Wardrobe minimalism, changes for 2016/7

In July last year I switched from low-level fretting about what I wore to work each day to a self-imposed uniform. After a while a few people noticed, I got asked about it, I carried on. It’s been the easiest and most effective thing I’ve ever done to reframe the way I go about my work and my life. I’m not going to say the impact has been profound or dramatic, it really hasn’t, but I feel a benefit and don’t regret it one bit.

In January I also embarked on a challenge to run at least 3.2km (2 miles) every single day, the reason I mention that is that I’ve managed that without any deviation whatsoever. However, the uniform thing has wobbled a tiny bit. There have been work days when I’ve spent most of the day in my running gear some winter days where I opted for the icebreaker merino, or I’ve switched to a suit, or something else formal, for a pitch or crucial business meeting. That’s probably happened fewer than twenty times. Other than that it’s been grey Abercrombie & Fitch iconic v-neck t-shirts and Nudie Thin Finn jeans every single working day.


Smarten up
Over the same period, I’ve sent a load of clothes to charity. When you don’t wear a variety during the week you realise your weekend wardrobe can be pretty basic too. I’ve switched all my underwear and socks to Happy Socks and Björn Borg (no more plain black socks needing to be paired post-laundry). With great satisfaction, I have seen out the year and am keen to move it on. Because of the fact that I’d felt under-dressed on a handful of occasions at work (partly because of our new office location in the City and my increasing new business remit). The A&F tees have disappointed, to be honest. For just £17 each I shouldn’t really have had much expectation but they pilled badly very quickly and quickly looked raggy. With that all in mind, I’ve taken the decision to switch this year to a sharper look. So, out goes the denim and in comes some navy chinos. I went with the J Crew 484 fit in a broken-in finish. These balance the right amount of formality with a silhouette that matches my frame and an acknowledgement that I’m in marketing, not corporate finance. I’ll be pairing these with a proper City look, a Jermyn Street poplin white shirt. I’ve gone with Thomas Pink and, unlike last year, I’ll be alternating between two variants: the Independent shirt (slim fit, Maughan) and the Freddie (super slim fit, poplin). Partly this is down to cost, unlike a £17 cotton t-shirt, these are shirts that run north of £100 a piece, buying 5 is a bit of an ask and at the current moment I was able to get a decent price on the Independent shirt. Additionally, I wanted to try two looks. The Independent is designed to be worn without a tie and has a more robust collar for that reason, however, it doesn’t come in the super-slim fit and as a 64kg chap with a 14.5 collar, I thought I might suit a really neat tailored shirt. Both will be button cuff as I’m a big fan of a turned sleeve, and both are simple poplin which I believe is the classic London weave.

Stepping up
Shoes were the big failure of the past year. I kept alternating between increasingly tired pairs of Nike Frees, Adidas Adipure and some (still unrepaired) Oliver Sweeney for formal. When the weather got bad over winter I’d throw on some hiking boots for the commute and put my Nike iD Roshe (office slippers) on when I got in. Wholly unsatisfactory. This year I’ve decided to buy some dedicated work shoes; because of the amount of walking each day I need a good sole and something decently weather proof but with a look that will work with the chinos. Timberland’s Bradstreet Oxford has a SensorFlex sole and ticks the style and protection boxes with the upper.

Winter 2016/7
I can’t honestly say I’ve kept my life as simple this time around. There’s going to be a bit of a burden in ironing and keeping on top of things. I’ve probably spent hours working out what items I wanted to get, making sure I could rely on getting ‘more of the same’ if required and seeking out deals/rewards through programes like Gate365. I’m almost certain I’m going to have to buy another pair of chinos and probably another shirt at some point and neither were cheap. Winter variations are already in the planning. I have my Rab microlight Alpine (which has been perfect) but for the coldest days I’ll add some wool and current thinking is something grey, zip necked by Ulvang (Berg), Bergans (Ulriken) or Fjallraven.

Finally, I’ve also decided to take a hard look at my running gear. I’ll be sticking with Adidas, the fit is just bang-on (although my Mizuno tee from the Amba Hotel City Mile is a great cut) but I want to have just two or three pieces and in plain solid colours.

Right, back to blog posts on user experience and suchlike, until next July.

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Pound Cost Averaging: Why investors and investment houses should learn from runners.



Make the most of the downhills in your investment strategy (Alexis Martín, Flickr)


Analogies can be hit and miss, but that doesn’t stop me from deploying them almost constantly in conversation. Because running is such a significant part of my life, there has been a tendency to see much of the work I do through the lens of physical activity and effort proves to be highly relatable in many service journeys.

Thanks to my one-time boss and good friend Darren, I was engaged in a conversation on Facebook recently pertaining to investments. With an undulating landscape of financial predictions, the chat was about how your unsophisticated public investor might make the right decisions about how much to invest and when.

