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Making User Centred Design more inclusive

How do we support people from minority or disadvantaged backgrounds to get a career in User Centred Design?

If you look around for ways to get a careers in Digital/Tech, you would probably trip over half a dozen Apprenticeships, Academies or Earn as you Learn Schemes; not to mention Graduate Schemes; without even trying. However, all those opportunities would probably be within Software Engineering.

If you want to move into a career in Research, Product or Design; opportunities to do that without a Degree, or years of experience, are sparse.

Paper Prototypes/ Wireframes

When trying to find Design Apprenticeship or Entry Level schemes ahead of a talk I was giving to some sixth formers last month; I really struggled to find any opportunities that didn’t requite a Degree. In 2019 Kainos ran it’s first Design Academy, but for placements and Entry Level roles there was still the expectation you’d have a degree in Design; and its Earn as You Learn programme is for people looking for a career as a developer. Hippo are about to run their first Academy for Digital Change Consultants; which will then facilitate graduates moving into Product or Design careers etc, but it’s only for those with existing work experience looking to change careers; not young adults looking for their first career. FutureGov have previously run Design Academies but again these have been focused at Graduates. MadeTech’s Academy accepts people without a Degree, but is only for those interested in Software Engineering. Even the Civil Service Apprenticeships Scheme is focused on Software Engineering roles; with no opportunities within Product or Design. The National Apprenticeship Service does have a section for Design apprenticeships; but all the roles are focused on Content Marketing etc. rather than User Centric Design; and within the Digital Section, all the opportunities are for Technical Apprenticeships. Google have many Apprenticeship options, but their UX Design one only runs in the US.

After hours of searching I did find several opportunities; the first I found was with Amazon; who are now running their own User Experience Design and Research Apprenticeship, sadly however the criteria for candidates specifies that they must be working towards their Bachelors degree, or be an existing Amazon employee. The Second was a previous apprentice discussing their UX Apprenticeship with Barclays Bank, however when I searched for the Apprenticeship with Barclays itself, I could only find Technical ones, and none for Design, so if it does still exist, it’s not easy to find! While I could find plenty of Design Internships; they were all like the Amazon one; designed for students currently studying for the Bachelors degree.

I finally, FINALLY, found one actual opportunity I could share with the students I was speaking to, so well Done AstraZeneca, who seem to have the only real Research and Design Apprenticeship Programme available in the UK. But that was the only opportunity I found at the time of looking.

(EDITED TO ADD: The NHS Business Service Authority have just recruited their very first UCD Apprentices; all being well this programme will continue!)

group of fresh graduates students throwing their academic hat in the air

So, if you’re a budding 17 year old passionate about User Centred Design (UCD), is graduating from University your only real option? And if so, how many of our potential rising star researchers and designers are we losing because they can’t afford to attend University (or don’t want to)? Why are we (unintentionally or not) making Design so elitist?

There is a lot of data to suggest that Design as a career is predominantly white; there are many articles about the intrinsic racism within Graphic Design (as an example), and how racism has manifested itself in UX Design throughout the years. Given most Design roles insist on candidates having a Bachelors Degree or equivalent, the fact is that 72.6% of people starting undergraduate study in the 2019 to 2020 academic year were White. This, by default, suggests that most graduates will be white; and therefor White people will be the most likely to be able to apply for Entry Level roles in Design.

However, we also know that as a group, white students are the least likely to progress to University, and this is in part due to the wide gap in university participation between students who were on Free School Meals and those that weren’t, which is currently at 19.1% and growing. So, not only are most graduates going to be white, they’re also more likely to be from middle/high class backgrounds. Which could help explain (at least in part) why as a career, Design has struggled to diversify.

Given the massive demand for Designers within the Public Sector (and elsewhere) surely we need to once and for all sit down and crack the topic of Design Apprenticeships and Entry Level roles that don’t require a degree? Surely there’s a way we can give helping hand to those people out there who are interested in user centred design and desperately looking for their way in; but can’t or won’t attend university?

The only way we can make UCD as a career actually representative of the communities we’re meant to be designing for is if we can stop prioritising a Degree over passion and skill. So let’s aim to be more inclusive when we’re thinking about how we recruit the Design Leaders of tomorrow.

After all, inclusive design is the whole central principle of User Centred Design!

person in red sweater holding babys hand

Product vs Service vs Programme?

How we define a product vs a service is a debate that comes up regularly; as proved by Randal Whitmore (Deputy Director of New Propositions at the UKHSA) today on Twitter:

In fact, it comes up so regularly, I could have sworn I’d blogged about it before; but if I have, it isn’t on here! So, what is the difference and does it matter?

If you search online for ‘Product vs. Service’ you’ll get a very dry (an in my opinion not that helpful) answer that “A product is a tangible item that is put on the market for acquisition, attention, or consumption, while a service is an intangible item, which arises from the output of one or more individuals. … In most cases services are intangible, but products are not always tangible.”

There you go, question answered!

Ok, so lets say you actually went a useful response; that is understandable; what’s the answer? The best analogy I have ever found to help describe this is one I heard Ben Holliday use once, and I’ve since stolen and reused any time anyone ever asks me this question (which is pretty regularly)!

So, let’s talk about going on holiday!

Sunglasses on a beach
Dreaming of a sunny holiday

A service is all about someone delivering the outcome you want to achieve.; its the holistic wrapper that contains all the end to end steps needed to enable you to achieve that desired outcome.

Let’s say you want to go on holiday; you can choose to use a travel agency like Tui who offer holidays as a service. Should you decide you want a package holiday, you can book and pay for your entire holiday through Tui and they will organise everything for you. Or you may decide you want to do all the organisation yourself and as such just need to book some flights, and go directly to KLM or EasyJet to book your flights. The services these companies offer are all similar (Tui will let you just book flights for example) but they will all differ in some ways; which is generally where the products that make up the service come in.

Products are the individual components that are part of that holistic service wrapper.

For our example of a package holiday; you can choose your flights; how much luggage you want to take with you, what hotel you want to stay at, whether you want to go on any excursions etc. These are all products a travel agency offer as part of their wider service; and you can choose which products you wish to use; But it’s not only that, you can also choose how you book your holiday. You can book via the app; via their website; you could call them and book over the phone; or you could book in one of their shops (well, ok not so much nowadays, but for our hypothetical example lets say you still can).

