Community post hubs

This is not my idea. This is something I heard talked about years ago. Literally, years ago. Can’t remember who, when or where. It’s niggled at me ever since. But there’s no point hanging on to it in the back of my head. Perhaps someone can make it work?

Online commerce has transformed the experience of shopping. But one of the weakest links in the chain is that final stage of sending your purchases to you.

Processes to try and get a parcel through a locked door that has no parcel-shaped hole in it haven’t moved on that much. We’re still reliant on postal rounds, tracking services, cards through doors, agonising decisions to try again or collect from a depot (three strikes and it’s gone forever!), and so on.

There is now a bit of colour in this formerly grey picture, in the form of increased choices of courier company, some of whom now offer more precise delivery times, and even innovations like “get the courier to call me on my mobile using her mobile to come up with a good hiding place or agree which neighbour to call on”. Amazing. You’d almost think we were in, oh, hang on…

But these are all basically variations on an existing model which tries to get stuff through our door when we’re not there. They all waste our time, create huge scope for risk and loss, and cost retailers and logistics companies dearly as they pay to shuttle parcels through many pairs of hands, across many more locations than they need to.

There’s another approach. Bring the parcels to a place in a community where they can be looked after and picked up. And that place is not a Post Office.

Now I’ll be one of the first to come out in support of local Post Offices: they provide a valuable community function far above and beyond their “commercial” aspect. But to expect one to be open when I get off the train at 9pm is, even in my wildest imagination, unrealistic. But the petrol station is open. The off-licence is open. The pub is open.

So all it takes is for a community to have a handful of local postal delivery hubs. If I choose that option for my delivery (and I think choice would be a good way to ease it in, and genuinely illustrate the demand that I think is there) then I simply get an SMS, email, phone call (or even card through the door) to tell me that it’s been dropped off. Let’s avoid the card through the door, hey—you don’t even have to come to my door! If there’s a choice of hubs in my community, my parcel will be at the one geographically nearest to me, and I’ll be told which one.

I take some ID, and get my parcel. I might even get to speak to some people in my community at the same time. Who knows? That’s it, really.

Ok, let’s have the criticisms:

You’re destroying the postal service, Paul. Taking away huge chunks of business that will wreck their working patterns. Nothing will be the same again. Once you start disrupting parcel services like this, the old and the vulnerable will inevitably lose their “to the door” option.

Well, there may be changes, yes: it will save a lot of time on rounds, and at collection offices. Maybe there will have to be a rethink about resources and ways of working. But it’s commerce that’s changing: if all consumers are having to bend to fit a model that was built for other times, that’s not really sustainable either. Done right, I figure there’s enough revenue and value within the overall system to maintain a universal delivery option. But trying it out won’t break anything: it will only improve services (hopefully) and produce better information (certainly).

People will be so confused. These hubs will come and go. They’ll get a text message or something and not know where to go.

Some fair points. But don’t miss the point that it’s opt-in, and those likely to do so will also be likely to know their community well enough to find a pub or a late-night convenience store. I’m working on the basis that people will choose this when the hub is less than ten minutes gentle walk from their door. Those that can’t, or don’t want to, walk can stick with the existing process.

The hub might be shut.

True: this is a real issue. Staff go sick, power fails, crap happens. There’ll have to be some declaration of availability by the hub. You know, like their normal opening hours… But if you know you’re always out when parcels arrive, and the best chance you’ve got of retrieving your parcel is the 0830-1300 time slot on a Saturday at the sorting office in the nearest town, are you seriously suggesting that this can’t be improved on? No solution is perfect. None. All have flaws and risks. That’s life. But things could be better than they are now with a little creative thinking.

