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Web Directions: TRANSFORM 2016

They say that service design is all about transformation. It’s no surprise then that Web Directions named their latest conference, an immersive day of all things relating to the topic, ‘Transform’.

Our fellow Augies are regulars at Web Directions events. Gary Mason recently attended Respond, and last year our crew attended CODE, coming away jittering with inspiration long after the last coffee was served.

So we were pumped to head to the nation’s capital for this instalment.

Off we went to Canberra, for an autumnal day of keynote speakers. While that might not scream excitement for everyone, the line-up hit on a few of our favourite topics in a completely relevant – and inspiring – setting. With a conference focussing on service design and Government held at Old Parliament House, we thought Web Directions were totally on point with this one.

Other things we could categorise as being on point include: the event in general; the coffee; the caramel donuts; the food; the location; the caramel donuts; and the program of amazing speakers. Oh, and the caramel donuts.


A selection of the awesome speakers on offer. Not pictured: the awesome donuts on offer. Photo credit: Simon Wright.

With everything that was on point out of the way, let’s get to the point. Here’s how the day went down, along with our thoughts on some of the presentations.

Authentication sucks.

It does. Our first speaker of the day, Dana Chisnell, explained why.

Dana is most well-known in the government space for working on the design of US election systems. Her presentation at Transform focussed on redesigning the citizen’s experience of engaging with government.


Dana Chisnell on stage. Photo credit: Simon Wright.

Think about the government services you access. How many times do you need to identify yourself through some kind of authentication process, such as entering a username and password? Probably nearly every time. Mygov, Medicare, Centrelink, ATO. The list goes on.

According to Dana:

‘Authentication might be the most despised form in information technology’.

Think that’s a bit dramatic? Think again.

Authentication often requires a user to do too many things well before they’ve even accessed your service. In order to enter a username and password, a user usually needs to:

  • Come up with a username
  • Figure out a password
  • Create security challenge questions
  • Figure out two-factor authentication
  • Check emails and click confirmation links
  • Remember their password every time they login
  • …and then reset their password every time they forget it

The whole bureaucratic affair can make you want to break something. So, what if that fantasy were fulfilled? What happens when authentication breaks? (also known as Obamacare) did exactly that – it broke on launch when 500,000 people attempted to sign up to it in the first week. It was an enormously high-profile failure and a significant amount of people lost faith in the system.

The United States Citizenship and Immigration Service is also an example of over-authentication being problematic. People need to create an account in order to apply for a benefit…and they need to sign up to receive notifications about their benefits.

It all sounds a bit backwards, right? Confusing. Overly complex.


The user journey for a poorly designed authentication process.

After the Obamacare collapse, Dana and her team worked with to help improve the service. They worked on reducing the build and maintain times and were able to get the response time of the site down to 20 milliseconds. It used to be 20 seconds.

Throughout the process, they identified that fixing an authentication system on was not simply alleviating a tech issue, but fixing a wider public health problem. Because:

‘A broken authentication system indicates that a lot of other bigger things are probably broken too.’

The main point of Dana’s presentation, the main nugget of knowledge, was the fact that we often approach system design like building a battleship. Essentially, creating a significant thing with one singular focus – a gigantic static object that we push out to sea upon completion and leave unchanged for the long term. We rarely adopt a different perspective when (or if) we revisit it, and we assume that it is ideal because of the significance and scale of process involved in developing it.

An authentication system is an example of building part of a battleship. We need to stop developing services this way.

Like the huge vessel in Dana’s analogy, it is antiquated, cumbersome, slow moving, and expensive. The old approach of build-once-and-use-often, the battleship approach, is battle wearied. It’s important to be agile and iterative in your approach to services. To continue with the maritime angle, you want a fleet: multiple, smaller entities working to achieve a common objective.


Battleships are becoming increasingly out of date, in every sense.

We need to be building lots of little things continuously, to create flexible service systems that are more capable of accommodating user requirements as they evolve.

Ultimately, it’s about understanding what people need and meeting those needs with simple, intuitive systems.

Government matters because it is the last resort.

Dan Hon, Principal at Very Little Gravitas, introduced himself with a shocking statistic. Dan used the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), also known more widely as food stamps, to highlight why we need to practice compassionate design.

Did you know that 40% of Americans accessing the program are not receiving the benefits they are entitled to?

In order to qualify for SNAP in the first place, applicants need to answer 100-200 questions just to get on the program list and attend an interview.

When Dan and his team conducted research on SNAP participants, they found that 62% of applicants didn’t complete the process because signing up was simply too hard. Most applications weren’t even approved after the applicants had spent three hours completing them. They discovered that applicants either turned out to be ineligible, didn’t provide the right documentation or missed their interview entirely because they missed the interview notification. Crazy.


