14 April 2011
This apparently ordinary station on the Berlin U-Bahn is remarkable for two reasons, one visible and one not visible at all.
The first is fairly apparent. The typeface of the station name and the brown tiles give a clue, though the full splendour of the orange ceiling doesn’t really come across in the picture. This is the 1970s in unabashed glory.
The second reason is not apparent at all. It is that as well as being an underground station, this is also a nuclear shelter. In the concourse above and in the tunnels, massive doors are ready to swing into place. Just by the ticket machines, a small discreet door in the wall leads to interlocking steel doors, a decontamination area, and then a warren of rooms and passages providing everything necessary to keep three and a half thousand people safe for two weeks, before emerging into the post-nuclear dawn. Trains were to be parked at the platforms to provide extra space, with bunk beds four high on the platform itself.
It is extraordinary, impressive – and a complete folly. It formed part of a civil defence network for Berlin which in total provided 20,000 places for two million inhabitants. It was a gesture, not a defence system.
From our omniscient viewpoint 35 years on, it is easy to ask why on earth anybody thought this was a good or necessary idea. It’s fairly clear that it was a gesture, but a gesture to whom, signifying what?
Of course it didn’t look like that at the time. It never does.
This is a particularly stark example, partly because of the speed with which the perceived threat of the cold war dissipated. But it is very far from being unique. Options may be appraised, costs and benefits assessed, future proofing added and gold plating removed, but still solutions emerge from the paradigm within which they were created. Perhaps it was once obvious that the building of a new station should be seen as an opportunity to build a shelter as well.
None of us will make exactly that mistake, of course. But we are no more immune to follies of policy and delivery than our predecessors were. The difference is only that ours are not yet visible to us: it will be apparent in a few decades – perhaps sooner – where we are going wrong. That’s not much good of course: if we are going to fail, much better to fail early, in time to do something else instead.
If the only problem with the Pankstrasse shelter were that we can now marvel in its pointlessness, there would be little point in worrying about it. There is a strong case for saying, though, that this is a folly which could have been avoided; that the problem was not the absence of information but its interpretation. Knowing (or thinking) that provides no guarantee that we can do better, but it does suggest that innovation by simple extrapolation may not be the best way of designing policies for the long term.
They still test the doors which seal the tunnels once a year. And the ceiling is still orange.
2 April 2011
One of the myths of command and control is that those who issue commands believe they have control.
24 March 2011
The postman came. I was out. He left a card to tell me that there was something which needed to be signed for. That means a trip to the sorting office on Saturday to collect it. Or I can go online to arrange for it to be redelivered. Much more straightforward to do that. Surely.
Perhaps not. From the landing page on the Royal Mail website, it takes eight further screens to arrange this apparently simple service. But worse is still to come. Actually, the postman brought two things not one. On the card through the letterbox, there is a box which shows the number of items. In the screenshot (click to see a larger version), which otherwise mimics the layout of the card, that box is missing. And although there was room for the postman to stick two reference numbers on the bottom of the card, there is room to enter only one on the screen.
Happily the FAQ are there to show the way:
What do I do if there is more than one item indicated on the ‘Something for you’ card for redelivery?
Less happily, the answer is brisk, clear, but unwelcome:
You need to process one redelivery request per item.
The second time round this should be easier. On the final screen (though not, curiously, the first), there is a prompt to register an account and log on. As it happens, I have an account already, so once logged on, the second pass through the process will doubtless be much more straightforward. Or not: precisely two fields are now pre-populated, 7½ screens still to go in order to change one digit (and one check digit).
It’s not that Royal Mail doesn’t care. Once through the marathon, I was asked to take part in a feedback survey. In the heat of the moment I may have overdone the opprobrium, though once I discovered that there was a compulsory question requiring me to rate parts of the site I had not visited, my sense of guilt diminished sharply.
Any fool can carp, of course. Criticism is cheap. I don’t know why this service is quite as clunky as it is, though I can make a few guesses. The first is that organisationally, Royal Mail is a poorly integrated federation, and that they have not been able to get their web architecture to transcend those divisions. I have some sympathy with that (people in glasshouses shouldn’t throw stones…), but it’s really not an adequate excuse.
A second is that their transactions, and this transaction in particular, are a thin veneer sitting on top of old and ugly processes. Again, some sympathy: a clunky service may well be better than no service at all, but even imagining the string and cocoa tins connecting this front end to the sorting office, it could so easily be better than this.
And a third possible reason is an inappropriate security model. All they really need is enough information to identify the address and items waiting for delivery associated with it. But if delivery is still to the original address, there is nothing which makes a second delivery attempt more vulnerable to interception than the first (curiously, when they succeed in delivering, they understand they are validating to an address, but when collecting from a sorting office, they attempt to validate to a person).
Only one of those reasons is about the visible user experience, but in combination they are deadly, and demonstrate yet again that having a better website is necessary, but far from sufficient, for having a better website.
So perhaps next time, I will go back to queuing at the sorting office, shifting myself not the channel.
