A bar without walls

Spotted in a barber shop last week. I won’t name names, as I’m not entirely sure how legit it would be seen as…

During last summer, they opened up within strict COVID guidelines, as did the pub nearby. As with most pubs, the pub implemented a technology-powered table service system – just order where you are, and we’ll bring you your drink.

The folks at the pub and the barber shop know each other pretty well, and as with a lot of businesses were trying to help out friends where they could in difficult times.

So each barber chair last year was allocated a ‘table number’ from the nearby pub. You could order a drink whilst getting your hair cut, and they’d pop round with it.

They’ve stopped now, but what a lovely idea. It also reminded me of this from a recent train journey. No need to queue in the buffet carriage any more, just order at your seat and they’ll bring it to you in ten minutes.

The way we think about space and service will keep changing. Can central London bars and pubs operate differently, flexibly, more profitably, if licensing laws allowed bars to be wall-less? Could offices be less fixed, and breathe in and out based on needs, adding local rooms and desks as appropriate?

Salad days in the layers of Leather Lane

I’ve been in London and Brighton recently, getting back out into the world. I’ve been uploading a bunch of pictures over here on Flickr, just gathering a bunch of things I’ve noticed in the layers of these places. It’s not ‘the new normal’, but a walk through a city today can be instructive in terms of what forms of renewal are taking place.

One interesting experience in particular was Leather Lane yesterday in the sun.

Leather Lane, London, 16th May 2022

Formerly a fashion stall street (hence the name, and vestiges of which still persist), for a good while now it’s been home to a stretch of pop-up food stalls, coffee shops, restaurants and more. Perhaps as the food scene in London grew, it squeezed out the fashion stalls to some extent.

Leather Lane at this moment is an interesting living example of how thinking about the layers of social and material cultures (à la Zenko Mapping) can help you to spot interesting things in environments.

Take this example, the seemingly closed Chick (a falafel and schnitzel place; I’ll let you work it out…). I’d eaten there a couple of times maybe in the past, so it grabbed my attention when I saw it was closed.

Of course, Leather Lane has never been that short of Falafel stalls. Indeed, as the lunch crowds have started to come back, there’s a Falafel stall right in front of where Chick was. It’s not that unexpected, really; there’s known demand in the area, and it’s a fairly easy and versatile sheet food. You just need to quickly cook one type of thing, then serve it up in a variety of ways with wraps, salads, and so on.

In uncertain times, I suppose having an on-street food license is much lower risk than taking out a lease on the building behind. And with lower overheads comes more experimentation, as it means people can be quicker to jump on trends.

It’s notable, for instance, that on the sign they make a point of these wraps being vegan. Maybe all falafel wraps always were, but it’s now just a better thing to lead with as more and more people turn vegan.

However, just across from the vegan falafel stall was an Argentinian steak place. Mortal enemies of the Vegan Falafel Gang, I’m sure.

But looking closely at their stall, I spotted… well, can you spot it?

That’s right, you’ve got it. It’s an old napkin tray from Chick, the closed falafel place across the street.

How did it get here? Did any of the crew setting up the Argentinian Steak place used to work at Chick, and take it on the way out? Was it left on the street as part of a clear out? Was it stolen by a drunk customer sometime in March 2020, and left in an alley?

The answer is: ‘we don’t know’. But we might find out more by asking people.

Observations from the environment, moving through the layers from hundred-year-old restaurant buildings to branded napkin trays can only get you so far. They’re certainly a good hint for where interesting stories may lie. But the social layers that overlap with the material will offer richer, deeper insights.

Who’s running the stall? Who owns it? How long have they been working on Leather Lane? How well do they know other stall holders, or customers? Is it the same customers who came before, or new ones? Are they still working in the same jobs? Are they in London as much as they were?

Spot things. Ask people questions. Repeat. And you can even grab a falafel whilst you do it.

Cosmic Ordering on the High Street

From a London wander last week. Rather than letting shops look empty and dormant, a few management companies have put ups signs like these.

They promise a great and wondrous experience within, from a yet-unknown mystery occupant.

“Just imagine, in the future, this is what will be here…”

The Entropy of Insights

I was flipping through my Readwise highlights the other day, and came across this gem again. It’s the neatest wee description of entropy; moving “from rare configurations to common ones”.

Except from Why Information Grows by Cesar Hidalgo

It started me thinking about a variety of projects from the last year, where I’ve been working with teams who benefit from taking a longer, more detailed look at information.

Side note: this has often meant building information systems in things like Airtable. I’ll no doubt wax lyrical about another day, but the short version is that:

  • My thinking around projects like these is now informed by the information as light, not liquid work from a couple of summers ago
  • No-code platforms like Airtable are beginning to give people a whole new way of seeing, without being hardcore data-viz specialists. It’s become the practical application of a theoretical philosophy

Back to the rare v common configurations.

