21 February 2015

Conant-Ashbey Theorem

By David

I came across the Conant-Ashbey Theorem recently. It states:

Every good regulator of a system must be a model of that system.

It got stuck in my head longer than it logically should – I guessed that there must be something to it that I’m just not seeing. Then we worked on a gamification project, and it started making sense. In plain English it could mean: To tune a system you need a good analytics model of that system.1

Why is this important?

During the design phase of a project we rarely think about designing control mechanisms that allow us to fine tune our designs when they are out in the world. Instead, we unleash variables in the world that run wild and soon disappear from sight.

Design with an analytics model upfront

Analytics not only tell us if our designs are doing their jobs – designing with a good analytics model in mind gives us levers to pull when they are not.

  1. Paraphrase by Phil Barrett.

21 February 2015

Making models

By David

Good consultants spend more time thinking about their clients’ challenges than the clients themselves – and making models is a big part of this.

It follows that at the start of each project we spend a lot of time making models. It’s the best way to get under the skin of a project. Models are great at focusing a group. We do it to understand situations better, and it helps our teams visualise and think through a design challenge from all angles. Model making sits at the core of product discovery.

The models that I’m referring to here aren’t deliverables, but they could be if we polish them up, but in most cases this is a waste of valuable time. I see models as necessary discardables, their purpose is to move you along, without them you’re not going anywhere.

Systems Approaches to Managing Change highlights two interesting things about models that are worth considering.

Models are subjective.

As with any model, viewpoints are inevitably partial in the sense of being both incomplete and of being viewed from a particular or partisan perspective necessarily based on it’s particular purpose.

Subjectivity is good here, it gives you a place to start when faced with a blank canvas. The sole reason for making models is to change them. Good models change shape as soon as you start showing them to people because the partisan perspectives start breaking down when more minds start looking at a problem.

Models are wrong.

Constructing a model is a practical way of visualising the key elements of a problem. Statistician George Box once said, ‘Essentially, all models are wrong, but some are useful.’ Models are always wrong in that they don’t serve as detailed illustrations of the problem. This is also why they’re right. The simpler you can make the model, the easier it is to understand a problem.

Models lose their power when they grow too complex, and when they are ‘finished’ they no longer draw ideas out of us.

Making better models

It turns out that the two weaknesses of models are also their strengths. But it takes courage to take the first step and risk being subjective and wrong. But if you think about it, when you start exploring, you can’t start out any other way.

6 February 2015

The Planning Fallacy

By David

Jared Spool’s Beans and Noses caused quite a stir when it re-surfaced and worked its way around our office. It’s the perfect metaphor to describe the consultant’s dilemma when working with big clients:

The idea is blindingly simple, actually. Every so often, you’ll run into someone with beans who has, for no good reason, decided to put them up their own nose. Way up there. In a place where beans should not go.

What do you do?

Lean Enterprise: How High Performance Organizations Innovate at Scale takes a more diplomatic approach; framing it as the planning fallacy:

Due to a cognitive bias known as the planning fallacy, executives tend to “make decisions based on delusional optimism rather than on a rational weighing of gains, losses, and probabilities. They overestimate benefits and underestimate costs. They spin scenarios of success while overlooking the potential for mistakes and miscalculations. As a result, they pursue initiatives that are unlikely to come in on budget or on time or to deliver the expected returns — or even to be completed.

The planning fallacy is a means of managing uncertainty by spinning ‘scenarios of success’ at the outset of a project. It’s easy to fall for this delusion because we don’t like thinking about failure, or admitting that we may be acting before having explored different options sufficiently. What can we do about this? The Lean Startup process can help:

The Lean Startup process being relatively cheap, in an enterprise context we can pursue multiple possible business models simultaneously using the Principle of Optionality.

The Principle of Optionality simply means that by investing limited amounts of time and money in small experiments we can investigate more ideas simultaneously:

…the principles of constraining time and resources, thus limiting downside, and building a minimum viable product to test your value hypothesis as soon as possible with real customers should be applied at the start of every endeavor.

The Principle of Optionality: building and testing minimum viable products simultaneously. Most will fail, but the probability of a big win increases.1

All roads lead to a minimum viable product, and testing a minimum viable product with real customers is a rational means of weighing up the gains, losses, and probabilities when things are uncertain. It is the antidote to delusional optimism, and will increase the likelihood that beans end up in the ground.

  1. Diagram interpreted and redrawn from Lean Enterprise: How High Performance Organizations Innovate at Scale. Originally from Antifragile: Things that Gain from Disorder by Nassim Nicolas Taleb.

3 February 2015

Crossy road:  7 kinds of persuasive design techniques in a tiny package

By philbuk

Crossy road

The epic list of game mechanics at work in Crossy road, the hit iPad game, might inspire you to gamify whatever you’re working on.

Crossy road is a simple and wonderful game, based on the arcade classic Frogger. It swept the iOS world in November and December. And it’s still sweeping.

