Service Design for Government
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A group of professionals interact at a table; engaging with customers is key in government service design

In Government Service Design, Thinking Like Your Customer Is Not Enough

Technical Assent’s vision is helping federal government organizations create excellent services. To do this, we emphasize with our government service design teams how important it is to “think like your customer.” What we mean by this is that we should have a good understanding of who our customer is and what they want. But here’s the thing—it’s almost impossible to think exactly like your customer in a realistic way.

My team is in the midst of designing and developing a solution offering that takes incredibly complex problems like rising sea levels and makes them approachable by turning them into collaborative games and exercises. We’ve spent months developing something we thought would make sense to our target client base. Last week, we went off-site and tested our offering twice with two groups of volunteers from government offices. The volunteers ranged from experienced SMEs to junior staff performing support work on the topic area.

The results?

Some people loved what we were doing. Some didn’t understand why we were talking to them in the first place. Some saw opportunities in our vision but identified things they wanted to change.

The Key to Success Government Service Design

Part of the reason consultants and designers spend so much of their time trying to think like their customers is that it’s incredibly hard—nearly impossible—to do. No matter how hard you work to understand your customer base, define personas, identify points of view, and create empathy, the design team is never going to be able to see things exactly like your customers do.

Part of this is the nature of human complexity; people are diverse and hard to predict. Part of this is natural bias on the part of the designer. But here’s the takeaway: no matter how much time you spend trying to think like your customer, the most important part of any design effort is to take the time to test your solution and gain feedback from actual people who are not you and who would conceivably be your customers.

This is not rocket science, but it’s a detail that is easy to forget or skip all together. Sitting in an office and iterating based on the team’s is a lot less work and a lot more comfortable than identifying effective, appropriate ways to test with government customers.

But despite the potential to be uncomfortable, do take this step. Schedule opportunities for real customer feedback early and often, and make sure you listen. After all, seeking customer feedback is not something that is just for private industry; this is absolutely critical to real success in government service design as well.

Lightbulb resting on a small chalkboard with the names of international cities surrounding it

Making Virtual Design-Thinking Efforts Effective in Government

Most design-thinking efforts are conceived and executed as in-person workshops marked by the shoulder-to-shoulder collaboration of participants at whiteboards and a flurry of post-it notes. The design-thinking ethos is premised on the idea that interaction breeds empathy, creativity, and ultimately results in good problem solving.

To be sure, face-to-face interaction is one of the fastest ways to get there, but it isn’t the only way. The need to keep costs low, respect telework agreements, and include global or faraway colleagues in critical solution design are all considerations that demand some level of virtual capability in design-thinking.

There are lots of great firms out there with examples, tools, and kits to help aspiring designers conceive and execute their own design projects (Ideo’s Design Kit, Luma’s Innovation Path, and Accenture Fjord Interactive to name a few). However, virtual design projects require special considerations to be effective.

At Technical Assent, we’ve been facilitating virtual collaboration and design sessions for our clients in the federal government since 2015. We continuously work to improve our capability to facilitate and deliver design-thinking workshops and outcomes for clients – both in person and virtually, nationally and globally. In addition, being a firm with many remote employees, we regularly devote time to practicing virtual design.

There are many advantages and some drawbacks of leveraging virtual collaboration in design efforts, and, here, we are sharing some of our best practices and most important considerations for successful virtual design-thinking efforts.

1. Structuring Your Virtual Design Project

To make virtual collaboration for design projects effective, the most important consideration is structure. The workshop must be structured with participation in mind to avoid remote participants feeling left out or frustrated. If this happens, they will “tune out,” leaving you without the benefit of their ideas and inputs. We consider the following very carefully when structuring a design-thinking effort:

 Spend more time planning.

We have found that the effective execution of a design project in a fully virtual environment or with some remote participants requires twice as long for planning as a traditional design effort. A few of the things that take extra time include:

  • Adapting and testing exercises to the virtual setting
  • Selecting interaction tools and platforms as part of designing the exercise
  • Testing and troubleshooting IT across multiple nodes of activity

 

Choose your activities wisely (and test them!).

We try not to select activities that require lots of space or fast communication. On the other hand, many drawing, symbol, and board-based activities work well. For example, abstraction laddering is very challenging on a small screen but concept posters and “visualize the vote” work very well. We test activities ahead of time to make sure they will work, and as we do so, we identify the “rules of engagement” for the activity.

Think hard about information flow.

Virtual design-thinking efforts require planning to ensure we can move information from one activity or screen to another, and to decide who is responsible for doing what. Knowing your information flow prevents glitches during the event and allows you to have more accurate timing and scheduling.

Consider timing very carefully.

If all your participants are in one room, it’s relatively easy to change a schedule (“Everyone finished early? Ok, let’s start sharing now.”). It’s possible, but not easy, to do the same thing when everyone is behind a computer. Additionally, we find most activities take a little bit longer virtually. Plan your schedule conservatively and try to stick to it.

