A tale of three road tolls: part 3 (liberty on French autoroutes)

Over the Easter holidays, I was lucky enough to enjoy a skiing holiday in the French Alps with my family. Aside from the holiday leading to me finally accepting that my kids are now both better skiers than I (after 2 seasons my 11 year-old is skiing black runs and my 9 year-old is on reds whilst I, on the other hand, lack their low centre of gravity and absence of fear), the road trip there and back gave me a chance to a) test out our new Volvo XC60 on a decent journey (it is very comfortable) and b) follow a friend’s advice to use an electronic tag for convenient passage through French autoroute tolls.

After a successful pilot with the same tag system (but different operator) on the UK’s M6 Toll, I felt ready for the SANEF Liber-T tag, which even has a billing option aimed at UK motorists travelling to France.

I’ve also found I could get a reduced price because I was travelling via Eurotunnel and had a booking reference (a frequent traveller number will do too) – saving the €10 application fee. The offer can be withdrawn at any time but seems to have been going for a couple of years now.  And, when I posted about this on a Volvo Owners Forum, I was told about another scheme that seems to be less expensive.  Definitely worth looking into…

The instructions for mounting the tag were different to my M6 Toll experience and I have to admit I’m not sure I have it quite right (maybe I should try the back of the mirror next time) but some waving of the tag at the readers seemed to kick things into life on the occasions that the barrier didn’t rise on my approach!

Back home in the UK, my tolls were arranged into one bill, and paid monthly (albeit with a currency conversion charge) but the convenience (and the ability to cruise through dedicated toll lanes at the péage) makes it worthwhile. The Liber-T tag works on all toll motorways in France (excluding the Mont Blanc and Fréjus tunnels), regardless of operator.

So, three tales, three tolls, three very different experiences. Now, back to the tech…

A tale of three road tolls: part 2 (the M6 Toll)

Following my experiences with the Dart Charge (see part 1) and in preparation for an upcoming trip to France where I planned to use electronic tolls, I decided to try out a similar system on Britain’s only private Motorway – the M6 Toll in Staffordshire.

So, on the way back from the office one day, I picked up an M6 Toll Tag at Norton Canes service area, which came pre-loaded with £25 of credit (the same as I paid for the tag). Then, by calling up and opening an account, I was given £10 more credit; and by topping up with another £30 of credit, I was given another £5. So, that’s one tag with £70 of credit for £55. Even with a monthly charge of £1 that means I’m up by a few quid (and a corresponding 5% discount on journeys should go towards the monthly charging over time).

After fitting the tag to the back of my rear-view mirror, I drove (with some trepidation it has to be said) towards the barrier, heard a re-assuring “beep”, saw it lift, and then cruised on through the toll booths.

Result! With a tag working through my car’s heated windscreen on UK roads, I was in business – ready for the next adventure, on French Autoroutes!

A tale of three road tolls: part 1 (the Dart Charge)

London’s orbital motorway, the M25, is not a circle (as many people suggest) but has a short section of trunk road joining the ends and crossing the River Thames east of London. That road, the A282 Dartford Crossing, has an associated charge which, until recently, was collected at toll booths.

Originally the tolls were to be removed on 1 April 2003 under the original Private Finance initiative (PFI) scheme contract that was used to finance the Queen Elizabeth II bridge but instead, under the 2000 Transport Act, the A282 Trunk Road (Dartford-Thurrock Crossing charging scheme) Order 2002 allowed the continuation of the crossing fee, which officially became a charge and not a toll.

Since 30 November 2014 the toll booths have been removed and replaced by an electronic charge [update: there are some overnight journeys that are not charged], but that’s not without its issues, as I found when I travelled to Dartford and back a few weeks ago.

Dart charge warning letter and PCNI hadn’t used the route for years, but had heard about the changes (I even contacted the operator to see if my new tag for the French motorways, also operated by SANEF, would work – it won’t!). I also saw the signs advising me to pay by midnight the next day (confusingly using the same symbol as the London Congestion Charge, which is unrelated). Unfortunately, faced with congestion, delays, a stressful day with a difficult customer and an equally stressful journey home (total driving time for the day was 6 hours for around 180 miles – a pathetic average speed considering it was mostly on motorways!) – and I forgot.