Darren highlighted the strategy of Pound Cost Averaging, something I wasn’t aware of and which can be described thusly

The basic idea behind pound-cost averaging is straightforward; the term simply refers to investing money in equal amounts at regular intervals. One way to do this is with a lump sum that you’d prefer to invest gradually–for example, by taking £1,000 and investing £100 each month for 10 months. Or you can pound-cost average on an open-ended basis by investing, say, £100 out of your paycheque every month. The latter is the most common method; in fact, if you have a defined contribution pension plan, you’ve probably already been pound-cost averaging in this way.

Source: Morningstar

Now, that’s one way of essentially distributing an investment over time to spread the risk, prevent you getting carried away trying to read the market but keeping you ‘in the zone’ of investing when you might not feel like it.

There’s good evidence that it’s a very sensible strategy, albeit one that is not at the aggressive end of possible returns. Writing with refreshing candour in  The Spectator in November 2015 Louise Cooper highlighted how such a simple approach is a solid antidote to the lack of expertise that Fund Managers really have.


Now, what I’d like to see – and what interested me about Darren’s comments – was the potential to flex these regular contributions in line with the market’s movements. This is where the analogy really begins.

As a long-distance runner, the absolute best thing you can learn in an event like the marathon is pacing. You want to distribute the effort across the race and there’s some really good literature to support it. No course is completely flat and this means you have to modify the effort to match the gradient, you ease off a bit on the uphill and, within reason, make some benefit on the downhills. Using Heart Rate as a guide you might aim for a consistent effort of 165 BPM, keeping that constant on hills means dropping pace, on the downhills your heart is under less load so you can speed up a bit. Recently the website Flying Runner allowed you to create a minute-per-mile pace band that reflected the slight modifications you’d make throughout the race depending on the gradient or effort required.

Now consider investing, let’s say you want to invest £10,000 this year. You can trickle that out evenly across the year in £833.33 increments, assuming a flat market. But what if you wanted to follow the FTSE and say invest a little more when the market is on a downturn and invest a little less when it’s climbing? Doing so would make the most of the market movement but keep you within a framework that spreads the load.

There are issues with this approach of course: a period of consistent decline might over-stretch a finite investment pot, so if I put £850 in for the first 4 months of the year then I’ve used up more of my £10,000 but with no guarantee that I’ll make it up if the market doesn’t subsequently ascend. That’s a crucial difference. In the marathon, we know the profile and the distance of the course in advance and can plan how much to scrub off or add on to our pace with the gradients and the total distance predetermined. That said, this is a longer play than a marathon and a decade of investing this way is sure to see the amounts even out. The problem then becomes setting a monthly amount that you can afford: For example setting hard maximum investment and a hard minimum that is reviewed each year according to salary changes.

The second issue is fees and logistics. The sad truth is that nobody appears to be setup to allow the public to effortlessly invest in this manner. Often each investment incurs a commission thereby wiping out the gains if you’re making 12 of them per year. Additionally, no provider appears to offer automatic modifications that track the market gradient against your personal tolerances [happy to be corrected], although Share Centre certainly support a savvy customer doing it themselves. Evidently, there’s nothing to stop one doing it oneself with a spreadsheet and a diligent approach to calling in or going online to tweak the figures. Does this constitute a direct example of where Big Finance is theoretically working against customer behaviour by penalising us through regulatory-inflicted charges? Is it an example of an opportunity that could be exploited by FinTech, able to quickly build a front-end to an investment vehicle that is aligned to plausible customer behaviour? Well, until I can find a service to meet my desired approach I’ll just have to work on my own Google Spreadsheet and work towards the release of the first endurance-inspired investment strategy.  Given that the Brexit marathon starting pistol has just been fired, perhaps now is the time to, caveat emptor, give it a go?


Out, and into the world

It’s quite a curious feeling to be in the majority but still feel isolated and defensive. As a postgraduate degree level Londoner I share my social media, office, commute and friendship groups with an overwhelmingly pro-EU remain crowd. Standing up, standing out within this group and asserting my own pro-Brexit position has been profoundly uncomfortable but (yes there’s a running analogy of course…) just like a threshold effort 10k, when you suck-it-up and get on with it, the very action of doing so is liberatingly enjoyable.

In the days leading up to the referendum, I posted a few timeline posts on Facebook, generating hundreds of comments. I tried, diplomatically to respond and debate. I had some  enjoyable and educational contributions combined with no little animosity and incredulity elsewhere. It was a hard ride, one minute I felt grateful for the praise levelled at my thoughts, the next I felt bruised by unwarranted aggression, spite and misunderstanding. In the days immediately following the decision I spent my Facebook time simply liking or single-sentence commenting on others’ output. I have posted nothing on my own timeline since it is not a time to be overtly triumphalist. I’ve been a big fan of Daniel Hannan’s approach throughout the campaign and his sensitive and mindful reconciliatory words on the morning of the 24th stayed with me – the 48% who voted to Remain will be distressed indeed.

