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Design Thinking, an introduction, or What is Design Thinking all about?

A guest post by Iliana Guzman, design champion and practitioner

Design Thinking is a problem-solving approach that focuses on people, and merges creativity with innovation. The concept was first published in the beginning of 1980s, and during the last decade it has become widely used. According to different sources (Brooks, 2010, Cross, 2006, Johansson-Sköldberg et al, 2013, Lawson, 2011, Martin 2009) Design Thinking has been used by a wide variety of disciplines including: Information Technology (IT), Philosophy, Psychology, Architecture, Design, Education, and more recently Management and Business.

A general misconception of the meaning of Design Thinking is to directly relate it to an early meaning of Design. Which was originated back in 1540 from the Latin words designatus and designare, to “designate” and “to mark out”. Copious research and published articles show that the concept and practices of Design continue to expand, and are more vast and pertinent than ever before.

Trying to provide a unique definition of Design Thinking is almost unattainable, giving its rich content and wide range of applications, consequently this task continues to raise controversy. Nevertheless this article introduces the reader to the subject, presenting expert views on Design Thinking.

Richard Buchanan (1992) refers to Design Thinking as a problem-solving activity. His article on “wicked problems” has become a key reference on the subject, and presents a creative way of thinking to deal with very open and complex problems. This “wicked problems” are a class of social problems that do not have a single solution, and states that much creativity is needed to find solutions, and were first used by Rittel and Webber in the late 1960s.

Diverse organisations have adopted Design Thinking as a tool that broadens its repertoire of strategies to address complex challenges (Stacey, Griffin & Shaw, 2000) and IBM is among those organisations.

For IBM, (IBM, 2014a) at its core Design Thinking focuses on understanding people’s needs and creatively discovering the best solutions to meet those needs. IBM has expanded upon the traditional Design Thinking approach, in order to build better products that meet user needs, and based on the experience of thousands of users. The company has a specialised department called IBM Design Thinking, aiming particularly at meeting the complex needs of large-scale enterprises without sacrificing the personal focus of Design Thinking.

In words of Doug Powell, Program Director for Education & Activation IBM Design (IBM, 2014b): “Design Thinking is rooted in three key thought models:

  1. Empathy for the user, the person who is using a product or service.
  2. Rapid Prototyping, the building of an idea.
  3. Radical Collaboration, where are different disciplines engaging in this Design -Thinking Approach to address this open problems.

And we focus on three core practices: Hills, Playbacks and Sponsor Users.

IBM is an organisation that delivers experiences to the market for people to use, and Design Thinking enables the company to deliver this experiences”.

Tim Brown, the president and CEO of IDEO, an innovation and design firm, considered one of the most relevant companies who both apply and champion Design Thinking states:
“Design Thinking is a human-centred approach to innovation that draws from the designer’s toolkit to integrate the needs of the people, the possibilities of technology, and the requirements for business success.  It is best thought as a system of overlapping spaces rather than a sequence of orderly steps. And the three main spaces to keep in mind are inspiration, ideation, and implementation” (Brown, 2008).

Lawson (2011) and Cross (2006) conducted an extensive research on the practices of design thinking during more than three decades. They were both trained architects and acknowledged the “designerly ways of knowing” (Cross, 2006) which is closely related to the current practice of Design Thinking. Their work includes a series of articles on design strategy (2011) and two models of the design process, based on observation, and a deep ethnographic research that started with a set of design thinking workshops at Delft University of Technology in 1991.

Krippendorff (2006) provides a philosophical and semantic perspective on the work of designers and design meaning. For Krippendorff Design Thinking is articulated by designers and creates a text that becomes part of the discourse of the design community.

For Professor Jeanne Liedtka (2014), Design Thinking is about having a systematic approach to problem solving, its roots are away from the talents of designers, as it focuses on business growth. The systematic process of design thinking includes tools and techniques that can be certainly taught to managers.

Jeanne’s Liedtka is a member of the Strategy, Ethics, and Entrepreneurship area at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business, formerly the executive director of the school’s Batter Institute and among her wide expertise on business she leads research on design thinking and organic growth.

