Choosenick. Notes and observations on service design, as well as other interesting things/thinking. By Nick Marsh.


New blog! Pitch to Product

I've decided to finally call it quits on my blog, and I've setup a new, more thematically focused blog over at Hopefully a new CMS (I'm using Dropbox powered Scriptogram) and a simpler / less personal domain will help me blog more frequently / better. We'll see! You can read about the idea behind the new blog here.

In the next few months I'll change the homepage to be more of a cv sort of thing, but I'll keep the site running in the background to preserve links. I've copied a few of my favourite articles over to the new site too.
April 24th, 2013 / Trackback / Comments


Next! (Part 3.)

Background: Part 1, Part 2

At the end of December I'm leaving Sidekick to launch a new venture with Stef and Paul.

It's called Makeshift.

The past three years I've spent working at Sidekick have been the most productive and fulfilling of my career. I'm immensely proud of the work and the team we've built at Sidekick.

I'm confident that the Sidekick method of using lean startup techniques to rapidly develop socially positive new products and services for big companies is the future of digital agencies. Sidekick's got a big head start in this race, and that's amazing.

I'm leaving the studio with a world class client list (Red Bull, Unilever, Sky, Comic Relief) a very healthy pipeline, a clear phone pitch-able proposition that really resonates with clients, a great portfolio and reputation and above all an increasingly strong team across the whole product stack - strategy, design, build, management.

We're also undergoing a re-org to make the studio even more focused on the work, putting our product leads 100% in control of the business.

So why leave?!

Well, the short answer is that I think Sidekick Studios has now achieved product/market fit.

This is great news, but it means that the challenge of growth going forward is very different. The skills I've built up in the past few years are much more suited to the earliest stages of business design.

So that's why I'm doing Makeshift - because its an awesome new challenge that will ratchet me one step further into the future.

Makeshift will be a product design studio built for the digital age. Our intention is to invent, build, ship and grow a range of valuable new digital products and businesses that 'give a leg up to the little guy'. We won't have clients. And we won't have investors (yet) as my co-founder is wealthy enough to be able to fund the business himself.

Initially we'll focus on building smaller products that we want and need (as we have a lot of experience of being the 'little guy') but we've got a secret big idea behind it all that I'll share in another post.

To do this we're going to mix together everything we know about early stage business development, very agile / lean software practices, data driven digital marketing, creative campaign marketing and of course beautiful, simple, product, service and interaction design.

We've got lots of ideas about how to make the studio the most fun place to work in the world, but to start with we're going to have two very simple rules that govern everything we do - whatever your focus, if you work at Makeshift, you have to spend 100% of your time working on stuff you want to work on. None of this 20% time rubbish. But, the catch is, you're not allowed to work on anything on your own. I reckon this is going to produce something pretty unlike traditional companies. We'll see.

Whilst at Sidekick I used to talk a lot about how I wanted the studio to be like a digital version of the Eames' studio - a place that invented its own products, collaborated with others where necessary, loved technology and design in equal measure, and, vitally, was able to build everything itself. I wrote about this idea in a roundabout way for Design Week a few months ago - essentially saying that the interesting design companies aren't consultancies these days.

Anyway, this message never quite fitted in Sidekick for obvious reasons - because we are a consultancy and we don't really make our own products any more - and so I'm taking the vision with me to Makeshift.

So, there's lots more to write about what we want to do at Makeshift, how we want to do it, who we want to do it with and what products we want to build, but that's all to come. In the meantime I want to say thanks to everyone that I've had the chance to make stuff with at Sidekick. Its been a lot of fun.

Oh, and finally, if you made it this far through this post, you might just be interested enough to want to join us on our adventure - we're hiring hackers, designers and marketing people f/t to start in early 2013.

Drop me a line.
December 1st, 2012 / Trackback / Comments

Design consultancy is dead. Long live design!

