Are we moving towards a post-Agile age? | August 23, 2016
Agile has been the dominant development methodology in our industry for some time now. While some teams are just getting to grips with Agile, others extended it to the point that it’s no longer recognisable as Agile. In fact, many of the most progressive design and development teams are Agile only in name. What they are actually practicing is something new, different, and innately more interesting. Something I’ve been calling Post-Agile thinking. But what exactly is Post-Agile, and how did it come about?
The age of Waterfall
Agile emerged from the world of corporate IT. In this world it was common for teams of business analysts to spend months gathering requirements. These requirements would be thrown into the Prince2 project management system, from which a detailed specification—and Gantt chart—would eventually emerge. The development team would come up with a budget to deliver the required spec, and once they had been negotiated down by the client, work would start.
Systems analysis and technical architects would spend months modelling the data structure of the system. The more enlightened companies would hire Information Architects—and later UX Designers—to understand user needs and create hundreds of wireframes describing the user interface.
Humans are inherently bad at estimating future states and have the tendency to assume the best outcome—this is called estimation bias. As projects grow in size, they also grow in surface area and visibility, gathering more and more input from the organisation. As time marches on, the market changes, team members come and go, and new requirements get uncovered. Scope creep inevitably sets in.
To manage scope creep, digital teams required every change in scope to come in the form of a formal change request. Each change would be separately estimated, and budgets would dramatically increase. This is the reason you still hear of government IT projects going over budget by hundreds of millions of dollars. The Waterfall process, as it became known, makes this almost inevitable.
Untimely the traditional IT approach put too much responsibility in the hands of planners and middle managers, who were often removed from the day-to-day needs of the project.
The age of Agile
In response to the failures of traditional IT projects, a radical new development philosophy called Agile began to emerge. This new approach favoured just-in-time planning, conversations over documentation, and running code; effectively trying to counter all the things that went wrong with the typical IT project. The core tenets of this new philosophy were captured in the agile manifesto, a document which has largely stood the test of time.
As happens with most philosophies, people started to develop processes, practices and rituals to help explain how the tenets should be implemented in different situations. Different groups interpreted the manifesto differently, and specific schools started to emerge.
The most common Agile methodology we see on the web today is Scrum, although Kanban is another popular approach.
Rather than spending effort on huge scope documents which invariably change, Agile proponents will typically create a prioritised backlog of tasks. The project is then broken down into smaller chunks of activity which pull tasks from the backlog. These smaller chunks are easier to estimate and allow for much more flexibility. This opens up the possibility for regular re-prioritisation in the face of a changing market.
Agile—possibly unknowingly—adopted the military concepts of situational awareness and command intent to move day-to-day decision making from the planners to the front-line teams. This effectively put control back in the hands of the developers.
This approach has demonstrated many benefits over the traditional IT project. But over time, Agile has became decidedly less agile as dogmas crept in. Today many Agile projects feel as formal and conservative as the approaches they overthrew.
The post-Agile age
Perhaps we’re moving towards a post-Agile world? A world that is informed by the spirit of Agile, but has much more flexibility and nuance built in.
This post-Agile world draws upon the best elements of Agile, while ditching the dogma. It also draws upon the best elements of Design Thinking and even—God forbid—the dreaded Waterfall process.
People working in a post-Agile way don’t care which canon an idea comes from, as long as it works.. The post-Agile practitioner cherrypicks from the best tools available, rather than sticking with a rigid framework. Post-Agile is less of a philosophy and more of a toolkit that has been built up over years of practice.
I believe Lean Startup and Lean UX are early manifestations of post-Agile thinking. Both of these approaches sound like new brands of project management, and each has its own dogma. If you dig below the surface, both of these practices are surprisingly lacking in process. Instead they represent a small number of tools—like the business model canvas—and a loose set of beliefs such as testing hypotheses in the most economical way possible.
My initial reaction to Lean was to perceive it as the emperor’s new clothes for this very reason. It came across as a repackaging of what many designers and developers had been doing already. With a general distrust for trademarks and brand names, I naturally pushed back.
What I initially took as a weakness, I now believe is its strength. With very little actual process, designers and developers around the world have imbued Lean with their own values, added their own processes, and made it their own. Lean has become all things to all people, the very definition of a post-Agile approach.
