Idea vs Sabotage Battle: a game for workshops

A little post to share a simple game I designed for an ideation workshop this week. It went down really well! With my Isle of Wight Biosphere volunteer comms officer hat on, I went to speak to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation about the biosphere and wanted to get their ideas for applying their circular economy thinking to the island as well as ways to avoid failure. I tried the following, and was very pleased to find it generated lots of great ideas and discussion in only about 20-25 minutes.

Split into two teams (in this case the Caulkheads and the Grockles, for local relevance). Each team has a set time (e.g. ten minutes) to produce two piles of post-its, as many as possible. One is full of ideas to make improvements, the other is ways to sabotage making improvements. Best if these are based on past experience and real world examples (without getting into the weeds of debating their feasibility).

Then the battle: each team takes turns in presenting a positive improvement from their post-its for which they get a point. However, the other team can also get a point if they can find a way to sabotage it, but it must be from their pre-prepared post-its and can only be used once.

Create a time limit for idea sharing and at the end of it add up the points to crown a winning team.

I wasn’t very strict about times and allowed a little discussion during the battle as people inevitably volunteered specifics, suggestions or ways to counter the sabotage etc. I also eavesdropped during the first generation phase so I could hear what was behind the ideas, and gave time reminders and prompts to make sure they were writing as much down for both ideas and sabotage strategies as possible. If I was doing it again and I had more time I would try a second round once people are more familiar with the mechanic.

In this case the Grockles won but the Caulkheads had perhaps a moral victory because they decided they didn’t want to sabotage ideas that were lovely, whereas the Grockles had no problem with it. So it just confirmed that you should never trust a grockle 😉 (I joke).

This feels like a game with opportunities to expand or tweak, let me know if you have suggestions or if you try it!

Thanks to Danny Birchall for talking through the game mechanic with me!

The loneliness of the digital creator: on uncertainty and the impact you can’t measure

In our deeply uneven and chaotic digital world, a offhand tweet can lead to thousands of column inches and become a global discussion point, but carefully considered work costing thousands of pounds or person hours so often appears to just disappear into the ether with barely a ripple. This, sometimes, seems very unfair. 

Naturally, funders and organisational budget holders and investors and creators of strategy and campaign managers and the like want to know that they are getting a return on their investment or that a target audience is being reached or that influence is being generated. An industry of digital evaluation and monitoring has sprung up to meet this need. 

The temptation has been to assume that the mechanics of the web afford much greater opportunity to measure and determine more precisely the impact of work than, say, publishing a book. And to some extent this is true. However, there is a limit, and it is reached more often than many seem to imagine.

Now, I have been a strong advocate for and a practitioner within this evaluation industry. I have created many evaluation research frameworks, trawled through analytics, designed countless questionnaires and conducted many many interviews in the name of understanding impact. I have given talks and written articles about the immense value of doing so for informing future iterations or new projects or audience understanding or for validating your work. 

But perhaps I haven’t talked about enough about what you can’t measure, about the impact you never know about, and about what that means for the digital work we do. 

I’ve been thinking about this for a long time, mulling over a blog post about how we need to work with a level of uncertainty around impact. So, when a couple of lovely examples dropped into my inbox recently, it seemed like the right time. 

Several years ago I created a set of game mechanics cards for use in my game design workshops and posted them online for anyone to use. They are in a Google doc. It was on an unrestricted sharing link, but some years later Google changed the permissions on the document so people had to request access. It doesn’t happen very often, but now I have the opportunity to ask people requesting access how they found the cards and how they will use them. I haven’t had many responses, until I got the below email.

Email from someone who says they are using my game mechanics cards to successfully run game prototyping in design workshops with rural high school students in Mississippi

What a joyful thing to receive! I was so happy about this. As it happened, something similar had occurred a few weeks before, even more coincidentally. I got word of a tender that sounded up my alley from a client I’d never worked with before. When I read through the tender document I saw they had included a canvas I created for digital projects. Thrilled and rather amazed, I wrote and asked how they’d come by it. It turned out they had been pointed at it by the Lottery Heritage Fund (since I created it for a project I was mentoring for the Fund) and they told me they had found it really helpful. 

Again, what a lovely ego boost and validation for having both created it and put it online. But also, what luck to even find out about either, especially the canvas. For the vast majority of things I have written, posted or created online, as a teeny weeny fish in an unimaginably gigantic pond, I am lucky if I get any comments or more than a few likes, and certainly have little information about what effect this work might have had on people. Every so often I find that something I’ve written has turned up on a syllabus or is referenced elsewhere, but for almost everything else I will never ever know if it was any use to anyone at all.

When I think about it, conversely, I have rarely had the opportunity to tell people who have created online work that has affected me deeply that I have appreciated it. Sometimes it isn’t even apparent until a long while later that it did influence me or help with something I was working on. I could be better at this, perhaps! Perhaps we all could, acknowledging and thanking our influences and inspirations.

Ultimately, though, we just have to accept that we won’t always know. Why is this important? Well, as the maxim goes “[only] what gets measured, gets managed”. It can skew the whole focus onto only making improvements that can be seen with neat numbers against them, whatever might be behind those numbers. 

This ignores the fact that increased numbers, such as more eyes on your content, doesn’t tell you anything about whether those eyes belong to the people you need to see it, and what they will do with it. Or that low numbers might represent an extremely engaged audience who are about to run with your ideas and do something amazing with it. It might also ignore the longer term benefits of something in favour of short term gains that are more easily measured. 

It can also be quite dispiriting for the creator who puts stuff out there and expects a clear return or response that may never appear. I know the feeling. 

So my suggestion is this. Sometimes, all you (and your organisation) can do is work on what you think is right, what moves you, what you feel will be useful, and then do what you can to reach your audience. If you have any indication that the latter is happening, that may have to be enough. Imagine that if it works for you, it is very likely to work for other people like you too, and maybe years down the line you will get something lovely in your inbox to show that it still does. And, embrace uncertainty.