It was an honest mistake and, when I realised a few days later, I called the Dart Charge contact centre. Aided by some extremely patient and helpful people, I was told not to worry, to wait for the penalty charge notice and that I would be given a chance to pay (without penalty) on my first infringement. But I’d travelled both ways! In turns out that’s OK too – just pay all outstanding charges on receipt of the first notice.

I was also told how I could sign up for automatic payment in future (a facility I tested on a journey to France a few weeks later) – if only the official government website for the Dart Charge made that clear but it’s one of those sites that’s been so over-“simplified” that it’s no longer clear.  The warning letter is equally confusing: because my PCNs arrived on different days (and I needed to pay before leaving the country on Easter holidays!), I couldn’t see how to pay all outstanding charges in one hit online. Luckily the contact centre for the Dart Charge came to my rescue again!

Gov.UK suggests setting up an account but doesn’t mention the advantage of doing so is to provide a pay-as-you go facility. Indeed the only reference to payment in advance is by post! There’s actually better advice in the Daily Telegraph article about the changes!

So, if you are planning to use the Dartford Crossing (by bridge or tunnel), I recommend signing up for an account and paying as you go by credit or debit card to avoid a lot of stress (and potentially hefty fines). Definitely worth it!

CANbus, replacement car stereos and dodgy steering wheel controls!

One of the side effects of no longer having a company car is that I’m having to take direct responsibility for maintenance again. It’s a world away from my days of learning how to maintain my Mum’s 1980 Ford Fiesta! For example, I recently learned how the wiring in modern cars is totally changed so that it uses a controller area network (CAN) and a serial bus to integrate the various electronic components and to reduce the amount of physical wiring in use. This CANbus system uses common wiring (CAN high and CAN low) and each device communicates using its own frequency… or at least that’s how it was explained to me.

Last month, I had a new car stereo fitted in my family’s 2008 Golf. The Pioneer DEH-4700BT was a bargain at just under £79 (from Halfords) including Bluetooth connectivity to multiple phones for calls and media playback but, by the time fitting and the various cables/adapters/fascia components had been added, the cost had gone up by another £100!

I’m amazed what a difference the new head unit makes on the existing speakers (apparently manufacturers tend to over-specify the speaker to avoid warranty claims if they are “blown” early in the vehicle’s life) but I also learned a little about the car electrics whilst it was being fitted for me.

Initially, the unit was wired in with a live feed taken from the cigarette lighter socket; however that wasn’t needed once all of the necessary parts arrived – the final piece being a stalk control adapter for integration with the steering wheel controls (I can re-use the permanent live if I buy a dash cam in future). Unfortunately, the use of these third party interfaces to the Volkswagen CAN has an interesting side-effect as it seems it listens for control on a range of frequencies, rather than a specific signal. This means that, when I use the steering wheel controls to adjust the car’s multi-function computer (e.g. to switch from fuel economy to distance driven), it skips forward/back a track on the stereo! One workaround is to switch the stereo to Aux input before changing the computer settings, then switching back again – but it is a bit clunky really!

I’ve since found a Mk5 Golf GTI forum post that suggests using Volkwagen’s own single-DIN facia unit and a Connects2 steering wheel interface. It certainly looks like a better finish but having already shelled out over £100, our car (which is certainly no GTI) will keep the AutoLeads version for now (I have an AutoLeads PC99-505 with PC99-SON, which I’m told is the same as the PC99-PIO Pioneer version, a PC2-75-4 harness adapter and an FP-17-03 fascia adapter with removable pocket).

Connecting two Bluetooth devices at once to a Volkswagen Tiguan

Tomorrow, the leased Volkswagen Tiguan (2012 model) that I’ve been driving for the last three years is being collected. Only last week, I worked out how to do what I’ve wanted to do for most of the time I’ve had the car – i.e. to have one phone connected over Bluetooth for calls (my work phone) at the same time as another is connected for playing music/podcasts (my private phone).

As long as both devices are paired to the car, it’s pretty simple and the steps are in the video below:

 

If you can’t see the video, then these are the steps:

  1. Connect the phone that you want to use as a phone to the car. In the video you can see “Mark Wilson’s Lumia” is connected.
  2. using the steering wheel controls, scroll down to Bluetooth and click OK.
  3. Scroll down to Media player and click OK.
  4. Select Paired devices and click OK.
  5. Select the second device (in the video it’s “Mark’s iPhone) and click OK.
  6. Click OK at the Connect prompt, and again at the “End current connection?” prompt.
  7. After a few seconds, the second device should connect and you can play media content from this, whilst still making/receiving calls on the first device.

