The Dictatorship of the User

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Government supplied technology in its traditional form

There is a quiet revolution going on in the business world. Like so many others, it was started by US technology startups. Unlike most, this one may have deep implications for the delivery of public services and the future of our democracy. The visionary persona, whether in business or in politics, is under attack. These seers, standing outside their times, are imagined to see into the future. They take their visionary insights and make them real through force of personality. As the close cousin of the hero entrepreneur and ‘wealth creator’ it is perhaps surprising that the attacks this figure comes from within the entrepreneurial community itself. In short, experience has shown them that visionaries usually fail and that humility is a more useful characteristic for leaders whether in business or politics.

If Columbus is the acme of the visionary leader – someone so convinced of their destination that they raise the funds, the hardware and the team to risk their lives getting them there. Blank’s leader is more like the pilot of a raft passing down rapids. The founder fights to keeps the boat afloat just long enough for it to go where the current (or customer) takes it.

The assault on the visionary originated with the serial entrepreneur Steve Blank. He had noticed a pattern with start-up business plans. Bold plans for an ambitious new product would be announced. Funds would be raised against a business plan. A long term operational plan would developed and set in train. At some point the first working version appeared in front of users. As this point doubts begin to arise about the product. Users gave mixed feedback and requested changes. These doubts fell on deaf ears. No true visionary allows themselves to be knocked off course by a little thing like user feedback. It didn’t really matter anyway. Funds had been raised to build a particular product and the founders of the start-up would be held to that commitment. Eventually the visionary product hit the market to a bemused reception by its less than visionary customers. The startup then folded in a blaze of recrimination. Blank witnessed the same phenomenon over and over again – a rigid plan rolled on under their own momentum until they were crushed by their encounters with their customers.

The tyranny of ‘vision’ was not only discredited by these failures, successes also played a part. In practice many startups achieved it by ditching the founder’s vision and building a product that was totally different from the one they set out with. The photo storage service Flickr started out as a game. The founders discovered that people were more interested in uploading their photographs than playing it. They changed course (“pivoted”) with great success. Groupon was a platform for local activism until they discovered that there was more interest amongst their customers in banding together to secure discount pizzas than in changing the world. Wherever Blank looked, companies that started with a vision and implemented it failed, those that succeeded were the companies that abandoned their plans for something users actually wanted. In response Blank adopted the maxim of the Hollywood screenwriter – ‘nobody knows anything until the product meets the market’.

According to this Blank, the best approach to building a startup was to build prototypes, show them to users early, iterate and progressively improve them. Blank’s advice was for founders to stick to small scale experimentation, making gradual improvements until finally users bit their hand off when offered a brief taste of the product. Only once this happened was the business begin to scale up with a conventional business plan. This methodology was given a name – ‘customer development’ – and has since spread widely through the technology startup culture.

‘Customer development’ builds products that have a distinctive feel. Everything that is clunky, unintuitive and irritating is stripped away during the countless iterations of user testing. The approach mirrors that of a Saville Row tailor – a suit is made, tested against the body shape of the customer, and remade at each fitting. Just as with a tailor the final product should feel like it was created just for you. We are already accustomed to this feeling in the world of mobile apps. As the approach to developing services spreads we starting to find the texture of daily life changing to match it. Applications, devices and services become easy and intuitive to use. The days of learning complex interfaces, and scrolling through confusing menus are ending. The countless iterations of customer development arrive at solutions that neither the startup founders nor their customers knew they wanted. As the digital world expands user experiences developed this way are becoming the norm rather than the exception.

It not just the approach to building products that differs under Blank’s model. Organisations following Blank’s model have different structures to normal companies. In Blank’s world it is contact with the user that is key to the creative process. He mandates startup founders to conduct user testing themselves. If you mean to succeed as an entrepreneur Blank’s way forget about hosting meetings in a plush corner office, hold them in your user’s kitchen. Under customer development understanding how customers use products is core part of the leadership role. Decision makers must hear the bad news from users directly. This challenges the traditional concept of leadership. If Columbus is the acme of the visionary leader – someone so convinced of their destination that they raise the funds, the hardware and the team to risk their lives getting them there. Blank’s leader is more like the pilot of a raft passing down rapids. The founder fights to keeps the boat afloat just long enough for it to go where the current (or customer) takes it.

The challenge to the traditional idea of leadership is just one reason why the growth of the customer development will impact the world of politics. The death of the ‘visionary model’ will be felt more strongly in the public sector than the private. By convention political leaders stake a claim to the traditional leadership role. They should advertise their peculiar insights. They must claim special powers to see the destiny of their nations. But if the business world gives up on the ‘vision thing’ in its entirety what will political leaders still have to offer ?

