Project leaders need to deal with a little messiness. What to expect when designing (or redesigning) a digital service

By David Donaldson

Tuesday November 26, 2019

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Lessons from three digital projects in the Australian government, the performance-prompting Ripple app, mental health gateway Head to Health, and the remake of My Aged Care. Andrew Duval is creative director at Liquid Interactive, a Brisbane-based digital agency that has worked with all three levels of government.

When designing a new service, there can be a lot of pressure to nail down a project plan and get on with it.

Andrew Duval

But spending more time consulting, throwing around ideas and testing them before charging ahead can really pay off, argues Andrew Duval.

“If you can be comfortable with some amount of mess, complication and uncertainty while you sort things out in the beginning, you will get a better product at the end,” he tells The Mandarin.

“It’s about holding your nerve. If a situation is both messy and high stakes, everyone can feel a real pressure to get locked down and clear and certain from the beginning.

“But if you rush, then all that happens is you create plans that aren’t going to work and then you spend the rest of your time arguing about why the plans aren’t working. You spend very little time delivering actual value.”

The Australian Public Service Commission’s Ripple app is an example of where tolerating uncertainty in the beginning led to great results.

The APSC wanted a simple way to build APS staff capability, but holds few of the levers a human resources department in a company would have. They weren’t sure what to do, so spent a lot of time on pre-market consultation, Duval says.

“They contacted suppliers from their panel, just phoning them up and saying: ‘what do you think about this problem? What do you think about this idea?’ And vendors could give them feedback,” he explains.

Initially Liquid didn’t know how to tackle the problem, and told the APSC that. “We told them what we thought would not work, and we described what we thought the properties of an effective solution would be, but we didn’t have an answer,” Duval recalls.

But after a few months of periodically contacting vendors with questions and ideas, the APSC came back with some social science research about the possibilities for using daily question prompts to promote behaviour change.

From there things proceeded very quickly towards a viable concept, and Liquid won the contract. They built an app that asked participants a single question each day on a work skills topic — for example, “Has your manager given you feedback on your work in the last two weeks?” — that was designed to start a conversation and encourage public servants to regularly consider how they do their work. 90% of trial participants said it was useful.

Screenshots from the Ripple app. Source: Liquid Interactive.

Spending time at the beginning ensuring they had the right concept led to a very successful project.

“Delivering that was a very smooth, intimate, collaborative process. It was a good project because we’d been through all the soupy stuff really even before the contracts,” says Duval.

“That prep phase is crucial to the success of everything else. If that’s done wrong, everything else is wrong.”

He adds, however, that while this kind of pre-market engagement works well with small projects, it is often not possible for big problems.

Taking the plunge

While rushing the first stage is probably more common, it’s also possible to spend too much time on development.

Liquid was once engaged to design a mental health project that was running into its ministerial deadline. A review had found consumers didn’t really know their way around the mental health services landscape, “and specifically there was a big lack of awareness around digital mental health resources,” says Duval.

The project, now known as Head to Health, the national mental health gateway, had been undertaking an extensive stakeholder engagement process, including co-design with a core community group of consumers with lived experience of mental health issues, but an actual solution was still far off.

Liquid, with development partners Speedwell, needed to deliver a minimum viable product in three months. Work began quickly.

“We were doing wireframes and code on day one,” says Duval.

A review found people didn’t really know their way around the mental health services landscape, “and specifically there was a black hole around digital mental health resources”.

Despite the short timeframe, without co-design the end product wouldn’t be very useful.

However, the short timeframe did not mean abandoning the project’s commitment to co-design.

“The core community group cared deeply about this project and we wanted to involve them as deeply as possible, while still maintaining a high velocity,” Duval says.

“We put a lot of work ourselves into engaging with that community, taking them seriously and building individual relationships with people.”

Screenshot of Head to Health

That co-design process was central to the final product.

“What you wound up with was genuine insights into things you would not otherwise perceive if you were not talking to people directly, having them very directly involved in it,” he explains.

“Sometimes it’s about choices of wording or structures of information, or expectations around the service, or an emotional note or tonal thing. It can be very subtle.

“I was the steward on that project, and there were so many blind spots that I had, where I would not have thought this was an issue. So a lot of this is really about nuance, it’s not about dramatic stuff. It’s not about ‘you have to do X or Y’, it’s more like an accumulation of tiny details. That gets born out of time and exposure.”

Knowing when to move from talking into action is something Duval hopes government can get better at.

“I know there’s a big thing with the DTA with trying to build digital capability in government, and I think this is one of these really subtle areas of capability, it’s a hard thing to put your finger on, but one important area is getting comfortable with moving out of abstraction and discussion — vague sketch land and bullet points — and into ‘let’s start prototyping’ and then figuring out what to do with those prototypes — how to advance them, when to abandon them, when to invest further in them.”

