My first experience with Liberating Structures Labs

More and more these days, I’m seem to earn my crust helping people talk about technology, and their strategy around using it in an organisation, rather than writing code myself. Just like you have tech meetups to find out about out shiny new frameworks and software, you get meetups for where you can find out about shiny new frameworks for running workshops and meetings better. Liberating Structure Labs is an example, and I went last night. Here’s my write-up.

Liberating Structures?

As far as I can tell, Liberating structures is a free-to-use set of principles and activities to help structure meetings and events, as a response to the rigid, stifling structures of convention ways of getting people to work together in a shared space. Here’s the blurb from their website, explaining the problem:

Conventional structures are either too inhibiting (presentations, status reports and managed discussions) or too loose and disorganized (open discussions and brainstorms) to creatively engage people in shaping their own future. They frequently generate feelings of frustration and/or exclusion and fail to provide space for good ideas to emerge and germinate.

What’s proposed instead are a set of 33 or so different activities, with clear sets of rules, that you would apply, depending on the outcome you’re after when you have people in a room with you. you might recognise some of these from other disciplines if you ever facilitate UX workshops, run retrospectives in agile teams and so on:

Screen Shot 2018-02-22 at 09.50.12.png
A list of the 33 (oops! 35) Liberating Structures to use

Testing these somewhere safe

One thing about these sets of activities, is that to test them at work is usually quite a high stakes gamble – you don’t know how well thought through they are at this point, or whether they’re a good fit for where you work.

Generally speaking, wasting a load of other people’s time with experimental techniques for workshops or meetings, could be seen as a career limiting move, so it’s useful to have somewhere to try them out first to see where the pitfalls are, so you know how to recover if things go south when you do talk your boss into letting you try them.

As I understand it, this is the purpose of the Liberating Structures Labs, and last night, we ran through a few exercises to get familiar. Each meetup has a theme, and last night the theme was Building a Culture of Collaboration.

Impromptu networking


The first was an ice breaking opening game – with some nice easy to follow instructions on how to run through it. The page for it is here, but in a nutshell, the idea is to provide some prompts for conversation, and have some time boxes, to make it easy to chat with each other.

It worked pretty well, and I think I’d use it myself in future, as a quick ice breaking game, when I want some clear, rules. As an example of how careful application of structure can be liberating for people in a workshop, I found it a really effective demonstration of the key ideas I understand Liberating Structures to be about.



The next part  was introducing a much larger activity, Panarchy, which as you’d imagine from the Pan part of the name is pretty ambitious in scope – you essentially look at how to answer a pre-defined question at a number of different levels of abstraction from the micro/individual level, through to groups, and industries, right up to policy and even myth-making.

Interestingly, it was initially introduced as a tool in healthcare to help structure a system-level response to the spread of MRSA in hospitals – so rather than being a comparatively vague question like “How can we build a culture of collaboration?“, it was a much more concrete problem to solve, with a much more measurable upside: “How can we stop accidentally killing people in our care with antibiotic-resistant super bugs?”.

For me at least, while I enjoyed the conversation with other attendees, I found it that we left the exercise without many useful insights we could take away – it didn’t feel like such a strong demonstration of the technique for me.

I think this is a function of the initial question being so vague to accommodate the free workshop format, where you can’t control who is coming, but also highlights how important it is to be able to provide context before you put forward a question for an exercise like this.

1, 2, 4

One thing that caught my attention, that I haven’t seen in other playbooks of activities like the GameStorming approach, was how composable the activities were – you would make new structures from combining other structures/activities. In Panarchy, a key mechanism for getting insights out of people was something called 1,2,4 – if you’ve ever run a design studio with Lean UX, or a charette exercise, the idea of going from individual work, then sharing in pairs, then progressively larger groups, will be familiar.

1, 2, 4 is a nice reduction of these ideas down to their essence – and looks to be applicable in lots of places where you might have groups where one or two people are more forthright with opinions than others, and you risk losing some useful information if you let them dominate discussion. For me, it felt like a good introduction to the structure (what do I call these? A Liberating Structure? An Activity? There has to be a less clumsy phrase than liberating structure to use in sentences).

The main niggle I had here was the issue of timing – when you don’t have a visible way of keeping time in a timeboxed activity, or a designated timekeeper, it’s still easy to end up giving the floor to the most talkative person (I try to keep track of this, I’m often a guilty party here).

An interesting grab of tools

I hadn’t heard of Liberating Structures before, but broadly speaking the activities seem very accessible, and there’s enough variety in the 35 structures for it to feel like a pretty comprehensive toolbox, that works in a wide range of contexts, in the same way that Game Storming provides a useful set of games to use in workshops depending on what you’re after.

I think I’d like go to the next meeting to explore it more, and if you’re curious about having a useful set of teachable techniques to help get more out of meetings with others, I’d happily recommend it.


