Episode Twenty Six: An Alternative; Washing; Users

by danhon

1.0 An Alternative

Yesterday I wrote about the concept of a Very British Startup and in that wonderful sense of synchronicity where people smarter than you do things more eloquently than you with words and stuff, Cameron Koczon published a great article on The Pastry Box project titled Scenes from the Internet[1]. It was a lament at the shutting down of Editorially and a recognition of the refreshingly honest post about why: “Editorially has failed to attract enough users to be sustainable, and we cannot honestly say we have reason to expect that to change.”

Koczon goes on to dissect the narrative behind WhatsApp and patiently explains the job that it is that VCs do. I’ve been on the end of this twice; at the first startup I joined, Mind Candy, before it executed its last-minute saving-throw pivot from (in my view) stupendously early monetised collectible card game/ARG to stupendously successful kids virtual world; and latterly when my brother and I moved on and took angel funding from a pseudo-government VC.

Koczon tries to put it in simple terms. VCs are in the explicit business of betting on huge returns. *Huge*. It’s not for nothing that there’s talk of hockeysticks in growth terms. And let me put it to you like this, if you haven’t been there: do you know what it *feels like* to be on the ascent of a hockey stick? I don’t. I only know what it was like to be aggressively pushed and maneuvered onto the launchpad and to be doused in the accelerant. The goal of the VC is that, amongst its portfolio of companies, there are the one or two that will provide the hundred-x return that will satisfy their fund partners growth rates. Whatever it takes.

VCs as such aren’t villains, as Koczon points out. They’re simply aggressive, monomaniacal dollar-sign copy-pasting machines. You have to hand it to them, they’re pretty direct about what they want.

Now, if you know that’s what you’re getting into, that’s absolutely fine. But, and this is a big but, that’s demonstrably not the only way to a) run a business or b) solve a problem. Sometimes priorities and agendas might line up just so, where a VC and a founding team love each other very much and everyone gets what everyone gets. But, by definition, those goals are pretty lofty.

I don’t know if it’s just a British/American culture thing but there’s (a likely rose-tinted) hobbyist Isambard Kingdom Brunel[2] type of lack of missionary zeal. In my head, I have alarm bells going off and lights flashing when I try to describe him, or the thought of him, as someone who would roll up his sleeves, muck in and get the job done as being distinctly Cameron-esque. But fuck me if there wasn’t a considered carefulness to everything that he did but at the same time an undeniable big-world effect. And all without, again, that missionary zeal of hockey sticking profit motive and talk of markets.

If you’re ever considering dealing with a VC, and you have’t before, just remember this quote from The Bourne Identity: “Look at what they make you give”.

Now, I’m personally attached to the story and journey of BERG because many of the people who work (and have worked there) are close friends. But they are by no means the only example of that very particular British endeavour (and, isn’t there something interesting in characterising a business as an endeavour, rather than a startup?) The force of American narrative around business is so strong that even the Lean Manifesto camp cannot help but be evangelistic about their way of doing things. But what is a quiet way of doing things? Of tinkering around at the edges and not of making the world change through fury and light but through strategic applications of force? It’s this way (and, arguably – and probably a post-rationalisation) that you could explain the success of ARM Holdings, that finally won the great RISC/CISC war and, in the end, may well be the microprocessor architecture that holds sway for the next fifty years as everything irrevocably heads towards being capable of computation. A British company? How strange.

I’m reminded of Stephenson’s clades from The Diamond Age – in that particular case, he was making the point of cultural affiliation being stronger than national – and we don’t need to look much further than our 21cen newsnets to see how the cryptocurrency movement or occupy or open source is reflecting that point for him. But again, Stephenson grafted onto that the Vickys, and a certain fetishisation of their strict moral code. I do wonder if the BERG-alikes are eking out their own post-colonial, humble British version of remaking the world. Only from a tinkerer’s shed.

[1] https://the-pastry-box-project.net/cameron-koczon/2014-february-26
[2] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Isambard_Kingdom_Brunel

2.0 Washing

My Twitter feed blew up this morning in response to Rachel Coldicutt’s bloody insightful post[1] in response to BERG’s Cloudwash proof-of-concept. Entitled “Domestic Folklore, or Washing Machines for Men” it was so much more helpful to the conversation about what’s interesting about washing machine design than, say, a Medium article about how this one chap needs to call up his mum to decipher fabric care instructions.

And yet.

