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.
There is a link to a much larger version on the original site.
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.
What 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).
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.
28 January 2014
It’s the Monday1 after the Govcamp before, the day Dave Briggs once described as the most depressing day of all, as the exhilaration of the event crashes into the realities of working lives. I like Govcamp for a long list of reasons I wrote about last year - I won’t repeat them here, but they are implicit in what follows, so might be worth a quick look before going on.2
We were all at the same event, but it’s a safe assumption that few if any of us were at the same event. Ten parallel sessions four times over means that there were 104 routes through, even before taking account of the application of the rule of two feet. So these are some some thoughts on the event I was at, which may or may not resonate with anybody else’s.
Why Govcamp is useless
But before diving into that, an aside on the general uselessness of Govcamp. That uselessness is not a weakness, it is the very essence of what Govcamp is and how it works.3 Govcamp as an entity reaches no conclusions, sets no actions. It has no opinions and no manifesto. It does just one thing, and does it very effectively: it brings people together in a way which facilitates conversations between them on the topics they most want to talk about.
It’s worth saying that, because from time to time people (including me a few years back) get frustrated, and argue that if only Govcamp were different, it would be different, and that without concrete actions resulting from it, it is somehow a waste of time. There are two ways of responding to thoughts of that kind.
The first follows from the way Govcamp works now. What gets talked about is what people want to talk about. So the way to change what gets talked about, is to encourage different people to come – and what gets talked about in any case will change over time as both people and issues come and go.
Wonder if in future GovCamp needs to be taking on some bigger technology fish than just the web #ukgc14
— Dave Briggs (@davebriggs) January 26, 2014
The second is to put Govcamp into context. Not every kind of event needs to attempt every kind of task. There are events designed to make things happen, get things built, train people in specific skills, collaborate across organisational boundaries, and a whole host more. There is room in all that for an event where conversations happen, for as long as people find value in the conversation – and the way that Govcamp tickets disappeared suggests pretty strongly that the appetite for that has not gone away.
How Govcamp was useful
So with that out of the way, a few reflections on what did happen.
The setting, in City Hall, was without doubt the most spectacular yet, a building of spirals many of us found temptingly photogenic.
It was interesting though, how even very small changes to the layout and to flows of people can make what seem to be disproportionate differences. So the combination of the long walk from the assembly chamber to the other meeting rooms, the absence of on site coffee, and having ten choices at each of four sessions, rather than eight choices at each of five resulted in fewer serendipitous conversations and an even stronger sense than usual that too many other interesting things were happening somewhere else.
I started at the session on votecamp, which was exploring ways of encouraging more young people to vote. It’s an important topic, but I didn’t feel I had much to contribute, so I moved on – though not before hearing Ade Adewumni make the simple and very powerful point that we can’t hope to understand why some people don’t vote without understanding why other people do (especially given the basic irrationality of voting at all). I suspect that thought has much wider application: we tend to focus much more on why people don’t comply and don’t think enough about why people do.4
I ended that session in a group asking ‘what do you want from your agile supplier?’, though that felt like a bit of a euphemism for ‘how do you cope with your decidedly non-agile customer?’.
After lunch, there was a compelling option: John Sheridan had dangled the prospect of combining legislative structures and JS Bach, which made his session irresistible.
— johnlsheridan (@johnlsheridan) January 24, 2014
I hoped for the emergence of a new Gödel, Escher Bach, but alas JSB went unmentioned, with only the pale consolation of copies of the Interpretation Act in his place.5 But despite that initial disappointment, the discussion was both fascinating in its own right, and a great example of how a Govcamp audience could pick up on a theme and bring a distinctive perspective to it. Prompted by John’s work, I have written before both on a concrete example of where a more code-based approach might lead to clearer law and more abstractly, how law, code and architecture fit together. I left the session with three one liners rattling round my head:
- There is no architectural thinking in how the structure of the statute book is managed.
- We shouldn’t let the lawyers get away with it any more
- How do we, the geeks, share what we know with our lawyerly friends?
I spent the final session of the day in a debate on the question of whether all was well with digital in central government. The proposition was that there is nothing to worry about, but it was pretty clear that it was a question intended to evoke a short sharp answer to the contrary – which it successfully did. There is a slightly simplistic view that if the rest of the world were more like GDS, it would be a better place. The problem with that is not that it’s necessarily wrong (if it were, it probably would be), but that it doesn’t take sufficient account of the cultural and organisational context within which all this is happening. I keep going on about (and kept going on about) the fact that a relatively thin joined up information layer cannot in itself be expected to drive deep organisational and service change: the solution requires a better government as well as a better web service. The apparent GDS focus prompted some back channel dissent:
@blangry this is a bit GDS navel-gaze. Think I might drop out.
