Author Archives: Gerry McGovern

The Department of Useless Images

I’ve been asking people to send me examples of where digital government is working well. I’ve been getting lots of great examples but some maybe not so good. One suggestion was a link for a website in a language I don’t speak. When I clicked on the link I was confronted with one of those typical big images that you see on so many websites. I thought to myself: I’m going to try and understand this website based on its images.

The big image was of a well-dressed, middle-aged woman walking down the street while talking on her phone. I put on my Sherlock Holmes hat. Hmm … Something to do with telecommunications, perhaps? Why would they choose a woman, instead of a man, or a group of women and men? She’s married, I deduced by looking at the ring on her finger. What is that telling me? And what about her age? Why isn’t she younger or older? And why is she alone? Questions, questions, but I’m no Sherlock Holmes. I couldn’t deduce anything.

I scrolled down the page. Ah, three more images. The first one is a cartoon-like image of a family on vacation. Hmm … The next one is of two men and one woman in a room. One of them has reached their hand out and placed it on something, but I can’t see what that something is, because the other two have placed hands on top of the hand. It’s a type of pledge or something, a secret society, perhaps? Two of them are smiling and the third is trying to smile. What could that mean? And then the final picture is of a middle-aged man staring into the camera, neither smiling nor unsmiling, with a somewhat kind, thoughtful look.

I must admit after perusing all the visual evidence I have absolutely no clue what this government website is about. So, I went and I translated it. It’s about the employment conditions and legal status of government employees. Now, why didn’t I deduce that from the images? I’m sure Sherlock would have cracked that puzzle.

The Web is smothering in useless images. These clichéd, stock images communicate absolutely nothing of value, interest or use. They are one of the worst forms of digital pollution because they take up space on the page, forcing more useful content out of sight. They also slow down the site’s ability to download quickly. In the last ten years, webpages have quadrupled or more in file size, and one of the primary reasons for this is useless image proliferation. If organizations are filling their websites with these useless, information-free images, are they also filling their websites with useless, information-free text? Are we still in a world of communicators and marketers whose primary function and objective is to say nothing of value and to say it as often as possible? And whatever you do, look pretty.

“Hello. Is that the Department of Useless Images?”
“We have this contact form and we need a useless image for it.”
“How about a family cavorting in a field of spring flowers with butterflies dancing in the background?”

They say a picture paints a thousand words but sometimes it’s a thousand words of crap.

Are your Web metrics reliable?

Web analytics are highly susceptible to error, manipulation and misinterpretation. They should never be depended on as the sole source of insight.

“Facebook might be hosting upwards of 8 billion views per day on its platform, but a wide majority of that viewership is happening in silence. As much as 85 percent of video views happen with the sound off, according to multiple publishers,” Digiday reported in 2016.

The conclusion many people made when they heard these statistics was that they needed captions for their videos. I was a bit more skeptical. Having dealt with Web metrics since the late Nineties I had come to approach with them with a lorryload of salt. My first question was: Are most video ‘views’ real?

Facebook just settled a legal complaint which stated that, “The average viewership metrics were not inflated by only 60%–80%; they were inflated by some 150 to 900%.” That’s a lot of inflation. These fake statistics had real consequences.

“In order to beat YouTube, Facebook faked incredible viewership numbers, so CollegeHumor pivoted to Facebook,” Adam Conover states. “So did Funny or Die, many others. The result: A once-thriving online comedy industry was decimated.” Of course, these fake statistics were no accident. “You’ve had 18 measurement errors in recent years, all of which went your way,” Terence Kawaja explained to a Facebook ad business ethics executive. “That’s not a mistake, it’s a strategy.”

Web analytics in general are incredibly flaky. In the early days, we had HITS (How Idiots Track Success), which were an absolutely useless metric but were quoted widely because HITS were the BIGGEST number in the metrics report. This reflected the culture of metrics and the Web in general: chasing BIG numbers. I’ve had people tell me that they can’t delete out-of-date and incorrect content because it would reduce the number of visitors to their site. Others refuse to make their sites simpler because they’re wedded to metrics about getting people to spend lots of time on the site, clicking on links and scrolling and stuff. The fact that, on a badly organized site, time spent is more a measure of failure is rarely recognized in the mania for BIG numbers.