Common insights are the ones that most people will come up with at a glance. The first three or four points that jump out to people when presented with common occurrences. Most businesses will be naturally configured to generate common insights, especially if people tend to be looking around at their own area of specialism.

Rare insights happen when combinations of information are put in front of people who don’t often see them. For instance, you give an existing team new information from a different part of the business. Or bring in a new team, give them existing information, and ask for a fresh perspective. How can we look at things differently?

I would reckon that this is a standard practice as a one-off; a business cycle inevitably has a phase where people are trying to see things in new ways.

But to the original point, entropy kicks in when that cycle ends. A business returns to a place where the insights are more likely to be common ones, rather than the rare type.

Are good (even great?) businesses more likely to be the ones continually committed to finding rare insights, acting upon the valuable ones so they become common, and all the while seeking the next rare ones?

How do these businesses fight insight entropy?

Making the most of moments that matter

The creation of a commonplace book

As perhaps we all have, I’ve spent a lot of time reflecting in the last few months about how to make those precious moments when people are together really matter.

For a lot of people, the working week has been transformed by the pandemic, of course. Moving into this year, it feels that businesses now must learn to live in a world where shadows of this pandemic and future ones will hang over daily operations to some degree. Pining for a return to the past is no longer an option.

Instead, being thoughtful and intentional about the platforms you provide for people to come together effectively is vital. If your colleagues only see each other in person one day a week rather than five, what can you do to make the most of that time together?

One thing we worked on last year now seems to have extra relevance in this regard; a commonplace book created for an event designed by our friends at Thompson Harrison. What follows is a quick overview of the project, and then some reflections on how the principles might apply more broadly in future.

Shaping collective experiences

Thompson Harrison is a leadership and organisational development consulting business founded by Tracey Camilleri and Sam Rockey.

Tracey and I know each other from the early days of Smithery, where she invited us to be part of the Oxford Strategic Leadership Programme she runs at the Saïd Business School. We created an experiment together called The Key To Leadership.

It was a visceral, hands-on creative process for a small group of leaders as a container for their experience. The key we helped each of them make was a physical totem representing their learning journey, linked to a digital repository of notes, images and the like they made during the week.

With this project in mind, Tracey and I started talking last spring about something new she was plotting.

“What might we do that’s like the key” said Tracey, “but for more people… over 400, rather than 35…?”

ConvexUnited

The event was for Thompson Harrison’s client Convex. A relatively new player in the international speciality insurance space, since the start of the the pandemic Convex had seen significant growth in terms of business and headcount. This meant that a significant majority of people had not spent any time working together in person.

The plan was to create a two-day experience for people to come together and celebrate the shared culture and values through a series of diverse, compelling learning sessions.

There were to be over twenty different sessions, across seven different themes (Space, Language, Image, Movement, Sound, Magic and Memory), and each person would only be at three of them.

Which brought some challenges when it came to thinking about replicating what we achieved with the key. What sort of material mechanic could work between that many people? What thing could connect over 400 people through an experience which would be shaped by the participants themselves?

One of the things which struck us early on was how much would be going on that an individual wouldn’t see. Whilst you were learning and reflecting in your own sessions, you’d also be aware that other people were doing the same in different experiences.

The organisation as a whole was learning new things, which meant that you as part of it should be able to access to that knowledge. Therefore, finding ways to encourage people to discover what others had recently learned became a key principle.

After much thinking, sketching and deliberating together, we decided that we should make a commonplace book.

What is a commonplace book?

Commonplace books have been used throughout history by everyone from Roman
emperors to Enlightenment philosophers, pioneering scientists to modernist
authors, US presidents to technology moguls.

They are a place for collating knowledge in a way that will help you see the world
differently. A place to gather snippets of stories, observations, experiences, quotes and
anecdotes, sketches and models, poetry and verse. Everything from the enduring
ideas of the ages to startling new perspectives you’ve never heard of before.

A commonplace book is somewhere you can collect anything that feels important in the moment, even if you’re not yet sure why.

The most powerful thing about commonplace books is how they illuminate
connections between ideas in ways previously unimagined, simply by bringing them
together in one central place.

In the more recent decades, of course, personal collation of this sort is well supported by digital tools – early blog platforms, Delicious, Tumblr, Pinterest, and so on – and we toyed briefly with the idea of something as a shared digital experience or app.

But as we thought about all of these different people joining sessions with new people, learning a wider variety of different things, it felt that something physical and visible to others was really important.

A commonplace book could be used be participants to collect, connect and reflect on their own experiences throughout ConvexUnited. And yet it could also be something they could take pride in showing others in the moment.

This would prove to be especially useful in the moments in-between sessions, where people would stand next to each and ask “so, what have you just learned?

