Writing-test

New horizons

TL;DR – I’m looking for a principal design role involving vision / strategy / workshop facilitation / management. Possibly at an agency, an incubator, or an innovation department. I’m currently working as a senior product designer for Unmind, and I’m not in any rush.

Why am I looking for a new role?

Over three years ago, I switched from being a freelance design consultant to working full time in product companies. This has been a learning journey – I now have a clear idea of the kind of work I want to do, and the kind of work that is not a good match. Firstly – I found that working at a ‘senior’ level in product companies felt like a step down in impact and excitement from the work I did as a freelance consultant. 

I’ve also learnt, and this has been the big lesson – that to get what you want in life you have to first know, define, and ask for it.

This post is an effort to find the work that I am most engaged by – as I know that I am highly motivated when engaged by the work, but I struggle when I’m not.

Background

In my time working as a freelance consultant I felt really energised by:

1. The variety of work 

2. The strategic impact my work could have. 

I really enjoy helping founders, designers, product people, and engineers think about the “why” behind their work, facilitating their creativity in framing problems, bringing out their ideas for solutions, helping them develop brands and concepts, understand who they’re serving – and then helping them prototype and test these concepts. This is the kind of work that energises me, the kind of work I want to do more of. 

Looking back on companies I’ve worked with, it’s so good to see so many of them doing well. Startups like Learnerbly, BBoxx, and Endlesss that I worked with are going from strength to strength. I’m happy to know I made a small contribution by helping their founders articulate their vision – and the steps they needed to make it a reality. It’s also great to see products I worked on for bigger companies like Google’s Grow My Store and EE’s point of sale interface continue to provide great experiences and bring in new business.

This is the kind of work that I want to do more of as I know it fully engages me. I know that when I’m fully engaged, I can really bring my talents to a task and have the kind of impact I enjoy.

Working practice that energises me

  • Innovative
  • Creative
  • Driven by vision 

Things I like doing

  • Facilitating
  • Bringing out the ideas of others
  • Asking the difficult questions 
  • Helping others articulate their visions
  • Coaching
  • Mentoring
  • Understanding users and target audiences
  • Prototyping and testing ideas
  • Design sprints
  • Branding
  • Pitching

Things I’m looking for 

  • Clear and actionable feedback
  • Honest and clear communication
  • New places, faces, clients, and challenges
  • More time on my feet in action – less time behind a screen
  • Coaching, mentoring, and helping others grow in their skills and careers
  • The opportunity to be a mentee

Things I struggle with

  • Agile ceremonies: Ticket effort estimation, burndown charts.
  • Design system work, operations, technical details. While I have a technical mind and can code and architect systems, I’m not interested in doing more of this work
  • The atomisation and micromanagement of work

You can see from this list that I’m generally more interested in going deep into ‘big ideas’ than in the surface level. I like to go deep in conversation and thinking.

Hopes and dreams for the new role

From what I know of myself and the design world, and as I said above, I feel like an agency, startup incubator or innovation department might be a good match at this point – but I don’t want to limit myself to these possibilities. Ideally my new role will have:

  1. A principal / staff / lead / management / strategic position – with strong design leadership that I can learn from. 
  2. Opportunities to speak for the importance of design – to teach, facilitate, pitch, and sell the value of great design to clients and colleagues.
  3. A London office – or at least regular contact with clients and team members here in London.
  4. Ethical – I’m not interested in working for gambling products, crypto, or other predatory business models. I’d love to work for a company focusing on doing ethical work and making the world a better place.
  5. A four day working week – This has made a huge contribution to my quality of life in recent years and it would be hard to let go of.

My current work

I’m currently working as a senior product designer at Unmind – and it’s honestly going to be a hard role to leave! A fantastic team, and a great mission. 

The only problem is that in my current role I get to do very little of the strategy and vision work I used to enjoy so much as a consultant.  As there’s no scope within the small team at Unmind for me to move up or to move laterally, I’m now looking to see what the possibilities might be out there.  I’ve talked to my manager and team about this, and they’ve been fantastic.  Without their support it would have been impossible to publish this post.  So Unmind has been a great company to work for, and I’ll always be grateful to them for everything they’ve done for me, but it could be the moment for me to move on.

In conclusion

Thanks for taking the time to read this post! I hope it gives you an idea if I might be a good fit for your company. If so, I’d love to hear from you! billt@nullbtribble.com

Designing Unmind Insights for Impact

The design secrets behind Unmind Insights, the data-driven tool transforming workplace wellbeing.

Introduction 

Unmind Insights is a platform that gives you a data-driven view of your organisational wellbeing – providing the insights, and actions, you need to drive lasting change. In this article I’ll be sharing how we built the Insights survey tool, detailing the design decisions we made and the impact they had on the product.

Design aims

We knew that if more employees completed the survey, we’d get more accurate results. Therefore we needed to make sure that the survey was as attractive and easy to complete as possible. This led to our primary design aims:

  1. High completion rate
  2. High return rate (users repeating the survey at a later date)

These aims led us to the following design principles.

KISS: Keep It Simple, Stupid.

Focus above all else.

In order to keep completion and return rates high, we need to keep the survey simple, allow the user space to focus, and keep cognitive load as low as possible throughout.

Our competitive analysis of existing survey platforms showed that many fell short – long lists of questions on most screens, and no clear effort made to keep questions simple. Even platforms who limited questions to ‘one per page’ sometimes allowed scrolling within one long page – a simple slip on the keyboard or mouse might mean a user loses their place on the page and thus their focus. We avoided this kind of confusion by removing ‘scrolling’ from the equation – adding a ‘back’ link just in case users felt the need to adjust an answer.

Design solution

One question per page. No scrolling.

Product impact 

For users, higher survey completion means employees’ voices are being heard, and their wellbeing is being worked on. 

For employers, higher survey uptake means greater insight into employee wellbeing and engagement. This puts leaders in a better place to make changes that will ultimately impact presenteeism, absenteeism and attrition while building high performance. 

