“Look after the water” – reflections 1 year into my work at NHS Digital

Other people’s jobs are endlessly fascinating. At a birthday celebration a couple of years ago I got talking to Johnny, a family friend who works as an aquarium curator. He told me a surprising thing about his work: how little of his time he spends actually looking after the fish. Johnny’s job is to look after the water. “Look after the water,” he said, “and the fish will take care of themselves.”

So it is with design leadership. Our designers have different specialisms – service, interaction and graphic design. They’re embedded across a wide range of endeavours, both public and professional facing. They’re the ones who see users in research, and stakeholders in show and tells. My role is not to tell them how to design; it’s to create the safe and supported conditions in which they can do their best work, individually and collectively. When those conditions come together, it’s a wonderful thing.

This week it’s one year since I joined NHS Digital to lead the design team. I’ve been thinking about what has changed, and what we have yet to achieve. As ever, views all my own.

Growing a team

Our third whole design team event took place a couple of weeks ago in Leeds. We ran two rounds of rapid fire show and tells: 14 designers showing their work in the space of 90 minutes. I was massively impressed that every designer who presented was so good at telling their story, under time pressure, to a room of 35 people.

We’re lucky to have two excellent lead designers. Tero heads our growing service design practice, while Dean has taken on interaction and graphic design for the NHS website. Design-minded product managers Emma, Ian, and Sophie join us in our fortnightly design leadership meetings. Stephen, who left a couple of months ago, was always insightful, knew his way around the organisation, and took on the unglamorous task of writing job descriptions. I miss our Friday morning coffees.

Hiring for designers in both London and Leeds has been a long journey but rewarding in the end. Over the past few months, it has been great to see the new seniors settling in. I believe we now have talent at every level, and a good foundation for design leadership here in the future. If my bike went under a bus on Chapeltown Road tomorrow, weekly design huddles would still happen in Leeds and London. I count that as a win. Having designers who talk to and trust each other is the foundation of a coherent experience for our users. The designers and I are rewarded on the same pay scales as nurses, doctors, and other NHS professionals. That’s a sobering reminder of the value each new recruit to the team is expected to add.

A year of recruitment in numbers:

  • Just over 50% of the design team are now newer than me to NHS Digital
  • Of the permanent staff, 11 are still here from the team when I arrived, 8 are new recruits, and 3 have left
  • Among contractors, it’s 1 still here, 7 new, and 3 left
  • On top of that are a dozen or so supplier staff with whom we work closely as members of our extended team
  • Permanent team, contractors and supplier staff alike, 100% of them want to do their best for users and the health service.

Designers work best as part of multi-disciplinary teams. After a year here, I’ve had the privilege to see a few of those teams go through the delivery cycle from discovery, through alphas and on to release private and public beta versions. It hasn’t always been straightforward. Some teams have got stuck. Some things have stopped when we realised they would not achieve the outcomes we hoped for. But it does feel that teams are getting slicker at this – learning about user needs, and learning how to work together as true multidisciplinary teams. I’m fortunate to be part of a senior leadership team with brilliant product, delivery, technology and content leaders too.

As a design team, we have access to two larger communities of practice. NHS Digital’s Digital Service Delivery profession includes design along with user research, product management, delivery management and content design. We’re also part of the amazing cross-government user-centred design community, giving us access to Government Digital Service (GDS) training and community events. I especially appreciate my meetings with Lou Downe and the other government heads of design.

Here are some things I’ve learned…

Power is a big theme in health and care.

My focus has been with teams designing and delivering for patients, carers, and families – users who don’t work for the NHS or social care. There’s good evidence that people in control of their own health and care have better health outcomes. But I can see from our research how people’s power is diminished – by illness or disability, by social circumstances, and (though we don’t mean to disempower) by us, in the way we design and deliver health and care services.

Digital information and service have the potential to make people more powerful again. This can only happen when people can get them, trust them, understand them, decide with them, and act on them. For people to take power in the NHS, we need to work across the whole system, a partnership of patients, families, professionals, and service providers.

Sometimes we need to diverge before we can converge.

A healthy tension between divergent and convergent working should be part and parcel of any design approach.

