There's a quote from a philosopher whose name I can't remember—I heard the quote in an audiobook and have spent an hour trying and failing to find it—that says something along the lines of "I haven't read many of the books in my library, but those ones I have, I have read very very well".
One book that I have read very very well (or at least listened to very very well—while I have it on ebook I particularly replay the audiobook) is Sarah Bakewell's At the Existentialist Cafe: Freedom, Being and Apricot Cocktails. It chronicles the lives of 20th century existentialist and phenomenological philosophers such as Martin Heidegger, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Jean Paul Satre, and Simone De Beauvoir. All good and well. But what makes me re-read (or re-listen) to it is Bakewell's attention to the people—messy, contradictory people, be it those European philosophers and even occasionally Bakewell herself.
So I was overjoyed to find that Bakewell had released a book earlier this year on a similar but wider topic: humanists. All I knew about humanists was from occasional Sunday Assembly events a sense that they were live and let live in a way that atheists perhaps weren't. Humanly Possible: Seven Hundred Years of Humanist Freethinking, Enquiry and Hope showed me that this wasn't wrong, but that the it has a lot more going for it. Throughout history humanism has helped bring forward knowledge and celebration of life in its diversity—one striking motif from the earlier eras are people fervently searching out books. Bakewell's book ambitiously starts at medieval times and ends in the present, showing that generally humanists sided with what turned out to be the right side of history (science, tolerance, championing that all should have access to 'life long learning'—the latter is a phrase that is in fact pertinent in my current work!) albeit with a few wobbles when it came to women and non-whites that perhaps was inevitable given the general group of them being European white men.
And like At the Existentialist Cafe (and her previous book How to Live: A Life of Montaigne in one question and twenty attempts at an answer), Bakewell keeps things lively and lived. People are shown for their faults as well as their strengths, we walk with Bakewell when she revisits places, and we together sometimes imagine things that can only be guessed at.
This month in digital government and design
Conferences past, present and future
- I enjoyed Code for America's Formfest at the start of the month. Highlights included the Aotearoa New Zealand government story of slowly iterating a form builder over 4 years, and appreciated being reminded that Caroline Jarrett and Gerry Gaffney’s Forms that Work book splits questions into 4 types: (slot in, gathered, third-party and created). Fingers crossed that most of the videos go onto Youtube late December.
- In videos from conferences: the videos for the live day of Design System Day are up, as are some from 2023 Service Design in Gov and Lean Agile Scotland.
- And in upcoming conferences, on November 29th(ish, depending on time zones) will be a 24 hour international design in gov conference. It includes GDS's GOV.UK, who will be giving more after a blogpost about the GOV.UK home page redesign and the notes on how it was done
- And conferences into 2024: UKEducamp (Friday 12 January 2024, Edinburgh), UKGovcamp (Saturday 25 January 2024, London)—both with free ticketing. UX Scotland and various Agile events are also accepting speaker submissions.
- I've attended the IXDA's Interactions conference a few times over the years. (Videos of past Interactions conferences are available online). Sadly, the Interaction 24 conference in Sydney has been cancelled. The official notes mentions 'global economic conditions … impacting sponsorship and ticket sales'. Hopefully this is a blip and there is something in 2025. There are also discussions about some different types of event or events in the timeslot that was to be Interaction 24 which I will be keeping an eye out for.
- Last Monday I had a video coffee with my former GDS colleague Jane Martin. Afterwards she mentioned that she needed to talk with her delivery manager about how to get user-centred design work into agile planning tools like JIRA and the like and asked if I had anything written up about it. I hadn’t, though had been trying to write something for years. That was the incentive to dash out ‘getting UCD work into Agile workflows’ that evening. There has been good commentary on it, such as how it fits with some product manager’s prioritisation buckets, how user researchers should use the board to show the effort the work takes and that not pointing can mean it doesn’t affect team burndown charts —though I think it should count.
- Growing design by letting teams experience it by Andrew Duckworth. This is where being perm is helpful—I often think that consultancies that complain about processes and governance sometimes take for granted that someone had to actually get them in!
- Former GDS-er Stephen McCarthy has blogged about how Which? are improving how Which? approach user research and experimentation across their product squads—with similar themes of visibility, metrics of participation and creating feedback loops.
- The School of Good Services have a nice slide deck on creating the conditions for good service design
- Professor John Slater talks about how policy making could be more open and designerly
- Baldur Bjarnason talks about theory building, software and the need for stable teams—this reminds me of being told that some Shinto(?) temples were regularly rebuilt with one generation watching, one doing, and one supervising, all so that the knowledge stayed alive
- Nick Stanhope reflects on 15 years working as a social sector designer and how he wants to share more power
- Audree Fletcher writes about how government loves programmes… but that maybe they shouldn’t
- Old but good: I really liked this getting to done document from (RIP) Doteveryone, thanks Matt Jukes for sharing it!
- There have been a few good things out there in relation to content design, from Jo Shofield and Angela Moore’s blogpost on designing joined up content across both the GOV.UK website and the Universal Credit service to the Ministry of Defence Service Manual content section instructing content designers to write less and work with researchers to Lauren Pope’s content strategy for charities including “do less and do it brilliantly”
- Related: Amy Hupe recounts why cheerful UI content assumes users similarly feel chirpy at its peril—and she did not feel good when AirBnB sent her excited messages about her trip
- Focus groups are often badly used but sometimes can be useful
- Some sobering accessibility reads: Sean Boots about things that people in the public sector say about accessibility (with a reminder that there is literally a public sector websites accessibility directive that has been in action since 2019), and accessibility without accountability at Cooper Hewitt by Liz Jackson (particularly difficult for me in that one of the people Jackson critiques in the article was on my 2021 SVA Design Writing Course, but also important as Jackson also points to the need to know about history)
- on accessibility, frog has created some digital ‘cards for humanity’ that mix and match goals with disabilities. I’m not entirely sure how I feel about this—I fear it could replace actual research—but it does align with a growing sense that I have that personas and the like need to allow for different dimensions and changes more.
- I like the look of Localgovstatic—a static site template aimed at local councils. (I’m actually trying it out to see if it can be the next version of my sister’s accountancy website!)
- Digital career paths in the cultural sector are broken by Ash Mann. It’s hard for me to disagree with this—I’d love to be involved more in this area but—government just pays better and is a bit more stable.
- IKEA is doing proper commercial ethnography in preparation for launching in Aotearoa New Zealand (yes, you read that right, there is no IKEA there, despite Australia having them for *50 years*)
- I saw Gerry and Sewell at Newcastle's Live Theatre. It’s becoming something of a North East touchstone: the original book The Season Ticket by Jonathan Tulloch became the Purely Belter film and then an early play. This version—a transplant from down-the-road-from-me theatre Laurels—is more gritty and authentically Geordie.
- I also saw May December at the Tyneside Cinema with a friend. Done by the same director as the excellent Carol, it plays with acting, stories and truth. It’s probably not a film I’ll rewatch but did enjoy seeing, both for the acting and the sumptuous cinematography.
- From November 3 years ago - people's readings from lockdown. After both Humanly Possible and At the Existentialist Cafe mentioning Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain, I'm tempted to have a go at that…
- And recent but a far longer slog: a book club just finished Finngeans Wake, 28 years after they started it
- 'One Hand In My Pocket' but with dog temperaments - and the temperaments are as described in the book
- And finally—wasn't the Doctor Who new episode good? Even more fun are the clips of Miriam Margoyles voicing Meep
Until next time,