In yet another example of this, I started drafting this post in 2020 and came back to those notes when writing this. At the bottom, I had put a link to an article by Clare Reddington of Watershed about just this topic from January 2020. I hadn’t read it since but it was clearly a major inspiration for me thinking about this subject, and now I reread it, I see it talking about many of the same things in relation to invention and innovation and “embracing uncertainty” clearly stuck in my head.

I must remember to let Clare know that her brilliant article is still inspiring me three years down the line.

What to do (and what not to do) with your legacy content

(Audio version not available yet, let me know if you would find one useful and I will prioritise it)

I have a YouTube playlist of my favourite films that I made during my time as “Multimedia Producer” at the Wellcome Trust. I left Wellcome 11 years ago and I haven’t done a film since, for various reasons, but it’s nice to have my work there collected for posterity. Having put together the playlist, I have occasionally had cause to go look at it. Every time I do, I get a notification telling me that more videos from it have disappeared. As of today, five videos that I was sufficiently proud of to put on the list have been removed by Wellcome from YouTube, along with several others that didn’t make my own cut. In fact, of however many videos I made for the Wellcome Trust, only one remains (all the films I created for Wellcome Collection are still on YouTube though, which is nice). 

It happens, you know? I have been part of making all sorts of online content for a long time now, and I certainly didn’t expect it all to stick around. I spent several enjoyable but tiring months making forty odd short films about London points of interest (the Thames Barrier! folklore on the foreshore! flora, fauna and history and so on! loved that project), for the now defunct WalkLondon website, long gone. I set up an online magazine about educational games called EdugamesHub (with Kirsten Campbell-Howes) and commissioned a bunch of articles and interviews that we were really pleased with. We sunset it a few years ago because we had both moved on and couldn’t find a way to keep it going. 

In both those cases, the sites were set up by organisations that no longer exist, or individuals who didn’t have the resources to continue to run them. I am forever grateful for the Internet Archive for saving something of this content (if not the flash or video, understandably, that is really properly gone I think).

But what about if you are a bigger organisation who can expect to persist for many years into the future. How do you handle legacy content? I’ve been thinking about this this week as I watch the fall out from the Wellcome Trust shutting their longform science journalism website, Mosaic. Mosaic was launched after my time there, I had nothing to do with it, but I watched it grow and grow and produce consistently high quality articles that made their way into national and international newspapers, university courses, social media and so on, especially under the careful editorial eye of Chrissie Giles and her colleagues including commissioning editor Mun-Keat Looi (and others who I am less aware of, I’m sure). 

Given the apparent success of the site, I was surprised when it was canned by Wellcome a few years ago. But also, not that surprised, not really. Wellcome has always had an uncomfortable relationship with communicating on subjects that aren’t directly about Wellcome funded projects – is this PR, public engagement, journalism? How does it fit into organisational strategy? They never seemed able to square this in my time there, or, from what I could tell, afterwards. 

When it shut, they released this statement about the closure, but said “We will keep Mosaic content available as it is now until we identify the right way to archive it, so the work of the past years is not lost.” I was still a bit surprised, then, to see Giles post on twitter this week that Wellcome was actually taking down the whole site with apparently about 3 days notice for anyone who wanted to retrieve their work. (Chrissie was made redundant when Mosaic shut, so had nothing to do with this decision and was merely the messenger). No official announcement has been made by Wellcome and no explanation was forthcoming; it appeared to be left to their previous editor to notify writers and artists of the change. People were not happy. In the absence of any apparent official intervention, the former copy editor, Tom Freeman, put together a list on his own site of Mosaic article links from the Internet Archive so at least some record of it all survives.

Some types of content are hard to keep going in the face of software updates (or loss, as with Adobe Flash), but a straightforward website should be easy to maintain, shouldn’t it? Especially if there is evidence that it is still being used and contains some particularly important work (and is still relevant, could potentially still have use and still be promotable). And since content that exists on third party platforms such as YouTube doesn’t need maintenance, in what circumstances should you take it down?

So, what’s best practice here?

I believe that, as part of any digital strategy, one should include a considered and consistent policy on how you handle legacy content. Things to factor in (based in part on the Government policy on maintaining legacy technology):

  • Do you have a clear and trackable record of all your content, how it is hosted and how to access it? 
  • Can you put in a regular (perhaps annual) review of legacy content using this record to make sure that it is working or see if it should be removed as per your policy? Or even be re-promoted or find a new audience?
  • Usage vs maintenance cost. Can you quantify and specify the point at which you believe the usage and impact is outweighed by the cost in terms of money and resources required to host and maintain online content (and apply this metric consistently in future when reviewing legacy content)? Remember that maintenance can include updates to keep it working through software or CMS updates. Is it something that could be converted to flat, static html to avoid this (which is a more environmentally friendly way to build informational sites in the first place!)?
  • What sort of content is it, and how is it likely to be used? Will users be storing their own data or creations in it (and do you need to consider GDPR protocols for this if so)? Will many people be creating links to it that might break? Is it information that people will rely on to do stuff with? Should you create categories of content that might have different legacy approaches to?
  • Have you made sure that it is archived, both internally and externally? The Internet Archive is the biggie, but the British Library also curates a collection of websites Can you create a back up that will persist and be retrievable, even if you have to remove it from the public web for whatever reason?
  • If you have to take it down, how should you communicate this? Do you have a record of those people who need to know, who might want to retrieve their work? How much notice is fair to give them?
  • Can you create a meaningful redirect for the old content so that all links go somewhere with an explanation (and ideally a link to the archived version)?

What have I missed? Have you any good examples of legacy policy for content that you’d be willing to share? 

Obviously, I don’t feel that Wellcome have handled the removal of content very well here from a public point of view (I haven’t asked anyone there for comment or explanation, but I have seen others ask on Twitter and get no response). Perhaps they do have a clear and consistent policy that they are adhering to but as it hasn’t been communicated in these instances, they have risked upsetting people and losing important and valuable content for posterity. I’m not saying my videos were super important but they did, for example, include interviews with people who were very kind and brave to share their stories and did so in the hope that they would have a positive ongoing impact*. Mosaic contained some really brilliant work that could have continued to find readers as it still remained relevant. If I have misunderstood the situation, I’d welcome a correction.

*It is of course possible that people in those films requested they be removed for some reason. Seems unlikely that could be the case for all, but I should mention that as a possibility.

