Technology eating retail: stories

19 Aug 2022

The Co-op Digital newsletter occasionally has some fiction in it, tiny story fragments to explore what retail might look like as software and big tech tries to remake it.

Fiction lets you avoid getting lost in the detail of specific predictions and instead think about the bigger picture of what it might mean for humans and communities, and the second order effects of techno-optimism.

(To be honest, these bits feel a bit… negative when you see them all together, and remind me that I also want to explore the future with more optimistic stories, like this via Matt Jones.)

So here are some of them:

Apr 2018:


Amazon Prime Home team lead Karyn steps around a Freshco grocery delivery drone twitching on the path. It has been jammed by your home’s router for a breach of delivery licence, and will be released shortly. Your Amazon door authenticates Karyn, and she walks into your home. She sets the Dash scanner going in the living area. While it’s looking at your belongings, she disconnects your TV and pops back out to the truck to get a newer one. She reconnects your PrimeFire box to the new screen but puts the Google Chromecast TV dongle to one side, placing a helpful advice sticker on it. The Dash scanner meeps and identifies with a laser light a dozen items in the room that are on your Unwish list. She places these in a cardboard box, and once they’re sold in Amazon’s Seim Anew market your Prime account will be updated with a credit.

Karyn checks the Home schedule - the cleaner comes tomorrow and the Wardrobe re-stock is lined up for next week. On her way out, she gives a nod to Priyan, an Amazon ReFresh colleague who is filling your fridge, docking credit from your Prime account for each out-of-date good he’s removing. Karyn gets back in the truck and throws her terminal on the passenger seat - 14 minutes until the next home visit. When you get home, Alexa tells you what was Amazoned today. Alexa doesn’t tell you anything about Karyn or Priyan.

Apr 2018:


[The house’s front door opens.] Oh hello, I have a delivery for you. It’s from Amazon. Yeah, no uniform, I work in insurance actually. I signed up for that PrimeTurk thing - you know, you do a delivery a week for them and you get free Prime, and, well, they’ve got Downton Abbey Brexit coming soon… and I just had to. No, you don’t know when the delivery will be and you just have to drop everything. And you have to let Amazon keep parcels in the boot of your car which was a pain last week at IKEAsda let me tell you ha ha, so it’s not always the best timing. [Meep.] Oh! I’ve got to Uber someone back into town and then it’s the quarterly budget meeting back at the office. So I’d better dash. Here’s your packages, yeah just tap your mobile on mine, OK… yes, great. Thanks, bye now.’

May 2018:


Karyn says: OK Google, can you get a table at Chicken Crustay for Thursday 7.30pm?’

I’m sorry Karyn but another meal from Chicken Crustay in the next 9 days will increase your SpringStep Health insurance premium for three calendar months. Shall I look for a healthier option?’

Fine’, sighs Karyn.

OK, I’ll arrange it.’ Google Assistant calls 30 restaurants simultaneously. One line is disconnected, and ten don’t pick up immediately. Twelve don’t have a table at 7.30pm. Google Assistant will push its update up to the aggregated model tonight. Four restaurants have the sonic markers that indicate machine communication. After a quick authentication handshake, the machines ascend to a higher bandwidth communication protocol. A clicking birdsong murmur tells Karyn that the AIs are communicating.

– My human is an e-citizen of the European Union. Table availability for one, Thursday 1930h.

– Acknowledge that GDPR2 applies: no marketing, no retargeting, discard client data post-transaction. Supply restau-chariot to convey human?

– Here are my human’s {biomarkers} and {dietary preferences}. No special requirements, no transport.

– 40% of menu meets dietary preferences. Bid $129, held for 0.5 seconds.

– Accepted.

Google Assistant drops back to voice. Karyn, I have booked FalaFellers for Thursday 7.30 pm and updated your calendar. You can walk there using the safe route on Maps, and take an Uberbus back.’

June 2018:


Jackie monitored her fleet of wheeled delivery robots doing their mid-morning runs on a bank of screens. Green across the board except for a single red light - she pressed a button to despatch a team member to investigate a robots-only airlock that wasn’t letting deliveries through. The robots brought packages to larger package stores in apartment towers - the older store rooms still needed people to rack the goods or put them in lockers. The dissolvable cellulose packaging would melt away by the time the recipient came to grab their delivery. These days Amazon offered Prime accounts for apartment complexes as well as families, and many products had become subscribe and save”.


Eventually it made more sense to keep products in the store room, and less stuff in the apartments. The package room became a social area: fewer storage racks, more communal seating. A household and entertainment lending library. Apartments became neater, smaller. Amazon had 80% of all retail spending, and Prime looked more like a citizen tax than a subscription service. When Amazon used its increasing free cash flow to buy a lot of its shares back Jackie sold up and retired to a modest Googlunit upstate.


