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Andy: Hi, and welcome to Power of Ten, a podcast about design operating at many levels, zooming out from thoughtful detail through to organisational transformation and onto changes in society and the world. My name is Andy Polaine, I’m a service design and innovation consultant, educator, and writer. My guest today is Lou Downe, director of design and transformation for the UK government, where they’re leading change in the UK’s housing sector.
Lou was the former director of design for the UK government, where they founded the discipline of service design to the government, growing their 1,000 strong design team into one of the largest and most influential design teams in the UK, winning a Designs of the Year Award and a D&AD Lifetime Achievement Award. Lou is an influential voice in design through their writing and keynotes.
Most importantly, Lou has just written an excellent book called: Good Services, How to Design Services that work. Lou, welcome to Power of Ten.
Lou: Thank you for having me.
Andy: I just gave the little potted bio, but tell us a bit more about how you got to where you are now?
Lou: Yes, so I probably have an interesting background like most people who found themselves in services design. I started off as a writer for The Tate and sort of quickly progressed into being a producer. I used to make the interactive videos and guides and stuff into the galleries. I remember wandering into one of the galleries testing one of the guides at the time and seeing someone putting a big sign on the wall saying: Please don’t use your mobile phone. At that point, I obviously thought I had invented service design because I was like, wow, surely everyone should be designing all of these things at the same time. Obviously, I hadn’t. I ended up moving into consultancy, moving around different agencies, and then went into government and started the government service design community there and brought in service design standards and various other things like that. That’s my journey. I had an epiphanel moment, I think a lot of people do when they discovered that they actually want to focus on a whole problem. Yes.
Andy: What did you study, in that case?
Lou: I actually studied fine art and then, yes, I went on to study economics and linguistics after that because I was really interested in communication and how words and money are basically forms of communication, which is very helpful when you’re having to write business cases.
Andy: Yes, I can imagine, and in government.
Andy: I remember seeing once for The Tate, The Tate Modern I think it was, there were these little leaflets and I used to use them as a good example of… and they had different journeys around The Tate saying, on a rainy day, or time on your own, or first date. Do you remember those? Were they yours?
Lou: They weren’t mine, but one of the really fascinating things about The Tate, actually, compared to many other galleries is that the experience to visitors is first and foremost the most important thing. I remember one study that we did actually that found, actually, that 40 percent of people who come to Tate Modern only go to the café. Most galleries would be up in arms about that, trying to get them into the rest of the gallery. At the time, we just sort of said, that’s great. If they are enjoying the café, let’s make sure that they’re experience of the café is the best one that they can possibly have and let’s try and bring the experience of art into the café, so we started putting in small pamphlets and leaflets and stuff about the exhibitions, about small snippets of what the art was that was on display. Nothing too heavy because obviously people were eating and meeting friends and stuff like that. I thought it was a really nice pragmatic approach to actually what it is they were there for, which was creating an interesting and enlightening for people, regardless of how they wanted to interact. Yes.
Andy: Yes, there was a nice bit, the thing I liked about that was this idea, I guess it’s very [unintelligible 00:04:00], but it was very much this idea of, I’m not here to come and visit a gallery and be educated about art or experience culture, I’m here because I have some other purpose in my day and the gallery is fulfilling that job for me.
Lou: Yes, exactly, that was very much it.
Andy: This would have been your – was this your first introduction to designing for the general public, as it were?
Lou: It was, yes, and I started off as a writer and obviously, leaving art school, you’re full of so many syllables, so many complicated sentences that you forget how to communicate with human beings. I learnt the trade of communicating with people when I was there, that was a really great lesson. Yes, it was my first job and a learning in many ways, but it was the thing that pushed me into service design, realising that actually you can be very and communicative about the thing that you’re doing, but unless that is linked up with all of the other experience they’re having at that particular moment in time, including the fact that you’ve just asked them to use an online audio guide and someone’s telling them not to use their mobile phone, then your experience is not going to be a good one. Yes, it was a really interesting time, a lot of learning.
Andy: Well, congratulations on the book, it seems like the clear communication skills has been well learnt because it’s a great book. So annoyingly good, actually, because I was reading a lot of it thinking, I wish I’d written that.
Lou: Thank you very much.
