The PiP (”Personas and Prototyping”) project was initiated by the Statistical Office of the Republic of Slovenia (SURS) to learn more about their users and improve their online releases. SURS is the main producer and coordinator of national statistics in Slovenia. The main type of their publications is regular online releases, which are published on a daily basis and report on weekly, monthly, quarterly and yearly trends in statistical data. Additionally, special releases present other newsworthy data, such as stats related to national holidays, various world days etc. You can think of a release as a blog post that presents key information from statistical research, offers some data analysis and aims to bring tatistical data closer to citizens.

In this article we want to share what we learned, what were the biggest challenges and what made this project successful. But before we dive deep into details of the project, we would like to point out some key learning points (sort of a tl:dr):

Service designers are teachers and learners at the same time. We need to be able to guide and adapt simultaneously.
Where there is commitment there is success. If it was not for the openness, trust and motivation of the core project group from SURS we couldn’t have applied the core principles of service design (collaboration, iteration, human-centeredness, …).
It is scary to change direction mid-project. It helps to think about what makes more sense long-term vs. short-term when making difficult decisions.
Trust is built slowly. Expect push backs and doubts at the beginning. Keep your promises and listen. This will show everyone that you are there to help not to make their lives more difficult.
Applying service design principles is essentially change leadership and change management. It is as important to bring everyone on board as it is to achieve the desired results.

The rest of this article is divided into 6 different sections:

  1. The structured yet iterative process
  2. What made the project successful
  3. What we learned
  4. What we would keep
  5. What we would do differently
  6. Next steps and final thoughts
  7. Methods used

1. The structured yet iterative process

The process was designed based on the initial brief provided by SURS. The process had roughly four stages: Planning, Personas, Prototyping and Evaluation. We defined activities and expected outputs for each stage.

The first, planning stage involved the establishment of the core and extended group, deciding on what communication channels will be used, setting expectations and goals. In this stage it was important to hear everyone’s understanding of the project and what would make it successful for them.

The second stage was about developing personas. Due to the little time we had to create validated personas (4 weeks), the plan was to create first drafts and develop them further in the following stage of prototyping. First we got familiar with SURS employees and their work and we analysed existing documentation on their users. We mapped expectations and needs of SURS content writers and editors which helped us formulate what we need to explore during research. Next we conducted 10 interviews with two profiles of users — amateur and professional statisticians. We used the gathered data to form insights that were then used to create first drafts of needs-based personas.

In the third, prototyping stage we decided to focus on personas and their use. This was not our initial plan (as we wanted to prototype new releases) but based on feedback that we received from SURS subject-matter writers and other employees, it was crucial to make sure that personas would be useful for them, before we move on to changing releases. We invited some content writers and editors to try them out and help us understand how they could use personas in their work. Based on their input we created guidelines for writing releases based on developed personas. We also wanted to partially validate the personas so we created a questionnaire that would help us see if the personas we created really reflect SURS users. We concluded the process by upgrading both the guidelines and personas and presenting them to a wider audience at SURS.

The last evaluation stage was about reflecting on the process (we already had a mid-reflection between the second and the third stage). We evaluated what worked, what could have been better, and what we learned. As part of the project, a report was created which summarised the process, its outcomes and outputs.

Even though the majority of the process was done online, there were some key meetings done face-to-face. These were crucial for creating a sense of community, a feeling that we are a group of human beings working together and not talking heads.

2. What made the project successful

First of all, this project was successful because of the dedication of the core team. The enthusiasm and trust of the four members that we worked together with throughout the project were key for the success of this project. Their excitement and being open to change made them curious about our suggestions, methods and activities. Even though we pushed them at times with very optimistic deadlines, they committed to the process and delivered every single time. Where there is will, there is a way.

The next important factor (which is probably not a surprise) was top-down support. The project initiator (one of the members of the core team) had full support from the director, who himself believed and trusted our approach. More importantly he was present at the key moments during the process (beginning, middle and end) and not only expressed his support publicly but actively participated himself. This gave everyone in the organisation a message that this is an important project.