Edited to add: some interesting further discussion on Twitter following my post on this, see below. And thank you to Fiona Romeo for pointing me at this article on the MOMA efforts to archive exhibition websites (Flash and all) through the New York Art Resources Consortium.

Get specific: on the dangers of making assumptions about technical terms

Audio version. Before I changed the title! And also not great audio quality so might replace later.

I’ve been mulling this post over for a while but was spurred into actual writing this week by this twitter thread from Joel Chippindale on the issues with “technical debt” as a term. My response, as you can see in the replies, was that I’d found “technical debt” to be a very useful label for raising the issue with clients*, but, like many similar terms, it is really important to get specific about what you mean early on. Always, always, check your assumptions and make sure all stakeholders have a shared understanding about what is really going on.

To take this example, “technical debt” could potentially cover a wide variety of issues. Apparently it was conceived as a metaphor to explain to non-technical stakeholders why they would need to allocate budget for refactoring code later down the line. In other words because the original code was, intentionally or not, flawed (perhaps because of a choice to prioritise quick development over “perfect” code, a choice for which there may be perfectly valid reasons). However, as this article describes, its usage has gone beyond this meaning to include other areas of technical development that might need redoing, such as choices of CMS or programming language, information architecture, or even documentation. The article also outlines the various ways in which people have tried to contain the definition, but as someone working directly on digital projects with clients, this kind of exercise is of little value to me**. 

Even the tightest definition of “technical debt”, whatever that might be, is still too vague to have a useful conversation regarding what to do about it. Instead, there needs to be a detailed examination of the nature of the problem as it presents in this particular case, and the implications inherent in maintaining the current situation vs making changes. 

Everybody involved in making decisions that relate to this has to understand how you are using the term in this instance.

Then you can go back to using the term “technical debt” within the project team or organisation as shorthand for all the specifics you’ve identified.

If this seems obvious, I can assure you that it doesn’t always appear to be on the ground. Too often, I have seen terminology relating to digital development being bandied about as if there can be no argument about its meaning. Take “Agile” (Please! Take Agile!) (I jest
). I’m not going to get into a debate about what “Agile” should mean, how it is meant to relate to Scrum or other methodologies, or what proper Agile looks like. Because, honestly, I don’t care. I care about picking the right methodology for the project, and that is based on a variety of factors including existing practices within the organisation, resources, and the type of product under development. 

What I see in practice is that very few people are being purist about this stuff anyway. Even “Agile” web agencies might be picking a bit of Scrum, a bit of Kanban, a bit of Lean, a bit
 etc. And within that they are likely doing some of the rituals slightly differently, ascribing them different functions and purposes, or leaving out some altogether. They can be heavily influenced by the tools used to support them, as well as the individuals running them. Making an assumption about what your project team means by “Agile” can easily cause problems down the line as different expectations aren’t met.

Likewise, role definitions are slippery. Throughout my digital career, I’ve been called a web designer, web manager, multimedia editor (ugh), multimedia producer, digital producer, product manager and product owner. Despite the different names, in each of those roles I was often doing very much the same thing. The changing terminology has sometimes left me feeling a bit wrong-footed, however, like I was the one who somehow was being left behind; the only one who didn’t understand the fine distinctions between each role. But now I’m realising that what is actually going on here is that nobody agrees precisely what each of these jobs should be, and often they need to adapt to the particular circumstances of a project anyway. 

Let’s not even get started on what “digital” really means (see also, what is “art”, what is a “game”, etc). 

So how to manage this. Do we need to draw up a great Charter of Digital Definitions (and then spend a year arguing about what a “digital” definition even is)? I would suggest that no, this is not a good use of anybody’s time. The horse has bolted, these terms are always going to mean different things to different people, and will always be fluid to some degree. 

The strategy has to be to get specific

At the beginning of a project, check your assumptions, and be clear about the details. You need someone to oversee delivery of a product? Get specific about the details of the role and then choose the best title that fits, but always make sure that the details don’t get lost until everyone involved is clear about them. 

Have you hired a web development agency who says they are “agile”? Get specific about what that looks like for them, and make sure that is genuinely a good fit for your needs (such as demands on client time for participation in regular rituals, or budgeting parameters, or project objectives). 

Is someone within the organisation saying that you need to put money towards resolving your “technical debt”? Get specific about what the problem is, what will happen if you don’t fix it, and what the costs and implications of fixing it are. 

And for all of these, make sure all the stakeholders involved are clear***, not just the immediate development team. (Probably, this involves clear documentation and working in the open so that these decisions are transparent and shared) .

After that process is complete, you can merrily go back to using whichever title or term it is in discussion, safe in the knowledge that you aren’t going to have any fatally crossed wires later down the line (“Oh but I thought the product owner was looking after that! That’s what I was taught they were meant to do!” “Oh, by technical debt I thought you meant something really trivial/really huge and I failed to allocate budget/was really unnecessarily worried” etc). 

To avoid using this terminology altogether because it fails to capture situational nuance is often throwing the baby out with the bathwater****. It is very useful to have a shared label for discussion, for awareness raising and for drawing related issues together, as long as any assumptions involved are exposed and dealt with as early as possible.

Please do share feedback/comments/examples and counter-examples!

*As a freelance consultant, I tend to work with small organisations. In these scenarios, terminology can get especially messy, as small organisations are often less experienced with running digital projects and these concepts might be quite new. It is more plausible to assume shared knowledge if you are working at e.g. Microsoft and you are talking to someone else also in Microsoft (I am guessing, I have never worked for Microsoft). Still, I bet miscommunications do sometimes happen even at Microsoft, and it wouldn’t hurt even there for people to get a bit specific about the jargon they use, if only to make sure any newbies are up to speed and included.

I would like the above to be reassuring for those in smaller organisations: if this sounds like you, you may be finding these terms confusing because they actually aren’t very well defined, or because people are using them inconsistently. Instead of pointlessly battling that fact, we just gotta work with it.

**I found the attempts to break down the term into different categories more useful, however, as part of the process of getting specific.

***It is quite likely that this needs to be some sort of shared process of agreement, rather than one person dictating terms, lest I give the impression otherwise.

