European House of Design Management

I attended a one day workshop to expplore what a Design Management toolkit might look like and how it might help public sector orgs in Europe. It was organised by the DBA in partnership with Danish Designers, on behalf of the EU. Thought I’d capture my thoughts.

The exercise felt a bit constrained by the way the initiative was procured. The team had obviously had to rapidly find a hypothesis with reference points, which we as a group then rapidly dismantled. The models felt a bit old, dusty and out of step. But that’s by-the-by. It triggered the right level of debate, and the message was given and taken in good grace and I think there’s plans to take a design approach to the next stages.

What was interesting was the intersection of practice in the room. Design was there in many different forms: design managers, design leaders, design academics, service designers, public sector design enthusiasts – all sorts. I was struck by the route Design Management had taken from product, industrual and architecural routes, which made me feel a bit out of place, given I’ve come up through the digital UX route. This was a bit evident in discussions with me banging on a bit about how new methods like Lean Startup and Agile UX were conspicuous in their absence. Also the CX work coming from Bruce Temkin and CXPA. If we want a toolkit in 3 years that feels fresh, then it needs to be taking into account latest practice now!

Having slept on it, I guess my big hopes are:

  1. An accredited design toolkit – so clients know what they are buying, get a degree of predictability in method and thus reduces overall risk of the purchase of design. Makes it easier for us to sell it. Something like what architects have evolved.
  2. A route map that takes the reader from the steps: “what could we do”, “what should we do”, to “what can we do”, “what will we do”, with a parallel stream of “how should we do it”. Adopting strategic design into an organisation needs to be pitched as a bit of an adventure as it changes the way the organisation works – as evidenced by the Roca case study we were presented with by Raymond Turner, which echoed my own experience with my own clients.
  3. A set of tools aimed at leaders (how do I envision and engage), managers (how do I change direction and drive through) and frontline staff (how do I become a designer and keep designing) – to help each group to handle the change on their own terms. Each will face very different challenges through stages of transition
  4. A community for leaders (definitely) and managers (maybe at a later stage) to help them build understanding and confidence – hear from others, learn from their mistakes, seek advice from peers.
  5. Language, tone of voice, pitch – Confidence is the major stumbling block here. Risk is the watchword in all this – the public sector hates it, but embracing it will help it survive. The relentless pitch to these guys needs to be “innovate to save. execute to survive” – design needs to be positioned as a low cost route to considerable savings, whilst also delivering better outcomes for staff and customers. We need to be clear that this is at the heart of the Design Management offer. We also need to make sure this doesn’t devolve into a dry EU toolkit. It needs to retain all the appealing and human ‘colour’ of design – the creativitiy and inspiration – the focus on storytelling, imaginatoin and drawing that we know often mark the turning points of projects. These things need to be embedded into the output and the way it is distributed.

Finally a note of concern about the 3 year timescale. Please please please can we not wait until then to deliver a perfectly form but hopelessly out of date toolkit? Can we instead borrow from the latest in design (Lean Startup and Agile) to reach a Minimum Viable Product in the next few months. Get that basic toolkit out there in the public domain, being used by a beta group and – crucially – failing to work, so we can quickly improve it again and again. The energy in the room yesterday will lend itself well to that way of working. 


Signal-to-noise – Service vs Customer Service

In Accenture’s 2011 Global Consumer Research Study they state that “consumers around the world are giving off mixed signals at a time when keeping consumer relationships strong is more critical than ever to providers. On the one hand, consumers claim they are more satisfied with the companies they do business w2ith. Yet on the other, they feel less loyal to companies, increasingly switch providers and shop for better deals as their expectations rise.”

I’ve been thinking about that phrase “mixed signals”. Generally consumers are pretty straightforward and its us organisations that are failing to discern signal-to-noise. I think consumers are signalling something pretty clearly. ‘Customer service is important to me, but it doesn’t drive my loyalty. How you help to meet my need drives my loyalty.’ I find this distinction is regularly confused in the service industry – between ‘customer service’ (what you do for customers who need help) and ‘service’ (how you meet their need). Let’s be clear – business effectiveness comes from the latter and not from the former. If all your customer experience work is focused on providing great customer service, you’ll have an efficient service but it’ll never be effective at achieving truly great loyalty.

