bell hooks: Teaching to Transgress – Education as the Practice of Freedom

Some key quotations from bell hooks’ ‘Teaching to Transgress’. 1994 / Routledge.


“Critical reflection on my experience as a student in unexciting classrooms enabled me not only to imagine that the classroom could be exciting but that this excitement could co-exist with and even stimulate serious intellectual and/or academic engagement.” [7]

But excitement about ideas was not sufficient to create an exciting learning process. As a classroom community, our capacity to generate excitement is deeply affected by our interest in one another, in hearing one another’s voices, in recognizing one another’s presence.” [8]
“There must be an ongoing recognition that everyone influences the classroom dynamic, that everyone contributes. These contributions are resources. Used constructively they enhance the capacity of any class to create an open learning community. Often before this process can begin there has to be some deconstruction of the traditional notion that only the professor is responsible for classroom dynamics.” [8]
“Seeing the classroom always as a communal place enhances the likelihood of collective effort in creating and sustaining a learning community.” [8]

“I celebrate teaching that enables transgressions – a movement against and beyond boundaries. It is that movement which makes education the practice of freedom.” [12]

Engaged Pedagogy

“To educate as the practice of freedom is a way of teaching that anyone can learn.” [13]

“many professors have intensely hostile responses to the vision of liberatory education that connects the will to know with the will to become.” [18-19]

“Any classroom that employs a holistic model of learning will also be a place where teachers grow, and are empowered by the process. That empowerment cannot happen if we refuse to be vulnerable while encouraging students to take risks.” [21]

Chandra Mohanty: “resistance lies in self-conscious engagement with dominant, normative discourses and representation and in the active creation of oppostitional analytic and cultural spaces.” [22]

A Revolution of Values: The Promise of Multicultural Change

“In the book Where Do We Go From Here? Chaos or Community, Martin Luther King, Jr. told the citizens of this nation, with prophetic insight, that we would be unable to go forward if we did not experience a ‘true revolution of values.’ He assured us that
‘the stability of the large world house which is ours will involve a revolution of values to accompany the scientific and freedom revolutions engulfing the earth. We must rapidly begin the shift from a ‘thing'”-oriented society to a ‘person’-oriented society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets or racism, materialism and militarism are incapable of being conquered…'”

“The public figures who speak the most to us about a return to old-fashioned values embody the evils King describes. They are most committed to maintaining systems of domination – racism, sexism, class exploitation, and imperialism. They promote a perverse vision of freedom that makes it synonymous with materialism. They teach us to believe that domination is ‘natural’, that it is right for the strong to rule over the weak, the powerful over the powerless. What amazes me is that so many people claim not to embrace these values and yet our collective rejection of them cannot be complete since they prevail in our daily lives. “[27-8]

Embracing Change: Teaching in a Multicultural World

“We found again and again that almost everyone [in the faculty attending the transformative pedagogy seminars at Oberlin] , especially the old guard, were more disturbed by the overt recognition of the role our political perspectives play in shaping pedagogy than by their passive acceptance of ways of teaching and learning that reflect biases, particularly a white supremacist standpoint.” [37]

“… it is difficult for individuals to shift paradigms and … there must be a setting for folks to voice fears, to talk about what they are doing, how they are doing it, and why. One of our most useful meetings was one in which we asked professors from different disciplines [including math and science] to talk informally about how their teaching had been changed by a desire to be more inclusive. Hearing individuals describe concrete strategies was an approach that helped dispel fears. It was crucial that more traditional or conservative professors who had been willing to make changes talk about motivations and strategies.” [38]

“Accepting the decentering of the West globally, embracing multiculturalism, compels educators for focus attention on the issue of voice. Who speaks? Who listens? And why?” [40]

“Often, professors and students have to learn to accept different ways of knowing, new epistemologies, in the multicultural setting.” [41]

Shifting paradigms can be uncomfortable. “White students learning to think more critically about questions of race and racism may go home for the holidays and suddenly see their parents in a different light. They may recognize nonprogressive thinking, racism, and so on, and it may hurt them that new ways of knowing may create estrangement where there was none…”[43]
difficult experiences are common, so we need “practice at integrating theory and practice: ways of knowing with habits of being.” [43]

Paulo Freire

Freire: “We cannot enter the struggle as objects in order later to become subjects.” [46]

Theory as Liberatory Practice

Theory helps us “understand both the nature of our contemporary predicament and the means by which we might collectively engage in resistance that would transform our current reality.” [67]

“By reinforcing the idea that there is a split between theory and practice or by creating such a split, both groups [excessively theoretical, anti-intellectuals] deny the power of liberatory education for critical consciousness, thereby perpetuation conditions that reinforce our collective exploitation and repression.” [69]

“I continue to be amazed that there is so much feminist writing produced and yet so little feminist theory that strives to speak to women, men and children about ways we might transform our lives via a conversion to feminist practice. Where can we find a body of feminist theory that is directed toward helping individuals integrate feminist thinking and practice into daily life? What feminist theory, for example, is directed toward assisting women who live in sexist households in their efforts to bring about feminist change?” [70]

“I am often critical of a life-style-based feminism, because I fear that any feminist transformational process that seeks to change society is easily co-opted if it is not rooted in a political commitment to mass-based feminist movement. Within white supremacist capitalist patriarchy, we have already witnessed the commodification of feminist thinking [just as we experience the commodification of blackness] in ways that make it seem as though one can partake of the ‘good’ that these movements produce without any commitment to transformative politics and practice. In this capitalist culture, feminism and feminist theory are fast becoming a commodity that only the privileged can afford.” [70-71]

Essentialism and Experience

“Often it is forgotten that the hope was not simply that feminist scholars and activists would focus on race and gender but that they would do so in a manner that would not reinscribe conventional oppressive hierarchies. Particularly, it was seen as crucial to building mass-based feminist movement that theory would not be written in a manner that would further erase and exclude black women and women of color, or, worse yet, include us in subordinate positions. Unfortunately, much feminist scholarship dashes these hopes, largely because critics fail to interrogate the location from which they speak, often assuming, as it is now fashionable to do, that there is no need to question whether the perspective from which they write is informed by racist and sexist thinking, specifically as feminists perceive black women and women of color.” [77-78]

“I am always amazed by the complete absence of references to work by black women in contemporary critical works claiming to address in an inclusive way issues of gender, race, feminism, postcolonialism, and so on. Confronting colleagues about such absences, I, along with other black women critics, am often told that they were simply unaware that such material exists, that they were often working from their knowledge of available sources.” MDL – I need to broaden my network / inflow of information to broaden my understanding [80]

“…the very discursive practices that allow for the assertion of the ‘authority of experience’ have already been determined by a politics of race, sex, and class domination. Fuss does not aggressively suggest that dominant groups – men, white people, heterosexuals – perpetuate essentialism. In her narrative it is always a marginal ‘other’ who is essentialist. Yet the politics of essentialist exclusion as a means of asserting presence, identity, is a cultural practice that does not emerge solely from marginalized groups.” [81]

“a critique of essentialism that challenges only marginalized groups to interrogate their use of identity politics or an essentialist standpoint as a means of exerting coercive power leaves unquestioned the critical practices of other groups who employ the same strategies in different ways and whose exclusionary behavior may be firmly buttressed by institutionalized structures of domination that do not critique or check it.”[82-3]

Holding My Sister’s Hand

“Although they have written poignant memoirs which describe affectional bonds between themselves and black female servants, white women often failed to acknowledge that intimacy and care can coexist with domination. It has been difficult for white women who perceive black women servants to be ‘like one of the family’ to understand that the servant might have a completely different understanding of their relationship. The servant may be ever mindful that no degree of affection or care altered differences in status – or the reality that white women exercised power, whether benevolently or tyrannically.” [98]

“Until white women can confront their fear and hatred of black women [and vice versa], until we can acknowledge the negative history which shapes and informs our contemporary interaction, there can be no honest, meaningful dialogue between the two groups. The contemporary feminist call for sisterhood, the radical white woman’s appeal to black women and all women of color to join the feminist movement, is seen by many black women as yet another expression of white female denial of the reality of racist domination, of their complicity in the exploitation and oppression of black women and black people.” [102]

“what factors distinguish these relationships we have with white feminists which we do not see as exploitative or oppressive. A common response was that these relationships had two important factors: honest confrontation, and a dialogue about race, and reciprocal interaction.” [106]

Feminist Scholarship

“black gender relations were constructed to maintain black male authority even if they did not mirror white paradigms, … white female identity and status was different from that of a black woman.” [120]
“In search of scholarly material to document the evidence of my lived experience, I was stunned by either the complete lack of any focus on gender difference in black life or the tacit assumption that because many black females worked outside the home, gender roles were inverted. Scholars usually talked about black experience when they were really speaking solely about black male experience.” [120]

