67 minutes | Jan 6, 2020

27. Colin MacArthur of the Canadian Digital Service

In this episode of Dollars to Donuts I chat with Colin MacArthur, the Head of Design Research at the Canadian Digital Service. We talk about bureaucracy hacking, spreading the gospel of research throughout government, and embedding researchers in complex domains. Often the idiosyncrasies in people’s research and the sort of surprises that don’t fit within the template are the most important things that our researchers find. – Colin MacArthur Show Links It Choose You Miranda July The Future PennySaver Advancing Research conference Colin on LinkedIn Colin on Twitter Canadian Digital Service Treasury Board of Canada Scott Brison, Canada’s First Minister of Digital Government Public opinion research Snowball sampling Randomized controlled trial Stand-up meeting Homepage Usability by Jakob Nielsen and Marie Tahir U.S. National Park Service Wizard of Oz ResearchOps Follow Dollars to Donuts on Twitter and help other people find the podcast by leaving a review on Apple Podcasts. Transcript Steve Portigal: Welcome to Dollars to Donuts, the podcast where I talk with the people who lead user research in their organization. I just read the 2011 book “It Chooses You” by filmmaker and artist Miranda July. It’s one of the best books about ethnographic research that isn’t really actually about ethnographic research. In the book she describes a period of her life where she was creatively stalled in finishing the screenplay for her film “The Future.” As a way to either get unblocked or just avoid what she should be working on, she develops another project, to call people who have placed ads in the free classified newspaper the PennySaver, and arrange to come to their homes and interview them. She reports on each of the interviews, including excerpts of the transcripts, and some amazing photographs. The interviews are sort of about the thing being sold, but because she’s getting outside of her cultural bubble, she takes a wider view, asking people about a period in their life when they were happy and whether or not they used a computer (since even in 2011 a newspaper with classified ads was a relic of a previous era). These interviews are confounding, hilarious, disturbing, touching – everything you’d hope. And July is honest about what makes her uncomfortable, about her own failures to properly exhibit empathy when it’s needed, or her challenge in exercising caution in some dodgy situations while still being open to connecting with strangers. She incorporates her feelings about her own life as she hears from people about their hopes and their reflections back on their lives, lived well or not so well. She articulates her own judgements about the people she met and how that informs her current thinking about her own life and her aspirations for her future. In one chapter she meets Beverly, a woman with Bengal leopard babies and birds and sheep and dogs. Beverly was clearly excited for Miranda’s visit, and prepared an enormous amount of fruit-and-marshmallow salad which neither July nor her crew want, but accept out of politeness, eager to get away from Beverly and her home, but then head straight to a gas station and throw the marshmallow salad in the trash, covering it up with newspaper in case Beverly stops by. Reading it, I felt my own judgement of Miranda for her judgement of Beverly, but I can imagine doing the exact same thing in a similar circumstance, and I appreciate July’s ability to observe her own judgment and infuse it with compassion at the same time. Ultimately, she views her struggles to connect as her own personal failure, saying “the fullness of Beverly’s life was menacing to me – there was no room for invention, no place for the kind of fictional conjuring that makes me feel useful, or feel anything at all. She wanted me to just actually be there and eat fruit with her.” In articulating something so nuanced and personal, we learn an awful lot about Miranda July as well as all the people, like Beverly, that she meets. I can’t believe it took me this long to finally read this book, and I can’t recommend it highly enough. Through Dollars to Donuts, I’m gathering stories about maturing research teams, looking for best practices, emergent approaches, and insights about organizational culture. This is of course highly related to the services I offer as a consultant. In addition to leading research studies in collaboration with my clients, I also help organizations plan and strategize about how to improve the impact research is having. Whether that’s working as a coach for individuals or teams, or running workshops, or advising on best practices, or leading training sessions, there’s a number of different ways you can engage with me. Please get in touch and let’s explore what the ideal collaboration would look like. You can email me about this, or with feedback about the podcast, at donuts@portigal.com. Coming up soon is the first Advancing Research conference. Rosenfeld Media is putting on this conference March 30th through April 1st 2020, at the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens New York. I’ve been working on the curation team helping to assemble the program and it’s looking like a really fantastic event. I’ll put the URL for the conference in the show notes. You can use my discount code Portigal dash ar10 to save 10 percent on your registration. I hope to see you there! All right, on to my interview with Colin MacArthur, the Head of Design Research at the Canadian Digital Service. Well, thanks so much for being on the podcast. I’m really happy to get to speak with you. Colin MacArthur: My pleasure. Thanks so much for having me. Steve: All right, let’s just start with who you are? What role do you have? What organization do you work for? I’ll just throw all the launching stuff onto you and we’ll go from there. Colin: Absolutely. My name is Colin MacArthur. I’m the Head of Design Research at the Canadian Digital Service. We are an office of the Treasury Board of Canada that works with departments across the Canadian federal government to improve the way they serve their constituents. We do that on my team using design research and by helping people inside the government get closer to the folks who they’re trying to service. We do that in partnership with designers and engineers and product managers and policy experts on interdisciplinary teams, but the perspective that the researchers bring is a hard and fast focus on the people who we’re trying to serve and what their experience with our services is like. Steve: Why is this under Treasury? Colin: (laughs) Good question. The Canadian federal government, or government of Canada is organized with departments and then with a number of central agencies. And Treasury Board is one of those central agencies. Its name is a little odd in that it’s not actually the department of finance. It’s not the Ministry of Finance. It plays a central role in sort of managing and consulting with other departments about how they run themselves. It’s a management board of government. And so we are in kind of an interesting place because from Treasury Board we have a view of lots of interesting things happening across government. We’re positioned kind of naturally to give advice and also learn from departments that we work with and then to work across lots of different departments in a way that would be a little more unusual if we were nestled inside a dedicated department itself. So, Treasury Board is sort of one of the central agencies of the government and that’s why we’ve ended up where we are. Steve: Is that where the Canadian Digital Service originated? Colin: That’s exactly right. So, we’re relatively new. Founded just a couple of years ago and we started right in the same place we still are, inside Treasury Board, reporting to Canada’s first Minister for Digital Government who was also the President of the Treasury Board. Steve: What’s the relationship between digital service and, I don’t know, what would you call like regular service. Like the things that government does. Because you included policy in kind of the mix of people that you collaborate with. So, everyone else you listed seemed – design, engineering, research, PM – seems very – yeah, this is how sort of software is made. How digital services are made. But policy – and this is from someone outside government, so maybe it’s a naïve question, but policy just sort of begs the question for me, like oh what’s digital versus just services? Colin: Yeah. What a good question. I think the way we choose to look at it is we’re interested in improving services, period. So that means the elements of those services that are online, but also the elements that are offline and drift into paper processes and drift into things that are more typical policy problems. But in this day and age it’s pretty hard to have a meaningful discussion about service in general without talking about the digital pieces of those services. So, when we put together teams to work with departments we absolutely come with a digital emphasis. That’s one of the strengths that we can bring. That’s one of the pools of expertise that we have. But we’re just as interested in looking at the non-digital sides of that service. And in reality, they all fit together and attempts to kind of separate them out into the website and the paper part are often pretty hard and don’t end very well for the people we’re trying to serve. So, we kind of view ourselves as tied up in both and we try to staff our teams with expertise that allows us to do that. That said, our name is the Canadian Digital Service and I think often our entrée is our digital skills. But we try to be more than that. We don’t think digital problems can really be solved by just looking at the technology piece. Steve: That seems to me analogous with
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