I won’t go into detail how this relates to other movements like post-punk, post-modernism, or the rise of post-factual politics; although I do believe they have similar cultural roots.
Ultimately, post-Agile thinking is what happens when people have lived with Agile for a long time and start to adapt the process. It’s the combination of the practices they have adopted, the ones they have dropped, the new tools they have rolled in, as well as the ones they have rolled back.
Post-Agile is what comes next. Unless you truly believe that Scrum or Kanban is the pinnacle of design and development practice, there is always something new and more interesting around the corner. Let’s drop the dogma and enter this post-Agile world.
Renting software sucks | August 15, 2016
Back in the the olden days (c. 2000) people used to own software. When a new version of Photoshop or Fireworks came out, you’d assess the new features to decide whether they were worth the price of the upgrade. If you didn’t like what you saw, you could skip a generation or two, waiting until the company had a more compelling offering.
This gave consumers a certain amount of purchasing power, forcing software providers to constantly tweak their products to win customer favour. Of course, not every tweak worked, but the failures were often as instructive as the successes.
This started to change around 2004, when companies like 37 Signals released Basecamp, their Software as a Service project management tool. The price points were low—maybe only a few dollars a week—reducing the barrier to entry and spreading the cost over a longer period.
Other products quickly followed; accounting tools, invoicing tools, time-tracking tools, prototyping tools, testing tool, analytics tools, design tools. Jump forward to today, and the average freelancer or small design agency could have subscriptions to over a dozen such tools.
Subscription works well for products you use on a daily basis. For designers this could be Photoshop or InVision; for accountants this could be Xero or Float; and for consumers this could be Spotify or Netflix.
Subscription also encourages use—it encourages us to create habits in order to get our money’s worth. Like the free buffet at an all-inclusive hotel, we keep going back for more, even when we’re no longer hungry.
In doing so, subscription also locks us in, making it psychologically harder for us to try alternatives. Making it less likely for us to try that amazing local restaurant because we’ve already paid for our meals and need to beat the system. The sunk cost fallacy in all its glory.
Problems with the rental model become more apparent when you’re forced to rent things you use infrequently, like survey products or recruitment tools. You pay to maintain the opportunity of use, rather than for use itself.
We recently did an audit of all the small monthly payments going out of the company, and it’s amazing how quickly they mount up. Twenty dollars here and forty dollars there can become thousands each year if you’re not careful. Even more amazing are the number of products we barely used. Products that somebody signed up for a few years back and forgot to cancel.
You could blame us for our lack of diligence. However the gym membership model of rental is explicitly designed to elicit this behaviour. To encourage people to rent the opportunity, safe in the knowledge that the majority of members won’t overburden the system. Unclear billing practices and disincentives for unsubscribing—”if you leave you’ll lose all your data”—are designed for this very purpose.
Then you have the legacy tools. Products that you rarely use, but still need access to. Photoshop is a great example of this. Even if you’ve decided to move to Sketch, you know many of your clients still use Photoshop. In the olden days you would have keep an older version on your machine, costing you nothing. These days you need to maintain your Creative Cloud account across multiple team members, costing you thousands of dollars for something you rarely use.
This article was sparked by a recent Twitter storm I witnessed where Sketch users raised the idea of a rental model and vilified people who felt paying $30 a month for professional software (which currently retails at $99) was too much.
While I understand the sentiment—after all Sketch is the tool many designers use to make their living—you can’t take this monthly cost in isolation. Instead you need to calculate lifetime cost. As we all know from the real world, renting is always more expensive than ownership in the long term.
You also have to consider rental costs in relationship to every other piece of rented software our industry considers necessary. With this number continuously increasing—but no sign of legacy tool rental declining—entering the digital industry is becoming an increasingly costly prospect for new designers and developers.
The thing I find strange is that, while we’ve been trained to believe renting is the norm for software over the past 10 years, few of us think this way of physical goods. We mostly still buy houses, cars, computers and music systems, rather than renting or leasing them. Many believe ownership offers some kind of noble status, despite the environmental cost of owning atoms over bits.
When we do rent physical products, it’s rarely on a subscription basis. Instead we’ll rent an apartment in New York through AirBnB for a weekend, a Zipcar for an afternoon or a Tasker for an hour.