Andy: It’s also very clearly written, you know, it’s actually a really good read, it reads really well, and I really like the tone of voice, it has great clarity in the way you wrote. I found a Tweet of yours from a while ago, announcing the principles of good services and one not long way to saying, it’s almost like the next one, I’m thinking of writing a book, and now you have. Let’s go back to the beginning. What was the genesis of the book? Was it he principles?
Lou: That’s a really interesting question, actually. So, the genesis of the book actually was a workshop, as I guess a lot of genesis for ideas are, and it was a workshop that I was running with some senior civil servants and I had about five minutes to come up with a workshop for them, I think someone else had pulled out and so, I said, okay, I’ll come stand in. Myself and one of the designers at GDS sort of stepped in and said, “Well, let’s run a workshop on what we think makes a good service, that’s a good conversation for anyone to have, regardless of their background of their expertise.” We did. The workshop really focused on, yes, at a very high level, what the group of about 15 people thought a good service looked like. At the end of it, I just looked at the list and I thought, do you know what?
That could be applied to absolutely any service that you can think of, regardless of whether or not it was a public service or checking into a hotel or getting access to healthcare, all of those things are suitably high-level, but actually, they would be useful for anyone. I started to write them up, thinking, this is a strangely productive outcome from what I thought was just going to be helping fill a time slot at a conference. That really evolved over a series of months and as I shared it with people and gathered different thoughts and deleted some and added more and split some into three and all of the things that you do when you start thinking of lists of things. That’s where the book came from. I published a blog post, okay, I think this is a thing, let’s see if anyone else things it’s interesting.
It got picked up by a Fast Company and they republished the blog post. I think compared to any other blog post on my website, it has probably about the three times the number of people who have seen it, but generally, my blog is not super high traffic. Yes, it just went from there. Shared a collaborative Google Doc and we ended up with about 2,000 people commenting on it, adding things, changing things, removing them. Really, the book is the product of that, it’s the product of not just my thoughts, people in that workshop, the 2,000 commenters and editors of that document, but really, a whole community and a history of service design practice and what we mean by the materiality of a good service.
Andy: I really enjoyed the fact that you focused on good services and you talked about it right at the beginning of the book, there are plenty of books and don’t think I didn’t notice the little dig, but it’s true, the book that I wrote with Ben Reason, talks about what’s the difference between services and products, then it talks about how to do it. I think you quite rightly said but haven’t actually defined what a good service actually looks like. Without knowing what that end-state is, you’re doing the other stuff in the dark in some respects or with not end goal. I really like the fact that you talked about good rather than wow. I mean, I have plenty of clients that have said, “Well, what are the wow moments or the moments that matter?” It’s one of my most hated expressions because it usually means moments that matter to the organisation and not to the user.
It also assumes that other moments don’t matter. Of course, quite a lot of small things, then you give lots and lots of good examples that really do matter, but they’re not particularly wow moments. In fact, quite often, people just want something, particularly with government things, sort of quite flat. They’re not, “I don’t want to have a wow moment when I’m applying for my driver’s licence”, for example. Most of the time, the wow moment is, that worked, I expected it not to. How deliberate was it that you wanted to, not set the bar low, but really say, listen, let’s strive for good and not get distracted by wow and hype?
Lou: That was absolutely deliberate. You and I have both been in the various kinds of projects and client meetings where you’re being asked to create amazing, beautiful, elegant experiences for users and you take a look at the booking process or the billing process or whatever it is for that particular organisation and you realise that it’s completely in comprehensible and that is something that I think frustrates me, I know that it frustrates every single user that uses those services, that often in the pursuit of wow worthy, award worthy, ultimately, experiences, most organisations ignore the very basic things, like letting people know when and where they should be doing something, how much something should cost or sending them a bill on time. The reason why this is called good services and not great services is just exactly that fact, that we need to focus on the basics of getting services to be functional before we can actually start creating beautiful, wonderful, magical experience with people.
Andy: We’ve both talked about the fact that there are plenty of beautiful, wonderfully designed product, physical products around. Yet, we are not living in a world of wonderfully designed services, despite what Silicon Valley might say. Certainly, in public services, but I think it’s probably a bit mean to be always harsh on public services because there are plenty of commercial services that are after the moment of being seduced to purchase something, the rest of it is really cruddy. Why do you think that is?
