Weeknotes #272

Photo of the week:

In the valley of the rocks. A beautiful place with surprising strong mobile phone signal.

This is what I did this week:

Data, data, everywhere

The majority of the week was spent on a piece of work about how we collect information from young people. There are lots of different teams involved as the data is used in lots of different ways, lots of history involved because the way we collect information has been through lots of changes, and lots of current and near-future change because of the evolution of how we measure impact. Hopefully we’ve settled on a solution that means all the teams will get the data they need and young people will find it easier to complete forms. The thing about a digitised and automated world is that somehow, somewhere, someone has to type in the information the system needs. IoT solves that problem by using sensors to generate the data, but the vast majority of data entry depends on humans. The future isn’t a Matrix-style one where humans are used as batteries, it’s one where huge numbers of people spend their days entering data to feed the machines.

What else?

I didn’t do much else this week. I’ve been feeling ill and lacking motivation but I’m keen to get back into the flow of working on projects. To avoid having to do too much creative thinking I’m going to going to focus on adding more to The Ultimate Digital Tools List and setting up NFTs for Stiles.style. I’ve also been thinking about whether to get back into turning my weekly reading list into Twitter threads. It’s kind of counter to the ‘build your Twitter audience with threads’ advice as the only person at the intersection of interest for all that will be on the list is me, but I’ll give it some more thought.

This is what I read:

11 essential laws

Sean Johnson’s 11 Essential Laws of Product Development is one of those ‘go back to regularly and think about again now that your own thinking has progressed’ articles. Some of points it makes still feel relevant four years but more generally it looks like it’s from one particular viewpoint. Product thinking in 2021, in my opinion, shouldn’t adopt a single stance about things like customer driven development. The first question should always be about the problem-to-solve, and the method for figuring out how to solve the problem should come from that. Learn to build or build to learn. How can you possibly adopt an approach without an understanding of the problem space?

Management in the middle

Mary Parker Follett was a genius management thinker. Her thinking was ahead of it’s time a hundred years ago and is probably still ahead of our time today. She said that, “effective management is a participatory, inclusive and nonhierarchical process—not a command and control, direction giving process.”, and that the role of management in the middle of the higher and lower levels of the organisation is to make small changes that keep the two aligned.

Organisations that went remote

Eat Sleep Work Repeat interviewed people from organisations (including a UK charity) that have gotten rid of their offices and have all employees working remotely. There are some interesting insights, including how some companies have appointed a Head of Remote (I’m sure we can all see the same discussions that we had about the use of the word ‘digital’ coming up again soon), and how much going remote was a choice or felt forced upon the org (the difference there seems like an interesting narrative to explore). The podcast doesn’t get the other two sides of the story from those orgs that want to go back to the office full time and those trying to figure out hybrid working (that would make an interesting panel discussion), but it provides an interesting perspective into the reasons why organisations might adopt remote working.

And this is what I thought about:

Two heads are better than one

I’ve been building out my second brain/digital garden/personal information management system/whatever you want to call it. I used put notes and links into Notion, then I started using my website, then that became a pain so now I’m back to using Notion. I’ve added a related database to try to group notes so I’ll see if this helps with bringing ideas together. Thanks to Amy’s tweet, I might try writing every day National Blog Post Month this November. It didn’t go very well when I decided to write every day in October, but this time I’m trying a different approach. No writing ahead of time, only on the day. And whatever I write has to be within my area of interest for digital charity. I guess we’ll see how it goes.

Building in public

There are lots of advantages to building in public, whether as a solo creator or writer or whatever. The general consensus on Twitter seems to be that it creates an audience of supportive people that are interested in what you’re building, but I think there’s another, potentially wider benefit. Doing the work and talking about your work require two different skill sets. So whether you’re a solo creator or work in a large organisation, it’s important and useful to develop the skill of talking about your work. One to work on.

The coastline problem

I’ve been thinking more about my nomadic lifestyle and how I might want to write about it The working title is something like, ‘The coastline problem: how life gets bigger the more closely you measure it’. The actual coastline problem says that the smaller the denomination that you use to measure the circumference of something like a country, the bigger the measurement will be. I think there’s a metaphor there about leading an intentional life and making the important things matter in life. Not sure there’s enough there for book but along with all the stuff about digital nomads and outsiders, it could be quite interesting. If I ever get around to writing anything. My coastline map has 137 places that I’ve visited.