Low cognitive load 

Steve Krug gave the design industry a maxim with his classic book “Don’t make me think”. A common problem we saw with current survey platforms is they failed to do this – forcing the user to figure out where to click to answer in the ‘negative’ or ‘positive’. 

Our first prototypes didn’t take this into consideration. Through initial user testing it became instantly clear that we’d have to work harder to keep the ‘answering process’ as simple as possible.

This led us to another design decision – keeping all positive answers on the right. 

Through simple experimentation we found: While it might be true that a user rapidly clicking through a survey won’t give a 100% accurate answer for each question, you’ll get a far more accurate answer than annoying them by forcing them to figure out which side to click on throughout the survey! 

Design solution

No ‘switching sides’ – positive answers always on the right.

Product impact 

A seamless experience with low cognitive load.

“We had feedback from our staff that they were surprised how quick and seamless the survey was” 

HR leader at a Global consulting firm.

Provide value to the user

All the existing survey platforms we looked at had the same failing: They ended with a message that said essentially “thanks for your time – get lost”. We decided early on that we wanted to do something more here that would inform the user about their scores, the key areas they have problems in, what they mean, and what they can do about them. 

As we see it, by providing value up front, we’ll not only help users understand themselves and their work better, we’ll encourage them to do the survey again when we ask them in six months time.

Design solution

An interactive results screen that helps users understand their key problems and explore what they mean.

Product impact 

20% of our users spend time exploring the results screen – learning what their results meant. Many then go on to sign up to our platform to explore deeper.

Inclusive design from the start

Something that’s sometimes overlooked about accessibility is that it’s not just for users with the greatest challenges – it makes a product better for everyone, regardless of their abilities. For this reason we started thinking about accessibility from day one – not just from a screen contrast point of view, but building for screen readers and keyboard access.

Users can navigate and complete the survey using only the keyboard, without relying on the mouse or touch screen. This not only makes the survey more accessible, it allows anyone to take a break from pushing a mouse and quickly tap through the survey.

Design solution

  1. First class screen reader experience
  2. Easy keyboard navigation of entire survey and results screen
  3. Highest standard of accessibility throughout (WCAG AAA)

Product Impact

  • Faster, simpler, and more inclusive user experience. 

Business impact

  • A more inclusive wellbeing strategy. 
  • Higher survey uptake. 
  • Greater insight into employee wellbeing. 

Fable testing

After we’d made our own tests by closing our eyes and interacting via keyboard and screenreader, we used accessibility testing platform Fable to hear the real deal from users with disabilities. 

  • Initial results – 80% Fable accessible usability score (AUS). For reference, 65 is an average score for AUS

Changes we made:

  1. Fixed image alt text and tags
  2. Gave confirmation when a submission is made and page is updated
  3. Progress bar percentage fix
  4. Combo boxes now use standard voiceover interaction commands to activate.

After our updates, we reached an epic 98% Fable accessible usability score.

What we’ve learnt so far

While we’ve had great feedback on what we’ve built so far, we’ve learnt that there’s far more to an Insights platform than the survey tool itself. 

“Unmind Insights is the holy grail for employee wellbeing data.”

Head of Global Employee Relations Development, FTSE100 Finance Organisation

Communicating with employees and building the kind of uptake we’re aiming for has been our main challenge. Rather than relying on the People team of our clients to manage employee communications, we’ve now built a system to manage our own campaigns and communicate directly with employees – to make sure we’re targeting the right people at the right time.

With this in place we’re able to raise engagement by over 40% – giving us richer data and more confidence in our results. We’re now working on new dashboard visualisations to enable our clients to find insights quicker and take the right actions to improve company culture.

The secret of easy meditation

… and what meditation actually is

You might want to start a meditation practice. You might be an experienced meditator, but dissatisfied with your practice. Either way, it can be difficult to understand and build a happy relationship with meditation.

I’ve been practicing most of my life, and have spent some 5,000+ hours in meditation, often on silent 10-day retreats. While I’m no expert, I’ve developed a happy and sustainable practice that I’m incredibly grateful to have. In this short article, my aim is to plant a seed, and help you do the same. In my experience, the attitude and approach to meditation is far more important than anything else. But then, why even bother?

Why bother meditating?

The exciting truth is that whether you know it or not, you already meditate! Even more exciting is that fact that you can take it way deeper than you do now. If you take the time to really explore it, you open the door to a vast swathe of human experience – one that can bring tremendous, science backed benefits to your life. There are many aspects to human flourishing, but meditation is a powerful and simple way to change your life in a positive way. Let’s start with the basics – the nature of meditation itself.

So what is meditation?

  1. Meditation is something you already know.
  2. Meditation is very simple, but it can go incredibly deep, and building a practice can change your life.
  3. Meditation is something you do naturally. It’s an innate human capability – the opposite of our inbuilt fight and flight mechanisms. It’s as simple as taking a deep breath, as natural as watching a sunset.
  4. Meditation arises from our human capacity to relax – to relax incredibly deeply, beyond sleep, all while being highly alert and more alive than ever. 

Common misconceptions

The above might sound contrary to what you’ve heard about meditation. I often hear from people that they “tried meditation, but it seemed too hard”. Or – “it’s not for me – I’m too fidgety” There’s a common misconception that meditation is something requires a lot of willpower, concentration, or the ability to sit cross legged for hours. In fact, meditation is one of the most easy and natural things you can do.

Why does meditation seem hard?

1. Techniques

‘On ramps’ to meditation

The complications around meditation happen around the ‘on ramps’, the ‘slip roads’, the gateways to the experience. Here we find countless techniques, methods and dogmas. This is not to dismiss meditation techniques – they can be incredibly useful. However, the attachment to techniques can be harmful, and they can in fact limit or inhibit your access to meditation. 

2. Attitude

Moreover, the attitude towards meditation is critical. Many people approach it like ‘church’. They have to sit right, be right, think the right thoughts (or even worse, no thoughts!), and be pious, perfect beings while they meditate. I can’t stress enough how dangerous and counter-productive this path can be. Imagine if you took this approach to a different activity – like sports, food, or sex. You’d have so little fun in life, and your relationship with that activity would become toxic and unpleasant. Even worse, you’d develop a shadow side where you’d seek the fun that you’d be missing. Just think about all the pious yoga teachers out there getting high this weekend.

