Your customers probably aren’t like you

I’m not posh.

I have dinner at 6pm, not supper at 8.30pm.

I have never skiied.

My second name is not my nickname.

In our house we have a loo not a lavatory.

And I don’t shop in Waitrose.

I can guarantee you that the heaviest users of council services are not posh either.

By the same token I am not poor – I have a job, I can feed my family, we have a car, own our own home and can afford to go on sunny holidays. I’d describe us as comfortable.

Other than emptying their bins, collecting their council tax and educating some of their children I don’t think the majority of the comfortably off are heavy users of council services.

So when it comes to wording leaflets, creating web content and forms or designing services with actual customers in mind, how can we be sure we’re pitching it right?

As humans we like to think that other people are like us but are they really?

In the office we use PCs mostly but a look at the web stats shows me that the majority of our citizens look at the website on a phone. We need to look at the website through their eyes.

That 45-page housing application form? Yes, we need to look at the form through an applicant’s eyes but we also need to understand what life is actually like for that citizen as they try to fill it out.

Empathy and a good dose of nosiness is what service managers and service designers need.

I’ve always been nosy – that’s why I enjoyed my 14 years as a journalist.

It’s also why I like public transport, particularly the bus. I sit at the bus station for half an hour on a Wednesday and another 30 minutes on the bus home. Now, you could look on the bus station as the armpit of hell where the human flotsam and jetsam congregates to compare court orders, the price of a bag of green, who the father of the baby is or the latest rumblings on Love Island. It is all that. On the other hand these human beings are likely to be the heaviest users of council services, whether as ‘troublesome’ council tenants, at risk of becoming homeless, known to social work for one reason or another or up on a Police warrant.

Last week, a group of four 20 somethings came in, clearly out their faces on something, loud-mouthed, sweary and slightly scary. The rest of us looked at each other, hoping they wouldn’t get on our bus. As the bus pulled in they sprang into action, falling over each other, dropping stuff, looking for bus fares, all with smart phones, when one of them shouted out, “Whar’s ma dug! Ah’ve loast ma dug! Whar’s ma dug!”, as he circled round and round checking around his ankles. I had visions of the poor dug tied up outside a pub for hours and for a couple of seconds the guy was as panicked as if he’s left his first born in a pram outside a shop.

Embed from Getty Images


The dug – a staffie-cross, naturally – came slinking out, shamefaced from under his seat. And we all heaved a sigh of relief.

And that was a perfect picture of just one of our customer groups – chaotic lifestyle, drug habit, friends just like him, public transport user. But he loves his dug.

Could he fill out our housing application without help? He’d probably struggle to find it, never mind fill it out on his phone.

However, should he ever lose his dug and it gets picked up by the dog warden I am pretty confident he’ll see the picture we’ll post on Facebook and Insta telling him where to pick it up.

So if you work in local government and you want to understand your customers, get out among them. Take the bus. Hit up Iceland instead of Waitrose (Iceland has pledged to remove palm oil by 2020, unlike Waitrose btw). Go into the chemist serving one of your housing estates for a browse and listen to the conversations around you.

This is real life.

A meeting room filled with middle managers deciding how to deliver a service isn’t.

Transformation can be transcendental

I’m no yoga bunny but I do find the breathing techniques relaxing and the teacher always tells that the asanas massage internal organs, lower blood pressure and heart rate.

I haven’t practised yoga for 17 years  but now I’m back at it, with a brilliant studio I am finding that I can apply it to a lot of my leisure time. I wasn’t expecting to draw parallels to the transformation programme going on at work so tonight’s unravelling of my thoughts after class surprised me.

Like most transformation programmes parts of ours feels like wading through treacle, other parts half-hearted and yet others scratching the surface. Don’t get me wrong, there are flashes of inspiration and aspiration but where can yoga help, I hear you ask.