Lou: I think it’s because we can get away with it, right? You know, a company will always do what it thinks no one will notice. One of the things that I started researching and becoming slightly obsessed by in the process of writing the book was the fact that in contrast to our attitude toward product design and product regulation in the market. We have so few mechanisms to hold organisations of any kind to account for whether or not their service damages people’s lives. That’s partially because services are just invisible. People don’t really see them as a tangible thing that you can put constraints around. I started looking at the types of reasons why products get recalled versus services. You know, really silly things like there was about 2,000 products get recalled every year in the UK and one of which that I started diving into was a melting cheese pot that’s supposed to be fondue that you put in your microwave. The pot itself melted. You think, okay, great, no one wants cheese on their fingers. You’ve got your very British microwave fondue and…
Andy: Or plastic in your cheese.
Lou: Plastic in your cheese.
Andy: It can be sometimes hard to differentiate.
Lou: Exactly. That’s obviously something you don’t want, but in contrast to that, where a service is thinking and looking quite a lot into the American system of student loans and a company called Naviant and not to pick on Naviant in any particular detail because they’re doing exactly what every other organisation does in this case, has a rule where essentially every single person answering the phones has to answer the phone call and complete that phone call in seven minutes, which means that in certain circumstances, they are giving false advice to users. In one such circumstance, it’s one of the stories in the book, one such user who was eligible essentially for a scheme that would meant that she would have paid off her student loan completely, because she was a public servant.
They didn’t offer that to her and kept deferring her loans. Which means that she will probably never pay her loan back. Really small incentivisation, structures of our services, ways that they work can have a massive effect on people’s lives, but there’s no regulation of that type of working. That was something that I became slightly obsessed by in the book and why I feel so strongly that something like this book needs to exist, anyone could have written it really but it just needs to be out there in the world to talk to us about what we mean by a good service and ultimately, what we shouldn’t be doing which is deigning bad services.
Andy: The thing about it being invisible, and I’ve talked about this a lot too, and this idea, and you talk about it, as well, of this gap that happens where you’re – one of the ways I’ve described it was, the things get designed, they get taken care of, whether that’s the purchasing moment or it’s a physical thing, but the kind of transitions between don’t because often, that’s not my department’s responsibility or that’s their department’s responsibility and the other one is obviously saying the same. There’s this little crack in the middle, which I describe as a leading to an experience crevasse, right, you can kind of fall through this very small crack if you fail to make what sensibly seems to be a small leap from one part of the organisation to the next. Yet, once you’re down there, you just can’t get out.
I think that invisible nature, you can’t tell the quality of a service up front because you can’t hold it in your hands and look at it. That invisible part of it means that also it doesn’t get designed. Part of what was happening when I was reading it, and you said anyone can write this book just now, was that I was reading it and then thought, they’re absolutely right, this is kind of common sense in many respects and yet, and yet, and yet, it just doesn’t get executed. I think one of the things you do very well is actually to pull all of that together, because if you read through the principles, there’s nothing very contentious in there, I don’t think, and it’s quite surprising that that hasn’t been pulled together before. Yet, we’ve had decades of designers like Dieter Rams and so forth, talking about principles for a product design.
Lou: Exactly. This is a very grand ambition that I had when I first started thinking about writing the book, but I looked around at other areas of design, like you say, Dieter Rams design principles for product design or Miller Brockman’s grid system for graphic design. There are established principles, albeit, ones that we can break and that we can change and adapt and add more detail and nuance too for other areas of design, but there aren’t those principles for services design. I think it’s just a product, actually, of the maturity of the industry, up until now, we haven’t been ready I don’t think to actually sit down collectively as a lot of people did within that first Google Doc and actually say, you know, what do we mean by good for what is it we’re doing?
I talk a little bit about this in the book, but the fact that we don’t have that means that as designers in organisations, we spend a lot of time just justifying our existence because we’re not able to answer the question of what does good look like for your job? Where many other people would be able to answer that question, so I think for me, having an answer to that question is really fundamental to what service design should become, which is a practice of actually understanding and knowing what we mean by good service, of being able to design those good services and I appreciate you said at the beginning that it was a little bit of a dig at the process obsession and that’s not intentional, but I think we do need to move beyond talking about how we do things to talk about what it is we’re actually supposed to be doing.
