Real work only begins when we break out of our bubble

David Vetter's space suit - Wikimedia Commons

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

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

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

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

“Who was that?” Mr. Reagan replied.

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

“Well, no,” Mr. Reagan said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s how…

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

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

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

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

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

Get out of the building

Seeing over the next hill – a service design pattern

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

image

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

Seeing over the next hill

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not All Mammals! In defence of designing for “people”

I’ve been thinking about this exchange with Roberta…

@mattedgar Lots of people _talk_ about getting users in the room. This weekend @mHealthLeeds is actually doing it. #mhleeds

@RobertaWedge @mattedgar Users of what? In a health-care context, the term covers layers of euphemism.

@mattedgar @RobertaWedge fair point. Alternatives to the word ‘user’ gratefully received. (Often but not always “people” works just fine)

@RobertaWedge @mattedgar I am anti “people”. Citizen, student, resident, account-holder, patient, passenger, woman, employee – precision aids discourse.

@mattedgar @RobertaWedge indeed. Though may also reinforce rigid role definitions and allocations. People wear many hats, sometimes simultaneously.

Also this post by Russell…

I’m old enough that I’ve seen the same debates go round and round a few times.

One is the (always well-intentioned) cry – let’s stop saying customers/consumers/users, let’s remember they’re people! This always snags an emotional latch but I think it’s worth resisting.

Firstly, let’s remember that they’re also mammals – does that help? No. Moving up to the next biggest category isn’t especially useful.(*1)

Secondly, if you need reminding that your customers/consumers/users are people you have bigger problems. Changing what you write on your briefs/stories isn’t going to help.

I know where they’re coming from. I get the need for precision. I think we all agree that whatever you call them, we make stuff for and with messy, multi-faceted actors. But, as a people-centred service designer, I reckon the P word is worth defending.

While there is a place for “user” and other words of precision, it should not be at the expense of open-ended human-centred inquiry. A more interesting question might be, what are the right words for where we are now, in our digital culture as a whole? I for one think “people’s” time has come.

cat and mouse

For starters, the point about designing for humans as opposed to animals is not as facile as Russell makes out. At risk of being hauled before a gavel-toting, wig-wearing dolphin in the post-speciesist court of the future, Not All Mammals! My cats have evolved to simulate affection, but I’m certain that if I lay dead at the foot of the stairs for a couple of days they would eat me.

We are not cats. We can and should accord our human users a human level of tolerance and curiosity. Overuse of reductionist language is a tell-tale sign when we forget to do so. “Customer” or “claimant”, “passenger” or “potentate”, “servant” or “CEO” – they’re all different flavours of the same remouillage.

Moving up to the next biggest category – at least for a while – is what designers do. An iterative process zooms from the big picture to the tiny details and back again. The words we use as we zoom signal where we are in the focal range. Worrying about whether the next link is obvious, or the service accessible with a screen reader? “User” may be the best word to deploy. Helping someone unpick complex medical and social factors that impact their mental health? They probably need you to see the whole person. Over the course of any design process, it pays to mix it up, to vary the vocabulary.

Shoes - Some rights reserved paul-w-locke

We set ourselves too easy a task if all we do is satisfy the needs that present themselves at face value; often things that matter are hiding in plain sight. In my work I’ve found myself pointing out…

  • to a footwear brand that teenagers’ feet are still growing
  • to a retailer that shop floor workers turn to family members for help with the intranet
  • to a utility company that couples argue about who spends too long in the shower.

Banal insights like these make a direct difference to the service we offer. They can only be had by breaking free from blinkered caricatures of “runner”, “employee” or “resident”.

Every time we boldly launch our little boat by asking “what is the user need?” two further questions lurk implicitly upstream: which users, which needs? Ignore these and we will be forever tethered to our preconceptions about the nature of service we aim to deliver. Maybe some people call a contact centre to rapidly resolve a service problem. Maybe some call for reassurance that there are real people behind a digital service. Maybe others just call because they’re lonely. People-centricity reveals dimensions here that focusing only on the caller as user would miss.

