It’s 10 years since Woolworths closed down. I worked there at the time. To this day, the whole experience is among the most surreal of my life.
At the time, I wrote a lengthy series of blog posts detailing my own story of the goings-on around the failure of one of Britain’s most iconic businesses.
Being on the shop floor while a British institution collapsed around me taught me a bit about business. But it taught me a lot about people. Enjoy this look back.
(These used to be linked to each other using a WordPress plugin, but these were lost during a migration — so here they all are.)
- Woolworths: The curiously British US-based company
- Woolworths as it was known and loved, and neglected
- Woolworths: Childhood memories and adult gripes
- It wasn’t just the credit crunch
- The blunder of Woolworths
- Identity crisis
- The beginning of the end
- The nasty side of human nature
- Woolworths: Final thoughts and wrapping up
For more on Woolworths 10 years on from its collapse, check out Graham Soult’s excellent report.
I’m always in two minds about whether people should use work-based techniques on personal problems. I have heard of people using Trello boards at home to organise tasks, which sounds as nightmarish as it sounds sensible. I’ve even heard of people running scrum-style weekly planning meetings with their family, which definitely sounds overboard to me.
But I do like the look of some of the ideas here. For instance, I’m keen to map out out my life in weeks.
And I already know that affinity mapping can work great at home and for other stuff.
When we did the MoRun in November, Lauren and I made an affinity map to decide which of two runs to enter. My gut feeling told me another run would be better. But writing down all the pros and cons of each race, and grouping them, made it clear that my gut feeling was actually wide of the mark.
McKinsey report on how to engage employees.
People who find meaning at work are happier, more productive, and more engaged. Four practical interventions can help make the search more likely to succeed.
I am struck by how two of the four interventions listed are fundamentally about understanding your users better.
Talk with employees about who their customers are, and encourage each employee to connect with one.
Build regular, face-to-face interactions with customers into existing processes, stimulating employees to learn who is most affected by their work.
Help people grasp the impact of their work
Invite customers who have had the best—and worst—experiences with your products to talk with employees in person so your team can see how their work affects customers.
Another reason why user experience is worth it.
I don’t work from home, but I still enjoyed this piece on little rituals that help you separate work time from personal time.
I’m glad of my 30 minute buffer between home and work. As I’ve said before, I wouldn’t reduce it. The walk helps me ease my way into the day, and gives me the headspace to prepare for what’s to come, or — if it’s the end of my day — what’s just happened.
Gerry McGovern tells the story of trying to persuade a digital team of what they needed to fix.
“It would be nice to fix these problems,” one person said. “But the team needs also to be able to do exciting things. We need to be able to innovate.”
Unfortunately, people at work often place too much emphasis on their own enjoyment. But our work only has meaning if it is providing value to someone.
Work shouldn’t be exciting. There’s a job to do.
New research suggests that open plan offices hinder collaboration rather than help it.
Previous studies of open plan offices have shown that they make people less productive, but most of those studies gave lip service to the notion that open plan offices would increase collaboration, thereby offsetting the damage.
The Harvard study, by contrast, undercuts the entire premise that justifies the fad. And that leaves companies with only one justification for moving to an open plan office: less floor space, and therefore a lower rent.
My current office is my first open plan one. I am still ambivalent about the benefits or otherwise of open plan. The shift may have contributed to my feeling that I had lost my mojo.
I definitely make heavy use of chat and messaging to communicate with people a couple of desks away. That might not necessarily be a bad thing. But I do miss the gently assertive act of simply walking into someone’s office to get their attention. It all seems a bit more difficult to do that in an open plan office.
Sometimes you go to conferences or meetups and they feel like a bit of a chore. You end up listening to a lot of PR spin from people who only want to share the best good news they’ve got. They’re usually under pressure to show their best side, and to sell their own success. We get why that happens, but it can be a dull experience if you’re in the audience.
This point from Giles Turnbull at Public Digital chimes with something that has been on my mind a bit recently.
People often talk about “failing fast” or being “unafraid to fail”. But those same people are often suspiciously unwilling to speak about their failures.