People in shops and pubs have jobs already. They’re busy. They have no time to do this. And they’ll be at greater risk: robbery, fraud, liability for missing goods, trip hazards…

Sure. If those risks are too great for them, they won’t apply to be a hub. But did I mention the money? This isn’t charity. This is community-enabled, not community-funded. Being a hub brings in a very real income. A per-parcel handling charge that might allow for extra staff, security, CCTV, insurance, more insurance… You get the point. Money eases all risks to some extent. So does an increase in the number of hubs. Micro-hubs every couple of streets would mean there was no great treasure trove in one place, to be raided. Yes, the risk profile changes, but it’s still measurable, and manageable.

Where would the money come from?

A combination of purchasers paying a (small) levy for the convenience, and a levy paid by delivery companies, justified by the savings they’d make in other areas: like answering all those angry phone calls, doing all those extra miles in their vans, and so on. It could lead to whole new businesses: people who know they’re always at home, using their home as the hub, really bringing business within the community. Revenue sources tend to bring opportunities like that.

Could the hubs do more than just receive? What about posting? Or other services?

I’d suggest not in the first instance. That might come later, but it raises a whole load of other issues, particularly about handling money. Let’s not fall down that old trap of trying to enhance features before we’ve even tried to see if something basic works, hey? The “not handling money” bit is important. Parcels requiring additional charges on collection wouldn’t go down this route. This would be a straight “show ID and get parcel” service—but that’s the vast majority by volume, anyway, isn’t it?

A pub is not an appropriate place to keep parcels.

*eye roll in an upwards direction*

Oh, one last feature. Well, more of a non-feature, really. This approach is NOT going to fall down the hole of trying to be too clever with technology. Big databases of registered hubs, clever algorithms to find the nearest open at a particular time, lots of hyperlocal information that all has to be kept up to date, integration with online retailers so maps and hub addresses pop up in real-time as you check out in your cart, choice, choice, choice, choice? Forget it. FORGET IT. Have we learnt nothing? Keep this simple. If I ask for a community hub delivery, I’ll get one. It will be local. If it’s not, it won’t be offered. The absolute minimum technology required is a simple relationship between delivery postcode and hub postcodes. That requires a bit of work, sure. It may even be possible to delegate some of that work to the Royal Mail to coordinate (for a cut, of course). But please no great processes for submitting and managing complex data on some godalmighty database in the sky, or trying to offer too much detail to consumers. The interfacing and data maintenance issues will kill things before they’ve got off the ground. Clear?

So, here’s a practical, Big-Society-style-community-empowered idea. It puts customers and communities first. It needs the sort of robust and open approach to risk we all nod and say we’d like to see. It also needs a hefty great supplier, I’d say—an Amazon or similar—to try it out as an option.

Who’s up for it?

Broken journey

I’ve seen an awful lot of online government, of one form or another. Consultations, information, tools, maps, communities…and transactions. Transactions really are the very bugger to get right, aren’t they? You wouldn’t think it was that hard to do the basic capture and interchange of information, would you? That there could be so many places to trip up: from daft processes, to forms-turned-into-websites, to mismatched authentication in relation to actual risk, to dreadful, dreadful interaction design.

But there are. And today’s was a gem. Not so much for what it showed about the actual online transaction (which had its issues). But for staggering failures of design around that little thing called a “customer journey”.

It may be a bit of jargon, but the “journey” concept is important. And it’s not just the bit from “land on the right webpage” to “transaction completed”. It’s way broader than that. Or it should be. From the first awareness that something has to be done (or even including general awareness before that point) right the way through the transaction, and on beyond the point of confirmation and into the territory of follow-up action and support. The whole thing. Across all the channels that might play a part (de-jargoning: channels are the types of communication that people can use: typically web, post, telephone, face-to-face and through an intermediary).

So let’s look at how badly this one failed.

A form landed through the post a couple of weeks ago. I need to update the photo on my driving licence. Fair enough. What’s in my wallet has diverged from reality a fair bit in nearly ten years (and I used a five-year-old passport pic even back then).