Service vs Customer Service venn

The overlapping but distinct fields of Service and Customer Service

In many ways we already know this. Evidence indicates that customers don’t reward good customer service (which they consider hygiene), but they are certainly willing to punish bad service. This does not sound like the basis of a loyal relationship. HBR’s work reinforces that customer service in and of itself is not so important. (I know some surveys indicate that what people value from a service is friendly and informed staff, short queues etc – but they wouldn’t even be in the store without a great service proposition. Mostly I think this is the result of ill thought through survey structures.)

I’m witnessing this challenge at the moment. A Customer Service team that just doesn’t understand the purpose of the Service Design team. They have traditionally done continuous improvement against their own KPIs – though I feel have failed to realise that those KPIs are for a Customer Service team who’s modus operandi is increasingly to deal with failure demand. The Service Design team is there to focus primarily on the service proposition – what is the purpose of the organisation in the customer’s eye? – not whether they had a nice call experience. I don’t want to diminish the latter, as it is important, but the former is critical to long-term success and profitability.

Aside went live the other day. It was a big day. Another chapter of user-led government opened. A new phase that brings us bang up to date as a country. And I’m not just talking about a nice new clean interface. This is not a cosmetic shift. The behind the scenes work involved here will have been considerable.

Government tends to the complex, like my kids tend to the nutella. To get one page of simple plain English content published will have taken multiple drafts, professional reviews, discussions to calm those reviewers, and redraftings. I know cos I’ve been there. I once argued with the owner of the Cider and Perry regulation over the phone for an hour. My suggestion that her 80-page regulation could be reduced to 1 side of A4 was literally heretical. That it was ‘impossible’ was one thing, but she also insisted that it was nigh on illegal. Her view was that government was obliged to lay down every fact, and it was the responsibility of the reader to learn, discern and take action. There was no sense that 80 pages of lawyer-level language was a barrier to some chap wanting to make and sell a bit of cider. That it was holding back UK PLC. That – far from being a civil ‘servant’ – she was actually hindering opportunity. (I never said that by the way. That wouldn’t have gone down well). Eventually I got her agreement on the basis that I wasn’t replacing her 80 pages, just preceding it. And she finally conceded that getting someone to understand the key points in 2 minutes meant they were more likely to read her lovely words in full – or something like that. Either way it was a small victory, and those days of early ‘transformation’ were built on small skirmish victories like this.

Hopefully this gives you a sense of how tough it was. And this was around 2002. There was little-to-no sense of ‘the user’, or their ‘user experience’ in government. We at had to run these arguments on a daily basis. We scraped through. We couldn’t point her to many universally recognised examples of user-led brilliance like Amazon. She probably hadn’t bought much online. There was no Apple back then. ‘Platform’ wasn’t even a word. We were still guerillas in the mountains of Whitehall. (he he – honest, it did feel a bit like that).

So’s launch has had a long trajectory. Thousands of sites, down to three sites (labelled – I always felt quite ridiculously – as ‘supersites’), and now down to one. This is an important history and one that many other countries are watching with interest. But I have to admit to some reservations, initially triggered by some of the language being used. Reading some of the coverage, you’d be forgiven for thinking nothing had come before References to the supersites always had the whiff of the “carriage clock gift” after 20 years of service. ‘They’re valuable websites. But they’re of their time. And times change.’ I paraphrase. I can’t deny any of those points, but emotionally I feel like Schmidt. In contrast, the language used to describe the initiative has on occasion had the sort of breathless air of that which surrounds Silicon Roundabout. So I guess this post is part feedback, part air brake on things.