2. Choosing Collaboration Tools

There are so many great collaboration tools out there right now, it can be dizzying to pick one. Tools have different price points and usability considerations for unfamiliar audiences. Try not to rely on any one platform simply because it’s new or has lots of features. Most tools do some things really well, but no tool does everything well.

Choose your tools based on what you need to get done, your budget, your client’s IT constraints (especially in federal government), and the tech literacy of your participants. You can get great results with simple screen sharing and a conference call, if your activities are well structured and facilitated.

3. Facilitating Your Virtual Design Effort

Facilitation—or leadership—is always important in a design effort. It’s especially important when your group of designers are dispersed and collaborating virtually.

Establish communication ground rules.

Communication is key to good collaboration, and good communication is always just a bit trickier over phones and computers. Consider instituting ground rules before you start to ensure everyone isn’t trying to talk or edit at once. That way all ideas are heard and no one gets frustrated.

Consider your introverted participants.

It’s much easier for shy or quiet participants to fade into the background in a virtual setting. Either be prepared to gently coax ideas out of your less extroverted participants more often than you would in a face-to-face session, or use the relative anonymity of “remote participation” to support individual brainstorming and ideation before participants share with a group.

Be patient.

Technology always requires some troubleshooting and learning before everyone is 100% effective. Be patient, and advise others to be patient as well.

Balance structure with flexibility.

The extra structure required by communication ground rules and careful time planning must be balanced carefully with the need for flexibility to accommodate the innovation process. Try to be cognizant of that balance as you facilitate, and be prepared to have your plan stymied. If you take changes in stride and have a good sense of humor, you (and your participants!) can adapt and still get great results.

Consider hybrid alternatives.

Thinks about if there is a way you can organize the project so that in-person collaboration is only required for a portion of the exercise rather than the whole project. For example, being in-person for a single day at the end of a session instead of the whole time. That way you can take advantage of both methods.


Written by Danielle Wiederoder and Jonathan Miller

U.S. Capitol during cherry blossom season represents the idea of government innovation

Government Innovation with Purpose in a New Administration

In April, I attended MITX’s DesignTech summit in Boston and had the opportunity to talk to a lot of really interesting folks designing innovations in the IT world today. As a government innovation professional, I particularly enjoyed the keynote by Gene Han – he said two things in that stuck with me:

  1. Innovation must have purpose
  2. Innovation is about getting things to work together (it’s not always about the most advanced technology)

 

Both statements are simple, and neither is totally new, but these are sometimes hard principles to remember and apply – particularly in the government innovation world. Mr. Han probably didn’t have the federal government (or state or local) in the front of his mind when he gave his talk, but it struck me how important these two principles are for the government (and those like me who support them) in this precise moment.

Big-budget departments like the Department of Defense have been talking about government innovation for some time – former Secretary of Defense Ash Carter gave a speech this week reminding the world of the steps he took to try to bring innovation back to Defense. However, the future of those initiatives is cloudy in a new administration with different priorities.

Other organizations, many with already small budgets, find themselves facing new budget priorities and potential for significantly reduced spending power. And yet, the country faces a lot of really important and unprecedented social, economic, and diplomatic challenges.

If the government’s goal is to continue (or even improve) its service to the public, they need to get innovating at a time when resources to innovate are increasingly slippery. Daunting, yes – but it can be done, especially if we remember to have purpose and make things work together.

What does federal government innovation look like in practice?

Focus on outcomes first

This sounds easy but can be surprisingly hard in government spaces where things are often done because of regulation or policy, not value. Identify what the improvement looks like in practice and then work backwards.   If you build something cool that no one uses, your “innovation” is without purpose – and therefore not really innovative at all.

Use the tools you already have

Think hard – and seriously – about how to use the tools you already have to create innovative government solutions. If you can reach your outcomes by rethinking process, training, and re-use (or better use) of everyday tools that everyone already has. This is where “making things work together” comes in. It doesn’t matter if it’s a laser-guided missile or a really well-designed process with a shared drive; if you’re doing something new to improve the status quo, you’re innovating.

Think about requirements as constraints, not restraints. Too often in government we get stuck in the mindset that “we can’t” because of all the requirements placed on us (interoperability, reporting, security, authority…the list goes on). If we start to think of these requirements as constraints (that which imposes structure) as opposed to restraints (that which limits), we suddenly allow ourselves to think more creatively and proactively.

Simplify

Another temptation for those swimming in government bureaucracy is to think that everything has to be highly specialized or complicated for it to work.   The more we focus on outcomes, the easier it is to focus on core requirements. This makes it a lot easier to find an iterative path to innovation: ways of making ideas, people, methods and tools connect to get things done.

 

Maybe there is hope for the White House Office of American Innovation after all.

