Adil Abrar's blog posts:
Posted on 5th July 2012 by Adil Abrar -
Design is cool. Startups are cool. Marketing is cool(-ish). Film-making is cool. Hackdays are cool. Brilliant ideas are everywhere. As are great teams. And really cool companies. And clever individuals. Imagine if these amazing skills, and awesome people, could come together and train their collective lasers on problems that matter.
What happens when people are invited to Find Better Problems?
Well, we are about to find out. We're kicking off a little experiment next week with a few of our friends at Good For Nothing, London SheSays and HackerNews. The plan is to bring together people who currently are, who might one day, and who could possibly at some point, Find Better Problems. And then see what happens.
It's an event. There'll be talks, food, drinks and all that. First one is at our place. We're going to keep it small and invite-only for now, as we try to figure things out a little bit, but if you're super into it, drop email@example.com a little line and we might be able to do something. And as soon as we get it sorted, there'll be an email newsletter thing to signup to as well. Check out the website for more info.
Posted on 28th March 2012 by Adil Abrar -
We're really pleased to share with you all that both Buddy and The Amazings got chosen by Deloitte to be part of their inaugural Social Innovation Pioneers programme. 300 organisations applied and 30 social businesses have been selected. In their words,
These innovative businesses have demonstrated a clear and sustainable business model, the ambition to scale and sustained social and environmental impact. Pioneers will receive a comprehensive, bespoke package of support from Deloitte for at least 12 months.
This is kind of cool. First, because we could *really* do with their support - tax planning, legal advice, access to capital, Board formation - that's all the grown up stuff that I feel we should be now thinking about. But also, winning any competition makes you feel kind of warm and nice inside. Especially, when it has been as competitive as this one. So well done to Team Amazings and Team Buddy.
Onwards and upwards.
Posted on 1st March 2012 by Adil Abrar -
The usual thing for product demo films are explani-mations (explanation and animation - geddit). For one, we're kind of bored with those. But at the same time, we didn't think that would really captured the essence of Buddy, which is like a mini therapist that you walk around with you in your pocket, recording how you're feeling and what you're doing, wherever you are.
From a product strategy point of view, we designed Buddy to move away from the idea that therapy is something you do sitting at your computer, but instead can be something that can be integrated into your life. Which is important not just from an accessibility point of view, but because I believe we should try to normalise therapy, and not push it to the outer fringes of our lives.
As a result, when we came to make the film, we decided early on to focus on live action, real characters, real events - with the tool fitting around the action.
The other idea we were keen to communicate is that Buddy bridges the formal professional-led model of care, and the emergence of user-driven digital technologies, where people are managing their own health. From our time designing and building services in mental health, we feel the exciting point is where we can get these two worlds to come together. Where we bring digital innovation to the NHS to create new types of solutions, but also bring the NHS into digital technologies.
To elaborate, there are lots of mobile and web apps out there now, which are there to support people with health problems, particularly mental health. This is a good thing. However, our view is that there is no substitute for human intervention, particularly from clinicians with a wealth of experience. We're really interested in a model of public service delivery where we empower people with digital tools, but we also find light-touch ways for the innovation to plug back into formal services.
I'm getting really excited by this bridging of formal care and informal care (I would love to come up a term to describe it), and I suspect getting this right, will be the key to creating better, cheaper public services. It's not about doing it for them, nor is it about leaving people to fend for themselves. It's somewhere in the middle - and that's the space that we're keen to explore with Buddy. And the space that we tried to bring to life in this film.
Without further ado, here it is. Hope you enjoy it.
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.
Posted on 21st February 2012 by Adil Abrar -
We're pleased to announce that Sidekick Studios has been selected by The Observer and NESTA as New Radicals, a list of 50 "inspirational Britons improving the lives of people and communities across the country in radical and creative ways". There are lots of ace people and organisations on the list; some of them we know and love, like Iris Lapinski from Apps for Good, Jane Ni Dhulchaointigh from Sugru, We Are What We Do, and Livity; but there are lots more that we've enjoyed checking out, like PatientsLikeMe, Michael Acton Smith, The Brilliant Club, Access Space, The Reader Organisation and Maslaha, to name but a few. It's worth having a little look around the other winners here. Hats off to all of them.
"Being radical guarantees that you'll have to deal with enemies, obstructive vested interests and bitter setbacks. What makes the difference is whether you bounce back – as social activist Michael Young used to put it, treating "no" as a question.""