Cleansing the soul with honest design

Back in late 2013, shortly after I joined traveljunction.com, I managed to internally recruit Tim Gale on to my team. It was a pretty bold move, Tim was sought after across the company but I was pretty determined and didn’t give up.

I’d known of Tim for a while before joining the company and as we began to talk more internally, I knew our views on design synced up really well which made him a good hire and in reality I needed some help.

Before I joined, traveljunction.com lacked design principles and process, but travel industry design as a whole was lacking something even greater.

Time and time again we’ve heard of air fares randomly jacking up because we use a different IP or chose different options in the checkout process, never-mind the dark patterns that we see auto adding you to newsletters when you think you’ve opted out.

What the travel industry was lacking, was honesty, and I believe it still is.

As we began one of the quickest re-alignments of design I’d ever done as part of a team, I took time to speak internally about ‘Honest Design’. If TJ wanted to be different by creating its own honest reviews, then the design in its entirety needed to match this same thinking. I began to jot down some notes, almost guidelines.

  1. Dark patters would be banned
  2. All costs would be displayed to the customer so they could make an informed decision
  3. We wouldn’t use ass-backwards persuasive design
  4. We would help customers as much as we could based on their needs
  5. The designed experience wouldn’t stop at checkout, a customers journey would be with us until we never saw them again

We accomplished a few of the above, but as time drew on, it was made apparent that the industry is full of low margins and a fight against all costs to get those bookings in anyway possible. With the increase of ‘meta sites’ (comparison sites), against the likes of companies with their own deals with hotels it’s a literal fight to the death.

Instead of focusing on honest design and helping customers by focusing on their needs, you see travel businesses fixate on sticking with dark patterns and odd tactics to get bookings.

Travel isn’t the only industry either, I’m using that as an example as it’s the industry I’ve been in for the past 2 years.

Now, I’m from a commercial background, I run a conference, I’ve written proposals and pitched for work, I fully understand that money has to come in.

But I sincerely and truly believe there’s a better way to go about things.

My inner-self has never felt compelled to fight the sales fight, it’s just not me. And with that I needed to cleanse my soul, I needed to put effort into something which is far greater than myself, to help others.

It’s one of the reasons I’m starting a new role with the DigitalDWP team this coming Monday. I was incredibly skeptical of whether government would ever allow the GDS to achieve anything when they started but it became clear early on that they were making significant progress and I’ve been a fan of GDS since. Their design principles should be required reading for all.

The soon to be leaving but current Head of Design for GDS, Ben Terrett, wrote yesterday;

Every designer should work in the public sector. Being a civil servant and using your talents to help the people in your country is an honour. In an industry so often obsessed with novelty and persuasion, government is a chance to do real design work.

That’s something I believe in and something I’m going to begin next week.

If what I’ve written above resonates with you, we’re hiring, come and join us.

It’s time for something new…

tldr; I’m leaving traveljunction.com and joining one of the GOV.uk services.

On Thursday I’ll be walking out of the traveljunction.com office for the last time to have a long awaited week off before starting afresh elsewhere.

2 years ago I knew absolutely nothing about travel, although it was one of the verticals I’d identified that I’d like to work in. When the opportunity came knocking I took hold of it as tight as I could. As a designer, you can look at the entire travel landscape and everything in your gut tells you it can be done better, more user-centered based on user needs.

Over 18+ months, my team and I created traveljunction.com and a niche new package holiday site for customers traveling to Dubai. Not only that but my role changed dramatically over the time I was with the company. I started off as Head of UX, before moving on to Head of UX & Product and ended up somewhere around the role a Chief Product Officer would be doing.

I got to work with a team packed chock-full of some of the most talented humans you’d ever want to work with. I went from managing 3 team members before maxing out at about 14 or so at one point and learned a lot in doing so.

And all  while this was happening I successfully launched and ran the third Industry Conf which went better than my wildest expectations.

But, it’s time for a change. I’ve spoken for a long time about learning again, getting right back into the thick of it in the practical side of design. It’s where my heart is at and is of course my core skill set. At Industry this year, I closed the conference by talking about doing something worthwhile with our careers, we’re only on this earth for a relatively short timeframe and there’s no point at all working on something that you’re not entirely happy with.

We’re also in a bit of an employees market right now, there is a lot of work floating around in various different verticals. I mentioned at Industry that whilst you may be working within an agency doing client services work, it doesn’t mean that you’re stuck there if you want to try out product based design. We can do and have the skills to do whatever we want to put our minds too.

Something New

I’ve looked up to the Government Digital Service and their work on GOV.uk and their other services for quite some time. They seem to have nailed a lot of things in a lot of areas and most importantly they’re changing government from within by focusing on user needs and not what government wants. That last bit makes me want to run around in circles doing some kind of happy dance.

