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Convenience, UX, and ethics

Old TV displaying the phrase "the convenience you demanded is now mandatory" with each word in the design of a big tech company (e.g. Amazon/Netflix)

At about this time of year (Frimaire, for those paying attention) I get a little more introspective. I tend to reconsider my relationship with technology more generally, and apps/platforms in particular.

This is because decisions I make about my relationship with tech are a proxy for my wider views about the world, including philosophy, politics, and society.

The meme at the top of this post went by my Mastodon timeline recently (thanks to Ali for re-finding it!) and perfectly encapsulated the relationship many of us have with tech. In a nutshell, convenience and good user experience (UX) trumps ethics and thoughtful decision-making every time.

It’s all very well wringing our hands and promising to use Amazon less, but we’re living in a world where regulators need to step in and ensure more competition.

In the meantime, there are small decisions we can all make which won’t inconvenience us too much. For me, that means having goals in mind about consumption, ethical principles, and the tools I use to communicate.


This post is Day 65 of my #100DaysToOffload challenge. Want to get involved? Find out more at 100daystooffload.com

(A)synchronous project updates within organisations

As a consultant, I find that there are, broadly speaking, three types of teams and organisations when it comes to project updates:

  1. Synchronous updates (only)
  2. Aynchronous updates (only)
  3. Asynchronous and synchronous updates

The purpose of this post is to explain why the third of these is by far the better option.

1. Synchronous updates (only)

The most popular (the default, even!) are those only doing synchronous project updates. This means that the team, group, or other unit of organisation finds out the whole picture of what’s going on in the weekly team meeting.

Advantages: every project update can come with full context and, if someone doesn’t understand, or has a question, this can be addressed immediately. If the project team is meeting face-to-face or via video then facial expressions and body language can convey additional information.

Disadvantages: if the project team is only receiving updates on the day of the meeting, then the information they have can be up to six days out of date at any given time. Also, anyone who misses the meeting has to rely on the notes.

2. Asynchronous updates (only)

Other teams, groups, or other units of organisation only do asynchronous project updates. This means that meetings are rare, and the main way to find out what’s going on is to check the place where updates are made.

Advantages: anyone with the necessary permissions can get involved, which is why this approach is common to Open Source Software projects. What you see is what you get, and combined code repositories and issue trackers (e.g. GitHub) provide a decent workflow to get things done.

Disadvantages: with the human element removed, it’s difficult for the full context (including relative importance) of an update to be conveyed, and for serendipitous links to be made between projects.

3. Asynchronous and synchronous updates

The best teams I’ve come across do a combination of asynchronous and synchronous project updates. They meet regularly face-to-face or by video and provide updates in a dedicated space between meetings.

Advantages: everyone on the project gets full context around an update, either in the dedicated space or by asking a question about it in the meeting. There is now more time in meetings for forward planning and innovation.

Disadvantages: none that I can think of!


N.B. Workplace chat solutions such as Slack are great for many things. Given the potentially low signal/noise ratio, project updates are not necessarily one of them. Instead, I recommend using a dedicated space — e.g. Trello or Nextcloud Deck.


This post is Day 64 of my #100DaysToOffload challenge. Want to get involved? Find out more at 100daystooffload.com

What’s your favourite month?

I reckon my favourite month is probably Prairial, and my least favourite the one we’re entering right about now ⁠— Frimaire.

For those scratching their heads, I’m referring to the French Revolutionary Calendar (also called the ‘Republican’ calendar) which divided the year up in the following way:

The Republican calendar year began the day the autumnal equinox occurred in Paris, and had twelve months of 30 days each, which were given new names based on nature, principally having to do with the prevailing weather in and around Paris. The extra five or six days in the year were not given a month designation, but considered Sansculottides or Complementary Days.

Wikipedia

When you think about it, although it’s useful to have everyone in the world using the same calendar, doing so is almost an act of cultural violence.

