Most of government is mostly service design most of the time. Discuss.

Without exception, everyone I meet in the public sector wants to help make their service better. Most of them are in some way frustrated. The domain is massive and the activities disjointed. People engaged in any given service – from users and frontline workers down to managers and policymakers – can go for months on end without coming into contact with each other. On the rare occasions they do meet, they generally do so with mutual incomprehension.

This is not exclusively a government problem. I know from my time as a product manager in the private sector that a similar malaise affects all big organisations. But when it happens in government the impact of poor service is graver. This is service delivered with the authority of the state. As users we cannot take our government custom elsewhere. Neither can public service providers cherry pick their customers like the private sector does.

Whether we realise or not, most of government is mostly service design most of the time. If we fail to acknowledge this, we’re doomed to short change our citizens and fall short of our policy goals. But when we wake up to the potential, we find proven tools and techniques for designing service. Applying them can and should be everyone’s business.

We only have to look at definitions of “government” and “service design” to find a naturally good fit.

Exhibit A: The Institute for Government’s Whitehall Monitor summarises the business of government under the following headings:

  • the resources available to government (ministers, money, civil servants)
  • how government manages them (through arm’s-length bodies or contracting), what it does with them (passing legislation, answering requests for information) and how it measures what it does (major projects, permanent secretary objectives), and
  • what impact all of that has in the real world and how the public and international studies rate government effectiveness.

… which is nice because, Exhibit B, the Service Design Network defines its members’ practice thus:

“Service design is the activity of planning and organizing people, infrastructure, communication and material components of a service in order to improve its quality and the interaction between service provider and customers.”

We may call it many things, but service design happens all the time at every level of the government stack. The problem is that when done unconsciously it’s just not very good. All of the following contain random acts of design by default…

  • Users work their way around complex government processes, even if it means hiring costly experts like lawyers or accountants to do it for them.
  • Frontline staff hack the process just so they can serve their customers better. Visit any contact centre to see tattered papers, sticky notes by screens, Dymo-labelled folders and trays put in place to expedite information from one part of the process to another.
  • Good managers manage with ingenuity to sort out shift patterns, holiday rotas and flexible working so that their people can do their best work – in spite of policies and processes that treat workers more as resources than as human beings.
  • Entire, organisations-within-organisations accrete with baroque titles such as “change management” to drive through discontinuous re-structures that fracture working relationships and frustrate any long-term organisational learning.
  • “Policy” is a Platonic conception perceived to exist on a higher plane where users are always rational, processes run smoothly and every day is a sunny one. By the time we descend to the grubby depths of “implementation” it’s already too late.
  • Our democracy itself still runs on rails laid in Victorian times, as if the population were barely literate onlookers and the parties the houses of a minor public school on a bad-tempered match day.

Everywhere there are gaps. With their 1985 Gaps Model of Service Quality, Parasuraman et al. posited 5 types of them.

gaps model

All 5 gaps are endemic in public service. Design shouldn’t just be used to paper over them: it can eliminate them altogether. As Tom Loosemore said in his Code for America talk last year describing the Government Digital Service’s approach:

“We don’t talk about policy and implementation or policy and then delivery. We don’t think of them as two separate things. Even thinking how you fix the gap is a category error. What we doing here collectively, with policy people in the room, is digital service design.”

(Disclosure: It’s my privilege to work as a contractor for GDS, though like everything on this blog I write this in a personal capacity.)

Let’s look at those gaps again.

  1. Gap between what customers expect and what managers think they expect. We seek and expose user insights, not just at the start or end of the process, but throughout. There’s good evidence that everyone on the team should spend at least 2 hours every 6 weeks observing primary, qualitative research. How about we make that a prerequisite for Permanent Secretaries, council CEO’s, and everyone else not in direct day-to-day contact with service users?
  2. Gap between management perception and service specification. Even when we understand what users need, we have to get better at translating that insight into a vision of the service. We can use powerful formats such as user stories to tie requirements back to users and their goals. The best specifications of all can be real working prototypes. Making prototypes is easier than ever.
  3. Gap between specification and delivery. Alpha and beta versions are what we use to close this gap. They help us understand the ins and outs of delivery even as we refine our designs.
  4. Gap between promise to customers and what’s actually delivered. Ever been sold a Tesla only to find it’s a Sinclair C5? In the words of this tweet, “how could we get Britain voting on prototypes rather than promises?”
  5. Gap between what customers expect of service and how they actually perceive it. This yawning chasm is the cumulative effect of gaps 1 to 4. It is also the main driver of disappointment and distrust in public services. One bad experience loops back round and poisons our expectations of future interactions with government – a downward spiral that we need to disrupt.

How can we make government better? By accepting that first and foremost everyone’s a designer, and that we all need to develop a design thinking sensibility.

