End of year notes - 2022
My last 6 months at GDS
I started the year while still at GDS rejoining the GOV.UK programme as lead service designer. I supported teams working on critical priorities including Whole User Journeys, Coronavirus, and Content Design.
I published a blog post with Will Harmer on Service landscape maps – a tool for mapping public services, which took learnings from setting up service communities across government and working on whole user journeys for the Start a business on GOV.UK.
In March the programme shifted focus to improving the GOV.UK platform itself, and defining the strategy and function of the content teams.
The work of these teams is critical to delivering public services and guidance. But Brexit, the pandemic and an emerging cost of living crisis had left them reactive to the priorities of the day, and working at an unsustainable pace.
The GOV.UK programme wanted to take the time to step back and evaluate the website itself, and find ways in which we could make space to do more proactive work. During this period, I worked with other discipline leads and teams to explore how we could deliver user centred content in a more sustainable way, and how we could set up content teams to incorporate other user-centred design disciplines (such as design, product, and user research) to enable improvements to whole user journeys.
One of the things we started to explore was identifying content and design patterns that meet user’s needs, and make them reusable and accessible for government departments to publish content on GOV.UK more easily. In doing this, the assumption was that it would free up time from the content teams on the reactive work, and have more space to work on improving end to end journeys on GOV.UK.
Another thing I did in March was organise and run the only GDS open (to the public) show and tell of the year. This was at the end of Services Week 2022 and with Kuba and Helena we curated projects from across GDS from the past year to share with the public.
Our work involved identifying highlights to share from the 2021, make sure we had a spread of all the different things GDS does and provides, as well as a representative and diverse group of speakers. We supported teams to prepare, and facilitated a fully remote session. You can see a recording of the session on YouTube.
In late April, I decided to hand in my notice and quit my 5 year job at GDS and the civil service. The time had come for me to explore the public and social good sector in the UK and around the world more widely. I wanted to be more intentional with the projects I would take on, as well as having the ability to be more flexible with my time.
With a 3 month notice period, I focused my last months in GDS on passing on knowledge to others and setting up teams for the future. This included things like supporting the design community with recruiting service designers, coaching, delivering Power & Privilege training with Hannah Jump, doing service assessments, helping to develop more accessible ways of using Mural, and supporting the GOV.UK Content teams to plan for upcoming work.
I also did a presentation for GovStack about GDS, service design, and how we help teams build good services using the Service Standard and the Design principles. And I co-wrote a blog post with Arindra Das on Shaping your design history: how we got here and what's next, to help future teams and designers understand why and how a project got to where it is, and to inform and plan future design work.
It was a tough decision to leave GDS because I had grown and learned so much. I’ve met amazing people, made friends, helped grow and foster an inclusive design community, and worked on very challenging but rewarding products and services. All of those things have also helped me gain confidence in the new adventure I would later choose to leap into.
Defining my next steps
What I knew I wanted in my work life was more flexibility with my time, the ability to be more intentional with projects to take on, and to push myself to get better at setting work/life boundaries. I thought that being an independent consultant and freelancer would be a way of helping me get there.
I recognise that I am in a privileged position to be able to take this risk in the first place, and to seek something that makes me happier, something that is more balanced, and hopefully allows me to work less in the longer term. Which is why I intend to support others in whatever way I can, especially historically marginalised and under-represented groups.
Between mid July and August I took time off to rest and travel. Once I got back I started to explore how I would do freelance work, the different types of contracting, and what I would need to set up. This included reaching out and speaking to other freelancers to better understand how they work, what they charge, and what are the challenges.
I discovered there is a whole spectrum for doing freelance work - from contracting 5 days a week embedded in a team for 6-8 months all the way to taking on shorter projects, a couple of days a week, all at once. The latter was what attracted me the most - if I wanted to take freelance as an experiment to learn more about what I wanted to do more intentionally, then I needed to be able to try out different projects, clients, and ways of working.
I decided to set up my limited company at the end of August - Malla Studio (Malla, pronounced “ma-ya” is a Spanish word that means “mesh”). Picking a name was hard, but at this point I didn’t want to get stuck on that one step so I just picked something that would remind me of my core values and what I want to work towards. These are: interconnected parts, a system, a web, a network, a community. Where the sum of the parts is more than the parts on its own. This is how I feel about what I do as a service designer: the ability to see the wider picture, to connect people, products, services, and bring them together to achieve a wider goal.
While I was learning about all the admin things that I would need to set up for the company, I managed to co-write 2 blog posts with design system experts Amy Hupe and Caroline Jarrett about. How to share research in design systems and How to research components and patterns: common challenges and how to overcome them. This took me back to my time working on the GOV.UK Design System team where I supported the creation of the service and community behind the system. I enjoyed this collaborative writing, the ability to draw upon our different experiences and be able to share something that would help design system teams see the value of working in the open and encouraging iteration over time through research.
