14 January 2011
Yesterday, as I was going down the stairs on the bus, it jerked to a halt and I nearly lost my balance. It often happens and, as usual, it wasn’t a sudden and necessary reaction to traffic: we had simply arrived at the bus stop. There are some bus drivers whose driving style is calculated to inspire terror in all their passengers, but this wasn’t one of them. Why then was he so careless of his passengers’ comfort and safety?
I think the answer is disarmingly simple: he was the driver, not a passenger. The experience of being a driver is not like that of being a passenger. Drivers do not walk around a moving bus. Drivers do not struggle to find a seat, and are not left to stand because they have failed in their struggle. What feels like very moderate braking when you are the driver feels very different when you are the passenger.
My recollection is that the old routemasters didn’t brake so sharply. Maybe my recollection is ruined with nostalgia. Maybe they didn’t have to brake hard because they had virtually no power of acceleration. But maybe it’s because there was a bus conductor.
The ostensible purpose of bus conductors was to collect fares. But as a by-product, they were quasi-passengers, having elements of the experience of real passengers, among them being thrown around by sudden braking. My entirely evidence free guess is that one reason that drivers of routemasters didn’t throw their passengers around is because their conductors were well placed to give them pretty pithy feedback.
Now there are no bus conductors. Now a potential source of feedback has been lost. Now it sometimes feels as though the bus is going round corners on two wheels.
Bus drivers presumably feel close to their buses. If they are not on the frontline of public services, who is? And yet they are impossibly distant from their customers.
What then of the rest of us?
Bus conductors can be invaluable – though even they can never be more than a proxy for actual customers. If you have bus conductors in your service, listen to them. If you don’t have any bus conductors, the silence does not mean that there are no messages to be heard.
And of course, we are promised the return of the conductor on London’s new bus of the future. How helpful of the mayor to arrange some testing of my hypothesis.
Picture © Paul Clarke, used with permission
8 January 2011
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.
2 January 2011
Things which caught my eye elsewhere on the web
- 10 Reasons CEOs Unwittingly Sabotage Innovation There’s a huge gap between CEOs saying they want their companies to innovate and actually acting in a way consistent with what they say. [...] Here’s my TOP TEN reasons why not. [...]Innovation sparks dissonance and discomfort.
Innovation is all about increasing variability. Most CEOs want to decrease variability and increase predictability.
Results only show up long-term —not next quarter.
CEOs conserve resources. Innovation requires more resources.
Innovation flies in the face of analysis.
Imbalance of right-brain and left-brain thinking.
It’s not in the job description.
Over-reliance on cost-cutting and incremental improvement.
Inability to enroll a committed team of champions.
Insufficient conviction that innovation will really make a difference.
- Going agile by Michele Ide-Smith Agile is known as a being a mindset or philosophy rather than a method itself. Looking at the Agile Manifesto it is quite possible to see how the concepts can be used in different contexts to software development. I’ve re-produced the manifesto below and simply changed the word ‘software’ to ‘systems’ (by ‘system’ I am referring to socio-technical systems that comprise people, processes and technology or non-technical systems i.e. just people and processes).
Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
Working systems over comprehensive documentation
Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
Responding to change over following a plan
That is, while there is value in the items on the right, we value the items on the left more.
- In The Eye Of The Storm: What Martha Should Say Next But it isn’t hard to imagine a “page” -a secure place that you feel entirely comfortable with -holding that data where you can selectively send it to government departments that request it. Once one department has endorsed the validity of the data you gain credibility with other departments who then start to trust your data more and more. If you are paying money to government rather than receiving perhaps the trust level is higher.
- Agile project management – the cure for perfectionism and missed deadlines? | Public sector pm In my experience of the public sector I’ve often found that in-house resource (staff time) is treated as a free unlimited resource. This leads to a culture of perfectionism, where team members are compelled to take ‘just another week’ on a product as it is ‘not quite there yet’. The reality in many cases is that 80% of the value was delivered in the first 20% of effort. Atern’s fixing of time, cost, and quality, and flexing on features could just be the silver bullet that the public sector needs to boost its delivery of projects on time, on budget and to the right quality.