— Sharon O'Dea (@sharonodea) January 25, 2014
which helped draw the conversation back to what I think is a better version of the question:
— Dafydd Vaughan (@dafyddbach) January 25, 2014
That’s all an issue which has been rumbling along ever since GDS started, and actually for years before that. There isn’t going to be a solution which is intrinsically right for evermore, but that makes it the more important that we don’t lose sight of the question.
Useless but very valuable
That was my day. Or rather that was a version of my day, but in the telling, it’s lost a large part of what was best about it all. There were conversations, some brief, some longer, some connections made, which shed new light on old problems and identified whole sets of new challenges. The most frustrating thing, as ever, is that there was a whole bunch of people I would really like to have spent some time with who I didn’t talk to at all, and in some cases barely set eyes on. An event with 10,000 routes through it cannot be otherwise.
So, as ever, Govcamp was useless. But it is a very special and rather compelling form of uselessness. If we could be this useless more consistently, who knows what could be achieved.
- No, it’s not actually Monday, but half this post self-destructed and had to be recreated, thus adding delay and reducing dramatic effect. ↩
- Especially if you are not familiar with the barcamp/unconference model – in which case the description of the process at the beginning of this post might be useful. ↩
- Or, indeed, any unconference or barcamp – this is a point about the method, not about the specific event. ↩
- Which in turn reminds me of a great post from a few years back by Will Davies on the illusory reality of government. ↩
- And I can never wholly escape the thought that policy on interpretation should rest with the Circumlocution Office. ↩
24 January 2014
The question of how we work in a digital world is occupying me quite a lot at the moment. Prompted in part by my involvement with the project to deliver technology good enough for work, I wrote a post here a few weeks back on whether offices are redundant, with a couple of follow up posts linking to others’ thoughts on the subject. From a central government perspective, that’s all also an aspect of the TW3 initiative – the way we work. All of that is feeling to me like the context for a potentially interesting conversation at UK Govcamp tomorrow – and the point of this post is just to bring some material together which might be useful background for a discussion. I have included a few links below which happen to have caught my eye – I haven’t made any attempt to be systematic in looking at what’s out there. But even with this semi-random approach, a few question tend to come out (often implicitly) from several different directions.
Do we need offices?
There are few who argue for total abolition, but there are some who argue that the last thing they should be used for is working. On that view they are about corporate projection more than anything else – and anybody who does somehow end up doing other kinds of work should behave as if they were working remotely anyway
To the extent that we do need offices, what do we need them for?
Bringing people together is the obvious answer, but there is an overlap here with a very different agenda of space efficiency and the spectre of open plan working. There are some very strong reactions against that – but equally strong arguments that done right it can generate better work as well as better space
How do we balance different needs?
Working from home is great, if you have a home where you can readily work. Working in a coffee shop is cool, if distractions do not overwhelm concentration. That doesn’t make the single organisational office building the only alternative – being imaginative about where and how space is used could transform working patterns, but would take more work to set up than making finding a place to work the responsibility of each individual.
How do we ensure that the technology helps?
It’s one thing – and an essential thing – to update and enhance what we have got. It’s another thing to think about where the discontinuities might be both from the demands of new ways of working and the technology developments which may create radically different possibilities.
What are the implications of all that for the work we do?
Sitting at home, or even sitting in a coffee shop, doesn’t change the fundamental nature of the work. If we are interacting with the same people, taking account of the same opinions, we remain in a conceptual office block even if we have escaped from an actual one. In a world (and as it happens on a day) when ideas such as open policy making are becoming more central, to miss the wider opportunities of more flexible working would be to miss something fundamental.
17 January 2014
It is time to move from circulating documents to visiting texts.
15 January 2014
More than 90% of people don’t know about CTRL- or CMD- F… http://t.co/wDhRUVa4IF
— Neil Williams (@neillyneil) December 2, 2013
My first computer came with a big solid manual. In fact it came with two, one for MS-DOS, the operating system, and one for BASIC. The first – and for a long time only – software package I had to run on it was Word Perfect, which came with another hefty manual. All three were ring binders, and together they took up a good stretch of scarce book shelf space. The ring binders went first. Then the paper got thinner, the covers floppier, and gradually the volumes got slimmer. They stopped attempting to be comprehensive and then stopped being printed altogether. Probably nobody much read them when they were there to be read. Now it’s probably more efficient to google the answer anyway, but that requires you to know the question to which you want an answer. But “I didn’t knew it could do that…” is not a question, it is the result of discovery, not a prompt for it.
