat UI” is the order of day. What with all these new interactions to figure out, designers simply lack the time and energy to spend on surface decoration.

Simone Rebaudengo imaginatively plays out the internet of things. He’s against a utilitarian future, and for one in which objects tease their way into their users’ affections. “Rather than demonstrating their buying power, people have to prove their keeping power.” He imagines a world in which toasters experience anxiety and addiction. People apply to look after them (though they can never be owned, only hosted) by answering questions of interest to the toasters. Hosts throw parties with copious sliced bread to make their toasters feel wanted. No, really. Simone has a unique and playful take on the service-dominant world. (I just wish he would stop calling things “products”. It’s so last century.)

However, conflict and repression are always nearby.

Nicole Sullivan presents a taxonomy of internet trolls: the jealous, the grammar Nazi, the biased, and the scary. Women in tech experience trolling far more and far worse than men. And we all need to challenge our biases. Fortunately there’s a handy online tool for that.

After watching ‘Hackers’ and ‘Ghost in the Shell’ at a formative age, Keren Elazari makes a passionate defence of the hacker, tracing a line from Guy Fawkes through V for Vendetta to the masked legion of Anonymous. Quoting Oscar Wilde: “Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask and he will tell you the truth.”

Pinboard-founder Maciej Cegłowski (stand-out phrase “social is not syrup”) voices admiration for the often derided fan-fiction community. Fans fight censorship, defend privacy and improve our culture. They have also developed elaborate tagging systems, and when alienated, like so many of us, by a Delicious re-design, they created a 52-page-long Google Doc of Pinboard feature requests. “It was almost noon when Pinboard stumbled into the office, eyes bleary. His shirt, Delicious noted, was buttoned crooked.”

Visibility is a central concern of our optically-obsessed culture. Much conflict arises from our suspicion of hidden biases and agendas, and our struggle to reveal them. Dan: “Every time we put software into objects they behave in ways that aren’t visible.” People who neglect to read the press releases of bin manufacturers may have missed the appearance on City of London streets of MAC address-snooping litter bins. Fortunately we have James Bridle to war-chalk them and Tom Taylor to consider stuffing them with rapidly changing random MAC address junk.

Amber wants to render the visible invisible – like Steve Mann’s “diminished reality” billboard-cancelling eyewear – and to make the invisible visible, by exposing un-noticed behaviours of smart objects. There can be unintended consequences in the human world, such as a touching conversation between student and construction worker sparked by Amber’s inadvertent placing of a target for GPS game MapAttack in the middle of a building site.

Making the invisible visible is what Timo Arnall’s celebrated ‘Immaterials‘ films are all about. I’d seen them online, of course, but during the dConstruct lunch break I popped into the Lighthouse where they’re beautifully displayed in the gallery setting they deserve. Dan talks of Buckminster Fuller “creating solutions where the problem isn’t quite ready to be solved”. Which is exactly how I feel re-watching Timo’s 2009 work on RFID. Creatives and “critical engineers” see this stuff in many more dimensions than mainstream imagines possible.

Not just seeing but hearing. Robot musician and sound historian Sarah Angliss tells of instruments that died out – the Serpent, the Giraffe Piano, the castrato’s voice – and of the way we’ve become accustomed to things our ancestors would have considered uncanny, unheimliche. Feel the fear induced by massive infrasonic church organ pipes. Look at a photo of people hearing a phonogram for the first time. Listen to Florence Nightingale’s voice recorded, musing about mortality.

And yet, towards the end of the day, something unexpected happens that makes me optimistic about our present condition. Dan Williams shows ‘The Conjourer‘ by magician-turned-cinematographer Georges Méliès – he of Scorsese’s ‘Hugo’ – performing disappearing tricks on the silver screen. We all know exactly how they’re done. They’d be trivial to recreate in iMovie. In spite of this we delight and laugh together at the tricks, as if the film was only made yesterday. This stuff has been the future for a long time now, and we seem to be taking it quite well.

Thanks to all the speakers, organisers and volunteers. dConstruct was brilliant as ever.

dConstruct threads: Arrogance, uncertainty and the interconnectedness of (nearly) all things

The web is 21, says Ben Hammersley, it can now legally drink in America. And yet, as it strides out into young adulthood, it has much to learn. At dConstruct we hear some of those lessons – ones about humility, unpredictability and the self-appointed tech community’s responsibilities to the rest of humankind.

I agree with Ben when he advocates a layered approach to the web and its next, next, next, larger contexts – the single user, groups of users, society and the world at large. “Make the world more interconnected, more human, more passionate, more understanding.”

“Don’t become enamoured of the tools,” he urges. Think of the people looking at the painting, not the paintbrushes and the pigments.

