#twbconf summary: On being human - Barnardo’s

#twbconf summary: On being human - Barnardo’s

Written by Lauren Howells on Wed 08 Nov 2017

Jason Caplin, Chief Digital Officer and Audree Fletcher, Head of Service Design at Barnardo’s presented “On being human” at the Together We're Better Conference 2017.

While many in attendance at #twbconf, and no doubt, many readers will recognise the image above, Audree kicked off by using this as an aid to show how far technology has come on in the last 30 years.

But children and young people today don’t recognise any of this. They have a completely different experience of, and relationship with technology. They have completely different expectations. So how do we - the people of the “old world” - build organisations, products and services for them?

After all, we’re not doing a great job of keeping up with changes in technology, and we’re missing out on so many opportunities. 

Barnardo’s answer? Relentless humility. 

Many people will recognise phrases such as “I already know what the problem is. And how to solve it”, “Can’t you just build me what I’ve asked for?” and “I’ve been working at the front line for years. I know our customers better than they know themselves”. For some organisations, this arrogance is not unusual. Barnardo’s work hard to avoid this, and in fact have engineered their own service design process to keep them humble and grounded. They have done this by ‘baking in’ some key assumptions:

  1. We don’t know the problem, the user, their needs, or the solution.
  2. We don’t have all the answers, ideas, or perspectives.
  3. We don’t know how this is going to work out. 

1. We don’t know the problem, the user, their needs, or the solution.

By assuming that they don’t know the problem, the user, their needs, or the solution prompts Barnardo’s to explore and challenge the brief. 
For example, it was recently briefed into the team to:

“Build an SMS reminder tool to reduce the number of children’s missed appointments”

Rather than taking this brief and building a tool to deliver against it, the team began by questioning the brief to begin to unpick the problem. The team questioned:

Why build, not buy?
Do service users want reminders?
Why SMS?
Why just reminders?
Why are missed appointments a problem?
Are only children missing appointments?
Do we assume they are forgetful?
Why do children forget?
What are staff already doing, and why?
Do our users want to attend appointments?
Do these children know why we want them to attend?

By answering these questions, the Barnardo’s team learned that forgetfulness is one of many reasons for missed appointments. This is the only reason that a reminder system could fix though. 

By speaking to service users, Barnardo’s learnt that the young people and their social workers had strikingly different narrative explanations for the problem. Social workers would talk about young people “not being engaged with the service” or having “chaotic lives”. Young people would talk about “being expected to drop their plans at short notice” and “missing appointments to get back at their social worker for standing them up the last time”.

Barnardo’s rebuilt the brief and created a hypothesis to validate as they continued through their research: 

An approach that better respected the time of everyone involved in making, managing and keeping appointments would reduce missed appointments as well as last minute changes and cancellations"

Barnardo’s asked people to share their experiences and stories with them. And, because you can’t always take what people say at face value, they asked to be shown, not told.

These observations helped Barnardo’s to learn what many of the young people compartmentalise their relationships through the numerous apps that they use offering messaging capabilities. It is clear that the solution is not as simple as “Build an SMS reminder tool”. Certainly if they want people to actually use it, that is. 

2. We don’t have all the answers, ideas, or perspectives.

More humble assumptions from the Barnardo’s team: they don’t have all the answers, they definitely won’t come up with the right answer first time, they don’t have the best ideas and they can’t see all the perspectives.

These assumptions prompt the Barnardo’s team to bring other people into the process, with diversity being key to this. Bringing together people with different perspectives and experiences will find better insights and ideas than a lone designer ever could. So they involve colleagues. They bring in users. And they invite experts from outside Barnardos to help. 

Collaboration is a key value. And when it comes to research, it’s easy to see where the value lies. Peers over at Centerpoint have unique insight into the problem of homelessness among care leavers. Researchers over at Facebook know what the millions of Facebook groups set up by questioning teens are worrying about.

By working together - across organisations, across sectors - combining our perspectives, we can see much more of the problem, and many more potential solutions. It also means we get to find out early if someone else is better placed to be solving the problem, so that we can support them to do it instead of trying to ourselves. 

In the Barnardo’s team, they start from the assumption that they don’t have the right answer yet. They run lots of little experiments or tests - learning just as much through their failures as they do from successes. If not more.

They allow failure. They fail small, fail fast and fail often. They test their riskiest assumptions and abandon the bad ideas early. By the time the designs have matured, they’ve been well tested with users.

The costs of failure, of correcting errors, of getting it wrong - they all increase significantly in the later stages of a project. Barnardo’s don’t leave it too late to find out if they’re wrong. 

3. We don’t know how this is going to work out. 

Barnardo’s have this simplified service design process to explain what happens in each of the phases. But they know that they’ll need to keep iterating the designs to get it right. And even when they’re finally confident they have an awesome service, needs, contexts and technologies are always changing - so it won’t stay awesome.

So they like to think of the process as more of a diamond necklace than a double or triple diamond.

How do Barnardo’s respond to this assumption of constant change and uncertainty? Sometimes - especially with internal services - they will buy and use cheap, disposable products, so that they can change their minds without locking themselves in. When they do choose to build in-house, they make sure they futureproof designs. There is no money to waste, so they can’t afford to be short-termist. All services must be able to evolve with user needs.

Barnardo’s practice atomic design - building with design elements and patterns that are easy to re-use, and quick to change and update without breaking the rest of the service. It means building for interoperability - across systems, across platforms, across the whole social care sector. 

What’s next?

Barnardo’s state “We can’t do this on our own. We don’t know what’s coming - but we know that we need to be able to respond to a world where machine learning and predictive analytics are standard. Where AI and voice chat interfaces are changing interaction expectations. And where virtual and augmented reality are becoming service reality. Who in this sector can afford to build and maintain these capabilities on their own?”

They believe that the sector can only survive if we collaborate, and if we share: data, code, patterns, people, products, services. Not just pooling resources - though that might be a start - but building entirely new business models for digital service development in the charitable sector, so that everyone who needs support can benefit from the next generation of social services.


Jason Caplin, Chief Digital Officer and Audree Fletcher, Head of Service Design spoke at the Together We’re Better Conference 2017. Their slides are available here