Stuck door lock on Mk5 Volkswagen Golf

My wife’s ’08 registration Volkswagen Golf (Mk5) refused to unlock the rear passenger door earlier this week.  After trying various combinations of keyfobs, inside door locks, locking and unlocking, I hit the ‘net and found a multitude of articles with various bits of advice – usually resulting in trying to remove door trims and expensive garage bills.  I did find one post on the Mk5 Golf GTI forum that looked hopeful though (even though ours is a Match not a GTI!) and decided it was worth a try:

“You do need two people.

One operates the central lock switch on the drivers door while the other tries to open the passenger door. You try and open the door at the same time as it tries to unlock.

Can take ages.”

I tried this a few times with the outside handle (I could hear the lock “clunking” but the door still wouldn’t open) then I tried with the inside handle a couple of times and – hey presto, an open door!  I think the mechanism could do with some grease (not sure what sort), but seems to be working at the moment.

Internet search saves Mark a couple of hundred quid at the local Volkswagen dealer…

Short takes: managing Bluetooth devices in a Volkswagen; seating Micro SD cards in a Hudl

In an attempt to close some tabs in my browser and transfer some notes to blog form, another “short takes” post…

Deleting paired Bluetooth devices from a Volkswagen MFD

The advice is for a 2012 Passatt but it worked for my Tiguan and probably for a Golf, etc. too (there’s a maximum of 4 connected devices – although only one can be active at any one time):

  1. “Go to the Phone on the center information panel
  2. Go to Users and you will the the phone names
  3. Scroll to the phone you want to remove
  4. Push the OK button on the steering wheel
  5. You will be offered some options, scroll down to Delete and hit OK”

Incidentally, Know Your VW is a useful site (although it is intended for the North American market).

Patience required inserting a Micro SD card in a Tesco Hudl

After buying my Tesco Hudl a few weeks ago, I decided to get a memory card to expand the on board capacity (e.g. cary more music/video with me).  Of course, Tesco is the last place I want to buy accessories like that and I picked up twice the capacity for half the price (or something like that) at MyMemory.co.uk.

The problem came when I wanted to insert the card into the Hudl.  For a while I seriously thought I had a faulty tablet that would need to be returned (a bit of a shame after getting it just how I wanted it, including rooting and customising…) – I kept on pushing the card in but it would spring straight out again.  It turns out that the Hudl’s card slot is very deeply recessed and some long nails (or even a knife) might be needed to push it in far enough and get it to stay in place!

 

 

Hardware lineup for 2014

For the last few years, I’ve written a post about my “hardware lineup” – the tech I use pretty much every day (2011, 2012, and 2013). This year, Dan Delaney reminded me when he borrowed the idea (and I originally stole it from someone else…) so here’s the belated 2014 line-up…

Car: Volkswagen Tiguan 2.0 TDI Sport

I’m still enjoying my current company car even as it approaches its 2 year anniversary and am actively working to keep the mileage down as I may buy it at the end of the lease. Whilst I might be able to get a deal on a second hand Q7 or Toureg, this was specced up the way I wanted it  including a retractable towbar and I’m more than happy. Verdict 8/10. Hold (tied into a 3-year lease).

Phones: Apple iPhone 4S and Samsung Galaxy S3 Mini

Windows Phone 7.8 was a disappointment and the lack of apps for the Windows Phone platform means I’ve gone back to iOS for my personal phone (second-hand from the SmartfoneStore), although I hope to jailbreak it to get some of the features that are missing for me in iOS 7. Meanwhile, my company iPhone 3GS has been replaced with an Android model (the Samsung Galaxy S3 Mini), which is infuriating in many ways but at least lets me get experience of working with the other dominant mobile platform. (iPhone) Verdict 7/10. Hold – something new is too expensive. (Galaxy Mini) Verdict 5/10. Not mine to sell!

Tablet: Apple iPad 3G 64GB

Apple iPadMy iPad never replaced a laptop as a primary computer but it’s still great as a Kindle, for catching up on social media content, and for casual gaming (read, occasional babysitter and childrens’ amusement on long car journeys). I was disappointed to have to pay to replace it after the screen developed a fault, but there’s no reason to trade up yet, especially since we bought a touch PC for the family (read on). If anything, I might consider a smaller tablet (maybe a Google Nexus 7 or a Tesco Hudl). Verdict 5/10. Hold, although it’s getting old now.

