Making Matters 3 - Internal Projects

Chris, Thomas and Will discuss internal projects, and the unique challenges they pose for UX designers.

Will, Thomas and Chris discuss internal projects, and the unique challenges they pose for UX designers.

  • Why are internal projects different to consumer facing ones?
  • How do you deal with big egos in big businesses?
  • How can we change people’s attitudes to ‘failure’?
  • How do you encourage digital transformation from within?

Show Notes

Film Analogy, further points: To finish off the point about individual film financiers, once they have funded the making of your film, you want to then get it sold at film markets (Cannes, for example, has a huge market for actually selling films, as well as the glitzy glamour of showing films) - but the financiers by now have lost interest as they’ve spent their money, achieved their aims, and so aren’t really bothered about your film getting sold and seen.

Transcript

Chris

Greeting and salutations! Welcome to Making Matters, the podcast where we look at user experience, web design, web development all other kinds of digital stuff.

My name is Chris Myhill and I’m a UX designer.

Thomas

My name is Thomas Edwards, and I’m a technical director.

Will

My name is Will Snow, and I’m a UX Designer.

Chris

That’s a third voice on the podcast!

Will

Hello!

Chris

[laughs]. So we’re going for a hat trick. Three podcasts, and this time, with three people. We’re going to talk about a slightly trickier issue, and I think it needs three of us.

Today we’re talking about internal projects. Internal projects have had a bit of a bad rap in our industry, but we’re now seeing a lot of businesses invest in so-called ‘digital transformation’. These projects have their own unique sets of challenges, but we shouldn’t be afraid to work on them.

Will

We’re going to talk about where they can go wrong, and we’ll wrap up with how to avoid these problems.

So I’m going to start talking a little bit from an analogy perspective. I used to work in the film industry. I ended with ‘Avengers : Age of Ultron’, and I transitioned a few years ago into UX design. There’s actually some helpful analogies here… To identify what I feel are the root problems with internal projects.

With film there’s money. You need money to make the film. You get money from the film being seen. Contrary to expectations, some people just have money that they want to get rid of by making a film.

Thomas

I wish that was my problem [laughs].

Will

So… [for] tax purposes, there are some who like the idea of making the film because it helps them write-off some profits. A bit closer to home, we have something called the UK film council (I believe it’s now being mothballed). But they would just get money, year after year.

They had the money, and they could invest in up-and-coming film makers and social causes. Whether or not they made any money, or anyone even saw them [the films], they were going to get that funding.

So, you would think [the creators] would want to make money from a film so that they can use that money to make more films, but it isn’t the case.

This is where the analogy comes in. With digital products and digital experiences, when does the money come, and when does the product come? There qA a fantastic talk this year from the ‘Google Conversions’ event. It’s by the booking.com head of design. He tells with great enthusiasm how booking.com absolutely live and breathe testing. You go onto the site, and you’re probably the subject of multiple AB tests. Every individual widget on the page, they’re AB testing. They invest heavily because the product comes first, and they make money from the product.

So the product exists to make as much money as possible. It’s that simple. They [booking.com] are fully on board with UX design, because they’re fully on board with making money. They know that if they test everything, every little change, they’re making as much money as possible. And indeed, they’re head and shoulders above their competitors. They directly attribute it to the sheer amount of testing and design they do.

I would say the crucial difference with internal projects is that the money gets signed off first, and then the project begins, and the product gets made. Straight away, there is a huge difference.

If the money has already been signed off (and it’s probably an annual cycle of money — so next year they’ll get another pot of money), then whether or not the product is a success doesn’t really matter. Because they’ve got the money. Next year they’ll get more. And that’s that.

And following on from that, in terms of what we’d say is project discovery - not only have they got the project signed off but they’ve already had meetings and slide decks about workstreams. They’ve had to align outlook calendars and launch dates, and by the time the money is signed off [the team] already has a fully formed idea of what they want.

Thomas

Or they think they do.

Chris

[impersonating manager] “And we’re presenting it to our CEO in 9 months!”

Will

[laughs] Exactly! Yeah. Often this is part of a bigger departmental push. Things to do with employees and training days, there’s a lot of other things going on and this [product] might key into that. So they think they know exactly what they want and need. The idea is formed, and it’s a case of ‘can you just build it?’.

The questions that we concern ourselves with (such as ‘will it work?’, ‘will it actually improve things?’, ‘does it matter?’) are often relegated. I’m in UX because I want to solve problems. I want to tackle crucial questions and find the right answers.