Lets say it’s the day before your holiday; A few years ago Tui released a new product; which was their App, which included lots of new features that customers could choose from. Now a days you can check in online; you can download your boarding pass to your phone; you can choose your seats; request special assistance and choose to check your bags in all before you get to the airport via the app.

white airplane on mid air
Come Fly Away

We’ve talked about the customer facing products and features that make up the holiday service a travel agency offers; but there is obviously a lot more to it than that. As part of developing each of these products the travel agencies had to think about how they would all fit together to form the holistic service. Theres also all the back end integration to think about, to offer their holiday Service Tui need to work with other suppliers (like the Airports and hotels; which partner with Tui, but are not owned or controlled by them). Should your flight get cancelled or delayed because of bad weather or congestion at the airport; the travel agency will first need to be notified, and then to notify you as their customer and give you options on what to do next etc.

When they decided to launch the App; or to open up holiday options into a new country; a programme could have been set up to manage this. A programme is one way an organisation may choose to manage multiple work streams or teams that are working to deliver something. They are entirely internal, and make no difference to the end users experience.

So there you have it:

A service is about the desired (intangible) outcome; it’s holistic and made up of many products etc.

A product is a succint (tangible) element that delivers value, it is made up of many features. A product can stand alone or alongside other products as part of a holistic service.

A feature is a componant of a product that adds value as part of the wider product but offers little value when utilised alone.

A programme is an organisational governance mechanism that can be used to organise and manage teams to deliver an outcome.

Getting work in the Digital Industry

Why working in the public sector might be of interest to you!

One of my favourite things about my role, well my career to be honest; is the opportunity to do Educational Outreach type activities. In the last few years especially I’ve been asked a few times to speak to Students (both Sixth form or University students) about why working in Digital might be of interest to them.

As we’re just coming out of a pandemic, and lots of students have missed out on opportunities to do work experience, or listen to guest speakers due to social distancing etc. I thought it might be useful if I made my most recent talk available. This talk was for Sixth form students at Salfords Future Skills Hub

In the slides below, I discuss things like:

  • Pathways into working in Digital
  • Why the public sector might be interesting for you to work in and why you should consider it
  • Thing to consider when thinking about your career
  • Salaries when you are starting out and what your earning potential could be
  • Hot to connect with people and speaking confidently
  • How to interview well

Assessing Innovation

(co-written with Matt Knight)

Some background, for context

Just over a month ago I got approached to ask if I could provide some advice on assessments to support phase two of the GovTech Catalyst (GTC) scheme. For those who aren’t aware of the GovTech Catalyst Scheme, there’s a blog here that explains how the scheme was designed to connect private sector innovators with the public sector sponsors, using Innovate UK’s Small Business Research Initiative (SBRI) to help find promising solutions to some of the hardest public sector challenges.

Person in a lab coat with a stethoscope around their neck looking through a Virtual Reality head set.
Looking for innovation

The Sponsor we were working with (who were one of the public sector sponsors of the scheme) had put two suppliers through to the next phase and allocated funding to see how and where tech innovation could help drive societal improvements in Wales. As part of their spend approval for the next phase, the teams had to pass the equivalent of a Digital Service Standard assessment at the 6 month point in order to get funding to proceed. 

For those who aren’t aware, there used to be a lovely team in GDS who would work with the GTC teams to provide advice and run the Digital Service Standard assessments for the projects; unfortunately this team got stood down last year; after the recent GTC initiatives started, leaving them with no one to talk to about assessments, nor anyone in place to assess them. 

The sponsor had reached out to both GDS and NHS Digital to see if they would be willing to run the assessments or provide advice to the teams, but had no luck; which left them a bit stuck; which is where I came in. I’ve blogged before about the Digital Service Standards; which led to the Sponsor reaching out to me to ask whether I’d be willing and able to help them out; or whether I knew any other assessors who might be willing to help. 

Preparing for the Assessments

As there were two services to assess; one of the first things I did was talk to the wonderful Matt Knight to see if he’d be willing and able to lead one of the assessments. Matt’s done even more assessments than me; and I knew he would be able to give some really good advice to the product teams to get the best out of them and their work. 

Matt and I sat and had a discussion on how to ensure we were approaching our assessments consistently; how to ensure we were honouring and adhering to the core tenants of the Digital Standards whilst also trying to assess the teams innovation and the value for money their services could deliver in line with the criteria for the GovTech scheme.

What became quickly apparent was; because this was to support the GTC scheme; the teams doing the work were fully private sector with little experience of the Digital Service Standards. A normal assessment, with the standard ‘bar’ we’d expect teams to be able to meet, wouldn’t necessarily work well; we’d need to be a little flexible in our approach. 

Obvious, no matter what type of Assessment you’re doing the basic framework of an assessment stays the same (start with user needs, then think about the End-to-End service, then you can talk about the team and design and tech, and along the way you need to ask about the awkward stuff like sustainability and open source and accessibility and metrics) can be applied to almost anything and come up with a useful result, regardless of sector/background/approach. 

As the services were tasked with trying to improve public services in Wales, we also wanted to take account of the newly agreed Welsh Digital Standards; using them alongside the original Digital Standards; obviously the main difference was the bits of the Welsh Standards that covered ensuring the well-being of people in Wales and promoting the Welsh Language (standards 8 & 9), you can read more about the Well being of future generations Act here

The assessments themselves 

An image of a team mapping out a user journey
User Journey Mapping

The assessments themselves ran well, (with thanks to Sam Hall, Coca Rivas and Claire Harrison my co-assessors) while the service teams were new to the process they were both fully open and willing to talk about their work, what went well and not so well and what they had learnt along the way. There was some great work done by both the teams we assessed, and it’s clearly a process that everyone involved learned a lot from, both in terms of the service teams, and the sponsor team, and it was great to hear about how they’d collaborated to support user research activities etc. Both panels went away to write up their notes; at which point Matt and I exchanged notes to see if there were any common themes or issues; and interestingly both assessments had flagged the need for a Service Owner from the sponsor to be more involved in order to help the team identify the success measures etc. 

