Category Archives: Services

The role of a designer is to rethink how the world works

I love this quote.

It comes from a Fast Company article reviewing a book by Kern and Burn.

Short and simple and it sets a high bar on ambition.

If we define a designer in this way though, doesn’t it allow us all to be designers?

I’m not sure that was the intention when it was written, but if you are rethinking ‘how the world works’ then are you really a designer?

You might not know Photoshop, carry a Macbook and or wear expensive black t-shirts, but if you are rethinking how the world works are you any less a designer than someone working on redesigning his brothers small business site?

Of course not.

But of course, it doesn’t matter.

Being a designer is a mindset. Just as being an artist is …

Or a writer … Or an interior designer … You could be completely crap at it (and many are), but it doesn’t matter. Creativity and art is by definition subjective. It has to be, else you would be an engineer, defining for function within accepted boundaries of what constitutes normal. Of course, there are highly creative engineers, but you get the idea. It is about pushing boundaries and challenging norms; in short, changing the world.

Sounds good to me.

Gary Burt, Designer


Don’t add features to make products successful – instead remove complexity

Adding new features to products and services will not help them be successful if this is at the expense of simplicity. Instead of simplicity you may be able to substitute the words beauty or usability, but the core point remains. If you want to add new features, then these need to be added without ruining the core values and functions of the product.

  • A new feature should never ruin the beauty of a product
  • Additional complexity should not make the product harder to use.

The temptation to add that one extra feature, is always going to be there. The demand for new features though needs to be balanced with the drive for simplicity.

Simplicity matters, because at the heart of simplicity is customer focus.

By demanding simplicity, you drive a focus on what is important to the customer. Instead of adding every feature you can, allowing every possible combination, put yourelf in the shoes of the customer and make a choice for them about what matters most. In doing so you reduce complexity for both the customer and you as the supplier. More importantly, you take responsibility for the product. You cannot hide behind always saying yes. YOU need to understand what matters most to customers and be excellent at this. Feature bloat means mediocrity. Allowing limitless options, but allowing customers to make poor choices is not a good strategy. Take responsibility and help your customer. Don’t sell them what isn’t needed. Don’t add features they will never use and don’t change something because you simply want to make your mark on an established product line.

Deliver what will best deliver the outcome that the customer wants.

Not all customers will be happy, some will demand features that were not included or options that are not available. This is inevitable when you seek simplicity. The goal is not to make everyone happy. The goal is is to exceed the expectations of your target customers; to make the customers that YOU want very happy with your product. In defining the customers that you want to sell to you need to make a choice. Successful products don’t seek to sell to the whole market. They may end up doing this and have wide appeal, but successful products start by having a target customer and being the best choice for that customer, then growing and improving.

It doesn’t matter whether the product is luxury or commodity, high or low price. The same principles apply:

  • Know your market [specifically define who it is AND who it isn’t] then design to meet their needs
  • Don’t add features they don’t want or value – never play the more is better game without validating this with customers first. Likewise don’t ignore clear demands for new features – but in adding these, add to the experience not ruin it
  • Be careful about changing the fundamentals of your product. Do this with extreme care and only after extensive testing

Extensive testing doesn’t just mean rigorous scientific sampling. It can do, but what is most important is talking to your customers. Talking to them about what they love, what they don’t like and more importantly about what they want to do, but cannot.

Your most powerful question, ‘who wants this?

Your second most powerful question, ‘why?

Your most powerful word, ‘no

Your most powerful tool, the red pen of deletion

Don’t be fooled into thinking this is easy. It isn’t. The stories about getting this wrong haunt every product manager, but the stories about getting this right should equally inspire. Building a simple product, a simple product or service gives you a great platform on which to grow a long term future. In fact it is hard to think of market leading products and even companies that have not embedded the principles of simplicity and brilliant balancing of function and form.

Get this wrong. Launch a bad product or service, particularly in the early years, and you may never be able to recover from this.

Apple is always the classic case study to show success, and its focus prioritising design and user experience shows why, but other companies equally deliver simplicity – whether at the high or low end of a market.