Thomas

On that note, and on the filmmaking idea, we’ve worked on these internal things before… Filmmaking is notorious for being quite arty, with a lot of opinions. There are a lot of big egos involved.

Internal projects tend to be off the back of someone’s ego, and when you say ‘does this matter?’ - potentially it’s set up wrong in the first place.

Will

As I was talking about before, a lot of work has gone in. Money has been signed off. A lot of time and effort has gone into this thing, and you’re very precious about your idea at that stage. Ok, I might be a head of department or the head of some departmental process, and I don’t want to be proven wrong.

Chris

Mmm. Especially [to the] people who are measuring and deciding how successful you’re going to be in your career.

If you launch a product to consumers and it doesn’t go very well, you know, shit happens. But… If you’re the guy who’s called out in your organisation trying to head up a digital transformation project and bundling it… that’s going to stick with you.

Will

Yeah. If I make this project for my department and it doesn’t work, or there are people who are saying I should do something different. Does that mean I can’t do my job very well? If [the project] were to fail, does that mean I can’t do my job because I should have known exactly what that digital experience needed to be?

Chris

It all cuts very personal with internal projects because for many members of staff in businesses (especially senior staff) this is kind of their life. Five days a week, this is what they’re doing all day. Yeah… It does cut quite close. And people think they know best because that is their live. Then you start to see decisions based on passion and…

Thomas

And being scared.

Chris

Yeah…

Thomas

Yeah. And they’re scared because they’ve got passion for it… But they’re also scared of someone else making out that they’re not as good as they think they might be. A lot of consumer projects, (especially with) silicon valley types, they’ll talk about ‘failing fast’. There’s a lot to be said for it, because just getting through work is the best way of working it out.

You talk to any entrepreneur, like Richard Branson or whoever. They’ll say ‘you try it, and you move on’. And that’s how you get on. So this ego problem, even if it’s a small one, you’re pretty much already failing at the beginning. Because you’re scared of failure!

Chris

I think it goes back to Will’s point a little bit about money being handed out beforehand. We’re seeing this in these silicon valley startups. We’re buying into this idea of ‘fail fast’. People know the value of getting something out to market quickly. If it doesn’t work, they pull the plug or do something differently. Great.

If the project has already been signed off for a full year though… You can’t just stop. We (the team) are so bought into that vision already. I think that’s one of the main areas where these internal projects differ.

Thomas

We’re talking about ‘internal’ as though it [the product] is only for internal business use, but it does extend to all kinds of projects like that - where you have the sign off, and then you’re sent to go and do the work. This applies even for small teams as well.

I was reading about Basecamp’s process this week (I’ll put the post I’m referring to in the show notes). They talk about how they don’t really plan anything further ahead than six weeks. Because you know, after six weeks, people have gotten bored. The team says right, we know exactly what we’re going to do for the next six weeks. You can have strategic thoughts, you can have some big ideas, and talk about them. But don’t plan them. They [Basecamp] say that ‘planning is guessing’. If you’re guessing you’re probably going to get it wrong.

But you should definitely read that blog post because it’s a goodie.

Will

Yeah… And I think ‘failure’ just isn’t a positive word. When it comes to digital experience though, and designing them, failure is a wonderful teacher. And it’s a fantastic method.

Chris

Absolutely.

Will

And that’s how you learn. That’s where the proof is. Just start something. Get some employees, and find out if it works.

Chris

I think it’s taken long time, even in our industry [digital] to embrace failure. When it comes to these internal projects, they’re just so not there yet. And that’s because the people running those projects often don’t have any kind of background in digital. Traditionally if you have an internal business spend, then failure is a terrible thing!

Will

Yeah.

Chris

We know better. We can attribute the failure of a digital product (if it fails early enough) to say, it being something we shouldn’t invest any more money into. And that’s great. Because we save a lot of money in the long run. But… that attitude just isn’t quite there yet [internally]. And trying to explain failure to say, the CFO of an organisation like : “yeah, it didn’t go so well and we lost your investment… fantastic!”.

Thomas

It’s very tricky. Digital is unique in this respect. When you look at other industries failure can be much more failing… If you were building an aircraft and you didn’t do it right, and then on the test flight it crashes and kills everyone… In digital you’re allowed to.

It’s ok. That’s not to say that people building aircraft can’t find ways to fail without killing the people on board. They could build a giant wind tunnel system to test to the nth-degree. But in digital it’s just so easy to just get something onto the web as quickly as possible.