Bezos eventually admitted that the logical conclusion of capturing consumer retail activity was to hand it back to people (“people are prime!”), and from his moon base Nueva Seattle he donated most of his shares to a Prime Co-operative.

June 2018:


On her way home, Verlyn pops into the Freshco convenience store to get some shopping. The high street looks pretty much the same as it did in 2018: every second retail unit is empty, occupied by pop-ups that last a month or covered in billboard-size adverts. There are no estate agents. Some shops are doing well though: Wetherspoon is still rammed, and school kids are hanging out by Greggs which, like Pret, survived the fast-food retail die-off by opening foodversities offering training, stock options and visa sponsorship to their staff.

She parks the ebike in the charging rack outside and swipes into the store. Freshco is halfway through a rebrand: the food aisles have signs up proclaiming the new partnership with Alimazon, which had recently bought the food business. Verlyn drops a parcel into the Freshpost hatch, then picks up a delivery from a locker, and finally grabs a family meal kit. 42 Freshpoints, ranked 198 today”, says a notification on her mobile. She shrugs.

Aug 2019:


Yotta walks down the street through an invisible bath of data, network pings and sensor attention that her device describes as an audible crackling in the background like a radiation counter. Her earring buzzes when she turns to face the shop - there’s a brief pause as DuckDuckSocial provides a disposable proxy identity. She won’t get the loyalty points but she has principles. She steps over the threshold of the Whatstagram coffee shop and into quote a safe social space. The crackling thins out - inside the shop Whatstagram blocks some traffic to other platforms.

At the table with friends, their devices all flash purple LEDs • to indicate personal data being gathered by the network. She know her devices will try resist the sensors, offering deepfaked data. But you never know if it works.

If this shop worked like Whatstagram actually does, they’d give you this free coffee and a cookie, and then very closely watch how you behaved, who you spoke to, taking lots of notes, follow you to the bathroom, and continue when you walked off down the street.’’

Yeah yeah Yotta, but the coffee is good.’’

I know.’’


2 Jun 2022

I helped Stripe Partners write a couple of provocations about how agile” works today, now that it has evolved from a test-iterate approach to software to a cultural aspiration for organisations. They’re conversation-starters rather than academic assessments. I believe in agile - when it works, it is amazing. But particularly in organisations and teams that don’t want to change or are looking for easy quick fixes, it’s hard to practise it well. It’s also a very broad church, which can make it hard to know if you’re doing well.

Understanding agile part 1: what we talk about when we talk about agile

Agile requires a degree of psychological safety—an environment which lets people fail, to be wrong and to try something new or different in response. In this sense agile is about trust and the culture of an organisation.”

Understanding agile part 2: why agile organisations are so submissive

At the limit, agile can become a well meaning cargo cult, performing a process theatre without delivering the value it promised.”

Writing questions

16 Dec 2021

These are some of the questions I ask myself when writing pieces to unpack tech news, explain ideas, persuade a reader, present an idea or a plan, make it more interesting.

  • Who are the readers, and why should they care?
  • What do we want readers to DO after they finish reading?
  • What’s the 1 thing? (or: the 3 things?)
  • Have I done the what” and then the so what”?
  • What are the obvious and the less obvious questions?
  • Who or what is invisible in this story?
  • Who doesn’t this scenario work for?
  • How to show the edges?
  • What if this story went wrong?
  • Does the thing I’m writing about look like something else? (And is this news old news?)
  • Is it the opposite of something else?
  • How can I reverse it?
  • Can I make it absurd?
  • What if I make it mundane?
  • Add or remove something to make it 10% better?
  • Write another draft?
  • Who is speaking?
  • Who disagrees?
  • Can I add some variation?
  • Should context or consistency win here? (usually: context)
  • Is there a journey inside this?
  • Should this go against the wisdom and be Tell not Show”?
  • What if this was fiction instead?

Carbon transformation

5 Nov 2021

These days it feels like many consultancies say they do digital transformation”. Partly this is a marketing thing - it has been a useful label that signals that you do more than just build websites etc. And partly it is a doing thing. Digital transformation has been going a few years: slow (and sometimes fast) waves of digital approaches and technology refitting, remaking and reinventing industries, the work done by many in-house and external consultants. Eventually the digital transformation work is everywhere, and may then recede into the background.

In some industries, Covid accelerated the process, forcing companies to do 5 years of digital transformation in 5 months. In that moment, digital change went from a nice-to-have to a must-have. Visible, tangible and essential.