I wrote the last few paragraphs on a Nexus 7. A few weeks ago, it updated itself to the latest version of android. The font on the clock has changed. Some icons which used to turn blue now don’t. As for anything less obvious, I have no idea, and Google has not made the slightest attempt to tell me. But I have come across an article that tells me that some rather useful functionality which had been added in the previous release has now been removed again. Had I known it was there I would have been irritated at the loss of it. But as I didn’t know it was there in the first place, I am not in practice any worse off. Perhaps that’s because nobody takes any notice, even if they are told. One of the commenters on Charles Arthur’s article which prompted all this argued strongly that they – we – don’t:
I think that people’s unwillingness to take even a few minutes to learn some simple techniques shows how this won’t change time soon. Windows 8 shows people key functionality when first installed for example, but I’ve seen users simple click through it all without taking the slightest bit of notice. 2 minutes increased could have made their X years experience with the product much less stressful. Similarly, I released an App early this year that had a 30 second tutorial showing how best to navigate it and useful techniques to maximise your experience. 70% of the support requests and negative reviews are asking for things that are clearly included this tutorial (and honestly, it’s reasonably well done and very straightforward)!
Meanwhile, as I was starting to write this, Aral Balkan was setting up a new app with learning baked in to the design – though of course that doesn’t guarantee that the process is effective:
Love how Boxer uses an explicit control (the ‘Learn how’ button) to lead the user through the initial tutorial… pic.twitter.com/40O5vkeZm7
— Aral Balkan (@aral) December 8, 2013
I am frequently surprised how many people who spend their working lives working in Windows don’t know some very basic keyboard shortcuts, including ones I use many times a day. But smug though that lets me feel, I have no idea how much time I waste by not employing some equally basic shortcuts which I just don’t happen to know about. In the interest of research, I have just confirmed that it takes only a few seconds to find the definitive list (which is something I have never bothered to do before). And even if you do trouble to look, the resulting experience is not always a rich and rewarding one:
ALT+- (ALT+hyphen): Displays the Multiple Document Interface (MDI) child window’s System menu (from the MDI child window’s System menu, you can restore, move, resize, minimize, maximize, or close the child window)
If that makes immediate sense to you, you’re probably a power user so extreme that you are operating through telepathy rather than anything as mundane as a keyboard.
In an ideal world, you would get useful suggestions, related to the thing you were trying to do, that helped you do it but otherwise kept out of your way. That is, of course, what Microsoft tried to provide through what rapidly became the most derided and unpopular feature in Office, the ever helpful and ever irritating Clippy the paperclip.
Clippy is long gone, but serves to show just how much harder this is than it first appears. There are now many more subtle and less intrusive ways of providing help related to what a user is trying to do, but they still have two intrinsic weaknesses. They usually depend on the user recognising that they need help. And they invariably can’t help the user do something they don’t know can be done.
So that leaves us with two challenges. The first is the one which Neil started this post with: if better understanding of fairly basic tools could reduce frustration and improve efficiency, there would be great value in helping people move further along the spectrum from newbie to power user. Or to put it a different way, how do we introduce continuous improvement into the way we use our tools?
The second is the implications of all this for discontinuous change. If it’s hard enough to help people become more effective users of tools they are already familiar with, how much harder to move them from tools they know to start the learning curve afresh with new tools – which means there is a strong connection between this and the issues of usability and familiarity I wrote about last week.
The world would be a (very slightly) better place if more people knew the power of Ctrl-/Cmd-F. It would be (a great deal) better still if our tools were smart enough to teach us how to use them better.
14 January 2014
Things which caught my eye elsewhere on the web
Foden Grealy – Document standards and the rankling print presumption
Our mental model for handling textual information is based on the printed paper created by a typewriter, distributed by post and kept in a folder. It got us over the introduction of personal computing but it’s time we moved on.
Innovate on Purpose: Why innovators need a word other than failure
Corporate innovators need all the trappings of failure – learning, experience, insights – but without the ripple effect. What we need, as corporate innovators, is the ability to experiment, prototype and test new concepts and products as thoroughly and as rapidly as possible. Then, our experiments become controlled “mini-failures” that offer much the same learning, but without the devastating effects more common in a startup.
Failure porn | Johnnie Moore
The question, ”but how will that scale” is often an effective way to kill off interesting ideas that might benefit from a bit more oxygen, and going with safer ones that will eventually underwhelm.