Meditation is an opportunity to connect with yourself as you are, not as you might like to be. You can only make real progress with your meditation by connecting with the world directly, as you experience it. What’s more, by being honest and open with yourself about everything you experience, you can build a practice that is as fun as a rave, or a party, or a swim in your favourite lake. The key thing here is accepting everything you experience, embracing it, and using your practice as a chance to explore the full range of things that emerge. What happens when you open yourself to meditation experiences like this?

Real meditation experiences

If you can let go of pious expectations – ideas that only ‘pure’ thoughts can emerge, or no thoughts at all, like you’re sitting in a temple or a church, you can develop a real meditation experience. So, what might happen? Well – almost anything. If you allow yourself to open up and deeply encounter the flood of thoughts and feelings that emerge, you may be surprised by the wealth of experiences that you have. You might go through the full range of human emotions – anger, sadness, pain, heartbreak, love, lust, yearning, passion, excitement, happiness, ecstasy. Anything can and will come up – and it’s your chance to embrace it, to let it move through you, and perhaps find some release. They key thing here is not to try to edit your experience or dismiss whatever comes up – from your ‘to do list’ to a lover. The important thing is to not get attached to any of these experiences or emotions. Accept them, embrace them, hold them lightly, be with them. This will allow you to move through them, and find the deeper meaning of the moment – energised by the life flowing through you.

The secret to building an easy meditation practice

So. What’s the secret? How can you build an easy, sustainable and life affirming meditation practice? You might be surprised to learn that you already know the answer.

Try this short exercise: Forget, for a moment, what you know about meditation. Forget about the techniques, and the rituals, and the monks.

Think instead, for a moment, about your happy place. Where you feel most alive. It’s different for everyone. It might be out in nature, it might be hanging out with your loved one, it might be out dancing, it might be swimming, it might be at home on your sofa with your dog. You might think of it as ‘the zone’ if you’re into sports, or ‘peace and comfort’ if your place is a quiet morning coffee. A place where you are most happy, most in tune, most at one with the world. This place, this feeling, is your easy, natural gateway to meditation.

The secret is that this is all you need. Tune into this, and going deeper becomes as simple as gravity.

if you can keep this state in mind, almost any technique can help you access meditation. Meditation is not something you can do. Meditation does you. Meditation becomes you, you become meditation. This might sound esoteric, but it really is incredibly simple. the more that you try to do it, the more distant meditation becomes.

The dangers of meditation techniques

The techniques of meditation can be useful, but they can also be a barrier. If in your mind, you are using a technique to “get somewhere”, you will find the experience frustrating and unfulfilling. If on the other hand, you can use a meditation technique lightly, and think of it only as something to be used and discarded – then it can be useful, for a moment, to help focus your mind. In fact, it can be useful to think of the technique as a ‘distraction’ – something to keep your conscious mind busy, giving space for meditation itself to actually emerge.

So, how to begin?

How to get started with meditation

1. Get comfy

Firstly, you need somewhere comfortable to practice. Don’t worry about sitting on the floor, you just need a comfortable chair, or you could even lie down – though this can make it more likely that you’ll fall asleep!

2. Check in

It’s important to take a moment to listen to yourself, and see how you are doing. Checking in like this gives you a moment to reflect, to be kind to yourself, and to assess your emotional and physical state. It’s a chance to be kind to yourself, and with knowledge, the state that you’re in. And without this stage, meditation can become more of a drill, and less of a chance to really connect with yourself.

3. Try a ‘meditation technique’

At this stage, it might be useful to use a “meditation technique”. A simple meditation technique can be useful to give your busy mind something to do, while waiting for meditation to actually happen. It’s best to think of it this way, because otherwise you can get hung up on not doing the “technique” right. Your ability to perform a technique “correctly“ is unimportant, and focusing on it will only antagonise you. This is the opposite of what we want here, which is a deep relaxation. So it’s important to treat techniques and their “performance” lightly. True meditation is never a performance – it’s an encounter with the reality of your experience, deeply lived. If you noticed that you are becoming distracted by thoughts, don’t try to let go of them. just notice them, and hold them lightly. The aim here again, is relaxation and acceptance.

I won’t go into details on techniques here, but suffice to say there are many. Explore! Some simple things to get started:

  1. Follow your breath (just watch it rise and fall, or try any meditation app near you)
  2. Focus on sensations in the body. Those little tingles in your extremities? Start with those.
  3. Visual focus – you might gaze at a candle, a light, a mandala, an object.
  4. Sound – mantra, chanting, or music.
  5. The heart – Focus on a loved one, then extend that love to yourself, your friends, family, colleagues, strangers, and finally the whole world.

The actual technique used doesn’t matter much – the trick is to find what works for you right now. Try a few! Moreover – it’s a good idea not to get stuck using any one technique, as this will build a rigidity in your attitude to meditation. If you learnt a ‘transcendental meditation’ mantra 10 years ago and have used it ever since, now might be a good time to try something different!

Tune into a practice you love, for a while. It’s okay to change techniques and explore.

Note also that a meditation technique is not necessary. It’s just an aid to a natural process – one that you have experienced many times.

4. Letting go of techniques

As you develop into a meditation, there is a progress from focusing on many things (waking life, thoughts, memories, plans), to focusing on just one thing (your “technique”), to focusing on no thing. No thing is actually the aim here. It’s a total absorption into the moment, experiencing and accepting everything as it is.

The practice naturally moves from ‘doing’ to just ‘being’. The trick is to learn to ‘do less’, as you deepen your experience and let go of whatever technique you’re using in the session.

5. The cycle

Meditation might be something that comes and goes during your session. You might find yourself deeply absorbed, or wondering in thoughts, or distracted by the world around you. This is all completely natural and to be expected. What you might find is sometimes noticing this, and coming back to an absorption in the moment. Your technique might be helpful here, and you may find you bounce in and out of it. Meditation tends to move in waves or cycles, so roll with them.

