Year of the Dog: Notes from Major Heat

dà shǔ 大暑

Five things that happened

I introduced a GDS style ‘firebreak’ to the team for the latest sprint that has just finished. The idea of this is to give the team an opportunity to ‘scratch their itches’ on things that don’t make the top of the backlog sprint on sprint. Whether that is tech debt, some refactoring, a prototype they have wanted to build or a blogpost they have been mulling. I’m never a fan of 10/20% time as I think it is the first thing to go when things get tight in a sprint so I like this model for building some thinking time into a busy team.

All that said I don’t think it went that well. I’m not sure I really explained it well enough, there wasn’t enough clear water from the previous sprint deliverables so we got bogged down in some bug squashing / firefighting and basically I think it confused the team as much as anything. That is on me. I totally think it is a worthwhile addition to our ways of working but the timing was wrong and I should have taken more time to ease the team into it. Hopefully it didn’t put the team off for trying it in the future.

I spent a lot of time interviewing people to replace me in the team. We did four interviews in two days and because I have ‘opinions’ on how these things should be done I ended up creating a situation where I ended up doing almost all the interviewing even though I was with two colleagues.

I have come up with a list of questions for product management candidates that I have picked up from my own interviews, blogposts and conversations over the years. They require the interviewee to have strong opinions and good examples to answer well but there is nothing particularly tricky about them. It is interesting just how different some of the answers are though — they do not lend themselves to generic answers which is nice (to be fair I’m not sure I’d do better than OK if I was interviewed by me!).

Hiring is part of the job I take extremely seriously — this wasn’t always the case I’ll admit — but I see it as a big responsibility to select the right person. Especially for such a crucial role in a team I think have such great potential.

Visited Leeds on Monday to give a talk at NUX. Unlike Dan I had no train issues — though I did get a good soaking during some briefly apocalyptic weather.

The talk was really fun — it was a lovely venue — right next to the station (which was helpful as I had to get back to London that evening), a really friendly group of organisers and attendees and the pizza was lovely. It was also lovely to see Sharon Dale as ever.

I gave my ‘Working in the open’ talk — I continue to slightly tweak it and it is starting to feel pretty strong now. I am starting to really feel like I should carve out the time to try and turn it into something more. I still have ambitions to make it into a book — a mix of interviews, case studies and my personal journey with openness — but fear I lack the discipline.

Instead of the normal retrospective last week I used the ‘firebreak’ as an excuse to try out the Spotify ‘team health check’ format. Well a slightly lightweight version of it anyway. To start the meeting a member of the team introduced a little mindfulness activity to just give everyone a moment to clear their heads and get into a space to share. This was great so thanks Beth!

The ‘health check’ seemed to go well — it allowed a bunch of higher level conversations to emerge that I think had been lost in usual agile momentum forward — there is a lot of celebrate in this team but there is also a lot of room for improvement (when isn’t there) and I think this was the first step to making some really useful ‘tweaks’.

Friday the team had an ‘off-site’ day. This was really one of the most fun work days I’ve had in a long time (so thanks to Bettina who planned it all and then didn’t attend!). In the morning we were split into teams and played games in the park. One of the slightly ‘off’ things about me is that I’ve never really played ‘games’ — no board or video or anything else. So this was my first experience of Jenga(! I mean I knew how to play — just never had !) and Mölkky (though I suspect this was new to everyone!) — I had played Boules before — I’m not totally weird. It was fun even if my team lost most of our games — oops.

We spent the afternoon at Google — the rest of the team had a cooking class (I was unfortunately busy doing some work for Notbinary) and then after lunch we did a couple of hours of lightning talks — like a less structured Ignite. Basically make it fun, make it fast. The quality was incredibly good. Even my slightly hacky and rushed presentation didn’t spoil things!

We also had a few drinks in a very nice pub after — it was the first real social situation I have shared with the team. I enjoyed it a lot — though I suspect I shared more than I should about some of my escapades when I was younger and prone to such things!


Big fan of Dan and Sam experimenting with video blog type things. I’ll never be joining in on that but I am looking forward to the inevitable podcast that will emerge!

Also ‘The Web of Weeknotes’ is really growing — my being the only ‘owner’ of the Medium publication is fast becoming a bit of a bottleneck but I’m not sure what I can do about that other than move it all to a new platform which would just cause other problems…thinking cap time.

Became slightly obsessed with the show ‘UnReal’ on Amazon. Watched all four seasons in like a week. It is soooooooo dark!

Upfest was stunning again this year — so much amazing street art. You can see my favourite pics on my Google Photos site.

Right that is it for this edition. Take care out their folks. Stay hydrated. Don’t feed the trolls. Be generous with each other. Oh and try Crosstown Doughnuts — they looked amazing Friday and almost made me quite my sugar free life!

Looking sideways (and forwards)

Simon has written about the importance of looking sideways before and in the past it has been something I’ve tried to do quite a bit of. Last summer in particular I took a tour of product teams in Government and other bits of the public service world — it was ended sooner than I planned due to my initial ill fated change of employers but I learned a lot and really enjoyed getting out and meeting people and getting a different perspective on my work.

