Battle of Ideas debate intro

Last Sunday (November 1st), I was on a panel for a debate at the Battle of Ideas festival. The following is my intro, which I didn’t quite follow to the letter, but used as a basis for many of my points.


I’m really excited about having this debate. I feel that issues around design don’t get debated enough in this sort of way, and it’s reassuring to see so many people in the audience here today.

I’m going to try and keep my intro brief. I have four key points that i’d like to make.

Point 1
More designers entering the healthcare arena is a good thing.

Point 2
…But they need to know their limitations.

Point 3
There is a danger that we give Patient Experience too much of a focus at the detriment of the overall performance of the NHS

Point 4
Designers need to focus on what they are good at and be careful of becoming stooges for tit-for-tat government policy

Let’s explore those points in more detail…

More designers entering the healthcare arena is a good thing
It’s been historically quite difficult to get good designers to be interested in designing for healthcare. I know I have struggled in the past, trying to recruit fellow designers in the agency that I worked to invest more than a few months working on some really interesting challenges. For so long, most would rather work on big brands doing cool new things. Work that might look really beautiful in their portfolio, that might win awards and win respect amongst their peers. Healthcare is certainly not beautiful in the traditional view.

I think it’s good that this new wave of designers have evolved their toolkit with user-centred, research-driven and collaborative practices. I strongly believe that design in this way is good design and can create better products and services. Products and services that are more efficient, more effective, safer and fit into the way people actually currently or will behave.

I hope that the influx of designers can help to nudge out some of the management consultants who have stationed themselves firmly into the NHS on long contracts, changing the service through bean counting and old school approaches to process re-engineering where people are actors in a system, cogs in a machine…

I think it’s great that designers are wanting to get involved in changing the world for the better. That is after all, why many wanted to become designers in the first place.

…But, my second point is about self-awareness

Designers need to know their limitations (and hidden powers)
Many of the challenges in healthcare are incredibly complex. There are a great number of roles, environments, and thousands of other variables that are hard to even understand, let alone influence.

I think a lot of designers can be quite naive, thinking that they can change the world with ideas. They are great at taking a complex problem and coming up with a simple solution, made tangible so it can be better understood and bought into. There is a rise in more ethically, seemingly more altruistic attempts at changing the world – whether it’s tackling the wicked problems of obesity and wellness, sustainability, or economics. I don’t doubt that designers can have a great influence on tackling challenges in these areas, but so many young designers are being flattered in their education or excited in the press, giving them the belief that it’s easier and more fun than we all know it really is.

I think above all, and especially in the healthcare space, most designers don’t have the patience to see their ideas through to completion. During the initial research and concepting, they are intellectually stimulated and challenged the greatest. This is what designers love, understanding a problem and coming up with ideas from the practical to the wacky. It’s infectious if you are a businessman or maybe a healthcare professional to be around designers at this sort of stage. But after this stage, there is a split in whether a designer will push through or move on. Some love getting into the detail design, getting around the barriers that are put in place by manufacturing, usability, or politics. Some just want to go to the next problem and do the early stages again. Unfortunately, I see more of the latter these days than the former. Less designers having the patience and the drive to follow through their ideas and realise the impact of the decisions they make.

This is incredibly important when it comes to policy, and designers shaping it through their work.

and so to one of the main points to all this, a point that has gotten ever more relevant in the past 2 months after we had started to pull together this debate…

There is a danger that we give Patient Experience too much of a focus at the detriment of the overall performance of the NHS
For some reason there’s a lot of ‘customer experience’ thinking and rhetoric around public services. Because of the internet, and the increasing power of consumers, politicians have decided that the government and all the public sector departments need to start treating citizens as customers. Is that really right? Is it even fair?

Now, I am big into making products and services better for the people that interact with them, improving the experience of their use. But I really can’t buy into the naive ideal that as consumers of public services, we should be treated like a paying customer. I know we pay, but as someone pointed out yesterday in the debate around the welfare state, public services and our investment of taxes into them is all about spreading risk around and trying to be fair to everyone.