Something clicked in class tonight, There was the in breath and an awareness of what I was about to ask my body to do, there was an exhale as I moved to a position, an awareness of any tension as I inhaled again (sometimes this was tricky and I had to imagine breathing by expanding my lungs and ribs at the back then a complete relaxation on an exhale, using the weight of my limbs to get a deeper stretch. Finally there was an inhale to raise my head and become aware of coming back to an equilibrium before moving on to another position.

Embed from Getty Images

Applied to transformation, there needs to be an awareness of where you are and an understanding of where you need to be. Along the way you need to take regular breathers to take stock of the effects the changes are having on citizens, employees and processes.

You need to have empathy for all the stakeholders.

You need to carefully balance internal processes with citizen experience.

You need to feel the connections, use the breath and the transformation will come.

So maybe instead of agile we should be aiming for yogic.

Who’s up for a sun salutation?

Not everyone is equal online

I dropped off the social media radar for four days recently. I doubt anyone noticed – everyone’s timelines and feeds are so busy I’d have to be Caitlin Moran or the Pope for anyone to miss my tweets, posts or Snaps.

The fam and I headed north for a short break on the far north west coast of mainland Scotland, Red Point to be exact. I’d never heard of it until just after New Year when HimIndoors and I watched the film What We Did On Our Holiday starring Billy Connelly and David Tennant. It was written by the Outnumbered team and follows the family north to visit David Tennant’s character’s father for his 70th birthday party. The story is hilarious and poignant in equal measure but what stole the show for me was the beach used for a lot of the shoot. Golden sand, turquoise sea, an island on the horizon and blue skies made the perfect backdrop.

A quick look on the web revealed it was Red Point Beach and the first thing Google threw up for Red Point was a log cabin for rent, practically a stone’s throw from the sand. A quick email to owner Ian Warren and it was booked for the start of the school holidays. Another email revealed there was no wifi and a search on the web showed no signal in the area from 02 or 3. Hurrah, said I – a complete break from everything to do with work, including Twitter and Facebook. We decided to let the kids find out for themselves. We knew the first day would be hell then they’d get used to it.

On the way north it all dawned on MiniMe when her reception disappeared between Perth and Inverness but the sulk didn’t last long. The cabin was cute with unspoilt views over to Raasay and Skye.

Inside was a home from home but once the car was unpacked we all piled down the beach. It was picture perfect, often deserted and we visited it at least once a day.

The next day we discovered there was a second beach just around the headland. Day three was the only complete day of rain. I went out for a walk myself – I’ve always said skin is waterproof and the rain was warm anyway. I started on the first beach, the headed cross country to the second beach. The tide was out this time and I realised that around the corner was a third beach.


Between the beaches, the pony trekking next door, the shops in Gairloch and the walks and the ever-changing landscape out the windows there was plenty for the kids to do and at night we watched DVDs and played copious amounts of Uno and Cluedo.

There were only two reasons we really missed the connectivity.

Conversations tend to die out when you don’t have Google or a complete set of the Encyclopaedia Britannica to hand for reference.

The other, and I may sound sad, was the recycling. We recycle a lot as a family and South Lanarkshire Council recycles more materials than most. The cabin had a black bin and a blue bin but I couldn’t assume that they were used for the same things as our black and blue bins. Then, if the blue bin was for recycling, what could I put in it. And what days were they collected. I’d have loved to have seen the vehicle coping on the single track road too. See, I’m sad.

No internet meant I couldn’t look up Highland Council’s website so in the end everything went into one black bin bag and slung in the black bin.

Bu that got me wondering how Highland Council, with so many holiday homes, is ever going to meet its recycling targets. Even locals with their slow broadband would struggle to use the things the rest of us take for granted.

But it’s not just Highland Council. My parents live in rural South Lanarkshire and struggle with the BBC iPlayer with their 3Mb broadband. If you and your neighbours live a bit away from the exchange I doubt you’d all be able to stream Netflix at the same time.