I’d like to think that, had the Remain camp won, then we Leavers would have been magnanimous in defeat, of course we can never know. By contrast, Remainers have not been, and my goodness me how they showed it! Post after post after post flecked with invective and bilious anger at the millions of people who had the temerity to disagree with their view. May were the same people who not 24 hours before had insisted we vote for ‘love not hate’ and were out there in spades howling at their heretics. Hate for those with age on their side for example; A particularly asinine table was widely shared that showed the demographics of Leave voters skewed towards the older generation. Interesting and worthy of debate as to why, of course, but the addition of a ‘Number of years they have to live with their decision’ column showed a bitter and arrogant side to the millennial that was hard to swallow. By this logic, they would presumably accept their own views will be nullified when they reach 65+ or  presuming they were to be diagnosed with a terminal illness they would not be allowed to vote? The trouble is, rational thinking has taken a leave of absence. Presently, the inner Chimp is in control. Countless preposterous, petulant petitions were set up to variously move London into a City state inside the EU, invoke a second (third, fourth…) referendum, annul the result and so on. The tub-thumping Shoreditch socialites were clamouring for marches and protests whilst conveniently forgetting that their last uprising resulted in the ineffectual Corbyn being elected. So right now we find ourselves very much in the anger and denial stages of the Kübler-Ross model:


Whilst this model has been challenged, I find it a compelling articulation of what I’ve seen and read in the past 48 hours. To that end, and perhaps the discomfort of many, I have taken snapshots of the worst of these angst-ridden posts to create a time-capsule and monitor the progress of their output as the country moves toward its new future. Will their predictions prove correct, their fears unfounded and their outpourings tinged with shame in years to come? For balance, I have taken snapshots of fellow Leavers’ comments – will their optimism and positivity bear fruit or will regret take hold? Everyone, of course, has their right to be sad, to be angry and confused and it’s simply symptomatic of the digital age that we see far more of it now that it’s shared so effortlessly online. A generation ago the sentiment of the country would trickle into the media slowly from bus stop chatter, office conversations, neighbours and the letters pages of newspapers, now it’s here, ejaculated into the miasma through the Facebook timeline algorithm.

It was something I identified (irked by Toynbee’s piece), then posted and got rounded-on eight days before the vote:

[Have any of you] thought just for one second that your rosy view of the EU and its titanic contribution to the nation might not be shared by the nation outside the M25, and crucially, why not?

The pitchfork wielding yokels disappointed you by voting Tory didn’t they? The idiots, how could they be so ignorant? And now, the stupid regional leather-faced builders, hygienists, cafe owners, dry liners and postman are at it again. Sucked in by stupid Bojo, Gove and Farage … they’re so gullible, they’re so naively racist and bigotted! Why can’t they SEE how great Europe is, they should meet our Polish builder, he’s amazing and our Portuguese cleaner is the nuts! Can’t they see the redeveloped waterfront the EU paid for, aren’t they delighted by the clean beaches, their booze cruises and the working time directive? Of course, now it’s looking a little too likely that Leave might win, it’s time to roll out the Op-Ed pieces that we should never be trusted with important decisions because we make the wrong ones, you know, just like that snaggle-toothed winner on X Factor and Boaty McBoat Face. Democracy is brilliant you scream, but only when it’s sensible Londoners voting like we did with the mayor and certainly not when it’s this complicated.

Or maybe, just maybe, you could walk a mile in their shoes and understand why it is that millions of people just don’t quite march to the same beat that you do in Camden, Shoreditch, Peckham and Islington.

You might be angry they’re about to vote out and flood your feeds with cerebral musings from the broadsheets, lists of the great and good on the Remain side and sub-Vice videos of hipsters handing out tenners. Well done! Social media echo chamber FTW!

I’m angry and disappointed too that tolerance, empathy and understanding seems to be something the metropolitan elite can dip in and out of at will.

John Gibbard, Facebook 16 June 2016

I took some comfort that in the days following the result, much more capable writers than I addressed the ‘filter bubble’. The Telegraph’s Bryony Gordon railed against the whinging  whilst Owen Jones and Ian Leslie offered thoughtful pieces about acceptance, followed by what we should learn and practically do about the evident divisions. More than any other, this paragraph from Leslie’s piece stands out:

I don’t think you can truly be a believer in democracy unless you accept that the people, collectively, are smarter than you are. That’s hard. It’s easy to say you believe in the popular will, right up until the popular will does something REALLY STUPID. The hard thing is not just to ‘accept the result’ but to accept that the majority who voted for that result know or understand something better than you. But they do. You are just one person, after all, and try as you might to expand your perspective with reading (and some try harder than others) you can’t see everything. So if a vote goes against you, you need to reflect on the possibility you got it wrong in some way. If I look at the results of past general elections and referendums, for instance, I now see they were all pretty much the right calls, including those where I voted the other way.