If you’re not paying, you’re the product

Businesses exist to make money. Software businesses make software that makes money, and given the limited number of revenue-generating business models there are, if it isn’t the users that are giving money to the business then it’s probably advertisers.

Thanks to Timothy Taylor, we can look back at the history of the phrase and the sentiment to 2010 when ‘If you are not paying for it, you’re not the customer; you’re the product being sold’ was posted on Metafilter, and further back to a 1973 video which made the same point about television.

So, what about charities? Does the same market-driven logic apply? Are the beneficiaries of charity’s services the product that gets ‘sold’ to funders who give the charity money to run the services? It might seem an uncomfortable idea, but the logic is the same as for social media sites or television channels getting money from advertisers. Somebody has to pay, and if it isn’t those receiving the service then it has to be funders and donors.

The difference, if there is one, might be in the nature of the relationship between the beneficiaries and the funder. For businesses paying for adverts on websites, the expectation is that they will be able to form a direct commercial relationship with the user of the site and turn them into a customer who gives them money. This isn’t the case with a funder and the beneficiaries of the charity work as the funder isn’t trying to form that direct relationship. They do however, get something in return. They get to demonstrate the positive impact of their funding choices, so there is a kind of value exchange from beneficiary to funder.

Weeknotes #271

Photo of the week:

This week I did:

Complicated solutions

It’s been a busy week at work preparing solution design documents ahead of development work starting soon. We have six documents in total, and three were approved by stakeholders this week. The solutions are pretty complicated so getting them to make sense and splitting them out into different documents for people that aren’t very familiar with the work was a bit of a challenge.

Outside of work I didn’t do very much this week as I’ve been ill.

And thought about:

Bring us problems, not solutions

My request to stakeholders; bring your teams problems and let them solve them, tell them what you want to achieve and let them achieve it. Bringing solutions, and even worse directions, results in incoherent products that lack focus on solving problems for a well-defined audience.

Ethics in systems design

My biggest lesson from system design is that you can’t blame people for doing the ‘wrong’ thing in a badly designed system that pushes them to that action. Which made me think about the ethics behind systems and ruled-based work processes. I think these have a deontological route which says ‘do the right actions even if it leads to the wrong results’. And, historically, that comes from western religious perspectives. Teleological ethics in the workplace would say ‘get the right result regardless of how’, which can be empowering with clear goals but can lead to toxic behaviours where goals conflict or are too individual (like sales people making unachievable promises to increase their bonus). Virtue-based ethics might say that if the workplace culture encourages the right character traits, then the right actions and right results will come from that. But it’s an uncertain and uncontrollable so is more often implicit than the other two types of ethics. Obviously, this isn’t about choosing one ethical system over another, but is about understanding that all of our ethics influence the systems we work in, and that when different people/teams use different ethical approaches conflict will arise. The ‘system’ is always bigger, wider and deeper that it ever seems, but you have to get into it if you want to design systems that work. And that includes the ethics that are implicit in the organisational culture and system design.

And read:

Is the great digital-nomad workforce actually coming?

The decoupling of opportunity from location continues. More people are finding more ways to live a ‘location-independent technology-enabled lifestyle‘. Of course, only a very small percentage of jobs can be done remotely, so the increase in digital nomads isn’t going to affect all industries and means that the question isn’t really about digital nomads but the change in the power relationship between firms and employers. It will be the greatest shift in the power relationship since the collective bargaining powers of Trade Unions and the labour law reforms of the eighties. Employers who realise that giving their workers more power over how, when and where the work gets done, that giving up control for engagement, will result in healthier people and better work.

Measure the Muttering…

I’m a big believer in paying attention to the quiet things and spotting patterns. The post about listening on social media for hints of ‘things being not quite right or early indicators of things going wrong’ is really interesting.