I originally wrote this article for Design Week. Annoyingly, they changed the title subtly. I wrote 'consultancy is dead'. They put 'consultancies are dead'. Obviously I'm just trying to get people's attention, but just to be clear, I'm not saying agencies are dead, just that digital/product/service designers don't *have* to be consultants anymore. Anyway.

One year ago Katie Marcus was working for a well-known London based digital agency. She says, ‘I was working for brands like Orange, Skype and French Connection doing interface designs and psds. It was fine, but I really wanted to be doing more, to be involved in the processes happening on either side of my work.’ In May 2011 she decided to take the plunge and start freelancing.

12 months later she’s 50 projects down, having worked on around 15 new products, acted as design director for four startups and seen one of her creations, group shopping site Llustre, exit via private sale to American competitor

‘Working for startups is the best. Everything moves very fast and you can see immediately where your input is being used, and importantly, almost everything you design does get used. I’ll never go back to being a cog’, she says.

Katie is part of the new generation of multi-disciplinary, digitally-native visual and user experience designers who are central to the success of the world’s hottest startup companies.

Only a few years ago every design school grad that wasn’t a full-on artisan aspired to work for one of the big design consultancies (ideally IDEO, runner-up Imagination) where they’d be working for other big companies on big branding/product innovation projects.

The assumption was that the only route to impact was by working for established companies as a consultant. In-house design jobs just weren’t an option. Making your own products, equally unlikely.

These days it just isn’t like that anymore. The economics of the digital economy have changed everything – through the process of startup products can, and are, dreamt up, built and shipped to markets of hundreds of millions of customers in a day.

Earlier this year Ben Pieratt, designer and founder of wrote a blog post entitled ‘Dear Graphic and Web Designers, please understand that there are greater opportunities available to you.’ In it, he points out that historically, designers needed big companies to help them get their products to customers, but, thanks to the Internet, now they don’t. As he says, ‘you now have direct access to the raw vein of popular attention. The pixels you’re pushing have a higher exchange rate than you’re giving yourself credit for.’

In some ways this feels like the fulfilment, some 48 years later, of Ken Garland’s famous First Things First manifesto where he called for designers to stop wasting their time selling ‘cat food and stomach powders’ and proposed ‘a reversal of priorities in favour of more useful and lasting forms of communication’.

Today’s design heroes, people like Kate Aronowitz, head of design at Facebook and Sahil Lavingia, founder of Gumroad and early head of design at Pinterest, have shown that by working in-house for startups you can combine a global reach for your designs with the focus that comes from working on one product and have the personal control that comes from ‘doing your own stuff ‘ - i.e small team, no marketing police.

A great example of this trend is Kohl Vinh. Until recently Vinh was design director of the New York Times. After five years on the job he left, but not to start another agency, instead he quit to work on startups. He explained why in a well circulated blog post last year:

‘We use the term “startup” and “tech startup” interchangeably, but the latter is becoming less and less fully accurate over time. Many recent startups are powered by design as much as technology, because the technology has matured so greatly that the difference-maker is design. Design is playing a key part in the success of Tumblr, Instagram, Flipboard, Groupon, Kickstarter and many, many others. These are the great new design companies, not the studios and agencies you read about in the design press.’

This new trend isn’t just confined to the States. These great new design companies are already here in London – in May this year, startup recruitment event Silicon Milk Roundabout hosted over 120 startup businesses looking for new hires, and for the first time put on a whole day dedicated to product management and design.

In short, there’s never been a better time to be a designer. Make sure you’re making the most of it.
July 15th, 2012 / Trackback / Comments

Deck from a talk I gave at the 10 things mini-conference in Cardiff. "10 things that startups do to build more sustainable, more innovative products and services, quickly."
March 12th, 2012 / Trackback

Brain explosions and how to have them

Cross posted from the Sidekick blog


I often ask people who come to interviews where they get their inspiration, or who inspires them.

I am always looking for answers that aren't obvious, and that say something about the quality of a persons curiosity more than the quality of their RSS collection.