****I am talking about technical terminology, not trying to make a wider point about the value or otherwise of various labels. Obviously if a term has offensive connotations or is really unhelpfully problematic, let’s junk it for something better. 

Finally, thanks to Katy Beale and Louise Brown who reviewed a previous draft and were very helpful in shaping the post into something more coherent.

2020 Yearnotes: the year of Zoom, new and old clients, games, yoga studies, and yeah, COVID-19

I don’t usually do a public year-end round up, but this year, this year in particular, it felt like that might be a very useful exercise. 


I guess I have what used (?) to be called a portfolio career, as illustrated by the wide range of projects I’ve been working on since last January. Most people who find this blog post will know my work in digital, maybe educational games or consultancy, but I’ve also had a fairly leftfield side hustle going on for the last two years as well. Of which, more later.

In the “regular” job, I started the year feeling the post-project haze of working on the It’s Our Time campaign with Comms Lab (and other partners), creating materials to support their goal of getting young people registered to vote and to stand up for climate issues in the last election (remember that?). 2.5 million people in the target age group were registered, in no small part down to these efforts. I was just a small cog in this brilliant machine, you can read the report on what we did and how, here. 

I wanted to do more in the area of climate change as it’s a subject I am passionate about (there is still time to make a difference!). So I spent the beginning of the year scouting around for similar opportunities with little luck, although I did come across the community. It’s worth joining if you are similarly interested in the subject, although the volume of posts can be a little overwhelming.

I also began consulting work with a previous client, the excellent Teach Your Monster to Read (a rare edtech success story), digging into some issues around a new strategy for their range of learning games. As usual, this involved going back to basics – getting clarity around objectives before working out how to tackle them. Honestly you don’t need to hire me, you could just stick two post-its to your work wall: “BUT WHAT ARE YOUR OBJECTIVES?” and “DOES THIS MEET YOUR OBJECTIVES?” and be done with it.

I jest, it’s not that simple so you should definitely hire me. (Although, it kind of is). I also recommended and carried out some user research on how potential new products were viewed to answer various questions that were blocking decisions from being made.

Around this I was also doing my two day a week job as Project Coordinator for the SOAS Centre of Yoga Studies. That one might require some explanation. In 2017 I started a Masters degree at SOAS in Traditions of Yoga and Meditation… I guess that, too, might require some explanation. The short version is, that after years of karate training, I realised it had wrecked some of my joints, and that it was no longer physically sustainable. I got into yoga instead, and then, really into yoga. It was transformative, but I didn’t understand why. 

So I did a yoga teacher training course in 2016, mostly out of personal interest. It was spectacular. Based in a beautiful Buddhist monastery outside of Kathmandu, we were woken around 6 by the sound of the horns and drums during morning prayers. After a big rain, the smog would clear from the valley and we could see across the city to the Himalayas, including what I think was Langtang Lirung. One could almost believe anything, in a setting such as this. But still, as a natural sceptic, I left the training with a lot of questions (also a tattoo and a chest infection, but mostly questions). When I found there was a Masters at SOAS in the history of these practices, I had to do it, and started in 2017.

Should you somehow be oblivious to the current state of academic yoga studies, you should know that SOAS has recently been leading the field. There has been a major EU funded research project situated there for the last 5 years, the Hatha Yoga Project, led by Dr James Mallinson (also chair of the Centre of Yoga Studies). If you are scoffing at the very idea, no doubt based on a preconception of yoga as essentially a sport for bendy people and hippies, we should have a chat some time. The history of yoga and meditation is absolutely fascinating, an incredible lens on the development of Indian religion and philosophy and the impact this has had on the world. It is tangled and complex and problematic and hotly debated and extremely political. And nascent. One could still be an Indiana Jones in this field, uncovering a dusty manuscript somewhere that changes everything. 

Anyway, the Masters has been a trip. I’ve loved it. I entered a whole new world of knowledge, and raised my general level of academic critical thinking and research skills. I did two years of Sanskrit with it and it was like learning a new code that opens up a huge box of treasures. And at the end of the first year, I got involved with the new Centre of Yoga Studies at SOAS, and became its first actual staff member as Project Coordinator on two days a week, realising the vision of the steering committee and Chair. Mainly we ran events that disseminated the latest scholarship to as wide an audience as possible, as well as an internationally attended and widely regarded summer school. We had a Facebook group and an Instagram account. With the limited time available, that was about all I could manage, although we had aspirations to do more.  By February of 2020, we had a few thousand Facebook and Insta followers, had run many many successful events and the summer school preparation for 2020 was well underway.

And then, Covid-19. I felt the initial impact in two main areas. Firstly, with my work at SOAS. We quickly realised that the massive amount of uncertainty made the Yoga Studies summer school a big risk, especially since we relied on overseas students. In the end we cancelled it, rather than trying to replicate an intensive format that relied on personal learning time with renowned scholars online. But for our events programme, lockdown was a boon. We flipped quickly to a Zoom based format, recording the events and putting them on a new YouTube channel (videos from early October and before are the ones I was responsible for). 

It was nothing fancy, well below the production values that I would adhere to for my other day job. Just minimally edited recordings of the Zoom presentations, with all the lagginess and low resolution that this entails. They were also over 1 hour long and often on very academically dense subjects. Based on the received wisdom about how long YouTube videos should be and the ideal content, they should have flopped. And yet they were a relative hit, quickly racking up hundreds of views. There is a keen audience out there for this stuff and they don’t care what it looks like, they just want access to the scholarship. 

In terms of running the events themselves, I have written up our format and process in a previous post. We kept them very locked down and used to manage the Q&A. We had absolutely no trouble with our audience as a result, and were often complimented on how well run the events were, which I was very pleased about.

The other area was in my volunteer/activism work within XR Southwark. I’d been increasingly involved with XR since they first started their activities in 2018, especially the local group. Unlike the media picture of XR, the local groups tend to be much more grassroots, supporting local campaigns and activities such as community gardens. When lockdown was announced, XR mobilised its networks to help out with mutual aid groups. It also moved in-person meet-ups to Zoom, a tool it had already been using heavily for delivering remote training. In Southwark we realised that our experience with Zoom could be really beneficial to other local groups and charities who were suddenly having to navigate this new online world. So, we started offering free Zoom training sessions to anyone who might find them useful, which I developed based on the general XR training and delivered with the help of some others in the group. Again, the details of this are written up in my previous post. 

