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Category: User Centric Design

And this is why we test with users…

A blog on the new National Careers ‘Discover your skills and careers’ Service

As I sit here are ten past ten on a Wednesday night watching social media have a field day with the new National Careers service, I’m yet again reminded about the importance of the Digital Service Standard, especially Standard Number One – Understand users and their needs. And why we need to get Ministers and senior leaders to understand their importance.

The first role of any good User Centric designer or Product Manager within the public sector is understanding the problem you’re trying to solve.

In this case, the problem we’re facing is not a small one. Because of COVID-19 we currently have approximately 1.4M people unemployed with many more still facing redundancy due to the ongoing pandemic. ONS data states that between March and August, the number of people claiming benefits rose 120% to 2.7 million.

The Entertainment, Leisure and Hospitality sectors have been decimated, amongst many others. Just this week we’ve had Cineworld announce 45,000 job loses and Odeon may soon be following suit. Theatres and live event venues across the country are reporting they are on the brink of collapse.

So, when the Chancellor announced as part of the summer statement, a whole host of support for people too retrain; it included advice for people to use the new Careers and Skills advice service to get ideas on new career options.

A service to help people understand new career options right now is a great idea, it absolutely should meet user need.

A screenshot of the national careers service skills assessment

Unfortunately, you only have to look at the headlines to see how well the new service has been received. The service is currently such a laughing stock that no-one is taking it seriously; which is a massive shame, because it’s trying to solve a very real problem.

A number of my friends and acquaintances have now taken the quiz (as has half of twitter apparently) and it was suggested I have a look. So I did. (As an aside, it recommended I retrain in the hospitality industry, all who know me know how terrible this would be for all involved, last week I managed to forget to cook 50% of our dinner, and I am clinically unable to make a good cup of coffee, never mind clean or tidy anything!)

It has good intentions, and in a number of cases, it may not be too far off the mark; the team behind the service have done a write up here* of how they have developed it, and what they set out to achieve. Unfortunately, while the service seems to be simple to understand and accessible to use; what it seems to be missing is any level of context or practicality that would help it meet the problem it’s being used for.

*EDIT: Which has sadly now been taken down, which is a massive shame, because they did good work, but sadly I suspect under political pressure to get something out there quickly. We’ve all been there, it’s a horrid position to be in.

While they have tested with users with accessibility needs, the focus seems to have been on whether they can use the digital service; not does the service actually meet their needs?

My friend with severe mobility and hearing issues was advised to retrain as a builder. Another friend with physical impairments (and a profound phobia of blood) was advised they were best suited to a role as a paramedic. A friend with ASD who also has severe anxiety and an aversion to people they don’t know, was advised to become a beautician. Another friend who is a single parent was given three career options that all required evening and weekend work. At no point does this service ask whether you have any medical conditions or caring needs that would limit the work you could do. While you can argue that that level of detail falls under the remit of a jobs coach; it can understandable be seen as insensitive and demoralising to be recommending careers to people they are physically unable to do.

Equally, unhelpful is the fact the service which has been especially recommended to people who have been made redundant from the worst hit industries; is recommending those same decimated industries to work in, with no recognition of the current jobs market.

My partner, who was actually made redundant from her creative role due to COVID-19, (and the target audience for this service according to the Chancellor) was advised to seek a role in the creative industries; an industry that doesn’t currently exist; and a quick look on social media proves she isn’t alone.

The service doesn’t actually collect enough (well, any) data about the career someone is in, nor does it seem to have any interface to the current jobs market to understand whether the careers its recommending are actually viable.

Unfortunately, the service is too generic, and while it would possibly help school/ college students who are trying to choose their future career paths in a ‘normal’ job market, (And I honestly suspect that’s who it was actually developed for!) it’s not meetings the fundamental problem we are facing at the moment; ie. help people understand their career options in the current market.

If you’ve worked within Digital in the Public Sector you’ve had to deal with Ministers and Directors who don’t really understand the value of user research or why we need to test things properly before we role them out nationally. The current debacle with the careers website is possible a perfect example of why you need to make sure you actually test your service with a wide range of users regularly; not just rely on assumptions and user personas; and why its important to test and iterate the service with real users multiple times before it gets launched. It highlights the need for us to get Ministers to understand that rushing a service out there quickly isn’t always the right answer.

We all need to understand users and their needs. Just because a service is accessible doesn’t mean it solves the problem users are facing.

Notes from some Digital Service Standard Assessors on the Beta Assessment

The Beta Assessment is probably the one I get the most questions about; Primarily, “when do we actually go for our Beta Assessment and what does it involve?” 

Firstly what is an Assessment? Why do we assess products and services?

If you’ve never been to a Digital Service Standard Assessment it can be daunting; so I thought it might be useful to pull together some notes from a group of assessors, to show what we are looking for when we assess a service. 

Claire Harrison (Chief Architect at Homes England and leading Tech Assessor) and Gavin Elliot (Head of Design at DWP and a leading Design Assessor, you can find his blog here) helped me pull together some thoughts about what a good assessment looks like, and what we are specifically looking for when it comes to a Beta Assessment. 

I always describe a good assessment as the team telling the assessment panel a story. So, what we want to hear is:

  • What was the problem you were trying to solve?
  • Who are you solving this problem for? (who are your users?)
  • Why do you think this is a problem that needs solving? (What research have you done? Tell us about the users journey)
  • How did you decide to solve it and what options did you consider? (What analysis have you done?) 
  • How did you prove the option you chose was the right one? (How did you test this?)

