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Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

What do you mean by human-centred design?

What do you mean by human-centred design?

People often ask me how I keep up with everything. There’s two answers to that.

The first is this: I don’t. I keep up with the specific things that people are paying me to look at. It just happens that this covers a broad spectrum of topics, from search engines to super yachts.

When you do research on such a broad range of topics, you gather a lot of context along the way. That helps you to get your head around other stuff, or at least makes you sound passably knowledgeable about a lot of things.

Shelagh Fogarty once described me as ‘a man who knows a lot about a lot’. ‘A lot about a little, and a little about a lot’, might be more accurate.

The second answer is that, as a rule, I listen when I walk and write when I sit. To my shame this largely excludes books from my intake. Instead, I consume a huge amount of material through podcasts. This lets me get the sense of the arguments in the big books of the day — frequently from talks give by the authors themselves.

I always intend to buy the books as well, or listen all the way through on Audible, but often it doesn’t quite happen.

Design thinking

Walking through London to a meeting this week, I was listening to a podcast from the RSA, a talk given by one of the partners at IDEO, Sue Siddall. It was on the subject of ‘design thinking’, a subject of great interest to me right now as I am redesigning some of the Applied Futurist’s Toolkit in advance of the next Futurism for Business course at the University of Salford.

At the end of the talk, as usual with the RSA’s excellent events series, the host invited questions. The first voice was very familiar to me. Even though he didn’t give his name I knew straight away it was my friend, the designer Johnny Grey. He asked what Sue had meant when she talked about ‘human-centred design’ — not because he was unfamiliar with the term, he explained, but because of a sense of caution about its use.

The answer revolved around addressing not just the needs and challenges facing the end customer but the needs of those people delivering the service as well.

This got me thinking.


When I first designed the Intersections foresight tool, it was to fulfil a need that I had. I wanted to structure my investigations into the near future of the different markets I was being asked to address.

The Five Vectors of Change had already emerged from the projects I was working on: five consistent trends that seemed to be affecting every sector, whether public or private, local, national or international. What I needed was a way to connect these trends to the realities of a specific sector I was addressing.

I realised looking back at the projects I’d worked on that the places where the incoming five trends caused the most dramatic change, were where there was already pressure:

If there is stress on your margins then greater diversity in the supply chain can dramatically improve the situation.

If your customer service is poor, then rising consumer expectations of performance are going to be more problematic for you than others.

If you are a deeply vertically-integrated business, then you might struggle to adapt to an increasingly networked economy.

These are Intersections, the points at which incoming trends collide with existing Pressure Points.

The view from your window

Back when I was in marketing, our new business pitches always used to include a section called ‘The View from Your Window’. It was a few paragraphs that told the client that we understood their business and their market. When it was a big pitch we used to interview members of staff in the business to get this insight.

I realised I needed a similar process.

Over time, I’ve refined a set of questions that can be re-used across industries to understand the Pressure Points that companies are facing. It’s amazing how often issues that are widely recognised in the lower ranks can shock management. Organisations are often a lot more opaque than we think.

Pressure Points are human

I’ve always talked about my toolkit as being about structure, not people. I’ve left the more human elements of strategy and change to specialists in that area. I’m an engineer by training and I have a strong belief that there are structural design solutions to a lot of the problems that my clients — whether companies or industries — are facing.

What I realised from Johnny’s question and Sue’s answer is that actually I have been addressing a human component all along.

The questions that I ask people to find the Pressure Points, are about their feelings: what frustrates them, how they rate their own performance and that of the people around them. This has proven to be a very effective way to find problems in the core of a business, but it also speaks to their more human needs. To the changes that will improve their experience.

Now when people ask where the human element comes into my views on the future, I can give a much clearer answer.

The needs of the user

There’s a second constituency that Sue Siddall mentioned that I haven’t addressed, and that’s the needs of the user. The people actually applying my toolkit for themselves, as consultants or leaders in their own business.

One of the most valuable pieces of feedback from the first course at Salford was that people wanted the tools to be more usable on a day-to-day basis, not just for projects. They also wanted them to be simpler: I’m learning you can almost never make things too simple when it comes to designing tools.

For the next course I’m taking the five or six steps in each of the two tools taught on the course, and making each one into a ‘micro-tool’ in its own right. For example, one little tool can be used to prioritise the Intersections that you focus on, or it can be used as a format for a to-do list to prioritise your work. One that can be used to understand future impact, can also help you to prepare for a meeting with a new constituency — perhaps a client or a different function within your business.

Strategy and storytelling

The most human development of all to the toolkit over the last few months has been to the way that I communicate what it is. With due thanks to Phil Lewis, Applied Futurism is about strategy and storytelling.

How do you set strategy in an increasingly fast-moving world? How do you communicate your vision for the future to all the audiences that matter? How do you build an organisation that is truly future-ready?

These are the questions that Applied Futurism seeks to answer.

Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

Your personal data space

Your personal data space

Your house is leaky. It’s not an issue about what comes in, but about what goes out.

When it comes to privacy, I’m something of an optimist. I am entirely aware of the trade-offs that I make to access the variety of social and cloud-based services that I use. For the most part, I accept that they will use my data and sell it to advertisers and those interested in my habits. In return, the service doesn’t cost me any cash — at least not directly.

For personal services like Facebook and Twitter, it’s fine for us each to make this judgement call for ourselves. But when it comes to home automation and security services, we need to be a little more considered. Because most of us share our homes. Not everyone in them will share our relaxed attitude to trading our personal data. Some of them may not be old enough to make an informed decision.


I’ve become more and more aware of this as I have progressed through the latest iteration of my long-running home automation project.

A few years ago I got fed up with products from different manufacturers not talking to each other and started to build my own system. It worked, in a limited fashion, giving me data on energy consumption, turning a few lights on and off automatically, and monitoring just how absurdly damp parts of my house were.

