Charities need better digital technology for communicating with their service users

The Catalyst article ‘The top ten digital challenges facing the charity sector‘ showed how a number of charities were struggling with identifying and using the right platforms for communicating and providing digital services with their service users (number 2). Charities are facing this struggle because the products on the market are not designed to meet their needs. They need a different kind of digital communication technology, one that is built with privacy and security in mind that allows people from within the organisation to talk to people outside.

Charities delivering their services online need different types digital products and platforms to do so. They might need to implement an email service to send information to people, or social media tools to facilitate a shift in how they advocate for change, or as many charities are doing during times of social distancing, using communication technologies to support their service-users. Often the choice of technology is informed by what they currently have available and the cost, but it’s important to understand the different types products and what impacts the choices might have.

When we talk about digital communication technologies we mean synchronous methods such as video, audio and chat, and not asynchronous like email. There are three well established ‘product spaces’ for communication technologies.

  1. Products managed by an organisation used by its staff within an organisation.
  2. Products managed by organisations to communicate (one way) with people outside the organisation.
  3. Products managed by the third-party owners and used by people socially.

We could understand how they compare to each other by placing them in a grid which shows that products can be grouped by the type of users, whether they are consumer users or business users, and by usage, that is whether they are used within an organisation or out in public internet.

Matrix of product types
Communication products matrix

So, for example, digital communication technologies like Whatsapp are designed to be used by consumers on the public internet. Companies often add ‘business’ features to their products in an attempt to increase their market share but the product is usually still fundamentally designed as a consumer product for use on the public internet.

We’re seeing a need for products in a fourth space; that of communication products that allow people within an organisation to communicate with those outside the organisation in secure and private ways, but lets understand the other three a bit better first.

Products managed by a charity and used by its staff for communication within the organisation.

These kinds of products, such as Microsoft Teams, are typically manged by internal IT teams or third party agencies. They are designed from the point of view that security is established by the (digital) walls of the organisation and that it will only be used by people who work for the charity, who will all have managed user accounts.

Why charities might use this type of product

Products like MS Teams are built for collaborative working and are great for communicating between colleagues. They can be suitable for communicating with service-users in some cases, but it’s important to understand that they are built on the assumption that everyone using the product belongs to the same organisation and so should know who each other is. Because of this, these products are not built with the privacy of users in mind, which can cause problems if how they are used to communicate with service-users is not thought through clearly and carefully. MS Teams can allow external users to join video and audio calls without having access to the other features in Teams, which could be used for supporting individual service-users. And it allows guest users to be added, giving them access to more features and might be used to allow volunteers to work collaboratively with employees.

Of course, the other scenario where products like MS Teams would be used to do video calls with service-users is where there is no alternative product. In the real world, where a charity doesn’t have sufficient funds to procure an alternative tool, it is better to do something rather than nothing, and it is better to use a product that has a high degree of security than one that doesn’t.

When not to use this type of product

Products like MS Teams aren’t suitable for working with groups of service-users where privacy and safeguarding are concerns. This is because MS Teams reveals the identity of users by default, so any situation where groups of service-users interact in a digital space provided by the charity, they all become known to each other and, depending on the product settings, can contact each other without anyone from the charity knowing. Revealing personally identifiable information about a service-user to other people is a data breach, and putting vulnerable people in situations where they can be contacted by someone they don’t know could create safeguarding concerns.

Users can be made pseudo-anonymous by creating false accounts but this creates a potential information security risk for the organisation as they are then considered part of organisation (from the system point-of-view) and so could have access to documents that contain sensitive and private information, and further adds to the potential safeguarding concern as even though no individual knows the name of any other individual they can still have un-monitored contact with them.

A charity set on using MS Teams could go a step further by creating a separate instance of Teams for service-users and implementing monitoring tools and processes, but it isn’t a quick or easy solution and requires considerable expertise and investment.

Products managed by a charity to communication one-way with people outside the organisation.

A charity’s website is a good example of this type of product. It offers one way communication from the charity to it’s website visitors. There are still security concerns with websites, but as this type of product isn’t used for digital service delivery via video calls we don’t need to discuss it any further.

Products managed by the third-party owners and used by people socially.

This type of digital communication products are available on the public internet and are used by people for social means. Products like Whatsapp and Zoom typically prioiritise adoption and ease-of-use over security and privacy, which might be fine if you’re using it to chat with your mates (still questionable) but raises concerns for charities using the products to work with service-users.

Why charities might use this type of product

Charities might choose to use products like these if the people they work with are already using these apps, and importantly, they have judged that not using them to support people would be more detrimental to those people than the security and privacy risk that the tools present. This balancing of risks of one type against risks of another type is difficult so its important to have sufficient knowledge of both to inform making the decision.

When not to use this type of product

If these products don’t meet the needs of the service-users, then charities should think very carefully about using them because they are convenient for the charity. For people with limited access to the internet (perhaps because they use a pay-as-you-go mobile) video calls will use a lot of their available internet, so perhaps a phone call (which is far more secure) might be more appropriate. For people suffering domestic violence, being able to delete the record of the video call in the app might be really important for their safety. These things aren’t considerations for the companies like Zoom and Whatsapp, but they need to be very carefully considered by charities in choosing not to adopt a particular product.

Products managed by the organisation and used to communicate with those outside the organisation

Aside from dealing with the current needs in the best way possible, charities needing to deliver services using video has revealed a need for a different type of product, one that allows for the boundaries between the organisation and it’s service-users to be more permeable. It needs to consider privacy and security in design, understand different types of users and the ways they might interact, and that they have different needs in account management and privacy. It needs to be accessible, simple, easy to use. It needs to work in a browser, including mobile browsers, not require the users to download an app. It needs to meet so many use cases that the current tools that are available are just not designed to meet.

