It’s been a while since I publicly published something on the work I am involved with at HMRC.
I am currently leading the design on the tax credits digital service. “Leading” makes it sound grander than it is. A lot of the hard work was already on with. I’ve joined a great, small, talented team of interaction designers and content designers. Being the “lead” means I work to make sure our collective works agile, bring together research and “design”, our efforts are consistent, dish out thumbs ups and fist-bumps, and get dragged into meetings (productive ones, with outcomes). Day-to-day my design efforts are concentrated on children tax credits.
Less about me. I wanted to tell you about the amazing work researcher Emma and designer Helen have been doing over the past month, really driving on to get discovering what would make a better digitally enabled tax credits renewals service.
The guys have total belief in the government standard as a thing we should strive for, constantly be mindful of, as a state of mind. Sometimes we talk of this as having a “coursework mentality” rather than we are “doing work for an exam”. Design is the process.
And doing it as a team user experience is the team’s work. No us versus them. Brought together are a small, tight team of colleagues from the wider civil service, who have insight and can make decisions to help move our thinking on, quickly. Not hurtling fast, but definitely at pace. Our colleagues have had to adapt to the way we need to work fast as well – but we made sure we took time to onboard them so we were all comfortable. We tweaked our way of working as well so everyone was comfortable. People working together doing the things people do for other people.
User needs are up front, understanding motivations, looking into the problem to solve. The business needs are defined, recognised. And business needs not business *wants. Policy? Got that covered as well. Anything else? And then on with it.
There are two things we have had to keep in check.
One making sure we show the work, and we show the work clearly, not leaving any gaps to be filled in by others’ imagination, removing ambiguity, recognising assumptions and validating them.
Secondly, it’s easy as people to want to think and think, and design and design. We want to do better, and it’s easy to get carried away. There is nothing wrong with have a wide vision, path, roadmap, whatever. But we also know there are steps we can take towards that vision. And as we go forward our path might change. After all, screws fall out all the time, the world is an imperfect place.
There has been hard work to recognise a minimum viable product (MVP) that is effective, that works, and not just for a small group of people. We want to ship something as soon as possible, but something that works, is effective, is good. We keep focusing on what that MVP is. And whatever that will be, we’ll keep making on top of and around that. (Be, y’know, a bit more start up.)
The team has grafted, got stuff down, worked things through, iterated, went round in circles a little, got out of those circles.
A couple of nights back after a long day’s work, Helen sent an email. “It can’t be this simple, can it?”
I bore the rest of the design team with an example of how I provide my energy meter readings. The energy suppler to my home has a really lovely digital service. I receive a text message through my mobile phone to tell me I have an email. Which is handy, as I don’t have email piped into my phone. I read the email. It asks me to get a meter reading, and tell me how long I have to provide it, otherwise I might be overcharged. And then I put it off. A few weeks later I get another text message. I dig up the email. I click the button in the email. It directs me to a webpage where I can simply, clearly, fastly enter the two numbers - one for my electricity and one for my gas. I click submit. The page returns a Thank you message. I receive a text message saying my energy supplier has received my reading. Aside from remembering where we last left the key to the gas meter box it is as effortless a process. It is a lovely, effective piece of design. It’s obvious, but it exists.
If my energy supplier can do this, so should we in government.
There’s plenty of things we can do better in government, for those things to be comparable to the standards you expect, you demand outside of government, of the day you read this, particularly how you are informed, from talking with us at HMRC to just working something simple out.
To go back to the question in Helen’s email: Yes, it should be simple. Everything can be made simple. It’s a designer’s cliche that’s simplicity is what a designer works towards. But your interactions with government should be that.
Yesterday I took ten minutes out from running around to eavesdrop in a session Emma and Helen were leading. They were sharing their efforts, they were showing their efforts, they were showing the efforts the whole team had put into. On a whiteboard wall they had two big print-outs that simply, clearly showed a prototype of what the tax renewals service could be. A couple of tweaks, lots of nods. And they’d come to that in less than a month.
It’s good to work with people that want to make that happen.