I live in the North East of England, a place that historically has been known as Northumbria. What would a Northumbrian calendar look like? I don’t think it would be so different to the French Revolutionary one, except we’d probably use month names like ‘Clarty‘:

  • Autumn:
    • Vendémiaire (from French vendange, derived from Latin vindemia, “vintage”), starting 22, 23, or 24 September
    • Brumaire (from French brume, “mist”), starting 22, 23, or 24 October
    • Frimaire (From French frimas, “frost”), starting 21, 22, or 23 November
  • Winter:
    • Nivôse (from Latin nivosus, “snowy”), starting 21, 22, or 23 December
    • Pluviôse (from French pluvieux, derived from Latin pluvius, “rainy”), starting 20, 21, or 22 January
    • Ventôse (from French venteux, derived from Latin ventosus, “windy”), starting 19, 20, or 21 February
  • Spring:
    • Germinal (from French germination), starting 20 or 21 March
    • Floréal (from French fleur, derived from Latin flos, “flower”), starting 20 or 21 April
    • Prairial (from French prairie, “meadow”), starting 20 or 21 May
  • Summer:
    • Messidor (from Latin messis, “harvest”), starting 19 or 20 June
    • Thermidor (or Fervidor*) (from Greek thermon, “summer heat”), starting 19 or 20 July
    • Fructidor (from Latin fructus, “fruit”), starting 18 or 19 August

This post is Day 63 of my #100DaysToOffload challenge. Want to get involved? Find out more at 100daystooffload.com

Weeknote 47/2020

This week’s been a bit rubbish, mainly on the health front (migraines, erratic sleep patterns). So I don’t really want to go back through it, other than say that I published the following here, and on Thought Shrapnel:

Next week I’m working on Catalyst bids on behalf of CoTech and Dynamic Skillset, as well as continuing my work with Outlandish.

Spatial video conferencing with self-organised breakout rooms

Last week, I came across a new platform called Wonder which allows for participants to self-organise into video chat groups.

Screenshot of Wonder

As an early product, it’s not without its quirks, but this kind of thing is gold for facilitators interested in more democratic and participatory workshops.

Here’s why I like it:

  • Participants can leave a group and join or form a new one at any time
  • Everyone entering the room can be asked an icebreaker question, the answer to which is displayed when you hover over their avatar
  • When you’re outside a group (like me in the screenshot above) you can see who’s talking in a group
  • It’s got all of the usual screensharing functionality you’d expect
  • Admins/facilitators can ‘broadcast’ to all groups (without having to recall them)

This is much better than Zoom rooms, which have to be set up by the facilitator, and which perpetuates a hierarchical power relationship.

It did take me back to a decade ago, wandering around a classroom when I ‘dropped in’ to groups. People stopped talking for a moment. But that’s always the case when someone joins a group that’s already having a conversation.

So long as the pricing doesn’t end up being ridiculous, I’m planning to use Wonder for any meetings where I need breakout rooms. Although Zoom has superior video quality (and backgrounds!) I’m very impressed with what Wonder offers me as a facilitator.


This post is Day 62 of my #100DaysToOffload challenge. Want to get involved? Find out more at 100daystooffload.com

Weeknote 46/2020

This quotation from Marcus Aurelius really stuck with me this week:

Reflect often upon the rapidity with which all existing things, or things coming into existence, sweep past us and are carried away. The great river of Being flows on without pause; its actions for ever changing, its causes shifting endlessly, hardly a single thing standing still; while ever at hand looms infinity stretching behind and before – the abyss in which all things are lost to sight. In such conditions, surely a man were foolish to gasp and fume and fret, as though the time of his troubling could ever be of long continuance.

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations (Book Five)

This has been, all things considered, a good week. On Wednesday, my therapist effectively discharged me — although I’ll be doing some maintenance sessions every so often. I’m much better equipped to deal with things both professionally and personally than before I started last September.

I originally sought therapy after the death of a good friend which threw up all sorts of things that I didn’t feel capable of dealing with adequately. Now, over a year later, although I’d much rather have Dai with us, for me the growth I’ve undergone has been a small silver lining to that tragic event.