And then he throws it all away with a breath-taking streak of arrogance: “How do we as a community [of practitioners] decide what to do?” To which the world might legitimately respond: who gave you the authority to decide?

And then comes the most arrogant over-claim of all: “We are the first generation in history to experience exponential change!” Exponential change, don’t get me started on exponential change. That was last year’s dConstruct-inspired strop.

Jenn Lukas shows a little more self-awareness. Teaching people to code is a Good Thing. That much is motherhood and Raspberry Pi. And as she digs deeper into the plethora of resources now coming online, she takes a balanced view.

Some learn-to-code evangelists have taken the time to swot up on pedagogic principles that traditional teachers have known all along, like the one that says a problem-based learning approach built on students’ existing motivations is more likely to be retained. Others simply dump their knowledge on an unsuspecting world in a naive splurge of information-based learning. “It’s a tool seeking a problem,” says Jenn.

It strikes me that the learn-to-code advocates who bother to Do It Right could be at the vanguard of the new disruptive wave in education. The approaches they pioneer in online code classes may easily be extended to other domains of learning.

What I missed in Jenn’s talk was a rationale for why learning to code might be important, besides solving specific personal pain points or seeking to earn a living as a developer. For me learning at least the rudiments of computer science is a prerequisite for empowered citizens in the 21st Century. I want my children to grow up as active masters, not passive recipients of information technology. Also, they should know how to make a rubber band jump fingers.

Jason Scott puts those pesky twenty-one-at-heart Facebook developers in their place with his talk on digital preservation. “We won! The jocks are checking their sports scores on computers, but you dragged in a lot of human lives.” Facebook is “the number one place that humans on Earth store our histories. But there are no controls, no way of knowing what they’re up to.”

One day, the law will catch up with the web and mandate backups and data export as standard. “Pivoting” will not absolve businesses of commitments they made to customers under previous, abandoned business models. Until then we can simply implore those responsible to be, well, responsible, with people’s personal data. Or stage daring multi-terabyte rescue missions when companies that should know better shut down Geocities, MobileMe and Muammar Gaddafi’s personal website.

I also loved the concept of “sideways value,” the unexpected things you learn by zooming in on high-def scans of old pictures, or sifting through data that people uploaded for quite different purposes.

Revelling in the unexpected was a big theme of Ariel Waldman‘s talk about science and hacking. Hacker spaces, like black holes, have had a bad press but it turns out they’re really cool. Both suck matter in and spit it out as new stuff, creating as much as consuming. In Ariel’s world of delicious uncertainty, satellites inspire new football designs, citizens pitch for experiments to send into space, and algorithmic beard detection turns out to be good for spotting cosmic rays in a cloud chamber.

Plenty of sideways value too in the sheer joy of making stuff. It came across viscerally in Seb Lee-Delisle‘s demo of glowsticks and computer vision and fireworks and kittens on conveyor belts. Then intellectually in Tom Armitage‘s thoughtful, beautiful reflection on the value of toys, toying and toy making. Tom is the master of the understated, profound observation, such as noticing the hand movement he makes when talking about toys: it’s small, fiddling, taking stuff apart and putting it back together to see what happens. Only by making stuff and playing with it can we really understand and learn. What does it feel like to interact with time-lapse photography, or to follow your past self on Foursquare? Make it, play with it, and see.

Tom also touches on connections between stuff, with Twitter as a supreme platform for linking one thing – Tower Bridge opening times – with another – the web. Thereafter new uses emerge. Expats seek the comfort of a distant but familiar landmark while taxi drivers consult it to route round the problem of a communications link that’s always going up and down.

While other presenters tackle big picture subjects, Scott Jenson‘s talk is the most UX-ey of the day but none the worse for it. Every word rang true to me. In my time at Orange, I frequently found myself pushing back against the knee-jerk request for an app. If only, as Scott says, we could strip away the “thin crust of effort” that comes as standard with native apps, then we could empower users with a more natural experience of “discover, use, forget”. Instead with silo’ed apps we spend time “gardening our phones.” I glance down at the status bar of my needy Android which is currently pestering me for 28 different app updates.

All this becomes even more pressing when we consider the coming plethora of smart devices that use GPS, wifi, Bluetooth and NFC to link to mobile platforms. Before we even start trying to chain together complex sequences of connected services to second-guess the user’s intent, it makes eminent sense to take Scott’s approach and solve the simpler problem of discovery. Let devices detect their neighbours and expose simple functionality through HTML standards-based interfaces. It may be a tough challenge to liberate such interactivity, but it will be worth it. If smart toasters are mundane, there’s all the more reason for them to work elegantly and without making a fuss.

James Burke takes the interconnection theme to a whole new level. As a child I loved his pacey, unorthodox TV histories of science. Looking back, I think that’s where my own fascination with the Age of Enlightenment was first kindled. Now he seeks to inspire a new generation of school children with exercises in interdisciplinary rounders. He tickles my Ruskinian sensibilities with the suggestion that “focus may turn out to be what the machine is best for, and a waste of human brainpower”.

