This sentence and concept showed up (perhaps through GDS? I’d be surprised if it were someone else, to be honest) during UX London at the end of May, and it keeps on coming back to me as I think about the world.
Recently I got into a discussion about business cards - a friend (let’s call her A) has recently set up her own business and mentioned that, nine months in, she hadn’t got round to making them yet. Friend B posited “aren’t they over? Surely you just put someone’s number straight into your phone these days.” Turned out the reason A had this sudden rush of guilt over not having any cards was because the person who’d most recently asked for one was Pierre Koffman.
If Pierre Koffmann wants a card, you give him a card. Don’t risk getting caught out and missing that one because you think business cards are over. Some users still want cards. You want them not to? Well, it’s your call. Good luck getting the work.
As a cyclist, my concession to high-vis is two strips of high vis tape stuck to the back of my jacket, and cycling-specific jeans with a high-vis line running down the inside of the right leg (turn up your jeans and away you go). I don’t like yellow high vis jackets. I’d rather ride without a helmet, too, though I usually wear one for the concession of making my mum feel a bit better.
I realised recently when talking about this that I am riding for the city I want, not the city I have. Without wanting to open up the helmet debate, London’s road infrastructure and priorities right now are not really for me or the hundreds (it’s summer after all) of other cyclists I pass in a day. I should be doing all I can to make myself safer and more visible.
But I can’t stop something in my head asking - how do I get the city I want if I’m stuck behaving for the city I have? Imagine if everyone thought we were all happy to put on our high vis, put on our helmets, wrap ourselves in cotton wool to get to work every day. Imagine if that’s the best we can ever expect, because TfL look at how the user actually is right now (through necessity), and design for them - instead of how they want to be.
Having business cards is a mostly harmless activity. As the world keeps naturally shifting to be a little bit quicker, a little bit more always on, a little more digital, they will (likely) continue to die out. But you do yourself no harm if you cater for all your users, not just the ones who behave the same way as you do.
And as for cycling, well, the answer in getting the city I want probably lies more in campaigning publicly than in tiny attempted nudges based around riding in jeans instead of lycra. If I don’t speak up, that aspect of user need is out of my hands. And me, and you, and everyone you know who ever rides a bike, whether to the shops or to work or just to see a friend, run the risk of suffering design for how we’re forced to behave, rather than design for the way we want to.
The Government Digital Service (GDS) is leading the digital transformation of the UK government.
An email from Mathew yesterday morning lead me to another blog post from GDS about the principles of service transformation; this post above about booking prison visits is another example of their work in the arena.
So much of the small digital bubble I seem to half exist in (the other 50% of existence is dedicated to Arsenal and bicycles, of course) seems to revel in snazzy front end experiences, solving problems that, well, do we really have? We discussed Bridj this morning, “the world’s first smart transit system which uses big data and luxury shuttles to adjust to your individual commuting needs.” On a closer look, as far as any of us can work out, it’s a bus. A bus with wifi.
Leaving innovation to the private sector leads to instances of designing only for ourselves - websites that help you collect links, or find a bus with wifi, or - and I hesitate to say this - book a fancy apartment for a nice holiday. It’s easier just to design a nice front end and not think about the whole process or the end result. GDS’s work is impressive to me in that it solves the non-sexy problems, and it doesn’t just rely on ‘digital’ to do so. Mathew and I often discuss a phrase we first came across at UX London whilst speaking to GDS’s head of research Leisa Reichelt: digital is a Trojan horse. You want a cool front end for this product you’re building or project you’re working on? Well in building that, it’s likely that we’ll be uncovering a whole host of other problems that aren’t really about digital at all (top tip: they’re normally about people). Delivery fulfilment, or attitudes to customer service might be two examples of that. Or how much time prison officers spend printing out visitor forms.
I had a solid gold example of this all land in my lap yesterday evening, when I got a call from Camberwell Leisure Centre to tell me that the yoga class I’d booked had been cancelled. In all honesty, I’d given up on the idea of going anyway, feeling slightly sorry for myself with two niggling football injuries and wanting to go home and watch the Germany match. Bonus time, then - “so, can I get a refund?” I asked. “Um, not sure. How did you pay?” “On the website, the one that’s run by Fusion.” “Um. I need to check with my manager, we’ll call you back.”
I got the call back and a new staff member told me that she could fill out a form, get her manager to sign it, and then I might get a debit card refund in up to two weeks. “Wow.” “Or, we can do you a credit note, when can you come in to get it?”. Probably not for a week or so, I said, and does it have an expiry date?
