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

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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 government, and how we can make that a little bit easier?

Steve: What gets output from that process and what gets made or implemented by an agency as a result of that kind of program?

Ruth: I think people hear the word digital and they tend to assume is it a digital product? In this case it was, but some other projects were not. In this particular case we end up with like a little smart, online, questionnaire toolset, but we didn’t know that was what we were going to have. The team was quite deliberate in starting out very open to look at what is the actual problems and what’s the context of these lives that we’re trying to understand because we can’t just assume that a digital tool is going to solve that particular theme. And it’s a bit of a mind shift for government because often it’s quicker just to go down, and just – we’re going to have an app or a new website to fix this. And part of this way of working is going actually, it’s not actually true. Are there other ways we can solve this? And how do we make people’s lives easier. So, we did end up the digital thing and end with this and it actually crosses over multiple agencies which for those that don’t work in government, it’s actually a very challenging space. Agencies tend to work in silos, just for the nature of the way we fund projects and the way we work, and the way skillsets are built, that it’s very sell into one agency at a time. So, to have something that worked across multiple departments and agencies was actually a really amazing achievement and was well done to the teams for being part of this process and actually being willing to change as we went along and learn lots of new stuff about our users?

Steve: You’re talking about the teams in these agencies, that they’re open to that?

Ruth: Yes. So, I think in the earlier days of DTO or DTA people treated this as a bit of an experiment. So, what we did was we formed multidisciplinary teams. So, we didn’t have user research going out doing research and throwing it over the fence. We’re trying to shift that mindset because traditionally a lot of research happening to government is very much on the valuative side. We do a lot of usability testing. We do a report so you kind of give it back to the teams and they do stuff with it and you hope they implement some of it. This was about trying to change the way we approach research, but approach the whole problem landscape. So, the team was formed from, I think, 3 or 4 different agencies, including us. I was actually one of the researchers embedded into that particular team at that time. So, this was before my Head of Research job. And then we actually worked with the teams, with developers, business subject matter experts, taxation experts, and my favorite, a lawyer, as well on how we actually tackle this. And the reason we start looking at those kind of skillsets was because we find if we’re just doing a very IT focused problem and we don’t then look at the problem from a human lens, it comes down to a very technical solution. So, by bringing people like the business folks in and the lawyers, we start having this kind of transformation that occurs that’s very different. So, the lawyer, I was working with her and before she joined the team she was saying we have to send stuff up to her team and they’ll approve the wording, and everything go out to the users. And it was slowing down the processes of how we do design and research. So, the team asked her to join our team and she became embedded. She went from this process of “research stuff, that’s not really what I do. I’m here to be your taxation expert and your lawyer, or the legal expert” to coming on all the research and just changing her mindset on how we actually approach the way we word things. So, going from “we can’t say that because it’s not how government says things,” to “that’s not going to work for the people we saw,” was a massive mindset shift and it was fascinating.

Steve: What do you think – how did you create the conditions for her to have that kind of personal/professional transformation?

Ruth: So, that’s an interesting question. It really comes to the whole team. We were very lucky to have a team of people from different agencies who were willing to try these new ways of working. A lot of them had done our job before, but not necessarily worked where you have all these multiple skillsets in one team, embedded for a 20-week process of trying to go through a full discovery all the way up to releasing something. So, part of that was we have social contracts in place as a team and how do we create a safe environment – psychologically safe – where we can raise things and challenge each other and it’s okay to do that? It was an active work every day. You know the whole team is working on these kind of ways of working to say it’s okay to come along. It’s okay to not agree with things, but come along and let’s just try having an open mind when we’re going out to do this research. And let’s just observe and we’ll come back and as a team we do our analysis and our synthesis together. And that really helped her and the other team members transformation of their mindset because everyone was involved in the process. Not just me as a researcher bringing somebody else out with me. And I think that was a significant mindset change.

Steve: So, this group of people, 20 weeks – like how big was the team?

Ruth: The team was – I think we had about 8-10. The size of the team changes and even now in my role as Head of Research we help teams to understand that the team does change. The nature of the team changes over the course of these phases. So, that was – we kept it small for that particular team because we had to move fairly quickly. We had to deliver something. But we also had to show the teams how we could uplift the kind of capability in both research and the other kind of specialist skillsets. There was agile skillsets. There was things around development. But my job was to lead the research transformation.

Steve: When you say uplift, does this mean that people that participate in this 20 weeks come back to their agency afterwards with – they’ve gone through some professional development?

Ruth: Yeah. So, the goal is for them to go back to their home agencies or departments and actually continue the momentum. So, we learn a lot about that process. That’s a whole = how do you build momentum and continue momentum when you’ve taken the team out of their context in their daily working lives? So, they were embedded into our agency for that 20 weeks where while we create the space for them to do that. We had the walls. We had the equipment that we could take them out. It was very different when they went home. So, we learned a lot about that process and we iterate throughout our services as a result. But for them it’s about how do we enable those kind of processes and systems for them to learn these things and to take home and keep going with it. For example, they had somebody whose job was, I think, to shadow me and actually pick up the sort of research skillset so they could try to take that back home and do a bit more of a deeper dive in research.