Now that you know what Design Thinking is about, let me encourage you to discover more about it and try this approach in the future. There are a wide variety of resources on Design Thinking both printed and online. As disclosed on the paper article Design Thinking: Past, present and Possible Futures (Johansson-Sköldberg et al, 2013), the literature on Design Thinking includes books (31), academic and conference papers (55), magazines and newspaper articles (39), and web blogs, (15).  I suggest you to visit the IDEO official website, there you can find clear information on Design Thinking, study cases, articles and also download some free Design Thinking toolkits to use right away.

To conclude this article I would like to share a list of my top five books about Design Thinking, which I highly recommend and are widely reviewed.

  1. Change by Design: How Design Thinking Transforms Organisations and Inspires Innovation by Tim Brown, published by Harper Business in 2009.
  2. Design Thinking: Integrating Innovation, Customer Experience and Brand value, by Thomas Lockwood, published by Allworth Press in 2009.
  3. This is Service Design Thinking: Basics-tools by Mark Stickdorn and Marc Stickdorn, published by Bis Publishers in 2014.
  4. Design Th!nking, by Gaving Ambrose and Paul Harris, published in by AVA Publishing SA in 2010.
  5. Designing for Growth, a design thinking tool kit for managers, by Jeanne Liedtka and Tim Ogilvie, published in 2011. If you are a manager or are looking for practical ways to apply Design Thinking you may find this book very useful; it provides straightforward systems that you can apply immediately, it also includes simple project management aids and templates to start applying design thinking, highly recommended.

Let’s finish with one of Jeanne Liedtka’s insights:

“design thinking does not require supernatural powers, it is the kind of design that can be absolutely safe to try at home”.

As always, thanks for reading, I would like to know your views on this article and about Design Thinking, so please share your comments below this post. If you have a specific question or a burning comment that requires a quick answer, write directly to my twitter account @ilimx, I will be more than happy to receive your comments, and continue the conversation about Design Thinking.

Iliana Guzman
Design Manager, creative business coach, entrepreneur, and mostly Design Champion.

Twitter account: @ilimx




Brooks, F.P. (2010) The design of design: essays from a computer scientist. Addison-Wesley Professional, NJ.

Brown, T. (2008) Design Thinking. Harvard Business Review, 84-92.

Buchanan, R. (1992) Wicked Problems in Design Thinking. Design Issues, 5-21.

Cross, N. (2006) Designerly Ways of Knowing. Springer Verlag, London.
Cross, N. (2011) Design Thinking. Berg, Oxford.

IBM (2014a). IBM Think Academy team on “How It Works: Design Thinking” [WWW video] URL [accessed on 08 March 2015]

IBM (2014b). IBM Think Academy team on “Why IBM Design Thinking” [WWW video] URL [accessed on 11 March 2015]

IDEO (2015) [WWW document] URL [accessed on 05 March 2015]

Johansson-Sköldberg, U., Woodilla, J. and Çetinkaya, M. (2013) Design Thinking, Past, Present and Possible futures. Creativity and Innovation Management, 22:121-145. Doi: 10.1111/claim.12023

Krippendorff, K. (2006) The Semantic Turn: A New Foundation for Design. Taylor and Francis, Boca Raton, FL.

Lawson, B. (2006 [1980]) How Designer Think: The Design Process Demystified, 4th Edition. Architectural Press, Oxford.

Liedtka, J. and Ogilvie, T. (2011) Design for Growth, a design thinking toolkit for managers. Columbia University Press, New York.

Martin, R. (2009) The Design of Business: Why Design Thinking is the Next Competitive Advantage. Harvard Business Press, Cambridge MA.

Rittel, H. and Webber, M. (1973) Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning. Policy Sciences, 155-169.

Stacey, R., Griffin, D., Shaw, P., (2000) Complexity and management: Fad or radical challenge to systems thinking?. Routledge, London.

User Experience (UX) Design Boot Camp – a lean approach to mobile app development (1 of 3)

ITaaU/ustwo UX Bootcamp – 11th February 2015.

This is the second of three posts on the recent UX Boot Camp that ITaaU and ustwo organised on the 11 February, 2015 written by Alix King.

Part two

To experience the methodology and processes behind user centred design when developing new apps, the groups were given a task for the day; to design an app.

The design brief

The design brief was to develop a mobile app for a gym in East London. The gym would like to attract young people via a digital platform that would also benefit the company.