This week I published three posts here:

…and on Thought Shrapnel:


The bulk of my work this week was carried out with and for Outlandish. I ran a short workshop on productisation, did some work on their Building OUT strand, and otherwise talked to people about how to get the organisations ready to be more product-focused.

On Friday, I travelled to the Peak District to meet my good friend Bryan Mathers. As I’ve pointed out in previous weeknotes, of late things within the co-op could be better, so we decided to have a chat to figure out what that meant for our relationship. Virtual meetings are great 95% of the time, but sometimes you need to in the same place as someone, going for a walk and an extended discussion.

I’ve decided not to do any further work through We Are Open, and instead put my energies into new ventures. For now, that means I’ve been spending time updating the website of Dynamic Skillset, my consultancy business. More on that soon, no doubt.


Next week I’ve got some conversations lined up, more work with Outlandish, and planning to put together a consortium to bid for some Catalyst funding they’re announcing on Monday.


Image looking south from Higger Tor in the Peak District, England.

What I do when I don’t know what to do

Back before the pandemic, when I ran out of steam sitting in my home office, I’d go somewhere else to work. Often that was a coffee shop, but sometimes it was the local library, or even the beach.

I don’t have the same flexibility now that it’s getting towards winter and we’re in the second Covid-related lockdown in the UK. So what is a remote worker to do when they’re feeling less motivated than usual?

Here’s three things that I do, just in case they’re useful for other people:

  1. Take a moment to reflectwhat’s going on? I’m not suggesting a full OODA loop, but I consider how I’m feeling and why I’m not getting on with stuff. Is it because I don’t have anything to do (unlikely!) or because I’m not sure how to do it, or something else?
  2. Gain claritycan I move somewhere else? I’ve realised that, pre-pandemic, moving physical location was a proxy for moving conceptual location. So can I go for a walk to figure things out? Or shut down something that is taking my attention (e.g. social network) and move it somewhere else (e.g. email/Slack)?
  3. Actwhat can I do? If there’s something that needs clarifying, I try to gain that clarity as soon as possible. If not, I have to decide how comfortable I am in sitting in the uncertainty. If that’s the case, instead of ruminating, I act, often by doing something else. Like writing this blog post!

This might seem like the world’s most obvious advice, but the first step is the most important. A healthy introspection helps me move from feeling stuck to understanding what’s going on, and then to action.


This post is Day 61 of my #100DaysToOffload challenge. Want to get involved? Find out more at 100daystooffload.com

The Ice Cream Fork of Productisation

Did you know that ‘spork’ is a registered trademark? Me neither. So in this post we’re going to refer to the original fork/spoon hybrid from the early 20th century: the venerable ice-cream fork.


Our ice-cream fork has three prongs and a spoon-like bit. Let’s use this as a metaphor for getting started with productisation, the process of turning internal business capability into commercially viable products.

Let’s also use an acronym, ‘SIR’ to remember this:

  • Sense-check — is what you’ve already built wanted by other clients?
  • Insight — what have existing clients told you about their needs/problems?
  • Research — what kind of jobs do potential customers have to be done?

Once you’ve scooped up all of this creamy goodness into the spoon-like bit of your ice-cream fork, then you’re ready to give it a taste. Is it what you were expecting?


What comes next is the exciting part! It involves spending time with your team coming up with potential ways of taking what you’ve already got and making it relevant for new audiences. But that’s a whole other series of posts.

To me, the value of the Ice Cream Fork of Productisation is that it provides a nice balance between researching and building. I’ll leave you with my favourite quote to illustrate what I think is an appropriate balance between the two:

Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.

Abraham Lincoln

This post is Day 60 of my #100DaysToOffload challenge. Want to get involved? Find out more at 100daystooffload.com

How to build ideological products that delight users

On Friday, I read this in a book that had been recommended to me:

Making a product decision from a perspective of ideology is either brave or stupid.

Jon Kolko, Well-Designed: How To Use Empathy To Create Products People Love, p.19

I’ve made product decisions which I’d say were ideological, so it gave me pause. Then, this morning, I read a short blog post from Seth Godin in which he said:

A principle is an approach you stick with even if you know it might lead to a short-term outcome you don’t prefer. Especially then.