Steve: It seems like there’s two sort of – I’m sure there’s multiple objectives, but it seems like one objective is go through this 20 weeks in order to launch something – in this case this sort of small web questionnaire that you created. I think it’s on the web?

Ruth: Yeah, yeah. It’s live.

Steve: So, the project has an objective and an outcome, but the objective for this whole engagement is to uplift the skills so that people can keep going afterwards?

Ruth: Yeah, yeah.

Steve: Are those two objectives in harmony when you do a program like this?

Ruth: That’s a really good question and that’s part of our learnings from this, about what is the measure of success when we’re talking about increasing kind of skillsets within the research space. They’re kind of what we call the specialty skillsets. How do we be clear about what that measuring was? I think part of my learning personally going through that was that wasn’t quite as clear back then. So, we had some tension at times where the team needed to show something to deliver and then at the same time I’m trying to uplift the research capability to show the rigueur, to show how do we work in these ways? Now our screen cycles were only a week at a time. It was very, very fast. And taking people through a very – what was like a very uncomfortable process. And it’s uncomfortable. They’re getting challenged every single day and our job is to help them through and navigate through that process. So, yeah, it creates tension. But, as I said, we have integrated as a result of learning, going through those programs to look at how do we now better serve our customers which are the other government agencies?

Steve: Where – if we were to sort of draw an org chart in the air – maybe it’s not an org chart for the government – where does DTA reside within the structure of the Australian government?

Ruth: Yeah, we have an interesting function. So, we are not a delivery arm. We touch on policy work. But we sit under the Prime Minister and Cabinet kind of function. So, what that means is we are this centralized agency. I think maybe the closest equivalent might be the 18F in the U.S. A little bit of GDS in the U.K. I’m not sure what the Canadian version would be. We have a little bit of that kind of function where it’s not tied into any particular agency because my job is to work across government agencies. But that brings its own challenges around – particularly around the research practices, how we – I’m going to come back to this at some point about how we manage our knowledge across government. A lot of research is happening across many, many agencies. So, we’ve got this uplift function, but as my role as Head of Research I’m also interested in how we manage those other functions within government as well as it relates to research, as a point of research practice?

Steve: Sorry, other functions?

Ruth: Yeah, so at the moment, because I do a lot of – I help teams do a lot of recruitment, but it’s internally within our organization or other government agencies. So, they reach out and go, “Ruth, we need to hire a researcher. We’re not quite sure what to look for. Can you help?” So, it’s about reaching out, how do we help them and craft – how do help them find the right fit of people? Are they doing a discovery piece? Or are they doing just a lot of very heavy product work that’s just iterating just a product day to day to day? And trying to work out what is it that they actually need and how does that work and what kind of researcher would they need? So, helping them find that right fit because we don’t have a pool of people. We’re a very small agency, so we just can’t pop out and just embed into teams. We did that before in the past. It doesn’t scale for us, so now we’re working how we support those functions? Other things we’re also looking at is how do we manage the knowledge that we build with government among our citizens? We have so much research and we spend a lot of money as a government looking at our citizens experience, their interactions with government, but it’s often done in those individual organizations. So, they might have lots of data internally, but what happens when we start needing to look between those touch points, between the different agencies? How does research work in those spaces in between? Because people are having a very agency focused view of their citizens. So, part of our – one of our functions is actually looking at how we provide a more holistic lens across government to show that when a citizen engages in government it’s not just a departmental time, but it’s actually a range of organizations, whether it’s government, private sector, friends, networks – whatever it is. How we show that relationship in the context of people’s lives, so it’s bigger than just one particular service or element of a service?

Steve: Are there aspects of how government is structured? I don’t know whether that’s regulatory or funding? Because every big organization has sort of siloed research and siloed data and doesn’t treat the user experience as coming across all those things. I think that’s common above a certain size, but I’m wondering are there any interesting compounding factors in the way that government works that maybe changes that – how you even try to address those problems.

Ruth: Yeah, it’s a very good point because different government agencies have different rules around data collection and different legislation around how much and what data you collect. There’s often discussion that as user researchers, the kind of data we collect may not necessarily be the same kind of data that the legislation demands that we collect a bunch of other things. So, often there’s tension of going well, we’re here to understand about our citizens. How do we collect that – the people might go the consenters only allowed it to be shared within that particular department. So, it’s like hitting up against issues around consent and do we start looking at broader consent around all of government? Or is it mostly just federal government? Or is it just between portfolios of government? We haven’t nutted out that issue yet. So, it’s a challenge that we’re working on right now because content is actually a big, big problem space for us. Like we want to do research that’s ethical and safe and it’s really challenging when you’ve got multiple agencies who are funded separately. Back in the private sector days I will come, and I will do work for one organization at a time. This feels like we just up the whole scale of the problem because now we’re taking it across multiple agencies who may not necessarily want to share, or be as comfortable sharing, what they have. For a number of reasons. Whether they feel it’s a reputational risk – because we deal a lot with risk as government. There’s always focuses about risk. And I think about what happens if people find out people said that about our service? We don’t want people to know that people say that about our service. So, you get those kinds of complicated…

Steve: Oh, so there’s a risk to the agency.