But until that product is built…

What alternatives are there to a technology that doesn’t exist yet?

Digital isn’t always the best solution. Using the telephone (which is more secure than video and audio calls over the internet), and sending letters/care packages to people can be simple cost-effective ways of staying touch, and talking to service-users.

Whether charities are using internal products (like MS Teams) or consumer products (such as Zoom) to deliver their services, the technology needs careful consideration. Understanding the security and privacy risks, the barriers to use, and how the technology changes the service being received (it’s never the same service, just delivered digitally), are all important considerations. Aside from the system side, people need to be trained in safe and effective use and how to respond if issues arise.

Its easy to see why choosing a digital communication technology is such a challenge for many charities.

Week Notes #202

This week I did:

Product configuration for online mentoring

We launched the MVP of the platform to enable online mentoring and deliver courses and workshops to young people so I defined the policy settings that control how four user types will behave, wrote six hundred test cases, wrote a user guide, and helped design the feedback loop for support and improvements. It was another fast-paced busy week with lots of individual pieces of the jigsaw being fitted into place and lots to hold in my head and make sure we understand the impact a change in one place affects all the connected parts. 

A non-service-designers guide to service design

I published my ‘work in progress’ collection of information, blogs, resources, books, podcasts, and people to follow about Service Design. My tweet about it received more attention than I was expecting, especially as it was late on Sunday evening, but I’m keen to add more to it and take it out of it’s ‘work in progress’ state to where it feels like a complete set of resources. Then I can leave it for a while to work on other sets of resources for things like user story mapping. Anyway, it’s number three on my list of writings to finish this weekend so I’ll see how far I get.

Charities need better technology

I’ve been working on a blog post about how a number of charities were struggling with identifying and using the right platforms for communicating and providing digital services with their service users from The Catalyst’s article ‘The top ten digital challenges facing the charity sector‘. I’m trying to make the point that the digital communication technologies that charities are using aren’t fit for purpose as they are designed either as enterprise tools for communicating between colleagues or consumer tools for communicating with friends and family, and that what charities need is a different type of product, one that is built privacy-first, has enterprise-level security, and enables people within an organisation to talk to people outside the organisation. Hopefully I’ll get it finished soon.

And I studied:

Digital collaborative platforms

This week’s lecture discussed the “crucial change brought by digital technologies in the way we collaborate in organisations and beyond. The topic discusses changes in the business environment, in which organisations become more collaborative. It explores some trends in digital collaborative platforms, using mainly the examples from social media, and building the arguments to expand the logic to proprietary tools such as Microsoft SharePoint and IBM Connections. Finally, the lecture discusses the economics and motivation of collaboration, drawing upon examples.”

It was a really interesting topic and one of the better lectures of the module, probably because I’m interested in collaborative platforms (Go MS Teams!) but especially for the parts about people’s motivations for using or not using these organisational knowledge management tools.

And thought about:

It hasn’t been a great week for thinking, too much stuff requiring immediate attention and not enough space to go deep, but…

Building in the open

Oikos Digital launched their new website, which is cool anyway, but is being built in the open, which is way cooler. I love the approach. I’d love to build a site entirely in the open that starts with a feedback tool and performance dashboard so that people can be involved in the entire build, from thoughts on the design and layout, co-creating content, testing on different devices and scenarios.

Solidarity and widening our ‘us’.

I’ve listened to a few podcasts on the multiple-order effects of the coronavirus pandemic, the structural racism in our society that is being highlighted and tackled by the Black Live Matter movement, utilitarianism and effective altruism’s approach to doing the most good. The theme I see running through all of them is ideas of solidarity (defined as: unity or agreement of feeling or action, especially among individuals with a common interest; mutual support within a group.). We humans tend to have solidarity with those we feel we have something in common. For some people, this commonality is narrowly defined (only men in a certain age group, of certain wealth, with certain education, etc., etc.) and for others it’s widely defined (the majority of people from a nation, a race, or even the entire species). The inequalities in our society come about from a clash of these solidarities. I think diversity of solidarities is probably a good thing, so the solution isn’t about saying everyone should have the same sense of solidarity, but instead if everyone widened the group of people they consider themselves to have commonalities with, widening the number and groups of people they consider to be ‘us’ rather than ‘them, then perhaps the exponential effects could tackle some of the inequalities and make for a fairer world.

And read tweets about:

Systems thinking in context of internet-era approaches to service design and delivery

Tom Loose more tweeted “Hunting an accessible* intro to systems thinking in context of internet-era approaches to service design and delivery.”

That’s one of those fascinating intersecting-worlds moments. 

One reply included a link to Design 4 Services for thoughts on system thinking in services,

“This dynamic complexity requires a new way of thinking. It is no longer enough to simply examine and act upon each part of a system in isolation.  It is necessary to examine how each part interacts with each other; and work on the system as a whole.” and a reply from Tom, “a good primer… Just need to inject the notion that internet-era agility & analysis let’s you speed up and improve quality of feedback loop”

Another reply had a link to the Systems Innovation’s YouTube Playlist, some of which I’ve watched before (they’re really good and I should watch more).

But still the question, how to apply system thinking to internet-era ways of working? How to create useful crossover between two sets of ideas, take parts of one and apply to another?