It’s this gap between the short-term and the long-term that makes a principle valuable. If your guiding principle is to do whatever benefits you right now, you don’t have principles of much value.

Seth Godin, Principle is inconvenient

This produced a tension: who was right?

Then, picking up same book again this afternoon, I read an interview with Josh Elman, who has led product at a number of high-profile tech companies:

The hardest part of building something comes down to this: are you building it for yourself, or are you building it for how you believe most people will react and interact? It’s important and really powerful to get out of your own head and think about how other people will engage with a system or a product, and make sure you are making choices that are meaningful to them, not to you.

Jon Kolko, Well-Designed: How To Use Empathy To Create Products People Love, p.63

I feel like this helps to resolve the tension.

First, I start from the tech equivalent of the Hippocratic oath (“do no harm”). So I’m not going to work on betting apps, anything which negatively affects our societal response to the climate emergency, or ‘addictive’ services.

Second, I continue from the position of identifying communities of people to help. I spend time finding out, both directly and indirectly, where their pain points are and what would delight them.

Third, I put together a team to design and build prototypes to test with these people. We then iterate based on that feedback.

By doing this, you can have your ideologicical cake and eat it. When your values are in line with those of your users, then everyone wins.


This post is Day 59 of my #100DaysToOffload challenge. Want to get involved? Find out more at 100daystooffload.com 

Weeknote 45/2020

This week, I’m not even sure where to start, so I’ll first point to the things I’ve written.

Spider web

Here, I published:

…at Thought Shrapnel:

…and on the We Are Open Co-op blog, I published HOWTO: make a Discovery process more participatory which was republished by Catalyst.


There’s not much I can say about the US Presidential election that hasn’t already been said. All I can add is my personal perspective: not interacting via the major social networks, and uninstalling The Guardian app on my phone has improved my mental health.

Reflecting on the last five years, it’s sad that the general public in the US and UK have been so easily manipulated, regarding Trump and Brexit, respectively, that both countries are ideologically fractured. As I mentioned on Mastodon earlier this week, it’s difficult for people who act in good faith to deal with people who act in bad faith. And it’s exhausting.


On the work front, I’ve spent most of my week working with Outlandish, another tech co-operative in the CoTech network. They turned 10 this week, which led to some pre-lockdown partying.

There are two closely related streams of work that I’m focusing on with Outlandish. The more general one is ‘productisation’, the process by which you take internal business capability and turn it into tangible products. In layman’s terms, Outlandish are really good at delivering on bespoke projects to individual clients, and I’m helping them investigate whether they’d like to move into selling products to multiple customers.

I ran a ‘lightning talk’ on productisation on Thursday which was well-attended, with plenty of interest and lots of questions. This isn’t a small undertaking (one person likened it to “walking into Mordor”!), but I feel that Outlandish are more than ready for it.

The other stream of work is called Building OUT, which stands for ‘Openness, Understanding, and Trust’. It’s referenced in the playbook that I and others have started putting together. As part of this strand, this week we ran an internal pilot of a new workshop around better communication within teams. That will be ready for external sign-ups soon.

Other work I’ve carried out this week was for We Are Open with Greenpeace, which involved getting to the nub of what the client was actually asking for.


I took most of Friday off this week, mainly because of a meeting I had on Thursday afternoon. I needed to process what had happened, so took my laptop to the beach, sat in the car, and did some writing in periods between staring at the waves.

As I’ve referenced in passing in my weeknotes, there has been some tension in our co-op for a while, so I invited to a meeting those members who will still communicate with me directly. From my perspective, I spent that meeting outlining why I feel aggrieved, marginalised, and unfairly treated.

It appears, however, that they have a different perspective. It’s becoming increasingly clear that my remaining in the co-op will be difficult as things currently stand. I’m considering my options.


Next week? For the moment, I’m pausing all of my work with We Are Open, so next week is entirely focused on collaborating with Outlandish.


Photo of a beautiful spider’s web at the beach on Friday morning.

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