One of the great things about the Service Manual is that it explains what each delivery phase should look like, and what the assessment team are considering at each assessment.

So what are we looking for at a Beta Assessment?

By the time it comes to your Beta Assessment, you should have been running your service for a little while now with a restricted number of users in a Private Beta. You should have real data you’ve gathered from real users who were invited to use your service, and your service should have iterated several times by now given all the things you have learnt. 

Before you are ready to move into Public Beta and roll your service out Nationally there are several things we want to check during an assessment. 

You need to prove you have considered the whole service for your users and have provided a joined up experience across all channels.

  • We don’t want to just hear about the ‘digital’ experience; we want to understand how you have/will provide a consistent and joined up experience across all channels.
  • Are there any paper or telephony elements to your service? How have you ensured that those users have received a consistent experience?
  • What changes have you made to the back end processes and how has this changed the user experience for any staff using the service?
  • Were there any policy or legislative constraints you had to deal with to ensure a joined up experience?
  • Has the scope of your MVP changed at all so far in Beta given the feedback you have received from users? 
  • Are there any changes you plan to implement in Public Beta?

As a Lead Assessor this is where I always find that teams who have suffered with empowerment or organisational silos may struggle.

If the team are only empowered to look at the Digital service, and have struggled to make any changes to the paper/ telephony or face to face channels due to siloed working in their Department between Digital and Ops (as an example) the Digital product will offer a very different experience to the rest of the service. 

As part of that discussion we will also want to understand how you have supported users who need help getting online; and what assisted digital support you are providing.

At previous assessments you should have had a plan for the support you intended to provide, you should now be able to talk though how you are putting that into action. This could be telephony support or a web chat function; but we want to ensure the service being offered is/will be consistent to the wider service experience, and meeting your users needs. We also want to understand how it’s being funded and how you plan to publish your accessibility info on your service. 

We also expect by this point that you have run an accessibility audit and have carried out regular accessibility testing. It’s worth noting, if you don’t have anyone in house who is trained in running Accessibility audits (We’re lucky in Difrent as we have a DAC assessor in house), then you will need to have factored in the time it takes to get an audit booked in and run well before you think about your Beta Assessment).

Similarly, by the time you go for your Beta Assessment we would generally expect a Welsh language version of your service available; again, this needs to be planned well in advance as this can take time to get, and is not (or shouldn’t be) a last minute job! Something in my experience a lot of teams forget to prioritise and plan for.

And finally assuming you are planning to put your service on GOV.UK, you’ll need to have agreed the following things with the GOV.UK team at GDS before going into public beta:

Again, while it shouldn’t take long to get these things sorted with the GOV.UK team, they can sometimes have backlogs and as such it’s worth making sure you’ve planned in enough time to get this sorted. 

The other things we will want to hear about are how you’ve ensured your service is scalable and secure. How have you dealt with any technical constraints? 

The architecture and technology – Claire

From an architecture perspective, at the Beta phases I’m still interested in the design of the service but I also have a focus on it’s implementation, and the provisions in place to support sustainability of the service. My mantra is ‘end-to-end, top-to-bottom service architecture’!

 An obvious consideration in both the design and deployment of a service is that of security – how the solution conforms to industry, Government and legal standards, and how security is baked into a good technical design. With data, I want to understand the characteristics and lifecycle of data, are data identifiable, how is it collected, where is it stored, hosted, who has access to it, is it encrypted, if so when, where and how? I find it encouraging that in recent years there has been a shift in thinking not only about how to prevent security breaches but also how to recover from them.

Security is sometimes cited as a reason not to code in the open but in actual fact this is hardly ever the case. As services are assessed on this there needs to be a very good reason why code can’t be open. After all a key principle of GDS is reuse – in both directions – for example making use of common government platforms, and also publishing code for it to be used by others.

Government services such as Pay and Notify can help with some of a Technologist’s decisions and should be used as the default, as should open standards and open source technologies. When  this isn’t the case I’m really interested in the selection and evaluation of the tools, systems, products and technologies that form part of the service design. This might include integration and interoperability, constraints in the technology space, vendor lock-in, route to procurement, total cost of ownership, alignment with internal and external skills etc etc.

Some useful advice would be to think about the technology choices as a collective – rather than piecemeal, as and when a particular tool or technology is needed. Yesterday I gave a peer review of a solution under development where one tool had been deployed but in isolation, and not as part of an evaluation of the full technology stack. This meant that there were integration problems as new technologies were added to the stack. 

The way that a service evolves is really important too along with the measures in place to support its growth. Cloud based solutions help take care of some of the more traditional scalability and capacity issues and I’m interested in understanding the designs around these, as well as any other mitigations in place to help assure availability of a service. As part of the Beta assessment, the team will need to show the plan to deal with the event of the service being taken temporarily offline – detail such as strategies for dealing with incidents that impact availability, and the strategy to recover from downtime and how these have been tested.

Although a GDS Beta assessment focuses on a specific service, it goes without saying that a good Technologist will be mindful of how the service they’ve architected impacts the enterprise architecture and vice-versa. For example if a new service built with microservices and also introduces an increased volume and velocity of data, does the network need to be strengthened to meet the increase in communications traversing the network?