The next big accelerant is climate change. If you thought digital transformation was spiky and disruptive, wait til you see carbon transformation. It is going to feel like the sudden reinvention of many things we take as given today - jobs, education, housing, energy, industry, agriculture, infrastructure, finance, cities, society, the world. They need reinventing because we built them for a world that no longer exists. They need to be remade for the entropocene”, an era of heightened change that’ll demand more resilience and adaptability, better use of materials and energy, and fairer outcomes for all.

We have to work so hard and so fast at it. We have no choice. If the last decade was about digital transformation, the next few decades are going to be about climate.

Carbon transformation.

(I want more work in this area. I can help you with words - get in touch.)

How to become a digital writer or content designer

13 Oct 2021

A friend messages, asking for some advice on how you become a writer/content designer in tech. This is a good question.

I think writing for digital sits in three overlapping categories. There’s writing that happens inside a product or service, like the words in an interface. This is often called content design, which has become a proper discipline in the last 10 years.

Second, there’s the writing that happens around a product, service or organisation. It is usually called communications or even marketing. Although some people bundle this and content design into a catchall term like customer experience design, or CX.

And third, there’s all the other writing. The writing that explains, explores, persuades, describes, provokes, guides, helps, documents, notifies, updates, communicates, blogs, emails, newsletters, etc.

So, some things you can do to become a digital writer or content designer:



  • Training courses: do one of Sarah’s Content Design London courses. Others in the UK do training too:
  • Crocstar’s training - Christine led a lot of content design training at GDS.
  • Scroll’s training. I don’t know if any of these courses existed when I was starting, but I’ve heard that they’re all very good.
  • Doing a journalism course would help you understand stories, what’s interesting, framing and angles. Digital teams often talk about putting user first. Readers first is the same idea, and journalism teaches that.


  • Write something that explains something that you’re an expert in to the interested non-expert reader.
  • Pick an area of digital/tech that interests you and write some stuff that demonstrates that you have some understanding of that world.
  • Pick a thing that is online and show how you’d improve it.
  • Tools: for content design, get some time inside Figma or Webflow so 1) you don’t feel scared about making something that looks like a website, and 2) can signal that you’re digital-friendly on a CV. For all kinds of writing (and working with digital teams generally), make sure you’re comfortable in Google Docs, Slack and Miro.


  • Put the stuff you write on the internet somewhere and point at it. If you don’t fancy publishing in public, then have something ready to share in a meeting, though I think putting it out there in public is better. (Honestly, I think every bit of paid writing work I’ve done can be traced back to writing in public.)
  • Find the people talking about content writing on Twitter and, you know, hang out.
  • Start telling people that you’re a writer for digital, or a content designer, or a tech writer. Pick the label you feel comfortable saying. Because someone will reply Well, I have some stuff that needs writing…”
  • Maybe buy a domain name that is your name or close to it, and point it at a read-only Google doc which contains your CV. It shows that you’re of the internet”. I did this in 5 minutes just now, but I know you’ll do it better.


  • These days there are full time jobs doing writing for digital - look for content designer” or digital comms”. Eg here: Working in Content (and this advice on starting and progressing your career from the same site looks good).
  • In the UK, the content consultancies Crocstar, Scroll and Content Design London (links above) may have work.
  • Any chance to embed yourself in a digital service team is great for getting a basic understanding on how everything fits together and should work.

A lot of writing for digital happens in teams. So did this post: thanks to Ella Fitzsimmons, Rachel Machin, Molly Whitehead-Jones and Amy McNichol who provided the good ideas.

Public Digital’s website

Public Digital’s new website, Oct 2020

I wrote the words for the new Public Digital website. Public Digital (PD) works with governments and companies that want to become a lot more digital.

Digital. Teams. Work.

Digital. Teams. Work.” is the crispest headline I could write that would tell the Public Digital story in a PD kind of way - straightforward, to the point. It also needed to be a promise” - you need to understand what distinctive thing you’d get if you hired PD to help you with your transformation project. Here it is on the home page and here it’s used as a narrative device in Claire Bedoui’s yearnote for PD:

Rooted in our belief that decision-makers should fund teams, not projects, we also articulated our theory of change:

Digital. Teams. Work.


A lot of people in the digital and digital gov industries already know the people at PD or their history building GDS and GOV.UK, and they’ll just pick up the phone. But there are people who don’t know PD well. They’re often potential customers, and are the website’s key audience.

The website is a way to tell them the story, and clearly explain why PD is different to most consultancies. The difference is not a matter of brand but it’s something that actually matters - teams, delivery, remaking organisations for the internet era.