Week notes #201

This week I did:

Another whirlwind week

I worked quickly to take high level business requirements for online mentoring into detailed implementation requirements and onto a defined scope for the MVP. One of the things I found interesting about defining the MVP was to stick to what we are certain about. If we had any questions or doubts about a feature it was taken out of scope. It’s a good principle for being able to meet the launch date. Next week we’ll be working through configuration and testing so we can launch the week after. It feels great to be working at pace and focused on delivering something useful so quickly.

And I studied:

Disrupted by digitisation

This week’s lecture was about Digital Marketing. 

“Marketing is the management process responsible for identifying, anticipating and satisfying customer requirements profitably. Digital marketing is the process of achieving marketing objectives through applying digital technologies.”

Chartered Institute of Marketing

We broadly discussed tools & techniques, benefits, models and growth. Mostly obvious stuff, but interesting to think about how marketing has been at the forefront of the digitisation of business. 

And thought about:

Waking up in beautiful places

I have a few essays that I’ve been thinking about for a while, some of which I’ve started, and none of which I’ve finished. I want them to be more interesting than just reading what I think and so they’ll include videos, links, quotes, etc. to create a fuller and richer picture of the topic than if it was purely written. The one I’ve been working on this week is about designing an intentional life, art, stoicism, minimalism, being a bit of a hermit and living in a car.

Service design for non-service-designers

In addition to essays, I’ve also been thinking about ‘collections’ as a different way to group content about a particular thing, kind of following on from my Compendium Of Ideas project that never went anywhere. The first collection is about Service Design, because it’s something I’m interested in and have been doing a bit of research on. My collections will be single pages of multimedia (is that still a term?) content around a particular topic, so that could include tweets, videos, podcasts, a list of links, quotes, books, etc. The hypothesis is that people who don’t know about a topic need somewhere to start, and I need a means of putting my research together in a considered and reflective way.

Approaches to validation

I was looking around on Product Hunt, a website where product creators list products they are working on to get feedback from visitors. It’s always interesting to see the wide diversity of how different people approach the same problems (again and again, there are only a certain number of problems to solve) and the product process they go through. Three of the products I looked at seemed to be at different stages of validating their hypothesis. Better Wiki – The ultimate people operations wiki on the internet – are using Notion as a public site, perhaps to validate their product/market fit without having to develop a site (wiki’s a tough thing to get right in my opinion). Mental Models by Edvo – Tools to navigate life better – is an iPhone app only, so the website just directs visitors to download the app, and Tools for better thinking – Collection of thinking tools and frameworks to help you solve problems, make decisions and understand systems – have the most most polished website. There are all working on similar problems; how to present information in ways the drive behaviour change through thinking change, 

Product management in a non-product organisation

I feel like most of the information and rhetoric around being a product manager is underpinned by the assumption that all product managers work at product-orientated organisations. There is a big difference in how to approach product management when the product is core to the business and when the product is a tool used by a small section of the business to achieve a particular outcome. The idea that product managers should be ‘leaders’ (whatever that means) only works if the entire organisation values product enough to consider that leadership as key to success for the organisation. I guess design, innovation, etc. all suffer from the same problem. More traditional functions like marketing and finance have earned their place in the leadership circle, but the newer functions are yet to establish their value. I feel like the ‘what kind of organisation are we?’ question is a big part of this. If the core business model is service orientated, then trying to product-ised the thinking and discussions can unintentionally disrupt the business and cause negative consequences. If the goal of a product manager is to deliver value for the organisation then sometimes the strategic thing to do would be to let Product take a back seat in the organisation.

And people tweeted about:

Tuning out ‘Digital’

John Cutler tweeted about tuning out the word ‘digital’, which spurred me on to write my ‘In defence of digital’ post about why we can’t dismiss digital in our lives, organisations and society.

The Charity Digital Code of Practice

The COVID-19 digital checklist for charity trustees and leaders from the Charity Digital Code looks really interesting. It was developed from research done by The Catalyst. It’s also great to see more charities contributing to The Catalyst Service Recipes. I wonder if anyone is using any of these resources?

Top 100 Nonprofit Blogs

I tweeted a link to the Top 100 Nonprofit Blogs. The most noticeable thing is the lack of charities on the list. Obviously, many of the organisations on the list are using their blog as part of their content marketing for lead generation so it makes sense that they post more often. Compared to the amount of open working and transparency in government digital teams expressed through blogs, the charity sector seems very quiet. 

In defence of Digital; why it is and should be ‘a thing’

Every so often the ‘what is digital?’ question comes up on Twitter in one form or another. It always gets lots of reaction, mostly from people who work in the digital industry so the term carries all kinds of meanings, experiences and contexts, but the reaction often seems to be cynical and sceptical about the term. So here are my thoughts in defence of ‘digital’. 

Digital is just another fad

Phrases get used without any agreement about what they mean, and then the argument becomes about the definition rather than the thing itself. ‘Agile’, ‘Innovation’, and of course ‘Digital’ are all terms that suffer from a lack-of-definition problem. Of course, depending on your point of view, a lack of definition can also be a good thing because it creates space for discussion and different meanings in different contexts. ‘Digital’ in its all-encompassing meaning, is not a fad. It is here to stay, as a part of life and business for certain, and as a phrase that describes lots of different things in lots of different contexts.

Digital is about new technology but it’s more than just ICT. I heard a definition once that said IT is the internal technology function for a business and Digital is the external facing technology that is used by an organisation’s customers to interact with them. There are a couple of interesting points there; the internal/external view of who the technology is being provided for and how they will use it, and that interaction is a key point for digital technologies. Working in an organisation you wouldn’t be surprised to use one system to access documents and a different system to submit your expenses, but if you were a customer using an app you’d expect to be able to manage your profile, process payments, and do whatever the app is designed do all within the same product. The expectations of internal and external are different. Digital technologies provide a fast and convenient interface between the organisation and the customer that isn’t constrained by the characteristics of physical interactions such as location and time availability.