Hindsight, or perhaps more accurately, post rationalisation, has given me a chance to satisfy some of my own anxieties around the decision I made to vote Leave. This was a decision I made a month or so before polling day and one from which I barely wavered. My thoughts are fortunately documented on those Facebook posts and I stand by them today. I’ve questioned a little why it is that I found myself suddenly taking strength from the plight of the regions, a plight to which my own pro-austerity position has hardly assisted. This is the revelation, I discovered through the past weeks that the quiet and angry regions have suffered for longer and from more insidious and egregious policy decisions than I realised. Will Davies’ piece calls out many of these issues and the sociological implications of them and I’ll not repeat them all here, but one which stood out was the electorate’s pride and a desire to help themselves – to not be beholden to EU handouts. In effect, it was seeking to redress the London and Brussels-centric view of a people that could be marginalised and ignored whilst being propped up through poorly-considered welfare decisions. Austerity  tried to reduce the reliance on welfare and at the same time these communities developed a perception that immigrants were also getting the opportunities that they couldn’t. Personally, as a Londoner surrounded by immigration and integration I had no negative view on immigration and it didn’t affect my vote but I did get a sense that the regions had a grievance that we weren’t giving full credit to and that that grievance was could not be lazily attributed entirely to racism.

The ‘head and heart’ decision I came to took elements of nostalgia, of course it did, but nostalgia for the spirit, creativity, architecture, and engineering achievement of the Olympics in 2012, not the bucolic vision that AA Gill insisted we Leavers were trying to capture. It took elements of frustration, at the manner in which friends insisted that an out vote was one for ‘hate not love’, ‘isolation not inclusion’ (ignoring that non-EU countries like Norway and Switzerland are not this way); but it took more from my declared belief in this nation’s incredible capability. I asserted it thus:

I’m voting to leave the EU in order to think beyond an inevitable short-term economic storm, to think about a reset to the economy where an inevitable rise in inflation would lead to interest rates rises that could provide relief for investors and reset the dysfunctional housing market. I’m voting to see the exchange rate slump some, resetting our trade deficit and encouraging investment in export and production. I couldn’t give a toss about mobile phone bills in Europe, European safety standards and innumerable trivial issues all of which would end up being resolved by adopting existing practises or being legislated back in the UK by sensible and rational human beings.

I’m thinking beyond the self-interested parliamentary term. This is a long game where the first years may well be uncomfortable and tinged with uncertainty – the inconvenient truth is that economic modelling is woeful, truly awful and trying to make decisions on a 15-year prediction is nonsense. I seek a certainty where my son and his generation lives in a Sovereign nation in charge of its own affairs and able to negotiate not as a homogenous bloc of nations but as a capable, confident and assured nation with the world’s most spoken language and a growing economy ranked 5th in the world. Where the democratic process in Wards and Boroughs around the UK reflect the people who make the decisions in Westminster, Stormont, Cardiff and Holyrood.

John Gibbard, Facebook 7th June 2016

I read left and right wing press but was more compelled by the latter. I studied but didn’t fully understand this comprehensive critique of the Project Fear case, I listened to Hannan’s superb speech at The Spectator debate. I voted as a technologist who is passionately engaged in the expedition of trade, commerce and interaction across the world – a world that makes it as effortless to trade and engage (as my company has done) with India and South Africa as it does with Europe. I find it curiously amusing that so many of my colleagues find such relevance in geography at the same time as booking long weekends in Dubai and FaceTiming friends in Portland. In my piece from 7th June I  highlighted my expectation and desire that we would not turn away from Europe but would simply exist outside its bureaucratic interference; that we would remain members of NATO, the UN, EEA (with some concessions), WTO, Interpol, Europol, the G8, G20, the Council of Europe (which includes Russia and Turkey) all of these things are about cooperation and togetherness, a vote to Leave does not define me as being for isolation. Scientists clubbed together to insist that Brexit would be a disaster for collaboration their fields, conveniently ignoring the most successful scientific project in Europe, CERN, exists in Geneva outside of the Union.

In no other part of the world do we expect nations to apologise for wanting to set their own laws, regulations and agreements, the US would never concede to having to take regulations imposed by its neighbours, the Australians are not expected to join a law-making union with New Zealand and the Pacific Islands nor admonished for not doing so.

Happily, in many ways, my vote was aligned with my academic and professional career for customer and user centricity. Making Britain able to write independent trade agreements with whoever we choose under terms that benefit our relationship with our customers. Opening us out to the world, not fixated on the EU (and shackled by their sclerotic trade agreements), to rebalance our appalling trade deficit, reawaken our ‘exportise’ [sic] and provide opportunities to help ourselves meet the demands of the eager audience for our goods and services.