No expiry, she told me, “but we don’t have the notes in stock at our centre, so I’ll have to go to another leisure centre to get one, and I don’t want someone else using the credit note meant for you in the meantime, so can you call when you’re going to come in, and I’ll go over to another centre and get you a note?”.
On the surface, that’s terrible customer service. Not issuing a paid-online debit card refund within a few days, really? But I couldn’t get annoyed, not really. Poor old Luria. She wanted to give me a refund, she sounded genuinely apologetic that the class had been cancelled, and she had to jump through all these hoops to try to help me out.
My reckoning is that Fusion (who run a number of leisure centres in London) take the card payment online, it goes to a central account, and the revenue maybe gets divvied out between centres every quarter. Camberwell haven’t had the revenue to refund me directly. There’s a middle man and a system in place that simply don’t allow them to do it.
Users are one thing, of course - the main thing, arguably. But the point and the purpose and the benchmark of success can’t always be about the ease of use at the point of screen contact. There’s edge cases of circumstance (class cancelled), and there’s different types of user, too. Like the leisure centre employee, trying to make it up to their customer for an unavoidable situation. Who knows, maybe they get bonuses on number of users of the centre, too - they don’t want a frustrated customer never coming back. But they’re stuck in this system that makes it hard for them to make their customers happy. One that allows money to be taken but not to be given back. One that allows for one use case, but not any others.
GDS for local government, then, please. Libraries need it. Leisure centres need it. End to end, multiple user focused, edge cases considered. Or we’ll end up with one of two things: what we’ve got already (quite clearly not good enough), or Bridj for libraries, Bridj for leisure centres, Bridj for hospitals (Uber for taxis). Public services (and the public) deserve better than both.
Gray is an interpretation of the serif typeface used in the body text of the 1890 version ofThe Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde. I was interested in using the appearance of the doppelgänger or evil twin in literature to mirror the concept of an imperfect copy.
Turns out literary-inspired typography is the kind of concept that floats my boat. Process, sometimes, is more important or has more resonance than output. Disclaimer: haven’t seen the full typeface, and it might well be excellent. But my type design knowledge isn’t all that, and that isn’t really the point: I’m more interested for now in how sharing the inspiration or process behind work can strike a chord with an audience, even despite that audience’s lack of awareness of the output.
Joseph, who I sit next to at work, quickly cottoned on to the fact that I make lists for pretty much everything. I’d never thought of this as a notable characteristic before - surely everyone makes lists? - but ever since he mentioned it I have been noticing my list-making tendency more and more.
I once described football as a hobby for mildly dysfunctional people who can’t cope with the prospect of life without weekly punctuation marks. I am one of those people. That personality trait means I often use lists as a way to break down that unit of time even further. A list cuts through the occasional fear of the scale of life into granular instances and events, and makes everything seem a little more manageable.
For example. Yesterday evening I made a list which I titled:
THINGS I HAVE BEEN PUTTING OFF (due to fear, laziness, disinclination, or all of the above.)
It ran to two columns and twenty three items. Today there are eight left uncrossed, and they all seem a little likelier than they did yesterday.
This concept of breaking a task down into smaller items and tackling the little things has been in management and self-help books a thousand times. Usually, I think, it’s to get on top of work load, to manage time as best you can, to be more productive.
Yesterday was the first time that I realised my dependency goes one step further than just productivity: I need lists sometimes to avoid staying in bed all day, paralysed by indecision. I need lists to get me through bad days, when they tell me what to do after I’ve fed the cat and put the kettle on. The structure and clarity of lists is my answer to life when I look at it and see an intimidating, everlasting blob.
I don’t need a list for tomorrow, though. We’re playing away at Hull.
I learnt to ride a bike when I was four years old. My godmother Sophie took the stabilisers off in Cherry Tree Woods. There were many more bikes after that (the two repeated cries I remember: “Dad, I need one with suspension” and “I really want a BMX” - I got the bike with suspension, and rode it twice. I never got a BMX). There was brief rollerblade period, and a skateboard, secondhand, off a friend who went to a cooler school than me. There was a microscooter, bought in collusion with my dad one afternoon as the craze hit 11 year olds across north London. We trawled the shops of Muswell Hill before taking a rare trip to Wood Green to find the last one in town.
There were more wheels in my adolescence, I’m sure of it, but those listed above are enough for my family to have a caricature of me in their heads: “you just really like wheels.”