Digital is just a channel. If your organisation markets itself using print, TV, and Google Adwords then seeing digital as just another marketing channel makes sense. Until you expand your view. As TV advertising became a mature industry people began to appreciate how it could influence the behaviour of the masses to propagate the idea of a dominant identity and that everyone should be trying to achieve that ideal through consumerism. As digital marketing is maturing it’s important that we understand how the speed and scale of misinformation campaigns, deep fakes, etc., can influence political outcomes. Digital isn’t just a channel, in the neutral ‘same as any other channel’ sense because of its power to influence so many people in such subtle ways so quickly. 

Digital is a behaviour. Just like the ‘mobile isn’t a device, it’s a behaviour’ mantra when smartphones were the new big thing, ‘digital’ is even more so a behaviour. Digital behaviours occur in how we socialise, shop, bank, entertain ourselves, etc., etc. They are so ingrained in the goings-on of so many people that it’s easy to forget that this behaviour is significantly different from non-digital behaviour. Payment is a good example. If you pay with cash, that’s the end of your involvement in that transaction. If you pay with a credit card, the merchant device checks your card has the contactless chip, takes your card identity token, sends it and the payment amount to the acquirer service, who contact your bank to check the card is allowed to be used, tells you the payment is taken, then overnight the transaction is submitted to a bank to bank transfer, along with fraud checks and recording information against your credit history, etc., etc. The data generated at every step is part of your digital identity and you don’t even see it or know how it is used.

Part of the realisation that digital is a behaviour also needs to permeate organisational thinking in how it invests in knowledge assets and when it expects return on those investments. It requires a shift away from the physical asset investment mindset that sees a large up-front investment produce diminishing returns over time to an intellectual asset investment mindset that sees an ongoing investment produce increasing returns over a longer time period. 

Digital isn’t just a fad, and it isn’t going away any time soon.

Digital is part of every thing an organisation does and so it shouldn’t be in job titles.

The argument that team names and job titles shouldn’t include the word ‘digital’ often comes from those who have been working digitally for some time and so recognise that for their context it doesn’t make sense. Marketing teams shouldn’t be called Digital Marketing because digital is just another channel. Product Managers shouldn’t be called Digital Product Managers because the digital interface is just one part of what they do. 

Sometimes, using the word helps others understand the difference. Digital marketing works differently to traditional print advertising. Products that are accessed over the internet require different delivery mechanisms, pricing models, etc., from a physical product. If the skills and knowledge required to make digital successful in an organisation are downplayed by not being mentioned (and team names and job titles are a really blatant place to do this) it could have the effect of slowing digital adoption rather than making it part of business as usual. Digital requires a different way of thinking so if it is consumed into business as usual the difference can be lost. Visibility is a big thing in organisations. If something is important enough it’ll be made visible. And conversely, things that aren’t made visible are considered not important. 

Digital is a part of everyone’s job, but if part of the job is make the organisation more digital then explicitly and visibility help.

Digital transformation is just another IT project 

If you’ve been involved in an organisation that has undertaken a Digital Transformation project then you’re probably as jaded about it as everyone else. 

Digital isn’t the problem. Transformation isn’t the problem. The problem is organisations convincing themselves that it’s an eighteen month project that can be updated to complete when everyone has a laptop, the marketing team have hired someone with AdsWords experience, and the IT team has rolled out Office 365. 

The reality, which doesn’t look so good in presentations to the board, is that the digital transformation of any organisation is going to take decades. Every business in your supply chain is going through a digital transformation, every industry and every market is going through a digital transformation, society is going through a digital transformation, every aspect of life is going through digital transformation. No surprise then that organisations that think it’s a quick project become very disappointed and don’t see the expected short term returns. 

Digital transformation will require no less than an entirely new worldview. This new worldview will involve understanding how the internet has changed everything about our world, from how networks create exponential growth and unpredictable effects, to how we no longer think of human beings as separate biological individuals, to how software is becoming the dominant species on the planet and increasingly more complex than the human brain can grasp. 

And digital transformation will require no less than entirely new business models to be built on top of this new worldview. These new business models will involve speed and scale our current businesses can’t even imagine, will utilise automation to the extent where entire industries are made up of software-as-a-business organisations providing services for other businesses that are just software, and, to ensure we aren’t painting a too utopian picture of the future, will drive further inequalities in society as although the entire human race experiences improved quality of life from the digital transformation of business and the world, the gap between the rich and the poor will get wider.

Digital transformation is essential for every organisation to survive in the 21st century. There are no other options. 

Week notes #200

I did some stuff this week:

Deliverables and requirements: which leads to which?

Should requirements be identified first and then used to define deliverables, or should the deliverables be agreed first and then the requirements defined to meet them? In the case of the things I’ve been working on this week, the deliverables came from the needs of the organisation to be able to work digitally with young people and the requirements came out of the technical capabilities of the products we have available to meet those needs. With neither of those two things negotiable the exploring of options in between has become even more important.


I’ve been getting into the details of solution architecting Microsoft products to understand how we can use them to enable volunteers to work digitally with young people. As Microsoft products are designed for use behind the walls of an organisation, are all interconnected in some non-obvious ways and don’t handle external users very well, it’s been an interesting exploration. One of the things I figured out is how to use Outlook to schedule Teams meetings for external users that meet our safeguarding, security and privacy needs, which I’m actually quite proud of (small things). When I’ve been writing requirements I’ve always given anything to do with safeguarding, security and privacy the highest priority and said that if we can’t meet these requirements there is no point even going on to functional requirements.