Ruth: Reputation.

Steve: If the feedback or any kind of user data that’s critical of that agency that becomes public – if you’re a civil servant you don’t want that.

Ruth: There’s some mindsets – I believe they call it reputational risks for government. So, it’s one of the challenges heading up research is how do we deal with that kind of mindset and how to shift some of that thinking as well. So, a lot of framing I’ve been using a lot more recently is about this is about risk reduction and increasing the certainty in the decisions we’re making that’s policy or your product or your features – you know whatever scale we’re talking about, research helps you with that decision making. We’re not something that you just do on the side and just throw it over. That actually becomes part of your decision-making processes and one of your many inputs. Because end of day we understand that people have a lot of pressures and they’re making decisions about why they release some things, whether it’s a policy or a government service. But how do we help them do those things a bit better. So, that framing around risk reduction or reducing certainty – it speaks a language of some people.

Steve: That also sounds like private sector product development. The consequences are different. It’s not just about finances. It’s about other – I’m gathering that you’re in a situation where there’s other consequences besides profit of the organization in the commercial sector. So, you said reputational risk is a very tangible thing that people are kind of operating around.

Ruth: Another challenge that government – we work in a four-year cycle over here in Australia. So, the cycle of government, if it’s incoming, is it a different change of government happening? The agendas may change as well and that would change the focus of your research. When you’re trying to be a little more strategic with research it can change that function, or not. Like we have that additional level of think of. So, although on the one hand we still need to understand our users, our citizens, no matter what. No matter what government is in power we still have – it’s still a part of our function in the role as a researcher to keep that understanding going and to keep developing that deep understanding. But the stuff that it aligns to in the strategic decision making does change and that’s always an interesting factor in working with government. It’s what actually made me – it’s one of the things that made me leave private sector to come here was the complexity of all these kind of nitty gritty things that look so simple on the outside, but it’s actually really complex and really messy. And I love that.

Steve: Okay, what do you love about that? That sounds like something that some people might run away from, but you’re drawn to it.

Ruth: Because it’s hard. It’s really, really hard. I’ve been a consultant for 7/8 – for many years – and I enjoyed that breadth of consulting. But what I found as a consultant, I would go – we’d go in and we’d help people do the – you get the joy of seeing something happen, but I was – I reached a point in my career where I wanted to see that really affect change on a much greater scale and affect it in a much longer kind of timeframe as well. So, I was at a point as a consultant where you do things and it affects a particular project or a program. And actually, when I started looking at how do we affect the whole scale change in government and how do we start shifting that mindset? It was hard to do it as a consultant. So, I thought the only thing I could maybe try doing is to join the public service. So, 2 ½ years ago I left the private sector and I’d come in to try to do this with a bunch of other really smart people across all levels of government, trying to look at how we do this transformation. And it’s hard and I like that because it’s – you’re in for the long haul. You’re in for this massive change. You know it’s not easy and we’re doing this kind of research that’s really – you look at the behavior in organizational and government level change and it’s just complex and it’s fun. Exhausting, but fun.

Steve: So, you’re describing in the consulting world there’s moments or points in the process where you draw satisfaction or some sense of reward from.

Ruth: Yeah.

Steve: And now you’re in this much more complex situation. It’s hard. I’m sort of inferring things take time. What rewards do you identify yourself? Whether it’s milestones or successes, like what keeps you going in a very hard endeavor that you’ve chosen?

Ruth: For me it’s about the empowering of others. One thing you said, it’s about we help people. We like to help people. That’s why we do the role that we do. And for me this is about how do we help at scale? Our government has been doing things for a very long time and there are some very, very smart people in government that often bog down in the structures of government, the bureaucracy, that sometimes doesn’t enable the kind of stuff that these smart people are working on. So, what gives me satisfaction is being able to help some of that transformation. To help others empower them to do this stuff better. And the satisfaction I get is when somebody has that kind of mindset shift and they’re taking this stuff back home. Or, they’re coming back to me later and go, “Ruth, it’s been a year since I’ve seen you, but here’s what I’ve done.” And they themselves have gone back and been this change agent for not just research, but for just human centered – good, human centered thinking. And it’s great when you see that kind of stuff happen. So, helping others to do this stuff better.

Steve: You said the long haul and that makes me think as someone who is a consultant, you’re done. You’re not there to get that feedback or to see the consequences. Or you have to kind of find your way back in to say hey what happened a year later? So, if these are longer term working relationships that you have, you’re able to hear from those people and see kind of what’s happening.

Ruth: Yeah.

Steve: Maybe we can talk about the Head of User Research role. When did that come about? How did it come about?

