Designers as power brokers

Stephen McCarthy

If designers can redistribute power, the choices they make are political – the distribution of power, and the choices it enables, being fundamentally what politics is about.

That is, of course, true regardless of whether designers recognise or acknowledge that that is what they are doing. This post does make – and celebrate – that acknowledgment, without perhaps fully following through the implications. The claim is a strong one:

As a designer in government my role is to give power to those people who often feel disempowered.

Giving power to the powerless is not a self-evidently neutral ambition. Digital is inescapably political.

That’s not to say that that ambition is wrong or is one that designers should not pursue – or even that expressing it in those terms is necessarily politically controversial. But “to redress the balance between the powerful and the disempowered in our society” is inescapably political – and so leaves us with the question of whose choice that is or should be.

15 principles of good service design

Lou Downe

‘What is good service?’ is a question which is simultaneously very easy but remarkably difficult to answer. It’s easy because, as service users, we all have a strong sense of what is good and bad about our own experience – perhaps including those times when the best service is no service. But it’s very hard because those impressions don’t readily translate into a reliable way of telling whether a service is good, still less so whether a given design approach will result in one which will be good.

This post attempts to fill that gap with a set of principles of good service design. It’s presented as a first attempt, with an invitation to make comments and suggestions – but there is nothing sketchy or ill thought out about it and the list very much stands on its own merits. But in the spirit of that invitation, it’s perhaps worth asking a question and making a suggestion.

The question is about the intended scope of these principles. Reasonably enough, their starting point will have been the design of government services and more particularly their design in a modern digital context. But that’s not the only domain of service experience or service design. Are these universal principles, as applicable, say, to the service experience of going to a restaurant as to the service experience of getting a passport? Or is there something sufficiently different about them that different principles apply – and if there is, what is that difference, and what effect should it have?

The suggestion is rather simpler, a candidate additional principle, partly prompted by the idea of a thing avoided as well as of a thing experienced:

Be in the background whenever possible; be in the foreground whenever necessary

Digital Government and Public Service Transformation

Eddie Copeland – NESTA

This simple and powerful set of slides does an extraordinarily good job of summarising the key issues in digital transformation, not least in being really clear about the extent to which all of this is a technology issue (not as much as it looks) as opposed to an everything else issue (much more than it first appears). The section on ‘deciding how you want to work’ gets twice as many slides as ‘thinking about your technology needs’, which is a pretty strong indicator of the approach being taken.

It’s certainly possible to challenge some of the details. The arresting assertion that ‘we can broadly take for granted that technology can do whatever we want it to do’ perhaps has more power than precision – though the slightly lesser claim the technology needed to support government processes already exists is indeed a useful reminder that appeals for technological exceptionalism are very likely to be misguided. The insistence that agile projects can’t succeed in organisations which retain traditional approaches to funding and governance is both wrong and unhelpful: wrong because there are plenty of example of where it has succeeded, and unhelpful because every organisation has to start somewhere, and if agile can’t work at all unless everything is agile, there is effectively no way of making that start.

Overall, though, the strengths far outweigh the weaknesses – and this is a beautiful example of doing the hard work to make things simple. As a further bonus, the slides are open for comments, and have already sprouted a rich set of observations from Matthew Cain.

Digital Transformation at Scale – a review

Matthew Cain

It’s probably not news to most readers that some of the leading creators of the Government Digital Service have written a book. Many have been swift to observe the apparent irony that the book in question has been published only on paper, with no digital version available. That’s a fairly major obstacle fort those of us with a strong preference for the latter.

But now an alternative solution presents itself, in the form of a thorough and balanced review by Matthew Cain. The creation of GDS by Mike Bracken and his team was an enormous achievement and, despite its detractors, much good continues to be done there well after the first generation of pioneers moved on. But the founders’ vision was a narrower one than they ever quite acknowledged and the government context in which they found themselves was more unusual than they realised – or as Matthew puts it, ‘The section on political sponsorship basically tells readers to have a political sponsor called Francis Maude.’

Update: 22 June 2018

The publisher have helpfully made contact to share the good news that the book is now available on kindle, and apparently is due to appear in other formats. But that leaves unanswered the perennial mystery of why publishers find it so much harder to produce electrons than paper.