The day was set out into six sections:

  1. User Testing
  2. New Assumptions and Hypothesis
  3. Sketching
  4. Prototyping
  5. User Testing
  6. A pitch to others in the workshop.

First, the groups had to set out their vision: what was the vision, and what was the overarching goal of the product?


Ustwo introduced the group to the Persona technique – a tool to help understand users’ needs. They are fictitious characters, based on real data, to create a profile. This introduces to the developer an audience, and in more detail, a person that the app is to be created for, helping to keep users in mind during a project, focusing the developer on the ultimate target user.

Draw a box

The groups were then asked to ‘draw a fictitious box’; a box-shape with the goal of cementing the idea of what each groups’ service is. After the groups drew the box, they were to give it a name, image and tagline. The idea was then to create three benefits that the service would have for the consumer. One group described the benefits from downloading their gym app:

  • To be healthier
  • Getting/making more friends
  • To enable the user to switch off from work.

Merging ideas

The groups were then given 10 minutes to share their ‘fictitious box’ ideas and to merge each idea into one service/product that they liked the most.

Declare assumptions.

Then the groups had to ‘declare assumptions’. They were to write on post-it notes what the group thought to be true about the business and the user. The assumptions were differentiated by blue post-its for the business assumptions and yellow for the user. Examples were given as ‘We assume that the business has good connections with surrounding football clubs and other sports organisations’ and ‘we assume that the user would be interested in exercising along with people they don’t know’.

Prioritise assumptions

With these assumptions, the groups were then asked to set their priority based on their level of risk and how much faith they attached to the assumptions. These were plotted on a graph of high risk to low risk, known and unknown. This was to make the group members think about what would jeopardise the proposition if that assumption was wrong.

Develop hypothesis

The next step was Developing Hypothesis. In 10 minutes, the group was tasked to transform an assumption statement into a testable hypothesis. This was completed using the following template:

“We believe [doing/creating/providing] …. for [these people/personas] …. through [this feature] …. will [achieve this] …. we will know this is true when we see [this user feedback] ….”

This hypothesis was given as an example:

“We believe that offering the opportunity to connect with other people to exercise together for young people under 25 in Shoreditch through geo-location will increase the user base of our service. We will know this is true when during user interviews the majority of participants express a positive attitude towards this feature”

The next goal was to visualise the group’s chosen hypothesis. This was done using a screen sketch template, with the team sketching images of the app screens onto paper to show a simple screen design that will be shown to users.

User Testing

The groups were then given a user to test their screen design on. Georgios and Isabelle gave the groups directions on what to ask the user, such as not to direct them and therefore gain more subjective answers.

The points were:

  • Introduce yourself
  • Build rapport
  • Ask them to speak out loud
  • Don’t ask leading questions
  • Ask open questions
  • Ask what, why, when, where
  • Take notes
  • Playback learnings to the team.

The goal for user testing was to validate if it was a desirable proposition, and to gather the user’s subjective view of the proposed app. The groups were given two users, who were chosen from the staff at Ustwo, with no prior knowledge of the app development so far.

Test one

Groups were given 20 minutes to go through their screen landing page and vision for their app with no leading questions to gain the user’s opinion of the app. Did it seem easy to use? Did the app provide the user with everything they expected to gain from the vision that the groups were offering?

The groups were told to put down their findings, one by one on an individual post it note.

Updating assumptions

From the opinions that the groups ascertained from their users, Georgios and Isabelle instructed the groups to then update the assumptions that they had gathered previously, now that they had subjective opinions from the users.

Create and test a prototype

The groups were then asked to get creative – using an app (frequently used in the industry) called ‘Pop’, the task was to draw each screen of their app idea, to take pictures of each screen, and upload onto the Pop app. When uploaded, this digital tool allows the user to see the finished app idea, with pages on a digital platform. Groups were told to think about:

  • Navigation
  • Text/copy
  • Button placement

This was a great task, as the groups could visualise their ideas in the format of a useable application.

User test 2

The idea was to test the ‘useable app’ on three different people. These were now members of the other groups. One of each of the team would go to another to ‘test’ the app, while the remaining two would stay to run the test app on the visiting user. This was circulated so every member of the team experienced being the tester and the user.