DWP Digital

The GDS are in the process of giving autonomy to a range of their services, one of which is the Department for Work and Pensions also known as ‘The DWP’. I’m incredibly excited and honoured that I’ll be joining Ben Holliday‘s DWP team mid-August in Newcastle. There is a lot to do over there and the DWP cover more things than I’d ever imagined, it’s not just pensions.

It’s time for something new, it’s time to make a difference for the people that need it the most and I’m really looking forward to it.

Offscreen gets better with age

I own every edition of Offscreen magazine. From its inception, I’ve followed Kai’s progress with it and looked forward to reading every single edition. I was sat yesterday reorganising my shelves and realised as I flicked through them that I began re-reading parts of them that I’d read before.

I noticed that as I was reading I was getting just as drawn in and excited as the first time I read them. It’s a rare thing to go back to some content and enjoy reading it for a second and third time, but that’s exactly what was happening.

That’s why I own every Offscreen. It’s the fact that the content gets better with age, like a fine wine, I guess.

We are not all equal

As we design and build products you can often find yourself believing that your customers and users are just like you.

They use devices, hardware and software just like you. They navigate websites just like you. They are just as savvy about the web, just like you.

In actual fact our customers are generally nothing like us. You can begin to ascertain just how different they are through user and customer research.

Let me give you an example of how different things really can be.

At traveljunction.com, we sell hotel rooms online. We also take hotel room bookings over the phone but a lot of our business is done online. I keep a constant open communication channel between the customer care team and myself as it helps me understand our customers, their needs and even their frustrations.

One day, not too long ago, we had someone make a hotel booking. Shortly thereafter, the customer rang our customer care team to ask if she could have her booking confirmation sent to her in the post. The customer requested this as she didn’t have an email address for the booking confirmation to be sent too. She didn’t have an email address, at all. She had used her grand-daughters email address of which she didn’t/couldn’t get access too and nor did she have a printer to print the confirmation off. She needed the confirmation within two days and she was about to start travelling.

This specific customer had used a search engine using a specific search term, landed on traveljunction.com, navigated through the site and made a booking. Yet this specific customer in question was yet to get an email address because the amount of internet usage didn’t warrant the creation of one.

So remember, the next time you think “users do X” or “users would never do that”, remember we are not all equal.

Design Team Ethos

At the beginning of 2014, I began to build out the traveljunction.com design team beyond a single person (me).

I gained an awesome team-mate, Tim Gale, who’s been with me on the journey ever since. We sat down and created a design process as traveljunction never had one previously.

We were very particular about the process and it was quite exhaustive, something that worked pretty well as we revamped nearly every area of the product over the course of a few months.

The additional thing we worked on as we drilled away at the process was a 5 point ethos that Tim, myself and any person who joined the team thereafter would be held accountable to and work towards. A few months later and we grew again and added Kate to our team.

Our Design Ethos

The aim was to keep it short and on point, to include things we truly believe in and to push ourselves to become better at what we do on a daily basis.

#1 – Never assume

We will never assume that anything we do is right, we’ll only hope that we’re less wrong than before so we can progress in a measured manner.

#2 – Collaborate Always

We will never work in silos, even if we’re working on different parts of traveljunction at the same time, we’ll collaborate in an effective manner to get the best out of the product. More heads are better than one.  It’s far too easy to silo yourself.

#3 – Visuals do not come first

Visuals do not come first at traveljunction, aesthetics don’t make a bad product good. Usability and experience do, focus on those first and the aesthetics later.

#4 – Open, Honest Communication

We’re a team and great teams communicate and are open and honest with each other. When the going gets tough, when the product is under heavy critique, if we stand by shoulder to shoulder we’ll do ok. Ego’s are left at the door.

#5 – Process is King

We’re well aware that sometimes things can get challenging, but if we trust the process we’ll end up at the place we’re wanting to be no matter how long it takes. Trust the process and everything else will take care of itself.

Constant Improvement

Many of the points above could be used for different types of teams including engineering teams. We’re always looking to improve in our own little individual ways and having something to look at is comforting. Our process has changed over the years, but the ethos stands firm.

Big Thanks go to Tim for working with me on creating both the ethos and process.

A Healthier Designer: Part 2

Between January 2014 and January 2015 I lost over 2 stone in weight, dropped 2 waist sizes and became happier within myself than I’d been for years. This is the story of how I achieved it…

Way back in 2011, I wrote about being ‘A Healthier Designer‘. I raised my concerns about the effects that our industry can bring on our health if we’re not careful.

I raised a point that if you’re a work-from-home freelancer and not thinking about your own health then you could find yourself in the situation where you don’t leave your home for 3-5 days. It brought about a fairly large discussion both in the comments and on twitter.