“the vast majority of white feminists did not welcome our questioning or feminist paradigms that they were seeking to institutionalize; so too, many black people simply saw our involvement with feminist politics as a gesture of betrayal, and dismissed our work.” [122]

Recommendation for Michele Wallace’s “Black Macho and the Myth of the Superwoman” [125]

Building a Teaching Community

“The person who is most powerful has the privilege of denying their body. I remember as an undergraduate I had white male professors who wore the same tweed jacket and rumpled shirt or something, but we all knew that we had to pretend… The point was we should all respect that he’s there to be a mind and not a body… The traditional notion of being in the classroom is a teacher behind a desk or standing at the front, immobilized. In a weird way that recalls the firm, immobilized body of knowledge as part of the immutability of truth itself. So what if one’s clothing is soiled, if one’s pants are not adjusted properly, or your shirt’s sloppy. As long as the mind is still working elegantly and eloquently, that’s what is supposed to be appreciated.” [137]

“The erasure of the body encourages us to think that we are listening to neutral, objective facts, facts that are not particular to who is sharing the information. We are invited to teach information as though it does not emerge from bodies.” [139]

“the ways erasure of the body connects to the erasure of class differences, and more importantly, the erasure of the role of university settings as sites for the reproduction of a privileged class of values, of elitism.” [140]

“professors may attempt to deconstruct traditional biases while sharing that information through body posture, tone, word choice, and so on that perpetuate those very hierarchies and biases they are critiquing.” [141]

“many teachers who do not have difficulty releasing old ideas, embracing new ways of thinking, may still be as resolutely attached to old ways of practicing teaching as their more conservative colleagues.” [142]

“To educate for freedom, then, we have to challenge and change the way everyone thinks about pedagogical process. This is especially true for students. Before we try to engage them in a dialectical discussion of ideas that is mutual, we have to teach about process. I teach many white students and they hold diverse political stances. Yet they come into a class on African American women’s literature expecting to hear no discussion of the politics of race, class, and gender. Often these students will complain, ‘Well I thought this was a literature class.’ What they’re really saying to me is, ‘I thought this class was going to be taught like any other literature class I would take, only we would now substitute black female writers for white male writers.’ They accept the shift in the locus of representation but resist shifting ways they think about ideas.” [144]

“one of the responsibilities of the teacher is to help create an environment where students learn that, in addition to speaking, it is important to listen respectfully to others. This doesn’t mean we listen uncritically or that classrooms can be open so that anything someone else says is taken as true, but it means really taken seriously what someone says.” [Ron Scapp] [150]


“One line of this poem that moved and disturbed something within me: ‘This is the oppressor’s language yet I need it to talk to you.'” [167]

“…these words… make me think of standard English, of learning to speak against black vernacular, against the ruptured and broken speech of a dispossessed and displaced people. Standard English is not the speech of exile. It is the language of conquest and domination…” [168]

“It is not the English language that hurts me, but what the oppressors do with it, how they shape it to become a territory that limits and defines, how they make it a weapon that can shame, humiliate, colonize.”[168]

“How to describe what it must have been like for Africans whose deepest bonds were historically forged in the place of shared speech to be transported abruptly to a world where the very sound of one’s mother tongue had no meaning.” [168]

“I imagine, then, Africans first hearing English as ‘the oppressor’s language’ and then re-hearing it as a potential site of resistance. Learning English, learning to speak the alien tongue, was one way enslaved Africans began to reclaim their personal power within a context of domination. Possessing a shared language, black folks could find again a way to make community, and a means to create the political solidarity necessary to resist.” [170]

“Using English in a way that ruptured standard usage and meaning, so that white folks could often not understand black speech, made English into more than the oppressor’s language.” [170]

“The power of this speech is not simply that it enables resistance to white supremacy, but that it also forges a space for alternative cultural production and alternative epistemologies – different ways of thinking and knowing that were crucial to creating a counter-hegemonic worldview. It is absolutely essential that the revolutionary power of black vernacular speech not be lost in contemporary culture. that power resides in the capacity of black vernacular to intervene on the boundaries and limitations of standard English.” [171]

“That the students in the course on black women writers were repressing all longing to speak in tongues other than standard English without seeing this repression as political was an indication of the way we act unconsciously, in complicity with a culture of domination.” [173]

“To recognise that we touch one another in language seems particularly difficult in a society that would have us believe that there is no dignity in the experience of passion, that to feel deeply is to be inferior, for within the dualism of Western metaphysical thought, ideas are always more important than language. To heal the splitting of mind and body, we marginalized and oppressed people attempt to recover ourselves and our experiences in language. We seek to make a place for intimacy. Unable to find such a place in standard English, we create the ruptured,
broken, unruly speech of the vernacular. When I need to say words that do more than simply mirror or address the dominant reality, I speak black vernacular. There, in that location, we make English do what we want it to do. We take the oppressor’s language and turn it against itself. We make our words a counter-hegemonic speech, liberating ourselves in language.” [174-5]

Confronting Class in the Classroom

“During my college years it was tacitly assumed that we all agreed that class should not be talked about, that there would be no critique of the bourgeois class biases shaping and informing pedagogical process [as well as social etiquette] in the classroom. Although no one ever directly stated the rules that would govern our conduct, it was taught by example and reinforced by a system of rewards. As silence and obedience to authority were most rewarded, students learned that this was the appropriate demeanor in the classroom. Loudness, anger, emotional outbursts,
and even something as seemingly innocent as unrestrained laughter were deemed unacceptable, vulgar disruptions of classroom social order. these traits were also associated with being a member of the lower classes. If one was not from a privileged class group, adopting a demeanor similar to that of the group could help one to advance. It is still necessary for students to assimilate bourgeois values in order to be deemed acceptable.” [178]

“Silencing enforced by bourgeois values is sanctioned in the classroom by everyone.” [180]

“Even those professors who embrace the tenets of critical pedagogy [many of whom are white and male] still conduct their classrooms in a manner that only reinforces bourgeois models of decorum.” [180]

“Sharing experiences and confessional narratives in the classroom helps establish communal commitment to learning. These narrative moments usually are the space where the assumption that we share a common class background and perspective is disrupted. While students may be open to the idea that they do not all come from a common class background, they may still expect that the values of materially privileges groups will be the class’s norm.” [186]

“I have found that students from upper- and middle-class backgrounds are disturbed if heated exchange takes place in the classroom. Many of them equate loud talk or interruptions with rude and threatening behavior. Yet those of us from working-class backgrounds may feel that discussion is deeper and richer if it arouses intense responses. In class, students are often disturbed if anyone is interrupted while speaking, even though outside class most of them are not threatened. Few of us are taught to facilitate heated discussions that may include useful interruptions and digressions, but it is often the professor who is most invested in maintaining order in the classroom. Professors cannot empower students to embrace diversities of experience, standpoint, behavior, or style if our training has disempowered us socialized us to cope effectively only with a single mode of interaction based on middle-class values.” [187]

Eros, Eroticism, and the Pedagogical Process

“Suggesting that this culture lacks a ‘vision or science of hygeology’ [health and wellbeing] Keen asks ‘What forms of passion might make us whole? To what passions may we surrender with the assurance that we will expand rather than diminish the promise of our lives?’ The quest for knowledge that enables us to unite theory and practice is one such passion. To the extent that professors bring this passion, which has to be fundamentally rooted in a love for ideas we are able to inspire, the classroom becomes a dynamic place where transformations in social relations are concretely actualized and the false dichotomy between the world outside and the inside world of the academy disappears. In many ways this is frightening. Nothing about the way I was trained as a teacher really prepared me to witness my students transforming themselves.” [195]

Paul Boag: Digital Adaptation – summary

Paul Boag outlines how to adapt your organisation to meet the challenges presented by digital, in the excellent Digital Adaptation. Further resources are available on the Digital Adaptation website.

User expectations are set by industry leaders

“You may not be in direct competition with Twitter, Google, or even MailChimp, but users will expect the same ease of use that they have been given on those platforms.”
“You are not just up against your competitors, you are competing with the user experience of every digital player out there.”

If you don’t change to meet evolving user expectations, a competitor will appear and render you irrelevant

Napster changed users’ expectations of how they could consume music. People now expected cheap, fast (digital and on-demand) music, focused on tracks not albums.

“The music industry fought hard to have Napster closed down, but the damage was done. User expectations had changed and there was no going back… Instead of adapting to this change in user expectations, the industry failed to act.”

Between 2000 and 2010, record store sales fell by 76%. HMV and Tower Records “crumbled.”
Apple created iTunes and delivered what people wanted. “The music industry lost an unprecedented opportunity because of its failure to adapt to the changing landscape.”

