Every person and every organisation has some form of reality distortion field. Some are more severe than others, and according to Stephen Toulouse, Microsoft has a particularly severe version of the problem:

The Redmond Reality Distortion Field:

The field that influences Microsoft employees and product designers to make wildly incorrect assumptions on the use of technology, computers and devices by the world. The field is caused by the fact that Microsoft employees tend to be far more affluent and have free access to technology than the general population. Generated by Microsoft employees, the field is centered in Redmond but can manifest itself weakly in any area where a significant number of employees gather, such as remote campuses or subsidiaries.

Its most common effect on individuals is to make design decisions or requests either on the way customers should use products as opposed to how they actually use them, or by the interoperability of a product in the unique environment of the employee’s home.

The field itself is invisible and exceedingly hard to detect, as once under its influence reality itself becomes distorted. Entire Microsoft products have been designed under the influence of the field.

Anyone who is not an ordinary customer of their own service is vulnerable to this effect. And it is almost impossible for anybody who had anything to do with the design or delivery of a service to be an ordinary user in this sense, if only because, by definition, they know too much.

That much is understood enough for the concept – or at least the rhetoric – of user centred design to be getting increasing prominence (if not necessarily similarly increasing traction). Even that though is easily undermined by a sufficiently powerful Reality Distortion Field. The result is innovation which is not necessarily very innovative or designing for users who are not very like the actual users of the service concerned. Anthony Zacharzewski has written a really interesting piece reflecting on how to create innovation which is democratic and scalable. The problem he sees is that:

There is a three-way divide between existing public service providers, who understand the context and constraints on change, the public themselves, who give legitimacy and are best able to articulate their needs and aspirations, and innovators both inside and outside traditional public service organisations.

The separation between these three elements is reducing rather than increasing the scope for innovation. Barcamp events produce good ideas, but are not networked into existing power arrangements. Public services are trying to innovate within existing structures, but cannot access the local enthusiasm and expertise which could keep programmes running and maintain innovation after outside agents have moved on to other things. Existing structures, cultures and processes within public services hinder innovation, not by building brick walls, but through a thousand little difficulties and inconveniences. As spending cuts take hold, there is a risk that innovation and energy will dissipate.

His solution is to propose the creation of an innovative civic space, ‘based on the democratic conversation’, which support the triangle of citizens, innovators and public services.

The space needs to provide connections, context and means of implementation. These are likely to focus around events, co-design sessions with public services, opening up seed resources or research, and links with innovators and ideas beyond the local area. Throughout this, the democratic conversation takes and informs citizens’ views, and engages them in the design and delivery of improved services.


This is powerful and interesting thinking which needs and deserves more reflection. One of my immediate reactions – from a central government large system perspective – is to wonder how far along the spectrum from research to participation to democratic validation it is possible in practice to get. Another is to recall a thought from Bruce Tognazzini which I have quoted before:

User-testing does not result in brilliant design. That requires brilliant designers. User testing guarantees that whatever level of design a company has been able to achieve will actually work.

In other words, the trick is to blend in the right proportions the professional expertise (and focused, dedicated and sustained time) to design, build and operate a service with the expertise of users and democratic owners of the system to understand, express and design the service which meets their needs.

Back in my own Reality Distortion Field (as if I could ever leave it), the challenge is to marry these approaches with the constraints of large system changes in a large organisation. Creating the necessary agility in not wholly promising circumstances will be the subject of my next post.


  1. You write…

    And it is almost impossible for anybody who had anything to do with the design or delivery of a service to be an ordinary user in this sense, if only because, by definition, they know too much.

    And I would wholeheartedly agree. My time spent working abroad, entering a new society and services environment was astonishigly eye opening. Learning ‘their’ way of accessing public and private services is humbiling and at times humiliating. There is a real learning opportunity for service owners, designers and optimisers to target the real first time attempt-to-be-a-user in order to gain insight. Be they young people coming of age and appearing on the public radar for the first time or immigrants (rich country owns can be just as bamboozled as those from les developed countires) they need to be sought out and interviewed to gain that insight

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