Everyday PC: Fujitsu Lifebook P702 (Intel Core i5 3210M 2.5GHz, 8GB RAM, 320GB hard disk)

This PC is my main computing device and is a small form-factor replacement for the previous Lifebook I used.  I like it, but a BYOC scheme would be more likely to leave me buying a competitor’s PC. Just as well we only have CYOD! Verdict 7/10. Still hoping for a BYOC scheme at work but not holding my breath.

Family PC: Lenovo Flex 15 (Intel Core i5 4200U 1.6GHz, 4GB RAM, 500GB hard disk)

Lenovo Flex 15When it eventually arrived, I set this PC up with Windows 8.1, Office 2013 and an account for everyone in the family.  It’s been a huge hit – the kids love it and I find it really useful to have a PC in the kitchen/family room.  I’m glad I held out for a touch screen – Windows 8 is so much better with Touch – but I should possibly have got something with a bit more memory… Verdict 8/10. A bit underpowered but a good balance between price and form factor.

Netbook: Lenovo S10e (Intel Atom N270 1.6GHz, 2GB RAM, 160GB hard disk)

Lenovo IdeaPad S10Rarely taken out of the drawer – only used when I want to play with Linux (Ubuntu) or upload some new code to the Arduino. Verdict 2/10. Not worth selling, so keep for tech projects.

Digital Cameras: Nikon D700 and Coolpix P7100

Nikon D700Nikon P7100Although I’ve fallen out of love with photography, I’m sure I’ll get back on the wagon some time. A full-frame DSLR is still my favourite format and the D700 will be with me for a while yet. Indeed, it’s more likely that I would buy some new lenses and a flashgun before I replace my camera body.  Newer bodies offer video but I don’t miss that, and the low light performance on the D700 is pretty good. The P7100 continues to function as my carry-everywhere camera (it lives in the car), offering entry-level DSLR levels of control in a small package, although it’s not as responsive as I’d like and I increasingly tolerate using the iPhone instead (poor camera, but always with me). (D700) Verdict 9/10. Hold. (P7100) Verdict 6/10. Hold.

Photography PC: Apple MacBook MB062LL/B (Intel Core 2 Duo T7500 2.2GHz, 4GB RAM, 750GB hard disk)

Apple Macbook White (late 2007)My MacBook is getting old and, although I upgraded to a 750GB disk, I’m struggling with disk space whilst 4GB of RAM is starting to feel a bit light for big Photoshop jobs but new Macs are expensive. Still too expensive to replace, but as long as I’m not doing much photography, this will last a while longer… Verdict 4/10. Hold.

Media: Samsung UE37ES6300 Smart TV

Samsung UE37ES6300Our late-2012 technology purchase, this replaced an aging (c1998) Sony Trinitron 32″ widescreen CRT and Internet-connected television is now an integral part of my family’s media consumption habit with my children watching more iPlayer content than live.  The software is a little “buggy” but it does the job – as a half decent TV it’s more than adequate and I’m thinking of getting a 22″ version for the den (when we build one…) Verdict 9/10. Hold.

Media: Apple Mac Mini MA206LL/A (Intel Core Duo 1.66GHz, 2GB RAM, 120GB hard disk)

(+ iPad, iPhone 4S, various iPods, Altec Lansing iM7 iPod speakers, Samsung UE37ES6300) Apple Mac MiniNo change here since last year and I still haven’t re-ripped my CDs after the NAS failure a couple of years ago (although the Dell server I bought a few years ago has come out of retirement in preparation for that task). We bought a Yamaha PSR E-343 music keyboard for my son this Christmas so this PC may be brought back to life with Garage Band or as a media server as it takes up almost no space at all. Verdict 6/10. Hold.

Gaming: Microsoft Xbox 360 S 250GB with Kinect Sensor

Microsoft Xbox 360sI don’t play this as much as I should but my sons make more and more use of it, and bought me a copy of FIFA 2014 for Christmas, so the Xbox is starting to get a lot more use. No plans to replace it with a newer model though. Verdict 7/10. Hold.