It might be said that a form of direct user engagement already exists in government. MPs and ministers have close contact with their voters. Senior civil servants have contact with NGOs and pressure groups. These contacts give rise to policy initiatives which are handed to the civil service’s operations. Unfortunately experience shows that this model does not produce customer focussed services. The data throughput of this channel is simply too narrow, and the granularity of the results too high. Ministers may be able to pass on complaints and imprecations from voters to their civil servants, but they aren’t able to give detailed feedback on multiple variations of the user interface of a government system. Politicians aren’t able to effect the close contact between decision maker, user and prototype that Steve Blank mandates. Ministers are just too busy. Yet they retain the decision making powers.

The longstanding imbalance between policy making and operations in the civil service does not help. There is an old fashioned division between policy making, which is seen as desirable high status work and operations, which is not. Technology sits right at the end of the process – a cinderella function. As a result policy is often handed off for implementation without consideration of whether it is viable to implement, or how much it would cost to execute. Integrating policy making and policy execution is a necessary first step towards the customer development model but it is one the civil service has so far resisted. With a customer development model the policy makers would be tacked onto the end of the process instead of the technologists. Rather than being the initiators of activity they would respond to inputs from the world of operations. Activating the flow of user research information means routing information, initiatives and opinions against the normal flow, effectively inverting gravity in the world of government.

User Research 4

User research turns traditional government processes on their head

Neither does a radical change to the flow of information and decision making sit well with the current model of ministerial and party responsibility. The current top down processes starting with a visionary minister handing initiatives to civil servants for implementation has clear lines of accountability. The minister is responsible for the ‘what’, civil servants for the ‘how’. When activity instead flows upstream from user research into operations, it breaks that chain. Just who is responsible for the results of change generated from user research ?

It might seem that these institutions of government would form an immovable object resistant to reform. Nonetheless this obstacle is facing an onslaught from irresistible forces. Under the pressure to reduce costs government is increasingly moving towards self-service digital delivery. Citizens don’t judge the quality of public services in isolation, they judge them by comparison to the quality of private services. If the latter take a big leap forward on the back of these new methods, the public will perceive this as a step backwards in the quality of public services. If the processes of customer development drive continuous evolution in private services but not public ones this will progressively undermine the perception of government. Voters will simply walk away from public services if they retain the look and feel of another century.

With high public debt levels in the UK along with adverse demographics there will be a continuing push for savings within the public sector over the next decades. If the public sector can not respond to this pressure with quality services the state risks wasting away. We have already seen huge programmes of change in the public sector fail for the reasons identified by Blank. The NHS ‘National Programme for IT’ was lead by visionaries whose ambitions far outstripped their capabilities. As the National Audit Office reported in 2011 – “The original vision … will not be realised. This is yet another example of a department fundamentally underestimating the scale and complexity of a major IT-enabled change programme … The Department has now changed its approach and moved away from its intention to replace systems wholesale, instead, building on … existing systems”. Unfortunately the original grandiose plans had been baked into contracts with suppliers creating rigidities similar to those Blank warns startups against. He tells venture capitalists not to insist startup founders deliver the product they first pitched when they were financed. The products demanded of NHS IT suppliers were similarly described in full in contracts upfront. It was this that drove the eventual expansion of costs to £11bn. The architect of those contracts, former NHS IT director-general Richard Granger, said he would “hold suppliers’ feet to the fire until the smell of burning flesh is overpowering.” when holding them to their contracts. In the end the violent commitment to a failed vision led to huge losses for government.

The Parliamentary Accounts Committee’s inquiry into an earlier NHS scandal could not have made Blank’s point better. The failure was the responsibility of a leader, it said, “with a strong vision and such a determination not to be deflected off course that he [proceeded] without regard to clear evidence that the project was going badly wrong.”

It is the background of these repeated failures that have led many in political and civil service circles to conclude that there is no alternative but to move to a radically different model. The government set up the Government Digital Service (GDS) in 2010 after a report by Martha Lane Fox with a remit to change the face of government IT. GDS explicitly puts the user first.

It seems to me that the time is now to use the Internet to shift the lead in the design of services from the policy and legal teams to the end users.
Martha Lane Fox

So far its work has concentrated on reform of the processes for contracting IT and the development of 25 web based exemplar programmes. The next move is to reengineer the processes of government around the user. It seems inevitable that this will begin to start the process of gravity inversion and start to change the way that politics sees itself in the UK.

Representative democracy has traditionally been seen as the best option in an ugly contest – “the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried” in Churchill’s words. Perhaps we will see some new candidates enter this contest offering alternative models. This won’t be the kind of political programme to be led by traditional student radicals. It won’t be promoted by marches or sit ins. Its something that is already emerging quite spontaneously from within the government’s operations. In this way the central challenge that foxes political radicals has been evaded. The problem is normally how to turn theoretical constructs into practical plans of action. In this case praxis precedes theory. And for that reason its a phenomenon that remains largely off the radar of the political class. Remarkably, in a period marked by the absence of novel political movements the slow dawning of the ‘Dictatorship of the User’ has passed unnoticed. The days of the politician as ‘seer’ on the model of Churchill, or as political theorist on the model of Miliband or Foot are surely ending. The future belongs to technocrats who can reengineer the operations of government thoughtfully to suit the user as well as the voter.

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