I quickly made name badges as a few of us went out to do some pop-up research this week. Talking to our users is the best as it shortens hypothetical conversations we have internally.
Getting international food for thought
Monday morning started with a visit from Taiwan. Ann Cathrin from LOAD coordinated a little tour for Hao-Ting from PDIS, who’s working at the Taiwanese government’s Public Digital Innovation Space. I had not met her before, but we had various colleagues of Hao-Ting join us for International Design in Government conferences and community calls over the last 5 years. She has been working as a design lead but effectively does a lot of citizen and especially youth engagement work.
Even after quite a few workshops, talks and direct conversations with people working for PDIS, I still have a limited understanding of how they actually work, how they measure their work and evidence of their impact. Their model of a Participation Officers Network, a.k.a. change and public engagement agents in all of Taiwan’s ministries, is noteworthy. And one thing they are working on, too, is ensuring that their working models continue even if PDIS stops to exist one day.
De-risking and future-proofing your efforts and ways of working is essential in innovative government – as, with any change of government, critical work could be stopped by a signature of a person at the top without a fundamental idea of what you are doing. We had seen that when Denmark’s MindLab disappeared overnight. And the various changes in Australia’s DTA have been another warning sign. So PDIS approach is considerate and forward-looking. Because you never know how a reasonably new, and therefore fragile, unit might be taken on another course or stopped entirely.
On Monday afternoon, we ran our latest next community call. My GDS colleague Paloma organised it. We discussed content design in government and heard from the Government of Cyprus about their work on various services in collaboration with GDS.
Initially, we were supposed to hear from the US General Services Administration, too, but they could no longer join us. For next month, I finally hope to hear from someone from the Global South after we had almost exclusively presenters from Western countries in the last few months in the community calls. I plan to invite colleagues doing important work in the United Nations Development Program (UNDP).
Preparing content for fellows
Next week, we will be welcoming a new Tech4Germany cohort. It’s our 3-month fellowship programme that brings small multidisciplinary teams into Federal ministries to build working software prototypes. My colleague Michaela wrote an impressively detailed blog post about how fellows are selected (in German). It’s an excellent example of a blog post and a working in the open approach saving time. While putting the blog post together probably took quite a while, it saves people in the programme significant time in the future as they no longer have to explain the selection process to curious individuals repeatedly.
Together with a colleague, I tried to understand what content inputs and formats would be most beneficial for the design fellows and how members of the design team with limited time could support them. For that, we talked to people who completed the programme last year and coordinated it. In the weekly design team meeting on Wednesday, we collected several artefacts created by designers for various projects. Now, we are in the process of turning these into templates. And I am developing a general design deck.
My working assumption is that a universal, multi-purpose presentation deck explaining user-centred design will be helpful for a number of people:
- new starters of all disciplines at the Digital Service
- new fellows in both Tech4Germany and Work4Germany
- existing stakeholders in ministries and their agencies working with the fellows
- new stakeholders in ministries and their agencies when we first engage with them for new projects
People often have a vague, potentially incomplete, or even incorrect understanding of user-centred design. That also became apparent in a Tech4Germany project last year. Only a few weeks in, the designers realised that their project partner had a different understanding of design than they had. It was limited to design making things pretty and giving things a form. In the future, I hope we can address this proactively right from the start to avoid any misconceptions. A growing slide deck with examples and detailed speaker notes that everyone can use in full or in parts should help. Once somewhat complete, I should also make it public for other people in other parts of the German government to use, remix and make theirs.
Preparing, promoting and documenting user research
Since opening our first senior user research role last Friday and posting about it on LinkedIn, it got a little traction. By now, the post has accumulated over 9,800 views, received 225 likes, and was shared 20 times by people from various countries. It’s the highest level of engagement I have seen so far for a job posting on LinkedIn. The fact that it’s the first-ever user research role in German government probably helps. I hope this is going to result in many high-quality applications.
Towards the end of the week, I spoke to a person interested in preparing an application. In a 45-min chat, I gave them an overview of the role, the opportunities and the challenges and answered their questions. I am open to talking to more people about the position ahead of their application if it helps.
On Wednesday, I also had the chance to help prepare and co-run some pop-up research in front of Berlin’s central station. With a short list of 5 names for a soon-to-launch citizen-facing service component, we took it to the street and asked for people’s views and perspectives. Our goal was not to capture what people like best but what works best. We wanted to understand what potential negative connotations people saw and what names we should take off our list. The 4 of us split into teams of 2 and spoke to 22 people. Within 2 hours, we got a good idea and have a path forward.
After running the session, one team member with Latin-American roots expressed unease with the term we used initially, so we looked for another name. People on Twitter had quite a few thoughts, ideas and opinions.
With the help of various designers and product managers, I completed our user research blog post. It describes why we do it, how we do it, and how we plan to mature it. It’s for potential applicants, stakeholders and project partners in other parts of government, designerly public servants looking for a point of reference and interested members of the public. I hope the editing process won’t take too long, and we can publish it next week.
In the context of one of our projects, I discussed with the team how they could start documenting their collective efforts across design, engineering and product against the German Service Standard. I like to see them complete and publish their summary in the coming weeks as, so far, very few examples of services developed against the Service Standard have been published.
Reflecting on my first 3 months
I’ll keep it short here, but as my first quarter at the Digital Service finishes and I’ve reached my first 90 days period, I did some stocktake. On Friday evening, I had an exchange with a colleague who asked me for my thoughts and reflections.
I have not been regretting my move at any moment. And the 5 things I like the most about the German government’s Digital Service probably are:
- a leadership team that understands and advocates for user-centred ways of working
- a young yet fairly experienced team that’s ambitious but also realistic about what it can achieve
- an evolving relationship with Federal ministries and their agencies towards a true partnership model
- the possibility to work in the open, including blogging, tweeting, public speaking, and putting things on GitHub
- a flexible working model that is based on trust and with a good amount of space to shape my role
I’m looking forward to meeting the new Tech4Germany fellows and the August new starters. Then, I will make progress on the mentioned design deck. And, hopefully, I’ll get the user research blog post out as well.