Week #8: 20–24 June

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Two young-ish white men with glasses on stage talking to each other with a presentation slide above them saying ‘Questions, ideas, concerns?’ in German
Photograph: Ibrahim Köran – on Twitter

It’s summer in Berlin. And it’s boiling – with temperatures hovering around 30° celsius every day. On Monday, we might hit 36° again.

Luckily, the conference venue on Thursday had air conditioning, which is far from common in Germany – even with its continental climate and rising summer temperatures.

Discussing what transformation needs

Together with my colleagues Sonja, our Chief of Staff, and Magdalena, our Head of Product, I spoke at the Gov Tech Gipfel (Gov Tech Summit) in a Frank Gehry-designed venue next to Brandenburg Gate.

Sonja participated in a panel discussion about technology as an enabler for innovation. She made an essential point about enabling communities of practice and providing money and time for community work.

Magdalena was part of a discussion on ‘the age of API’. Despite all technical, legislative, and privacy challenges, she asked what our vision is and how prototyping it, using design, can help create it.

I had a short speaking slot with time for a few questions. It was the first fully hybrid event I attended in person. Practically, it meant that no session could go over time as the experience for the remote participants was supposed to be as smooth as programmed television. On stage, we had a timer counting down, creating time pressure.

Nils Hoffmann, founder of the GovLab Arnsberg and now managing director of PUBLIC in Germany, invited me and led the discussion following my input. The 20-min talk I delivered covered the shift of perception in German public administration regarding its role and relationship with citizens and users – from Prussian State view of citizens as supplicant towards the understanding of government as a service provider addressing needs of the people.

Once more, I used the exceptional transformation case from the UK Department for Work and Pensions’ ‘Check your State Pension forecast’ service to illustrate what holistic, front-to-back, cross-channel service design looks like. I might have used this example too often, but design lead Steve Borthwick and colleagues have done an outstanding job over the last decade.

The case shows that usually, transformation work starts at the surface with redesigning web-based interfaces, simplifying legal descriptions and bringing data from different organisations together. Then, over time, it goes deeper and deeper, unpacks legacy procedures and redesigns and replaces outdated structures. 

Testing together

That is a relevant theme and insight for a web-based offering we will launch in 2 weeks. The transactional service is for submitting tax-related property information as demanded by new legislation. Around 20 of us from the Digital Service came together on Monday over lunchtime to test it from start to finish on desktop and mobile. Of course, we found some things. Running such quality assurance and bug-busting sessions is powerful and effective for different reasons because it:

  • makes use of colleauges who will find issues the team didn’t see or will overlook after months of work
  • gets people from different parts of the organisation to see a team’s work up close
  • creates a sense of camaraderie and bond across the organisation

At the same time, there are some clear caveats and limitations as the team members are:

  • people who aren’t real users and don’t have a real stake or a need to use the service
  • people with very high digital skills, a high degree of digital literacy, and also no special access needs
  • people who might have a better understanding of tax law than most people in society as some have worked on a related tax service, so they understand some constraints and might also be more forgiving

Obviously, the team has been testing with real users for months. So this activity was not a replacement for any usability testing but helped with quality assurance (QA) in the absence of a dedicated QA role in the Digital Service.

Finding designers to bring them together

The NExT network of the German public sector celebrated its 4th birthday this week. Over the last few years, it has brought together people from all parts of the public sector. It supports communities of practice on topics like internal consulting, mobile apps or the use of artificial intelligence in government services. NExT also runs bar camps, hosts working groups and publishes white papers.

Until now, it does not have a user-centred design community. And so far, I have found it challenging to find and reach out to all the in-house designers and user researchers working in the public sector now. I am currently estimating there are about 50 people in user-centred design roles. In the coming months, we need to find better ways to connect with them and share work.

Linked to the Digital Service’s mission goal #3, I drafted an objective and a few key results (OKRs) related to sharing work and connecting people for this quarter’s shared cross-functional OKRs for design, engineering, and product management. We will continue working on our OKR drafts next week ahead of the new quarter. 

Vaguely related: Friday afternoon, we spoke to colleagues in Canada about products and code they have used from colleagues abroad. The sense of openness and willingness to share internationally remains among the most exciting aspects of working in the public sector.

What’s next

Next Thursday, my colleague Charlotte and I will talk at the summer festival of the CityLAB Berlin. The talk will be an extended version of the one delivered this week. With the extra time, we can show how the designers worked on the upcoming property tax service in some detail. 

In the coming days, I will work on more material for the blog once I find the time. The written talk should make it a quick write. Another text should detail how we do user research, learn about people’s contexts and needs, and let users give regular input on what we are developing.

Then, I also need to extend our design community onboarding material as we have another designer joining us on Friday. That means our design team will have grown to 14 people in July.