Google #Firestarters Talk
Posted on 24th February 2012 by Adil Abrar -
I did a talk at Google on Tuesday as part of the #firestarters series curated by Neil Perkin, who kindly asked me to come along and share some thoughts. I had the pleasure (and fear) of sharing a stage with David Hieatt of Howies, Hiut and Do Lectures, and Toby Barnes of Mudlark, Chromorama and Playful.
The topic was Maker culture and entrepreneurship, so I talked about Buddy App, as the story of its development took us through hacking, product design, electronics, web software, mobile, SMS, and the commercial business it is today.
Going through the story - which has taken just over 2 years - reminded me what a topsy-turvy journey it has all been. At some point, I think I should write it up as a chapter in a book. Not sure what book, but when I do write it up properly, I think it merits a chapter. In the meantime, here's a not very good summary.
This is how Buddy started out. It was a mirror that tweeted. Really. The idea was that people would have one of these in their home and when they woke up in the morning, they'd go to the bathroom, see the mirror, turn the dial in the corner, which would select on an LED screen some pre-set statements (i feel good, i feel bored, i need a cuppa), they would press send, and through the magic of Modern Technology, their mood status would be pinged to their carer as an email. Or even their friends via Twitter.
It was pretty out there. We were fascinated by the idea of making technology disappear, and focusing on wellness not just illness. It also felt like something that we would want in our own homes, which is always a good place to start.
This was the next iteration. Our Dieter Rams inspired radio. We figured the mirror was a kind of mood monitor. From there, we thought it might have applications in mental health, so we got in touch with South London and Maudsley, the largest mental health provider in the country, they asked us in for a meeting (in retrospect, I'm surprised they did), introduced us to some service users, who in turn gave us some direct feedback. The first thing they said was that the mirror had to go. People with mental health conditions don't necessarily like looking at themselves.
We then designed the radio above. It's so sweet. I wish we had made it. There's an inner dial to choose a type of mood (optimistic, anxious etc). And an outer one to choose a rating. And a little switch on the bottom right, that allows you to select whether to send it just to your clinician, or to your friends and family via social media.
Again, pretty out there. But lovable we think. There was something that we liked about the idea of radios being something you used to listen TO broadcasts on, and which you could now broadcast FROM. Conceptually, that was interesting.
From there, we were fortunate enough to get the backing of NHS London and NESTA to run a pilot, and we built these radios to put into the homes of actual service users. They were (barely) functioning radios (hacked bits out of some old cheap radios). They had dials that corresponded to different moods (check out the lo-fi sticky labels we used), and lights that lit up, which you could turn up or down depending on your mood. The thought was that people could go about their daily business, listen to the radio, do the washing up or whatever, and they could update their mood without having to turn on their computer, open a browser, navigate to a website, log on and so on. At this point, we were really into the idea of a frictionless interface. Just turn a dial and your mood would be updated on our database (by now, we had built a rudimentary interface and backend).
And then this was the result. Total fail. Like TOTAL fail. Apart from the hardware being shockingly ropey, it had nowhere near the desired effect or impact. The list of issues were long and I can't go into them. The key thing was that this happened.
They really did. One person didn't even open the door to us when we came round for a debrief. They just shoved the radio back into our hands and told us not to come back until it was a mobile app. And that was the breakthrough. Because...
All our designer-y posturing about post-digital products, frictionless interfaces, embedded devices, beautiful objects, it was all very novel, but it wasn't very useful.
Or at least, it wasn't what was most important.
However, that didn't make our experiments pointless. In fact, it was only by creating probes that prompted new types of behaviour, that we were able to figure out what people really needed.
From a user's perspective, they wanted to not just know how they felt (their mood rating), but why they felt that way at the time (the context). Looking at data about how they felt in the past, wasn't beneficial either. It just told them what they already knew - they were depressed. What was more useful was helping them to focus on the future, and not the past. Many of our users also started using the radio at the same time - in the early evening. We had thought the service was about real-time messaging, but by observing how people used the system, we learnt that they were using it more like a diary at the end of their day.
From a clinician's point of view, we thought the need was to keep them in touch with how their users' felt in-between therapy sessions, using real-time communications. But this turned out to be flatly wrong. It just creates more work if you've got 20 cases, and they're all contacting you, all of the time. What clinicians actually wanted was for their therapy sessions themselves to be more useful.
Finally, from a manager's point of view, we learned that what we had proposed wasn't going to save money, if anything it was going to create more care, and more cost. The problem they have is that not enough people turn up to appointments, which creates inefficiency in the system.
It was all of this insight that went into what Buddy is today.
I then talked about some lessons that I learnt from the whole process. There were lots. But these were four that came to me when I wrote the talk.
Even though our hacks / prototypes, were all failures, they were also the roots of our success. They stimulated behaviour and responses that are simply not possible in focus groups. A lot of the inspiration came from experimental projects like We Feel Fine and BakerTweet which kind of exist on the margins of society - what I'm caling the ditch - and sometimes (or maybe always) that's where fresh ideas come from, so that's where it's good to head.
But experiments aren't enough. The real challenge is in bringing this crazy thinking to the world - bringing it to the mainstream. That's the important bit as far as I am concerned. It's easy for the mainstream to ignore new ideas. It's also easy in some ways for the people with new ideas to ignore the mainstream. The people that I admire are the ones that try to bridge those two worlds and take the crazy thinking and see how it can change the world.
This is a new idea that I have in my head and probably merits a blog post of its own, but basically I look back and the (product) vision for Buddy changed a lot. Socialising care. Enabling self-management. The diary that helps you do better things. And our latest - enabling care at the intersection. They're all lovely thoughts and they all lead to different types of products.
Point is, we continually iterated the vision as new facts emerged. But what we didn't do was change our vales. Focusing on wellness, using 'just enough technology', avoiding stigmatising users...you can trace this thinking from the mirror, through to the SMS service we have today. Vision changes. Values don't.
Finally, and unsurprisingly given that this is what we have on our Sidekick masthead, it's about solving problems that really matter. It has been a long road, and there has been times when we really didn't think we could find a solution that would work for users, be accepted by clinicians, and save money for managers. In those darker times, what kept us going was that we were doing something that was important. 6 million people suffer from depression or anxiety in the UK at any one time - that's a big problem and it affects us all. Knowing that makes everything else much easier. It's the coal in the fire. It's the purpose. And that is what matters.