I detailed my own personal story of being overweight for quite a lot of my life, especially since I entered into the industry. I’ve often found it very hard to lose weight apart from a period in 2003 when I lost 3 stone in about 3 months, it was on purpose and I felt great but couldn’t keep it up long-term.

When I wrote the original post back in 2011, I talked about how I managed to lose weight by focusing on a new healthier lifestyle and entirely changing my diet. I was extremely strict, and un-knowingly sent myself down a path which resulted in a trip to hospital.

As I started to lose weight, I thought I was winning, everything was controlled. I knew what I was eating and when and because it was working I didn’t want to change anything, and didn’t. The meals I ate were the same for months on end. That was my downfall. Shortly after I wrote about my diet I began to feel some excruciating pain which I thought was muscular pain and treated it with pain-killers. It got gradually worse and one morning I woke up and couldn’t stand up straight. In order to relieve the pain I had to lean or sit. I ended up in hospital with a compacted bowel. Gross. I’d been so strict with myself that I had in fact not eaten enough of the right things. There clearly wasn’t enough ‘roughage’ and definitely not enough diversity.

Daddy Fat

You hear that women put on weight when they’re pregnant. I now truly believe that Dad’s also put on weight when kids come on the scene. I was still going to the gym quite actively before both Addison and Nyah were born yet I still managed to sky-rocket my weight again by the time Nyah turned 1 month old.

Around that time, I was once again my heaviest weight and I was also going through a terrible time of male post-natal depression. My wife went through post-natal depression with both children and it looks like I ended up with it the second time around because I was so concerned about what she was going through. This taken from nct.org.uk explains a little bit:

There is also a moderate but clear link between a dad experiencing depression and his partner also suffering from depression.

Now, focusing on your own well being when you’re trying to control depression is exhaustive at best because you really don’t care.

However, having dealt with plenty of challenges throughout my life I knew that one of the best ways to get a grip was to take control.

At this point in time, I wasn’t going to the gym, wasn’t keep an eye on the food I was eating and was touching 14stone 3lbs. 36inch waist jeans felt uncomfortable, and there may have been 38inch jeans being worn. I was wearing anything and everything as baggy as I could. Let me just post the ‘before’ data:

Weight: 14stone 3lbs
Waist: 36-38inch
Clothing: Extra-Large

February 2014 and the introduction of Slimming World

Jen had been wanting to lose some weight and tried weight watchers, having visited one of their get-togethers she realised it wasn’t for her. After speaking with a friend she happened upon Slimming World. I did my usual “these things are all the same and never work” explanations. She loaned a load of the Slimming World books from a few people and we sat down one night to look through the things that you could eat. I’m not going to lie, the food looked amazing and the variation of what you could eat was incredible.

I didn’t understand, nor still do understand the over-easy, under-easy, healthy B or whatevertheheck they call them options but we started it and kept at it.

We were eating meals like ‘Burger in a Bowl‘, ‘Beef Ragu‘, Chicken Curry, Chicken and Chips (no joke) and load of other amazing meals.

This is what a typical day looked like for me;

Breakfast: Special K Cereal Bar + Cup of Tea
Mid-Morning: Piece of Fruit
Lunch: Sushi + Muller Light Yoghurt + Can of Diet Coke
Dinner: One of the above meals or anything from the Slimming World books that we wanted at the time
After Dinner: Chocolate (another no joke) 2x party size chocolate items

Note: I was once again off alcohol and maybe having one drink per 2 months if at all.

This time around I wanted to track as much as I could. I opened up the WeightBot app on my iPhone, put in my starting weight and then picked a Saturday morning to do my weekly weigh-in. Within the first few weeks I wasn’t doing any physical exercise but I started losing weight. Again, I’d expected an initial drop and then everything to level off. This time around, everything carried on in the right direction, week by week I started to lose a little bit of weight. I would lose 1 or 2lbs every single week by following routine above.

I felt like I was eating better than I ever had in my life with massively varied meals.

March 2014 and the introduction of Strava

Pete is the avid runner in our team at traveljunction. We’d discussed several times in passing that we’d go out for a run together on a lunch time. I’d put it off countless times before I bit the bullet. I knew I’d struggle, my lungs were weak and I knew I’d have issues with my asthma at first. We settled on an introductory route of 1.5miles. I nearly died. I think I did more walking than running and nearly ate my inhaler at one point.

But I didn’t give up, if I was at work I’d go running with Pete, if I was at home I’d go for a run by myself, tracking all of my runs on Strava. Work runs were fairly flat, home runs were awful as I live on a hill and every road around me is a hill. It certainly brought around some hard cardio work.

At the end of March I started back at the gym doing my weight training. Weight training is my thing, if I could do any form of physical exercise it would be weight training. I started with a variation on previous workouts which were ok, I got some strength back but not a huge amount.