Besides relentless people-centricity – intellectually and empathetically understanding users, tasks and environments – service design practice has some distinctive characteristics:

  • Service design is visual. This doesn’t mean you have to be great at drawing – but it does demand working with more than words. When we draw pictures and diagrams we engage a different part of our brains and spot things we would miss through written specification alone. Making those assets visible can feel scary at first. That’s worth it though, because they change the conversation into something much more constructive than any amount of finessing verbal positions and semantics.
  • Service design is multidisciplinary. ISO 9241-210, the international standard for human-centred design acknowledges that no one discipline has a monopoly on design. Rather, “the design team includes multidisciplinary skills and perspectives.” This is a challenge to a silo-ed way of working, but small “two-pizza” teams in startups and internet giants like Amazon and Google prove it can be done.
  • Service design is holistic and integrative. Good designers of any stripe look at the big picture – what is the user need? what is the policy intent? – but they don’t stop there. They also dive down into the details and forge novel combinations of components. They hold multiple, potentially contradictory, strands in tension, zooming in and out between the reasons for doing something and the details of delivery that will make it succeed.
  • Service design is iterative. Whenever I read an account of Apple’s development process I am struck by the number of versions and iterations their products and services go through. They create and test many ideas before narrowing down on a handful to develop further. Just at the point when lesser companies would settle and launch they throw all the cards in the air and create yet more new combinations.
  • Finally, service design treats time as a material. There’s a place for thinking and working fast, and one for being slow and considered. A food bank user needs assistance before the next mealtime while a retiree of 60 needs to think what money they might need aged 100. Big service providers get stuck too easily in the middle of Stewart Brand’s pace layers. Service design helps them to be more supple.

Pace Layering

Don’t believe me? Try this stuff out for yourself. In June I’m taking part in the Global GovJam. It’s not a ‘designers’ event, just people designing together. For 48 hours we break down silos between local and national government, the NHS and social care, public, private and third sectors. We challenge people to communicate their ideas through doing, not talking. They make prototypes and take them out to potential users when they still feel incomplete. And the buzz as people realise how much they can achieve in so little time is amazing. Come and join us in Leeds or in dozens of other cities around the world.

90% archaeology: my notes and reflections on Service Design in Government 2015

Some rights reserved - Jess McMullin

Some rights reserved – Jess McMullin

There’s never been a more exciting time to be designing services in the public sector. But it can still be a lonely existence – in any organisation, a small number of advocates may find themselves trying to shift a large mass with plenty of inertia. The Service Design in Government conference that I attended last week has an important role to play. It’s a place where people can share their triumphs and frustrations, and form a common view of what we should be aiming for in the design and redesign of public service.

Thanks again to all the speakers, the other participants, and the organisers at Software Acumen. I was delighted to be part of the programme committee. These are my notes and reflections…

Everyone’s a designer.

Jess McMullin and Alex MacLennan have been building service design practice in the government of British Columbia since 2010. Along the way they’ve developed an awe-inspiring array of interventions across the government’s many services, intensively training cross-disciplinary, cross-department teams and moving up the design maturity ladder – from no conscious design, through a focus on style, function and form, up to using design to solve already-identified problems and frame new ones. Recognising that their own team is small (“we are not the official designers for the BC government”) they focus on getting other people to think like designers. Now they have a UX library that all ministries can use.

Those Hogwarts Moments – I love those too…

Anna Whicher and Adrian O’Donoghue carried on the “public servant as designer” theme with the story of the trans-national SPIDER project, and its application in Ireland’s Northern and Western Regional Assembly. An ambitious peer learning platform between local governments across North-western Europe, it covered public service co-ordination, youth unemployment, ageing populations and culture change within authorities. The scale of the capacity building is impressive: 1478 people attending local workshops, working on issues where people will benefit. Stand-out quotes: “Co-production works. It scares the public sector” and “Hero designer is not suitable in this way of working.”

Several other talks picked up the same themes:

  • Housing manager Amanda Pujol worked with designer Kathryn Woolf under the Design Council’s leadership programme to prevent life-threatening trips and falls among older people in Teignbridge (and together they bubble wrapped a whole GP’s reception to dramatise the issue!)
  • Transport for London, with Ben Reason‘s Live|Work, seconded 20 station staff to facilitate workshops, bringing an honesty and credibility that could only come from frontline workers
  • Gavin Bell of the Ministry of Justice told how they seconded a deputy prison governor to work with digital specialists on the Prison Visit Booking exemplar
  • Jean Mutton, an “inside-out service designer” at Derby University, brings students into her team on 12-month paid internships because “we get a much richer picture from students talking to students”
  • The Satori Lab‘s Jo Carter and Esko Reinikainen got housing association staff across Wales into conversation with the world cafe method
  • For sexual health community interest company SH:24, Glyn Parry and Unboxed Consulting‘s Martyn Evans had to create a core team including clinicians, public health professionals, agile project managers, designers and developers.

It’s 90% archaeology.