Third, close collaboration between in-house members of the core project team and outsourced professionals (us) was complementary. We truly believe in co-creation and this project showed us again how important it is to actively involve key stakeholders at the right time. The in-house team knows its organisation’s culture, has experienced what works and doesn’t work, knows who are the key stakeholders within the organisation and has access to people and relevant data. The external members of the project are less burdened by the culture and ‘how things are’ in the organisation and are sometimes even perceived as more credible because we are outside professionals and have been endorsed by the organisation’s leadership (we were told multiple times that what we say is sometimes better accepted within the organisation, compared to if the same thing is said by an in-house member).

This close collaboration between the external and internal people was a powerful combination. However we need to point out that in order to make the change sustainable, the organisation’s employees will need to carry on the project and the changes it has brought. Therefore a good plan needs to be made (and then implemented) on how to continue with the changes after the official project is over.

Finally there was systemic support. The first time the project initiator (from SURS) encountered design thinking was through the government project (translated to English “you are innovative”). was initiated by the Ministry of Public Administration in 2017 to increase innovation in the public sector. One of the things that the project offers are finances to any Slovenian public institution that wants to apply a user-centred approach to solving a specific problem. This kind of support makes it easier for public institutions to try out approaches like service design. It reduces the barrier for participation because it offers finances as well as verified and competent professionals. On top, it reduces administrative work for the institution applying. As we’ve experienced in the last 10 years working with the public sector, administrative barriers are for anyone who wants to do something new in the public sector, a true test of their patience and motivation.

3. What we learned

We learned to distinguish between what you can control and what you cannot. We want to elaborate a bit more on what we learned to have control over.

The first one is scope. Together with the team we defined a smaller scope than it had been intended. We have often encountered organisations who want to do ‘everything’ in a project. Taking a smaller bite will help set realistic goals and still give room for extra work, if needed. The more time you spend on something the more you get into details. So a team needs to decide what is more important — breadth or depth?

The second factor that we can control is communication. Communication is the (sometimes invisible) glue when working with clients and solving problems together. We love the saying “assumption is the mother of all f***-ups” and the same goes for communication. It is important not only to make sure you are being understood but ensuring you understand others as well. Asking twice, summarising, visualising, and writing down are all different techniques (that designers and facilitators should master) that reduce miscommunication. However, there is a second layer to communication — not only between you and your project team but the whole organisation. This turned out to be one of the most important aspects of our project that helped our project to be accepted across the whole organisation. We communicated about the project from day one, being very transparent about what we are doing (what worked, what didn’t work) and what our next steps are. The updates were published through an internal communication channel by the individual core team members in a semi-informal way.

The third thing that we can control is process design. In our view, this is the most important part of any service design project as it is the part of our work that we have the most control over. What we mean by process design is deciding what to do at each step of the process. The service design approach assumes iterations (i.e. repeating the process or its parts multiple times) so the process needs to be designed in a way that it is flexible enough to accommodate change. At the beginning we already had a rough idea of what we wanted to do at each stage, we predicted the number of hours we needed for each step and then (very importantly!) booked all those dates in advance. It was a bit new for some of the members of the core group to schedule meetings 2 months in advance but throughout the project this turned out to be one of the best decisions we had made. Not only did we make sure that everyone had time but we had a cadence that helped keep the energy of the project stable. Even though we changed the content of these meetings throughout the project, we had dedicated work time with the team.

Our assumptions about the core team meetings were actually quite accurate, however our work between the meetings was greatly underestimated. At the end of the project we calculated 100% more hours for work that were estimated at the beginning of the project. We prioritised the outputs of our work (and not the hours we were paid for), therefore more time was spent working on the project, than anticipated.

The last thing we can control is ourselves. By being fully present, open and positive at every meeting and throughout the project helped a lot to keep up the team spirit, even when things looked like they were going nowhere.