Similarly, Blockbuster had numerous opportunities to purchase Netflix for as little as $50 million. But Blockbuster didn’t accept that customers didn’t want to visit a physical store. By the time it accepted this and began offering a postal service, Netflix was already transitioning to digital streaming. Once this infrastructure was set up, Netflix’s costs plummeted. Blockbuster, with its physical stores and associated costs, could not compete.

Use digital to help you adapt strategically to a changing environment

“With such a rapid rate of change, creating a three to five year strategy is impossible…
Instead, a digital strategy should help the organization become flexible enough and properly prepared to adapt to new challenges and innovations as they arise. The digital strategy should create a digital team capable of thinking strategically on a daily basis.”

“The web requires fast adaptation and close collaboration of people with very different skills. This means that it is the people working with digital every day who have to make rapid, informed decisions. They can’t wait for senior management’s consent.”

Boag recommends: “Good Strategy/Bad Strategy” by Richard Rumelt. A framework for creating a strategy:

  1. A diagnosis
  2. Guiding principles
  3. Coherent actions

“a responsibility matrix is considerably more effective than a web steering committee”

“Web steering committees are not a bad idea in principle, but in practice they can often significantly slow the agility of an organization in a realm where responsiveness and adaptability are crucial.”

“Important decisions are often delayed until a date can be found for the entire steering committee to meet. The meetings themselves often focus on endless internal discussion, rather than basing decisions on data and user testing. Finally, and probably most significantly, most of the people in the room are not qualified to be making decisions on the subjects being discussed.”

Instead, Boag recommends using a RACI framework, showing who is responsible/accountable/supports/is informed about each area of decision-making:
Responsible: doing the work
Accountable: formally accountable for the success of the work
Consulted: consulted about the work
Informed: told of the outcome

Better collaboration across teams

You don’t need to remove departmental structures – just make the edges of departments “fuzzier”.

“Departments should not be the only structure within an organization; there should also be working groups and other smaller teams that work across these departmental divides. But do not mistake this for more committees. I am not talking about interdepartmental committees. I am talking about real teams made up of people from multiple departments who sit and work together.”

Policies promote good decision-making

Standard sources of conflict experienced by digital teams: homepage space, requests for low-value web content, hostility to removing out-of-date content.

Save time on these arguments by having policies. These are impersonal, and have organisational buy-in.

“Instead of saying no to somebody who wants content on the homepage, you are just implementing a policy. Instead of removing somebody’s content, you are just following the rules. It’s not personal, it’s policy.”

Martha Lane Fox’s strategic review of the UK government’s digital offering, 2012

  • Manage digital centrally. Commission content from departmental experts as required. (“complete reversal of the previous policy”)
  • Focus on user needs and the delivery of online services – not just communicating information.
  • Radically simplify the government’s digital footprint.
  • Move from large technical projects to a more agile, iterative approach based on extensive testing.

Predicted that if the government moved 30% of its interactions with citizens online, they could save more than £1.3 billion.

If the UK government can make radical change, so can your organisation

“If an institution with as much inertia and legacy as the UK government is willing to consider such fundamental cultural change, then it demonstrates that this is possible for the vast majority of organizations.”

Common cultural characteristics of effective digital organisations

  • Collaboration.
  • Agile, iterative development.
  • Digital by default.
  • Innovation.
  • Service-oriented

Generic advantages of digital approaches

  • Cheaper
  • Faster
  • More flexible
  • Easier to monitor
  • More targeted

Senior management need to completely re-evaluate the business in the light of digital

Boag recommends Osterwalder’s Business Model Canvas as a tool to achieve this. Explore the following areas:

  1. Customer segments.
  2. Who are your customers, and can digital help you better understand them?
    Could you personalise your offering?
    Could you serve niche audiences that were previously not cost-effective?
    Could digital help you broaden your customer base?

  3. Channels.
  4. Can you deliver your offering through new channels?
    Could you move to a purely digital offering?
    Can digital enhance existing channels – by making them faster, more efficient or cost-effective?

  5. Customer relationships.
  6. What expectations do different customer segments have of you, and could digital help you surpass these?
    Could digital help your manage customer relationships more cheaply?
    Could you transition from telephone support to self-service?
    Could customer service be automated?
    Could you build online communities where customers support each other?
    Could you use digital to enable customers to take a more active role in evolving your products or services?

  7. Value proposition.
  8. What problems does your organisation solve? What needs are you satisfying?
    Could digital help you make your offering more valuable?
    Could digital allow you to solve new problems for your customers?

  9. Revenue streams
  10. Could you collect revenue more efficiently, and more easily for customers, using digital payment?
    Could you introduce new revenue streams, e.g. a subscription model?

  11. Key resources
  12. What are the foundational resources for delivering your offering?
    Could digital be used to replace these or lower their costs?
    e.g. do retailers need physical store fronts?

  13. Key activities
  14. What are the foundational activities required to deliver your offering?
    Could digital streamline these, or even automate them? (e.g. automated dispatch management of ecommerce orders)

  15. Key partners
  16. Who are your key partners or suppliers?
    Could digital tools help you manage them, or even replace them? e.g. self-publishing.

  17. Cost structures.
  18. What are the most important costs associated with your business model?
    Could digital lower these costs?
    e.g. lowering distribution or customer acquisition/retention or stock management costs.

    Looking at competitor organisations during this process can help motivate senior managers.

Embrace failure as integral to improvement

“we need to see failure as a necessary step towards success. Only by failing do we understand what success looks like.”

“In an industry so young and dynamic, the only way to innovate, the only way to progress, is to experiment and that will inevitably mean failure. We need to nurture a culture where failure is acceptable and, in fact, expected.”

“You might think that building something that fails is a waste of time and money. That is true if huge amounts of both have been sunk into its development. However, if you are working within an iterative process, centered around rapid prototyping this will not be the case.”

Test your assumptions by building something and seeing if it works. If it doesn’t, you can learn and improve.
If you have competing ideas, you can test them against each other at prototype stage. This de-politicises decisions, and helps organisations make decisions based on evidence.

Allow staff some time to explore new ideas, and create a culture in which new ideas can be expressed and valued.

Unless you are solely competing on price, you need to embrace customer-centricity

Marketing departments are still focused on broadcasting to mass audiences with mass media, rather than focusing on connections.

“One step in the right direction would be to make user testing a permanent and ongoing feature of your company’s culture.”

Twitter have an ongoing programme of usability testing that is open to anyone.
“user testing is not a periodic event confined to a small team, but an ongoing company-wide policy.”

In “Rocket Surgery Made Easy”, Steve Krug recommends a rolling programme of monthly testing.

How to get the most out of your digital team

“The most important factor is to give your digital team the freedom to do its job and set its own direction. This is a new and very light form of leadership based on respect rather than authority. It means relinquishing control and allowing people to direct their own roles.
I am not suggesting staff should be given the freedom employees of Valve or GitHub have. Although this might ultimately be beneficial to both employee and organization, it requires such profound organizational change that it is beyond the reach of most companies.”

The Harvard Business Review advises that “Senior leaders need to get used to the idea of abandoning absolute control”

“digital workers… need to see the reason for management decisions. It is not enough to tell them how things are going to be; they need to understand why a direction has been chosen.”

Your digital team needs the right tools

“You wouldn’t expect a professional tradesman to work with the same DIY tools we buy from B&Q, so why do so many companies insist that their digital teams use the same technology as the rest of the organization? What some perceive as luxuries such as smartphones, high-end computers, and tablets, are in fact tools of the trade for a digital professional. They shouldn’t have to fight to get these tools, they should just be provided.”

The knowledge of your digital team is their biggest asset. You need to actively invest in growing this

“you need knowledge. You need experts in creating digital solutions. They are your most valuable asset.”

Give staff the time and opportunity to continually strengthen and update their skills.
Digital professionals are motivated to do this – you just need to give them the time to learn and experiment, and to meet with peers.

Traditional project management approaches don’t work well in digital

Digital projects are so complex that traditional project management approaches struggle to scale.

For example, “It can prove nearly impossible to accurately specify large web projects due to the huge number of variables and complexities.”

Incremental change is better than big projects

Monitor user behavior to identify problems, prioritise areas for action (based on value of fixing and ease/cost of fixing), invest in a small incremental improvement, test and iterate, then go live. This reduces the risk of failure.

“This significantly reduces the amount of planning required and acknowledges the uncertainty inherent in running any large website.”

“The idea is to establish a rhythm of building, measuring, learning, and improving so that the site naturally evolves over time.”

