The permit’s in the post

The question of whether there should be a local version of the Government Digital Service rumbles on. I wrote about it a couple of months ago, and lots of other people have too, most of them far more expert on the question than I am. That amounts to a lot of well-informed and passionate commentary, but much of it is quite abstract. This post comes at the issue from the opposite direction: if solving problems such as those described here is the question, is a local GDS the answer?

That thought was promoted by going through a new digital service offered by my local authority. I was delighted to find that it existed (it replaces queueing up in an office half way across the borough). It seemed to work (though at the time I wasn’t entirely sure since fulfilment remains firmly undigital and took a long time to happen). Some of it felt quite liberating (not needing to provide the same evidence of identity for the umpteenth time as for the first). And some of it seemed designed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. This starts as a story about a website, but it turns out to be much less about that than it might first appear.

So first a few reflection on being a user of the service. And then a few more general thoughts on what that might point to for doing digital better.

The story

I want to buy some parking permits. Not for my own car, because I don’t have one, but so that occasional visitors can park in residents’ spaces.

At first blush, the new modern looking service might have come out of the GDS stable. But on closer inspection – or actually using it – it’s riddled with small details (and one or two very big ones) which make clear that it’s actually a very different kind of beast.

Lambeth parking permit landing page

Let’s begin at the beginning. “Do it online” the landing page exhorts, followed mysteriously by “(external site)”.1 A couple of screens later, you get to choose what kind of permit you want, in a two-dimensional menu, the like of which I have never seen before. Clicking on “Visitors vouchers”2 has the unexpected effect of making the page scroll down, to prompt either logging on or continuing without an account. The chosen option is in fact highlighted – but on my reasonably large screen, the scrolling goes far enough to make that invisible, introducing another sense of uncertainty about what might actually be going on. Moving on, they want to establish that I am entitled to buy permits in the first place. This is genuinely a big improvement: instead of scrabbling around to find old gas bills, they just do a credit reference search.3

Lambeth parking permit selection

Then it gets really strange. The next screen allows me to select the number of parking vouchers I want. Or does it? It’s the same two-dimensional tiled menu as before, but this time clicking on any of the options has no apparent effect whatsoever. There is a basket on the right of the screen which remains resolutely empty with an amount due of £0.00 as I try to choose ever larger quantities of permits. Nothing happens. In the end, since there is nothing else to do, I click on ‘Continue to terms and conditions’. Two things happen on the screen which follows. The first is that the basket now shows the number of vouchers and the price. But since I was randomly clicking around trying to get some kind – any kind – of reaction on the previous screen, the number in the basket is much larger than the number I actually want to buy.

The second thing which becomes apparent is that there is no way back. None. Not then, not at any subsequent point in the process. Having made an invisible choice for an invisible basket, the only way of correcting that choice is to abandon the process and start all over again. But if you try that, there is a further sting in the tail. I kept going with the wrong amount as far as I possibly could, in the expectation that at some point there just had to be a a way of updating the quantity. I was wrong. But it then turned out I was worse than wrong. These permits are rationed – 50 per household per year. This new system keeps a running total of how many I have bought and thus of how many I am still entitled to buy. And it has deducted from my total the permits I didn’t buy, as well as those I subsequently did.4

But eventually I did get to the end, ready to buy the permits I wanted, though with my confidence a little shaken by the effort it had taken to get there. The payment process did not offer quite the reassurance I had been hoping for – “Redirecting to Payoffshore……” it proclaimed, flourishing a name which could have been invented by a Nigerian spammer on a particularly unimaginative day.5

Lambeth parking permit selection

But that’s finally the end of the process. Or rather it’s just the beginning. I have asked for – and paid for – some permits. But I don’t yet have the permits and there is some back office work to be done. Now as it happens I know roughly how long that takes, because in the old system I used to queue up in an office and watch somebody do the work on the spot. Five minutes is plenty. Ten minutes would be generous. Fifteen minutes would be absurd.6 Apparently, though, it may take them up to ten working days to find the five minutes needed.