Whenever you notice the opportunity, remind yourself to do less, and deepen your direct experience of life as it is.

6. Practice

With practice, this gets easier. The practice is the key, and building a daily habit is essential to growing in meditation. Your practice can be short – in fact, it is more useful to do two short meditations every day than one long. But practice is the key. In some ways, meditation is a skill much like any other. They difference here though is that to find your way to a deep meditation, you need to learn how to do less, not more.

Meditation apps can help here as you can get them to nag you and build consecutive days of practice. Alternatively, any habit forming app can help. I’ve recently gotten into using Streaks app (iOS) and found it really useful. This similar app for Android looks good.

7. Community

Building a relationship with teachers, coaches, or fellow travellers on the path is incredibly helpful in sustaining your journey. Seek out people online and especially ‘in real life’ to talk about your experiences and practice with. Treat gurus with scepticism, even if they dress nice and look the part. Take what you find useful from traditions and discard the rest. Build relationships around meditation wherever you can.

8. Meditation is not the answer to all your problems

There are many factors in human happiness and flourishing. Meditation is an important one, but only one factor amongst many others – exercise, relationships, family, and meaningful work are all equally important. It’s important to keep this in mind when juggling your priorities.

In summary

Meditation is an innate human capability – the opposite of our inbuilt fight and flight mechanisms. Your attitude towards meditation is the key thing in developing a healthy relationship with it. It’s important to accept and embrace everything your experience during your meditation. If you treat it like ‘church’, with only pure thoughts allowed, you’ll always need to look elsewhere for your fun and ‘real life’. Anything can come up, and your task is to accept and embrace it. Meditation techniques are like ‘slip roads’ to the highway of actual meditation. They’re to be held lightly and explored playfully. You will cycle through many experiences, and with practice you will reach states of absorption where there’s no need to use a ‘technique’ and focus on any one thing. Finally, regular practice is the key thing, and friends on the path are essential.

Is your meditation worthwhile?

The real test: Is meditation making you a happier person, with better relationships in your daily life? If not, then something’s wrong. It might be time to step back a little from your practice and reassess your approach, or focus more on other things for a while. Meditation should be an asset to your life – if it isn’t, change your approach or give it a break.

Get in touch

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this article. I’m keen to help others grow and develop their meditation practice, so your feedback really counts. Is anything confusing? Can I make my points more clearly? I’m currently offering meditation coaching to anyone, for free – so do drop me a line if you would like help developing a practice that’s right for you.

Further reading

  • Meditation made easy – Lorin Roche. Lorin is a legend and his work is much of the inspiration for this article! I follow his work closely – you can listen to my interview with him here
  • Natural Meditation – Dean Sluyter. Dean spells everything out so simply. He disarms dogma and teaches in a concise, direct way.
  • Altered Traits – Daniel Goleman, Richard J Davidson. A fascinating tour of the latest scientific insights into meditation.

Salif Keita – Cono

Rediscovered this beautiful album after not hearing it for 30 years! Think my mum or step-dad had a cassette – the kind of thing we used to discover via Andy Kershaw’s show on Radio 1. I couldn’t find a decent translation, so I made one by typing up a French version from a 1980’s scrolling text video, running the French version through Google translate and tweaking the result. Trying with the Bambara original didn’t get me very far!

English translation

This is the call of which bird?
It is the bird of the queens of the river, what bird is it?
It is the bird that watches over the traveler
This is the cry of which bird
I follow the bird perch on the great cailcedrat tree
From the top of the mountain
I pierce the mysteries of the distance

The enemy has a mouth full of gall
will never say
good for you
I am the oracle bird
The bird of joy and well-being
Oh the world is turned upside down

large makes chairman
Poverty attracts nothing but contempt
Poor you will be unloved
Even though your words are beautiful

Even though your heart is good
Even if you seek refuge in discretion
The world is turned upside down

French translation

Cest le cri de quel oiseau?
C’est l’oiseau des reines du fleuve c’est le cri de quel oiseau?
Cest l’oiseau qui veille sur le voyageur
Cest le cri de quel oiseau 
Je sui le oiseau perche sur le grand cailcedrat tree
Du haut de la montagne
Je perce les mysteres du lointain
Lennemi a la bouche pleine de fiel
Ne dira jamais 
Du bien de vous Je suis l’oiseau oracle
Loiseau de la joie et du bien être
Oh le monde est sens desus dessous largen rend chairman 
La pauvreté n’attire plus que mépris
Pauvre tu seras le mal aime
Meme si tes paroles sont belles 
Meme si ton coeur est bon
Meme si tu cherches refuge dans la discretion
Le monde est sens dessus dessous 

Bambara original

(Excerpt – all I can find)

Cono djon lou kassi la?
Badala cono djon dou kayer
Cono djon lou kassi la?
Siradala cono djon lou kagner 
Cono djon lou kassi la? 
Koulou sanfai cono djon lou kagner 
Coyer cono, cono m′nalè moufô ne mana djoukou yala soro dela mou mandi djoucouyer? X2
Djoukou gna o gna mogo djoucou la mogo te gnoumafô ikô(ehh nadia cônô ehhh) 
Djoukou nou coumai mogo djoucoula môgô te gnouma fô ikô X2 
Koyer cono, cono m’nale mou fo nema djoukou yala soro tena mou mandi i djoukouyer X2
Ehh na digna cono ehhh 
Ohh dounia gna mina ohhh nadigna cono ehh 
Ni wari bi bolo, wari kailer sara

Floating in latent space with Taylor Swift

Taylor Swift in a Renaissance landscape

What do the new AI models mean for society?

How this story started

A friend sent me this image. I thought — well, I wonder if I could do better?

"Yeah, the artists are borked"
Taylor Swift by Craiyon

How it looks

I’ve been playing with these generative AI’s (large language models, or LLM’s) for a while. I thought – well, I wonder if one of latest, ‘Stable Diffusion’ could do any better? I refine the prompt: “Taylor swift, renaissance painting, extremely detailed, accurate proportions, realistic face, beautiful eyes, smiling, detailed lips, accurate lips, accurate chin”

Renaissance Taylor Swift (but more of a cartoon face really). Still – can’t beat the price!