We should also consider the number of actors. Service dominant logic dictates that service is always co-created by multiple parties – as a minimum, the one demanding it, and the one delivering it. Service design and innovation processes look at how those parties work together. Sometimes the best way to unlock greater value for end users is to set free those who serve them to do their best work. Want to improve the experience of online news? You’ll need to change the way news is gathered and edited as much as the way it is accessed and explored.

When we follow all the actors and understand their capabilities, we find that the boundary between “consumer” and “producer” is more malleable than the reductionists assume. Mobile, social media turns public transport “passengers” into providers of powerful real-time information service. US supermarket “employees” donate food so their colleagues in need can enjoy a Thanksgiving dinner. The complex and variable geometry of service only emerges when we accept the people involved for everything they are.

Texting in the park - some rights reserved - duncanh1

One of the delights of the new GOV.UK (in which – Disclosure! – I play a bit part, but for whom I certainly do not claim to speak here) is the way it demonstrates that many of the debates of Noughties web design are now pretty much solved problems. Form follows function. Text and hypertext dominate the flashy, non-standard carapaces on which millions were wasted by private and public sectors alike. High levels of accessibility, responsive design, open source frameworks, web-native APIs – they’re all just manifest good sense things that make user experiences better.

This good news is not yet evenly distributed. Many organisations would do well to take their lead from the Government Service Design Manual. Like learner drivers they might need to go through the consciously competent stage of focusing on their users. But when they’ve internalised that then what?

The settlement of those user-level questions should free them up to direct their attention to more positive visions of digital service, and to people’s higher-order, higher-value issues. They can focus on making explicit those questions that so often go begging: which users, which needs? They can create systems with continuous improvement built in. They can ensure there is empathy and the possibility of change every time service is delivered.

Users may well be the place to start. But people must surely be the end-game.

How I learned to stop worrying and love the jam

A lightning talk at Service Design in Government

IMG_20140308_133137

There’s a growing interest in hacks and jam events in the public sector. Over the past months in Leeds alone, we’ve seen events around open government data, mental health, cycling and public transport.

Great stuff can happen at these events, yet they can also be unfulfilling for participants and organisers alike. After all the pizza-fuelled excitement of the weekend, everyone gets back to their day jobs and wonders what, if anything, has changed?

I’ve felt that sense of disappointment myself. As co-organiser of events under the Service Design Leeds banner, I’ve tried to fix it in various ways. I want to share the conclusion I’ve come to about what hacks and jams are for, and how to make them work.

It’s easy to see the reasons why these events are so popular – but I think they’re often the wrong reasons.

People in the public sector are hungry for ideas – they’ve always wanted to make things better for the people they serve, but now they have to do so with diminished resources and less central support.

These diminished resources make shortcuts and quick fixes very tempting. One of my collaborators jokes about the magical thinking surrounding startup pixies – mythical creatures who just appear and solve problems overnight in return for beer and pizza.

The pixies don’t exist. And even if they did, they couldn’t solve anything overnight because that’s just not long enough to engage with real users, to gain their trust and understand their concerns. Co-creating service with users is a long-term relationship not a one-night stand.

Yes there may be rare examples of hack day projects that go on to greater things – projects like Snook’s MyPolice. But the strike rate is far too low to justify the enormous amount of time and effort that everyone else puts in, often for free.

The true value in hacks and jams doesn’t come from the ideas and projects they generate. It comes down to the social capital we create, and new ways of doing things that we practice by working together for the first time.

My favourite definition of innovation is a throwaway line by Bruno Latour that “a project is considered innovative when the number of actors is not known from the outset.”

Much of life in large organisations (in the private sector too) consists of doing the same things we did yesterday, with the same people in the same building. We can improve those things incrementally with six sigma and process improvement, but to be truly innovative we need to join forces with others from outside our bubble.