And remarkably it turned out that they needed every one of those ten working days. Counting actual days and time in the post, which is what matters to me, it took 17 days for those permits to get to me. It’s rather a good thing I wasn’t in a hurry.7

The moral

I have told that story not because the details are important but because it’s a really good illustration of lessons at three different levels. Only one of them is ostensibly about the web service, which is a good reminder that ‘fixing the website’ is rarely a good way of framing the problem.

Detail matters

At the first level, though, even if fixing the website isn’t sufficient, it’s certainly necessary. User confidence is a product of complex cues and responses to them which are not always conscious. No one of the problems I have described – or of the several more I could have described – breaks the process and any one of them is surmountable. But cumulatively they do a lot to undermine confidence. I have no idea what the completion rate is, but I am willing to bet it could be a great deal higher.

This is also a good illustration of the principle that if you are going to use non-standard interaction design, you need to be really confident that it works, which includes making absolutely sure that it offers the right affordance.

Fulfilment matters

One level up from that, it’s pretty clear that polishing the website will not address the problem that it is a veneer over a broken process. A process time of five minutes should not go with an elapsed time of 17 days, particularly when the old, slow inefficient manual process has an elapsed time of about 90 minutes, including travelling and waiting. It looks as though somebody has designed a web transaction. It doesn’t look as though anybody has designed a service. 

Imagination  matters

But we shouldn’t stop there. I am not really buying small cardboard rectangles, which need to be physically delivered. I am buying the right to park in certain circumstances, which doesn’t. Tax discs are in the same category and it seems auspicious that this post is being published on the day they are being abolished. Long before there was any prospect of that happening, but when it was first possible to renew the tax disc online, William Heath was pithy and precise:

Hurrah for the car tax disc renewal process. It used to be both inconvenient and pointless. Now it’s just pointless.

It’s always a bad sign when a piece of information held by government is converted into physical form in order to allow the same or another part of government to convert it back to digital. Why have a shiny new service to issue parking permits when it would be so much better to have a shiny new service to not issue parking permits?

The moral of the moral

This has been a pretty limited story. It is one person’s experience of one service offered by one local authority. But that service is newly redesigned and newly automated, and I am pretty sure that it’s not yet as good as it could be or as it needs to be. More specifically, I doubt that it would meet the GDS digital by default service standard. That’s not to say that this is a job for GDS, still less one that only GDS could do. But as local authority services go, this is at the simple end of the spectrum, and it looks as though something better is needed to get things right.

Is a local GDS the solution? I made slightly heavy weather of the general answer to that question in my earlier post. Coming at it afresh from this slightly different perspective feels easier in some ways – but only in some. It is much harder to do this stuff well than to write blog posts criticising the doing of it. Concentrating and amplifying that expertise has much to commend it. But the other thing which GDS critically has is a licence to operate. It has renewed and extended that licence over time, but it did not create it – the initial spark has to come from elsewhere.

On balance, the story told here makes me more inclined to the idea of a local GDS. It would have to find ways of being local. It would have to find ways of not being GDS. It would have to be as concerned about back office processes as about visible interactions. But if it could be all those things, there is no shortage of great work waiting to be done.

  1. Clicking the link does indeed take you to a separate subdomain, but not in the normal “if you click this link, you’re on your own and we wash our hands of the consequences” sense. So the only thing those words can do is generate a little pointless FUD.
  2. No, no apostrophe.
  3. But strangely, having gone through the process once and created an account, on subsequent visits name and phone number are retained, address is retained but deselected, and date of birth is thrown away and has to be re-entered. The overall effect is bizarrely random.
  4. Even if this bit of record keeping was not broken, which it clearly is, it would carry a more subtle problem: the limit is now, it seems, hard coded, and leeway is therefore abolished. The limit of 50 existed in the old world too, but I strongly suspect that there it meant ‘we reserve the right to stop selling you more if you are clearly abusing the system’. Now it probably means ’50’.
  5. And when the payment appeared on my bank statement, the description was  “WWW.E-PAYCO , BALT.COM , INTERNET GB” which doesn’t sound a great deal better.
  6. And that’s for the old process, which was necessarily more labour intensive than the new.
  7. Of course, if I had actually been in a hurry, I wouldn’t have used the new online service at all – I would have got a bus to the council office, spent twenty minutes in a queue and left with the permits in my hand.  That process certainly isn’t perfect, but it is spectacularly faster.