When we played the recommendations and findings back to the Sponsor, this led to an interesting discussion; although the sponsor had nominated someone to act as the link for the teams in order to answer their questions etc. and to try and provide the teams some guidance and steer where they could. Because of the terms of the GTC scheme, the rules on what steers they could and couldn’t give were quite strict to avoid violating the terms of the competition. Originally the GTC team within GDS would have helped the sponsors navigate these slightly confusing waters in terms of competition rules and processes. However, without an experienced team to turn to for advice it leaves sponsors in a somewhat uncomfortable and unfamiliar position; although they had clearly done their best (and the recommendations in this blog are general comments on how we can improve how we assess innovation across the board and not specifically aimed at them)”

Frustratingly this meant that even when teams were potentially heading into known dead-ends etc; while the sponsor could try to provide some guidance and steer them in a different direction; they couldn’t force the teams pivot or change; instead the only option would be to pull the funding. While this makes sense from a competition point of view; it makes little to no sense from a public purse point of view; or from a Digital Standards point of view. It leaves sponsors stuck (when things might have gone a little off track) rather than being able to get teams to pivot; they are left choosing between potentially throwing away or losing some great work; or investing money in projects that may not be able to deliver. 

Which then raises the question; how should we be assessing and supporting innovation initiatives? How do we ensure they’re delivering value for the public purse whilst also remaining fair and competitive? How do we ensure we’re not missing out on innovative opportunities because of government bureaucracy and processes? 

In this process, what is the point of a Digital Service Standard assessment? 

If it’s like most other assessment protocols (do not start Matt on his gateway rant), then it’s only to assess work that has already happened. If so, then it’s not much good here, when teams are so new to the standards and need flexible advice and support on what they could do next etc.   

If it’s to assess whether a service should be released to end users, then it’s useful in central government when looking to roll out and test a larger service; but not so much use when it’s a small service, mainly internal users or a service that’s earlier on in the process aiming to test a proof of concept etc. 

If it’s to look at all of the constituent areas of a service, and provide help and guidance to a multidisciplinary team in how to make it better and what gaps there are (and a bit of clarity from people who haven’t got too close to see clearly), then it’s a lot of use here, and in other places; but we need to ensure the panel has the right mix of experts to be able to assess this. 

While my panel was all fantastic; and we were able to assess the levels of user research the team had done, their understanding of the problems they were seeing to solve, their ability to integrate with legacy tech solutions and how their team was working together etc. none of us had any experience in assessing innovation business cases or understanding if teams had done the right due diligence on their financial funding models. The standards specify that teams should have their budget sorted for the next phase and a roadmap for future development; in my experience this has generally been a fairly easy yes or no; I certainly wouldn’t know a good business accelerator if it came and bopped me on the nose. So while we could take a very high level call on whether we thought a service could deliver some value to users; and whether a roadmap or budget looked reasonable; a complex discussion on funding models and investment options was a little outside our wheelhouse; so was not an area we could offer any useful advice or recommendations on.  

How can we deliver and assess innovation better going forward? 

If we’re continuing to use schemes like the GTC scheme to sponsor and encourage private sector innovators to work with the public sector to solve important problems affecting our society, then we obviously need a clear way to assess their success. But we also need to ensure we’re setting up these schemes in such a way that the private sector is working with the public sector; and that means we need to be working in partnership; able to advise and guide them where appropriate in order to ensure we’re spending public money wisely. 

There is a lot of great potential out there to use innovative tech to help solve societal issues; but we can’t just throw those problems at the private sector and expect them to do all the hard work. While the private sector can bring innovative and different approaches and expertise, we shouldn’t ignore the wealth of experience and knowledge within the public sector either. We need people within the public sector with the right digital skills, who are able to  prioritise and understand the services that are being developed inorder to ensure that the public purse doesn’t pay for stuff that already exists to be endlessly remade. 

Assessment can have a role in supporting innovation; as long as we take a generous rather than nitpicking (or macro rather than micro) approach to the service standard. Assessments (and the Standards themselves) are a useful format for structuring conversations about services that involve users (hint: that’s most of them) just the act of starting with user needs – pt 1 – rather than tech – changes the whole conversation. 

However,  to make this work and add real value, solve a whole problem for users (point 2 of the new uk govt standard) – is critical, and that involves having someone who can see the entire end to end process for any new service and devise and own success measures for it. The best answer to both delivering innovation, and assessing it, is bringing the private and public sector together to deliver real value; creating a process that builds capacity, maturity and genuine collaboration within the wider public sector. A space to innovate and grow solutions. True multidisciplinary collaboration, working together to deliver real value.

“Together, We Create”

Big thanks to Matt for helping collaborate on this, if you want to find his blog (well worth a read) you can do so here:

Cost vs. Quality

A debate as old as time, and a loop that goes around and around; or so it seems in the Public Sector commercial space.

Every few years, often every couple of spend control cycles, the debate of cost vs. quality rears its head again; with Commercial weighting flip flopping between Quality as the most important factor, to cost (or lowest cost) as the highest priority.

When quality is the most important factor in the commercial space; Government Departments will prioritise the outputs they want to achieve; and weighting their commercial scores to the areas that indicate Quality – things like ‘Value Add’; ‘Delivering Quality’, ‘Culture’, ‘Delivering in Partnership etc’. We will see more output focused contracts coming out on to the market; with organisations clear on the vision they want to achieve and problems they need to solve and looking for the supplier that can best help them achieve that.

When reducing costs becomes the highest priority, the commercial weighting moves to ‘Value for Money’. Contracts are more likely to be fixed price and are often thinly veiled requests for suppliers to act as body shops rather than partners with commercial tenders scoring day rate cards rather than requesting the cost for overall delivery of outcomes.

Unfortunately, a lot of the time, when the priority switches to cost over quality; we end up with a lot of projects not being delivered; of outcomes being missed, and user needs not being met. In order to cut more and more costs, offshoring resource can become the only way to deliver the results cheaply; with the departmental project teams working out of sync with their offshore delivery partners; making co-design and delivery much harder to do, and making it almost impossible to achieve the required quality. This goes in a cycle, with Departments toting and grooming between “offshore as much as possible to cut costs” and “the only way to deliver quality is for everyone to be collocated in the office 100% of the time”. Full collocation of the teams inevitably driving up the costs again.

So, does that mean in order to get quality we have to have high costs? Surely there is an obviously a sweet spot we’re all looking for, where cost and quality align; but why does it seem so hard to achieve within the Public Sector and what do we need to be looking at to achieve it?