The best hacks and jams foster innovation by pressing together groups of people who wouldn’t otherwise get the chance to collaborate. Even if that exact group never works together again, they all gain from the exposure to different perspectives and priorities in an egalitarian setting. So it matters who takes part in the event. 90 percent of the effort goes into getting the right people in the room.

Group forming and negotiation takes time and emotional energy. It’s not uncommon to see furrowed brows and tense discussions in jams. But this is all part of the important work of forging new understandings between strangers. The jam should be a safe space for that to happen.

IMG_20140308_115717

Meanwhile, the artificial time constraint in a jam forces people to work at a pace that they may not be used to. If you care greatly about the quality and reliability of the insights from your event, this will always be a source of pain.

But I prefer to turn that on its head (again in a safe, low-stakes environment). I urge jammers to start making a prototype before they know what it is, and to take it out of the building and test it with users before they think it’s finished. They’re invariable surprised by how much they could make in so little time, and by how little they needed to show users to get a good reaction. I want them to bottle that feeling and take it back to the office.

So when I look at the attendee list we have for the Leeds GovJam in a couple of weeks’ time, I’m excited by the possibilities.

We’re not going to solve the problems of the public sector overnight.

But we are going to see people working creatively together from our local authorities, central government departments, the NHS and third sector – a luxury they rarely have.

And we’re going to see what happens if, for just 48 hours, we focus on making something happen and involving users at a radically earlier stage than has been the habit in the public sector for so many years.

outrage

One last thing: we’re doing it midweek. The unspoken message behind weekend hack events is that this stuff is an optional extra. If we really believe in innovation as part of an organisation’s core purpose then people deserve to do it during their normal working week.

Leeds GovJam is on Tuesday 3 and Wednesday 4 June. Find out more at leedsgovjam.wordpress.com

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…

Thinking about a service model: associate, participate and iterate

I recently had the privilege to front a pitch for a combined piece of service design and web development work that has helped sharpen my thinking about the way this stuff can be structured to make a difference.

The prospective client was a small, local, public sector organisation with a limited budget. We offered them a radical approach inspired by the new Government Digital Strategy. It was user-centred, agile and based on open source software. We aimed to deliver a radically simpler website than the one they have now, but one much closer to the needs of their users, and phenomenally better value for money.

ever deeper insights into user needs

To save the suspense, we didn’t get the business. I’m writing this because the reasons for the loss were instructive. We’ll learn from them and do some things differently next time. They also reinforce my belief that this approach will win out in the not-so-very-much-longer term.

Here are some things I heard from the potential client. I present them because they’re all legitimate responses, questions that stress-test the model I’m trying to build.

We proposed an associates model, a dream team of specialists wrapped around the client’s needs. I regarded that weightless flexibility as a strength, but in the client’s eyes it presented a risk: “Your company, there’s nothing to it,” said one of their panel. “How do we know you’ll still be here in 12 months’ time?”

We proposed a highly participative design process including user engagement through social media and a co-creation workshop with customers to conceive the first version of the website. The client felt this was abdicating our responsibility as designers. “Isn’t this just design by committee?” he asked.

We proposed an iterative process in which we research a little, start engaging through a minimum viable service and build up our knowledge of, and utility to, service users through insight and action hand-in-hand. Another of the client’s panel was a market research expert. How, she asked, can you be sure to represent users accurately with only a small slice of research upfront?

At the time, I felt I gave good answers to each of these objections. Only afterwards, with the wit of the staircase, did I come to understand that the three elements of our model – associate, participate, iterate – hang together as a single dominant strategy for solving the problems that organisations face today.

Teams that get good at delivering this, and clients who get good at tapping into it, can focus the most talented people on the most fruitful opportunities, and do so consistently, not just in the rosy afterglow of signing a new agency.

The power is in the way the elements interact.

participate + associate + iterate

Associates + iteration takes the risk and the compromise out of picking a team. By being well-connected and aware of our strengths and weaknesses, micro businesses can bring to bear expertise far beyond that offered by bigger entities with fixed salary bills to service. But more than that, the associates model can flex over the course of an engagement, bringing in the right skills for as long or as short a time as is needed. To the question “will you still be around in 12 months?” the best answer may be “only if we’re still the right people for the job.”