Making a commonplace book

We brought in long-time friend Emily Macaulay of Stanley James Press, printmaker and bookbinder extraordinaire to help us make a commonplace book just for this event.

Yes, we might have used just a high-end blank notebook instead, but there were two reasons for making something bespoke.

Firstly, the moment where people receive the book on registering was to be a vital one. Every opportunity to make something extra special mattered. A custom commonplace book would immediately feel like something ‘just for us’.

Secondly, we wanted the learning themes to have a specific place in the book. You might only be going to three sessions, and therefore use the blank pages in just three sections. But the invitation was there in your book to go and find out what others learned within the wider cohort. Fill the pages with the knowledge of others.

This wasn’t just a book for individual learning and connection. If you were to gather all the commonplace books together, the sum of the knowledge would be greater than all the individual notes.

Small pieces, loosely joined

We needed more ways to help reinforce this message however. Asking people to share their notes and ideas left a lot of work to be done on their part.

We wanted to make it as easy as possible to give ideas away. The goal was to make items of information hop from one book to the next.

So in each session, we gave each participant an envelope. Inside these envelopes was a postcard based on a key insight from that session, and a series of custom stickers from Sticker Mule to help prompt reflection.

Some of these stickers were key questions to reflect on the general theme. Others featured a QR code leading to some further viewing related to the session.

Throughout the experience, we saw people using the commonplace book in three ways. Firstly, as you’d expect, as as a freeform space for notes in each session. Secondly, as way to explore the theme more broadly for themselves and the organisation. And thirdly, as a vehicle for shared experience, as they told others what they’d just been a part of.

Those moments were small parts of a much larger whole of course, expertly designed and delivered by Tracey & Sam. Yet from the large communal spaces to the small intimate moments, all of these moments were connected by the commonplace books as a way to capture, build and share understanding.

Layers of interaction

What’s this got me thinking about for 2022 then? Here’s an initial sketch I made used the Zenko Framework to play this out…

From the bottom-left upwards, what matters in this area is about individuals and teams. How people gather and work together, what they did to compensate in the last year, what will work moving forwards. Often, you’ll find that small groups can create effective ways of working together and problem-solving that aren’t replicated across the business.

Then from the top-right downwards, there are existing large, slow-moving structures that contain companies. The buildings rented or bought, or the decades-old functional silos. These large structures offer stability which means a company stands a good chance of persisting into the long term.

Both of these dynamics, of course, link back to some of the original Pace Layers thinking by Stewart Brand that the Zenko Framework is based on – “the slow proposes, and the fast disposes” and so on.

The creative and imaginative energy that small groups of people come up with frequently bump up against the functional way that both the building works, and the structures of the business.

But what if there’s now an interesting space that could emerge in between these two dynamics, as businesses start examining what a building is really for?

Staging social imaginaries

The opportunity in 2022 might be to build in more flexibility in fixed office space and firmly structured groups. A company could make imagination and creativity more scalable on a regular basis by continually creating temporary, social imaginary spaces.

What’s a social imaginary? Let’s use this definition by Charles Taylor:

“By ‘social imaginary’… I am thinking of the ways people imagine their social existence, how they fit together with others, how things go on between them and their fellows, the expectations that are normally met, and the deeper normative notions and images that underlie these expectations.”

Charles Taylor, Modern Social Imaginaries, 2006

When people in your organisation imagine how they work together, what it is they have in common, the viewpoints and ideas they share… well, it isn’t just about the work.

If everyone in a company only imagines they are linked by the prosaic output of the business, and the office is just a place to make that happen, the obvious pushback becomes “well, we’ve shown we can keep creating the output when we work from home“.

Which is probably true.

Instead, the office might have to become an ever-changing, inspiring centre for collective imagination.

Employ themes like those we used in at Convex United, and captured using the commonplace books; ideas that are stimulating, and open to interpretation.

Embrace seasonality, and shape activity, spaces and sessions around the things that are really important to your people at a given time.

The office space in this regard might become a stage, a playhouse even, where shared social imaginaries act as a container for the organisation’s imagination.

Rather than just expecting everyone to trudge back into the office at some point this year, eyes down and forward focussed, what might you do to make their shared experience of work a joyful, exciting, inspiring one?

Watch Me Think (in real time)

This feels strange… I’m doing a talk, live, in person, to people. I vaguely remember people – legs, arms, faces, right? Wave their arms around when talking. Those folks.

It’s at Watch Me Think in London, on 13th October. There are a host of brilliant speakers I’m really looking forward to hearing. And it seems strange just to be typing these thoughts and thinking these words.

But please do come along – all profits are being donated to Commercial Break, who make job opportunities in the creative industries for young, working class talent.

What am I talking about?

Well, notionally, the below… I’m sure that’ll evolve as it gets closer.

