Moving this site to Hugo & Netlify

Quite soon, I’ll be moving this site off of WordPress and running it via the static site generator Hugo and hosting it on Netlify. I’ve been working on it for a while and it’s mostly ready to go, but I strongly suspect I’ll break quite a few things, so please let me know if so.

It will also mean the RSS feed URL will change. I’ll attempt to redirect it, but if you’re using an RSS reader and it’s not updating, try pointing at the site again or trying as your feed URL (if you just want the blog).

Learning from Ed Sheeran

I went to see Ed Sheeran live the other day.

I can assure that’s not a sentence I thought I would be writing. At the start of his meteoritic rise, I couldn’t hear Shape of You one more time. Then my daughter got into him, which meant pretty much having the Divide album on loop.

The repetition made me appreciate the songwriting a bit more and led to watching a few performances on YouTube and that led to us treating our 10 year-old to her first big concert. And big it was. Sheeran’s performance at the Hockenheimring in Germany was, according to him on the night, the biggest crowd he had ever played to at nearly 100,000 people. We booked late and were at seats about 12 miles away from the stage at the edge (children aren’t allowed in the standing area anyway), but that didn’t matter. His performance was remarkable — just him, his guitar and mic, and a Loop Station. He uses the Loop Station to record loops and build up the track live, accompanying himself. All for two hours.

Now, I’ve done some live performance with loops (really, don’t click that link) and I know full well how quickly that can go awry. You only have to get the timing a tiny bit off and you’ve got cross-beats and a musical mess. Gary Dunne, who taught Sheeran how to use loop pedals, explained and defended the art recently saying, ”I find it interesting that people can watch the gig and criticise the art and not understand the complexity and the vulnerability of what he’s doing.” The level of practice and musicianship is impressive, especially in the days of giant spectacle performances of the Lady Gaga ilk.

Newly impressed by Ed Sheeran, I watched the documentary about him called Songwriter, made by his cousin Murray Cummings. It documents the process of him writing the Divide album, from first glimpse of song ideas through to the finished album.

There are several musicians in his circle who seem to be trying very hard to look like pop-stars, but Sheeran remains remarkably down-to-earth. What really struck me was the importance of a psychologically safe and focused environment for the process, and how portable digital audio recording tools have transformed it.

Now that design has been so democratised and the mantra of “everyone is a designer” underpins the rise (and fall?) of design thinking, the craft skill is often overlooked. This isn’t so with music (well, maybe with DJs who record their sets on USB and hit play on the night). Playing an instrument and songwriting are still viewed with the awe of, “I couldn’t do that” by many buying into the talent myth. This has allowed musicians to make a clearer argument for “special” ways of working to maintain the “magic.”

Sheeran writes and records in a variety of sessions, but one part of the documentary shows them at the house in the country of producer, Benny Blanco. This allows them immense focus, away from the record label suits and any other distractions. It also creates the psychologically safe space for the songs to emerge, fragile and half formed, and then evolve.

The documentary starts with Sheeran recording parts of new song ideas in the back of his tour bus with Benny. Benny is afraid of flying, so they cross the Atlantic on a cruise ship and there is a section where they’re recording and producing in a pop-up studio they’ve created in some back room of the ship. It’s quite remarkable that any of this is possible when you think of how much kit recording studios used to require. Non-linear digital editing also means he can record the bits of the song he’s happy with—a kind of musical MVP—and drop in lines later, once he has them until it’s complete.

Galway Girl, for example, starts with a few chords and a couple of lines (“She played the guitar with an Irish band, dancing slow with an Englishman…” – the final lyrics are different) and lots of humming for the bits that he hasn’t thought of words for yet. It’s rare to get a glimpse of such a well-known piece of culture emerging from the head of its creator in the moment.

After several contributions from others, he wanders off into the garden on his own to work it out and comes back with most of the song. It’s an excellent example of the ebb and flow of the individual seed of an idea, collaboration, and then individual focus again. The collaboration continues as the song arrangement takes shape and is recorded and produced by Benny. Finally ending in Sheeran on stage, alone once more.

Perfect takes a similar route, going from guitar to full orchestrated arrangement (by his brother, Matthew Sheeran) to eventually emerge as a pared back version on the album. It’s a highly effective, but very inefficient process. An entire orchestra for a day only to use a tiny bit of the recording. Always remember to kill your darlings.