When the government commercial function (and GDS) shook up the public sector digital world over nearly a decade ago they introduced things like the Digital Marketplace and implemented the Spend Control pipeline; with the aim of moving departments away from the large SI’s that won 90% of government contracts. These suppliers often charged a fortune and rarely seemed to deliver what was actually needed. (This blog gives the details on what they intended, back in 2014).

Lots of SME suppliers began to enter the market and began to win contracts and change up how contracts were delivered, as completion increased, costs decreased; with quality partnerships forming between new suppliers and government departments; and the quality of delivery increased as new options, solutions and was of working were explored.

However, this left Departments managing lots of individual contracts; which grew increasingly complex and time consuming to mange. In order to try and reduce the number of contracts they had to manage; the scale of the contracts began to increase, with more and more multimillion pound contacts emerging.

As the size and value of the contracts increased, SME’s began to struggle to win them, as they couldn’t stand up the teams needed quickly; nor could they demonstrate they had the experience in delivering contracts of that scale; which became a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy, as the larger SI’s continued to win the larger contracts as they were the only ones able to provide the evidence they could staff and deliver them; and their costs remained high.

This left the SME’s facing three options:

  • Decide not to try for the larger contracts, reducing the amount of competition; potentially increasing costs and decreasing quality in the long run);
  • Form partnership agreements with a number of other SME’s or a larger supplier (again reducing the amount of completion) in order to be able to stand up the teams needed and enable delivery of larger contracts. However having a consortium of suppliers not used to working together could complicate delivery, which could in turn decrease the quality or speed of delivery if not carefully managed; as such not all contracts allowed consortium or partnership bids due to the perceived complexity they could bring.
  • Or the SME aimed to grow to allow them to be able to win and deliver the larger contracts. As SME’s grew however, they would often have to either increase their costs in order to run a larger organisation that could still deliver the same quality they did as before; or they could keep their costs low, but their quality would likely decrease.

Throughout the pandemic, the focus has been on delivery; and there’s been a healthy mix of both small and large contracts coming out, meaning lots of competition. While costs have always been a factor;  the pandemic allowed both departments and suppliers to remove much of the costly admin and bureaucratic approval processes in favour of lightweight approaches involved to bring on suppliers and manage teams outputs, encouraging innovation in delivery and cost; with lockdowns ensuring co-location was now out of the question many suppliers were able to reduce their rates to support the pandemic response as both departments and suppliers agreeing that the priority had been on delivering quality products and services to meet organisations and users urgent needs.The removal of co-location as a prerequisite also open up the market to more suppliers to bid for work, and more individuals applying for more roles; which increased competition and inevitably improved the quality out the outputs being produced. This in fact led to a lot of innovation being delivered throughout the pandemic which has benefited us all.

As we move out of the pandemic and into the next spending review round; the signs are that the focus is about to swing back to costs as the highest priority. With larger contracts coming out that are looking for cheaper day rates in order to allow departments to balance their own budgets; but as the economy bounces back and departments begin to insist again that teams return to the office, most suppliers will want to increase their costs to pre-pandemic levels. If we’re not careful the focus on cost reduction will mean we could decrease the quality and innovation that has been being delivered throughout the pandemic; and could cost the taxpayers more in the long run. Look at DWP’s first attempt to deliver Universal Credit for how badly things can go wrong when cost is the highest priority and when the Commercial team and runs the procurement process with minimum input from Delivery; driving the commercial and deliver decisions being made more than quality.

To find the sweet spot between Cost and Quality we need to create the best environment for innovation and competition. Allowing flexibility on where teams can be based will support this; supporting and encouraging SME’s and Medium sized suppliers to bid for and win contracts by varying contract sizes and values. Focusing on outputs over body shopping. Looking for what value suppliers can add in terms of knowledge transfer and partnership rather than simply prioritising who is the cheapest.

It’s important we all work together to get the balance between cost and quality right, and ensure we remain focused on delivering the right things in the right way.

Seesaw

Is it time for Flexible Working to actually become flexible?

Does the Public Sector need to embrace Hybrid working or risk loosing its workforce?

The majority of job adverts within the Public Sector (and beyond) feature the phrase – “We offer flexible working” as a benefit. However, this flexible working is limited on how flexible it can be; generally its telling you they don’t mind what hours you work, as long as you work the core hours and get your work done. What they don’t mean is, we don’t mind where you work as long as you can attend core meetings face to face and get your work done.

Home working, hell geographically diverse (not London) working has always been a bone of contention within the Public Sector; in the couple of years before the pandemic there was a push to get more staff our of London and establish offices ‘in the regions etc’ but this has always met with some resistance, as Ministers themselves are firmly London based, and if your work required any kind of interaction with a Minister then you’d need to be in London at least part time.

Street sign – Downing St

There has long been the view with managers in the Public Sector that staff (especially Operational ones from my experience) couldn’t be trusted to work at home full time, that it would be impossible to monitor their work and ensure things got done on time etc. Obviously given the Public Sector is there to spend public money – keeping staff within your eyesight so you could ensure they were not wasting money was the most important thing. That was never the vocalised reason though, instead it was concerns about staff accessing or taking home users personal data or commercial sensitive information; a fear that staff would not (or could not) keep data secure if it left the office. This attitude slowly dispersed as you moved up the ranks, proving this was more about hierarchy and a command and control culture based on a pervasive lack of trust of staff.

The pandemic has meant for the first time all (or most at least) office staff have been not only allowed, but required, to work from home. It finally stopped the traditional slog to the office and forced managers to trust their staff could in fact get the work done perfectly well when not in the office; and those same staff proved they could deliver from home just as well as the office.

But now as the pandemic ebbs, the question has come around – do staff really need to return to the office? Most Departments so far seem to be taking the sensible approach and talking about phased returns to the office and the use of hybrid working. But one Minster has already stated that as “People who have been working from home aren’t paying their commuting costs… they have had a de facto pay rise… if people aren’t going into work, they don’t deserve the terms and conditions they get if they are going into work.”

Not only is this ridiculous at a time that public sector pay has been effectively frozen for years, as the Retail price index has continued to increase higher than public sector pay; but it also ignores the needs of both those people who can’t go into the office for a health reason and the issues departments themselves have faced for years when it comes to their offices.

