Content design and the GOV.UK beta – part 3

In the third of four posts, Sarah Richards, former Head of Content at GOV.UK, reveals all.

At the end of my second post in this series, we left the story where everyone was goggling at me because I had obviously done something horrific.

Turns out it wasn’t horrific. Just a bit momentous. We were now running this thing, not as a small team in Hercules House locked in a single room, but as a product.

We carried on.

The two products – carrot and stick – were being run separately. Neil Williams was product manager for the Whitehall side (which is what was called at the time).

I now had a team of 8 content people at Hercules House working on the side and editors across government working with us for some of the time.

All the way through this process, the departments who didn’t want to work with us kept saying “you can’t do this” and “this won’t happen, you won’t actually launch this”.

Silly little things that turned out to matter massively started happening. James Weiner, the designer on the alpha and beta, laughed when he saw all the milk in the fridge had someone’s name on. “Why don’t we all just buy milk and everyone shares it?”

Such a simple idea became a signal. We are one team. All these little things shifted the mindset.

You may think these tiny things are unimportant – but they are the foundation cultures are built on.

To be perfectly honest, the months we actually worked on the beta are a bit of a blur for me. I was definitely having the best time of my working life. But it wasn’t easy and it wasn’t always nice.

Permission to fail

Biggest shift for me personally, was being told to fail – publicly – three times in one month. 

In Directgov, the team I’d managed worked on tools and transactions. We had a style guide. When I asked for money to get the style guide tested, I was told if I knew my job, it would be good enough (user research wasn’t valued). I learned from that – and countless other examples – that I had to appear to know it all or I was crap at my job.

That way of thinking didn’t wash with this new team.

Tom Loosemore told me to fail at something. He told me I didn’t need to know everything. I didn’t need to have the answers. And to be perfectly frank, I didn’t have them anyway.

It was terrifying.

A couple of standups later, I mumbled that I needed some help. I was going to fail.

The world didn’t end. No-one sneered at me. Very weird.

I tried it again a week later. Still nothing bad. Oh. Okay then. BRILLIANT.

‘Huge amounts of relief’ doesn’t quite cover how I felt but it’s close. I got help. We didn’t fail. That was the shift – this was ‘we’. The product didn’t fail. The project didn’t fail.

If I had tried to carry on without saying anything, I could have easily screwed it up. Failing isn’t a catastrophic event when you work with a team like this. It’s not fail, it’s learn. And then you move on.

Moving to Aviation House

We moved from Hercules House to Aviation House where we had a whole desk to ourselves. It was lovely. I liked my colleagues very much but I didn’t really enjoy sitting 3 to a desk.

With the live date looming the content team went to 8 plus others in depts to 8 plus 38 stolen from other departments. Actually, Roger Oldham from MOJ gave us almost his whole team, and let them work on non-MOJ content. (Thank you, Roger.)

We all sat together in Aviation House. Things moved even quicker. I have found that cross-team working always works best when you are together. I know it’s not practical. I know the departments didn’t want their people out of their sight but I can honestly say, every time I have done this sort of project (and I have done it a lot now), it’s better to have the team together.

In this environment you talk more, learn more, push each other (in a good way) more.

You are always trying harder to keep up – sometimes it feels like the content has a mind of its own. Having that level of excitement, with everyone loving what they are doing (no matter how hard it is) and total team respect was the only way this thing was launched.

Content strategy for GOV.UK

We had worked out team structure, processes and ethos together as a team.

We didn’t need to write the strategy for, we were all (content and everyone else) working it out together and living it. It was in everything we produced and talked about. I’m sure there was one somewhere to show others. We had the design principles, a style guide and a cross-government team working well on a single product.

It was hard work. There was a lot of sugar, pizza and late nights involved. And it went into public beta on 30th Jan 2012. 

You’d think we’d all have a massive party and chill out for weeks. But that’s not how it works, is it? Taking an iterate, iterate, iterate mantra, we knew how much we hadn’t done. How much was still left to do.

And this was just the beta.

This thing had to go live.

Originally published at the Content Design Centre on 27 July 2016

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