Louise Downe, service design lead at the Government Digital Service, outlined how  service failure is still one of the biggest costs in government. Time is taken up with unnecessary processing – roughly 40% of people declaring medical conditions to DVLA have a condition they didn’t need to report – user contact, casework, and manual handling of exceptions in policy. Change needs to happen “in hearts and minds of everyone who works in government. It’s not sitting in a room and ideating, it’s finding out why we’re doing what we’re doing.”

  • On the SPIDER project, this became a kind of “double ethnography on the end users and the system to understand how you can make an impact”.
  • Gavin detailed his own learning curve at MoJ – all that paper, printing and cabling! “It’s not done until you follow the transaction all way through the court process… It’s not done until the user has finished paying their fine… Understand the context in which you’re operating, understand how to get all the way to the end.”
  • Jean told us the story of the bicycle books, dutifully filled out and filed for decades even though their purpose in administering wartime rationing was long since redundant.
  • Jess and Alex “unearthing the decisions of the people that came before us”, connecting with the experience and legislation cultures, norms, values and power structures: “There is no more powerful tool than the road trip.”
  • Glyn and Martyn working with NHS trust information governance boards to devise a better way of keeping personal information by anonymising it instead of sending it around the system in the mail.

For TfL, it was about how to improve the customer journey (literally!) in creaking, crowded stations on a 152-year-old network that last saw a full day of good service on all lines in April 2010. (and in heritage buildings to boot – Earl’s Court Station, “beautiful escalator!”)

Change is hard.

TfL used the inspiration of the 2012 Olympics to prove that things were possible. But to put this into practice, they used a design approach to engage staff, build readiness for further change and reduce potential conflict (avert just half a day of Tube strike and the initiative would pay for itself.) Covent Garden station supervisor Pele Bapere told a powerful story about his own role in the “reachback” communications to colleagues at the station: “I’ve worked for the Underground 16 years and I’ve seen many things brought in… This was the first time they’ve gone out in a systematic way and engaged staff.” Sure enough, staff repayed that investment by highlighting priorities and changes that could be put into action quickly, such as modernising the approach to lost property.

And there were loads of other great change tips from presenters:

  • “Make sure you have ‘Do-ers’, not strategists” – Amanda Pujol
  • “Design language to some is really not helpful” – Andrea Siodmok, Cabinet Office Policy Lab
  • “The Gov Whisperer: not a change manager, more empathetic and focused on the needs of government” – Jess and Alex
  • “Intelligent challenge: Can you help us understand?” – Gavin
  • “Epic failure: Using empathy tools with psychopathic organisations” – Jo and Esko

Design is often first to join the dots.

The work of people-centred change frequently starts by helping those who do only a small part of the process to see the whole picture from the end-user’s point of view. Shockingly this often doesn’t happen until designers get involved. That’s what Jean Mutton did at Derby when she issued Flip cameras to new first year students – she helped the university to move from a component process review to the holistic student experience. Her team found departments tripping over each other to send letters, each of which “wanted to be the first” to welcome the student. And they developed a 40-point action plan that covered everything from signage to staff awareness.

Perhaps the most compelling story of joined up service – not just between organisations but across sectors – was the story Pele told from Covent Garden Station. With the opening of Britain’s largest Apple Store just across the road, there was an increase in the number of blind and partially sighted people coming through the station. So tube workers made an arrangement to call Apple, who now send a staff-member to meet people at ground level and escort them through the crowds.

Now shift from actual, physical underground railway platforms to the digital metaphor of the moment, “government as a platform”. Imagine, as Louise is starting to, how we could work when it is easier and quicker to make better, more user-focused public services: “When services are easier to make we’ll probably have more of them, not less.” But they’ll be “made of the internet”, “small pieces loosely joined”. Rather than having one monolithic piece of the benefit system, we can create a customised user journey that meets people’s individual needs. The potential is massive, but we’ll have to up our game. We’ll need a new clarity of thinking, not just “if we can’t fix it with a form, we create a portal.”

Needs are diverse, complex and quirky.

TfL’s Pele: “This is not Singapore, this is not New York, this in London, we’re quirky.”

Here’s a “best of discovering user needs” compilation I jotted down at the conference:

  • A GP decided to go through the front door of his surgery as if a customer – and re-worked his reception area based on what he learned – Amanda
  • Some prisoners have complex love lives – the prison visit booking system can end up being the forum where their rivalries play out – Gavin
  • If the admissions department puts its address on letters, that’s where students will show up on their first day – not the campus 20 miles away – Jean
  • There’s a new digital divide – between people online with basic skills and the “next gen” users for whom internet is interwoven with life – Liz Stevenson of Cambridgeshire County Council
  • Look for the verbs: “Bad services are nouns, good service are verbs.” – Louise

Everyone has tools, but prototyping is where it’s at.

I lost count of the number of toolkits, frameworks, canvases, cards, and variations on a process that showed up during the conference. (Top marks to Satori Labs for their “double diamond with knobs on”.) And there seemed to be general agreement that toolkits have their place.