Feedback loops

As we prepare to roll out products to enable young people to get more and better support, we’re always working on training for those products, and whilst on a call with some colleagues I heard the phrase ‘feedback loops’. A big grin sprung across my face. I was so happy to hear someone else talking about modern ideas for how to build things. There was recognition that we have to make use of feedback loops from pilot users and early adopters to tell us what to include in the training to other users. Asking the people who are going to be trained doesn’t work because they don’t know what they don’t know or will need to know. Asking the product experts doesn’t work because they don’t know how the products will be used, only what they can do. But getting a small group of people to experiment with using the products and feeding back their learnings for others, that works.

And I studied some stuff:

How much is it?

This week’s lecture was about pricing strategies. We discussed lots of different ways a business can approach pricing the products and services they are selling (freemium, versioning, two-tier, etc.) but interesting nothing about how to choose the right pricing strategy. Since pricing is really just a proxy for the value exchange mechanisms between an organisation and a customer, thinking about how that exchange happens is really important and probably not thought about enough. If your business has something someone wants and they value what that gives them (do they really want a spade) more than they value the money it costs, then market factors such as availability, competition, etc., aside, both parties make the simple exchange. 

For charities the value exchange mechanisms are far more complex. A charity offers something that certain people in certain situations value. Often, because of the situation they are in that causes them to value what the charity is offering they aren’t able to purchase that help, either directly from the charity or to find another solution, so the charity provides help at no cost to the person benefiting from it. But that service still has a cost. It has to be paid for somehow, and so the charity raises funds from donors, funding bodies, corporate partnerships, etc. Those that fund the charity don’t receive any direct benefit but they do get some secondary value from feeling good about their contribution. So here is a three way value exchange with more layers of value than a simple commercial transaction. Thinking of it in both those ways, the number of players in the value exchange and the levels of value those players receive would make an interesting mapping exercise.

And I thought about some things:

The Digital Charity

I started working on a long-form essay about what being a digital charity means and why it’s important. It covers how the internet and digital technologies have changed the way society thinks and are being weaponised to increase the inequalities in the world, so if charities are going to be capable of tackling these issues they will need to drastically change their approach to digital from thinking of it as a channel for marketing and being able to work from home to utilising concepts about how networks produce exponential change at a global scale, how people can no longer be thought of a simple biological individuals but are now complex socio-technical assemblages, and how unpredictable and often weird things arise out of the complex interactions in this new world.

Not enough whitelabeling

I see the current product landscape as falling into three main camps. They are enterprise products, for use within the walls of an organisation and generally don’t cross the boundary into the customer’s space, e.g. Microsoft. There are consumer products, such as Spotify, which are paid for and used by individuals. And then there are those products which are B2B products but are used by individual consumers, things like Magento and WordPress which are used to build websites that essentially become an interface between the organisation and their customers but are built by a third-party business. If an organisation wants to develop a product for their customers they pretty much have to build it. They might buy in services like identity management and payments but the functionality of the product will be developed, even though their product probably does the same thing as lots of other products. So, why it’s there more white label products available to businesses that they buy rather than build?

The no-code products like Bubble are edging this way but they are still more website-focused and aren’t at the enterprise-ready level yet. So, I predict a growing trend towards drag-and-drop product builders over the next few years that will enable businesses of all sizes to quickly buy in a product that enables them to build the product that meets their customers needs and is branded for them.

Looking at levels

I’m a big believer in loosely-coupled ecosystems of products that together meet the needs of the organisation to deliver support for young people, and give the organisation greater flexibility and adaptability because one part of the ecosystem can be replaced without disrupting the whole. But I’ve also been thinking about taking this approach to the capabilities level. So, for example we need a means of matching young people to mentors. On the product level we can buy in a mentoring platform that will meet that need. But on a capabilities level what we really need is a means of ‘matching’ different things. We want to match young people to mentors, young people to programmes, delivery partners to courses, etc., etc. I’ve thought a bit before about the logic behind how we match but the idea here of building a capability rather than buying a product (which clearly is different on two levels) is that it can serve a deeper need. With things the way they are at the moment, buying in products to meet specific needs is definitely the right approach, but I wonder where the threshold is for deciding the right problem to solve and right approach to solve it.

Updating my OKR’s

I’ve been updating my OKR’s to align with the shift in my life. So, out goes being a mental health carer and things that rely on me being in the same place regularly and in comes things about a more minimalist, digital, nomadic, hermit lifestyle. The three objectives of leading an intentional life, having an effective education, and having an impactful career in the charity sector persist but how I intend to achieve those objectives will change, which is kind of the point of OKRs.

And some people I follow tweeted:

Building a business on someone else’s land

Two of the people I follow, David Perell and Daniel Vassallo tweeted about building their business on Twitter. It’s interesting to me because it brings up the question of how much a business should control its supply chain. Paraphrasing Teece, the more of its supply chain a business controls the less risk it carries and generally the greater margins it can achieve. But in the modern internet world, is being on someone else’s land just part of the new business ecosystem, with the aim of getting email addresses so you can be in touch with your customers directly. In my weeknotes from last week I mentioned a renewed interest in email newsletters and some trends for email.

Prove it

Steve MacLaughlin tweeted, “The enemy of innovation is the mandate to ‘prove it.’ You cannot prove a new idea in advance by inductive or deductive reasoning.” A quote from Roger L. Martin. I can’t help but think that innovation’s association with failure hasn’t done it any favours. An entire business can be started speculatively without the need to prove future success, but as soon as it’s called an innovation its viewed with this ‘prove it’ mindset.