We wanted one headline that could explain the promise” of PD as sharply and briefly as possible. Imagine a graph with two axes, descriptive-evocative and activity-outcome. A headline like Public Digital delivers transformation with digital teams” is pretty does-what-it-says-on-the-tin and would sit in the descriptive/activity quarter, and Public Digital helps you adapt to a changing future” is closer to the value/evocative quarter.

But there’s a problem with headlines like that. They’d be accurate but not distinctive - you could imagine a different consultancy saying the same thing. We got to Digital. Teams. Work.” by pushing to make it more distinctive.

And because the headline is a bit evocative, the next couple of sentences unpack the promise in plainer language.

Public Digital’s new website, Oct 2020


Elsewhere the work was often about making sure the words are clear and simple (you might say that clarity is part of PDs distinctive offer). Some organisations might talk about their Services”, or find some jargon that makes them sound expert. PD just says What we do”, because their work speaks for itself.


The content designer/writer’s tools are listening, typing, testing and iterating. Do the words, and see if they’re right. Rewrite the sentences. Sometimes writing the words reveals that you need to refine your shared understanding of who you’re speaking to, or how you want to talk about what you do. The understanding develops, the story is adjusted, the words are rewritten. You hit publish. Even then you might rewrite again: you think of better ways to tell the story. Websites are living things.


Of course the words weren’t solely written by me: a team of designers, developers, subject matter experts and project wranglers inside and outside of PD also did the work, and thank you to Mike Bracken and them all. Good team, good project.

How to find your books

rodcorp: Books by colour, blurredrodcorp: Books by colour, blurred

30 Oct 2020

Matt Webb wrote about using an app called Memos to make his bookshelves searchable: find where that book is by searching your photos. Brilliant, though I guess it needs your bookshelves and the photos to stay fairly in sync.

My own book filing scheme used to be by colour, which worked very well when I had plenty of time to look at books, and remember what colour they were. But for a few years recently I’ve filed books by random stow, which I do not recommend because it’s not very useful.

Amazon should make a smart camerathing that looks at your shelves, tells you what is where, but also notes that you haven’t moved these books at all in 24 months and they’re worth X on the second hand market click here to make it happen.

2024: Amazon Prime Home team lead Karyn steps around a Freshco grocery delivery drone twitching on the path. It has been jammed by your home’s router for a breach of delivery licence, and will be released shortly. Your Amazon door authenticates Karyn, and she walks into your home. She sets the Dash scanner going in the living area. While it’s looking at your belongings, she disconnects your TV and pops back out to the truck to get a newer one. She reconnects your PrimeFire box to the new screen but puts the Google Chromecast TV dongle to one side, placing a helpful advice sticker on it. The Dash scanner meeps and identifies with a laser light a dozen items in the room that are on your Unwish list. She places these in a cardboard box, and once they’re sold in Amazon’s Seim Anew market your Prime account will be updated with a credit.

Data is a material for building with

I believe that architects and engineers must think of data as a material. Start with visibility: disclose data collection in a way that makes it clear and understandable. The built environment could show the seams” of its data. Just as some buildings have information displays that indicate energy performance, a building might show how it collects and uses data.

I helped Sarah Gold at Projects by IF write a piece for Icon Magazine about data being a material for building with (the piece doesn’t seem to be online though :( ). The work of Ben Cerveny and Timo Arnall was really useful in thinking about how data relates to the built environment.

Why Co-op Digital writes a newsletter

I wrote a bit about the Co-op Digital newsletter for the Co-op blog, how it started and how it’s put together etc. The clever Amy McNichol did the difficult making it make sense” bit.

There are still Amazon is coming!” stories, and there are frequent this seems like a problem for big tech companies” stories. Occasionally we add small bits of fiction if we think they might be a good way to explore an idea.

However the jokes are still terrible. Do you want frAIes with that? needs not an explanation (machine learning at McDonald’s) but apologies forever, sorry.

You are right, the jokes are not good. But the fiction bits seem to resonate with readers. Current stats: 51% open rate, 15% click rate.

Previously: 100 Co-op Digital newsletters.

Four years

Four years ago I started Holdfast Projects at a time of change. A health thing had happened. I left a company I’d given a decade to. We moved up to Scotland to see more of the wider family. I wanted to work in different industries to security (personal finance? digital but less secretive?) and a different kind of work (writing). I knew that I didn’t want to spend half the week down in London, or every day commuting to Edinburgh. So I did some consulting gigs doing product management and design for tech companies, but gradually I tried to nudge the work towards writing what I (semi) jokingly call expensive words”.