Well yeah, I guess it could. Could we get a bit more specific, like playing a mandolin? Kinda.

Renaissance Taylor Swift playing something that’s not quite a mandolin or a guitar

Taylor Swift in a traffic cone hat?

How about riding a tiger, wearing a traffic cone? Tried several of these but it didn’t do well. This was my favourite weird combo. A tiger print traffic cone?

Tiger Swift not riding a tiger. Taylor. No, a traffic cone hat!

After refining the prompt a bit I finally got these.

How it feels

It’s a surreal experience. Yes, the results are mundane. I could have created something similar using Photoshop. But the experience is totally different. There’s a feeling of jamming, going back and forth with something that almost feels intelligent. But more than this I get a feeling of weightlessness, of floating in the unknown. It’s diving into black water. It’s rolling the dice in the dark.

Renaissance Taylor Swift

The future is here

Playing with these models, I’m reminded of William Gibson’s:

“The future is here, it’s just not evenly distributed”.

I feel like I’m floating, weightless, while the rest of the world remains firmly attached to gravity. It’s a feeling of limitless, strange power and potential. The closest analogy I have is when I first saw the internet working, as a student at Sussex University nearly 30 years ago. I had my mind completely blown when I saw that I could find almost anything, for free. Text and images would download from a server – anywhere in the world, anyone could put up a web page and I could see it, here in this small computer lab in South England. The first thing I started looking for were aliens of course, being a Fortean Times haunted teenager. In the Mosaic browser on a huge Unix machine, an image of a ‘grey alien’ scanned slowly into view, line by line of data emerging from who knew where to form a picture.

Taylor Swift cyberpunk cliche

This changes everything

My first thought was: The internet changes everything. This changes all new media, everything about the future, about how we’ll communicate and share. The horrible old big-money controlled media will disappear, and this will take over everything. I was right about everything changing, but totally wrong about the political implications. Peer to peer media turned out to be a hellzone when mediated by private companies looking to turn a profit. The Daily Mail is now the biggest news site in the world. But the change coming was real.

Getting the road vibes, but totally missing the traffic cone hat

Where are we headed?

I might be completely mis-led, but this is how I feel about the new LLM’s. I don’t know how, but they will change everything. Images now, but soon: Music, animation, video, 3D, VR.

We’re creating models of intelligent processes that will enhance, empower, transform, and perhaps replace vast swathes of human cognition and work. I have no idea how this will pan out. I hope that it will empower and enrich humanity, and enable us to solve our collective crises. My fear is that it will mostly fund a few super yachts for rich white men, while impoverishing the rest of us. The political and collective choices we make over the next decade will decide.

Try this at home

If you want to have a play yourself, check out these links:

Craiyon – for fun and scrappy creative results

Dreamstudio – ‘Stable Diffusion’s key site and the source of all the images in this article

Midjourney – remarkable (if pricey) image generation through a Discord bot. You’ll need a Discord account to try it.

AI generative tools – an amazing resource if you want to go deeper.

What would Renaissance Taylor Swift do?

Reflections on Dconstruct 2022

Wow, what a day. A really diverse selection of talks that went all over the map. From building vast world-changing health systems, to scaling and archiving global online communities, to the beauty and joy of calligraphy. And lasers. I enjoyed the lot, which is rare for me at an event like this.

Matt Webb

1950’s radar operators

It’s hard to choose a favourite amongst so many diverse and interesting talks, but Matt Webb’s stood out for me. A rambling tour through the history of information systems, computing, tools for thinking, the military industrial backdrop to it all, and the designers of the systems. All leading right up to date with a demo of a new tool for online collaboration that was right up my street, given my recent experiences working on multiplayer music creation app Endlesss, and conferencing platform Hopin. Matt made a great point – we’ve jumped to solutions with collaborative tools (Zoom, Figma) rather than thinking about the structure of the system itself. How and *where* do the tools sit? How can we capitalise on the key strengths of human cognition (e.g. spatial awareness) in our designs for online spaces? Very cool and thought provoking.

So much for tools for thought – What about TOOLS FOR TOGETHERNESS?

  • Tldraw.com – multiplayer sketching. The web is going multiplayer…. Thanks Figma.
  • Multiplayer is not sufficient. How might we have made computers if the PERSONAL computer didn’t dominate?
  • Reed Hoffman: If you’re not embarrassed by your first version, you’re sharing too late.
  • Been working on: Sparkle. Sparkle spaces – like Zoom, plus a whiteboard.

Lauren Beukes

Science fiction author Lauren Beukes was also fantastic, giving us a tour of her work, working processes, and ideas. Social justice, violence against women, time travelling serial killers and dumb jokes about the pains and limitations of working through the pandemic all featured. There was something very touchingly human about it all – it had a lovely story arc to it, though I couldn’t tell you what the story was.

  • Her redlines photo was used as a ‘qanon’ meme!
  • Wrote The Shining Girls – serial killer, time travelling/ Now on NetflixThe Bridge – new novel. Alternate reality
  • Wrote a book about a pandemic in 2019! Afterland. No-one wanted to read it in 2020.
  • The connections helped us survive in 2020.
  • Ubuntu – a person is a person because of their connections with other people.

The two Sebs: Seb Lester & Seb Lee Delisle

The ‘artist’ talks were a little less thrilling from a story point of view – they tend (to me) to sound a bit like ‘ya ya me, my great work, my great career isn’t it great all the things I’ve done’. I mean – yeah, I get it, you’re great and your work is fantastic. But could you say something a little more interesting about it? That aside, the work was gorgeous – I especially enjoyed Lester’s – just beautiful craft work. Made me want to get back into drawing. Lee Delisle’s talk was more ramshackle but he gets a free pass because lasers (and vaporwave music).

Seb Lester

Seb Lee Delisle

  • Lasers!
  • Lunar Lander game controlled with clapping!

I can only briefly add a few notes and photos on the rest of the excellent talks – apologies to the speakers for not doing them justice!