Stress and soaring thoughts

I know how it feels to be stressed. My thinking slows down. It gets heavy and sluggish, like each chain of thoughts drags dead weight with it.

When I’m not stressed my thinking soars. My thoughts become fast and light, they float and bump into each other merging into new ideas. When my thinking is like this I come up with ideas like, my weeknotes stretch into two thousand words or more because I have so many ideas to get out, and I write essays for my masters with fluid ease.

I’ve been aware of stress’ effect on my thinking for some time but never really gave it much thought. And then, on a day when my thinking wasn’t stressed and ideas were colliding, I listened to a What Comes Next podcast about AI for good, featuring an interview with MyCognition, a “digital platform that enhances cognitive fitness through a structured programme of insights, assessment and training”.

They mentioned case studies from schools using their platform to help children with special educational needs learn to self-manage their behaviour, and research that shows “poor cognitive functioning increases the risk of poor mental health and increasing evidence shows that cognitive issues are predictors and risk factors for mental illness” My interest was piqued. I wanted to know more about cognition. LMGTFY

“Cognition is defined as ‘the mental action or process of acquiring knowledge and understanding through thought, experience, and the senses.’ At Cambridge Cognition we look at it as the mental processes relating to the input and storage of information and how that information is then used to guide your behavior. It is in essence, the ability to perceive and react, process and understand, store and retrieve information, make decisions and produce appropriate responses.”

Cambridge Cognition

How our brains take information from our senses and experiences, and process it, affects how we react, understand and behave. That makes sense to me. It fits my conjecture that mental illness and ill-health is a result of traumatic events ‘rewiring’ the pathways in our brains and manifesting as stress, anxiety, depression, etc.

So, if mental ill-health can exhibit as poor cognising, could the reverse be true? Could getting our brains thinking in a particular way help to relieve anxiety and stress? When I’m stressed and I go for a walk with my notebook, pick a topic to research, google things, make notes, explore ideas, I feel less stressed. When I go for a walk and take my stress with me I don’t get to my thought-soaring state. Maybe having something to focus my thoughts on, and get a particular kind of mental process happening, allows for cognising in a way that results in positive feelings for me. 

Maybe this is why some people enjoy sudoku puzzles and crosswords, because engaging in something that makes our brains cognise in structured, logical, focused ways means we aren’t using the pathways in our brains that allow chaotic, fight-or-flight stress-inducing cognising to occur.

Week notes #199

This week I did some stuff…

Online mentoring

I’ve been working how we can use Microsoft Teams to facilitate online mentoring. Fundamentally, Teams is built as an enterprise collaboration platform with certain assumptions built-in, things such as everyone in the organisation knowing who each other is, which don’t always meet the needs of mentoring where safeguarding and privacy is really important. Our challenge is that Teams is the tool we have, and we won’t let not having the right tool stop us from enabling mentors to support young people, so we have to find ways to make it work. 

One of the things I like about my role is that I get to do a lot of zooming-in and zooming-out, so I move my thinking from almost philosophical ponderings about the value young people get from one-to-one mentoring to the technical details of how Teams handles permissions for certain types of users, and the organisational stance on safeguarding and the volunteers experience of using Teams in between. I think finding the best solution to a problem comes from being able to hold all those different and sometimes conflicting perspectives and figuring out which parts trade-off against which other parts. 

Teachers using Teams

Microsoft wants to get Teams into 27,000 schools across the UK. Lots of people don’t like MS Teams, and it certainly has its product peculiarities, especially if you are used to ‘one-product-one-function’ approach like using Slack for messaging, but Teams is a far more complex product, and I wonder if the hate comes from not taking the time to learn how it works and how to use it. I’m sure this is something all those teachers will go through as more schools introduce Teams.

If the schools had good IT people to teach the teachers, or if Microsoft provided really good onboarding, then Teams would make a huge impact on digitising schools, but I worry that it’ll come up against the same old problem of expecting the tech to solve/change everything and not do enough for the people using the tech. When Teams is used as part of an ecosystem with other MS products it could take a huge chunk of what schools do onto the internet. Teams and Sharepoint could be a far more effective intranet than lots of companies have. Timetables could be managed in Shifts. All school work could be done within documents in Teams, allowing teachers to provide fast feedback and students to iterate on their work. Lessons delivered via video could be recorded so that students can watch them again later if they missed anything or was absent. Chat between students and teachers would be secure and monitored for safeguarding issues. There are so many benefits schools could get from Teams and I can see a future of education where location is irrelevant and rather than attending a school because they live near it, students will attend ‘the school’ because it will be the one and only online education platform.

Anyway, back to real life. We’re using Sharepoint to build a content repository for teachers working with young people outside of mainstream education. Sharepoint can be used to produce some quite interesting public facing websites, but the question of whether Teams is the right frontend is an interesting one. On one hand, if teachers are using Teams in their school then they will be familiar with how it works and can switch accounts to access our content easily. One the other hand, it doesn’t look like a marketable product and something that will encourage adoption, especially if teachers have had a bad experience with their Teams. So, as with so many product decisions, deciding what to make trade-offs between is part of the challenge.


I’ve become a bit obsessed with cookies (the website tracking files, not the confectionery) and how websites handle them. GDPR and the ICO say users should be given the choice about whether to accept non-essential cookies (those used for analytics, advertising, etc.) but the vast majority of websites don’t do this. I think it’s an interesting moral choice; should you respect your visitors enough to not track them without their permission, or as you own the website should you be able to implement things that work for your business objectives? 