There’s nothing to it – just and infinite sequence of roads and rivers to cross until you die. Why is it so compelling? Here’s how they encourage you to keep playing…


You can tell the makers love gaming and loved making their game. It’s ingeniously stylish to look at, and has a great sense of humour. Those are key: if the game was ugly and joyless, the game mechanics alone wouldn’t stand a chance. But the first couple of persuasion/gaming principles are there:

  • Liking: The game is loveable and it’s easy to be friends with it. We all like hanging out with nice people in nice places.
  • The halo effect: it’s a lovely looking game – unconventional, stylish and “in”. So that must mean it’s worth spending time with, right?

Goals: Micro and macro

A good game needs a clear goal. It’s one of the key principles of Flow. There are several layers of goal in Crossy road, which will keep you motivated on the time scale of seconds all the way up to weeks.

  • seconds: get as far as you can in one game
  • minutes: collect enough coins to buy another avatar
  • hours: beat your personal best
  • days: beat your friends via game centre leaderboard (their scores are marked right on the game board so you can see them “in the flow” of the game).
  • weeks: collect all the avatars

Building your collection

Arguably the uber goal of the game is to build a complete collection of avatars. Collection is great because:

  • Endowment effect and ikea effect: You feel like you’re building something of your own
  • Closure: You’re working towards the complete set
  • Flow: Every time you get one more item you’re making visible progress towards your goal.

In addition, collections multiply the value of each individual gain. Adding one item to your collection makes the whole collection feel new, so you get the feeling of gaining something bigger: an improved collection.

This is the only place where the game attempts to monetise. The authors say that they wanted to take a different approach to monetisation: You can play quite happily without every paying a penny. But if you’re going to spend it on anything, they think you’ll spend it to complete your collection of avatars.

Your avatar collection


  • Competition: Yes that leaderboard is a social mechanism. Being best at Crossy road is an important skill and a way to clearly establish your superiority to all your friends. Right?
  • Social currency: For something awesome to share with your friends, you can record your game play and share it so that the world can witness your finest hour.

Variable rewards

After a pre-determined time (often 6 hours) you get a gift of a random amount of “cents”. You can spend the cents on a random avatar to add to your collection. So we’ve got…

  • Appointment/incentive to return: Knowing you’ll get another gift in a few hours creates a sort of “appointment” dynamic. Don’t forget to check the game in a few hours time to see if you’ve got a new reward.
  • Skinner box 1: The cents gift is a variable reward, which means it’s a skinner box. Variable reward is more compelling for longer, than a fixed and predictable reward is.
  • Skinner box 2: When you collect 100c (usually 1 gift’s worth), you can get a gift from the gift machine, containing a random avatar for your collection. Another skinner box!


Try for FREE, and get a FREE gift

After a few goes, the game gives you a choice of a few avatars that are not in your collection and you can try one for three turns. After 3 turns, you have to “give it back”, or choose to buy it for 69p and get an extra 250c thrown in for free. So we’ve got…

  • Endowment effect: it’s hard to give back something that you have “owned”. (The power of a free trial).
  • Power of Free: When you pay 69p you also get 250c for FREE. Dan Arielly fans will know all about the power of free stuff to make people do things they would normally not consider.

Tight game loop

You’re practising a (mostly pointless) skill and there’s that drive to “just try one more time because I was SO CLOSE”, that propelled Angry Birds to the top of the charts. The moment you die you can restart as fast as humanly possible, so that you can stay in the zone and master that skill. It’s that heady mix of dopamine and opiates that keeps us trawling Pinterest or Twitter, looking for info-gems.

In a funny way, each level is a skinner box: Play one more time and you might get lucky and set new personal best.

Packing this many persuasive design techniques into such a simple app is quite impressive. But I have a sneaking suspicion there may be more hiding in there. What have I missed?

27 January 2015

The Robot Curve

By David

Marty Neumeier’s Metaskills: Five Talents for the Robotic Age is well worth a read if, like me, you often wonder what it is exactly that you do, and how it has changed over the years. It turns out that we are locked in a race to stay ahead of the machines with creativity our competitive advantage… for now. Neumeier conjures up the Robot Curve to illustrate why cultivating creativity is the only way for us to stay ahead of the machines:

The Robot Curve is a waterfall of opportunity that flows endlessly from the creative to the automated.

As work becomes routinised, and then mechanised, its value decreases regardless of how complex the task is for a human to perform.


20 January 2015

Friction, gaps, and countermeasures

By David

In Lean Enterprise: How High Performance Organizations Innovate at Scale the authors introduce the concept of friction. The idea first appeared in On War by Carl von Clausewitz. He wrote about the uncertainty faced by actors in rapidly changing environments acting on limited information about the environment as a whole.

Basically, von Clausewitz describes friction as the acclimation of unexpected events that prevents reality from unfolding as we expect it to. It is an excellent metaphor to understand the behaviour of any human organisation, including ourselves:

Friction is ultimately a consequence of the human condition – the fact that organisations are composed of people with independent wills and limited information. Thus friction cannot be overcome.


14 November 2014

In which Flow gets to change the world. At last.

By Phil Barrett

You know that blog post where the founder of the freshly-acquired agency says how marvellous it all is? How the new combination is going to revolutionise the digital world?

Flow has just joined Deloitte Digital. And the funny thing is, this combination is actually going to shake things up. Here’s why.