The language we use to describe our work is more important than we might think. Whether we realise it or not, it forms and shapes our actions. Often, we use metaphors that suggest of information is liquid. Let’s have a brainstorm. We’re drowning in the detail. It’s backed up in the cloud. Data is the new oil

This means we’re often concerning ourselves with the containers in which it’s held, and the channels through which it flows, not about what information actually is at the moments where it is most useful.

We also, less often, refer to information as light, not liquid. Let’s pause for reflection. It was a glaring omission. Is this in scope? This is pure speculation. It suggests that information is fleeting, hard to perceive, and transitory, rather than solid, permanent and additive. And that might lead to some interesting principles for action…

10 Years Later: A Decade Of Smithery

Helen and I were standing in the kitchen this morning, talking about how today marked the official tenth birthday of Smithery, when we officially opened the doors to take on client work. “Ten years since you decided just to leave your job with an infant son to support” remarked Helen, in jest. I least, I think it was jest…

Of course, I’ve talked about that resigning process before of course, so let’s not dwell on that here. But I also said I’d write a wee thing on what we’ve learned over the last decade.

Perhaps it’ll offer thoughts and inspiration for others thinking about doing their own thing. I’ve tried to compose a little broadly applicable lesson at the end of each part.

If nothing else, it serves just to mark the occasion in some small way.

Connect & Expose

I’ve always been struck by how true and persistent the silos metaphor proves to be in large organisations. It was part of the galvanising experience that made me leave my previous job.

I realised that being smaller and nimbler, separated from larger structures, would allow teams to join up different parts of organisations. The basic model in my head for this hasn’t really changed over the years, and is sketched out below.

It’s also the model that helped me articulate what Making Things People Want > Making People Want Things meant on a practical level; where are the key intervention points within a company’s typical processes.

Overall, though, it’s predicated on the idea that silos won’t change. There are (often) very good reasons for keeping them in place, even if there are other very good reasons to get rid of them. And even if a company beyond a certain size does want to change them, it’d take so long to make it happen that the people trying it would leave and do something else.

Instead, Smithery set out to be tiny enough to link between silos, connect dots in different parts, and expose the gaps in between existing knowledge, abilities and structures. It’s like squeezing between the gaps in the silo wall.

Now, traditional consulting companies, of course, prefer the ‘Land & Expand‘ model; fill as many client silos as they can with their own specialists who *just so happen to be* the only people who can help. But that simply serves to increase a client’s problems, rather than identify and solve existing ones.

Instead, working in this ‘Connect & Expose‘ fashion for me is much more rewarding and stimulating. It increases the experience and understanding of a wide variety of fields and problems, and keeps us front and central on the work itself.

Lesson: Have a mental model of the terrain you operate in, and the perspectives that others hold of the same terrain. Remember that it’s easier to change perspective than terraform the terrain around you.

Antifragile by accident

Being small has also proved useful in another way.

It sometimes feels like I’ve spent the last ten years building a library, paid for by our project work on the side. Arguably, somewhere in there is the real work; connecting things from different disciplines, schools, minds, approaches and examples.

Not that I’ve read all of these books yet, mind; dip into Anne-Laure Le Cunff’s essay on the Antilibrary approach for more on that. But in short, the library is a living work in progress, not an ossified record of achievement.

Smithery Library, August 4th 2021

As Anne-Laure mentions, Antilibrary is a term used by Nassim Nicholas Taleb in The Black Swan. For me, Taleb’s a good example of the internal struggle you can face when trying to separate specific ideas from their creators; from the pages of a book to the ephemera or twitter, I find myself unable to like him. But I find the ideas he writes about interesting to think through. His follow up book, Antifragile, is a good case in point. Here’s the key concept:

It’s fair to say that there’s been no shock like the last eighteen months have presented us with. And it turns out Smithery is antifragile by accident. Scaling back physical presence in London, working from the home office, connecting with the people we work with who’re doing the same. The nature of our business model came into its own.

And then, when projects paused or disappeared, we were really fortunate to be in a position not just to ride it out in a resilient manner, but to direct energy and focus back towards the real thinking work. Reading, researching, connecting and creating.

The ‘exposure to volatility, randomness, disorder and stressors‘ has actually served to improve how we think, and what we’re able to do for clients moving forwards, because that energy had a place to go.

Lesson: Building something like this doesn’t have to be about the numbers; employee numbers, square feet, billings per annum etc. It’s about building the ability and agility to work in lots of different ways, in order to create different sorts of value, for both clients and yourself.

Wandering the Visual Fields

The work that’s come out of this period, the TENETS project, is a collection of ten tools to transform the way you think. What this has really helped with is abstracting what we do across the different project types we’ve worked on over the years.

The central concept is that information is more usefully thought of as light, not liquid. Individual pieces of information as pixels or particles come together to form an image, but can be reordered into a large number of alternatives views too.

