If I could tell you 3 things – notes from a brief career in the public service

Recently a colleague asked me what 3 things I would say if I ever had an audience of Secretaries (very senior public servants) that would help them do things to help make public services better for end users. This is (roughly) what I said:

  1. Your organisation will benefit more from you being user centred than the users ever will. 

    It is a common misconception that we do user-centred design because we want to deliver a delightful or engaging experience for our users. Truth is, in government, this is very rarely the case. Paying tax is not delightful, complying with regulation is not delightful, discovering you to repay a benefits debt is far from delightful.Let’s be realistic here – the job of user-centred design is to make things as painless and effortless as possible.It might not be delightful to discover that you’re not eligible for a benefit or a visa, but it is much better to find out as quickly and easily as possible before investing a lot of effort in an application or making plans for the future.

    When we focus on making things usable rather than delightful or engaging we are focussed on making sure that:
    a) people know what you want them to do.
    b) they can do that thing as easily as possible and without accidentally making mistakes.

    I think it is fair to say that many government services still don’t meet that low bar. This is bad for users but it is also bad for government. Poor usability impacts government’s ability to achieve policy outcomes and it can lead to a decrease in compliance (because even the people who WANT to be compliant often can’t work out how to do so – or have to pay specialists to explain it to them. This failure also leads to more expensive service delivery because people don’t stay in the cheaper digital channels. Instead it takes multiple encounters across multiple channels to complete a task, leading to a higher cost to serve.

    Even if you don’t care about the quality of the experience for users (and, honestly, every secretary and most public servants I’ve met have cared a lot), you should care about it for the effectiveness of your department and for the sake of your career. Services that people can use help agencies achieve organisational goals.

  2. Orient everything you can in your organisation around real user journeys 

    Some of our biggest organisational blind spots are caused by focussing on our own organisational structures at the expense of supporting and understanding real user journeys and the part our work plays in supporting those journeys.Like any large organisation, often multiple agencies are involved in the service experience that users have at key points in their life – when they lose their job, have a baby, start an education, start a  business, or when a loved one dies. Even in the services that exist in a single agency, we create false barriers between ‘authenticated’ and ‘unauthenticated’ experiences – often the only person who has a view of the end to end experience is the end user and every single touch point is managed by a different senior manager, sometimes in entirely separate parts of the organisation.

    There are small things that you can do immediately and cheaply to try to address this. Stop naming your services after the government need (eg. compliance) and start naming them after the thing that people need to do when they encounter the service (eg. tell government when your rental situation changes). Words and what we call things can be powerful catalysts for cultural transformation.

    Make the real user experience visible to people across the organisation by making journey maps from the trigger to the outcome and make sure all the people who ‘own’ parts of that journey know each other and have seen each other’s work. Put someone in charge of being the expert on that journey and informing all the parts.

    Challenge concepts like ‘authenticated’ and ‘unauthenticated’ which are meaningless to end users and often reinforce silos that amplify user experience problems in services.

    Make sure that the analytics you are capturing help you understand, across all the channels (digital, phone and shopfront) what is happening, what is working and not. Create success criteria that are really based on improving outcomes for users.

  3. Seek the truth, even if it’s ugly

    Large organisations like the public service can be pretty hierarchical. Something that can happen in hierarchical organisations is that bad news doesn’t travel up the line – people don’t speak truth to power. It can be a career limiting move (CLM – an acronym I learned for the first time in the Australian Public Service).The reality is that if you’re a senior person in a large organisation, people are probably going out of their way to let you believe that everything is fine. Or as fine as it can be.

    As a leader you need to be aware of this and to do everything you can to break through this. The best thing to do is to see it for yourself.

    Research has shown that organisations where everyone, including management, sees real users using their services for just 2hrs every 6 weeks are more likely to deliver good services. In truly customer-centric organisations, the executive team routinely get ‘behind the counter’ and see for themselves both what it is like to be a customer and (equally importantly) what it is like to deliver service. Watch an episode or two of Undercover Boss where CEOs go, in disguise, to work in the grass-roots of service delivery in their organisation and discover that the reality is very different to what the reports say.

    Many customer-centric organisations require that everyone in the organisation spend time at the coalface of service delivery as a part of induction and leadership should be required to do this regularly. ServiceNSW CEO Rachna Gandhi is known for routinely working behind the counters of the ServiceNSW shopfronts – this not only demonstrates true executive commitment to high quality user experience but also means she has a direct view of the reality of what it is like to experience ServiceNSW services and to learn from the day-to-day experience of the people who work in service delivery.

    If this is a priority you need to put time in your diary to make this happen. If you can’t escape endless meetings, then work with the user researchers in your delivery teams and ask them to show you the video footage of people talking about their experiences. What are they learning out in the field? – the good and the bad.

    And don’t let your organisation become culturally afraid or disrespectful of your users. Don’t accept that if your users were less stupid or lazy or naughty everything would be better and there is nothing we can do.

    Don’t believe for a moment that your users are about to go running to their MP or the media the minute something goes wrong. Nothing could be further from the truth.The average person would have to be on the edge of desperation before they contemplate approaching a politician or journalist. Rather, most people want to spend as little time as possible thinking about government services. From my experience they are only too happy to share their experiences and insights if they think their input will be used to make government services better for everyone. If you work in government it’s your job to make sure they get heard.


Yesterday was my last day at the Digital Transformation Agency (DTA) and in the Australian Public Service (APS), for now. This followed a few years working at the Government Digital Service (GDS) in the UK Civil Service (no acronym that I’m aware of).