Departments have long struggled with over crowding; with at least two (often more) staff members to every desk. Due to this over subscription, most offices moved to hot-desking; but that comes with its own problems as team leaders and office managers try to keep track of who is sitting where on what day. Desk allocation has long been the thorn in every office manager and team leaders side. Not only do you have more people than desks, but a number of staff have health constraints the limit where they can sit. For ever person who needs a window desk due to migraine etc, you’ve got a person who needs the thermostat at a specific setting (often sat next to someone who needs a completely different setting for their own health condition); or needs a desk nearer the bathrooms etc. Office planning is a complex nightmare of logistics and expense.

Crowds

The other problem teams face when organisations insist that everyone comes into the office; is that your automatically excluding those who can’t. For those people who have a disability that means they are unable to travel into an office daily they are at worst either excluded from jobs that insist on it, or at best they are the one home worker in a team of office workers; generally leaving them feeling excluded from decisions and conversations; creating feelings of isolation and exclusion.

Disabled people have for years been crying out for more home working, only to be told it wasn’t feasible; but now that the pandemic has proved it is indeed workable, if employers don’t use this as a time to examine properly how to enable and support home workers; they face at best the exodus of staff who want (or need) to have home working as a proper option; and at worst the start seeing more and more legal challenges from staff who feel they are being treated unfairly and excluded from work the pandemic has proved they can do just as well from home.

We need to properly consider what the future ways of working look like, and how we can proactively be inclusive to everyone, whether they choose to work from an office, from home or a mix thereof (which seems to be the preferred method of most people according to the million LinkedIn surveys I’ve seen floating around). A recent study by YouGov has found that over 75% of people want the option of Hybrid working; with most people wanting the flexibility to spend 2-3 days working from home and 2-3 days working in the office.

As Sammy Rubin, CEO and founder of YuLife has stated “Workplaces now need to give employees more tools to help them benefit from the new expectations they now have from their employers following the pandemic. Perks and benefits have to be made more accessible and tailored to individual employees’ needs, while also benefiting both remote staff as well as those coming into the office in an era increasingly characterised by a hybrid working model.” Allowing people to work from home isn’t enough, we need to proactively be thinking how we can best support and include those working from home in meetings in the same way we include those working in the office.

A virtual meeting

While the public sector has always struggled with loosing staff to the private sector for money; the public sector has always prided itself on offering better ways of working and a better work life balance etc. However, many private sector companies are using this opportunity to look at their own ways of working; either moving away from offices entirely to save costs and investing properly in home working, or engaging and consulting with their staff to support a move to hybrid working, some are even using this as an opportunity to consider moving to 4 day weeks etc. They’ve recognised that this not only benefits, them, their staff, but also the environment at a time when Climate Change is becoming one of the hottest topics (pun intended) by reducing the number of commuters etc.

If the public sector insists on a full return to the office, then they risk loosing even more staff to the private sector; as people begin to prioritise their quality of life, and realise the private sector doesn’t just offer more money, but it can also offer better ways of working. The Public Sector has much bigger issues to deal with (like climate change!) rather than focusing who is working where; and Ministers need to be looking at the bigger picture. As Dave Penman from the FDA union has said “What should matter to ministers is whether public services are being delivered effectively, not where individual civil servants are sitting on a particular day.”

All it takes is a little trust, and a degree of flexibility.

My User Manual 2021

As we leave lockdown and hopefully begin to put the pandemic behind us; I’ve realised that my job isn’t the only thing that’s changed; my working preferences have too. As we move forward into a more hybrid working world updating my user manual seems like a smart idea.

Here’s a link to the one I wrote back in 2019; if you’re curious about user manuals in general and want some tips on how to write one yourself, Christina Lai has a really good talk she does on this with accompanying slides she’s always happy to share.

This is 2021 me, with my new grey hair post lockdown.

Contacting me:

  • My hours: I predominantly work from home; as such my core hours are generally between 9 – 5:30pm; but I’m generally available and responding to messages between 8am to 7pm (GMT).
  • Best three means for contacting me: Text/WhatsApp; Teams/Slack; Email.
  • My response times: I respond best too quick and easy requests that I can deal with straight away. If it needs proper consideration it will probably have to wait until I have time set aside to be at my desk where I’m not in meetings. I try to set aside some time each day to respond to anything that needs more consideration. If I haven’t got back to you within a day, and you need a response; please send me a message to remind me.
  • If I don’t respond it’s best to: Text me or ring me.

My Preferred work approach:

  • Preferred type of work: I love coming up with ideas and solving problems; I love working with a team or one or two others to bounce ideas around; I love making a difference, and improving things for people; I love getting to know people, what their interests are, what makes them tick. I LOVE a good workshop!
  • Things that might affect my work: Constant interruptions or inability to approach tasks in a way the suits me. I don’t do well when I’m feeling stifled.
  • Open to colleagues approaching me with work questions: Always!
  • Preferred learning style: Interactive. I learn best by doing.
  • Specific skills: Problem solving. Delivering Products and Services that meet users needs, designing for vulnerable users and ensuring Products are accessible. Using data to drive improvements in performance deliverables to deliver the right outcomes. Developing innovative strategies and visions based on user needs. Mentoring, coaching, working in the open to show good leadership, sharing best practices and developing capability.
  • Work habits that assist me: Flexibility and collaboration. I work best when working with others.
  • People can assist me by: Helping me understand priorities so I can balance my work in order to get the right things done at the right time.
  • Preferred work environment: I have a high tolerance for background noise, but I don’t like harsh or unexpected noise; similarly with lighting, harsh lighting can give me migraines.
  • Travel: I’m happy to travel, and do over nights for work; but I prefer not to travel on Mondays and Fridays as my son goes to boarding school and I want to be able to do school drop offs and pick ups.

How to give me feedback:

  • Public praise: I admit this still makes me feel awkward, but I’m getting better at accepting it.
  • Timing for critical feedback: Ideally at the end of the day so I can reflect on it.
  • Delivery of critical feedback: Privately.
  • Framing of critical feedback: Constructive; help me understand what I can do better.