Focus development work on user needs, not stakeholder requests

Any development work should be based on a user need, and to serve a defined persona.
“These personas need organization-wide approval and they become the bedrock on which your applications are built. Only tasks that meet the needs of these personas should be considered, and no task should be built that prevents a persona from completing one of their key tasks. They act as a filter for deciding which user stories will be accepted into the backlog of work to be developed.”

Tips for building grassroots change

Support each other, to build a safe and fun environment where you have the support of your team to take some initiative.

Try implementing small improvements to how you work. This will build your confidence and get management used to the idea. Don’t ask for permission – just make the change. Have a clear rationale ready in case you’re challenged. This should be focused on how it benefits the organisation.

Always educate and build bridges. So don’t just say “no” to requests.
Make sure you aren’t seen as a blockage that needs to be worked around.
Help colleagues think through alternatives – focus on their underlying need, rather than on the particular approach they’ve advocated.

Educate colleagues:

  1. Highlight best practice. (Competitor examples are particularly effective)
  2. Destroy preconceptions, using evidence. (e.g. any weird beliefs that people have)
  3. Promote your successes. Explain why things worked – builds the credibility of your team, and the organisation’s understanding.
  4. Explain failures. Explain why they happened and discuss how they could be avoided in future. Build a culture that embraces failure.

Senior management

“Getting frustrated with them will not help, but learning more about them will.”

Understand their objectives/targets and needs.

Focus on:

  • topics that they are interested in
  • their broader objectives and targets
  • return on investment
  • threats

Design for Real Life

Design for Real Life argues that we need to take accessibility more seriously. This goes beyond just conforming to a set of content presentation guidelines (e.g. the W3C standards), and goes to your overall design process. You can buy the book from A Book Apart

  1. Identify and challenge assumptions

    Think about what assumptions you’ve built into what you’re designing. What will happen if someone falls outside these?

    Facebook’s Year In Review – a feature designed to help people celebrate and share their great year – wasn’t designed with the experiences of people who’d not had a great year in mind.

    Inappropriate Year In Review images included:

    • a photo of the user’s apartment on fire
    • a photo of an urn containing the user’s father’s ashes
    • a sonogram of a pregnancy that later ended in miscarriage
    • a photo of a friend’s gravestone

    Facebook’s design team had a narrow vision, and so excluded all of these users. Meyer and Wachter-Boettcher challenge us to bring “edge cases” to the centre. “Instead of treating stress situations as fringe concerns, it’s time we move them to the center of our conversations – to start with our most vulnerable, distracted, and stressed-out users, and then work our way outward.” All users will benefit from this more focused, understandable and empathetic approach.

  2. Make space for real people

    Give people “enough room within our interfaces to be themselves.” For example, gender is often presented as a binary choice between male and female, which doesn’t fit with our current understanding of gender. Facebook is an example of best practice here, allowing people to choose male, female or custom – which is a free text field with a list of common choices as prompts.

    Other examples of systems not giving people space to be themselves include systems that can’t handle names longer than a certain length (e.g. 15 characters), systems that don’t accept hyphens in names, or ones that don’t accept names that don’t pass culturally-specific test of validity. (e.g. Facebook rejecting Shane Creepingbear’s name as not real.)

    Organisations often make assumptions about what matters to users, or about who they are. The ‘Apple Health’ app didn’t include period tracking on launch, even though it boasted that it tracked ‘all of your metrics that you’re most interested in’. Its implicit focus was on men. And period tracking apps themselves often have a bias towards straight, sexually active, partnered people.

  3. Incorporate stress cases

    A DIY and home appliance retailer was looking to improve its product guides. Originally these were written in a chirpy, positive tone, for happy, confident home-improvers. But sometimes users are more stressed when carrying out these tasks. The team found that there were two general categories of use: “urgent” and “upgrade”. They updated their style guide to write for the urgent case. This improved the guides for all users, as the clarity of information increased. Guides now feature installation availability and time-frames, estimated cost ranges, greater user of subheadings to allow for easy skimming, one-sentence summaries, reassuring tone.

    You can incorporate stress or crisis cases in usability testing. And you can test how a product performs in a cognitively-demanding environment by either testing in that environment, or by tiring people out mentally before the testing – e.g. by giving them some maths tasks to carry out.

  4. Only ask necessary questions in forms

    Organisations are often pushy to obtain as much information as they can from every web form. Often this is done with a total disregard for the user’s experience. Caroline Jarrett has a protocol for evaluating each question you want to include:

    1. Who in the organisation will use the answer?
    2. What will the answer be used for?
    3. Is the answer required or optional?
    4. If the question is required, what happens if the user enters rubbish data just to get through the form

    This question protocol can help open up a discussion about the true business value of each question.

  5. Learn from users

    Work to understand how your users see the world. This goes deeper than just testing top tasks on your website, or discussing product features.

    Steve Portigal recommends three types of question:

    1. Gather context and collect detail. e.g. asking about a sequence (Describe a typical workday) or specific examples (What was the last app you used?)
    2. Probe. e.g. ask for clarification of how a system works.
    3. Draw out contrasts. Useful for uncovering frameworks and mental models. e.g comparing processes or approaches.

    Open-ended research is about opening up questions and ideas, expanding your vision and the types of question you ask. This helps you move towards a design process centred aroudn real people and their needs.

    Customer mapping can help you identify pain points, broken flows, and content gaps, through analysis of lenses, touchpoints, channels, actions, thoughts and feelings. Adaptive Path have produced a guide to customer experience/journey mapping.

  6. Making the business case for accessibility

    Karl Groves, an accessibility consultant, argues that there are only three business cases for anything. Here’s how to argue for accessibility for each of these:

    1. It will make money. You can use accessibility to stand our from your competitors. e.g. Slack gaining users through ease-of-use. You can reach new audiences if more people are able to use your product.
    2. It will save money. You can cut customer service costs. The UK government found that as of 2011 it was receiving 150 million avoidable calls a year – calls for which an online service existed. This represented a possible annual saving of around £4 billion a year. Improving accessibility saves you money by increasing user retention – which is between 5 and 25 times more cheaper than acquiring new customers.
    3. It will decrease risk. Accessibility helps you avoid negative experiences and associated backlash – e.g. Facebook’s year in review generated a lot of negative press.

Let Them Drown – a 10 tweet summary of the 2016 Edward Said London Lecture, delivered by Naomi Klein

The 2016 Edward W. Said London Lecture was delivered by Naomi Klein at the Royal Festival Hall; entitled “Let Them Drown: The Violence of Othering in a Warming World”. Here’s a short summary of this excellent lecture:

Why should we care about climate change?

Climate change is inherently political. It involves people, power and suffering.

Caring about the environment is not a liberal indulgence. ‘The environment’ isn’t somewhere else – our world is our shared political landscape.

Klein noted that water stress and conflict often correlate: “The brutal landscape of the climate crisis”

Othering and environmental damage go hand-in-hand

Klein identified the pivotal intersection between seeing groups of people as ‘other’ – as inferior and with lesser rights – with environmental damage.

Desire for economic growth is the dominant western value system. The values of indigenous people are seen as less important. So their resources can be exploited without their consent, and their links to the land can be severed.

This ‘othering’ can happen with whole nations, such as Iran, where Orientalism was used to justify the 1953 anti-democratic coup.

And until we recognise stateless people and people fleeing climate change as refugees, we’re failing our fellow humans because we see them as lesser.

What could the future look like?

We shouldn’t just see climate change as caused by a monolithic ‘human nature’. The forces behind climate change – capitalism and environmental destruction – have always been contested.

“Climate change acts as an accelerant for our social ills… but it could be the catalyst for the opposite”

Klein challenged the audience to take a broader view of our lives and their significance. What does it mean to have a good life on this planet?

Klein argued that political and environmental action are inherently bound together. Communities owning and controlling their own renewable energy is an example of the joined-up progress we need.

We can’t just prioritise our own country when thinking about climate change. Doing so is to accept a hierarchy of humanity.

And we can’t just think through the framework of neo-liberal consumer choices. Environmental-political change is bigger than that. You can form coalitions that are bigger than those you’d expect from individual consumer choices alone:

Cognitive Technologies – the real opportunities for business – course notes

In late 2015 I completed an online course on cognitive technology. Here’s a summary of my notes. (NB the course is free to take, and is running again from 14 March to 13 June 2016)

What is AI?

AI is not about machines ‘thinking’ like humans. AI is the theory and development of computer systems able to perform tasks that would usually require human intelligence.
e.g. cognitive (planning, reasoning, learning) and perceptive (recognising speech, understanding text, recognising faces)

“As soon as it works no one calls it AI any more”

We expect AI agents to:

  • operate autonomously
  • perceive their environment
  • persist over time
  • adapt to change

Drivers of change in AI

  • Moore Law – microprocessors are 4 million times more powerful than they were in 1971.
  • Big data – low cost sensors, social media, mobiles, the internet gives us more data; combined with better techniques for working with this data.
  • The internet and cloud computing
  • Improved algorithms


Representing knowledge in a computer, using it to reason and plan automatically.

