May 29, 2020

PG #58: Remote Research – Deeper, More Collaborative, More Inclusive?

Illustration by Wendy Fox

In response to social distancing restrictions that have been implemented around the world to slow the spread of COVID-19, people working in design (UX, service or policy) and research (user, social, market, etc.) have been grappling with what it means to do their work in restricted ways.

After years or decades of advocating that product, service or policy directions be informed by lived experience, genuine understandings of human needs and behaviours, and most recently by the inclusion of users in the decision-making process (through methods like co-design), it can seem like an insurmountable challenge to have have many of the those methods removed or diminished. It can seem like it’s too hard.

You shouldn’t despair, though. Rather than scrambling to upgrade your Zoom account so that your user interview can go longer than 45 minutes, you can think more productively and creatively about the opportunities that conducting research remotely provides. Like any design constraint, social distancing shuts down some possibilities but opens up many others.

Remote research, done right, can:

  • include a more diverse range of participants
  • give you more windows into a participant’s life
  • give you fresher, high-fidelity insights
  • empower participants by giving them more tools to express themselves with
  • create a dynamic of collaboratively building knowledge rather than a researcher extracting information
  • invite clients deeper into the sense-making process.

I’ve written more on each of these possibilities, as well as the challenges of remote research, over on Medium. Give it a read.

–– Chris Marmo and the PG Team

Read the rest of Issue #58 here

May 18, 2020

PG #57: Working Together, Apart

Image of a laptop showing four different glasses of water in a Zoom call grid: one highlighted, one almost empty, one blurry and one broken.
Illustration by Wendy Fox

Over the past month I have developed strong preferences for the inconsequential functions of video conferencing software. I now have an opinion about how the “end meeting” button works in Zoom, know the keyboard shortcuts for Google Meet, and am convinced that using Webex is a test of personal fortitude.

For those of us that have transitioned from working in an office to working from home there has been an abrupt dislocation of space and habit. If your work involved being in an office, part of this new experience has probably been spending a lot more time looking at a grid of tiny faces on your computer.

There is an inequity to this experience. The experience of a homeowner with a separate study, big screen and an NBN connection is markedly different to someone perched on a temporary desk in a sharehouse kitchen. The parent with young children at home has a different experience to someone living alone. For some, a two-hour uninterrupted block of time is achievable, for some it’s challenging, for others impossible.

So how can we make our time together more equitable?

When people talk about being productive when working remotely, they often talk a lot about collaboration, and being able to work on things together. It can become a conversation about tools: which tool is most like “being there”, which tool best “facilitates collaboration”. But I think it’s important to point out that collaboration doesn’t have to mean working on something simultaneously. It doesn’t need a video call.

Collaboration is about finding ways to bring different perspectives and skills together and having a method to decide how to move forward. It’s a learned skill that requires practice, and part of that practice is trusting others to work in whatever way works for them, even if it doesn’t look like traditional work.

Maybe you really do need an hour on the phone from 9–10am for effective collaboration, but it’s equally likely to be three 15-minute blocks between 6pm and 10pm and then a 5-minute check-in the next morning at 8am.

Collaboration needs time together, but it also needs time apart.

— Dan Woods, General Manager (Canberra)

Read the rest of Issue #57 here.

April 28, 2020

PG#56: We Can Do Better Than ‘Normal’

Illustration by Wendy Fox

A few years back, when Paper Giant was not much more than a name and two designer-researchers fresh out of academia, I conducted some research into social isolation – specifically ways that telehealth technology could play a role in reducing isolation among elderly people and people living with disability in the regional Queensland town of Toowoomba.

Some of the findings from that report remain relevant today (we’ve shared them below). What’s interesting about it for me, is that the needs of the people I spoke to haven’t really changed as a result of COVID-19. These findings remain relevant because a) these needs have still not been addressed, and, b) now more of us are experiencing the hardship and indignity that the people I spoke to had been living with for years or decades.

This pandemic has shone a bright light on societal failure that was already there to begin with: payments for unemployed people were too low to actually live on. Essential workers were underpaid, undervalued and overworked. The hospital system was fragmented and underresourced.

Many of the things we need to survive this pandemic are the same things we need to live with dignity at all times.

Support for those isolated, a safety net that provides a living wage without the punitive demands of ‘mutual obligation’, and a society that prioritises care for the most vulnerable – if we can provide that now, in the midst of a health and economic crisis, why couldn’t we do it before?