My Strengths:

  • Problem solving. Spotting gaps and reviewing processes to identify opportunities. I want to make things better.
  • I am adaptable and resilient, I will always try to keep going and be flexible in my approach in order to deliver the right thing. I’m good in challenging situations. I get things done. I’m best when I have a problem to fix.
  • I enjoy working in fast paced environments, I’m best when I’m busy and getting things done.
  • Developing relationships with teams, stakeholders and internal/external users; I’m a people person and I’m at my best when working with others.
  • Mentoring, coaching and up-skilling others; I actively enjoy helping others too succeed.
  • I am incredibly loyal, if we are friends/colleagues I will always have your back, if you need help I will always do my best for you.

My Weaknesses:

  • I’ve worked hard to improve my written and organisational skills, but I know they are not my greatest strengths. When asked for written briefs etc I do better when I’ve got the chance to run it past someone else before submitting. When it comes to organising things, I tend to surround myself with those who are better at it than me. I write EVERYTHING down to help me remember.
  • Linked to above; my memory isn’t great, and I’m usually balancing a lot of things, so if I forget something, do remind me; I won’t mind, it’ll help me.
  • I’m not always great with connecting names to faces, even of people I know, so please don’t be offended if I need a reminder.
  • Eye contact, it’s not you, it’s me. I am listening and I do care. The same with fiddling or doodling. It’s how my brain works, please don’t take it as a sign I’m not paying attention because I am.

Other things to know about me:

  • I am neurodiverse, I have ADHD, Dyspraxia and Sensory Processing Disorder; things like eye contact, doodling, memory etc are all part of this. But I’m good at thinking outside of the box and approaching things from a fresh angle.
  • I’m a mum to a neurodiverse child, I work hard to balance my work and home life, and talk openly about the challenges of that in order to support and encourage others to do the same.
  • I’m a ridiculous extravert and a massive geek, I recharge by spending time with my tribe.
  • People don’t always think I’m taking things seriously, but I’m very committed and passionate about what I do, I will take on the toughest situations, but I’ll do it with a smile.
  • I’m queer and I live in Manchester with my fiancée, my child and our two dogs.

Interesting fact:

In my down time I LARP; Live Action Role Play; it helps me unwind by going and being someone else for a day or a weekend; and solving fantastical problems in a fantasy world for a while.

Me at Empire LARP, with thanks to Oliver Facey for the photo.

‘The question is who… are you?’

Why being a Leader doesn’t mean not being yourself.

A sign in the woods baring the words, be yourself, everyone else is taken.
Be yourself, everyone else is taken

Chatting to a friend over the weekend, she mentioned her work had been encouraging her to go for more leadership type roles in the last year; but she hadn’t done it so far as she was worried she could never ‘fit in’ or be seen as a leader while she was being herself.

This made me reflect on my career, and when I had those same concerns; and how I over came them.

Back at the start of 2015 I had been working as a Grade 7 for a few years and I was now considering applying for my Grade 6. It’d had taken me a lot of effort and rejection to get my promotion to Grade 7 (I went through seven interviews before I finally got promoted) and I and was worried it would be the same all over again. When I’d first been going for my Grade 7, my manager at the time had tried to tell me I wasn’t leadership material and I’d really struggled to put myself into the professional box I thought leaders in the Civil Service had to fit within; and I was concerned I’d never be able to reach Grade 6 or higher because I just didn’t fit well enough.

My (then) current manager had put my forward for the Crossing Thresholds programme and as I sat with the group of amazing women who were like myself seeking promotion to Grade 6, all I could see was how much more professional they were; how comfortable they seemed to be in their own skin; how obviously they were what Civil Servants should be, and how much I obviously didn’t fit that mould. This wasn’t helped by the fact my previous line manager (who told me I’d never be a leader) was on the same programme as me.

Over the course of the programme we got to work together and get to know each other; and in one of the sessions we had to do some peer feedback 1:1 with each other. One of the other women on the course I’d been utterly enamoured by; she just came across as so cool and calm and together. She exemplified for me what a Civil Servant should be; and what I thought I needed to be in order to pass as a leader. During our 1:1 session as I told her all this, she astounded me by explaining that of everyone on the programme, she was most impressed with me; as I was the most ‘myself’; that I came across as real and approachable and authentic; and how she wished she’d had managers like me as she came up through her career. She was constantly exhausted from trying to pretend to be this perfect person she wasn’t; she was in fact debating leaving the civil service as she no longer felt able to pretend anymore and that I gave her hope that maybe things could change. Dear reader I was floored.

This message was repeated in different flavours throughout the day; even by my previous manager. She apologised and told me how impressed she was to see how I’d progressed, how I’d obviously flourished while remaining myself, and that she encouraged me to keep being myself and wished me luck for my future.

I reflected on that I’d heard from these amazing women, and what I’d observed; and decided that I didn’t want to spend my career pretending to be anyone other than myself, as it was exhausting. As such I attended my first Grade 6 interview sure it would be a car crash as I was determined to be myself; I spoke honestly about my neurodiversity; my strengths and weaknesses. my drives and passions; and made no effort to fit into the box I thought a Grade 6 Civil Servant needed to fit within. To my astonishment I was offered the role the very next day; and in just over a year I was then offered a role at Deputy Director level.

I’ve made a very concerted effort over the last few years to be authentic and myself; including speaking openly and transparently about things like my sexuality, my neurodiversity and my background growing up in a council estate. Because these are all the things that have helped me be me; and as such they are the things that have helped me succeed.

Now that’s not to say I could succeed anywhere and everywhere; some-places I fit, some I don’t. But part of owning who you are, and being true to it; is recognising that to be the best and most honest version of yourself, you need to recognise which environments work for you; and which ones don’t. It’s not a failing to not fit everyone. No one, if they’re being honest, does. The right organisation for you is the one that not only supports you to be yourself, but actively wants it. Because as leaders we know that people who feel able to bring their whole-self to work, are the people who generally work at their best.

Within the Kainos Neurodiveristy community group this week we were discussing personal user manuals and how they can help everyone within a team or organisation feel able to be their best and empower diverse teams to work together in the best possible way for everyone in them. This has reminded me I need to revisit my own user manual from a few years ago and share that with my new teams.

As a wise old monkey once explained to a confused young lion; you have to be true to yourself; so ask yourself, “who are you?”

Rafiki (image from Disney’s the Lion King)

Service Owner vs. Programme Manager vs. Product Lead

What’s the difference? Does the name matter?

