Harry Metcalfe, managing director of digital services provider DXW, writes on what it takes to build a true digital service that puts users at its heart.
It’s 2014, and the world is ending. The internet’s ability to transform the way society works is clear, and examples of transformational services are all around us. It’s no longer possible for companies to stand still; people expect more. And they have more outlets to express their displeasure when they don’t receive it. The status quo just won’t do.
This challenge is not unique to housing. It’s an issue that everyone’s grappling with; how do we deliver exemplary services in a rapidly-changing world, against a background of increasing information risk and pressures to save money?
Most organisations have responded as best they can. Lengthy strategies have been proposed, projects have been delivered, money has been spent. But the underlying approach has tended to rely on big design up-front, tight specifications and rigid processes, which have been shown – comprehensively – not to deliver. The systems that are born of this model are generally bad: expensive, fragile, inflexible and incapable of delivering good user experiences.
This is not necessarily the fault of individuals or organisations. Housing is full of talented people, doing their best to make life better for tenants, often having to solve complex social problems along the way. But the complexity of technology is of a fundamentally different nature, and requires a complete rethink.
So, if we’re going to make a break from the past, we have some hard questions to ask:
Is it possible for existing systems to deliver the user experience to which we all aspire?
How can we delight and amaze our tenants with the usefulness and convenience of the next generation of digital services when we’re integrating with ‘ancient’ IT?
Can our organisations, as currently conceived, build and support the services that tenants want?
If we’re to set our sights higher, we need a new mindset. We need to focus, unrelentingly, on the needs of our tenants. And we must allow those needs to shape our organisations, our teams, our assumptions, our thinking and our services.
We have to adapt the way we work. Our culture and values must be user-centric, and our technological approach needs to be flexible. We have to embrace the reality that any technology-based decision we make now will be obsolete within a few years and plan for that change. Spending on these systems is certainly an investment, but in many ways, it’s more sensible to think of it as an operational expense.
Digital services don’t function in isolation, so they can’t be built in isolation. A tenant’s repair doesn’t begin when they log in to report it and end when they press ‘submit’. It starts when they notice the leaky tap, and ends when the tap’s been fixed to their satisfaction. A digital service may play a vital role, but it’s not the whole picture. And, if the tap doesn’t get fixed, the tenant will be dissatisfied, even if the online reporting transaction was world-beating.
Redesigning services so that the user experience is radically improved will involve every part of your organisation. Effectively supporting the services that your tenants really want will probably require the shape of your organisation to change.
Against that background, it’s clear that we can’t just make digital versions of paper forms and stick them on the internet with a logo at the top. Your digital services should be the fully integrated, constantly evolving, effort-saving, user-delighting culmination of everything you want to do for your tenants, online and off.
So how do we do it?
Most fundamentally, we need to talk to tenants. This isn’t just the province of your tenant engagement teams. Everyone in your organisation needs to understand who your tenants are and what they need; understand their frustrations, their challenges and the things that will delight or infuriate them. And remember that the whole of their interaction with your organisation is in scope, and that exceeding their expectations is everyone’s responsibility.
Whenever you’re facing an implementation decision, refer to your tenants. We need to test everything we build with tenants to ensure that it really works. If you can’t get any insights from tenants, don’t let that hold you up and just make the decision, but make sure you also do something that will give you the answers you need the next time you’re considering a problem.
When you find that your tenants are pushing you in a direction that appears impossible, don’t give up. Question your assumptions, be bold and do the hard work to make things simple.
Change on this scale is a huge challenge so don’t try to do it all at once. Make a small team of bright, energetic, curious people and give them a problem to solve. Don’t make an IT or marketing team solely responsible for the work. Those specialisms are important, but they’re only two of the many you’ll need. A multidisciplinary team is necessary.
Try to find a problem that’s annoying but not too big, and solve it. Don’t rush, but don’t take your time. Momentum is important, and quick progress will prove the approach and galvanise support. The strategy is delivery: the Government Digital Service took GOV.UK from its alpha stage to a live service using just those four words to define their approach. The strategy is delivery.
When you’ve delivered something, figure out what the next thing is, and start working on that. Throughout, revisit the decisions you’ve made so far. When things need to change, change them. Everything should be open to constructive challenge and debate, and nothing is ever finished.
If you’re going to work in this style, making frequent small improvements in a rapidly-changing environment, you’ll also have to manage your technology the right way. If your systems are hard to change, they’ll be a real blocker to your progress.
It’s important to have the right kind of governance. One of the principles of this approach is ‘people over process’. Process is important, but governance works better in person. Whoever is responsible for the work should be hands-on, visible and available to help remove obstacles to progress. Prioritise timely in-person communications over written reports. Manage risks pragmatically, and throughout the project: don’t risk-manage at the start and risk-assure at the end. Do a little bit of both throughout the whole process.
The real challenges that face us are not technological. They are human. Ingrained bureaucracy, unquestioned assumptions, doubt, fear of failure, cynicism and the often-complex circumstances of our tenants are the things we need to tackle.
Over time, you’ll find that a tenant-focused team with freedom to innovate will cause a new breed of startlingly good services to emerge. The majority of your digital spending should be on good people who can take on these challenges and solve them, not on technology. Embrace open source, open standards and open working. You will be amazed at how much better you can make things, compared with how little you spend.
A bright and exciting future is ahead of the housing sector: it has so much potential. It has the independence and the means to be world-leading. It’s yours for the taking.
Harry Metcalfe is the managing director of DXW.