One of the biggest struggles design teams have is space to focus and space to be vulnerable. The distractions of email, messaging apps and meetings in the increasingly large organisations they are embedded in creates so much noise that tuning into an emerging creative idea is difficult. The pressure to work faster, even in sprints that are intended to aid focus, isn’t always conducive to letting ideas emerge half-baked and then evolve, despite the MVP language of skateboard, scooter, bike, etc.. That language and mindset works when you’re fairly clear on what it is you’re trying to build – it’s not so useful when you’re not really sure what it is you are or should be making. I would argue that this is a key difference between design and engineering.

It’s also important to get the bad ideas out of the way. Natalie Goldberg famously talked about “letting yourself write junk” and Ernest Hemingway gave solace to all writers when he said, “I write one page of masterpiece to ninety-one pages of shit. I try to put the shit in the wastebasket.”

When Sheeran visits his old school and is talking to music students there, he makes the analogy of songwriting being like turning on a dirty tap in an old house. “You turn on the tap and it just spits out shit water for the first ten minutes”, then you start to get cleaner water with occasionally bits of grit, before the flow is clean water. When he started in earnest, he tried to write at least two-to-three songs a day, knowing that the first third of them were rubbish, but they were the necessary pathway to the good stuff. “Once all the bad songs have gone, the good songs started [sic] flowing.”

You can’t take shortcuts to the good stuff. It’s my favourite thing about writing. You can’t write a second draft without a first draft. If you try, you’ll write the first paragraph over and over for an hour and that’s not a draft. That’s just the deadly combination of perfectionist procrastination.

Who knew I would write so much about Ed Sheeran? Not me.

This post was first published in my newsletter, Doctor’s Note, an irregular newsletter containing a mix of longer form essays and short musing on design, innovation, culture, technology and society. You can sign up for it here.

Storytelling, Pitching and Synthetic Realities at UX Australia 2019

I’m heading back to Australia in August forUX Australia 2019 where I’ll be running a workshop on Storytelling & Pitching for Designers and giving a presentation on Design in the Age of Synthetic Realities, which is my take on what the rise of AI-generated media means for creators (much more than it means for consumers of that media, I believe).

Hope to catch up with old friends and acquaintances there, so come and say hi.

Also, first person to mail me their registration for my workshop gets a signed copy of Service Design: From Insight to Implementation.

Innovation = Conversation + Doing

“What should we be doing to be increase innovation?” It is a very common question from clients. It’s not unreasonable, since the chatter around innovation is that it is the magic bullet to success and growth. Innovation shares much of the same mystery as Dan Ariely’s quip about big data:

“Everyone talks about it, nobody really knows how to do it, everyone thinks everyone else is doing it, so everyone claims they are doing it.”

But the more time I spend time digging into the underlying issues, the more it is clear that the fundamental premises of the question are wrong.

Read the rest over on Medium

Introducing the Power of Ten podcast

I’ve podcasted on and off for a while and always enjoyed it, first with Core77 in the mid-2000s, last year as a regular host of a Fjord Fika (new season coming soon), and more recently as a guest on Mark Pesce’s Next Billion Seconds and Gerry Scullion’s This Is HCD.

I love conversations with interesting people and the process rekindles my undergraduate media production training. There have been many times when I’ve had a conversation and thought, “I wish we had recorded that.” The Power of Ten podcast on the This Is HCD network is intended to capture some of those conversations.

Power of Ten focuses on the idea of design operating at many different levels, from thoughtful detail to complex ecosystems and the title is a homage to the Ray and Charles Eames film, Powers of Ten, that developed in me a mental model of connectedness that has influenced my thinking ever since.

My first guest is Jeff Gothelf, with whom I had a great conversation about the challenges facing digital product teams and also the organisational and leadership issues that make digital transformations so very difficult. I hope you enjoy it.

Although design will no doubt play a central role in the podcast, I would like it to cover a broad range of topics. It’s a kind of audio companion to my newsletter, Doctor’s Note. In true Sense and Respond style, I’m actively seeking feedback and, especially, suggestions for guests. You can mail me at andy at this domain or find me on Twitter. I’d love to hear from you.

Value versus Values

That extra ‘s’ makes all the difference.

Whilst we are talking about the dysfunctional desire to reduce the world to bottom-line numbers, there was a remarkable article in HBR about the backlash to BlackRock CEO Larry Fink’s suggestion that he would change their hiring and compensation structure to advance diversity. It will surprise no one that the backlash came from Fox Business.