Trying an idea – OMGDPR, a GPDR-themed event in Berlin

I’ve been following the passage of GDPR from ideas to law over the last couple of years, and I’m convinced its effects will be far reaching, and extremely disruptive to the industry I work in, but also any industry that collects and processes data around customers.

I started chatting with a friend Maik, and we’re now testing to see if there’s interest in an event around it, that we’re calling OMGDPR.

Okay, what is OMGDPR?

OMGDPR is the working title for an community-run, open space event, in Berlin in late March/early April for practitioners who build digital products or services, to learn from each other about GDPR will affect their organisation, and by extension, how they work.

Wait. You keep saying GDPR. What’s GDPR?

GDPR is the short name for the what’s being referred to as most the important change in data privacy regulation in 20 years, and stands for General Data Protection Regulation.

I’m going to cheat here and use wikipedia’s summary of the changes to the law:

“The proposed new EU data protection regime extends the scope of the EU data protection law to all foreign companies processing data of EU residents. It provides for a harmonisation of the data protection regulations throughout the EU, thereby making it easier for non-European companies to comply with these regulations; however, this comes at the cost of a strict data protection compliance regime with severe penalties of up to 4% of worldwide turnover.”[4]

The GDPR also brings a new set of “digital rights” for EU citizens in an age when the economic value of personal data is increasing in the digital economy.

The key takeaways are:

Wow, ‘threaten the existence of a company’? Now I’m interested.


The changes to the law arrived in late May, and they affect every company in the EU, but loads of companies, particularly smaller ones aren’t really prepared for it yet.

There’s also lots of FUD (Fear, uncertainty and doubt) around, so our intention was to create a space to let people talk about it in a relatively welcoming, safe, informal environment so they can see what they need to do if they haven’t had the time to think through a response to it.

Likewise, we’re hoping there will be a chance to learn from others who have had a chance to look into it, and would like to see more organisations treat personal data with the respect it deserves.

Okay, how do I find out more?

The easiest thing to do is try filling out the form below that we’re using to gauge interest – we’re aiming to run the event along open space principles, where people:

  1. bring the topics they’d like to discuss
  2. autonomously form into groups to discuss the topics that they are interested in
  3. report back what they learn for the rest of the group to reflect on or capture
  4. leave the event, with a clearer idea about what they might do

Here’s the form:

Okay, that’s it – if this interests you please give the form a go, and if there are typos or missing questions, do please let me know.










Amazon and passwordless login UX

I signed into the German Amazon Retail site, today, and I saw a new sign-in flow. Being a UX nerd, I took photos and immediately took to twitter.

Here’s what I saw.

Look! Only one thing being requested!

The first change is that like Google, and Eventbrite, they only ask for one thing per page now.

This roughly translates as ‘login’ , and ’email address or phone number’, then ‘continue’/

Screen Shot 2018-02-20 at 13.24.20

Next! No password requested!

Screen Shot 2018-02-20 at 13.24.47.png

Sometimes you might get the option to sign in with a password, but Amazon is also testing this as way in, where they send an email with a one-time-use login code to your email address instead of asking for your password. This is good, as most of us have terrible password hygiene (not you obviously though I know you use a password manager, but the chances you have family members who don’t, and also use the Amazon website).

A one time code, sent to your email, instead of a password

Screen Shot 2018-02-20 at 13.25.00.png

What you get sent to your address is this – the one time code, and some reassuring copy about taking your security seriously. Interestingly though – there’s no link to click to get to Amazon at all. This feels like a good anti-phishing pattern.

I’m happy sharing a one time code in a screenshot here, because well… it’s a one time code – you can only use it once. You might be able to social engineer access if you called Amazon, and said this code wasn’t working, but the solution I hope they would give would be to tell me to generate a new code, or go through some escalated process to prove who I was.

Why I like this

As I mentioned before, most of us are terrible at managing passwords, so moving us away from relying on terrible passwords as a default as feels like a win.

Things I wish it did – chunking


I don’t understand why these services don’t chunk numbers longer than 3 digits to make them easier to read, or type in.

As an example, Google Authenticator does this chunking trick, and I think it makes it easier to read the numbers.

Well… it’s not just me that thinks it makes it easier – this is not a new technique, and there is a paper from 1956 that explains how it helps with human computer interaction. There’s also some recent, good advice on when and how to apply chunking from the Neilsen Norman group. It’s not a new idea, and there are peer reviewed academic papers to help justify using the technique.

How many people are getting this?

I’m curious if this is a widespread experiment – if you see it too, and have opinions on it, let me know.

Also, I’m considering writing a piece about the common pitfalls when implementing passwordless logins, based on my own experience over the last few months. If I get say… 15 faves/likes, it’ll justify me writing a more in-depth article, as it turns out there are quite a few non-obvious pitfalls along the way.