Collaborative Design in Government - The importance of engaging stakeholders

Collaborative Design in Government - The importance of engaging stakeholders

Thursday 28th of September 2017
Written by: Tania Lang

Anyone working in or for government in the digital space should be aware of the wide range of standards, guidelines and methods such as Australia’s Digital Service StandardUK’s Digital Service Standard and USA’s and Web design standards. These standards and frameworks provide excellent resources for providing customer centric websites and systems. One of the common themes across these standards is the importance of having a multidisciplinary team including product managers, business analysts, user researchers, designers and technical roles. However, little is mentioned in these standards about how these multidisciplinary teams should actually work together.  Having worked in or for government and many large organisations over 17 years I have learnt hard way about the importance of engaging stakeholders. In this article, I want to outline some of the methods we typically use to take stakeholders on the journey. This article is relevant for anyone working in large organisations as well as in or for government.

14 years ago I finally had the opportunity to lead the UX work for a large state government website redesign. I was given budget, time and resources (which was unheard of in 2003). Unfortunately it ended up like an episode of Utopia.  Here is how it roughly went.

  • On the first day we moved heaven and earth and convinced key executives to adopt a user centred design approach to their website redesign.
  • On the second day we reviewed customer research, conducted a gap analysis and hypothesised who our target audience was.
  • On the third day we travelled the state conducting interviews and research with users and there was light.
  • On the fourth day we prototyped concepts, wireframes and information architectures.
  • On the fifth day we tested all our prototypes with users and iterated our designs.
  • On the sixth day we communicated our findings and recommended designs to the senior executives and it was good.
  • On the seventh day we started production and the whole project came to a grinding halt and all was NOT good. We discovered we had not engaged the right business stakeholders and middle management realised that we had not taken them on the journey. More on the outcome of this project later.

So what did I learn from this? You can apply every digital standard, customer centred design process and follow every guideline but it won’t be a smooth journey and successful project unless you engage the right business stakeholders.  The following is high level overview of how you might achieve this.

  • Help stakeholders feel empathy for customers in the Discovery phase. Stakeholders are often too close to the subject material and have a lot of false assumptions about customers. To break down some of these false assumptions, encourage stakeholders to accompany you when conducting user research, contextual interviews, usability testing of existing services and mapping user journeys. In their Service Handbook, Australia’s Digital Transformation Agency (DTA) recommends that “each member of the team should observe at least 2 hours of user research every six weeks’.
  • Involve your stakeholders in team design exercises in the Alpha phase. Bring together your multidisciplinary team and stakeholders into collaborative design workshops to design concepts and prototypes. Using tools such as personas and empathy maps to build empathy for users, ask every participant in the room to sketch designs for the page you are working on.  Then stick them on the walls and get workshop participants to put sticky dots on the elements of different designs that they like. This can be a little bit of design by democracy but it helps build consensus. It can also be a humbling experience for senior managers when their design concept doesn’t get any sticky dots. Regardless of the extent to which you actually use the stakeholder inputs we have found that this activity is still very good for consensus building as stakeholder feel they have contributed to the output.
  • Use evidence and test results to help convince stakeholders. In the Discovery phase, test your hypotheses and concepts. Sometimes it is also good to test something that a stakeholder has come up with even if you suspect it may not test well. This helps them understand why their idea may not work and brings them on the journey. If possible, encourage stakeholders to observe test sessions live. If not, share results later such as task completion rates, user quotes and videos of usability test sessions.
  • For specific areas of conflict, conduct a quick test with users. As you move closer to the end of the Alpha phase and defining your Minimal Viable Product you will invariably have some heated discussions with key business stakeholders about aspects of the design. Like an episode of Utopia, over the years I have seen many hours wasted in meetings, phone calls and email conversations that require escalation to resolve. When you disagree about a design element learn the phrase “we should test this”.  A better use of everyone’s time is often better spent conducting some quick ‘hallway’ or ‘guerrilla’ testing with users rather than everyone speculating what they think users will do based on their own user behaviour.  Even if this testing isn’t particularly robust or definitive, but it gives you some real user data on which to make decisions.

The above is by no means an exhaustive list but hopefully others can learn from my experiences. My main message is to ensure you not only engage stakeholders but ensure you engage the right stakeholders. If you don’t involve them, help build empathy for your customers and take them on the journey, you will pay the price.

In regards to the government redesign project I referred to earlier, we ended up having to stop production of the website and do a massive time consuming road show to stakeholders to try to get their buy-in. It was a slow and painful process with many heated emails between parties and not an experience I wish to repeat. We did get there in the end but I certainly learnt my lesson in the process.

If you are keen to learn more about the above techniques and learn first hand some of my good and bad experiences, attend one of my upcoming UX training courses: either a 3-day UX intensive program in Sydney, Melbourne, Canberra or Brisbane; or our 13-week UX Accelerator delivered through online learning.

UX Tip - Interviewing users

When conducting interviews users often go into solution mode and tell you what they want.  A good interviewer aims to understand the underlying motivation or need.  Focus on the ‘why’ not the ‘what’. Use techniques such as laddering to uncover core values and investigate the underlying reasons. Ask “Why?” but in different ways such as “Can you tell me more about why that is important to you?” or “Can you elaborate on that for me?”. The trick is not to sound like a 4 year old saying “Why why why why why?” 5 times which can be a little annoying for your participant.

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