The form was interesting: I had a couple of options to update the photo. In person in a post office (where they’d even be able to take my picture for me), or by post. There was a covering letter on the form that even went to the trouble of telling me where my two nearest post offices were that could do the photo service bit. Nice, I thought. Very nice. A personalised touch on a standard form. Liking this.

But I griped when I read more closely. The photo replacement would cost £20. Fair enough, I supposed there’s some admin involved, and £2 a year doesn’t seem outrageous (though I guess a fair few people would find £20 hard to find out of the blue). And that photo service at the post office? Well, that would cost something too. But it was just left as “An additional fee…”–weird, I thought. Why not just print the amount? Was it £5, or £50? How was I supposed to make a sensible decision about posting or post-officing without knowing the facts? The £20 fee was printed: how very strange just to leave the other one to be a surprise when arriving at the counter?

Another little glitch: the form (see pictures) suggests you go online, or pick up the phone, to find out the nearest branch offering the service, yet the covering letter that’s physically attached to the form tells you the two nearest, as I said. Little discontinuities like that are part of the customer journey. They’re causing me to read again, to look between the two documents at the discrepancy, to wonder if I’ve misread something. To make a phone call–a contact that could otherwise be avoided. Details, details, all very important.

The pictures are scruffy because the form stayed in my bag for two weeks, as I never quite found time during the day to go into a post office (and I was still unsighted on how much I’d actually have to pay). As I take photos, I decided today to just shoot one to the required spec and get the damn thing done.

It’s a simple form. It asks for a few bits of information, as well as the photo (which it says must be taken within the last month). Or does it? Please put your date of birth and driver number “if you know it” in the boxes below. (Don’t I just HATE that “if you know it”–it’s a little clue to a bit of poor design…)

Let’s think again about the journey. The way the form has to be used within a wider context. In other words: this form has to be sent back (according to section 1) either with both driving licence parts, or with a declaration that you don’t have them any more. In the first case, they’ve got your date of birth and driver number plastered all over them, so why ask for them again? In the second case, you’re not that likely to know your driver number, are you? And we’re absolutely certain that submission of date of birth is critical here for “security” purposes, or whatever? Really? So those information requests may as well disappear from the form, no?

And before leaping to the conclusion that they must be there as a failsafe in case the envelope’s contents are broken up and dispersed, remember that the form is preprinted with my name and address. Not that tricky to match up with all the stray pink cards lying around on the floor in the post-room in Swansea, now is it?

A couple more check-boxes, a section on organ donation, stick on the photo, and off we go.

Hang on–that organ donation bit: is that section compulsory? It doesn’t say. I can choose between giving my entire usable remains or a selection of organs. Will the form be rejected if I leave them all blank? Stuff like this will cause some forms to be thrust to one side rather than be further completed, perhaps permanently. Never, ever, leave room for doubt.

On the back there’s a whole load of A-F guidance notes. Nothing to fill in. Well, if you actually stop to read (how many will?) B is a quite important section on declaration of health conditions. But nothing to fill in, so I guess it just gets left. Somebody’s box has no doubt been ticked in Swansea. So that’s ok then. There’s some nudging towards Directgov to get further info (oh look, the journey now has an online component–that’s nice).

And so I think: I just spent a while doing a form to send a photo (which doesn’t have to be countersigned–I guess they have a visual inspection in Swansea to check I haven’t suddenly changed race, sex or grown horns) to an agency who are expecting it, and who know full well who I am. Why the hell isn’t this online? And I moaned and tweeted a bit. As I do.

And the shocking answer came back that there was an online service available. At Directgov. Oh, the irony: I worked there for a couple of years and thought I knew most of the available transactions in some detail.

This is the real journey failure. That the form has been sent through my door with no mention whatsoever of the online service. Wait, look back at the very top: that Directgov URL (no, I hadn’t seen it until this point). That starts me off towards an online transaction, though for some inexplicable reason it’s been coded as “For more information…”. Admittedly, it’s the usual “before you apply…” rigmarole (we have to just suck this up, apparently…) but it’s there!