  1. Rules-based systems: Rules base, inference engine (to apply rules), working memory (contains all the information it has to assess). Best for situations with a small number of variables.
  2. Taxonomy: Helps to organise data into a hierarchy.
  3. Bayesian networks (Bayes nets): Useful for situations in which your confidence about a belief may change as your knowledge changes. They can represent assertions, and degrees of certainty. Can help with diagnosis, reasoning from symptom to cause, or for prediction. Less good when you have lots of variables, or when you want to recalculate the entire network.

Some algorithms used in machine learning:

  • Neutral networks – Good for pattern recognition. e.g. speech recognition. (segment audio signal onto phonemes, then associate phonemes with words in the dictionary; named entity recognition.)
  • Support vector machines – good for classification and regression. Often used for off-the-shelf supervised learning. Straightforward to train and implement, and allow a lot of variables. Helpful for Feature engineering.
  • Ensemble learning – using a collection of different models, and combining the output to obtain a stronger result. IMB Watson used this when playing jeopardy. Better than just using any one method.


Automatically devising a plan of action to achieve goals given a description of the initial state, the desired goal, and the possible actions.
e.g. getting from Times Square to the Bronx Zoo.
Search through possible actions to find a sequence that achieves the goal.
Challenge: managing complexity and computation time: combinatorial explosion.
Replanning is important too, to deal with developing situations.
Applications include: Google navigation, unmanned vehicles, robotics.


Improving performance automatically. Machine learning is the process whereby machines improve their performance without explicit programming. Machines discover patterns, make predictions, and become better over time with exposure to data. This helps in situations where we can’t anticipate all situations, or when we don’t know how to program the solution (e.g. facial recognition)

Types of machine learning:

  1. Supervised learning – learning by example.
    An agent is given pairs of information – input (or a number of inputs) and output.
    This allows the agent to understand how to produce the desired output, even for unknown inputs.
    It’s called supervised learning because we use labelled data to train the model.

    Main tasks: Classification (output is one of a set of discreet values) or Regression (output is a number)

    Applications: Sales forecasting, image recognition, text classification, health.

    Challenges: Acquiring and labelling training data; can be expensive to create data set.

  2. Unsupervised learning – discovering patterns in data even though no specific examples are provided.
    e.g. clustering – given a large set of similar items, discover ways to group them into subsets

    Challenges: algorithm has to determine which attributes should be used to group items; sometimes it’s hard to decide where to place an item.

    Applications: Customer segmentation; Social network analysis; Defining product baskets; Topic analysis; Anomaly detection – e.g. looking for outliers in manufacturing.

  3. Semi-supervised learning – unsupervised learning with human interaction to fine-tune
    e.g. giving feedback on the number of clusters, or suggesting attributes for matching.
  4. Reinforcement learning – learning by trial and error.
    Agent acts in unknown environment, responding to sensory input. Responses shaped using rewards or punishment.
    Agents take into account actions and sequences of actions when associating them with rewards or punishments.
    Works best with closed-loop problems – i.e. ones in which there are no inputs other than those caused by the action of the agent

    Challenges: time consuming with many actions or chains of actions; requires a lot of computing power; trial and error has a cost – e.g. learning how to trade on the stock market, so use it when the costs of trial and error are low.

    Applications: physical control systems e.g. elevators or helicopters, or recovering from damage by learning new ways of walking; in some domains it’s our only option.


The ability to take in information in a human-like way: through speech, text or vision.

  1. 1. Natural language processing (NLP) – software that processes human language.
    e.g. understanding or producing. Break down doc to sentences, then words, which are understood using grammar rules

    Challenges: context is tricky: e.g. “he saw her duck”

    Applications of NLP: summarising documents, translation, extracting info, question answering, writing stories, analysing customer feedback. Medicine and Law

  2. Speech recognition – recognising words, tone and emotion of human speech
    Steps: break wave form into phonemes, then match these to words, then put these into an appropriate sequence.

    Challenge: accents, background noise, homophones, need to work quickly. (I wonder how we could add contextual information to understand the set of phonemes)

    Applications: hands-free writing e.g. medical dictation, controlling devices, computer system control, surveillance,

    Future: mine broadcasts and recordings of human speech.

  3. Computer vision – the ability to identify objects, scenes and activities in images. e.g. face recognition.
    Has to build up from pixels to coloured areas, and then objects.
    Machine learning can be used to train object recognisers. error rate 2010-14 reduced four-fold

    Applications: Handwriting, medical imaging, autonomous driving, surveillance, gesture detection. One useful current application is recognition of where spare spaces are in a car park.

    Future: recognition in video, and events detection. This is hard because of the complexity: connecting recognition over time

Physical interaction

Types of robot:

  1. Manipulators – physically anchored to their workplace
  2. Mobile robots – e.g. drones
  3. Mobile manipulators – e.g. humanoid robots in films

Elements of robotic systems:

  • Mechanical and electrical engineering
  • Machine learning
  • Computer vision
  • Planning
  • Speech recognition
  • Sensors – e.g. range finders, location sensors, proprioceptive sensors (knowledge of own position), force and torque sensors
  • Effectors

Applications of robotics:

  • Manufacturing
  • Agriculture
  • Healthcare
  • Hazardous environments
  • Personal services
  • Entertainment
  • Human augmentation

Uncertainty is a challenge for robotics – e.g. needing to take action based on incomplete information, or dealing with an unexpected environment.

Business applications for cognitive technologies

  1. Product
  2. Process
  3. Insight


Embed cognitive technologies in a product or service to help the end user.
e.g Netflix film predictions, which drive 75% of Netflix usage; Google Now / Siri; predictive text.

How cognitive technologies can improve products:

  1. Convenience
  2. Simplicity
  3. Confidence
  4. Emotion

Questions to help you decide whether to embed cognitive technologies in your product/service:

  • Would people like to use it hands-free?
  • Is your product too complex?
  • Do customers have to make complicated choices to buy your product
  • Would a natural interface help customers bonds with your product?


Embed technology into an organisation’s workflow, to increase speed, efficiency, quality.

Automate internal processes, e.g.:

  • The Hong Kong subway system’s preventative maintenance programme. Scheduled by algorithm.
  • Georgia’s campaign finance commission. Uses handwriting recognition to handle the volume of work.
  • Cincinatti Children’s Hospital. Uses NLP to read freeform clinical notes to find patients who might be eligible for clinical trials. Reduced nurse workload on this area of work by 92%.

Automate expert decisions.
Relieved skilled workers of unskilled tasks.
Automate unskilled work.


Improve decision making by analysing large amounts of data – including unstructured data – to discern patterns or make predictions.
e.g working out someone’s risk of developing metabolic syndrome, and which medical interventions were most likely to improve patient health.

Benefits: better, faster decisions that can improve operating and strategic performance

How to find opportunities: See where you have large or unstructured datasets that haven’t been fully analysed; look for processes where the value of improved performance is high.

How to decide whether and where to incorporate cognitive technologies in your organisation – use the “Three Vs” framework

  1. Viable – e.g. perceptual tasks (involving vision, speech, handwriting, data entry, first tier customer service), analytical classification and predictive (forecasting, document review and summarizing), decision-making tasks (situations where knowledge can be expressed as rules, data-driven decisions), planning and optimisation tasks (e.g. scheduling)
  2. Valuable – where it’s worth applying. Involve business processes with costly labour, where expertise is scarce, where there is a high value in improving performance, or where you can deliver features or experiences that your customers care about.
  3. Vital – may be required if: industry standard levels of performance demand their use: online product recommendation, spam filtering, fraud detection; scalability – e.g. processing handwritten or printed data, analysing large amounts of social media.

The impact of cognitive technologies on work

There’s a debate – will machines take our jobs, or will they increase productivity and growth – and demand for human skills? Tasks requring adaptability, common sense, human interaction, ambiguity and creativity will be beyond the reach of machines for a long time. AI is most likely to replace highly-structured back-office roles that don’t involve many customer interactions.

Risks of automated systems:

  • Not infallible. They may eliminate operational human error, but that doesn’t mean that they’re always right.
  • Humans can lose skills if they don’t practice them
  • Humans are bad at monitoring information that remains constant for long periods of time, which may lead to errors being undetected.
  • Poorly automated systems can undermine worker motivation

Approaches to automation:

  1. Replace – completely replace a human performing a job with a machine
  2. Atomize and automate – break jobs into narrow tasks, and automate as many of these as possible. Humans are still employed, but in more of an oversight/remedial capacity.
  3. Relieve – automate tasks that are dull, dirty or dangerous.
  4. Empower or augment – make workers more effective through technology, e.g. by automating brand-new processes.