The overall look and feel is fantastic. It’s how government should be. Simple clean and with all unnecessary obstacles removed. It’s a site that gets out of the way. I had no problems at all using what was there. Getting the next bank holiday slap bang in the middle of the page is great. When it comes to interface – this is a great step forward.

My problems popped up with the content. I picked the ‘do I need to pay VAT?’ question as it was always a highly ranked search at I browsed first, got to the Business Tax page and couldn’t find a reference to VAT. This was weird. So I searched ‘do I need to pay VAT?’ – again, no joy. I got ‘Pay your VAT bill’ on the standard search and ‘Amusement Machine Licence Duty’ on the detailed guidance.

This was even more odd, because the VAT decision marks a pretty major life stage for a business, so to leave it unsupported like this was strange. Also, had a pretty good interactive tool that helped you answer this question in a couple of minutes.

More worrying was where you go from there. The VAT helpline was listed a couple of page scrolls down the search results. But that kind of undermines the intent of digital by default (a call costs ££s, a web visit pennies). With a bit more creative searching I eventually found a “When to register for VAT” page, but the content on it was so light it didn’t really answer the question. The 2002 civil servant responsible for VAT would be turning in their grave! So… what do you do at this point? Well… you type ‘do I need to register for VAT?’ into google and then… well, god help you, it takes you here

I haven’t had much time to dig further, but this example reinforces sone discussions i’ve had with folk in this area – that there’s still a challenge that still needs to address. One which is an inevitable challenge given the Digital by Default pledge. And it’s this – the long tail.

Government can only be simplified so far. You can take the top tasks and clean them like a whistle, so that 80% of users skim through happy as a lamb. But government is complex – starting a business is complex – VAT is complex. If you run race horses in the UK, you will pay different VAT to a baker from Cornwall. You can’t fix this with a better interface. In one way the Cider and Perry lady was right – somewhere, somehow government needs to publish all the facts. This is a big hairy content problem.

In a digital by default world all of this content needs to live somewhere. And I want it all to live on – it has the right philosophy, the right team, the right interface, the right mandate. But I don’t see it there. The current site feels a little too neat. A little too tight in scope. I know shouldn’t have had content on bee keeping. That’s proper ‘deep in the long tail’ stuff, so i wouldn’t expect to see it here. But not being able to answer my VAT question is more troubling, as that is arguably a ‘long neck’ business task.

Digital by default is about user experience, but really it’s about saving government pots of cash. is way cheaper than any of the supersites it has replaced. But we need to be careful that it’s not a false economy. The reason those big old expensive sites cost so much was (partly) because they required an army of people to work the content, and keep that content in-step with regulatory change – which was costly to track. (Government doesn’t have a team tracking changes. I had to commission a legal team in the private sector to track changes and notify me so I could keep my content up to date. To the point where – ironically – I often knew about a change in regulation before the originating department official did).

I don’t see any radical new way of handling that. I’m sure there’s a MUCH better CMS in there somewhere, with a MUCH better cross-departmental review process. But people still need to do the words. Agile UX will not help resolve that. Someone needs to argue with the 2012 equivalent of my Cider and Perry lady. If they don’t, then the service never gets beyond the cosmetic – it helps you get to and through the basics quicker, but it can’t help with the detail and the complex. So you end up back at the big old flabby departmental website, suffering through a tricky UI. And so we’re back with lipstick on a pig. A more glamorous, 2012 brand of high-sheen, uber-gloss lipstick – but still lipstick.

Since leaving I’ve graduated from guerrilla tactics, though only a bit. I still feel most of my work happens in the trenches. Multichannel service design in the public / private hinterlands is a tough gig. It’s upstream from the interface. It’s trying to get user-centred practice injected directly into the DNA of the organisation. Nirvana for me is changing the pig. This will not happen over night.

I feel a strong kinship with We’re fighting on the same front. We carry much the same kit. But I worry that thus far – after quite a long prototype cycle – they haven’t tackled the big hairy content issues, of which my admittedly singular VAT example appears illustrative. (Incidentally – I am probably a bloody awful reviewer of Having spent a chunk of my career running, I am always going to be a bit defensive of it, and perhaps sharply critical of any replacement – but equally, I hope that experience can provide a useful vantage point).

