Dessy Chongarova

My first memory of performing an “experience design” activity goes back to when I was 5. I was staying with my grandparents in their summer house near the Black Sea coast, not having to wear shoes for weeks. One of those days, my grandparents had guests over for lunch. At the end of the meal, they asked me to go pick up some apricots from a tree in the garden and bring them to the table for desert.

At age 1, my main design concern was to wear panties in an unconventional fashion.

At age 1, my main design concern was to wear panties in an unconventional fashion.

I must’ve thought that simple raw apricots are not exquisite enough for а desert, so I wanted to come up with a better way to serve them. I decided they had to be peeled and the pits removed so that consumption would be as easy and delightful as possible. After a few iterations, the form of a puree emerged and I was envisioning the pleasant surprise of the guests. I wanted them to feel taken care of and to have a wonderful sensory experience.

I was doing my best to put myself in their shoes, so I was testing the product myself, while I was making it. I didn’t care about not having the perfect tools at my disposal. In fact, carefully chewing the apricots and spiting equally big portions of apricot puree in little glasses, seemed to me like the most natural and caring thing to do.

I hadn’t shared this story with my family but to figure out my age at the time, I needed my mom’s help. So I described to her the picture of the summer house I had in my memory, and I ended up revealing my secret. “Oh, if the kitchen was still in the bungalow, you must’ve been 5 or younger” — she casually responded and asked: “How is this design, anyway?”

Great question, mom! One way to look at it is through a broader definition of design. Going back to 1971, we find one in Victor Papanek’s book “Design for the Real World”:

“All that we do, almost all the time, is design, for design is basic to all human activity. The planning and patterning of any act towards a desired, foreseeable end constitutes the design process.”

In other words, design is taking something from its current state to a preferred state. You can see how intentionally turning apricots into apricot puree is a design activity. But what I find more fascinating about my process at age 5 is its user-centredness. I can clearly remember envisioning the experience my grand-parents’ guests would have with the apricots and how easier and more delightful it would be if they were pureed. As Thomas Wendt puts it in “Design for Dasein” (2015):

“[Experience design] is concerned with the cumulative experiential qualities a user might have with a system.”

The word “might” above holds the key to the difference between 5-year-old me and how I approach design today. An experience is subjective and deeply personal. So claiming it can be designed would be rather arrogant. However, we can design for a desired experience. But how do we know what the desired experience is?

5 year-year-old me made an assumption about the best apricot experience there could be — easy to chew and smooth — and she didn’t question it. She was most probably missing baby food, and thinking that’s what’s best for everyone. I know her audience wasn’t old enough to have chewing difficulties, so that wasn’t a problem she was trying to solve. In fact, escaping from city life, the grown-ups were probably craving fresh fruit, just picked from the tree, in its rawest form.

Taking the time to understand the users’ context and discover their needs through observing behaviour and asking “why” should be the first step of human-centred design process. Aligning those needs to a business problem we’re trying to solve allows us to define the desired experience to design for. Prototyping and testing potential solutions with users helps us make sure we’re on the right track. This process is what distinguishes a human-centred design from a 5-year-old.

This is the process that I’m working on mastering, while trying to nurture the curiosity, authenticity and playfulness of a 5-year-old.

Dominic Campbell, giving a talk in Hyper Island, Manchester

Dominic Campbell, giving a talk in Hyper Island, Manchester

As I’m less than two months away from finishing my Digital Experience Design MA, I’m thinking more and more about what’s next. One thing I know is that I want to apply human-centred design process and an agile way of working to solving meaningful problems in areas that are underserved by design talent. 

So when I heard the founder of FutureGov, Dominic Campbell, talk about the challenges and opportunities in the public sector, I was inspired and wanted to know more. He was kind enought to meet me in Future Gov’s London office and answer all my questions. Below I’m sharing the highlights.

Q: What drives you?

A: I’m probably the only person that wanted to work in local government at the age of 14. Probably because my grand parents used to run a bus company in the North of England. Growing up in Birmingham, which is quite a civic-minded city, I’ve always been interested in how government can play a role in improving people’s lives.