Servers and Storage: Raspberry Pi, 2x Netgear ReadyNAS Duo, various USB HDDs

The Raspberry Pi has replaced my atom-based infrastructure PC, whilst one ReadyNAS is used to back up my work and the other has still not been recovered from its multiple disk failure a couple of years ago.  I still need to consolidate the various USB hard drives onto the  3GB Seagate Backup Plus Desktop drive and sort out the various cloud-based services that I use. (Raspberry Pi) Verdict 10/10. What’s not to like about a computer that costs just £25? (ReadyNAS Duo) Verdict 5/10. RAID failures mean I’ve lost confidence.

Other tech: Arduino Uno, Canon ImageFormula P-215 document scanner

I’m still occasionally playing around with electronics using an Arduino – although I need to do more with this. I’m also slowly regaining control over my filing using the document scanner (and it’s very cathartic shredding old documents!) (Arduino Uno) Verdict 10/10. Inexpensive, with loads of scope for electronic prototyping and a thriving community for support. (Canon P-215) Verdict 9/10. Impressive scanner, although a little on the expensive side.

Potential new toys: Nest learning thermostatLego Mindstorms

Just as last year, I still have my eyes on home automation and tech toys but budgets (and other hobbies) mean they are unlikely to become real for a while yet.  A smart watch is a possibility too… just waiting for the right one…

Be safe, be seen #cyclesafe

Listen to a cycling podcast or read a cycling campaign website and you’d be forgiven for thinking that all of the issues with cycling in the UK are down to motorists, poor road design, and the mixture of large vehicles and vulnerable cyclists.

So, as I wandered from Vauxhall station in South West London to my hotel this evening, I was flabbergasted to see just how few cyclists had adequate lighting.  Perhaps as many as a quarter of the cyclists I saw on the Albert Embankment just after dusk had either no lights, or lights that were so dim as to be useless. I even saw one rider, in black clothes and with no illumination, concentrating more on operating his mobile phone than watching the road ahead.  I also watched as a concrete mixer truck pulled out of a petrol station, then waited for a barely-visible cyclist who appeared a few feet away: nice road bike; nice gear; no lights; death wish?

It’s not an isolated incident either. This morning, I had a ringside seat from the top deck of a bus as I watched a cyclist cut down the inside of a construction lorry, despite large warning signs on the rear of the vehicle warning cyclists of the danger (and the tragic loss of life earlier this week when another cyclist was killed after a collision with a tipper truck – for the record, I’m not suggesting that the cyclist who died was at fault – we simply don’t know – but that there are clear and evident dangers and the cyclist this morning was being reckless).  This is in spite of the efforts of organisations like TfL and RoadPeace with campaigns like See Me Save Me trying to warn of the danger presented by large vehicles. There was an excellent piece on ITV’s The Cycle Show about the issues that truck drivers have in seeing cyclists – and even the dangers that advanced cycle stop lines can present (it’s a pity it’s not been released as a public safety film).

It may be a minority that give the rest of us a bad name (I’m a cyclist as well as a motorist – and I can recount stories of idiot drivers too) but it’s a significant minority and the consequences could be fatal. Maybe the Times’ Cities Safe for Cycling campaign should focus on educating cyclists on the dangers they present for themselves and others, rather than just on the dangers that they face from other traffic.

[Updated 21:56 with reference to yesterday’s tragic death]

What do Aston Martin, design, learning styles and digital storytelling have in common? (#MSRN)

Every now and again, I get invited to a fantastic event and, earlier this week, I found myself at a former school (now a “creativity and innovation space”), on one of Britain’s first council estates, in Shoreditch, East London, home of our very own “silicon roundabout”, to discuss research, disruption, invention and innovation.

If time permitted, I could write a dozen blog posts based on the discussions at Microsoft’s Research Now event. Unfortunately, the highlights are all I can deliver right now, but there were many of them…

The art of design

Aston Martin Parking OnlyFirst up, Head of Design at Aston Martin, Marek Reichman (@Design_Dr) gave a fantastic presentation on the iconic brand’s approach to design. Living, as I do, just a few miles from Aston Martin’s spiritual home in Newport Pagnell, I may be a little biased but there are few brands that stir the imagination as much as seven-times bankrupted Aston Martin – which is partly why they have been the coolest brand in the UK for five out of six years (the anomoly being the year that Apple temporarily took the top spot, since reclaimed for 2012/13 with YouTube in second place and Aston Martin in third).