Here’s a quote from the HBR article:

The Fox article went on to quote Charles Elson, a corporate governance expert at the University of Delaware, saying: “This is fundamentally not the role of a public company, and it’s unfair to investors who may not agree with his politics. A CEO shouldn’t use house money to further a goal that may not create economic returns.”
I couldn’t disagree more. Business leaders must finally, once and for all, let go of the outdated and erroneous notion that social factors — and not just diversity — are irrelevant to the economic success of our companies.

Value is so often pitted against values as if the two are oppositional forces that may never be reconciled, much like the economy versus the environment. But, of course, economies live inside the environment and businesses operate inside societies that have values as well as the environment. The view that “legally, their primary responsibility is to enhance shareholder value, not to make the world a better place,” (Fox Business, again) makes neither ethical nor economic sense. The evidence for The Ethics Economy is compelling and already here.

When you’re inside a bubble, it’s very hard to see outside of it, which is what exacerbates structural inequality and why Larry Fink’s approach is so exemplary. The same goes for the obsession with GDP from economists or, rather, the obsession with economics.

Recently, the World Economic Forum posted one its short video interviews with Minouche Shafik, Director of The London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) on the three things that make people happy. Not surprisingly, none of them is GDP, but rather good health, good relationships and meaningful work (as opposed to bullshit jobs).

All of this is perfectly reasonable, so far. What was frustrating was her final comment that economists should start measuring these things more. As I wrote in response, it’s not that economists should start measuring things that aren’t the economy, it’s that we should place less value on what economics as a discipline has to say about the world in general.

Economics has a dismal record. It failed to predict the global financial crisis and the few who did faced ridicule at the time—a classic bubble phenomenon. The financial sector is, of course, stuffed full of economists, but that hasn’t prevented immoral, irresponsible and illegal behaviour.

Health and well-being, happiness and life’s meaning are already well-understood and measured by sociologists and anthropologists. Listen to them instead. Otherwise it’s like suggesting that this “money thing” seems quite important, so physicians should start prescribing it.

A Better Utopia

If that all makes you feel depressed, I can recommend two books for you, one long-finished and that I quote all the time, the other I have just started.


The first is Betterness: Economics for Humans by one of my favourite authors on the intersection of economics and society, Umair Haque, (he also has a fascinating life story). I could quote the whole book—and there’s plenty to read by Umair online—but regarding Fox Business argument, here is a useful response to bear in mind. It’s a quote from an interview with Joshua Daniel Margolis who co-wrote the book People and Profits?: The Search for A Link Between A Company’s Social and Financial Performance with with James P. Walsh.

“There have been 80 academic studies in the last 30 years attempting to document the relationship between social enterprise activities and corporate financial performance. The majority of results (53%) point to a positive relationship, and only 5% of studies indicate a negative impact on the bottom line”

Betterness is indeed good business. Here is Umair in emphatic mode, but the book is full of well-researched citations and solutions:

Call me a heretic, fire up the stake, ready the kindling, but I’d suggest that today we stand on the vertiginous cusp of an equally dizzying transformation in our understanding of prosperity’s place in the human universe: that an economy isn’t an end in itself, but that it’s a means to the end of a good life. That life isn’t a means to the end of wealth, but that wealth is a means to the end of a good life. That a good life is composed more of what you can’t buy than what you can. That a good life isn’t built first on disposable stuff that matters in economic terms, but on an economy that matters in human terms. That a healthy economy isn’t just one that’s less dysfunctional, but one capable of scaling higher and higher peaks of optimal function. That lives lived meaningfully well place real wealth above shareholder value, people above product, outcomes above income, and are a consequence of striving for better—instead of just “busier.”

The second book, that I knew of but the author’s recent viral appearance tipped me into finally reading, is Utopia for Realists by Rutger Bregman. Bregman is most recently famous for suggesting to those poor souls at Davos, who flew in on one of 1,500 private jets, that the rich paying their fair share of taxes would be more useful than philanthropy.

Winners Take All author Anand Giridharadas published a conversation with Rutger Bregman and Winnie Byanyima (who also spoke out on the same Davos panel) yesterday. Giridharadas closes with this:

But there are cycles in history, and I believe we are at the natural end of a 40-year cycle, defined by the religion of money, defined by the veneration of entrepreneurs and markets. And instead of just saying, “That’s wrong”, I think it’s more empathetic to ourselves as a society to say that the last 40 years has been an experiment, an era defined by entrepreneurs as heroes, markets as gods – just as a century ago there was the industrial revolution and the first gilded age, a time of great fortunes. I think we are living in the death pangs of an era that has done tremendous good, but has also done tremendous harm, that has lifted a lot of people out of poverty, but also put the planet in mortal jeopardy. And I feel hope that another era has to follow this era because that is how history works. As well as the death pangs, there are birth pangs right now. I believe that after the age of markets will come the age of reform and the age of solidarity.

