Wednesday, 31 December 2014

On disruption and communication 2

Brighton Sea front frosted 2
I didn't anticpate quite so many examples to my December blog post on disruption and communication so soon. As a follow up I'd like to briefly mention some of these, ranging from at best inconvenient and stressful experiences to the frightening and life taking.

Taking the first and the seeming inability of the British rail system to cope with our seasons. They suffer with trust and respect as a lot of the people using the system for holiday travel are also regular commuters. Indeed my Facebook feed has a number of people complaining that they have to put up with this all year round. 

With the scenes at Finsbury Park and the snow closing Liverpool’s John Lennon Airport and Leeds Bradford International airport, it's got to have a knock on with passenger trust and with the relatively trivial nature of the impact there isn't much opportunity for the companies involved to show respect. Apart from maybe top execs giving up their bonus ...

As an aside a couple of years ago I was stuck in a similar delay to engineering works with a signal failure just outside London, it was seemingly the slowest train journey I have ever taken inching at a snails pace closer into Kings Cross. If I had known about the delays earlier then I could've stayed a bit longer with my family in Yorkshire.

At the more serious end of the scale this month was the sad news about an Indonesian AirAsia flight going missing. As the news of the disaster unfolded I was struck by the respect from both AirAsia in changing their brand logo to a muted grey version and local rivals Scoot tweeting about not running sales on the route:

In my previous article I talked about trust and, in my opinion, living and breathing respect for your customers and partners is the best way to gain that. This is a bit of an extreme example, but it also shows why operational knowledge and a human touch is needed so why I don't think automation is appropriate in social media and why it shouldn't be silo'd off. Social media should sit close enough to the action to be timely, (social!) and helpful.

While we remember those that have lost their lives we should not forget that, despite media focus due to the region's airlines involved this year, 2014 was the safest year for air travel in the modern era. Let's look forward to fewer accidents and safer flying in 2015.

Further Reading

Sunday, 28 December 2014


I don't usual write about my workplace directly on social media or this blog. But today I'm just going to briefly touch on some of what makes it a good place to work for me. Basically for me a good work place always boils down to two things 1) the people and 2) a general sense of inquisitiveness.

Working Late by Thomas H√łyrup Christensen
I work for 15below a software development company that specialises in the travel industry. It's fair to say we are probably market leaders in the kind of workflow driven notifications that we do.

We have internal tools that started for a particular business need and are now side projects such as Gallifrey, what I love watching here is how is allows people to play with techniques that aren't always useful in the day job - such as click once deployment in github

We also have internal tools, which are part of say our build chain, that get open sourced - such as the aptly named Build.Tools or fixes to how packaging works in NuGet, which as well as that project spawned and article on how NuGet Install is broken (and follow up from Michael the author of NuGetPlus).

Some of our internal research and prototyping also turn into blog articles such as Lua for scripting workflows or Adaptive techniques for polling. These ideas don't always make it into the product, but hopefully someone in the wider community will find them useful.

We also bring in ideas where possible, such as TDD that tie in neatly to lessons 2 and 4 from what one of our co-founders has learnt over the past 10 years.

That's just a small selection of articles that scratch the surface of what gets me up in the morning to go to work.

Tuesday, 23 December 2014

On disruption and communication

Brighton Beach Snowman 1 by Neil Chalk
As the festive season gets into full swing, I am glad that I am not reliant on using mass public transport before I can relax and enjoy myself this year. Especially after reading the news this morning - predicting rail disruption caused by floods in the mild weather

For around the past decade my day job has involved helping travel companies in passenger communications; as distilled into these top tips of The 3 Big Ideas In Managing Passenger Disruption or in Managing Travel Disruption that looks at more crisis orientated passenger communications.

But from the small journeys that I have taken in the past week, whether by bus or train, one takeaway has been that small delays can be frustrating when you don't know the reason or trust the information provided. And trust really is a key issue, as important when things are going right as when disaster hits. After all if people can't trust the information you give them when things are going smoothly they aren't going to feel reassured when things are going wrong.

The second thing I think is important for really smooth crisis communications is being really good at doing it. Having a good plan that can be executed in a crisis is essential. For it to really be well implemented then you need good communications to be second nature. You need staff familiar with using the same tools and infrastructure, the best way of doing that is to be good at communicating when things are going well, aside from the small delays. This ties neatly into my first observation, building trust when things are going well also helps train people for effective communications when a disaster strikes.

Well, my brain is just about ready to switch off now and enjoy some mince pies. So season's greetings wherever you may be!