The thing is my work then and my work now really aren’t the same. I mean superficially they don’t look wildly different from a bit of distance but up close my tasks and priorities are quite different. I’m increasingly feeling a bit overwhelmed and unsure of my footing — even when things actually seem to be going pretty well.

So I’m interested in looking sideways again — and also forward a bit to where I think I need to get to so I can really contribute to the organisation as much as I need to.

This time though it is a different cadre of people who I need inspiration from. I need to understand how people operate on the commercial side of this #govtech (or really anyone who supplies digital products and services to the public or third sectors) equation. What does agile look like when you have pressures from multiple clients? How do you do user research when there are only a handful of you? Is the customer always right? How do you do sales when you have spent a career being a client?

I’ve got a bunch of leave left and am happy to travel — I know this is more complicated than just dropping in on other Government departments as there are probably conflicts of interests and competition issues all over the place in this domain but I’m a trustworthy fellow and I’ll buy decent cake!

So if anyone thinks they might be able to help please give me a shout — email me or message me on Twitter — hell even comment here if you want to go old school!

Internet of Public Service Jobs — 11/06/17

‘Internet of Public Service jobs’ is a weekly list of vacancies related to product management, user experience, data and design in…you guessed it…the ‘internet of public service’ curated by @jukesie every Sunday.

Sign up for it as an email every Sunday afternoon!

[01] Digital communications manager

[02] Head of Digital Services
The National Archives

[03] Innovation Lead — Machine Learning and Data
Innovate UK

[04] Senior Product Manager (Government as a Platform)
Government Digital Service

[05] Product development and fundraising digital lead

[06] Head of Digital
Breast Cancer Care

[07] Head of Digital and Innovation
The Air Ambulance Service

[08] City Experimentation Team Lead
Future Cities Catapult

[09] Design (HCI) Researcher

[10] Executive Program Manager
Remote or a Mozilla office worldwide.

[What is it you actually do?] Ben Cubbon

‘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?

I’m Ben Cubbon, a northerner and some say Yorkshire’s answer to Tin-Tin. I’m a Senior User Researcher at HM Courts and Tribunals Service, an agency of MOJ. Our main digs are in Westminster, I’m there a couple of days a week but I now live in Cardiff. When I’m not in London I’m either working from my office in a pokey cupboard in the house or out in the field with some users.

What software do you use day to day?

Pretty bog standard set up. I use a mixture of Inbox and Slack for communicating. Todoist to keep me on top of things, however I very quickly forget to check in with it and have a analog post-it style to do list at my desk. I surf the web on Chrome. I draft write and note-take in Evernote and publish stuff on Medium. Google Drive is my vault of workings and artefacts. I start off most of my work in Google docs/slides, all about the collaboration feature, haven’t lived until you’ve simultaneously edited a Google doc with an anonymous chimpanzee. Spotify for blocking out noise or psyching yourself up through a late night.

Three major aspects to my work data collection, analysis and dissemination. For data collection I’m usually in a lab so I’m well looked after, however I’ve got a voice recorder and iPhone for research out in the wild. I had played with this set-up, used a go-pro but didn’t feel like it provided me anything extra. So if I’m home interviewing it’s voice recorder on table, iPhone on a little clip stand and away we go. This is still a pretty simple set-up, it’s reliable, cheap but does nothing to help analysis down the way. I have just come across Cassette, a real-time text to transcription app. Yet to play with it but looks promising. For analysis I’m completely analog. Again played with a couple of tools but found that they constricted the analysis as you became more worried with fitting your analysis into how the tool worked.

Dissemination, again post-its and Sharpies. Don’t want to be constrained by what a tool can do. But I digitise these findings in Keynote, it’s the tool that allows me to most closely replicate analog journeys and models that I create through analysis. I work in two different teams. In the research team we Slack to talk, Trello to organise and Google drive for documents and workings. In my product team the only difference is the use of Confluence and Jira. Oh and BT Conference calls, that’s a software right. Thankfully I’ve now grown an immunity to the hold music.

What is your favourite stationery?

For writing on it’s a plain notebook, I don’t have favourite go-to note book I’m pretty frivolous when it comes to note books. i don’t think I’ve ever bought 2 of the same ones. Coupled with this is post-its, the proper ones, needs to be the bright neon colours and a mix of original squares and rectangles. Thrown into this is brown paper for getting user journeys out. I have 3 weapons of choice for writing with; Sharpies…because, Pentel sign pens good writers, softer than sharpies and they’ve got a good grey for sketching idea out and Pilot V5’s for bulk writing.

What do you love/hate most about your job?


Love talking to people outside of Government, the citizens of the UK, our users whose needs we must meet. I get to meet some really fascinating people. People with real stories to tell. People who have a real need only the Government can meet. I feel privileged that people choose to share their stories, some of which are personal. Without these people we wouldn’t be able to truly transform Government. Defining problems through research is another highlight. Usually teams, including myself have an idea of what we think is going on or an idea of something we could do to change a service. Spending concerted effort to think through this problem, conduct research, sketch out what we’ve found is rewarding. Especially when you get a whole team with different disciplines involved.