The information you collect, the way you recombine and order, and finally the way you show the results, is something that exists in different ways across fields like innovation, design and futures.

There’s a unifying factor in the tools and materials, and the way practitioners collect, connect and create from external information in order to achieve their goals, whether it’s as narrow as assembling the information for a user’s account page, or as broad as creating a vision of a possible future for a city.

Having this thought across our work has been really helpful, allowing us to remake the tools from one domain apply to another, wherever they happen to be most useful.

Lesson: Reflect upon ways of connecting all of your work, and do it regularly. Don’t rely on the existing names for things, because what you’re doing might not have a name yet. Understanding the in-between space helps you carry things from one place to another.

A Blacksmith’s Sign

Another key part of the Smithery journey, and one linked to that idea of continually recombinant pieces of information, has been Artefact Cards, a side project that’s lasted almost as long as Smithery itself.

For as long as I can remember though, I’ve informally described them to people as a little like a Blacksmith’s Sign.

When you happen across a blacksmith’s forge, hanging outside you’ll probably see a very ornate, intricate sign shaped in wrought-iron, a display of the craftsmanship you’ll find within. Yet mostly, people don’t walk in because they want a sign like that.

Photo: Brian Nelson https://www.flickr.com/photos/exfordy/3582630065

The blacksmith’s sign is a demonstration of the work and craft inside, an approach and an aptitude with materials that you want applied to your own problem.

And so it is with Artefact Cards. They’re a demonstration of an approach, a way of working with ideas and information in a way that generates connections, offers inspiration, provides enlightenment.

If anything, there’s part of me that thinks perhaps spending a little less time on them over the years might have been a more conventional thing to do; design them once, put them out, retire them at the end of the run.

But I really enjoy the community around them (they are a very social object). Because they are blank cards, just waiting for people to make their mark upon them, there’s an invitation to create. And the mechanics therefore underpin a broader community who want to experiment with their own card decks.

And perhaps crucially, the tinkering and experimenting on our own terms means we can do what we like, when we like. It’s another place to focus energy when it’s not going into client projects, to learn new things, and to find out what it means to make a useful thing.

Lesson: Make public experimentation a habit, inviting new perspectives through open innovation and community building. When you do side projects, have an idea in your head of what they’re for, where the value lies, and what sort of value it is.

Knowing what good looks like

Earlier this year, Katie Dreke and I were having a wee chat across many miles of ocean about a whole host of things, and I drew the model below as a way of thinking about where one might focus themselves and their efforts.

It’s a simple input/output way of thinking. There’s the ‘good it does me’; how much do you get from a some work, personally. Does it grow you?

Then this is mapped against the ‘good you can do’. This could be in terms of specific value, like providing a client with a valuable service in return for payment. Or it could be broader, like the time you spend campaigning for issues, or volunteering for a cause.

One aim is to be, overall, above the horizontal line. There can be some things you’re really good at, and people will pay you more each time to do them. Ideally, you’d want to be in the top right quadrant all the time. Doing work that does you good, whilst you do good.

But if you’re not getting anything from it (no current pleasure or future utility), then the further you’ll drift left. In a way, you can be trapped in the very top left of the map, if the money you’re paid for something is too much to step away despite what you’re really getting from it.

Meanwhile, you might get really excited like I do at learning new things, that might not help you do good immediately, but take a while to enter your toolkit. But it certainly does make you feel good.

Revisiting this today, I’ve realised there’s a useful mapping technique in here, because it helps you draw out a range of projects and activities in a way that helps you find balance. Here’s a quick sketch version as an example.

Even without this tool these past ten years, we’ve tried to keep a sense of what a good balance looks like for us. Projects we can both work on, just me, or working with others on. Balancing out investment in time to learn new things, versus taking projects where we see the opportunity to grow our own skills.

Lesson: Find a way to find a balance that does you good in a variety of ways. Long term and short term. Financially, intellectually and emotionally. Know what good looks like for you.

It’s all about the people

Finally, having thought through all of the above, I’ve realised again that more than anything, it’s been about the people we’re lucky enough to call friends, colleagues, clients, mentors and more.

In larger businesses, you don’t really get to choose to work with people who get you and vice versa. You are thrust together with different teams, turn up in client meetings with twenty new faces, all wrestling the mysterious process someone else has defined for you to follow as you plod along in whichever silo you’re allocated.

In a tiny business, everything is about who you connect with. Really connect with. Finding people to work with who you’re almost instantly at ease with lets you start pulling apart problems and exploring ideas in a way that makes the most of your collective energy.

Its been ten years, and this isn’t an Oscar speech, so I’m not even going to try to list out everyone who’s meant so much to Helen and I on this journey. Instead, we’ve been working on a wee thing that we’re going to send out in the post later this month.

But until that arrives; thank you, you awesome, brilliant people.

Here’s to the next ten years.