Today, most websites don’t have much of a clue how many people visit anyway. You may have lots of ‘users’ but the same person using your site on a smartphone and then a laptop is likely two users in your stats. Recently, Matt Hobbs, head of frontend development for GOV.UK, explained that there are 50–55 million user visits a month to GOV.UK. But they don’t know how many citizens this represents.

A great many digital teams are unaware of what is actually happening on their website or app. This is one more reason why you need to observe your customers regularly. It gives you real-world context through which you can understand your Web analytics, and it helps you identify where flaws or misinformation may be occurring. Regular observation of real customers doing real things on your website or app is so essential. It gives you the crucial context of the reality of use.

Governments’ key competitor is complexity

People have been trained by the likes of Amazon and Google to expect that things will be made fast and easy for them. However, often when they interact with government they find that things are slow and difficult. The thought that government is complex is corrosive to democracy. People wonder why their taxes are being wasted. Thus, the competitor that government should be relentlessly focused on is complexity.

Traditional government cultures thrive on complexity. In a particularly hierarchical and bureaucratic organization, the need to follow the rules and respect the line of command can be overwhelming. Traditional governments excel at taking young, idealistic and enthusiastic recruits and grinding them down until they become perfected cogs in the big machine.

That model of organization can work in a slow, predictable world where the citizen respects and trusts government. However, in a fast-changing, complex world, meeting complexity with complexity undermines public trust and confidence.

More than many organizations, governments are obsessed with being seen to be doing things. The minister cutting the ribbon is often seen to be of far greater importance than the usability of the system. The focus is too often on the big splash, the groovy press event and then it’s done, finished, on to the next big thing. The thing is the thing, the system is the thing, the new building is the thing, the website is the thing, the app is the thing.

In government, it’s very hard to resist the unwritten consensus that who you are really working for is the politicians, not the public. The public may pay your wage but they don’t give you the pay rise and they don’t decide how your career will progress. Thus, there is a great fear of communicating bad news upwards. Those trying to make truly citizen-centric web experiences are often seen as troublemakers because invariably they are constantly resisting effusive, hyperbolic, politician-pleasing hype. It is particularly dangerous to point out flaws in the thing-to-be-launched, as euphoric groupthink or delusional group denial sweeps the landscape. In government, they don’t just shoot the messenger; they torture them first.

Governments tend to be obsessed with costs and being seen to be delivering value. This often means going for the cheapest price and cutting out ‘unnecessary’ things like testing and training. Governments will spend millions and billions on monstrously guaranteed-to-fail IT systems but will have nervous breakdowns if it’s suggested to slow things down a little and spend tiny budget amounts on proper research and rigorous testing. Governments never seem to have time to do things right, but always find time to do things wrong.

Governments love to policy-bomb the public, explaining in excruciating detail why something needs to be done in a certain way, instead of getting out of the way and just letting the citizen or business quickly do the thing they need to do.

There is hope. There is real hope that many governments are working to overcome the worst instincts of large political organizations. GOV.UK has been a shining example of what can be achieved with a citizen-centric culture. There is great work happening in the Canadian and other governments. Is it perfect? No. But when I think back to twenty years ago, government has come a long way towards changing its culture. Because without a citizen-centric culture, government can never hope to address the challenges and opportunities that digital brings.

PS: I will be giving a talk at the International Design in Government Conference in Rotterdam in November. I’m looking for examples of citizen-centric strategies that can show clear evidence of improvement. Ideally, I’d like Before and After screengrabs, and then data that said: “Resulted in 20% increase in form completions,” for instance.

Why governments are so bad at implementing public projects

Five enduring government IT failures

Branding doesn’t have to be propaganda

The greatest brands tell the biggest lies. Although not all branding is bad, the art of modern branding is indeed very often the art of manipulation and propaganda.

For many years, Coca Cola has been the world’s most valuable brand. Think about that for a moment. Here is a company that is more responsible than perhaps any other for spreading the global obesity and diabetes epidemic with its sugar-saturated drinks. Here is a company more than any other that is responsible for the mountains of plastic waste that are poisoning our lands and seas. And this is a cool brand?

