Circle discussions, the KJ-Method, and evolutionary purpose

For the past few months I’ve been thinking a lot about purpose.
Like many people I’ve been inspired by Frederic Laloux’s work on next-stage organisations. ‘Evolutionary purpose’, along with self-management and ‘wholeness’, is one of the three big elements of next-stage organisations. Purpose is:

a powerful drive to do work that has meaning and purpose. The concept of ‘being the best’ becomes a hollow aim unless the organization is doing something worthy of the energy, talents and creativity of the people who work there.

The Reinventing Organizations wiki

I help run a meetup called Reinventing Work: Bristol. We agreed early on that we didn’t want this meetup to become a talking shop. But we did feel we needed to start by defining what we were meeting up for. So we decided to spend our first couple of sessions defining our group’s purpose. These are my thoughts on that process.

Continue reading “Circle discussions, the KJ-Method, and evolutionary purpose”

How we made a 9 day fortnight a reality

At Edo we recently began offering a 9 day fortnight, as part of our journey toward being a next-stage organisation. I wrote about it for Corporate Rebels:

Last month, our Head of People Claire shared the exciting news that we were going to offer the option of working a 9 day fortnight. With the new financial year on the horizon, everyone would be able to choose between receiving a pay rise, or having every other Friday off.

Edo is a design and technology consultancy in Bristol, UK, with a permanent staff of about 25. It’s always been a good place to work, with a healthy work/life balance. But we knew some of our approaches were informed more by how we thought things should be done than what we really needed.

There was too much process and hierarchy. Our journey has been influenced by Frederic Laloux and sites like Corporate Rebels. Less hierarchy, more autonomy, and greater wellness and purpose at work began to feel like the solutions we needed.

Read the rest at Corporate Rebels.

Designing user research

I wrote this blog post with Jess from People For Research, about how to design the best research experience:

There’s no one perfect way to do user research. Every method has its pros and cons. The key is to design the research process. Just like anything else you might design (a website, a gadget, or a garden) it’s about:

Defining the problem(s) you want to solve

Coming up with a solution that works within the constraints of time and budget

Read the rest at People For Research.

How story mapping is helping us humanise requirements

User stories spreadsheets are an important part of any project, but they make it difficult to keep your eye on the big picture. Here’s how we’re using story maps to improve the requirements process.

Defining requirements is a key part of user-centred design. At the end of a block of research we have a load of insight into user needs- top tasks, motivations, pain points, emotions and more. Turning this into a tangible list of things to prioritise (then actually do!) is vital.

What we used to do

Our old method will be familiar to anyone who’s ever worked on a website or software – user stories. First, we’d put every requirement in a spreadsheet, one per row. These might be user requirements, business requirements, or technical requirements. Then, we’d get the project team in a room and spend the next few hours prioritising them. The advantage of this approach was the detail. Every requirement- user, business and tech- was graded and ranked in relation to every other requirement. The disadvantage was that the process didn’t serve the needs of its users – the project team. Spending four hours in a hot meeting room updating a spreadsheet is boring. Really, really, boring. Once, somebody said they were going out to send an email and didn’t come back for two hours.

After significant time and effort doing research and sharing our findings this process set us up to ignore user needs, and instead focus on out-of-context details. We needed a new approach.

What we do now

So we decided to try story mapping, based on Jeff Patton’s book, User Story Mapping.

As Patton says, “Arranging user stories in the order you’ll build them doesn’t help me explain to others what the system does.” So not only is the process of user story prioritisation a hard slog, it guarantees the project team loses sight of what it is they’re actually making. “Building a user story map,” on the other hand, “helps us focus on the big picture – the product as a whole instead of getting myopically focused on an individual story.”

How does story mapping work?

A user story backlog gives granular detail, but it’s arranged by priority, not context. Different requirements can appear next to each other in the backlog solely because they’re of similar importance. A story map still contains all this detail, but the requirements are grouped by theme. Rather than a list, it’s a narrative.

How do you make a story map?

  • Start with an overarching vision
  • Break this vision down into a set of goals based on the research (for example top tasks)
  • Explain the activities required to reach each goal (again, based on research)
  • Break each activity down into the details required to complete it

Here’s an example:

  • The overall vision is: ‘A website which offers online training courses for large companies’
  • Within this, one goal might be: ‘Finding training courses for your team’
  • This goal could be achieved through various activities. For example: ‘Browsing all courses’, ‘Searching for a specific course’, ‘Being recommended courses based on your interests’ etc.
  • How a user would complete each activity can then be broken down into individual details. To browse all courses, for example, they might have to see a page listing for every course, filter it by date, filter it by intended audience, and so on. Add as many details as we need to fully explain how an activity will be completed.