Strategic choice for approaching automation:

  • Cost strategy – use technology to cut costs by reducing the workforce, or through reducing errors and rework.
  • Value strategy – use technology to make workers more effective, or reassign workers to higher-value work.

Skills that will probably be desirable in the future:

  • The ability to work with cognitive technologies
  • Hyper-specialisation of skills or knowledge that are unlikely to be automated by computers
  • Empathy, creativity, emotional intelligence

Eyal: Hooked – How to build habit-forming products

Nir Eyal sets out a framework for building engagement with users of a product, based on repeatedly guiding users through a series of ‘hooks’ to form habits. “The ultimate goal of a habit-forming product is to solve the user’s pain by creating an association so that the user identifies the company’s product or service as the source of relief.” Portfolio/Penguin 2014.

People use their smartphones a lot

  • 79% of smartphone owners check their device within 15 minutes of waking up every day.
  • People use their smartphones around 150 times a day, according to industry professionals

What is a habit?

  • A habit is an automatic behavior triggered by situational cues.
  • Habits require little or no conscious thought.
  • A product has high habit-forming potential if it is seen as useful and is used frequently. Fundamentally your product must solve users’ problems.

The four stages of the Hook Model

1. Trigger

A trigger instructs the user to take an action. Triggers can be external or internal.

Habit-forming products start by using external triggers like email, app icons or notifications, but over repeated hook cycles users form associations with internal triggers. Internal triggers are based on existing behaviours or emotions.

  • External – tells the user what to do next by placing information in the user’s environment. e.g paid (unsustainable, earned (media and PR), relationship (peer recommendations), owned (“Owned triggers consume a piece of real estate in the user’s environment. They consistently show up in daily life and it is ultimately up to the user to opt in to allowing these triggers to appear.” e.g. an app icon, email newsletter). “Without owned triggers and users’ tacit permission to enter their attentional space, it is difficult to cue users frequently enough to change their behavior.”
  • Internal – associations in the user’s memory tell them what to do next. Achieved by tightly coupling a product with a thought, emotion or existing routine.
    e.g. “A need is triggered in Yin’s mind every time a moment is worth holding on to, and for her, the immediate solution is Instagram. Yin no longer requires an external stimulus to prompt her to use the app – the internal trigger happens on its own.”
    So you need to understand a user’s internal triggers – the pains they seek to solve. Focus on these emotions rather than product features. (“Only an accurate understanding of our user’s underlying needs can inform the product requirements.”)
    And don’t just ask people what they want “talking to users to reveal these wants will likely prove ineffective because they themselves don’t know which emotions motivate them… You’ll often find that people’s declared preferences – what they say they want – are far different from their revealed preferences – what they actually do.”
    Ask “why” 5 times to arrive at an emotion.

2. Action

Activity undertaken by a user in anticipation of a reward.
To increase the likelihood of an action being taken:

  1. Make it easy
  2. Maximise the motivation

Core motivations:

  • Seek pleasure and avoid pain
  • Seek hope and avoid fear
  • Seek social acceptance, avoid rejection

The 6 elements of simplicity:

  • Time
  • Money
  • Physical effort
  • Brain cycles
  • Social acceptance/deviance
  • Whether an action is routine/disruptive of routine

To make action more likely, simplify it with regard to the user’s scarcest resource at that moment.

Utilise heuristics to encourage people to take action:

  • the scarcity effect: items that appear scarce are valued more highly
  • the framing effect: people assess information in context – e.g. ignoring Joshua Bell when he performed in the subway, or enjoying identical wine more if told it cost $90 rather than $5.
  • the anchoring effect: people often fixate on one piece of information when making a decision, e.g. buying something because it’s on sale even though another item is actually better value.
  • the endowed progress effect: people want to continue with progress towards a goal. So make them seem like they are already making good progress – e.g. giving loyalty cards starting part-way through rather than at 0%. In a study, both groups had to purchase 8 further car washes to gain a free one, but one group started with 2/10 completion rather than 0/8. This group had an 82% higher completion rate. Linkedin Profile strength uses this heuristic too.

Respecting people’s autonomy makes them more likely to take the action you want.
Telling people “But you are free to accept or refuse” makes them more likely to comply. So when you make a request, affirm their right to choose.
Leverage “familiar behaviors users want to do, instead of have to do.”
“Companies that successfully change behaviors present users with an implicit choice between their old way of doing things and a new, more convenient way to fulfil existing needs.”

3. Variable Reward

Predictable rewards don’t create desire. But variable rewards are compelling. This isn’t because of the sensation from the reward itself, but the need to alleviate the craving for the reward.

e.g. looking through social media and scanning through to find material that might be relevant to you. “The exciting juxtaposition of relevant and irrelevant, tantalizing and plain, beautiful and common, sets her brain’s dopamine system aflutter with the promise of reward.”

Types of variable reward:

  1. The Tribe: feeling “accepted, attractive, important and included”. e.g. people liking your Facebook post or upvoting your Stack Overflow answer. These social rewards, of connectedness to other people, are all variable.
  2. The Hunt: seeking resources to aid survival e.g. material resources or information. e.g. searching through Twitter to find something interesting, or carrying out a Google search to answer a question.
  3. The Self: acquiring a sense of competency. e.g. getting better at a computer game, or improving at codeacademy. In both cases you have feedback on your performance, are improving your self and your skills, and experience variable rewards.

On gamification (“the user of gamelike elements in nongame environments”)

Points, badges and leaderboards only prove effective if there is a fundamental match between the customer’s problem and the company’s solution. Otherwise no amount of gamification will help.
“Likewise, if the user has no ongoing itch at all – say, no need to return repeatedly to a site that lacks any value beyond the initial visit – gamification will fail because of a lack of inherent interest in the product or service offered.”

“Variable rewards are not magic fairy dust that a product designer can sprinkle onto a product to make it instantly more attractive. Rewards must fit into the narrative of why the product is used and align with the user’s internal triggers and motivations.”

4. Investment

The user performs some work that will improve their next experience of the service. This increases the odds that they will pass through the hook cycle again.
Investment happens after the variable reward phase, so users are primed to reciprocate.

Users could be asked to invest content, data, followers, reputation/social capital, skill, time or money.
e.g. inviting friends, stating preferences, building assets, following users, adding photos to Facebook or data to LinkedIn, building a reputation on a forum.

Josh Elman, early senior product manager at LinkedIn: “If we could get users to enter just a little information, they were much more likely to return.”

Investment utilises these heuristics:

  • Subjective value increases as expended time and effort increases. e.g. people value their own origami creations five times higher than other people do.
  • We seek to be consistent with past behaviors.
    Two groups of people were asked whether they’d put up “large, unsightly” “DRIVE CAREFULLY” signs in their front gardens. Only 17% of the first group agreed, but 76% of the second agreed.
    This was because two weeks previously, the second group had been asked to place a much smaller, three-inch sign “BE A SAFE DRIVER” in their windows. They wanted to be consistent with this behavior when the next request was made.
    “Little investments, such as placing a tiny sign in a window, can lead to big changes in future behaviors.”
  • We try to avoid cognitive dissonance.

The five fundamental questions for building effective hooks

  1. What do users really want? What pain is your product relieving? (Internal trigger)
  2. What brings users to your service? (External trigger)
  3. What is the simplest action users take in anticipation of reward, and how can you simplify your product to make this action easier? (Action)
  4. Are users fulfilled by the reward yet left wanting more? (Variable reward)
  5. What ‘bit of work’ do users invest in your product? Does it load the next trigger and store value to improve the product with use? (Investment)

Be wary when designing a product that you do not use yourself, even if doing so for positive reasons.

“Heady altruistic ambitions can at times outpace reality. Too often, designers of manipulative technology have a strong motivation to improve the lives of their users, but when pressed they admit they would not actually use their own creations. Their holier-than-thou products often try to ‘gamify’ some task no one really wants to do by inserting run-of-the-mill incentives such as badges or points that don’t actually hold value for their users.”
“fitness apps, charity Web sites, and products that claim to suddenly turn hard work into fun often fall into this category.”
Peddlers tend to lack the empathy and insights needed to create something users truly want. Often the peddler’s project results in a time-wasting failure because the designers did not fully understand their users. As a result, no one finds the product useful.”