Dan Hon gets to the point. Photo credit: Simon Wright.

It’s not as if the applicants were purposefully misusing the system. People inherently want to do the ‘right thing’ when it comes to accessing government services.

However, when users keep putting in effort and don’t see any outcomes or progress in return, they eventually succumb to the sense that their attempts are futile. For a person to expend so much energy on the application process and for it then to fail them at multiple points along the way, the experience can only be seen as disheartening for the individual. In turn, it contributes to a poor reputation of the service at large.

The trust we place in government organisations and their services is lost when we feel like the service is designed to work against us.

Clearly, something had to change with the food stamps. The service had to go from being dismissive to compassionate.

Ezra Klein of The Washington Post said it clearly back in 2013:


Dan highlights Ezra Klein’s quote from the Washington Post, 25th October 2013. Photo credit: Simon Wright.

Compassionate design.

Dan advocates for service content that is not just thoughtfully designed, but purpose-designed with key consideration of specific user needs. That is when we start practising the concept of compassionate design.

By creating service content that meets precise recurring pain points, an organisation can show compassion by proving they understand their user requirements: their issues; their anxieties; and their challenges. Compassionate design is essentially the idea of conveying empathy through the considered architecture of a service platform – showcasing sympathy though a system.

As a very basic example, if you’re constantly frustrated at entering your email address in an input field, you’re likely to appreciate the prospect of an auto-complete attribute. If it begins to auto-fill input fields, the system has alleviated a repeat source of frustration and you’re more likely to engage with it positively. And positive engagement usually leads to trust, which is essential.

The latest project for Dan and his team focusses on the US child welfare system. This program was started in 1988 and since launch, the system server has never changed. Their entire database is 1.9TB. While the department was initially going to ask for a full rebuild last year (in other words, ‘let’s go buy a new battleship!’) Dan and his team recommended breaking the project into smaller pieces.

Now, they’re helping the department procure brand new API layers. This way, the department can build modern web interfaces that use the existing data – the data users actually need. The project has been an opportunity to help the child welfare team to refocus and find out exactly ‘what are the user needs’: a chance to show compassion.

The sweep to clean up digital government services.

If you work with government organisations, you may have heard of the Digital Transformation Office (DTO). Leisa Reichelt spoke on the DTO’s latest initiatives and offered some insights into how they’re approaching a massive task.

With teams in Canberra and Sydney, the DTO is on a marathon sweep of Australian government departments to help them rebuild and refine their services. The focus is on user needs and applying these considerations to government service improvement.

Think of the last time you engaged with a government service. Now think of the last time you had to deal with multiple government services at the one time. How did you feel? Perhaps a little anxious? Or perhaps hugely frustrated? These are the kind of findings that are coming out of the DTO’s research into Australian government services.

Leisa noted:

‘People shouldn’t have to know how government works in order to use government services’.

The same is true for most businesses.

In the same way that you don’t need to be a surgeon to be treated at a hospital, a customer of your service doesn’t necessarily need detailed insight into how your organisation runs. They do need to feel like they are being heard and served when interacting with your service.


Leisa Reichelt from the Digital Transformation Office. Photo credit: Simon Wright.

These sorts of big statements are great at a conference, but how do you actually apply them to your daily work life? How do you effect change from that insight?

Make user research a team sport: get everyone in the team involved in talking to customers and understanding their needs.

With the whole team involved, you can have informed discussions on where to go next and how to use the information you have. It also means you are working with a far more engaged group, rather than having one or two people do the research and then come back to the wider team and report. By making user research a team sport, you can also assign specific roles to people and help them understand how all of the different research components fit together.

The DTO have their work cut out for them. In Victoria alone, the public sector is the State’s largest employer. Helping the whole of government improve their services while creating consistency between them is an ambitious task.

Moving forward by going back.

One way the DTO helps to move the conversation forward is going back to statute. Section 17 of the Public Governance, Performance and Accountability Act 2013 (Cth) states that ‘the account authority of a Commonwealth entity must encourage officials of the entity to cooperate with others to achieve common objectives, where practicable’.

In other words, Australian law states in black and white that government entities need to work together. They need to cooperate with each other.

If there was one takeaway from Leisa’s presentation, it’s this. We were encouraged to see and appreciate the focus on providing a consistent experience across all government services. It is a mammoth task, but the DTO is leading by example and tackling problems piece by piece. It’s something that we can all do, regardless of where we work or what we’re building. Get your team involved, keep them involved and approach each task bit by bit.