This exercise showed completely different opinions than the first user test. The groups then made notes of changes and improvement ideas that they would implement before further advancement of their app idea.

To be continued…

User Experience (UX) Design Boot Camp – a lean approach to mobile app development

ITaaU/ustwo UX Bootcamp – 11th February 2015.

Part one

This is the first of three posts on the recent UX Boot Camp that ITaaU and ustwo organised on the 11 February, 2015 written by Alix King.

Taking place in Shoreditch at top digital product company ustwo, this one-day UX boot camp was aimed at people from all sectors with the aim of providing them with a unique insight into digital development. The accelerated workshop enabled attendees to experience the innovative approaches used by ustwo for User Centred Design when developing apps. These include a ‘lean’ approach, meaning one that ensures the best possible use of agile and start-up thinking with no coding involved as well as established paper prototyping techniques to speed up the initial development of mobile apps.

ustwo – the hosts

ustwo is a global digital product studio whose vision guides them in launching products, services and companies that make a measurable difference to the world. Recent successes have included: Monument Valley, Whale Trail and Blip Blup as well as cutting edge applications for some of the world’s leading brands. Ustwo has held previous successful workshops similar to this User Experience Design Boot Camp and has gained very positive feedback from attendees.

The day was run by two UX (User Experience) Designers at ustwo, Georgios and Isabelle. After the ‘meet and greet’ session for the attendees who came from a diverse range of backgrounds, Georgios and Isabelle asked everyone to attach a name badge with the words ‘My name is … and my favourite thing is …’. A great way to break the ice; favourite things ranged from wine, to films and great coffee.

Georgios explained that as a company, ustwo were involved in digital product design and has a diverse range of clients as well as a number of joint ventures, including one with Dice, ‘the smartest ticketing app on Earth’. The presenters explained how their work has evolved at ustwo and how the lean approach has become more dominant within this process.

Explaining the lean approach

Georgios, in explaining the background and motivation for this transition, said that over time, software development had become complex and required large teams of developers to capture requirements and business processes, produce documentation, project manage and test. This was an enormous financial investment for organisations and other stakeholders. With so many people involved, there was no guarantee that the app would be successful – many software applications came onto the market and were not successful at all. This meant that the expensive process was counterproductive and could be a huge waste of money and resources.

Lean manufacturing originally came from Japan with the realisation that whilst not able to compete in quantity, manufacturers could work in small batches and deliver competitive vehicles to meet a recognised demand. This in turn influenced Eric Ries, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur, acknowledged as the principle initiator of the lean startup movement who said: ‘The goal of a startup is to figure out what people want in little time’.

Course presenter Isabelle Bargh, an expert on apps for the health sector, quotes Dr Claudia Pagliari from the Centre for Population Health Sciences, University of Edinburgh.

‘The process of using User Centred Design (UCD) when developing interactive systems is increasingly adopted. The emphasis on determining user needs and the context in which these users will interact with the systems is of great importance in order to deliver and designing a product from the bottom-up instead of the developers, organisations or the technicians’ viewpoint.’

ustwo have brought together all of these ideas and methodologies and used them to shape their own methodology. So for the next step are asked to capture ideas relating to the following:

  • Vision
  • Assumption
  • Hypothesis
  • Experiments
  • Insights

Georgios and Isabelle then split the workshop into smaller groups and presented them with their design brief for the day. The groups were asked to use these User Centred Design techniques to develop an idea for an app based on the brief.

So the work began.

Emerging digital clusters: Bournemouth trumps London

Bournemouth has just been named as having the UK’s fastest-growing digital economy, beating London in the Tech Nation report “Mapping the UK digital industry” (link at end of post).

But just what does this mean?

The Digital Economy, to begin, is a phrase very familiar but sometimes misinterpreted. It means simply an economy that is based on digital technologies.

Our global network of economic and social activities are enabled daily by information and communication technologies, such as the Internet, mobile and sensor networks.

Be it emails, text messages or via web browsers, the digital world affects all of us in daily life.

The Independent reported in 2013 that Britain’s digital economy had been massively underestimated, and that it was actually 40 per cent larger than previously believed. At the time of the report, the National Institute of Economic and Social Research (NIESR) stated that there were almost 270,000 digital companies in the UK.