But it’s early days. And there’s plenty to indicate a possible win in the long-term pig-changing battle. Major air cover from Maude. An inspiring and talented front lady in the form of Martha Lane Fox. An experienced and energetic team who’ve now cut their teeth. Every win they have on this front will help all of us involved in building better services. Getting to this point has been a considerable achievement. I don’t want to take from that. I just hope that there’s a programme manager in there somewhere, already limbering up for phase 2 / eternal beta, supported by a crack troop of ninja-like content editors, ready to do Cider and Perry battle, and laser focused on answering my VAT question in under 2 minutes.

Mobile tariffs

I just experienced some silly mobile tariff nonsense from otherwise pretty reliable O2. I regularly eat through my 500MB of data, so I got on web chat and asked if they could do better. No was the answer – not without me paying an extra £10 a month. I dug my heels in and said a) I wasn’t prepared to pay that and would just ration myself and b) I would find a new more flexible provider come October. Immediate capitulation from them and now I’m paying £1 LESS a month for double data allowance – because I’m a ‘valued customer’. Valued customers shouldn’t have to threaten to leave to get some flex.

The biggest irony though is that I was willing to pay a bit extra for a bit extra data, and instead I’m now paying less for twice as much data. Add that to the cost of serving me, and the damage done to their brand by driving up my customer effort and O2 come out at a clear loss. 


I’m reading The Omniovore’s Dilemna at the moment. I just read that it now takes 2 energy calories to produce 1 food calorie. Basically modern US farming has avoided the need for sun by securing its nitrogen from fossil fuels. That and a tangle of farming subsidies has led to industrial food production, where the majority of farmers grow too much corn (which is used in everything) and soya (which feeds livestock / meat protein), which they then can’t sell at a profit – so the US government spends $13b a year to subsidise it – which is all just plain crazy.

It had me reflecting on the day that DEFRA, or whatever it was once called, announced that it was abandoning any pledge for the UK to have self-sustaining food production. Can’t remember when it was but   I do remember thinking ‘this is odd and somehow not quite right.’ Surely where your food comes from is pretty important, but I’m guessing the economists had done some clever sums and the costs worked out better, whatever abstract instinct I might have had. Though it turns out that this sort of loaded, economics driven farming is actually very risky for all of us. 

Today I read that the recent freak weather in the US has left 74% of last month’s US corn as ‘substandard’. And given the insanely complex world of US agriculture I get the odd sensation that no-one knows what the implications will be – other than confusion – which = low confidence – which means market turbulence, which we really don’t need now. 

Who ever thought that relying on large, undiversified, single cash crops, across diverse international markets would be sensible? I guess the cynic in me would say Cargill and their ilk – who clearly, as the largest privately owned company in the world, have some clout on this stuff. Either way I have learnt 2 things – we are in for more turbulent times (who after all really thinks that our weather is going to calm down?) and I should probably start growing some vegetables.

Uncanny services

Two things trigger this post

This excellent post about uncanny UI design, from Berg

Which led me to this weird footage of a robotic dog – get to 44 seconds and wince as they kick the robotic dog –

An excellent video by Rory Hamilton that looks into the uncanny valley of services

All this reminded me of a paper I wrote about the uncanny in Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities. How the lead character ends up on the wrong side of town, getting freaked by how it’s still the same city, but obviously isn’t. Hadn’t thought about it much, but it suddenly occurred to me this could sit at the heart of my hatred of:

– Automated “we apologise for the inconvenience this causes to your journey / delay in handling your call” messages

– Interactive Voice Response systems that try to be too smart – ie you speak to it and it tries to respond

– Some of the ‘smart’ online services that try and surprise and delight you

– Avatar FAQ / web chat things – where you type in a message and this odd looking lady speaks back an answer

All these things are aimed at making an automated service more human – the organisation takes out the cost of staff, and replaces it with tech – but all too often it just ends up making us more uncomfortable. On paper it makes sense, but that’s the funny thing about the uncanny – you don’t anticipate it. It tends to creep up on you – like deja vu. It just suddenly doesn’t work – something jars and everyone knows it. I’ve had a personal reaction to these sorts of services, and I’ve had a chat to others as well – seems it’s pretty common.