Consider this then my subdued celebratory post, that a nation voted by a majority for an idea I believe in, an opportunity not for a risk and that now we can put our shoulder to the wheel and begin to set ourselves to that task. I write this fully in the knowledge that there are terrible idiots surfing the same wave and using it as an opportunity to pedal racism and division, that is inexcusable. I have to believe this is as temporary as the more harmless social media Remain backlash. As mentioned in my opening, I have stayed quietened in part it is that there is a general assumption that by simply voting for the same political outcome I am assumed to share the beliefs of a minority of anti-immigrationists. I don’t and have said as such many times. So whilst I can sit watching the FTSE and Sterling self-level in the coming days and feel happy that the economy will be ok, I cannot be so sure that the social divisions will heal so quickly.

Finally, perhaps there’s still that chink of light for the Remainers to flock toward, Teebs’ comment in the Guardian hints that the Government have the option at least to ignore the country and teeter on the brink of Brexit for a little while yet.

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Devolve responsibility for your customer experience at your peril


In the world of customer experience, there are certain topics and industry sectors which, if you’re looking for examples of terrible customer service, are like shooting fish in a barrel. Consider, for example, the courier company.

It’s not a trivial thing, every single graph one finds when searching for online shopping shows a precipitous upward curve. We’re all doing it and as a fundamental part of our relationship with brands, it’s a curious thing that something so critical to the customer journey is outsourced to external companies – often at the lowest possible price.

The trouble is, it’s so often the point of the user experience that is most broken. eCommerce retailers have woken up and begun to spend big sums on the optimisation of their digital interaction design. They’re talking choice architecture, multi-variate testing, ethnography, eye-tracking and so on and so on. All very noble, but once we’ve slipped down their wide-necked and increasingly-greasy conversion funnel we’re left at the mercy of the cowboys they have contracted to send us our products.

Many of us are now experiencing that sinking feeling when the confirmation email drops into our box and proudly announces that [insert courier company here] are going to be delivering the purchase. Today on Twitter the comedian Richard Herring began tweeting his experiences of Yodel’s service. It opened a rich vein of commentary on the company’s undeniably appalling fulfilment of orders. Amongst the numerous comical and fantastical examples of their failures, a few posts stood out [ Why I’m boycotting Yodel and Yodel are an incompetent shower ]. It’s quite apparent that customers are now sufficiently motivated by the toxicity of their previous experiences with companies like Yodel, to take this out on the original vendor/provider.

From Terence Eden

Well, the solution’s simple – from now on I don’t accept deliveries from Yodel.

If I buy something and I receive a Yodel tracking ID, I’m cancelling the order.
If a Yodel driver turns up, I’ll refuse to accept delivery.

In short, I am firing them – and I suggest you do the same.

In simple terms, customers will actually refuse to purchase from you if they know you’re using a courier who has failed them in the past.

This attribution of responsibility, the guilt by association or the sheer unwillingness to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous delivery companies, anecdotally at least, is an opportunity for eTailers. Consider the benefit of giving customers the confidence that their shipping fee will be going to a highly-rated and ultra-low-failure-rate delivery company? Imagine that your customer can have complete confidence – underwritten by you as vendor – that their parcel will arrive safely, in good time.

If we as experience-obsessed strategists, are mapping and considering the service from end to end, we must insist that significant time and attention is paid to all touch points, including those that businesses choose to outsource (for perfectly legitimate reasons) and that the same care and attention to exceptional user experience is applied to those moments. The critical moment of delivery is too valuable to leave to the cold moneyed hand of procurement decision makers writing contracts with universally-derided delivery partners.

And, if you’re a courier company, perhaps using your twitter feed to merrily announce competition winners while disgruntled customers pick up the pieces (often literally) of your failed service, might not be the most sensible strategy…

UPDATE Richard Herring’s Metro piece on the failed delivery is a good read

Companies that use Yodel

: After an atrocious delivery experience from ELC/Mothercare I have decided to produce a table showing retailers that use Yodel for their service to avoid them on that basis (other tables exist on MSE and Mumsnet but are out of date)

Mothercare & Early Learning Centre (July 2016) – Will no longer use at-home delivery
Great Little Trading Company – (July 2016) – Will no longer use whilst they contract Yodel

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Tanda Predictions for Marathon Times

With the Asics Stockholm Marathon just a few weeks away it’s time to take stock of a few things in my running year.

Although not documented on this blog, I’ve set myself a challenge of running every single day this year (at least 3.2k – two miles in old money). This was loosely inspired by Advent Running and the Tracksmith poster, but the origins are neither here nor there. So far I’ve hit it.

Doing a challenge like that has naturally impacted my traditional marathon build-up. I’ve followed a Garmin plan this time around and on rest days I’ve just done light runs but other than that I’ve tried to stick to tempo or threshold training on the selected session days. The big ‘but’ of all this has been the effect it’s had on my overall quality of session: tempo runs are often on tired legs, intervals are not even harder to complete and the long runs in recent weeks have seen some incredibly slow pace and high heart rates.