I’m not saying software rental is always bad. I’d just like to see more diversity in SaaS business models. I’d welcome the ability to subscribe to mature services I use on a regular basis, but rent less common tools on a per-use basis. I’d also like to retain ownership of certain tools, like Sketch, as I think this is a better model for innovation.
We talk a lot about user-centered design in the digital world. Isn’t it about time we considered business models through the same critical lens?
Why can’t designers solve more meaningful problems? | July 17, 2016
Every few months, somebody in our industry will question why designers don’t use their talents to solve more meaningful problems; like alleviating the world from illness, hunger or debt. This statement will often be illustrated with a story of how a team from IDEO or Frog spent 3 months in a sub-saharan village creating a new kind of water pump, a micro-payment app, or a revolutionary healthcare delivery service. The implication being that if these people can do it, why can’t you?
As somebody who believes in the power of design, I understand where this sentiment comes from. I also understand the frustration that comes from seeing smart and talented people seemingly wasting their skills on another image sharing platform or social network for cats. However this simple belief that designers should do more with their talent comes loaded with assumptions that make me feel very uncomfortable.
Firstly let me state that I think designers are a genuinely caring group of people who got into this industry to have some visible impact on the world. They may not be saving lives on a daily basis, but they are making our collective experiences slightly more pleasant and less sucky. They do this by observing the world around them, being attuned to the needs of individuals, spotting hidden annoyances and frustrations, and then using their visual problem solving skills to address them. As a result, designers are often in a permanent state dissatisfaction with the world.
Designers also regularly find themselves overwhelmed by the volume of problems they are exposed to and expected to solve. This is partly down to the fact that companies still don’t understand the full value design, and fail to resource accordingly. However it’s also down to the designers natural urge to please, often causing them to take on too much work and spread themselves far too thin.
The message that designers aren’t trying hard enough to solve the really big, meaningful problems taps into this deep insecurity; making them feel even worse about the lack of impact they are having than they already do. As somebody who cares about the industry I feel we should be trying to help lighten the load, rather than adding increasingly difficult to achieve expectations onto an already stressed out workforce.
I also worry about who get’s to define what counts as “meaningful” work. For some people, meaningful may mean taking 6-months off to help solve the refugee crisis—an amazing thing to do I’m sure you agree. For others it may mean impacting hundreds of millions of people by working at Facebook or Twitter. That may seem facile to some, but both these platforms have been used to connect isolated communities, empower individuals, and in some cases, topple regimes. So who are we to judge what “meaningful” means to other people?
Many designers I speak to do actually want to have a bigger impact on the world, but don’t know where to start. It’s not quite as easy as giving up your day job, traveling to a crisis zone, and offering your services as a UX designer. It turns out that a lot of the world favours doctors, nurses and engineers over interaction designers and app developers. I sometimes feel there’s a whiff of Silicon Valley libertarianism tied up in the idea that designers should be solving the really big problems; the kind of things that Universities, Governments and NGOs have been struggling with for decades.
There is also a sense of privilege that comes with this notion. While some designers may be in the position to take a pay cut to join an NGO, or invest their savings into starting a community interest company, that’s not true of everybody. Designers may be better paid than many in society, but they still have mortgages to cover, families to look after, and personal lives to lead.
By comparison, many of the people I see extolling these notions have been very fortunate in their careers, and have the time and resources to tackle problems they find meaningful. Some have run successful companies for many years, while others are living on the proceeds of their stock options. Most are tackling these problems for the right reasons, but I can’t help think that some are doing so out of guilt. Doing so to make amends for all the cigarette and alcohol adverts they worked on as a young designer, or to justify the payout they got for being at the right company at the right time.
There is definitely an element of “mid-arrear crisis” in the sense that we should all be doing more with our lives than we actually are; making a bigger impact before our time is up. However it’s much easier to have these thoughts, and see these opportunities towards the end of one’s career, and then judge younger designers for what they themselves didn’t see at that stage in their lives.