Ruth: So, Head of Research, I’ve been doing that for about over a year, maybe two years now. We had a previous head of – it was actually design research – Lisa Reichheldt, who you would know. When she left they actually split that role up to two. Her role was an executive level role, but they’re not splitting up the role and taking it down a level. So, it was an interesting organizational change I think – into a Head of Service Design and Head of Research. We also have Head of Content Strategy and Head of Interaction Design who are my equivalents. So, my role involves helping my agency, and across government, to really better the practice of research. I find I’m doing a lot of it – I don’t do as much research anymore nowadays. My role is really more of an enabling function. So, part of that is looking at how do we bring in the right people into the teams. When they’re here, how do we help mentor them? So, part of my role is I catch up with a lot of the researchers and check in how they’re going. I’m connecting them to other researchers as well in our communities. And also trying to look at how we put together much more – how we lift the conversation around research. So, part of my role is actually about that strategic aspect of research. How do we do it better? How do we help enable the broad decision making of government? We’re also starting to see a shift to much more policy sides rather than just product and services – up into policy land where a policy can trigger many, many services and products. So, that’s really fascinating as well. And I’m really enjoying that kind of aspect as well. The other parts of the role is really – we look after a guild. So, I don’t know if – I’ve heard other organizations have this structure too. So, our researchers who come into our organization are embedded into product teams, but we have a guild that then unites all of those researchers and those interested in research to come together once a fortnight and actually share the knowledge. So, it could be – for example, I’ll be going back and doing a sharing of what I might learn at a conference. Somebody might share about something happening in their project. A problem that they’re having. How do we solve it together? So, the guild is almost like a tribe that cuts across our organization no matter what team you’re from and it unites us as a practice. And that’s how I work through that kind of process to enable the better uplift of our practice.

And externally, my job is just to advocate for the research role. So, I often get called in to talk to other executives about what does this research mean? “Don’t we do this stuff?” “Haven’t we been doing this stuff for years?” Answering those kind of questions. Look at how it helps them in their strategic perspective. How it helps in their decision making? And also, just help their staff connect better and just do the craft better.

Steve: You said before how one of the things you’re doing is helping agencies hire into that agency as opposed to into DTA – hire researchers directly into those agencies.

Ruth: Yeah.

Steve: Are those – and then you’re talking now about sort of maintaining connections with researchers through sort of formal and informal methods. I’m just trying to understand, is that within DTA only? Is there engagement with these other agency researchers, I guess I’d call them?

Ruth: Yeah. So, the supporting through the guild is a DTA only thing that we do. Or anyone that comes into DTA on a short-term project, we connect them up into the guild, so we can support them that way. But for the broader government we actually got a Google mailing list. It’s called a service design user research mailing list. It covers design and research and we support people through that. But it’s not just us – we’re a facilitator, so our job is to connect others to each other because we’ve got amazing people out in government and if they connect – and peer – we learn from each other. That’s a really good thing. So, we’re not the be all to end all. We’re that connecting function. I think some of these we’re brokering. You know we help broker relationships as well. Otherwise, it can come across as oh we have to go through DTA, or do we have to be involved in all this stuff? No, because it’s about enabling others, empowering others to connect and keep growing together.

Steve: So, there might be a researcher in one agency that you know and another researcher in another agency that you also know, but they don’t know each other.

Ruth: Yeah.

Steve: And if there’s something going on you might say oh this is the researcher you should talk to.

Ruth: Yeah. So if somebody – say they’re trying out a particular technique for the first time and I go so and so from here has actually done it before, have a chat to them about how they do it because they would have some good learnings in the government context of what worked and what didn’t work and it will just help speed you up when you try and do this yourself.

Steve: So, in DTA itself, you listed a bunch of different functions that you have kind of peers leading. I’m sort of wondering how the team sizes vary? I don’t know if team is the right word, but sort of the number of people maybe in each of those functions?

Ruth: At the moment I think we’ve got around 13 researchers, but the number varies significantly across DTA depending on the projects that we’re supporting at the time. It also doesn’t include the projects that we support that belong to other agencies. So, that number scales. At one point I was working on project that had 18 researchers and that was just within the one project. So, that was a good question there about scaling and processes and ethics and all of that. But the number changes and what’s interesting is that the recruitment is done by the product owner and we provide a supporting function to help them get the right fit. But it’s done by the products where the person comes – they join the product team. So, they don’t belong to my team of researchers. It’s more of a virtual kind of team if that makes sense. It’s where the guild/tribe comes in. And those product teams, they usually range between the kind of 6/10 kind of sizing and there’s usually a dedicated research function in there. Not all teams can have one because as a government we often have budget constraints. So, we have people who do research who are not necessarily researchers. But we try to encourage that specialism, whether it’s a researcher or a service designer or an interaction designer because they bring a depth and they’re upskilling people on their team as they’re doing it too.

Steve: So, someone could be hired into DTA as a researcher, but the thing they’re spending their time on is a project team?

Ruth: Yes. Yeah, that’s right. Although I try to steal some time to work on our community, our practice matter things. One of the things at the moment is we’re reiterating through our processes and policies at the moment. So, through guilds – we use the guild as a bit of a working spot as well. We come together one hour a fortnight and we use it to work out what we want to tackle next and how to improve this particular process. So, I try to steal time that way from those teams to enable our better practices.