Edit: I've written an addition to this piece looking at some of the events in the past week - On disruption and communication 2

Related videos

Some videos going behind the scenes at airlines, a mix of business as usual and irregular operations ...

Sunday, 14 December 2014

On innovation systems and careers

fishbowl jump by Kay Kim
A few days ago Timehop popped up a link to Brighton: The UK's Silicon Valley or Just a Feeder City for London? that was written a year ago and the situation has changed that much (although 15below could be another name to go with Brandwatch! ;-)) The story laid out was quite familiar, very few of my friends at university stayed in the area though and I moved out for 4 years getting experience in ... you guessed it in London! It also chimes in with the effects of innovation systems talked about in the book Get off the Grass: Kickstarting New Zealand’s Innovation Economy by Shaun Hendy and Paul Callaghan.

In Chapter 3 of Get off the Grass the authers tell the story of the origin of Sillicon Valley and how agglormeration had made it successful, this area previously had an industry manufactoring valves that had powered electrical circuits before transitors.

The story of Silicon Valley nicely illustrates the three key aspects of the agglomeration process. First, knowledge spillovers played an important part in the development of the transistor as employees jumped from one start-up to the next, taking their skills and experience with them. Second, the economies of scale in production that developed as the military and the Apollo programme increased their orders for transistors eventually took the industry to the point where the transistor was cheap enough to be incorporated into consumer goods. Once Silicon Valley had gained its edge in the semiconductor industry, it became very difficult for firms in other regions to remain competitive.

The Silicon Beach label and attempt to create a creative digital agency centre fails because of this diversity. We have the graduates produced by the university but none of the traditional printing and publishing industry, to supply experienced skilled workers, or large companies to use the services of a creative agency. There is some scepticism locally about how much substance there is to this kind of effort and the local benefit of the two universities in the city, for example @SkidRowOn_Sea isn't a fan of the hype given to digital agencies:

Part of the reasons behind this were discussed in chapter 4 of Get Off The Grass with the success of Nokia and interplay between the parent industry providing the skilled workforce, much like Silicon Valley, and the investment in academia in related fields of study provided the ecosystem

one of the key ingredients behind Finland’s success was the development of a cluster of companies and institutions around Nokia that created a robust innovation ecosystem in which business could flourish.

Ultimately you can't just create a Silicon Valley by supporting start-ups in one industry newly transplanted into an area. Although agglomeration effects help, you need to develop a whole eco-system with not only supporting industries - say suppliers and potential customers - but different kinds of companies in the same industry to allow progression and experience to stay in the area to do this.

So, what happens if you do graduate, find a job in Silicon Beach then after a couple of years want to move on but aren't keen on commuting - and with tweets like a regular occupancy in my timeline, is it any wonder people aren't keen on commuting?

Ancedotally, After a while this tends to push people into moving up to London if they can't get a job back in Brighton. This troubles me a bit, you lose some of that "knowledge spill over" talked about above. Personally to get around this I mainly attend out of work meetups in London, for example either at the BCS HQ or ThoughtWorks briefing, to meet a wider range of people working on more varied projects. London has by far the largest percentage of graduates in its workforce compared to other major cities.

House prices are forcing a reaction against this pushing push people away from London, but according to Office of National Statistic (via the Guardian) they aren't coming down the coast, they are going to cities like Birmingham and other regional centres. 
What does this mean for Brighton? well we suffer from proximity to London that has an unusually high draw on graduates, we don't seem to have an industry for agglomeration effects to be beneficial ... although with software product companies like Brandwatch, Pure360 and 15below growing in size with their network of national and international clients I am fairly optimistic that we may be at the start of this process. It will require some commitment in providing the office space and infrastructure to support companies as they grow from moving and importantly allow other companies to setup bases here, how different would the landscape look for graduates and expereinced workers alike with a Facebook or Microsoft having some kind of local presence?

Sunday, 23 November 2014

On buying behaviours and usability

This week I have been purchasing the photos from the running events that I've taken part in this year. One thing that I like, about getting several sets at the same time, is that it allows me to look at the user experience I come away with from each photo solution. So here I'm going to briefly compare two sites and think about any lessons I could draw for the travel industry, since that's where I work.

The first experience

I just wanted to discuss two different sites that left me quite different feelings. The first looked like a user forum from about 10 years ago. The search on race number takes you to page dominated by the search tool and other screen furniture about the gallery. This is followed by thumbnails of the matching photos.

