Week #87 at the Digital Service: Notes for 25–29 December 2023

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An unfolded poster in a dark wooden surface – in big letters it reads: Data of 2023 with some dozen smaller and bigger numbers and lines of text, like: 6000 deployments, 16 project contracts signed, 153 million page views for property tax declaration, 53000 kilometres travelled by train for projects, 3 new contracts referencing the service standard

I found a folded poster in the mail when returning from my 2-week break. It contained a pleasant surprise and an appropriate way to send 2023 off – Digital Service data of 2023.

It contains all kinds of data: the number of deployments, the time it takes for them, the number of new starters, projects signed or kilometres travelled by train.

I had seen a draft of the poster when Daphne and Robin reviewed it – but I was not allowed to get close as it was their secret. I had no idea who the poster was for and how it would be distributed.

I’m particularly fond of two numbers: the number of user research participants this year and the new contracts referencing the Service Standard.

Looking back at 2023

I was not precise at setting goals for the year. Instead, I named a few focus areas and linked them – at least in parts – to trimester objectives.

After a few years of animated year recap GIFs, I made one for 2023.

Activate to view larger image, 278 user research participants in 2023, 29% growth of our design and user research team, 9 introduction to accessibility sessions, 8 public talks, 4 published Service Standard reports, 4 local meetups in a new meetup series, 3 national public sector design events + a new community, 3 international #GovDesign events, 2 new user-centred design disciplines, 1 printed newspaper with articles from 11 contributors, 1 national event on public service design with 90+ attendees, A 24-hour remote conference with 61 speakers

Much of my work as a Head of Design & User Research is invisible. Many things are difficult to count and hard to measure. But some can be evaluated.

So, some things I am proud of this year are: Teams at DigitalService involved 278 people in user research sessions in 2023. We put the Service Standard in all of our new contracts and published 4 Service Standard reports. Caro and I nagged everyone around us with quality standards and ways to assure them.

Our design and user research discipline grew by 29%, and we created 2 new user-centred design disciplines: content design and user research. We co-delivered 9 rounds of introduction to accessibility to newbies throughout the year. I gave various conference talks – together with Caro on embracing quality standards and with Kara on the long slog of public service design.

We invested in communities on local, national and international levels: Christian, Magdalena, Tobias, Victoria, and I launched a new Berlin-based public sector innovation meetup with 4 events between April and November. Maria and I started a national public sector user-centred design community under the NExT umbrella with 3 events since the summer.

Kara, Paloma, Viktoria and I co-organised international gov design calls, in-person formats and a massive 24-hour remote conference. With Katrin and Simone, I co-published another Service Gazette and co-ran the Public Service Lab Day with the City of Cologne’s Innovation Office.

I am deeply grateful for the teamwork across our delivery disciplines with fellow heads Christian, Clara, Jutta, and Stephanie’s stewardship. There is more to talk about what we do as heads of the delivery disciplines in the coming months.

Lastly, and obviously, everyone in the design and user research discipline deserves a huge thank you. They navigated challenging situations and delivered outstanding work. They researched large and vast topic areas, designed products, services and policies, developed components, tested prototypes, challenged and guided stakeholders, created structures and clearer processes, raised vital questions and created novel narratives to make better public services in Germany happen. And they made their work more visible than ever before. 10 people from the discipline published 10 co-authored articles and blog posts throughout the year, which is something I would not even have dreamed of last year.

“Teamwork makes the dream work”, the saying goes. I am grateful for the countless joint working sessions this year – with various exceptional people undeserved uncredited here. I’m looking forward to what we can achieve together in 2024.

There are areas where we could have made more progress. But the workload had already been intense. So, I am largely grateful and proud of what we have achieved.

Noting what others had to say

What I might see as my strengths and weaknesses will differ from what other people see.

Before I forget about the feedback, here is what colleagues shared anonymously:

Martin is a rare breed of leader, expert matter, curious and passionate person. Thanks for all the care and thought you put into accessibility. I feel privileged to spare with you on this topic.”

I really appreciate all the support and help I receive from you. I am learning a lot and despite the little time we have available, I never feel like I’m missing out. This is so great!”

Thank you for giving us as a design team the feeling and certainty that you are always acting in our best interests and getting involved. You have MORE than earned your hopefully upcoming holiday!”

Martin! You are a great, engaging speaker and presenter. You can draw a link, an experience, an expert from your wealth of knowledge on pretty much any topic. You can also design well yourself. But you don’t do it. Instead, you let us, your team, do it and shine. You take a step back but are there when we need you. Look ahead and build what will be needed, connect what will come. That just sounds like the kind of thing a good ‘leader’ should do. But in reality, I think it’s incredibly rare and challenging. I don’t know how you manage your workload. When I see your diary, it makes me dizzy. And you remain empathetic and infectiously enthusiastic about the challenges we get to work on. It’s really a lot of fun working with you.”

I might revisit this note to re-read these sentences after a bad day.

What’s next


I have a 3-day week ahead of me and various things I want to pick up from December. I will also welcome Anja, a new senior user researcher.

Just before the year ended, I submitted a proposal for the World Usability Congress in Graz. I’ve never been there, and I have no clue if this would be content they see a fit for. But I thought I could try. The title I suggested is ‘Building cross-organisational accessibility awareness and capability’. And the 3 key learnings I had to name are:

  • Accessibility is for everyone in the organisation to embrace – and everyone can contribute something differently
  • We need to move from a compliance view on accessibility to a deeply human-centred view
  • There are no genuinely accessible products and services ever – but we have to strive for them

The event will only take place in October. So it might be a while before hearing from them. In the meantime, the event calendar for 2024 is building as I just got myself a ticket for the ‘Service Design in Government’ conference in Edinburgh in September. Many more things are to come.

I will also set some more firm objectives for 2024 in the coming days.