And then I got into government 12–13 years ago and interestingly it was pretty disappointing. I thought it would be full of people who are civic activists, but they were administrators. Which is an important role, but I expected a sort of passion and a desire to problem solve in an interesting and challenging way. But government itself isn’t set up for that. The way it is constructed is about taking legislation and building a service around it, rather than taking users’ needs and building a solution to a problem.

So that’s why I ended up leaving. To try and come at it from a different angle. Because I still believe strongly in the role of some form of collective public services. But I do believe that the once we’ve got are made for 100 years ago and need to be reinvented. So now we often play the role of the friend of government that is willing to take the risk on its behalf to try something new. So the stuff that drives me is creative problem solving and interesting challenges.

Q: And where did your interest in technology come from?

A: It was almost a reverse interest. I got my first email account when I was 19, I got my first mobile phone when I was 19 — I wasn’t early on anything. And then I went into the working world and ended up running big corporate IT projects. And while I could, on the one hand, see the opportunity of technology, I could also see that technology was forcing behaviours in a bad way. It was getting in the way of people doing the really important stuff. So taking them away from talking to human beings.

Dominic Campbell, giving a talk in Hyper Island, Manchester

Dominic Campbell, giving a talk in Hyper Island, Manchester

So I almost learned from the bad things, rather than the good things. But then I was introduced to Twitter and Delicious and a range of silly apps that were popping up 7 or 8 years ago. And I became really interested in the idea of small technology that does just what you need it to, nothing else, and it helps you solve a problem.

So I left government to try and show government how to change the way it thinks about technology. So how do you do lots of small things rather than one big thing. Because one big thing never solves all the user requirements. That’s when I went from an uneasy feeling about technology into seeing what good looks like and wanting to do it.

Q: If you were doing a research project, like I am, what kind of questions would you go deeper into?

A: I’m really interested in enterprise technology. I think there’s a huge problem there and a huge opportunity. And I think social workers deserve better, because they’re doing a really important job. So how could design and technology radically transform independence in public services? Almost like the quantified self movement. What’s quantified self in public services? How do you empower people to do a lot more for themselves?

I was talking to somebody earlier about how the left is so old fashioned on this, because it thinks about government in terms of how many people it employs. But government should be about social impact. And if the answer is fewer people doing things, and technology enabling you and I to do more for ourselves, surely that is good government. So how do digital and design have the potential to reinvent the way that government thinks about its purpose and delivers its social aspect?

“How do digital and design have the potential to reinvent the way that government thinks about its purpose and delivers its social aspect?”

Or just take one specific area like domestic violence or children sexual exploitation. And think about how you could apply some lateral thinking from other sectors, using digital and design well, to solve a complex problem in the public sector.

Q: What do you think designers lack to work in public services?

A: One thing is resilience. And an ability to admit that nothing can be perfect. When it comes to change and using design for improvement in public services you need to be willing to accept that things go slower than you thought they would. That 60% better is better than nothing. It’s sad in some respect, but it’s also the reality of designing within constraints.

It’s interesting to also understand that in the commercial sector you can deliver 80% of your vision, if your lucky, but on something that is irrelevant. Whereas if you can deliver 60% of your vision on something that matters, then that’s surely more important. So having that resilience, having the ability to do strategy as well; to understand the context effectively, the politics, the structures, the power; understanding it all and then delivering one tiny perfect thing that changes something.

“In the commercial sector you can deliver 80% of your vision, if your lucky, but on something that is irrelevant. Whereas if you can deliver 60% of your vision on something that matters, then that’s surely more important.”

Whereas what I see a lot of is jumping to conclusions pretty quickly, and coming up with ideas that are quite superficial. You need a level of seriousness about your craft in public services. And modesty. Coming into an environment where you don’t know anything can be hard. Which is why, I think, a lot of people come in and out very quickly, because they’re exhausted. The good thing is that we have a collection of people who like to fight for the right kind of stuff.