Clicking on any of these photos then takes you to the screen below, with various purchasing options including confusingly "All my images". There are some Google ads, which when looking at a friends images had an amusing double entendre that was distracting!

Similar event, different photo experience

The second site that I looked at had a much cleaner design straight away. Although again it was presenting me with a gallery of relevant thumbnails. The page was much easier to read.

 Taking a look at the left hand side zoomed in, the instructions on how to purchase have been brought to the fore, it's easy to see at a glance how to get either single or bulk images. Another example in clarity on this site was the cost per image when you do bulk buy, the first site doesn't make this clear (and would've seemed much better value to me if it had!)

Zooming in to the top right hand corner, we can see that the option to refine or change the search is still present but the hidden behind a button to remove the distracting entry.


One thought that was noticeable from comparing these two is the close proximity between adverts and content, and the impression it gives in relation to your brand, application and content - in one page view it actually completely distracted attention from the content.

Second thought is that I preferred the photography on the first site, but got a much more professional experience from the second site. Details matter and being best at your core competency might not be enough for a good first impression. 

Another is thought was "why are people there in the first place?" and does this change with experience? About four years ago I used to go and look through all my photos, but buy none. Now I have a skim through the thumbnails and buy all as a package, since I've learnt that it's more cost effective than buying individual images, there is also a time cost in paging through photos on the internet and finally if you don't order the photos will be archived off and the opportunity gone to purchase forever. I found both of these behaviours are much easier on the second site. Indeed, I nearly missed buying any from the first until I noticed where buy all was.

Lesson for the travel industry?

Picking up on the last point, it's important to remember that why people are there - in your app on your site - might not be the focus of your business. Taking an example from my own industry - and airlines specifically - if I'm going skiing to Val d'Isere then that's the "job" I'm doing, the flight is just a component that helps achieves this. Although there are a couple of exceptions to this, for example last Concorde flight, the first A380 flight or more regular enthusiast flights, there is potential for an airline to take a different approach to the marketing/booking journey. 

Here it might actually be worth putting the ancillaries front and centre with the actual flights taking a back seat. It's possible to know that the route is used as key ski route and the dates selected are in the height of ski season, so a better booking journey could work backwards from the resort and ski passes to home via a flight bundle that includes transfers, winter sports insurance and an extra ski baggage allowance.

How could issues be prevented?
Finally, going back to the two sites that I compared, it could be unfair as one is much older than the other. It's a pure guess on my part but it could be down to solution being written as part of the requirements or the requirements being handed over as features to deliver in a checklist fashion. I've written before how I like Job Stories and I think that helps with both issues. Although you still need some kind product management activity to keep the focus and ensure that the capability helps the job get done rather than blindly building features. I also like the approach Nina Mehta talks about in What to do with a bullet-pointed list of features - and you are really going to need to do something between a list of features and the delivery activity.

That's all from me today, since we live in the age of the quantified self time to look at my Nike+ stats :-)

Monday, 20 October 2014

On empathy and solutions

Recently I've been thinking about empathy in product development and how often in commercial software development that you are not the user. One area that I see a lot of people focus on is separating the problem from a potential solution in requirements. 
Empathy Map by

User stories especially attempt to do this, unfortunately I don't think that the "As a ..." format as practiced is helpful, from my experience it's too easy to make it a justification exercise for a solution, it doesn't really help promote empathy or show that the user has really been taken into account. (Your mileage may vary and I'd be interested to hear from anyone who thinks that the "As A ..." user story format is the best available)

In Innovation is not magic  Aly and Fernanda make the point
"Innovators can get excited about things they can do and can become dazzled by the splendor of their own creation. When someone has an idea, it is only human nature to rush forward to a solution."
This sums up for me the trap you can easily fall into. For this reason, I much prefer Job stories and the way that they lead you to talk to potential (or actual) users about what they are trying to achieve and why. The Volere requirements template is a much more "enterprise" type analysis framework that also talks about looking at the whole work to frame problems and find solutions. (another technique to help slow the jump from goal to features is to think about Capabilities being delivered)

For an example of what happens when empathy is lacking social networks are great examples, to pick one example twitter are experimenting with algorithmic curation of user's timelines. I've seen various posts complaining about this, but something in What’s Wrong with Twitter’s Latest Experiment with Broadcasting Favorites resonated with me and the sub-title sums it up

"It Steps over Social Signals While Looking for Technical Solutions"
the theme here being that the twitter engineers are looking for technical solutions that they can apply, rather than on real user problems based on what they are looking for in the system.