Fidelity, Non-linearity, and the Double Diamond

I’d recently shared the Design Council’s new Systemic Design Framework work, including a wholesale upgrade for the Double Diamond model that’s well worth your time.

Mathieu asked in response where he could ‘find your views on the Double Diamond‘, and I don’t really have them all in one place… it’s largely scattered through talks, teaching etc.

I didn’t really have one thing to point to, but it keeps popping up.

For instance, it was a major part of Alastair Somerville’s talk at last month’s Design and Economics Unconference. In the discussion part afterwards, we were talking about the lack of ‘negative space’ around the Double Diamond – and I still have a doodle from that on my desk.

And today, I was reading something and the word ‘fidelity’ set my memory running. There was something I had written once about fidelity, maybe in relation to Zenko Mapping, but I couldn’t find it on the site. Which turned out to be because I’d written for Mind The Product back in 2015.

So I’ve republished it below; in part because no doubt I’ll go looking for it again one day, but also it maybe points to the underlying critique of all design models that masquerade as a fixed, followable process.

Perhaps old models are a form of mental asbestos. People didn’t really understand the implications of putting them in originally, but fast forward a few decades and they become problematic to remove.

That shouldn’t stop you trying though. I’ve just started reading Adam Grant’s Think Again (thanks to Brad Berens for the tip), which captures that sentiment nicely…

As promised, then, that original post…


Want to improve your Design process? Question your fidelity.

Originally publish on Mind The Product, March 2015.

I was sitting in a cafe in Brighton a few months ago, having breakfast with Andy from Clearleft. We were talking about I thing I was working on, and I’d used the word ‘fidelity’ to describe how close a project was ‘to the real world’ specifically in terms of people, rather than products.

We talked for a while about what fidelity typically meant in general design and usability circles, and a a result, I went away to think some more. Chats with Andy usually work out like that.

It turns out that fidelity is a tricky word. It comes from the same etymological well as faithfulness and loyalty, and the broader concept of fealty. We talk about it in terms of our behaviour; how faithful (or otherwise) we are to partners, friends, practices, ideals.

In this respect, the object comes first, and our fidelity to the object is judged from that point onwards. We look backwards. When we use the term fidelity to anthropomorphise other things, we see again that it is a concept that’s used to compare what we have in front of us to what happened before.

For instance, fidelity in audio is about how closely the sound we’re hearing compares to the sound and the point of recording. High fidelity, or “hi-fi”, was so great because it sounded like you were actually there. And in scientific disciplines, fidelity in modelling refers to how well the simulation reproduces the state and behaviour of the real world object (which has existed for millennia perhaps).

Yet, because of the nature of the design process, when we use the word ‘fidelity’ to describe how close we’re getting to a final product, we are using it not to compare to what we have seen in a known past, but to something we imagine in an estimated future.

When we describe a “low-fidelity prototype” for instance, we’re not comparing it to something in the past, but something still quite far away in the future.

We are not comparing, we are guessing. Of course, these may be very good guesses, based on sound practice and great experience, but they are guesses nonetheless. It may be because of the way we view time as part of the design process.

There are three useful examples of design processes highlighted in the Sketching User Experiences Workbook (Buxton, Greenberg et al). I shan’t dive into the detail of each of the models, but have a look at what unites the three…

Paul Laseau, 1980
Stuart Pugh, 1990
Buxton et al, 2012

It’s time. Time is used as a tool to tell us what we should be doing, and when. These three design models (and many more besides) all move along an X axis, left to right, from the beginning of the project to the end, as if the process itself is as predictable as a written sentence. This might have a big implication that we perhaps might be better doing without.

When the model you use is locked onto a time axis, there is not much room for other dimensions, especially if you’re only working in 2 dimensional models.

Typically, the other axis in all of the models above is being used for ‘activity’; what are we going to do when. A time-based model has a presumption of good practice, that you will regularly put things of front of people to test, in different ways to validate different things.

That’s not always the case though. With clients who work in a different system, or even when circumstances get the better of you, good disciplined practice can slip, as activity just starts to mean “we must get to the end bit of the model”.

What’s the solution? Well, what follows isn’t perfect, but it’s a useful start. It’s something we’ve been working with for the last few months, and it’s a broad tool for thinking, of which this is just one application (you can read some background here).

It’s a model which uses two different facets of ‘activity’ in order to help remember that we always have one of two choices; Improve or Share.

Along the horizontal axis, we have ‘people’, and up the vertical axis, we have ‘things’. For us, fidelity is all about the people axis; how close is this to the real world? That’s the future point, when the product is out in front of lots of people, being used often, at scale.

If you want to increase fidelity, then you show whatever you have to more people.

Which leaves the vertical axis, things, to be all about resolution. Resolution is a much more technical description of what we have in front of us, used across many different fields to description the detailed specifications of what the thing involves. It’s been much more useful when you’re using that language around the thing you’re working on.