But meeting up on the Thursday evening with a fifth column of Global Service Jam and Global GovJam hosts from around the world, I was reminded that for all the analysis we need to keep public service design real.

So it was great to hear references to prototyping – including one reportedly by Home Secretary Theresa May. Andrea: “If in a year people are talking about prototyping and they weren’t before, we’ve made an impact.”

  • In British Columbia, Alex runs a Public Services Dragon’s Den with a budget for creating prototypes and pilots
  • In Teignbridge, the bubble-wrapped reception was one of three alternatives tested for real in GP’s waiting rooms before settling on a single direction to raise older people’s awareness of trip and fall risks
  • Smeared and splattered iPhone screens made it bleeding obvious to the SH:24 team that video wasn’t the best way of showing people how to give a blood sample.

What did I miss?

Service Design in Government was a dual-track conference with a line-up so good that I inevitably didn’t get to see all the great presentations, like the one on design patterns by GDS colleagues Caroline Jarrett and Tim Pauland Lesley Thomson‘s reflections on design in the Scottish Government. I’m sure there was more that I missed!

See also:

The Last Target Operating Model You’ll Ever Need™

I first wrote this as a comment on Joel Bailey’s excellent blog post titled ‘This thing called agile might kill us all’ but thought it worth re-hashing and expanding here.

For context, Joel writes about “working for a big high street bank. The brief is to redesign the ‘end to end mortgage experience’. The timescale is to reach a business case, with a roadmap of delivery waves to achieve minimum viable product, within 6 weeks. ”

He floats the idea of a Target Customer Experience as counterpoint to that change management staple, the Target Operating Model.

I’ve had recent experience with a “TOM”, attempting to intercept with an agile, digital project. It left me puzzled, and I’m grateful to Joel’s post for helping me clarify my unease.

In case you haven’t come across one before, the TOM is a Thing in the world of “change management,” defined on Wikipedia as:

a description of the desired state of the operations of a business. Typically a TOM also includes the roadmap over time that specifies what the company needs to do to move from the “as is” to the “to be”.

For the service designers among you, a typical TOM covers similar turf to Alex Osterwalder’s Business Model Canvas, only with fewer sticky notes and more spreadsheets.

As an aside on his nascent agile project, Joel writes about the toll it takes on participants:

someone needs to write a Marxist evaluation of agile. Yes the outcome is better and it’s all very sexy and new and ‘oh so right’, but I suspect the cost on the worker is high as essentially it speeds production and works the asset of production (you and me) harder.

… which immediately set me thinking that if people are using “agile” to mean doing the same process only faster, even at the risk of burning out their people, then they’re Doing It Wrong.

I reached for the 8th of the Agile Manifesto Principles:

Agile processes promote sustainable development. The sponsors, developers, and users should be able to maintain a constant pace indefinitely.

And that’s when I realised the real challenge to peddlers of TOMs and the like: agile transformation isn’t a one-off thing that you do to get from A to B – it’s a continuous culture of iterative improvement.

Agile organisations succeed through sensing, not planning.

  • They are in touch with their actual customer experience (not just some brand fantasy). This is the dirty secret of much Target Operating Model work. A warts-and-all “as is” picture is far more valuable than any amount of “to be” prognostication – but even if that’s what executives secretly wish for, no consultant can afford to say out loud “I’ll tell you the time if you show me your watch”. Sadly the picture TOM processes do generate is often missing empathy, the key ingredient that spurs the organisation’s people on to make things better for their customers.
  • They truly understand their operating model (clue: it won’t look like a flow chart). Organisations are nothing more than systems made of, and by, people. They’re complex social constructs that operate on emotional as well as financial planes. This is what agile understands when it says “individuals and interactions over processes and tools”. To map an organisation by decomposition is to follow in the footsteps of the early Cartesians, dissecting a dog to prove it has no soul.
  • They have the capacity to make very frequent adaptations in response to their ever-growing understanding of customer needs. Being able to respond quickly to what you learn beats any amount of predicting and planning. Embracing diversity means pushing decision-making to the frontline. This in turn reduces the waste inherent in standardised processes. Let’s cultivate this as a core competency of every organisation. If we never get stuck in a rut, we’ll never require a “change programme” to jolt us out again – and that should come as a relief to all concerned.

All of this poses problems to an organisation addicted to discontinuous change. We’ll have to break down the Berlin Wall between the bits of an organisation that create “strategy” and the bits that do “operations”. Likely, product development can no longer be capitalised, so the balance sheet might appear worse before it gets better.

But I’ve come to the conclusion that this is the only sane way to run an organisation.

Learning by doing: it’s the Last Target Operating Model You’ll Ever Need™

Three things a city in charge of its destiny ought to know about software

2015 promises change in the way that Leeds, Yorkshire and England’s north are governed. Not before time, decision-making and funding are to be brought closer to us, to the cities and localities where we live, learn, play and work. This new settlement will arrive at a time when cities and governments everywhere are challenged to design and deliver service differently. It also comes just as, in Marc Andreessen’s words, software is eating the world.