Shambles, from mini to omni
The thing about system failures is that nobody has a strong incentive to do anything about them. The risks are high, the potential rewards minimal. They are hard to sort out because it takes a long time and involves getting a lot of people to agree to change things in ways that make their lives a bit more difficult. There is no personal risk in continuing with things they way they are now.
Seth’s Blog: Accuracy, resilience and denial
Resilience is the best strategy for those realistic enough to admit that they can’t predict the future with more accuracy than others. Resilience isn’t a bet on one outcome, instead, it’s an investment across a range of possible outcomes, a way to ensure that regardless of what actually occurs (within the range), you’ll do fine.
And denial, of course, is the strategy of assuming that the future will be just like today.
Telling Stories | Patient Opinion
We make the assumption that what has been posted is true. There is something about embracing the spirit of Patient Opinion that means that you have to be an advocate, and that means you have to trust the voice. That might seem an obvious and easy assumption to make. But coming to that view is actually quite complex and the rationale needs to be explained to staff if they are to buy into it.
In 2014, let’s get digital skills out of the classroom – Postbureaucrat
A barrier we come up against time and again is the reality that a large chunk of the public sector in 2013 isn’t trusted or equipped to access common digital tools. Beyond the evergreen problem of having the right kit and being able to access the right websites, changing how people work takes time and creativity, to find shortcuts, try a new approach for a specific project, and identify where digital can add value, rather than becoming just another thing to do.
How Open Floor Plans Are Killing Employee Productivity | Inc.com
when managers watch their workers work, employee productivity dips. The reason? Employees feel more compelled to put their best face forward and follow all corporate policies to a T.
Let’s rethink the idea of the state: it must be a catalyst for big, bold ideas | Mariana Mazzucato | Comment is free | The Observer
To foster growth we must not downsize the state but rethink it. That means developing, not axing, competences and dynamism in the public sector. When evaluating its performance, we must rediscover the point of the public sector: to make things happen that would not have happened anyway.
6 January 2014
Usability and familiarity are very different things. With enough familiarity, use becomes easy. But that should never be confused with usability being easy from the outset. And even to the extent that some things are more usable than others, familiarity still trumps usability, so adapting to the more usable thing will still be hard for people used to the less usable thing.
It’s really important that designers of services and processes remember that. It’s really hard for designers of services and processes to remember that, because by the very fact of designing them they have an obsessively detailed understanding, which in itself makes them unlike their users.
So it’s useful to find ways of reminding ourselves that even the inexpressibly familiar was incomprehensibly baffling once. I have pulled a few examples out of the Public Strategist archives, for some amusement and, I hope, to prompt some reflection.
Let’s start with that new-fangled notion, the book. It couldn’t be more self-evident how to read a book. Could it?
Beyond the humour, there’s a serious point. The transition was long and slow, partly because people had to work out what different possibilities were created by the new medium:
People were clearly uncomfortable moving from manuscripts to printed books. They’d print these books, and then they’d decorate them by hand. They’d add red capitals to the beginnings of paragraphs, and illuminate the margins, because they didn’t entirely trust this printed thing. It somehow felt of less quality, less formal, less official, less authoritative. And here we are, trying to make our online stuff more like printed stuff. This is the incunabula of the digital age that we’re creating at the moment. And it’s going to change.
But the transmission of knowledge is a big serious business, quite unlike simple things, such as going shopping. Or maybe that can be a bit tricky too. Here’s the training course:
And if that’s too hard, what about buying a tube ticket and using it to get through an automatic barrier (click on the still to get to the video):
The prompt for all of that is that as part of the Cabinet Office technology project I am testing two new devices for work, a Macbook Air and a Samsung Note tablet. For someone with over thirty years’ experience of using computers, but none of using Macs, it’s been a bit of a shock. Using the Macbook in particular has been a really important reminder of how impotent a new user can feel. What should be simple and obvious instantly becomes alien and difficult. And however much I try to repress it, the question keeps recurring, why do it like this?
Now I have heard some suggestions in the past that there is a superiority and elegance to the design of Apple systems which puts them ahead of their Windows equivalents and that Apple has a profound understanding of usability which Microsoft somehow lacks. I have even heard that that may be a matter of some contention between aficionados of the two systems. But the really important point about that dispute is that it really doesn’t matter. Even if it were true that Apple is in some objective sense ‘better’, that does not matter to me in the slightest – unfamiliar overwhelms better.
That’s where the Note comes in. That’s just an android tablet, and I have been using an android tablet every day for quite a while (starting, as it happens, with Samsung products). So instant familiarity? No, instant confusion. Samsung have taken the core, stock android user interface and done just enough to it to make it weird. To adapt Jakob Nielsen’s law of internet user experience:
Users have spent most of their time using other devices This means that users prefer your device to work the same way as all the other devices they already know.