If people struggle you can ask them 'which companies do you admire?', 'what products do you love?' and so on, but by then they've already got minus points.

I especially like it when people give you a real blinder like, 'so, where do you get yours?' (as long as they've had a good go at answering it first. Otherwise it's just lazy.)

Which is why I'm writing this.

If course, it's impossible to say exactly where your inspiration comes from. Its always the sum total of all your experiences.

However, I think I can pinpoint two really important types of inspiration, both of which are kind of brain explosions. When you get really good ones, its amazing.

The first type is the type that pushes whole sections of your brain forward, and gives you lots of new ideas across all the things that you do, and in my experience it always comes from sources outside your current interests. You know when you see this inspiration because you suddenly see things differently. I'm going to call this brain explosion inspiration.

The second type is the type that consolidates lots of the different things floating around in your brain already, crystallises them and helps you tell a story to yourself and others that had been lurking there for a while. You know when you see this because you suddenly start explaining things differently. I'm going to call this brain implosion inspiration.

There is a third type, which is the more mundane, everyday inspiration, that is often less about ideas and more about artefacts - wow, that's a beautiful poster. Or, I'm going to copy that interface component. These are really numerous. I'm not writing about these today.

So, what are some good brain explosion and implosions I've had? I'll list a few:

Brain Explosion #1 - The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.

Wow. This is a killer book. Its about science, but its also deeply philosophical. Its perhaps the greatest ever treatise on the importance of having strong ideas but holding them weakly. Kuhn takes this concept up to the meta level, and shows how science is an ever evolving description of the truth behind Nature. This book makes you feel both in awe at mankind and also deeply empowered as a human to better understand yourself and nature. Amazing.

Brain Explosion #2 - Understanding Comics.

Double wow. As a kid I grew up reading and drawing comics. I also loved art, and reading stories. Still do. But reading Scott McCloud just BLEW MY MIND, as suddenly, there on the page in a beautiful meta method was a super concise explanation of how drawings and words can come together to tell the most sophisticated stories ever. This book is absolutely required reading for anyone working in any field that requires them to explain things to other people. This book pushed me forward in so many ways.

Brain Explosion #3 - The Ascent of Man.

Triple wow. Brunowski's legendary series was introduced to me on a summer camp I went on with a bunch of other designers. Its a beautiful, polymathematical explanation of what makes human beings unique in the world. he takes us on a tour of science, but also all human history. You just have to watch it. What made my brain explode was not just the content but also the amazingly daring way he connects together different ideas. The final scene of him wading into a marsh outside a concentration camp, up to his knees in water explaining how the Heisenberg uncertainty principle applies to human affairs as much as atoms is just mind blowing.

Brain Implosion #1 - The Story of Art

This is a beast of a book. But amazing, as it connects together all artistic traditions into one super narrative. You can quibble with the method and who's in and who's out, but what is so cool about it is that it creates a shared tradition for all creative thought. It made me realise that everything I do is connected to everything that other people had done before me. Which is a profound thought, and something I'm always aware of when designing.

Brain Implosion #2 - In the shadow of the moon

This film basically makes you cry with happiness at being a human. Its amazing. Interviews with all the surviving people who have walked on the moon. Its a epic tale of what humans can achieve if they work together. Its also a fantastic look behind the scenes about how complex systems and products are designed, and what it takes to bring things together. It makes you proud to be person, and it puts every endeavour in perspective - if you believe you can do something, you probably can.

Brain Implosion #3 - Lean Startup

This is my most recent implosion. Eric Ries book and ideas have brought together so many different threads of my work over the pat few years - user centred design, innovation, startups, mixing strategy and delivery, growth, getting people with different skills working together, the power of great product and service design. Wow. Its really consolidated so much of what I was saying, and just made it all stack up. Its so good. Please read it.