Ah, wait, the handy …/photorenewal URL actually takes me to a whole bunch of other driving licence services (most of which have sod all to do with photo renewal) rather than this one which looks more like it. And yes, even here, I have to do another click to actually get me to the transaction. Because there’s some other information on the page: oh look–there’s the mystery post office service charge–£4.50. Why hide it away there?! And loads of stuff about how to go to a post office and do it…hang on, are we trying to promote the online channel or what? This is getting very confusing. I can now see I’d need a form D798 if I did. But MY form (check those pics) is a D798 U. Now that might be the same form. But it’s another bit of uncertainty. Details, details, again. Another reason to shove it in a drawer, or a bin.

Let me spell this out. Money has been spent creating an online service that (in theory at least) will save the public time, and the taxpayer money. And the people who send out the forms (which is how you know about the service) don’t even mention that it exists as an option. Has anybody actually tested this as a journey? (It was at this point of realisation that I went, as they say, a bit ape.)

And then, the coup de grâce. I hit that “Apply Online” button. It tells me the prerequisites. I need a passport issued within the last five years. Ah, I get it now. If they can verify who I am (they ask for previous addresses, and presumably run an Experian or similar check; in combination with a presented passport number that will probably suffice) they will drag my passport photo between systems and bingo, my driving licence will have a new photo. Presumably there is relatively little risk doing it like this: it’s not as if I can slip an entirely bogus photo into the systems this way–which seems like the main fraud risk within this whole process. (I have skipped over the “role” of the Government Gateway for brevity. More on that can be found here. Though it does at least appear to offer me access to a DVLA dashboard of my information, including my old photo! Which is quite cool. Though what would happen if I connected a second Gateway relationship to my DVLA info is anybody’s guess…)

That’s a “new” photo as in “up to five years old” of course–or possibly even older…is it just me? Is this all sounding both wonderfully joined-up and strangely discontinuous all at the same time? The photo has to be no older than a month by post or post office, but up to five years is ok if you do it online. Riiiiight.

Sadly my passport is a fraction over five years old, so it’s game over online, for me anyway. And why can’t I just email them the damn photo or upload it on a website? There’s nothing on that paper form that I’d be unhappy putting in an email, or a web form. And the picture wouldn’t need rescanning. And I could just certify that I’d destroyed the old licences (the paper process doesn’t fall apart if I mark that as having happened on the form anyway, now does it?)…I could go on, but I won’t. This post is way too long already.

This is an absolute, prime, simple, transactional government-to-citizen interaction. It is the sort of thing that could be reformed NOW. Without an elaborate authentication framework. Without a new website. Without changing more than a few fields and lines on paper and web (or at most, adding a simple image upload process if we really wanted to gold-plate things). The fact that we don’t, or can’t, change it is lamentable. There are no excuses. Really, there aren’t.


You’ll see in the comments below that I proudly maintained that my application would stay in its envelope, completed and unposted, until such time as I saw fit to, or was compelled to, submit it.

That smug stance was all well and good until I found myself at the Hire Car counter in Venice airport a couple of weeks ago. With an expired driving licence. No car for me. Game over.

While driving licence expiry doesn’t mean much in day-to-day life, when you need to hire a car, it suddenly acquires a new and terrible significance.

I could swear that on the breeze over the lagoon, I could hear a distant voice whispering to me all the way from Swansea:

“Who’s the c*** now, boyo?”

Lift your spirits

There’s a lot to a lift.

If you fancy yourself as a bit of an analytical thinker, go and get a piece of paper and a pencil. Think of a lift you know. It doesn’t matter whether you love it, hate it, or have no particular feelings and just think of it as a means of changing floors in a building.

Now, for exactly 10 minutes – time yourself – make as many notes as you can about the factors involved in answering these questions:

“What has made this lift like it is?”


“How should this lift be?”.



Turn off the screen. Go on. Really – Turn It Off.
