All this talk of reopening the economy quickly, of the ‘snapback’ to normal, shows that those who benefit from the status quo are afraid of this kind of political awakening. 

But why focus on getting us back to ‘normal’, when ‘normal’ was, in many ways, awful?

Why not take this opportunity to pause, to rethink, and to make our recovery one that invests in a new future that is better than what we had before – so that people can live with dignity, pandemic or not?

— Dr. Reuben Stanton and the PG Team

Read the rest of Issue #56 here

April 16, 2020

PG #55: It’s Okay To Slow Down

Illustration by Wendy Fox

Crises affect people differently, and people respond to them differently.

Over the last few weeks, we’ve observed the natural and understandable reactions of many people – my own colleagues, friends and family included – as we all attempt to cling to normality. Zoom seminars and listicles spruiking home productivity and remote collaboration tips have been hastily assembled and marketed, and others are framing this moment as an opportunity to learn new skills. 

Through all of this, we have one message, for you and for ourselves: It’s okay not to feel productive, and it’s okay to slow down. 

Not just okay – unavoidable.

First, work can’t simply be transposed like-for-like into the digital. The technologies we have available to us are incredible, but they’re still harder to use and more tiring than in-person alternatives. It’s possible to work remotely, yes, but it’s still harder, and it’s okay if you don’t feel on top of it.

Second, the changes we’re going through right now are fundamental. We are not just working from home, we’re trying to work from home in the midst of a health and economic crisis. These are very different things.  

Thirdly, changes are unevenly distributed. On the one hand, there is a powerful (and real) sense of being in this together. On the other hand, everyone’s individual circumstances will necessitate a different response. Some people live alone; some people have kids at home. Both have their own challenges. Some people have vulnerable family members, or are more vulnerable themselves. It’s okay if work is not your top priority right now (and it’s okay if it is!) 

We are getting glimpses of what ‘after’ might look like – of more thoughtful ways to work, collaborate with and care for others. But we don’t have to decide it all right now, today.

Today, it’s okay to slow down. 

— Chris Marmo and the PG Team

Read the rest of Issue #55 here

April 3, 2020

PG #54: So Much For Plans

Illustration by Wendy Fox

Originally when I was asked to write an introduction for this week’s newsletter I had grand plans to talk about the role of design in strategic leadership. Given the events of the past few weeks, that simply doesn’t feel very relevant anymore. 

While adjusting to working within this new paradigm, topics such as community, care and continuity have been at the front of my mind.

Hence, I have decided that I will use this opportunity to remind business leaders of the importance of taking care of our contractor workforce in the current economic climate.

I have been worried about the many contractors I know since the pandemic hit our shores. I have been checking in on their welfare and state of mind and when I do, I can hear the fear and uncertainty in their voice. I can sense their anxiety and stress. I do my best to reassure them, but that gesture can only go so far. 

All I can do is ask those of you reading this who have the power to hire and fire to consider your contract workers during these difficult times. Fight the urge to cast them away or not use them at all. After all, if you don’t look after your contractors in their time of need, you may not have the same dedicated and trustworthy pool to draw from when times are good again.

— Ernez Dhondy and the PG Team

Read the rest of Issue #54 here

March 19, 2020

PG #53: How Can We Support Each Other

Please take care of yourself, and each other.

We were impressed by the transparency of David Walsh’s recent Dark Mofo 2020 Statement regarding the cancellation of this year’s festival, in which he shared his personal decision making process. It has prompted us to share some of our own thinking and actions here at Paper Giant, in case there’s anything useful that can be adapted from it.

This began for us last Tuesday, when we really began preparing for the impact of coronavirus. We started by asking all projects to undertake a risk analysis, using the following questions:

  • What if everyone on the project team needed to work from home for two weeks?
  • What if all travel needed to be cancelled?
  • What if the project timeline needed to be extended by a month?

We asked them to consider: How would you handle these things? What contingency plans would you need to put in place? How and when would you communicate this to the relevant parties?

By Thursday, it was clear this was coming sooner rather than later, so we encouraged a teamwide work from home day on Friday as a way to test out our remote working systems, tools and practices before they’re mandated.

This week, our focus is on making the transition to completely remote work: Do all of our staff have home internet? A desk? A decent chair? A monitor? Which online collaboration tools can we use? How will we support each other from afar?

By the time this email goes out, we may have pivoted again! The most important thing is to check in with each other, check on the advice from government, and perhaps check out of the news frenzy from time to time.