Over my Christmas break I’ve been thinking about the malleability and abundance of software; what this looks like at the scale of a 200-year-old post-industrial city; and how it should shape the ways we decide and deliver things together. This is the first half of a 2-part ramble. Part 2 (still an outline in my drafts folder) will probably look at the structuring principles of the internet and the web, and how we might apply them at city scale. But before I can get to that story, I want to tell you this one: three things a city in charge of its destiny ought to know about software…

Light Night 2014 - Some rights reserved by CarlMilner

1. The clue is in the name

The first thing to know about software is… it’s soft: the opposite of hardware, malleable, endlessly changeful. When we shift the dominant logic of a thing from the hard layers to the soft we open it up to unpredictable new uses and reuses. We move from a world where things must be finished before use to a swirl of beta versions, A/B tests and updates on the fly.

  • Google repurposes links between pages as votes to rank websites’ authority, and in so doing grows a multi-billion dollar business based on an algorithm tweaked constantly to stay a step ahead of the SEO industry it has spawned.
  • The half-finished world of Minecraft is released missing its game mechanics and becomes a sandbox for the imaginations of millions of children.
  • Strangers collaborate to make Wikipedia at a pace of 10 edits per second across 4.6 million articles in the English version alone.

Massive though these software-driven behemoths may seem, they exist only as long as people choose to interact with them: the moment they stop moving, they begin to wither away. Remember Friends Reunited? Microsoft Encarta? The Yahoo Directory? Software facilitates the delivery of service in the moment, with value created at the point of use. It does not produce assets that can be hoarded in a warehouse or on a balance sheet.

This service-dominant logic of software poses a special challenge to the traditional imaginings of the world’s first industrial cities, synonymous as they are with unprecedented accumulation of hard, fixed capital. Here, the newly rich industrialists staked their claims on history’s grand sweep with facades designed to endure for centuries. Victorian navvies raised 18 million red bricks high above the River Aire so that 21st Century trains could rumble right into Leeds city centre. Little wonder that when today’s businesspeople and politicians want to symbolise a northern revival they reach first for the nostalgia of industrial museums and commitments to big infrastructure projects. This is, however, a misdirection that we need to avoid.

Leeds Brick Man maquette - Some rights reserved by nualabugeye

I’m a sucker for steam engines, but there are other stories that we should surface if we are to make sense of the era of software. The history of city after city is that people settled first, and shaped the infrastructure around them afterwards. And while they were waiting for the mod cons to arrive, they had to figure out how to get along together, how to raise the next generation, how to look after the old, sick and poor. To organise service for so many people demanded new forms of social software. The first mutual societies, trade unions, public health boards, and even modern local government arose first in cities like Leeds. Keep hold of those stories. Seek out more of them.

Surrounded by very concrete ruins, we overlook the intangible skills and habits of service that remain intact here. Let no one tell us that service is a new concept for the formerly industrial cities – it’s what we were doing all along. Renewing our cities in the 21st century should be more about these things – the soft, changeful ones – than about hard, physical infrastructure projects.

2. There’s a lot of it about

The second thing about software is abundance. It is infinitely copiable, an embodiment of human knowledge. The more it is shared, the greater its utility. Every day, more is added to the store of freely available code. When the team behind GOV.UK released their code on Github they enabled the people of New Zealand to re-use it for their government website, at no cost to British taxpayers. Indeed we Brits may even benefit further, if the New Zealanders improve on our code and share it back with the world.

Leeds Santa Dash - Some rights reserved by Old Bluebeard

Not only is software plentiful, but so, increasingly, are the skills needed to create and use it. In Leeds alone there are thousands of people working in-house with organisations and across digital agencies and service providers. Our universities and colleges train hundreds of students in software disciplines. Moreover, in almost every office there are people without this formal training who can wrangle a spreadsheet or paste in some HTML formatting. There are people who go home from day jobs which have nothing to do with software and spend their evenings running websites for their football clubs or churches.

This is how platforms are made in the age of software, not by fiat of a central authority but emergently with layer built upon layer in response to the needs of users and the growing capabilities of makers. As platforms build they can raise everyone up to levels of attainment previously only available to a privileged few. They don’t so much lower the barriers to entry as help us to scramble over them – by wrapping up what used to be hard in easy-to-use packages.

  • Freeserve pioneered a pay as you go model that made dial-up internet accessible to millions of Britons.
  • Blogger, Typepad and WordPress made everyone a writer on the web.
  • Ebay and Paypal made everyone a seller who could accept card payments.
  • Satnav endowed everyone with the knowledge of a London cabbie.

Software in all its abundance can and should be made accessible to all in our city, without mystery – but this is not something that happens by default. There are players in the software world who don’t want you to know about abundance. They seek excess profits in the gaps where people haven’t yet cottoned on that something formerly hard and expensive has now been rendered easy and cheap. Before you know it, a major systems integrator is charging the government £30,000 to change a logo on a webpage.