Ironically I believe there are a large number of designers choosing to work for the greater good. Organisations like GDS in the UK, and Code for America in the US, have done a fantastic job of recruiting some of the best and the brightest from the tech world to help improve government and foster civic engagement. Other well known designers have given up their time to work on political campaigns, or donated their skills to charity. This is nothing new. Many famous graphic designers, type designers and advertising executives donate part of their time to good causes, be it fundraising drives, charity campaigns, or education.
Less well known, but no less important, are the tens of thousands of designers who work for organisations like Amnesty International, Greenpeace and the WWF. People who actively choose to work for companies they feel are making a positive impact in thew world. Then we have the individual designers, working under the radar for lesser known charities. Much of their work goes unreported. You’ll never see them on stage at a typical web design conference, or writing an article for your favourite digital magazine for instance. But don’t let this lack of visibility fool you into thinking great work isn’t going on; projects like falling whistles and the lucky iron fish are just the tip of the iceberg.
So why aren’t more designers choosing to solve large, difficult, and meaningful problems? I think a big part of the reason is sociological. We look to our peers and our industry leaders to understand the career options available to us, and see what success looks like. If all the evidence says that being a successful designer means working for a well funded start-up, gaining a large Twitter following, and waiting till they IPO, that’s what people will do.
If we really want designers to be solving bigger problems, two things need to happen. First off, the people who currently own those problems need to recognise the value of design, and make it easier for designers to get involved. I think conferences like TED and publications like HBR have helped with his endeavour, but it’s still not obvious how designers can get involved and move the needle in a meaningful way.
Secondly, we need to create an alternative success narrative that shows it’s possible to be an amazing designer by doing meaningful work, without having done the rounds at a well known design consultancy or large tech company. We need to break the idea that solving big, important and meaningful problems is the preserve of the design-elite, and instead create alternate role models for budding new designers to follow.
Universal wage | July 2, 2016
Stories of mass underemployment due to the rise of Artificial Intelligence have been popping up all over the place the past 18 months. It would be easy to dismiss them as crack-pot theories, were it not for the credibility of their authors; from scientists like Stephen Hawkins to industrialists like Elon Musk.
Self driving cars seem to have gone from science-fiction fantasy to real world fact, in a matter of months, and the worlds transport workers are right to be concerned. Uber are already talking about making their drivers redundant with fleets of self driving taxies, while various local governments are experimenting with autonomous bus services. However the real employment risk comes from the huge swathes of haulage vehicles which could be made redundant. This won’t happen soon, but I suspect our roads will be 30% autonomous vehicles by 2030.
While it’s easy to assume that AI will only affect blue collar jobs, as we saw with the automation of manufacturing, I’m not so sure. I’m currently using an Artificially Intelligent PA to book my meetings and manage my calendar. It’s fairly crude at the moment, but it won’t be long before internet agents will be booking my travel, arranging my accommodation, and informing the person I’m meeting that I’m stuck in traffic. All things that are possible today.
Jump forward 20 years and I can see a lot of professional classes affected by digital disruption and the move to AI. In this brave new future, how will governments cope with rising unemployment?
One idea that’s been raised by both right and left is that of a Universal Wage. Put simply, every citizen would automatically receive a small, subsistence payment at the start each month. This would be enough to cover basic expenses like food and accommodation, but it wouldn’t guarantee a high quality of life, so most people would still choose to top up their incomes through work.
Unlike unemployment benefits, people don’t lose their universal wage if when they do work, removing a huge disincentive for many people. Instead this provides greater flexibility in the type of work people are able to do. For instance carers could fit work around their caring duties or students around college. As such, the Universal Wage supports the current trend we’re seeing towards the gig economy.
This may seem like an impossibly expensive solution, but various economic studies have shown it to be just about feasible today with only a marginal rise in tax. The reason it’s not more comes in part from the savings it would provide to the state. No more judging benefits on means, or policing infractions. Just a simple monthly payment for all.
The left love this policy for the social equality it brings. People can now spend their time in education and training, raising families and caring for loved ones, or exploring the arts. The right like it for similar reasons; empowering individual entrepreneurship while simultaneously reducing the size of government.
Several Universal Wage experiments are taking place around the world at the moment, so it will be interesting to see what the findings bring.
What the hell is design thinking anyway? | April 4, 2016
In a meeting a couple of weeks ago, one of my colleagues asked me to define “design thinking”. This question felt like a potential bear trap—after all “design thinking” isn’t a new or distinct form of cognitive processing that hadn’t existed before us designers laid claim to it—but I decided to blunder in regardless.