Think of H&M and Zara. Are these cool brands? Fast fashion sits next to oil as the biggest polluter on the planet. Today, we are buying far more clothes, wearing them far less, and dumping them far more often. Most of these cheap new clothes are made by poorly-paid workers who toil in unsafe conditions. The clothes themselves are increasingly made from plastic polymers, thus they are not recyclable and result in toxic waste. Most of what we donate to charity shops end up being sold on to poorer countries, thereby collapsing their native fashion industries. And we think the brands who do this are cool because they have good branding.

Even organizations that offer valuable and useful products and services get caught up in the allure of toxic branding. The Coca Colas of this world must tell big lies because the more you know about their product, the less likely you will be to buy it. Therefore, they must invent fictions because their reality is so toxic.

If you deliver something useful, then you don’t need fake branding. Why not consider telling the truth? McKinsey reported about a government tax agency who used to say it would distribute refunds in an average of two days, when it actually took much longer. Instead, they started saying that people would receive the refund within 21 days—which was much closer to the reality. Customers were happier and support calls were reduced dramatically.

If your product is actually useful then don’t be afraid to show off how useful it is. Don’t hide behind big stupid stock images that say absolutely nothing. Don’t suffocate your customers with empty marketing jargon when you can actually say something useful. For organizations that are useful, marketing and communication should stress the use.

I once sat in a room presenting a design that allowed customers find what they needed really quickly. Everything was simple. Everything worked. We had lots of evidence of how the design had evolved based on use. It was fast. It was simple. It did exactly what the organization needed it to do. It just worked. Everyone was really impressed, even the branding guy. He thought it was fantastic, but he just had one question: “What about the branding?”

Unless you need to lie to customers, your branding is your simplicity. Your branding is your usefulness. Every time a customer can find something quickly and easily, that’s branding. If the product you make starts every single time without fail, that’s branding. Transparent pricing is branding. Great customer service is branding. Branding can be about what is good and what is useful. Branding can be about the truth.

UX without the user

The number of UX professionals I meet who don’t regularly undertake user research is disturbing. In fact, in many organizations, digital teams rarely interact with customers.

Failing to maintain closeness to the customer is the canary in the coal mine when it comes to digital design. The greater the distance from the customer, the more likely the digital team is to just churn out stuff, spinning out wireframes and bits and bobs.

Who’s afraid of the customer? Why be so scared? They don’t bite—not usually, anyway. How can you do good work if you’re constantly looking down all the time? All this activity, for what? What real use is it?

The digital world is such a wasteful environment, as it produces so much stuff that is never used, let alone reused. How many digital teams possess true data on how useful their work is?

We have a real problem here: a whole profession that supposedly creates stuff for other people, but those other people are largely invisible when key decisions are made. We all know that the “U” in UX is not YOU. However, evidence shows that too much digital stuff (content, designs, graphics) is created not for satisfying the customer but for satiating the ego of some entity within the organization.

The best digital professionals are constantly struggling to get organizations to truly engage and interact with their customers. Customer obsession has been a wildly successful model at corporate giants such as Amazon and Google. Regardless of what you say about Facebook, what you can’t say is that they don’t have a deep understanding of their customers.

In numerous situations, customer-centricity has proven to be the magic sauce for successful digital initiatives. What is Big Data if not a big pile of potential customer insights?

Is senior management to blame? Is it that they don’t get it or that they refuse to respect their customers? Or is the lack of respect something that mars many digital teams as well?

I remember once being in a meeting with customer service and digital teams. I found the customer service professionals to have tremendous insights about customers. Why? Because they talk to customers every day. However, the digital team’s insights were limited, as they hardly ever interacted with customers. Yet they felt that they could dismiss the insights of the customer service team because, well, you know why: digital professionals are cooler.

One of the greatest attributes that any of us can develop is humility. The world is way too complex for one mind to be able to deal with. Great digital is a collaborative game. Great digital is a silo bridge-building game, and the most important bridges you can build are between organizations and their customers.