Designing public services for Mars

Eddie Copeland – FutureFest

This is a session pitch for an event which has not yet happened, so it’s a tantalising paragraph rather than a developed argument. But it’s getting a mention because of the power of the thought experiment which lies behind it. Maybe the day will come when the design of public services for Mars will be an immediate and necessary question demanding answers. But we don’t need to wait for that day to ask what it would be like to design public services if we were not constrained by everything which has gone before – which ends up being very similar to Ben Hammersley’s provocation. Down here on old Earth we can’t wish away the installed base, which makes things harder (though we do have a breathable atmosphere, which balances things out a bit), but we don’t have to let our goals be constrained by it.

To take the next step on digital, we dropped the word ‘digital’

James Plunckett – Citizens Advice

The word ‘digital’ has long been both powerful and problematic. It’s powerful because new technologies and, in some ways even more so, new ways of developing and applying new technologies have made many things better, faster, cheaper – and often very different. And as Tom Loosemore, perhaps the leading proponent of using ‘digital’ in a sense which transcends a narrow, technical meaning puts it:

But it’s also problematic, because it stretches the meaning of ‘digital’ so far as to drain it of content. It has become a vague word, implying modernity and goodness and not much more. More seriously, it puts the emphasis in the wrong place: digital is a means, not an end, and there is always a risk that in focusing too much on means, we lose sight of the ends.

That’s not to say that ‘digital’ has not been a useful word. In many ways it has been. It’s more to say that the time has come – and is arguably long past – when we should move beyond it. That makes this post a really interesting sign of what may be to come: Citizens Advice has chosen to replace its Chief Digital Officer with a Director of Customer Journey, and its reasons for doing so are well worth reading.

The role of truth in designing interfaces to public services

Joshua Mouldey

At GDS’s Sprint 18 last week, the team from the Land Registry presenting their work on online registration of mortgage deeds made an arresting statement: while they could provide instant confirmation that a transaction had been successful, their customers expected there to be some processing time, and were much more reassured by a short delay while the system supposedly updated itself.

That prompted the re-circulation of this thoughtful post from a year ago. If you want to be pretentious you could say it’s about the ethics of form design. If you want to be pragmatic, you could say it’s about how to stick to the rule of thumb that users should only be asked the questions which are necessary to move the service on while also meeting their need for a sense of closure and completeness.

The post rather neatly resolves the tension – and makes an important point in its own right – by recognising that people have emotional as well as transactional needs, even of something as apparently straightforward as a simple form. That can result in a situation where a service can be made better by being less honest, which is not a comfortable place to be. Lots of good food for thought even for – perhaps especially for – those of us who don’t design forms for a living.

Digital means learning and iterating as you go

Clare Sherwood and Joanne Gillies

At a time when some are feeling a sense of government blogging getting more sanitised and homogenised, it’s good to come across a post so clearly connected to the real experience – good and bad – of people who, as a result, still sound like people.

This post is worth reading for the substance as well. The question of how we best bring together the skills and experience of people expert in government and policy making with the pace and perspective of people expert in service design and solution delivery is one which is still very much with us. The founding premise of the one team government movement was that those two groups each have much to learn from the other: this post illustrates both the power of that insight and how hard it is to act on it systematically.

One quibble with the argument is the way the word ‘digital’ is used. There is a sense that agile, customer-focused, design-led approaches are somehow digital while, by implication, not-digital things are based on different and inferior approaches. That’s not wholly wrong – but it’s not wholly right either, and doesn’t encourage the melding of approaches rightly being suggested here. Success is more likely if it is not ‘digital thinking’ which is dispersed across the organisation, but approaches to problem solving which are valuable in their own right.

Electric woks or eating together? Time for human-centred designers to care about the community

Matt Edgar

There are exciting new technologies which can improve – and indeed transform – the quality of services. There are many services crying out for better design, to be better attuned to meeting the needs of users of the services. It is tempting – and all too easy – to let those two statements collapse into each other. The risk of that happening becomes greater the more that disciplines such as user research and service design are seen as elements of doing digital, rather than digital being seen as one set of approaches for responding to them.

The general problem with that is that it becomes possible to slip into thinking that the solution people need is the one we happen to have. A more specific consequence is an insidious tendency to assume that the focus of service design should be on the experience of a single, self-contained, individual user. Sometimes that might be the right approach, but often it will miss something important about the wider social context and the wider set of human needs.