In September I focused my time reaching out to design studios, consultancies, and my network to look for my first consulting gig. Who do I want to be working with? Where can I find these people? It was also about getting “out there” and letting people know what I do and how I could support them and their teams.
I finally managed to publish my website where I am able to talk about the work I’ve done, share things I’ve written, and start to articulate what services I provide. I have to say, it was scary to hit publish and launch the website. I’ve always struggled to put things on the internet. Even if I have written blog posts and spoken at conferences before, I’m always afraid that what I share is nothing new and will not bring much value. But thanks to my friends and partner who always encourage me to share, I have managed to push myself at times and do it. I’ve said to myself that it's an MVP (minimum viable product) and that I will iterate it over time as I learn more about what I want to focus on. Still, I think I need to get better at writing and sharing work more regularly in 2023.
3 months into the freelance world
At the end of September I managed to secure my first project. I joined the Public Digital Affiliate Network and have been collaborating on a project with a government department in another part of the world. I’ve felt very lucky to be amongst incredible professionals (both in Public Digital and the wider network), and being able to continue my work in the public sector - this time with another country.
The project was focused on helping the organisation better understand each other internally (teams, functions, skills) and start to unpack the services they provide and how they work to deliver those services to other government departments. I’ve started using Sarah Drummond’s ‘Full Stack Service Design” model to visualise their organisation and use it as a prompt for conversations.
I also ran a journey mapping session with teams across the organisation to understand from a user’s perspective how they support government design, build, and maintain digital services. It's such a relief when participants see the value of talking to each other, spotting that they have common challenges and that there are opportunities to work together. My highlight was when by the end people had realised that there is so much internal complexity the users have to interact with in order to achieve their goal, and so many teams who are involved throughout. Someone wrote as a response to this complexity: “so, who then is looking out for the user?”. Best moment!
In October Clara Greo and I decided to run a training course on “Introduction to Service Design in Government”. We’ve missed running training since our time at GDS, and we’d seen a high demand for this course which had not been run for a while. It was definitely one of my highlights this year: getting to work with Clara again, have fun, and meet lovely folks working across the UK public sector as well as people interested in working in Government.
We also were able to offer £1,300 in subsidised tickets for underrepresented groups. This was something that was very important for us to be able to do. We chose to prioritise groups who we believe to be underrepresented in the UK service design industry: Black, disabled, and trans people, and people who are not university educated. For our future course, we’ve added people who are actively working in the climate space because we believe in supporting this work.
We got really nice feedback and it encouraged us to run it again and explore other potential courses. You can read some of our reflections on this blog post. There’ll be more training courses in the new year! You can subscribe to our newsletter to get notified with upcoming dates.
At the end of November I started a project with the lovely folks from ffstudio. We are working with a local authority and housing association to help them better articulate internally the services they provide and how the different teams are involved in the end to end journey of the user. It's also about using service design and visualisations to explore ways in which teams can have better conversations, and therefore collaborate more effectively. I’m excited about this one - the impact of this has the potential to be really significant for end users. And I get to work with Maria Eliot, and Annawho are just awesome humans. More on this as it continues in the new year.
End of year
I’ve started to spot an emerging theme for my freelance work so far: Organisations wanting to understand themselves better to therefore work together to deliver valuable services to people. This includes things like understanding who does what, how teams work, what’s the value they are creating, and ultimately leading towards helping them identify and clearly articulate the services they provide. I am already learning loads from how this applies to different contexts and how some of the challenges are very similar.
Things are winding down now. Clients are starting to take time off for the festive season and it's forced me to also slow down too. It's only been 3ish months since I started freelancing but it's felt like so much longer. I want to take time now to reflect on how it's going and think about what I want to be doing more or less next year.
I’ve set myself a year to explore freelancing and see if it’s for me. I’ll be asking myself:
- Can I cope with the uncertainty at times? What's my level of tolerance?
- Am I able to be flexible with my time? What are the tradeoffs?
- Am I doing more work that I’ve intentionally chosen and is generating social value?
- Am I making enough money to allow myself to be picky with projects and be able to pay bills and be flexible with my time? Is that even possible?
For now, all I can say is that it's been scary, and I haven’t always managed to deal with uncertainty that well but it's been very rewarding. And, ultimately I am much happier than I was a year ago, so I’m doing something right. Looking forward to 2023!
Thanks to Tim Paul, Lilli Graf, and Amy Hupe for reviewing my notes and helping me gain the confidence to publish these notes.
Extra bonus content: here’s a summary of some books I’ve loved in 2022