There’s a stunning point, right at the end of Coldicutt’s second para, where she insightfully cuts to the chase. Whether it’s intended or not, the Cloudwash proof-of-concept *feels like* a washing machine for men, because the demo outlines scenarios that point to this:

“It’s a washing machine for people who don’t know how to use washing machines; who don’t need to wash a wide-range of fabrics, worry about how colourfast material is, or how wet or dry clothes are when you take them out of the machine. It’s a washing machine for people who do bulk washes of jeans and t-shirts and sometimes wash other things.”

It does, not through sexist intent, I’m absolutely sure, feel like a washing machine for people who do bulk washes of jeans and t-shirts – and yes, sometimes other things – which *generally* and without wishing to stereotype, feels like a washing machine for men. On the other hand, it might not – again, not wishing to stereotype – not *feel* like a washing machine for men, to men.

There are a number of things that ended up being explored in conversation on Twitter. Chief of which the disarmingly simple insight by Tom Insam that the “problem” such as it is, isn’t necessarily the washing of clothes. Washing is simply the activity. It’s, as he points out, the care[2] of the clothes. Chucking in any set of clothes at 30 degrees on a normal cycle is, more or less, going to get the clean. But for long-term care and making sure that things don’t change size or bleed or bobble or whatever – that’s why there are different programs, and even why there’s nothing preventing you from washing jeans and t-shirts together to get them clean, if you want them to last longer, you ideally shouldn’t.

It’s interesting because the simple act of picking an object of which the design can be improved has unpacked and illustrated a vast array of issues. None of them are irrelevant, but at the same time (and this is a theme here), they’re all interconnected and depend upon context and nuance. It’s a cop out to say “it depends”, but it turns out that the simple act of washing clothes brings with it a lot of assumptions.

Yes, you can look at specialist domain knowledge being rendered obsolete as orthogonal to being a gender issue. It applies equally to men and women. To be fair, given the state of the world that we live in right now, practically everything has (and probably should) have an awareness of gender if only to deal with the fact that it hasn’t, purely out of habit.

At the same time, every item of clothing these days comes with detailed care instructions. It certainly isn’t outside the capability of man to decide to take the time to look at those instructions and follow them, or even to read a manual (and yes, this does open up the washing manufacturers to better designed machines that make it easier to match care instructions to their interfaces).

Coldicutt says of this: “Like it or not, there’s a Secret Language of Domesticity. In technology terms, it’s the equivalent of “viewing source”: it’s not intentionally secret, it’s just easy to ignore if you’re not interested or don’t understand it.”

Now, to put this another way would be to say that there’s a certain amount of Domestic Infrastructure that, like all infrastructure, is hidden from plain sight. Or, if you want to think about it differently, is easy to ignore, when you want to concentrate on its effects. It’s this view-source of domestic infrastructure, or another way of looking at it, which reveals the underlying complexity. The care of clothes is not simply “bung them all in the washing machine and select a program.” It is, naturally, more nuanced than that. There are reasons why one might care more about one particular thing over another in a particular domestic situation (I have to admit that, for example, in terms of domestic infrastructure I’m more interested in and more motivated to care about wifi signal strength and whether we have adequate coverage and do I need to check out the new Airport base stations), and that’s absolutely fine.

What I guess I’m saying is this: increased visibility to complexity is a good thing, in general. You might not want to deal with it afterwards, but it’s better to understand. Increased visibility into a task or practice or system that has historically reinforced a particular display of gender roles? Even better.

The more I think about it, the more complexity is hidden in a system and only its effects exposed (“I just put dirty clothes in the basket and then they reappear, clean, folded and put away”) the more it’s likely to feel like “magic” and be disempowering. Ultimately, though, like with all magic, it’s not magic at all. It’s just hard work and practice.

[1] http://fabricofthings.wordpress.com/2014/02/27/domestic-folklore-or-washing-machines-for-men/
[2] https://twitter.com/tominsam/status/439095673607446529

3.0 From The Users Backward

I was chatting the other day on the phone with Yoz Grahame, an old friend best described recursively – like a small yoz-shaped object. He had mentioned that his child’s school required a printed, not handwritten record of vaccinations as the latter was ‘too easy to forge’. In a roundabout way, we got onto the subject of government provision of services online – at one level that a friend of a friend had been involved in the Healthcare.gov Bay Area task force to try and untangle the godawful mess and that it was much, much worse than you could possibly imagine (think: dust off, nuke the site from orbit; it’s the only way to be sure).