This post neatly illustrates that and asks some important questions about moving service design beyond the purely transactional. And you probably don’t need an electric wok.

Democratic technical debt

Alex Blandford – Medium

The modern surge of digital government has many strengths, but it also has a central weakness. It tends to assume (usually without noticing that it has done so) that the central relationship between individual and state is that between a service user and a service provider. That relationship does, of course, exist and making it work better is vitally important. But if that’s all there is to it, we risk creating something more atomised and more shallow than it could be or should be.

There are two missing pieces from that service led view. One is that the role of a government service user goes beyond the specific interaction or transaction of the moment. The other is that there are legitimate interests in the service and how it is provided which goes well beyond those who are specific users of it. Systems have democratic and social value, as well as transactional value, and to miss that is to miss something important.

This post explores the implications of that in one specific way, as well as more generally. Building on the idea of technical and organisational debt, now democratic debt comes into the mix as well. The slightly unexpected specific point which comes from that is the importance of thinking about user research differently, and recognising that cumulatively it represents a corpus of social research which beyond its immediate use is almost invariably unpublished, unseen and thus unusable. The challenge is to find a way of curating and using that research and the insights it has generated to drive down democratic debt.

Making public policy in the digital age

Richard Pope and Andrew Greenway – digital HKS

It’s worth looking out for things written by either of these authors, something written by both of them should be doubly worthwhile. There is indeed lots of extremely sensible advice in this piece – and that is so despite all that advice being built on a slightly questionable assumption. Good digital services, they tell us, are iterated daily, or better still hourly. Bad policy development, by contrast, is a long and painful process. The solution is obvious: if policy making were more like digital service iteration, the world would be a better place.

That thought is not wholly wrong. Smarter, faster, better policy making should indeed be everybody’s aim, and the suggestions made here are generally good ones. But it doesn’t follow that policy and service design are somehow interchangeable, or as they put it, “the policy is the service is the institution”. Designing policy to be deliverable and adaptable is indeed important, but so is designing policy to be socially and politically effective. Evidence gathering, consultation, legislation and evaluation can be frustratingly slow, but that doesn’t mean that they are best dispensed with. Policy is about service design, but the set of users of a policy is often much broader than the set of users of the service through which it is expressed, and both those perspectives matter.

Designing better organisations: Why internal user experience matters to delivering better services

Ben Holliday – FutureGov

The quality of internal user experience is a good indicator of an organisation’s underlying attitude to user experience and thus of the service the organisation delivers. And of course the more distracting and time consuming internal services are, the less time and energy are available for the organisation’s real purpose.

That’s the core argument of this post and it is one which will resonate with many on the receiving end of such services. The conclusion it draws, that in seeking to transform an organisation, transforming its internal processes is a good place to start, may be less obvious, but is certainly worth thinking about.

Seven public sector trends

Martin Stewart-Weeks – Public Purpose

This is a wide-ranging and thought-provoking survey of the public policy landscape, examining trends setting the context for public sector reform ranging from reversing decline of trust, through rethinking the scope and nature of digital transformation, to blending policy, design and delivery. All of that is bound together by a recognition that these are all systems problems – or, arguably, all facets of a single systems problem – and the test of change in that wider system will be whether authority, money and power flow differently from the way they do today.

Usability of Key Distribution in BlockChain Backed Electronic Voting

Terence Eden

This is a good post on the very practical difficulties in establishing secure digital identity, in this case for the purpose of voting in elections. It’s included here mainly as a timely but inadvertent illustration of the point in the previous post that even technology fixes are harder than they look. Implementing some form of online voting wouldn’t be too difficult; implementing a secure and trustworthy electoral system would be very hard indeed.

A New Approach to Digital Identity

Chris Yiu and Harvey Redgrave – Institute for Global Change

Digital identity (like digital voting) sounds as though it ought to be a problem with a reasonably straightforward solution, but which looks a lot more complicated when it comes to actually doing it. Like everything with the word ‘digital’ attached to it, that’s partly a problem of technical implementation. But also like everything with the word ‘digital’ attached to it, particularly in the public and political space, it’s a problem with many social aspects too.

This post makes a brave attempt at offering a solution to some of the technical challenges. But the reason why the introduction of identity cards has been highly politically contentious in the UK, but not in other countries, has a lot to do with history and politics and very little to do with technology. So better technology may indeed to be better, but that doesn’t in itself constitute a new approach to identity. Even if the better technology is in fact better (and as Paul Clarke spotted, ‘attestation’ is doing a lot more work as a word than it first appears), there are some much wider issues (some flagged by Peter Wells) which would also need to be addressed as part of an overall approach.