There’s a fundamental difference between digital marketing and digital product. Flow is a digital product agency. Which means we like to design and make things that have a long life, and a wonderful impact on the way that people and businesses get things done.

Since software is eating the world, almost every business has discovered that it’s a digital business now. And that puts us in great demand.

But becoming a successful digital business takes profound rewiring. New processes and new culture as well as new technology. We’ve found ourselves, again and again, talking to teams that want their organisation to change, but can’t make it happen. Frustrating for everyone.

Deloitte makes that kind of change happen. They can transform entire businesses, innovate and prove new business models, and implement massive technology programmes. Their business already reaches across Africa, rather than just aspiring to. They can do big data way beyond anything you’ve seen before. Extremely smart people, deep knowledge, and impressive scale.

Most people in board rooms around the world will tell you that UX, design thinking and digital are vital to the future of their business. But they need someone they can trust to deliver those changes. Not just a glossy veneer, but user-centred and digital all the way down. Deloitte Digital fits the bill perfectly.

So for us, joining Deloitte Digital is a fantastic opportunity. One that we have been looking for for years.

It’s the beginning of a new chapter. Where we finally get to change the world.

14 November 2014

Press release: Deloitte Digital buys Flow Interactive as part of its pan-African digital expansion strategy

Deloitte Digital (Africa) has acquired Flow Interactive as it continues to build a fully integrated digital consultancy and agency providing customer-centric digital engagement solutions to its rapidly growing list of clients across Africa.

The acquisition of Cape Town-based Flow, a leading user experience design agency, will boost Deloitte Digital’s growing list of digital expertise. The South African team, which are based in studios in Johannesburg and Cape Town, is already a leading player in Deloitte Digital’s network of more than 2,700 highly skilled digital experts located in 18 studios across the world including the US, Europe and Australia.

“User experience has become the fundamental discipline in placing the customer, supplier, employee and community at the heart of highly engaging digital and physical experiences, whilst delivering extraordinary business value. The acquisition of Flow Interactive enables us to further expand our world class experience design competency as we strive to provide the full spectrum of digital consulting, production and agency capability to clients,” said Tim Bishop, Digital Leader of Deloitte Digital.

“We have a very clear growth path for Deloitte Digital (Africa), which is fundamentally premised on building and offering extreme competency accross the full digital spectrum through carefully selected acquisitions, partnerships and individual talent recruitment across a wide range of customer-centric digital and omni-channel disciplines.” Deloitte Digital will also draw on the skills of more than 5200 Deloitte professionals in 29 offices across Africa. The scale of this African footprint will only be to the benefit of Deloitte Digital’s customers, many of whom have extensive operations across the continent.

“Deloitte Digital is creating a new model for a new age – we’re an agency and a consultancy,” said Bishop. “We provide leading digital and creative capabilities with the deep industry knowledge, technology and real business experience for which Deloitte is known. Clients can bring us their biggest challenges, knowing that we have what it takes to bring a new business vision to life. The expert skillsets we have gained through the purchase of Flow will further strengthen this approach.”

Flow Interactive SA was established by Phil and Debré Barrett in 2007 to meet a growing demand for digital products that people find useful and easy to use. The agency specialises in enabling its clients – which include the likes of Old Mutual, Google, Samsung and Virgin Active – to improve the user friendliness of their digital customer interfaces, ranging from apps to websites, till points to secure online banking platforms. Flow also offers a qualitative research service, specialising in ethnographic research that provides deep and meaningful insights into customer behaviour.

“Our aim is to bring simplicity, humanity and delight to human interaction with digital technology,” says Phil Barrett, Director at Flow. “We aim to make complex technical systems easy for ordinary people to use, which increases conversion and reduces customer support costs. But really successful user experiences can only be delivered by focused organisations and robust engineering. Being part of a world class network like Deloitte Digital, which has a skills base that spans five continents, will put us in a position to help create products that transform businesses.”

29 October 2014

Why we do research: UX principles and design trade-offs

By David

In The Psychologist’s View of UX Design, Susan Weinschenk writes about extrapolating user experience principles from research and psychology. We get users into our lab almost every week for usability testing and research, and usually clients drop in to observe the tests too. It is my favourite part of doing UX – its like brain gym – analysing what happens in the lab always sparks interesting debate and new insights.

On the back of our research we extrapolate user experience principles that guide our design thinking on projects that have similar challenges. I’m happy to see lots of overlaps between our, and the principles in Susan’s article. So quoting from Susan’s list, here are seven principles that I have been thinking about lately.


15 September 2014

Skeuomorphism is still needed

Everyone is happy that the leather bound apps have stopped forcing their way into our lives, but is skeuomorphism still necessary for understanding interfaces and interactions? It seems that Apple and Google think so.

Chris Metcalfe explores this in his blog: Skeuomorphism is alive and well

I believe skeuomorphism is still alive and well, it’s just had a facelift.  The cheesy and outdated stylings have been stripped away and replaced with texture and depth of real life. It’s actually necessary for an understandable interface to embrace skeuomorphism, especially in South Africa.

Google material design