Three business women talking

Expertise as a Service: Emotional Intelligence in Consulting is Crucial

Consultants – including myself –love to talk about how emotional intelligence in consulting is a critical skill in our industry. But why is that?

Our Technical Assent team spent some time thinking through this question during one of our regular professional development sessions; the idea we kept coming back to is that emotional intelligence (also referred to as EQ) is critical to a consulting firm skillset because it supports our ability to deliver expertise as a service.

Even if you don’t know what emotional intelligence is, there’s plenty of literature now on the subject and why it’s important in the workplace. It’s popularly defined as “your ability to recognize and understand emotions in yourself and others, and your ability to use this awareness” (Bradberry 2009).

Emotional Intelligence in Consulting: More than Empathy and Communication

What I don’t see a lot of are specific reasons explaining WHY our emotional intelligence is so especially helpful in consulting. We often use words like “communication” and “empathy” to describe the connection, but that’s not terribly precise or helpful. If we understood the linkage better, maybe we could exploit it more effectively, too.

Let’s stop and think about what consulting is really about. As a consultant, it’s not enough to have the answers. What distinguishes a good subject matter expert or analyst from a good consultant (and you certainly can be both) is the ability to effectively provide expertise to help another achieve their goals – it’s expertise “as a service”. And services are fundamentally about supporting customers – their goals, in their operating context, in terms that make sense to them.

Connecting these ideas – provision of knowledge as a service and focus on the customer – I can see a few distinct and specific linkages between emotional intelligence skills and excellent provision of expertise as a service.

    • Ability to not only listen, but understand. Effective consulting starts with understanding a client’s goals. However, it’s often hard for folks to understand their own goals well enough to articulate them. It’s harder still to articulate them well enough that another person understands them. Consultants with well developed emotional intelligence can meet their clients halfway on this; emotional intelligence in consulting helps us understand the client’s desired outcome more easily. And when it comes time to diagnose the root cause of a problem, the cycle repeats itself.
    • Ability to translate understanding to our recommendations. We’ve all been there at least once: we present a well-reasoned and logical recommendation to a client and the client rejects it. There’s many reasons this can happen; it’s often tempting to say the client just “doesn’t get it”. The truth is that a staff member who leverages good emotional intelligence in consulting firms to really understand their client will generally be able to construct recommendations that support their client’s goals in the client’s context – avoiding these situations altogether.
    • Ability to separate personal emotions from recommendations. If you do run into a truly difficult situation with a client, a professional difference of opinion can easily become an argument because we take pride in our work, and pride is an emotion that begets other (not so productive) emotions. There is no way to avoid disagreement 100% of the time, but facilitating outcomes in spite of disagreement requires an effective response. A consultant with well-developed emotional intelligence will be able to control their emotional responses in these situations and use the disagreement as feedback to improve the client’s outcome rather than letting it become a roadblock.

What do you think? Are there other specific conclusions can we draw to explain this concept of emotional intelligence in consulting to non-consultants, students, and new practitioners? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

hot air balloon provides an escape similar to innovation series

Technical Assent’s Inspiring Service Summer Series

At Technical Assent, we believe that a key component of providing exceptional service is rooted in providing an exceptional customer experience. In May 2016, we launched a four-month design thinking effort called Inspiring Service Summer Series, or ISSS for short. ISSS was professional development, but it was also our tool for looking in the mirror and working on our own service delivery as a company. Or, in other words, working “in a problem, on a problem.”

We included all staff members in this effort, with non-client-facing staff and consultants learning and contributing equally. Additionally, ISSS had a secondary purpose as a forum for testing virtual collaboration and facilitation methods our company developed.

Why we did this

One goal was to ensure that all Technical Assent employees are well-equipped to deliver “Services that INSPIRE” to our clients, including access to the necessary knowledge, skills, tools, and other resources. We also wanted to continue to build employee comfort with design-thinking tools—especially in a virtual environment—and learn more about ourselves. Ultimately, we wanted to create something of value for our customers by improving ourselves.

The graphic below summarizes our #ISSS virtual design journey.

What emerged from the effort

Our starting point, as always, was our customers, because our solutions will ultimately be measured by their impact to them. Based on customer input, we spent considerable time reflecting and defining what they need from us, what they really want, and how they want it delivered. That definition of inspiring service became the foundation of everything that came afterward. We identified focus areas based on client needs and our corporate goals, brainstormed over 70 ideas to make ourselves better, and assembled prototype teams to bring select ideas to life.

So now, after nearly four months of work, we emerged with three completely different innovations we’re now in the process of implementing.

We are sharing our design journey because it is something that can be repeated. As with any of these types of efforts, it was less about the specific technique or method and more about the richness of the dialogue that evolved.

Overall, the exercise was a great success and as a result, we’re confident our entire staff is better positioned to provide the kind of inspiring service our clients most need. We learned a lot along the way, and we look forward to sharing some of those insights in the future.