For me, design thinking is essentially a combination of three things; abductive reasoning; concept modelling; and the use of common design tools to solve uncommon problems.
If you’re unfamiliar with abductive reasoning, it’s worth checking out this primer by Jon Kolko. Essentially it’s the least well known of the three forms of reasoning; deductive, inductive and abductive, and the one that’s associated with creative problem solving.
Deductive reasoning is the traditional form of reasoning you’ll be familiar with from pure maths or physics. You start with a general hypothesis, then use evidence to prove (or disprove) its validity. In business, this type of thinking is probably how your finance department plans its budget i.e. to generate this much profit we need to invest this much in staff, this much in raw materials and this much in buying attention.
Inductive reasoning is the opposite of deductive reasoning, using experimentation to derive a hypothesis from a set of general observations. In business, inductive reasoning is often the preserve of the customer insight and marketing team i.e. we believe our customers will behave this way, based on a survey sample of x number of people.
By comparison, abductive reasoning is a form of reasoning where you make inferences (or educated guesses) based on an incomplete set of information in order to come up with the most likely solution. This is how doctors come up with their diagnoses, how many well-known scientists formed their hypotheses, and how most designers work. Interestingly it’s also the method fictional detective Sherlock Holmes used, despite being misattributed as deductive reasoning by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
Abductive reasoning is a skill, and one that can be developed and finessed over time. It’s a skill many traditional businesses fail to understand, preferring the logical certainty of deductive reasoning or the statistical comfort of inductive reasoning. Fortunately that’s starting to change, as more and more companies start to embrace the “design thinking” movement.
So what else does design thinking entail other than abductive thinking? Well as I mentioned earlier, I believe the second component is the unique ability designers have to model complex problems, processes, environment and solutions as visual metaphors rather than linguistic arguments. This ability allows designers to both understand and communicate complex and multifaceted problems in simple and easy to understand formats, be they domain maps, personas, service diagrams or something else entirely.
All too often businesses are seduced into thinking that everybody is in alignment, by describing complex concepts in language-heavy PowerPoint presentations, only to realise that everybody is holding a slightly different image of the situation in their heads. This is because, despite its amazing power, language is incredibly nuanced and open to interpretation (and manipulation). Some of our biggest wins as a company have involved creating graphic concept maps in the form of posters that can be hung around the office to ensure everybody understands the problem and is aligned on the solution. We call this activity design propaganda, and it’s a vital part of the design process.
A simpler incarnation is the design thinker’s tendency to “design in the open” and cover their walls with their research, models, and early prototypes. By making this work tangible, it allows them to scan the possibility space looking for un-made connections, and drawing inferences that would have been impossible through language alone.
The final aspect of “design thinking” is the tools us designers have developed to help think through these complex conceptual problems. These tools include a wealth of research techniques, prototyping activities and design games, not to mention processes and frameworks like “lean” and “agile”. Designers are often better equipped than typical management consultants and MBAs to tackle the sorts of problems business are starting to experience. This is just one of the reasons consultants and business leaders have started turning to programs like the Singularity University and dSchool, to become versed in the language and practice of design thinking.
It’s really good news that “design thinking” is starting to gain wider adoption, but this success comes with a small warning. While we designers helped pioneer and popularise the practice of “design thinking”, we may eventually lose out to the traditional purveyors of corporate strategy. Why?
Because despite having the skills necessary to deliver these functions, designers have shied away from the term, and resisted immersing ourselves fully in the business world. The large internal consultancies still have the business connections, they speak the same language, and are now starting to adopt the best practices of our field. So unless we get out of our beautifully designed and ergonomically friendly ivory towers, we may find it’s a hollow and short-lived victory for design after all.
The benefits and challenges of running a slow-growing business | February 22, 2016
It’s understandable why we’re all so interested in fast-growing businesses, thanks to the drama involved. Will the company in question be able to raise the next round of funding, or will they hit the end of the runway in a ball of flames? Will they be able to hire fast enough to meet their demands, or will the culture implode on itself as people flee to Google or Facebook? Will the company fight off unwanted takeover bids and gain an even bigger valuation, or will they end up regretting not taking the deal? Will the founders end up as multi-millionaires, or just another Silicon Valley casualty? Each option is a juicy as the next, and equally deserving of comment and speculation.