Steve: For Australian government employees, how geographically dispersed are they?

Ruth: So DTA, because we’re so small, we’re based mostly in Canberra which is the capital of Australia, and very small. I think we’re only about 400,000 people that lives in Canberra. Our other office is in Sydney which is even smaller. What makes it interesting, when you have that kind of diversity in spaces, is that other agencies are even bigger than us and they have many more people scattered around Australia. But the challenge I think that comes to research is recruiting. Finding strong talent in Canberra can be challenging as well and often people – I love Canberra, but lots of people – there’s always jokes about Canberra. Honestly, it’s too cold. It can snow in winter. It’s cold. It’s cold in Canberra and it’s hot in the summer. It’s small. We’re inland. People have the stereotypes with it being a government town. So, there are all these stereotypes around Canberra being a boring place. It’s actually not. It’s actually a beautiful place and I love it. But recruitment becomes really challenging. How do you encourage people to leave their beautiful cities of Melbourne? Leave Sydney and come spend some time. So, part of it is trying to shift the conversation around how do we work on more meaningful work instead and shifting the conversation around that. So, I think I always joked to Leisa before about do we need to have a recruitment video to show people, hey, it’s great, come work in Canberra. But it does change the way then on recruitment and how we uplift capability within existing skillsets as well.

Steve: Can we go back to something you were saying about policy? I want to understand maybe the mechanics of that more. I understand that the policy is set by parts of the government and then, as you said, that impacts the products that are being created. But you were describing maybe a different cycle, I think, or a different stroke in that cycle where the work that you’re doing can – is it correct to say that it’s impacting policy?

Ruth: Yeah.

Steve: What’s the dynamic there, I guess, is really my question?

Ruth: So, there’s been a shift – more recent shift in government. And I think you’ll see that globally – in global governments as well about how we shift this more human centered thinking and lenses over to policy lens. Traditionally in policy I do a lot of research. When you create a policy, they go out and do big scale studies. There are certain methodologies for policy research. But part of what we’re trying to help is how do we get the policy folks who are creating this policy actually out in the field, actually talking to the people who are impacted by this policy, and actually going out into the communities that will be impacted down the track by this, and actually understand that context. So, some people do do that already, but it’s not necessarily the norm. So, we’re trying to look at how do we shift some of that thinking and that’s part of my kind of focus at the moment is how we start working towards that lens and it’s really interesting. Because you know people have been doing policy creation for years. It’s not a new thing. A research lens is not a new thing, but the way we do our kind of research is actually new for them. And trying to help people, going, actually this stuff that we do is not just a digital thing. There’s a bit of a perception that oh, this kind of research is to create digital products, right? And you go, actually no, we can actually apply it across a range of things. Because it’s really about understanding people, understanding what is it like to – whether it’s government or whatever it is – what does a person’s day in the life sort of look like in this space. Especially when it’s government, we’re serving such a diverse range of people from our indigenous communities. Those are very disadvantaged. To those that might be on the other end of the scale as well. All the way to large scale businesses. It’s such an amazing, diverse set of users. So, how do we kind of work together to shift that thinking? It’s a good challenge and one that I think will take time as well.

Steve: It seems very analogous to working with those agencies – your phrase of uplifting their skills – those product people are starting in a different place than your policy people are, but it sounds like it’s the same thing. We want to help you to understand the benefit of going out to the communities and seeing what’s going on.

Ruth: Yeah. As I mentioned earlier – I remember starting government 17 years ago working on range of systems and our work involved doing usability testing. You see people using your thing. So, research in that aspect is not new, but I think the more general style in exploratory style research is new, or newer for government now because it’s been happening for the last few years. So, seeing that shift has been really interesting, to say how do we help you do more of that style of research as well. And they’re all very valuable and the stuff you were doing before, usability testing was great, and it’s got a purpose, but how do we shift that conversation to talk about are we actually solving the right problems. I think that comes under the guise of maybe a lot on the innovation labs and design thinking. At the end of the day for me it’s about the fundamentals of who are these people we’re designing for and what problems are we trying to solve, and how do we understand the needs deeply? How we get there – there will be a range in methods – how to help people work out what that combination of methods are.

Steve: When we talk about research methods that’s often about how do we get this data from these users we’re trying to understand but your emphasis seems very strongly on how do we engage the different people that work in government to learn that and do that and use it? It sounds like – the word methods to me would encompass what you’re doing there as well.

Ruth: Methods, approaches. Yeah, it is. I mean it’s one of the things – words have meaning, and words are powerful. Within government, when we talk about research, you’re talking about methods. People go what are we talking about in there? Are we talking about market message? We do a lot of that. You know is it just a design thinking thing which is also a big buzzword. Or is it this agile thing. Being clear about what’s the outcome we’re trying to achieve as government. I use the word methods, but really, it’s about that focus of we know we have an outcome, how do we best meet that and make sure we’re doing something that’s good for our users that doesn’t disadvantage them, but hopefully improves their lives as well.