In Alvin Toffler’s language of The Third Wave, the current frictions and tensions are the turbulent riptide as the the wave of market veneration recedes and as the age of betterness1 rolls in. My generation may be around just long enough to experience our children beating us with sticks for not doing more about it at the time.

This post was originally part of this week’s Doctor’s Notemy newsletter containing a mix of longer form essays and short musing on design, innovation, culture, technology and society. Sign up to get it first (and in one piece).

  1. Autocorrect persists in the Freudian slip of correcting “betterness” to “bitterness” ↩︎

Design Maturity

4A504949-E88F-4B5E-BD69-0F41B80F2262Leah Buley, Director Design Education at InVision, and a wider team from InVision just published the Design Maturity Model. I very much preferred this to McKinsey’s Business Value of Design that came out late last year.

I’ll freely admit to competitor bias here (Fjord is part of Accenture), but while the McKinsey report was interesting, it left me rather cold. It felt too much like what management consultants think of design and it was, well, rather ugly. InVision’s report has no shortage of facts and figures, but it also brought forth the human, employee experience aspects of design in organisations—something that is at the foundation of extracting the most value from design and seems to be so often overlooked.

InVision’s report looked beautiful, too. That might sound superficial, but if you’re going to talk about the value of design, show, don’t tell. You wouldn’t expect a report on the value of accounting to have mistakes in the calculations, after all.

I’ll be interviewing Leah Buley and Aaron Walter for the new season of Fjord’s Fika podcast that has been on hiatus way too long.

This was the second part of this week’s Doctor’s Note, my newsletter on all sorts containing a mix of longer form essays and short musing on design, innovation, culture, technology and society. Sign up to get it early (and in one piece).

History Repeating

This week’s Doctor’s Note is all about value versus values. That extra ‘s’ makes all the difference. Here’s the first part of it.

In a time when terrorists play death-games with hostages, as currencies careen amid rumours of a third World War, as embassies flame and storm troopers lace up their boots in many lands, we stare in horror at the headlines. The price of gold–that sensitive barometer of fear–breaks all records. Banks tremble. Inflation rages out of control. And the governments are reduced to paralysis or imbecility.


So wrote Alvin Toffler in the introduction of his 1984 book The Third Wave. I had a recent conversation about waves of development that sweep across the world unevenly and the friction they cause. It sent me off looking for the Toffler quote again, because I used it in the final chapter of my doctoral thesis, which I know you’re all dying to read. That quote seems to be perennially prescient.

The whole of The Third Wave is worth a re-read, because we’re now living in the future Toffler was imagining. He is quite often spot on and his metaphor of waves is a compelling.

The part about us living under the oceans was amiss, though, especially since “only less than 0.05% of the ocean floor has been mapped to that highest level of detail by sonar, which is an area roughly equivalent in size to Tasmania,” according to Jon Copley in Scientific American. (Amazingly, large sections of Mars are more accurately mapped).

The Box Is All There Is

Floating Box
Photo by Christian Fregnan on Unsplash

AI getting sneaky

Recently, I wrote about the games that AI’s play, gaming training environments as logical responses to the reward and assessment stimuli they had been set. Another one has now been hiding data in order to use it later. Devin Coldewey explains in a TechCrunch article that the CycleGAN was being trained to turn aerial photographs into street maps and then generate synthetic aerial views from those street maps. The aim being to train the AI to generate aerial views from other street-maps. But the agent was not being graded on the conversion, but simply on how close the generated aerial map was to the original.

So it didn’t learn how to make one from the other. It learned how to subtly encode the features of one into the noise patterns of the other. The details of the aerial map are secretly written into the actual visual data of the street map: thousands of tiny changes in color that the human eye wouldn’t notice, but that the computer can easily detect.

It was then able to reconstruct a convincing aerial photo from the hidden data (tiny colour shifts in pixels that human eyes couldn’t perceive). Essentially, it took a crib sheet into the exam. No actual learning required.