  • Sharpie pens vs. Mont Blanc
  • Uniclo vs. Arcteryx
  • Premier Inn vs. Four Seasons
  • Mini vs. Ferrari
  • Southwest Airlines vs. Virgin Atlantic

Looking at the list it is also clear that simplicity is intrinsically linked with customer experience and quality. These are connected. They always are. It all comes back to customer focus. Driving simplicity forces you to remove what is NOT needed, what reduces value and what makes life harder for the customer.

One final point for those who are going to drive for simplicity. Be patient. What you are proposing is not a product change, but a culture change. Technical teams will challenge you and demand complexity. Sales teams will highlight every micro-feature that the competition has and push you to replicate this. Listen, then speak to the group who really matter – your customers. Evidence from this group is what really matters and trumps everybody else every time.

Simple really.


Accenture and the future of consulting

AdAge reported last week that Accenture is buying Fjord a leading design agency. They concluded that Advertising Agencies should be worried.

I don’t think so. Not just yet.

But I think Accenture’s consulting competition should be terrified.

I don’t see this as Accenture just moving into the space of advertising. Instead I see it more as Accenture injecting itself with a shot of IDEO, mainlining Razorfish and doping with FROG. What Accenture is doing is something much more fundamental then adding some design skills. It is defining a new type of consulting business.

The consultancy and system integration skills are still there, but it now strengthens its design and innovation muscles, takes a big step away from from the pure technology consultancies and system integrators and starts to make life very difficult for its competition. This isn’t simply expansion of skills – but vertical integration and the design of a new value proposition.

Anything involving design is notoriously challenging to manage, and balancing the innovative culture of Fjord with the execution focus of Accenture will never be simple, but if does manage this, then the consulting world is going to start looking very different. This should just worry the technology and business consultancies, but also the design companies who also now face a massive potential global competitor.

The good news for the best design companies is that you are likely to start getting into some interesting partnership conversations in the coming weeks and months. Personally I’d be talking to Engine Service Design … service design is an area that is in its infancy, has massive potential and these boys are some of the best.

Accenture are the first to bite the design cherry, they certainly won’t be the last.


5 Tips to hire great people

I am always amazed at how many companies really make a mess of hiring people.

What should be an opportunity to engage energetic and passionate people wanting to find an outlet for their professional talents instead becomes a meaningless game, usually won by diligent CV writing artistes willing to play the tedious charade of the recruitment process, or those with the means to pay someone to do it for them. 

The CV checking process will sift out the worst candidates, the inarticulate, the bad spellers and those too lazy to actually tell you that they can do what you are asking for … but it doesn’t help you in finding and hiring great people. It will never help you find those truly exceptional people that can drive your business forward, be a A+ contributor and most importantly make your company a great place to spend a great deal of your life.

Why is this?

Why does the hiring process find it hard to identify brilliant people?

To understand this we need to look at how people are hired in most companies.

The whole process starts with a ridiculously overstated and irrelevant job description. This usually bears little resemblance to the actual role. It sets a bar so high that few who actually do the job in the company today could apply for it. Hiring managers ask for every technology, skill and experience they can think of rarely considering whether this is really needed, or more importantly whether it is physically possible within the constraints of time and space to acquire these skills [and if it was, whether that person would take a role paying what you are paying].

Next comes the CV sift.

You now reject any candidate telling the whole truth (because we know that the job description is almost always unattainable) and instead find the candidate who lists the most skills they can physically fit on paper and can best panel beat their previous job experience (whatever it was) into what you are  asking for. At this point, a sanity check would help [is this realistic for someone age 22], but instead hiring managers start getting excited about how they can hire great talent at the low rates they are paying.

And then we move to the interviewSmart managers and HR departments know that much of the CV will be ‘polished’, so they adopt ‘competency questions‘. Instead of asking for an explanation of what is written on the CV (knowing it may be untrue and impossible to verify), they look for insight from previous employment … 

Can you tell me what you were proudest of?

What was your most challenging task?

How to you manage conflict?

Managers think they are finding the best candidate by doing this. What they are doing is finding the candidate best able to demonstrate their mastery of memorising stock answers from the interviewees bible. If this is what you want then fine, but don’t think a great answer means a great hire. It means a practiced interviewee. Nothing more.

Competency questions will provide additional information than just asking about what they did between 2008 and 2009, but in many cases will simply reinforce biases. This may help you identify a cultural fit (because they are like you), but not a great hire.