Every day, every single day, you should be learning from your customers. Sorry, you can come up with all the excuses in the world, but if you’re not getting closer and closer to your customers, you’re moving further and further away from good work. Work’s that’s useful. Work that has real purpose. Work that has real meaning. It’s the type of work we all want to do, isn’t it?

Major usability problems require less people to identify

The number of people you need to observe in order to identify the primary problems with your website or app depends on the quality of your website or app to a significant extent. If your app is of very low quality and an immature environment, then very few people are required—typically no more than eight—to identify the key findings (I would define a key finding as a pattern that has been observed three or more times in a group of no more than 20 people.)

If you have an inefficiently managed digital environment, then actually observing large quantities of people can be counterproductive. This is because as you observe more people, you start locating more minor problems. I have found that if you want to see action taken, you should not have more than three key findings and recommendations. If you report twenty findings and recommendations, then many teams will simply throw up their arms or just politely ignore you because there’s too much to do.  

If you observe six people and locate a problem three times then that problem is affecting 50% of your sample. If you observe 15 people and you see something three times, then that’s affecting 20% of your sample. If it’s 100 people, then observing the same problem three times represents only 3%. If you decide that a finding is three or more occurrences of the same thing, then you will have a considerably higher number of findings and recommendations with 100 people than with 15. Furthermore, as mentioned previously, lots of recommendations may make for a big report but they rarely lead to genuine progress and improvement. Because it’s not enough to merely make a recommendation; you also need to understand the capacity and motivation of the people to make a change.

Anyways, in a typical environment, there are no more than three big things that if fixed, would make things significantly better. Fix those things and you discover that many other problems fade away.

What got me thinking about this was reading an informative article by Roy Ballantine, where he does a statistical analysis on the probability of different types of problems occurring, depending on the sample size. Roy showed that at 14 people, a problem that would affect 20% or more of the population has a 55% chance of occurring. However, a problem that only affects 5% of the population has only a 3% chance of occurring. At 30 people, a 20% problem has an almost 100% chance of occurring. However, a 5% problem has an almost 20% chance of occurring.

If you have a mature environment and you have solved the major 20% problems, then you will need much more people to identify the smaller, infrequent usability issues. However, if you haven’t solved the major issues for your customers, then observing lots and lots of people could flood you with data. This can lead to data paralysis and could even make things worse by solving minor problems whose solutions actually worsen the major problems.

Sample Size and the Challenge of Trivial Problems

The psychology of cheap

My old landline phone gave out (yes, I still have one), and when I lifted it off my desk, I had to remove two wire connections. As I did that, I had a strong impulse to push the old wires off the back of my desk and let them fall (my desk faces a wall). Then, I remembered how I had finally decided to clean up the mess of wires behind my desk a month ago. I was forced to do it because I had some technical issues, and figuring out where each wire was connected proved not only difficult but also awkward. So, before adding the new phone, I forced myself to spend the extra 2–3 minutes required to tidy things up.

About five years ago, I had a discussion with a web manager who was quite stressed about the fact that they had a website with 500 pages of content. It was simply too much for them to keep up-to-date. I met the same manager recently and asked them how they were getting on. Everything was great now.
“How many pages do you have on the site now?” I asked.
“Thousands” was the reply.
“Thousands? But the last time I met you, you were stressed out because you felt you couldn’t manage 500.”
“Yes, but now that there are thousands of pages, nobody expects me to manage anything. I used to constantly fight with people, telling them that they can’t publish this and they can’t publish that. But now, I just go with the flow and put up whatever content I’m asked to put up.”

This should have been a “once upon a time” story. Instead, it’s a 2019 story. Content management has always been an oxymoron. It was never really about management. It has always been about cheap publishing and storage.

“Working on a data lake,” Steve Peters stated, replying to my last article on digital glut. “Asked the customer what data they needed from the source. They were too lazy to perform due diligence so they said “all of it”. Not the first time and not the last time. It’s been my experience that 20% of the tables in a database hold 95% of the relevant data. But OK, if you want to pay for the other 3TB of useless data—OK.”

Artificial intelligence learns by analysing existing data. What sort of AI is going to evolve that’s fed on 90% junk data?

Digital is cheap but so too was oil. Cheap takes from the future to serve the present.