Learning from learning

In that AI gaming article I talked about this effect often creating “structural stupidity” in corporate cultures, but it’s actually well-known in teaching and learning literature and what John Biggs calls assessment “backwash.” Students don’t do the work that the teacher says is the aim of the course. Students do the work they know they will be assessed upon. You can physically witness it when handing out a course outline—most students immediately flip to the back to see what the assessments are. From a human-centred perspective, this is perfectly natural and obvious behaviour, because it’s how we prioritise our time. This is why Biggs developed constructive alignment, an approach to aligning curriculum aims with assessments. It sounds obvious—you’re going to be assessed on the aims of the course—but often goes out of alignment due to the approach and construct of assessment. A classic example is how multiple choice exams assess rote learning more than actual understanding. I learned about this years ago when learning about teaching in higher education (Biggs’s original book was published in 1999) and it has always struck me as crazy that business management, with its obsession with targets and KPIs rarely understands a simple principle: What you measure drives human behaviour focused on the metric, not the outcome the metric is trying to measure. Sometimes they are aligned, of course, but often not, mostly because organisations don’t know how to define value, as Jeff Gothelf recently wrote. I most often witness backwash with CEOs and CXOs obsessing about raising NPS scores and App Store ratings without wanting to know about the underlying experience driving those ratings. After all, why bother reading the comments when you’ve got a number to focus your attention upon? Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that this is the case. Departments of Education have themselves become obsessive about auditing, despite decades of evidence that it’s misguided.

Science’s blind spot

A similar and frequent tension between design and business (both terribly nebulous terms) is often framed as soft versus hard or fuzzy opinion versus hard truths of numbers. Experience versus business. Art versus science. Recently a client wanted evidence for the ROI of customer experience. But customer experience is not an add on, it’s all there is. Without customers there is no business. This creates a blind spot for companies, since its very ubiquity makes it invisible. Asking for an ROI of CX is like asking for an ROI of the company’s existence. The tension between science and experience was elegantly argued by two physicists and a philosopher in an Aeon article called The Blind Spot recently. (Side note: Three different authors, Steve Diller, Nathan Shedroff and Sean Sauber, also wrote a book called The Blind Spot covering much the same issue in business). I can’t do the Aeon article justice without quoting the entire thing, but the essence of it is that we falsely believe science gives us an objective, God’s eye view of the universe, when, in fact, we can never escape our experience of it. The authors argue that this means “objectivism and physicalism are philosophical ideas, not scientific ones.” To get a flavour of the argument, here is their analysis of the scientific method quoted at length:

In general terms, here’s how the scientific method works. First, we set aside aspects of human experience on which we can’t always agree, such as how things look or taste or feel. Second, using mathematics and logic, we construct abstract, formal models that we treat as stable objects of public consensus. Third, we intervene in the course of events by isolating and controlling things that we can perceive and manipulate. Fourth, we use these abstract models and concrete interventions to calculate future events. Fifth, we check these predicted events against our perceptions. An essential ingredient of this whole process is technology: machines – our equipment – that standardise these procedures, amplify our powers of perception, and allow us to control phenomena to our own ends.

The Blind Spot arises when we start to believe that this method gives us access to unvarnished reality. But experience is present at every step. Scientific models must be pulled out from observations, often mediated by our complex scientific equipment. They are idealisations, not actual things in the world. Galileo’s model of a frictionless plane, for example; the Bohr model of the atom with a small, dense nucleus with electrons circling around it in quantised orbits like planets around a sun; evolutionary models of isolated populations – all of these exist in the scientist’s mind, not in nature. They are abstract mental representations, not mind-independent entities. Their power comes from the fact that they’re useful for helping to make testable predictions. But these, too, never take us outside experience, for they require specific kinds of perceptions performed by highly trained observers.

For these reasons, scientific ‘objectivity’ can’t stand outside experience; in this context, ‘objective’ simply means something that’s true to the observations agreed upon by a community of investigators using certain tools. Science is essentially a highly refined form of human experience, based on our capacities to observe, act and communicate.

All this should, by now, sound familiar. AIs gaming systems blatantly highlights how much we overlook our subjective, tacit understanding of those systems. Metrics and assessment ignore the human behavioural experiences underpinning them. Behaviour in context is crucial, which is why Fjord work a lot with mindsets.“We can’t step outside the box in order to look within, because the box is all there is,” write Frank, Gleiser and Thompson. So we had better get to know the box, which is what everyone from the phenomenologists to C.G. Jung spent their lifetimes urging us to spend our lifetimes doing.

This post was originally written for Doctor’s Note my newsletter containing a mix of longer form essays and short musing on design, innovation, culture, technology and society. You can sign up for it here. It’s first public posting was on Medium.