I recently had the privilege to front a pitch for a combined piece of service design and web development work that has helped sharpen my thinking about the way this stuff can be structured to make a difference.
The prospective client was a small, local, public sector organisation with a limited budget. We offered them a radical approach inspired by the new Government Digital Strategy. It was user-centred, agile and based on open source software. We aimed to deliver a radically simpler website than the one they have now, but one much closer to the needs of their users, and phenomenally better value for money.
To save the suspense, we didn’t get the business. I’m writing this because the reasons for the loss were instructive. We’ll learn from them and do some things differently next time. They also reinforce my belief that this approach will win out in the not-so-very-much-longer term.
Here are some things I heard from the potential client. I present them because they’re all legitimate responses, questions that stress-test the model I’m trying to build.
We proposed an associates model, a dream team of specialists wrapped around the client’s needs. I regarded that weightless flexibility as a strength, but in the client’s eyes it presented a risk: “Your company, there’s nothing to it,” said one of their panel. “How do we know you’ll still be here in 12 months’ time?”
We proposed a highly participative design process including user engagement through social media and a co-creation workshop with customers to conceive the first version of the website. The client felt this was abdicating our responsibility as designers. “Isn’t this just design by committee?” he asked.
We proposed an iterative process in which we research a little, start engaging through a minimum viable service and build up our knowledge of, and utility to, service users through insight and action hand-in-hand. Another of the client’s panel was a market research expert. How, she asked, can you be sure to represent users accurately with only a small slice of research upfront?
At the time, I felt I gave good answers to each of these objections. Only afterwards, with the wit of the staircase, did I come to understand that the three elements of our model – associate, participate, iterate – hang together as a single dominant strategy for solving the problems that organisations face today.
Teams that get good at delivering this, and clients who get good at tapping into it, can focus the most talented people on the most fruitful opportunities, and do so consistently, not just in the rosy afterglow of signing a new agency.
The power is in the way the elements interact.
Associates + iteration takes the risk and the compromise out of picking a team. By being well-connected and aware of our strengths and weaknesses, micro businesses can bring to bear expertise far beyond that offered by bigger entities with fixed salary bills to service. But more than that, the associates model can flex over the course of an engagement, bringing in the right skills for as long or as short a time as is needed. To the question “will you still be around in 12 months?” the best answer may be “only if we’re still the right people for the job.”
Associates + participation challenges the line between designers and users, service providers and recipients of service. If the project team itself is fluid, it can flow seamlessly into an expert group of users, users who are experts in their own needs, abilities and requirements. Contextual inquiry places the design researcher in the position of the “apprentice” learning from the user, or “master,” how they do what they do. By serving this apprenticeship, the researcher qualifies to add his or her own creative solutions to those already developed by the user. By engaging with service users and those who serve them we don’t abdicate responsibility to design, we earn it.
Participation + iteration means there is always the opportunity to learn more from users and their experience of the service. Knowing that learning never stops is liberating because it lowers the barrier to making a mark, getting the minimum viable service out there and into users’ hands. Will the first version be limited? Yes, of course. Will we be wrong about user needs? Almost certainly. But we’ll soon discover how limited, and how we’re wrong, and move quickly to improve in the next iteration. We’ll discover unmet user needs, and, if we remain open, maybe whole new groups of users too. With making and testing so easy, Big Research Up Front is no longer a risk we have to run.
Delivering this model is not without its pitfalls.
The associates model only works if each client sees the value in having a top notch team, and recognises the team assembled as a mirror to their unique set of needs. Practically, suppliers and customers alike must lower transaction costs that have made it prohibitively expensive for individuals and small team practices to play in vast swathes of business territory. But this is what the internet is made for. The comparative advantage of large organisations shrivels with every slick, cloud-based productivity tool that is launched.
When you’ve experienced true user participation, its advantages are obvious, but it also seems like a risky proposition from the outside. The trick is in the way target users are identified, engaged and brought on board as equal voices to insiders and vested interests. The process can look chaotic before the insights emerge, and making the time and place for this to happen takes rare skills and a leap of faith.
And iteration, though so obviously good sense to us when we are children, is a habit that big business beats out of grown-ups through interminable roadmaps, waterfall processes and excessive penalties for failure. People need space to learn and make mistakes in a low-risk, yet visible way. They need simple dashboards to measure and monitor progress. They need to know when to cut their losses on an experiment and when to throw everything at a model that’s starting to work.
But if I had that pitch again, this is what I’d say: Accept no imitations. Associate, participate and iterate to win.
If you or your organisation want to work like that, then please do say hello.