4. What we would keep

The more we work with the public sector (and other organisations) the more we believe in the potential of in-house and outsourced collaborations in contexts where novelty is being introduced (e.g. a new approach to improving services). During the reflection with the team, we got feedback that it was important we had been brought in from the “outside”. Not only that we were not burdened by the cultural legacy of the organisation but (according to some members of the core group) what we said landed differently compared to if the same things were said by someone from within the organisation. On the other hand if we hadn’t interacted closely with the employees from SURS we couldn’t have really achieved any impact. Therefore we believe that having a mixed team of in-house and external professionals helps create a balance of “the new and the old” in the project.

We did have a challenge at the beginning and that was to gain trust from the extended project team. We imagine that many organisations witness outside consultants and experts coming in, making a big fuss and then leaving the employees to deal with the changes made. This can create long-term reluctance to change. We didn’t want this so we involved them from the start, making sure we understood and incorporated their needs.

By closely involving the in-house team we taught them how to use some of the methods. We aim to support the creation of an internal team that would continue with the work we started.

The second thing we would keep is the allocation of time for work at the beginning of the project. We set time slots for team meetings for 2 months in advance. The meetings were structured around the initial outline of the project but the content of each session was not set in stone. This helped us with the continuity of the project, keeping the momentum going and making sure that the project was moving forward. It also made sure that everyone had time to participate.

5. What we would do differently

Even though we created a lot in such a short amount of time, we would change the time-frame next time by either expanding the project over a longer period of time or changing the scope of the project. Towards the end of the process we were already quite tired. Luckily it was planned till the end of June so we had that extra motivation to finish before summer holidays.

Another thing that unfortunately we don’t have influence on but if any leader from the public sector is reading this — this is for you: if you want to introduce new ways of working then make sure that the people assigned to the project have actual time to do it. That it is not something on top of what they already do. In our experience the public servants that are willing to try out new approaches are usually the ones who are overbooked. So freeing some time in their calendar will make it more likely for them to properly implement the work they are doing. Also they will not burnout. 🙂

We would also have liked more time to properly validate personas. Validity of personas (How do we know they really describe our users and how many users fit into each persona’s profile?) was the most frequent worry of content writers and editors. So we decided to create a questionnaire towards the end of the project, but because we didn’t spend as much time on it as we would have wished, the questionnaire wasn’t properly put together. We involved a statistician to help us analyse the questionnaire but she didn’t have enough time to really look into it and it would have been better if she was there when we were creating it, to ensure a proper analysis.

On the other side, service design projects are iterative and this could be seen as the first iteration of many. We learned a lot from this questionnaire and plan to create a better version in the future. Next time we will include a statistician to help us design and analyse the quantitative questionnaire.

6. Next steps and final thoughts

At the end of the project we created an action plan and a roadmap for further development. The prototypes that we created needed to be tested further by a larger group of content writers within the organisation. Key activities of the action plan included dissemination of all results, internal and international presentations of the project and its results, and establishing a pilot team for implementing personas and proposed upgraded releases.

Overall we are very proud of this project as it proved that the service design approach really works given there are committed people doing it. We believe that only when there is a genuine, authentic motivation to do something, it can be done despite challenges that organisational change brings. Any change is difficult. Something needs to be taken away so there is room for new. Change is always (some kind of) loss. And even though we are often aware of what changes need to be made (in our projects, organisations or even personal lives) we, as human beings, hate hate hate loss (Daniel Kahneman wrote a book about it). But that is a topic for another article. 🙂

As we are publishing this almost a year after we started the project, we are happy to share that we have just embarked on the second collaboration with SURS. In the upcoming months we will establish a pilot group that will continue to test and improve personas and releases. Stay tuned for more.

7. Methods used

We don’t want to describe each of the methods used in detail (you can find many of those online) but for those who are interested which ones were used, here is a comprehensive list:

  • personas
  • paper prototyping
  • customer journey map
  • semi-structured interviews
  • affinity mapping
  • morphological tension models
  • mock-ups
  • research wall
  • co-creative workshops
  • stakeholder map
  • user stories
  • visualisation
  • ‘tableau’ (theatrical method for prototyping)
We have prepared a short booklet* where you will find an overview of the design thinking mindset, process and a selection of methods and tools. *Only in Slovenian for now.