[What is it you actually do?] Simon Wilson

‘What is it you actually do?’ is a series of blogpost ‘interviews’ that ask interesting folk working on digital products in and around public service the age old question — ‘what is it you actually do?’. Shamelessly copying from Lifehacker’s ‘How I work’ series and ‘The Set Up’ blog.


Who are you and what do you do and where?


Hellllo. I am Simon Wilson. I am currently part of the small team working to make an NHS.UK centred around people’s needs.

What exactly I do? Find stuff out, give it some structure, an idea of what that will look like, hustling to get other people to do that with me.

What software do you use day to day?

Day to day: Google Calendar, sure. That’s my schedule. Todoist adds some meat onto that. I dabbled with Trello for all my tasks and backlogs (including life ones) but felt I was over-egging some stuff, it was taking a bit more to maintain than I thought, as well as possibly approaching a peak hipster moment.

–Yeah, well guys, I manage my life using Trello. Guys?

Todoist lets me merge life and work stuff. As someone who is very (possibly too much) work focused during the week, it’s helped bring some work/life balance back. “Order a new inhaler” and “pick up inhaler” is in there with “prep for usability session” (because breathing is particularly useful). It’s pretty slick to use on whatever device and across devices.

The Slack apps sits on my laptop and mobile app, cracking for chat and laughs with friends as much as keeping abreast of work stuff. And email is not dead, and not just because other people may prefer it. Airmail on my Macbook is a joy, Google Inbox on my phone. I am a big fan of One Thing Per Email though. Emails have a Subject line for a reason. The content of email should not be Lots of Unconnected Things. Maybe pushing back on Many Things Emails will help email be something less burdensome. (Iain Tait over at W+K seems to be having a stab at fixing that.)

Longer form writing or writing that needs proper focus tends to be in iA Writer. Fill the screen with only your words, as mundane and derivative as they may be.

I hop between browsers to check work, but most regularly I choose Safari over Chrome on my Macbook, more because Safari doesn’t turn my Macbook into a loud fan. On my phone it’s the latest beta of Chrome.

I am going to list Sketch, Illustrator, and Keynote here as “design tools”, but want to emphasise that they are several tools of many — and not the start of any design process, they sit somewhere in the middle after some form of writing and sketching. And Atom (which I use to code) with a few packages installed to boost it and Terminal are as much design tools to me as Sketch and Illustrator. I am not anti-Photoshop; just Photoshop is just too much, ain’t that relevant to my specific needs. Sketch is very focused on what it is there to do, likewise Illustrator (at the mo stickers and posters…).

(And yes, I did list Keynote as a design tool. It’s good for quick ’n’ dirty. And also eulogised about over on the Made By Many blog.)

I store stuff away on Dropbox and Github

Google Docs, Google Sheets, and Google Slides: Why wouldn’t you? Well, unless they’re blocked on the network you are on. But massively useful to collaborate through. You haven’t lived until there’s at least five of you piling into doing a Google Slides doc at the same time with a deadline an hour away. Really. That is living the dream.

Hangouts: So useful. I don’t really use Skype any more, unless the person on the other end insists on it.

I hoard stuff in Evernote.

I am a big believer in the mind and body being occupied by non-work, and when you’ve a full-on week podcasts can open the door to something away from the work. There’s some podcasts I love, especially;

With my split operating system existence — a Macbook as my computer and a Nexus 6P phone — having a synced podcasting experience is invaluable, and possible. Pocket Casts is awesome for that, and it is also very well designed.

I read *a lot*, and digital devices help with that. Pocket is great for saving away stuff to read in one go. I used to suffer from massive “fuzzy head” at the end of the day, and found grouping my reading really helped me focus on doing my work, and then increasing my knowledge in a separate chunk. I have also synced my Pocket account to Pinboard so anyone else can see what I am saving. (Something I sorta borrowed from Dan Hon.)

I do most of my long reading through an Amazon Kindle Paperlight, daily. It’s a very focused device. Just the reading. No pop-up notifications. It goes weeks without needed a charge. Lovely display readable in any light. I can email long docs to it as well (which is a grade A hack of sorts). The software that sits on the device is really tidy as well. Sometimes if I have a spare five minutes I’ll boot the Kindle app on my Macbook and take/sneak in a few pages. It’s easy to take that syncing for granted, but it is so convenient (and still amazing). But the majority of the time, the Paperlight.

I’d put the Headspace app in here. I’ve hinted at the work/life thing before but a bit of Andy every few days does wonders to enhance one’s calm. Until a year or so ago I didn’t see what ten minutes away, meditating would bring. But I don’t feel as angry since I’ve been doing taking that time out. At least outwardly anyway.

Oh, and Twitter.

What is your favourite stationery?

Oooo! I am a big fan of pens. Stabilo point 88. Paper Mate Flair. Letraset Promarker. Yes. Yes! YES!