It makes me think back to my old ‘hierarchy of compliance’ that says comply with laws first, e.g. GDPR, then industry specific regulations e.g. PCI-DSS, then your organisation’s policies, e.g. security, then your organisation’s procedures and practices. Should morals be first and above laws, or does it belong alongside every layer?

Browsers don’t differentiate between essential and non-essential cookies. If you block them all, some stuff on the site won’t work, and then you have to allow all cookies again. Browser controls are too blunt a tool. When Chrome shows that cookies are blocked on a page it uses a red square with an X in it, the universal sign for something bad or wrong. Interesting, but not surprising that Chrome tries to signal to us that blocking cookies is bad given Google advertising business model. 

But the Cookiepocalypse is coming. Before too long cookies won’t be a means of tracking users on a website. Some browsers block third-party cookies by default already. And Google looks like it’ll follow suit in time, but probably not before they’ve introduced a means to track users without cookies and so lock-in websites to using Google Analytics.

There’s so much to those little cookies, if I get time I’d like to write up all the stuff I’ve learned.

User Guides

I wrote some more for my Whiteboard product user guide, and tested how formatting in Google Docs renders as an ePub file. I’m keen to make my little shop of user guides the next project I put my time into after I’ve finished this term for my masters.

I’ve also started thinking about how this might evolve into online courses for using products more effectively, and how a course could be delivered by email, perhaps with a button in the email that triggers the next part of the course so that learners can control their own pace.

And studied some stuff…

Reinforcing business design decisions

An effective business model is made up of “business design choices that reinforce one another” (Osterwalder, 2005). This week’s lecture was about business models. Something that lots of people talk about and very few can explain. I like Osterwalder’s definition. It helps us understand that a business model isn’t a finished, discrete thing that exists ‘over there’, but actually is made up of lots of choices that in order to be successful need to reinforce each other. Lots of organisations, that probably don’t do enough business model thinking, seem to make choices that have them competing internally or one department requiring a level of support from another department that they don’t have the skills or people to do. A business with a good business model makes choices that makes the parts work together.

There are no rational agents

I listened to the recording of last week’s lecture about the nature of digital goods. It was about the nature of different types of goods and how defining them along the lines of excludability and rivalrousness leads to four types of goods: Private, which are things that a person can own and so prevent another from using and can only be used by one person at a time, e.g. a car, Public, such as street lighting which anyone can use and using it doesn’t stop anyone else from using it, Common-pool resources, which anyone can use but if they are that prevents anyone else from using them, and Club goods, like television which requires particular access and you watching a show doesn’t prevent anyone else from also watching it. It’s a bit of a revelation to me to think about the model for providing a product or service being driven at the micro level from the nature of the goods themselves and not from the marco level of whether the government or the commercial sector should provide it. Internet access (see Cassie’s tweet below) is an interesting example of this. Currently my access to the internet is somewhere between a private good and a club good, because I can prevent anyone else from using it, and has some technical limitations on how many people can all use it at the same time. To shift internet access to being a public good would require tackling the technical limitations that then mean everyone could access the internet and no one accessing it prevents anyone else from accessing.

As lectures this term have been digital, starting as video meetings with the lecturer presenting the slides and moving to recorded lectures for pre-watching and then group exercises and discussions over video calls, it has made me consider the format of lectures as a means of providing information. I got a lot more out of listening to the recording of the lecture and listening live, perhaps because the lecturer was more focused. Lectures often seem to have tensions between providing information because it’s part of the curriculum, providing some context and real-life examples to aid with learning, but not biasing the content. I have to sometimes remind myself not to get lost in exploring ideas.

The economics says that Public Goods shouldn’t work because a rational agent should free ride as they get all the benefits without any of the costs, but people aren’t rational agents they are social creatures which is why we have Public Goods paid for indirectly through taxes.

Bigger and better

Worked on my analysis of Shopify’s business model, digital product offering and pricing strategy. Shopify announced its partnership with Facebook and their stock price jumped up. I saw a tweet that said investing in Shopify after their IPO would have given you better returns than investing when they were at Series A funding, which is usually not the way those things work, and perhaps shows . Anyway, it’s been interesting to work on something that feels so ‘now’ but still uses economic thinking from the seventies.

And thought about a few things…

The business of charity 

Over the years there have been a few occurrences of business people thinking they can apply business thinking and techniques to make charities work more efficiently. It never works because charities are obviously different to businesses in lots of ways. Having been thinking about the nature of economic goods I wondered whether part of the reason for this misunderstanding is that the nature of the services charities provide are excludable and rival, like many commercial services. Being excludable means the services provided by a charity aren’t available equally to everyone, and being rivalrous means that if the service is already being used by someone it can’t be used by anyone else.

In contrast, a service that is non-excludable and non-rivalrous (the classic examples are lighthouses and streetlights) can be used openly by anyone regardless of whether anyone else is also using it. So I started thinking about how charity services could be public goods. The closest example I could think of was Citizens Advice, whose services are available to anyone via their website. They came from, and still have a rivalrous & excludable aspect in the face-to-face advice sessions that they provide, and I’m not suggesting that any charity should get rid of the face-to-face work they do if its meeting a need, but most service delivery charities haven’t figured how to make the shift, and arguably because most charities tackle issues that affect a small segment of society, but it’s interesting to think about the thinking of how they would scale services as public goods if they need to.

New news

I’ve got into email newsletters lately. Email, and so email newsletters seem to be making a come back. The idea that web messaging was going to kill email didn’t happen, instead email evolved, and I think for the better. I’ve mentioned before the trend of emails becoming more like an editable document that passes between people, so that’s one trend of improvement. The other trend is in improving how people use email, something is working on solving. And then the third trend is in the quality of content that utilises email’s unique features. Emails aren’t limited in size like a tweet, and can either contain all the content for the reader or links to more content. They can be read at a time that suits you and are easier to find later if you want to go back to something interesting.