Cheap storage. Cheap processing power. Cheap energy. It’s all great. We don’t have to think. We just dump our content onto the website and let search engines figure it out. Why not leave stuff always on? I mean, what’s the harm if billions of people waste a little bit of energy every day?

Cheap makes us lazy. Cheap makes us short-term thinkers. Cheap makes us mindless producers and consumers. We can do better if we spend just a little more time thinking about what we’re about to do. If we spend just that much more time thinking about the future impact rather than present convenience, we can do a lot better.

Digital is garbage

Digital is mainly garbage. 90% of data is never accessed again 90 days after it is first stored. 80% of downloaded apps are never used again after 90 days. 90% of data has been created in the last two years. Over the years, we found that we had to delete 90% of a typical website to make it useful. Even the information that is used is usually full of garbage. I’ve rarely come across 1,000 words that can’t be edited down to 200 and made more effective.

And images, all those utterly stupid, useless stock images strewn across the Web. In every organization, there must be a Department of Useless Images.
“Hey, I’m looking for a useless image for an article I’m writing about digital garbage.”
“How about some old computers piled in a heap, or some network images, or someone screaming at their computer, or lots of ones and zeros?”

A Microsoft executive once told me that there were an estimated 15 million pages on, four million of which had never been accessed. That’s basically the population of Ireland of stuff that nobody has ever looked at. Why?

Digital is a huge accelerant of global warming. It encourages the production of stuff on an unimaginable scale. And most of this stuff is garbage. It’s one thing to use energy to create something useful that will be used again and again. It’s simply appalling behaviour to use energy to create something that becomes garbage a few moments after its creation.

Modern technology facilitates the production of cheap, disposable crap. In Ireland, festival-goers leave behind a wasteland of single-use tents. Fast Fashion is the number two global polluter, right after the oil industry. People are buying an excessive number of clothes, hardly wearing them, and then dumping them. But of course, they don’t degrade because they’re made of polymers and all that crap.

Digital is like sugar: it’s so sweet and irresistible, so easy to create, so easy to store, so easy to ignore. So cheap. So everywhere. Digital is the ultimate ‘just do it’ mantra. Think of all that useless content that organizations create. Why? Because that’s what management wants. The senior marketing manager wants the bling stock images because they look cool. Marketers find these sugar-coated smiley faces irresistible. And stock images are so cheap now. Why not pump them everywhere? Who cares if they slow down the site and waste energy? Who cares if it takes longer to scroll and find things?

All this stuff we create. Why? Do we ever ask why? We never have time because 90% of it is spent creating garbage. We never have time to do it right. We only have time to do it wrong. We can’t resist the tools of creation. Maintain? Who wants to maintain and continuously improve when you can just create something and then throw it away? And of course, creating new crap is how you get ahead in 90% of organizations.

If digital was a digestive system, it would have no capacity to poop. Every PC and smartphone is like a mini-garbage truck brimming over with useless junk. Think before you create. Before you take that picture, write that content or code. Are you doing something genuinely useful?

The Technology God is fake

In the grand delusion that is Brexit, the grandest delusion of all is the Brexiteers’ fawning adoration of the Technology God. According to Brexiteers, the Technology God will banish all problems, particularly those associated with the border on the island of Ireland. Grand Boffo Johnson ascended the mountain, and the Technology God conveyed the message that there existed no need for a border because the Technology God would solve everything. No evidence, no detail required, just faith in the Technology God.

Years ago, I encountered a senior UK civil servant who told me his colleagues had a type of technology PTSD. “Whenever they hear the word ‘technology’ being uttered by a Minister,” he said, “their instinct is to crawl under the table.”

I know I should be battle-hardened at this stage, but I am still astounded by the toxic mixture of arrogance and ignorance that exists at the senior-management level concerning technology. The Technology God is everywhere and is one of the core reasons we continue to see declines in productivity and living standards despite the massive investment in technology.

In government, disastrous technology-related decisions follow a relentless monotonous pattern. In Ireland, for example, we have a technology-driven national ID card fiasco that is “mandatory but not compulsory” (yes, an actual politician uttered those idiotic words). We have a broadband plan, which though noble in its intent, seems to be managed by the slowest of slow minds.