2B pencils. 4Bs are heading towards leads that are too soft, and HB upwards just feels too… stiff.

Notebooks: I love the Lechtturms. I get one with A5 pages, and a grid. I sketch a bit so just horizontal lines isn’t quite enough. I experimented with blank pages and a grid sheet as a tracer but it was a little too much faff.

I get through a few bits of paper. I try to make sure the paper is recycled stock, and that what I throw away goes into recycling bins.

Whiteboards that wipe easily. Never take them for granted. And never presume any pens near a whiteboard a) work, and b) are whiteboard pens (beware the rogue permanent marker).

Stickies! In different colours! That thing about about buying *proper* Post Its rather than cheap ones that drop off the wall after something like ten minutes? So far that’s right. (Although if you know of any reliable other brands of stickies, let us know.)

And — massive protip here — a pencil case to keep a lot of this stuff in is Highly Recommended. Grab all the things so ease. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

Are stickers stationery?

What do you love/hate most about your job?

I am very, very lucky: I am doing my dream job, just getting stuck into making a simpler, clearer, better NHS.UK. I work in a very, very good team: A team as people, a team as a unit, a team with a mission. There’s mutual respect in the team. We’re all in it together. The management are “part of the team”, not above us. I love that it’s about the work, the work, the work. There’s a belief in the way we are doing work, and a confidence in the way we are doing it.

I love the whole wider gov community thing as well — particularly when Ed Horsford and Joe Lanman start off with their “bants” on Slack! But, yeah, the people in that community are genuinely great. There’s a few that make me smile regularly, but they’d probably send me a bashful email if I named them here. But Ed and Joe aren’t getting away unchecked.

I love I can wear trainers to work.

I wouldn’t say there is anything I *hate* about my job. We have a freedom to get on with the work, and a willingness to use tools and methods to make people focused things we feel are right for the problems in hand. Coming from previous environments which were pretty stringent about the methods and tech this is not something I take for granted.

There will always be *frustrations*, like the network blocking Hangouts. But we work round that (mobile phones on a 4G network as hotspots, again, too useful, too taken for granted).

I *hate the worry* that environments focused on “IT delivery” — and being in one — we could easily slip into a development first mentality, forgetting we’re making software humanly accessible, making software more human, and all that. But we won’t fall into that.

If I had to give one thing I *hate*, as a fan of fresh air, I hate I cannot open any windows on the eighth floor office in Leeds. I mean, I get why opening windows on the *eighth floor* in a bit of Leeds that seems especially windy is a bad idea, but…

How did you become an interaction designer working in gov?

Good question.

TLDR: Because Andrew Travers.

The slightly longer version?

I’ve years and years of “experience” at design and ad agencies, and lucky to have spent a large chunk of my career at an agency (Brahm) that actually stood for something, doing stuff that matters, that had a reason to exist. I am not sure whether that is something I learnt there, or something I had going in, but I believe in that now. Does anyone want to work on anything meaningless?

In recent years I’d got myself into the position where I would only be considered for senior roles, which rarely popped up. And after years of managing people I was looking for something stripped down, where I could focus on designing, designing for people again.

Last summer Andrew Travers, at the time head of design at HMRC, had a chat with me and offered me the chance to be “just an interaction designer”. And I took it. It meant being away from my family most of the week but it was a chance to concentrate full time on meaningful work, making things for the people. It’s the most rewarding work I can do. I enjoy it, especially the emphasis on and the need for collaboration. It’s stuff that does matter, not — say — the sort of work that can eat your soul (like working on betting).

And this feels like it is a once in a generation opportunity to make things right, to even put things right.

The work I collaborate on will be and is used by lots of people — tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, maybe millions — so it better be good”.

That thing Tom Loosemore said about gov work not being complicated, it’s hard? So true. Sometimes it seems irrationally hard at times. But we want to get stuff done, good stuff, swiftly. Like the “real world” can and does. It takes some long days, long weeks at times to counter that hardness but there’s progress. As long as there is an acceptable pace of progress I am all in.

How do you manage your backlog (i.e. cards on a wall, Jira, Trello, Sprintly..)?

On the NHS.UK team I am in we use Trello to hold it together, which we review as a team with a daily stand up first thing, and driven by fortnightly sprint planning. We’ve a really good belief in the team, and the team is very pragmatic as well. No egos. Very focused. Just as important when managing a backlog. Trello’s a tool all the team understand and can use. (At the moment anyway. It’s a shame that Trello isn’t quite so fun with Javascript turned off.)

The detail in our work might be elsewhere — and that detail should be in places that is appropriate for the task in hand, whether it’s Google Docs, Github, cards/stickies on walls, whatever, wherever. But top level, day-to-day visibility is Trello.

At the end of the day, managing is about people understanding, communicating what has been done and understanding what needs to be done — and how we’re going to do it. Sometimes we overlook the people in the world of technology.