Associates + participation challenges the line between designers and users, service providers and recipients of service. If the project team itself is fluid, it can flow seamlessly into an expert group of users, users who are experts in their own needs, abilities and requirements. Contextual inquiry places the design researcher in the position of the “apprentice” learning from the user, or “master,” how they do what they do. By serving this apprenticeship, the researcher qualifies to add his or her own creative solutions to those already developed by the user. By engaging with service users and those who serve them we don’t abdicate responsibility to design, we earn it.

Participation + iteration means there is always the opportunity to learn more from users and their experience of the service. Knowing that learning never stops is liberating because it lowers the barrier to making a mark, getting the minimum viable service out there and into users’ hands. Will the first version be limited? Yes, of course. Will we be wrong about user needs? Almost certainly. But we’ll soon discover how limited, and how we’re wrong, and move quickly to improve in the next iteration. We’ll discover unmet user needs, and, if we remain open, maybe whole new groups of users too. With making and testing so easy, Big Research Up Front is no longer a risk we have to run.

Delivering this model is not without its pitfalls.

The associates model only works if each client sees the value in having a top notch team, and recognises the team assembled as a mirror to their unique set of needs. Practically, suppliers and customers alike must lower transaction costs that have made it prohibitively expensive for individuals and small team practices to play in vast swathes of business territory. But this is what the internet is made for. The comparative advantage of large organisations shrivels with every slick, cloud-based productivity tool that is launched.

When you’ve experienced true user participation, its advantages are obvious, but it also seems like a risky proposition from the outside. The trick is in the way target users are identified, engaged and brought on board as equal voices to insiders and vested interests. The process can look chaotic before the insights emerge, and making the time and place for this to happen takes rare skills and a leap of faith.

And iteration, though so obviously good sense to us when we are children, is a habit that big business beats out of grown-ups through interminable roadmaps, waterfall processes and excessive penalties for failure. People need space to learn and make mistakes in a low-risk, yet visible way. They need simple dashboards to measure and monitor progress. They need to know when to cut their losses on an experiment and when to throw everything at a model that’s starting to work.

But if I had that pitch again, this is what I’d say: Accept no imitations. Associate, participate and iterate to win.

If you or your organisation want to work like that, then please do say hello.

Room to grow^ – 48 hours of the Global Service Jam

Leeds Service Jam

SD Leeds co-organiser Kathryn Grace and I were joined by 15 jammers in Leeds as part of the biggest ever Global Service Jam, taking place simultaneously in more than 120 cities around the world.

Thanks to Simon Zimmerman of Hebe Media, Leeds Council’s Leeds Inspired programme and James and Laura of Duke Studios for making it an absolute pleasure.

The group I was in had a relaxed yet purposeful approach to the jam. We got out on the streets early to interview potential users, heard them shoot down our first idea, pivoted, then went out again, and ended up designing a local currency for people who aren’t local to the city.

Simon East and Cassandra Stocks out testing our ideas with potential users

Other groups looked at accessibility in Leeds Market and a playful way to get children cooking healthy meals with their families.

On the Planet Jam website you can see the stuff we made, and all the other cities too.

Alternatively you can read Jane Wood’s reflections on the jam over at &Co Cultural Marketing – thanks Jane!

And if you liked that, you may also like these:

Make’Owt #3 15-16 March – The next event in the Make’Owt series, of which the Leeds Service Jam was part. This one’s led by maker Stuart Childs with the theme ‘Make Light’

Service Design Thinks and Drinks in Leeds – Our next Service Design Drinks event will be on Tuesday 23 April. Follow us on Twitter at @SDLeeds to find out more.

Gov Jam 4-6 June – The sister jam to the Global Service Jam.  We are looking at supporting a GovJam in Leeds. If you are interested please let us know.

^ that carat thing. I have no idea either, but it was part of the theme.