It’s been a privilege to be a part of the movement towards better quality public services and in doing this I’ve been able to work with some of the best and most passionate technologists, designers, policy makers, administrators and more. Working in government is one of the most challenging yet rewarding working environments I’ve encountered.

Thanks for the opportunity. Stay in touch.

Related reading:

Research about management spending time seeing real users

Words and cultural change

Undercover Boss

Naming your service as a ‘doing thing’

How improving internal systems can improve customer experience.

Why we should stop banging on about users

Ask first, judge later

Here’s a pattern I’ve observed in myself and others over the years.

  1. People tell you about something.
  2. It doesn’t match your world view or expectations (what you think is right or true)
  3. You judge quickly. Because of the mismatch you reject. If you’re a proper bore you may even layer on a little ridicule.

This is a natural part of being human. It’s one of the many gifts our brain gives us to help us to process information more quickly and easily. It’s great for helping us quickly decide whether that red berry will be delicious or poisonous.

This process works less well for ideas that you’re not expecting. These are often the good kind of ideas, the ones that could potentially bring great innovation and improvement. These ideas don’t always immediately make sense or to match existing world views. They take some getting used to, and they take some questioning to reveal their sense.

Its pretty easy when you’re the boss to feel you have to pass judgement quickly. To feel  you should immediately have a sense of whether something is right or wrong, better or worse. This is old school leadership and can be alienating and discouraging to people who may have the next great idea.

So here is my rule of thumb. If someone comes to me with an idea, even if my immediate reaction is very negative, ask at least three questions about that idea to make sure you really understand it and appreciate it (see also the Five Whys technique).

Particularly ask about the things that bother you the most about it. Don’t judge yet.

There is a possibility that either your expectations and biases are stopping you from seeing the potential of the idea, or that it’s not been communicated clearly and in a way that resonates with you. Its your job to dig in and make sure you understand.  Not to rush to judgement and potentially sweep away valuable contributions.

Take your time to appreciate and evaluate a concept before you dismiss it – the very least you’ll get is a whole lot more respect from your colleagues.

Triple testing your survey

Sending a survey is a convenient way to gather data quickly. But, it’s very easy to inadvertently gather misleading and inaccurate data.

When was the last time you filled in a survey that let you actually express what your really thought about an organisation, experience or topic? Just because you have a reasonably large sample size and you can make graphs out if it doesn’t mean it is good data with which you could be making important decisions. Data quality matters.

A good way to make sure you’re getting reliable data (and making good use of your survey respondents’ time) is to do a triple test before you hit send.

Here’s what you do.

  1. Create your survey (this is actually not as simple as it may seem)
  2. Find someone who could be a potential respondent for your survey (matches the target audience, not people in your team or the people who sit closest too you)
  3. Ask them to complete the survey, watch them while they do it, ask them questions to see whether they understand what the question means and whether the way your are collecting the answers allows them to give the answer they want to give
  4. Adjust the form based on what you have observed (there are always adjustments you will want to make)
  5. Repeat steps 2,3,4 until you’ve seen at least three people complete the survey OR you’re certain there is no more you can do to adjust the survey so that people understand the questions and can provide meaningful (to them) responses.

I have never known someone who has tested their survey this way and who didn’t make changes that would result in a better experience for respondents and better quality data.

Guerrilla empathy (or why we should probably stop banging on about users all the time)

If you work anywhere near digital design, someone has probably talked at you about empathy recently. Or you’ve talked at people about empathy. Empathy is a buzzword du jour.

Now, you and i know empathy is important but – the reality is, most of the people we work with don’t really believe that. They’d don’t. They think they do real work and they think that we are like tree-huggers but for users.

Banging on about empathy while they are trying to do their ‘real jobs’ doesn’t help get them to care about users more. We need to take a more empathetic approach to empathy.

Guerrilla empathy perhaps.

Here are some things we know.

  1. If we work in multidisciplinary teams where research is done regularly and everyone (including senior stake holders) observe users for at least 2 hours every six weeks, we make better services. Our friends at UIE (thanks Jared) did research to evidence this. Everyone watching users use our stuff regularly helps us make better stuff.
  2. People (say they) love to use evidence to make decisions. They love data. User research provides evidence. If you take a methodical, hypothesis led approach to user research, your team learns about what works and what doesn’t so it can make things work better. (Qualitative evidence is data too).
  3. Businesses care about business outcomes – this might be policy outcomes, compliance rates, fraud reduction, members sign ups or sales. We know that making all of these things work better is always easier if end users understand what you are trying to tell them and can actually do the thing you are wanting them to do. Good usability helps achieve business outcomes.

So, in doing user research (which can build empathy) there are at least three things that business wants that we can supply: better services, evidence for decision making and achieving business outcomes.

We need to talk more about these three things.

And then we need to not let them forget the bit in part 1 that requires them to come observe real users regularly in order for it to work. And we need to make sure that we do the work in a way that really focusses on delivering these benefits for the business. And then you have a much more compelling reason for people to come observe users.

Get people to observe end users regularly in order to meet their business objectives and – unless you have an organisation full of sociopaths – empathy will naturally follow. Without you even mentioning it.

An empathetic team is transformational. But empathy is difficult to sell – especially to the senior stakeholders who need it the most. Business outcomes are not hard to sell.

Do empathy by stealth. Stop talking about empathy. Let empathy be the by-product of helping your organisation meet its objectives through user research and demonstrate this by taking a methodical, collaborative, hypothesis driven approach to your work.

Then stand back and wonder, yet again, at empathy’s power to transform teams and organisations.