At the height of the early noughties DotCom boom, I knew the game was almost up when I met a consultant whose business card proudly declared “Because It Really Is Rocket Science”. It wasn’t even then. It certainly isn’t now. As cities, we should demand platforms that raise the knowledge, confidence and capability of all our citizens, without leaving us in hock to snake oil salespeople.

3. Don’t ask if it will scale

“Yes, but will it scale?” is a common challenge when evaluating the commercial potential of a new service. I’ve come to believe this is the wrong question. Focusing too soon on scale leads us down the road of the lowest common denominator. In my private sector career I’ve seen multinational companies blow millions of euros and lose market share because of global “solutions” that were wholly inappropriate to the realities of business on the ground. I’ve seen the error compounded by bending good local services out of shape to spare the embarrassment of the people who specified the wrong things from the centre.

The so-called economies of scale claimed for big IT solutions turn out to be largely illusory. Their business cases begin with wrong-headed, goods-dominant accounting copied from the world of manufacturing, where buying stuff in bulk really can be cheaper. Wishful thinking by people remote from the frontline carries these projects forward unchallenged. But by the time complex shared services have been tailored to the needs of the people and teams who use them, they can actually increase costs substantially.

This is an important point to understand when thinking about efficiency at different levels of government. We should be suspicious of those who tell us that devolution will lead to duplication between cities. Given that software is cheap and abundant, duplication is the least of our worries. In fact, two neighbouring cities doing things in slightly different ways would present a wonderful way to learn what works in each context. We should resist pressure to merge IT services between neighbouring authorities – that would dilute quality as well as blur democratic accountability.

revengance on aire street - Some rights reserved by Johnson Cameraface

Instead of asking “will it scale”, ask a better question: “Does it gracefully handle massive diversity?” The old paper form to claim Carer’s Allowance handled the massive diversity of people’s caring needs and relationships, but it did so gracelessly – by asking many questions not relevant to all carers. By doing user research, and diving into the detail of the application process, the digital exemplar team were able to remove 170 questions from the application process and structure the service so that users are only asked things relevant to them.

This is not to say that scale doesn’t matter. Rather, understanding diversity is the better starting point. The diversity question accommodates scaling; the scaling question tramples all over diversity.

Our cities are havens of diversity (not that you’d know it from the white, male, middle-aged-dominated board of our local enterprise partnership). The only way to understand and serve diversity is to go and see the users, learn what really matters to them and start to meet their needs. The good news: with software eating the world, with its inherent malleability and abundance, there’s never been a better time to get out of the bubble and do just that.

Postscript – a couple of days after I published this, JP Rangaswami posted a beautiful piece on his blog. I can smell the printer’s ink too: Bureaucracy as a platform? The power of diversity

Real work only begins when we break out of our bubble

David Vetter's space suit - Wikimedia Commons

“Boy in the bubble” David Vetter passed his life in a sterile enclosure breathing purified air and touched only with plastic gloves. While his parents and doctors attempted to make his life as normal as possible, they lived in fear of the tiniest exposure to common impurities and infections. He died aged 12 in 1984, after a bone marrow transplant given in the hope of building up his immune system.

Most of us can be thankful that we don’t live with a severe combined immunodeficiency like David’s, a condition so rare that his life inspired a John Travolta movie.

Peggy Noonan later brought the image into political parlance when she spoke about Ronald Reagan’s isolation in the White House…

“Do you ever feel like the boy in the bubble?” Ms. Noonan asked.

“Who was that?” Mr. Reagan replied.

“The boy who had no immune system,” said his speech writer, “so he had to live in a plastic bubble where he could see everyone and they could see him, but there was something between him and the people, the plastic. He couldn’t touch them.”

“Well, no,” Mr. Reagan said.

Then he thought it over: “No, but there are times when you stand upstairs and look out at Pennsylvania Avenue and see the people there walking by. And if I wanted to run out and get a newspaper or magazine, or just to walk down to the park and back . . . you miss that, of course.”

— William Safire, ‘ON LANGUAGE; The Man in the Big White Jail’

In medicine and politics, we pity people with this condition. Why then do we so often go to work as if in a bubble ourselves, cut off from human contact with users and the people who deliver everyday service?

  • Days and weeks of work are put into consultation documents, leaving only a narrow window for citizen feedback on a limited range of pre-defined questions.
  • Executives employ management consultancies to spend months putting together process models and business cases unchecked by exposure to the realities up on the shop floor.
  • Some organisations become so afraid of their customers that unmediated face-to-face engagement with the public requires a risk assessment, as if it were primarily a health and safety issue.

Let’s call this mode of operation “bubble work”. Like failure demand it’s a major source of waste and poor service in our society.