Email newsletters are also a great means of building an audience as even if you took a no-tracking approach you’d still know how many people are sign-up to receive your newsletter. If email could solve the problem of being able to select which content you want to read before you get it (usually informational products problem) then I would definitely rather have the ‘our content/thoughts/opinions sent to me’ approach rather than ‘we put our content on our website and expect you to find it if you search hard enough. Also, an idea for a product, imagine getting search results by email rather than websites. Describe in greater detail what you are actually looking for and get a high-quality curated list of links emailed to you for you to read at any time. That’s pretty much how I search for things, it’s just that I do the work of copy-and-pasting into my notes.

And some people tweeted…

Internet for everyone 

Cassie Robinson tweeted, “Digital infrastructure should be considered a vital 21st century public good “We need to build a digital landscape that provides world-class connection to all, is sustainable, privacy-enhancing, rights-preserving, innovative & democratic by design.” Having studied public, private & club goods, and common-pool resources, it makes sense to me that access to the internet should be a public good (in the economic sense) that is available to everyone. If Raymond Coase was right when he wrote The Lighthouse Economics then existing purely for the good of society is enough of a justification for making a good public, and it would be hard to argue that internet access isn’t good for everyone. 

Limiting meetings in progress 

Woody Zull tweeted “Heuristic: If you spend “too much time in meetings”, it is likely that you have too much work in process. Limit WIP for a week and see how it affects your meeting time. Adjust accordingly.” ~@duarte_vasco

One of the replies to the tweet was about how many problems vanish when work in progress is reduced. I think this is because it reduces complexity across the whole system of work rather than just allowing individuals to focus more.

Fluid office 

The Verge tweetedMicrosoft’s new Fluid Office document is Google Docs on steroids”. Microsoft is getting into blocks in a similar way to tools like Notion, where a document (if there will even be such a discrete object in the future of work tools) is made up of lots of blocks from different sources that pull content and functionality into the ‘document’ you are working on. 

I think it’s another step in the journey of information moving from being centralied to be decentralised and distributed in an internet-y way, and the next step will be in how content is made discoverable to pull into a document, so the author doesn’t have to write original content that becomes locked into the document if someone else has already written it or the data is already available. Rather than having to go and find last year’s sales data and create a chart to then create an image to be embedded in the document, you would import the live data into the document and the chart would be up-to-date in real time.

Being a mental health carer

For the past six and half years I’ve been a carer for a family member who has serious mental illnesses. And this is the first time I’ve blogged about it. There are lots of reasons why I’ve never written about it before. It seems unfair to write about my tough times when her’s are so much worse. I never knew how to separate what she was going through from my experience, and it doesn’t seem fair to tell her story, that’s for her to do. But over the past few weeks I’ve become more aware of my feelings about my experiences, and since it’s Mental Health Awareness Week I thought I’d try to put some of those thoughts in writing.

Being a carer is isolating. I’ve never met or even talked to anyone else who cares for someone with mental illness, and I’ve never been able to talk about my experiences. I wonder about how other carers cope, what they have to go through, whether I could ever help them.

Being a carer is inspiring. I’ve seen someone who has experienced the most devastating of life events and the effects of a life-defining, self-destructive, crippling illness and yet never give up. With every victory over a fear she shows me what being brave really means, and with every step she takes towards a better life she shows me what being strong really looks like.

Being a carer is physically and emotionally draining. Nights without sleep, days without eating, hours of holding her in restraints, even more hours of standing between her and the negative consequences of her actions, dealing with police, ambulance, doctors. No breaks, no days off, no holidays. All of it takes its toll. I feel it in the ache of my back and in the heavy slowness of my thoughts.

Being a carer is defining. It made me question the kind of person I want to be and helped me figure out what is truly important to me. When I hear people talk about TV programmes they’ve watched I’m glad I don’t have time for such mundanities. When I see people getting worked up about stuff that doesn’t even affect them I’m glad my stresses are the result of having a positive impact on someone else’s life.

Being a carer comes with lots of responsibilities. Last week was a tough week. Looking back on it I can see how one decision in particular that I made turned out ok. If I had made a different decision the repercussions would have been life threatening. That’s a huge burden to bear, and one that I bear alone because of the isolation.

Being a carer is an adventure. There are so many things I’ve done, places I’ve been and experiences I’ve had (good and bad) that I would never have had if I wasn’t a carer. I’ve never been one to settle for an ordinary life but being a carer took that to an entirely new level.

Being a carer is unappreciated. I never expected any gratitude for being a carer, but I also never expected the negativity, criticism and suspicion about my motives. I guess that’s just people being people and it doesn’t bother me anywhere near as much as it perplexes me.

Being a carer is awesome. Although no one will ever see the work I’ve done or know the things I’ve achieved, I feel like her life is my masterpiece. That probably sounds weird, and I struggle to find the words to communicate what I mean, but when I look back over the last six and a half years I know there is nothing I would have rather done with my life.

There have been lots of tough times, more tough times than easy, and I’m sure more to come. I get through the tough times by being tougher, because it’s the only way I know how. I feel lucky to have been prepared for all of this by my own life experiences, training from jobs I’ve had, and a stoic personality that doesn’t like to quit. Is my approach healthy? Probably not, but I feel a certain amount of self-sacrifice is called for in order to achieve something more important. I feel privileged to affect a life so profoundly.