But in this time of financial cuts, most service providers are looking to cut costs, usually replacing people with technology. Bridging the uncanny valley in services means using that technology sensitively at the right moment and for the right intervention. It’s probably safe to say that transactional services are ok, but those that involve empathetic exchange – apologies, welcomes, thank-you’s – should be handled with care.

Question though – if you really can’t afford to have a human say sorry for you, which is worse: to have a machine do it, or have no apology at all?

Added: spotted this latest advance – The Geminoid. Serving you in a store soon! Yikes.

Is good service honest service?

My iphone is being repaired at the moment. I sent it over a week ago, by special delivery. They have a neat little “track your order” facility. So I was notified when it arrived and also when it switched to “pending”, whatever that means. The site talks about a 24 hour turnaround time, but it’s now a week later and my status is still “pending”. Pending what – them getting the part, their technicians to finish lunch, or just me calling in to chase it along. After getting no response from emailing the site, I tweeted them and was told it should be with me on Tuesday. Well it’s now Friday and two further calls go unreturned.

I’m guessing that, like everyone else, they’re struggling with logistical delays due to the #uksnow – parts are coming in late, maybe they’re short of staff, or backed up deliveries are waiting to go out. Anyone reading the press would know this and I think most are sympathetic of this sort of “act of god” scenario. I certainly am. But if this is the cause of the delay, what I find odd is that they’re not telling me?

Is it ever a good thing to keep a customer in the dark?

Personally I’d be very happy if they moved my iphone status to “delayed” with a new estimated delivery date. It’s the ‘not being kept informed’ bit that I find annoying. It’s costing me time and effort to call in and chase them, and it’s all wasted if no-one responds. Result: I grow increasingly dissatisfied with a service that is probably (and I am guessing here as I’ve not been able to speak to them) in a situation for which I am actually sympathetic.

I’ve spoken to others in similar situations recently, many of whom are waiting on christmas gifts and fearing the same. It’s that word “fearing”. Why would any service provider allow their customers to feel fearful about their purchases? Surely it’s better to have them confident that a problem is being dealt with?

The truth that the service is experiencing delays is a negative, but a known negative is better than an unknown. It’s the same principle with queuing. People tend to be much happier to queue if they know why they’re queuing. I’ve read a study (still trying to retrieve it) that demonstrated how showing a queue of people video footage of the front end of that queue, helped them to stay patient. They knew what to expect.

Ignorance is not a good thing in a service situation.

People don’t like not knowing. They like to be treated as adults. But I suspect many service providers in the current situation turn into fearful pessimists – they worry too much about the delay’s impact on branded commitments like 24 hour turnaround etc and opt to hide away from what they can see – growing numbers of increasingly angry customers.

My guess is the people repairing my iphone are in that difficult vicious circle where you hold off announcing problems to customers whilst you race to resolve them. But you run the risk of problems accumulating faster than you can resolve them, leading to ever more problems.

My vote – service providers need to think and act like optimists. Nip problems in the bud, be honest, admit to delays and demonstrate you’re taking steps to resolve it. Have faith in honesty. It’s probably the best brand value for long term customer retention.  Like I say to my son “if you do something bad, tell me. It’ll be better than me finding out another way.”

Have a great Christmas everyone. Hope all your gifts arrive safely!

UPDATE: Another example of this point – – when a service provider keeps people hanging on again and again whilst they faff about, leading to an outcome that is bad for the customer, and inevitably bad for the airline. Would be interested to know what airline this was, if anyone knows.