Andy: I think it’s valid. I think there is a process of obsession, but I also think there’s a thing that’s going on that has been going on where people define their disciplines by this is what it is, and this is what it isn’t. I think one of the things I always talk about is that I don’t know that there is such a thing as a service designer, as a singular role, as rather it’s an activity that a multidisciplinary and cross disciplinary team engage in because I think the important thing about that is that, both diversity in every sense, but also all the different kinds of people who are involved in making those services and designing those services. One of the things that I think you highlight in this and it comes out, is that people have to recognise that they’re designing service in the first place. Quite often, they don’t, that’s probably why there haven’t been there kinds of principles before.
Lou: There’s an interesting debate around whether or not you need a service designer or whether or not service design is the activity of a team. I don’t think there’s any one answer to that question, it depends entirely on the circumstance, but one thing that I do know is that it’s unfair to ask people who are not literate in what a good service is and why they work in the way that they do to be able to spot, identify and then solve problems with services. I think of the analogy of a road sign. If you take a badly constructed road sign, most people who are driving past it would know that is a badly designed road sign, that they can’t read it, it’s confusing, it doesn’t tell them what they need to do. They won’t be able to tell you have to fix it. They won’t be able to tell you that kerning is wrong, or that the font is wrong, or that the spacing is wrong.
A graphic designer will be able to tell you that and they’ll be able to fix it. I think the same is true for services, where many people will be able to quite understandably spot the problem with a service, but they will not be able to tell you exactly what’s wrong with that service or how to fix it. I think we do need to start talking about the expertise that service designers bring to that space in helping us to understand what good services are and how to construct them. That’s why I’m really keen to move the debate of service design beyond methodology, which absolutely anyone can be involved in, anyone can facilitate the design of a better services. You’re absolutely right, services involve multiple different people over long periods of time but being able to actually construct a service that is well-designed is a skill. I think we shouldn’t underestimate that skill.
Andy: No, I think that’s a very good point. You know, I think that the fact that it’s previously fallen outside of the world of design and just been seen as doing business or providing government services without designing them has meant that it hasn’t had that intentionality and critical analysis, I’d say, that a designer might bring to the whole process.
Lou: Yes, exactly. I’ve heard service design many times being described as the business-friendly face of design. As if the only benefit that you can bring to an organisation is just that you won’t upset people and that you’ll help them to facilitate some thinking and move on slightly. That is fundamentally not what it’s about. It’s why I wanted Mike Montero to write the introduction to this because I think there’s a really big question when we talk about good services, that it’s not just about what is good for an organisation or what’s good for the user, it’s also about what’s good for the world because no service exists in isolation. Whilst, yes, we’re often at the cold face of interacting with various different levels of people in an organisation and that comes with some skill of negotiation and communication, we also have to be honest and true to the principles of actually understanding the ethics of what we’re doing in the first place.
Andy: That’s it and I absolutely agree, there’s a bit very early on, where you say your user defines what your service is, I really like that. I really like this idea that it’s not what you think they want, it’s not what your business wants, your user is the one who decides what your service is. Can you talk about that a little bit?
Lou: Yes, so I would 100 percent stick behind that principle in pretty much any scenario, public/private, any kind of service, that it is fundamentally your user that decides what your service is, in many different levels, but that particular thought came from working with lots of different government services, that essentially try to dictate what users are trying to do. There’s a form that will help you to stop paying tax on your car, we call it SORN, NOD COD, form v111, that is not what users are trying to do. Users are trying to stop paying tax on their car, so they dictating and they should dictate to you what that service is, so you should rename your service, you should restructure your service to help that user to do that thing.
That is always a really careful balance because we can’t be in a world where, particularly with public services, users dictate exactly what the purpose of the service is. Honestly, I think most people would love not to pay tax on their car, but the reason why we do pay tax on cars is that we can pay for roads and we can pay for other public services. There’s always a balance, but when it comes to how your service works, your user defines how that works.
Andy: You talk about this in government services quite a lot, where people are doing things that they don’t particularly want to be doing, whether that’s paying taxes, or registering for something, or paying taxes on their car.