Legacy technology (as well as legacy ‘Commercials’ and ways of working) is always on my mind. Obviously during an assessment a team can show how they address legacy in the scope of that particular service, be it some form of integration with legacy or applying the strangler pattern, but organisations really need to put the effort into dealing with legacy as much as they focus on new digital services. Furthermore they need to think about how to avoid creating ‘legacy systems of the future’ by ensuring sustainability of their service – be it from a technical, financial and resource perspective. I appreciate this isn’t always easy! However I do believe that GDS should and will put much more scrutiny on organisations’ plans to address legacy issues.

One final point from me is that teams should embrace an assessment. Clearly the focus is on passing an assessment but regardless of the outcome there’s lots of value in gaining that feedback. It’s far better to get constructive feedback during the assessment stages rather than having to deal with disappointed stakeholders further down the line, and probably having to spend more time and money to strengthen or redesign the technical architecture.

How do you decide when to go for your Beta Assessment?

Many services (for both good and bad reasons) have struggled with the MVP concept; and as such the journey to get their MVP rolled out nationally has taken a long time, and contained more features and functionality then teams might have initially imagined.  

This can make it very hard to decide when you should go for an Assessment to move from Private to Public Beta. If your service is going to be rolled out to millions of people; or has a large number of user groups with very different needs; it can be hard to decide what functionality is needed in Private Beta vs. Public Beta or what can be saved until Live and rolled out as additional functionality. 

The other things to consider is, what does your rollout plan actually look like? Are you able to go national with the service once you’ve tested with a few hundred people from each user group? Or, as is more common with large services like NHS Jobs, where you are replacing an older service, does the service need to be rolled out in a very set way? If so, you might need to keep inviting users in until full rollout is almost complete; making it hard to judge when the right time for your Beta assessment is. 

There is no right or wrong answer here, the main thing to consider is that you will need to understand all of the above before you can roll your service out nationally, and be able to tell that story to the panel successfully. 

This is because theoretically most of the heavy lifting is done in Private Beta, and once you have rolled out your service into Public Beta, the main things left to test are whether your service scaled and worked as you anticipated. Admittedly this (combined with a confusion about the scope of an MVP) is why most Services never actually bother with their Live Assessment. For most Services, once you’re in Public Beta the hard work has been done; there’s nothing more to do, so why bother with a Live Assessment? But that’s an entirely different blog! 

Reviewing the service together.

 

Having pride in our diversity and learning to be inclusive

June is Pride Month when members of the LGBTQ+ community and their allies come together in different ways to celebrate, remember and reflect. As such, now June is over, I wanted to reflect on the things I learnt this year.

Pride and Trans Pride Flags.

This June was a Pride Month like no over, because of COVID-19; lockdown meant that the usual pride marches were cancelled and then moved online.

June was also the month that #BlackLivesMatter came to the forefront of Western consensus because of unforgivable killing of George Floyd in the US, amongst sadly so many others around the globe. With marches and rallies both in the US and UK (and elsewhere) to call for the end of police brutality and discrimination against Black people.

And finally, June (yep, still Pride Month) was when JKR yet again decided to use her platform to gatekeep women’s spaces and to decry the acceptance of trans women as women. (I’m not linking to her article, because I won’t give it airspace, but there are MANY fantastic pieces that explain why this stance is harmful, here’s just one. But the Tl:Dr version is, Trans Women are Women.)

As such, this month, more than any other June that we have seen in a long time, has been one in which the conversations about diversity and inclusion have been so important.

I was asked this month, why diversity and inclusion were important to me?

As the very wise Fareeha Usman, founder of Being women, said “Discrimination can only be tackled if we first tackle our own insecurities.”

Working within and alongside the public sector, we develop policies, products and services for the public; for citizens, for society. We can not develop things for people, if we can not empathise with them; if we can not understand where they are coming from and the problems/ barriers they are facing. The people we are building form come from diverse backgrounds. If our teams all look and sound the same, and have the same life experiences, then we will never be able to deliver things that meet the diverse needs of our users.

Lots of hands coming together with a heart over the top

The Lesbians who tech (and allies) held their annual pride summit from the 22nd to 26th of June, and this year there was a clear focus on #BlackLivesMatter and also #TransWomenAreWomen as well; with a whole host of fantastic speakers discussing actions we can all take to be more inclusive. I was also lucky enough to be asked to speak at a D&I panel* on the 24th held by @SR2 and had the opportunity to attend the Dynamo North East event on the 25th, and to attend several other virtual pride events.

Key things I learned:

  • Locational geo-clusters can be a blocker to diversity and reinforce racial discrimination – @LorraineBardeen
  • When attending a meeting/ workshop or invited to sit on a panel, it’s our responsibility to check who else is ‘in the room’ and see if we are needed there, or is there someone else from a different group who’s voice needs amplifying more than ours. – @JasmineMcElry
  • When awarding contracts we need to look at companies track record on diversity / pay etc. And make sure we are not unconsciously biased against companies that have a makes up that does not match our own. – @SenatorElizabethWarren
  • It is our job to educate ourselves and not ask anyone else to educate us; as leaders our role is to admit we don’t know everything, that we are still learning, and to actively listen to others – @TiffanyDawnson

COVID-19, if nothing else, has given us the opportunity to think about the society we want to see coming out of this pandemic. We have all embraced things like remote working to help us keep working, now is the time to consider whether these tools can also help us going forward to be more inclusive in our workforce, and our society.