A common theme at the moment is that of choice. Patient choice being a big policy agenda item. Citizens, like customers, should be able to pick the service they want and can decide where they might go for treatment. Flexibility is a good thing, but is choice in this way? Is it fair? or does it play to those that understand how to ‘game the system’ for their own benefits to the detriment of the less informed public. Do we really need trip advisors or eBay style comments for health services when those commenting have no idea of the complexities involved in the care being given. Very little is done about informing people of their basic rights – just have a look at the NHS constitution and try to get your head around that. When people just want to get better and are intimidated by even visiting a GP, I think that the whole choice agenda is incredibly premature.

So, in the past months, ‘patient experience’ is getting a lot of profile. As part of World Class Commissioning targets or just in the politician point scoring press. New targets will be set for healthcare professionals around this, meaning that if they deliver poor patient experience, they will get less funding. Now, let me tell you something that I believe to be true. Targets work. They have proven to be effective in healthcare. At reducing 18 month waits to 18 weeks or less. Targets work well, but only for delivering against the nature of the target itself. If that target is around the wrong area, or if the peripheral effects of delivering against that target are not fully understood – disaster can happen.

Maybe in the future, surgeons could start spending more time chewing the fat with patients to boost their ‘patient experience’ points at the detriment of doing more or better surgeries. Now obviously, that’s an extreme perspective. But this much is true. Targets in the NHS change behaviour, and we can’t easily anticipate how healthcare professionals will change their behaviour around the periphery of patient experience to line their pockets or keep themselves in a job.

Should designers really be using their powers to help policy makers score points of each other at the detriment to the care that the public receive.

..and so to my last summarising point…

Designers need to focus on what they are good at and be careful of becoming stooges for tit-for-tat government policy
They need to get back to the detail design and stay interested past the initial romance of the concepting.

They need to focus on delivering efficient, effective and safe products and services that fit the way people currently behave or will behave in the future.

For me, I believe that we just need to shift our focus in design, focus on the healthcare professionals that have to use appalling software or archaic physical instruments and monitors. These are the people that really need help. Help them and we help everyone.


Ego vs. Empathy presentation at Sense

So there I was after a couple of days of some of the leading lights in User Experience presenting to and training my fellow User Experience peers at UX London. I had signed up to do a presentation/discussion in the evening of Tuesday 16th June around a subject that I am constantly thinking about – the balance of ego and empathy: what makes the best design?

I was quite scared (shitting it) because I was fudging together the presentation in-between loads of work and I knew it would be contentious to a User Experience audience.

I have uploaded a version of the slide deck here, but it doesn’t really represent the experience that those there had. Just imagine these points, with lots of swearing, some cheesy animations, better fonts, a drunk but passionate Jason.

Given the responses i got from people, I feel much better about the whole experience and like always, it was worth doing. I aim to evolve this with some more concrete examples, maybe some in-depth research (well, maybe not).


Design won’t save the world single-handedly

Below is a letter that was published in May 7th’s Design Week in reaction to an Audi Foundation award article.

I was filled with both hope and despair after reading about the Audi Foundation’s latest venture into the trendy waters of social innovation and service design (Design Week, 16.4.09).

I was hopeful that this project might mean more designers channelling their fresh thinking into challenges that matter, rather than just looking to fill their portfolio with work for sexy brands. Any initiative that encourages responsible design can only be a good thing, can’t it?

However, the article frustrated me intensely as it delivered yet another message about how designers alone can change the world, further inflating old school egos and potentially misleading naive and malleable young minds too.

I share the belief that design can help make a difference, but when you take on challenges like new financial models, healthcare and crime, you have to respect the fact that a large number of talented individuals are already working on these challenges every day. Not only do they work in these industries, they specialise in fields other than design and already make change in these areas happen. They are scientists, civil servants, sociologists, doctors, engineers and politicians to name but a few. Positioning design as the solution to social problems is very dangerous and potentially extends our remit a little too far.

Maybe I’m wrong, and maybe designers will have the initiative to get out into the world and observe these people, engage with the experts, understand the barriers, see what’s been tried before, see why alternatives failed and listen intently. Collaboration has to be key. Then they can visualise the problem, and translate ideas into illustrations, potential products or services. That’s where design really helps – after all a problem well understood is one almost solved. Let’s hope that this is what happens.