The company’s new headquarters is a modern version of a castle in the middle of England, built from local stone, in a circular shape, with a moat, a drawbridge and narrow windows and signifies how design is integral to the culture of Aston Martin. Even so, Aston’s design studio (the company’s first in house studio, created in 2007) is a separate building with 6m tall windows, joined to the main complex with a glass corridor – an ivory tower in which to design, with transparency so others can see in.

I won’t continue to reproduce Marek’s presentation – I just can’t do it justice – so here are just a few choice words: power; beauty; soul; cool; exclusivity; luxury; creativity; and craftsmanship.

“Coolness” is something that one cannot claim – it has to be bestowed – but Marek Reichman describes it as stylish, innovative, original, authentic, desirable, unique. That’s a great set of adjectives that, for me, perfectly describe Aston Martin.

Design from the boardroom to the shop floor

With the unenviable job of following Marek Reichman’s keynote, Chief Design Officer at the Design Council, Mat Hunter (@mat_hunter) started out by commenting on the relationship between job titles and confidence, mocking has own grand title in comparison to Marek’s understated “Head of Design”. Mat’s presentation was no less engaging as he took us on a journey with:

  • A logistics company that’s seen improved revenues since they started to better communicate what they do through branding and graphic communications.
  • A discussion of form and function with the kettle evolving from a stove-top model to an electric kettle, one with an automatic off switch, to a cordless model, to a stylish model.
  • Disruption through changing meanings – why do we need a kettle? Why not simply have a tap that dispenses hot water for a cup of tea? Or how about the wrist watch, with Swiss craftsmanship commoditised by cheap Japanese digital timepieces, only to be usurped once more by Swatch, who took analogue technology and made it a fashion item? In another example, Streetcar (which became Zipcar and is now owned by Avis) proved that, in some markets, people want access to a car, not necessarily to own one. Then there are concepts like The Amazings – for people to try something old and learn something new.
  • Looking at innovation, Mat described the “double diamond” design process where we use the left side to redefine the brief before finding new solutions to a problem. Examples include: the Mailbox app which is aiming for a a clean mailbox and using a queuing system to manage demand [only time will tell how successful that is – I’ve lost interest already]; Casserole Club which uses the social web to connect people and provide peer to peer “meals on wheels”; The Matter which gives young people work experience and drives a better quality of output by involving them in local planning and decision-making; and even the Government Digital Service, aiming to transform the way in which the UK government provides online services with a set of human-centred design principles, integration, board-level leadership (and recruiting the best people).

Design-led transformation and innovation

In the next slot, Microsoft Consultants Fred Warren and Phillip Joe spoke about why and how to innovate using design. I really need to take another look at the slide deck to properly understand what was presented as we jumped from anecdotes such as Virgin Atlantic’s redefinition of transatlantic flight by “reframing the experience” in Upper Class, getting travellers from A to B (not Heathrow to JFK) and removing friction points to Pine and Gilmore’s Experience Economy and on to customer experience evolution but I got the impression Fred’s part of the presentation (the “why?”) could be summed up as “step back and look at the problem from a different angle” – and “don’t die hesitating”.

Phillip spoke about the “how?” with four themes of orchestration (guide the vision), envisioning (explore scenarios and define visual and textual narratives), empathy (understand what users want), and execution (take the vision and make it real – which parts of the narrative will be built out).

To be perfectly honest, this was the session that I didn’t really get. Maybe I was tired. Or maybe the previous presenters had given me so much food for thought my brain needed time to adjust… but the basic premise is sound: finding out what the problems are, rather than offering solutions right away (although isn’t that just what consultants do?).

Organisational DNA

This slot was the surprise for me. A real gem. Strategic People and Organisation Development Consultant, Elizabeth Greetham gave a talk on getting an organisation culture aligned for innovation. The concepts that Elizabeth visited are not new, but it’s good to re-visit them.

Honey and Mumford’s learning styles are a cycle of learning by doing (activists, jumping in at the deep end), reflecting (think and observe), theorising (through models) and trying out (pragmatists, starting in a safe environment). Often we skip the reflection, eradicating the time to think creatively, which in turn stifles innovation.  Meanwhile activist-pragmatists skip the theory, which can be valuable to re-engage with from time to time.