People also forget that when you’re building an aeroplane you have to test. But when you launch a website and it doesn’t go well, you don’t blow up London. Because you don’t have to test [digital products], there’s this illusion that you don’t need to. That it’s ok.

Will

We’ve also been talking about meetings of powerpoint slide decks.

Thomas

Yes!

Will

The method of generating success and approval is typically people in a room… Someone showing a slide deck. Can they get nods around the room? That’s success.

Thomas

And typically the people in that meeting room are all working on their slide deck for their own presentation. They’re nodding but not listening…

Will

And then people are dashing off early…

Chris

Did you guys ever see ‘conference call bingo’? You might like it.

Thomas

[laughs]. Show notes!

Chris

Yeah that’s definitely going in the show notes!

Will

[laughs]. Yes, that’s not the habitat for proving a digital experience. That’s not the environment in which good decisions get made.

Thomas

There’s an interesting point in ‘Creativity Inc’ (which is the Pixar book). They talk about how just the room alone is important. They put the less senior people in the middle of the room, and the more senior people stand near the back. Quietly. And they let the conversation come through. The room alone makes all the difference.

That could be the difference between the project being successful or not. Allowing people to say “hang on a minute, is this a good idea?”. It’s a really simple thing, but it could actually make a big difference.

Chris

(That’s) one of the big differences with internal projects, going back to this idea of HIPPO [highest paid person’s opinion] in the room. We can avoid those kinds of approaches by using data. We can take design decisions and ideas, and we can validate them with real data.

However when it comes to measurement, that can be a lot harder to do with internal projects. It’s harder to measure your return on investment. There’s rarely a simple conversion rate that you should be driving up. It’s not like an ecommerce store where we’re selling shoes, and we look at how many shoes we’re selling. Usually for internal projects we’re looking at things like increased productivity and reduced pressure on the HR team. It’s really tricky to track those, and it’s even trickier to map them back to this product you’re creating.

Will

Exactly. There’s a huge latency. Going back to your shoe shop example, within a week you can have tonnes and tonnes of sales data. Day to day, you can test things and change things.

If you’re on an internal project and your goal might be that by 2018 employee downtime or satisfaction has improved. That’s something really intangible. How do we track that, let alone attribute that to our product?

Chris

Right, and there’ll probably be five other things in the business who are also looking to track that same metric back to their initiative. It makes it hard for us to prove the value of the work that we’re doing. And we need to prove that value so that we can get our senior stakeholders on board, and change the way we work.

So, that’s a challenge. But I don’t think it’s the biggest challenge.

I think the biggest challenge is that your audience is your staff. The people in the business have to use this system you’re developing, and they don’t have a choice. Unlike in the general public, where when they’re buying their shoes (to use that example again), they have loads of different places they can go.

Will

I just bought a new pair of shoes. I can attest to this.

Chris

[laughs]. You shopped around for those shoes!

Will

I did. I sure did.

Chris

And you know, with internal products… Unless they literally leave the business because they get so hacked off with it, they just have to put up and shut up. They need to accept it as the way it is.

Thomas

There was definitely a point in history when businesses had better IT than you did at home. I think it was around the same sort of era you had CD-writers. I remember somebody I know having a CD-writer at work… and that was impressive.

Chris

I actually remember this as well. I remember when you needed to book a holiday or whatever you thought “I’ll save it until I’m in the office on Monday”.

Thomas

Exactly! And it was the same when we first starting using Email. Now I would argue that with the exception of our industry (where we need specialist equipment to work) that arguably most businesses are behind the times.

You know, if you work in marketing or accounting for example, you’re probably lumped with a whatever £500 Dell they could find. When you go home and you’ve got the latest smartphone, the latest tablet…

Will

…You’ve got Google home or Alexa…

Thomas

Yeah, exactly, you’ve got more technology at home than you do at work. And I think a lot of IT departments are seeing that and thinking actually let’s just let people use what they want. They make sure it’s secure, and then they’re good to go.

It does prove that you can save a money by just letting go slightly. Allowing a little bit of competition.

Talking about IT departments, I would love for there to be two different IT departments in every business. And they have to compete against each other. I think if you have the structure. then great. So this competition is quite interesting because there are some instances where someone can acknowledge the fact that there is a lack of competition, and then someone nail it.

So I think you know which words are coming in the direction of this podcast, which is of course, GOV.UK. They have to be mentioned on every podcast we ever do.