But in truth, it was a kludge. My coding skills weren’t up to building a really solid core platform. And it was reliant on some hacked-together integrations with commercial products: HomeEasy sockets and switches, AlertMe energy monitoring. After a while, some of the commercial products I was getting sent to test started to creep in and replace my home brew kit. Fibaro’s excellent HomeCenter 2 became the heart of my system with a variety of Z-wave connected components around and about, plus a few odd extras bolted on such as bulbs from Belkin’s WeMo range, Somfy’s security system, and my Nest thermostat.

Then at the start of this year, I started getting sent lots of connected cameras. Netgear’s Arlo, the Blink range, and Panasonic’s Home Control system. In my excitement, I started thinking about where I’d mount them before I thought about whether I wanted cameras around the house.

Then it occurred to me: I’m very conscious of how much information I share about my children. Do I really want to risk storing endless hours of video of them in the cloud?

Decision spur

The answer, of course, was no. The cameras are back in their box. But I didn’t stop there. I started thinking: what’s happening to my energy consumption data? What’s happening to my heating data — and presence data that the thermostat also collects? What about the lights?

Individually, each one of these things may tell the world little about me and my family. But there might be 20 different cloud-connected devices in my house — maybe more. I’ve not even mentioned Alexa or the streaming media devices yet. Combined, how much of a picture can they build up of me? And more importantly, what do they already know about my family.

The result is that I have returned to the DIY route with renewed zeal, installing the excellent Home Assistant at the heart of my system and building my own switches and sensors using the incredible NodeMCU.

I realise this is the sort of geeky speak that will switch off the strategists reading this. But this stuff is important.

Social Chain

I met with some of the chaps from global social media superstars Social Chain last week. They showed in a presentation a storyboard of personal information being collected from a private WhatsApp chat and being used to drive targeted advertising on Facebook. At every opportunity our personal information is being captured, and it is being analysed and processed with increasing efficiency and accuracy. Data like your home temperature or energy consumption may not feel like it has a huge value to third parties. But for somebody, somewhere, it is gold.

I have no problem sharing this data for an appropriate return. But I realise now, when it comes to data about my home, this isn’t just my decision to make.

Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

You are a guinea pig

You are a guinea pig

In a time of high frequency change, we are all guinea pigs. All working tirelessly to interpret, codify and normalise new ideas, objects, media and behaviours. To lay down a shared set of rules for how these things should be discussed, applied, accepted or rejected.

It can be exhausting, even for those who relish the challenge.

Not everyone embraces change. There is even an argument for some conservatism in this period, a braking force to prevent us rushing headlong into an uncertain tomorrow. But this conservatism has to come from the right place. Objective caution is one thing. Forceful rejection of the loss of relative privilege is quite another.

Millennial mauling

Old vs young is an old story, most recently retold in the mauling of millennials over the past five years. This cohort born from 1980 onward has been accused of being workshy, over-sensitive and laden with excessive expectations. There’s little evidence that any of it is true — or at least more true than it was for previous cohorts. Certainly millennials don’t job hop any more than previous generations.

Millennials have come of age in a time where they are expected to pay their way up from a young age. Where a large proportion will enter the workforce already in debt. And where the work that they find is increasingly insecure. Facing all this perhaps they are entitled to ask for more than their predecessors?

But millennials have an advantage as guinea pigs that galls their seniors. They have had young minds, biologically more capable of adaptation, throughout the most recent periods of accelerated change. They have adapted their behaviours and working styles while others feel left behind.

Perhaps this drives some of the mauling they have received.

Science scepticism

Another group that has been vilified over the past five years is scientists, and technologists. Yes, we celebrate the superstars of Silicon Valley (though they too receive their share of brickbats). But the scale and volume of the movements that reject science, in many forms, has been growing.

For a start, there’s the conspiracy theorists. The flat earthers, the climate change deniers, the anti-vaccination lobby. Those who prefer, for whatever reason, truthiness to truth.

There’s the alternative health lobby, determined to undermine empiricism to promote their beliefs or their products, whether it’s ‘superfoods’, supplements, or pointless — sometimes even dangerous — treatments.

Fear drives a lot of these groups. Fear of things they don’t understand. Fear of losing parts of their lives they value — even their livelihoods. There’s nothing wrong with fear — it’s entirely natural. But the right response to fearing things you don’t understand is to examine them. Accept your knowledge deficit and ask questions. Don’t hide from the facts, however uncomfortable they may be.

Diversity deniers

I caught up with Lorna Fitzsimmons of The Pipeline yesterday. Inevitably, we talked about gender in the workplace, and how we are still so far from addressing the equality of women.

52% of the (potential) workforce are still significantly disadvantaged, underpaid and under-represented. Yet we know — hard fact — that changing this has a range of benefits with which few can argue. Benefits to productivity, growth, profitability. Benefits to society.

Despite this, many men — and even women — are unaware of the situation or unwilling to act to change it. Some even aggressively resist it, knowing that though it may be in the company’s interest, it may not be in their own.

That self-preservation instinct is understandable. But ultimately, it’s unsustainable.

Be scared

In a time of accelerated change, it’s OK to be scared — we naturally fear what we don’t understand. But it’s not OK to be wilfully ignorant. In the long term, it won’t serve you well.

This period of high frequency change is not a blip. It’s probably the new norm, at least for some time to come. No political battle is going to disconnect us from increasingly shared ideas, media, brands and channels of communication.

Unless you want to spend the next few years afraid and struggling against the tide, it’s probably time to embrace change. Or reject it, by all means. But if you do so, do it from an informed standpoint. Otherwise the tide is likely to wash right over you.

Tom Cheesewright