I’m very proud of the response to this, we ran these sessions twice a week until interest eventually tailed off (I guess most people had figured it all out after a while). Attendees came from a wide variety of community groups, charities, local services and even bigger organisations and we had lots of positive comments, with one woman saying it had saved her from absolute despair at the idea of trying to move her service for vulnerable adults online. And it’s added another dimension to my work, as organisations have started asking me to deliver paid workshops in this area too.

Otherwise, though, I was largely able to continue with my work as before, since I was well used to working remotely. After a number of fallow years on the books of the National Lottery Heritage Fund as a Digital Consultant, I was given a lovely project in Scotland to act as a mentor on, and then later in the year four more in England that had been funded under the Digital Confidence Fund. All small local heritage projects, with a variety of different and overlapping needs in working out how to do their usual activities remotely and build their digital skills and resilience. 

I love this work, taking all my years of experience on digital projects and figuring out how to use that to advise organisations working on a small scale with very specific needs. It’s rarely the case that they just need MORE DIGITAL. Sometimes less, in fact (e.g. running an Instagram account is very time consuming, does this actually meet their objectives and is it really where the target audience are?). It’s a learning curve for both me and the client, I think, and a balance between advising and upskilling. Anything I suggest has to be sustainable for when I’m not around, of course.

In June I took part in a panel for the National Holocaust Centre and Museum in the UK entitled “Do we need new art forms to teach the Holocaust?”, timed around the launch of their own story app, “The Journey”. You can watch this here (or here on Vimeo), it was an interesting discussion, certainly for me to take part in and hopefully for the audience as well.

I also started gathering up anti-racism resources being shared whilst the Black Lives Matter movement was making headlines. It was great to see more discussion of practical steps to tackle structural racism, from education to hiring practices, something I’d found missing in e.g. diversity or unconscious bias training I’d taken part in, so wanted to collect it all up. Now I have LOADS, and am still trying to figure out what to do with it all, but will post about this in more detail soon, I just need to tidy them up a bit more before sharing. Life got in the way of that one, but I’m posting here as a kick up the bum to do something with this!

At the beginning of the summer I began consulting work with Unthinkable and Clore Leadership on delivering a previously developed digital strategy. Not much to say on that at the moment, much more work to be done in 2021 on this. And there was another new client, the National Lottery Community Fund, on a slightly different project: analysing a big qualitative data set from a funding call for the Climate Action Fund, trying to pull out useful insight from 600+ open field responses. I was excited to try some qual coding tools to see whether they could help, and was frankly disappointed. I tried NVivo, spending quite some time setting up the code, and then just found it so incredibly slow to code each item that despite its evident power, it was unusable. I also tried Quirkos which was, sorry, so fugly and clunky that it was also no help. In the end I used a pen and paper and tally system, and it was a lot faster. (Any recommendations for other tools very welcome).

I continued various volunteer jobs: admin with the brilliant Bike Project and mentoring with Bethnal Green Ventures (Tech for Good start up accelerator) and Digital Candle (free digital advice for charities). But I stepped away from XR, at least for the moment. The evidence suggests that most people accept that we are in a climate emergency, but just don’t know what they can do about it. So I want to focus more on positive solutions and future visioning in this area, not just negative disruptive campaigning. I tried setting up a new mini venture in this vein (The Sunny Upside) but it proved difficult to get traction with it and put enough time into it to make it work (I am no sort of social media influencer). Might revisit that at some point though.

Meanwhile, I’d also decided to turn my life upside down, joining the London exodus and heading to the Isle of Wight, where I grew up and where the rest of my family live. I’ve been here ever since, house hunting (unsuccessfully so far, but anyway). The decision was undoubtedly lockdown-prompted, a desire for countryside and the sea and more space. Like many others, I also realised that the increasing move to remote working meant that I finally could leave London without sacrificing my career. I hope that continues to be true! 

One might question my timing though, not only was work fairly busy but I was also working hard on my masters dissertation, due in October. Final title: “From Monkey Mind to Inner Silence: What does permanent loss of inner speech in meditators tell us about its nature and function?” After what felt like endless rewrites and last minute research along new avenues, I finally got it in. PSA: Google docs do NOT COUNT footnotes in the word count. Thank goodness I did a final count in Word although having to strip out 1000 words at the last minute was a pretty brutal exercise. It was the last act of my Masters, and I’m pleased to have gotten a distinction in both the dissertation and the overall degree. I also finished my working contract at SOAS, handing over to a new coordinator in October.

What do I do with all of that, then? I’ve had some interesting discussions with friends about integrating different sides of one’s experience and knowledge into work, but I’m not sure I can quite marry up the digital and the yoga research. We’ll see. I’m exploring a new project on the latter front with a friend. We’re seeing if we can make a space for discussion on the future of teaching and practice given so many new developments in academic yoga studies. And on the digital side of things, I have some ideas, but I’m not ready to share them yet. I’d like to do some more writing though, and have a list of blog posts I’m working on for the New Year. Is Medium still the go to for sharing? Or does everyone have their own newsletter these days?? I need to sort out this website, either way, which is no longer fit for purpose and looks rather dated.

I’m very lucky that my work can continue on during the current restrictions. It’s always so piecemeal and up and down that it’s a little hard to tell whether it’s been negatively or positively affected, but it doesn’t feel like I’ve suffered in the same way that many others I know have, in sectors that have been badly hit by the current circumstances. But who knows what the future holds. I think we can only make the best plans we can based on the knowledge we currently have, and prepare to adapt them as necessary.