Update: Paul Clarke has a more radical proposal. Rather than trying to fix the notification problem, he tackles the root cause which is a delivery model based on an assumption that people are at home when deliveries happen.
21 March 2011
Things which caught my eye elsewhere on the web
- Commercial Use of your API – why you should allow it | The London Biker The great thing about letting people make money is that they’ll make you money in return – you don’t have to spend months locked away in an R&D lab – but more importantly you’ll see stuff you’ve never even thought of. It’s the Hack Day theory – Hack Days are a pressure cooker for innovation, an intensified period of R&D that months of traditional work could not replicate.But what if you’re a not-for profit? The BBC? Government? Well then… it’s even more important that you let people make money from public data. Government data has a problem – it’s really not cool – it attracts amazing developers who want to make the world a better place. But what about those developers who want to make the world a better place and need to put a meal on the table? It’s either direct subsidy – or let them build something that they can sell – not the data itself perhaps – but a service built on that data.
- Twitter Locks Down, Ending Its Reign as the Next Big Thing – Alexandra Samuel – Harvard Business Review But there’s a reason “creative chaos” is a well-worn phrase. Creativity gets messy. Messiness is fine when you’re a bootstrapping startup, but once you’re a social networking behemoth with hundreds of millions of users and a multi-billion-dollar valuation, messiness equals risk. The risk of turning off even one percent of your users (that’s 2 million people for Twitter) carries bottom-line costs. The strategy of letting a thousand flowers bloom starts to look a little less attractive.
- allan’s blog – Agile, Lean, Patterns: Humans can’t estimate tasks What the fallacy says is two-fold:
- Humans systematically underestimate how long it will take to do a task
- Humans are over confident in their own estimates
Breaking out of the fallacy is hard. Simply saying “estimate better” or “remember how long previous tasks took” won’t work. You might just succeed in increasing the estimate to something longer than it takes to do but you are still no more accurate.
- » Where Innovation Belongs in User-Centered Design Johnny Holland – It’s all about interaction » Blog Archive User Experience can no longer be just about ease of use, counting clicks, and conforming to standards; we as practitioners need to become the architects ofbeautiful user experiences. We can no longer just evaluate design, or even just create good design ourselves, we have to be able to foster user-centered creativity in our project teams at large to witness a truly user-centered experience come to life. Beautiful experiences start from the moment your user hears about your product and includes everything from your marketing message to ease of use, engaging interactions, and emotionally enriching design.
- Cartoon: Usability and online fundraising | Noise to Signal Cartoon For the organizations and agencies that raise money to provide relief, this is a critical time. Potential donors are seized with the urgency of the situation — and are flocking to their websites.Which means usability suddenly takes on even greater importance. Add one form field too many, program in an unnecessary intermediate step, put a button here instead of there, and you can lose those donors… and the money they might have given.That might sound silly and irrational, and it is. Nobody deliberately makes the calculated decision that their compassion for another human being is outweighed by the inconvenience of a poorly-coded pull-down menu.
But unconsciously, that’s exactly what happens: some part of our brain figures we’ve clicked one too many times, and bails on a cause we care about. Maybe that doesn’t speak well of us as a species, but it speaks volumes about the importance of usability testing.
- the Centre for Technology Policy Research | CTPR To mark these 15 years of dreams and ambitions, we thought we’d start bringing together and publishing a range of government strategy and policy documents. One thing this list makes clear: there’s never been any lack of political aspirations for IT. Groundhog Day like, the same ideas are repeated constantly throughout the 15 years, yet little headway seems to be made. The elusive vision seems to be as far away on the horizon as it was back in 1996.
14 March 2011
Paul Clarke had been on a journey. Well two, actually.
The first was to get a bit of routine business done with government, updating the photograph on his driving licence. He has written a blow by blow account of how that didn’t work the way it should have done. Follow the link and read it now.
The second was to give not only that account, but a powerful message which should be heard and acted on by designers of public services – designers of any services – anywhere and everywhere. It is that it is the journey which matters, the whole package which adds up to the complete experience of getting done what needs to be done. We need better web design. We need better form design. We need contact centres which can be human and effective. But we don’t need any of those things in isolation. They add up to a service, and it is the service we need to get right.
11 March 2011
You are walking down the stairs in an office building. At each level, there is a sign on the door to tell you where you are. Quick, which floor are you on?
The fact that I asked the question probably made you look more closely than you would otherwise have done, so spotting that the right answer is 3, not 5. But all the visual emphasis is on the 5 – from more than a couple of feet away, that’s all that really registers.
Knowing which staircase is which clearly matters to some people for some purposes – being able to specify where a light bulb needs fixing, for example. For almost all people for almost all purposes, it does not matter at all. The only piece of information which matters is the floor number – and that matters a lot.
It is hard to think of a simpler example than this one of how a user interface could be improved. But the real lesson is perhaps not that it would be better to make the 3 big and the 5 tiny or non-existent on that sign – though undoubtedly it would be – but that there is something about the process which led to the wrong answer having been reached in the first place.