It can be difficult to take the plunge and move into making your designs a reality.

“Once something becomes tangible, you learn from it, but that comes with risks. If you make something that’s bad and everybody starts criticising it, nobody likes to be criticised. But you can talk in abstractions as long as you like, and nobody can really criticise it,” he says.

“Equally if you do something good, it can be latched onto too quickly and be overloaded too quickly and pushed too fast. It’s like, oh we’ve got to release this now, but it’s only in its formative stages.”

It’s a complex space to work in.

“It’s very simple in theory, you just prototype. But the actual decision making inside that is very subtle, and can be very emotional because of this whole criticism and opportunity dynamic.”

Accountability, agile and experience

Agile and lean practices are well-suited to dealing with the messiness of many such projects, says Duval.

“If done well, agile and lean-style practices give you a great deal of transparency and flexibility and ability to tune and respond to circumstances as they change.

“There’s a level of unpredictability to it, but at the same time there’s a level of really acute transparency because everything is being tuned on a fortnightly basis, everyone understands what’s going on, everyone can see what progress we’re making.”

For government there’s often a desire to plan everything from the very beginning and stamp out any risk. But in many cases unforeseen problems — whether technical, policy or content related — pop up along the way, so having everything locked in from the start can lead to inflexibility and poor results.

“One of the tensions around waterfall contracts are that they presuppose the solution is known at the outset. But if you want to do user-centred design, and deliver something that really works, you know you’re going to have to be responsive and adaptable. It would be great to have contractual structures that balance the need for certainty with the need for flexibility, and do it in a way that works at the velocity of a modern design project.

“One of the reasons why agile for government is effective is it helps keep parties mutually accountable. When something goes wrong on either side, each side has the ability to control on a sprint by sprint basis how we tune to that.”

But he adds that agile isn’t some cure-all — and can actually be a bad idea in some circumstances.

“The method is not the solution,” he says.

As with many things in such a complex field, experience is really important.

“Too often in all these projects, people are treated as fungible resources,” he believes.

Duval says clients don’t necessarily need the person with the best technical skills in charge of a specific project, but the person with the specific mix of skills that matches the project — they understand the policy landscape, the way public organisations operate, and how to manage an IT project.

“You’ve got to have one person who is the leader. They have to bridge all of the stakeholders,” he argues.

Sometimes that person’s job is to show the client what they think they want isn’t actually the best solution. Or it might be to guide them to an outcome they don’t know how to reach.

“This person has to be like the captain of the ship to bring everyone along.”

Making content work

It’s important to anticipate the complexity of dealing with content.

“There’s a concept in psychology, the curse of expertise, that applies well to content design,” says Duval.

“Most clients know their content quite well, so they think it’s relatively straightforward. Equally, on the agency side, we come in as subject novices, so we think how hard can this be. And both of us are usually wrong — the content is more complex than the agency-side team imagine, and there’s more structural and translational work than the client-side team imagine.”

It’s not just about the words and images on the page, it’s about the structure of the entire service.

“Content is not like a bucket of paint you just tip into the container of a website. Content shapes the service. There are certain architectural decisions that are heavily determined by the content, and you either have to wait until you have the content to make those decisions, or you take your best guess and maybe have to change the design once you understand the content better.”

The point of highest stress on any site is often the homepage.

“This is where you have to boil everything down. But the big risk is that you boil your message down so much that you lose the meaning. You have to keep some meaningful level of detail. Often the shortest, punchiest, most aspirational heading isn’t the best — you need the version that takes a few more words to explain what this service is and possibly what it isn’t.”

A screenshot of the My Aged Care website

Liquid worked on the remake of My Aged Care, a federal government information portal. One key challenge to be addressed in the redesign was that customers in the wider community tended to assume aged care meant going into an aged care home — even though there is a broad range of intermediary services available.

The first major statement on the new site is: ‘If you need some help around the house or think it’s time to look into aged care homes, My Aged Care is here to help.’

A large amount of thinking went into even that single sentence, says Duval — it needed to be simple and clear, but also give an immediate sense there are a range of options.

“This is digital service design in a nutshell: following the process from a messy, open-ended beginning to the fine points of a solution, where you’re debating about whether the words ‘government-funded’ go in the header or the subheader. It takes time, it can be confusing and stressful at the start, but if you hold your nerve and keep moving, you can get good stuff done.”

David Donaldson travelled to Brisbane thanks to Queensland University of Technology’s Chair in Digital Economy for the launch of DLD Salon Brisbane, of which Liquid Interactive is a sponsor.

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