I was kept sane during lockdown through:

  • Baking, cooking, fermenting. I share my foodie obsessions on my Instagram, but I’m wondering whether to change this up a bit in the New Year. Especially since I’ve stopped using Facebook much, Insta is now the best way for friends and family to keep up with what I’m doing, should they be interested. 
  • Also gardening. My tiny wildlife friendly garden was a godsend. I spent hours just watching the bees on the salvia. So lucky to have had this (but it took about 10 years to get the garden into a state I was happy with).
  • And games! Highlights: my usual poker home game moved to Pokerstars and Zoom, using the free game and running the books on money owed separately. It has worked surprisingly well. My D&D game also moved to Zoom and Roll20, the latter being basically indistinguishable from MAGIC, at least in the hands of our excellent and creative DM. We have just conquered the dragon in “Icespire Peak” in high style (whilst mounted upon a roc, no less). I got my parents into online Carcassonne, a heavyweight and slightly clunky transfer to digital but functional enough to capture the fun of the board game. Friends and I experimented with playing board games online, with varying levels of success. I recently enjoyed two disparate seasonal efforts, the Adventure Calendar and the Jacqui Lawson Advent Calendar. The first a branching narrative game over email with daily installations, and the second a TOTES ADORBS throwback of tweeness and sentimentality that I genuinely look forward to every year. And I finally got an up to date console, the PS4, just in time for the PS5 to come out. I am loving Middle Earth: Shadow of War, and revisiting Crash Bandicoot, Worms, Just Dance, Resident Evil 5 and Wipeout (and apparently I am basically stuck in the 2000s, eh?).

As soon as I press send on this, I’ll think of something else I want to share, but I’ve probably gone on enough. And it turns out, this has been a useful reflection on the year. If anyone gets anything out of reading it, that’s a bonus. Here’s to the New Year.

(Featured image by @brujahahahaha on Giphy).

Running live events and meetings on Zoom and avoiding “Zoom Bombing”

Tl;dr sharing resources on how to use Zoom for running both live events and meetings, skip to the bottom for links.

Since the lockdown started, Zoom has become a go-to tool for running events and meetings online. I’d been using it for various things for a few years, but hadn’t really spent too much time and effort digging into what it could do. Then I got involved with XR who use it a lot for delivering training, so I saw features like the breakout rooms in action. I was impressed. It was by far the most powerful application I’d seen in the field, and it just worked.

Of course, I never expected that we’d all be living and working in part over Zoom due to a global pandemic. However, when it became clear what was happening, I realised that the knowledge we’d built up in XR on running things over Zoom might be valuable for others. So, I took some existing XR training on how to use Zoom, adapted it, and started running it for people in the local community and beyond with the help of others in XR. From the positive feedback we got, it seems it was useful for many.

At the same time, in my role as Project Coordinator for the SOAS Centre of Yoga Studies, we were having to rework our live lecture programme for an online audience. We did a trial on Zoom, and it was a success. The live events worked really well, and the YouTube channel we created with the recordings has been a relative hit. You can find it here, if obscure academic scholarship on the history of yoga is your bag. Or, if you just want to see what the recordings look like (note: they are slightly edited, simple trim edits done with the YouTube editor, and more complex ones with an aged version of Adobe Premiere. But you get the gist.)

I created guides for both scenarios and shared them on twitter, which people seemed to find helpful. So, to create a more persistent record, I’m putting them here too, see below.

Now, I should mention Zoom security concerns. Zoom has had some major security and privacy issues exposed as a result of increased use and scrutiny. Most of the flaws have been fixed (and I’m impressed with how fast and sincerely Zoom seemed to handle this). But it is still possible for malicious actors to get into meetings and share horrible things on the screen, cause mayhem in the chat, scribble unwanted things on a shared screen etc, but ONLY IF you haven’t taken precautions. These are also outlined in the documents below.

I hope these are useful, please feel free to share them if so. I’m also keen to keep them updated so if people have suggestions on improvements or other good resources I could add, please let me know or pop them in the comments. And if you are a small community organisation who wants more advice, feel free to get in touch with questions (details here or tweet me) and I’ll help if I can.


Turning research into results: the Teach Your Monster to Read Teacher Toolkit

A little while ago I wrote this blog post on creating resources for teachers that they will actually find useful (summary below). It was partly  based on research I carried out for Teach Your Monster to Read, a game from the Usborne Foundation for teachers and parents to help teach phonics to kids. Usborne wanted to know if there were other tools, games, videos or other content they could create that would make teachers’ jobs easier. 

Very wisely, rather than guess at what these might be, they commissioned me to talk to teachers in the UK and US and find out more about how they teach the subject and what might help them. It was hugely instructive, we learned a lot about what teachers might and might not use, and the research results were used as the direct inspiration for a set of ideas that have now been turned into reality. Just launched on the TYMTR site are mini games, flashcards, videos and printable resources (teachers love to be able to print stuff and make it their own!). They are lovely things.

Teach Your Monster to Read screenshot

I know this user centred, research based design process isn’t new, but unfortunately in my experience people don’t always see the value, or ignore the research results when they don’t fit their preconceptions. For the teacher audience, who have very specific needs and little time, this is especially likely to result in a product that fails. 

So, if you’re thinking of doing something similar, please read my previous post. The tl;dr version below:

Make life easy for teachers. They work hard, they don’t have much time or budget. Make it easy, and they are much more likely to use your resources.

  1. Make online resources easy to find. Put them where teachers already go.
  2. The benefits must be easy to see. Make it clear what it is, who it’s for, show images of it being used.
  3. Be mindful of the time of year. Teachers are insanely busy at certain times of year, and more or less likely to be planning ahead at other times of year.
  4. Make it flexible and modular. Teachers will want to adapt it.
  5. Don’t try and break the mould, make it fit with teachers’ existing practice. Don’t expect them to start changing the way they have always done things overnight.
  6. Make it beautiful, easy, and solve a problem. 

And I would also add, test it heavily with teachers in the environment in which it will be used.

PokĂ©mon Go in your museum: you can’t replicate it but you can work with it

Woo, on to the bandwagon I go, roll up for my hot take… (And a links round up, which you can skip to the bottom for if you like).

SO I tweeted this earlier today

I was kidding, but it turned out I was already too late, as people messaged me to say they had already heard this happening.