I’ve not yet even touched on the holiday in Scotland where I wrote down every car’s registration number and its tax disc expiry date. Exes have called me neurotic upon hearing this story; I maintain my argument that it’s merely officious.
Along with the Dorling Kindersley book about car mechanics I carried around the playground in year 2, the poster of airline tail wing designs I had on my wall for four years, the driving licence acquired as soon as possible after my 17th birthday: vehicles or wheels? I’m not sure which fascination it is that’s followed me around since childhood, but it’s something that has had me captivated for at least twenty years now and seems to have no sign of abating.
I’m 26 years old now and you’d hope that the fads of childhood might have faded a little now that I have a flat, a cat, a steady job, a healthy interest in the pub. But somewhere in the past couple of years, when I got over my fear of north London’s hills and started to cycle in London properly, I began to unwittingly follow rule 12.
I spent more than £100 on a bike for the first time after university: living in the country and working in a pub three miles away, I could either get a lift in three hours before my shift started, walk 45 minutes, or cycle. It was new, and I felt for the first time in years that I had my own bike, one that I chose, one that fit me and me only. It stayed a while, until I bought the Dawes - the bike that made me first learn that a brand called Campagnolo existed, about 8-speed and 9-speed and 10-speed, about indexing gears, about downtube shifters…everything, really, and everything I would’ve become hooked on as a teenager if I’d had a route in.
With a lovely tourer in the shed I wanted a lovely road bike, especially now I had a grasp of the possibilities. I bought a frame, and slowly bought the parts to make something special. It sat unfinished for a year until last Friday, when I finished it to a point that I am happy to ride it (and very happy with it I am too). And in the gap between frame purchase to full build, I bought another one: a yellow single speed, bought in the throes of “buy things to make yourself happy” heartbreak. That bike was the realisation that I had fallen into the hole n+1: imagining that there is always one more bike that will make me happy.
I’ve scratched the itch for now. My road bike and I plan to be very happy together, and unless my riding patterns change in the foreseeable future, there’s no need for the Brompton I thought about when I worked in west London, or the cyclocross bike, and the track bike can probably wait until I’ve been to Herne Hill Velodrome more than once. My three bikes make me feel like I’m back to the start on that journey through wheel obsession. All those scooters and skateboards in the end merely brought me back here, to my somewhat pedestrian form of thrill seeking: the urge to beat bigger hills, to get faster, to bend just that little bit more into corners. Of course there’s the transport element - it gets me places faster than the bus or the tube, and there’s fresh air and I always, always get a seat. But the real rush comes from grinding through those jolts of industry - I will make it up this hill - followed by the euphoria at the end. And you only need one bike for that.
I don’t mind getting marketing emails. I probably help push up a lot of open rates. But in the past week I’ve had two of those grovelling “come back to us” emails. Both from good services that I use from time to time. And both with calls to action with no substance to them whatsoever.
One of those emails was fine, but when the second one landed it bothered me enough to kvetch about it. Having been in a good mood for about six weeks solid, seemingly all of my angst now gets saved up for bad websites and direct marketing. On Saturday night I tweeted to bitch about how the Guardian’s new navigation buttons look like they’d not made it out of wireframes. Then I deleted it the next morning, thinking drunk website bitching was perhaps not the best self-presentation.
Anyway - in chronological order of emails received:
Netflix: I don’t watch much telly, and I was planning on reactivating my subscription for the second series of Orange Is The New Black. Why is it a great time to restart my membership now? No reason given. No “hey you might like House of Cards.” Nada. Zilch reasoning for a made up statement.
Zipcar: I use Zipcar when I go to Ikea. The rest of the time I ride a bike. Why not take one for a spin today? Because I don’t need to. If the subject line was more along the lines of “What are you doing this weekend? Do you need a car?” then I’d let them off - that gives me some time to ponder why I might need to use a car. But at 1pm on a Monday, there’s heaps of reasons not to take a Zipcar “for a spin”: I’m at work, and an email from Zipcar isn’t enough to prompt a change of evening plans. And anyway (final kvetch), the body copy isn’t backing up the subject line to push me into a spontaneous, exciting drive to Sainsbury’s for my ‘weekly shop’ - it’s just the bog standard Zipcar spiel. No spontaneous, “take the car tonight!” aspirational messages: just, you know, it’s really easy! You can book it via an app!
Last month I borrowed The Private Life by Josh Cohen off my pal Laura. Honestly, I thought it would be about social media and our treatment of it - but seemingly that was just my preoccupations transposing onto my book-by-its-cover impression.