The R word…reports — arrggghhhhhhhh!!! Don’t get me wrong, I don’t mind a write up. Love a post-it + sharpie output of the research we’ve done, digitising the research into a slide deck, cool. But writing a full report, of the whole research process we’ve gone on does no help for anyone. Think reading them is hard work, try writing one.

How did you become a user research designer working in gov?

I studied for a Psychology and Criminology degree, which took me straight into a Forensic and Investigative Psychology Master’s. In my head at the time I was training to be the real life Cracker. Instead I started designing questionnaires for Office for National Statistics (ONS). There we conducted cognitive interviewing, a type of usability testing, of our question designs to ensure people could understand the questions and that consistent answers would be given. This was my first introduction to testing out ideas with users. From there I took on the role as the first User Researcher at ONS working primarily on the Data Collection project to improve the service in how we collected data.

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

Depends on the team I’m with and the purpose of the work. Pretty adaptable to using analog systems, through to Trello and Jira. User Research doesn’t really require a complex method of managing the work, the steps you go through are very consistent, so Jira is overkill. If I’m managing a team Trello is rolled out, researchers should be out of the office a fair bit so having a digital board is a must and commenting on the tasks helps the research and insights move forward.

myWeek (s4e04)

Four weeks. Doesn’t time fly when you are desperately trying to learn a new role! I remain in the somewhat unusual position (for me) of really enjoying the job — that isn’t to say I haven’t been in that position before but in the past it has snuck up on me and then taken hold after several months but this time it seems to have just clicked.

This week was less full on than the last and was mainly in Bristol which was nice. I spent a bit of time putting some team structure into place — booking meetings, Hangouts etc and confusing people with my liberal use of agile terminologies where it hasn’t been common in the past! I’ve been thinking a lot about the book ‘The Year Without Pants’ by Scott Berkun about the lessons he learned moving to an internationally distributed team at and the things he put in place there to help the team (and himself) get the best out of that way of working. Coming from a background where I have heavily promoted the idea of co-located product teams there is a bit of a shift needed if I am going to really bring my best to the team — so far though I’m enjoying the change.

I nipped over to Cardiff (or is it ‘under to’ as I went via the tunnel) on Tuesday and spent some time with Dave, our ‘veteran’ dev on Better Cities (i.e. he didn’t start this year!) to talk about our plans, some of the history and what he saw as the big opportunities for the product(s). It was a really useful chat and something I’m hoping to do regularly with both Dave and Stu in Brum — there are some insights you only really gain in a meandering, face to face conversation. In fact the conversation was so good I forgot my headphones and had to trundle back to the cafe later on to recover them!

I’m starting to get some ideas about where we might take things in the next year and what a roadmap might look like. I firmly believe in starting with a product vision and working back from that and that seems to be coming in to focus.

Also in Cardiff I caught up with Bec, our Head of Research. One of the (many) things that makes mySociety unlike other digital organisations is that we have a small team that does academic level research investigating the actual impact of the sorts of things we do. They operate internationally on all sorts of topics and also organise an annual research conference (where I will be sporting a fetching staff t-shirt!). Bec got me up to speed on some of the research done, what is planned and what is proposed that fits in with the ‘Better Cities’ practice. All those years working in research adjacent organisations (Jisc, Hefce, MRC, ESRC etc..even ONS) means I still enjoy this sort of work and think it is incredibly important not only as research for the civic tech community generally but also in that it differentiates mySociety from the pack.

There was quite a bit of back and forth this week about a few commercial projects that we are involved with — these are more traditional work for hire gigs that we do alongside our own products as something of a bootstrapping concept. This is new to me as I have always been on the other side of the conversation but on the other hand it is the same conversation 🙂 The projects are interesting and with equally interesting clients and while it takes a bit of juggling to make sure everything gets the support it needs I am really enjoying this aspect of things. I’m only going to take more of a role in this space I think in the months to come.

Rachel and I went to our first existing (active) clients meeting — to date we have mainly been out pitching or discussing development with people pre-launch. This was with a customer service team at the sharp end and it was clear that they had some frustrations but also that they were in our remit to resolve (phew!). Again these are the sort of discussions that are best face to face and I learned a lot, started to build some good relationships (I think) and lined up a great opportunity to do some ethnographic user research and really get a feel for how people use the product.

On that topic I have been reading UX for Lean Startups by Laura Klein as I look to give my skills and knowledge around user research a boost — it has been a long time since I did this sort of thing myself (apart from occasionally dabbling) and I am keen to do it right — well as right as possible in the circumstances and this book is a great read with that in mind. I’ve always liked a lot of the ‘Lean Startup’ approach (while finding some of it a bit icky) so am looking forward to taking an ethical approach to as much of it as possible.

It was #pubcamp this week — it was the smallest turnout yet but I still had a bunch of great conversations. I’m thinking about trying a slightly different approach with it — maybe using and publicising it more widely. Not sure. Next one will be March 1st.

Oh and this will come as no surprise to anyone who has had to use them but I hate procurement portals. H-A-T-E.