Max Nathan, a senior researcher at NIESR said of the report: “Policymakers have identified the digital economy as one of the UK’s key economic strengths. Using big data we show a broad array of active businesses selling digital products and services.”

Tech City, in East London, was the first area of the UK to realise the importance of all things digital. In the early 2000s, the technology cluster, created with the goal of creating a collection similar to that of Silicon Valley in the United States, consisted of technology companies such as Dopplr and TweetDeck.

Fast-forward to 2011, and all eyes were on Shoreditch, as Google announced that it was a serious contributor, and had acquired a seven-storey building, now used as an innovation hub to develop next-generation applications and services.

London may be at the forefront of business and technology, but the rest of the nation hasn’t fallen by the wayside.

The same NIESR report, funded by tech giant Google, found that revenues of digital companies were growing 25 per cent than non-digital companies and that these companies hire more people than other industry firms. It was recognised in the same report that London and the south-east were not the only digital hotspots and there were highly concentrated areas of digital companies in Aberdeen, Middlesborough and Manchester.

But heck, this tech growth shouldn’t be confined to a handful of places. Management Today stated in 2014 that ‘you don’t have to stay in London to find examples of thriving tech communities in Britain, and one of the fastest growing of these on recent years has been Bristol and Bath’.

This was true! Every beautiful Georgian street you walk down show plaques with a well-thought out digital agency logo.

Figures from McKinsey and Centre for Cities show that the south west’s technology industry employed 69,000 people in 2012, up from 62,000 three years earlier, and contributed a massive £4.8bn to the economy.

But back to Bournemouth and its seven miles of golden sands, its blue sea and the glint of the sparkling wealth in ‘millionaire’s row’ Sandbanks. Who wouldn’t want to create a startup in this friendly town? Yes, it’s still a town. With great relationships with its two educational facilities, the Arts University Bournemouth and the University of Bournemouth (both with excellent media facilities and an even greater reputation) have a magnificent pool of talent, with a lifestyle to rival locations across the nation and slowing down the ‘brain drain’ that London still occupies.

While not comparable to other digital clusters, Bournemouth should hold its head up high and take recognition for its recent accolade. With a local football team on the verge of reaching the premiership, this once-sleepy seaside town is without a doubt going to hit headlines more frequently in the near future.

Most recently, Forbes Magazine acknowledged the speedy growth of digital clusters outside the capital. David Prosser states: “It has to be said that Bournemouth is growing fast from a small base. The Tech City cluster in London is far more mature than most other regional clusters and it feels relaxed about competition from elsewhere.”

But we shouldn’t underestimate these smaller, faster-growing clusters and their contribution to the digital economy.

Forbes goes on to say: “There will many people who have no idea that Bournemouth plays host to such fast-growing technology sectors – Tech Nation begins to put these clusters on the map, which may in time see them grow further.”

The last word has to go to Matt Desmier, founder of the successful Silicon Beach Festival, bringing awareness to Bournemouth as a large contributor to the Digital Map. “The recent Tech Nation report validates everything those that work in Bournemouth’s digital community have known for a while. But more than that it’s helping change external perceptions too. In the past week alone, I’ve been invited to both 10 Downing Street and St James Palace to discuss Bournemouth’s exciting new status. The moniker of Silicon Beach is starting to seem quite apt!“

by Alix King

Delivered by Tech City UK, with key community partner DueDil, Tech Nation is an interactive big data project, mapping Britain’s digital companies, regions and employment figures, the report is entitled “Mapping the UK digital industry” and available here:

TRust in IT: Factors, metRics, Models

Guest post by: Dr Brian Pickering of IT Innovation at the University of Southampton

I live in a small, Georgian listed house, and was recently forced into the 21st century when a central heating engineer sucked his teeth (as they do) but instead of selling me a new boiler (as they usually do) he convinced me to install a heating control system which, he assured me, would not only fix the problem he couldn’t seem to, but allow me to communicate with my boiler remotely (which it does). He didn’t just mean I could sit in the living room with a wireless thermostat, but really: from any web browser or tablet or smart phone, I can monitor what’s going on, change schedules, reduce the temperature if my son thinks no one is looking and turns it up. At last a good use of technology…


Just a minute though. If I can do all of this remotely, then presumably so could anyone else. Forget my central heating for a moment, I need to think about this. I’m used to being concerned about data privacy and protection. If I use social networks and easily available webmail, I should be mindful of what providers expect me to accept[1],[2]; I know about the concerns around[3]. Certainly for medical records, concern has been publically discussed for some time[4]. More recently, though, it appears I should be thinking about other aspects of healthcare: the embedded devices that monitor my condition when training, or keep my heart beating, or release the right levels of insulin at appropriate times, are vulnerable to attack[5].

