I’m curious: 3 questions I’m asking right now

Keyboard, Sharpie markers, paper and sticky note

The run-up to a new role gives me a privileged few weeks to start some habits the way I intend to continue. One that’s high on my list is to ask better questions.

Asking questions has to be more than a matter of once-and-done induction to a new domain. I will never close my mind to critical new information. Especially in these early days though, listening is a way for me to cultivate my genuine respect for the people have years of deep experience in this space. The act of asking can also stimulate new thinking and some re-evaluation of how things are done around here.

Finding the right questions isn’t easy. They need to be tailored to the task at hand. But for what it’s worth there are three big questions I’m asking right now.

For the “too long didn’t read” brigade, they are:

  1. What is it like for our users right now?
  2. What is the strategic intent?
  3. Do we have all the capabilities we need?

Here’s why…

1. What is it like for our users right now?

Leading with the user experience does not mean other things are unimportant – only that without this fundamental piece of situational awareness, any service risks going wildly off-course when it comes to strategy and delivery.

In previous roles, I have developed and managed teams of user experience professionals, but more than that, I have always felt accountable for the quality of my organisation’s user experiences. That’s an accountability I intend to take forward with me, and one I hope my new colleagues will share.

I spent a bit more than a decade working in telecoms, where I witnessed the waste that resulted from failure to ask this question. Every so often, someone would propose a new initiative to combine all of the user’s communications – calls, texts, emails, social media, and so on – together into a single interface. Millions were spent on such initiatives. Every time I observed user research on unified communications products, it was apparent that they were trying to solve a problem that most users didn’t have. People were highly adept at fitting communications channels to different types of conversation, they used multiple modes of communication strategically, and were horrified at the prospect of collapsing all their different contexts into one place. How much time and money could have been saved by starting with the user experience, instead of only considering it at the end?

I start with the user experience as it is, not some vision of what we want it to be. The experiences people are having right now shape their expectations of us, their willingness to re-engage with us, and a big part of what they tell other people about us. Only by getting a grip on our service now, can we have meaningful conversations about its future.

I need to know what it’s like for staff, as well as the public. User experience happens at the point of service delivery, whether digitally mediated, delivered directly by people, or as is increasingly the case, an interdependent combination of the two. The people who deliver the service deserve to be respected as users too. Their input should always come as well as, not instead of, listening directly to the end beneficiaries that our organisations exist to serve.

Follow-up question: how do we know?

User experience is uniquely defined by our users. The only way to find out what it’s like is to get close to them, listen to them, and watch them experiencing our service. A rich picture of the user experience will inevitably combine the quantitative and the qualitative. A common mistake many organisations make is getting too hung up on one class of user insight. Skilled user researchers always triangulate one with the other.

I want everyone on the team to see and hear from users firsthand. There’s a rule of thumb that to nurture empathy with users, every team member should spend a minimum of 2 hours every 6 weeks observing primary user research. I intend to do this, and hope colleagues will choose to keep this up too – not because I say so but because once they try it, they see how valuable user research exposure hours really are.

Starting a new role in lockdown is both a blessing and a curse for this part of my induction. Most user research now takes place online, making it easier than ever to observe user interviews and watch people interacting with our prototypes. I’m grateful to colleagues who are setting up a virtual tour of one of our services for me. On the other hand, there are some things I’ll miss or misinterpret because I’m not physically there in the context of use. Sooner or later, we all need to get into the field.

2. What is the strategic intent?

In the words of user experience leader Jared Spool, “design is the rendering of intent”. Our activity may be well-meaning, but if we don’t know our strategic intent, we can never know if it is well-directed. I reckon a lot of frustration in service design and delivery comes from a misaligned understanding of intent between groups that need to collaborate. Asking and exposing any misalignment helps us to work backwards to a true common shared goal.

Many designers working in public service have encountered senior stakeholders who seemed to downplay the importance of making their service easier to access. I know I have. For teams that have forged their identity around always putting users first, this attitude can come across as ignorant, callous even. But that might be to mistake the true intent of the service. What if the stakeholders’ reluctance to engage with usability or accessibility stems from a genuine fear that an easier to use front door will attract or even create new demand, which they know the service is not equipped to meet? What if they’re right? Unless carefully handled, this could be bad for users and staff alike. We have to expose underlying assumptions about the opportunities and risks of service adoption. Then we can work together to craft a common strategic intent. Maybe “for all our users to get the service they need, whether delivered by us or by someone else who is better placed to meet their needs.”

