April 18 2020

Spring notes: at work

This is a very weird time to be writing posts. It’s been a month since the last one and things are just … totally different.

At work

There’s a lot been going on over the past few weeks, and one of the things I wanted to do was to try to capture the rate of iteration. On Monday 10 February members of our team met with various people from the various bits of the NHS to spitball possible digital triage responses to COVID-19. Since then we’ve gone through:

  • roughly 52 design iterations
  • roughly 61 code releases / deployments

This might not seem particularly fast but to me it’s certainly felt it.

Our product has to be able to cope with change not just within itself but also in the services we connect to, and do that with acceptable levels of risk. Both our product and those services have been changing at pace.

Aside from working on our core 111 product, as a team we’ve also:

  • designed and built registration for an SMS support service
  • built a COVID-19 “paper pathway” to help get a dedicated telephony call centre get spun up quickly
  • gotten involved in what a consistent COVID-19 digital service offering from the NHS might look like

Working at speed has been exhilarating - “holy shit we’ve delivered more in three days than…” - and exhausting - “fucking hell I don’t know which way is up any more…” - in equal measure.

Reflecting over the past couple months, I thought I could simply create two lists: stuff that went well; stuff that sucked ass. As usual it’s ended up as something else.

It’s all relative

There’s always an amount of tension between what a team is commissioned to produce in order to execute policy, and what a team discovers for itself about user needs and product proposition.

The balance of power in that relationship is constantly negotiated, and in extreme circumstances that balance can tilt heavily and rapidly.

I suppose it shouldn’t be any kind of surprise to find tension at the intersection of politics, policy and user-centered design. I expect there’s a lot of thinking regarding this space that I remain blissfully unaware of.

What’s interesting is observing efforts to rebalance this relationship, through factors that might include:

  • debate and argument
  • a product or service’s relative visibility
  • product testing via usability research
  • product measurement via analytics
  • product iteration (and speed thereof)
  • engagement with a product’s surrounding landscape
  • recovery or change in a teams’s ways of working

The straightjacket of linearity

On any given day I’ll have some tasks to complete. I often think “I must do x, y, then z”, and assign an order to those tasks on my to-do list. As I do them I tick them off in what’s often a different order. Why?

The order changes due to:

  • my ability to achieve a task at any given moment
  • a shift in the relative importance of a task
  • how attractive any given task is right now
  • other stuff coming up, shit happening

The important thing is that all the tasks I’ve set myself are done.

When presenting a wide range of users with a small set of tasks you’d like them to complete, why would you attempt to enforce linearity where it’s not absolutely necessary? If I had to complete a task I really didn’t want to do in order to get onto an easy task, what are the odds I’d prevaricate versus getting on and doing it?

If I definitely want to do X, and I wouldn’t object to doing Z, but there’s no way I’m going to do Y … in a linear process you’ve lost both Y and Z.

How about a simple network that allows tasks to be completed in a non-linear way? If linearity isn’t an absolute requirement, then you’re accommodating a more natural and human approach.

If I definitely want to do X, and I wouldn’t object to doing Z, but there’s no way I’m going to do Y … in a network I just won’t do Y. You get Z. Rejoice!

As an aside, one thing I find interesting is looking to see if there’s correlation between how likely one is design or assume enforced linearity and how used one is to being in a position of power. That power might be organisational, paternalistic, hard, soft, whatever. Always with the power relationships!

Less pontification

It’s been a genuine pleasure to be working closely with clinicians on the evolution of the COVID-19 clinical pathway. Just one of those moments when you realise once again the real power of blending disciplines within a team.

There’s now a little design squad on the product as the team has rapidly scaled up. It’s nice, and while we’re working on different features we’re instituting little crits and occasional standups to keep up with each other.

All in all

Above all I’m lucky and grateful to be able to keep working. Working on something specifically related to the pandemic has helped a lot.

It’s hard to picture not working at all, and it’s also hard to imagine the difficulty of working but having to fnd a way to concentrate on something other than what’s front and centre of our lives right now.