Steve: It would be great to talk a little about what your trajectory was through your education and your professional work that kind of led you on the path. Talk a little bit about the consulting work before government – maybe just go back a little further and talk about where did you start to see this path that you’ve been on?

Ruth: I actually totally by accident fell into it. I started off as a business analyst designing mainframe screens. That was over 17 years ago, my first kind of proper design kind of job. I had no idea what mainframes were at that time. What is this thing? And it was just by the luck of the draw, I happened to be sitting next to a team that was the very first user centered design team in Australian government. So, I would hear them. They go out and they do these things. They come back, and they would share these stories about the people that they were meeting and the kind of feedback they had about the products they were testing. I said what are they doing? This stuff is really interesting. So, being a curious person, I stuck my head up over the fence and asked them what is it that you’re doing? Tell me about this user centered design stuff. I never covered that in my university degree. We covered all about systems gathering and requirements gathering, all these different methodologies that you do to do that – never once heard about this human centered stuff before. So, by accident I heard that, and I just asked can I join the team? I thought what’s the worst they can say? No. And then I’ll just keep doing what I’m doing and keep trying to find a way. So, I asked and I joined that team. And so, I had my grounding by learning on the job. So, starting government 17 years ago, just learning about what this user centered design stuff was. Really loved it so much and then went back to uni to try to get a masters in human factors, back in the day.

Steve: What was your first degree in?

Ruth: My first degree was information technology and systems. So, very, very IT driven. So, I come from that kind of analytic lens. But doing more of this stuff I just realized I love research. But it was a gradual thing because I didn’t know that such a job existed. And it could be a reflection of Australia at the time because 17 years ago the whole user centered design movement was happening, or starting to happen. Companies were getting set up to do this kind of space. Government agencies were thinking about this stuff and doing usability testing. That’s what my UCD was at the time. So, that was my first foray to this field. From there, and I think like many other people in Australia, we were generalists. We came from UCD to a UX generalist. We did everything, including research and prototyping, everything. But I found soon enough – I quickly realized that research was my passion. I just wanted to do more of this stuff. I think I just got really interested in what people do and say and think and why do they do certain things. And that was fascinating. So, over the next 17 years I ended up leaving government and then going out into consulting. I was head huntered to come and do this work and it was great. So, I did that and was working in the private sector for quite a while and had this broad range of experiences. And then from there, that’s when I decided okay, I’ve been doing this stuff for a while, I’m enjoying it. I’m enjoying being a principal and helping others be better at the consulting craft. But that’s when I then came back to how do I do this longer term, impactful thing around government because that’s where I live and I’m really passionate to see how they improve government. There’s just so much interesting work happening in that space. So, that’s when I made the leap back. So, I started off at DTA as one of the lead senior researchers that they had and then when Lisa left I took over and became Head of Research.

Steve: When you think about the time that you were consulting, as someone who – I’m sorry. I’m going to go back to something else. You started talking about going back to uni for – was it human factors?

Ruth: Human factors – yeah back in the day there was human factors. But we didn’t have all the amazing design degrees we have now. Back then it was – that was the closest thing I could find because I wanted to improve – I just wanted to broaden my skillset in this kind of human centered design space and the only thing we had at the time as human factors. So, I was doing that remotely. I was also one of the first few students who was doing remote uni work. They’d never had that before. It was challenging. And I got to work and learned with a bunch of people who were designing airplanes and aircrafts and hospital systems. And when I’d introduce myself it was like I work for government and I design systems, it was very jarring for me to go wow these people are doing stuff that – massive design things, so if you get it wrong it falls out of the sky or people die. And I was just designing systems. But it was such a good grounding for me because human factors really is about that processing, that cognition. It really drew upon the school of psychology and the sciences as well, from this particular course that I was doing.

Steve: Was there ever a point at which you started to identify yourself as a researcher specifically?

Ruth: That’s a good question. That’s hard because in Australia people have mostly been generalists. That’s how it just evolves. And you had to be in the consulting world to survive because if you – I would just get really jealous – I would see the kind of work you’re doing and go you can be a specialist, but in Australia we just weren’t quite there as a country. We didn’t have the maturity to say I am a researcher. So, I called myself just a UX person for a long time, but research is my passion and I always seeked projects doing that kind of work that’s research and help enable that in our clients and in our practice. I think it just evolved. I don’t know actually when. I just started calling myself that kind of thing. It’s just something that I did.

Steve: So, your first job that you came into DTA with – you had research in your title. Not to conflate the way we identify ourselves with what our job title is, but that’s a point where you went from generalist to specialist. Is that right?