And then the final steps …

Intelligence and left field questions: such as ‘how many golfballs could you fit in a Boeing 747‘. Useful perhaps if you want to sell 747s to Nike or Calloway, but otherwise of limited use in assessing the fit for most roles. These questions say more about the arrogance of the interviewer. Instead ask ‘real world questions’, whether about the role of about life. These are the really hard ones and will tell you a lot about the candidate.

Personality tests : These have the same problems as competency questions. A few minutes researching your company and some time practicing these online will help capable candidates deliver an ENTP or INFJ result as needed.

References. Useless. The only value is identifying those applicants with no friends, no contacts or no money (to buy them). You would never list a poor reference, and most employers are too frightened of the legal consequences of a negative reply, so you risk wrongly interpreting a response such as ‘we cannot provide references’ anyway.

So if the old style processes are broken what can companies do to find the right people?

5 Tips to hire great people

  1. Define what outcome you want, don’t only focus on the skills you think you need. Beware of long lists of skills and experiences. Keep it short, focused and open. Allow the candidate to shape the application if you can. Allow passion and energy to shine through. Ask yourself whether your process would allow a great candidate to be identified. A less defined role means more potential applicants, but also a better chance of finding a brilliant hire.
  2. As far as possible allow the applicant to demonstrate their ideas and value throughout the application process. When you meet and interview people, don’t be afraid to challenge the candidate. Put them on the spot. A great candidate will love this because it is an opportunity for them to shine, to show you what they can do and tell you why you should hire them.
  3. Keep an open mind and be aware of your biases. Would a 30 year old who has travelled around the world and volunteered be more valuable than a 22 year old ‘never worked’ Ivy League graduate? What you hire someone in their 40s who was changing careers and wanted a chance? Would you hire someone in their 60s who wanted a new start? Constantly think about who you are hiring for – you? your company? for your customers? What matters most? Remember diversity means you are reflecting the real world.
  4. Be respectful. Applying for roles takes time. Attending interviews costs money. ALWAYS respect this. Thank candidates who apply. All of them. This is a cost of business. Don’t be cheap. Never use ‘if you don’t hear from us’ in applications. Show respect. Only advertise for roles you are going to hire for. Don’t lie, don’t cut the salary to a lower level, don’t  promise what isn’t there. If you want to have an extensive process, then consider paying expenses for candidates as they progress. This cost is a fraction of the cost of picking the wrong person, and a tiny fraction of the cost of firing a bad candidate.
  5. Remember that hiring is a two way process. Never forget this. Great candidates are always interviewing you. Average candidates want a job. Great candidates want a company worthy of their time and efforts. Keep checking that you are answering questions that they may have. Before making the job offer, allow the new hire to spend some time in the company with people in a similar role to what you want to hire them for. Allow the candidate to ask questions to those in role, perhaps over lunch or a coffee without you being there. You want the candidate to know the reality of the job and willingly sign up to this. If you don’t, then you are simply a holding place until they move.

None of this is a recipe for success, and there are whole books dedicated to this, but getting the basics right, showing respect, being honest are great starting points.

And one final tip you should follow if you pick just one.

Hire passion

Work has days when everything goes wrong, clients cancel, projects fail and delivery is missed. When the chips are down you want to be with someone who stands with you, holds out a hand and starts to fix things, not someone who tells everyone what is wrong. Think carefully about how you identify that person, because when it really matters, character is what counts, make sure you are looking for that. 

The role of design in preventing government IT failures

The solution to failed Government IT projects is not better (whatever that is) technology – or another IT project that miraculously has some insight that the smart people working on the original project didn’t have. And yes, whatever you think, the people working on large IT projects are generally very smart people  – but you are right that however smart they are, a very large number of Government IT projects fail.

Not just fail, but F A I L.

  • Fail in a ‘£10bn Patient Records write off’ type fail
  • Fail in a ‘still stuck with paper world print off and sign‘ type fail
  • Fail in a ‘have you heard of Facebook or social networking‘ type fail
  • Fail with a ‘45 minute application process with no save’ type fail

And my insightful piece of original input to this …?

The problem with failed IT projects is not the IT.

