As a teenager, clearly with too much time on my hands, I wrote to Coca-Cola complaining about a change to the design of their cans. This reply made me see the world’s favourite sugar water pusher in a whole new light. “Shelbie Perfect” though, made up name or what?
As a child I hated Cubs. All that running around and shouting, the church parades, and camping on a damp field at the edge of Danbury Common.
But in a twist of fate I find myself parent to three boys far more enthusiastic than I ever was; my oldest recently got a badge marking seven years – more than half his lifetime – as a Beaver, Cub or Scout.
That’s seven years of walking him to and from the weekly meetings in the school hall, driving to the scout hut down dark country lanes, dropping off and picking up at obscure Dales campsites that satnav passed by. If the youngest one follows in his muddy footsteps I’ll be doing the same for the next seven years as well.
I remain both surprised and grateful that there are grown-ups who volunteer to take my children camping so I don’t have to.
And just recently I’ve come to wonder at the infrastructure that has grown up around the scouting movement in the 106 years since Robert Baden-Powell ran his first experimental camp at Brownsea Island, Dorset.
Within an hour’s drive of our home there are dozens of scout sites tucked away in valleys, down farm tracks, one on an unpromising gap between a canal and a railway line. The Wakefield District even has its own canal boat.
Then there’s the knowledge and social capital. My boys are fourth-generation scouts – at least four of their eight great-grandparents were active in the movement. Yet their campfires, penknives, funny handshake and woggles would be instantly recognisable to scouts who bob-a-jobbed in last Great Depression.
I like to think that our digital culture will develop like this.
When I reflect on its future, I’m not that interested in whether we’ll experience life through screens, or glasses or holograms or deep brain implants, or whatever. The scout hut now has flushing toilets, not a hole in the ground, but the boys would still pee against a tree if you let them.
What matters to me as a second-generation geek is the culture and shared set of values that emerges in a movement over multiple lifetimes.
I relish the thought of heritage servers and listed fibre optic cables.
Imagine watching the accelerated sights of a webcam that has lain forgotten on someone’s window sill for a century or more. Or sifting through an heirloom dataset.
How will the do-ocracies that power hackspaces and open source projects manage the passing of batons from generation to generation?
Will the elders entreat sceptical youths to eschew the home comforts of AI-generated code for the delights of hand-whittled trinkets in Python?
In 2093, will our great-grandchildren gather to mark 100 years since the first experimental website was put up by Tim Berners-Lee (like Baden-Powell a knight of Britain’s exclusive Order of Merit)? What greetings will they use? What songs will sing?
And how will the network bear the scars of countries that have come to blows, made peace and repaired the damage, as have many of the nations in the worldwide community of scouts?
I picture a world much more complex than ours, more resilient too, yet in some ways instantly recognisable.
The example of scouting makes me optimistic about the decades to come – not because of the things we’ll invent between now and then, but because of the experiences we’ll share; because the future will have more history behind it.
… what the designers and engineers see as “pain points” aren’t necessarily that painful for people. The term satisficing, coined by Herbert Simon in 1956 (combining satisfy and suffice), refers to people’s tolerance — if not overall embracing — of “good enough” solutions…
Frankly, I discover satisficing in every research project: the unfiled MP3s sitting on the desktop, ill-fitting food container lids, and tangled, too-short cables connecting products are all “good enough” examples of satisficing. In other words, people find the pain of the problem to be less annoying than the effort to solve it.
I’m about a third of the way into Steve Portigal’s Interviewing Users but this bit rings especially true.
So much of the buzz around “smart cities” seems to focus on subtle optimisations and efficiencies – catching a bus a couple of minutes sooner, or turning the thermostat down a degree or two. Big data focused on small problems.
But wouldn’t the world be boring if everything was uniformly perfect? Maybe the capacity to work around life’s little frustrations is in itself a form of empowerment.
What if - for a while – we left alone all the stuff that’s good enough, and focused on delivering services that support people in making big decisions and enduring differences?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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”.
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.
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
“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” – Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina, opening line
Why did Glasgow win the right to host the Technology Strategy Board’s £24 million Future Cities Demonstrator? Project Leader Scott Cain reels off a set of doom-laden statistics: a looming crisis in affordable warmth; a high incidence of anti-social behaviour; a shocking 28-year life expectancy gap between rich and poor neighbourhoods. Oh, and good city leadership, the kind that’s up to hosting the 2014 Commonwealth Games.
Poverty, conflict and inequality rarely figure in the “smart city” visions of those who seek to sell infrastructure dressed as “technology”.
From Dan Hill’s call for “active citizens” not “smart cities” – “if we want people to think about carbon, don’t make the lights go out automatically.”…
… through Martijn de Waal’s pitting of computer-rendered master-planned Songdo against the very real, spontaneous “Seoulutions” of Hongdae: “engage and empower publics to act on communally shared issues.”…
… to Usman Haque’s praise for the messy city of Grub Street after 200 years of Enlightenment dirigisme: “a backlash of messiness in which the great uncalibrated rise up.”…
… and the audience’s line of questioning of the panel in which Scott, Martijn and Usman took part…
… it was abundantly clear that nobody likes a smart arse, even when it’s a city.
To frame problems in terms of efficiency is to miss the point of what it means to be a city, a platform for people’s numerous, contradictory drives and dreams.
The hunt for economies of scale chases us inexorably to the lowest common denominator. (So London gets the Future Cities “Catapult” because it’s Britain’s only “World City” – you can guess how this revelation went down in Manchester :)
Worst of all is the abdication of responsibility. Usman: “What I see specifically in the open data movement is that someone else is going to find the solution because it resides in the data.”
We’ve been here before, warns Dan, and the result was not pretty. It was Richard Weller’s “city that cars built when we weren’t looking.”
But if not that, then what?
Dan urges us to consider the power of engaging with the “dark matter” of local administrations and building codes.
Despite its unpromising name, I also found some answers in a session titled “Building Creative Ecologies for Smarter Cities”.
There, Claire Reddington of Bristol’s iShed talked about “keeping the money at the margins” and trusting “the unreasonable expectations of artists”: “Tech conferences often fetishise failure. If you are not predefining the outputs it’s hard to categorise something as a failure.”
I loved Claire’s suggestion that if you want to be part of a network it’s “best not to have all the bits” – for example not having an art gallery on-site at the Watershed had prompted collaborations with surrounding galleries and venues.
On the same panel was Doug Ward, co-founder of Tech Hub Manchester in a listed warehouse in the city’s Northern Quarter. Referencing Brad Feld’s “Boulder thesis”, he listed the reasons he chose to stay as an entrepreneur in his home city: its history, universities and culture.
My take-outs: Endurance is greater than scale; diversity more valuable than efficiency; and actors are what matter, the networks will follow.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Other groups looked at accessibility in Leeds Market and a playful way to get children cooking healthy meals with their families.
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.