And all of this is against a background of our increasing use of sensors and embedded devices. Back in 2012, the number of non-PC devices connected to the Internet exceeded the number of PCs; and the number of household devices with embedded ICT capabilities is set to overtake all other IoT connected devices this year (2014) and be almost double that of any other device types by 2020. Sensors and tags in general will experience exponential growth at the same time. I really think it’s time to stop and regroup.

This is not just about technology robustness to misuse and external attack. This is really to do with how we perceive technology and whether we want it to be so pervasive. The big question is whether users really trust the technology, and if so why. The TRIFoRM (TRust in IT: Factors, metRics, Models) project is looking at just that. If we start with a small specific group of users, who either need technology to support them day-to-day or use it as a necessary adjunct to their work, we really want to establish what it is about technology they trust, if at all; why they are willing to trust it; and what makes them trust it at all. Is it because we are simply being forced to take ever greater risks because there are no alternatives? Are we relying on legal regulations? Or is there something inherent in design or implementation that makes it feel OK?


The Mirror and BBC News logos and headlines are used in accordance with the Section 29 of the Copyright Provisions 1988

The upper image is public domain, available at; the lower image is copyright of Tek84 ( There is no implied or actual connection between the headline and the product depicted.





[4] Rindfleisch (1997) Privacy, Information Technology and Health Care Communications of the ACM , Vol. 40, No.8

[5] Mansel & Kohno (2010) Improving the Security and Privacy of Implantable Devices New England Journal of Medicine, 362; 13, 1164-1167

Project Abacá: Digital Sensitivity Review, the Chatham House Rule, and a successful workshop

How do you get sensitive people to discuss sensitive things about sensitive matters in an open and frank manner, but in a way that lets you report what was said while respecting the confidence of who said it? The answer is the Chatham House Rule which allows people to speak as individuals, and to express views that may not be those of their organisations, and therefore it encourages free discussion. People usually feel more relaxed if they don’t have to worry about their reputation or the implications if they are publicly quoted.


When a meeting, or part thereof, is held under the Chatham House rule, participants are free to use the information received, but neither the identity nor the affiliation of the speaker(s), nor that of any other participant, may be revealed.

definition of the Chatham House Rule


Project Abacá is supported by the ITaaU, and is investigating the challenges of reviewing digital record for sensitivity as we described in our previous posts on trust and security and sensitivity judgements. The project recently organised a 2-day workshop under the Chatham House rule, at The National Archives, to which we invited a very wide range of people with an interest in Digital Sensitivity Review. The workshop was attended by participants from several government departments, including (waiving the discretion about their organisation’s participation) the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), and academic institutions in the wider ITaaU Network.

The workshop had three aims:

  1. To evaluate the outcomes of the feasibility phase Project Abacá in the operational context of sensitivity review as conducted in a real government departments.
  2. To achieve mutual knowledge exchange on practical sensitivity review issues between TNA, FCO, Project Abacá team and other ITaaU network members.
  3. To begin to inform policy making on digital sensitivity review in TNA and FCO during the transition to the 20 year rule, and to begin to inform other departments across government in the same way.


The workshop was a great success with very open and frank discussions of the various challenges that surround the sensitivity review of digital records.

So what did we discover?

Day one

The workshop was divided into a number of sessions with different areas of focus. The first morning we focused on bringing all of the attendees up to date with the work of the project, covering many of the issues we have discussed in our previous posts on trust and security and sensitivity judgements.

