Service Design for Government
Technical Assent Logo
A Technical Assent consultants uses a sheet of paper as a visual aid in presenting a prototype to government employees

Epic Presentation-Fail Yields Real-World Prototyping Lessons for Government

A Technical Assent employee talks with a group of government employees during a prototyping sessionRecently, I traveled to Florida with a co-worker to test some service prototypes with a government audience. Long story short, once we arrived, everything went wrong.

 This wasn’t my first rodeo and, as usual when presenting at someone else’s facility, we had prepared many backups for our technology setup. We had our materials on a hard drive. We them on the cloud. We had them on external media drives and we had emailed files to the our audience in advance. But for one reason or another, none of it worked.

 Fortunately, we had printouts of a paper-based exercise with us, but even the electronic presentation meant to guide participants through that exercise didn’t work. The computer “game” was functioning, but instead of using it on a projector as intended, it could now only be played on a single laptop screen.

 We only had three hours’ time with the group, we needed their feedback, and we’d already traveled six hours to get there. So we proceeded using only what we had. And you know what? It went surprisingly well.

Aside from the obvious embarrassment and frustration of falling prey to Murphy’s Law, the feedback we got from this catastrophic test was just as good—and possibly better—than what we were able to capture in previous tech-enabled tests. Here’s why (and a few of the prototyping lessons for government we learned):

My introduction was reduced to only the most important points

In government work, we tend to demonstrate our understanding of complex bureaucratic frameworks by caveating and referencing everything we say. As consultants, we also tend to spend lots of time reassuring clients that our recommendations come from demonstrable expertise and logic. Therefore, not having a carefully prepared set of slides in this context was daunting—but the format forced brevity, directness, and honesty with the audience. I had only one “slide”: the whiteboard in the room where I’d scribbled a few notes from memory of my PowerPoint presentation.

The result was that the preliminaries were over quickly and after few questions, we were on our way. People were moving around, asking questions, engaging immediately at the start of the event rather than 20 minutes in.

We learned something about the structure of the offering

Rather than having 15 people move through the exercises in order, we broke into small groups. Some of the participants gathered around the laptop for the “game” while others worked through the paper packets.  The results of individual exercises were roughly comparable to results collected from tests done “in order.” As a result, I now understand that a series of exercises we had previously considered to be strictly linear might be rearranged (or possibly made iterative) without seriously impacting the outcome.

Participants’ deeper engagement revealed intrinsic priorities

The clarifications I had to give while we played in the new—unintended—format helped me understand which parts of the presentation really mattered most. The format highlighted what participants understood intuitively and what actually requires additional preparation. The thoughtfulness and level of detail participants put into the feedback demonstrated a much deeper engagement with the prototypes than previous tests.

It was clear what we didn’t yet understand about our own prototypes

The reason? All the answers and directions we gave participants were from memory. Watching our team explain the prototypes from memory gave me not only a list of things to improve about the prototype, but also a better understanding of what kinds of training we’ll need to do with staff to ensure everyone has the basic expertise required to facilitate in a situation like this.

Technical Assent employees use memory and paper simulations after their electronic prototyping models failed during a presentationConclusion: Including these prototyping lessons for government in future events

While I love plans, and believe in the power of technology to support engagement, this “failure” of technology and planning was actually refreshing. My main takeaway from this experience was that rather than preparing presentations in the hopes that nothing breaks, sometimes the thing to do in an iterative design process really is to build the “break” in intentionally. This is a relatively common tactic in design thinking, but one that can still feel foreign and scary in the government consulting space.

I’m already brainstorming effective ways to intentionally get the same kinds of results we got from this “failure.” For others working in government, do you intentionally build in chaos when you test ideas? What works (or doesn’t work) for you? I’d love to hear your ideas.

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.