Not the technology, not what is built, not that painful unusable system. Not that slow, hard to use interface, or that unreliable program.

The seeds of failure, in fact the genetic code of IT failure is embedded into the Government IT project long before the technology is switched on. A computer is nothing more than a processor of information. It is a tool. It does what we tell it to do. It may have some machine learning, but the program has not developed itself, it is doing what a human has told it to do. Even with intelligent machines and artificial intelligence a human has defined the conditions and the boundaries of its operation.

The Government IT service delivered may be completely useless and not fit for purpose, but the problem is not the technology. It is the people and the processes that decided what the technology should do and how it should do it long before an exorbitantly expensive procurement process was started. [When you understand the process, you can understand why Government IT is always so expensive]. 

So if the technology is not the problem, then better technology is not the solution.

Whatever better technology is, it is still technology, so is missing the real source of the problem.

Better technology may help the end solution work better, but it is unlikely to be the best possible solution. So whatever you read in the IT press, a new platform, engine, database, open source codebase or new architecture is not going to magically solve the problem – regardless of what the evangelists and salesman tell you. A new platform may be better, but it is a better technology outcome, not necessarily a better service outcome.

The reason for this is that the starting point to solving any challenge begins with questions, not answers. Technology is a ‘how‘. It is an answer, but it is one of many possible answers. To validate whether the answer is correct we need to understand the context and boundaries of the question. This requires asking, ‘what‘ and ‘why‘ not just ‘how‘.

How‘ can only be answered with confidence once we know the answers to ‘what‘ and ‘why‘. You may also want to ask ‘when‘ and ‘where‘ too before moving onto ‘how‘.

So if the solution starts with understanding ‘what and ‘why‘ we need to look at the best people to do this. And this is not technology people.

Remember the old proverb, “If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail“.

To IT people, everything is solvable by IT … in Government this typically means big monolithic, expensive, [very expensive] IT. Lovely BIG technology projects.

Instead we should look anthropologists, sociologists, scientists [whether data, social or behavioural]. Look for people who immerse themselves in the complexity of people. You may also want to involve advertisers, marketers, counsellors and psychologists. You want people who study people.  You want who seek to learn about behaviour, how social situations work, how to influence, change behaviour and attain the desired action.

Perhaps more than anyone it is about designers.

It is not a great coder! Sorry.

It is not a database specialist. A statistician perhaps, but never someone who focuses on designing a potential technology solution before wanting to understand whether technology even has a role to play in the solution. It is not someone who jumps to a whiteboard proclaiming they know how to fix this. What you need is someone who leans forward and keep asking ‘why‘; inviting an ever increasing understanding of the problem.

Their goal is not to find the solution but to understand the problem and the relationship between this and the outcomes that are desired.

So does this fix Government IT problems?

Answer: No.

There is one more critical change that needs to be made.

Stop Government IT projects.

That’s right.

Stop Government designing IT solutions. 

Instead focus on understanding and defining the desired outcomes – and nothing else. State the problem as it is understand, then ask for ideas, proposals and thought on how to better understand the problem and qualify potential solutions. Not a solution, not a technology solution, but solutions to the problem.

Instead of appealing to technology companies, engage service designers, pressure groups, citizen bodies and the general public to help UNDERSTAND the problem and possible solutions. Not THE solution, but possible solutions. Note that this is plural.

Then test the solutions. Real world tests, with real people and real problems problems to validate proposed solutions. Prototype, mock-up, whatever method you want. At this stage you may want to involve technology people … but be mindful that technology is likely to be part of the solution, not THE solution. 

Remember the golden question at this stage, “how do you know this to be true?

or put more bluntly … “I don’t care what you think. Prove it. Show me the data

At this point there is an interesting irony. We flip from being focusing on people and behaviour which are highly variable and often subjective (qualitative) to evidence of what works , which is the opposite; hard, quantitative and varifiable. We start with designers, but end with mathematicians and analysts. The order of course it critical. Do it the other way around and you can get beautiful square wheels; well designed, but useless.

Or in the case of Government IT you get ugly expensive square wheels.

And then when you have the data. When you have validated it, correlated input and output. When you know what works. When you know what matters. When you understand how to deliver the required outcome and can prove this … THEN … you can start looking at ‘how‘ to build the solution. Recognise that the best solution may be to learn from several prototypes and separate ideas. Open innovation is what you are looking for. Sharing ideas, sharing learning.