Listen, the massive success of PokĂ©mon Go is very interesting, no doubt. I’m enjoying playing it, and that’s despite the fact that the collecting/battle game mechanics themselves are not even that compelling. It’s just fun seeing pokĂ©mon out in the real world and the surprise of finding them, the collecting and evolving and sharing the pictures and so on is enjoyable too, plus I found out about several local landmarks I hadn’t noticed before, bonus.

And yes, the collecting is obviously something museums can relate to, museums love collecting based games. However, museums are not PokĂ©mon, they do not have objects as beloved as Pikachu (sorry), they do not have the staggering reach and influence and years of brand development that PokĂ©mon has, and they do not have the budgets, not even close. Amongst other things (Dan Hon’s post on how to replicate PokĂ©mon Go’s overnight success explains this excellently, thanks to  Chad Weinard for pointing me at that). And believe me, I’ve tried something in this vein. I still love Magic in Modern London but getting traction on something like that was insanely difficult.

My original tweet was in response to this, which sums it up:

I’ve been in countless discussions with people at cultural organisations who point at similarly huge success stories (“we’re thinking maybe we could do something like Clash of Clans?”) and want a piece of it. I understand why, but Clash of Clans is no overnight success either. Making games of that complexity takes serious time, expertise and budget. I’m a big advocate for museums doing games, but they need to be different beasts: simpler, and more focussed. (Not convinced? Hire me to run my game design workshop in your organisation and you’ll have created something like this by the end of the day).

It is good, however, to see museums embracing PokĂ©mon Go itself and getting excited about it. It has already driven up attendance at some museums. So here’s my round up of the interesting stuff I’ve seen so far on it:

Seen anything else? Share it in the comments.



Organise your life using Trello

I was recently evangelising about using Trello to keep on top of everything to someone, which involved trying to describe how I use it. It was a bit difficult, in the abstract. So I decided to create a template board that mimics the way I use it, in the hope that it might also be useful to others.

Quite genuinely, it has made my life a LOT easier. I no longer forget stuff when packing for trips, I rarely miss exhibitions I want to see, I can see what I need to shop for when I find myself in the supermarket, I can see what I need to save money for (and don’t forget who I owe money to), I can easily see my slate of activities for work, and quickly put a to do list together for the day. When I am at a loose end at home, I can check my list of jobs around the house and clear something off the list. Very satisfying. And a huge weight off of my brainspace.

For example, I’ve had “write a blog post about Trello” on the list for a few days, and now I get to check it off (or rather, archive it, the Trello equivalent).

It is SUPER easy to use, as long as you have an internet connection. It syncs across my browser and phone, so I always have my lists handy. I haven’t tried calendar integration yet, but will explore that soon. Because it genuinely integrates with my life and makes things easier, it has stuck, and I’ve been using it for a few years now. (It’s a real art, creating processes and tools that actually stick).

Work/Life trello template
Work/Life trello template

Here is my template. Hopefully it’s pretty self explanatory. I’ve put some descriptions in for certain cards. But basically when I think of any new job (or thing I want to see or do, or shopping item I’ve run out of) I create a new card or add it to one of the lists. Then, each day first thing I move cards to “today” that I need to get through or that I could reasonably tackle. Some cards might not get moved to today, but are useful references in different circumstances.

I’ve also used Trello on work projects to share tasks with other people, but this is the board I use the most.

I’d love to hear any other tips that people have, or comments on this. Was it useful? Do you do something differently?

Reaching the non “science-savvy” with a #scicomms project: evaluating ExpeRimental for the Royal Institution

This post first appeared on the Royal Institution’s blog.

Who are we reaching, and how do we reach further and have greater impact? This was what the Royal Institution wanted to know about their new ExpeRimental project: a series of free online films that aimed to encourage and support parents (and also teachers) to do science activities with their children.


The first ExpeRimental film published

They commissioned me to put together a report that would do this, evaluating the audience and their reaction to the films, but also looking at what they could do to better reach and engage with an audience that they strongly suspected was not watching the films: those were less confident or knowledgeable about science. This followed an initial piece of research I carried out for the Ri that evaluated the pilot (which was used to help develop the full series of films, a very useful process in a project of this nature).

In this post I’ll share the process and some of the key findings, which I think could be very relevant to anyone embarking on a science communication project, or perhaps even any subject-specific digital engagement work. Spoilers: the non-science savvy are probably not likely to seek out your online content, no matter how good it is, and to reach them you are going to have to work a bit harder. If you do only one thing, it should be to try and reach parents via their children’s schools.

Phase one

The first task was to look at the current audience, and try to find out more about who they are, and what they think of the films. To do this, I looked at analytics from YouTube and the Ri’s website, and put together an audience survey that asked for opinions of the films, as well as questions about their expertise and confidence in discussing science subjects.

One thing to note about the research: there were over 20 films in the series, but most had already gone live. The survey was linked to from most of the films, but the vast majority of results will come from the last three that went live (during Science Week) after the survey was published, skewing the results to those, and to people who came to them and the survey via subscriptions and social media (ie probably those who were already “fans” in some way of the Ri and who wanted to be helpful). Whilst we had over a hundred responses this does mean the results can only be indicative rather than a fully significant and complete picture of the audience. The lesson there is to capture viewer feedback from the very beginning.

That said, some of the results were pretty striking. First, the good news. The audience was overwhelmingly positive about the films themselves and fulsome in their praise for them. When asked what could be improved, the most common answer was “nothing”, closely followed by “have more”. A few wanted to see more “further reading” links, such as related videos or ways to extend the activities, but for the rest there were only a few minor criticisms or suggestions.

The audience loved that the presenters and settings were relatable (they showed “real people” and “real family homes”), and that they depicted kids actually doing the activities. They said that the videos were clear, and the activities were easy to do.

A pleasing number had also picked up on the fact that the activities were less about imparting factual information but were instead aiming to depict a more questioning approach, that it was asking the questions that was the most important thing. Perhaps the most encouraging stat was that 60% of parents had already done the activity with their kids or students, and of the rest, only one person said that they weren’t planning on it.

However, the less good news was that the audience appeared to be very much from within a particular science “bubble” – they were very science savvy. Not a single respondent said they were “not at all confident” discussing science with their kids or students, over 70% said they were “very confident” or “quite confident” doing so (compare this with the results from the Phase 2 recruitment survey where only a little over 30% from a more general audience were “very confident” or “quite confident” and about 20% were “not at all confident”).