My guess about this one (and it is only a guess) is that users were involved in the decisions about the signs, but that they were the wrong users. By unhappy coincidence, the people responsible for putting signs on staircases are precisely the people for whom the non-standard use of the sign matters most, because they are also the people who fix the light bulbs. They have, it appears, treated themselves as typical customers.
I have seen the same mistake made at much greater expense and with much more serious consequences in much bigger and more complicated systems than this. When specialised users are in a position to specify a service to meet their needs, that is what they will do, even if they are a small minority of the overall user base.
We may be users of the services we design. But we are not the users we should be designing for.
11 March 2011
Things which caught my eye elsewhere on the web
- That’s not my name « We Love Local Government So what are we to do? Firstly, stop getting so het up about how we describe the people who we serve. Secondly, realise that universal names don’t work. Universally decreeing that we must describe everyone as customers is not going to help any more than seeing everyone as merely a council tax payer. And if anyone fancies adding a few names to the list do let us know!
- Public service blogging is not redundant | Patrick Butler | Society | The Guardian Bloggers, I believed, were rewriting the media script: the mainstream press would feel inauthentic by comparison; bloggers would become influential, and would, by virtue of their powerful truth-telling, influence policy and force institutions, from Whitehall to the town hall, to become more open and accountable. “It is bloggers… and not politicians, PR managers or the traditional media, who are beginning to tell the real inside story of public services,” I wrote.Was I right? No.
- You wouldn’t do this to a dog… – honestlyreal And six times a year, I faithfully type out my full credit card details and address, having already repeated the names and school of my children. This is utter rubbish. A classic example of a government transaction that nobody seems to care about. Where even the rational benefits of reducing error and saving someone in the school the trouble of filling in all those little handwritten slips seem to count for absolutely nothing.[...]
So it stays up there—yet another orphaned bastard child of an e-government movement that stubbornly refuses to stop looking utterly crap.
- Who herded the cats? | Emma Mulqueeny The problem is that the future is catching up with us, and we need to free the thinkers again. A collective deep breath needs to be taken and we all need to be a little bit more brave and trust in our own abilities, despite the occasional hissing and spitting, and free up some time for those we respect. Of course there is a mammoth amount of work to do and people who still need help working through everything that has changed, but this needs to become part of the day job for everyone now.
- Peak State revisited | Flip Chart Fairy Tales The welfare state, then, has peaked. It is now, like the UK’s relative economic position, in a steady long-term decline. We are unlikely to see high levels of state provision again. Historians of the future will no doubt argue about when the Peak State point was reached. What is almost certain, though, is that we are now well past it.
- Method: Eight Things Stand-Up Comedy Teaches Us About Innovation | Co.Design Comedy, especially stand-up, is widely regarded as the most difficult gig in show business. Similarly, successful product innovation is so difficult, it could be regarded as the stand-up comedy of the business world.
- How the Government Gateway works – honestlyreal For a service that plays a part in millions of online public service transactions a year, the Government Gateway is surprisingly poorly understood, and described. What you can find online varies from the noble attempt (but not exactly functionally descriptive) to the flamboyant, to the technical, and on to the slightly bizarre.But nothing in plain language that really sets out what’s going on. And, perhaps, what isn’t. I have something of a fascination around the mechanics of authorisation and authentication, particularly when applied to government services, so here goes.
9 March 2011
Sitting in a meeting on user interface design, which might or might not have tipped over into being about user centred design, but seemed at little risk of drifting into user experience design, my mind began to wander.
Unaccountably, a passage from the Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy drifted to the front of my mind:
He had found a Nutri-Matic machine which had provided him with a plastic cup filled with a liquid that was almost, but not quite, entirely unlike tea. The way it functioned was very interesting. When the Drink button was pressed it made an instant but highly detailed examination of the subject’s taste buds, a spectroscopic analysis of the subject’s metabolism and then sent tiny experimental signals down the neural pathways to the taste centres of the subject’s brain to see what was likely to go down well. However, no one knew quite why it did this because it invariably delivered a cupful of liquid that was almost, but not quite, entirely unlike tea. The Nutri-Matic was designed and manufactured by the Sirius Cybernetics Corporation whose complaints department now covers all the major land masses of the first three planets in the Sirius Tau Star system.
Sometimes, doing service design in the public sector (only in the public sector?) feels a bit like that. There has been a huge step forward, not just in recognising the principle that designing for and with customers is the right approach, but in making serious attempts to do it.
We have dug deep into their neural pathways. We have documented their attitudes and expectations. We know what they like and what they don’t. We know what they think they are trying to achieve.
And then we serve up a liquid which is almost, but not quite, entirely unlike tea.
So not only do we fail to provide tea when tea is wanted, we also keep providing the same thing to everyone despite having some understanding of individual needs and expectations.
I am confidently looking forward to my trip to Sirius Tau to take up my new position in the nether regions of the complaints department.