Then you can start to build the solution … knowing of course that what you have is the start of a journey of continual improvement; a development process that includes continual measuring and learning; a process of A/B testing and micro-changes to colour, single digit pixel layout changes, an obsession with the time taken to core complete tasks and manic reporting of incomplete transactions.

Looking at the recently announced Universal Benefit solution, and its widely reported 45 minute application process with no save functionality, it becomes painfully aware of how much change is still needed. When you see a design that no commercial IT company would ever support you know something is very wrong.

It is over 15 years since the original eGovernment visions were published. Personal technology and our relationship with it has completely been transformed, but most of government IT hasn’t moved a jot. Early visions of joined-up government are still in future roadmaps, after many billions spent on ‘integration’ and the development of digital services.
Government still wants to send me paper, thinks efficiency means more people and is still unable to conduct a conversation electronically through the channel of my choice. The myth of technology as a silver bullet capable of compensating for a lack of vision or clarity of strategy exists as much now as it ever did.

There are some beacons of hope though.

The Government Digital Service (GDS) is a team setup to transform government digital solutions. Its approach to user centred design, to shared learning and open engagement is a big step forward. My only concern is that the technology focused philosophy and a mandate that is driven by moving to digital channels risks making the same mistakes as previous projects, albeit with better designed websites. The assumption with GDS is still that the solution is a move to an integrated digital service. Surely this in itself is contrary to true user centred design principles, which don’t presume to define the solution before understanding the problem.

Surely there are government services that are not best delivered digitally? Ones where redesigning the roles people play, reengineering the flow of services, or the amending interaction between departments could deliver greater benefits than a better website?

A brilliant website is not a great deal of use to someone who is illiterate, dyslexic or simply uncomfortable with technology. Commercial companies increasingly respect this with many increasing the channels that they offer, maintaining telephone services, re-establishing  face to face services and putting the quality of service experience as the primary metric regardless of the channel chosen.

Whilst healthcare, social services and education will benefit from better designed technology services, by limiting ourselves to electronic channels, we are potentially missing major improvements from rethinking and redesigned the human, social and cultural aspects of the service.

With the majority of business and citizen government services now online, perhaps we can move our attention from cost of provision to quality of outcome, allowing designers to innovate in something other than code and APIs?

Perhaps the recent Design of the Year award for will give help give government the confidence to broaden the scope of the GDS. Such a win would have been almost unthinkable until the GDS was established. Perhaps the time is now right to trust its designers to tackle problems where the solution is not a digital service.

That really would be innovative.

This post is a rewritten version my response to an article in Computer Weekly about Government IT. The original post was to the Facebook page of one of the authors, Jerry Fishenden. His article was the fifth part of a series called the Great Deverticalisation that used the analogy of a High Street to highlight the differences between how small businesses and Government approached IT. This version takes a much broader perspective of the problem and the potential solution than the original Facebook reply.

Healthcare, empathy, the NHS and the power of video

Thanks to Tim Brown for posting the link to this fantastic video from the Cleveland Clinic.

Please give it 4 minutes of your time.

In his post, Tim asks readers to consider how this would work as a design brief for someone designing a hospital or healthcare system. I cannot help think that the relevance and value of the video goes much deeper. Particularly in the UK.

Amidst budget crises, reorganisations of Hospital Trusts and the creation of new markets, the whole point of what the NHS does and who it is ultimately there to serve seems to be lost.

You, me, our families are increasingly relegated to the status of statistics. We seem to be incidental to the redesign of the NHS.

Our voices rarely listened to as hospitals are closed, services transferred and the magical ‘market’ is introduced.

Our only involvement in this whole process appears to be to cause inefficiency by our recurring problems of becoming ill and getting old. Perhaps if only we were not such a burden, the NHS could reach that politicians nirvana of ‘being efficient’. I cannot help think that achieving this in healthcare is akin to having ‘quiet’ in a primary school – something that is possible, but not something that we actually want.

What this video does so well is remind us what healthcare is about.

It reminds us what hospitals are for and why they matter.