Everyone on the team, in every role, needs to know their service’s intended outcomes. When I meet new people, whatever their relationship to the service I want to know “what are the clear outcomes required of our service?” I’m looking out for people who can answer this question coherently, and connect it to the work they do on a daily basis. If people can’t articulate clear outcomes, or if one group is trying to achieve something different from the others, then we have work to do before we can move forwards together to meet user needs.

Follow-up question: What is unclear right now?

It’s important that we are curious for ourselves and honest with others about areas of uncertainty. These are where we have scope for learning and growth. If everyone thinks everything is perfectly clear, then we probably don’t understand the true complexity of the situation. We will never be clear about everything. Answering one question often leads to asking others. Challenges may come in fits and starts, but the world keeps up a pretty constant pace of change overall, and our job is to keep up with it.

3. Do we have all the capabilities we need?

This much I know: service transformation always takes a multidisciplinary team. What skills do we need in that  multidisciplinary team? Well, that’s much more contextual. I’ve been on teams that combined creative technologists with Olympic medallists, front-end developers with funeral directors, service designers with mental health nurses. We build and evolve our teams as we learn what’s needed to accomplish the work.

It’s a red flag for me if, on a large complex service, teammates all come from the same background and share the same experiences — either professionally or in life.

So I want to hear from my new colleagues how they think about the required capabilities:

  • What capabilities do we have to transform this service?
  • And what capabilities are lacking?

We need capabilities to deliver service, and at the same time capabilities to transform it. Together, these capabilities form a learning system in which we constantly refine our understanding of user needs, by meeting them.

I talk about capabilities, or competencies, in general terms because I don’t want to prejudge where they might be found. Knowledge, skills and experience could be held within our teams already. They could be accessed from partners or suppliers.

What if the capability is already in the hands and heads of our users (staff and public)? In a learning system, users have a chance to be more than passive recipients of change. What do they know better than us? What do they need in order to join us in co-design? What’s their capacity and appetite to absorb innovation?

If there’s a gap could we fill it through learning and practice? Human capability is not fixed. When I coached civil servants for the GDS Academy I saw for myself how people could increase their performance when given a new context, a different set of incentives, a space to learn new skills.

We should also give ourselves the option to safely say, “This isn’t for me anymore.” Maybe it’s not the best use of our time and skills, maybe we have seen others who could do it better. Or maybe we can imagine a radically different configuration of the service where some low value, repetitive work is no longer needed.

Follow-up question: Which capabilities could be code?

Historically, most capability in knowledge work has been human. But software is eating the world. Increasingly, knowledge and processes can be encoded in, or augmented by, code. How might we make that megatrend work for us? If we need a capability to process data, or to move information from one system to another, we could meet that need with a roomful of people, or we could automate the process and free the humans up to do what humans do best.

In 2021, all service transformation is digital transformation.

One of the joys of a multidisciplinary team with service specialists and digital professionals working side-by-side is seeing how team members collaborate to work out where software can make the biggest difference. Skimp on this collaboration and the people delivering the service might slog on without realising the full benefits of digital, while the digital delivery effort gets expended on less valuable features.

Modern digital businesses that get good at this create a virtuous circle of working in the open, publishing code and using open source to improve transparency, flexibility and accountability. Can we expose more capabilities direct to end users, and through APIs to other services, so that others can build on, or further improve, the overall service?

No such thing as a stupid answer

You probably know the phrase “there’s no such thing as a stupid question.” Well I read somewhere an even more powerful rule to live and learn by: there’s no such thing as a stupid answer. I’ll keep on being curious about our current service experience, our shared strategic intent, and the capabilities we need. I hope we can protect the psychological safety for everyone on our teams to share what they really see, hear, and feel about those things. And to keep on asking other better questions too.

From my reading list

One thought on “I’m curious: 3 questions I’m asking right now

  1. Hi Matt, the question around strategic is extremely important and more often than not, things are progressed from a planning perspective even when this isn’t clear. I dont see how public sector can continue unless we get the basics right. Asking these questions should help change that!

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