Aphorism 103

19 February 2014

Design is a behaviour, not a department

The source of this is obscure: this picture crops up in many places, but never seems to be attributed. It’s not even clear whether the picture is of an actual magazine spread or is a free-standing image. But my immediate source was this tweet by Eric Villemin, retweeted by Mike Bracken.

Past aphorisms are collected on the aphorism archive page

Aphorism 102

18 February 2014

If we really want transformation, we have to slog through the hard stuff (history, economics, philosophy, art, ambiguities, contradictions). Bracketing it off to the side to focus just on technology, or just on innovation, actually prevents transformation.

Benjamin Bratton

Past aphorisms are collected on the aphorism archive page

Aphorism 101

17 February 2014

Fear of mistakes rules out experiment, and when you rule out experiment, you store up failure.

Ian Leslie
Past aphorisms are collected on the aphorism archive page

The hive mind in a hundred aphorisms

14 February 2014

In September 2009, for no reason I can remember, I turned a pithy comment by a complete stranger into a minimalist blog post. A week or so later, I did it again. And a few days after that, I did it a third time, and so, rather unwittingly, a series had begun.

The hundredth aphorism has just been posted, with an added dash of self-indulgent pretentiousness to mark the occasion. I have also created a page which lists the complete set (and a link to it in the sidebar) in a way which makes them much more visible than a category listing could achieve. The list is sortable by aphorist as well as by the text of the aphorism (the latter is pretty pointless, but does allow the generation of found poetry). In further celebration, I declare next week to be another aphorism week, with a new one out every day.

The thing the aphorisms have in common is that there is something about the turn of phrase and something about the underlying thought which caught my eye. The thing they show collectively is partly the kinds of things likely to catch my eye, and partly what the hive mind is thinking about and what it is thinking about it.1

The list also makes it possible to see who the aphorists are collectively. I was a bit surprised to see how many different people are represented, and wouldn’t have guessed the person who got the top spot.  Nor would I have guessed that a place on the list would become as socially desirable as seems to be the case in some quarters:

Ten people feature twice each:

  • Chris Dillow
  • Clay Shirky
  • David Eaves
  • David Weinberger
  • Flip Chart Rick
  • Geoff Mulgan
  • Paul Clarke
  • Seth Godin
  • Steven Johnson
  • William Perrin

But the clear leader is John Kay, with four entries. His columns are always well worth reading,  but I have no idea why he should be such an outlier.

Even more unexpected is that the 103 aphorisms in the first hundred (three are double entries) come from 90 different writers. Or perhaps that shouldn’t be surprising at all: there are plenty of interesting people around, saying plenty of interesting things.

  1. And the list also shows that there are a few entries which are too long and complicated really to be aphorisms at all.

Aphorisms 100

14 February 2014

You will be misunderstood.

Seth Godin

Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must remain silent.

Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, proposition 7

Past aphorisms are collected on the aphorism archive page

Interesting elsewhere – 12 February 2014

12 February 2014

Things which caught my eye elsewhere on the web

The policy world and academia offer widely different opportunities for early career researchers. | Impact of Social Sciences
In academia you look for a problem you can answer well, and in policy you find the best answer you can to the problem you are given.

Striking a balance between security and usability | Government Digital Service
All too often, it’s been the case that people have approached security as something that either people who deal with compliance and writing documents deal with, or that the techies deal with. It’s a fundamental part of the service; it’s not this separate thing that one team thinks about.

Five Things You Might Not Know About Offices: 1. The Office Is Not Dead | spaceandorganisation
So what exactly is it that the office adds to our working lives, or in other words, what are the affordances of space? Grounded in my research, I would argue that space is important since it affords 1) co-presence, 2) encounter and 3) routines.

There is no UX, there is only UX | disambiguity
The truth is that, for many of our projects, the truly challenging user experience issues come not from designing the interface*, but from the constraints of the product that must be designed. Those constraints and challenges tend to come from our friends in policy or standards, or procurement or other parts of the organisation. Try as you might, you can’t interface away inappropriate policy.

The Four Freedoms | Matt Mullenweg
I believe that software, and in fact entire companies, should be run in a way that assumes that the sum of the talent of people outside your walls is greater than the sum of the few you have inside. None of us are as smart as all of us.