George Oates

  • Flickr – narrowly escaped destruction
  • 100 year plan for a tech company
  • Digital commons of MILLIONS of people

Possible futures

  1. Destruction
  2. Growth
  3. Do we even need to take photos anymore? (DALL-E etc)
  4. Read only. Stops accepting new uploads. Cultural heritage institute.
  5. Diffusion – decentralised data all over the world
  6. Degradation – fading
  • Could we create a ‘data lifeboat’ for Flickr? How could we capture the essence of the network and context?

Daniel Burka

@dburka

Winnie Limb – on leading a purposeless life

  • Rapid prototyping in Bangalore. Design sprint. Created simple.org.
  • Median time for data entry – 13 seconds. Added QR system. Truckloads of QR’s being distributed all over India
HARD PROBLEMS
  • A new frontier of design. REAL politics of government. Long term problems.
  • Building bridges! Like the early days of the web.
  • Embracing the role of support

Sarah Anglos


1950 – Atom man. Feeding nuclear food to a cow

  • Isotopia- Waldorf in London. 250 women from Ladies Atomic Society
  • Muriel Howorth.
    Crowd-sourced Atomic Gardening project. To lead women out of the kitchen into the Atomic Age
  • Taylorist approach to kitchen labour. Suffrage hadn’t done the trick. Electricity was a way to get out of the kitchen and into parliament. Labour saving!

Anil Seth

  • The Hard Problem – consciousness
    Book – Being You
  • Professor of cognitive neuroscience at Sussex
    Perceptioncencus.dreamachine.world

Final thoughts

Altogether a great day out. I write this as I return to London on the train and feel inspired to get back into writing, into working, and into building cool things. Above all it was nice to see the diversity of approaches and reasons for doing ‘design’ / art / whatever. Some of us are solving the hard problems, some of us are thinking philosophically or creating new tools, and some of us are just having fun – and all approaches are valid and useful.

You can hear the audio of previous dconstruct events now at: https://archive.dconstruct.org – the organisers have promised they’ll be sharing all the talks from 2022 too!

We’ll see…

Reproducing this Chinese proverb here without comment, as I couldn’t find a version online without some new age faddle or marketing appended.

I heard it first years ago and it stuck with me. Enjoy…

Maybe so, Maybe not. We’ll see.

A farmer and his son had a beloved stallion who helped the family earn a living. One day, the horse ran away and their neighbors exclaimed, “Your horse ran away, what terrible luck!” The farmer replied, “Maybe so, maybe not. We’ll see.”

A few days later, the horse returned home, leading a few wild mares back to the farm as well. The neighbors shouted out, “Your horse has returned, and brought several horses home with him. What great luck!” The farmer replied, “Maybe so, maybe not. We’ll see.”

Later that week, the farmer’s son was trying to break one of the mares and she threw him to the ground, breaking his leg. The villagers cried, “Your son broke his leg, what terrible luck!” The farmer replied, “Maybe so, maybe not. We’ll see.”

A few weeks later, soldiers from the national army marched through town, recruiting all the able-bodied boys for the army. They did not take the farmer’s son, still recovering from his injury. Friends shouted, “Your boy is spared, what tremendous luck!” To which the farmer replied, “Maybe so, maybe not. We’ll see.”

Blogging in 2022?

abstract painting

Sorry. I know there’s a war on. Why even write about this? I think it matters, perhaps even more, given the way social media has helped Putin build a case for his war. What can I do about the war? Well, I don’t know. Beyond try to help my friends in Ukraine (not much I can do there) and donate to a few charities as I’ve done. I really don’t know. (Buy some games for charity? ) But I’ve found the war, and trying to follow the news about it has seriously messed with my mental health.

Feeling the stress of it, I reached for a book – Hari’s ‘Stolen Focus‘, that my pal Jack highly recommended and then bought for me (thanks, Jack!) It’s inspired me to do a few things:

1. Limit my exposure to news and social media

The only social app I use regularly now is Twitter. I’ve often found it fun and easy, but lately my relationship with the app has become uncomfortable. Just like in the run up to Trump’s election in 2016, since the Ukraine invasion I found myself on Twitter way too much. Spending hours reading threads, trying to make sense of this awful war. So – I’ve blocked it off using Freedom app, throughout most of the working day. An hour or so free at the top and tail in case I want to check in or post something. The rest of the time (if I really feel the need) I’ll post via Buffer, or just write something here.

Turning off Twitter I found myself looking at news sites more often straight away! So I’ve blocked them throughout the day too. After all, it’s well known that too much news (especially rolling updates) can mess with your mental health.

I still have accounts on Zuckerberg’s various fiefdoms. I basically only use Instagram these days, and probably go there about once a week to post something. I keep two accounts – one for design / reading, another for art / music. Don’t like it, don’t feel happy using it, but it’s where everyone is so whaddya do? Post more here I guess. Start a blog on my art site too perhaps. Which leads nicely to:

2. Own my stuff

With a hat tip to the brilliant Cory Doctorow – (who blogs incessantly, then posts everything in threads to everywhere else). Seth Godin (who blogs every day forever), I’m going to make a conscious effort to post more here and less on ‘socials’. I’ll still link things out to socials (and I’ll try this new tool from WordPress), but I want to make sure I’m building my own legacy, not Zuckerberg’s or Dorsey’s. At least, to the extent I can.

Reading Hari’s book, it’s painful to learn (again!) how damaging our neo-feudal overlords are (I dare you to listen to Varoufakis on this). The caustic influence their companies are having on society is more obvious every day. I can’t do much to fight them given my current commitments, but I’ll do my damnedest to make sure I have a place to write that’s at least partly outside their influence.

I’d be interested to hear how you’re coping with the media landscape right now. What’s working for you?

What I’m looking for next

gray asphalt road surrounded by tall trees

I’m back on the job market. I thought it would would make sense to summarise what I’m looking for in a company.

TL;DR version

  1. A four day week
  2. A London office
  3. Ethical
  4. Mid-scale
  5. Realistic business model

The detailed version

First a note: To be entirely honest – the following is my ideal and I might ditch it all in a couple of months in order to pay the bills! But it’s worth shooting for the stars at least.

