Ethnographic User Research at Service Design in Government Conference

The SDinGOV conference is smaller than its SDN counterpart, but its focus on those commissioning, inventing and improving public services provides plenty of depth to debate how innovating public services could and should deliver better impact for society. I shared five stories from the field illustrating my thoughts on how better understanding people, contexts, lives, cultures, organisations and experiences can deliver more relevant services, more meaningful outcomes and more empowered citizens. More on that at the end, but first, a few themes from the two days:

Innovation is the Successful Application of Ideas.

Said it before, say it again.

Louise Downe described how service design innovation labs as one approach have their uses, but a higher objective is to have the kind of methodologies and practice they provide a safe space for become part of the cultural fabric of an organisation. Hear hear. Some supporting tactics included distributing knowledge effectively, not centralising resources such as designers (labs) and focusing on implementation and delivery to give life to services, roles and departments that have the momentum and capacity to keep evolving. That ideas don’t work everywhere isn’t a problem to be solved, but a cause to pursue.

Heavy ‘route one’ digital innovation

A large international contingent was in attendance to hear more from the likes of the .GOV speakers such as Louise Downe and Kit Collingwood on how the growth of their teams and influence have had a significant impact on the efficiency and efficacy of government services. The UK should be proud of its status as a leader in this field.

My regret is that much was said by many speakers over the two days on the methods, principles and tasks involved in digitising services (and providing complimentary digital experiences alongside analogue ones), and some great products were showcased, but little was said about the origins of these services – how the purpose of services and platforms were identified through an understanding of people’s experiences and the outcomes and meaning that was sought.

Marc Hébert of City of SFO dug into this area in an honest session about identifying different causes and types of failure before, during and after efforts. His background in anthropology provided him with a key lever in speaking truth to power; the voice of those we are seeking to support. His frankness was refreshing and his activities felt more like self-help therapy than reflective design tools.


“Oh, We Got Both Kinds; Country AND Western!”

Hot on the heels of Louise Downe channeling Dr Ian Malcolm in Jurassic Park in declaring ‘technology tells you what you could do, design tells you what you should’, Simon Bostock quoted another film favourite to describe his seemingly love-hate relationship with agile and waterfall processes and the debate between them when faced with the realities of, well, reality. Describing the tensions and frictions between the two as both a consultant and being on the ‘client side’ he called for a common-sense step back to qualify the benefits of both in the context of the organic, illogical, emotional, human nature of organisational culture.

Notes from the Kitchen Table

My session borrowed a phrase used heavily by Hilary Clinton in her campaign. She used the phrase kitchen table for the same reason Barack Obama used the term ‘folk’ – to describe how she understood the people, and the everyday conversations in households across America – parents discussing how they would pay for their kids to go to college, or families cutting back in order to pay medical bills or utilities, friends discussing the changing nature of work.

Unfortunately, and for reasons both true and fake, her campaign did not succeed in overturning her image as a political elite with intentions towards the citizenry compromised by proximity to Wall Street.

But it is a phrase that I hold dear to my work in qualitative research. It is a true privilege to be invited into the personal and professional lives of people. I count the UK, Portugal, Jordan, Canada and no fewer than 18 states across the US as places I have met people I may have otherwise never met, sometimes in locations and contexts I would never have known about. I shadow doctors around hospitals for days, speak to families that have been through financial trauma about their hard times and their resilience today, and help people reflect on the difference between what they do and what they say they do.

Through five stories from the field I illustrated principles and questions encouraging the room to be open, question their biases, listen and look hard and in less obvious places, and have the bravery to change course if you are surprised by what you see. Some of the highlights were kindly summed up in this drawing by the prolific Hazel White

Because the what and how of creation are important, but meaningless without the why.