— Jess Allison and the PG Team

Read the rest of Issue #53 here

March 3, 2020

PG #52: When you only focus on the problem, you’re not seeing the whole system

And when you don’t see the whole system, you miss important opportunities for change.

People with Acquired Brain Injury (ABI) make up about 2% of the general population in Victoria. But they are hugely overrepresented in Australia's prisons. An audit of Victoria's prisons in 2011 found 42% of male prisoners, and 33% of female, were diagnosed with ABI. The reasons for this are complex – support needs get overlooked, people with disability are stigmatised, and people get caught in cycles of disadvantage.

A complicated, embedded problem like this can seem intractable and ultimately unsolvable – but perhaps thinking about large scale social issues like this as ‘solvable’ is part of the problem in the first place?

Systems change means thinking less in terms of problem/solution, and more in terms of interconnected causes and effects. Through this lens, you quickly realise you don’t have to ‘solve’ all the problems in the system to change the effects of the system. You only have to find places where changes could reinforce positive effects and reduce negative ones.

By learning about the systems that lead to overrepresentation of people with cognitive disability in the prison population, we can begin to find those places and unlock change through relatively small-seeming interventions.

For example, cognitive impairment is often not immediately visible and so magistrates and and lawyers may miss it as a factor. In the Supporting Justice project, one of the interventions we suggested was the creation of a ‘Preparing for Court’ form – a physical object that a person with cognitive impairment can take with them to court. All they have to do is hand it over to effectively communicate their situation.

We know, by taking a systemic view, that this small change could create a cascade of effects that breaks the cycle of disadvantage and leads to better outcomes for everybody. This doesn’t ‘fix’ the problem, but it begins to shift it in ways that we couldn’t have if we didn’t understand the system in the first place.

— Dr. Reuben Stanton and the PG Team

Read the rest of Issue #52 here.

February 18, 2020

PG #51: Cooperation, Not Competition, Is The Norm In Nature

Illustration of a coyote (wearing a red t-shirt, suspenders and coyote/badger badges) and a badger (wearing a red t-shirt and a coyote badge) sitting at a table with a cloche in the centre of it and a sting of lights in the background

Sometimes nature surprises you.

For example: did you know that in the Americas, coyotes and badgers hunt together? 

This is not a ‘real’ revelation – Indigenous cultures worldwide have known that competition is not the only state of being for living things, and that nature cooperates at least as often as it competes.

This sort of thing falls into a category known as ‘settler epiphanies’ – where colonists ‘discover’ things that have been known by Indigenous cultures for tens of thousands of years (things often actively ignored or suppressed). 

Darwin’s ‘survival of the fittest’ has been twisted to mean ‘survival of the strongest and fastest’ when it actually meant ‘survival of the best adapted to its environment’ (‘fit’ meaning ‘a good fit’). Some of the most effective adaptations involve the capacity to work cooperatively and pro-socially. Interdependence goes right down to the level of our cells, with mitochondria having originally been a separate, symbiotic organism.  

This interpretation of Darwin wasn’t a simple misunderstanding – it was a deliberate myth built up by 19th and 20th century economists and used to justify harsh, austerity-style interventions. Under the influence of this myth, most of our systems end up being designed as competition for scarce resources – social sector funding competition is one egregious example that I’ve spoken about previously

There is some irony in this. Why do we insist that co-design – cooperative, collaborative design – can work as a method, while also assuming that the systems we design using this method must be competitive? 

Western culture has a massive, blinding bias that notices competitive behaviours and ignores patterns of cooperation. Nature is collaborative, and that suggests we can design systems that are too – but our cultural bias severely limits our capacity to do so.

Imagine what we could achieve if we could shake off that bias?

— Dr. Reuben Stanton and the PG Team

Illustration by Wendy Fox, Creative Lead

Read the rest of Issue #51 here.

February 4, 2020

PG #50: Our Power Structures Are Built On Fossil Fuels

It's really not that complicated.

Carbon dioxide traps heat. When fossil fuels burn, it puts carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, where it tends to stick around for a while. This traps the heat of the sun. The world gets warmer, which affects the climate, which affects the weather. Which in Australia, means hotter drier summers, and more chance of catastrophic fires.

And now the country is on fire.

But, it is complicated. Why? Because our entire economic system – our entire society – is built on fossil fuel power and extractive industries that creates carbon dioxide. It’s essentially impossible to exist in this country and not use fossil fuels. And the most powerful people on earth – fossil fuel company executives, politicians, media moguls – have built their entire power structure on the existence of this industry and this economic system.

