Mistakes and achievements from starting an UCD team
Reflecting on 2021
Designed and Made, a weekly newsletter by designers and user researchers at Made Tech.
A slightly gooey final newsletter of the year. Hopefully, you’re reading this in 2022, having already logged out for this year.
Reflecting from me on the year we started our UCD team.
Be honest about the work
Public sector work is hard. Often it’s frustrating and emotionally draining. Especially if your team is trying to make any meaningful changes and improvements.
It’s vital we’re honest about that. Whether that’s painting a complete picture of what working at Made Tech is really like or being open with a client when we’ve made mistakes setting up a new team. Resist selling people dreams. It will only cause problems later on.
Personally, this has been a hard-learned lesson. One person joined our team and they quickly decided to leave. Realising the type of work Made Tech does wasn’t for them. Reflecting, I could and should have done more in this person’s hiring process. Asking more about what they needed in their next job. Describing the current realities of client work in the public sector. Even when I want to really hire someone, ultimately it’s about whether the role is right for them.
Celebrate achievements 🥳
While only six months old, the UCD team has already contributed to delivering real public services. Improving council housing repairs is more informed by Theone leading the team’s user research. Funding applications to produce greener energy are clearer and more accessible thanks to Mark’s design direction and prototyping. With more live services soon to come.
I tried to cultivate a culture of it being OK to be honest about the work and its challenges in group discussions and one-to-ones, but in doing that I let team achievements be overshadowed. I didn’t also make space to celebrate progress. We’re started changing that with things like the weekly UCD show and tells. Conversations are already starting to feel more balanced.
As much we need openness, inspiration and energy is just as important to share.
Putting your trust in me and us
Our permanent UCD team is now 27 people. When I started in March it was just me. It’s surprised me how much the team has grown. It’s been a proper group effort working with Libby and Lee and our earliest joiners like Dawn and Spyri, who’ve made lots of time to interview people.
Even more than growth, I’ve been humbled by 26 people putting their trust in me and Made Tech. I’ve never done a Head-of role before. Nor has Made Tech got any reputation for UCD prior to this year, as its heritage is in software engineering.
I’m really proud of the people who have come into the company – their experience, skill and emotional intelligence. I hope to repay their trust with a healthy workplace they can do fulfilling work, are paid properly and allow for a life beyond a job.
Balancing commercial demands 📈
While Made Tech works in the public sector, we’re still a commercial company. We have contracts and deadlines to meet. We recently listed on the stock exchange. We have a responsibility to be profitable to long-term investment funds, which includes people’s pensions. We have a duty to the people we employ to provide livelihoods.
This means teams can’t always work exactly how they’d like. Sometimes people have to join delivery teams on their very first day. In the beginning, certainly, we need to prioritise client relationship building over shipping the most user-centred service possible. People might not always get their first choice of team to work in. We’ve got to keep bidding for new work to ensure a healthy flow of money into the business.
To begin with I was uncomfortable and maybe a little resistant with this commercial balancing act, having worked mostly in public sector organisations. Especially given that our teams are so socially motivated to change and improve public services. But I now understand Made Tech being commercially healthy is a key to having the impact in society we want to help create.
Big slow decisions
Taking on more responsibility, the impact of my decisions has changed.
One: the impacts are bigger. Before my impact was limited to individual teams. Now what I do affects multiple teams, clients and sometimes the whole company. For example, over the summer I chose to be the designer in a delivery team. Perhaps missing a little hands-on design work. While this filled one vacancy, it took my focus away from hiring and created more risk than it reduced. Come September, we didn’t have nearly enough UCD people to set up new teams.
Two: the impacts are slower. The effect of my decisions only starts to become clear two to three months later. Like hiring someone who joins months later, brings fresh energy and skill to a delivery team. Whose contribution improves how the team works and delivers better public service. Feedback loops of managements are far slower than user testing and analytics it seems.
A warm team vibe 🌞
A final thought on the UCD team’s vibe. As Vicky said the other day, “vibe is important.” Sounds a bit woolly, but it’s strategically important a team has a good vibe. It spreads to other teams. A team vibe sets the tone for everything. How the work happens. How people communicate in and outside the team. How relationships are built and maintained. How users are involved in shaping a service. Teams with a bad vibe struggle to get much done.
So what is the UCD team vibe? “Warm” according to Lee when describing the UCD team to someone recently. It’s maybe not for me to assess if this is true, but I am interested in the idea. It’s an odd word to use to describe something corporate. Yet for me, it would mean the team is enthusiastic and kind. Useful qualities for a team doing our type of work.
I’m now mulling over is how do we keep and protect a warm team vibe as we grow to 50–100 people? One for 2022.
Have a good break and happy holidays.
Harry is Head of Design at Made Tech, based out of our Bristol office.