Anything interesting emerge? Maybe, maybe not. How much did you generate? Anything there about logical behaviour, customer service standards, risk, accessibility, aesthetics, lifespan, safety, efficiency, queuing theory, optimisation, heuristics, geographical location, environmental impact, user health, cost, policy, procurement, politics?

What I love about lifts is that the basic premise is immensely simple and transparent. If you have two floors in a building, a box on a wire can take you between them. With the exception of odd twists such as hydraulic mountings this is essentially all they do. In a sense. But as soon as you start to introduce additional variables: number of floors, number of lifts, uneven distribution of users over time, etc. things can get very complex very quickly. Which makes “what has made this lift like it is?” a pretty interesting exercise in analysis. Finding the story-behind-the-story.

Oh, before going back to the paradigm which will be adopted from here onwards of “a box on a wire” it’s worth briefly remembering the first lift that really caught my attention. My faculty building at university had a splendid creation called a Paternoster. (Pub mythology has it that they’re now illegal. I wouldn’t be surprised.) Every floor of an eight-storey building had two floor-to-ceiling open hatches next to each other. In the two shafts that lay behind them circulated perhaps 20 platforms on a belt stretching the entire height of the building and back again, naturally. At any point in time eight platforms would be ascending, eight descending, and I guess two each at top and bottom going round the wheels in the basement and 9th floor machine room. For the avoidance of doubt, the platforms were on gimbals – should one ever accidentally travel the voids at top and bottom (and who didn’t?) it wasn’t a question of being hurled from floor to ceiling as the ‘virtual lift box’ inverted. Of course there were nods to safety: pivoting boards built into ceiling, floor and lift platform (think of these as the ‘cutting edges’ and you’ll get the picture) which if disturbed would freeze the whole thing and prevent amusing toe-severing scenes on the way to Dr Brady’s lectures. (While I know many who would do the whole 16-floor ’round trip’ just to see what it was like, I don’t know of a single soul who tried to test the safety boards to see if their fingers/toes remained intact.)

Back to ordinary lifts. Think again of a set of lifts you know. Are they designed around the user? First thing in the morning – when everyone’s coming in – do they ‘rest’ on the ground floor, ready to receive their cargo, and returning after they’ve dropped each load off on higher floors? What about the end of the day? Would you expect them to take up resting positions distributed over the higher floors to increase the chances of one being ready and waiting as users arrive? Would you skew this to favour the higher floors? That might help more people to take the stairs… Already it’s possible to see how different objectives might be met by tweaking the way the lifts work.

There’s a nine-floor building in London with what seems like a fairly generous selection of eight lifts. Until you watch their behaviour closely. Then you see that, even if all eight are resting on the ground floor, your request for upward travel will only result in the same one opening and re-opening its doors until it’s full. (It probably knows it’s full via a weight sensor in the floor.) You certainly won’t get another one opening its doors for you until the first has left full. This means that some poor souls will have two or three minutes to endure with the doors opening and closing before finally leaving. And others jab frustratedly at lifts they know are there, but can’t use. What on earth’s going on? Then you remember that this used to be the Department of the Environment. Was it a procurement coup to pick the tender with the lowest energy use? Or is a political point being made by tweaking the lift logic to ‘maximum efficiency’ even if this results in a less-than-delightful user experience?

The mathematicians have some fancy algorithms to optimise the basic logistics of covering ground efficiently. There’s even a branch of queuing theory known as elevator theory. Amongst other things it can be used to design how the magnetic heads that sweep over hard disk drives work. (If you have several heads, and need to collect data from different portions of the disk, then you face very similar planning challenges to moving people to different floors of a building.) But, as we’ve seen, even the purity of logistical efficiency can take second place to health, politics or other objectives.

A closing thought: next time you’re waiting for a lift, or indeed, in a lift, and you don’t quite get the service you want – you might well be getting the service that some else wants you to have. And that goes for pretty much every other customer experience you encounter…