1. A four day week

As a contractor running my own business, I worked a four day week for two years before I joined Hopin. I can say without a doubt that I was happier during that time. I also had more time for friends, family, and personal projects. Anecdotally, I believe that I was more productive during my working hours too. There is plenty of evidence now from experiments around the world that I am not alone in feeling this way.

2. A London office

After a couple of years of ‘fully remote’ work with Hopin, I’m keen to find a company that has some local presence to work with. Although I’m totally on board with the benefits of remote, I’d like to find a team that I can work with in person for a day or two a week.

I have a couple of reasons for this. First, as a dad, raising a son here in London I don’t feel like I get the benefits of ‘full remote’ – I can’t “live and work anywhere” right now! Secondly, one of the key reasons I got into working in design to begin with is that it’s a “human centred” discipline. It would be nice to hang out more often with some diverse humans, and spend less time staring at a video call.

3. Ethical

One of the things I love the most about Hopin is their vision – to bring people closer, and to make access to events easier for people wherever they are. I’d like to find a company with a similarly egalitarian vision. I want to feel fully behind anything I work on, and feel confident that my world is making the world a better place.

4. Mid-scale

I’m on the fence here a bit. Right now I feel like I don’t want to work with an early stage startup again for a while. This might change if I come across something I’m REALLY into!

On the flip side – I don’t want to work for one of the big monopolies like Microsoft, Google, Amazon, or Apple. These companies are too big for their own good. Although I still love and use some of their products, I really wish they were made by smaller companies in a more diverse and fair market.

Ideally I’d like to find somewhere that already has a few designers on board and is looking to scale up their design capability.

5. Realistic business model

I’d like to work for a company that sells a product at a profit. The product must do something useful that people are happy to buy. This means I’m not interested in working for companies that use venture capital to subsidise their service like e.g. Deliveroo (who lose money on every delivery). I have my doubts about advertising supported products, as this always seems to ruin the product due to misaligned incentives (Facebook, Google search, etc.) I’m not interested in working for ‘crypto token’ companies as they don’t have a product. I’m also not interested in most fintech as most of it seems to be aimed at making rich people richer (see point three).

In conclusion

Thanks so much for reading this far – I hope this all makes sense. If you feel like we might be a good match let’s talk!

Designing a rocketship in flight

Illustration credit: Streamline

Hopin has been a trip.

I joined as the second designer in July 2020, a few months into this strange pandemic which still hasn’t ended. I had been working as a contractor and trying to find the right permanent job for a while. I often worked with early stage startups and my first thought was: “Just another startup”. The team seemed nice though, and the product interesting.

I couldn’t have known how explosive the growth was going to be.

When I first spoke to Hopin, they had about 50 people on board. I was roughly the 70th hire. Within a year we had 700 people, growing soon to over 1000. The sales team literally couldn’t keep up with enquiries to begin with. We had incredible market fit, and a great reputation to match. That intensity of growth led to many challenges – teams were formed and disbanded, and projects were started then discarded at speed. Despite all the chaos though we generally had a good time, and I enjoyed the work – even if it felt like I went from one ‘design emergency’ to another at times.

These are my takeaways from 20 months on the rocket ship, along with some reflections on process and framework that made everything so much more manageable.

It’s all about the people

It was incredibly exciting to help build the design team. I spent days talking to designers from around the world about their process and ambitions, and trying to understand if they were a match for what we needed. We went from two designers to a team of over thirty (including research) inside that first year. I’m so proud of the diverse, global team we built together, and what we were able to achieve in such a short space of time.

Illustration credit: Streamline

I learnt so much from our team too! Designers from all over the world gave me new perspectives on the craft. I’m especially indebted to Matt Kay for his insights on interface design, Fiorella Rizzà for her guidance on UX Writing, and researchers Barbara Iranzo and Jacqualyn Mangels for their advice and support on research. To be honest, I could namecheck the whole team here – I so enjoyed our many deep conversations on design. (A shout out to all the team at the end).

I learnt an equal amount from our remarkable engineers and product managers. A shout out is due here to product managers Emily Mabin Sutton, Rodolphe Bouygues, and Jono van Deventer, product director Moustafa Khalil, and engineering manager James Clark – who had such valuable insights not only into the product development process but also just how they ‘managed upwards’, navigated complexity, and helped executives understand the work they were doing. I owe Rui Ramos and the whole team from agency Red Badger a special mention too – it was a pleasure to work with such a thoughtful, pragmatic, and user-centered team.

Give away your Lego

Don’t hang on! Image credit: Firstround Review

You might question Molly Graham’s ethics for choosing to work for Mark Zuckerberg, but you can’t fault her maxim explained in detail in her article Give Away Your Legos. TL;DR – “Don’t get attached to what you’re working on” – there’s always more to do in a fast growing startup. Get used to change, get excited about the next problem, and cheerfully support whoever needs help when they start trying to solve the problems you were working on.

Start rough

notebook beside the iphone on table
Photo by picjumbo.com

Now – this is something any of my design students will have heard me banging on about forever. It’s almost a cliche in design – start rough, generate lots of ideas, throw most of them away. Iterate lots and fast at the start. Test your ideas early, and once you have ideas that resonate with others, refine them and continue testing till you get to ‘high fidelity’ (or even better, working code).

Because Hopin was evolving so rapidly I got to see many different ways of managing projects. Projects that began with high-fidelity designs always had worse outcomes than those that started rough. Starting rough means: I had the opportunity to work with loose concepts and rough ideas, in early collaboration with engineers, product managers, customer success managers, and even actual ‘event organisers’ (our customers in my area). When we worked like this, we were able to produce results that made sense to everyone, were feasible to build, and manageable in realistic chunks of work.

The projects that started ‘planned out’ – whether specced out in a document or (believe it or not) actually wireframed by a Product Manager did not end well.