To make sense of this, or at least allow me to predict what this might all mean for Stockholm I have been fretting about the long runs in particular. In recent weeks, I’ve hit 32.1, 35, 31.1, 33.6 km each weekend. I’ve done 5 runs over 30k this year and a further 5 over 20k. All of which is much more than I’ve done in the past but I’ve been intentionally running them slower. I’ve tried to stick to Zone 2 Heart Rates, under 140bpm which means around 5:10-5:40 pace per km. It should feel easy but after a while it does fatigue you regardless and it begins to hurt as I run more heavily by slumping into slower cadences and mentally I struggle with the discipline of keeping the HR low especially now the days are 15-20 degrees warmer than those first runs of the year.

Today I stumbled across the Tanda discussions from Christof Schwiening‘s blog which I found via Charlie Wartnaby and the sub 3hr Facebook Group. I printed out this graph and started to plot my weekly distance against average pace to see where I sit. Fortunately, Strava’s log page gives me the weekly duration and distance figures so I did a few calculations on bane.info and plotted 12 weeks’ worth of data. To my amazement it had me sitting along the 3hr 15′ contour and, given the strength of this model, I’m quite encouraged by that.



Black x marks indicate my training weeks


There’s no question that the long runs have really frustrated me, on the days I’ve run slow I’ve wondered how I could even run at paces I was comfortable at in 2015, 2012 and 2011 for the full distance. But then this year I’ve also hit a parkrun PB of 19:03 and regularly go sub 3:45 on my commute runs and in interval sessions. My Garmin VO2 max has been as high as 60 and is currently hovering at 58/59. So I’m fit and, touch-wood, largely injury free. A niggling sciatic nerve, a bit of gluteus numbness and some hints of ITB all might flare up on the day but equally, could not, and if they don’t? Well, to hit 3:15 would be a dream and put me firmly on the road of my 5-year plan to sub 3 with a good opportunity to go quicker in York in October. However, that means averaging 4′ 37″ /km for the entire race and that is a pace which I exceeded for just 25 minutes on Sunday (after 2 hrs 20 mins of slower running). Even with adrenaline and a lighter few weeks ahead I’m not sure I’ve got that in me, and that in itself is a revelation: physiologically the data says I should be able to do it, but my own sense of perceived effort says it’s not.

screenshot-connect.garmin.com 2016-05-16 19-15-52.png

I’ve got time to set that goal, create the pace band and work out what I’ll go at. Keeping an eye on the temperature (average 18 C) and wind on the day will have a bearing but when you’ve spent a fair amount of coin flying out there, hotels and food, do you really want to risk having 4 hours of hell on the road because you took a risk and went out at a punchy pace?

On the 4th June, we’ll know…

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Using exercise icons on food labels is not the answer to the obesity epidemic

It’s well understood that the country is facing an obesity epidemic. There are few topics in public health as well covered in recent years. The sugar tax is happening and much debate is underway about the role governments and responsible bodies should have in modifying our irrational and damaging behaviour.

I have a vested interest in the subject from several perspectives: As a concerned citizen, as an endurance runner, as a proud supporter of the UK’s biggest mass exercise movement in parkrun and as a behavioural psychologist working in persuasive consumer design.

My empirical background adds a healthy dose of cynicism when I read today that the Royal Society for Public Health (RSPH) suggest the use of exercise labels for food to replace or augment the nutrition labelling.

The reason this is being suggested is that nutrition labelling isn’t working. The arguments here concern the fact that the detail is too complex for the general public, that it causes an unhealthy focus on calorie content that there is considerable ambiguity on how this information should be used by the consumer and the presentation of portion sizes.

I contend that the solution proposed by RSPH is also doomed to failure because it doesn’t affect the decision at the point of sale and allows our inner defence lawyer to contend and justify the purchase because ‘i’ll deal with the consequences of this bad choice later with some exercise’. It’s the same reason that carbon offsetting is an acceptance that we make the wrong choice with travel. This is what behavioural economists call the default norm, we are not affecting the ingrained status quo of the bad choice. It’s better than nothing, perhaps, but it avoids dealing with the real problem – which is that we don’t promote real nutritious and healthy food anywhere near enough.

The evidence, interrogated

To explain why this was felt to be a worthwhile intervention, some well-meaning commentators and the RSPH have pointed to a study in Baltimore, widely reported in October 2014 [CNN, Washington Post], and published in the American Journal of Public Health. This study placed 20 cm x 28 cm signs in a point of sale (PoS) display in stores that drew attention to the amount of exercise required to ‘burn off’ the carbonated drinks in the adjacent cabinet. It worked, and less drink was sold. However, there are a handful of reasons we cannot extrapolate the findings from this to the RSPH proposition.

  •  The Baltimore study was a confrontational intervention, it arrested the purchase process with a highly visible sign. Nudges here are just enough to bump people away from their behaviour.
  • It isn’t sustainable, even if we accept the execution worked this time, like the note on the fridge to not forget your lunch, you’d ignore it very quickly on repeated presentations.
  • This is before the purchase, packaging labels are not universally observed until post-purchase.
  • The demographic tested was limited (urban, black, adolescents) and the cultural effects of their consumption and susceptibility for intervention have not been accounted for.

