First, a confession: there’s a couple of podcasts hidden in this list of articles and blog posts. But putting that one transgression aside, here’s some of the best things I read over the last 12 months that either gave me ideas, crystallised my thinking or started to change my mind.
It’s a longer list than previous years but there’s plenty in there to fill your browser tabs and bookmarks.
Product management & design
Using hypotheses to hold together your learning, thinking, and making
I first came across how to use hypotheses and lines-in-the-sand on the product management course at General Assembly, and I’ve used the technique successfully in a couple of my product teams over the years. John Waterworth posted this on DXW’s blog earlier this year and I’ve referred back to it a few times since. So I’m sharing it with you!
Calm Product Manager / Stressed Product Manager
There is no doubt that this year has been hard for everyone. There was a moment before the pandemic hit where I was a little stressed out, and I came across this post. It helped me to notice the behaviours I was exhibiting and how those would impact our work, which helped me shift gear and slow down.
It takes two
A cracking post from Jukesie that illustrates the nuances between product managers and delivery managers on multidisciplinary teams. Though the roles overlap, there’s a clear distinction between each role’s purpose – and when you work together, as a team, excellent things occur. I’ve forwarded it to several people who were worried about stepping on the toes of their colleagues.
Read It takes two.
Product Work Beyond Product-Market Fit
When I joined GOV.UK Pay and started reviewing the roadmap with the team leads, usually preceding quarterly planning, I found it hard to have discussions around what to prioritise. Unlike others who’d been on the team longer, I didn’t have a detailed knowledge of recent history and couldn’t easily discuss the work within the product’s strategic context. So I used this article to categorise our work into four groups, helping us decide what to do now, next and later – and what not to do. I find it’s now much easier to talk about the value of each piece of work relative to all the others.
The Boring Designer
Someone shared this with me after reading Boring magic, and it describes the design approach I think we strive for working on government digital services. It’s not that you can’t add delighters to your product or service, but those delighters are inherently utilitarian. And when it comes to grand visions: ‘If there’s The Big Idea, the boring designer is fantastic at finding a reasonable step one instead of making The Big Idea the starting line.’
Read The Boring Designer.
Russell Davies’s strategy advice
Over the last 18 months, I’ve been focused on learning more about strategy. It’s really easy to tie yourself in knots with strategy, it’s such a fluffy concept. But this post by Anna Shipman helped me realise a few things: first, that it pays to be clear, about what you’re not going to do in addition to what you will do; second, that no one person should do it on their own; and third, that if you’re a product manager you’re probably ‘doing strategy’ already, you just hadn’t realised it.
Delivering digital service: this much I have learned
It can be tempting to think that, because it moves so fast, working in digital needs new methods, a new focus, or something else to help us deliver better outcomes. So it’s comforting to read this post on what made things work over the last 20 years. If you ever find yourself saying ‘Let’s fix this basics’ in your organisation, I reckon this post is a lightweight owner’s manual for that.
You won’t always have access to the specialists you need, and some times you have to fill gaps briefly. That’s where it comes in handy to be a generalist or, as Jukesie calls it, a multi-hyphenate. Not a jack-of-all-trades, but not far off.
Dave Rogers on trust and culture in technology organisations
Another thing I spent all year thinking about was trust and culture in technology organisations. How do you get everyone pushing the same boulder? What makes it feel like a one-in-a-lifetime experience, not a chore? How can we do that in the Internet Age, leaving industrialist methods behind? Dave sums up the qualities of a high-performing, empowered organisation excellently.
How to debug distributed teamwork, as suggested by new research
Everyone who previously worked in an office has been thinking about remote, distributed and hybrid working this year. I’ve always been keen on a more flexible working arrangement so spent time researching a range of approaches with my delivery manager, so that we could experiment with our ways of working on GOV.UK Pay. This framework from Leisa Reichelt at Atlassian is the step we’ll take next, to consider our colleagues work–life balance from a human-centred perspective, designing our working arrangements around needs.
Of everything I’m sharing this year, this piece had the biggest impact for me personally. Though I knew about the problem of sustainability in digital, Gerry McGovern made it palpable through the everyday examples in this article. It inspired me to make this website less carbon-intensive.
Small b blogging
This post by Tom Critchlow is a lovely piece on the purpose of personal blogs, against a backdrop of content marketing and advertorials. Not quite microblogging and not quite long reads, small-b blogging is all about the serendipity of personal networks. Some times ‘personalisation’ is hand-crafted, not algorithmically ordained.