The power of information, tube strike second edition

As an update to yesterday’s post showing how much better TfL information can be presented by applying a little bit of information design, here is an even better example – it’s a cleaner map, with more information and it’s by far the clearest guide to what will be happening that I have seen.

Again though, this does not come from TfL. The owners of the most iconic map in the world are still not managing to make use of its power.

Tube Strike Map

There is a link to a much larger version on the original site.

The power of information, tube strike edition

If you don’t know what’s going on in a system, it’s very hard to know how to respond to it. Those who have information are powerful, those who share information empower others.

Some of that is about big stuff, but some of it is about very small things. So in the next couple of days, there is likely to be a strike of London Underground workers, which will result in substantial disruption to the network. The question is how much and where.

Transport for London know that’s what we want to know, and provide a prominent link on their home page. So far so good.

screen shot of TfL home page with link to pdf document on service plansWhat we get, though, is a link to a pdf document, colour coded to a rough approximation of the line colours, which describes what is likely to happen on each line. There’s nothing wrong with the information, but it’s not easy to parse, particularly if you are less than completely familiar with the shape of the network. And even if you can work out where the trains are going, you still need to see whether they are going to stop where you want them to, as stations may be closed even when lines are open. Those stations are listed alphabetically, which makes a degree of sense, but makes it hard to answer the obvious question, ‘if the station I want is closed, is the next one open?’

Could there be a better way? It turns out that there could. The tube is of course famous for its map, and what better way to give an immediate impression of what’s going on than with an appropriately adjusted one. Enter Ian Mansfield, the eponymous writer of IanVisits, who has done exactly that (with a link there to a much bigger version). map doesn’t tell you everything – it doesn’t say anything about likely frequencies, for example, but it tells you a lot very vividly which isn’t immediately obvious from the TfL text. Barking is the only station open between Upminster and West Ham. You can get a train from Cockfosters, but it won’t take you very far.

This isn’t about lack of capability. TfL are doing some rather good work on a replacement for their website, with some very smart people working on it (even if I have been a bit sniffy about aspects of their approach). But it’s certainly about a missed opportunity to use design thinking. So all credit to Ian – though we really shouldn’t have to rely on him.

Imagining the future

There is a lot of pseudo-scientific claptrap published about the future. There are people who carefully extrapolate trends, construct complex scenarios, weight many outcomes, some of whom necessarily get some things right through sheer chance, but many of whom appear to rely on nobody checking back from the future to see how well they did.

The future doesn’t have to be analysed, of course. It can also be imagined. Some imaginings are pure and unashamed fantasy. Others are based on thoughtful consideration of what the not very distant future might look like, based on the often overlooked premise that ‘the future is going to be like the present, only with extra layers’ – though tempered by the earlier thought from the same author that ‘trying to second-guess the near future is increasingly impossible’.

But imagination is not just for science fiction writers. More than a little surprisingly, Consult Hyperion, who describe themselves as ‘thought leaders in digital money and digital identity’ organise an annual competition ‘to develop links between the financial industry and creative practitioners from around the world’.

This year’s challenge was to design a future financial crime. I got to see the shortlisted entries being presented last week, and they have now been published online. I was particularly taken with the eventual winner, Bigshot:

What happens at the convergence of Anonymous Routing, Crypto-Anarchy and Crowd Funding?

In 2013, the individual is capable of wielding more power than ever before. The proliferation of anonymous, web based technologies will enable this yield exponentially, creating the potential for devious criminal activity on a scale never before possible. Imagine a world where dangerous minds have a public platform to solicit support from anyone with an internet connection.

That world is imagined in this video – well worth three minutes of your time.

As well as being an entertaining piece of dystopian thinking, I think it’s worth thinking about the approach more generally. Kudos to Dave Birch and the Consult Hyperion team for having the imagination and confidence for introducing this kind of experimental creativity into a sector not renowned for it. But the cross fertilisation of business strategy and creative arts has equal potential elsewhere. Back in 2006, I noted the splendid performance of the Helsinki Complaints Choir, which does precisely what the name suggests (and is worth another eight minutes). And in a sense, this reframing of the context, forcing a different view of an issue, is what service designers do as, for example, this extract from Snook’s principles shows:

We generate innovative concepts by making space, mentally and physically to be creative and take risks. Design is not just about incremental change and service design but about systems and transformation.

