Wednesday, 23 November 2011

Personal Jottings on Unreasonable Learners at Holyrood 21st November 2011

These are personal jottings, rather than anything resembling notes of the meeting.
Firstly, its existence is welcome. I have been to meetings of this general type, so it seems there is a range of folk in Scotland trying to manage its emergent properties in a productive and worthwhile direction. It was a delight to meet a variety of systems thinkers with different backgrounds and interests but a shared interest in our future. Jim Mather did a great job of organising us, and it is a good sign to have such a senior person getting involved (and using his own software).
The line that policy makers should stop being architects and start being gardeners found resonance. From  my limited experience, that is a 'big ask'. We certainly need to expose policy makers and influencers to systems thinking, and not to restrict it to Vanguard's proprietary approach.

There were some false notes struck on the conditions for change, including unnecessary requirements for pervasive change, and for synchronous change. The use of attractors and safe-fail experiments set out by the Cognitive Edge community are much more tractable. With no disrespect to the meeting, there is also a massive need for facilitator training. Perhaps I have been spoiled working with the folk at Argenta-Europ, but good facilitator training would have huge returns if the participative emergence of a new Scotland isto proceed apace.

Explaining systems thinking is not easy and Gordon Hall gave a clear view on systems thinking for the context of the day. I will swipe his zapping of imaginal cells to keep caterpillars from turning into butterflies. Hopefully our clumping will reach critical mass. Minor nitpick; his selection of management theorists was good, but it would be nice if we could build on Tom Burns' legacy. There good points for action in the talk. Perhaps we need to spell these out more.

Guy Standing was excellent, and had a compelling narrative of our situation. 'Precariat' entered everyone's vocabulary. For an economist, he was remarkably good. I had the privilege to learn from Marie Jahoda, and we could learn from her legacy on positive mental health and the role of work (developed during the last depression) to improve our idea of where we want to go, rather than what we want to avoid. There is work on these lines in Scotland, though I don't know the folk. Some links on positive psychology here, here and here. Incidentally, the aim from GovCamp Scotland was 'an empowered society', which I like very much indeed (despite normally hating empowerment as a word).

The self-image that seemed to be valued was that of a Second Enlightenment. Values came out as important; perhaps we can find a way of using all the Immortal Memories next January as a catalyst. 'Follow the money' as a disruptor didn't seem to get much attention; much of the discussion on schools was very mild compared to say Ivan Illich  of 40 years ago.  Perhaps a series of "If xxx were teachers, they might ..." sessions e.g. geeks really would not understand why primary school language learning is not 1-to-1 over the web with children in other countries while doing something together (perhaps Rangers fans and Barca fans could teach each other's languages?).  xxx = social workers would yield different results, of course. Changing the language of benchmarks and metrics to 'feedback' might be helpful.

This isn't the place for a review of all the changes hitting education (Khan Academy etc.) but the Hive program looks interesting and it had a pop-up in London recently.

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

Gideon Kossoff on Transition Design

Gideon Kossoff gave a thoughtful talk on Transition Design last night at UWS. I wish I was going to the Shorelines Conference today but have other commitments. Hopefully it is a start towards local activity linked to Transition Scotland.

Gideon had a nice diagram of needs and satisfiers; some similarities with David Squire's diagram (.pdf) for seafarers. There was no discussion of spirituality. It seems to me very unclear that we can make the transition we need to in a secular society. Whether it be a Moon Goddess or a Sun God, history seems to say we need one (even if they don't need us). His domains of everyday life is a useful educational and analytical framework for 'what has been hollowed out'. Less of a guide to action, though.

The main weakness was his fondness for a rural idyll as a model. The case of Ladakh is a good example of why these are exactly the wrong model. Although lovely to look at from a distance, it was completely vulnerable to the forces that Transition Towns are claiming to counter. Perhaps the Transition Town movement needs the Smart Cities hackers almost as much as the techies need a social framework. Wherever we are headed, it is not "back" to anywhere.

He raised the question of how we would define and assess sustainability. A very good question indeed. Every system requires a viewpoint, and the viewpoint for local transitions is still to be formed.

Thankfully, the topic of power came up in the discussion. As a newcomer to Transition Towns, my impression is that they need some harder edge thinking about what to do and where they are headed. Rob Paterson is advocating food as a systempunkt, John Robb is mobilising Resilient Communities with miiu, links to all sorts of open source resources, and serious discussions of currency. Umair Haque is trying to paint the big picture for us. The P2P Foundation is developing a great set of resources. Cognitive Edge  is providing great tools to make sense of a complex world. Perhaps some safe-fail experiments with the Cynefin framework is a next step? Perhaps the very real problems of the Bellisle estate are as good a place to start as any, as a way of starting to build some Transition Designers locally.

Friday, 11 November 2011

Where to start improving usability?