The stages of Habit Testing

  1. Find out who the habitual users are of your product/service.
  2. Find out how they started using the product to identify the Habit Path – “a series of similar actions shared by your most loyal users”
    “For example, in its early days, Twitter discovered that once new users followed thirty other members, they hit a tipping point that dramatically increased the odds they would keep using the site.”
  3. Alter your product to nudge new users down these same habit paths. E.g. twitter encouraging new users to instantly begin following others.

Opportunities for new habits are presented by new technologies, new behaviours, new interfaces.

Rose: What Makes People Tick – the three hidden worlds of Settlers, Prospectors and Pioneers

Chris Rose argues that the population is divided into three ‘values groups’, each of which relate to the world differently. To be effective, communications have to be targeted to the specific needs of each group.

The core points can be summarised quite easily, but I’d recommend reading the full text to enjoy the examples and case studies. My edition was published by Matador, 2011 (2013 reprint).

What are the three values groups, and what distinguishes them?

Which group an individual inhabits is determined by their unmet needs:

  • Everyone starts life as a Settler.
  • Once their Settler needs are met, they can become a Prospector.
  • Once their Prospector needs are met, they can become a Pioneer.
  • It is possible to go back from being a Prospector to a Settler, but generally going from a Prospector to a Pioneer is one-way as it is based on self-esteem.
Group Unmet need
Settler Safety, security, identity, belonging
Prospector Success, esteem of others, self-esteem
Pioneer New ideas and connections, living an ethical life, self-choice

Why values groups are important

“you can get people in any values group to do something if they are allowed or enabled to do it in a way that meets their needs.”

“The kiss of death for communications across values groups is to try and impose the values or ‘reasons’ of one group on another… Despite what some campaigners may believe there is no universal ‘right reason’.”

“Many ‘conventional’ campaigns have centred on universalist-ethical (eg, save-the-planet) and sometimes rationalistic (eg, save-money) propositions. They have lacked fun, fashion, emotion, visible success – in short, the values to appeal to Prospectors.”


  • Socially conservative
  • Belonging
  • Tradition
  • Focused on the past
  • Like predictability
  • Preferred charity brands: family, life-saving, simple/small-scale actions e.g. Guide Dogs for the Blind or RNLI. Clear, personal, bounded actions – not social change or global issues
  • Discipline
  • Following the rules
  • Being in control
  • Standing up for your family and community
  • (National) Security
  • Being normal
  • Doing your duty
  • Being loyal to those who have helped you and your family/friends
  • Making sure the basics get done – e.g. food, health, shelter
  • Saving lives


  • Being successful and being seen to be.
  • Material wealth
  • Shopping
  • Don’t like being told not to do things or to give things up
  • Focused on the future
  • Avoid political controversy
  • Opportunities rather than connections
  • Looking better or best
  • Soundbites of stories – can be global or local
  • Having fun
  • Being a winner
  • Celebrity

“To engage Prospectors it has to be done on their terms: a better wind turbine than your neighbour, or a donation to Oxfam which will get you talked about in the gym, and preferably make you more attractive to others.”

“Prospectors… tend to be more selective and demanding than those from other Values Worlds. You generally need to create experiences, or desirable things, not just offer ideas or information, and whatever you create has to compete with what social events, brands, commerce and media entertainment has to offer.”

“more fun and outgoing, optimistic and expressive than the Settler World, and much more relationship- and possession-centred than Pioneer World with its emphasis on ideas. Anyone wanting to target Prospectors … must focus on these core Attributes.”


  • Love questions, new ideas and the unknown
  • Personal ethical responsibility
  • Thoughtful about ethics
  • Focused on the present
  • Benevolence, global justice, openness
  • Preferred charity brands: environmentalism, overseas aid.
  • Like authenticity
  • Like forming connections and networks

New behaviours generally start with Pioneers, then are commodified and consumed as fashionable by Prospectors, then become normal and adopted by Settlers.

“The persistence of individual action because it’s the ‘right’ thing to do, whether or not there seems any prospect of success, can be a characteristic of Pioneers when they act for ethical reasons (this is, internally referenced ideas of right and wrong), and of Settlers when they act for moral reasons (ideas of right and wrong derived from an external, respected Authority).”

What percentage of the UK population is in each of these groups?

  • Settler – 31%
  • Prospector – 28%
  • Pioneer – 41%

UK, 2008. I don’t know what evidence was used to generate these percentages.

How to get different values groups to take action

Communicate in a way that appeals to each group’s unmet needs:

  • Enhance the safety, security or belonging of Settlers
  • Enhance the esteem of others, or self-esteem, felt by Prospectors
  • Engage Pioneers by communicating in ways that involve ideas, innovation, self-direction and ethics.

What actions are appropriate for different values groups?

You need to make sure that your action is something that the values group you are targeting is comfortable with:

Settler actions should be: simple, discrete, achievable and dependable, definitely uncontroversial and ideally officially-sanctioned, familiar, normal, risk-reducing, control-, belonging-, safety- and security-boosting.
Settler actions should not be: innovative, uncertain, controversial, framed as part of a ‘bigger picture’.

Prospector actions should be: visible, immediate, proven, achievable, fun, displayable, fashionable, uncontroversial, socially recognised, celebrity-endorsed if possible, commodified, esteem-boosting.
Prospector actions should not be: innovative, old fashioned or traditional, about following or breaking rules, renunciation (unless it is to gain more), doing things for other people without social reward, framed as ethically- or idea/theory- motivated, controversial or related to an open-ended problem.

Pioneer actions should be: interesting, novel, ethical, complex, change-focused, about ideas not just ‘things’, authentic, an opportunity to connect with new people and ideas, concerned with beauty, nature or justice, about the bigger picture, framed in a way that allows pioneers to make up their own minds and ask questions.
Pioneer actions should not be: doing things because of other people’s – or authorities’ – beliefs or requirements, restricted choices, based on justification by tradition, or justification through a need to be bigger and better.

How to think about communications

Never think of the population as a homogenous mass.

Try to avoid the term ‘message’. Think instead of using the COMPACT list:

  • Channel
  • Audience
  • Messenger
  • Programme (why you are doing what you are doing: intention and objective)
  • Context (what’s around it in time and space)
  • Action (the action you’re asking them to take)
  • Trigger (motivation of intended audience)

Kristof and Wudunn: Half the Sky – How to Change the World

This is a set of notes from Kristof and Wudunn’s work on international development from a female perspective. Stories are more effective than statistics, so I’d recommend reading the full book for its powerful stories. Taken from Kristof and Wudunn: Half the Sky – How to Change the World (2013 Virago print of 2009 publication).

Female infanticide kills at least 2 million girls per year.

“Investment in girls’ education may well be the highest return investment available in the developing world.”

Major General Patrick Cammaert (former UN force commander) on use of rape in war: “It has probably become more dangerous to be a woman than a soldier in an armed conflict.”

Numbers and statistics are much less compelling than stories in motivating people to act.
e.g. it’s more effective to ask for money to help one named girl than it is to ask for money to help 21 million people. And even mentioning the context alongside the named girl makes people less likely to give.
e.g. in another study, people gave twice as much to save one child from cancer than to save eight.

We need to be empirical in our approach, and not defined by conservative/liberal ideology. The best AIDs prevention strategy in one study was neither abstinence-only education nor condom distribution, but education on the dangers of sugar daddies.

The Oportunidades program of financial incentives for education/public health outcomes achieves strong results, increasing school attendance by 10% for boys and 20% for girls. Children grow 1cm taller per year than those in the control group. The scheme encourages poor families to invest in their children, helping to break down the generational transmission of poverty.

Kiva is a microfinance organisation, allowing donors/financiers to loan to organisations vetted by local on-the-ground microfinance organisations.

Male-controlled family budgets in the poorest families in the world spend about ten times more on alcohol, prostitutes, sweets, drinks and feasting than on their children’s education.
Putting money into women’s hands improves children’s experience, with studies in Ivory coast, South Africa and Indonesia showing an increased spend on nutrition, medicine and housing.

After a 1993 Indian stipulation that 1/3 of village chiefs had to be women, bribery was reduced and water infrastructure improved, but satisfaction in the leadership fell. However, once a village had had a female leader, this bias against women chiefs disappeared.