None of that is an argument for never changing and never doing or using anything new. Things change, and frequently for the better. Books are better than scrolls. Kindles have advantages over books.
It is though an argument that change can be disconcerting and alienating, even among those predisposed to welcome the change. For people who don’t start with a positive desire to do things differently the obstacle presented by the change can appear insurmountable even when it is genuinely true that the future world is a better place. Any innovator, any service designer, any product designer worth their salt should be actively looking for ways to refresh that sense in themselves and to keep it in mind every time they exhort others to change.
It’s not just that we aren’t the users. It’s not enough to have a better destination. You have to be able to get there from here.
- And the even more bizarre concept that were dials ever to reappear on phones, anybody now under about 40 would need training like this in how to use them. ↩
2 January 2014
A few years ago, I wrote a bit of a rant about waiting for a parcel to be delivered without knowing when it would be coming – the middle class angst of the twenty-first century. The problem, I argued then was that the delivery companies’ information management was, perhaps not surprisingly, optimised for their needs, not mine.
I have no means of giving signals to delivery companies which encourage them either to create better quality information or even to let me see or use information they might already have but either haven’t worked out that I might be interested in or haven’t bothered to make available. I am not sure what that might be – I can’t know what I don’t know – but some combination of GPS tracking of the van and position in sequence (if mine is delivery 50, then knowing whether the most recent delivery is 1 or 49 tells me quite a lot) might give me a much clearer sense of what is going on – and much greater confidence that something actually is going on.
Life went on, with arrival slots for parcels (and plumbers) being as indeterminate as ever. Until today, when an email notification took me to this screen – which gives precisely the information I thought might be useful three years ago.
There is the van, there is my place in the queue of deliveries, there is the ability to plan the rest of my day.
That’s a really useful service improvement. From now on, I will choose this lot over all their competitors whenever I can. Except, of course, that I can’t and won’t, because I am not their customer and get no choice in the matter at all. It’s great that one company has thought this a useful thing to do (presumably as a by product of whatever tool they use to maximise route efficiency), but it can only be accidental that it does a lot of what I want it to. So the public sector moral of my earlier post still stands:
Making the data you have available is a good thing. It’s also relatively easy, so there is no reason not to do it. Building services which make use of that data is also a good thing. But even those two together don’t necessarily produce the optimum result, because the data may not have been what was most wanted or needed in the first place. And even with the extraordinary creativity of the people who have been turning open data into applications, there are still not enough ways for service users to act as customers, and still not enough being done to compensate for that by involving them much more directly in the process.
And now Paul the driver is three streets and three deliveries away…
31 December 2013
It is always the next technology which is going to precipitate social collapse. Yet somehow the social collapse has never quite happened (though maybe next time…). More than that, last year’s (or last century’s) threat to society becomes this year’s golden age.
So from a splendid compendium of moral panics by Tom Standage, we learn that:
The free access which many young people have to romances, novels, and plays has poisoned the mind and corrupted the morals of many a promising youth; and prevented others from improving their minds in useful knowledge.
That was written in 1790. Today, those who attribute remarkably similar effects to computer games or to social media yearn for the golden age when children read novels instead of corrupting their minds and their morals through the pernicious influence of newer technologies (Susan Greenfield is a particularly fine example of this phenomenon – entertain yourself in passing with this useful guide to writing one of her articles).
Every time we look back, the moral panic looks ridiculous. Every time we look forward, for some it feels all too real. Can wisdom really only come with hindsight?
And yet of course, looked at another way, each of these (and many other) technology changes has precipitated a form of social collapse – but this is overwhelmingly a good thing, not a bad thing. Few of us would prefer to live in the world of 1790, free of the taint of novel reading, safe from the licentiousness of the waltz, but locked into a rigid social stratification and a world where even the richest lacked so much we take for granted. That’s not to say that social (and economic and political) disruption is pain free or to indulge in a crude teleological view of past and present. But I am pretty clear that the fact that, as I write this, my son is refining his understanding of three dimensional gravitational dynamics through the medium of Kerbal space program is a good thing, not a bad thing.
Next year keeps coming. It has done relentlessly since well before 1790, and will again a few hours from now. We are not obliged to fear the future.
All of that is prompted by a timeline illustrating the fear of the new from 1494 to 2010, of which a small part appears at the top of this post – click on it to see the whole thing. Or you can buy the book it is taken from, which is to be published next week.