Only connect. “It is now much easier for noodlers to be exposed to other noodlers with explosive effects.” Children should be schooled in skipping from chewing gum to Isaac Newton in six simple steps, or Mozart to the helicopter in 10. Two hours of daily compulsory wikiracing for every Key Stage 2 pupil, say I.

Sadly James ends the day with a classic “never meet your heroes” moment. Having reeled me in with the unpredictable, wiggly “ripple effects” of innovation, he proceeds to lose me completely at the end of a 40-year-long straight line to a world where autonomous self-copying nano-technology has brought about an abundant, anarchic equilibrium. It is, I suppose, one possible path, but how a social historian of science can jump from so delightful an account of past serendipities to such a techno-determinist vision of the future turned out to be, for me, the biggest mystery of the day.

As ever, I had a great time at dConstruct, saw some old friends and great talks. Thanks to Jeremy Keith and everyone who made it happen. I’m already looking forward to next year.

“Our real stories are too dangerous to tell”

Once more to The Story at the Conway Hall, where facts and artistry have an uneasy relationship.

  • Matthew Sheret‘s god-like view of Last FM users’ scrobbles calls into question the hours spent by artists, producers, and record companies in sequencing the songs on an album. “Before we had data…” explains away Simon Thornton, recalling past triumphs of artistic freedom over commercial received wisdom.
  • Matthew Herbert wants to cut out the intermediary step of interpretation by making music from found, solicited and hard-sought-out sounds: “Music has always been about something, now it can be something.”
  • In spite of the police’s best efforts to protect his work from the public, Scott Burnham uncovers “the stories people make with their hands in the city.”
  • And Karen Lubbock’s Karen Magazine  strips away the artifice of the glossy mag, to find universal beauty in the fabric of everyday life. “Something quite provincial is more global,” she says.

But the plural of datum is not story – too much information can dull the soul.

  • “More spreadsheets than friends,” Ellie Harrison was an early bird in the belljar of self-quantification: “I felt trapped. I was spending hours each week employed as administrator of my own life.”

By spinning narratives out of facts, storytellers do more than just reflect reality, they change it.

  • Tom Chatfield and Phil Stuart enable gameplayers to make their own sense of death. The End, abstracts the dictats of great thinkers into a “philosophy mechanic” explored by choosing doors in the game-space (83% believe there’s a cause worth dying for.) But once through a door, revealingly, “you could then be led on.”

And exposing  game-changing truths can be uncomfortable.

  • For how long could Tom “What Would Lester Freamon Do?” Watson have continued “shouting into a vacuum” when the Murdoch-fearing mainstream media failed to give oxygen to a story he understood to be explosive? As Emily Bell noted, even when five out 10 top stories on the Guardian website were about phone hacking, “we were constantly being told that this wasn’t a story.” Only by stepping outside the system, with the alternative air-supply of the Twittersphere, were they able to see what was hidden in plain sight.
  • How, in the uncertain moment of revelation, does Liz Henry deal with the guilt of denying agency to a Lesbian blogger from Syria – even as “the Amina entity” is unravelling into a bunch of fictitious sock-puppets? The confusion sewn in the West is nothing compared to the very real fallout for genuine activists in the Middle East. “This is how marginalised people lose their histories, they’re drowned out by the fake stories. Our real stories are too dangerous to tell so the false stories, so much more palatable, trump them.”
  • And where does that leave Jeremy Deller‘s re-enactment of the Battle of Orgreave? Is his reconstruction one of those fake stories, or a truer representation than contemporaneous media reports? Can he “jog the memory of the public” to recast the story in a new light?

Last year’s the Story was mostly about fragments – Cornelia Parker’s exploded shed, Martin Parr’s snapshots of northern life and Pepys’ Diary sliced and diced by Phil Gyford into 140 characters – until all that remained was a feeling, Adam Curtis’ “emotional realism”. Stories were left hanging by the most tenuous of threads.

For 2012, the narrative was back in town, but not always cast as the hero. The potential for easy stories to lie and mislead was ever-present.

  • Danny O’Brien in semi-riposte/semi-synthesis of Curtis (“There’s something like the internet in every generation.”) tells how billionaire libertarians convince themselves that their quest for sea-steading “slave societies” puts them on the side of the good guys, using the “initial conditions” of the internet, “rough consensus and working code” to remake the world more to their liking. Maybe they could learn some things about society – and sailing – from the anarchists of the Occupy movement? Certainly at times, it can be hard to tell them apart.

Thanks once again to Matt Locke for curating such an amazing bunch of speakers. Here’s to Story 2013.

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.