As I'm writing this, Normally is a team of eleven, based (when we're not in COVID imposed lockdown) in a studio in London's Shoreditch. Formed in 2014, the studio was established to explore and understand the material properties of data. In this pursuit, we do three things:
- We run a design agency which provides the long-term funding for our R&D
- We run a research and development programme (we refer to this as our 'expedition')
- We make our own tools.
Normally, the agency, is proud to work with incredible and impactful clients on some of their biggest product and interaction design challenges. Google, Facebook, IKEA, NHS Digital, Checkout.com, Instagram, Spotify, The BBC, Barclays, Volkswagen, Nokia, Skyscanner, Transferwise: 127 projects across 35 clients.
According to our GitHub we have 22 home-made tools in our repository. Tools made to help us in our quest to explore data as a material, and to experiment with the technologies we use to manipulate the data. Some of our tools help us make our design processes more efficient and we have shared these with the world and made them free to use (I'm looking at you Mirr.io). And some of our tools are turning into full-blown products that we aim to launch in the near future (take a look at withcabin.com and let us know what you think). Through our expedition, we have also created over 50 prototypes – each one teaching us something previously unknown about the material properties of data.
Here are three examples if you’d like to read more about our prototypes:
- An experimental plug-in imagines a web without men.
- What Instagram looks like after an eco-friendly makeover.
- Googling my bank balance.
I have said we do three things, but we really do four. We also teach. Teaching creates the need for us to make sense of the things our technical prototypes are telling us – and a need to be able to communicate this to others. In this 'sense-making', we have come to understand the anatomy of a data product (they have three organs, if you're interested, and we refer to them as 'collect, model and render') and we can now differentiate between the three personal data collection types (volunteered, observed and inferred).
We have also understood the nature of challenges that data services are most adept at addressing and have what we think is a completely new perspective on what it means to design service enabling capabilities instead of propositions. We have developed a very real understanding of the personal and social implications of data stewardship and the carbon cost of the design and engineering decisions we make in our products and services. In other words, we now have a deep foundational knowledge of the material properties of data, and one that we think is unique.
In short, we have a lot to share! So why have we shared so little? The answer is not straightforward and is not down to any one individual issue. However, as a founder and Design Leader of this remarkable team, I have to admit that the biggest problem with our communication (or lack of) is me. There are a lot of things about how I contribute to Normally that I am very proud of – but this is not one of them. I have not deliberately restricted the team's ability to publicly share our work and our learning, but I have restrained their voices, and for this I feel regret. I'll try to explain why I think this has happened and what it is I plan to do about it. I'll rephrase that – I'll explain what we plan to do about it.
There is so much noise in our industry – noise that is proliferated over many channels. By noise, I am referring to articles and thought pieces published, according to a predetermined schedule, in order to drive engagement as a thinly veiled attempt to populate the sales funnel. In the slim hope that a fraction of this engagement leads, through an orchestrated pipeline, into paid work. This is any and every consulting or agency firm's dirty secret. Publishing has been co-opted by marketing to either 'position' the agency brand or 'drive sales'. Let's be completely honest – in this demand driven environment, it is difficult to authentically and honestly share knowledge without proving its ROI.
I don't want Normally to fall into this trap. If we communicate, then it is because we should have something that is genuinely worth saying. I want us to share our knowledge freely and generously. It seems slightly bizarre, but we have had to make a deliberate decision to decouple communication from sales.
We've been really busy. We are a small team and we work just four days every week. We run an agency, build tools, teach and conduct our own R&D. We're ridiculously efficient and more productive than any team I've ever worked in. We have chosen to use that time to further our knowledge – and any time spent publishing it would have been a distraction. That was our initial logic, anyway, but I now think this is flawed. By spending some time 'opening up' our experiments, we might have invited a wider set of perspectives, ideas, skills and insights from our community that is likely to have accelerated our knowledge. So we will address this now.
Normally doesn't only employ speculation as a design tool – Normally is a speculative project in its own right. We set out not knowing where it might lead. We had a small number of underlying hypotheses - and there was a very good chance they would be wrong. Data is a material out of which we can build products and services – and it has material properties, for example. We didn't really know what we meant by this and wanted to be able to explore and experiment with it without fear of failure. We wanted to dance like no-one was watching! But now, after seven years, we know what we're doing with data and we're ready to share what we've learned.
This is our first real effort to communicate. We don't want to write too many long case studies and thought pieces (yet) as they're too precious. We'll agonise over them – worrying about getting them right. Instead, we're experimenting with this immediate, accessible, lightweight way of capturing some of the smaller things that are happening in and around Normally.
We have made a few changes to support this. Firstly, we have set up 'Notes' - our super simple publishing tool, based on Ghost, so that anyone and everyone at Normally can share their work and experiments in-flight. We have also introduced a new Notes segment in our weekly 'all studio' stand-up - asking each of us if we plan to share anything to Notes – and, if, during the week, someone says or shares something interesting, we encouraging them to share it.
These are very early experiments – as much into our own cultural behaviour change as anything else. But the one thing I want to share right now is that I couldn't be more proud of Marei Wollersberger, Ellen Rhodes, Basil Safwat, Nic Mulvaney, Ivo Vos, Tom Jarrett, Peter Koraca, Pete Dalton, Karolina Haley and Sara Salsinha for sticking at it undercover and for all their incredible and thoughtful work in making the necessary adjustments to our culture to make this happen. 🙏🏼