And there’s the rub. Digital exclusion is rife in Scotland, because you can’t afford to be connected, you don’t have the skills to use digital safely and effectively or you just don’t have the infrastructure to cope. DotEveryone has produced this telling digital exclusion heatmap and some of the information contained in it is worrying. 0% (and that’s not a lot!) of homes in the Highland area have 4G coverage by all providers and 37% of homes have broadband speeds of less than 10Mbps and 17% of residents have never been online. Ditto on the 4G for Dumfries and Galloway who have a quarter of homes with broadband speeds of less than 10Mbps and 20.6% of residents have never been online. Meanwhile in Glasgow only 5% of homes have broadband speeds of less than 10Mbps, only 10.3% don’t get 4G from all providers yet 16.6% pf residents have never been online.


It’s not like BT and the other communications companies can’t afford to sort this out – they make profits every year after all. Rural communities shouldn’t have to sort this out for themselves – us townies got it handed to us on a plate but we just want it bigger, faster, stronger and to hell with the rest of you! But there’s still a worrying amount of people around us who have never been online

The Internet is the fourth utility. This has been discussed since 2006 – go and read  for yourself.

The very people who most need online services are the ones who are being excluded. Think of the remote elderly who could use Facebook to keep in touch with friends and family. Families in poverty could be taking advantage of the cheaper online prices. There’s a wealth of online courses available to those who maybe can’t move away to the city to go to university and those people far from a supermarket could be taking advantage of home delivery.

The telecomms companies claim they are addressing the problem but the people living in rural areas tell a different story. Access to the internet should be equal for all and basic digital skills should be just as essential as the three Rs.

I have to admit it was great to be cut off from the world for a week. I didn’t miss the ever changing political landscape and Pokemon Go was a bit of an enigma for 24 hours till I caught up – @JenniferMJones soon had me up to speed.

If you work in work in comms and particularly social media I can’t think of a better place than Red Point to get away from it all. Running a business or living there full time would be a challenge. In the words of Joni Mitchell ‘You don’t know what you’ve lost till it’s gone’.

If you fancy renting the Cabin at Red Point you can check out the website and email

But Ian, please don’t install any broadband – let’s keep it off grid.

WTF is digital anyway

Last week I went to the National Digital Conference in London which had a stellar line-up including a government minister, a Lord, an award-winning digital first council, the Executive Director of the GDS and a true celebrity in Maggie Philbin.
Whilst the speakers had a lot of valuable things to say, the comments by and conversations between delegates on Twitter was where the action was happening.
Rather than try to recreate what I learned by rewriting it all I’ll group the soundbites together under headings and try to make some sense of it all for you.


Organisational transformation

  • Innovation and disruption are key for the digital future. Risk-averse organisations take note – you will be disrupted!
  • You can’t redesign a service without redesigning the organisation that delivers it
  • It’s easy to upgrade to the latest device. It’s hard to upgrade digital skills
  • Digital transformation means business transformation, not just shoving forms on the website. We need to transform the way we deliver services and the way we work
  • Electoral registration was given as an example of good use of real-time data. However if it’s about business transformation, when will Parliament be transformed? It still took an age to have the ‘emergency’ legislation passed to extend registration
  • You can’t transform the whole organisation overnight. Start small – GDS was purposely a bolt on to the Civil Service with a clear remit to transform a handful of high volume transactions to prove it was the way forward
  • The GDS was deliberately conceived as an insurgent start-up and it’s delivered 20 brilliant public services digitally
  • If you want to attract the right employees to an organisation in the throes of a transformation programme you need to rethink your recruitment process. Change recruitment and the image of the organisation to align with the transformation programme
  • Job adverts and job descriptions need to be disrupted to bring diversity. Engineer or coder could be called problem solver to attract right people
  • The challenge isn’t getting troublemakers into your organisation. It’s making sure they still want to cause trouble after a year in the job. Create an environment to let them disrupt. Don’t make them conform
  • Providing digital services is a journey without an end point
  • Don’t write passwords on Post-it notes? Well, stop making me have 23 different passwords which need changing monthly then!
  • Automate processes and humanise jobs