As with any book about how we live now, of course it addresses the internet (and, specifically, our behaviour online) - but more than that, it’s about the distinction between public and private across all of life - a distinction existing everywhere from your face and your sentences to Katie Price’s “reality” TV shows and Henry James’s short stories. Cohen is a psychoanalyst, and being fresh out of six months of analysis myself I lapped it up. The idea that analysis is about finding the gap between your public self and your private self - not necessarily lessening it, but becoming aware of it - resonated with my experience on the couch. As I’ve become both more aware of and more OK with that gap, I’ve found my behaviours change. My mind had jumped to social media because it’s where the distinction is most brutal, and it’s where I’ve found myself retreat from (yeah, it doesn’t look like it does it? But it’s true!) as I’ve become more comfortable with the existence of the private self.
At our studio we have a TV in the meeting room which we use to connect our laptops and phones to via Apple TV. At the end of a meeting a few weeks ago Mathew connected his phone and opened his browser - up came the last page he’d looked at, visible to all present on a 32” TV (a blog post about Halifax’s bad SEO practice, if you’re interested). The client exclaimed, “Goodness, I’d be scared to open Safari on there!”.
I started thinking then about browser history as a way into someone’s private consciousness. Many of us spend more time in a day with a phone in our hands than with our head on a pillow, and what we do on there is viewable to…well, pretty much no one. A few days ago a friend asked me how to turn off the iPhone’s message preview on the home screen, and as I showed her I said, “I have no idea why anyone thinks having that switched on is a good idea.” Messages, browsing, whatever app activity we do…our phones are extensions of our private selves, living externally to our bodies and ostensibly accessible to anyone but kept behind lock and key - the diary and stack of letters that used to live under the bed getting taken out for a walk every day. That text you sent to the wrong person, or the one that the wrong person saw on someone else’s phone? It’s like showing your emotional cards when you call someone after six pints, pushing the private into the light and always - always - feeling intensely uncomfortable after doing so.
That afternoon we started to discuss the concept of history roulette. In front of an audience, open your browser history, close your eyes, scroll through, land on a link…and explain why you got there. One glimpse into your private internet sinkhole…if you dare.
A few days later Mathew started to explain a different game he’d come up with - a competition for someone to get from Adolf Hitler to the Teletubbies on Wikipedia in the shortest time. The private life version of that? Start at Hitler, isolate everyone for half an hour, tell them to stay within Wikipedia…and see where everyone ends up.
I’d actually be up for playing both of these games with a ton of strangers at some kind of event, but I’ve been told that’s a terrible idea. Cohen’s messaging throughout his book is that the private is necessary, and whatever we do to detract from it, it will continue to exist. Perhaps it’s time for me to spend a bit more time in the notification centre and a little less coming up with games of history roulette.
How did toast become the latest artisanal food craze? Ask a trivial question, get a profound, heartbreaking answer.
Every week at With Associates we send out an email called With Links (if you don’t get it, you should). Originally this was a collection of links we found in the studio and shared in our studio chat room. At the end of last year we changed the format, and it’s now themed every week - we write the theme on the blackboard, stare at it all week, and each of us submits a link on the theme. Our names are attached to the links, so to my mind each link is a glimpse of someone’s personality. Everyone interprets the theme differently according to their perspective.
I came to my link for this week’s theme - Networks - when reading about toast last week. (It’s hard to shake off two years of working for an artisan bakery and give up on reading about bread.)
When a few days later somebody I know tweeted the same link saying “$4 for toast?!” I thought, you’ve missed the point. Firstly, food trends are all about nostalgia: no one’s paying $4 for toast. They’re partly paying for the memory of all the toast they had as a child, too.
But really this article is about self preservation - knowing what you need to do to survive. The last time I felt intensely emotionally vulnerable - a situation where my emotions were entirely caught up in somebody else, and I had very, very little power over what was going to happen - I gravitated towards what I told my shrink was “kids’ food”. Macaroni cheese, fish pie, spaghetti bolognese. It’s a way of building certainty and comfort into a time where it can’t be found elsewhere. Reading this article isn’t reading about toast. It’s reading about Carrelli knowing herself well enough to know that she is vulnerable to complete emotional instability, and building her entire life around helping herself through that. Surround yourself with others by running a cafe. Fill that cafe with cinnamon toast. Know what you need to do, and do it. (Or: build your own damn house.)