In a way that is understandable. But it would be good to hear more people genuinely opening up about the things that have gone wrong. Don’t just constantly trumpet the things that are going great (or the things that aren’t going great, but you say they are). If it’s true that you learn from failure, help others by sharing that — as well as your success stories.
The University of Edinburgh Website and Communications team has recently been heavily involved in a pilot project to improve the journey of prospective online learning students, from investigation to offer. Read about our user research approach and how we ensured project outputs met the needs of users.
Some more follow-up to the UX Scotland conference, which I have published over on the University of Edinburgh Website Programme blog.
I set myself the challenge of writing a summary of each session I attended at UX Scotland, as a way of forming my own thoughts on each topic, and to make sure to follow up on everything I wanted to.
This resulting blog post is long. But I am sharing this on the basis that others might find it useful and seek to learn more about these topics, as I did.
The modern organisation is obsessive about collaboration and consultation – but encouraging everyone’s opinions on everything invites bullshit.
Social media should have taught us by now that more opinions aren’t necessarily better…
The same applies to work. More consultation = more bullshit.
This is so true. Increasingly, I find myself feeling exasperated if I’m asked the provide an opinion on something I have no evidence about. We are often pressurised into giving opinions — “you’re supposed to be the expert”.
Baseless opinions fly around left, right and centre in any workplace. The last thing the world needs is another middle class dude like me with yet another opinion.
Let’s find the evidence instead.
My colleagues and I have gathered together our thoughts on our highlights of the UX Scotland conference.
I am also in the process of writing up some further thoughts on most of the other sessions, which I will publish to the University Website Programme blog soon.
But in the meantime, find out about my top three sessions, and the things I intend to put into practice as a result of attending the conference.
Design thinking is about being a problem finder, not just a problem solver.
This line has reminded me of a project or two from the past year. Some of my biggest eureka moments have been around understanding what the problem actually was, and not what I had been told it was.
Paul Taylor argues that small teams are undervalued, drawing an interesting comparison with introverts.
These small teams promote autonomy but also a better approach to collaboration. Having lots of small teams means they all need to be able to work together and to be able to access the common resources of the company, in order to achieve their larger goals.
The thinking has precedence in things like Brooks’ Law – which states that “adding manpower to a late project makes it later.” Getting bigger often means your communication overheads grow and doesn’t necessarily yield faster results. As Brooks said: “Nine women can’t make a baby in one month.”
When the architect responsible for an open plan office that made women feel watched compared it to being on a nudist beach, he undermined himself.
“I think it’s like going to a nudist beach. You know, first you’re a little bit worried that everyone’s looking at you, but then you think, hang on, everybody else is naked, no one’s looking at each other,” he told the researchers. “I think that’s what’ll happen, they’ll get on with it.”
The only problem is that sociological research of nudist beaches has shown that people do continue to watch each other–“men in particular, often in groups, look obsessively at women,” the researchers write. This kind of all-glass, no-privacy environment leads to a subtle kind of sexism, where women are always being watched and thus judged on their appearances, causing anxiety for many employees.
See also: What makes the perfect office?
CEOs are the cause of the health care crisis: You are the source of stress, stress causes chronic disease, and chronic disease is the biggest component of our ongoing and enormous health care costs.
An idea for how academia can make itself more relevant and accessible:
[I]t has been my view that universities should present their ‘shop windows’ in a more thematic way, with less of an emphasis on traditional Faculty structures (law, economics, physics, engineering, and so forth), and more on issues of general public and social concern. This will be easier if we do not construct all academic argument around the single subjects in which we were once trained.
This is the final blog post in my short series about the user research I led on for the API Service at the University of Edinburgh.
This post covers the second half of the research, where we brought focus to the detailed picture developed in the first phase, and began to prioritise the issues to help the API Service team direct their ongoing work.
I have recently been involved in a project with the University of Edinburgh UX Service to conduct user research for the API Service.
In one of the workshops we ran, we wanted participants to work with empathy maps to give us an insight into their experiences.
This post on the University Website Programme blog outlines how I introduced workshop participants to the concept of empathy maps, with an example around my own experience of buying milk.
Buying milk is a simple task that most of us carry out on a regular basis. But this example showed how using an empathy map can reveal a surprising amount of detail about the behaviours and feelings someone goes through when completing a task.