Moving on to perception and memory processing, Elizabeth spoke of four learning strategies:

  • Visual (pictures, written word).
  • Auditory (spoken word).
  • Kinaesthetic (actions and movement).
  • Tactile (touch).

Whilst visual and auditory learning are well understood (e.g. leading to success of PowerPoint) kinaesthetic learning is about doing, reaching, feeling. Restricting people to one screen limits this – the movement is important (mind maps can help). So does hot-desking – some people need their own space. The implications of touch are still being explored and, whilst it’s discouraged in the workplace there are some benefits that have been discovered through work with autistic children.

On cognitive styles, Elizabeth described two types:

  • Verbal-imagery: words vs. pictures (not everyone’s brain creates images – sometimes they need to be provided)
  • Wholist-analytic: global vs. components (some people need the big picture and to know what comes before and after their part vs. individual widgets in detail); another way to look at this is breadth first vs. depth first.

The psychological contract is about the perceptions between an employer and an employee about their obligations to one another – more than just a written contract of employment. Promises are often made or implied, e.g. during recruitment, in appraisals, at a social event, when travelling together – and we shouldn’t make promises that are not in our gift to deliver.

Elizabeth then spoke of the sixteen Myers-Briggs personality types, before highlighting that intimacy is key to success – for every person in an organisation, someone else needs to know what makes them tick. Organisations need a structure that supports this; small working groups enable people to get to know one another much better.

In summary, “well it’s how we do things around here” is made up of people, how they learn, the psychological contract status, and personality factors. And that, is the organisational DNA.

Design in the digital physical world

In his presentation, Principal Interaction Designer at Microsoft Research, Richard Banks (@rbanks) explained some of the ideas he’s been working on for digital storytelling. His team’s ethnographic work is a combination of social science, computer science and interaction design; they look at people, see how they work, spot anecdotes about life – and spark ideas for things that can be designed. Specifically, Richard talked about the theme of the future of looking back: creating new value from reflecting on the past.

For example, on inheriting his late grandfather’s box of photos, Richard discovered they had been recorded with “metadata” (names written on the back). But with most of  us creating thousands of digital images each year, that’s a lot to pass on when our time comes.

Technology has moved past the point where it’s a play thing, it’s now an integral part of our lives and we need to deal with death on social media too. We all have boxes of sentimental objects that we don’t keep on display. The question is whether digital artefacts be sentimental too? To take another example, old diaries provide an insight into others’ lives – even if the points recorded seem mundane at the time. May be our tweets will be the same some day?

Richard showed pictures of physical items created to store digital artifacts, such as:

  • A box to backup your tweets.
  • A digital slide viewer which backs up Flickr images into a box that looks like an old Boots slide viewer.
  • A digital photo display focused on one individual containing events throughout their life structured on a timeline [à la Facebook] providing the context for where things fit.

Another interesting angle is the motivation behind digital storytelling, perhaps just creating a record for a sense of permanence – not necessarily interesting now but it may be later. And then there are the new possibilities afforded by digital media – such as putting two people into a picture that could have been together, but were not (e.g. a grandfather and grandson when one had passed away before the other was born). I’m currently taking something in the region of 10-12,000 pictures a year and I have hundreds of slides in the loft inherited from my late Father. It’s high time I took a good look at my own digital curation and storytelling…

Envisioning the future

Microsoft Chief Envisioning Officer, Dave Coplin (@dcoplin) gave the final talk before the inevitable panel session to wrap-up the day. I’ve blogged about Dave’s talks before – fast paced and highly entertaining. The twist this time around was to ask the question “What can you change in your business that you do because you’ve always done it?”. See the big picture. Avoid the arrogance of the present. Look for outcomes, not process. Set your people and your data free. Fundamentally, think human, be human. And empower others.

Conclusion

It’s been a while since I attended a Microsoft event that was as thought-provoking as this one. Most of the company’s output is pure marketing but this was a refreshing change; enabling others to lead the conversation, facilitating discussion, and leading thoughts without the distraction of a product pitch.  For this reason alone, congratulations are due to the Microsoft UK Enterprise Insights team (@MicrosoftEntUK), who hosted the day. Add in the first-class speaker line-up and it was well worth it.

As for takeaways, well, I’ve written many of them in this post but, whilst design is not at the core of my work, it can help me to think about things differently and the organisational DNA talk has given me plenty to consider as I plan for building my own team inside the organisation where I work.