Illustration of a brain inside a head

27 Mar 2019

Data and design: the weird and wonderful possibilities.

What I learnt at DOTI North

When Taylor Swift played the Rose Bowl in 2018, fans could view videos of the star on a stall. Unbeknown to them, the screen used facial recognition to cross reference their faces with a database of people who had been identified as stalkers.

It is quite embarrassing that it was Taylor Swift who sparked my imagination at the latest Design On The Inside (DOTI) North event. However, it did highlight that designers can not afford to ignore data in our work. For those of us who are unfamiliar with data, we need to break down the barriers, roll up our sleeves and start learning. For those of us who are familiar with data – even experts, we need to make ourselves more accessible.

The 3 DOTI speakers did just that, using storytelling and gaming to break down complex issues and demonstrate the impact throughout society.

Combining design and data pushes designers and data experts out of their comfort zone but it creates services that are user-friendly and sustainable. We’ve talked before about why data practitioners and service designers should work together more and how we’ve been working on building a data-driven planning system.

However at DOTI north, it was the people’s stories that really stood front and centre and the impact that design and data can have on people’s day-to-day lives became a prominent thread throughout. Here were some of my personal learning highlights from the event.

Data is not information

Data is not information, information is not knowledge, knowledge is not understanding, understanding is not wisdom. – Clifford Stoll

The NHS has been collecting data for 40 years. “Just imagine the design we could do with that if it were put into context?”, ask Manira Ahmad, Head of Local Intelligence at NHS National Services Scotland. This is because data sitting in a system, or in a multitude of systems that can’t be linked – isn’t useful. It needs to be put in context to make it understandable, and it needs to be turned into actions.

Marina told us of an individual who came to A&E 62 times in one year, costing the service a huge amount. This type of information isn’t readily available for all services. So how might we make it more available? How might it inform designs so that, preventative care can be put in place, offering a better quality of life for the person, savings for the service, and a more manageable workload for staff.

NHS Services Scotland recognises this. They bring health staff and data analysts together to consider data and lived experiences. Our world produces more information than ever before. We don’t need more information, as Manira said “We’ve got tons of it. We just need to use it better.”

Connecting data is key to the human experience.

Connecting data is hard. Services struggle with legacy systems that don’t connect with each other, teams and organisations are working in silos, and dealing with the constraints of procurement. However, Peter Tolland told us how North Lanarkshire Council (NLC) is working  to change things.

NLC is the only council in the UK that is connecting their back-end systems. They have created a Master Citizen Record under the principle of ‘tell us once’: if you change your address at the GP, they’ll change it automatically in the other systems. It’s about connecting different parts of people’s lives together with their consent. When asked if they wanted to sign up, only 10% of their customers said no, as they could recognise the benefit.

“How do you stop sending letters to dead people?” Peter asked. When a resident dies, how do we make sure that the Council only needs to be told once and is able to share the information across services efficiently, so they can avoid creating extra distress for families or friends when a letter arrives for a deceased person. More generally, connecting data makes it easier for residents to deal with the Council, streamlines the work of Council employees and reduces the risk of mistakes. The benefit of connecting data, should be at the forefront of the service transformation agenda.

Data can help us fill in the gaps

Matthew Chalmers discussed the idea of Seamful Design. All complex systems inevitably have gaps: joins between components or services which can negatively impact the user experience. However, what if we instead try to leverage seams to our advantage?

He explained how systems can detect, employ and reveal seams to deliver tangible benefits. One of these systems, Treasure, was an augmented reality game where players collected digital coins that were dropped in real world locations, and physically chased other players when attempting to steal their coins by moving into range of their mobile devices. As the game was played, the mobile devices sensed the Wi-Fi signal as players moved around the real world.  Some game interactions – such as uploading coins to a safe – took advantage of being in the Wi-Fi network, whilst others – such as hiding from potential pick-pocketers when you hold a large stash of coins – took advantage of being out of it. Through the natural playing of the game the Wi-Fi and location data that was detected led to an accurate map of the Wi-Fi coverage and propagation in the area.

As well as being a game that I wanted to play, the notion of Seamful Design is a challenging prospect. While ‘no dead ends’ is a well-accepted service design principle, what about gaps between services? Seamful Design can challenge us to fill the gaps — making human interaction more joyful, and the impact of the service greater. Rather than hiding seams, we can reveal them to users to help them understand the infrastructure whilst enabling them to solve problems when they occur. For example, the little bars that show the strength of the signal on your mobile phone, can help you choose where to call from.

Furthermore, Chalmers’ work also spoke to the power of using games during research. By supporting a playful interaction as a key part of systems, you are more likely to get a true and more engaged response. Through enabling longer more enjoyable interactions it becomes possible to create richer data and better results from which to build upon. A result that will help us design more powerful and sustainable services.

Thank you to Manira Ahmad, Professor Matthew Chalmers and Peter Tolland for sharing their work and learnings at DOTI North’s latest event. Sign up to the Snook Newsletter and keep an eye on our Twitter feed for event announcements for London and Glasgow.