I guess my basic message is yes it's great when you have a cool technical solution, but it's even better when that solves a real need and aligns with the user's goals.

Sunday, 20 July 2014

On Unsubscribe and UX

Recently I have been doing some spring cleaning and unsubscribe from various newsletters that I've collected over the past year. One thing that has struck me is the very different user experiences that you get from such a simple task. So I thought I'd quickly run through the good, the bad and the ugly ...

London Gatwick airport's page says a simple "your request has been processed", what does this mean? how are my expectations being managed? (they aren't). Which newsletter was this again? Oops, how do I sign back up I didn't mean to click on that! This page looks particularly lazy, possibly not even a web page with any formatting. What makes this worse is that it is from a third party mail list management service ... it doesn't look like the whole user journey is considered equally.

Next up was Sweatshop with the confusing "been taken into account" ... 5 days later I was still receiving emails. That is a minor irritation but it creates a lack of trust, so you know I don't want more emails but will you take it into account and still send me some?! This is another email list management service, shouldn't they be a bit smarter about it? (at least they do have an HTML page with some formatting in this case)

Kobo's page was quite plain although with their branding and managing expectations - I know that I am now unsubscribed from marketing and also that I may still get some transactional emails.

A slightly older subscription I had was to be in the audience for BBC shows, they promptly process the unsubscribe within their site and give you a little teaser to hook you back in by showing you what you are missing.

The Brighton Fringe festival and Proud Ballrooms both use the same system, with the same formatting. Plus points for the optional setting of how many more emails to get before the stop emailing you. I'd say a big negative is the white label feel, coming from a branded email the experience is hardly seamless.

Ticketmaster's unsubscribe link takes you to a completely branded page as though you were on their site searching for tickets. Again it sets the expectation of when you'll be taken off the list and apologises in case you are already scheduled for a mail shot.

Unique so far in my email list clean up was the local karting track. They take you to their site and default the email options to no, but giving you the chance to add an option in. The interesting bit was the opportunity to supply social media details to be contacted by instead.

To sum up - the good sites unsubscribe you without fuss, set your expectations AND still provide a touch point with the brand in question - you might have clicked on the link by mistake on the train or you might see something that piques your interest and makes you sign back up to a different newsletter. 

The poor sites give vague messages on sites that are little better than placeholders. And you still get emails. And then another one.

Tuesday, 15 July 2014

BRIEFING: ThoughtWorks' QTB on Big Data

Some notes from this quarter's technology briefing from Thoughtworks. This session's topic was "Big Data". I was pleased that the topic was chosen as I am interest in Big Data and travel, especially how it can be used by my clients and to enhance the product that I work on.

Caitlin McDonald from twitter has also created a Storify story from tweets during the event (with the added bonus is that I am in the background to someone's photo)


The main speaker was David Elliman with Ashok Subramanian - David has also written a blog post called The Big in Big Data Misses the Point that presents some of the content covered or see the full presentation in English or German. The session started y looking at the origin of "information explosion" and how in the 1940s people were starting to get worried about the miles of shelf space would be needed by 2000 to store all the books produced. This was contrasted with the explosion of multimedia information produced now, for example pictures from camera phones or the daily output from the large hadron collider.

Next basic architecture such as MapReduce was explained along with what makes "Big Data" - variety, volume and velocity - but also that it's what you have in your data, you don't always need a large data set. Sampling is important!

Another point was that the relationship is that velocity and volume is inversely proportional, low volume allows more real time analysis towards batch processing with very large volumes. Sorting data takes around 80% of the time - understanding data and sorting models is key, don't expect to get a data dump and have instant insight as there is no one answer or model, it requires data scientist to understand question and go through models.

Process described to get successful insight was:

  1. Start small
  2. Start with "?"
  3. Iteratively follow the value
Next some implementations of the Lamda architecture were described and tools discussed, finishing off with a talk about data lakes and their similarity to enterprise data warehousing - i.e. not very like big data. The quote of the day came in this session:

"Master data management is the enemy of innovation"
Overall a good session highlighting the importance of good analytics in getting insight from data. Having read their big data blog I was surprised by this as they prefer the term Big Data Analytics.


Shoreditch village hall is quite a nice venue, a little bit of a pain from Brighton and the room layout made mingling a bit harder. The sound was had a bit of feedback at the start but soon settled down. The food was great, a very tasty cheese burger (non-cheese and non-meat burgers were also available).

Sunday, 6 July 2014

SUMMIT: SITA's Air Transport IT Summit 2014

It's been a couple of weeks now but I thought I'd share some thoughts from this year's SITA Air Transport IT Summit 2014.