Later in the first day, all of the workshop attendees had an opportunity to conduct some digital sensitivity reviews for themselves using two different proof-of-concept user interfaces developed by the team. The two different interfaces were set up to log the interactions of the attendees in some detail. By logging and timing interactions with the interfaces we significantly enhanced the information we have about the process of creating individual judgements of sensitivity on digital records. The aim was to establish if there was a preference for an exploratory style of interaction or whether reviewers were prepared to work in a more regimented and strict priority order. The logs will give us quantitative evidence to augment the qualitative feedback on the sensitivity review process we received at the workshop.

We carefully chose to use our existing Abacá test collection as the target for the reviews. This was to enable us to extended the number of records judged by more than one judge in the collection. By close analysis of the judgements and log data we will be able to understand much more fully the issues surrounding inter-judge agreement (or disagreement) – this is a particularly significant area of research that we believe has never been conducted before.

Still later on the first day, when we asked the attendees to reflect on their experience with the tools, we receivedexcellent feedback in terms of inspiration about possible features of records that might indicate sensitivity and also (just as importantly) features that might definitively flag the absence of sensitivity.Discussions continued late into the evening, long after the formal part of the day ended, as we enjoyed the fine weather and hospitality at a local hostelry on Kew Green!

Day two

Day two of the workshop was focused on the process and wider strategic context of digital sensitivity review. We shared views from the different organisations involved in the records process – all the way from the government departments who create the records through to eminent historians who use the records for their scholarly research. All of these perspectives had something to say about the challenge of digital sensitivity review and the transition to the use of digital records in government through the 80s, 90s, and 00s. One thing that emerged loud and clear from this part of the workshop was that any tools that we develop for sensitivity review, will also be need to be matched by tools to assist with the selection & appraisal part of the records transfer process, as well as the ultimate interpretation of digital records when presented from an archive.

A number of the attendees remarked how useful the event had been in extending their understanding of the management of the risks inherent in digital sensitivity review. They also remarked that they would be taking this understanding back to their workplaces to inform their emerging practical approaches to dealing with the collections of digital records that will soon need to be transferred to The National Archives.

Finally there was unanimity that much more deep research into the problem of digital sensitivity review is needed. There was also realisation that this will require the investment of significant amounts of time and money to deliver the understanding of the domain and research the transformative tools that are so urgently needed; the first regular transfers of digital public records begins in only a few years’ time.


Tim Gollins

Honorary Research Fellow

University of Glasgow – School of Computing Science

Communities in the Clouds

This project will examine the way technology is used to support high-density / high-rise communities. It will investigate new technical solutions that offer residents and stakeholders the ability to take greater control of the evolution of their developments and neighbourhoods.

Communities in the Clouds is led by Tom Lodge at Nottingham University

Project Abacá: What is sensitivity and how do people make judgements about it?

We all feel we have an intuition about when a something is sensitive. Whether it is the hushed conversation with the neighbour over the fence regarding what Mrs Smith from number 45 was doing wearing “that dress” in the street last night or the piece of paper with someone’s bank details that might have slipped from a pocket in the street. Our social instincts tell us what we should do. These instincts, when applied to government records, are encoded as exemptions in the Freedom of Information Act. The act requires that the civil servants and archivists charged with managing public records withhold sensitive records from public view until the sensitivity concerned has decayed with the passage of time.

Of course the sensitivities that government deals with concern many more matters than the personal data examples that we are familiar with from normal life. These sensitivities include:

  • matters of defence and national security
    (e.g. Nuclear missile deployment)
  • Commercial Confidentiality
    (e.g. Notes of contract negotiations)
  • Damage to International Relations
    (e.g. Insulting remarks about a leader of another country (or even a former leader))
  • Personal Privacy and Health & Safety
    (e.g. Religious beliefs or names of informants)

Because the exemptions interfere with the principle of open government that underpins FOIA, many have a “public interest balance test”. In essence, despite the presence of a sensitivity, does the public interest of release outweigh the negative consequences of release? Hence, decisions about what is and is not sensitive and whether it should be exempt are rarely simple.