The post of this title is a bit misleading, as I haven't explained how to have good brain explosions, but in writing this I realised that the answer is less interesting than examples. Its probably something about making sure you are always meeting new people, reading widely and trying to work on stuff that you haven't done before.

Anyway, what are your greatest brain explosion/implosion moments? How can we have more of them? Do you want to have too many? What order should they come in? Can you have a simultaneous brain explosion with someone?! All good questions, I'd love to hear your answers!
February 9th, 2012 / Tags: design, inspiration, innovation, creativity / Trackback / Comments

The role of conversation in designing

I was saying to Johanna the other day that I wanted to do a talk on the role of talking/conversation in designing. She's put me in touch with Matthew Solle from London IA and hopefully we'll do an event/seminar/workshop/dojo/powwow or something.

I'm especially interested where verbalising is similar to drawing as a way of figuring stuff out, in the open, away from your pure imagination.

I think its interesting because I do a lot of talking when I'm working. And, although its an over generalisation, I think that almost all my good ideas have come from conversations / moments when I'm talking.

Weirdly, for something that seems so important to designing good stuff, I haven't really heard anyone talk/write about it. I'd like to explore this as a series of prompts and get a discussion going. I've written some stuff here, and then as I said I'll hopefully do an event soon. Things I'd like to explore/understand is:

How to have good conversations during creative group discussions. These are like little talking ballets. You know when its going well, and people know when to cut in, when not to. When to ask questions, when to plough ahead. When to allow silence. Etc. And when it doesn't work its a nightmare. We've all been there when someone says 'let me finish!' or something, and everyone's kind of annoyed.

How to be good at kind of half describing unfinished stuff. This is when you are informally presenting ideas (sometimes within the above activity) and you are kind of describing your design idea loosely, hoping that other people will fill in the blanks. Kind of the verbal version of Bill Buxton's wobbly lines (the only google search I get for those wobbly lines is an old comment thread on this post from my days of service designing).

How to be good at knowing when talking about your design will help you make a decision. This is even more vague, but I was thinking about how sometimes you have to get someone over and say, 'can I tell you what I'm working on?', and then you tell them, and then, well, that's it. During the process of verbalising it you answer a question that's been in your mind. Kind of the same as sketching an idea to answer a question. Some people would call this 'bouncing ideas off you'. Maybe.

How to effectively combine drawing and talking. This is something we do a lot at Sidekick. In a jokey way we call it 'sketchy fun time' and it involves sitting down with paper, pens, coffee and doing a kind of half individual, half group based drawing activity. Done well, you draw ideas and then talk about them in a loose way at the same time, and the talking prompts other people to draw different stuff, and the drawing prompts more talking.

Is this all too vague? I'm sure there is lots more. The problem is that conversation during design activity is always so ephemeral. Everything else gets recorded, from the most humble sketch up to the most detailed specification document, even formal presentations are documented, but the talking bit is not.

There's a PhD in this for sure, but in the meantime I think a bit of open space style facilitation between some thoughtful people who design things and enjoy conversation would be good. Who's in?!
January 25th, 2012 / Tags: design, thinking, practice / Trackback / Comments

How to innovate like a startup: use these tools

Cross posted from the Sidekick site.

There are some pretty simple, pretty awesome tools in the Startup/New Product development stack that we use at Sidekick a lot. I could write a book about each of these!

However, I don't have time to write a book. So here are some paragraphs the enduring constructs / frameworks / brain tools that I keep referencing from the worlds of business, design and tech. Each one is that awesome combination of simple and easy to understand, hugely deep and investigable if that's your thing, and massively extensible and flexible. Figuring out how and when to mix them together is the key to creating enduring products, services and businesses. When mixed together right, these tools help teams innovate quicker, better and cheaper.

Business-Led stuff

Lean Startup. This is a meta tool that is used to group together a bunch of other stuff, including some of the tools below. Essentially the idea of don't build more than customers want is very powerful and enduring. The flipside to Lean Startup is of course Lean Investing, which is turning the VC model on its head.