What do we mean when we talk about services?

Stephanie Marsh – GDS

A service is not an interaction on a website; it is not an immediate transaction. A service has a beginning, a middle and an end. The problem is that the service designer is at risk of only seeing the middle, and while a well designed middle is a good thing, it is not the whole thing. From the point of view of the person who has a need they want to resolve, the starting point may come much earlier and the resolution much later.

So it’s very encouraging to see GDS recognising this and making it clear that service design should be seen broadly, not narrowly. There’s room for debate about where the lines are drawn from the supply side perspective (the difference between ‘supporting content’ and ‘things which support’ is lost on me, for example) and perhaps more significantly a definition of a user journey which is too producer focused. But the underlying approach is very much the right one.

Why it’s never a good time for service design

Lou Downe

headless chicken deliveringIt’s really hard to do things as well responding to a crisis as when they are properly planned. It’s really hard to do proper planning if all your time and energy is taken up by responding to crises. Service design is one of the leading indicators of that problem: there’s no (perceived) time to do it when it’s urgent; but there’s no urgency to do it when there’s time.

The solution to that conundrum argued here is very simple: slow degradation over time has to be recognised as being as bad as the catastrophic failure which occurs when the degradation hits a tipping point – “we need to make doing nothing as risky as change.”

Simple in concept is, of course, a very long way from being simple to realise, and the lack of attention given to fixing things before they actually break is a problem not limited to service design – slightly more terrifyingly it applies just as much to nuclear weapons (and in another example from that post, to apparently simple services which cross organisational boundaries and which it isn’t quite anybody’s responsibility to fix). Changing that won’t be easy, but that doesn’t make it any less important.

Designing digital services that are accountable, understood, and trusted

Richard Pope

This is a couple of years old, but is not in any way the worse for that. It’s an essay (originally a conference presentation), addressed to software developers, seeking to persuade them that in working in software or design, they are inescapably working in politics.

He’s right about that, but the implications for those on the other end of the connection are just as important. If the design of software is not neutral in political or policy terms, then people concerned with politics and policy need to understand this just as much. Thanks to Tom Loosemore for the enthusiastic reminder of its existence.

… which way I ought to go from here?

Dave Snowden – Cognitive Edge

This is close to the beginning of what is billed as series of indefinite length on agility and Agility, which we are promised will at times be polemical and curmudgeonly, and are tangentially illustrated with references to Alice (the one in Wonderland, not the cryptographic exemplar). The first post in the series set some context; this second one focuses on the question of whether short-cycle software production techniques translate to business strategy. In particular, the argument is that scrum-based approaches to agile work best when the problem space is reasonably well understood and that this will be the case to different extents and different stages of an overall development cycle.

Dave Snowden is best known as the originator of the Cynefin framework, which is probably enough to guarantee that this series will be thought provoking. He positions scrum approaches within the Cynefin complex domain and as a powerful approach – but not the only or uniquely appropriate one. It will be well worth watching his arguments develop.

Eight things I’ve learnt from designing services for colleagues

Steve Borthwick – DWP Digital

Civil servants are users too. Indeed, as Steph Gray more radically claims, civil servants are people too. And as users, and even more so as people, they have needs. Some of those needs are for purely internal systems and processes, others are as users of systems supporting customer services.

In the second category, the needs of the internal user are superficially similar to the needs of the external user – to gather and record the information necessary to move the service forward. That for a time led to a school of thought that the service for internal and external users should be identical, to the greatest possible extent. But as this post recognises, there is a critical difference between somebody who completes a transaction once a year or once in a blue moon and somebody who completes that same transaction many times a day.

That shouldn’t be an excuse for complexity and confusion: just because people on the payroll can learn to fight their way through doesn’t mean it’s a good idea to make them. But it is one good reason for thinking about internal user needs in their own right – and this excellent post provides seven more reasons why that’s a good thing to do.

Meanwhile, the cartoon here remains timeless – it prompted a blog post almost exactly ten years ago arguing that there is a vital difference between supporting expert users (good) and requiring users to be expert (bad). We need to keep that difference clearly in sight.