That’s the territory the model describes, but how do we use it?

Take the familiar mechanics of Low, Medium, High. If we had a time-based axis from left to right, they’d line up in their familiar form, chronologically. In this model though, we can use Low, Medium and High to describe both Fidelity and Resolution. Rather than a three-step process, we can create a nine box grid.

Notionally, Low sits bottom left, Medium in the middle, and High is top right. But they’re now more like places to visits, rather than territories to cross. We’ve been thinking of each axis in the following ways to determine the sort of activity we do.

People

Low Fidelity – very simply, the people in the room, the project team. It’s as far
away from the real world as you can get, and you should always remember
that.

Medium Fidelity – sharing your ideas qualitatively. Face to face user research,
talking to people in different parts of the business, talking to experts.

High Fidelity – sharing your ideas quantitatively. Everything from the tried
and tested trick of putting up one web page about a product and buying
search ads for it, to in depth quantitative research to test a specific hypothesis
at scale.

Things

Low Resolution – working on pens and Artefact Cards, LEGO and plasticine,
Stickers on Boxes; anything that create fast physical space to create a
representation of an idea

Medium Resolution – working on surface detail to create simulations and
wireframes of things, but not anything that actually works yet

High Resolution – building out the back end, both from a technological and
business perspective; how is it going to work, and how is it going to make
money to be sustainable?

We always start bottom left, small teams of people working in physical
materials to create rough representations. Then the crucial part of using the
model kicks in; you have to choose what to do next. Are you going to take
those representations, and put them down in front of people for qualitative
feedback? If so, then you should share. Alternatively, are you going to take
the ideas away, spruce them up a little, sweat the thinking a bit, perhaps?
Then that’s fine too, you’re talking about improving.

At every stage on the journey through the process, you stop and ask
“should we share, or should we improve?”.

By stripping out time from being one of the axes, we introduce a
sophistication which informs the process at every step. But time hasn’t been
lost from the model altogether. Instead, it becomes a more passive data
source, as you draw out your process across the territory.

For example, below we can imagine two different journeys across the model:

The red journey has a lot of early stage test and learn; make things, show
them to people, rinse and repeat. The blue journey perhaps takes the first set
of concepts, tests them with people to pick one, builds a wireframe, tests it
quantitatively, and gets ready to ship.

The red journey is long, the blue journey is short. But they’re different
projects, there’s no law that says they should be the same length of time…
unless, of course, your process demands it.

So far, this model has proved very useful both conceptually and in live
projects, but we’d love to hear what you think. How do you think about
fidelity? Do you see an enforced sense of time in a design process as a
hinderance, or a benefit to keep things moving? Can you see projects you
have worked on (or are currently) fitting into this model?

How To Resign – Three Tips From Ten Years Ago

There are very few ways in which Smithery is like The Queen.

The only one worth mentioning is that we both have two birthdays.

Ten years ago today, on May 4th 2011, I resigned from my previous job as Chief Innovation Officer at the media agency PHD in London. I was going to start… well, something. Potentially called ‘Smith & Benkler’*, definitely around innovation.

I was 33 years old, and thought there was something fitting about resigning on Star Wars day – ‘May the 4th be with you’ etc etc. There is probably a long German word to describe the mix of pride and embarrassment I have about that now.

Anyway, I though I’d write two blog posts this year, for each of the birthdays .

The second one, at the beginning of August, will probably be longer, more interesting, and cover things I’ve learned in ten years of running Smithery.

This is just a short one, about resigning.

Given the general state of everything (*waves hand towards the window*), a fair few folk are no doubt wondering about what to do next, in order to make work work for them.

Which may well entail resigning from their current job.

So here are three pieces of advice I’d give anyone thinking about doing that. Of course, it’s only based on my own particular experience, so YMMV. Oh, and there’s a bonus piece of practical guidance too at the end.

If you’re thinking about resigning, think about these three things…


1. Describe the opportunity you see

I knew what I wanted to do based on the evidence in front of me. I’d become very interested in creating and embedding ideas with clients that started internally, worked through communities, then out externally.

This was based on the IPA Excellence Diploma Thesis I’d written, The Communis Manifesto, the abstract of which goes like this…

The brand communications which evolved in the mass media era are becoming more and more ineffective at changing peoples’ perceptions of companies and brands. 

The connections people make and communities they form nowadays are increasingly where they source their information; people are influenced most by people and communities.

I believe that the future of brand communications lies in finding a way to become part of communities, and communicate with them in a way that is shared, participatory and reciprocal. 

In this way companies can affect peoples’ perceptions of them, and make all of their brand communications more effective.