Lou: Yes, absolutely, and that’s certainly something that you learn very quickly when you’re designing public services, is that your job is to basically help someone to do something as efficiently as possible and to get out of the way, so that they can get one with their lives. I think that’s actually very true for many services and even if you think about luxury experiences of hotel check-ins, you don’t arrive at a luxury hotel in order to check in, you arrive there to stay there. So, when you’re designing your check-in experience, although, obviously, you want to make sure that someone feels as if they are arriving at a beautiful, lovely hotel, you do want to help them get to their room as quickly as possible because that’s what they want. There’s a chapter really that talks about the appropriate number of steps and parts of your service and balancing those off against how quickly or slowly someone should be doing something. There is a real art, actually, to how many steps you put into your service, how quickly that service goes through, that means that someone has enough time to be able to make decisions, but also, that they are not unduly held up in various different bits of process that actually they don’t need to be involved in.
Andy: Yes, I really like that, that idea of really looking at the rhythm of it, not only the complexity and where it – if I were to break something down, or to see if you collapse two things into one with this idea that there are times when you want to allow people to take time, and there are times when you just want them to be seeing this and quick rather than everything being super quick. I think also there’s nothing worse than feeling like you’re a passive extra in someone else’s script. I remember buying a car in Australia and I just wanted the car. When I went to pick it up, I just wanted to pick it up, give me the keys, give me the paperwork and I’d like to go.
They’d obviously gone through a whole customer experience thing, where this lady then sat me down and talked me all through the possible added after service extras and things that they could do for you. I literally, about ten minutes in, just went, do you know what? I’m not going to buy any of this stuff, I’d just really like to take the car. She sort of nodded at me with this face of some sort of horror and then just carried on for another 20 minutes, going through her patter. It was deeply frustrating. Of course, it had the opposite effect.
Lou: Yes, exactly. I think to be honest, most service designers listening to this would resonate to the fact that I think we’ve all designed experiences like that, I think we’ve all got over excited about a moment in time, a journey of a particular service and we’ve thought, great, we can make people so excited about this. As soon as they arrive, that they can see a 3D model of their car and we can talk them through all of the different benefits, and they can leave super excited about it. I think it’s often because we’re designing those things in isolation of understanding what else is going on in that person’s life, that actually these things are forming very functional underpinnings, infrastructure to our lives and actually, the main thing that we want to do is spend time with our loved ones, our friends, our family. Go to the cinema, have a drink in a pub. We don’t want to spend time with someone that we don’t know in the forecourt of a garage talking about the benefits of the car. We just don’t. Yes.
Andy: Well, you build it up so much, you can only inevitably drop people later on. Again, that idea of actually it’s kind of counterintuitive because you kind of tend to think and I’ve heard people talk about services in terms of the dramatic arc and so forth and this build up, but actually, you kind of want, often, you want a fairly flatline almost monotone experience because that feels quite good. It just works.
Lou: Yes, exactly. Have you ever wanted a dramatic arc to getting access to your pension? No, is the answer to that.
Andy: Well, no, the only thing is, oh, look, I’ve got twice the amount of money that I thought I had, that would really be the only thing, the surprise and delight. That’s another term that gets used a lot, right, surprise and delight.
Lou: I know, but how many times have you ever wanted to be genuinely surprised in a service? Most of the time, the surprises that we have when we’re interacting with services are negative surprises because we didn’t realise how much it was going to cost, or we didn’t realise how long it was going to take. This comes back to this whole point of just getting the basics right because unless you surprise people well, then they’re just going to be surprised by all of the really bad things that are happening in your service instead.
Andy: I think most of the positive surprises are actually, oh, I expected that to be rubbish, and it wasn’t. But there are also other little surprises which feel like, well, that’s nice, someone thought about how I’m going to be feeling in that moment in time. I’ve had a couple of moments, at hotels or something like that, where it felt like someone has really thought through or understood the emotional state or the context at the time and has known that I’m maybe coming from something that isn’t that great, or I’ve just been on a long journey or whatever it is and they’ve put little thoughtful thing. That moment of feeling like, that person has thought about me in that moment in time, really evidences empathy in a lovely way. It doesn’t have to be a huge thing, it’s often very small details, I think.
Lou: Yes, totally. I would never downplay those moments, but if you’re been standing in a queue for three hours, trying to check into your hotel and then you get up there and there’s a nice little note on the pillow saying, “Welcome to your hotel, we’re sorry for your terrible journey that you’ve had to get here.” It cancels it out. I think for me, what thinking about good services is really about is actually getting those basics done, so that you can actually start thinking about those other unique kind of thoughtful things about your services that are actually completely bespoken, completely unique to it, without having to worry about making sure that people have their expectations met, or there aren’t any dead-ends in your service. Those sorts of things.
