I’ve been at GDS since the beginning. Well, before the beginning, and after nearly two years here I’ve decided to leave. I’m moving on for a couple of reasons; one, because Blaine Cook (the original CTO at Twitter) asked me to join him at an exciting startup, Poetica, to lead on design; and two, because I have learned and achieved more working at GDS than I ever imagined I would.
GDS asked me to write about what it’s like to work here so here are some reflections on my journey so far.
How I ended up at GDS
Back in February 2011, before GDS existed, James Stewart and I were contacted by Tom Loosemore to work on a project stemming from a report written by Martha Lane Fox, which should now be familiar to regular readers of this blog.
They described their ambition to build a new website to replace all government websites; something that served users’ needs over the needs of government. I was aware of some of the issues government IT projects and websites faced and also knew a little of how hard it is to change things in government. It sounded difficult enough to be really interesting. I had some doubts about our potential success, but there was lots of shared optimism in the team. Richard in particular had a very strong vision of what the website should be and there was a clear opportunity to try something radical. Opportunities like that don’t come up too often.
Alpha to beta
alpha.gov.uk introduced me to a slew of new concepts. I’d never worked in an agile way before, in fact I’d never worked using any kind of project management methodology. I’d also never met a project manager as calm, well organised and so prepared to support their team as Jamie.
The alpha convinced enough people across government that what we had produced could be scaled to something bigger. It had also allayed most of my doubts and felt to me like a real alternative to how government operated online and communicated with the public.
After ten weeks the alpha was finished, and James and I went back to our client work. We presumed we wouldn’t hear much for a long time, but then Tom popped up again - with clearance to start building a beta. This beta would turn into something real, with a whole new government organisation to foster it. Again, too good an opportunity to miss. The number of technical, design, and cultural challenges in trying to take the ideas we’d had during the alpha and make them real was properly intoxicating. So too the chance to employ modern ways of building for the web (both technically how it was built and the methodologies used to do so) was really exciting. We were using techniques that were already established both at big places like Amazon and Google as well as small web startups.
Beta to GOV.UK
We now had a Big Thing to explore. We had to feel the edges and figure out what we were trying to do. We had some idea of its size, but until we analysed all the data we could lay our hands on, like user search queries, we weren’t going to know the shape or size of the user needs - and they would define what we had to make - what mix of tools and content would be required.
We needed to get building as quickly as possible - so we could start testing our ideas; shooting down what didn’t work and nurturing what did. We built many prototypes quickly, testing them with real data and real users.
We were also acutely aware of the history of attempts that preceded us, with varying degrees of success, so there was a certain amount of pressure to do things as well as we could - we didn’t want to see this fail now.
The beta and GDS grew up alongside one another. The best place to read all about that is probably on the rest of the GDS blog, you don’t need more of that from me.
We delivered in time for our deadline - 17 October - and I am really proud of what we delivered.
From beta to delivery we grew in size at a staggering rate and frontend and design stopped being just the responsibility of Richard, Joshua Marshall (now accessibility lead for GDS) and I, and then people like Frances Berriman and later on, Ben Terrett joined and exerted their influence on the interface.
I also want to point out the importance of the design that happened (and continues to happen) in conversation - developers (both ‘front end’ and ‘back end’), content writers, data analysts, user researchers, all had input into how things were designed and built - they all had valid insights into the approaches we should take for our content, tools and site structure. They all bring a greater and more rounded view of the users’ needs and how to support them.
An example I’d really like to highlight is that of friend and colleague, Lisa Scott. She started out as a content designer and data analyst, but was determined to get involved as much as possible and learned enough to code her own smart answers and push them with git. We also continually turned to her as someone who understood and could communicate the issues around user needs across the propositions. Lisa demonstrated how powerful exchanging knowledge and expertise within teams can be.
Throughout the build of GOV.UK we strove to make sure that everyone fed into how it should work, with designers acting more as guides to visual and interaction approaches and proponents of the user than a perhaps more traditional role - being sole guardians of a product’s experience and interface.
Again, this way of working was new to me - I’d never in the past had the time or budget to try out ideas, experiment with prototypes and test different approaches. It really opened my eyes to what could be achieved when you are presented with the space and freedom to experiment. It sounds obvious but it’s essential that GDS, and other organisations who need to deliver high quality complex products, have this ability and an understanding of its value coming directly from the people at the top.
You get what you give
Despite being a new, growing organisation, with some of the issues that can bring, GDS is a place filled with amazingly experienced, talented, and driven people. I think I have probably learnt more at GDS than anywhere else I’ve worked, and that comes down to the willingness of everyone to guide and teach everyone else. It’s also why such good work gets done - people respect one another’s opinions and experience, and so give and take criticism constructively; keeping in mind the primary aim of building useful services, rather than carrying out their personal whims.
Some of the biggest and most interesting challenges are around building services that are usable to everyone. This means considering all users of all abilities on all devices. The right calls need to be made about content and functionality for those less able, but without compromising the experience for the rest of users. There are always judgment calls to make and everything has to be carefully approached to deliver the best possible experience for everyone.
The type of work available is also wide-ranging - GOV.UK as a replacement for Directgov and Business Link is just the tip of the iceberg - Inside Government are doing some of the most radical work - closing down hundreds of websites and replacing them with something that will make the British government one of the most transparent governments in the world. It has the potential to really change things for the better, both across Whitehall and outside government.
Similarly, all the transactions present a range of meaty service design challenges - some of the current transactions are completely paper-based; do we reinvent them completely via digital means or is there another way to approach it?
Finally, departments have already started to figure out how they can take advantage of the support that GDS can offer. There are so many opportunities for writers, analysts, data nerds, designers, and developers to come together and reshape things - it’s mindboggling.
Back to Shoreditch
Before GDS I was based in a building in Shoreditch (in fact, we launched the alpha from the office I shared with James Stewart and a few others there). In a few weeks I’ll be returning to the same building (but one floor up), on the other side of an amazing learning experience; something I’m never going to forget, and something that has changed me an enormous amount, both professionally and personally.
Working at GDS has made me rethink all my working practices and I’m hoping it’ll help others re-evaluate what they are doing and how they too can do innovative work and contribute by helping others do better too.