Why a Toaster Is a Design Triumph

The user interface of a toaster is an unlikely starting place for an essay about the nature of design, but it turns out to be a way into a discussion of some challenging questions, including whether design is an exercise in democracy, an act of genius, or something else altogether. The conclusion is that the purpose of design is to make things more the essence of themselves, and that in this example, at least, it is to identify an ‘obvious but still unseen problem’ and to solve that problem in ‘in an elegant way that is also delightful to use’.

That risks collapsing into triteness, but the underlying question is a good one. Toasters have been around – fundamentally unchanged – for a century. So radically changing how they work (while at the same time barely changing how they work at all) is not a trivial achievement. It’s worth reflecting both on what lessons that might have for the application of design to public services – and on what obvious but unseen problems are waiting to be found.

Ian Bogost – The Atlantic

No Deadlines For You! Software Dev Without Estimates, Specs or Other Lies

This is not a post which self-evidently belongs in Strategic Reading: it’s about how a software developer should work with her boss to get things done. But the suggested approach has two devastatingly simple elements which have much wider resonance, first that understanding the position and priorities of the organisation as a whole is important in addressing even what might appear to be quite small problems; secondly that based on that foundation, prioritisation can and should be a neat constant activity, driven by the need to manage down uncertainty. It’s worth reflecting on where else these ideas might provide and effective way of getting good things done.

Dan Milstein – Hut 8 Labs

Most of what appears on Strategic Reading is gleaned from social media in one way or another.  This is the first which comes from a direct reader suggestion – so thanks to Stephen Gill. Interesting links are welcome, either through the site itself or by tweeting to @StratRead.

Why Amazon is eating the world

The success of Amazon has been told many times and in many ways. This is one of the less obvious and more compelling versions, focusing on the power of treating its internal systems and relationships as if they were external  If they are good enough for other people to want to use them, that’s a good sign that they are good enough for Amazon to use for themselves.

It’s clearly worked pretty powerfully for Amazon. That’s interesting in its own right, but it also raises some important and difficult questions for organisations which are not Amazon, perhaps in particular for governments, which are quite heavily insulated from the consequences of customer satisfaction. Government is not the next Amazon, nor should it be, but it’s worth reflecting on whether there is a similar process by which a drive to quality improvement could be designed into processes and systems.


Zack Kanter – Tech Crunch

Eight ideas for tackling peak demand in public services

When demand fluctuates, the costs of meeting it can easily go up and its quality can quickly go down. Some public services seem designed to maximise peak demand, others need to be ready to respond to demand which fluctuates for external reasons. That’s an aspect of service design which is often overlooked: the need to optimise individual interactions and the system supporting them is much more obvious than the opportunity to influence (and in some cases directly manage) the pattern of activity over time. So it’s worth reflecting on the scope for improving both service quality and efficiency by better managing the flow of demand.

Eddie Copeland – NESTA

Why Even Bother With a User-Centered, Digital Gov’t?

There is lots of attention and activity around the question of how government should be made to work better, and in particular how it should be made to work better with modern technology.  There is much less attention given to the question of why doing that is a good thing. This piece is an attempt to fill that gap from somebody who has been thinking about these issues pretty much from the beginning. It’s an extremely good first answer, but it is, of course, not the only one possible. It will be interesting to see if others rise to the challenge Tom poses.

Tom Steinberg – Civic Hall

If I could tell you 3 things – notes from a brief career in the public service

This is highly distilled very uncommon sense from a sharp observer of government in both the UK and Australia. At one level it’s about user research, which is unsurprising as that’s the core of what Leisa does, but the implications are very much wider – which is equally unsurprising as that is the ever less hidden power of user research. 

As she observes, most people want to spend as little time as possible thinking about government services. Much follows from that simple insight.

Leisa Reichelt – disambiguity

Eight ideas for tackling peak demand in public services

A neat example of lateral thinking (and of the power of data) in government service design – can we make services more efficient by spreading demand and so lowering the expense of peak capacity?

As the post itself acknowledges, that won’t magic away the demand pressures on public services, but it does illustrate the value of what we might call second level optimisation – one above trying to maximise efficiency of the current way of doing things, and one below a more radical reconceptualisation of the service as a whole. All three are necessary, but the one in the middle is perhaps the one most easily overlooked.

Eddie Copeland – Nesta

Things of the internet

This is a powerfully argued manifesto for service design in a digital age. It’s not good enough just to put a digital layer on top of organisational and service architectures which predate the internet: that results in services which are unstable and unscalable and so unsatisfactory and ultimately unviable.

There is much here which is persuasive and important, but it underplays a critical part of the overall picture. The new organisations and approaches Ben lauds have in common that they are all comfortable with the rhetoric of sharing, but they are all completely conventional market organisations whose relationship with their customers is one-dimensionally transactional. Amazon is the one partial exception to that, but even they do more to fit the institutional model of the pre-internet firm than to challenge it. Public services are – or should be – part of wider conversations. To define them solely through their transactions is to miss something essential.

Ben Holliday

The Distribution of Users’ Computer Skills: Worse Than You Think

Jakob Nielsen has been writing about usability since the dawn of the web. His approaches seemed to go out of fashion for a while, but there has always been a lot of evidence-based common sense in his approach. This post uses OECD data to demonstrate just how limited digital skills are, even in the most advanced countries and draws out the critical point that people who design, build, or even vaguely think about online sites and services are massively unrepresentative.