Ruth: If you’re talking about titles, probably yes, because previously my title was principal consultant, UX consultant. And part of my job was – although most of my work I was in was research work – that’s just what I like, so I will do that kind of work. But that wouldn’t naturally go down well with the clients. They just weren’t ready for that in Australia. They were more familiar with UX. We need to improve our experience and however you get there, we want to help them get that outcome. So, although probably 90% of my work was research, the other part of it was actually supporting – oh, probably a little bit less – I was actually supporting the practices as well. As principal, my job was to make sure the quality of all the work coming through was also good. I was doing a lot of that kind of stuff in that kind of leadership role. It was the other half of my job before I left consulting. So, I think the detail – just use the title, to the exclusion of everything else.

Steve: One of the points you were making earlier was about the challenge of recruiting – I guess in Canberra specifically and maybe government is just a part of that. But what was – how did you get recruited to rejoin government?

Ruth: I was actually working at the former DTA, or DTO, as a consultant doing research work for them. Because it was the first time they were going through these ways of working and we were doing discovery, alpha, beta, live. And they needed people who had experience doing research, who could help lead that process and to help facilitate that process. And they were also recruiting for other specialists. So, I was one of the many specialists that was brought on because they had to scale really quickly and trying to build that capability within weeks was not going to happen. So, they had to find it externally. So, I was one of those many externals that were brought in. When I came in I saw these ways of working and going wow, I didn’t know we could do that in government. It’s a bit of a stereotype. People think about government as a very, very slow moving beast, that you can’t do a lot of things. But in reality, it’s about how do we frame it and how do we talk the language of the people who are decision makers to help bring about this change. So, for me seeing that, I was like I want to be part of this kind of stuff. It was a bit of like start up, doing all these ways. It’s like I found a home. So, seeing that was how I then made a leap. So, DTA – or DTO at that time – they kept asking can you come on board and if you like doing this stuff, if you like government, come join. So, I took a while to think about it, quite a while, and then made the leap. Because it is a big leap to leave what is a very interesting job as a consultant and you’re helping so many different clients and so many different problem spaces. You know one day you could be working for an airline, the next one for a bank and the next one for a not for profit. You know that’s really, really interesting. I like that. But there was this need and I wanted to be part of that movement as well, to transform the way we do things as government.

Steve: You’ve made this point a couple of times that even though the D in DTA is digital, the output, the outcomes don’t have to be digital. Do you have any examples where that’s kind of how it’s gone?

Ruth: Yeah. So, there was this great project a few years ago, done within DTA. It’s Medicare – Medicare is our kind of health system where if you’re a citizen you get access to major health services. It’s covered by the government. So, one of the services I was looking at was having a baby. So, in Australia you have a baby. You have to register the baby for a Medicare card. There’s a whole range of process around the registration. And as someone who has gone through it myself in the last two years, it’s actually quite a tricky timeframe. If you’re exhausted from delivering this amazing little thing, you’ve got a million things going through your mind and then you’ve got all these forms you have to fill in. And sometimes that involves, because of identity things, you have to go into offices with a newborn. It’s just hard – it’s hard. And I was particularly emphasizing now that I have a little one myself. So, this particular project is looking at how do we make that process easier. Now what was interesting was that the team had gone – and I think they were thinking, maybe we just digitize the form. Maybe that’s what we mean when we talk sort of digital transformation. That might be the easiest way we can deliver something quickly. But what they soon found out, and I had a really awesome service designer called Mira who joined the team. She worked with them and she actually suggested they bring in a lawyer, because they kept hitting up against issues like oh, well of course we’ll just digitize the form. What else will we do? But when they went out doing the research they were finding out that a lot of the stuff we were asking for as government, we really have and the hospitals have. Because when you give birth you’re giving a bunch of details over. So, they actually went out and did a bunch of research out in hospitals and what they ended up doing was actually deciding, you know what, we don’t actually need something. We don’t actually need a form. Or we don’t actually need a digital thing, like an app or a website to fill in. What happens if we even just remove that process and just assume that if we’re having a baby and we get consent, we can just issue the card. So, they were exploring this what might we kind of situation. So, it was radical, and people were going, “no you can’t do that.” But when the lawyer joined the team, there were lawyers going actually you know what, we can actually make this work. So, the trial was actually in one of the hospitals up in the Gold Coast. It was actually looking at what happens if you sequenced in from the parents at the time of the birth. They’re filling a bunch of information to the hospital about the birth of the baby, what happens if we use that and issue the Medicare card. So, it’s something that had gone from taking weeks and weeks because you have to go in and see multiple people, get the thing signed. And gone down from that to only a few days. It was amazing because you’ve now gone from filling in something to not even having a thing and stuff just appeared in your letter box. I think that’s a very great example of transformation happening where you don’t have to have a particular, physical digital thing. And it was good to see what they did with it.

Steve: Are there things outside the professional realm, like outside your work at DTA, where your skills, the things that you have a passion for and the things that you are just so great at, is there anything that you do outside – were those things manifest in other forms?