Flip Chart Fairy Tales | Business Bullshit, Corporate Crap and other stuff from the World of Work
A well-managed hierarchy is among the most effective weapons for getting rid of the friction, incompetence, and politics that plague bad organisations.

We need to start talking about public service reform again : RSA blogs
Instead of focussing solely on supply side reform and choice and competition, we need to understand how better to manage demand. This is about households, families and communities – what they want for their lives, what they expect from public services and what they can do for themselves. Unless public services start to engage with and try to change the dynamics of demand then they will face a bleak future as residualised services.

Office in the coffee

7 February 2014

As an antidote to the three posts this week criticising London transport maps and information, a particularly splendid reworking of the tube map has been going the rounds recently (click on it to see a bigger version).

London coffee tube map

It shows the names of good independent coffee shops in place of station names. That could be really handy on reaching the surface in an unfamiliar part of town. Or of course when refuge is needed because there are no trains.

The map comes from Out of Office – a site dedicated to the proposition that work is better done in coffee shops than in offices. And that, of course, is an idea which fits very nicely with another recent theme on this blog.

The power of information – strikingly ineffective edition

6 February 2014

When transport is disrupted, the first casualty is information. People who know what the alternatives are, what’s working and what’s not, what’s impossibly overcrowded and what merely unpleasantly so can make intelligent decisions. Those who don’t, can’t.

That doesn’t make it an easy problem to solve. Situations change quickly. Crowds bubble up here and disperse there. Second, third and nth order effects make prediction a challenge. But that’s no excuse for not getting the basics right.

Yesterday,  London was routing round the damage of a tube strike.

On my way to work, I just missed a bus. No problem: I knew from having checked before leaving home that there was another one just a few minutes behind – but then a very long gap before the next one. But the sign at the bus stop was clear that there wasn’t another bus for 14 minutes. I spent the next couple of minutes failing to get my phone to give me the broader picture (since, in 21st century London, the bus stop sits in a mobile data hole) at which point a bus turned up, unheralded and almost empty.

Earlier in the morning, my son had had to decide whether to take an almost normal or a massively inconvenient route to school. The deciding factor was whether the Victoria line was running at our local station. At 6.55, the TfL website was clear – the service would start at 7 and would not include our station. Rather despondently, off he went on the circuitous route with the long walk at the end. Just after 7, the message on the website changed: the service had indeed started – and did include our station. Things change of course, but it stretches credulity to believe that on the dot of 7, TfL discovered that they could run a different service from the one signalled just a few minutes earlier.

One of the second order effects of tube strikes is that buses get busier and traffic generally heavier. That leads to a third order effect that it becomes very difficult to maintain a regular pattern of bus services. A consequence of that is that buses may need to truncate their normal routes in order to maintain any kind of regularity.  Understandably, that’s not very welcome to those wanting to go further. But it’s also irritating to those waiting. Yesterday evening, I waited to catch a bus home. One came, already very full and a lot more people struggled to get on. I waited smugly, knowing that there were more buses close behind, likely to be less packed. Online they were clearly shown as going to the end of the route – but the next one came with the destination on the front showing as the stop I was already at, and everybody on it was turfed out. The same happened with the next bus. And the next. The actual destination and the destination displayed in TfL systems did not match for a single one of them.

This is not a complaint about the performance of TfL in the difficult conditions of a strike. From what I saw, they coped as well as they could be expected to in difficult circumstances – at least in terms of moving people from roughly where they were to roughly where they wanted to be. But there looks to be plenty of scope for improving the quality and dissemination of information.

Interestingly that’s not much to do with how it is published, as TfL has a generally good track record of publishing data and allowing others to re-use and re-present it.1 The root cause in all three of the examples described above is further back in the system: status descriptions not matching status reality; equipment on buses for some reason not broadcasting their position (or existence); not updating the system view of a bus’s destination as part of the process of changing it.

The challenge is getting all the necessary parts of the system to recognise the value of accurate information.  The opportunity is that in all three of my examples better information could come very easily from slightly better processes – this isn’t a technology gap, it’s a behaviour gap.

  1. Though with odd glitches, including their remarkably unhelpful attempts at describing the first order effects of the strike, which I wrote about earlier in the week. And their fetish for the tube over all other forms of transport continues to result in some very strange information design.

The power of information, tube strike second edition

4 February 2014

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

3 February 2014

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).

http://www.ianvisits.co.uk/blog/2014/02/03/tube-strike-tube-map/The 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.