Beyond the UX tipping point with Jared Spool.

In years gone by, delivering a great experience for the user has been seen as a luxury. If a product worked to baseline quality requirements and met basic business objectives, it was good enough.

Now, ‘good enough’ is simply not enough. Increasingly competitive markets are making it difficult for brands to differentiate themselves through price or quality alone. ‘Experience’ is the new frontier, and Jared Spool explained why leading brands are weaving it into the fabric of their business.

Disney’s MagicBand.

Jared began with the biggest untold UX story of the last few years: Disney’s all-in-one wearable device, the MagicBand.

The most extensive commercial wearables project ever undertaken, the MagicBand cost Disney over $1 billion. It doesn’t tell the time. It doesn’t measure heart rate. It doesn’t count steps. In fact, it doesn’t do anything.


A billion dollars for zero functionality? Sounds crazy.

That is, until you set foot in the resort complex and the band begins to interact with a variety of online and mobile tools — that’s where the magic happens.

Once you’re on the park grounds, the MagicBand:

  • Unlocks the door of your hotel room, without you ever having to ask reception for a key. You also receive room notifications on your smartphone and your bags are auto-checked to your room from the airport.
  • Grants access to the theme and water parks.
  • Allows for faster electronic check-in at ride queues.
  • Automatically connects Disney PhotoPass images to your user account.
  • Automatically charges food and merchandise purchases to your hotel room account.
  • Provides park staff with information on children’s favourite characters, so their favoured Disney personalities can greet them by name. Restaurants can tailor experiences to be character-driven for children’s meals.

In short, it’s your key to everything that Disney World has to offer. It facilitates your entire experience. The package is even sold as My Disney Experience.


Jared Spool on the UX tipping point. Photo credit: Simon Wright.

Maturation and the UX tipping point.

Jared suggests that the MagicBand is symbolic of the Disney brand ‘maturing’ in regard to user and service experience, a process that took Disney 19 years of persistent effort.  But what does that mean?

‘Maturity’ is not a subjective comment about Disney’s status as an organisation. Jared qualified the tiers of organisational maturity in regard to UX design as follows:

At the far right end of the spectrum, we have ‘infused’ status. This is achieved when an organisation places equal value on ensuring that products:

  • Work technically.
  • Meet business needs.
  • Delight users through considered and exceptional design.

The last point is especially important because it represents the threshold for what Jared deems ‘the UX tipping point’.

While most businesses will uphold the first two principles, the third is essential in determining market leaders: the likes of Apple, Uber, and Airbnb.

By focussing extensively on that last criteria and developing the MagicBand to delight users through exceptional experience design, Disney moved towards the tipping point.

The tipping point occurs:

‘When an organisation will hold back the majority of their products because they’re not designed correctly. Because their design isn’t good enough.’

Critically, the organisation has to understand what ‘designed correctly’ actually entails. The entire business has to have a consolidated understanding of the requisite quality involved. Design consciousness – an appreciation of superior craft and the standard required to delight users – has to be infused within the fabric of the company. Every individual thread, every single employee has to share a common appreciation of quality user experience. It is an organic and implicit aspect of the company culture.

Every person involved in the process has a responsibility to uphold quality, because an organisation’s standards are only as high as those of its least-sophisticated member or system.

In the same way that a chain is only as strong as its weakest link, a service or product design is only as good as its most dysfunctional touchpoint.

And that concludes our service (conference)…

Transform definitely didn’t disappoint. True to the event name, both the conference and speakers are sure to have altered perspectives, changed thinking and converted more than a few of the day’s attendees. We certainly gleaned a couple of key takeaways. Here’s what stuck out in summary:

  • If you build battleships, you’re going to have to fight to keep the people who use your service happy. Developing good service design is a highly iterative process, encompassing brainstorming, testing, and validation. You can’t build one enormous lumbering solution, file it away, and hope for the best. Focus on improving smaller parts in order to contribute to the bigger picture.
  • Create service content that addresses your users’ specific needs: that is when we start practising compassionate design, and also how we establish trust within a system. Trust in a service system is invaluable.
  • People shouldn’t need to know how government works in order to use government services. The same is true for most businesses. Accessibility is key.
  • When it comes to service concepts, an organisation or ecosystem is only as sophisticated as the least developed aspect of that entity. Everything has to be consistently high quality to deliver a truly delightful experience.

And that’s that. If you attended the event, we’d love to know your thoughts about the conference or what’s stuck in your mind since. Let us know in the comments below. Otherwise, keep your eyes out for augies at future Web Directions events and be sure to say hello!