Removing the dependance on geographical hiring would enable us to include people from wider ethnic communities, as well as disabled people who have often found themselves excluded from office jobs by the commute etc; or people with caring responsibilities for who the standard 9-5 office job doesn’t work.

A fantastic session led by Nic Palmarini, Director of NICA, on Agism stated that “We need to reimagine a new society that is more inclusive”. This for me sums up the conversations I have seen, heard and been lucky enough to be part of this month; and I am proud to be part of a company, an industry and a community, that is trying its hardest to do just that.

Difrent's Diversity stats
The Diversity stats from Difrent

*If you fancy catching up on the panel, details are here: https://zoom.us/rec/share/7uV5L-rezkhIZZXT8FjFVKQIAZTCeaa82yJI-Pdby0whYlngi4VRx3mii2Gvb-zR Password: 1H+a15=#

The people getting left behind

Why ‘in the era of remote working we need to stop thinking about ‘digital services’ as a separate thing, and just think about ‘services’.

Last night when chatting to @RachelleMoose about whether digital is a privilege, which she’s blogged about here, it made me remember a conversation from a few weeks ago with @JanetHughes about the work DEFRA were doing, and their remit as part of the response to the current pandemic (which it turns out is not just the obvious things like food and water supplies, but also what do we do about Zoo’s and Aquariums during a lockdown?!)

A giraffe

This in turn got me thinking about the consequences of lockdown that we might never have really have considered before the COVID 19 pandemic hit; and the impact a lack of digital access has on peoples ability to access public services.

There are many critical services we offer everyday that are vital to peoples lives that we never imagined previously as ‘digital’ services which are now being forced to rely on digital as a means of delivery, and not only are those services themselves struggling to adapt but we are also at risk of forgetting those people for whom digital isn’t an easy option.

All ‘digital’ services have to prove they have considered Digital Inclusion, back in 2014 it was found approx. 20% of Britains had basic digital literacy skills, and the Digital Literacy Strategy aimed to have everyone who could be digital literate, digitally able by 2020. However it was believed that 10% of the population would never be able to get online, and the Assisted Digital paper published in 2013 set out how government would enable equal access to users to ensure digital excluded people were still able to access services. A report by the ONS last year backs this assumption up, showing that in 2019 10% of the population were still digital excluded.

However, as the effects of lockdown begin to be considered, we need to think about whether our assisted digital support goes far enough; and whether we are really approaching how we develop public services holistically, how we ensure they are future proof and whether we are truly including everyone.

There have been lots of really interesting articles and blogs about the impact of digital (or the lack of access to digital) on children’s education. With bodies like Ofsted expressing concerns that the lockdown will widen the gap education between children from disadvantaged backgrounds and children from more affluent homes; with only 5% of the children classified as ‘in need’ who were expected to still be attending school turning up.

An empty school room

According to the IPPR, around a million children do not have access to a device suitable for online lessons; the DfE came out last month to say there were offering free laptops and routers to families in need; however a recent survey showed that while over a quarter of teachers in private schools were having daily interaction with their pupils online less than 5% of those in state schools were interacting with their pupils daily online. One Academy chain in the North West is still having to print home learning packs and arrange for families to physically pick up and drop off school work.

The Good Things Foundation has shared its concerns similarly about the isolating effects of lockdown, and the digital divide that is being created, not just for families with children, but for people with disabilities, elderly or vulnerable people or households in poverty. Almost 2 million homes have no internet access, and 26 million rely on pay as you go data to get online. There has been a lot of concern raised about people in homes with domestic violence who have no access to phones or the internet to get help. Many companies are doing what they can to try and help vulnerable people stay connected or receive support but it has highlighted that our current approach to designing services is possibly not as fit for the future as we thought.

The current pandemic has highlighted the vital importance for those of us working in or with the public sector to understand users and their needs, but to also ensure everyone can access services. The Digital Service Standards were designed with ‘digital’ services in mind, and it was never considered 6 months ago, that children’s education, or people’s health care needed to be considered and assessed against those same standards.

The standards themselves say that the criteria for assessing products or services is applicable if either of the following apply:

  • getting assessed is a condition of your Cabinet Office spend approval
  • it’s a transactional service that’s new or being rebuilt – your spend approval will say whether what you’re doing counts as a rebuild

The key phrase here for me is ‘transactional service’ ie. the service allows:

  • an exchange of information, money, permission, goods or services
  • submitting of personal information that results in a change to a government record

While we may never have considered education as a transactional service before now, as we consider ‘the new normal’ we as service designers and leaders in the transformation space need to consider which of our key services are transactional, how we are providing a joined up experience across all channels; and what holistic service design really means. We need to move away from thinking about ‘digital and non digital services’ and can no longer ‘wait’ to assess new services, instead we need to step back and consider how we can offer ANY critical service remotely going forward should we need to do so.

A child using a tablet

Digital can no longer be the thing that defines those with privilege, COVID 19 has proved that now more than ever it is an everyday essential, and we must adapt our policies and approach to service design to reflect that. As such, I think it’s time that we reassess whether the Digital Service Standards should be applied to more services than they currently are; which services we consider to be ‘digital’ and whether that should even be a differentiator anymore. In a world where all services need to be able to operate remotely, we need to approach how we offer our services differently if we don’t want to keep leaving people behind.

Matt Knight has also recently blogged on the same subject, so linking to his blog here as it is spot on!

What ever happened to “there are no stupid questions?”