As rapid growth is considered the yardstick of start-up culture, it’s unsurprising that the majority of how-to articles focus on the challenges of running a fast-moving business. So how do you embed culture when your team has grown from 30 to 100 people in less than a month? How do you ensure your infrastructure is up to the task when your user base is doubling every few weeks? And how to you keep the company going when your monthly payroll is in the millions, but your income is in the thousands?
These are all very interesting questions, and ones that will help many budding entrepreneurs. However as the founder of a deliberately slow-growing company, there is a real lack of articles charting the challenge of slow growth; and challenges there are a-plenty.
For instance, when fast-growing companies hit problems around team management, marketing and sales, or HR, they can usually hire their way out of the problem. So they’ll create a new management layer, build a sales and marketing team, or hire HR professionals. The speed they are moving, combined with the funding they have raised, is often enough to power through these inevitable growing pains and get to the other side in one piece.
By comparison, slow moving companies often have to live with these challenges for years, until they have the revenue or work available to justify even a part-time position. Until that point, slower moving companies need to make do with the resources they have available, figuring out ways to self manage, spreading sales and marketing across the management team, or using external agencies for ad hoc HR work.
That’s why smaller companies end up having to focus on their core commercial offering, be that building, maintaining and supporting software if you’re a tech start-up, or offering design and development services if you’re an agency like Clearleft. This means that the traditional business functions you’d find in a large company (finance, marketing, HR etc.) end up taking a back seat; either by being distributed across the whole team, or concentrated amongst a small number of operations staff.
Neither of these approaches is ideal. For instance, you can adopt a “many hands make light work” attitude by distributing common admin tasks across the team. But having experienced (and expensive) practitioners spend time on admin isn’t particularly cost-effective. It can also be a little demoralising, especially if colleagues at larger companies don’t have to do this. The other option is to centralise typical business functions amongst a small group of operations staff. This works well for general admin duties, but can be challenging when you start to need specialists skills like sales, marketing or HR. So in the end you just struggle through until you grow big enough to justify these additional roles.
In fast-moving companies, hiring new people is less of a cultural challenge as the team are used to job descriptions fluctuating and new people joining all the time. In a slow-growth company, people get used to the status quo. It can be hard to relinquish part of your job to a new hire, or suddenly find yourself working under a manger when you never had one before. These changes need to be handled with much more care and sensitivity than the typical start-up environment.
Fast-moving companies obviously have their fair share of cultural problems. Still, the pace of change can make it easier to shape the direction of growth. For instance it’s common to see companies between 20-50 people start to define sets of company values. A fast-moving company may reach this point in a year, when the culture is still fairly new and malleable. By contrast a slow-growing company can take years to reach this point, by which time the culture has already solidified. This solidity has many benefits, such as cultural resilience; but it also makes culture change much harder.
These challenges aside, there are a lot of positives in running a slow growth company. For a start there’s a lot less stress involved, and a lot less risk in something going spectacularly wrong. You have much more time to build the right team, and ensure the culture sticks, rather than just papering over the cracks. More importantly, you get to build a sustainable business under your own terms, rather than those of external funders. The biggest benefit for me is where you place your focus.
If you’re focussed on growth above everything else, it’s easy to sacrifice things like quality of service provision. Sometimes this is deliberate—like hiring less talented staff to meet current staffing needs, or winning less interesting work than you want, just to pay the bills. More often than not it’s just accidental; the natural result of managing so many spinning plates at once. For me, slow growth allows a company to focus on what really matters to them, building a sustainable business focussed on quality.
Of course some businesses need to grow fast in order to gain the economies of scale they need to survive; to jump over that chasm to a world of profitability. There are plenty more businesses who have found themselves forced to grow needlessly fast; either as a result of pressure from investors, or the founders’ own desire for scale. Many potentially sustainable businesses end up growing beyond their means and burning out too soon. I know the goal with many businesses is to “go hard or go home”, but I’d prefer to see 100 successful start-ups making 10 million in revenue each, than one billion dollar unicorn and 99 failed ventures.