As a part of the case study funded by the ITaaU, which we discussed in our previous article, Project Abacá has been looking at the research literature that reports studies of decision making; in particular decision making about documents. One thing is clear, this is a complex area of study where the results of experiments in one specific domain are hard to generalise to another. However, in our examination of the literature we have seen a common theme relating to narrative and the order in which documents are presented (e.g. studies of “threshold priming” in the Information Retrieval literature and work reported in wider studies). We have further work to do, but we have some tentative evidence from our initial discussions with government sensitivity reviewers that backs up the view of narrative order being significant. Our longer term aim is to use our interviews with reviewers and our literature study to develop some hypotheses as to the mental processes that sensitivity reviewers use when reviewing documents. We aim to design experiments using future enhancements to our proof-of-concept tool, together with measurements of the use of tool, to test these hypotheses. We will use these results to inspire further rounds of development of tools to assist the reviewer.

We have already produced a limited test of some ideas about assisting reviewers through the proof-of-concept tool we have built to prioritise documents for review based on an estimated likelihood of sensitivity. The estimated likelihood of sensitivity was produced from experiments on text classification using the Terrier Information Retrieval system to examine the statistical occurrence of sensitivity in a collection of documents compared to certain properties or features extracted from the documents. We published the initial results of our experiments at the recent European Conference on Information Retrieval in Amsterdam (ECIR2014). We aim to test our proof-of-concept tools and different ways of presenting the results of the classification through our engagement with real sensitivity reviewers in government departments as a part of the ITaaU-funded case study.

One thing is certain, sensitivity in government records is a tricky concept to nail down and define, but our step by step research is beginning to define the possible shape of tools to help reviewers.

Tim Gollins

Honorary Research Fellow

University Of Glasgow – School of Computing Science

ITaaU Theme on Trust and Security supports Project Abacá: Technically Assisted Sensitivity Review of Digital Records

Trust is something that should be earned through evidence of trustworthiness, security is not only about stopping terrorists who wish to main and kill; these two thoughts provide a context for Project Abacá “Technically Assisted Sensitivity Review of Digital Records” which the ITaaU is supporting. When discussing security we should not limit ourselves to considerations of criminality and terrorism; our societies security relies, at its deepest level, on the trust that the citizen places in the institutions of the state. Through the records of the state that it preserves, The National Archives is fundamental to this aspect of security.

Moral philosopher Onora O’Neill in her inspiring TED talk and her earlier 2002 Reith lecture made compelling cases for trustworthiness (rather than just more trust). One good source of evidence for trustworthiness (or otherwise) is the evidence of normal organisational transactions held as records in an archive, such as the records of government held at The National Archives.

Such archives provide the impartial witness that enables the executive to be held to account under the rule of law and in the court of history. They contain the evidence of actions of the executive, and the evidence of the decisions and policies enacted. This is central to Lord Bingham’s 4th PrincipleMinisters and pubic officers at all levels must exercise the powers conferred on them in good faith, fairly, for the purpose for which the powers were conferred, without exceeding the limits of such powers and not unreasonably”. How can we know what the executive have done if the records are not kept and made open for citizens to inspect?

Archive records


Paper records held at The National Archives (Image used under Creative Commons from Wikimedia Commons, attributed to Mr Impossible)

In the past, government records were created and preserved on paper as memoranda, minutes, letters, ledgers etc. and released to public view after 30 years – as the enormous collection of public records held and viewable at The National Archives demonstrates. As you would expect, in recent years the records of government have become digital. The UK government adopted new technology through the 80s 90s and 00s, and these digital records produced by this technology are soon to begin transferring to The National archives as the old “30 year rule” progressively transitions to become the “20 year rule”.

However, there is a challenge: before any records (paper or digital) can be transferred to The National Archives, they must be reviewed to ensure that they do not fall under an exemption in the Freedom of Information (see: Summer 2013 Newsletter). Digital records are much more numerous and also, as a result of the changes to the administrative practices of government departments that arose with their introduction, much less well organised. These, and other factors, mean that there is the prospect that difficulties in sensitivity review may result in large swathes of digital records being withheld from public view for long periods of time.

The ITaaU is supporting Project Abacá to investigate and mitigate these challenges by funding a case study to begin to evaluate the project’s proof-of-concept tools and methods to deliver “ Technically Assisted Sensitivity Review of Digital Records”.

More details can be found on the Project Website, and we will be posting other blog posts soon giving more details of our work.

Tim Gollins

Honorary Research Fellow

School of Computing Science – The University of Glasgow