Read Small b blogging.
Why does it suddenly feel like 1999 on the internet?
‘Before social media soured us and made us aloof and dismissive, we used to take the internet’s promise of serendipitous connection more seriously.’ In a similar vein to Tom’s post, this piece in MIT Technology Review points to the resurgence of the Internet’s original phenomenon: feeling part of one giant community.
Hard to Believe
This is a post about epistemology and how the Web is morphing the definitions of knowledge and information. If you use Google or ask questions to a voice assistant, it’s definitely worth a read. Very relevant for the next section too.
Read Hard to Believe.
Having grown up on the Web in the early 2000s, I’m no stranger to conspiracy theories and mis- or disinformation. Every now and then, surfing around corners of the Web, you’d come across something that felt a bit fishy. You developed a sense for which sources to trust and which to ignore.
QAnon represents a mainstream cultural shift, I think, a signifier that normal people are now extremely online, not just nerdy adolescent boys in their bedrooms. It’s obvious when you say it out loud but I hadn’t seen it before.
The following podcasts and blog posts sum it up evocatively.
- First, listen to the Rabbit Hole podcast episodes, Where We Go One and We Go All
- then read What ARGs Can Teach Us About QAnon by Adrian Hon
- Adrian’s brother Dan also wrote about it in s08e18: QAnon looks like an alternate reality game
- The Apophenic Machine by Molly Sauter zooms out from ARGs, presenting QAnon in the context of electronic communications, and
- finish on the Reply All podcast, Country of Liars, which pulls back the curtain.
The Necessity of a Boring Revolution
In my head, the original vision for Government as a Platform was a strategic design to bring about a boring revolution, setting some of the conditions required for regulatory innovation. Digital government is still on that path, but some of the near-term tactics have changed in the last two years (in the UK at least). Recent moves by the UK, the US and the European Commission to regulate Big Tech shows that regulators may seek to be more nimble and agile in the future too. This piece by the inimitable Indy Johar should helps ignite creative thought in the government digital space.
Making Kin with the Machines
‘What if we treated AI as equals, like other human beings, not as tools or, worse, slaves to their creators?’ That’s the premise to this paper, which is a wonderful provocation. It’s a really important consideration too, when you consider how many of our decisions we’re asking machine sentience to make for us. If algorithmic bias were a human judge, they’d be thrown out of court (you’d hope).
Rebooting ‘progressive’ politics in the digital age
Directly related to the two pieces above, this article talks about the inherent relation between software and politics if we’re to make data a key part of policy-making.
The Coronavirus Is Rewriting Our Imaginations
‘Individualism is giving way to collectivism’ is how I’d summarise this article. In the Great Cyclical Nature of All Things, the neoliberal core of the last 40 years is becoming more apparent to more people, and a politico-social shift is occurring. People are starting to see the routes forward to a new world view.
It doesn’t have to be like this
Taking in much of the above and considering the next step forward in the UK, Jon Alexander considers three shifts that need to occur in how government (small ‘g’) underwrites the social contract for the post-coronavirus future.
UK dance music
An Audience with Andrew Weatherall
The legendary acid house DJ and music producer, who sadly passed away this year, answers questions from the public. Aside from the unequivocal classification of Facebook as unnecessary bullshit, he also touches on how humanity hasn’t changed in 100,000 years, it’s just our technology that has.
Structural racism in UK dance music
Read these pieces and make up your own mind on what needs to happen next.
- How much of UK dance music history is real?
- STRUCTURAL RACISM IN UK DANCE MUSIC: TIME FOR ACTION
- Black Sky Thinking
Just good pieces
Working-class people don’t need to “break into the elite” – we need to change it
I’m still processing some of my thoughts and feelings after reading Nathalie Olah’s Steal as much as you can, but I’m sharing this for anyone else from a working class background. It touches on the themes of her book, which I hope inspire you.
Mission Control: A History of the Urban Dashboard
There has been much talk of dashboards this year, the instrumenting of control. This piece covers consoles, cockpits, dashboards and, my favourite, Project Cybersyn, in its short history of evidence-informed analysis.
The Battle of Los Angeles
After reading this, I realised how much I’d learned about colonialism and structural racism from reading up on Rage lyrics as a teenager. Much more to learn, of course, but Battle really was a primer.
Tracks I discovered or loved in 2019. Jazz, soul, various beats and bass, harkening back to a golden era of going out.
My blog posts from National Blog Posting Month 2020.
Over the years I've kept these silly ideas for apps and gadgets in a note on my phone...