From my personal perspective the interesting bits were around mobile and passenger communications. From the SITA survey results it looks like everything going self-service, with kiosks due to make a resurgence as a more intelligent touch point than the current check-in and boarding pass generators.

A key target for investment over the next 3 years is predicted to be baggage services, which was good to hear since that's what we'd thought at 15below towers in creating our customer conference presentations. Given the infrastructure changes over the past few years I'm quite excited about how the passenger experience can be improved in this area - having had to wait 16hours for my bag to turn up with minimal contact or updates I would certainly appreciate that!

After baggage, disruption management will be next, which does surprise me a bit having worked in this area for over 9 years ... what's taking these airlines so long! Those surveyed said they would move to preventative communications, but this needs good BI to get take-up going from 40% airlines now to 90% in 2017. 

Mobile will play critical role but channel choice depends on the step of journey the interaction happens (and not to mention customer preference!). Kiosks still have major role to play, increasingly adding info source, self serve recovery and the preventative communications.

It was pointed out that the sales of reservations systems was a key link between inventory/passenger relationship and managing complexity. I would add to this that third party integration specialists can help too.

Mobile is still mainly used for selling tickets and a third of airlines also provide flight related services. Adding more mobile services is seen as a top driver for mobile take up, followed by improving usability and then increasing awareness. Personalisation via preferences and real-time personalisation via mobile very low implementation today.  Plans to get take-up personalisation up to current ticket sales levels by 2017, again bit surprised by lag of personilsation in the industry having worked on integrations that provide that for so long.

The "Passenger experience" IATA video on YouTube was played and showed the passenger journey making a lot of use of apps and notifications to deliver automation, e.g. Boarding pass delivered without any obvious manual intervention. The point was also raised "what is check-in for anyway? can we achieve the same aims with less process (i.e. overhead)?"

That only covers the morning session, but plenty of food for thought there in how to improve the passenger experience. See more at the summit's download center.

Tuesday, 11 March 2014

On Starting Out and Responsible Engineers

"How do you learn how to use a code base?" a very simple question from a junior developer that has prompted a lot of thought. To be honest it's been a while since I was last at that point and it's so long ago I can't remember learning a new code base. But my advice was to learn and study the code, run it change it, see where it breaks. Do the same with other open source projects to deliberately learn how to learn code bases. Also do this outside of work, where there isn't the same pressure to deliver or perform. 

Apparently that wasn't a great answer as I got the reply, "What if you've got a life?", so a little motivation was in order :-) I've written about this before and point 3 from a W.S. Humphrey quote in my previous blog post on motivation and management was "the training and support to enable the work to be properly done". There are various training courses and sites available for teaching specific skills or technology but not as many on the support side of what is expected and how to get there.

"On Being A Senior Engineer" by Allspaw (an engineer at Etsy) is a very good round up on expectations of what characteristics a senior engineer has. It introduced me to the concept of the "mature engineer" and has a wide range of sources covering cognitive biases, the Dreyfus model in skill acquisition and much more.

Another good resource for a novice developer learning their craft is the  References from Habits of a Responsible Programmer by Anders Janmyr. Here he talks about good habits for coding, using tools, managing environments and working in projects.

Between those two posts there is a lot of varied and complex skills to master, where should you start? The BCS has a framework of skills and job roles, but they are a bit vague. How strategists level up - The Undercurrent Skills Maturity Matrix by Clay Parker Jones is a good example of a company looking at this problem and what they need to help guide people in their development, because it is specific to the company and deliberately measurable it seems a lot more useful to me.

Uncle Bob has written a blog post on the support and guidance novices need during their development, drawing parallels with other crafts and professions:
This is the way any reasonable trade or craft works. Interns don't do heart surgery upon getting their medical degree. Lawyers don't litigate supreme court cases upon getting their law degree. Electricians don't allow novices to wire up houses without supervision. Plumbers don't allow novices to connect all the water pipes in a house without supervision.

So make sure that you're in a supportive environment with people that will help you learn from your mistakes. A major lesson to learn is that it never works first time the main difference from a novice and an experienced programmer is how you respond to it, that's where the skill lies.

Finally ... make sure you're having fun! 

EditThe 3 Legs of an Architect an excellent blog post on the interaction between Skill, Impact and Leadership as architects gain seniority.

Should we design better products for older people?

This week I've been having a bit of think about products for an older audience, prompted by this tweet by Tom Peters ("The red bull...