It would be great to apply artistic creativity more widely to understand the futures we might build and the futures which might create the environment in which we build. Perhaps Bigshot will give us the means to crowdsource it.

Nativity scene

Harry has a new baby. The baby needs a passport. Or does she?

It is easy to be swept away by visual design, by clarity of language, by transparency of navigation and many other things besides. It is easy to confuse those things – any of them, or all of them collectively – with effectiveness at getting things done. It is easy to praise or criticise web sites for how straightforward they are to pretend to use.

We try to get past those traps by user testing, drawing as far as possible on people characteristic of the service concerned. But all too often, we find ourselves asking testers, ‘what would you do if…?’.

In the end, there is no substitute for user testing being done by actual users trying to meet an actual need, which is one of many reasons why the idea that a web service can be finished before it is turned on is so delusional. Obstacles and difficulties will be found by actual users which the most well meaning and most realistic test users will miss altogether or respond to very differently.

So the news that Harry knows his baby needs a passport has a wider importance than it might first seem. Now all he needs to do is to remember that he probably needs to pack just a little more than he used to.


Alpha conversation

This is how conversations work, or rather how one conversation played out on twitter this morning. Tricky subject, no right answer, constructive discussion.* But perhaps most important of all, those issues are being discussed in public for a government proof of concept which hasn’t yet even been launched. It is that which is more radical and, for the long term, more valuable than the issue at hand.

Update 8 May: And then 24 hours later, the same conversation restarted. The very things which make twitter a powerful and immediate communication channel also make it hard to see what has gone before and – I have even more forcibly realised – hard to transcribe and preserve. A few more tweets added below.

* It is the nature of twitter discussions that there was more to it than this, but from what I could see, this was the core thread of the conversation.

Update: The following day…

Blurred reading

When I was 17, my first proper paid job was in the public library just down the road from the Elephant and Castle. It was the first time I had come across large print books. They had their own section, and there was a huge demand for them. But though it was much more intensely used, the selection was much more limited, partly because they served only a fairly small proportion of the library’s users, but partly of course because only a very narrow range of titles was produced in the first place. They looked very boring and very distinctive – no money was wasted on design or on attracting readers, the covers were just slabs of colour, and they stood out at fifty paces.

That was a long time ago.

A few months ago, I got a kindle, slightly accidentally – I hadn’t thought I wanted one. To my surprise, it has more or less instantly become my preferred means of reading book-length texts. There are several reasons for that, but this post isn’t yet another kindle-groupie breathless review, so I am going to focus on just one feature which, from what I have seen, had got relatively little attention.

You can adjust the size of the text.

The kindle destroys the concept of a large print book, because it’s not the book which has a print size any more, it’s the reader (in both senses, the device and its user).

That instantly means that I can adjust my kindle to a size which is comfortable for me, which is bigger than most publishers’ default, though much smaller than large print. That’s a really useful feature for me as an individual. But it also has much wider implications. It means that there is no reason why every book should not be available for every reader, it means that there isn’t a highly constrained choice of books for people with weaker sight, and it means that the arbitrary, binary, and stigmatising divide between ordinary books and the large print list goes away.

All of that makes the kindle a lovely example of technology which changes the context in which it operates.

Most of the borrowers of large print books all those years ago were elderly ladies. I doubt that their successors of today are high on the target list for Amazon’s marketing of the kindle. But their successors of tomorrow could find that an almost accidental characteristic of easy technological flexibility brings a segregated service and segregated customers into the mainstream.

Reality distortion fields

Every person and every organisation has some form of reality distortion field. Some are more severe than others, and according to Stephen Toulouse, Microsoft has a particularly severe version of the problem:

The Redmond Reality Distortion Field:

The field that influences Microsoft employees and product designers to make wildly incorrect assumptions on the use of technology, computers and devices by the world. The field is caused by the fact that Microsoft employees tend to be far more affluent and have free access to technology than the general population. Generated by Microsoft employees, the field is centered in Redmond but can manifest itself weakly in any area where a significant number of employees gather, such as remote campuses or subsidiaries.