The Communis Manifesto, 2008, John V Willshire

(You can find the original thesis here, or read the one with the update in Nick Kendall’s What is a 21st Century Brand? book which collected together his favourites)

Starting that sort of work even now is hard, because you naturally need to connect silos in a business (Product, Marketing, HR, IT etc etc) that often seem to know each other without ever working together.

And eventually I reached the point that I was more interested in working on innovation projects that looked like this than anything the agency did.

Yes, I could point to the value created for clients in doing this, but not in a way that could persuade the agency business to invest in pursuing it further; it was too far outside the core business activities. So I left to pursue that initial idea.

Being able to describe an opportunity to do things differently, who it benefits, and why you can help people get there, is key.

I’m not suggesting you need to write a thesis to get there, but have a well-worked through perspective on something. If you’ve had the opportunity to test it, even better. It would even help you differentiate yourself if you wanted to apply for freelance roles in your existing industry; you offer something different.

But remember, it’s not even the thing you need to hold onto forever…


2. This is your next leap, not your last

So you can see the shape of an opportunity there, and why it’s not being done by others, but is it yours to grab? What happens if it goes wrong?

Well, the first thing to know is that even if you’re pursuing a new idea from the perspective you’ve identified above, it doesn’t preclude other types of work. By it’s very definition, if you’re proposing new ways of working, there won’t be many ready-made client tasks waiting there for you.

Think of the opportunity as a place to get to, with explorative paths along the way. They might well lead you to where you think you’re going. Or they might take you somewhere else which is equally or even more interesting for you.

But at the end of the day, you can always get another job. I came at this from an innovation background, obviously, but as the years have past I think that doesn’t matter so much.

Trying to do something new in any field, even if you fail at it, makes you more employable and not less.

In the meantime, you need to find some willing collaborators who’ll pay you to help them experiment…


3. Have a client to get a client

This video was very popular ten years ago, as the excitement of early stage social networks took hold or everyone (and every budget)…

I was thinking about it again when writing this post. It takes a brave client to be the first person who’ll stand up and dance with the weirdo. But as soon as someone’s up, it becomes easier for anyone (and eventually everyone) to join in.

If you have a client when you start, it makes it much easier to get a second one.

Because as you talk to new prospects who get in touch, you can describe some other work you’re doing (or about to do), as a tangible demonstration of what you’re trying to do for them.

You have the strategic opportunity you’ve defined in the first instance, and proof that there’s something in this as someone else is dancing with you. So if at all possible, before you resign, get a first client to work on.

Now, ideally it shouldn’t be anyone your employer works with currently; although possible, it’s probably a whole heap of trouble you don’t need.

There may be alternatives unique to your own circumstances. For me, there was another company trying to recruit me to be their innovation lead; I asked about what job they were hiring me to solve, and whether they’d be interested in me working as an independent consultant instead.

Instead, you could think about people you’ve worked with before but have moved on, peers you respect in other places, or anyone you have a mutual connection with who might introduce you.


So there you go, three tips worth thinking about as the world around you changes. Comments are open below, if others want to offer their advice too. And I promise I’ll write that longer ‘what I’ve learned’ post when our second birthday comes around.

And as promised…

That final PRACTICAL advice…

When I resigned to start Smithery, we had one eighteen month-old child, and Helen hadn’t gone back to her previous role after maternity leave. Everything we had was to come through Smithery.

The smartest thing I think we did was to move into our first house we’d ever owned, the month before I resigned, with a five-year fixed rate mortgage.

It meant that whilst starting up your own business, there wasn’t a bank asking for three-years worth of accounts at the end of a two-year mortgage deal.

However you do it, make your monthly outgoings as predictable as possible for as long as you can.


*That, my friends, is another story. But interestingly, the featured image for the post is the last picture I have in my iCloud folders from the day before I resigned, which will give you a small hint…

Screen grab from 3rd May 2011, the day before resigning

Mapping the territory – Design and Economics

A few weeks ago, I had a conversation with Simon Gough about a submission I’d made to host a talk at the first Design and Economics Unconference.

It was one of those things that had flown past my eyes, and I’d leapt at without *that* much thinking. Basically because I studied Economics at Uni, and feel that it’s informed my practice in various ways ever since.

So after a good session with Simon, I put together a little tour around some thoughts on a Miro Board, talked about that fairly briefly, then opened up a wee working session to try and map different micro and macro models across economics and design.

The film of the session is here:

And if you fancy a poke around the Miro Board, it’s open for viewing here.

Want to get involved? The Design and Economics Unconference started on Tuesday 13th April, and continues until Thursday 22nd – all the sessions are free, and you can sign up here

Design and Economics has been shaped by ideas, guidance and input from Mark Simpkins, Simon Gough, Paul Sternberg, Sally Brazier, Victoria Hands, Jim Coleman, Joanna Boehnert, Tanvi Yardi, Kas Moreno Madrigal, Leonardo Gentili and Zarida Zaman.