The authors tackle the question of whether cultures can change, and the issue of cultural imperialism:
“We sometimes hear people voice doubts about opposition to sex trafficking, genital cutting, or honor killings because of their supposed inevitability. What can our good intentions achieve against thousands of years of tradition?
“One response is China. A century ago, China was arguably the worst place in the world to be born female. Foot-binding, child marriage, concubinage, and female infanticide were embedded in traditional Chinese culture. Rural Chinese girls in the early twentieth century sometimes didn’t even get real names, just the equivalent of ‘No. 2 sister’ or ‘No. 4 sister.’ Or, perhaps even less dignified, girls might be named Laidi or Yindi or Zhaodi, all variations of ‘Bring a younger brother’. Girls were rarely educated, often sold, and vast numbers ended up in the brothels of Shanghai.
“So was it cultural imperialism for Westerners to criticize foot-biding and female infanticide? Perhaps. But it was also the right thing to do. If we believe firmly in certain values, such as the equality of all human beings regardless of color or gender, then we should not be afraid to stand up for them; it would be feckless to defer to slavery, torture, foot-binding, honor killings, or genital cutting just because we believe in respecting other faiths or cultures. One lesson of China is that we need not accept that discrimination is an intractable element of any society.”

Cultural change has to be driven locally. It cannot be imposed: e.g. 1970s and 1980 efforts against FGM, or efforts to empower Afghan women.
The exception is public health measures that depend on research, materials and knowledge that don’t exist at grassroots.

“the sex slave trade in the twenty-first century… is bigger than the transatlantic slave trade was in the nineteenth.”

Happiness levels seem to be largely innate, and not greatly affected by external forces. But feeling connected to something larger can help us feel better.

Some name-checked organisations I wanted to investigate further: Camfed, Plan, Women for Women international, Tostan.

Paulo Freire: Pedagogy of the Oppressed – revolutionary structures and methods

This is a set of quotes summarising Paulo Freire’s thoughts on the structures and methods needed for genuine revolution, taken from The Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1996 Penguin Edition).

Appropriate revolutionary structures and methods

Who is a radical?

“What distinguishes revolutionary leaders from the dominant elite is not only their objectives, but their procedures.” (148)

“trusting the people is the indispensable precondition for revolutionary change.” (42)

“The radical… does not consider himself or herself the proprietor of history or of all people, or the liberator of the oppressed; but he her she does commit himself or herself, within history, to fight at their side.” (21)

“The man or woman who proclaims devotion to the cause of liberation yet is unable to enter communion with the people, whom he or she continues to regard as totally ignorant, is grievously self-deceived.” (43) (What happened in early c20th Russia, with ‘going to the people’?)

“it is necessary to trust in the oppressed and in their ability to reason. Whoever lacks this trust will fail to initiate (or will abandon) dialogue, reflection, and communication, and will fall into using slogans, communiqués, monologues, and instructions.” (48)

“constant, humble, and courageous witness emerging from cooperation in a shared effort – the liberation of women and men – avoids the danger of antidialogical control.” (157)

“The essential elements of witness which do not vary historically include: consistency between words and actions; boldness which urges the witnesses to confront existence as a permanent risk; radicalization (not sectarianism) leading both the witnesses and the ones receiving that witness to increasing action; courage to love (which, far from being accommodation to an unjust world, is rather the transformation of that world in behalf of the increasing liberation of humankind); and faith in the people,…” (157)

“Instead of following predetermined plans, leaders and people, mutually identified, together create the guidelines of their action.” (162)

“if at a given historical moment the basic aspiration of the people goes no further than a demand for salary increases, the leaders can commit one of two errors. They can limit their action to stimulating this one demand or they can overrule this popular aspiration and substitute something more far-reaching – but something which has not yet come to the forefront of the people’s attention. In the first case, the revolutionary leaders follow a line of adaptation to the people’s demands. In the second case, by disrespecting the aspirations of the people, they fall into cultural invasion. the solution lies in synthesis: the leaders must on the one hand identify with the people’s demand for higher salaries, while on the other they must pose the meaning of that very demand as a problem. By doing this, the leaders pose a as a problem a real, concrete, historical situation of which the salary demand is one dimension. It will thereby become clear that salary demands alone cannot comprise a definitive solution.” (163-4)

Emancipation cannot be imposed

“the great humanistic and historical task of the oppressed: to liberate themselves and their oppressors as well.” (26)

“Freedom is acquired by conquest, not by gift.” (29)

“The correct method for a revolutionary leadership to employ in the task of liberation is, therefore, not ‘libertarian propaganda.’ … The correct method lies in dialogue. The conviction of the oppressed that they must fight for their liberation is not a gift bestowed by the revolutionary leadership, but the result of their own conscientização.” (49)

“The struggle begins with men’s recognition that they have been destroyed. Propaganda, management, manipulation – all arms of domination cannot be the instruments of their rehumanization. The only effective instrument is a humanizing pedagogy in which the revolutionary leadership establishes a permanent relationship of dialogue with the oppressed.” (50)

“The revolutionary’s role is to liberate, and be liberated, with the people – not to win them over.” (76)

“Revolutionary leaders cannot think without the people, nor for the people, but only with the people.” (112)

On charity and deference

“Any attempt to ‘soften’ the power of the oppressor in deference to the weakness of the oppressed almost always manifests itself in the form of false generosity; indeed, the attempt never goes beyond this. In order to have the continued opportunity to express their ‘generosity,’ the oppressors must perpetuate injustice as well. An unjust social order is the permanent fount of this ‘generosity,’ which is nourished by death, despair, and poverty. That is why the dispensers of false generosity become desperate at the slightest threat to its source.”(26)

“True generosity consists precisely in fighting to destroy the causes which nourish false charity. False charity constrains the fearful and subdued, the ‘rejects of life,’ to extend their trembling hands. True generosity lies in striving so that these hands – whether of individuals or entire peoples – need to be extended less and less in supplication, so that more and more they become human hands which work and, working, transform the world.” (27)

I think this is a useful observation for the UK Labour Party

“In a situation of manipulation, the Left is almost always tempted by a ‘quick return to power,’ forgets the necessity of joining with the oppressed to forge an organization, and strays into an impossible ‘dialogue’ with the dominant elites. It ends up being manipulated by these elites, and not infrequently itself falls into an elitist game, which it calls ‘realism’.” (130)

Paulo Freire: Pedagogy of the Oppressed – the banking and libertarian models of education

This is a summary of Paulo Freire’s explanation of the banking and libertarian models of education, from The Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1996 Penguin Edition).

The point of education and human action is “the individual’s ontological and historical vocation to be more fully human.” (37)

Two models of education

The banking model of education is about depositing information into passive students

“an act of depositing, in which the students are the depositories and the teacher is the depositor. Instead of communicating, the teacher issues comminiqués and makes deposits which the students patiently receive, memorize, and repeat. This is the “banking” concept of education,…” (53)

The banking model requires students to adapt to the world, and encourages servility

“the banking concept of education regards men as adaptable, manageable beings.” (54)

“The more completely they accept the passive role imposed on them, the more they tend simply to adapt to the world as it is…” (54)

“Implicit in the banking concept is the assumption of a dichotomy between human beings and the world: a person is merely in the world, not with the world or with others; the individual is spectator, not re-creator.” (56)

Libertarian education

Education is not about integrating people into an oppressive society, but about understanding and transforming the world

“Authentic liberation – the process of humanization – is not another deposit to be made in men. Liberation is a praxis: the action and reflection of men and women upon their world in order to transform it.” (60)

“Problem-posing education affirms men and women as beings in the process of becoming – as unfinished, uncompleted beings in and with a likewise unfinished reality.”(65)

“Whereas banking education anesthetizes and inhibits creative power, problem-posting education involves a constant unveiling of reality.” (62)

“Education as the practice of freedom – as opposed to education as the practice of domination – denies that man is abstract, isolated, independent, and unattached to the world; it also denies that the world exists as a reality apart from people. Authentic reflection considers neither abstract man nor the world without people, but people in their relations with the world.” (62)

What does libertarian education look like in practice?

“Through dialogue, the teacher is no longer merely the-one-who-teaches, but one who is himself taught in dialogue with the students, who in turn while being taught also teach. They become jointly responsible for a process in which all grow… Here, no one teaches another, nor is anyone self-taught. People teach each other, mediated by the world, by the cognizable objects…” (61)

How to create a libertarian program of education

“The starting point for organizing the program content of education or political action must be the present, existential, concrete situation, reflecting the aspirations of the people.” (76)

“education… cannot present its own program but must search for this program dialogically with the people,” (105)

“the investigation of thematics involves the investigation of the people’s thinking – thinking which occurs only in and among people together seeking out reality… Even if people’s thinking is superstitious or naive, it is only as they rethink their assumptions in action that they can change. Producing and acting upon their own ideas – not consuming those of others – must constitute that process.” (89)

“the team of educators is ready to represent to the people their own thematics, in a systematized and amplified form. The themetics which have come from the people return to them – not as contents to be deposited, but as problems to be solved.” (104)

“after several days of dialogue with the culture circle participants, the educators can ask the participants directly: ‘What other themes or subjects could we discuss besides these?’ As each person replies, the answer is noted down and is immediately proposed to the group as a problem.” (104-5)