I feel a bit guilty and self-conscious about pointing toward the UK’s Government Digital Service because a) I know some of them and b) they keep getting attention. The thing is, they’re doing really good work, and in the words of Russell Davies, it’s not necessarily that they’re doing anything particularly *new* or particularly *insightful*, just the fact that they’re actually allowed to get on and do it in the first place. Sometimes it feels like that last observation is the most depressing, that but for humans being humans, we could be so much further along. But I digress.

The thing about the GDS, and tying this all together with the recent zeitgeist and fetishisation for all things Apple and Jobs and design with a capital D, is this: a focus on user needs and working from the user backward. If there is any arena in which the need for thinking from the user backward is apparent, it’s in the arena of politics and the provision of public services to citizens. I’m absolutely self-aware and wanting to not slip into some type of cult-like reverence for the mantras and principles that GDS are laying down, but honestly: when you look at the rhetoric of the formation of the United States – and I’ve been to the Mall at Washington, I’ve been to the Jefferson memorial and watched that video and damn if you don’t tear up at the sheer optimism of We The People and When In The Course Of Human Events. That’s the America that I love, despite it not being the country that birthed me.

So this thing about focusing on the end-user. With my cynical hat on, I see GDS as an opportunistic Conservative government tasked with reducing the size of government seizing “digital” as a chance to reduce cost while retaining delivery. On the other hand, knowing some of the people working at GDS, I see them as seizing the opportunity to rethink and radically improve the experience of service delivery in a once-in-a-lifetime chance. This perfect storm of budgetary political capital with missionary zeal has enabled government to do something that, on both sides of the Atlantic, it’s reluctant to: take the provision and delivery of service in-house instead of contracting out.

I worry that this model doesn’t work for the United States, and/or that the imperatives and values don’t quite sync up yet. There’s a particularly American sensibility about a lack of trust in the federal model and the downright obsessive devolution of power down to the most local level. So while it makes sense, in a way, for federal standards to be set, it’s hard, against a background of states’ rights, to say that Federal.gov gets to set the agenda and to not give states the opportunity or wherewithal to decide upon their own implementation. (That said: one possible get-out is that of the regulation of interstate commerce, which is one area in which states are, or have been, happy to cede some degree of responsibility and authority but which is always trotted out in terms of federal overreach).

That was an aside: the real thing is this. If there is a manifesto for the digital age, it might go something like this: Government For The Users, By The Users. Digital is the excuse to focus on government as service delivery and keeping up its side of the bargain. Policy enacted through code is measurable. This might sound techno-utopian and practically baiting Evgeny Morozov, but I don’t think it is: no one is saying that the code fixes anything, more that:

a) it’s now desirable and tenable to enact policy, ie deliver services through code
b) a focus on service delivery through code requires discipline of thinking – sloppy code doesn’t work
c) the possibility of government emulating the Unix philosophy of being strict in what it emits, but flexible in what it accepts

A focus on delivery (and with GDS appearing to work completely through the stack, from end-user delivery through to the composition of teams that perform that delivery all the way upward to ministerial policy) feels like it removes the opportunity for a lot of wiggle room and ambiguity. Look: do you want everyone to get ID cards or not? Because we’re designing the system that delivers that, and you can’t accidentally forget to service an entire audience when your focus is on the user.

It is hard to see how government can outsource this function of service delivery to third parties. Historically they haven’t been able to provide “good” solutions. Government, especially in the United States, is sensitive to accusations of profligacy but simultaneously to the exposure of risk. So requirements are overengineered and procurement more an exercise in risk reduction than anything else (and procurement is the source of at least ten thousand words worth of its own material). But when you put it to politicians that service delivery is *for the users*, it’s hard to argue that risk reduction be the primary goal against which procurement be measured. Because, ultimately, those politicians are accountable to users in a way that board level management isn’t. In our democracies, there are always alternatives: they might not be different enough, but there’s always the threat of another guy. Even with gerrymandering.

You can argue about *what* services a government should provide to its populace. But once agreed, you cannot argue that they be inaccessible. That sort of thinking leads to losing votes.

The user is, after all, where the rubber hits the road. And a policy doesn’t matter a damn if it’s not usable.

I know there are a number of Code for America and GDS readers subscribed to this newsletter. Is this right? Migursky and Loosemore, I’m looking, pointedly, at you, because now I’m angry.

That’s all for Thursday. As ever, please do send me your notes. Although I write this for me – the practice and the discipline of getting my thoughts out every day – I also do it for you and your reactions.

Best regards,