Or to put it another way, we can never be a normal user of our own services and even bus drivers aren’t like passengers.

It is though curious – presumably as a consequence of the way the research was done – that the test tasks described are very work focused. It would be interesting to know if task context and familiarity at least partly countered task complexity.

Jakob Nielsen – Nielsen Norman Group

User-centred digital government is an idea that cannot be put back in the bottle

Is user-centred digital government unstoppable? At one level the answer must be yes, we live in an increasingly digital environment and government is not and cannot be immune to that. Digital is well on the way to just being the substrate for how things get done. But just as twentieth century governments could be good at managing paper without necessarily being good at using it to communicate clearly and efficiently, so doing things digitally does not immediately imply doing them well. This post argues the positive case, that we are beyond the tipping point where ideas about rapid, responsive service design have a sufficient life – and strength – of their own to transcend the vagaries of individual leaders and services.

Tom Steinberg – Medium

‘I want a pony!’ – or the critical difference between user research and market research

This is a good simple and succinct description of what user research is and why it matters.  It draws out the critical point that user wants are not necessarily a good indicator of user needs, not least because what matters in the end is not (or is not just) the immediate interaction, but the success of the underlying service in delivering the right outcomes.

Leisa Reichelt – Australian Government Digital Transformation Agency


Building a bank together

A sketchnote on building a bank, in this case Monzo, which is one of a number of new contenders starting in a very different place from traditional banks. The same basic approach could apply much more widely to service design – and indeed to organisation design.

Rise of the machines: who is the ‘internet of things’ good for?

Technology is never neutral. What gets developed, how it gets developed, and how it gets used are all driven by social, economic and political factors. People who build services are never neutral either and can certainly never be normal users of their own services. This article looks behind the internet of things to reflect on how completely frictionless transactions move power from consumer to provider, how what is normal for designers of such services is very different from what is normal for many of those who will find themselves using them, and how technology – and the data it moves and organises – is always about power.

Adam Greenfield – The Guardian

Lab+: Potential future states for government service delivery 

This is a great example of what might be called macro user research, investing in understanding people’s own framing of and understanding of their situation and reflecting on how government service design should respond to that. Three broad themes emerge, the first of which is ‘conversational services’. Conversation is a powerful concept, and one all too easily overlooked in the design of high volume services. And it is the starting point for the Cluetrain Manifesto, one of the defining texts of the web, made of up of 95 theses, of which the first three are:

  1. Markets are conversations.
  2. Markets consist of human beings, not demographic sectors.
  3. Conversations among human beings sound human. They are conducted in a human voice

And of course ‘markets’ don’t have to be limited to markets.

Pia Waugh – New Zealand Government Web Toolkit

Making it clear when machines make decisions

Most writing about algorithmic decision making is at a very high level, and often implies that a very wide range of decisions and processes will be affected in very similar ways. This article – originally a submission to a select committee inquiry on the subject – take a more granular approach, looking at how different approaches might be appropriate for different aspects of a hypothetical National Benefits Service, with an emphasis on ensuring that it is always clear how a decision has been reached, as well as what that decision is.

Matthew Sheret – Projects by IF

Building internal systems v providing services

It’s hard enough to use the power of digital to make a service – particularly a well-established service – work better. It’s even harder to go all the way back to asking what the real underlying purpose is and whether that might be achieved in a beatter way. So it’s essential to to design the service, not just the system. And as the post ends by hinting, sometimes the best service is no service.

Kate Tarling – Home Office Digital, Data and Technology

Why Don’t More UIs Use Accelerometers?

Easing the friction which gets in the way of people interacting with machines will be an important strand of the trend to automation. The keyboard was optimised for the technology of the nineteenth century and still has its uses, but in many circumstances it’s not a sensible way of interacting. Voice is one obvious option, but it’s not the only one. This short post argues that just tilting a phone and adopting techniques from game design might be another. And it’s still a little bit disappointing that Dasher never made it to the mainstream.

Mark Wilson – Co.Design

Don’t bring policy and delivery closer together – make them the same thing

The desire to close the gap between policy and delivery is not exactly a new one. This post is both an account of what happens when a policy lead is embedded in a delivery team and an argument that moving towards a ‘one team’ approach gets better and cheaper results. Whether describing the starting point is government being an ‘inexperienced customer’ is arguable, as is the assertion that only delivery people understand user needs, but that doesn’t stop the trajectory being an important one.


James Reeve – Skills Funding Agency

Baidu’s Artificial Intelligence Lab Unveils Synthetic Speech System

Communicating with computers by natural speech is a dream which goes back to Star Trek and 2001 (and well beyond, but this is not a history of science fiction). Recently, there have been clear advances in how computers understand humans – Alexa, Siri and their friends, as well as the new levels of call centre hell. But computers speaking to humans still sound robotic, because they are chaining words together and the intonation never sounds quite right. But now that’s changing too, with speech being constructed on the computationally intensive fly. And that may be important not just in its own right but as a step towards more fundamental changes in how people and machines interact with each other.

MIT Technology Review