57 minutes | Jun 15, 2019

21. Ruth Ellison of Digital Transformation Agency

In this episode of Dollars to Donuts I speak with Ruth Ellison, Head of User Research at DTA, the Digital Transformation Agency in Australia. We discuss the challenges of user research – and digital product development – in government, embedding researchers into product teams but maintaining a guild model to connect them, and how research can impact policy. My role is really more of an enabling function, looking at how do we bring in the right people into the teams? When they’re here, how do we help mentor them? I’m connecting them to other researchers in our communities. Also trying to look at how we lift the conversation around research. Part of my role is about that strategic aspect of research. How do we do it better? How do we help enable the broad decision making of government? – Ruth Ellison Show Links Fundamentals of Interviewing Users (SF) Ruth on LinkedIn Ruth on Twitter Digital Transformation Agency DTO becomes DTA 18F GDS (Government Digital Service) Leisa Reichelt Leisa Reichelt on Dollars to Donuts (part 1) Leisa Reichelt on Dollars to Donuts (part 2) Canberra Medicare TEDxCanberra Science and Geek themed jewellery Follow Dollars to Donuts on Twitter and help other people find the podcast by leaving a review on Apple Podcasts. Transcript Steve Portigal: Greetings and thanks for checking out this episode of Dollars to Donuts, the podcast where I talk with people who lead user research in their organization. Coming up in San Francisco on September 13th, I’m teaching a public workshop – Fundamentals of Interviewing Users. I’ll put the link in the show notes. I bet you know someone in the San Francisco Bay Area who would get value out of this workshop and I would appreciate you recommending it. I also work with organizations directly to help them elevate their user research practices. Of course, supporting me and my business is the best way for you to support this podcast and help me make more episodes. If you have thoughts about the podcast, reach out to me at DONUTS AT PORTIGAL DOT COM or on Twitter at Dollars To Donuts, that’s d o l l R s T O D o n u t s. I went to a cafe in my neighborhood. I placed my order and then swiped my card in the payment terminal. They told me “We’ll call you when your order is ready” and I went and sat down. I heard a couple of orders get called, “double cappuccino, soy milk latte” etc. After a few minutes they called me: “Steve!” I was briefly taken aback. They never asked me for my name, how did they know that order was for me? I realized that my when I paid for my order by credit card, of course they got my name. But this seemed like a new customer service behavior. I was curious so I paid attention the next time I went to Starbucks. They asked me for my name. They do this before payment. My local Starbucks is inconsistent as to whether or not they ask for my name and whether or not they call out my order by the contents of the order or by my name. There are many regular routines that we go through that become almost scripted, so when something goes off-script, like being called by name when I was never asked for my name, it really jumps out. Eventually the script gets rewritten and we regard the change as familiar, but those moments of change are sometimes tentative moments in an experience. This cafe could have asked me for my name not so they had my name, but so that they could signal to me that they were asking for permission to address me by name in a few minutes. I’m sure there are cases where the name on the credit card doesn’t match to how someone prefers to be addressed. Maybe I’m just too sensitive in noticing this change, to find it an abrupt surprise. But you can just imagine the well-meaning coffee shop staff feeling excited about being able to do this, to get the customer name and call out the orders in a more personalized manner than just “double americano.” They could, but did anyone stop to think if they should? Note that I’m not complaining about my service experience, just reflecting on it to suggest that it’s an interesting moment, when things to change. Knowing that things are going to change is an opportunity to get ahead of that change and try to understand more deeply from the people who use that service what it is that they are expecting, and where there might be mismatches between what you want to do and what that change will mean for these customers. Well, on to the interview. It was wonderful to get to speak with Ruth Ellison and I think you’re going to really like our conversation. She is Head of User Research at the Digital Transformation Agency in Australia. Ruth, welcome to the podcast. Thank you for being here. Ruth Ellison: Thank you, Steve. Glad to be here. Thanks for having me. Steve: So, why don’t we begin as I often do – as we all often do, I guess – ask you for an introduction. Tell us, what do you do? Ruth: Hi. My name is Ruth Ellison. I’m the Head of User Research at the Digital Transformation Agency. So, at DTA – we call it DTA – we love our acronyms in government. So, DTA is a small, and relatively new, government agency set up to actually help Australian government create simple and fast clear services. So, this involves improving the skill sets of people who work in the space, the digital space, and also just helping looking at projects and how we do digital transformation across government. Steve: So, what is digital transformation? Ruth: Oh, that’s the million-dollar question. Steve: Do I have to pay a million dollars to get the answer? Ruth: It seems that we’ve got a digital transformation strategy. Um, for me it’s really about how we’re transforming the way government thinks and approach problems. How do we help our citizens interact with government in ways that are better? So, we use digital, but really for me it’s not just about digital. It’s about the people. It’s about the services and how we move to much more human centered lens to problem solving and problem definition and even just the way we deliver our services. Steve: And then who are the – I don’t know if clients is the right word, but who do you engage with within governments? Ruth: So, the DTA has a very interesting function. We’re a centralized government agency, very small. There’s only a few hundred of us. Our clients are actually other government agencies, mostly at the federal level. Because we have three levels of government in Australia – federal, state and local. So, we work mostly at the federal level, but part of our function is also looking – we have services cross between boundaries of government and how does that work across? So, our clients are mostly at the federal level. The other government agencies, often very, very large or very small, it doesn’t matter the size. What matters is what are they doing that involves interactions with their users, which is normally citizens or businesses and organizations. Steve: What are different ways that those relationships get initiated in government? Ruth: This is interesting for us. A lot of work comes through, depending on the size of the project, as opposed to the size of the problem, is actually involved in investments that’s over a certain number of dollars, but we’re also interested in projects that have a social impact as well. So, if it meets a range of our internal priorities we’re keen to get involved. So, the internet really involves a way to transform the way government interacts with citizens. We’re interested in reaching out and working with people. So, it’s not just government. We also work with government and not for profits and other private organizations to work out what’s the best way to collaborate and finding ways of working. It’s really exciting. Steve: Can you give some examples, over the last few years, what kinds of things that DTA has worked on? Ruth: Yeah, so part of our transformation agenda is how do we uplift the skillsets required to work in these ways? I’ve been involved in a few projects back in earlier days of DTA – it’s called Digital Transformation Office. One of them was actually around looking at how people – this might sound really boring, but it actually was fascinating, about tax obligations. So, we’re looking at the space of how do people start up small businesses and what are the kind of challenges and barriers that they face when interacting with government. So, we went to the full discovery process, going through discovery. We do alpha, beta and live. So, discovery was really about what is this problem space looking like for starting a business. As a government we have a lot of assumptions around how people interact with us in our role within people’s lives, but it’s really – discovery, quickly discover that there’s a lot of other factors and lots of other interactions that happen that can be quite surprising. Based on that the team actually – we actually narrowed it down and actually looked at this particularly interesting space, like the maker movement and the people who are making a lot of jewelry, or they’re crafting beers, or they’re doing very niche kind of things where it’s kind of a hobby at the moment. They start shifting over into potentially a small business. That space is fraught with a lot of questions and uncertainty from our citizens because they’re not sure if, “what happens if I don’t say anything to the tax office?” Do I get a tax debt down the track? You don’t want to end up with a $20,000 debt. It’s very scary. How do we actually help solve that particular problem? So, through this kind of discovery and alpha process we narrow it down and actually helped, I think, three agencies, work on this particular problem and how we define what people’s obligations are to the
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