Minimum Viable Product. This is a really useful construct, and central to the Lean Startup idea. There a lot of people who argue over its exact meaning, but that misses the point. MVP is the antidote to feature-itis and scope creep and it come in useful in lots of different ways, mainly as a means to ficus minds on what matters.

Business Model Canvas. A really simple, really useful tool. So much better than business plans! I would say the business model canvas is the single biggest leap forward in making business strategy more accessible and more creative. With the canvas its easy to sketch business ideas, and importantly, compare different ones. It crops up in lots and lots of places. Love it.

Customer Development. Steve Blank's customer development is a powerful idea, but also very simple. So simple that its easy to say 'its just user centred design' or 'its just market research'. But that misses the point a bit - the simple, central thing as I see it is that no product development should happen without customer input.

Design-Led stuff

Design thinking. This is a big and broad thing, like lean startup, and equally useful. I see design thinking as a way of effectively managing imagination. Its most useful as a way of organising thinking at the earliest stages of projects, when you are figuring out what should we make rather than how should we make it. There's lots of people who will say design thinking can be applied across all parts of product and business development (they are right), but in my experience the language and literature is most useful at that 'fuzzy front end'.

User/human centred design. Similar to 'customer development', but with a much stronger emphasis on detail. Obviously there is huge literature on UCD and ergonomics etc etc. Its a massively useful thing.

Double Diamond. Like the business model canvas, the double diamond is a really, really useful diagram. It really helps to explain to non-designers ad people without much experience of making new stuff what the process will be like. I remember when I worked at Engine when me, Olly and Erick made a big double diamond poster of all Engine's projects it quickly became the most useful sales tool as it let us explain the offer on one piece of paper.

Tech-Led stuff

Agile. This, like lean startup and design thinking is a big broad thing. At a high level Agile is a philosophy about putting makers in charge of making and, just like lean startup and design thinking bringing customers/users right into the design process. But its also got some really useful, really light project management tools (sprints, scrums, planning boards etc).

Iteration / versioning / Frequent releases. This is a really good idea from the world of software that provides a really creative and productive tension with the more ponderous 'double diamond' style product development process. Rapid, frequent iterations of a product focus energy and attention of teams.

Balanced team. I've only just found out about this, but I think it sounds amazing. The antidote to the turf wars of UX / UI / IxD / Developers / Strategists / etc / bullshit. I need to read more about it, but the idea is so simple - what matters is balance in your team. This works all the way up the company, from projects through to management.

Rails + Heroku. This is a tech stack not a conceptual tool, but I'm always AMAZED how easy it is to build and launch web apps these days. Rails and Heroku have driven down costs and driven up speed of product development enormously. I can't wait to see what's next in this area.

In summary, it seems that most of these ideas share some common characteristics:

• Human centred: Focusing on people, in particular customers and users.

• Collaborative and making-focused: Finding ways to bring those people into creation processes whilst giving makers autonomy and flexibility.

• Light: Staying lean in every way - in terms of product and processes.

And that is why I love working in the world of Startup / New Product. Its about people, its about making and its not burdened with unnecessary crap. Love it.
December 8th, 2011 / Trackback / Comments

My friend Paul asked me to come and give a talk about Sidekick and our work at Cardiff Design Festival.

I like Paul, and I like Cardiff so I said yes. The deck below is a rapid fire, very simplified, summary of where my head is at the moment in terms of what 'startup as a process' is and can do.

The interesting bit, and the bit that needs developing a lot, is the bit about mixing the three different process styles of design-led, tech-led and business-led approaches to project leadership. For me, this is very exciting as it feels like genuine methodological innovation. Its not Design Thinking/Human-Centred Design. Its not Agile. Its not Customer Development. Its all three/four, rolled into one.

Anyway, check it out. Would love to get comments on twitter
November 1st, 2011 / Tags: design, innovation, startup / Trackback

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