What does story mapping look like?

Our story mapping workshops involve lots and lots of sticky notes. These workshops are a great way to get everyone from a project team involved. They’re also pretty much the opposite of staring at a user stories spreadsheet.

Every vision, goal, activity or detail gets its own sticky note. These are then grouped, expanded upon and shuffled around until the full story is told- how the details help users complete an activity, how activities fulfill a particular goal, and how these goals achieve the overall vision.

We also like to create an online backup, which won’t get left on a train and can be kept up-to-date as conversations continue the next day. So after a story mapping workshop we put everything into an online tool called StoriesOnBoard.

Why is story mapping better?

It’s important to point out is that this process doesn’t replace user stories. Tools like ‘StoriesOnBoard’ even let you export your entries into a spreadsheet or JIRA. But a user stories document is a big list of requirements. A story map is an explanation of what needs to be done, why it needs to be done, and how users will do it. It provides context and meaning, in a way that a spreadsheet simply can’t. Story maps stay ‘alive’ throughout a project and beyond, helping us visualise and understand user needs in a way that spreadsheets simply can’t.

This post originally appeared on the Edo blog.

Talking chat apps

Last week I did a short talk at our agency knowledge share about the new generation of chat apps. Here are some notes on what I talked about:

Facebook Messenger and Whatsapp

Here in the UK we’re pretty familiar with Facebook Messenger and Whatsapp. Many (maybe most?) people with a smartphone use some combination of these (plus iMessage if they have an Apple device) as an alternative to text messaging. To us, they’re a great way to send messages and share photos with family and friends. In Burundi, journalists are using WhatsApp to beat a news blackout by sharing information and hosting editorial meetings before posting to social media. In Kuwait, retailers post items for sale – including sheep – on Instagram, along with a WhatsApp number to contact if you’re interested in buying.

In both cases, no website is required. Everything – from meetings, to posting items for sale, to making a purchase – is done within mobile apps.

Screenshot of @Sheeps_Sell’s Instagram pageScreenshot of @Sheeps_Sell’s Instagram page (now closed, sadly), via


Snapchat gets a bad rap. If you’re older than, say, 19, Ben Rosen’s investigation into how to ‘Snapchat like the teens’ might feel like a glimpse inside a bizarre alien culture. But there’s much more to it than this. Make ‘friends’ with an online publisher and they’ll send you photos and videos that complement their website. For example The Verge recently sent a short video explaining how to tweak settings to improve your iPhone’s battery life following the latest iOS update). Going a step further, big publishers can now appear in the ‘Discover’ section. Here, you can watch news and sport highlights, comedy clips or music videos, even if you’re not Snapchat ‘friends’:

Snapchat discover apps sectionSnapchat has moved far beyond teenagers sending photos to their friends. And, again, this is all happening in an app. No website required.


Looking further afield, a chat app called WeChat is pretty much ubiquitous in China. At first glance it looks just like any other chat app. But it also has apps within the app. These are verified by WeChat, and to use them users just add them as friends like they would a person. Importantly, one of the apps is the ‘wallet’ – which lets you connect your bank account and pay for things within WeChat. Need to order a taxi? Use a WeChat app. Pay an electricity bill? Use a WeChat app. And it’s not just commerce – here’s the app for booking a doctor’s appointment:

How to book a doctor's appointment using We ChatImage via

And yet again, this can all happen within a single app. No website required. If you want to know more about WeChat, Connie Chan’s epic walkthrough is one of the most interesting things I’ve read in a long time.

What does it mean?

Chat apps have definitely moved beyond being a simple replacement for text messaging. They’re mini ecosystems in themselves, full of videos, news, products for sale and useful apps. Soon they might contain bots. And, while they’re very much online, they don’t need websites. Websites aren’t going away any time soon, but the rise of chat apps presents an interesting challenge. If you’re creating something (perhaps an app or a bot) that lives in someone else’s app, you have far less control over things like visual design, layout, or technology. Where does that leave us? Well, some things won’t change – people will still value top quality content and being able to do what they want to do easily. Even more than before, user-centred design is key.

This post originally appeared on the Sift Digital blog.

Bristol Pound: user research on a limited budget

Bristol Pound logoBristol Pound is a city-wide alternative currency, designed to keep money circulating within local businesses in Bristol.

Earlier this year they contacted me to see if we could lend our expertise to a couple of problems they were having:

  1. The Bristol Pound is a fantastic way to support local businesses, but explaining what it is and how it works is surprisingly tricky.
  2. This was coming across on the Bristol Pound website and in their wider digital communications and strategy. With so many things to explain and ideas to get across, things were becoming complex.

