I’ve a spare half hour, a good chance to get some thoughts down on my new gig. I’m just coming to the end of my third week at HM Revenue & Customs, as part of the impressive Digital Delivery Centre (DDC) in Newcastle.
There’s plenty of documented experiences of working at places like GDS, but not a lot about the wider digital government family, including HMRC where I am based.
It’s a tasty gig, an opportunity to make things that matter, services that anyone in the UK could use: It’s reported that 70% of all government transactions come through HMRC. That’s a lot of service users.
I’ve done “public sector” stuff a lot, but not in a way that allows me just to focus wholly on the tasks in-hand. Public sector stuff in the past has been project work I’ve done amongst other stuff. Immersion in and dedication of time to the organisation and its problems was and is a major attraction, along with working with a team of good people. This is my job.
The biggest swinger though was my interview. Less a grilling, more just a really good - and honest - hour long chat. This is the good, this is the stuff we need to work on, we want to get on with stuff, how are you with that?
When I got the offer to join the only thing that stopped me saying YES! straight away was making sure my wife and kids would be OK with me being away during the week. And this chance came in the face of other opportunities that would been more local to my Idle home, have had me “higher up the tree”, and financially more lucrative. It’s a big ask, but this is also a big opportunity, one that’d be in the heat of the action. I’d been looking further away from the Leeds area, more to find a big challenge.
And it is a challenge.
At the moment I am working across two teams making HMRC’s Inheritance Tax digital service as an interaction designer (not a UX designer, which I’ll clarify shortly).
I’ve joined in the last sprint, a two week sprint, before the service goes into private beta.
It’s not been easy. It’s been the toughest challenge I’ve taken on for some years. A lot of absorbing, a lot of initial fuzzy head, a lot of long days to absorb all the things, and understand why the service is where it is. Irrespective of what we can learn during the beta release, there’s a deadline to get something together that users want and can use. There’s been a lot of hard work from the team so far - we’ve still needed to pull a lot of strings together. And while living out of a suitcase.
Like I said it’s a challenge, a tasty one.
But the past week it’s been clicking, it’s been incredibly productive. As the interaction designer on the service I am there to (briefly - I will pick this up in another post later) design what the user interacts with.
I am not there as user experience designer. I am repeatedly saying User experience comes from the team not from one person, not from one role. All the efforts of the teams contribute to make the service, all the efforts design the service, drawing upon the collaboration between scrum master, product owner, business analyst, research squad, content designer, the developers, and the QA team. With such a user-centric philosophy (rather than approach) ego isn’t an input in this work.
The manifestation of stuff on-screen, in-browser is the best place to check over how something comes together - and user research is the best way to understand how it works, how it can be improved. (And it’s great to have dedicated and good user research people in the team - and making something for users is known by all.)
There’s an acceptance that nimbleness means there’s no one way of doing things, there are many right ways of getting stuff done. I’ve used everything from pens onto paper and whiteboard walls, Keynote, Sketch, and coding with the framework, as well as exposing the team to some new tools like Invision. Getting stuff thought through, down in an appropriate form, and then realising it with the team (not just slinging it across).
I’ve an excitement as the private beta release of the service approaches, where we’ll get some meatier insight into what we’ve done so far, and feed that back into the creation cycle. Can we make the service simpler, clearer, and faster for the users?
Oh, a point on the use of the word service. Interestingly not once while I have been in the building has anyone referred to what we are working on as a website. We’re making services, digitally enabled, accessible across the internet, sure but it’s a refreshing frame of mind to not use the word website.
The DDC is buzzing. I think there’s about 300 people there. Community is a word banded around the place, and it’s not an aspiration. Community is an actuality. The designers have regular “community meetings”. Everyone contributes to design, and “crits” are friendly, constructive affairs. It’s not about “My design needs to be the one that wins.” It’s about putting forward stuff as theories and validating them, then improving where we can.
The sense of community is also strong in the project teams I work with, a sense of neighbourliness, polite nosiness, and offers of help. It’s great!
The building in Newcastle is pretty amazing. It’s huge, spacious, airy. An atrium that runs down the middle of the building has lots of breakout areas, an awesome high roof, plenty of natural light. It’s a place where you can just get on with doing work.
For the sense of balance you want a downside? There is stuff we need to work on, sure, we’re aware. But chiefly we could do with more cake around the place - and I’m working on that.