Itamar Gilad’s Confidence Chart is a work of genius

Image credit: Itamar Gilad

Giving a clear metric for confidence on any project is absolutely invaluable. Gilad defines these in such a clear and straightforward way. These definitions informed very straightforward, realistic conversations on where we were and where we needed to get to. Working with teams that were informed by this viewpoint gave us a totally different perspective, and leveraging this perspective gave us stellar results in terms of the user performance of new product features. Shout out to Rodolphe for introducing me to this.

Prater’s OOUX framework needs more attention

Illustration by Sue Lockwood

I know I’ve sung Sofia Prater’s praises before, but damn this is such a transformative tool when dealing with complex systems. Not only does it give you a common language with engineers and product managers, it allows you to plan a system before you start thinking about the screens it will inhabit. I cannot stress enough what a lifesaver this is, and how many weeks of pain I saved by mapping things out before getting into screen design. Go and read her introductory article right after this!

Jesse James Garrett still matters

JJG’s Elements of user experience

Building on the last two points – Garrett’s “Elements of User Experience” is an incredibly useful framework. It really helps frame the space for people who don’t understand the role of a digital product designer. Being able to point to this chart and say “OK – let’s talk about the strategy behind what we’re trying to achieve: Down here at the foundation of the product” gave whole teams a shared framework for understanding. It also helped build a common language with team-mates who saw design as only the ‘visual layer’ – allowing me to explain what I was trying to achieve by talking about the architecture of the product before the shapes on screen.

It’s all about the team process

Image credit: Marvin Meyer

It doesn’t matter how great a designer you are in terms of your craft skills. At the end of the day, the only thing that counts is the product. Your ‘designs’ are just transitory artefacts of a process – to be discarded once the product is built. Your ‘designs’ are obsolete as soon as an engineer starts building them – and your concepts encounter the hard limits of reality.

Getting good results in digital product is all about the process – and not just the ‘design’ process. It’s about the way your whole team works together. Good news: This is something that can be designed and iterated on too.

In recent work on a core product we built regular cycles of review and exchange into our team process. They weren’t big changes, but formalising these ‘ad-hoc’ processes transformed our ability to deliver a high quality product. This took three main forms:

  1. A ‘snagging’ document (later named ‘design QA’)
    Initially using just a simple Google Sheet, the whole team (and others outside of it) where empowered to report visual or experience bugs of any kind in the document, adding screenshots or videos where appropriate.

  2. A weekly ‘snags review’
    Myself, the Engineering Manager and the Product Manager then triaged this list every week – checking what had been fixed already, what we could safely ignore, and what really needed fixing (and moving into JIRA).

  3. A weekly ‘product demo’
    As an internal team, separate from any ‘review’ with company leadership, engineers were given the chance to demo anything new they had working in code. This gave the whole team a chance to see what was working and what wasn’t, and give suggestions for improvement while that engineer was still working on the feature. This meant we could quickly squash bugs and improve usability outside of more formal review cycles.

  4. Fortnightly team retrospectives.
    These sessions gave us a chance to review what was working and what wasn’t, and give praise to team-members for anything good they were doing. Not only were they generally good for morale, they also helped us course-correct on the initiatives already mentioned.

Design is two-thirds education

Image credit: Jason Goodman

Building on the last point:

Design is a specialised skill that not many people have access to.

To really collaborate effectively as a designer, you have to be able to explain what you do, what you’re trying to achieve, and how you plan to get there. Now, this is true for any kind of collaboration – I’m thinking here of how the best product managers and engineers are excellent at explaining their craft to others. However, this is especially true for design, given that our craft goes right to the roots of the creative process.

Only by helping others understand what we do, and what we need to succeed can we really be effective in our roles. Moreover, we can use our tools as designers to help build processes that leverage the diverse abilities and perspectives of all team members.

This is perhaps where the true strength of capital ‘D’ Design lies. Not just as a craft (like ‘digital product design’) – but as a basic human function. Our collective ability to think ahead, to think in terms of systems and not just individual components. Our ability to be comfortable with uncertainty, and to help bring others along for the ride.

Meditation is a life saver

Image credit: Fabrizio Chiagano

A final note: I didn’t always manage to keep my practice up, but damn did I notice when I slipped! Finding time to step away from the screen and contemplate was essential to keeping my sanity.

Teaching meditation also helped me learn – I was given the honour of leading a few short sessions with the entire company (thanks, Nina Frank). Having over a thousand people watching definitely helped focus the mind! I was humbled by the hundreds of messages I received from those who found it useful. Shout out to whoever coined #chillwithbill 🙏.

In conclusion

I’m honoured to have been a small part of startup history. Hopin was one of the fastest growing companies of all time – it was wild to witness and build on the explosive growth. It’s a shame that they had to make layoffs, but I believe they now have a solid core team to build the next, ‘hybrid’ phase of the company. I wish them all the best of success, and I’m excited to see what they do next.

Credits

A final thanks to everyone in the design team at Hopin that I haven’t mentioned already – it was such a pleasure working with you.

I’m listing names from memory so apologies to anyone I forgot! Alex Roitch, Andrew Cobley, Brian Greene, Bulent Shik, Darci Dutcher, Dora Türkoğlu, Emma Hardman, Federica–Sophie Sissa, Filippo Gin, Halyna Hlynska, Helen Stead, Ivan Nevrela, Jagoda Pietrzak, Jason Ring, Javiera Craig, James Price, Joe Li, João Costa, Jon Atkins, Kah-Mun Liew, Kathryn Thomas Hastings, Luca Murgia, Masha Ignatova, Melissa Cliver, Noah Shrader, Peter Roessler, Raya Karova, Sasha Pronina, Vanessa Vilela, Yaprak Kaynar, Victor Samokhvalov

People outside the design team – Shout out to Adil Ali and Mike Stuart for joining me for the early meditation sessions and becoming such great friends and allies. Keep the music alive, Alex Dique! Alex Nita, Alena Taranova, Türerkan İnce, Matt Clough, Avipaul Bhandari, Ken Keel, Louise Strong, Violet Graham, Martin Doyle – thanks for the good times.

Special mention to Hazel Song for inviting me onboard!

Illustration credit: Bruxelles by Streamline.