It reminds us that however bad our day has been, it is unlikely to compare to that of a doctor  giving his patient a diagnosis that will see his life change forever in those following few minutes.

One that makes the word ‘pension’ redundant.

One that measures lifetimes in weeks.

It reminds us that we are not that patient. At least not today.

Most importantly the video reminds us that healthcare is about people.

Not markets. Not targets. Not performance measures. All these are there and important, but they are there to support the core business – they are not the business.

Perhaps those who want to challenge the latest hatchet-wielding ladder-climbing Junior Health Minister giving a trite soundbite on News at 10 to justify cuts to our NHS should take a lesson from the Cleveland Clinic and focus on what really matters. Instead of duelling with statistics, we should go back to what matters. People. Not in an abstract way. Not in a markets/targets/performance way, but in a human way.

Perhaps pressure groups should engage not with flyers, but with YouTube links. 

Perhaps we should forget reasoned and rational debate and instead go for emotion.

BOLDLY put emotion first.

Why? Because emotion is the most powerful human instinct. If you don’t make a connection with emotion, nothing else matters. The statistics and reasoned arguments can follow, but start with the emotion.

Why? Because emotion, empathy, caring, love is the very essence of what being human is about.

Cleveland Clinic know this works.

Learn from them.

How to use technology to ruin your service

The rule is simple …

Technology is there to serve people. Not the other way around. 

No exceptions.

In the hierarchy between people and technology – people are at the top.


Technology should make life easier, not harder.

It should things faster, simpler, less painful.

It should help, guide and teach us.

But too often it fails.

It breaks, it gives poor results, it can be unreliable, unstable and despite our best intentions, it often does this when we most need it.

But that doesn’t matter.


… because good design, good human-centred design knows that no technology is infallible and plans for this to happen.

Good design plans for technology failures. Big (everything fails), little (inconvenience) and everything in between.

[At this point, we could substitute the word design with service]

But … good design (service) always gives the final responsibility to a human.

Humans are not perfect – but they are better at managing computer service failures better than any computer is. If your computer system isn’t working – don’t (ever) use a computer to fix the problem. Use a person. People don’t want an automated notification, they want someone to say ‘sorry’ and answer their questions about how/when/if the problem will be fixed.

Too often though, we see technology as a magic bullet, able to solve complex human service problems.

So lets look at a case study in how not to implement technology. A brilliant example about Swiss Railways explained here by the BBC. This is worth highlighting, not because of the failure of Swiss Railways, but as an example of technology failure with many railway companies across Europe. Swiss are not alone in failing to implement technology to make things better – but they do stand out in terms of the failure to put people first.

Instead of using technology to improve service, to help customers self-ticket, to allow last minute bookings and changes, to move to cheaper, faster and more customer centric design, they provide a case study in how not to do it.

They are not alone … British trains have yet to adopt e-tickets, you still need to print them out a station. You cannot display a ticket on a phone – although I can when I fly. I cannot update my ticket or change it online – as I have a paper ticket – I need to take this into a station to change it.

Dutch Rail seems to want to only accept Dutch credit cards outside of Amsterdam … with ticket machines rarer than hens teeth outside of Schipol. Trains are great, but many times I have needed to find a cash machine to buy a ticket at a machine. Welcome to the credit card era!

These recent Swiss changes win though. Perhaps their experience of technology is better than mine – or that of their travellers and of BBC writers.

So a quick lesson for all companies…

Technology has great potential, but it fails. Plan for this. Give people the authority and respect to make the best decision and you will be fine. Build a system where technology is in charge, and you have a recipe for bad service and unhappy customers.

Just assuming one simple fact could have transformed the Swiss experience … TECHNOLOGY FAILS.

So, the ticket machine doesn’t work. Pay on the train. Add a small surcharge, but still keep the customer happy.

if the machine fails, you should be apologising NOT fining passengers.

Ah, but Swiss Rail respond – we want to disincentivise travel without a ticket. We want to stop passengers not paying.

And so do your law-ibiding travellers, which are likely to be the majority.

So do that. Employ ticket inspectors, but allow them use judgement. Capture credit card details. Fine on the second or third infringement. Identify patterns of evasion. Use the technology to solve YOUR problem, not make life harder for the customer.

Unless you don’t care about unhappy customers … then you really have problems.