When I visited Canada last year, they were still embroiled in the Phoenix payroll system fiasco. Phoenix (what a name!) has been described by Canada’s top auditor as an “incomprehensive failure.” But it’s not at all incomprehensible; rather, it’s totally and absolutely comprehensible and predictable because such technology disasters happen year in, year out on a global scale. They are caused by bad, delusional managers who are total, relentless suckers for the fairy-tale IT sales executives bearing gifts from the Technology God.

The Technology God will get rid of workers and cut so many costs, there won’t be any costs left to cut. The Technology God will be so easy to use that it will be a dream. Bugs will be banned, ordered out, vaporized. Poof!

“But Prime Minister, there is not a border on earth where technology has made everything friction-free thus making the border invisible.”

“Blobberdash! Smelly socks and horsehair! The Technology God solves all problems!”

“But Prime Minister…”

“Enough! Away! Who brought me this fool who talks dangerous sense? The Technology God. Hi ho, away!”

Pull your hair out. Throw your hands in the air. But remember, it is not you who are insane. Rather, it’s those senior managers and politicians who lose all sense of rational thinking, when it comes to technology.

Technology is powerful, but it is not all-powerful, and the Technology God does not exist. Though possibly dangerous and career-threatening, we must patiently and persistently put technology in its proper context. We must continue to point out that making truly easy-to-use technology takes considerably more resources than most budgets allow, that getting things into a reasonable state tends to take twice as long as we think, that investing in continuous improvement and maintenance is the way to go, and, the irony of ironies, that without quality people, there cannot be quality technology.

Understanding digital speed

In the physical world, beyond a certain point, speed becomes perilous and destructive. One crazy driver can wreak havoc. The greater the speed, the worse the crash. Thus, much of our road infrastructure is concerned with managing speed.

We have created a digital world where so much has got faster and faster. And yet we pay very little attention to managing digital speed. The implications of road rage are clear. Yet, we have vastly more digital rage, as digital allows us to communicate at speeds and scales that were previously unimaginable. Our thoughts become digital actions in a flash and can create flash floods of misunderstanding, anger and retribution.

We’ve been given this wonderful high-powered network and all these fancy tools, and so many are putting the boot down in our digital Ferraris. “Productivity and collaboration are two sides of the same coin,” Kevin Kwok writes. Kwok believes that the objective of tools such and Slack and Dropbox is to become the central nervous system for organizations, but that they have not achieved that objective.

Let’s say Slack was a toolkit for building houses. It’s not enough. You still need the right mix of skills. You still need to decide what type of houses you need and when and where and at what price. You still need planning permission, etc. You can’t just throw a bunch of smart people a toolkit and tell them to go collaborate.

Years ago, I had a conversation with an executive who was about to retire. He told me that when he was being appointed as a manager for the first time, he was sent on a course called “Managing your filing cabinet”. When the organization introduced computers, they stopped giving that course. He worried about how employees were going to be able to manage hundreds of ‘filing cabinets’ on their computers without any training or guidance.

Collaboration is an essential skill of the digital economy. And yet, in my experience, how to collaborate productively is hardly ever taught either in universities or in the workplace. You’re just expected to know. But people don’t always know because while non-productive collaboration is a no-brainer, productive collaboration is really hard. It requires a whole range of communication, organizational and social skills.

Learning to write simply and clearly is not easy. Learn to speak effectively in remote meetings is not easy. Learning to organize files and other digital stuff in a way that they will be easy to find later by yourself and by your colleagues is not easy. Learning to work in a multidisciplinary, culturally diverse teams is not easy.

A fool with a tool is still a fool, as the saying goes. Organizations have been willing fools to the Technology God. For decades, they have bought the idea that all you need is this brand-new digital tool. As they watched a constant stream of catastrophic IT implementations, they never learned. As they wondered why global productivity had slowed so dramatically, they never asked if maybe just buying the cool new tool was not in fact part of the problem.

Collaboration is like water. It’s wonderful. It’s life giving. But you can drown in it. When you speed up collaboration, communication and content creation, you get to a point beyond which serious floods and crashes become inevitable. Just like everything else, we need to manage speed, we need to manage collaboration.

The Arc of Collaboration