Bubble work is a waste of our own time. We think we’re being clever, applying our past experience, creating a good framework for activity. But until our guesses meet the real world, that’s all they are, guesses – when we can so easily go and find out for sure.

Bubble work is a waste of other people’s time. Every time we create a “straw man” or a “starter for 10” we shuffle the burden of understanding onto other people, who are then obliged to unpick our web of assumptions before they can share their own realities.

Bubble work depresses quality. The more we elaborate and decompose our untested reckons, the more they crowd out the new ideas and innovation that we would discover from interacting with users and frontline workers. As designer Mike Laurie says, untested ideas are excess inventory.

Bubble work comes back to bite us. It can only ever defer the moment at which our cherished ideas meet the messy complexity of the real world. But the encounter is all the more painful when it comes. Not only are we more invested in the bubble work, we have less time to deal with the consequences.

I know all these things because over the years, I have lost months of valuable project time to bubble work. I have made complex multi-year business cases built on the tottering edifices of “expert” assumptions. I once worked on a project so super-sensitive that we were forbidden by lawyers from researching it with potential customers. Neither of those things worked out well.

We see this damaging pattern equally in the private and public sectors, and while it’s often a big organisation malaise, so-called “stealth start-ups” can easily fall victim to the same fallacies. The world is awash with bubble work, and it has to stop.

Here’s how…

Every time we’re tasked with a new mission, let’s start the clock. Let’s see how fast we can get to users. At Leeds GovJam every team achieved this within 24 hours. They surprised themselves by drawing up questions and making prototypes to get meaningful insights from people on the street – and came back with their ideas re-shaped by potential users.

While working even briefly in the bubble, let’s be single-minded about bursting it. We should stamp all our assumptions as such, and always be thinking of ways to test them with actual users. Every statement we write at this point is a hypothesis to be accompanied by the questions we’ll ask to check whether it’s true.

When we spot others doing bubble work, we must call them out. Let’s ask how they know what they know, when they last spoke to users, and what took them by surprise. If their answers are unconvincing, we should not be enablers. We should spend not a moment more of our days engaged with their assumptions.

Doing these things may feel like a risk. It may feel like we’re slowing things down, but the payoff later will be consistency of pace. It may feel like we’re undervaluing our experience, but the reward comes when we keep on learning and deepening our expertise in an ever-changing world.

We are not David Vetter; we are not Ronald Reagan. Getting out of the building has never been easier. It’s time for zero tolerance of bubble work.

Get out of the building

Seeing over the next hill – a service design pattern

Over the years I’ve worked with digital services in different spaces, from sports performance to house buying to students on campus and training in the workplace. And there’s this one picture that resurfaces in service after service. I need to get it out of my head and into the world, where I hope others will help me develop it further.

image

It’s a picture of a pattern that goes something like this:

Seeing over the next hill

We meet much of the most valuable service when facing a change or challenge for the first time. But unless we know what to expect, it’s hard for us to make decisions in our best interests, or to trust others seeking to support us.

Sometimes the change is related to a life-stage – choosing a school or college, having a baby, retiring from work. Sometimes it’s simply something we may only do a few times in a lifetime – buying a car or home, opening a bank account or reporting a crime.

On one side, the person at the centre of these events has lots to think about, many (possibly conflicting) choices, short and long-term implications to consider.

On the other, the people delivering service are likely to see and do the same things time and time again. Their experience is valuable, but can easily give rise to jargon and preconceptions that obstruct communication and empathy with first-time users. Often the first step to improving service is to recognise and reduce this asymmetry of understanding.

Deliver service so that people can always see over the next hill, so they know what to expect, what good looks like, and who they can trust to help them along the journey. Specifically:

  • Cultivate empathy among people who deliver and design service day in day out. Find ways for them to see the service through the fresh eyes of a first-time user as frequently as possible.
  • Put first-time user personas at the centre of your work. Ask yourself what will shape their expectations and how might those differ from the way insiders perceive the service?
  • Test your service with people who have never seen it before. Over and over again. They can’t unsee what they’ve seen so it has to be new participants every time.
  • Follow up with service users before, during and after their experiences. See how their needs, wants and behaviours change as they go through their journey.
  • Record real-life experiences to share with future users. It’s much more compelling to hear from someone like you who has been there before.

As with all the reckons I post to this blog, I’d love to know what you think. Have you seen this pattern too? Who handles it well? What else could we do with it? Or am I making a mountain out of a molehill?

Not All Mammals! In defence of designing for “people”

I’ve been thinking about this exchange with Roberta…

@mattedgar Lots of people _talk_ about getting users in the room. This weekend @mHealthLeeds is actually doing it. #mhleeds

@RobertaWedge @mattedgar Users of what? In a health-care context, the term covers layers of euphemism.

@mattedgar @RobertaWedge fair point. Alternatives to the word ‘user’ gratefully received. (Often but not always “people” works just fine)

@RobertaWedge @mattedgar I am anti “people”. Citizen, student, resident, account-holder, patient, passenger, woman, employee – precision aids discourse.