Giles Turnbull argues that you should, “Collect things that future-you will find useful.”
Part of me recoils at this idea. I am naturally a bit of a hoarder. But as such, I make it part of my routine to occasionally tidy things away into the bin.
But it will undoubtedly be important to keep some of this stuff.
All this is a long-winded way of saying: be an archivist. Capture the things your people are thinking about and talking about, as well as the things they’re doing and delivering. The two are intertwined. They shape one another.
The Dunning-Kruger effect describes the phenomenon whereby people with relatively little experience feel a high degree of confidence. This point is known as Mt Stupid.
Following this is the valley of despair, where the person loses their confidence, before slowly climbing the slope of enlightenment. The shape of this curve is strikingly similar to the Gartner hype cycle.
It is always tempting to think that I myself was atop Mt Stupid a couple of years ago, thereby making me on my way up the slope of enlightenment. However, I think this every time I see it.
This article makes the wise point that you can be on the slope of enlightenment for some issues, and still climbing your way to Mt Stupid on others.
However, given that the human condition makes it difficult for each of us to realise the limitations of our own knowledge, we’ll have to live with temporary outbursts of hubris. There is no reason to be self-complacent. Everybody is a wise expert in only a few things, while still climbing Mt Stupid in many, many others.
I have been leading some user research for a project at the University of Edinburgh to develop API Service. This post on the University Website Programme blog outlines the steps we went through in the first phase of the research. This included interviewing developers, running workshops, and developing personas and journey maps.
This has been a successful and rewarding project. It has been particularly interesting for me to do some UX work that wasn’t necessarily to do with a website. There will be a couple more blog posts about it to come.
More on the apparent decline of blogs from the Government Digital Service (GDS).
This article makes the excellent counterpoint to a recent GDS post apparently attempting to address the debate around the quality of their recent blogging efforts.
The measures of success cited include levels of ‘engagement’, aligning posts with campaigns, and instances of very senior officials publishing posts. This, to me, fundamentally misunderstands the value of blogging compared with more ‘formal’ communications. Aligning blogs more closely with PR activity doesn’t strengthen blogs— it nullifies their distinct value.
Of course, it is not just GDS who have suffered.
In the early days, blogging and social media was so vital precisely because it wasn’t traditional communications. When the communications people caught wind of the popularity of social media, they took control (which, for some reason, comms people are obsessed with). The comms crowd and the marketing mob turned social media into yet another stifled channel, designed to control the message, thereby destroying actual valuable communication.
Lessons for architects, designers and managers. What research has shown about office design and productivity.
It turns out that the most productive spaces aren’t the ones that are tasteful, “look professional” or have been designed by a starchitect. They are spaces that empowered people to make the space their own.
… [T George] Harris scoured the academic literature for any evidence that good design helped people to get things done, or to be happier in the office. He couldn’t find it. “People suddenly put into “good design” did not seem to wake up and love it,” he wrote. What people love, instead, is the ability to control the space in which they work – even if they end up filling the space with kitsch, or dog photos, or even – shudder – garden gnomes.
Trained designers tend to have a strong idea of what good taste is. But that often flies in the face of what most people actually want.
A rare beast: an article about productivity that doesn’t just contain the same old stuff you’ve heard before. This mainly focuses on why often it’s better to do less to get more productive.
But I was most intrigued by the revelation that sleep cycles actually continue when you are awake:
The difference is that during the day we move from a state of alertness progressively into physiological fatigue approximately every 90 minutes. Our bodies regularly tell us to take a break, but we often override these signals and instead stoke ourselves up with caffeine, sugar and our own emergency reserves — the stress hormones adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol.
Working in 90-minute intervals turns out to be a prescription for maximizing productivity.
It is easy to sneer at a question about what brand of pen to use, or whether you should use a pencil or a typewriter.
But in this piece, Austin Kleon argues that different tools can help you “get you to a certain way of working in which you can get your conscious, mechanical mind out of the way” to enable creativity.