Re-programming design education (sketch post)

Hey, this is but a start of a post off the back of a discussion this evening with some folks who want to setup some design debates throughout this year…

We all recognise the effects of good design: those products that work so well for us, those services that are so well considered, those buildings and spaces that just work. We also recognise the effects of bad design. The frustration. The anger. The lack of consideration for our needs.

We live in a very critical and competitive world, so many things broken that need fixing and so many areas where we could just do that bit better. The opportunities for good design are seemingly limitless. But who is grasping these opportunities? Who has the skills? Who will invest the hard graft to turn these opportunities into contexts for great experience or behavioral change? One would hope it would be designers, those funky creatures that love ideas and love bringing them to life. But do they really have the power or the ability to make game changing ideas into reality. I would argue that very few do, and that is our problem. Despite some great raw talent. Brilliant craft skills. Great creative ideas. There just isn’t enough of the other skills needed to make things happen. This, I believe, is the failure of design education.

Design education varies way too much across disciplines. Sometimes it involves too much rigour when companies can’t afford that level of navel-gazing, research and process (product design/architecture/engineering). Sometimes it has too little rigour, and designers gamble with the chances of coming up with a good idea (advertising).

Often, design education just doesn’t provide enough business context for design. Fundamentally, it doesn’t teach enough about the balance of ego vs. empathy. The designer’s desire and personal investment to put a bit of themselves in what they are crafting, their strive for perfection, and their passion for great ideas are essential for driving forward change to take people from where they are and have been, to where they could, should and ultimately will be. But, in order to make a solution fly, they need to balance this with greater empathy for the needs, desires and constraints of the citizen, employee, customer, client, business, colleague or organisation that they are ultimately designing for or with.

We need to re-program design education to create a better balance of ego and empathy in designers by: simulating real business contexts throughout, supplying the tools that designers need to cope with such contexts, and to force designers into the shoes of stakeholders within a project.

Simulate real business contexts throughout:

  • extend the crit, so it’s not just a design review but a simulation of the way a client might behave (changing their minds, commenting on the execution and giving their ‘better ideas’ of how to do it, asking for more iterations), not just a peer review of the work from a creative perspective
  • test ideas against ROI measures: get designers to explain how a solution’s benefits can be traced all the way back up to a company’s strategy and how it meets the bottom line
  • change deadlines, make extra demands, constrain the time and do not allow for exceptions

Supply the tools that designers need to cope with business contexts:

  • get designers used to covering their arses and learning to agree scope and direction up front before policing throughout
  • share stories and tricks about tapping into the psyche of a client, a business or a market
  • keep drilling it into them through real life practice
  • teach research and co-design techniques to get into the head of stakeholders and develop solutions collaboratively with them
  • teach how be a facilitator of a process, rather than always the content provider for the solution

Force designers into the shoes of stakeholders within a project

  • get them to research the user/consumer of the solution to understand their needs, desires, constraints, attitude and behaviours
  • get them to work through business cases: thinking about profit, revenue, costs
  • get them to observe the use of the solution they create and be prepared to iterate
  • get them to work in different roles (client, project manager, trainer, sales person, user) as part of a project

Possible design debate/writing themes

I have been getting involved with a few people eager to have some design debates this year. Part of the reason for this is that we feel that designers don’t debate enough. Partly due to their introspective nature I reckon, but what do you think?

Anyway, here are a few themes that I’d like to write/debate about in the coming months (NB, they are supposed to be contentious). Intention is to write here, on my company blog, in some press, but also do some debates at London Design Festival and the Battle of Ideas conference. Let me know which ones sound interesting to you:

  • Know your limitations –  why designers should scale back their ambitions for transformational change  and just stick to their relevant crafts and produce great solutions to the smaller problems in life
  • Ego vs empathy –  why the balance has to be sought, the move away from expertise in design to collaboration and user-centred techniques, originator vs facilitator.
  • Service design – emperor’s new clothes: why service design is no different from ucd (or good design even), why people are jumping on the band wagon (bad wagon!)
  • The move from product to service and servicable – hire or rent of appliances, fix yourself, get someone to fix, why we need to avoid replacement of our products
  • A world transformed by digital –  more power, self-organising, more participation, more flexibility create, less time, too much information – how digital thinking is coming into our analogue world
  • Function, form, fit – how the three fs must play together to create quality products and services 
  • Change through action not spoken ideas –  the power of the designer to provoke debate with artifacts and tangible representations of what could be, and why we need to get our ideas out there more in this way
  • Snoozability – why stressing usuability is so passé, it needs to be part of the mix so we can all move on and focus on informing the right solution in the first place
  • Brand Britain – A nation of naysayers: how the pessamistic default attitude limits our happiness, our progression and our well being in this nation
  • Should politics be in or outside design? – why designers should stick to their craft and not worry about issues and matters they can’t comprehend