- Evan Williams: The Challenges of a Web of Infinite Info: Tech News « We should also think about —for the good of society —how do we actually help people? Google has always wanted people to come to Google and then go away. They don’t want you hanging out on Google. That’s very different than lots of other services that measure success by time on site. If you’re more of a utility —a site where you come in, get what you want, then leave. We want to be that. It’s how do we deliver the most value. Because info is infinite and there’s always somewhere else to go, delivering more value in less time should always be the focus.
- In improving public services and social innovation, the design world has vital insights to offer. But designers must go beyond evangelism to show greater rigour about methods and limits » British Politics and Policy at LSE If the design industry and service designers are to genuinely maximize the contribution they can make to boosting social innovation and improving public services they need to address some critical issues in how the education, socialization and formation of designers as professionals takes place:Formation – involves issues around how to train and develop people with an appropriate combination of design skills along with other key skills, such as knowledge of economics, policy-making, and social knowledge. In the SIX project (the Social Innovation Exchange) we have proposed a new approach to ‘T’ shaped skills for designers to reduce the risks identified above.
Method – how to develop design methods so as to improve the prospects for achieving impacts and maximizing implementation. This is an area now being taken forward in the Global Innovation Academy programme.
Cost – we need to develop methods for involving designers that create and leave behind more skills in the organizations or communities that we are helping, and that have lower unit costs.
Conversations with related fields are critical. Just as bureaucracies, public managers and professionals need to learn from design, so designers and design approaches need to learn from related fields.
- How to prevent the DWP Universal Credit from being yet another doomed IT project – When IT Meets Politics most welfare systems assume predictability of need. Meanwhile “those in most need lead lives of quiet desperation, lurching from unpredictable crisis to unpredictable crisis. Then, if and when they get their lives together, with a brief period of work and prosperity, the system catches up with them and crushes them back to poverty with its demands for payback”. To really help those trying to help better themselves, we require systems that assume chaos and unpredictability. That will entail giving fornt-line staff responsibility for holistic support and the ability and authority to over-ride the “system”.
- Mydex Proposes a Free-Market Solution to Privacy Worries – Tech Europe – WSJ Rather than say what information companies and governments can store about you, you store the data and say what data companies and governments can access, or at the very least, know who is looking at it, and why.“If you put together a system with user-centric identity, with the ability to gain external verification of your claims — that you have a degree, or driving license or credit or whatever it is — and powerful technologies for selective disclosure, then you can have the rise of the personal data store,” said William Heath, chairman of Mydex.
- Click to exit: Views from a benign despot – Journal – Public Services: Expectations of an iPhone generation? We have absolutely no idea what the technology that today’s teenagers will be using in 10 years time, and know even less about what actual teenagers in 10 years time will be using. But, what is changing – thanks to technology – is how young people interact with information – how they access it, how they share it, how they act on it. And that – I think – is what forms the heart of revolution that public services will have to undergo over the next 10 years.
23 December 2010
Things which caught my eye elsewhere on the web
- Sphereless: Tis the Season To Be Open In other words, it is not enough to use transparency to justify decisions already made, and to prevent bad decisions being made in future through the threat of later accountability. Openness in data needs to go hand-in-hand with an openness to change – to influence new ways of contributing, of collaborating, and of voting for those who we trust. Even new ways of thinking and feeling about why the decisions are being made in the first place.
- Achilles and the Tortoise do Identity Management – honestlyrealT: But that sort of “hard identity” stuff makes sense for things involving money – especially where someone might steal some from me (or steal details that would help them pretend to be me and get money diverted that should come to me). It just seems like complete overkill for finding out when my bins will be emptied.A: Quite possibly – but you wanted all your government business in one place, didn’t you?T: Did I?
A: I thought you did. Somebody did. All I hear about is “make government more like Amazon”, “make it all simply accessible in one place” blah blah blah. You mean that might not be the requirement?
T: So far, Achilles, we’ve piddled around changing the requirement through a massive spectrum of parameters including data richness, hardness of trust, ease of use, and personalisation. I’m beginning to suspect that people blithely use this concept of “easy access in one place” without actually thinking through what sort of requirement that implies in practice.
