Swimming Upstream

Posted by David More in e-government, service design, social design on September 27, 2008

A common lament of designers and usability consultants is “if only you’d come to us earlier”. In establishing Optimal Experience this year, we saw the opportunity to work further upstream, before the client closed off options or used up resources that would have made for a better result.

So, we’re excited to be working with a major Australian government department as it prepares for a ground-breaking new web initiative. Last week, we held a three-hour scoping workshop with 30 stakeholders to help crystallise a shared vision – a fistful of ideas that will grow as planning, design, writing and development follow in the next few months.

This project is challenging. It is a national initiative calling for cooperation within and across Australia’s three layers of government as well as its commercial and community sectors. But the biggest challenge of all is a commitment to deliver ‘easy’, ‘user-friendly’, ‘central’ public access to a broad range of government programs. Those simple words tie the project’s success to the quality of the user experience – to results, not gestures or promises. That’s why we’re excited, and why the workshop was abuzz.

Some of those 30 stakeholders represented other programs with their own funding, plans, schedules, and their own websites. One of the big issues is to unravel all the interdependencies. That calls for lots of discussion, and we need consensus and cooperation despite the differing perceptions, assumptions and priorities. Yet at this early stage there’s nothing to use as a common reference point. A few words, but no detailed requirements and certainly no design to point to and pore over.

We knew that this workshop needed to provide a mechanism for stakeholders and the project team to develop a common vision for the site and a common understanding of the issues and factors influencing decision-making.  This is essential for creating the conditions for confident, effective project planning and decision-making; in particular for the strategic technology and content issues that will govern the project schedule.

So to facilitate the discussion, we prepared a range of site concepts beforehand to focus the workshop discussions at a practical, concrete level as much as possible. This minimised the need for participants to digest unfamiliar, complex, abstract information at short notice; helped ‘ground’ the discussion in reality rather than through hypothetical situations; and enhanced the group’s ability to make confident decisions.  Participants left the workshop with a shared view of the end goal (and at least an inkling of the tasks that lie in front of them).  We are now revising the site concept to create a common reference for project stakeholders and a starting-point for requirements and user-centred design activities.

The site concept captures only the essentials for purposeful communication as the project takes shape, without encroaching on the freedom necessary for innovation.  This concept is really just a place-holder – it’s not there to restrict the ongoing development of promising options by imposing unnecessary detail too early.

The value of this approach is allows us to scope the project in a much more meaningful way, focusing on the ‘when’, ‘how’ and ‘who’, not just the ‘what’.  We can consider the editorial function, the breadth and depth of content, the means of access, the technical effort and the overall governance.  It allows us to look traditional software development approaches, and ensure that the relationships, guidelines and processes are in place to support the project in delivering on its promises.

September 27, 2008. Posted by in e-government, service design, social design.

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