Ruth: So, Canberra is a very small place and I love community. So, things I would do are not quite – they’re not research related, but it comes under people. I’m involved a lot in organizing community events around things like TEDxCanberra. So, I’ve been involved in that for about 5 years about bringing and facilitating the amount of smart people that we have and for others to learn from that. I really enjoy that aspect and that comes through like a job as well. I really love connecting people and seeing them grow because my intent is if you can grow and be a million times better than what I can ever be, that is an awesome outcome. You know always hire people that are smarter than you. You want to encourage that growth. So, for me that stuff that manifests outside of my job has to do with things like that. Things like BarCamp back in the days. Something called GovHack, very early in the days – so we look at open government data and how do we help people flesh that out into interesting things. All those little stuff like that is what – again, we’re connecting community and people.

And something else I do that’s not even related is I love making. My hubby and I, we’re both makers. We’re like crafting things. So, I make science-themed jewelry for fun on the side, using our lasers and 3D printers. For some reason, that process of designing something that’s very, very tangible and you’re prototyping that thing and you’re wearing it and you’re seeing people use it as well. It’s very interesting. So, although it’s not necessarily a research thing, it’s a fun thing because you are trying to use a creative side of your brain in a very different way. In a much more tangible way.

Steve: So, is that the connection to the creative?

Ruth: Yeah. And again, I’m just doing research on a very small scale, again to wear my stuff and see how it works. It’s just very, very small-scale stuff. But you learn a lot about people’s behaviors, about when they say things like oh Ruth, can you make that in these colors because I think people will buy that. And what people say they want and what they actually end up doing. Like we talk about that all the time, but to see it in action with your own product is very interesting because you’ll make stuff because people ask for it. So, let’s just try it and see what happens. There’s not a need for it. You just lazily see it sit there. But just little things like that where it’s really tiny stuff that we talk about in our practice that manifests in this way. It’s interesting.

Steve: Can you describe one of your pieces?

Ruth: Yeah, so one of the things that we do is we look at data. So, my hubby actually takes the data from looking at the weather data for the cities in Australia. So, the Bureau of Meteorology here has about 100+ years of weather data. So, we take that and actually visualize it into a wearable piece. Unfortunately, I’m not wearing one today. I’m wearing a serotonin molecular today which is happiness. We take that and then actually model it into a bit of a big jewelry statement piece and then laser cut it. And that’s meant to show, well just data visualization. How do we make science interesting and communicate these things in different ways that’s not just a PowerPoint or a presentation or a survey, but actually a very tangible way of understanding data. So, I’m interested in also that crossover between when we talk about research, the data and then the data sciences folks. I just love geeking out some of the data stuff and going hey, we could find other just weird wonderful ways to display this. So, it may not have any actual use to researchers, but it’s just geeky and fun.

Steve: What do you think people who purchase your jewelry – because so much of our work is the people that make something have a model of it and other people that use it have a model, but sometimes our job is to just try to articulate that delta. So, you’re describing kind of what you’re putting into these pieces and even just the geeky pleasure. But for someone that buys one and wears something that you’ve made, what’s their interpretation or their narrative of what it is, or what it means?

Ruth: Yeah, it’s interesting. They’ll come up and they’ll go – they identify as a fellow science geek. Especially seeing that, they’re going “is that a serotonin molecule?” Like, it is. And then we have a conversation about science and about what makes them interested in science. I use it as kind of a talking point to work out how did they get into this field? Or if they’re not in the science field, how do they actually trigger – it’s a good way to practice research questions actually. But it’s just fascinating seeing that kind of shared – I think they’re having that shared platform or love of a particular field, in this case science. And that’s what connects people and they feel like oh, they’re part of this group of people who love these kind of geeky things.

Steve: There’s something, I don’t know, secret about it, that someone who gets it is going to get it when they see it and somebody else is just going to not recognize that.

Ruth: It’s funny. Not a secret club, but it is that recognition that somebody else enjoys this thing. Whether people have that in music, or whatever their particular passion is, when you connect on that kind of level it’s just so interesting. And then you start hearing their stories about how they either buy it for their daughter because their daughter had started doing this thing out in Antarctica – wow, just the stories you hear. I think that’s where it comes to my research – I just love hearing stories as well and you hear all these fascinating things that people tell you when you’re buying jewelry because it’s just a conversation starter.

Steve: Yeah, and you’re connecting on something. You’re right. It’s not secret. Secret is about being hidden. This is just about that connection, or something about the recognition, that’s a better of putting it, to get those stories. That’s really wonderful. Is there anything else that we should cover in this conversation?

Ruth: I think we had a good range of discussion.

Steve: I think so too. Well, thank you so much. It’s been really great to chat with you.

Ruth: Thank you, Steve.

Steve: Thank you for sharing so much great stuff.

Ruth: That was really fun. Thank you very much for your help, for your time.

Steve: All right. That’s the wrap on another episode! subscribe to Dollars to Donuts wherever you get podcasts. If you’re using Apple Podcasts, how’s about giving the podcast a rating (five stars?) and even a short review. This helps other people find out about the podcast. Portigal dot com slash podcast has transcripts, show notes, and all of the episodes. Follow the podcast on Twitter, and buy my books Interviewing Users and Doorbells Danger and Dead Batteries from Rosenfeld Media or Amazon. Our theme music is by Bruce Todd.

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