By the end of April 2014, I weighed in at 13stone. I’d lost over 14lbs and could physically feel the difference in myself. Running up the stairs was easy, playing with the kids was easy and I just felt more comfortable overall.

April to July

I continued running with Pete, you could say that I became addicted. I think that, combined with my diet and weight training had the biggest impact on my weight loss. As by the end of July I’d hit goal after goal. My weight at the end of July was 12stone 2lbs.

In total up to that point I’d lost 2stone 1lbs of weight. An incredible feeling.

The end of July, however, brought something which would change my routine. An office move. At the old office we had a shower which we could use when we wanted to go for a run, the new office location didn’t have one so my runs with Pete would have to stop. I was petrified of the impact that could have on my weight loss.

But the fact is, it didn’t. Not even a little bit. I was the lowest weight I had been since 2006 and I was able to maintain the steadiness of my weight. There were no increases and I was able to drop weight if I gave it enough focus.

August and thinking about what I do next

When you hit goal after goal, you can tend to get a bit complacent. I’d never expected to hit any goals after the first one. I hit many plateau’s where I just couldn’t break through to the next level of weight loss and nearly gave up but with some determination I carried on.

I figured that now being 7-8 months in on this journey I needed to look at where I was headed and what my ‘next goals’ were going to be. I doubted that just generally keeping an eye on my eating habits and going to the gym 3-4 times a week would enable me to break in to the mid-11stone area. I should note that my lowest weight was achieved in August and I hit 11stone 13lbs.

The reasons why, my current routine and what the future holds…

Having hit 11stone 13lbs in August, I knew that would be all I could muster for a while, I was cutting my intake pretty heavily (still the right food) whilst still training. It was my decision to not commit too heavily to continuing this. I wanted to spend time building some muscle whilst not focusing on weight loss for a while. I levelled off at around 12st 2lbs and would fluctuate +/- 1lb from week to week.

I began to think about why I originally started this new journey and where it would lead me. I wanted to be ‘better’, I wanted to be ‘fitter’ and most of all I wanted to be able to sustain the amount of energy which is needed to chase around after two little girls. I’d definitely got that far so I needed to think about where I was headed next. I’d clearly shown that I wasn’t in it for the short term, as I write this its nearly 12 months to the day of when I started.

I changed my entire mindset to thinking that nothing is immediate, everything takes time and you’ll never achieve anything long-lasting in the short-term. I’m in this for as long as it takes, I keep thinking about a 5 year mark and then run through ideas of what I can do in 5 years. I have varying goals like run Tough Mudder, succeed in achieving ripped abs (I’ve only got close once in my life) and a load of other crazy stuff.

I know of quite a few people in our industry now that do some sort of training similar to my own, some more intense than others. One of my best friends, Craig, works at proteincard.com and has previously achieved what I’d love too. Danny Keane, a fellow designer and now WBFF Pro works his butt off and posts regularly to YouTube / Instagram, Heather Noonan-Hargroves and Ashley Baxter  both train weights too as well as our very own Tim Gale. It’s great having someone sat right in front of you who does weight training so you can discuss routines. The likes of Doc Parsons and Richard Wiggins are avid cyclists and Rachel Andrews and James Young are keen runners. It’s nice to know that there are other people in the industry doing similar things to myself and to see their successes.

I don’t really talk about my training, nor am I yet at the stage of posting before and afters. A few people have seen me over the past 12 months and noticed a difference, which is nice. This year, as I begin training that little bit harder towards my goals I may start actively talking about it. Who knows.

Current State

Currently, these are the stats.

Weight: 12stone 2lbs
Waist: 33inches (awkward as hell)
Clothing: Large or Slim Fit

I’m continuing with the slimming world menus, they really do work. I often eat more protein based meals due to my training. My diet is far from ‘clean’ but it is far cleaner than it probably has been in the past, hence the maintaining of the lower weight.

I train 4 times a week and currently it looks a bit like this:

Saturday: Chest
Sunday: Arms
Tuesday: Shoulders
Thursday: Back

Arms is the shortest work out and it last about 40-45minutes. The other three can take anywhere up to 1hr 30mins depending on how far I want to go.

If you’d like to know my specific workout, let me know in the comments and I’ll post it up in a separate post.

In January I shifted my routines to focusing on building strength which is going well and I’ll continue focusing on this for the next 3-4 months. Then I’m going to spend the next 6 months focusing on a cut which will be tough, I’m looking forward to the challenge but know it will be a hard slog.

Sticking with it…

Throughout all of the last 12 months, I’ve done one thing and that sticking with the process. You hit plateau’s, there are times when you find it hard, times when you can’t workout but if you stick to the process and aim for things which aren’t time-sensitive you can do anything you put your mind to.

I hope this helps someone.