Soon after I arrived a year ago, I worried that, in some areas, we were trying to converge prematurely on solutions that had not been tested against a wide enough range of user needs and contexts of use. To reach the required quality, we had to go through a phase of divergence in which teams went off to solve their own problems, while sharing their work and looking out for common patterns. (Patterns, by the way, are never designed; they can only emerge when teams are empowered to work independently, but transparently.)

Now, we’re back to a phase of convergence around design for the NHS website, led by teams explicitly tasked with redesign and standards creation. I have greater confidence that we’re building on firmer foundations this time, because we’ve tried more things, and understood more user needs.

I’m a design system sceptic (but we’ll probably end up with a design system anyway).

Everyone seems to be talking about design systems right now. I caution that explicit efforts to create a system can easily tend towards design for its own sake, disconnected from validated user needs and contexts of use. I hope we can keep ours rooted in reality by rotating designers through the overall redesign and standards teams, in and out of squads working on specific health condition categories and services. Nothing should get into the design system without being researched with users in multiple need states and contexts.

Rather than all swarming on the same problems, we need to conserve our energy and focus. Like birds flying in formation, each team can take a turn to lead on a design challenge, before falling back to let others fly ahead for the next stage.

Critical optimism is the order of the day.

When I wrote my 6-month update, the always-perceptive Stefan Czerniawski noted:

There is a sweet spot in any job, or more generally in understanding any organisation, when you still retain a sense of surprise that anything could quite work that way, but have acquired an understanding of why it does, and of the local application of the general rule that all organisations are perfectly designed to get the results they get.

Since then I’ve tried to bottle that feeling. Healthcare certainly proves Dr Deming right: that the same system can at once be brilliant at some things and terrible at others. There can be world class care, medical and technological innovation side by side with the shocking failure waste that comes from poorly designed service. Being a permanent member of staff, I feel a responsibility to work with the grain of the system, while retaining a sense of urgency to make things better.

One of my objectives is to grow the whole organisation’s commitment to human-centred design. This definitely feels like a multi-year commitment, but I’m confident that we have director-and-above-level support for improving the quality, consistency and accessibility of digital services for NHS patients and professionals. Our head of profession Amanda has been the definition of an empowering manager. Our portfolio director Alan has an exceptionally user-centred vision for someone in a such high-profile delivery role.

Update on some things I committed to do at the 6-month point:

  • Develop my own capability – I am investigating leadership courses that might be right for me. Ideally, I’ll do something that brings me into contact with a more diverse range of health and care leaders, not just the ones focused on digital.
  • Reflect and plan – I started by block booking Friday afternoons as a meeting-free zone in my diary. Clearing emails and weekly reporting always swallowed them up. Now I’ve blocked out the whole day. I don’t always keep to it, but it’s a good reminder of the value of meeting-free time.
  • Listen better – There’s a bit almost at the end of David Marquet’s ‘Turn the Ship Around‘ video, in which he says you will fail repeatedly at giving control to your team, but get up and go again. That’s where I feel I am with my coaching practice right now. After some conversations, I come away kicking myself. When it goes right though, it’s so much more rewarding to hear a colleague solve their own problem than to hear myself offering my solution. Ultimately this is the only way that a design capability is going to scale.
  • Influence more – Lots more to do here. There are so many opportunities for improvement that our small team will never be able to address them all. By sharing standards and setting clear expectations of good practice, we can multiply our impact and give power to the many other people across the health and care system who want to make a difference with design.
  • Say no to more things – One of the adjustments in moving from a micro-business to a biggish organisation was appreciating that lots of things get done even if I don’t do them. Every week or so, I look through my to-do list for the things I really ought to delegate, and the things I’m just never going to do. Adding a “Not Going To Do” column in Trello has done wonders for my sense of productivity.
  • Say yes to more things – I’ve been lucky enough to be invited to some brilliant events and conversations. A recent highlight was working with Victoria Betton and Lenny Naar to deliver a hands-on user-centred design session at HIMSS e-Health week. In October, I’ll be speaking at Interact London, and the conference theme is “Intelligence in Design”. Fingers crossed I’ll have something intelligent to say.
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mattedgar

Product strategy and design leadership in web and mobile media. Before that I was a newspaper journalist and history student

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