This week I had a great conversation with @ClareSudbery of MadeTech and @RachelleHunt of StrangeDigital about the importance of using plain english and creating an inclusive environment where people feel able to speak up and ask questions.

Back when I started working in Digital as a Product Owner in 2011, and I did my agile training course, one of the first ‘principles’ that was discussed was ‘There is no such thing as a stupid question”. Which as a newbie in the agile/digital world was great to hear, because I felt like I knew literally nothing.

A neon sign with a ‘?’

This concept has always been something I’ve repeated to the teams and people I’ve been working with. There will always be something you don’t know, it is impossible to know everything. Therefor we have to be able to ask questions and find out information without fear of being made to feel stupid.

However, as digital transformation and agile begins to roll out and spread, that acceptance of ‘not knowing’ seems to have become less common. I hear a lot from colleagues outside of digital that ‘agile is a cult, or digital is a clique’ with it’s own language that doesn’t welcome in those who don’t know the ‘lingo’.

A friend of mine had a scrum coach in to speak to their team and deliver some training to their organisation (if you don’t know what scrum is, that’s ok, here’s a link), and she said the way that he spoke to them was as if they were all idiots who knew nothing, and that he made scrum sound like a religion for zealots. There was no opportunity to question, only to agree. This isn’t what should be happening. There’s no better way to foster feelings of exclusion and frustration than be treating people who don’t know something as ‘lesser’.

The public sector has always struggled with acronyms, and while we regularly hear about the drive to reduce the use of them with the greatest will in the world, everyone will find themselves slipping up and using them sometimes, because they are everywhere and we assume that everyone knows them. But we have to remember that they don’t.

At a global digital conference last year in The Hague I was happily chatting away to someone working for the Dutch Pensions service and kept referencing several Government Departments by their acronyms without thinking, leaving the poor person I was speaking to rather lost.

Similarly in my interview for my current role, I was too embarrassed to check an acronym (PnL) and just assumed I knew exactly what I was being asked about. It was only after 10 minutes of waffle I was politely corrected that I was not been asked about Procurement frameworks and instead about my experience of managing Profit and Loss. Obvious in retrospective, but never an acronym I’d heard before and who want’s to look ignorant in an interview?

Graffiti asking ‘what do you mean?’

Clare made a point that often we’re not actually saving time by using acronyms, but we are gatekeeping and increasing that siloed attitude, which is counterproductive to the work we’re doing. This is especially important, as Rachelle pointed out, given how inaccessible acronyms often are, and that they are actually not unique. One random set of letters to me may mean something completely different to someone else working in a different organisation or sector or with completely different experiences. We are actually increasing the chance for confession and misunderstandings while not saving time or effort.

There is a lot of great work happening in the Public sector, using the Digital Service Standards (primarily standard 4 – make the service simple to use, and 5 – make sure everyone can use the service) and the principles of the Plain English Campaign, to simply the content we provide to users, to make it clear, concise and easy to comprehend. However when it comes to how we talk to each other, we are forgetting those same standards.

My conversation this week has reminded me how important it is, as a Senior Leader to:

  • firstly try and not use acronyms or digital/agile jargon, or to not make assumptions about other peoples knowledge without checking first their experience and understanding.
  • Secondly, speak up and ask more questions when I don’t know things. To show by doing, that it is ok to not know everything.

After-all, there are no stupid questions, just opportunities to learn and share knowledge.

Image asking what are your questions?” taken from the universe awareness blog

Welcome to the Dark Side.

Last week I started working for @BeDifrent, a business transformation agency working with both Public and Private sector clients to help them deliver #TechForGood.

This is a massive change for me, I spent almost 15 years in the Public Sector, I always said I was a public servant for life, and in my heart I am, when people have asked me this week what I do it’s been very odd to not reply “I work in the public sector”.

But the thing is, I still am, Difrent’s clients are predominantly public sector at the moment (at least the ones I’ve been dealing with in my first two weeks). The challenges our clients are facing are so similar to those I’m used to facing, but the opportunities are so much bigger.

At my interview I got asked why I was interested in this role, and my answer was very honest and in two parts.

One, for my career development. I’ve spent three years working at Deputy Director level as a Head of Product in the Public Sector, and I loved my role. Product and Service design are things that I am passionate about, and designing and delivering services to users that really matter, that improve things for them, is the thing that drives me.

But I’d also realised what I did was wider than the label “Head of Product” really allowed for. So much of my effort and time was on the cultural and organisational changes organisations needed to make to enable them to deliver and change into a Product and User led organisation.

Which is what led me to consider Difrent. When I saw the job advertised I did my homework on the company and the people. Who were they? What made Difrent different? Why did they care?

My mentor for years had been recommending I consider doing a stint outside of the public sector to gain experience from the other-side of the table, but the thought had always made me twitch, but what I saw from Difrent’s information, from reading up on the amazing Rachel Murphy and from talking to colleagues who had made the jump into the dark side to both Difrent and other like minded agencies recently made me feel that maybe this was the time to take that leap into the dark.

My focus will be on working with our clients to ensure we can deliver. Supporting our teams and building our capability to ensure we keep doing the right things in the right ways.

So yes, not only will this give me experience on the other side of the contracting table, and the opportunity to see how the other side live. But the public sector still need us suppliers, there will always be short term projects and pieces of work that it makes sense to use suppliers to help with rather than massively increase their headcount’s, and more importantly (for me) we have more flexibility sometimes, the chance to quickly bring in different perspectives and points of view.