Monome – first steps

I have had a Tenori-on for well over a year now, and have been intrigued about the differences between it and a monome ever since. Having put myself down on the monome waiting list, and 6/7 months later getting notified that I could get one if I said yes immediately, I recently made the plunge.

Gorgeous screen printed box, a bit of paper inside to keep it snug, and then the object itself.Beautifully screenprinted little Monome cardboard box
Rich and dark Mahogancy case, beautifully handcrafted and sturdy as hell, but with a really light weight to it. Weirdly, it felt cool to the touch (probably because it’s been freezing in London recently). Lovely little led-lit push padsNice stainless steel (or aluminium – who am I to know these days?) faceplate and 128 dinky little buttons. This is a thing of real beauty – an old school case with new school flashing Led push pads. I think I prefer it to the Tenori-on’s space age, curved corner thing with rattly buttons – but I did find use for Tenori-on’s form factor in use, so maybe monome will lose out here.
Monome (with 50p)Then came the setup… Oh dear, no instructions. Open source at work here. I had to go to the website and follow a variety of steps, downloading and installing a driver, restarting, installing a monomeserial app which apparently has to run every time with any other app. Then a monomebase set of apps which supposedly helps you to test out the box. Hmmm… not much working at this stage – is it broken? Is it bad that I am using UK 240v on a 115v power supply? Have i just wasted over £700 of my hard earned cash?

After a few app downloads and some playing around, I finally got it working. First app, mlr. This is a beat slicing and automatic looping app that allows you to drag a loop into it, and trigger it off at various points within a loop. Hard to explain, but this is the one that most people seem to be using in all the Vimeo and YouTube videos (like this one or this one). Unluckily for me, I had no loops ready, so I had to go on to the interent and download me some old skool drum + bass breaks. A little bit of apache, and there we go – a nice looping breakbeat. 

Then onto a few others, which seem a bit rubbish at first. And then, there it is, Polygnome – a weird pattern arpeggiator triggerer thing. So hard to explain, so much fun to fiddle with. I am going to have to master this one some more, when I get my head around how it all works – 70% there I reckon at the moment.

Anyway, I aim to post some videos when I get my video recording setup sorted, and then a pure monome played tune, but for now here’s my first impressions on Monome vs.Tenori-On:

  • Build Quality – Monome 1: Tenori-On 1 – both feel quite sturdy, although the rattle of the Tenori-on buttons did almost make it a loser
  • Aesthetics – Monome 1: Tenori-On 0 –  I think monome wins here for me. I prefer the retro wood styling to the spacey Tenori-on spaceship style
  • Ease of setup – Monome 0: Tenori-On 1 – Monome was a nightmare to setup, I am fairly computer literate but struggled. Tenori-on could pretty much play out of box.
  • Ease of music creation – Monome 0: Tenori-On – Monome requires you to run separate little apps (it seems) and each by themselves make it hard to compose a tune. Tenori-On on the other hand can do it all out of the box with its in-built sounds and straight forwward Midi implementation
  • Portability – Monome 0: Tenori-On 1 – Tenori-On runs on batteries and has its own sound bank. Monome 128 requires separate power and a usb cable to connect it to computer with sounds in it.
  • Flexibility – Monome 1: Tenori-On – I feel like the Tenori-On needs some extensions to its firmware or something. Since launch, there;’s been nothing new around it, whereas with Monome, people are developing stuff all the time, and there’s always something new to play with. I can see the appeal being long lasting

Check out the following links if you want to find out more:


I feel london

I quite like the idea of this little site. It allows people to tag places to go on a Google map, according to how they feel, whether romantic, hungover, energetic, chilled or sophisticated. 

and there’s one for New York too