Chris

We’re three for three now!

Thomas

Yeah [laughs]. If you want to go and pay your road tax, you don’t have a choice. You have to pay it through the DVLA (Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency, in the UK). Or, if you want to look up about benefits, you can’t get that from anyone else. You can only get it from your council. You have to use GOV.UK.

So they’ve taken this approach that if you have to use it, then it has to be the best. And they’ve somehow managed to convince enough people of that.I know that the founder of Last Minute, Martha Lane-Fox was involved in promoting that message. She was involved in that, and doing a very good job to make people realise that actually, you need to be the best because it’s the only thing they (the user) have got.

It is possible… But without someone poking internally and saying “this needs to the best”, then that lack of competition is really something you’ll struggle with.

Chris

I think think you’ve hit the nail on the head with that. This is where we can start being a bit more positive and talking about solutions.

Will

Solutions!

Chris

Yes! What are we going to do? How are we going to save the day?

You mentioned GOV.UK and the amazing work there, but the work we’re actually talking about is that of GDS. And GDS is actually a department that runs all of the digital products that the [UK] government is producing. That is, in my opinion, is the key to success. Bringing in a single group of digital experts to oversee and own all of the organisation’s internal digital process (regardless of the dpartmentments or functions in the business who are using them) is super important.

You know, bringing a single point of responsibility. From a team of service designers, UX designers, technologists and solutions architects who are going to make sure we’re consistent, needs oriented and bringing user research into the discussion.

Basically, that eliminates the egos. It eliminates the people who feel wedded to their little project, their thing that they’ve been granted the budget for, and this is ‘theirs’.

Thomas

Some would argue that it then creates a new set of egos, the digital egos. They might feel they have the best solutions to everything…

I know in GDS they had conflicts, because people in these government branches (the civil servants) liked the fact that people could download a PDF of the fact sheets. Or that they had a guest book. Or something like that. And they’re all like : ‘oh, this all a bit fancy and a bit modern…’. They then see them [the digital team] as the people with the egos, because they’re trying to ruin all of their fun.

Chris

I think that’s why you’ve got to make sure there’s not one person deciding what is the right thing to do. You need to lead it with user research. That’s the main thing, that your digital team (your single point of ownership for these projects) should be leading with user research.

Will

Absolutely.

Chris

They should be listening to staff, listening to the business, figuring out what’s going on… But then letting data lead the discussion.

Will

It’s tough because with internal projects there’s the head of the department. They lead the department, they lead certain process… But it doesn’t mean that by rights they lead the development of a digital experience.

Thomas

Yeah, So the DVLA (the driver-licensing people in the UK) shouldn’t be responsible for the website. Get the people who make websites to build the website. And just because you’re the head of the DVLA, it doesn’t mean you can lead the design. For example, they might want a little picture of a car on the website…

Will

[laughs]

Thomas

Ok, so I understand where they’re coming from, but it doesn’t help anything. And data proves that.

Chris

Let’s be clear that the head of department still needs to be very much involved in the development of the product. That person still has the subject matter expertise. They are still going to have a massive impact, because they understand the business processes better than anyone.

But… They aren’t qualified. Because they’ve got enough stuff to worry about! They’re incredibly qualified in what they know, which I would never pretend to be able to understand. So working with them to translate what’s in their head to a digital experience that aligns to user research and what people want. This is where this team starts to add value.

It’s working with those business. And that’s why I say it’s all about having the right team. Because your digital team, even though it’s a distinct team that takes ownership of the internal digital projects, they still need to be team players. They need to work with those heads of department. Working with those people in other departments and other parts of the business to get it right.

It is hard to show return on investment for internal projects, but it’s not hard to find data to inform the brief of a digital project. For example, yeah sure, we might not be able to take load of metrics out of the existing thing and say how we’re specifically going to improve them. But we could take it out on a laptop and get the user’s feedback. We can then play that back to the business and use it as justification to redesign or rethink it.

I actually think that with internal projects it’s even easier to do this. For example right now, I’m doing a lot of work in the financial sector. We’re making products targeted towards financial advisors. And it is bloomin’ hard to get them to participate in user research. Because these are people who are basically inaccessible, and not super willing to give up their time for incentives.

However, when you’re making a product that is for internal employees of a business it’s in their best interest to make it really good because they have to use it. They’re probably going to be more than happy to donate some of their time to make it better. They want to get involved, they want to have their two cents. And also, they’re literally in the same building half the time!