Difrent describe themselves as being activists for change and doing the right thing. They are passionate about delivering things that matter, and only working with clients who meet their #TechForGood ethos.

And for me that is Difrent’s main attraction, they want to help bring about that change, to ensure we are delivering the right things in the right way for the right reasons. Advocating and agitating for that change and real transformation.

As someone who talks a lot about finding their tribe, I look around the company and see a lot of great people passionate about delivering real change. It was especially great to see and hear the diversity and inclusion stats for the company being proudly discussed at events. One of the things that attracted me to Difrent is how much they talk about their people, and how important their people are to them, it feels like a real community of people who care. As stated by Dan Leakey, what ever our makeup, Difrent are 100% awesome.

With credit to @RachelleMoose for the inforgraphic

And while it’s only midway through week two, what I’ve seen so far has already made me feel like the dark side is full of bright lights. I’ve spent time in both Newcastle and Blackpool with some of our delivery teams, getting to understand the outcomes we are trying to deliver and why, and how we can best support our clients to meet their user’s needs.

Darth Vader with wings and a halo

So while I do intend to return to the public sector in the future with lots of new great experience under my belt, for now I feel like the message is “welcome to the dark side, we’re not all bad.”

Having a vision

I regularly talk to organisations about why having vision and mission statements are important. Over the years I’ve seen many good examples and some bad ones too, both inside and outside the public sector.

They often seems to be overlooked when deciding to transform an organisation, instead companies tend to focus on their Target Operating Model or individual delivery of products. While delivery of the Products is important, because as Tom Loosemore says the ‘Strategy is delivery’ after all; and a Target Operating Model ads value; without a clear Vision and Mission statement the teams involved in delivery can find it hard to focus on what they are aiming for (the vision), and how they are aiming to achieve that goal (the mission statement).

There’s been a few good blogs written about Mission statements, these blogs by Mel Cannon, Ben Holliday and Rachel Woods highlight how a good mission statement can help a company deliver, by helping them focus on ‘how’ they will achieve their aims. But there is little value in understanding ‘how’ you will seek to deliver a goal, without understanding ‘what’ you want to deliver. As such, today I want to focus on Vision’s, what makes a good one and why they are important.

So why is having a Vision important?

As Ben Holliday said in his blog a good Vision sets out “What we want to achieve. Setting out an ideal future state eg. what will the council of the future and local services look like?” It is the future state we are striving for. It is what our staff know to aim for, the thing that gives us focus; especially in the public sector it is where we will end up if we’ve managed to deliver our strategy. The reason a Vision is important s that it helps us plan our future. It sets the agenda, the goal.

As good summary from lifehack.com states the question you should be asking when developing your vision is “If you were to take a photo of your future business now, what would it look like? What do you want your business to be recognized for one day?” This could be as simple as being the best, fastest, most well known or trusted provider of your product and service.

A view finder looking at the horizon

What makes a good Vision?

There are different theories on this, this blog from Projectmanager.com states that the best vision statements are concise, clear and future orientated (amongst other things).

Whilst changefactor.com states here that a good vision statement should be unique and evoke emotion, it should say “something about us, our organisation, our operating environment, our dream. When we read it, it should tell us where we are going. We should not be able to substitute our vision statement for other organisations inside and outside our industry.

I agree with all of that, but the thing missing for me is that they need to be based on your user’s needs, to evoke emotion, you are making assumptions about the needs of your customers and how your organisations will be meeting those needs.

If you look at some of the big name vision statement’s out there you can see how they have tried to follow the above guidelines.

Disney: “to be one of the world’s leading producers and providers of entertainment and information.”

Oxfam: “Our vision is a just world without poverty. We want a world where people are valued and treated equally, enjoy their rights as full citizens, and can influence decisions affecting their lives.”

Ikea: to create a better everyday life for the many people – for customers, but also for our co-workers and the people who work at our suppliers.

Personally, Disney’s vision seems to lack emotion to me, but it is definitely clear and concise. Both Oxfam and Ikea’s vision’s evoke more emotion, but I think it could be argued that Ikea’s vision is not unique to them. It would be easy to mistake Ikea’s vision for that of other companies. Of the three Vision’s above, I personally find Oxfam’s the best in that it is unique to them, evokes emotion and sets out their clear intent.

The thing that interests me is that for many companies, their vision is words. But I actually really like visual vision’s, I’ve always found them easier to get people to buy into, and for organisations staff to understand their place and the value they are adding.

@DWPDigital’s 2020 vision

The above vision developed by @DWPDigtial showed how the Department would be organised in the future, with their guiding principles clearly stated. It was developed back in 2017 and showed how the different elements of the organisation would work together to deliver it’s services. While the vision was definitely unique to DWP; it was not concise, or even very clear and easy to understand. You could argue that this was actually their Target Operating Model rather than a Vision, given it doesn’t meet the criteria above of being clear and concise, but it does show clearly where the Department was going.

Emilia Cedeno showing off @CCS’s vision

Another great example is this one by @CCS, which is both clear and simple in it’s statement, and in how it is visualised. 

As the Crown Commercial Service is responsible for:

  • managing the procurement of common goods and services, so public sector organisations with similar needs achieve value by buying as a single customer; 
  • increasing savings for the taxpayer by centralising buying requirements for common goods and services and bringing together smaller projects;  
  • leading on procurement policy on behalf of the UK government increasing savings for the taxpayer by centralising buying requirements for common goods and services and bringing together smaller projects;

It’s Vision to be the “Go – To provider form Common Goods and services” makes sense. It is concise and clear, and specific to their organisation.