Over a year ago, following an interesting chat with David Roberts at NHSBSA, I got to thinking about the role of the Service Owner; and why the role wasn’t working in the way we intended back in the dawn of the Service Manual. This in turn (as most things do for me) led to a blog in order to try and capture my thoughts in the vague hope they might be useful/interesting for anyone reading them.

Ironically, for what was a random think-piece, it has consistently been my most popular blog; getting a least a dozen reads everyday since I wrote it. Which got me thinking again; what is it about that blog that resonates with people? And the fact is, the role of the Service Owner is no better or consistently understood today than it was then. The confusion over the role of the Service Owner; their role and responsibilities, is still one of the most common things I get asked about. What’s the difference between a Service Owner or Manager (is there one)? How/why is the role different to that of the Product Lead? What is the difference between a Service Manager and a Programme Manager? Is the Service Owner different to the SRO? What do all these different role titles mean?

What's In a Name? A lot. – AE2S Communications
What’s in a name?

Every department/Agency within the Public Sector seems to have implemented the role of the Service Owner differently; which makes it very hard for those in the role (or considering applying for the role) to understand what they should be doing or what their responsibilities are etc. This is probably why, as a community of practice within DDaT, it certainly used to be the one hardest communities to bring together, as everyone in it was doing such different roles to each other.

Some clients I’ve been working with use the role of Service Owner and Lead Product Manager interchangeably; some have Service Owners who sit in Ops and Service Managers who sit in Digital (or vice versa); some have Service Managers sitting alongside Programme Managers; or Service Owners alongside Programme Directors, all desperately trying to not stand on each others toes.

So what is the difference?

The obvious place to look for clarity surely is the Service Manual, or the DDaT capability framework. The Service manual specifies it is the responsibility of the Service Owner is to be: “the decision-making authority to deliver on all aspects of a project. Who also:

  • has overall responsibility for developing, operating and continually improving your service
  • represents the service during service assessments
  • makes sure the necessary project and approval processes are followed
  • identifies and mitigates risks to your project
  • encourages the maximum possible take-up of your digital service
  • has responsibility for your service’s assisted digital support”

When the DDaT capability framework was first written, the Service Manager was more akin to a Product person; and originally sat as a senior role within that capability framework; yet they were also responsibility for the end to end service (which was a very big ask for anyone below the SCS working as an SRO). But the role often got confused with that of the IT Service manager, and (as perviously discussed in last years blog) the responsibilities and titles got changed to create the role of Service Owner instead.

Interesting in the Service Manual the reference to the Service Owner being the person who has responsibility for the end to end service; has now been removed; instead focusing on them being the person responsible for being the person responsible for delivering the project. While I imagine this is because it’s very hard for any one person (below SCS level) to have responsibility for an end to end service in the Public Sector due to the size of the Products and Services the Public Sector delivers; it does however mean the new role as description in the Service Manual seems to bring the role of Service Owner closer to that of the Programme Manager.

However, in contrast to the description in the Service manual, the DDaT capability framework does still specify that the role of the Service Owner is “accountable for the quality of their service, and you will be expected to adopt a portfolio view, managing end-to-end services that include multiple products and channels.” Obviously the onus here has changed from being responsible for the end to end service to managing the end to end service. But even that is a clear difference to being responsible for delivering a project as the manual describes it.

Some elements of the new Service Owner role description in the Manual do still align to the traditional responsibilities of Product people (mainly considering things like assisted digital support and ensuring you can maximise take up of your service); but the Service Manual has now removed those responsibilities within a team from the Product Manager. Now the Product Manager seems too intended to be much more focused solely on user needs and user stories; rather than the longer term uptake and running of the service. But again, confusingly, in the Capability framework for Product Management there is still the expectation that Product people will be responsible for ensuring maximum take-up of the service etc.

It seems in trying to clarify the role of the Service Owner, the Service Manual and the Capability framework disagree on exactly what the responsibilities of the role are; and rather than clarify the difference between the Product people and the Service Owners, the waters have instead been muddied even more. Nor have they made it any clearer if/what the difference is between the role of the Service Owner or Programme manager is.

The Project Delivery Capability framework states that “there are many other roles that are needed to successfully deliver projects. These roles are not included in our framework but you will find information on them within the frameworks of other professions, such as, Digital, Data & Technology framework” frustratingly it doesn’t give any clarity on how and when roles like SRO or Programme Manager might overlap with roles within the DDaT framework; nor how these roles could work best with the roles within the DDaT framework. Both the Service Owner role and the Programme manager role state responsibility for things like stakeholder management; business case development/alignment; risk management and governance adherence. Admittedly the language is slightly different; but the core themes are the same.

So is the assumption that you don’t need both a Programme Manager and a Service Owner? Is it an either or that has never been clearly specified? If you’re using PRINCE2 you get a Programme Manager, if Agile its a Service Owner? I would hope not, mainly because we all know that in reality, most Public Sector digital programmes are a blend of methodologies and never that clear cut. So are we not being clear enough about what the role of the Service Owner is? Does it really matter if we don’t have that clarity?

Evidence has shown that when teams aren’t clear on the roles and responsibilities of there team mates, and especially those people responsible for making key decisions; then bottlenecks being to occur. Teams struggle to know who should be signing of what. Hierarchy and governance become essential to achieving any progress; but inevitabley delays occur while approvals are sought, which simply slows down delivery.

So can we get some clarity?

At the start of the year DEFRA advertised a role for a Service Owner which (I thought) clearly articulated the responsibilities of the role, and made it clear how that role would sit alongside and support Product team and work with Programme professionals to ensure effective delivery of services that met user needs. Sadly this clarity of role seems few and far between.

I would love, when travel etc. allows, to see a workshop happen mapping out the roles of Service Owner; SRO; Programme manager; Product Lead etc. Looking at what their responsibilities are; providing clarity on where there is any overlap and how this could be managed better so that we can get to the point where we have consistency in these roles; and better understanding of how they can work together without duplication or confusion over the value they all add.

For now, at least, it’s each organisations responsibility to ensure that they are being clear on what the responsibilities for the roles and those people working in them are. We need to stop pretending the confusion doesn’t exist and do are best to provide clarity to our teams and our people; otherwise we’re only muddying the waters and it’s that kind of confusion that inevitably impacts teams and their ability to deliver.