You’re so empowered to do it [user testing] for internal projects, but a lot of the time it’s just not in the organisational culture. So nobody really thinks to do it.

Will

So, one point I would like to include before we finish. We talked about teams and culture. Another key for me is psychology. Another key is to really, as soon as possible, understanding what is the psychology here, that has made up this culture? What are they thinking? What has led to to make all these slides decks, and think that this project is a good idea?

But crucially, what does success look like? And why does it look like that? When we come on internal projects, we haven’t spent years in this company. So to us, the idea can be very alien at the start. But as much as possible we’ve got to understand their thinking, their metrics. What will success look like to them? What will be the measure of whether something worked?

Just quickly in terms of language, we talked about failure at lot at the start. And failure is a bit of a hot potato… You know, I don’t want to mention failure. I don’t want to be associated with it. And then there are words like ‘success’ and ‘ideas’, ‘test’ and things like that.

One of the people I’ve been reading about recently is this guy called Edward De Bono. He came up with lots of writings and teachings and methods. One of the things he talks a lot about is language… There is no cuddly quick to communicate word for : “I want to do this thing. I don’t know if it will work. But it’s very important that go down this path, and try this out. It will probably fail, but from it we’ll learn so much that it’ll help us to get to the right place.”.

Chris

Right. Even if the project fails (‘fails’ in inverted commas) we still get a massive amount of value out of it.

Will

Right, and it’s okay. How can you communicate that idea in a single word? We just don’t have that in our language.

Thomas

It’s just one of those things that’s in our culture. It’s embedded into organisation. You can always improve, so don’t try and win. Don’t just try to get to the end, you can always improve.

Will

Going back to the departmental workings that are going on. There’ll be a timeline for this project, and by November they’re expecting this project to be ‘finished’.

Thomas

Mmm, it’s this idea of being ‘finished’.

Will

But design is never done. As you just said. There are continual improvements to be made. You don’t just make a thing that’s finished. It’s not a stone pillar in time that can never be changed.

And again, it’s psychology. How can you really understand the people you’re working with. What are they thinking?

[Chuckles] It’s a bit like an oil tanker. How can you slowly, over the course of a project turn them around towards design thinking?

So when you are doing research, and you have some kind of usability metric. Instead of just going to them and saying “it should be like this”, you can frame it around their culture. Whatever they mention on their slide decks and such. And then they can understand it, and therefore they’ll buy into it.

Chris

It’s a little tactic I’ve started developing in workshops. This sound slightly devious… The main objective of a kick-off workshop is to understand the business priorities. But! There are also some other wins you can get out of the workshop.

If the person who is signing of the project is there, the person who empowers you to make decisions… If they’re banging on about one thing over and over again, you can play that back to them in later presentations. Phrased the same way they described it. So yeah, you’re right. Understanding language and what makes people tick is important.

Thomas

It can be really simple too. Just down to what they call something as simple as their employees. We know from working with Tesco that they call their employees ‘colleagues’. But if you work for Waitrose they’re ‘partners’. There’s no real difference, but if you were to work with either of those supermarkets and call them ‘employees, it could derail your whole presentation.

You’re absolutely right, something as simple as that. If you can get in there, and talk at their level then you’re going to be more successful.

So I think what we’re actually saying here is that this is isn’t really a big deal. Nobody has a reason to be afraid of these internal projects. And in fact, they may be even easier than a project for consumers. Is that right Chris?

Chris

Totally! And you know, if you’ve got the right attitudes in the right organisation and you’re prepared to align yourself as a designer…

Thomas

Let go of your ego…

Chris

Let go of your ego, yup. Align yourself to the business and be prepared to the business be prepared to bend a little bit…. You’ll be absolutely fine!

Thomas

Nothing to worry about!

Chris

And on that note, shall we wrap up?

Thomas

That’s it.

Will

I think so, yup.

I am @willjohnsnow on twitter. Or just willjohnsnow.com in your web browser.

Thomas

I’m @thomasedwards on twitter. I don’t know why I’m saying the @. It’s just Thomas Edwards.

Chris

And I’m @… [laughs]. JustUXDesign. Thanks very much for listening!

Will

Goodbye!

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Chris Myhill, an incredibly handsome UX designer with over 8 years of experience

Chris Myhill

Chris heads up Just UX Design with over eight years of experience.

He’s worked on loads of different projects, using UX wizardry to help businesses make better products.

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