Apply the principle until the principle no longer applies

Everyone has principles. Designers have principles. Health services have principles. Principles are great. But they are usually written in calm comfortable situations far away from the realities of where they are enacted. When a principle no longer applies pragmatism should win out. If the principles have been applied consistently before then the spirit of it will continue to inform the pragmatic decisions that need to be made.

The Campaign For Better Information Architecture in Documents

Please apply some simple information architecture to document, presentations, diagrams, in fact any format that presents information to people.

Use a title, and headings in the correct order so that the most important sections use Heading 1, sections with that use Heading 2, and so on..

Use bullet points if you’re actually creating a list (lists are a way to group things that have something in common, they aren’t just presentational).

Link to other relevant documents to help people understand the history and context of the document.

And if you want to be really helpful, add meta information that tells people when the document was created and by who.

Your documents will be easier and quicker to understand because the information architecture of the document become a shared language that everyone ‘gets’ without having to figure it out for every document.

The number one rule of Product

Users will not use a product as intended.

Even if you think the product design is as simple and obvious as it can be, how a person fits the product into their workflow, why they use it, what they get out of it, will all be unique to them.

But that’s fine. We build products to solve problems for people. So it’s up to them how they use the products to solve their problems.

The ethics of building a Twitter audience

Ideas always start as ideals

Maybe it started here. Maybe it’s been around a long time. But Kevin Kelly popularised the idea of ‘a thousand true fans’ with his 2008 article. He speaks of ‘cultivating’ fans, of having a direct relationship with them, and of that being a full time job. He mentions micro or distributed patronage. There is an air of respect for these True Fans in how Kelly speaks about them.

And what have we become? In the creator economy of the 2020’s, building a Twitter audience is considered a foundational first step to making an independent living on the internet. If you don’t have anyone to sell to, how can you make any money? And there is no shortage of guides on how to grow your Twitter following from those who have made six-figure incomes.

A thousand true fans dedicated to your art has become a faceless audience of twenty thousand followers. And with scale comes negative externalities that are easy to miss or ignore.

The currency of the internet is attention. Attention has a cost for those giving it and a benefit for those receiving it. How much do those wanting to build a Twitter audience consider that cost?

Tactics vs ethics

How social media platforms drive their engagement metrics does not have to become the default behaviour for creators. Sending unsolicited and unwanted direct messages to new followers because that’s what the playbook says you should do to increase engagement doesn’t mean it’s the right thing to do. You don’t know them, or what they might be going through right now. If you’re messaging them because you only care about your agenda, and if you believe that them following you gives you implicit permission to message them, to go into their private space uninvited, then please reconsider your tactics in light of your ethics.

Not all audience building tactics are as ethical as they could be.

The rationale for building an audience in unethical ways is the same as it’s always been – rivalrous dynamics – “If I don’t do it, someone else will”. If that new follower likes someone else’s thread, signs-up to someone else’s newsletter, buys someone else’s online course, then they won’t buy mine. Scarcity mindset aside, if that’s what they choose to do then you should be able to respect their choice.

The concept of an ‘audience’ as yours, that you own, and somehow believe that you have permission to communicate with and monetise in whatever way you see fit, fails to recognise that the audience is made up of people. If you see ‘your audience’ in this way you might want to reconsider. And if you haven’t even thought about it, then you might want to consider doing that too.

It’s a difficult thing to do. In writing this, my understanding of who the reader will be is extremely limited. I don’t expect many creators to read it, in fact I don’t expect many people at all to read it. If any creators do read it, I hope it helps them to think about how to align their personal values (which I want to believe are mostly good) with the ways they approach building an audience on Twitter, and how they can choose to consider the people that make up that audience is a more respectful way.

Who benefits?

The use of social networks to signal status as a means of demonstrating expertise on the internet is an attempt to solve the information good problem. How does someone know that the ebook or online course is going to give them sufficient value for them to want to pay for it before they’ve read the ebook or taken the course? Doing the work to provide value to people creates that proof, builds reputation, but there isn’t a shortcut. At least, there isn’t an ethical shortcut.

Nowhere in all that I read about building a Twitter audience did any of the authors encourage their readers to think of their audience as made up of real people with real lives. There was talk of ‘your audience’, as if it is possible to own them in competition with others, and even of tweeting specifically with the intention of making people get upset (please don’t do this), but none of the advice said anything about the ethics at play.