  "Where do I start?" Is an important question for an organization wanting to use the cluster of Human Centred Design (HCD) / Service Design / User Experience (UX). The answer is to 'start from where you are'.
The usability champion can find out what sort of a challenge she faces very quickly using the Principles of HCD. How is the organization doing as regards:
  • A clear and explicit understanding of users, tasks and environments.
  • The involvement of users throughout design and development.
  • Iteration.
  • Designing for the user experience.
  • User centred evaluation.
  • Multi- disciplinary skills and perspectives.
However, this does not tell her where to start making changes at an organizational level. There are basically three options for improving usability at an organizational level.

Option 1 - evidence of outcomes

If the organization has services or products in the market, then get some evidence of real use 'on the ground'. The form of evidence depends on the audience. Wasted money and effort (in design or support) will appeal to the suits. Video works for designers. Top tip; be tactful. I showed video of users in despair trying to use a new, expensive, hi-tech product - to the complete surprise of the design team. I could have been more tactful in my presentation. It was cr1p that needed to be dropped immediately, but if you want to continue working with the team, there are ways of saying it...

Option 2 - Link design and customer development

If you are at the stage of 'the great leap forward'. Then you are effectively in a lean start-up (even if you are in a government department). Steve Blank has some great material on customer development. Use customer development to drive the business viewpoint and HCD to drive the design viewpoint. The two ought to work together perfectly.

Option 3 - Process Improvement

If things aren't really that bad (and this needs a big dose of personal honesty, because it is usually the case that things are that bad), then build on what works with Process Improvement using the Usability Maturity Model (ISO TR 18529:2000 Human-centred lifecycle process descriptions).  Improvement activities can be prioritized into an achievable plan based on business priorities.

Wednesday, 9 November 2011

Thoughts on GovCamp Scotland 2011

Zach Tumin provided more than enough inspiration for the day. He seemed to be a real person (unlike some other US inspiring speakers) and gave thoughtful answers to questions. I hope he meets Karyn McCluskey on his visit to Scotland, to supplement his comments about Bill Bratton.

Colin Adams from Edinburgh University gave us our aim, which is an empowered society. The success he has with  "come to Edinburgh University and don't get a job" reminded me of this post 2.5 million looking for a job in the UK - while a billion Chinese look to start a business.  Astonishingly, one of the speakers said "workforce", a word I hadn't heard since the 1970's, and certainly of no relevance to the 21st Century.
Craig Turpie of StormID had very sensible words on citizen-centred government services.Alison McLaughlin, from Sopra Group seemed to say that she delivered systems when they had no idea of the context of use. If true, I hope she does this in her own time.

Some of the major false assumptions in public service delivery were stated as though they were universal truths, including 'economies of scale' and 'shared services'. Some of us haven't been following John Seddon!There also seemed to be the risk that structural reform would be seen as a priority rather than a distraction.

It may be that changing the language would help. "Service delivery" encourages a producer-driven inside-out view of the world. "Collaboration" implies a number of people working towards a shared goal. I am sure that there is much collaboration informally at the front line, but it probably happens in spite of 'the system' rather than because of it. I sensed that a good many speakers from the public sector had not recently walked a mile in their customer's shoes. The guy from WISE in the Public Sevice Delivery breakout (sorry, the  published information on speakers etc. is very limited and I didn't make a note of his name) highlighted the rarity of 'providers' actually listening to those they are charged with helping. I have seen the huge gulf between service providers and customers in the private sector. It is very easy to fool yourself into the false belief that you are doing a good job.

Demographic analysis is probably useful for electoral analysis. However, it is much less useful when developing personas for service delivery. Clay Christensen has explained this very nicely in his 'Milkshake Marketing'.  There was too much use of stereotypes of 'young people' and 'the elderly' for comfort.

Presumably from US Microsoft influence, there was much talk of 'leadership' and 'vision'. It would be a shame if Scotland were to be constrained by the artificial confines of US management-speak (particularly when it is not supported by evidence-based management). Some proper systems thinking, Cynefin-based sensemaking, etc. etc. would be much more effective.

I put in a question to the Public Service Delivery breakout, which was well discussed, for which many thanks. The question concerned bridging the divide between the producer-driven hierarchical, ordered, planned, targetted world of the public sector and the networled, emergent, collaborative, complex world outside. An interesting article on this topic is here, and the P2P Foundation has a well-thought academic item here.

So, lots of good intentions at the moment, and we know where they lead. I recently contributed to a book chapter on usability in government systems, and used quotes from reports of ten years ago, that would have made a big difference if they had been acted on. For example, Stevenson and Gibson wrote an excellent publication on user feedback in 2002. I would be very interested to know how things have progressed since, into the age of social media.

Scotland has a terrific community of usability professionals, both in academe and in practice. How do we engage with the good deeds associated with the Digital Participation Charter?