Q: Do designers working in public services need to get involved in politics?

A: I think you have to be aware of Politics with the big “P”, but you have to be good in politics with a small “p”. The way that we work is that service designers and UX designers always partner with an organisation designer who does politics. They understand the power and they understand the relationships. They create the space for designers to deliver the right solution. Because I think it’s a bit of a waste for the designer to do both. And there’s very few who have those two skill sets.

So I don’t think you do, you probably just need to find someone who can cover that for you. My business partner Carrie and I generally do that at a strategic level. We are going to Chief Execs and creating a vision for change. And then an organisational designer will go and turn that vision into something more tangible and work with a designer to deliver that. We believe in multidisciplinary teams and we need people like you to make things. It’s a good partnership.

Passing by The Regent’s Canal on my way from the Tube Station to FutureGov’s office in London

Passing by The Regent’s Canal on my way from the Tube Station to FutureGov’s office in London

If you were to teach someone web design, how would you start your first lesson? How would you end it? I had the opportunity to ask myself these questions the other day, when I started teaching my friend Maggie HTML & CSS. There wasn’t any planning involved, so here’s what I came up with on the fly.

Start with Content

In my experience, theory and explanations don’t mean a thing if you can’t see them applied to something that you care about. So I asked Maggie to think of something she would like to put on the web. Maybe her own personal website or a blog? I used Aral Balkan’s Content Out Web approach as a reference.

Maggie decided to make a cooking blog. I advised her to think of ways to make the topic more specific and unique so that she could differentiate and keep her own interest. She thought of making it strictly for cakes or connecting it somehow with music. I already saw her getting worried about what it was going to be. So I told her that she would be improving it over time and that she could totally change her mind at any point.

For now, just open Notepad, write a title and a one sentence intro, and save the file as index.html. Now drag this file in a browser and see how it looks. There, you’ve got your first web page and it didn’t heart!

Understanding HTML Tags

Creating an html file and previewing it in a browser gave Maggie a taste of the magic in a matter of seconds. I now had her attention and it was time to explain what html actually does. I described it as a way to tell the browser what is what on a web page. We marked up our h1 and p, we added a strong, an em and a link to a YouTube video. (At this point Maggie asked if we could make YouTube load in a new browser tab!) We added some inline styles and we created a second html file.

Linking a Stylesheet and Making the HTML Valid

Having two html files with similar structure gave me a reason to introduce external stylesheets. For that we needed to add , and to our pages. I took the time to explain typographically correct quotes and dashes and this led us to the need of specifying the encoding. We added a doctype and a title.

Version Control and Publishing on the Web

I wanted to finish the first lesson with Maggie uploading her work somewhere public. This would totally make things real. When something is out there and you could easily share it, you just want to make it better as fast as you can.

For hosting I thought the most lightweight and fast solution would be to use GitHub Pages. But we couldn’t do this without explaining version control. Up until now we hadn’t talked about or downloaded any tools that she didn’t already have on her PC. But now I asked her to open a GitHub account and download their Git client for Windows.

She then created a repository and pushed her site. We now had the added value of GitHub issues which I later used to give her homework.

The concept of Responsive Design

Now that Maggie’s site was online, we opened it on her phone. I then asked her to add in the head of the html documents and talked a bit about RWD.

Analytics

She asked me how she could track visits and I guided her through setting up Google Analytics.

For Next Time

  • Write your first blog post—again, don’t overthink it.
  • Download and install Atom—a fancy text editor from GitHub that is free.
  • Watch Chris Coiyer’s video tutorial on the basics of HTML&CSS—it’s time to make friends with this guy!

Looking Forward to Lesson 2

So for next lesson we’ll already have some content to work with and we’ll be doing that in a decent code editor. I think we’ll take a step back and make some sketches to figure out the content structure and the navigation of the website.

We’ll also take a look at the competition, see how food blogs look and what they contain. We’ll view source and we’ll play with the Inspector. I guess we’ll be embedding images and we’ll talk some more about responsive design.