The benefit of both of these vision’s is that they help the viewer to ‘see’ how the organisations intend to transform and develop themselves.

Knowing where you are going is important:

No matter what format you go for, when developing a Vision it’s important to remember that it should be unique to your organisation, clear, concise and easy to understand, and that it helps your users, staff and stakeholders understand what the organisations aims are, where the organisation is heading and why.

A compass

But the most important thing to remember is that your Vison is not a static thing. You should constantly be revisiting it and checking that it is still valid and innovative. That it still drives your organisation forward and represents your users needs and where you want your company to be in the future.

Measuring cost vs. measuring value?

Discussing the differences between Product Management in the Private and Public sector.

There has always been a perceived difference in how Product Managers in the public and private sector work, what their priorities are and their key focuses.

Historically at its most simplistic the view has been that within the Public sector the Product Manager focuses on what user’s need. Whereas Product Managers in the private sector focus on what users want.

Interestingly as more organisations in the Private Sector adopt the user centric design principles championed by Government Digital services and public sector organisations the difference in the role between the Private and public sectors decreases. Within the public sector we do indeed focus on user’s needs, however we do have to consider their wants as well if we want to create services our users will enjoy using.

Equally while Product Managers in the Private Sector will focus more on want’s, as that is where their revenue is likely to be, and what will give them the edge in the market. But they will also consider need’s, because when developing a service for users, it’s important to understand whether users wants and needs are polar opposites to ensure your not setting your scope too small or your costs too high. As such, while this difference between need and want is possibly still the best way to separate the roles, they are not as different as they once were.

A simple task backlog

No matter what sector they work in, be that private sector or Public, Product Managers are still there to ‘represent’ the end user and their needs/wants, within the Public sector the Product Manager is more likely to work with a user researcher who will help them understand those needs, and there will be more of a focus on user research to ensure the users are properly understood and represented, but at their core the Product Manager is still there to ensure those needs are met in the best possible way.

They are also responsible for understanding the opportunities and gaps within the market place, looking for opportunities to fill a need that is missing; for developing their Product strategy and roadmap and setting the scope for their Product to meet the needs or target the gaps they have identified.

So, perhaps the other key difference between the Private and Public sector Product Managers, is cost revenue. Within the Private Sector, the Product Manager is responsible for ensuring the Product or Service they are developing will fit within the Business Model, they manage the profit and loss for their Products, and the development of the business development strategy. They will quantify the return on investment predominantly through revenue return. They will be examining the market place to understand what similar products are out there, and their costs to users to use; Once they have a rough idea on how much they can make they can determine their ROI is based on how much it will cost to develop vs. how much profit are they likely to make from users once the Product or service is live.

Within the Public sector there is not the same onus on cost revenue. Departments are funded by the treasury, very few agencies or bodies generate their own revenue, and while there are some, they are not looking to create a profit in the same way the private sector is.

Instead the return on investment we are considering in the Public sector is about value to the public purse. Is there value in spending public money on developing this product or service? We do this by examining how much is currently spent on running any existing services; how much is ‘lost’ through waste or inefficiencies; how much can be saved by introducing service improvements or a new service for users and how much will it likely cost to develop? If the savings out way the spend, then there is likely value in us using public money to develop this.

A dashboard showing user numbers

This approach to determining value is the difference between the public and private sector product managers, but also shows how similar the roles actually are. Product Managers, no matter what sector they are in, care about their users and developing products and services for them. They look to the market to understand opportunities; they work to develop their Product strategy and to quantify the available Return on Investment.

I think we need to put to bed this idea that the Private sector solely puts revenue over users, and that the Public sector doesn’t care about costs.  Both Private sector and Public sector Product Managers have a lot they can learn from each other, and we should be looking for more opportunities to join up and share our experiences and knowledge.

I believe both Private sector and Public sector Product Managers have a lot they can learn from each other, and we should be looking for more opportunities to join up and share our experiences and knowledge. I think we need to put to bed this idea that the Private sector solely puts revenue over users, and that the Public sector doesn’t care about costs.

When is Digital not Digital?

When it’s not about user needs or human centric design, but instead about fixing technological infrastructure.

When it’s not about transforming the service but keeping the lights on systems.

When it’s not about asking “why?”, because you already know the solution you want.

A sign asking “Why?”

As Tom Loosemore said, Digital is applying the culture, practices, processes & technologies of the Internet-era to respond to people’s raised expectations.

There are lots of conversations online about being digital, not doing digital. Digital is not a process, it is a cultural mind-set.

It is a way of asking questions and prioritising needs. It’s about delivering value and designing services that meet user needs and expectations.

A person using a smart phone.

Now and then you can still see organisations that use Digital as a label when they mean technology or IT.

However, those things are not interchangeable. The culture and mindset of of the teams of the teams, and the organisations itself, is very different.

In organisations that use digital as a label but are not embracing what it means to be digital you will still see a separation between change or transformation and digital. They will still have siloed ways of working.

The business will still separate the programme funding, governance and strategy from the digital teams tasked with delivery.

Organisations where digital is a way of working, not just a label, you will see properly empowered teams made up of people from across the business. You will have teams who ‘own’ the holistic service they are delivering from strategy to delivery.