  • Data needs to be used with caution. What are the human stories behind the data
  • Data can be manipulated and can be difficult to analyse, especially when there is a data analysis skills gap

Digital literacy

  • There is a desperate shortage of digitally capable staff in the civil service and local government. This has been identified as a major barrier. There is also a lack of CPD for staff with digital skills
  • Digital literacy should be part of the curriculum and there should be modern apprenticeships in digital (when I checked Skills Development Scotland there are no digital apprenticeships in our area, only social care. Imagine if those carers were digitally literate and could help those they care for to use digital to enhance their lives)
  • The future is inspiring and the digital opportunities are endless – why then are IT classes in school so dull. Time to reframe?
  • According to @maggiephilbin the teachers who supported her TeenTech programme did so in their own time and bought resources with their own money. They shouldn’t have to
  • Qualifications have become a proxy for skills. It’s time to disrupt the education system and move to experience-based assessment of capability instead of rote learning and exams
  • Chicken/egg. We have a digital skills gap but right now who’s going to teach our teachers so they can teach our kids?
  • Let’s celebrate the creatively disruptive pupils in our schools. They may hold the key for our digital future
  • Coding is just a language and should appeal to people used to being around languages (research has shown that the part of the brain used for learning a new language shows more activity in girls than boys. Girls are more likely to think abstractly about language than boys. All of this means that girls are more than capable of learning coding – it just needs framed in the right way to attract them to it –
  • I want to talk about STEAM not just STEM. The real magic happens at the intersection of STEM with the Arts
  • You don’t need to know how to code to work in digital. There’s more to Digital than coding & IT, there’s design, ux, marketing. We need to break down stereotypes and get more girls engaged
  • Social media is the easy way into digital for girls but most schools see social media as bad and a risk. This needs fixed
  • IT and digital are different worlds. Digital needs removed from computing class and embedded in every subject, along with data analysis

WTF is digital anyway?

  • IT costs are going up 60% every year. Digital does not mean IT. People are at the heart of digital – digital needs humanised
  • So it should really be Customer First rather than Digital By Default?
  • If the Executive Director of the GDS says digital isn’t about computers then it’s not. End of
  • Disabled people use digital every day to live their lives. Use them and their experience when building digital services. If it works for them it will work for everyone




  • Feel the fear and do it anyway
  • Creativity, bold thinking etc. should be considered ‘core skills’ not ‘soft skills’
  • If you need to pitch digital to your CEO you may have the wrong CEO – he/she is a black cab driver when all his/her customers are using Uber
  • Women need to apply for digital leader positions, and commit to applying until women fill more than half of digital roles
  • GDS are leading by example on equality – staff won’t speak at events which don’t have a balance of diverse speakers
  • You can’t impose culture on a team, all you can do is provide the right environment
  • It’s OK to think out loud about organisational culture


Wigan Council – doing digital right

  • The Wigan Council Deal – contract between citizens and the council
  • 1 in 3 citizens in Wigan use an online account to transact with the council
  • Wigan Council have co-designed with residents and partners and in doing so have connected communities


Growing old digitally

  • Medicine can prolong life. Can digital make life worth living?
  • Watches have changed from time pieces to heart monitor, fitness monitor and more
  • For wearables at work look no further than @Rarelyimpossibl Theirs are even linked to personalised soothing @Spotify playlists
  • We no longer have a 3-stage life (education, work & retirement). Lifelong learning and digital resilience is needed to enhance the lives of those living to 100

What about the tech

  • Tech and tools aren’t about bells and whistles, they are about enabling you to do your day job effectively
  • We downgrade on the tech we use when we walk through the office door

The irony wasn’t lost on those delegates, including me, for whom the event wifi wouldn’t work!

I also think that it’s about time the annual National Digital Conference left London and went on tour – I have suggested Glasgow next year.

But I’m not holding my breath.