- moreopen We encourage, support and connect people who want to make the UK public sector more transparent about its work, more open to new ideas and more creative about how it works together and with others.
- Stephen Hale – A wonky gene and the web – my son and my job If my son had been born 10 years ago, his medical treatment would have been largely the same. But I would have been far less informed about his condition, and it would have been much harder to make contact, or stay in contact, with anyone else with the same condition. I am much better able to care for him because of the web.This sometimes seems quite a long way removed from my day job. When I am working on finding better ways to publish policy documents, run effective online consultations, or communicate the proposed changes to the health and care system, it’s difficult to imagine how any of it will affect my son’s life directly. But of course, that’s really what it’s all about, and I often think about his life, and the lives of others like him, when I’m wondering about the point of what I do.
- Software thinking for political decisions « Curiouscatherine’s Blog There are some really strong parallels between the pressures that have moved software development from an engineering / waterfall type model to a RAD or Agile method that could be used to discuss the changes need to the policy forming process to both involve citizens more directly and also to speed up the process. One big barrier to this is the get popular acceptance for the idea of a non-perfect policy enroute to a good one – ie that mistakes can happen – but as people grow up with a digital footprint of youth indiscretions we will have to get more tolerant of ‘mistakes’ on public life generally.
- Crowdsourcing or crowdpleasing? Thoughts from #fdem10 « Curiouscatherine’s Blog And this is where I think we really need to consider what crowdsourcing means. Government is an age of enlightenment exercise that assumes a huge amount of rationality from its participants. Crowds are not rational. It may be a great idea to involve as many people as possible in setting the agenda but this is not going to work for policy formation which needs to actively involve experts – problem solvers as well as problem owners – in a process of design and reflection which is then democratically evaluated and adopted/rejected.And just one other point – there is a tendency in the narrative around this stuff to ignore or discount the expertise of civil servants in favour of the knowledge of the crowd. I think this veers from shortsighted to insulting and I think we need to value our experts a little more.
13 December 2010
Good services depends on good systems. But good systems do not guarantee good services. The distinction is all too often overlooked, not least by designers of systems and services.
The London congestion charge is a fascinating case study of a superbly engineered system supporting a service which has some important deficiencies. I was told a couple of years ago by somebody who was on the development team that the service they built was defined by the statement:
Every car which enters central London and does not pay £5 by midnight should be charged £40.
I love the economy and precision of that statement. And there is no arguing but that the system does exactly that (albeit now with rather higher prices). But it completely misses out that the thing they built is a service. There is no customer in that statement, and so no customer relationship. The congestion charge is seen as a penalty capable of partial mitigation rather than a fee, the payment of which should first be facilitated and only then if necessary pursued. As I observed when I first ranted on the subject of the congestion charge:
HMRC has very deliberately chosen to assume that most customers want to be compliant. It follows from that assumption that if people become non-compliant, they need encouragement and help rather than punishment. Of course HMRC can turn nasty if it needs to, and if it puts its mind to it, it can turn very nasty indeed, but that’s not where they start from. TfL assumes from the outset that non-compliance is an attempt at evasion and its first response is to impose punishment.
There is no obvious reason why TfL could not instead send polite reminders that a payment is due and keep the penalty charges for those whose further inaction suggests an intent to avoid paying. But something quite subtle about how they saw the problem they were trying to solve has sent them down altogether the wrong path.
What’s particularly odd about that is that in other ways, the congestion charging service was quite innovative – paying by SMS, for example, hardly rates a mention now, but was then the result of impressive creative thinking and customer insight. I find that useful, but only because the developer of a third party app has made it simple, and it speaks volumes that it should take a third party to produce the most straightforward way of completing what should be a trivially straightforward transaction.
Now, years later, there seems to have been a change of heart. From 4 January, TfL is introducing ‘Auto Pay’, with an equally admirable concise and precise description:
We’ll automatically record the number of charging days a vehicle travels within the charging zone each month and bill your debit or credit card each month.
