It’s thrilling, working to bring some of the most innovative techniques in design and data to government policy-making; but with such a focus on delivery in this challenging and fast-paced environment there can be little time to stop, reflect and share with others. Having come from a small philanthropic organisation where I was used to being surrounded by a close-knit network of innovation partners, I really enjoy the buzzing feel of an enthusiastic community of practice coming together to explore what each are doing with warmth, open-mindedness and curiosity.
That’s why it was such a pleasure to be at this year’s Service Design Fringe Festival to help share how we at Policy Lab have been experimenting with new techniques at the heart of government. We ran a series of three ‘next practice’ events showing participants how we’ve been taking user-centred design to the next level for policymaking by combining it with film ethnography, speculative design and data science. We also collaborated with Fjord and Fringe participants to create some new ‘next practice’ and experiment with idea generation using objects rather than the usual post-its.
In our ‘next practice’ events, we not only shared the techniques, but (like good designers!) created ways to let participants try them out themselves. We showed excerpts of ethnographic films we made to help policy-makers at the Department for Transport understand the needs and behaviours of rail passengers and asked them to note down any new insights it brought them, while also reflecting on the empathy that comes through that form of immersive research. Then we presented the speculative artefacts and scenarios we created with Strange Telemetry and SuperFlux – building on the ethnographic insights – to provoke and spark discussion from rail passengers and stakeholders on what the future could or should look like for rail.
We ran a data science session with Mastodon C, who had worked with us on a Health & Work project with DWP and DH. As someone newly fascinated by data and what it can help achieve (I’ve always leaned more towards qualitative evidence and softer, ethnographic insights) I attended as a keen participant myself. Our challenge was to figure out how to use data to improve the passenger experience for rail users and I was amazed at how easily my group arrived at some exciting ideas using the data discovery and technique cards provided. We chose predictive modelling as our technique and personal travel cards as our data discovery tool which soon had us wondering, for example, whether by predicting people’s journeys and some of their personal preferences we could make suggestions for new restaurants or art fairs that had opened up along their routes and make their usual journeys more enjoyable.
With Fjord, we then experimented on a workshop “beyond post-its” where participants expressed their thoughts and ideas as objects – literal or symbolic – instead of words. We found it has many advantages; when you put away the pens it enhances the quality of interactions and conversations between people, helping them have fun together and go wherever their imagination takes them. On the flipside though, we also found that some of the (weird and wonderful) creations at the end might require a tiny bit of explanation to the uninitiated observer! Perhaps post-its could be replaced with less demanding forms of recording like film or audio.
All in all, I left re-energised by inspiring new thoughts, ideas and by the people I met and with a renewed commitment to staying in touch and to keep learning and sharing at every possible opportunity. And I can’t wait for the next one!
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