Respondents were asked about their level of science studied, and over 55% had a degree or post-graduate qualification in science (again the phase 2 recruitment survey would show that less than 20% had a degree in science, over 50% not going beyond GCSE science). So, as suspected, there were clear indications that the current/existing ExpeRimental audience was somewhat unusual, and that there could be a huge untapped audience of less science-confident parents out there. Which leads us to the next phase of research.

Phase two

The next question was clear: how does the Ri reach this audience? Their promotional plan so far had included use of social media, distribution via third parties such as AOL, national media coverage including TV appearances such as a slot on Channel 4’s Sunday Brunch and a piece on ITV London news, a Huffington Post blog series, hospital newsletters, promotion via Brownie groups and parenting blogs, and collaborations with organisations such as a link to British Science Week via the British Science Association and training sessions for play-workers via London Play. Whilst this had resulted in some strong numbers for a few of the videos, it apparently was still preaching to the converted, for the most part.

Looking at the analytics, discovery type varied between videos, some on well-known subjects (making playdoh, or bubbles) were being found by search on YouTube and others were mostly being found via YouTube recommendations or subscriptions. One or two had seen a lot of traffic from online articles such as on the Huffington Post and BuzzFeed. On the website people were arriving via various searches along the lines of “fun activities for kids” or “science for preschoolers” (most science related queries appearing to be school related, including “ks2” or “kindergarten”).

Being found via search was clearly very important to the success of some of the videos, but this only works if it is something that people might actually be searching for (almost nobody is going to be searching for “balancing structures”, the subject of one of the videos, for example). If it isn’t on a popular subject, then it is competing with all the other results for “fun activities for kids” that might come up when a parent gets desperate on a rainy bank holiday. Which is an awful lot of competition.

Social media is obviously likely to result in getting a message out to the like-minded (existing Facebook or Twitter fans and followers, and their similar connections). You’d expect that more general press and especially an appearance on Sunday Brunch might reach a more general audience, but it hadn’t translated into lots of views. A new strategy was needed.

In my experience, getting to the bottom of questions like this requires a more in-depth, qualitative approach. Surveys will only get you so far, and can be a bit self-selecting. I needed to find people in this target audience, and have a long chat with them. To do this, I posted a recruitment survey to Mumsnet and the East Dulwich Forum (a very active local forum), that was looking for parents who were not at all confident discussion science subjects with their kids.

I would note at this point that the two forums I posted the survey on are known for having a fairly middle-class demographic, and they are naturally going to be an audience that are very active and engaged internet users. We had discussed reaching an even broader audience with the research, but it would have taken quite a lot more resources and we decided that it was beyond the scope and means of this evaluation, at least for the moment. Also, the Mumsnet/East Dulwich Forum audience is likely to be a good fit for the videos, so it made sense to focus on them. As it turns out, I think the strategy suggested by this research will also help reach a wider audience anyway.

Interview findings

I found eight parents who fit the criteria (“not at all confident” and mostly educated to GCSE science level or below) and who were willing to be interviewed, in return for a £15 Amazon voucher. The discussions I had with them were extremely informative, and whilst some of the insight may seem obvious in hindsight, it certainly didn’t beforehand. It’s also useful to just have some suspicions confirmed, and evidence to bolster the case for a particular strategy.

Firstly, when these parents did watch the videos (after our interview), they really liked them. They all planned to do the activities with their children afterwards. So there was nothing about the actual content of the video that was putting off this less science-savvy audience. That was a good start.

However, most of our interviewees just would never have considered doing science experiments with their children at home. If it had ever crossed their mind, they wouldn’t have known where to start looking, and would be nervous about “getting it wrong” and misleading their children. Instead, they tended to focus on doing more arts and crafts activities, general play, or sports and outdoorsy pursuits, because this was what they were comfortable and familiar with. It was clear that this audience were never going to find the videos by search, or by seeing them shared on social media, it was going to take something more direct, and something that addressed their concerns.

When I asked what they thought would be a good way to reach them, every single parent said something along the lines of “get a note into the kid’s school book bags”. The schools were the key, they said, they respected information that came via that route, and they paid attention to it. Whilst a mailshot to every school with leaflets for every child would require a pretty huge marketing effort and budget, the basic message of “go via the schools” suggests other possible avenues (via school newsletters, targeting teachers as ambassadors, or encouraging schools to send out emails or texts, perhaps).

Other possibilities mentioned included holding community events or targeting community centres, trying to reach after-school science clubs, tapping into childminder networks on Facebook and elsewhere, getting mentioned on general parenting blogs and forums, and via museums (the Science Museum and Natural History Museum were mentioned often as popular destinations for family visits). Nobody felt that Facebook or Twitter would be particularly good ways to reach them directly as parents.

The other important aspect of this is that if you did manage to reach this audience with a promotional message, it had to feature some key information. It had to be clear that the activity would be easy to do, use things that you would already have at home, or be straightforward and cheap to buy, that it wouldn’t take a lot of time to prepare (and then take only 5 minutes to do), and that they were be supported in answer the kid’s questions. One of my recommendations from this was to test future marketing messages directly with this audience, to make sure it does all of these things.

The parents particularly wanted to know the context of the science activity. What subject did it fit into, especially in terms of the school curriculum? What was it related to, and why was it relevant to their lives (i.e. is this really about electricity, or sound waves)? They also wanted to encourage their kids to spend time outdoors, so activities that could be done in the park or garden would be seen as a good thing.

Lessons learned

What I love about doing research of this sort is that moment where someone says something that suddenly seems so obvious, but that somehow hadn’t been before. It’s usually a good sign that your findings are plausible. So, it now seems very obvious that you have to be pretty confident and aware on science subjects to be seeking out experiments for your kids to do at home. It now also seems very obvious that schools are the best route to the audience that isn’t. Somehow, it wasn’t obvious at all when I started on this, but hopefully it will be useful for future ExpeRimental films and perhaps other science communication projects too.

Click here to browse the full set of ExpeRimental films.