In recent months, we’ve faced major changes in our lives. We’re in the midst of a new type of uncertainty that impacts us all personally and professionally.
With this change and impact in mind, the service design team has come together to discuss how our work has evolved and adapted over the last six months to meet our client’s new needs during the COVID-19 pandemic and how that might change our practice as we move into recovery.
Designing services in an emergency
When the pandemic and lockdown began, we realised our own and our clients’ priorities rapidly changed. We’re a digitally-enabled organisation, used to travelling and working remotely on-site with our clients and partners. But, we’ve had to learn and design a way to work with clients completely remotely.
Designing a face-to-face workshop is quite different from one that’s remote. Over the past few months, we’ve learnt how to adapt to deliver projects virtually, and we’ve been supporting each other by posting our tips and tricks online on a weekly basis. We’ve been sharing knowledge with the entire FutureGov team on the tools we’ve found, such as Miro’s timer feature, and the things we’ve tried, like an online warm-up exercise that we’ve always done in-person.
New constraints and needs
Our client’s priorities have also changed to designing new services or iterating existing ones to meet emerging needs, urgently.
There’s been considerable urgency in our client’s challenges: we need to support people who are self-isolating now, we want to get in contact with volunteers in the area now, we need to figure out a plan to support domestic abuse victims now. The urgency is real and it’s based on the very real needs of people we’re designing for. Any delay in the delivery of support can have a considerable impact on resident lives right now and in the future.
We’ve always prided ourselves at moving quickly, using agile ways of working to build, test and deliver the right solutions fast. But we found ourselves needing to move even more quickly from concept to live. We no longer have weeks. We need to deliver at pace. Minimum viable services and products are the solution, and we iterate them weekly, alongside training and testing to make sure staff and residents can actually use them.
There’s also an increased need for flexibility. Policies and structures both within organisations and from the wider world are continuously and rapidly changing. Just in the last month we’ve seen announcements for the devolution white paper, a new planning white paper and a restructure of central health organisations. We need to design something now that can be flexible enough to accommodate these and future changes.
Adapting our ways of working
When working with our partners over the past few months, we’ve been testing different ways of running projects to adapt to remote environments, limited deadlines and changing needs.
A different setup
Where possible, we’ve been testing a new system which brings together insights and design teams, working closely together to gain exposure to an organisations’ updated priorities and their emerging user needs. In our experience, this works best when the insights team is led by our partners, as they usually have strong relationships already in place.
The insights team focuses on policy changes and emerging needs, sharing knowledge with the design team when they meet certain criteria, such as the number of people or organisations affected or the urgency of the need. To do this, the insights team is responsible for identifying and attending strategic meetings that could impact the work of the design team, including changes in priorities and possible overlapping with other projects.
This new setup allows the insights team to play a crucial role in informing priority areas and spotting signals. While the design team can stay updated without getting overwhelmed or paralysed by continually changing needs, which is common during emergencies.
Rethinking the responsibility of tasks
On projects, we’re usually responsible for delivery as well as the capability building of our partners. Being unable to travel has allowed us a unique opportunity and perspective to reconsider who can lead on activities, such as research.
To support our partners in this shift, we designed an onboarding experience to cover how to do research with users, allowing our clients to run it independently. We want to support them to run the activities as we would have, while making sure they understand the value. We’re hopeful this is something they will take forward to replicate in future projects.
Working remotely means that the corridor chat, the coffee run or the queue for lunch are gone. Communication needs to be designed to make sure everyone is on the same page, and so visibility is crucial for alignment and trust building.
On a recent project we asked everyone to complete an end-of-day standup where they would write up a recap of everything they’ve been working on and anything that was ready for others to be picked up. On another, we’ve left video calls on, after the session was complete to have a debrief and informal chat.
We’ve also introduced a decision log, a document used to track design decisions that are made throughout the project and their rationale. It’s useful for the team and our clients to be reminded of all the decisions we’ve made together.
Accessible ways of working
To work at pace, we’ve helped partners embrace our way of working and reduce barriers by reducing the use of buzzwords such as agile, sprint, prototype. This helps to make sure the terms we use are accessible to those who don’t necessarily have design backgrounds.
We’re mindful of introducing new tools, such as Slack and Google Drive, because cognitive bandwidth is reduced when stressed (such as during an emergency). So even when the interest of an organisation to use new tools is usually a significant signal of interest in change, we’re considerate of what we ask our clients.
Focus on now, create space for tomorrow
Holding the space for long term thinking when our partners are in a reactive mode trying to address emerging needs, can be challenging. We’ve been supporting them in delivering what has been urgent, but at the same time we want to create the space for them to think long term.
By going beyond what our clients need from us in the search of creating an answer for urgent problems, to include roadmaps and theories of change to help them understand how to develop the strategy, the service or the product further. We’ve been fully embracing the ‘act now, think long term’ way of working.
Evolving design and research practice through the pandemic was originally published in FutureGov on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.
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