Helping solve these sorts of problems is what gets user experience consultants out of bed in the morning, and helping a local community organisation in the process was too good an opportunity to miss!

What we did

There was a limited budget, so an extensive programme of interviews, internal research and user testing wasn’t going to be possible. We put together a lightweight programme of work which would still help us find out key user needs and strategic goals:

  • An online user survey
  • A group workshop with Bristol Pound users
  • A strategy workshop with Bristol Pound staff

Bristol Pound did a great job of getting the survey out, with an email to their subscribers and regular promotion on social media. This meant we had some rich quantitative data to get our heads into before the workshops began, and could really explore the main themes in detail during these.

What we found

There were clear results from the user research. The quantitative data from survey respondents closely matching the qualitative data from workshop participants. People’s ‘top tasks’ (the key things they wanted to do) were learning what the Bristol Pound is, finding out how to get them, and where to spend them. Their main pain points (the places where they struggled most) were almost always to do with creating or accessing user accounts, and understanding the process of saving and spending Bristol Pounds.

The user workshop also let us ask some questions about Bristol Pound’s content strategy and tone of voice. Participants talked in particular about the importance of the word ‘local’ (both supporting local businesses and helping your city) and ‘trust’ (that knowing Bristol Pound is a safe and secure way to spend money is hugely reassuring).

We discussed all this in some depth during the afternoon workshop, with the aim of refining user feedback into some simple digital principles. We landed on four questions people wanted to know the answer to:

  • What is the Bristol Pound?
  • What is it for?
  • Why should I use it?
  • Where can I spend it?

Answering these four simple questions would give Bristol Pound huge scope to engage its existing users and gain new ones. We also began to discuss where these conversations might be held. Everything from the homepage, to case studies, to infographics, to email newsletters, to social media posts could be a part of this.

We’ve left the Bristol Pound team with a much clearer sense of what users want and need from them. The Bristol Pound team are already beginning to have these conversations online, and we look forward to seeing more fruits of their labours soon!

“Sift Digital helped us take a more user-focussed view of the Bristol Pound online. We’re applying the insights from their user research and internal workshop to our website, our online communications, and our wider digital strategy.”

– Mark Burton, Director, Bristol Pound

This post originally appeared on the Sift Digital blog.

What is UX and why should you care?

I always try to correct people who talk about designing or improving ‘the UX’. They talk as if a user’s experience can be designed. User experience isn’t just trying to make the interface more usable by looking at the colour or placement of different items. It’s not something that should be sprinkled onto a project if time and budget allows.

UX aims to ask questions and solve problems. It’s the first step towards a user-centred design. It’s researching user needs and testing them. Its aim is to find out what the people who engage with your organisation really need, not what we think (or hope!) they need. Wireframes are one well-known way to get this on the page, but they’re not the product.

UX in 2020

So why should you care? In five years’ time, what advantages will an organisation that invests in UX have over one that doesn’t?

This time five years ago we talked about mobile websites, not responsive design. These were the best phones of 2010. The first iPad was yet to be released. Now my gran has one. It’s really hard to predict what the digital world will look like in 2020. But one way to figure out what the people who use our products and services will want is by doing research.

Organisations who don’t do this- those who try to guess what users need, or just bury their heads in the sand- will struggle, just as those who didn’t adapt to the rise of smartphones and tablets struggled. Here are some examples of organisations who studied what users needed, made changes, and reaped the rewards:

XKCD: University Website cartoon
Every UXer’s favourite comic

What to do

If you’re inspired to make user experience a core part of your organisation’s digital strategy, where do you start?

User experience is more than just a deliverable. For the most successful organisations it’s integrated into their culture. This means that your organisation needs to go far beyond the occasional ‘UX project’ and embed UX into everything it does. Research, iterate and refine what you do online:

  • Pick some key goals- perhaps lots of people are dropping out of your checkout process, or newsletter signups are surprisingly low- and find out what’s going on. You could do this with a survey and/or some user interviews for example.
  • Investigate what tasks users want to complete, and where your digital offering helps or hinders them. Be as unbiased and open to criticism as possible- now isn’t the time to correct someone’s misconceptions!
  • Decide on the change(s) you want to make and track your results.
  • Repeat. Keep repeating it. As in, forever. There’s no completion date, just a process of continuous improvement. Websites are like gardens, and they need to be maintained.


Smashing Magazine has a huge list aimed at ecommerce, but there’s plenty that applies elsewhere.

GoodUI has over 50 suggestions for improving conversions.

This post originally appeared on the Sift Digital blog.