Andy: One of my other pet peeves is that brilliant basics is often equated with quick wins. Yet, I think the basics are some of the hardest stuff to get right, they’re the thing that are the most heavily in the foundations and under-wiring of services and it takes a long time to unpick some of those things. Quite a lot of the stories you talk about in your book are things like that, where you trace it back and you go, well, there’s a thing in someone’s KPI or there’s a thing in the way the system or the IT or the service was originally conceived 60 years ago that is having this effect on people now. To actually undo some of those things, to get the brilliant basics right, you really have to dig deep into some of the foundations.
Lou: Yes, there’s something about the term brilliant basics that I think just slightly pisses me off.
Andy: I find it quite annoying too.
Lou: Basics aren’t brilliant, basics are an absolute base level necessity. That if you’re going to provide a service to users and if they’re going to rely on your service for either a critical part of their lives in the public services, or they’re going to pay for it, you absolutely should do the basics. But it’s never the stuff that people who are running those services would ever get an award for, it’s never the thing that is shiny and sexy that will get you a promotion and it’s always the stuff, like you said, that will take the longest to fix. It’s the fact that your data-centre doesn’t work overnight, so it will have to do batch processing, meaning that no one can submit their car tax after five o’clock in the evening. It’s those sorts of things that actually are the really hard work of service design.
Andy: It’s like ensuring that a car’s wheels are round or something like that, it’s amazing.
Andy: We’re coming to the end. As you know, the show is named after the Eames, Powers of Ten film, which talks about the relative size of things in the universe and their relationships. I ask every guest, what one small thing and it could be something that is overlooked, it could be something that’s well-designed and under-appreciated, it could be something that needs to be redesigned, what one small thing either would have or has an oversized effect on the world?
Lou: Mine is a very small thing and it’s also something that has not been overlooked, but we still haven’t necessarily mastered and that’s waking up in the morning. So…
Andy: Tell my daughter.
Lou: Well, yes, tell my wife that. There are millions of alarm clocks that you can buy, there are Alexas, there are Google Homes, there are alarm clocks on your phones, none of them adequately really get to the problem of how difficult it is to wake up in the morning and how easy it is to press a snooze button or to turn your alarm clock off. My thing at the moment, and I will probably say a different thing tomorrow, but it might give you a context into my morning and how difficult it was to wake up this morning, is an alarm clock that actually helps you to wake up properly, rather than being rudely ripped from sleeping and then tricked into thinking that you’re going to wake up again in ten minutes, but in fact, actually sleep on for another hour. That would be my small change to life, is waking up in the morning.
Andy: I’m pretty sure I’ve seen an alarm clock where you have to solve a puzzle before it goes.
Lou: Maybe I just need to find that one then.
Andy: Actually, once when I was a student, I set a – I had one of those timer plugs that you use if you go on holiday and it turns the lights on and off, I used to use it as an alarm clock and connect it to my hi-fi and I used to have it – I put on Led Zeppelin or something and stupidly, I set the volume before I went to bed, of course, in the still of the morning, I woke up to the middle of a Led Zeppelin tune I sat upright in bed and just was having a heart attack and it was terrible.
Andy: Don’t do that.
Lou: I don’t recommend it.
Andy: So, Lou, thank you so much for being my guest, where can people find you online?
Lou: So, you can find me at Louisedowne.com, or you can find stuff to do with the book @good.services.
Andy: Brilliant. We’ll put all of the links in the show notes. The book is brilliant. It seems to be, I’ve a lot of activity online of people trying to get hold of it, so it seems to be doing well, I wish you all the best of luck with it. Thank you so much for being my guest.
Lou: Thank you, it’s been great to be on here.
Andy: If you’d like to listen to some other podcasts on This is HCD, go to Thisishcd.com, where you’ll find Decoding Culture with Dr. John Curran, ProdPod with Adrian Tan, EthnoPod with Jay Hasbrouck, Bringing Design Closer, as well as Getting Stated in Design with Gerry Scullion, and Talking Shop with Gerry and myself. You can also join the newsletter for latest announcements and book giveaways and join our community Slack. Thanks for listening.
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