This is both a quadrennial year note for a company and a triennial-ish year note for a new career, and the latter is probably more interesting. Some things I learned, in no particular order:

  1. It was hard to walk away from a company I’d co-founded, and I didn’t realise how much I’d need to decompress. But afterwards I wondered why I hadn’t left years earlier. (There were multiple cognitive biases hard at work in both those sentences and the situations they’re describing.)
  2. I’ve done 17 projects for 11 customers, though it feels like more. The shortest project was a day, the longest a couple of years. I’ve typed up to 2,000 words a week, and some of them were good. I have read a lot of the internet, and some of it was good. Half of the projects were me working alone, half with a team or with sub-contractors. Fastest-paying customer: under a day after invoice (take a bow, Thayer Prime). Slowest-paying: about 80-90 days.
  3. Most of the work has come from people who already knew me or had already seen my work somewhere. When your sales prospects don’t know you or your work, the sales cycle is often tentative and very slow, more like long-term relationship building. So it is interesting to look at where you already have long-term relationships.
  4. This suggests that it helps to put good things out there, to be helpful to people (without expecting anything in particular back in the short term), and to stay in touch with people. Being Helpful and Pleasant can be a marketing strategy!
  5. Most deals take longer to put together than you expect, so you have to plan for that, which typically means gradually shoving many things forward in parallel. It is hard juggling a sales pipeline to get the right balance between too much and too little. I had to have plenty of conversations because half of the sales leads came to nothing: the conversation fizzled out, or I was too expensive for them, or the timing wasn’t right, or some other reason.
  6. You get the work that you do, so if you’re a database engineer who wants to become a plumber, you can’t wait until someone offers plumbing work to you. You have to find a way to do some plumbing, or at least to get closer to that world (foot in the door by doing databasing for plumbers?) My transition from product management to writing was: put some writing out into the world (an example, asserting that I’m a plumber writer now”, then writing a few reports and web pages etc for people (and continuing to assert it), and then gradually getting writing work that was more interesting and more frequent.
  7. A distinctive story. You need to be able to tell the story - the promise” - as something very brief and distinctive. You want to say to people I do X” in a way that they get and remember (and then go on to repeat to other people). You want them to understand why you. Funnily enough, since this is part of the writing-for-digital discipline, I’ve found this quite hard. It can help to think about what’s the twitter-length version of what you do and why someone should care. Newsletters that explain what’s happening on the internet to big companies” hopefully tells the story and hints at the value you’ll create. Words that work for digital organisations” is still a bit woolly, I’m working on it. But I type computer words” would have been unhelpful and dull.
  8. Writing for organisations is fun. The job to be done is your guide, as is the organisation itself - its values, how it thinks of itself. The Co-op Digital newsletters job is to nudge a primarily internal audience to keep thinking about how the internet is arriving on the shores of retail and services businesses. Its tone is slightly sarcastic, slightly poking-the-organisation. ustwo’s newsletter is lighter, more positive and it tells a primarily external audience look at this cool stuff that is happening!” One newsletter project got taken in house after I and a partner did a zeroth edition, which is fine. Determining success is sometimes hard: we haven’t tracked the readership and open/click rates particularly closely (the Co-op newsletter has a ~50% open rate and 15% click rate and ustwo has ~75% open, 15% click, which seem to be ok). So you might say the writing has had more in common with marketing/comms, evangelism, opinioning, even analysis. The side project - a how to do money” thing with Anna Goss - has been great but it suffers from lack of time. She has written it up well.
  9. Working with other people is good, whether they’re customers, partners delivering a thing with me, or people I’ve brought a project to and sub-contracted. Conversely, working alone is also good. They are different types of good, and maybe you need both.
  10. The product management gigs were short term. I found it hard to have much impact unless the client organisation (often my customer’s client) was very receptive. In one case, I was part of a team that made a pretty good thing but the client never used it, which was a shame :( I suspect that product management’s natural commitment should be 2-5 years, not 2-5 weeks or months.
  11. As Phil Gyford says in his evergreen guide to freelancing, you have to be your own everything: account manager, sales dept, HR manager, task master etc. Working remote can add complications - continuous partial attention, finding ways to focus on the work, not knowing what’s happening at The Customer - but being fairly present on eg Slack can help (you wonder if working remote favours people who are happy to be ambiently and interruptibly present and can type quickly).

So there’s a bit of momentum now. I can see a couple of decision points on the horizon:

  • keep it at its current level vs grow it by working with more people
  • focus in on a particular content type vs stay broader

Of course none of it is possible without support from my family, who are the utter best. And thanks to customers, colleagues and co-conspirators - you are many, a delight to work with. You’re all appreciated, I am lucky. Anyway, year 5 let’s go.