That’s a milestone worth celebrating (and in my case at least, worth signing up for), but it’s the hook for this post rather than the point of it. Despite possible appearances to the contrary, the point is not to knock TfL or the congestion charging scheme. It is to recognise that it is easy to mark success by the achievement of technical completeness, while missing something subtle but critical about quality of service.
That is something which should concern all of us involved with the design and delivery of public services. I am trying to find a simple way to express this as a contrast between a system led approach to design and a service based approach. It’s work in progress, because it is too long and lacks the elegant pithiness of the one liners quoted above, but in its current form, it goes something like this.
The traditional approach was to start by designing the systems and processes to deliver the outputs we wanted, and only then to design the front end experience (in the broadest sense, this isn’t just about IT). That meant that the front end was compromised from the outset, but it didn’t matter because the only people who had to use it were staff who had no choice because that was their job and who could be sent on lengthy training courses.
Now we need to start by defining the user experience and outcome we want the system to support, and only then design the tools and processes needed to deliver that support. There is any number of reasons for doing that, but there are two which matter particularly. One is that we want and will increasingly need customers to be users. We can’t send them on training courses; they can walk away or, worse still, find expensive and inefficient ways of making contact if they don’t like the look of what we offer. The other is that unless we do it that way round, there is no way of knowing that the resulting service is as efficient and effective as it can be.
I would have been proud to have been part of the team which delivered the congestion charge: it’s a remarkable achievement. But I would have been more proud to have been there and said that it wasn’t being designed to be good enough.
10 December 2010
Things which caught my eye elsewhere on the web
- Caterpillar, cynic, evangelist or diva? « Clear message No-one seems to deny digital these days, but many pretend to acknowledge it, whilst harbouring deep seated pessimism and clinging to the notion that the web is an add-on to what we do, rather than integral. Not to be ignored, but far harder to catch than caterpillars. Send them your ideas and offers of support. The email may be printed out before it is read, but you have to try.
- WHAT’S THE RETURN? | Engine There’s no doubt that return paths are about to change forever. And something we can all look forward to is a world where searching for information is more sensory, more immersive and more creative than ever before.
- Faster Future: Publishing possibilities now and beyond: Revolution requires Government thinking that understands the web It’s time we adjusted our thinking away from driving people online to deliver services more cheaply and instead use the advantages of online to develop new models in keeping with the network. Ones that make better services with less waste and deliver new services with those who need them. And everyone can join in that revolution.
- Newspapers are dead as mutton -HG Wells, 1943 (No, they’re not) – Boing Boing The experiment that we are presently conducting as a society is aimed at discovering what kind of information and transactions are really and truly “newspaper material” and not material that we stuffed into the margins of a newspaper because we needed it and newspapers were the only game in town. It may be that there’s nothing left when we’re done, that there’s a better way of delivering every word and every picture in the newspaper than to print it … in which case, newspapers may die, or they may end up being the territory of newspaper re-enactors, the equivalent of hobbyists who… re-enact the Battle of 1066.Or it may be that newspapers do have a small and important and moving clutch of information and stories and images that really, really are better on paper. Maybe the audience for that will be too small and specialized to support a large business, and maybe the audience will club together and treat newspaper like a charity, the way that opera … functions today.
- Webmaster blog » Guess what? Digital tools are not a panacea for inefficient public services Digital innovation in the public realm requires all sorts of other skills, and links across lots of policy areas. In order to for the impending upheaval of public service delivery to have any positive impact, in my opinion, the decision-makers in that process need to be careful not to become blinded by the promises of well-meaning but often excitable digital enthusiasts.
- Enough of the stupid – honestlyreal We can mitigate the fragility of systems either by reducing our use of them to a safer threshold within their maximum capacity, by increasing that capacity, or by providing extra resilience. Unfortunately we’re not very good at this.
2 December 2010
If people feel atomised, no amount of technology will make them engaged.
[attributed following the helpful comment from Andrew Curry below]
2 December 2010
Having a strategy is the easy bit, it’s making it work that’s difficult.
Or, in reverse
If you think formulating strategy is the hard part, you haven’t tried delivering it