…handwriting is great for coming up with ideas, for note-taking and big picture thinking…
Typing, on the other hand, is great for producing writing for other people… There’s a thing called “transcription fluency,” which boils down to: “when your fingers can’t move as fast as your thoughts, your ideas suffer.”
An interesting way of thinking about skills development that I hadn’t heard of before. Conventional wisdom suggests aiming for a T shaped distribution of skills — (the horizontal bar representing shallow skills across many disciplines; the vertical bar representing deep understanding of one discipline).
The broken comb model suggests developing a moderately deep understanding across many disciplines.
With certain exceptions, organizations with many T-shaped people may have difficulty keeping all of those T-shaped people busy. If the base of my T is icon design, but there are no icons available to design, I am either stuck twiddling my thumbs, or doing something I’m much less good at.
An intriguing connection between modern human narcissism and corporate change programmes. Did they both start in the same place?
Far from pursuing some unrealistic dream, perhaps we’d be much happier if we learned to live with our imperfections, neuroses and human frailties…
Maybe we need to accept that not all problems are there to be fixed. That our organisations are flawed. They always have been and always will be.
As designers have gradually become more senior (or perhaps more experienced), their role in organisations has evolved. But it’s not necessarily a good thing.
Products will always be made through compromise. But in a world where Designers are focused on balancing business needs against user needs, while other stakeholders are focused exclusively on business needs, these compromises will almost always favor the business.
A lot of UX and business process related work is about uncovering the true motivations behind a behaviour, not just accepting what people say at face value.
I like this idea of ‘so that?’. It is a bit like the five whys, another technique to help you get to the root cause.
Computers can certainly continue the process of specialisation, parcelling out jobs into repetitive chunks, but fundamentally they are general purpose devices, and by running software such as Microsoft Office they are turning many of us into generalists.
Reflections on whether technological advances will ‘take our jobs’.
…[I]n Western societies, technical advancement has allowed many of us to extricate ourselves from physical, dangerous and demeaning forms of work, and to create careers that are fulfilling beyond renumeration: creatively, intellectually, socially… “job satisfaction”.
Historically, technological advances haven’t meant humans losing jobs. But it has meant we have taken on increasingly complex and interesting jobs. Perhaps the future will bring us further job satisfaction.
That’s not a bad place to be at all. A reminder that we should be grateful for the luxury we have in being able to pursue a good career in the first place, rather than slaving away to make ends meet.
See also: Why you shouldn’t follow your passion
Content designer Sarah Richards shares an amusing story of a technique she has used to help people from different disciplines and backgrounds who have been talking at cross-purposes.
We are meant to be content and communication experts. But we often see people putting little effort into how they communicate internally, or even within their own teams.
Workshops with our department colleagues give us a joint view of our challenges and a shared sense of ownership – but planning and running them is a real skill. To help with your next workshop, we’ve put together our top 10 tips from 6 months of intensive workshopping.
Set aside an hour or two to read some of these jaw-dropping workplace issues.
As it happens, I was recently talking to a colleague about the links between teaching and running workshops. I have come to appreciate the similarities this year. A couple of my colleagues used to be teachers, and working with them has made the parallels become clear.
This article contains some great tips on how to improve your workshops with techniques used by teachers.
An interesting take on business process improvements such as Lean and Six Sigma. It suggests that while such process improvements improve reliability, they also make innovation plummet. Moreover, the effects are difficult to spot because they take so long to emerge.
Innovation requires different ways of doing things, and this is exactly what this system ends. But they don’t tell you that in the ISO9000 handbook, do they?
The perils of using alumni to reach out to prospective students.
This article mainly pertains to examples found in the US. I am not sure how common this technique is in the UK.
There is a tricky balance to be struck between two of universities’ main sources of income. On the one hand there is the need to keep alumni engaged, which is thought to make them more likely to donate. But if it turns off students — particularly the right kind of students — the long-term risks could be greater.
Although highly selective colleges have become racially and socioeconomically diverse, alumni interviewers tend to be white and affluent. That can lead to awkward moments, said Ari Worthman, director of college counseling at Lakeside School, in Seattle. He recalled a low-income student who sat down with the graduate of a big-name college a couple of years ago. I’m so glad you’re looking at our school, the applicant was told, because we don’t normally interview students like you.