@mattedgar @RobertaWedge indeed. Though may also reinforce rigid role definitions and allocations. People wear many hats, sometimes simultaneously.

Also this post by Russell…

I’m old enough that I’ve seen the same debates go round and round a few times.

One is the (always well-intentioned) cry – let’s stop saying customers/consumers/users, let’s remember they’re people! This always snags an emotional latch but I think it’s worth resisting.

Firstly, let’s remember that they’re also mammals – does that help? No. Moving up to the next biggest category isn’t especially useful.(*1)

Secondly, if you need reminding that your customers/consumers/users are people you have bigger problems. Changing what you write on your briefs/stories isn’t going to help.

I know where they’re coming from. I get the need for precision. I think we all agree that whatever you call them, we make stuff for and with messy, multi-faceted actors. But, as a people-centred service designer, I reckon the P word is worth defending.

While there is a place for “user” and other words of precision, it should not be at the expense of open-ended human-centred inquiry. A more interesting question might be, what are the right words for where we are now, in our digital culture as a whole? I for one think “people’s” time has come.

cat and mouse

For starters, the point about designing for humans as opposed to animals is not as facile as Russell makes out. At risk of being hauled before a gavel-toting, wig-wearing dolphin in the post-speciesist court of the future, Not All Mammals! My cats have evolved to simulate affection, but I’m certain that if I lay dead at the foot of the stairs for a couple of days they would eat me.

We are not cats. We can and should accord our human users a human level of tolerance and curiosity. Overuse of reductionist language is a tell-tale sign when we forget to do so. “Customer” or “claimant”, “passenger” or “potentate”, “servant” or “CEO” – they’re all different flavours of the same remouillage.

Moving up to the next biggest category – at least for a while – is what designers do. An iterative process zooms from the big picture to the tiny details and back again. The words we use as we zoom signal where we are in the focal range. Worrying about whether the next link is obvious, or the service accessible with a screen reader? “User” may be the best word to deploy. Helping someone unpick complex medical and social factors that impact their mental health? They probably need you to see the whole person. Over the course of any design process, it pays to mix it up, to vary the vocabulary.

Shoes - Some rights reserved paul-w-locke

We set ourselves too easy a task if all we do is satisfy the needs that present themselves at face value; often things that matter are hiding in plain sight. In my work I’ve found myself pointing out…

  • to a footwear brand that teenagers’ feet are still growing
  • to a retailer that shop floor workers turn to family members for help with the intranet
  • to a utility company that couples argue about who spends too long in the shower.

Banal insights like these make a direct difference to the service we offer. They can only be had by breaking free from blinkered caricatures of “runner”, “employee” or “resident”.

Every time we boldly launch our little boat by asking “what is the user need?” two further questions lurk implicitly upstream: which users, which needs? Ignore these and we will be forever tethered to our preconceptions about the nature of service we aim to deliver. Maybe some people call a contact centre to rapidly resolve a service problem. Maybe some call for reassurance that there are real people behind a digital service. Maybe others just call because they’re lonely. People-centricity reveals dimensions here that focusing only on the caller as user would miss.

We should also consider the number of actors. Service dominant logic dictates that service is always co-created by multiple parties – as a minimum, the one demanding it, and the one delivering it. Service design and innovation processes look at how those parties work together. Sometimes the best way to unlock greater value for end users is to set free those who serve them to do their best work. Want to improve the experience of online news? You’ll need to change the way news is gathered and edited as much as the way it is accessed and explored.

When we follow all the actors and understand their capabilities, we find that the boundary between “consumer” and “producer” is more malleable than the reductionists assume. Mobile, social media turns public transport “passengers” into providers of powerful real-time information service. US supermarket “employees” donate food so their colleagues in need can enjoy a Thanksgiving dinner. The complex and variable geometry of service only emerges when we accept the people involved for everything they are.

Texting in the park - some rights reserved - duncanh1

One of the delights of the new GOV.UK (in which – Disclosure! – I play a bit part, but for whom I certainly do not claim to speak here) is the way it demonstrates that many of the debates of Noughties web design are now pretty much solved problems. Form follows function. Text and hypertext dominate the flashy, non-standard carapaces on which millions were wasted by private and public sectors alike. High levels of accessibility, responsive design, open source frameworks, web-native APIs – they’re all just manifest good sense things that make user experiences better.

This good news is not yet evenly distributed. Many organisations would do well to take their lead from the Government Service Design Manual. Like learner drivers they might need to go through the consciously competent stage of focusing on their users. But when they’ve internalised that then what?

The settlement of those user-level questions should free them up to direct their attention to more positive visions of digital service, and to people’s higher-order, higher-value issues. They can focus on making explicit those questions that so often go begging: which users, which needs? They can create systems with continuous improvement built in. They can ensure there is empathy and the possibility of change every time service is delivered.

Users may well be the place to start. But people must surely be the end-game.