I should be clear, I’m not saying that getting more followers on Twitter is a bad thing, but I am suggesting that not treating and respecting them as people, advancing your own agenda regardless of theirs, and adopting the attention-grabbing strategies of the social media platforms is likely to do more long-term harm for everyone than it does short-term good for you.

It doesn’t have to be that way. You don’t have to treat ‘your audience’ as a commodity. You’re better than that. You can find more ethical ways to engage with people and let them choose to become your ten thousand true fans.


My first NFT

Did you ever collect garbage pale kids cards when you were young? Non-fungible Tokens are like that but for the internet. You need an ethereum wallet and an opensea account but then you can collect NFTs.

The Cistercian Date Club was giving away the date of your choice, so I chose my birthday. A record was added to the blockchain and transferred to me. So now I ‘own’ my birthday and no one else can unless I transfer it to them.

Why would anyone want to collect their birthday, or any NFT for that matter? Well that’s an interesting question with an answer somewhere around the intersection of the emerging technology of blockchain, the human psychology of collecting things, and the economics of perceived uniqueness. Opinions vary. Some see this intersection as revolutionising how we record ownership. Others consider it akin to the dot com bubble with people getting excited about nothing. I guess it could be both.

Weeknotes #270

Photo of the week:

This week I did:

Going down

This week’s main focus was on getting a coordinated and cohesive view of the upcoming work from all the teams that will be working on it at a lower level of detail. We did it mostly asynchronously (obviously) and involved four teams; Design, Content, Web development an CRM development. It was great to see our understanding of things change and settle as we work through questions that people bring up. Writing stuff down and diagramming it out helps us think through our solutions and lets others help us see the gaps. It’s important for the next stage where the teams will work on certain aspects independently.

Humane technology

I started the Foundation for Humane Technology course and it’s given me so much to think about. I’m already considering the product decisions I’ve made at work in light of some of the things I’ve learned and it’s definitely given me a different perspective on the whole Twitter audience building thing.

September retro and October planning

As it’s the end of the moth I did my monthly retro to look back at how well I did in achieving the work I said I wanted to do at the start of the month. I also did some planning for October but feel like my lack of focus (see below) is preventing me from getting to a good plan about what I want to do in October, so I’ll come back to them soon.

I read/watched/listened this week to:

Uncertainty is closer to reality

In this video about why saying “I don’t know” is important for success, Annie Duke explains how false certainty leads to problems whereas embracing uncertainty is closer to reality as we don’t know what will happen in the future, and how we conflate false certainty and confidence in unhelpful ways.

A Problem Well-Stated Is Half-Solved

The podcast by the Center for Humane Technology talks about the meta-crisis of solving the problem with problem solving. That the way we solve short-term problems often leads to unintended externalities and this podcast does a great job of showing that we need a better way of understanding and solving problems.

Focusing on product outcomes will shift you to a product mindset

This post by Jeff Patton explains how technology development and product teams continue to have the majority of their focus on outcomes, and how difficult it is for teams to own the outcomes of the customer.

And thought about:

Out of focus

This week, and the last few weeks, I’ve been floundering a bit with my focus. I know it’s a reaction to finishing my masters, which I was very focused on over the last few months. I haven’t yet figured out what I want to spend my time and energy on so I’ve been bouncing around but trying to test out new projects and coming up with new ideas. I think this is because I struggle to connect those new ideas to my goals, so either I should use the goal as a means of deciding whether to pursue the idea or expand my goals.

The language of async

If badly run synchronous meetings are bad, then badly organised asynchronous communication will also be bad. Documents and diagrams need a standardised and agreed language to help everyone read them. Documents need information architecture. Diagrams need keys. The difference between diagrams and maps needs to be understood.

Next week I’m going to:

On the to do list

Get closer to finishing the solution design phase of a project I’ve been working. I don’t think it’ll be quite finished next week, but it should be very close.

Complete at least three modules from the Humane Technology course.

Figuring out which projects I should spend some time on.

Go for a run.