I turned 39 this year. The effects of carbon dioxide emissions on the climate have been known since before I was born. And – this is important – the people that caused this (not you!), they've known what to do to stop it for my entire life. They just chose not to.

And, my country, your country, our country continues to burn.

This time last year, Greta Thunberg said to the world “I don’t want you to be hopeful, I want you to panic [...] I want you to act as if the house is on fire, because it is.” And at long last, with these fires, the politicians in Australia do seem to be panicking, but they are panicking about the wrong thing. They are panicking about losing their jobs, their power, their own imagined influential futures. When the sheer scale of this disaster forced the prime minister of my country to accept that something needed to be done about climate change, his response, after years of slow-walking and denialism, was “resilience and adaptation”. Nothing to be done, better adapt to the ‘new normal’. Those in power have gone straight from ‘too early to act’, to ‘too late to act’ without missing a beat.

What this tells us is that those in power have no vision for a world in which they aren’t the most powerful, in which our systems aren’t extractive, in which personal gain and profit isn’t the only motive behind their actions. The people that have the most power to choose, that you vote for to choose on your behalf? They have chosen themselves and their position over the rest of us.

Or, as my colleague McKinley Valentine puts it, “climate change is not something that is ‘just happening’, it is something that is being done to you, by people with a lot of money and power who would rather see your country burn than lose a cent.”

Unless you are a fossil fuel executive, or a media magnate, or a politician, you don’t need to feel guilty or responsible for this situation. It’s not your fault. Every action counts, but, as in any system, the actions of some matter more than others. The focus needs to be on changing the system itself. Your reusable coffee cup and your solar panels won’t do it; the world needs to transition to a carbon-free economy as fast as possible. Remember: people made this system, and people can unmake it.

This time last year, I lamented the myopia of ‘human-centred design’ as a solution to the world’s problems, because of the way it fails to account for systemic effects. If any issue requires collective, community, and system-centred action to change, this is it, this is the one.

Yes, the country is on fire. Yes, it’s probably going to get worse before it gets better. But we still get to choose how much worse it gets. Vote, advocate, support those pushing for system change. Join groups doing this work, and help them in any way you can. Because we need to choose together. 

— Reuben Stanton & the PG Team

Illustration by Wendy Fox, Creative Lead

Read the rest of Issue #50 here.

January 10, 2020

PG #49: Navigate A Noisy World By Mapping Your Values

Illustration of 2 ibis birds facing on another at the top of a waterfall
Bin Chickens – Once We Were Sacred by Sally Browne

Humans are natural pattern finders. We can’t help but search for similarities and differences in behaviour, events, data, so that we feel we can understand the world a little better. 

We are also notoriously bad at it. Patterns we find often are biased towards our own worldview, and even knowing which data to consider valid is (and always has been) political. 

2019 for us has been a year of attempts at pattern recognition. This is Paper Giant’s third full year in business, and we figured three times through the loop is enough to start connecting some dots. 

In that time, we’ve noticed the work get more complex. We’ve noticed that rote methods to problem solving have stopped working, if they ever did. We’ve also noticed that people are growing more comfortable with complexity. Our clients still want and need answers, but they also want to learn how to listen more carefully to their customers and communities, so they can change with them. They expect the answers to their questions to be different to the answers they’ve always gotten.

We’re incredibly proud of the year we've had. In 2019, we opened a Canberra studio so that we can more easily service the complex problems of federal government. Through the year, we delivered over 50 projects across government at all levels, in financial services, and for the energy, disability, software and legal sectors. We delivered numerous training courses both privately and publicly, and hosted hundreds of people in our Melbourne studio to hear talks on accessibility, diversity and inclusion, and innovation in the justice sector.

Through all this, one pattern is clearest. Things are changing, rapidly. In order to continue to deliver on our purpose of helping organisations understand and solve complex problems, Paper Giant is going to continue adapting to the needs of modern problems. 

2020 is the start of a vital decade, and we're looking forward to taking a rest, rolling up our sleeves, and staying with the trouble

Happy new year. 

 — Chris Marmo & the PG Team

Read the rest of Issue #49 here.


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Paper Giant acknowledges the Wurundjeri and Boonwurrung people of the Kulin nation, and the Ngunnawal people as the Traditional Owners of the lands on which our offices are located, and the Traditional Owners of Country on which we meet and work throughout Australia. We recognise that sovereignty over the land has never been ceded, and pay our respects to Elders past, present and emerging.