Open plan digital office space

These are organisations where the multidisciplinary team isn’t just something that digital ‘do’ but the whole organisations embraces.

This comparison between Digital and Technology is equally relevant when considering the role of the Chief Digital Officer vs. a Chief Technology Officer or Chief Information Officer. There’s a good discussion of the various roles here. As with the other roles the Chief Digital Officer looks after an organisations data and technology assets. However, they go one step further and have a wider eye, considering the strategy and the possibilities for innovation and wider transformation. Their focus is not on keeping the lights on, but understanding why the lights are needed and are there any other options?

Servers

For me this sums up why digital is wider ands more far reaching than Technology, and why the Digital mind-set and culture is so important to get right for organisations trying to deliver transformation. And why, if you don’t have these things right, if you are digital in name but not culture, you are going to struggle to deliver real transformation.

#GovermentIsOpen

Why we need to bring user centric design into our Communications in the public Sector.

Having been involved in the hiring of many Content and Interaction Designers in the last few years, we’ve always preferred candidates from within the Public Sector, because they tend to have the same specialisms as we in the Digital Data and Technology (DDaT) Profession have, looking down our nose a little at applicants from the private sector who seem to be a bit of a ‘jack of all trades of design’ doing some social media, some UX and some content design.

A Neon sign showing 0 likes.

We want people who understand user centric design, who design services based on user needs. We want content designers used to working in multidisciplinary teams designing and developing services. We want Content Designers who are used to designing what ‘we’ class as Content, which having spoken to people interested in applying for our roles seems to be quite often different, or at least a narrower definition, to what the wider industry classes as Content. A search for content design jobs online shows the breadth of jobs that can fall under that category.

But in the last year or so I’ve begun to look at those we have left behind with this approach, those we have excluded and where this has left us, especially in terms of both recruitement, and our engagement with our users.

The Government Design community is constantly growing and expanding. With the salaries being offered quickly outsripping the number of candidates we have available. We are all constantly stealing candidates from each other, and those departments and agencies that can’t afford to pay that much, are left relaying on contractors because we can’t hire people.

Digital is seen as a channel for contact, and within the public sector we are moving our products and services online. However, social media is generally not considered as part of that transformation. It is not a transactional service, and therefor generally not considered within the remit of the Digital design teams. The content we put out on social media is seen as the same as we put out to the press, it is a tool for giving out information, as such the people on our social media teams tend to be comms professionals, or people with a background in journalism or marketting.

People looking at their phones

Interestingly Social Media teams are not generally included within the Government design community, and until a conversation 18 months ago with Joanne Rewcastle at DWP Digital I’d never really thought about that. The DDaT roles are based around the roles first needed by Gov.uk and expanded on from there as part of the work by GDS. As such these are the roles needed to design and develop transactional services. Which makes sense.

However, it means we are not thinking about what our users need from our social media. We are not designing the content we put on social media in the same way as the content we put on our digital services, or even our websites.

Also, it means when it comes to recruitment, we are not looking preferably on those people who have a social media or wider comms background as they are not, by the DDaT definition, Content Designers, and unfortunately it is currently quite hard for people working in Social media or wider comms to move over into the Content Design space as they tend to not have the experience of working in multidisciplinary teams or on transactional user needs driven services we are looking for.

With our digital services we have to ensure they are accessible. Our content designers and interaction designers are experts in making sure our content is accessible and understandable by everyone. But in my experience we haven’t been making sure our social media teams are experts in that as well.

A keyboard with an accessibility symbol

It was from Content Design and Accessibility expert colleagues I learned the rule of #CapatalisingYourHashTags so that they can be better understood by accessibility software. The same goes for images and emojis, are we all making sure we’re using them in such a way that screen readers and accessibility software can understand them? If our users are using social media, if that is a service we offer, then do we not have the same responsibility to make sure that service is as usable and accessible as any other service we offer? Even if it isn’t ‘transactional’.

Our Social media colleagues are generally great in helping us think about how to design messages in ways to engage the audiences on different channels, they understand the demographics of the users on the different platforms and what messages work best with which users where. They often have a wealth of data and evidence regarding our users that could benefit Product Development teams. When we’re considering as Product teams how to engage our users it seems to me that is a great time to engage with our social media colleagues. Equally, Product teams, through user research sessions and user needs analysis collect a lot of evidence and data teams that could benefit our Social Media colleagues. Unfortunately I’ve seen very few places pulling those skills together well.

Full credit to DWP Digital’s social media team here, where the team reached out and joined up with the content design community even though they were not officially part of it according to the DDaT professions, to ensure they were considering user needs in how they used social media. That team worked incredibly hard to build people’s awareness of how to use social media, to ensure content was accessible and usable.

A mix of laptops and smartphones on a desk

A few other Departments have done simillar, and I think that is a good thing. But I also think we need to look again at social media across the public sector. It’s not just a marketing tool anymore, In the age of the internet a good social media presence can make or break a company. Nothing is ever really gone from the internet, and that tweet or Facebook post from 5 years ago can come back to bite you on the bum.

So why are more places not using the principles of user design in our social media, or recognising the hard work of those people who are pushing for accessibility and user design in social media as much as those who are designing good content for a website or transactional service?

We need to recognise that the people within our Social Media teams and our Content Design teams have more in common than not, and that when we are recruiting we can gain a lot from people who come form both sides of that bridge.