The people that read labels and packaging tend toward higher levels of education and are already motivated by a health goal: fat loss, protein intake etc. so the people making use of labels to change behaviour are already past the trigger point. RSPH cite Dr. Hamlin’s paper about the attention given to front of pack (FOP) labelling but even this paper acknowledges the profound limitations of FOP in the context of the myriad of marketing pressure applied to the persuasion for sale. They also acknowledge [Cowburn, G., Stockley, L., 2005] that the interpretation of labelling is going to be challenged by levels of education and nutritional sophistication.  Finally, although the RSPH present research that indicates people would be ‘three times more likely to indicate they would undertake physical activity’, there is no evidence this intent is or would be followed-through.

Distracting us from the task at hand

Solutions may be found by modifying packaging and one could argue that it’s just part of a broad approach to changing perception and behaviour but I contend that it’s actually damaging to press ahead with it. To spend time considering and executing this is to distract from the real solution which is to make healthy food choices the norm. Considerable time and effort must be expended in the persuasive design industry to work with our natural biases and present good food as the obvious, natural and common choice. To dilute the salience of bad food in preference for clean, natural unprocessed alternatives.

I look forward to Public Health sector that recognises that until we confront the universally damaging food we sell in the same way we’ve confronted tobacco (i.e. through demonisation), we’re not going to be able to educate people away from their irrational desire to pursue the forbidden fruit. We cannot go around treating exercise, worthy and valuable as it is, as the cure for a problem we’ve not had the guts to deal with at source. You wouldn’t promote chemotherapy on cigarette packets … would you?

The RSPH paper itself acknowledges that the solution needs to tackle both sides of the obesity equation (ie. “When calories in … exceeds calories out” and “modifying both energy intake and energy expenditure”) but their solution will not change ‘calories in’ and does not have realistic prospect of effecting ‘calories out’.

EDIT: On the 9th May 2016 a piece by Nick Triggle was posted on BBC News which highlights the disparity alluded-to in the final section of this blog: “Some 58% of advertising spend is on confectionery and convenience food, compared to only 3% on fruit, vegetables and pasta” What Yoghurt Tells Us About The Obesity Fight retrieved 09/05/2016.

Artisanal food: an update

After an opportunity opened up in Charlie‘s workload we have finally managed to get our artisanal food generator coded and on a public-facing URL. We’d love you to give it a try. There is a previous post on this blog which tells you the story of why we think it demonstrates good persuasive thinking.

Late in 2015, we attended a Dare Sessions event with our friends The Foundry. The theme of the event was automation and David Atkinson from The Foundry referenced a wonderful bit of automation work where wine reviews were constructed using Markov Chains. This gives us some future direction perhaps in the logic although there is plenty to be getting on with as it is.

Finally, we’re proud to say that the associated Twitter account @shinyplums is gaining popularity although we’re not sure that everyone has worked out that it’s satirical. Which we rather like.

The only ‘disappointment’ personally was that Amanda Bacon’s food diary in US Elle shows us that no matter how ridiculous our strings might appear, the reality is much worse.

Look for the helpers

Some of you will change your profile photo, express solidarity, perhaps write something in French. Others might go somewhere French, light a candle. You might quietly blame policies, religions or individuals (rarely do we feel confident enough or sure enough to do it publicly). It’s your choice to do those things, it’s always heartfelt and I criticise none of it.

Those things don’t help me personally. This morning I’ve spent time looking at the photos and watching the footage as I have done time and time again in recent years after similar events to take comfort in the direct and immediate response of the helpers. The people rushing to assist, with scant consideration of the immediate perceived danger.

These people and my reflections of admiration for them are the only things that make me feel positive and hopeful. Even though I know I’ll never see an end to this carnage in my lifetime I do know that each time it happens I’ll always find more people helping.

The Experience Gap

Thoroughly enjoyed this Harvard Business Review post about something we call at Dare, ‘The Experience Gap’. That is the huge gulf that often exists between a company’s perception of its customer experience and the reality of it. [The article isn’t entirely about this topic but is hugely valuable to consider the difference listening to customers and understanding]

Of course, much of what we consider marketing is about pushing the aspirational or intended experience from a product or service and caring less about the reality of it (which is generally something controlled by operations or product development teams).

A nice articulation of this gap can be seen in these two videos for Les Mills Grit Strength gym class. I shall leave them both here for direct comparison.

What you think you’ll experience

… and what you will almost certainly experience

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UK Running events: Are the fees excessive?

I decided some time ago that I wouldn’t ever compete in my most local of races, the Garmin Kingston Run and the Lidl Kingston Breakfast Run. These events cover the route that I run most often and it just seemed silly to pay £28-34 to cover the same paths I cover each week for free. That was a rational decision and although I thought it was expensive, it was more in the context of it being local and familiar rather than a moral comment on the rising cost of races, after all, £34 was for a 20 mile course, so £1.70 per mile or 24p a minute [see below].