Let’s be clear, say what do you mean

How to be a Product Advocate

Why you need a Product Person in your team.

Since joining Kainos a few weeks ago, I’ve had a number of conversations internally and with clients about the relationship between Delivery and Product; and why I as a Product Person moved over to Delivery.

‘Products at the heart of delivery’ image

My answer to that question was that, having spent over 10 years as a Product Person, and seeing the growth of Product as a ‘thing’ within the Public Sector; helping Product grow and mature, developing the community, ways of working, career pathway etc; I realised that what was missing was Product thinking at a senior level. Most Senior leaders within the Programme delivery or Transformation space come from a traditional delivery background (if not an operational one) and while many of them do now understand the value of user centric design and user needs etc; they don’t understand the benefit of a product centric approach or what value Product thinking brings.

The expansion of Product people in the Public sector has predominantly been driven by GDS and the Digital Service standards; with most organisations now knowing they need a ‘Product Manger‘ in order to pass their Service Standard Assessment. However, almost 10 years later, most organisations are still not prioritising the hiring and capability development of their Product people. In May I worked with four different teams each working to the Digital Standards and needing to pass an assessment; and in none of those teams was the role of the Product manger working in the way we intended when we creating the DDaT Product Management capability framework.

Most organisations (understandably) feel the role of the Product Manager should be an internal one, rather than one provided by a Supplier; but 9 times out of 10 the person they have allocated to the role has no experience in the role, have never worked on a product or service that was developed to the digital standards never mind having been through an assessment; and they are regularly not budgeted or allocated the project full time; often being split across too many teams or split between the Product Manager role whilst still working in Ops or Policy or whoever they have come from previously; more often than not their actually a Subject Matter Expert, not a Product Manager (which I’ve blogged about before).

As a supplier; this makes delivery so much harder. When the right Product person isn’t allocated to a project, we can quickly see a whole crop of issues emerge.

So what are the signs that Product isn’t being properly represented within a team:

  • Overall vision and strategy are unclear or not shared widely; teams aren’t clear on what they’re trying to achieve or why; this can be because the Product person is not able to clearly articulate the problem the team are there to solve or the outcomes that team are their to deliver aren’t clearly defined.
  • Roadmap doesn’t exist, is unstable or does not go beyond immediate future/ or the Scope of the project keeps expanding; often a sign that prioritisation isn’t being looked at regularly or is happening behind closed doors making planning hard to do.
  • Success measures are unclear or undefined; because the team doesn’t understand what they’re trying to achieve and often leads to the wrong work getting prioritised or outcomes not getting delivered or user needs not met.
  • Work regularly comes in over budget or doesn’t meet the business case; or the team keeps completing Discoveries and then going back to the start or struggling to get funding to progress. This can be a sign the team aren’t clear what problem they are trying to solve or that the value that the work delivers cannot be/ isn’t clearly articulated by the Product person.
  • Delivery is late/ velocity is slow. This can be a sign the team aren’t getting access to their Product person in a timely manner causing bottlenecks in stories being agreed or signed off; or that the Product person is not empowered to make decisions and is constantly waiting for sign off from more senior stakeholders.
  • Role out is delayed or messy, with operational teams frustrated or unclear on project progress; a sign that the team doesn’t have someone owning the roadmap who understands what functionality will be available when and ensuring any dependancies are clearly understand and being monitored, or a sign that there isn’t someone engaging with or communicating progress to wider stakeholders.

More often than not as a Supplier I’ve had to argue that we need to provide a Product person to work alongside/ with teams to coach/support their internal Product people in the skills and responsibilities a Product person needs to have to enable successful delivery. Where clients have been adamant they don’t want Product people from a Supplier (often for budgetary reasons), we’ve then had to look at how we sneak someone in the door; usually by adding a Business Analyst or delivery manager to the team who also has Product skills, because otherwise are ability to deliver will be negatively impacted.

When budgets are tight, the role of Product person is often the first thing project managers try to cut or reduce; prioritising the technical or project delivery skills over Product ones. As such, teams (and organisations) need to understand the skills a good product person brings; and the cost of not having someone within a team who has those skills.

  • Their role is to focus on and clarify to the team (and business) the problem the team are trying to fix.
  • Ensure a balance between user needs; business requirements and technical constraints/options.
  • Quantifying and understanding the ROI/ value a project will deliver; and ensuring that can be tracked and measured through clear success measures and metrics.
  • Being able to translate complex problems into roadmaps for delivery. Prioritising work and controlling the scope of a product or service to ensure it can be delivered in a timely and cost effective manner, with a proper role out plan that can be clearly communicated to the wider organisation.

As an assessor, I have seen more projects fail their assessments at Alpha (or even occasionally Beta) because they lack that clear understanding of the problem there trying to solve or their success measures etc; than I have because they’ve used the wrong technical stack etc. This can be very costly; and often means undress of thousands (if not millions) of pounds being written off or wasted due to delays and rework. Much more costly than investing in having a properly qualified or experienced Product people working within teams.

While Product and Delivery are often seen as very different skill sets; I recognised a few years ago the value in having more people who understand and can advocate for both the value Product thinking brings to delivery; but also how delivery can work better with Product. People who can not only understand but also champion both in order to ensure we’re delivering the right things in the right ways to meet our clients and their users needs.

Which is why I made the active decision to hop the fence and try and bring the professions closer together and build understanding in both teams and senior leaders in the need for Product and Delivery skills to be invested in and present within teams in order to support and enable good delivery, and I as really glad to see when I joined Kainos that we’re already talking about how to bring our Product and Delivery communities closer together and act for advocates to support each other; and it was in fact a chat with the Kainos Head of Product Charlene McDonald that inspired this blog.

Having someone with the title of Product Manager or Owner isn’t enough; we need people who are experienced in Product thinking and skilled in Product Management; but that isn’t all we need. We need to stop seeing the role of Product person as an important label needed you can give to anyone in the team in order to pass an assessment and understand why the role and the skills it brings are important. We need senior leaders, project managers and delivery teams who understand what value Product brings; who understand why product is important and what it could cost the team and their organisation if those product skills are not included and budgeted for properly right from the start. We need Senior Leaders to understand why it’s important to invest in their product people; giving them the time and support they need to do their job properly; rather than spreading them thin across teams with minimal training or empowerment.

We need more Product advocates.