Its most common effect on individuals is to make design decisions or requests either on the way customers should use products as opposed to how they actually use them, or by the interoperability of a product in the unique environment of the employee’s home.

The field itself is invisible and exceedingly hard to detect, as once under its influence reality itself becomes distorted. Entire Microsoft products have been designed under the influence of the field.

Anyone who is not an ordinary customer of their own service is vulnerable to this effect. And it is almost impossible for anybody who had anything to do with the design or delivery of a service to be an ordinary user in this sense, if only because, by definition, they know too much.

That much is understood enough for the concept – or at least the rhetoric – of user centred design to be getting increasing prominence (if not necessarily similarly increasing traction). Even that though is easily undermined by a sufficiently powerful Reality Distortion Field. The result is innovation which is not necessarily very innovative or designing for users who are not very like the actual users of the service concerned. Anthony Zacharzewski has written a really interesting piece reflecting on how to create innovation which is democratic and scalable. The problem he sees is that:

There is a three-way divide between existing public service providers, who understand the context and constraints on change, the public themselves, who give legitimacy and are best able to articulate their needs and aspirations, and innovators both inside and outside traditional public service organisations.

The separation between these three elements is reducing rather than increasing the scope for innovation. Barcamp events produce good ideas, but are not networked into existing power arrangements. Public services are trying to innovate within existing structures, but cannot access the local enthusiasm and expertise which could keep programmes running and maintain innovation after outside agents have moved on to other things. Existing structures, cultures and processes within public services hinder innovation, not by building brick walls, but through a thousand little difficulties and inconveniences. As spending cuts take hold, there is a risk that innovation and energy will dissipate.

His solution is to propose the creation of an innovative civic space, ‘based on the democratic conversation’, which support the triangle of citizens, innovators and public services.

The space needs to provide connections, context and means of implementation. These are likely to focus around events, co-design sessions with public services, opening up seed resources or research, and links with innovators and ideas beyond the local area. Throughout this, the democratic conversation takes and informs citizens’ views, and engages them in the design and delivery of improved services.



This is powerful and interesting thinking which needs and deserves more reflection. One of my immediate reactions – from a central government large system perspective – is to wonder how far along the spectrum from research to participation to democratic validation it is possible in practice to get. Another is to recall a thought from Bruce Tognazzini which I have quoted before:

User-testing does not result in brilliant design. That requires brilliant designers. User testing guarantees that whatever level of design a company has been able to achieve will actually work.

In other words, the trick is to blend in the right proportions the professional expertise (and focused, dedicated and sustained time) to design, build and operate a service with the expertise of users and democratic owners of the system to understand, express and design the service which meets their needs.

Back in my own Reality Distortion Field (as if I could ever leave it), the challenge is to marry these approaches with the constraints of large system changes in a large organisation. Creating the necessary agility in not wholly promising circumstances will be the subject of my next post.

Design Jam

I have written a couple of times about the gap I see between the brilliance of hack days, as exemplified by Rewired State, and the need to build customer needs and user experience into the mix:

These projects can get off to a great start using their originators as their own use case, but they won’t become sustainable on that basis. Government has painfully learned – or, rather, is painfully learning – that starting off with the assumption that you know what is best for people doesn’t deliver the greatest results. I am not quite sure where the tipping point comes between creator-evangelists and customer-centred design, but I am sure it has to come somewhere.

So I was delighted to spot this flowing through the twitter time line:

The concept of a design jam is a new one to me, but it sounds as though it’s a cross between a hack day and an unconference/barcamp:

Design Jams are one-day design sessions, during which people team up to solve engaging UX challenges.

While conferences and talks are very popular in the UX community, we don’t have many events for actual collaboration, like the ‘hackdays’ enjoyed by the development community. Design Jams get designers together to learn from each other while working on actual problems. The sessions champion open-source thinking and are non-profit, run by local volunteers.

Sounds like a fantastic idea, even though I am left slightly wondering how you do user experience design without involving some users. I am not remotely qualified to go myself, but would be fascinated to see the final presentations – it would be great if the organisers were to open those up to interested non-participants.

Tickets are available from 1pm on Monday.