It planted a seed in my mind. That seed germinated last year when the cost of the Winter Run was announced. This is just a 10k run and the price soared to an eye-watering £40. Ok, Ok, I thought, it’s London passing some of the busiest and most secure environments in the country and it’s for charity and they’re putting on a fake snow machine and ‘free polar bear hugs’. So, perhaps, the £4.50 per km cost [£1.13 per minute at 6’26” mile (4’00” /km) pace] can be justified. I’m not going to enter obviously but somebody might.

Then last month the little seedling grew another few cm when I received an invite for the Vitality West London 10k. £40 plus a £2.40 booking fee. What on earth are they talking about? This time there was no snow being promised, no bears and the charity bit is optional (albeit reducing the cost if you do). It’s getting ridiculous.

Milton Keynes Marathon cost me £40, London in 2012 was about £35 from memory. At London you can understand the cost – this is a race having to pay high fees to attract the world’s very best runners. London Marathon provide security, medical and logistics support to hundreds of thousands of people across one of the most expensive and congested cities in Europe. With most people finishing in 4 hours or so it works out at a quite generous 15-20p per minute (less if you include the pre and post race support), that’s £1.50 per mile or thereabouts.

The marathon is over four times the length of the 10k; Now you’d assume some costs are fixed and others based on mileage and there are going to be economies of scale, with that in mind the fact that the Vitality West London 10k is the same cost as one of the World’s top Marathons just seems a little excessive doesn’t it?

Breakdown of event costs

I know I need more detail. I have to understand what proportion of the race fee goes on which elements of event support. I want to know for these pricey commercial events (even with their veneer of charity fundraising):

  • What proportion of the support is offered on a volunteer basis?
  • What fees do St John Ambulance charge and the various chip-timing systems?
  • When drinks are provided, is this at cost to the manufacturer or is it a wholesale buy?
  • What about ped barriers, gantries, baggage transport/storage, signage?
  • How about professional fees, local authorities and insurances?

Now, here’s the crux, how does the experience differ – in real terms – to the more spit-and-sawdust events? Admittedly some of these are not on closed roads, but to many runners the difference between a regional city/town marathon and club-organised event is predominantly a case of baggage handling, signage and goody-bags. The distance is the same.

Change in event prices over time

How has the cost of the UK’s top-tier closed-road events changed in the past 20 years (Great North Run, London Marathon, Edinburgh Great Winter Run). Do you know what you paid for one of these events in the distant past?

Are key event costs rising or falling? Of those items listed above, some of these must surely have benefitted from technology and efficiency savings?

Some example race prices
(assuming my current race pace)

Provider Closed Roads Distance (km) Typical time (min) Cost (full) per km per minute
Winter Run (London) Human Race YES 10 40 £45.00 £4.50 £1.13
West London 10km Vitality YES 10 40 £42.40 £4.24 £1.06
Great British 10km Vitality YES 10 40 £50.00 £5.00 £1.25
Bath Half Vitality YES 21.08 90 £43.00 £2.04 £0.48
Reading Half Vitality YES 21.08 90 £38.00 £1.80 £0.42
Virgin London Marathon London Marathon YES 42.16 210  £35.00 £0.83 £0.17
Kingston Breakfast Run Human Race PARTIAL 13 52 £28.00 £2.15 £0.54
Kingston Breakfast Run Human Race PARTIAL 26 110 £31.00 £1.19 £0.28
Kingston Breakfast Run Human Race PARTIAL 32.3 140 £34.00 £1.05 £0.24
Great Winter Run (Edinburgh) Great Run YES 5 19 £21.00 £4.20 £1.11
Great North Run Great Run YES 21.08 90 £53.04 £2.52 £0.59
Bedford Half Bedford Harriers NO 21.08 90 £20.50 £0.97 £0.23
Halstead Marathon Halstead Road Runners PARTIAL 42.16 210 £33.50 £0.79 £0.16
Sittingbourne 10km Rotary Club NO 10 40 £14.00 £1.40 £0.35
Bullock Smithy Hazel Grove Scouts PARTIAL 56 660 £30 £0.54 £0.05

What do you think? Are race prices a fair reflection of the organiser’s effort? Is it fair to compare such ‘different’ events?

Bear in mind that the runners’ fees are not the only income source at several of these events. Sponsors contribute and charities are often charged significant fees to have spaces for runners and their own tents at the event (e.g. Great North Run).

Other perspectives

By contrast, here’s a BBC News piece about how obstacle events (ugh, don’t get me started on this particular craze) are increasing in popularity and how they leave organisers out of pocket at least initially.

A Guardian assessment on race prices from March 2015 – the comments on this piece are revealing. 

I’d love to have a race director’s view – can you give us a breakdown of costs in terms of a percentage of where race fees go? For a brief insight, Marathon Talk episode 300 had some details on the scale of logistics behind the Bournemouth Marathon Festival (multi-distance) event.

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